Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Chicoana to Cachi and The Quebrada de Salta.

What a difference 24 hours and a height rise of 2,100 metres can make.  In Chicoana we had sun, sheltering  in the local plaza,  listening to the locals greet each other with “muy calor”;  it’s gratifying to know that they to are suffering under this sun also.  Eating empanadas,  licking ice creams,  watching a  talent show  for local singers -  the winners were good, the runners up rank karaoke amateurs.  Late afternoon and the temperature has hit 40 degrees. Twenty-four hours later and we’re sitting in a tent wrapped up in sleeping bags, wearing all our clothes. Suddenly  all those extra jerseys, gloves and thermals that have  huddled, neglected and  mouldering  at the bottom  of the panniers  have a use.

We’ve left town, left a hostel near full of  a ladies 35th reunion, left behind the street sweepers clearing up after a  Saturday night that’s not long finished, left behind the competitive singers and the Mariachi bands. Slipped silently, like thieves in the night ,from our lodgings into the pre-sunrise day, and started climbing up the Cumbres del Obispo. Away from a near monoculture of non-food tobacco production and through a series of climatic zones. Rising running along the Rio Escope, along a superbly graded road. The result of the road engineers following sense and the ancient mule trails and not those of their own imaginations which are usually fuelled by the limitless power of the internal combustion engine. In Moncona we’d encountered just such a crime. To save a few kilometres of contouring track they carved a laser ruled line, allowing no respect for topography, mules or cyclists. The result was a series of 25% hills.

The vegetation shifts from thick  bush and forest, to drift sand and shattered rock. The weather reflects these changes, a heavy clouded sky that’s turned to a persistent drizzle, has accompanied us up through the green country. But always up in front there has been the carrot of a sunlit red hillside. The sun, the cacti and the dessert all arrive, all coincide, as we ascend through into another biosphere.   We climb, the river now falling far below, now a thin braided ribbon lost in a vast flat bottomed valley of gravel, that in the wet will be filled wall to wall, the monochrome occasionally punctuated by solitary deep rooted  bright green weeping willow tree.  The steep valley sides, striated walls of iron salted greens and reds, dotted with sparse tussock grasses. Dropping down through this scape of dun coloured lands, are vertical microclimates, a mere tens of metres  wide.  Verdant gashes of oozing fecundity. We ride through one such, riding under deep shade green fig and white fleshed peach trees.  Bags of the latter are for sale on a lonesome roadside stall. Then, just as suddenly, you’re back in the stark sterility of the desert.

Still the road climbs, the score increasing on the altimeter.  An accumulation of metres all safely banked and not squandered on a roller coaster of  declivities and re-ascents. The  route choosing to contour deep into a side valley, crossing  a dry arroyo bed, then  gently rising back out , returning to it’s original itinerary, back to a   generally northerly direction . A mild, tender ascent that works with, and not against the land. We refuel on empanadas and rotten instant coffee, which at 2,200 metres is like a nectar of rocket fuel; we’ll need it, for now the real work starts. The gradient remains mule track, but the surface goes from asphalt to gravel. There’s 21kms and a further 1,100 metres of climbing to go, which, once the safari of racing  Toyotas  have passed in a storm of dust and scattered  grit, we settle down to a steady rhythm, a steady accumulation of height.

The advice to those who wish  to visit the national park at Los Cardones  is to get up there early, before the late morning cloud  envelops the tops. This,  for a cyclist  poses a problem: camp in the lower valley and suffer a dark time alpine style start, then an altitudinally induced , heart thumping race against the clock and the mountain; or tent it on the summit. The downside of the latter option  is that the last 1,000 metres of approach will be in a wet cold mist, with the possibility of a sufferfest on a storm blasted moor. The upside, the potential bonus, is the possible, teasing expectation of a mountain sunrise. In the clag , the near whiteout, we listen for the ascending and descending traffic, trying to gauge which might be the service bus or the fuel tanker. Both require the use of the whole of the road at any of the multitude of hairpin bend; they’ve passed us going  over, we know that they’ve got to come back sometime. A local woman surprises me, she morphs out of the gloom, standing, waiting, swaddled in a volume of bright shawls and blue skirts,  silent, motionless at the side of the road . A bus must be imminent. The  low visibility shortens our world down to the scree banks and the sudden  surprise of small flowering cacti, splashes of blood red in the murk. As the few and infrequent cars go by they offer encouragement, yet we can’t reply, we need both hands on the handlebars for control over the river rounded ball-bearing gravel; we need the concentration to keep going.  The gradient is hard to judge, I know that it’s still going up, yet it looks flat We’re running on a near empty tank, suffering for low carbs, and lack of altitude acclimatisation. On the final three kilometres the wobble starts, we’re safer and quicker pushing the last few tens of metres to the summit. The Navigator has led from start to finish, pushing the pace.  But it’s only when we reach the top and I see her hypoxic  lips -  she claimed it was only the contrast to the tan - that I realised we needed to stop.

