In the shadow of Fitzroy.

The first thing I remember seeing when I came out of the tent was a view of mount Fitz Roy, clear and alone, framed by the valley sides. It hardly looked real, seeming more like an alpine watercolour by Turner as landscapes often can when viewed from afar and some perspective is lost. Fitz Roy is a mountain who did not allow its summit to be reached until 1952 despite being the most obvious pinnacle in the area. Named after Robert Fitz Roy, the same man who captained HMS Beagle it is hard to access and technically difficult. Standing at 3405 metres with the easiest route graded at Extremement Difficile minus (ED-) it was first climbed by Lionel Terray and Guido Magone.It has long been on my to climb list and has interested me for many years. This morning we had our first clear view of the mountain to which your eye is drawn whenever in the El Chalten valley.

After our epic crossing from Chile into Argentina we spent a very cold night at the northern end of Lago Desierto with temperatures dropping below freezing. The morning was hard; looking after our own admin when cold and tired and sore is bad enough but factoring in Izzy and Will, passport control and trying to get a ferry made it trying to say the least. The saving grace was the other cycle tourists and trekkers; Will and Izzy moved between the groups chatting and making friends and we were periodically congratulated on managing the crossing with all of out kit. The tent packed and bikes ready we parked them by the second of two piers and cleared passport control. The Gendarme who had greeted us the night before was at the desk and greeted us cheerfully remarking on our crossing and merrily stamping our passports. He even let me use his binoculars to look down the lake and see the ferry steaming up towards us. As it grew closer we realised that we had parked ojr bikes by the wrong jetty and, along with the other 4 cycle tourists getting the ferry, we quickly swapped to the other one. We bore the $ 40 USD per person cost of the ferry graciously given the other option of a 15 km track even rougher than the crossing the previous day. We had hoped we would warm up but alas this was not to be as the captain took a long time to set off and there seemed to be no form of heating on board. During the navigation we had a chance to chat to Amanda and her husband who had been on the road for over 4 year. There most recent section bringing them all the way from Inuvik in Canada with an end point of Ushuia. The dedication to their goal was impressive as was the ingenuity they applied to making their way combining online english teaching with house sitting take breaks from riding and earn some money. To be honest it made me think about whether it would be possible to keep travelling for a little longer by earning some money to eke out our savings (our only source of funding for the year) but they did not have kids with them and seemed to have lost a little of the enjoyment of riding, perhaps from over exposure? They were however inspiring people on a rewarding journey and part of me was very jealous (Charly less so).
The main purpose of the ferry is to give tourists fantastic views up onto the Campo de Heilo Sur; the third biggest ice sheet in the world (behind Antarctica and greenland) it was a fascinating sight. The glaciers reached within a couple of hundred metres of the lake and disappears above it into the cloud. The area is famously cold due to the freezing air flowing down off the glaciers and today was no exception. As we sat inside the tender we winced every time the door to the deck area opened and scowled at the perpetrator with menace. It took a while for the cabin to warm up again and the flow of smokers coming and going was wearing a bit thin by the end of the voyage.
Arrival at the southern end of the lake brought us back into contact with awful roads and tourist traffic, something we had not missed over the previous few days. However ‘every cloud’ and all that and we were determined to make the best of it by stopping at a cafe we were told was a few hundred metres down the road. Izzy and Will were ready for some hot food and Charly and I were looking forward to a strong coffee having been surviving on instant Nescafe. When we reached the site though it was closed and not due to open for some time. The only available refreshments came from a kiosk selling snacks at double the normal price. The kids were gutted and tears were shed (by Charly and myself) but we had no Argentine pesos and no choice but to press on. Lunch that day was biscuits, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. To try to make it up to Izzy and Will and to make up for the lack of play parks on the Carretera Austral we camped about 30 kms south on a site with a superb (by South American standards) adventure playground. It also had a quincho with a gas hob and a wood stove in which we built a fire to warm up. Izzy and Will loved the playground and peeling them off it the next day to head into El Chalten was no mean feat.
El Chalten was a really fun town to spend a few days in. Since leaving our campsite the sky had cleared and the views of Fitzroy were spectacular. The town is the start point for all expeditions to climb Fitzroy and it is a sort of meeting point for backpackers and cycle tourists. Indeed we met up with several people who we had passed or been passed by over the previous weeks. In recent years it has grown hugely and now has such amazing things as 4G, satellite wifi and the ability to pay by credit card. Arrival in the town followed its normal pattern; we found a supermarket and a play park in quick succession. While on the main square (where the play park was) we met Rob again, another cyclist who we had shared the road with, near Tortel. It was great to see him and we quickly checked into the same hostel which was stuffed with travellers including Matt, the English fly fishing guide we had met in Rio Tranquillo. Though the hostel did not take a credit card it did take US$ which made paying possible. The US$ is a defacto second currency in South America and lots of the tourist areas have a double price structure with listings in both ARG $ and US $. This is great for us as the US $ price can be cheaper and it is notoriously difficult to get local cash in some of the towns with high fees and machines running out of notes at busy times. We always carried US$ as emergency money and it was great as a backup but I alway worry about having lots of cash – especially given my propensity to lose and forget stuff.

We caught up with Rob and Matt over a beer and then headed out for dinner as a family (Rob and Matt had been in town for few days and had eaten a lot of steak). El Chalten is arranged on a grid but one long main drag is located at the eastern side of town and holds at least half of all the shops. We walked up it negotiating the heavy foot traffic flowing the other way on the way to a free screening of mountaineering films. Along the pavement Izzy and Will suddenly accelerated and crashed into another little girl in a gleeful group hug. Yazmin and Alejandro had taken a break from cycling in town and had taken to the mountain paths for a couple of days. The reunion was beautiful to see and despite Yaz and her dad’s impending departure the next morning we arranged a playdate on the main square play park. All three kids set off in their respective directions talking to nobody in particular about the games that they would play. The distraction from hunger did not last too long though and soon we took the last table in a crowded steak house. Charly ran back to the hostel to get more cash as again credit card wasn’t an option. Normally this would be my job but Charly does not have a great grasp.of Spanish so I had to remain behind to make sure we could order. It was about 2030 when our steaks arrived; we had received a few disapproving looks from British and American trekkers due to having kids with us but the reaction from the staff and anyone from a Latin country was the opposite. The waiters chatted to them and congratulated Izzy as she demolished and adult portion of steak (and here that means at least 300 grams of meat). A chat to the waiter as I paid our bill revealed that they had seen us ride in in the afternoon and that he was very impressed. He then asked the question that every child loves to hear…

‘Do your children like chocolate’? I didn’t even need to translate as their faces lit up. With two minutes a plate with two squares of chocolate brownie and two scoops of ice cream was on our table and within 3 the plate was empty!

