“How was your trip?”
Where do you begin? Even a quick trip to the shops is enough time to run into an old friend or to get sprayed with puddle water by the no. 54 bus. A week away on a riding holiday can produce enough jaw-dropping views and epic tales to bore your friends stiff for hours at the slideshow. How do you describe two months on the road without exceeding the small-talk character limit? Seriously, the hard part of cycling around the world wouldn’t be the pedalling, it would be using only words to paint a picture of what you’ve seen and done.
In early December, my partner Annie and I followed the sun as it left Scotland for the winter, all the way to the southern hemisphere and an austral summer, to chase dreams that I suspect many of us have, to see the fantastical, far-flung landscapes of Patagonia. Even the name is a touchstone of wildness, mystery and inaccessibility – I can’t remember how long I’ve wanted to go there, because I can’t remember when exactly it was that I first saw a photo of the Southern ice Field, or Mount Fitzroy’s crashing spires.
The plan was a dirt road tour livened up by some ‘proper’ mountain biking at spots where research suggested that a multi-day route might go. Now, two months later, we’ve returned home to a chronically sodden Scotland and that question. It’s a big question though. In an ideal world, the answer would be easy: a blanket rating of ‘awesome’ and five stars on tripadvisor, but the fun stuff never comes easily, does it? This is a story of great adventures thwarted by unexpected difficulties, and of unexpected difficulties leading to some great adventures…
Things got off to a lumpy start before they started at all, in fact. In late November I went for a last run in the hills on the weekend before we were due to fly. A quick slip, a trip and one of those horrible snapping noises later, and I was left with an ankle the size of a grapefruit and a fibula that was lacking in structural integrity. In many ways I was lucky: a basic fracture was bad enough, but a little further this way or that way and I could have been looking at months on crutches. Not that any of that was much consolation as the nurse explained all this at the hospital in Dundee.
At this point, however, a beautiful thing happened: two problems combined in perfect harmony to prove that silver linings do exist, and that two clusterfucks can in fact make a bright tomorrow. True to our penny pinching ways we had booked our flights through one of those disreputable travel agents that you know you’re better off avoiding, and they in turn had stayed true to their ways by failing to provide us with valid flights. A day of stressful, mind-frying phone calls later, and we had new flights a week later than originally planned. We now had two weeks to turn that grapefruit into a viable ankle joint for cycle touring. The trip was (maybe) on…
To Patagonia then. The ferry from Puerto Montt takes 24 hours to thread the needle between the topographic crazy paving that is Chile’s many islands and fjords, until we arrived on a cool and breezy December morning in the place that everyone dreams of. Was it all peaches and cream? The hell it was. Were you paying attention to the quotation at the start? Well, I want to propose Kent’s Law of Bikepacking, which states that everything does indeed look better when it’s far away, especially when it’s on the other side of an ocean or confined to the abstract lines of a map, or even just the far side of a night in a cosy bed. It’s more a rite of passage than a truism, and one that we’ve all surely been through. How easy did that route look when the maps were spread out on the floor and you made sweeping assumptions about timings and trail quality? We do indeed have a childlike faith in the reality of our illusions, which on the scale of a large exploratory trip can be really quite different from the reality.
It’s around this time that what was to be a long, bewildering and ultimately maddening relationship with Chilean land access was born. Conaf is the body in charge of Chile’s national parks and reserves, and apart from some amusement, their answer to the question of bikes off-road was a flat ‘no’. We later learned that the reason bikes aren’t allowed off-road in the parks is not because of environmental concerns, but because of the assumption that you will almost certainly end up hurting yourself and need to be rescued at great expense and effort. Go figure… Even Patagonia itself turned out to be something quite different to the land that I had dreamed about: it might be remote, but cattle ranching has reached even the unlikeliest corners, and almost every other tourer we met expressed surprise about the fences that criss-crossed every piece of this supposedly undeveloped part of the world.
Whether it was national park regulations, inaccurate maps or just flooded rivers, the opportunities to ride truly ‘off-road’ on singletrack were rare, and could vanish just as quickly as they appeared. At one point we arrived at an estancia whose owners were happy to let you cross their land – provided your progress was greased with the princely sum of $50. At another, the mapmaker had forgotten to include a 15m wide river that first hand experience proved to be quite a lot more than face deep. Yet another hopeful route disintegrated into two days of pushwhacking to cover 20km, the dawning realisation that food would run out, and a hasty 100km retreat on gravel road back to the start, so I would be lying if I said that everything came up rosy. All in all, the peaches and cream were few and far between.