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Posts tagged ‘camping’

Austral Diaries IV: Billion Dollar Wilderness

The_most_important commodity for Bound South is not food, clothing, shelter, or even paved roads; it is information.  And unfortunately, when we go off the grid we can’t Google for every contingency.  We found ourselves amongst the  most spectacular portions of the Carretera Austral; glacial peaks and turquoise rivers, all connected by a wicked, washboard road with no respect for the tired legs of three hungry cyclists.  Since winter is here, the ferries across the southern lakes of the Austral don’t run and the only way to leave the Austral was for us to press east of Cochrane for a little known road and crossing known as Paso Roballo.  Empty dirt passed through a mountain valley for hours and hours of riding, and for a second time on the Austral, we unexpectedly ran out of food and supplies.  Perhaps it was hubris about our riding abilities or confidence in the size of the small-named-pueblos on the map of Patagonia, but either way we found ourselves riding alone in the mountains with nonexistent road traffic and no supplies for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.

Suddenly a new Jeep SUV pulled up behind us and without hesitation we flagged them down for some information.  After initiating the conversation in Spanish, the man in the driver’s seat responded to me in a thick British accent, “Would you prefer to proceed in English?”  I flagged Nathan and David over, explaining that my dirt-encrusted, haggard-looking brothers were even more charming when they could join in the conversation.  The driver asked, “Do you know who Douglas Tompkins is?”  Admittedly we had no idea.  “Well, you happen to be on his property.”  There are few fences, signs, or man-made demarcations of any kind in Patagonia, and it wasn’t as if Mr. Tompkins had acquired a small plot in southern Chile for a vacation cottage.  Tompkins owned everything as far as the eye could see; over 2 million acres of Patagonian wilderness, purchased from families and sheep farmers and businesses with the goal of creating some of the largest natural reserves in the world.

Just a few kilometers later we stumbled on his village.  In a place with no electricity, no plumbing, and only one very bad single lane dirt road, we found beautiful stone chateaus and lodges being raised up out of the Earth.  We were hopeful that they would have some food and water.  After striking up a conversation with a construction foreman and office lady, we suddenly had new friends.  Within moments they had showered us with bread, jam, tuna cans, cookies, and a bag of instant chicken-flavored-rice.  Manna descended from Patagonian heaven.

And so we pressed on, only to find more washboards and hard riding, and soon out of food once more on the Argentine border.  And again, the border guards had mercy on us, taking us in out of the cold, putting us at a kitchen table in front of a wood stove, and giving us all of the hot coffee and tea that we could drink.  They also gave us a tip that a lady and her son lived fourteen kilometers down the road in Argentina, and that she could sell us a few pieces of fried bread, potatoes and onions.  We had no spare food to speak of, with our only goal being survival of the 125-kilometer-dirt-road to Bajo Caracoles, a small town in the pampas of Argentina.  We found still more washboards to accompany the famously brutal winds in this part of the world.  We found more difficulties and miracles to answer them; just wait for the wonders that come after the Austral Diaries.

We don’t always get what we want, but we get what we need.  So now we ride together, with the Austral behind us, brimming with the inevitable confidence that infects us as we approach the end and new beginnings.

Lago General Carrera

Confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Neff

Riding til last light.

Evening reflections at Puerto Bertrand.

“My rights are my freedom”

On the road to Paso Roballo.

Weaving our way across the billion-dollar wilderness.

Stiff climbs are the rule, not the exception.

One of Tompkins’ lodges overlooking the valley.  Construction foreman said, “That’s where rich people will stay.” in typically blunt fashion.

Sun rings and silhouettes

Riding up to our campsite for the night.

Looking back at Chilean Patagonia before crossing into Argentina.

We crossed into a new world at Paso Roballo.

Fact: in Patagonia, there are way more sheep than people.

“Last one there is a rotten egg!”

Big skies

Our new friend, Kent, has been with us since the Carretera Austral.  Sadly, he lost his right arm on the road shortly after this photo was taken.

More brief divergences in the lonely road to Highway 40 in the pampas.

Snowy Chile still behind us, stiff headwinds in front of us.