Our plan for El Chalten had been to do a day hike or two but we were exhausted and the weather forecast was poor so we mooched around town instead. This also gave us time to just ‘be’ as a family with no pressure on the things that take up time when travelling like dinding accommodation or planning food. The forecast rain had still not materialised when we met Alejandro and Yaz to play in the park. The children played and we sat and drank coffee with a view of Fitz Roy backed by a blue sky. before they headed off to El Calafate and then spent the second day in the hostel doing school work, drinking coffee and chatting to the other travellers. We made our plan to ride to El Calafate the next day despite the reputation for the wind being awful. We had no other realistic option. El Chalten seems to many to be bigger than it really is; what infrastructure there is is focussed on tourism and the service industry and hence there was no real way to ship the bikes from the town. We had no choice but to keep riding.
Riding sucessfully from El Chalten to El Calafate is about timing and wind direction. The wind in Patagonia (as I have alrrady said in earlier posts) rises mid morning, blows strongly in the afternoon and lulls again late in the evening. There is a period overnight and early in the morning when it is beautifully still. Due to the long days and riding with children it was never on our radar to ride at these times but a long chat with Charly clarified for us both that we would have to ride as early in the day as possible – not something that really appealed but then niether was riding for ten hours into a 60 kmh headwind with Will asking every km if we were nearly there.
The road out of El Chalten would initially take us east and as a huge bonus we would have the wind for a time. We waited for the wind to reach its strongest before we left the hostel. We were already near the edge of town so we were soon on the road with the wind behind us. All was going brilliantly until a sign post showing the distance to ‘Los Malvinas’; I reached to my jersey pocket for my phone to take a picture only to have a sudden vision of it sat, charging, on the counter of the hostel kitchen. I knew I had to turn around and our decision to ride as early as possible the next day was immediately the right one. The 3 or so kms back into town took me twenty minutes to ride and probably used the same energy as riding ten kms without a wind.
Finally underway again the tail wind swept us through the Patagonian steppe eastwards at a speed we had not achieved for months – at one point I even hit 35 kmh on a flat section without pedaling. My brother Rick once told

me that there is no such thing as a tailwind purely days when you feel like a super hero and today was one of those days with 90 km being covered in just 4 hours almost without a break (there is just nowhere out of the wind to stop). At the junction with the Ruta 40 we turned back on ourselves to the south south west and straight into the wind. This put paid to our speedy riding and for the next three hours we struggled into the wind. Charly is usually a strong rider (I have to say this or risk getting into trouble) but she was finding it increasingly hard to hold my wheel. She kept turning the cranks like a trooper though and through gritted teeth she pertinantly reminded me that this was only the second time she had ridden more than 100 kms in a day. We normally ride about 40 to 50 kms a day and feel really happy with this and to suddenly double this, as any cyclist or athlete will understand, is incredibly hard.

Respite from the wind came in the form of Hotel La Leona – a cafe / hotel / museum / campsite / zorro (patagonian fox) habitat / outlaw hideout / old river crossing point on the Rio La Leona. The place is steeped in history; Perito Moreno (a famous Argentinian explorer and the first ‘white man’ to see Fitz Roy) was savaged by a female puma here to give it its name and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent a month here while on the run from the Argentine army. It seems to have changed little since the bridge replaced the chain ferry in 1972 although the road is now tarmac and the horses have (mostly) been replaced with pick up trucks.
‘I’m done’ said Charly as she faced me across a table during our coffee stop and we quickly adapted our plans. There was a campsite (just behind the two graves of earlier owners of the hotel) and in a classic example of supply and demand we paid almost double what I thought was too much for camping. Luckily there were no pumas for us to contend with but on our way back from the showers we saw a patagonian fox (known locally as a zorro). Stopping immediately we watched it zig zag across the scrub looking for food. We watched him in silence for a few minutes until he slunk off into the dusk and the gloom and grey brown landscape hid him. The alarm sounded too early the next morning. It was still dark and though not as cold as a few days before it was certainly still chilly. The stove roared as we packed the tent and as we loaded the bikes the light slowly increased. This revealed a puncture on Charly’s rear tyre. We had noticef it the night before but un our tiredness and corner cutting yo get to bed as quickly as we could we had not done anything about it. Cursing my laziness internally I fixed it as fast as I could in the cold morning air we were still riding by 0830. This meant we avoided the worst of the wind as we continued to the South West. Just before the wind became its strongest before midday we turned south. The side wind took a few minute to adjust to and holding the bikes steady was tough but it was so much better than a 60 kmh head wind!
We camped on the Rio Santa Cruz at an abandoned estancia. I fetched water for cooking from the river and Charly, Izzy and Will clearing sticks and guanaco bones from the tent site.
Up before dawn the next day we busied ourselves to keep warm while the stove boiled water for coffee and porridge. The stars still present in the sky faded as the sun rose, pink and orange hues slowly creeping across the sky followed by blues of varying shades.
Sunrise was at 0718 and it was only a few minutes after this that we set out to ride the 40 km to El Calafate. The ride was almost due west and we were nervous about the wind. We had met too many cyclists who had been beaten back by it and almost every Patagonian had told us to be cautious as there was ‘Mucho viento’. The landscape was open and seemed endless; those who remember the film ‘Mad Max’ will know what I mean when I saw that I flinched slightly at every passing motorbike and V8 truck.
Thankfully there were no leather clad post apocolyptic motor cyclists riding today and we were early enough to avoid too much buffeting; only as we passed the gendarme’s check point on the edge of the city did we see the grasses and roadside shrubs begin to flutter in the breeze.

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Crossing into Argentina, the hard way….

Boarding the boat to Candellaria Mancilla was a typically relaxed affair (as it seems most things are down here). We had been told to be at the port at least an hour before the boat departure time and as we arrived we realised that we were the first people here including the crew! We took photos with the end of the Carretera sign and chatted to the Chilean couple who arrived slightly after us in their 4×4. They had driven from their home in Santiago and were impressed by the kid’s excitement at having finished the road. Once again having the kids with us came is useful as a packet of biscuits was produced from the back of the car and given to Izzy. They were quickly stashed in her panniers with a look that said ‘I hope Mum and Dad didn’t see those’ unfortunatly for her we had and so the bounty was duly shared later.

At the end of road…

The crew finally arrived and after doing the pre voyage checks we were allowed to board. We loaded the bikes and watched as they were lashed to the foredeck. In due course a couple of minibuses pulled up and more tourists debussed with their back packs and boarded the boat. The biggest group proved to be good shipmates and were very friendly.

The boat journey was soon underway and while it was still quiet calm a coffee and a biscuit was served. Will disgusted at being missed out took himself to the galley and asked, in Spanish, for a biscuit. He returned smiling followed by the steward who carried a tray of hot chocolate and two biscuits. He looked suitably smug as he and Izzy tucked in. I had not really been aware of him picking up much Spanish but he had obviously made himself understood and we were really pleased for him.

The boat on Lago O’Higgins does not run everyday. It is subject to wind strength and from our experiance of the crossing I would hate to be on a rough one. Once away from the port the boat started to be affected by the wind and waves and developed a list to the port side. To go out on deck you had to wear a life jacket (of varying repair) and as soon as we climbed the ladder onto the top of the boat we knew why; Being British I would describe it as a bit blowy. There were a few green faces amoung the passangers and I even began to feel a little queezy. Izzy however was fine (as she always is on ferry crossings) and I was perked up by a hipflask of calafate berry schnaps supplied by the guide of a French trekking group. On my second trip on deck an iceberg was spotted; not a huge one, 20 or so cubic metres above the water, but an iceberg none the less. It was beautiful, blue and serene in the water, driven to it’s position after calving from the O’Higgins glacier by the incessent wind. Behind the iceberg we could see the last Chilean outpost in the area, Candelleria Mancilla. This tiny hamlet wasn’t settled until the 1950s and the grandsons of the settlers still make their living here. In the summer they offer camping and breakfasts to the steady flow of ten or so hikers and cyclists a day. For the other 46 weeks of the year they raise cattle and sheep to sell in O’Higgins.

