Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Body Confused.

A body confused, or an excuse to publish a few more images from 'up on top of the hill'.

The navigator has a pre-sleep routine. She likes to review the day. To rerun the events, the places, the experiences. To superimpose the evening's view upon that of the remembered image from that of breakfast time. On occasions that day's elapse can have undergone little change. Crossing the pampa for example, or cycling on the costal PanAmericana. Then it will be a case of remembering the small incidentals, the giant spider, slowly, determinedly, crossing the road, or finding a menu that offers 'deep fried fish eyes'. On other occasions the transformations will be so radical, it becomes difficult to reconcile morning with evening. The two times so out of kilter, that a body becomes confused. It's not only the visuals that disseminate a body, there's the olfactory and the auditory. Travel along the Andes and the changes become kaleidoscopic, a near continuous flicker of change.

Today started with a cut clarity of light, the thin cold air, silent. A flock of flamingos, huddled in the centre of the marsh pond, slowly coming to life, a ruffling of feathers, a stretching out of a skeletal leg, sending the first ripple across the water. The faint drifts of bog gas waft up to mix with that first delectable slurp of coffee. A glimmer of new colour, a sliver of ochres and sand dun starts to grow on the far hillside, the shadow line dropping, shrinking down the desert hills. We've crawled from the snug warmth of our bivvi bags, packed away our night spot and started cycling, our panniers near empty as we're wearing most of our clothing. The only un-frozen water bottle is the one I slept with. The road is near deserted, the frontier won't open for a few hours yet. We're on our own, climbing to the last 'abra'. Our latest and last high point. We know that from here it has to go down. Down to the thick air. It can't stay up at this level for ever, that and the fact that the kilometre posts are counting down to town. The longer the stay at this height, the lower the count, the steeper the drop. It's probably as well that we didn't know about the several short, sharp reascents that lie between ourselves and San Pedro de Atacama. The sun climbs higher, staying the cold air, burning hot through the duvet jacket on my back. That invigorating warmth that slowly melts my frozen toes and numb fingers.

On the final top we stop and count the twenty four separate mountains, ranged in a vast circle right around our horizon. Some are more distinct than others. A roads zig-zags up to the just visible structure of the world's most powerful telescope, where they hunt for our 'cosmic origins'. But standing clear is the classic shape of Volcan Lincancabur, the near perfect cone that will dominate our next two days in town.

Eventually the road decides to fall off the side of the Andes. A few half hearted bends, then a single plumb line drop. A ten percent descent that only confirms this passage's reputation. Going down, going east to west, it's a 55kms of finger-numbing braking. Going the other way it would be simply brain numbing. One cyclist we met a few years ago had described the road "come out of town and you see your day's work laid out before you, it rears up, a straight line uphill". At the time I thought he was exaggerating. We stop part way down to relieve our fingers and look back. He didn't exaggerate. Your whole climbing day is laid bare. No hidden secrets. No pleasant surprises. No pauses. No punctuations. It would take little imagination to know the purgatory that will have to be endured to attain that summit. Two and a half thousand meters in a straight line. I can think of no other road that comes even near to this statistic. No wonder those that we met over on the other side were so jaded. It would take a day of spectacular scenery to wipe clean that climbing memory. For us, it's two hours of freewheel breaking, rolling past a succession of lorry traps, which concentrate the mind with images of Paraguayan transports loaded with twelve German cars, out of control. Rolling down into a flat white light that rubs out all clarity, rendering that enigmatic volcano down to a faint haze, the merest suggestion of mountain. Down past the incongruous sight of a barb wired mine field, down into a town of which we'd been advised to have a low expectation of.

We push through the small, unusually non-monumented plaza of shady pepper trees, and whitewashed adobe buildings, decorated not with the usual hand painted logo of a certain cola company, but with faux renditions of native rock art. To one side is the under-repair, Iglesia San Pedro. It's roof under restoration, like a cut-away drawing, depicting the various stages of its original construction. On the opposite quarter the Casa Incaica, once a conquistador's home, now yet another artisanal shop. The remaining sides are strewn with awning shrouded tables, set out on the pavement, with wandering visitors perusing the menus and the tour operator's sales pitches. For this small town is Chile's premier tourist entre-port for the adventure tourist. The salars, the lagoonas, the geysers and the inevitable Valley of the Moon; every desert destination has to have one of the latter, all are waiting to be visited. The earth streets are unhindered by motor traffic, for the centre of town is 'peatonal'. A single fact that can transform a place. The juice lorry is parked up outside the cordon sanitare, in a far away car park, and pedal trikes are delivering to the numerous kiosks and mini mercados. Much of it bottled water, which gives the indication as to the majority of the visitors nationality's. Accepting it as a place who's purpose is to service a visitor industry, it has a comfortable feel. It has yet to succumb to the plague of 'highrise condo' or aggressive sales pamphleting.