We encountered Chilean Flamingos, Black-necked Swans, and ostrich-like Rheas upon crossing back into Argentine Patagonia.

Argentine Sunset.

Cold camping at night has been a constant.

First light on the Argentine Pampas

Pampas and accompanying headwinds made for a brutal first-full-day in Argentina

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Small Worlds

With_a_ribbon of road stretching back thousands of miles to Alaska, we have many stories to share.  Those we meet usually hope to distill the vast spaces and places into a few highlights.  It’s hard to comprehend what we are doing in any other way.  Upon meeting new people in new places, one of the first things they ask for is our “favorite part of the trip.”  They know and we know that this is almost an impossible question to answer, but we try nonetheless.  People are the highlight of Bound South without a doubt.

Waitresses in Colombia model next to David's bike, "Goliath" for a photo.

Traveling by bicycle is unlike any other kind of travel that I’ve ever done.  I’ve had my eyes opened to the endless possibilities one can grasp with a bicycle and a tent.  At this point, I do not know if I could ever go back.  We could trade country roads for train stations, tent sites for hotels and hostels, and would miss most of the amazing people that we meet along the way to Argentina.  It wouldn’t be the same.  In some ways I think our travel by bicycle harkens back to a more sentimental and perilous era of tourism.  Perhaps there were days before Lonely Planet, before the internet, before tourism was big business.  Travel was composed of much more discomfort, random searching, danger, inefficiency, and luck for better or for worse.  And perhaps the attitude towards travelers was different; they were less consumers and more students, people from a strange land who had something to learn and something to share.  This is not to idealize the past, because modern tourism has opened the world up in profound new ways.  To travel by bicycle channels the most powerful aspects of historical travel; in the modern age, it is hard to do this any other way.

Our camping spot at a local stadium near Pasto, Colombia gave us front row seats to this sword fighting rehearsal.

The pit crew at our roadside pit stop in Colombia.

We have noticed on this bicycle expedition that the most wonderful and hospitable people in the world are typically the furthest from centers of tourism.  We’re a little more extraordinary and less annoying that way, I think.  Based on the flocks of children that gather to stare at us while we eat at rural South American restaurants, we know we’re out of the ordinary.  The relative coldness of the cityscape is not a new stereotype, to be sure.  In Bogotá, we were just a few faces in a sea of people, a few cyclists scrambling to escape the freeways of the city.  We wouldn’t dream of approaching a stranger on the sidewalk and asking if we could set up our tent in his apartment.  These are simple realities of urban living the world over.  Only a few days later, when we were in the empty mountain roads outside of Mocoa, we didn’t hesitate to approach a farming family and ask for a place to camp for the night.  We are asking for help, and a safe place to tent is a gift of generosity that we never take for granted.  Deep down there is satisfaction from the knowledge of mutual benefit; we know that we have made others’ lives richer through our travels and stories.  Everything we do here on our blog is made more powerful and more poignant in the company of a few new friends.

We had much to teach these two children while we were staying with their family in Garzon, Colombia. Here they are showing off their "fist bump".

Jumping for Joy

Our journey is built upon the simple kindness of strangers, the humble and hard-working families of nine countries between Anchorage and Ushuaia.  They are of limited means but have more than their parents ever had.  They work hard and dream for the even better opportunities that their children will have.  They are farmers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, storytellers, carpenters, mothers and fathers.  They are “authentic” as far as touristic parlance goes; but when we’re looking for a family in South America, that’s the last thing on our minds.  You realize how far you’ve come from Alaska only when you’re sitting in a family room in South America seeing kids’ eyes go wide.

One small hill separated this bus from a gradual descent to Cuenca. We (minus David; he supervised) helped them over the top.

If you would like to experience this kind of travel and learning for yourself and your family, we heavily recommend signing up for two online services: Couchsurfing and Warmshowers.  They can be an economical window to the world and a means to share your world with others.  Even if you can’t host us for a night on our journey to Ushuaia, you can help someone like us on their journey elsewhere.