Iceberg ahoy!

Enjoying the views on deck.

Once docked and the bikes unloaded (a feat in itself) we made our way up the gravel track to the camping field, cooked our meal in the shelter of the barn and chatted to the french trekking group. Their guide was a french woman living in Coyhaique and I was keen to find information on what lay ahead. A goods night sleep and a breakfast in the farmhouse kitchen prepared physically but perhaps not mentally.

At this point I have to make a declaration: We cheated, by this I mean that we paid the farmer to carry our panniers to the Argentine border. The road is steep, rocky and narrow and we decided that we needed to send our bags ahead to give us a chance of enjoying the ride. It was a tough decision. We had chosen not to take a truck to bypass a section of tough ripio a couple of weeks before but this was a bit different, we would still ride but with a little logistical help…

Full of bread and jam (and instant Nescafe) we set off towards the border. The road to the Carabineros station that served as passport control was along the coast and easy enough. At the station we chatted happily to the officer in charge who was intrigued by our journey and the kids. He asked lots of questions and we conversed for a few minutes before Izzy and Will grew impatient and demanded that we go through the border so they could get their new stamps.

Passpports duly inked we set off up the pass, geographically still in Chile but politically in no man’s land. The sky was grey and it was chilly but to be honest this was a good thing as it stopped us from getting too hot on the climb. Izzy had decided that she wanted to ride herself and was making good progress despite steep sections that were unrideable given the looseness of the surface. The views of Lago O’Higgins and the surrounding snow capped mountains were excellent and slowly the sun began to show itself from behind the clouds. Despite this we were treated to some flurries of snow and intermittant hail showers as well as a continued cold breeze. The valley into which we were climbing soon began to become less steep and more soil was able to accumulate meaning that trees, mainly the stately southern beech began to appear. As we continued the forest thickened and in another few kms we were riding through dense woodland. Given the combination of terrain and climate it is easy to see why this area of Patagonia was only settled last century and why it remains so hard to get to. The Chilean government spends huge amounts of money maintaining these roads and infrastructure – far more than recouped in tax revenue but I suppose the economics of this are secondary and the government presence of Carabineros (who still patrol on horseback) reminds everyone they are still in Chile.

At least the road was good…

We were alone on the road for most of the day though, just before lunch, we passed a Russian family heading north. They were riding 29er mountain bikes and were riding for 3 months with their son on a bike seat. We chatted briefly about routes, ripio and traffic and they seemed put out that there were going to be more cars than they had hoped. ‘There must be other way, on smaller roads’ was their reply – well if there was we didn’t manage to find it!

We stopped for lunch in a shelter that, given its position, was for shepherds and gauchos. It was not quiet weather tight i.e. it had massive gaps in the structure but it was out of the wind and gave use a break from the weather. We were careful not to touch the floors or surfaces though and made the kids use the last of our hand gel as there is Hanta virus in Patagonia. Though rare it can lead to respiritory failure and death in some cases. It is always worth bearing in mind that travel in remote areas has more dangers to you than other humans or adventure sports….

While sat eating lunch we joked about our lack of home ownership and how perhaps we should look for an abandonned shepherd’s house complete with gaping holes in the roof and an earth floor. It would not really matter that much though as if it was in the UK we would probably not pass the mortgage checks anyway. With our sandwhichs eaten and a little warmth restored we stepped out to find blue skies and a little sunshine. It was a warmer and we pressed on through the quiet forest interupted only by bird song and the occaisional woodpecker. On reflection we had begun to see far more wildlife in the ultimate section of the ruta 7 and beyond and an (anecdotaly) inverse reduction in traffic. Either we noticed more because we were less distracted by traffic (on this road non existant) or the traffic and human activity drove the animals away. Whichever it was we reveled in the increased activity.

The Border Crossing

In Europe I have stopped noticing when we cross an international border indeed between The Netherlands and Germany it was hard to tell that we had crossed the border at all and we had to rely on a change in bus stop signs. South America is very different with passport control, queing, stamping etc. Some of the frontiers are remote and passport control olin one country is conducted long before reaching the entrance point of another. This was the case here but we certainly knew we had crossed the Argentine border. Apart from the huge sign there was a marked change in route. In Chile we had a road that, all be it rough and steep, was passable easily in a four wheel drive and probably (very carefully) in a two wheel drive. At the Argentine border the road disappeared and a rough footpath began. This was impossible in a motorised vehicle, passable by mountain bike, tricky with a touring bike and ridiculous with a weehoo trailer, two bikes loaded with a families kit for 9 months of touring, a five year old and a seven year old pushing their Isla bike. The only up side was that it was, theoretically at least, mostly down hill.

Just over the border.

Izzy and Will pushed and pulled bluebell (the Isla bike) between them chatting and singing along the trail. They did a great job especially as Izzy managed to fall into the stream at the first crossing and did the whole remainder with a wet foot, luckily however she fell in a second stream near the end and evened up her foot wear saturation.

Izzy about to get a wet foot.

Charly and I had less fun. Our bikes are heavy with Astrid (my bike) weighing about 60 kg with all the camping kit and food for 4 days, to add to this the weehoo weighs about 10 kg. I also have a set of rear panniers on the front rack of my bike making its widest point at the front. This meant that every few hundred metres a pannier would snag and send the bike off balance and almost crashing to the floor. Charly’s bike, while not as heavy, has thinner tyres and the centre of gravity is pulled backwards by the followme tandem that she uses to connect Izzy’s bike making it more unweildly. Because of this she regularly got slowed down by soft ground or stream crossings. To say we struggled is a litle bit of an understatement and I swore alot, both in my head and aloud. I am glad we are teaching the children as we travel because they learnt a good range of anglo-saxon words.

Smiling because it is nearly the last stream crossing.

We rode what we could and to be honest this was not much. By the end of the trail I would happily have thrown the weehoo into the northern end Lago Desierto, the point at which we arrived 9 hours and 22 kms after leaving Candellaria Mancilla. Izzy jad ridden or pushed all of it and Will had run or helped push a good proportion. The border was about to close but in a relaxed and friendly manner the Gendarmes (who man the passport control and regularly patrol the area) told us not to worry about passports that evening. They pointed out the free camping area and told us to come back to stamp into Argentina the following day.

Finally Lago Desierto is in view.

It would have been nice to chat to the other backpackers and cyclists who had either completed or were about to attempt the crossing but that evening we were just too tired. The temperature dropped quickly and I had numb fingers as I finished packing our dinner plates away. The night grew colder and Charly and I found it difficult to sleep. The kids, ensconsed it thermal pyjamas, warm sleeping bags and wooly hats slept soundly. We certainly needed a little bit of luxury soon. Hopefully we would find it in El Chalten.

Enjoying a chat with Izzy after a long day.

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The Carratera Austral part 6 – to the end of the road.

The climb out of the Rio Baker valley was steep and had several switch backs but the gravel was firm and not to rutted meaning that we were able to make the climb without too many issues.

Having left Tortel early we knew we would easily make the ferry from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo at 1800 and consequently we could relax and try to enjoy the riding. This was not quiet so easy for me as I was on my last set of brake pads and was therefore having to brake conservatively on the down hills. Despite this we were able to take in the dramatic scenery. We were now in true wilderness territory with inaccessible high pastures, forests clinging to steep slopes and waterfalls cascading from glaciers a few hundred metres above the road.

