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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Feliz Navidad from Coyhaique!!

Merry Christmas everyone from Coyhaique, Chile!! We are preparing for a big day of eating and drinking tomorrow while all you Kiwis will be enjoying Christmas day in the sun.

Since we last wrote we have ridden from Cochrane to the biggest town in the this region- Coyhaique. We managed to sort out most of our mechanical issues in Cochrane, thanks to Shane and the supermercado. Not surprisingly we soon struck our next problemo! Early on our first morning riding Sophie`s pannier carrier snapped at the base. Once again Shane (now dressed as Santa, complete with hat, beard and decorated Bob trailer) pulled through with some ingenious road side repairs. Once we set off again the riding was stunning- the emerald coloured Rio Baker blew us away, providing a great lunchtime swim and eating spot. Soph and Anna spent the evening doing repair work on their decaying tent which has been dubbed the "Hilton"- complete with Anna´s brand-new, hot pink lip gloss! Pegging the tent is a delicate matter as too much strian in one direction results in yet another tear!
The next day we rode through the rain. Cold, tired and dirty we decided to splash out and stay at a cute little cabana. Once we sorted out the temperamental gas shower and the toxic fumes coming off the recently painted chimney we had a relaxing night drying out. The following day we had a fabulous day riding over a 1100m pass on a mixture of smooth fast rolling roads and terrible thick gravel. We spent a stormy night camping in a small town called Cerro Castello. We spent the next morning visiting an archeological site just out of town. The caves are lined with hand prints from 10,000 years ago. The afternoon was spent riding over an impressive pass with welcome sealed road.The descent was cold and wet- but good to be covering lots of km´s fast. We were quite late arriving into the small settlement of El Blanco. Keen to get out of the wind and get dinner we set up camp in what we thought was a deserted school ground. It soon turned out to be a boarding school! We were surround by Chilean school children curious to get close to the strange pack of foreigners setting up camp in the play-ground. Our dinner (eaten over old school desks) was soon interrupted by some grumpy Chilean matrons- keen to see us off their school grounds. We piled all our gear over the fence and hopped into our tents for an early night. Our breakfast was again interrupted by curious-turned-nasty Chilean children throwing rocks at us!! We cruised the last 33km into Coyhaique pleased to eventually find a cool log-cabin hostel. We have spent the last few days relaxing, shopping, eating (a lot as usual) and preparing for our Christmas feast! PS. Christmas Day now. We ended up having a really fun Christmas Eve. The hostel owner, Santi, cooked an amazing meal with lots of cervezas, vinos and tequilla (which I discovered does not mix well with five bowls of ice-cream!!) We had fabulous night with a group of motor-cycle tourists and a hardy Scottish female cycle tourist- who showed up after a long 140km ride. We´ve had a great Christmas day so far-the sun is shining, we were all stoked with our secret santa presents. Kate will be warmer with her full length rainbow pants, Matilda safer with her full body armour, Sophie more styley with her scarf and hand-bag, Shane entertained with a travel board game and Anna will be happy drinking mate (traditional South American hot drink) from her new gourd. We will continue north tomorrow aiming to be in Bariloche for a New Years fiesta!!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The shortcut- El Chalten to the Carretera Austral