Highway One Diaries: Land of Pointy and Mean

The_urgency_of_crossing borders propelled us quickly through the borderlands of Mexico.  We figured that the further south we were, the safer we were.  Furthermore, as the traffic and city lights of Ensenada and Tijuana were left behind us we regained our familiarity with empty landscapes, quiet roads, and a date with Mother Nature in a new dress.  Welcome to the desert, the “land of pointy and mean” as I coined it outside El Rosario.

Clear desert skies

This desert was the real deal.  We were warned to fill up on water and supplies at El Rosario before pressing on into the 400k of desert separating if from Guerrero Negro.  Water conservation and carrying capacity was of paramount importance in desert heat and pronounced isolation.  Replacing our staples of bread and jelly were new staples of tortillas, rice, beans, and whatever else we can find cheaply and in abundance.  Lots of desert camping and desert lessons lay ahead, yet we had little idea of what to expect as some people warned us of a desolate desert with no civilization for over 140k; others said we would be just fine and would see spots to replenish food and water every 60k with little trouble.  Local knowledge can be comically unreliable which is why one must learn to laugh.

Camping near chicken coops isn't always pleasant. Early morning for us in El Rosario.

Laughter has sustained us through what was easily some of the most miserable camping of Bound South.  Who could forget the night outside of Guerrero Negro when we decided to sleep under the stars during a pleasant, cool night in the desert, only to find a dense fog descend upon us in the early morning and soak us and our sleeping bags.  Lesson learned: even when the sky is absurdly spectacular to look at, don’t bother sleeping outside the safety of a rain fly and a good tent.

Fierce winds howl through a desert valley near Punta Prieta.

We fought vicious crosswinds through much of the desert and mountains south of El Rosario.  Usually we maintained our high spirits by reminding one another that “thousands of people envy us” and that if bicycle expeditions were easy and fun, everyone would be doing them.  One evening, after battling through hard crosswinds (enough to throw us off the road on numerous occasions) we decided to take a cattle road up through dirt and stone into the hidden desert brush of an august plateau above Highway One.  A strong but manageable wind was blowing as we set up camp and ate our simple dinner of rice and beans on our MSR stove.  The wind began to intensify.  As we were reading and preparing to sleep, David and Nathan noticed that the wind was still increasing in force and that the tent was slowly collapsing around us.  What followed was a feat of brotherly teamwork and haphazard desert camping ingenuity.  With 40mph winds and plunging temperatures, Nathan and I shivered as we assembled outside of the tent to hold it down.  David pulled stakes in order to rotate the tent to more aerodynamically face the wind.  Stakes once more in place, the tent was still collapsing.  Undaunted, Nathan had the idea to throw our bicycles into the brush and then anchor bungie cords to the bicycles and the tent in order to reinforce it against the fierce winds.  The wind and the sound of the rain fly was nearly deafening.  We slept safely in a reinforced tent that night, but everything we owned was covered by dust the next morning and the wind was blowing just as fiercely.  We were reminded of a warning from a restaurant owner we had met the day before: “We don’t waste money on paint here in the Baja.  Any of our sandstorms will blast it off in a matter of days.”  Lesson learned: camp in places well sheltered from the wind.

Desert winds whip against our reinforced tent.

There have been other lessons, less dramatic but no less poignant.  After taking care of business 50 yards away from our tent one night, I discovered that my headlamp was out of batteries and my steps suddenly painful.  Desert thorns and native species of cacti had successfully sent 3/4″spikes through the soles of my flip flops that stabbed me with every step.  I walked back wincing on the balls of my feet, praying that I didn’t walk into a cactus or step onto some other godforsaken member of the kingdom Plantae.  Why anyone would choose to live in a place like this remains elusive to me.  I am reminded of what most of my friends think about North Dakota.

Land of pointy and mean

The desert is an austere, beautiful place.  We had to learn to respect it.  I still have no love for the sand, the harsh vegetation, the nonexistent wildlife, the terrifying insects, or the pitiable donkeys and cattle that graze the scraps of green scattered across the brush and cacti.  It is probably best for the desert to simply be feared, but if it is to be loved, it should be loved for its constancy.  No amount of human ingenuity or force of will can wring water from its ground or bring rain to its hills or people to its vast empty spaces.  It is a landscape in beautiful stasis, defying the frenetic cycles of life and offering a great empty space for the mind to explore.