The Puerto Yungay ferry runs several times a day in the summer to connect the ruta 7 with its free service. We areived at the tiny port and its scruffy houses, some now abandonned and went straight to the small cafe for an instant Nescafe fix. The boat was scheduled for 1800 but we were taken by surprise when the boat arrived early and even more shockingly, left early.

Alone as the ferry steams off.

Izzy riding off on the last stretch.

We had chosen to wild camp on the other side of the crossing but Joquim, a young Argentine cyclist we had met chose not to board the ferry but to sleep in the ‘terminal’ and take the first boat the next day.

Always looking forward to a ferry ride we enjoyed the 30 minute crossing – the views and remote nature of the crossing appealling to us. Landing at the other side we rolled our bikes offthe ferry and made our way along a very quiet road to the wild camp spot we had previously selected. Not far from the road it was nonetheless idylic. Clean, well grassed, protected from the wind – everything we could want. We fell onto our normal camp routine of cooking, tent pitching and as much school work as we could persuade the kids to do. The moon rose slowly and shed some light on the tent without obscuring the stars and we took the opportunity to wake Izzy up at 1am to lie on the ground and marvel at the scale of the Universe. She lasted about 5 minutes before falling asleep again and being lifted back into the tent but Charly loved every minute of stargazing and has relished the dark skies this trip.

Collecting drinking water from a stream.

The next day gave is a simple ride, 60 km to a ‘refugio de cyclist’ built by a local farmer as a free place for cyclists to be able to stay. Joquim overtook us at about lunchtime and pedalled off into the distance as we kept churning onwards at about 10 kmh. Late in the afternoon we stopped to fill water bottles and the rain started. By the time we reached to cabin we were soaking (except Izzy and Will in their Spotty Otter waterproofs). Joquim was inside, fire kit and kettle on and it was great to be out of the wind for a few hours. We camped just behind the cabin as it was a little cramped for 5 and Izzy and Will make lots of noise and wriggle alot. The fire dried most of our wet kit and it was a joy to put warm, non soaking wet socks on and to enjoy a coffee.

A bijou hut in the patagonian mountains…..

We had let ourselves relax a little with Villa O’Higgins only being 35km down the road but alas this was a mistake and the next day was as hard as any other on the Carretera Austral. The surface was OK but still the washboard and potholes appeared and the ripio seemed to stretch out infront of us. Will asked several times how far it was to go and each answer I gave sounded hollow and evasive. Eventually, at the top of a rise above Lago Cisnes, we had our first sight of the southern most town on the Ruta 7. By a cruel twist, probably envisaged by someone who enjoyed mocking tired cyclists, the crow fly distance was about 5 km but the road still had 15 km of love to give us. A sharp descent and then a long ride across a spit of land exposed to the brutal wind vlowing off the lake took most of what we had to give. By the time we areived in Villa O’Higgins we were spent. Despite being pleased to have arrived celebrating felt like it would take too much energy. The supermarket was our first port of call and our spirits lifted when we saw that they had avacados, apples and fresh salad. Lunch bought and consumed (on the town square obviously) we did the unthinkable and turned north again. Our chosen camp site, a few hundred metres north of town, was perhaps not where many would choose to camp. It has no electricity (a solar panel charges a car battery during the day to allow phone charging) and composting toilets (if you need an explanation google it) but the focus was on low environmental impact so we were happy.

Fairly normal….

Villa O’Higgins is not a big town and options for entertainment are somewhat limited. Our first priority was to sort out our ferry across Lago O’Higgins, this can be difficult as in high winds the boat can’t sail and a backlog of passangers builds up. The ferry had just been repaired and the wimd had lessened meaning that we were likely to be able to get a boat fairly quickly. Walking into town the next day we pottered around and did some odd jobs before beating a retreat to the shelter of our campsites quincho to shelter from some awful weather and freezing temperatures. The kids worked, Charly and I read the selection of architecture books and ecology based sci-fi, fired up the wood stove and we all relaxed. It was great to be warm and to have no real pressure to ride. The realisation of what we had done slowly washed over us; we had set an ambitious goal to reach the southern point of the Carretera Austral and we had made it. Stopping our ride here though was not really an option, we did not want to ride north again so the road south – in its very basic form would be our path. We had to get the boat.

As with many places in Patagonia long lunch breaks abound in Villa O’Higgins and with the ticket office closed we enjoyed the culinary highlights the local restaurants had to offer. Burger and chips with no a green leaf in sight but it was served by a friendly french lady who was happy to chat so it could have been worse. It also killed enough time before the supermarket and boat ticket office reopened.

Our tickets were fairly easy to secure with the company running the boat. They were called Robinson Crusoe Expeditions which, to be honest did not fill us with confidence but there was not much choice. We still had one more day to spend here so we resolved to hike up to the series of miradors overlooking the town and the surrounding glaciers. Of course this meant that it rained the next day. Cold rain and low cloud made the decision to stay warm for a bit longer much easier and it was not until late afternoon that we climbed to the first view point. Interesting but not at all picturesque we walked on to the others enjoying the time spent in the forest more than the views. Rerurning to the campaite we were chuffed to bits to learn that the ferry had been delayed the next day until midday. This meant no early start for us and a much easier morning.

We took full advantage of the kitchen that night, drying our wet clothes and cooking a meal for ourselves and two other travellers. Going to super markets everyday is something that the kids put up with but sometimes they come in handy like when Will reminded me that we had not eaten squash risotto for a while. Conversation flowed in english and faltered a little in Spanish but we had a great evening. The atmosphere at the campsite was one of mutual trust and shared ideals – why else would you want to use a composting toilet…..

A composting toilet.

Rolling away from the campsite the next day a little later than hoped due to a flat tyre we made our way down the now very rough and rutted road to Peurto Bahamondes, the true end of the Carretera Austral but the begining of another series of adventures for us….

Finally at the end (sort of)…

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The Carretera Austral part 5 – from bad ripio to worse…

Two days in Cochrane was enough to make sure we saw all of its sights even though we barely left our cabaña during our pyjama day. We read, watched a movie and caught up on happenings at home as the wifi was the best we had had access to since Coyhaique. The weather continued to be warm and sunny but the occaisional rain shower was welcomed by all, not least by the locals who were fighting the wild fires.

With our panniers restocked we were able to start the journey south towards the most remote part of the Carratera Austral and it’s ‘dead end’. To say dead end is a little bit misleading but more on this in a later post. For now our plan was simply to ride onwards towards Villa O’Higgins but with a diversion to Caletta Tortel, a town we had heard so much about from other travellers that we felt a visit was almost obligatory.

Before reading more it is worth my pointing out that the southern section of the road was not built until the late 1990s with Villa O’Higgins gaining its road connection to the rest of Chile in 1999. This part of the country is remote, has little infrastructure and it can be cut off very quickly by land slides, fires or ferry breakdowns. Between Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins lies 200 kms of road with the only shops being in the village of Caleta Tortel, itself located at the end of a 20 km branch off the main road.