We eat well, and we collect a recommendation for a camping, from a couple of Swiss overlanders, who had passed us at some point up on the hill. It leads us to another sanctuary and a very different bed night spot from this morning's. It's hardly a wonder that a body gets confused.



Monday, 29 December 2014


For those in the know: RN 9 ~ El Cornisa: Salta ~ San Salvador de Jujuy. Argentina. The old non-motorway connection between these two cities. (6th.~8th.December.)

There's one colour that stands alone. One colour to which I'm pathologically attached. One colour that screams 'Life!'. Green. More particularly the green of vegetation, chlorophyllic Green. Yet, for those of us who inhabit a moist country, it becomes common, the norm. It becomes habitual. But take a few days travelling away from its comforting presence, and its return comes as a physical shock.

Salta is, in effect, an oasis town, with well shaded plazas and some tree-lined streets. The colonising Spanish considered it permanently springlike. Only today, the locals are calling it hot, and this is just early December. But it's worth remembering that if you travel over a few hills and down into the ' Yungas', the jungly, sweaty cane country, or head south into the dry thorn and arid sand country, this place becomes a comparative haven.

Salta has, over the past few travels, become for us a staging post. A place to start or finish an element within a journey. The fact that it has, right on its doorstep, one of my favourite Argentine roads, is an added bonus. In part, because it's so easy to incorporate it into the next travel.

Take a standard single track highway, four steps wide, coat with asphalt, then paint a yellow dividing stripe down the middle. Only an Argentine road planner would attempt this. Twist it through a serpentine of valleys, then clothe it in cloud forest. And you have El Cornisa. We set off from Salta on a clear, cool Sunday morning. A time when even the buses have the courtesy to give way to others, giving us time to appreciate the old colonial buildings. Where the only hazards are the congregations spilling out from Mass and the celebration for the first Sunday in Advent. Passing fields of tobacco, their adobe walled curing sheds ranged around a yard. The aromatic drifts of cookfire smoke, the clutches of family gatherings down on the shingles of the braided river. Motos pass, the pillion clutching a giant cooler box of ice. It's a holiday weekend and the city is fast disgorging out to the campo.

The narrowness and the gradient of the road is a testament to an earlier time of infrequent equine drawn traffic. For this was once the primary route out of northern Argentina, over the Andes to the Pacific coast. It's now surpassed by an autopista that absorbs the lorries, that keeps to the low ground, leaving our road to wander without intent. Climbing steadily up through the remnant of a volcanic caldera and into a cloud forest of lianas, epiphites and ancient aliso trees, all festooned in ferns, smothered in mosses. Where each tree is a host for a forest. The over arching limbs forming a tunnel of dark vegetative shade that traps the smell of green. Where the sun shafts down through clearings, butterflies swarm on the flowering herbs. Wild beans and the plethora of solanums, that vast clan of the potato/ tomato family are identifiable, the rest are not. Yet, like the butterflies, I don't need an identification to appreciate, or to claim some form of ownership. Their beauty lies in their diversity. A soft sulphurous one floats along, landing on my bag, an iridescent blue flashes past, such that I only get a fleeting glimpse. In another spot, hundreds hang like flowers from one particular plant. All arising in a cloud as we silently wander past.

That green can only happen if there's a supply of water. Yet on each occasion that we've riden this way, we've had hot, sunny conditions. For this trip, we've not experienced any rain for sixty-five days, such that our waterproofs have disappeared deep into the pannier's depths and they're probably suffering from a seasonally affective disorder, becoming pale anaemic shadows of their former selves. Then, on the second morning, we wake to thunderstorms. Glutinous red muddy rivers are surging down the road, the house gutters are waterfalls, tree leaves quake under the assault. The bromeliads that encase, like threaded fuzz balls, the telegraph wires survive solely from these conditions. Tomorrow they'll be flowering. We ride wrapped in a fug of humidity, as damp inside as its soaking out. At least my panniers' un-repaired holes will allow the rain water to escape.