We limped into Cochrane yesterday afternoon following our mission shortcut and the first 250km of the Carretera Austral- one broken Bob trailer, one broken pannier carrier, a recently dislocated shoulder, broken forks and front brakes, snapped derailluer cable, punctures, broken spokes and all with our fair share of scratches and bruises..... Our mission began with an awesome 37km ride from El Chalten to Lago Desierto. Great to be riding in lush bush with rivers and waterfalls - could have been in New Zealand. We arrived at the lake in time for a sunset jump off the jetty, beautiful clear water. We camped amongst the trees and Shane did a spot of fishing. Unfortunately there were nasty sandflies that were annoying us. Anna cranked out her super geeky net hat and was gloating about it, until a mosquito got trapped on the inside!! Haha, she got bitten on the eyelid, it swelled up and she couldn´t open her eye. The next morning we sent our bikes off on the ferry and ran the 12km bush track around the lake to meet them at the other end (saving ourselves $80 pesos each). Following a lake-side lunch we set off up a steep, narrow, rutted horse track leading to Lago O´Higgins and the Chilean border. It was completely unrideable to begin with and it was a matter of dragging, pushing and hauling our heavily laden bikes. Progress soon came to a halt when Soph fell and became trapped under her bike on a particularly steep slope (stubbornly refusing Shane`s help!). We were all a bit slow to react thinking she was in fits of giggles....until we heard "Um- I think I´ve dislocated my shoulder". We looked down to see a very deformed looking right shoulder. Thankfully it popped back into place as we disentangled Soph from her bike. We redistributed her load and continued the slog!! Although obviously sore, Sophie (the trooper) made herself a sling and continued pushing her bike. It was pretty tough, hot work, but the terrain gradually improved and we were able to start riding short sections of single-track. We reached a camp-site on an estancia at dusk having crossed the border back into Chile.
The next morning´s start was delayed slightly by Kate´s 64 trips to the toilet and Shane´s passport going missing. The friendly farmer offered Kate a special remedy and kindly turned up his radio (only static) during her frequent toilet visits! As we waited for Kate´s dia-stop to kick in, Shane missioned back up the track to search for his passport- very essential item as we had were actually in "no-man´s land" - having crossed the border but not yet checked into Chilean customs! Luckily the bowels settled and the passport was found. The next stage of riding was around 17km of steep track downhill with loose gravel and big rocks. Kate struggled with no front brakes, meanwhile Cautious Carol totally lost her nerve - lots of walking! We eventually made it to Lago O´Higgins ferry "terminal". We bought delicious pan (bread) from the local estancia, swam off the end of the jetty in the cold glacial lake then chilled out on the two and half hour ferry ride to Villa O´Higgins- stoked to have completed our short-cut mission.
Villa O´Higgins is a sleepy isolated town at the southern end of the Carretera Austral (´southern road´- 1300km gravel road linking parts of southern Chile). The section of road leading into town was only completed in 1999. We ate a bizarre meal of meat mixed with chopped sausage and gherkin (not good) and were all super glad for a hot shower at the camping ground. The next day we set off on the Carretera. It was so good to be out of the wind and in amongst mountains and bush. We were faced with our first real climbs and first real taste of "ripio" (rough gravel roads). It soon started to take its toll on the bikes - One of Matilda´s carrier screws snapped. Anna did a mean wire fix-it job and its holding well so far. Anna had several punctures on both her bike and her trailer. The rest of us were glad with our new fancy tyres for the trip (Schwalbe marathon) - no punctures so far!
The next two days we climbed over passes...descended through dense green gulleys that opened out onto panoramic views of lakes, rivers and glaciers. The weather was so changeable- rain one moment, hot sun-shine the next- but thankfully little wind. The rain makes getting out of the tent in the morning pretty tough! Yesterday was sweet riding with a few climbs and rolling hills. Kate´s climbs were made slightly more difficult as her rear-derailleur cable became caught in her cassette and shredded, so she was stuck in a hard gear. As we cruised toward Cochrane Shane had a bit of a Bob trailer blow out! On a down-hill, over the rough ripio, a welding point on the frame snapped. He managed to splint it back together with a tree branch and wire and we made it into town safely. Well almost- Matilda managed to crash 2km out of town on some loose gravel and crack her helmet! No broken bones though!
We celebrated making it here with a delicious BBQ, cerveza, chips and Matilda made apple crumble and ice-cream! Anna and Sophie over-dosed on cherries from the tree at our camping ground.
Today we are chilling out and fixing our broken bikes. Shane has already managed to get his Bob welded back together and we have found a supermercado that sells everything from food,to baby clothes, to skill saws, bolts and screws. Back on the bikes tomorrow - to Chile Chico....