There was never going to be a problem with a  pitch for a tent, there are a selection of suitable spots where the cloud fed streams cross the road, the trick would to choose on with a view for the morning. It’s a cliché, but also a perfect truism:  ‘Good decisions are never made with tired minds”, so with this in mind we just fling up the tent in the first safe place.  Above the road, amongst the Spartan tussocks, a full unexpurgated unsheltered view of wet cloud.  The potential was there for a good dose of sufferfest. Now at 3,310 metres - it sounds better in metric feet: 10,923ft - you would expect some wind, but it went flat calm as the light faded.  Not long after closing up the tent and settling down, the drumming rain stopped, leaving an eerie, vacant silence. An occasional vehicle passes around our high eyrie promontory, the occasional door opens and later closes, which always sets off a spurt of adrenaline, until you remember that there’s a travellers’ shrine around the last bend. At some point I come to, there’s  a diffused light coming into the tent, instinctively I know that it has to be good news. I get up, a  waning  final quarter moon is rising out of the valley cloud. The air is sharp, the sky crystal clear above, the whole  panoply of a southern sky is  arranged overhead. It’s stunningly beautiful. I’d like to whoop, jump  for joy, but that would only tempt the mountain gods and their  Irish cousin into spoiling the morning by drawing a veil  up and over us.  We neither sleep well, the first few nights at height are always the same, the vague shadow of a headache  that reminds you  that you’re  high up, but the potential pay off is there.

Pre-dawn and we’ve got the stove running:  it’s fully leaded coffee and dulce de leche fortified oats, it’s  four layers  and full Gore-tex , it’s frozen alpines and frosted  grasses. The old moon is high in the new sky, the sun rising fast through the  inverted, clouded horizon. Suddenly the first shafts hit the  high top behind us, the shadow line racing down to engulf us. We both just sit and marvel; it’s  spiritual moment. I’m not sure that we had in any way planned  this, planned for this perfection, but we have one  of the grandest  tenting spots  imaginable. Neither photo’ nor word can convey the feeling of sitting   high on a mountain at dawn. The stillness of the air, the feeling of newness, of a nascent day breaking into life. It’s an  immediate, raw, unrepeatable, irreplaceable  moment of time.

What follows a start like this should, by any law of averages, any rules of justice, be an anti-climax. After last evening’s climb on loose gravel, we had  anticipated a rough, rocky decent, what we are offered is a slow, long easy angled slope of smooth tar. We leave gravity and the bikes to roll us gently along, dropping us into the mist that’s drifting around the hillsides. I had wondered if  the conditions were in place for a Brocken spectre, when , there running alongside me, is a fogbow. Like it’s cousin the rainbow, it’s refracted light passing through a prism of water, only the fogbow devoid of colours. Ethereal and vaporous , it appears and disappears, as we drift, rolling along .

Another weather first and a road that has just pushed it’s way into an over crowded “ top ten”, yet we haven’t reached the reason why this place is designated a National Park.

The high flat puna,  the expanses of weather shattered rock and gravel, the few tussocks of dry, brittle grasses, grazed by wild  donkeys and a few thin cattle,  gives way to a  canyon of chocolate brown vertically  striated rocks, topped by sentinels of Cardones, or cacti. The road now turns sinuous, twisting between outcrops, freewheeling  through long easy corners, then takes one last bend and opens out onto a vast monumental plain of sand, grit and gravel.  The columnar cacti set out like an army in open order march, now transfixed in time; an over-replicated Antony Gormley  installation, the stylised figures cockaded with fresh flowers, staring out  across the gravel levels, to the real high tops of Cordillera los Andes.

A classic, in your face road. A new picture around each and every bend. A moonrise, a sunrise, a temperature inversion  and a fogbow all before second breakfast. Sensory overload.  Picture postcard; sweetie tin productions. Easy, bite sized, pre-digested gobbets of tabloid tourism. An antithesis to our experiences of  the differing areas we’ve passed through so far on this trip. The  teeming madness of Buenos Aries,  the quiet solitude of Uruguay, the rolling hills of Misiones, the unfashionable Chaco and now the dry savagery of Los Andes: all are individuals, all are parts of a whole. Some are easy on the digestion, some take time and more assimilation to get their full calorific values.

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