This green cannot last forever. Heading north up the Quebrada de Humahuaca, our bioscape of humidity gives way to the dry again. A transitional zone that is barely ten kilometres wide. The southern slopes of the side valleys are still cloaked in green, only their northern sides are now denuded, mere sparse grasses. The hill tops crowned by explosive thunderheads. Boiling storms building, accumulating a resuscitation of water. Wet season is coming. A new green will be growing over the backside of that hill.

But for ourselves, we'll soon have the cactus and pepper trees as our travelling companions once again. The small pueblo houses, flat roofed, and painted to reflect the rockhills that are a multiplicity of metamorphosic colours. The merger plots,tiny fields that are utterly reliant upon the occasional trickling spring. Gone the Green.



Wednesday, 24 December 2014

An Interim Christmas Note

Good Morning, and a very merry Christmas to all, from Iquique, Chile.


This is by way of a test, as we don't seem to be able to upload The Chronicler's missives. Hold tight, and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


With Best Wishes from us both,


The Chroncicler and The Navigator

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


For those in the know: Jujuy ~ Purmamarca ~ Susques, (Argentina) ~ San Pedro de Atacama. (Chile). Paso Jama (9th ~ 15th. December.)

A thickness measured not in millimetres, but in a rich, heavy humid air, a thinness not in millimicrons, but in lactated thigh muscles and a hammering heart beat. Or by my latest standard, a choice between a Susques milanesa, or a celebratory Chilean steak.. "Could shoot peas through it", is the phraseology, or as they measure the mortar layer in an Incan temple, "can't insert a credit card". Well I think I might have a chance with today's 'comedor' lunch. A piece of breaded beef that's been pummelled, battered and rendered into a laminate for my dinner plate. I can hear the Navigator's choice, under going a similar treatment through in the back kitchen. Sounds like 'chef' is exorcising a grudge. A meal that has a further local peculiarity. The soup comes as the second course. Possibly another example of Jujuy provincial cuisine. Jujuy could be Argentina's poorest province, it's certainly it most Andean, both for its geography, for its ethnicity and for its cuisine. We cross the political boundary and immediately the prevelance of the empanada, that meat pasty with the potentially tooth breaking lucky olive stone, has given way to humitas and bunelos. Maize mash wraps and deep fried dough. The latter slathered in corn honey. The empanada hasn't totally disappeared, it's there but now coated in a casing of glazed sugar. Still, it makes for great cycling tucker.

We're heading through the top left hand corner of Argentina, heading back over the hill once again, back into northern Chile. Back up into another type of thinness. A paucity of oxygen, vegetation and habitation.

Each of the three passes that we've crossed this year have had a very different character. The Libertadores with its vacant ski resorts and views of Aconcagua; Agua Negra with its tourist traffic and soft ripio gravel; and now Paso Jama with its sporadic convoys of imported Asian and Germanic built cars. Hondas to Argentina, Beamers to Chile.

All maps that cover this area will show and name a pass. The height being numbered for the border, invariably the continental watershed. The automatic assumption being that this will be the highest point of the whole route. At 4300m, Paso Jama looked a less heart thumping undertaking than our previous hill passage. Or so I erroneously thought. What is not indicated are the two major 'abras', that require negotiations, an undertaking, that takes the high point up to over 4800metres. At least they weren't a surprise. For once we've done a bit of research. We knew that there were a few refuges, a possible resupply of water, a gas station at the frontier. Small, but utterly invaluable information. However, I had gleaned small pockets of information over years from other sources, from guide books, from on-line sites and from other travelers. This route was uninteresting, was the conclusion. "I'd take the bus next time", "it's boring, nothing to see". Sometimes I question what was anticipated, sometimes I despair, sometimes I wonder if it's just me. We're storm bound behind one of those refuge walls, sheltering out the afternoon westerly wind. We're watching a family group of vicunas who are trying to reach the sweet water spring. Small lagoons with vocal ducks and fishing flamingos, with sand hills and eroded rock tors for a backdrop. The herd are cautious, something is spooking them, and from their body language, it's not us. Eventually the patriarch starts a rush, flushes out a fox and chases it back up the hill. An Andean gull joins in, mobbing the retreating animal. It's an insignificant, minor vignette, but only possible if you take the time to stop, to watch. Uninteresting stuff. As the afternoon progresses, the wind turns from fickle to forceful, lenticulars start to form, stationary clouds that shape-shift and give rise to that tedious game: "can you see the....up there?" Meanwhile far to the east, roiling thunderheads are boiling up; we'll have another silent light show to augment the shooting stars, tonight. "Should have taken the bus". Then there are the great imponderables of life that you muse upon as you ever so slowly climb up the next slope, " why have the Mennonite Paraguayans cornered the auto transport market, and why over the Paso de Jama?". Maybe it's the thinness of air, or, "it could just be me."