With only one main road in and out of Cohrane it was easy to find our way onwards but at this point we could probably have found our way blindfolded by following the smell of burning trees. The fires burning south of Cochrane gave off smoke that hung in the air giving every view a faint blue tinge. There were no road closures in place so we we able to make good progress along what was, on the Charly March-Shawcross gravel road gravel scale, good gravel.

Izzy and Will spent the morning perfecting their bandit look by placing their buffs over their faces to try to lessen the effects of both the dust thrown up by passing vehicles and the smoke. The fires turned out to be only 20 or so kms south of town and with great relief we noticed the smoke thinning and the blue sky ahead of us. A look back across the valley we had come from made it easy to see where the fire burned the most but it was still too far away to see the flame.

Spot the forest fire…

After clearing most of the smoke we took an earlyish lunch stop at a great spot next to the Rio Salto precipitated by Izzy’s hunger pangs brought on by her claim that the air smelled of smoked bacon. This section of the road though remote carries a lot of tourist traffic and we were being passed by a few vehicles an hour which was not much fun. Just when we were beginning to think that the narrowness of the road and the traffic might be too much we stumbled on our camp spot. Not initially a planned stop we saw another family of cycle tourists cooking a few metres off the gravel in a well used camp spot. Cycle touring with kids is not a usual thing to do and we are concious that it can be isolating for Izzy and Will; an opportunity to play with other kids who are both English speaking and taking a similar trip meant an immediate stop. Sam, Krista, Banjo and Daisy are riding the Carretera in the opposite direction to us. We had heard about them and they us before our meeting and it was satisfying to finally meet them. The campsite they had chosen was pleasent and had plenty of room for us as well. Charly and I chatted to Sam and Krista for a long time while the kids splashed in the shallows of the river and played together. It was a exercise in anthropology to watch how the children played and how easily they made friends based on their shared experiances of cycling and the hardships they faced (mainly the lack of peanut butter it would seem). I realise the term hardships is relative but to oits of kids in the western world the discomfort and uncertainty that extended cycle touring can being at times is one of the most difficult things they have to deal with. Meeting another English speaking family had an additional, unexpected, benefit; an exchange of books. We have been reading together as a family at bed time; tackling classics like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and, ‘Black Beauty’. We had just finished the books given to Izzy and Will at Christmas and were trying to decide what to do qith them. Banjo and Daisy were as keen as us to get some new reading material so a quick swap was done. Everyone was happy with no extra mass being gained!

Lord of the Flies?…

Reading each night has been an important part of a routine for us and happens regardless of weather and what has happened that day. Food too helps to make uncertain situations seem better. Bread is really important to us on the road. Its significance is beyond calorific as buying fresh bread shows we are near a town or village. Bread for lunch – near a settlement, biscuits for lunch – the middle of nowhere. Beyond Cochrane can seem like the middle of nowhere but passing a tiny homestead the next morning we stopped for breakfast. Run by an old couple who had eked out a living here since before the road was built we drank instant coffee and ate homemade bread with home made jam. I was frustrated by my basic Spanish language skills; I would have loved to talk to them about life before the road and how they survived the long winters. I did manage to ask how long the old man had lived here and he gave the simple answer “Siempre” – always.

With Will and Izzy’s inner savages civilised by the bread and jam (or perhaps just entering a hyperglycemic coma due to the amount of sugar and white bread) we made our way further south. Passed by a few trucks and cars we didn’t see anyone to speak to until the next day. Our camp site that night was another wild one next to the Rio Baker. We cooked with water drawn from the river and on descending to it the next morning to fetch more water for porridge saw the hood prints of the endangered huemal deer. We were all excited by this as it showed that a few of the 2000 or so deer left in the world had been within a few metres of our tent. The wildlife of Patagonia is fascinating and it has been a privalidge to have glimpses of many species but we still hope that we might see a huemal deer in the flesh and not just it scat and prints.

Deer prints (top) and deer (bottom – obviously not our photo).

Continually looking out for birds and the enormous wealth of insect life we headed onwards and at the first major road junction broke from the Ruta 7 and headed towards Caletta Tortel. The road was truely awful. It was fairly flat and ran along the Rio Baker valley but the worst washboard we have yet encountered alternaging with sections of deep potholes. Its flatness was physcologically tortuous as we could see on and on and the headwind just added to the ‘fun’. On this road though we met Rob, a native of San Francisco on a Salsa Fargo, he was quick to smile and stop to chat. Our reputation had preceded us and, having heard of us had lots of tips and advice. We wouldn’t see him again for a fortnight but when we did it was nice to see his ready smile.

The energy expended to reach Caletta Tortel was worth it. The town has no roads and is built on boardwalks and stilts on the steep sided valleys at the outflow of the Rio Baker. Originally supported by wood export it now relies heavily on tourism with bus loads arriving from Coygaique and Cochrane. Our advantage was that after the buses had gone in the evenings we were left in the village with its inhabitants and a few backpackers. The views were fascinating and the next day gave Izzy, Will and I time explore while Charly had a well earned couple of extra hours in her sleeping bag.

As we strolled we spotted several delapidated boats. The name of one caught my eye as ironic – Invinceble 2. Was it really? It did not look so in it’s rotting state and the burning question – what happened to Invincible 1?

Both Izzy and Will enjoyed running along the boardwalks; the lack of cars was refreshing and gave a break from being constantly wary of them and the smell of diesel fumes. We stopped to play on the swings and slide which amounted to the play park and I enjoyed having not to hurry them, the only time limit being empty tummies. Eventually we continued to the ‘supermarket’ to buy food only to discover that it was not very well stocked. Fresh food arrives in the town once a month and given its lack of roads it is not easy to get the deliveries to the shops. We managed to buy pasta, tinned vegetables, a few very sorry looking carrots and an onion that had seen better days – not what we had hoped for but as Izzy optimisticly pointed out more than some people would get to eat that day. We were also breadless – something rectified when we spotted a sign in the window of a small house. In remote regions it seems that somebody in each village makes a few pesos from selling bread and we were able to buy 12 breadrolls and 4 sopapilla (bread dough that has been fried) from the living room of the house. Like with most of these ‘panadarias’ the wood stove was on and the temperature in the house was about 30 degrees – no mean feat given the wood and corrugated iron nature of most buildings that we had seen in Patagonia. With our bread in hand we returned to the tent and a slightly more rested Charly.

We were also lucky to be here for a local fair celebrating the role of wood in the community here. To be honest it was just an excuse for a gossip, food and drink – we loved it! There were stalls selling local foods and lots of beer but also mulled wine. Being as Charly and I missed out on this at Christmas in the in the UK we felt we had to try it to compare them. It was delicous and a pleasent warming drink given the wind that blew in from the coast and the cool summer temperatures here. We mooched around the stalls, listened to the local musicians and (to Charly’s ‘delight’) their accordians, enjoyed a collection of photos of the town in the days before the road (from the cut of the clothes these were taken in the 1970’s) and, watched the local men gamble as they played a game involving threwing a weight and getting it to land in a certain way. We felt a little out of place but not unwelcome however it was not really a place to take photographs. After a couple of hours we strolled back along the boardwalks and attempted to find a reknowned micro-brewery and pub. After quite some time walking up and down wooden steps and weaving in and out of houses we had to give up. We later found out it had closed for good, much to Will’s dissappointment as he had been promised fruit juice if we went there.

Mobile band saw and beer – a perfect combination?