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

El Chalten

We spent a relaxing few days at El Calafate, where a lot of time was spent eating the amazing ice-cream and feasting at an all-you-can-eat restaurant (with traditional Argentinian BBQ meat being cooked over a fire in the corner). Anna over did it and ended up curled up on the floor- too full to move! We also discovered it is a pretty comfy ride for Matilda being towed behind Anna in her Bob trailer!
We hired a car and visited the famous Perito Merino glacier. Arriving early in the morning we avoided the hoards of tourists and Anna cooked us a pancake breakfast overlooking the glacier. It was enormous (6km wide, 30km long and 55m tall) and was incredibly active with heaps of creaking, groaning, gunshot noises and constant calving (chunks of ice falling from the glacier face). Only two days of riding since we last wrote- 225km from El Calafate to El Chalten. We had to resort to sleeping in a gravel pit to escape the ferocious winds. Anna and Matilda concocted yet another failed instant pudding. On the second day we battled some pretty strong headwinds across the barren Argentinian landscape- hard work! Sophie worked hard out the front and we sought refuge under a tree for an afternoon siesta. Our spirits were lifted by a group of travellers in a van spontaneously stopping to fill our water bottles and chat. Anna was even more stoked to find a dead armadillo on the side of the road! We were really happy to arrive in El Chalten and we were rewarded with possibly the best lasagne in the world and three perfect days of weather (a rare thing here according to locals). We did two day walks into the national park with great views of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy (3400m).
We are also preparing for Christmas and spent time working on out "Secret Santa" presents- difficult to be too secretive in a small town with five shops! There are no ATMs in El Chalten and we are running a little low on pesos. Luckily we had Sophie´s "emergency" US dollars to pay for our last meal, beers and vino tinto! Hopefully we have enough pesos left for our ferry crossing this afternoon! A fun night ended with a chaotic rumble -Sophie nailed Kate in a prickle bush- there will be thorns to extract for some time yet!

From here we are doing a bit of off-road riding to take a short-cut back back into Chile and onto the Carretera Austral- an isolated 1300km road, that we´ve been told is very beautiful with hardly any wind.
An update on Shane´s knee- it has been healing quite well, but slowly. Despite our perfect suturing Shane has managed to penetrate the wound twice with sticks and it looks like he´ll end up with a pretty meaty scar. No infection though. Other than that he seems to be coping with four chicas and is growing himself an impressive ginger beard.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Torres del Paine

The next leg of our journey involved more walking than riding. We took the bus from Puerto Natales into Torres del Paine national park with enough food for five days tramping and the ride to the next border crossing (leaving Kate no room for any undies!). From the bus stop we biked into our starting point and set off in the rain at around seven in the evening. As we are not really set up for tramping we had to improvise a bit with how to carry our gear and had tents and dry bags strapped on the outside of our day packs. Kate ended up looking like a sherpa with her pannier attached precariously to the outside with bungies. Shane and Sophie (our pack horses) ended up carrying most of the food. On arrival at our first camp-site we were met by the camp-ground owner- an angry little South American woman. After being told in no uncertain teams, in the clearest Spanish we have some across so far, that camping was not free we had to up and move our whole camp and pay a ridiculous amount for the night. We managed to calm Kate down (who as many of you will know has a bit of reputation for disputes with camp ground owners!)

The next day dawned hot and sunny. We were very glad for an ice-berg swim at lunch-time. Unfortunately Shane couldn´t quite handle the jandal and was caught on camera bolting from the water!!
We did a pretty big day, walking for 29km through farmland, beech forest with views of glaciers and the backside of the famous torres (towers) del Paine. We reached our campsite late in the evening and Soph had her first introduction to the strength of Patagonian winds.
The track had very few people on it as it was officially closed due to a small, but quite challenging landslide- although we were not to find this out til later. The third day proved to be the highlight of our trip. We ascended around 600m across small snow fields and rocks to cross the John Gardner Pass (1250m) to be met by spectacular views of the massive Grey Glacier. The glacier made anything we had seen in New Zealand look muy pequeno (very small) being 6km wide at it widest.
We made a rapid descent with a mixture of running and sliding on our bums. After a brief lunch stop with the standard delicious combination of crackers, salami and jam we reached the landslide we had heard about. In order to cross the rock strewn gully we had to use temporary ropes and part abseil/part scramble down a steep slippery bank. We discovered one member of our team has a particular dislike for this type of terrain. As we waited anxiously at the bottom Shane patiently guided one of his chicas step by painful step to safety at the bottom. That evening we dined on Shane´s delicious fish in the evening sun overlooking the stunning Grey Glacier.The perfect weather continued over the next few days as we enjoyed frequent swims in the lakes alongside the track, randomly bumped into some Kiwis we knew and gradually ran out of food! Our trip was topped off by an awesome night sleeping under the stars beneath the enormous towers of Torres del Paine.

After the tramp we were pretty hungry! This is the girls delighted to find some scattered peanuts in Shane's trailer bag!
We are back in Argentina in El Calafate making the most of the all you can eat restaurants and ice-cream shops (trying to make sure Shane doesn´t fade away!) Tomorrow we are going to look at the famous Perito Moreno glacier (advancing at 2m per day!) and then heading north on our bikes to El Chalten and beyond.........