Tonight we'll set up the bivvi bags, as the wind just wants to play havoc with the tent, we'll overdress for sleep and the anticipated sub zero temperatures, overheat and need to climb from our cocoons, out into the unpolluted silence of a southern night sky.

But what you can never tell when heading up into that thinness of air, is how your body will behave. Physical fitness has little to indicate performance. I know the Navigator performs better than I do, or that has been the experience up until now. On paso Agua Negra she was always In front. And from our experiences on that crossing we know that we'll need to consider the food element with care. Suffice to say, with six days from Jujuy to San Pedro de Atacama, the body behaved, even if the appetite deserted, went absent without leave, yet again. Pasta and porridge just don't 'do it'. By journey's end we're both fantasising on steaks inches thick, a mountain of thick greasy chips, with a side of mixed salad to augment the healthy option.

We push our bikes down the pedestrian calles of town, into the shade of the central plaza, into the cultural shock of 'People'. Find an outside table in one of the restaurants and order the fixed menu, the dish of the day. Mixed Salad. Roast Beef. Fried Potatoes. Rice Pudding. Nothing thin. Nothing thinning. How did they know we were coming?



Thursday, 11 December 2014

Nos in Salta.

Guidebooks can date easily. Guidebooks can cause misinterpretations. On occasions I suspect an entry is created for the fist edition, but with each subsequent revision, is not reviewed or reinterpreted. Reiterated verbatim. One such is the idea that a travelling cyclist requires to carry a spare bike, a full workshop and the knowledge to use same. The former, or at least the perishable spares, was once true, and will still be in the more remoter places. But that's true of anywhere. Try finding a high end tyre in Durness. Quality workshop skills and their attendant tools never were in short supply. Poor quality necessitates care and maintenance. It's the comment regarding 'spares' that now needs some thought.

The entry for Salta in one guidebook, extols the museums and the ecclesiastical building, it also has this intriguing quote: " a favourite of many for soothing ruffled psyches with its profusion of services". Witness the congregation of 'overlanders', drawn up in the campings, some awaiting vital mechanical parts, and you understand that truth. We've passed this way several times now. It's a crossroads, a jumping off point for four differing directions, that, and a manageable bus station. Yet up until now we've not required the " smoothing of ruffled psyche" service.

This time last year it was the navigator who required hospitalisation; this year , by way of an anniversary, my bike decided to claim that accolade. What comes next is an embarrassment and a demotion on the touring cyclist's credibility league. My front fork is twisted, visibly twisted, emphatically visibly twisted. A mole could use it to draw a wine cork. The information was there, I'd noted the brakes that didn't align, the front carriers that sat at different points, my compensatory riding position. Still I didn't put all that evidence to the obvious conclusion. I'd added two to two and not even realised that there could be an answer. That is until we met Gerard, a German cyclist who is also escaping the winter, and happens to be a bike mechanic. It's whilst were stopped for lunch that he offers me the sucker punch line. " I've got bad news for you....I don't have a good eye for it, but even I can see that it's bent", an embarrassment compounded by the fact that I can now remember hitting a bollard in the middle of a cycle path.....in Uruguay....4000km ago. Slow learner.

So it's time to investigate Salta's cycleshop world. We start our trail in the sales department. A world of glossy hand built frames and Schwalbe tyres; the latter is an anoraks' shorthand for: 'top quality...don't ask the price.' Soon were taken through to the 'spares desk'. Revelation. A vast tin barn that can't echo because it's filled to the rafters by ranks of China-built 'sit up and beg' steelers, columns of tyres, rows of rims. And forks. Five storemen are serving a milling mass of customers, one old man is tightening a brake block using the captivated spanners; tyre levers are chained to the counter and an air line snakes over the pavement outside. All the supplies for the 'taller de bici' are here. Remembering all those tiny dark cycle repair shops that lurk down alleys, that populate the hinterland - it's obvious when you stop to consider, there has to be a 'mayorista', a warehouse that supplies them. I just didn't expect it to be both so public and available. Forbye, they have two frame builders who drop what they had been attending to, namely customers, to gravitate around my patient. I'm prepared to accept a new fork, expecting to have to botch a modification to fit the pannier carriers. Yet I'm given a series of Nos. No condescension. No tooth sucking. No new part. No, we will repair. There's a challenge, a fair degree of pride to be won here. I also suspect they're recognising the workmanship already invested in my hand built frame. "Leave it here tonight, come back tomorrow midday".