With not much food available and the boardwalks walked we decided to return to the main road and keep heading south. Our ride out from Caletta Tortel was no where near as bad as we had thought it would be due to a strong tail wind, fresh legs and encouragement given from another Chilean family befriended by Will and Izzy in the campsite. They stopped and took some great photos of all of us and we enjoyed a quick roadside chat At the junction with the ruta 7 we turned right and began our very steep ascent and subsequent descent to Puerto Yungay and the ferry to the last leg of the road to Villa O’Higgins. The road was steep but both of us kept riding to the first switch back only stopping out of breath and with lactic acid burning in our thighs when we were out of sight of the group of bikepackers who had gathered at the junction on their way north.

A single track road with steep drop offs – we were very careful riding this section.

With no road beyond Villa O’Higgins some 120 kms to the south the traffic thinned alot and we were passed by only a slack handful of vehicles. We were on the final stretch of the Carretera…

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The Carretera Austral part 4 – Where there is smoke there is fire….

Timing they tell me is everything and the timing of our arrival at camping Bella Vista in Puerto Rio Tranquillo was perfect. Within seconds of arriving Will had run to the toilet and had a very squirty bum; a theme that would continue for a few days for both Will and myself.

The camp site was full of cycle tourists and backpackers with most northern european languages being heard within minutes of our arrival. The atmosphere was beautiful and a little like an EU summit with the sharing of food, drink and information, luckily we were still included and the actions of our countrymen were glossed over (after some initial teasing). The main attractions of the town are a supermarket, a brew pub and the marble caves. We had stopped here for the last but benefitted hugely from the first two.

Will did not feel well.

Poor Will spent a good portion of the first evening sleeping fitfully and shivering (between hurried visits to the bathroom) and we took the opportunity to rest and chat to the other cycle tourists who were passing through the town.

Lago General Carrera.

The campsite was popular with other cyclist too.

The day time temperatures were high and this made the extra washing that we needed to do much quicker to dry. In the afternoon though we ventured out into town to do some shopping, swim in the lake and sample the craft beers (it was a hardship I was willing to endure in the name of travel journalism). The Lago General Carerra was clear with a pale blue colour reminicant of the cote d’azure but the water was chilly and made more than a quick duck under a feat of daring. After our swim and with Will feeling much happier (but still needing to be in dashing distance of the bathroom) we headed to the pub to try their wheat beer, brewed on site and very refreshing.

Our next trip out was to the marble caves. We had not booked our trip but, given the number of boats offering excursions, were confident that we could find a tour early in the day. Pre breakfast we strolled to the quayside, found an outfitter, donned our bouyancy aids and were whisked off towards the caves.

The marble caves are impossible to describe but have essentially been carved out of the rock by the actions of wind and water over hundreds of thousands of years. They are almost impossible to discern from a distance as the marble forms only the lowest layer of the rocks but up close they display sculpted land forms that are incredibly beautiful, especially early in the day as the incident rays of sun light reflect off the still waters of the lake. I hope the photos here give you some idea.

On our boat was Matt, a chap from the UK who worked as a fly fishing guide in Argentina. He was commited to conservation of freshwater catchments and was really interesting to chat to, so much so that after the tour we found a french run coffee trailer and had what seemed to be the best coffee we had drunk for many weeks.

Even though it was still early we could feel the heat rising (and we had more washing to do as a result of a not quiet successful ‘baño run’ by Will) so we made our way back to the camp site to relax in the shade and tackle some more school work.

The heatwave continued as we rode south towards Puerto Bertrand and Cochrane. Behind us a plume of what I thought to be dust rose into the air but Charly pointed out that it was more likely to be a forest fire. She was right and it was the first of two large wild fires (started by humans) that would cause us some problems (not serious) in the coming days. As we continued on the road we realised that I had forgotten our two plastic pots in the kitchen at our last campsite; appalled at the thought of them being consigned to landfill and Charly and I’s loss of our ‘crockery’. I resolved to hitch hike back from that night’s campsite and retrieve them.

Lunch was in the shade of a bush after a Dutch couple (also cycle tourists) made room for us and shared their nutella with the kids but it wasn’t long before we need to stop again after a section if really bad gravel. A small farm served cold drinks which was a welcome relief and they also had shady camping run by a friendly french couple volunteering their in exchange for free food and a spot for their van. While Charly made camp I walked back to the main road and hopefully stuck out my thumb. Within minutes I was picked up and 45 minutes later was back in Rio Tranquillo picking up our plastic pots and buying more ‘poo tokens’ aka toilet paper. One problem on the ruta 7 is the number of backpackers trying to find a ride and a queue of twenty or so had built up at the last bridge out of town. Remembering a conversation with Matt the previous day and tips he gave for hitching I decided to start walking and chance a lift further down the road. After 5 or so kms of walking in the hot late afternoon sun and dust (I was glad of my shemagh for shade and a makeshift dust mask) I was picked up by a Chilean Mum and son on holiday. They loved the idea of our trip and we chatted all the way back to my drop off point by the camping. It was to turn out to be another lucky meeting (more on this later).

Izzy and Will’s art installation made from things found on the campsite.

After dinner (eaten from our plastic pots) Izzy and Will had the opportunity to be led around the campsite on horseback. Both loved it and the smiles didn’t leave their faces for days as they talked about it – these are exactly the opportunities that we wanted them to have and hope that these memories eclipse the ones of the harder times.

Self explanatory photo…

Harder times continued the next morning with a return to the ripio but thankfully it was a little cooler than previous days. We crossed the magnificent bridge between lago General Carerra and Lago Bertrand and a steady ride beyond this brought us to the town of Puerto Bertrand, a tiny place offering a myriad of rafting and kayaking trip down the Rio Baker. The Rio Baker is the biggest (in terms of flow) river in Chile. It drains Lago Bertrand and it’s clear blue colour looked, on the day we crossed it like a blend of molten sapphire and emerald. The town did not have much to offer us but with recurrent bathroom issues we decided that an organised campsite would be better than a wild one. We were proven correct once more…

Riding towards Puerto Bertrand

Lago Bertand

Rio Baker

The Rio Baker merges with several other more minor rivers with the blending of colour and clarity each time. As we rode towards the Rio Baker and Rio Neff confluence we met the mum and son combo who had so kindly given my a lift the previous day. They were delighted to meet the kids and offered us fresh fruit and a top of water – both gratefully recieved. The fresh fruit gave a boost to our meagre lunch as we strolled towards the ‘confluencia’. The flow of water was deafening and, as I am increasingly aware that photgraphing theses landscape features is very hard indeed so rather than try too hard I sat, watched and listened. Izzy, Will and Charly did the same and the moments spent as a family watching the water cascade over the short drop was magical.

We continued our theme of following natural wonders as we headed into the Patagonia National Park later that afternoon. A former overgrazed sheep ranch it’s spectacular landscapes now house increasing vegetation cover, huge numbers of guanaco (Llama guanaco), puma and smaller (but increasing numbers) of the endangerd huemal deer. The park, ironically given its stance on fossil fuel use, is not easy to reach in anything other than a pick up truck but we persevered with the rough road, wind and rain to reach the campsite.

That evening walking to the washing area without my glasses on I saw what I thought was a big dog strolling across the grassy campsite. Izzy who was by my side corected me and identified the puma. Less than one hundred metres away it was a rare site and a reminder to keep the kids close to us at all times. Will did not like this and refused to comply earning him the new nickname Puma Snacks…..