New day: nueva bici. Perfecto. And the final two Nos. No charge. No tip. " Just tell others about us"...I do, I am. Bicicleteria Manresa, Corrienes and Pellengrini, Salta.



Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Small Changes

This is our fourth visit to Argentina. The last two have been short, passing through trips, way stations on route to Paraguay and the Bolivian alti Plano. So it's been interesting to have a longer stay this time. We've been closing some gaps, completing some unfinished business, but also to watch the small, incremental changes that a country makes.

Passing through the small agricultural pampa towns then, a common sighting was the heavy ribbed glass bottles set out like the doorstep milk delivery pint bottle. The soda siphon. The historical significance of soda, had been to cut the sharp edge from the local red wine. Only, now the local rotgut wins medals and has achieved world renown. Yet the tradition still lives on, now with the morning's cafe con leche, the small dimpled shot glass of carbonated water that arrives with the selection of sweetener sachets. At first I couldn't work out the blue caps with the plastic trigger handles discarded in the ditch were. It was a new discovery for the amateurish refuse archeologist. Eventually enlightenment comes. Returnable glass has given way to the polyethylene terephalate bottle, and with it the back garden industry for refills.

I've never really associated Argentina with the camper van. If one of these behemoths of the North American camping experiences hove into view, it would inevitably have a Brazilian plate, even the smaller, more compact van, ones that are such an integral part of New Zealand touring are still a rare sight. That is until a few days ago; it could be coincidence, but we're starting to find them. One was Uruguayan. A home conversion. The basic 'tranny' white van to which a blacksmith had created a bolt-on side awning, the roofracks was welded rebar, the Jerrycan carrier a pop riveted fruit crate. A classic of Uruguayan thinking. Yet somehow some of the North American concept of 'the great outdoor camping concept' has seeped south of the equator. It was cold last night, it would have been much colder in one of these tincans, these un-insulated boxes, than in our tent. So they decided to switch on the engine and power up the heater. An half hour of vocal competition for the dogs. So USA.

Another change is just the other side of our tent. To understand the local camping tradition, is to realise that the asado, the barbecuing pit is central. Fire is king. It's about the beef. Everything else is an adjunct, mere acolytes. Even the Quilmes beer and the amped up music. It's a true outdoor experience and if it starts to rain the tent gets the plastic sheet, not the human. And that tent; until now has been a rabbit hutch igloo with, I have to assume the internal proportion of a tardis. A family of five can live amicably in two square metres. Such that on occasions we've been embarrassed by our own modest tent's footprint. Not anymore. The condominium tent, those detached bungaloids, are starting to materialise. However, they appear to be no more watertight than their predecessors. They still require the construction of a moat, only now it's longer. Signage requesting that the sappers desist their trench warfare are still ignored, in much the same way as the order not to drive around the site is. These signs are all faded, alluding to a previous age, pre- the latest toy. The quad bike. Bought and riden by dad and the younger offspring. Round and round and round. The speed increasing with the confidence and the consequential pall of dust. A new phenomena, just like the spread of secured wifi.

Once we could poach a conection outside a school, an hospital or the local authority offices. We got adept at tracking, hunting the wave; it became a game. True, wifi is starting to become available in the larger conurbation's plazas and the petrol station is becoming the new 'telecottage'. Business meeting room, recharging station, sports bar. But speeds are slow, it takes the first half of the big game from Spain, to download three pictures and publish one blog.

Still somethings don't change. The ice cream shop still dispenses twenty-seven flavours, a sizeable minority featuring variations on a theme of dulce de leche. They still party till six in the morning, the DJ screwing the amp, such that at one point I thought the 'events' venue had gone mobil, moving five blocks closer. Slow changes, only I've just been seved my cafe con leche sin soda....what are things coming to?



Thursday, 4 December 2014

Back Over the Hill.

For those in the know...R41 CH~ RN150. La Serena, ~ Vicuna, Chile, ~ Paso del Agua Negra,~ Rodeo. Argentina. 25th~ 29th. November.

Now I know the answer. My problem is I can't remember the question. Last night I'm not sure I could even have formulated a question, such was my lethargic thought processes at over 14000 feet. A brain under oxygen depletion and a body running on fumes, all enhanced by a visual inspiration of the encircling cirque of multicoloured mountains, a rolling succession of glaciers all under a impossibly blue sky.

I can see the road gradient up in front, it looks disturbingly level. The map tells me the distance to the top and the elevation I need to climb, I can still just about manage a sum. So somewhere between there and I, there has to be a climb. I look again, start the push, and the lactates in my legs tell me a different story. It's a strange sensation this difference of opinion between body and brain. Experience tells, at this height you need to move slowly, don't rush that next insignificant incline, yet sea-level habits prevail. I attack, " will be up this we bit in a moment, then it'll level off a bit, I'll get my recovery as I pedal on". Only it doesn't happen. I'm pushing an elephant up an Andean pass. A belligerent elephant. It's only when I do make the top of the next rise and look back, that I realise what looked so flat was in fact an incline, a significant accumulation of metres to set against the day's accounts. The hope is, it won't be debited around the next corner, squandered by the road dropping off to cross a riverbed.

We're completing a neat circle, a tidy looking navigation on our map. One that's taken in three conurbations, two passes and an infinity of experiences. Mendoza, Valparaiso and La Serena, Pasos Libertadores and del Agua Negra. The latter, as every Francophonic European will tell you is the same height as Europe's highest point. Yet I do wonder if that stated elevation for Mont Blanc varies in much the same way as this pass's does. Differing maps, even the the mandatory passtop board disagree, but then South American road signs never add up. This route has at least four different one hundred kilometre posts.

These are young mountains, still growing, still eroding back downhill. In some places rather quickly. Disturbingly quickly. 'Derrumbes", is such a suitable, if seemingly innocent onomatopoeic for a 'rolling stone'. A schuss of granites slide slowly, ominously, with determined intent, into a gully. Boulders the size of small cars are bouncing down the vast, long steep hillside. The heaviest will make it all the way to the distant valley floor, lying scattered, boules on a giant's p├ętanque court.

We've left the dubious delights of a seaside resort and headed inland. Our intention to cross back over the Andes, back to Argentina again. First, we need some intelligence. Is the seasonal pass open yet? The web page says "yes, in three days". Only the update is three days old. Fact is, there's always been a degree of ambiguity. Our first report had it in 'early November', then, in the nearest Argentine town to it, we collect: 'the twentieth'. What we need is some confident assurances, for we need to haul a few days worth of supplies, which we don't want to squander, sitting, awaiting opening, at an immigration barrier a day's ride from a re-supply. Now the Navigator can be the very devil. I know she does it deliberately. It's closing for siesta time at the Ministry of Culture in Vicuna, the closest Chilean town to the pass. In she goes, out she comes, with; "sometime next week". Officialdom's speak for 'don't waste my time'. Next morning it's the turn of the tourist officer, "definitely tomorrow". For once, stated with assurance and confidence, by a person who understands what a job description is. It also concurs with the roads authority web page. Still we give them a day's grace, just in case.

We use that day to investigate one of the side valleys, "Valle del Estrella", 'Star Valley', a marketing guru's branding construct. One that replicates a previous national president's attempt, who renamed one of the local villages Pisco Elqui, in the hope that the name would be appropriated from the Peruvian town that gave its name to the fermented beverage. We were to pass a number of distilleries that soak up the surplus grapes. It also explains in just one short space the whole Chilean agricultural revolution. A ribbon of verdure completely cloaks the floor, geametrics of vegetative green are stapled to the arid, steep hillside. Stark angular parcels of paltas and orange groves, wind net shrouded trellises of dessert grapes, mangoes in full flower. High value produce that will be on a British supermarket shelf soon. But all totally reliant upon that river, that's fed from those glaciers and snow fields.

We get the interrogation from the immigration officer. Have we got mountain clothes, "yes, we've just hauled them through forty degrees of desert", are we aware just how high we will have to go, 'it's much higher than the 'Cristo'. I wonder how he's able to make such an authorative statement, but of course our point of entry is on the screen right in front of him. So too, I trust is the information that we're not attempting to export contrabanded cycles. He also does the tourist officer bit and suggests the distances to the best camping spots. Not that he's exactly busy, five vehicles will pass through on our first day.