Warning signs for Puma encounters.

Beautiful but tinder dry alpine meadows.

Llama guanaco

Puma scat

Guanaco print

The park originally bought by the Tompkins Foundation and now donated to the people of Chile is very little developed for hiking but a couple easyish trails do exist. We walked parts of these with the kid and enjoyed the amazing views and close ups on guanaco, often having to wait for them to move off the paths in front of us. We found puma prints and scat on the trails – a constant reminder of their presesnce and watched andean condors sore above the cliffs. The new visitors centre held exhibits on human impact on the environment and the history of the park and surroundings. The kids loved it and it made explaining why Charly and I do certain things like buy second hand clothes, limit our car travel and meat comsumption much easier. There was also a restaurant with the salads and vegetables being grown on site in big, well hidden, greenhouse. It was an interesting idea but as we walked back to the campsite past them we heard the unmistakeable hum of a diesel generator and our unfortunate relience on fossil fuels was brought back to us.

While eating lunch we chatted to one of the waitresses who warned us about the poor air quality in Cochrane (the nearest town and our next stop). We explained that we had no choice but to move on as we were short of food and she very kindly offerred to buy supplies for us and bring them back when she returned to work the next day. This kind offer was typical of the Patagonian people and has made our trip so much easier. The extra day in the park was appreciated and the air qualiy there remained high and we were glad that we did not have to ride through the smoke.

Counting down the kilometres.

Two other cyclists we had met (Jerry and Carolyn) rode on to Cochrane that day and sent a message to say that the air was actually OK due to a change in wind direction. We made plans to ride into Cochrane the following day. The ride was not too difficult as most of the gravel was good and it was a relief to have a supermarket with some fresh produce and a cold beers. Having not slept in a bed for a while we set our hearts on a cabaña. We eventually found one that slept three and the owner was happy to let us squeeze in. It was cozy, had hot water and a comfy bed so we were super happy. I popped out to the supermarket and while I was gone the cabaña owner reappeared and warned Charly that there may be a need to evacuate the town due to the forest fire. Izzy was a little upset and the owner quickly reassured us that she would find a truck that could take us and our kit if it came to it. We spent that night on tenter hooks and barely unpacked just in case. Rain in the night and a drop in the wind speeds lessened the probability of evacuation and on the second day we relaxed into a pyjama day. The smell of smoke and the constant buzz of helicopters carrying water to drop onto the fires never let us forget that they were there and they would continue to impact on us for the next section on the road south.

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The Carratera Austral part 3 – Supposedly the ‘worst’ gravel of the road, Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquillo.

Coyhaique came as a welcome break but also as a shock. We had spent nearly 3 weeks away from big town, supermarkets and lots of people so to sit in shade of the trees in the Plaza de Armas and just relax was serene.

My first priority when we hit a town is accomadation but tonight we were staying with a warmshowers host so my thoughts turned to food. I sought out the biggest supermarket and immediately fell upon the fruit selection like a UK citizen post Brexit will do on a new shipment of bananas…. Fruit and chocolate milk in hand I returned to Charly, Izzy and Will to find them deep in conversation with Mariana, a delightful woman who had returned to Coyhaique on her university vacation and was keen to practise her already good English. Time passed pleasently until our host, Nicolas met us to lead the way to his house. As soon as he said that there was little uphill we knew we would be hurting. Indeed both of our legs felt empty as we struggled to keep up with Nicolas and to top it all Charly was reversed into! Luckily her front rack was undamaged and the car came off worse. A little shaken we continued and arrived at Nicolas, Flo and their son Samuel’s home. Once again it felt great to be able to relax and sit inside in a house for a little while and gather our thoughts. Nicolas worked for the Chilean environment ministry and Flo for the agriculture ministry and both were interested in sustainable living so while Izzy and Wil played with toys for the for the first time in what must have seemed like ages we talked about the work they were doing to make Chile more environmentally sustainable. It was interesting to learn that they thought the same about the lack of double glazing and the reliance on old stoves burning fresh cut wood….

Our first day in Coyhaique was spent shopping for new kids shoes, sunglassess, replacements for various bits of worn out kit, fuel for the stove and, having Charly’s rear wheel rebuilt after the free hub had begun to grind horrendously.

Luckily our second day was far more fun and after picking up our replacement credit cards from the post office we were able to eat out at the fantastic ‘Basilac’ a french bistro served amazing vegeterian food made from produce sourced as locally as possible. We all had a fantastic meal with lots of fresh vegetables, local beer and decent coffee.

Sorry but gratuitous food shots were needed – it was really that good.

The next evening we slept in our tent to free the bed room for friends of our hosts and enjoyed a late meal while the six children played. We all enjoyed a laye meal and at the mention of scotch a bottle of blended whisky appeared, much to my happiness. We sat and talked late onto the evening feeling at home with our generous hosts.

Izzy, Will and the other children all slept on the living room floor giving Charly and I more room in the tent than ever before!

What felt like only a few hours later we said fairwell and headed back into town for a frustrating last attempt at few jobs. Frustrating because it was Sunday and we had failed to learn from our experiance that not much opens – even in such a big regional centre. Finally at 4 pm we pointed our bikes back down the Ruta 7 and pedalled away towards El Blanco 40 km away. The ride followed its normal trend of beauty and climbing but was tinged with traffic, close passes and a meloncholy that strikes after a goal has been reached. We had set our minds to reaching Coyhaique and had not looked much beyond it. I felt a little deflated and unsure of myself, our trip and what it was we actually hoped to achieve. The road was still tarmac which made chatting to Charly about how I was feeling easier. We have both had mentally hard days but thankfully not on the same day and our ability to talk to each other about it is enough to drive the thoughts away.

An English country cottage in the heart of Patagonia – the sight cheered me up greatly.

The camping at El Blanco was friendly and had a huge ‘Quincho’ or kitchen where we were able to cook. It also provided shelter from the incessent wind which had picked up as we climbed out of the river valley and into the mountains. One of our favourite things about rural Chilean camp sites is the fact that there are nearly always fresh eggs and bread available. Being invited to sit in a warm kitchen and watching as the farmer’s wife (please forgive my pajoritive wording, the small farms here are very much joint ventures with both people taking a vital role, I just could not think of another way of expressing it) takes a tray of hot bread rolls out of the oven has a way of making me feel involved in what is happening even though I can only understand snippits of the conversation. The kitchen remind me of my grandmother’s at her house ‘The Old Dairy’ where it seemed the whole of life revolved around the kitchen where the bubbling of the ever boiling kettle mixed with the babble of conversation.

The chickens peck around constantly and the knowledge that the eggs are truely free range is satisfying and there availability certainly supplements a diet that is currently made up of rice, pasta, bread and beans. As we move further south the availabilty of vegetables has diminished and the tiny shop in El Blanco reflected this with its rack of withered peppers and just begining to rot carrots. Potatoes and onions always seem to be in sacks leaning against the freezer with its indistinct joints of meat and occaisional packets of frozen vegetables.

We took an enforced rest day at El Blanco as the wind had become too strong to cycle safely with gusts of about 120 km per hour. A rest day meant a chance to clean bikes and for the children to spend a couple of hours doing some school work. Will continued with his phonics and Izzy has been using her Beaver scout badges a little like a curriculum. They have been superb at allowing her to focus and tick off achievements as she works through them. Repton Beavers have been supportive and she looks forward to an armful of badges on her return.