Successfully stamped out of Chile, we head off into no-man's land, it'll be three days until we officially enter the neighbour's. To start an amazing travel. Up through series of interlocking spurs, a tangle of geology, each new mountain a different colour, the degraded cliffs leaving Paisley print patterns on some, whilst others are striped in a rainbow of striations. One is purple, another is crowned by lenticular flying saucers. It's other worldery, an antithesis to our own Scottish hills. Yet once they too would have looked similar.

By the third day we're reduced to a funereal trudge, pushing our reluctant bikes through newly graded gravel that more resembles a rock quarry than a road. Counting the steps, five-~ six~ seven~eight...stop...recover the heartbeat that's escaping out of my rib cage, start again.

Yet there's always two sides to a mountain, always a pay back for an investment of effort. It's that Presbyterian ethic. Pain before pleasure. Suddenly there's no more road climbing out in front. We're up high, but not for long. We will be hurled both by gravity and an ugly wind down into Argentina. Down through another landscape of colours, textures and compelling beauty. Down to an answer.

It's a conundrum that exercises me on occasions. When there's a choice of asphalt on one side of a pass and gravel ripio on the other. Which to ascend, which to decend? Now I know. The last twenty kilometres have left an indelible bruise on my right shin as I kick, yet again that trailing redundant pedal. I would rather push my reluctant elephant up a smooth, even surface, then I could bounce, slither, slide down the other side.



Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Nature or Nurture.

Embalse La Paloma, Rio Grande. Monte Patria...South of La Serena...Chile

20th November '14.


A repressed river blocked off to create an industry. A dam wall holding back a merger puddle of irrigatable water, a part fraction of the potential holding. Yet the tidelines, like grubby streaks on a bath's side, show that this was once South America's second largest body of artificially held water. Only it's some time since it was at any form of capacity. Espina trees are growing down in the bed, tamarisks are colonising the old, newly returned river banks, animal corrals are starting to sprout where historically they once would have been. Idyllic pictures on a roadside story board depict a vast, attractive tract of blue water, a fact confirmed in my mind by businesses offering lakeside cabins and boats for hire. Camping by the lake looks distinctly attractive. The shoreline lives on, only the waterline is several kilometres away. The pictures are pre Photoshop, so they're a truth, but what they never tell is a date. It would be intriguing to see a timeline for the lake's slow, decreasing demise. I suspect those tidelines are an arithmetic graphic, each defending mark representing a new trellis of vines, a new parcel of palta, a new orchard of oranges that are clambering up the mountainside. That dam's construction in the early '60s, allowed for a vinicultural revolution in this valley. But I wonder if that industry isn't outgrowing the largesse of its provider. The drilling rigs are already starting to plumb for bore water. Insurance or necessity?

There's something fantastical about the juxtapositioning of Copao cactus, which in a moist Scot's mind says "desert", and the angular regularity of a vinefield.the assault of wet greenery on a dry dunscape. Another battle between nurture and nature.





Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Enders on the PanAmericana.

For those in the know: Coast road through Vina del Mar ~ ConCon, Autopista CH5 ~ Los Vilos ~ CH47 ~ Illapel ~ Combarbala ~ Ovalle ~ La Serena. Date 15th.~ 20th. Nov. '14.

End to Enders. We've met a few, those on a mission. The Round the World, be it the horizontally recognised route of Europe, near Asia, Far East, Australasia, or the 'Tour de Pacific': Americas, Africa, Euroscandanavian circumnavigation. Big visions that probably need a certain mind set. One that keeps the end picture in focus. I have a great respect for them. In part because I find our goals becoming shorter and more immediate with each journey. Our travel projects getting shortened down to a series of linked adventures. Most of them conceived at short notice. When mapped, more the image of the double helix. Which is a long handed way of saying "we don't do planning very well". Respect for the 'ender', because their route through the Americas invariably takes them along the PanAmericana. The road that goes from Ushuaia, Cape Horn to Dead Horse, Alaska. We've riden parts in the Peruvian Atacama, it's stunning landscape. But it also takes in what we started to cycle just north of Valparaiso.

Valparaiso, port city to the conquering Spanish, a city of forty-seven hills, a place of old colonial houses, trolley buses and street art, a place where the dead hand of the town planner never took root. Mapped, the streets look like a warren for grubs in a tree trunk. To escape to the north we have the inviting opportunity to use a Costanera, scored for pedestrians and bicyclists, only it's the other side of the tracks. The wrong side of a six lane motorway and a metro system. Access is via a two, read at rush hour, four lane slip road. We elect to pavement run, and of course this will inevitably decease behind a crash barrier and a lighting column. It has to be the hump-backed stairway. If we have issues, consider the wheelchair or baby buggy user. There always somebody worse of than I. A thought I use, as I castigate the local government for a lack of joined up thinking. Another city emasculated by a coast-grabbing highway, albeit one that is mitigated by a new mass transit metro system.

We head north, and into the resort Costas that commence with Vina del Mar. Described as old fishing villages. Only they've been gutted of their smelly parts, bits like fish and fishermen. Under a discouraged grey sky, these canyons of condominiums gaze down on this morning's empty strands and the horse drawn traps awaiting custom. The road wynds around headlands, sweeps round bays, passing through ever increasing bands of exclusivity. Cascades of villas tumble down the steep hillsides, that then segue into the architects' creative dream, discrete designer creations of smoked glass and burnished steel. From there into the inevitable land of "plots for sale". What is noticeable throughout this passage is the distinct lack of food retail. Not even a spade and bucket shop. Does everybody eat out or do they haul in from the mega-malls in town? It has the distinct feel of a Las Vegas, that place where all the services and their support workers are housed over a hill, out of sight, fifty kilometres away. Each lamp post becomes an advertising location. A flickering succession of endearments, entreaties, enthusiasms. A land of wishful hopes. There will be a swimming pool populated by pale blond happy families, there will be a tennis court for the beautiful professional, there will be a cycle path for that elegant third age couple. All of whom will be North European, or so I'm led to believe. But first you'll have to buy your piece of windswept sand dune. I find it depressing, in part because the shoreline has been privatised, created exclusive to these redundant plots. A place shorn of tree and bush, carved up with barbed wire, padlocked gates and posted with peeling notice boards advertising a telephone number. A vacant lunarscape.

There's a pattern starting to emerge, we've seen this all before; out of season pleasure palaces, vacant parking lots, stacked picnic tables. With these negative thoughts we try to track down a mythical campground, end up finding one that's closed and are turned away from a third. Turned away...it has only happened twice before....I can with utter authority state it would not happen on the other side of the Andes. That neighbour will always squeeze in another camper. Our eventual camping site is inevitably an overpriced, dry dusty spot under my least favourite shade tree. Eucalyptuses shedding twigs and bark at an interesting rate. We're collecting mood swings that remind me of that autumn on the North American east coast.

Less than enthused with these feelings we head onto a motorway. It's the only road for the next seventy kilometres. There are no restrictions on cycling, a fact confirmed as two carabineros ignore our presence. Travelling north, we're on the landward side, but there's some interesting possibilities for a wild camp over toward the shore. Only between there and I, is a 'Beecher's Brook' of two waist high crash barriers and a cement moat for a central reservation, followed by a ten strand barbed wire fence. An obstruction that will run north for the next two hundred and fifty kilometres, totally unbroken. Pity the occasional householder who might wish to gain the other side of the road. They will have to drive to the next underpass, a round trip of fifty kilometres, just to gain a mere 5 metres. We're imprisoned in a sterile zoo. The specimen countryside, those inviting tors, that silver sand, sadly beyond our reach. Are there dangerous animals out here, or are we the problem? And yet this road, by any European standard would be considered quiet.

We have a choice. Ride out the next 250km with a tailwind, the only social contact being a gas station tomorrow night or take to the hills. Considerably longer with a lot more climbing, but it takes little persuasion. Within the first few moments we start chatting again, and I realise just what an effect that road was having. Cycling in a sterile bubble. Now there is something positive to talk about. The prison fence has gone, the verged wildflowers return, even the fifteen kilometres of climbing, much of it at 10%, couldn't dampen our spirits. We're back amongst places where people live and work. A diversion that will double in time, but the rewards are immense.

There's a simple moral to this tale. Now I understand those comments from that lone 'ender' last year, who bitterly complained that there was nothing to see. We were standing in front of the Nazca lines, the world's highest sand dune to rear at the time. Stay resolute to you goal and you might just end up missing some interesting places, some curious curiosities. Like this vertical wall of advertising vegetation.