Later in the afternoon two American cycle tourists arrived and it was great to talk and share our stories of the road. Mike and Kris were teachers from Oregan and having ridden south down the Ruta 7 decided the did not like the winds in Argentina so turned around and rode north again.

The next morning the winds had abated slightly and for the first 15 or so kms we would have a tail wind (and 500 m of height to gain) so we decided to try to head to Villa Cerro Castillo, about 50 km further south. We felt safe to do this despite the winds as Mike had kindly pointed out a camping spot in the Cerro Castillo national reserve that we could use to break the journey. As it was this was needed! After 15 kms we crested the first of two climbs for the day and turned into a new valley and an aggressive head wind. Both Charly and I struggled to control the bikes and by the time we reached the campground at Laguna Chiguay we were ready to take a break. Izzy and Will were also ready and with the ability to stop at a nice campaite and allow them time and space again we called it a day at just 26 km but with 879 metres of climbing.

This may seem like a short day and it was but it meant we were a few kms further down the road and the town of Villa Cerro Castillo was easily reachable. Another day of climbing followed by a glorious descent and a section of fine switch backs took us under the towering, fortress like peak of Cerro Castillo (and yes we do know what the name means).

Sheltering from the wind and trying to keep warm.

Cerro Castillo

Despite its February climbing festival there is little to this sleepy town and no reason for us to stay beyond a night before we moved on to a section of road we had not been looking forward to. Just after the town the tarmac ended and the gravel began. Not ordinary gravel though, loose, washboard ripio that made your sholders ache and gave you a headache to ride. A chat with Charly, Izzy and Will about the option of taking a pick up truck instead was immediately dismissed. ‘It seems wrong to get a lift before we have even tried’ was the opinion given by Charly. I was relieved – we came to ride the Carretera Austral and the ripio ahead was part of it so ride it we should. Soon after the tarmac ended though this felt like a mistake and we took a break in a riverside stand of trees that was an excellent camping spot. Just as we were deciding if we should press on for a few more kms three more cyclists arrived and our plan was made – we would camp here. Izzy and Will reluctantly helped with the tent before scampering off with the other three cyclists to go fishing. They were still in sight but 300 metres away across a windy flood plain. It was bliss to watch them playing and trying to fish but eventually we felt we should retrieve them so coffees in hand we strolled across to get them back for supper.

Just about discernable – Izzy and Will heaaading off to fish.

After supper Will deployed his super power of finding anyone within 3 km who was toasting marshmellows and while he and Izzy ambushed a Chilean family who had brought their children camping we hadtime to sit by a campfire and chat to the other cyclists. They were a belgian, a peruvian and Illy, a frenchman who had been on the road since 2012 and towed his kit in a fibre glass monocoque trailer and wore jeans and a plaid shirt. I had admiration for anyone who can ride for that long especially in denim!

As dusk darkened the sky and a few drops of rain fell we retrived Izzy and Will and retired to our tent.

Another day of gravel followed but this time some of it was almost like tarmac. We made great time and distance and the road noise was decreased enough that Will and I sang ‘The Wild Rover’ while Izzy and Charly learnt their times tables. It was not all plain riding though and the loose stuff returned along with the head wind. The last 10 or so kms before our campsite were monotonous and rough and I began to feel sorry for Will bouncing around behind me.

Camping Doña Dora gave us two great opportunities;

1. A tiny, cosy cabin to sleep in

2. A beautiful view of life on a Patagonian farm. Early the next morning we were able to watch the farmer saddle and mount his horse and drive his cattle to graze followed by another horse and several dogs. Set agaist the mountains it seemed to fit beaurifully.

Will awoke complaining of a tummy ache and being hot. He did indeed have a temperature but he perked up when we stopped at a roadside ‘case de comida’ for a sandwhich. We chatted to another cyclist covering the Ruta 7 in a fast and light style who had ridden from the 800 or so KMs from Puerto Montt in just 12 days.

My sandwich was a carnivores dream but as usual the only veggies on it were fried onions and the coffee was instant made with hot water. We had a long break but we needed to make it to Rio Tranquillo that evening so had to press on along the washboard gravel and hills that brought back memories (nightmares?) of Chiloe. After a particularly rough section about 5 KMs out of town I called a stop for some emergency sweets. Will had been groaning a bit with his sore tummy but the moment his first sweet touched his tongue he projectile vomitted over himself. Dodging further cascades we freed him from his seat belts and he was able to deposit the rest of his lunch onto the road side (luckily loose gravel is very absorbent). The first case of a tummy upset had hit our trip and it would not prove to be fun for anyone except the manufacturers of washing soap…

We limped (metaphorically) into town but we did have to push up a couple of really steep climbs along the side of Lago General Carrera.

Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile and the second largest in South America. It’s scale was breath taking.

We reached Puerto Rio Tranquillo but the six days of riding from Coyhaique had left us battered and worn out. It was time for a rest.

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It is amazing who you meet in a bus stop…

Another lunch time and another bus stop. We sit slicing stale bread rolls and seperating sliced cheese between mouthfuls of water to stop us choking on the crumbs. A man, about 30, pushes his stroller towards the bus stop.

‘How odd’ I think as there aren’t really any houses nearby and the stoller is a european model. We make room for him out of the wind and he greats us in English. Opening his stroller reveals no child but a host of backpacking kit and food – not what we expected if we are honest.

Oliver is walking from Ushuia to Alaska, he expects it to take 3 years. He was an unassuming guy who was just going for a walk – a really long walk. This was not his first rodeo either; twice he has walked across his home country of Slovenia and he has crossed the USA on foot too. We chatted for about half an hour and really enjoyed the brief time we spent together and it reminded me of something we were told by another traveling family, ‘There is always someone doing it crazier than you’. My hope is he remembers the encounter with the same fondness and that maybe, with our two kids and huge panniers, he saw us in the same light.

Later that day we met Sprout. Sprout is a terrier who is touring Sourh America with her owners in tow. On long hills she gets out to walk alongside them but for the most part rides up front in a basket. Lou and Robin, Sprout’s owners, are from Lincoln and like us wanted to take some time out. We met them in a bus stop just outside Villa ********** (another Chilean village with a closed supermarket) and talked about the road ahead until both Sprout and our kids became restless and we bid our goodbyes.

These are two examples of meeting strangers who were on similar journeys to us (both literal and metaphorical) and they show how following three rules when touring can reap rewards. The rules have been adapted from our close friend Mad Court’s ‘Three rules of D of E’. Both Charly and I have huge respect for Mad and she is a beautiful person. Her rules are:

1. Be good

2. Talk to strangers

3. Don’t die

Rule number two has given us some amazing experienced this trip and a couple of times has helped us immensely. For example being offered a roof for the night on a wet windy day in Sweeden, having our panniers carried over a tough section if gravel in Chile, managing to get our bikes on a bus to Ancud from Puerto Montt. I could go on but without the kindness of strangers our trip would be more difficult and certainly less enjoyable.

Thank you does not quite cover our gratitude to all of our new friends but your help was important to us and showed our children that the eorld can be a kind place.

If you are reading this blog then you are interested in what we are doing; we have been helped by strangers ask you, should you see someone like us, have a chat and see if you can help them – it makes the world a nicer place.

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