From: Kirstie and Stuart
Subject: The Long and Incredible Story of the Boy from Cochrane
Date: January 2000 (we’ve lost track!)
Place: El Calafate, Argentina (at last)
You haven´t heard from us for a while…thought we were lost or dead? Well, not quite although it was a close thing at times.
Fattened and freshened by our Christmas break, we left Coihaique to complete our journey to reach Villa O Higgins at the very end of the Carreterra Austral and hopefully to travel beyond by boat into Argentina on our journey ever South towards Ushuaia. This is uncharted territory for cyclists since the final section of this amazing cul-de-sac has only been open for three months. Everyone knows how to get in to Villa O Higgins but it is not quite so obvious how to get out without retracing your steps.
|Into the wilderness|
Villa O Higgins is the Nowhere at the end of the Road to Nowhere, a tiny village bounded by a lake and mountains, the other side of which lies Argentina. No-one knows much about what goes on there but everyone we met seemed to have an opinion or some information to offer on how to get out of there. Everyone we asked told us a different story and we asked a lot of people. From our research, we knew there was a boat out which cost either $10 or $1000, ran once a week or only on council business, and either did or did not have permission to cross the border to Argentina. We also knew there was a horsetrack which was either passable or impassable by bicycle. Those who believed it was passable told us the story of a Boy from Cochrane who either took a day, six days or a month to cross it and had an excellent time or the worst experience of his life but definitely made it out alive although he may nearly have died trying. So, we set off with some trepidation, the encouraging words of the Chief of Police in Coihaique ringing in our ears, “If your plan works, then excellent. If not then you will just have to pedal all the way back again.” Well, it didn´t work, we didn´t have to pedal all the way back, but it was excellent.
For a Road to Nowhere, a lot of things happened along the way. We hooked up with a couple of Swiss cyclists, Sandra and Phillipe, who had become equally intrigued by the conflicting stories of the Boy from Cochrane and equally determined to find out for themselves just what was fact and what was fiction. Meeting this couple was like looking in the mirror and seeing how you´d like to be… fitter, faster, funnier, speaking Spanish fluently and with a camp pizza oven. They had cycled 25,000km south from Alaska making our six month journey feel like a day trip to Windsor. We travelled with them for three weeks and when anyone asked where we´d come from, they would say “Alaska” and we would keep quiet, eat another slice of Pizza and bask in their glory.
|Villa O Higgins, our objective, end of The Road to Nowhere|
This section of the Carreterra Austral is extraordinary for its remoteness and untouched beauty. With only three cars a day able to pass onto it by the ferry, passing cars were an event. It´s an incredible experience riding past the icy fingers of the Southern Patagonian Glaciers where they reach down to almost touch the road in front of you: testing your strength against the elements and the relentless rise and fall of the Southern Andes. This must be one of the most beautiful, challenging and unknown bike routes in the world.
Kirstie took her shower last, in ice cold water, in one of the coldest, dampest places on earth. Oustide, unbeknown to her, the Major´s troops were trying to change the gas bottle to restore hot water for the guests. Word went around the Camp that the English woman was “tough stuff” who preferred a cold shower to waiting for hot water. Meanwhile, in the shower, Kirstie shivered miserably and dried herself thinking how tough life is for troops in the Chilean Army. After some hot bean soup and making up a bunk in the troop´s dormitory, we were happily settling down in the mess to watch a pirate video of “Seven” with the soldiers when the Major halted proceedings to escort us off to his private cabana for an evening of Pisco Sours and Spanish practice. We nodded wisely as the Swiss and the Major conversed on many topics and smiled with pride at any mention of Alaska.
|Stone age baking keeps us supplied on road|
One thing the Army couldn´t keep us supplied with was our daily intake of bread. Expending so much energy cycling the difficult terrain was requiring several kilos a day. And with up to five days between towns we had to use our own resources and initiative to maintain stocks. Stuart enthusiatically took on the role of Baker, despite his lack of experience or any knowledge of how to make bread. It was a difficult learning experience for us all as we chewed our way through his early attempts. Over a period of days he grew in both skill and confidence and moved on from doughy, charred flatbread to produce ever more complicated and edible delights… oatbread, fruitbread, nutbread, nan bread, pitta bread, shortbread, scones and other floury treats. For once the Swiss were impressed with the Brits and particularly enjoyed his breakfast of homemade pancakes served with a coulli of hot freshly made wild Calafate berry dip. Pizza was passe.
Charged with this massive intake of carbohydrate, we arrived in Villa O Higgins in just 12 days. As we cycled into the village, most of the locals looked on disinterestedly and continued their everyday business. But a small, slightly greasy man came purposefully over to meet us. A poor man´s Julio Iglesias, dressed in slacks, a pale blue open neck shirt and a pair of brown scuffed Hush Puppies, his black moustache twitched as he addressed us. ” I am the Alcalda here. Welcome to Villa O Higgins, this most special and unknown place. You are only the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th cyclists to ever reach us. Welcome. You will enjoy your stay.” The Alcalda was an ambitious ex army man who first came to Villa O Higgins to help with the construction of the road. At the peak of construction there were some 300 army personnel stationed there, outnumbering the local population of 112 by three to one. Enchanted by the place, he stood for election as mayor and was swept to power by the 300 army votes with little support from the locals. When the road was finished, the army left and so did his power base. Now, unpopular with the locals, he courted tourists as the only people who would listen to anything he had to say… and he had a lot to say.
He ushered us through the settlement past rows of slightly delapidated but brightly painted tin houses, while proudly pointing out all the improvements he had initiated for the benefit of tourists… bright new wooden road signs, painted bins, a radio station (on which he had a weekly show) and a gleaming mirador high above the town. As he took us into the shabby municipality building beside the new plaze, complete with its mini performance arena, he told us of his plans for a campsite and swimming pool. “Tourism is our future” The locals looked on disinterestedly. In his mayoral office, he ordered his secretary to stop typing and excitedly opened a fresh page in a slim Visitors Book. “This is a great day for us all. A historic moment.. You are cycling pioneers of the Carreterra Austral and your arrival must be recorded for the history books.” He ceremoniously presented us with the book and invited us to sign our names against the numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7 while his secretary took photos of the momentous occassion.
|Pirincho’s elusive boat and crew|
With the formalities complete, we left the Mayor to go and find Umberto Pizarro, a man we were told would be able to help us find a way out of Nowhere. Umberto was the community activist and busybody, a man who had no job but always had work to do. He lived in the only house painted red in the village, the walls covered with pictures of revolutionaries. A community man, he invited us to camp for free in the chicken shit in his small back yard, an offer we felt obliged to accept. He was quick to fill us in on the local political situation. “The Alcalda is just a potato chip.” Umberto was something of a local hero for his own political action during the election of the Alcalda where the villagers votes were clearly worthless against the might of the army. The locals candidate stood no chance. In protest, he took a group of 50 villagers on a day trip to Argentina and was imprisoned for three days for interfering with fair electoral process. These were the only people we had ever heard of who had successfully got to Argentina from Villa O Higgins, apart from the Boy from Cochrane. We were sure we were in the right place. Umberto organised a boat for us to cross to the Argentinian border post but warned us we would need to arrange for a special permission to actually cross the border. The police advised us this was impossible. The Alcalda grandly announced that he had friends who could sort this out. “Dont worry. I will organise this for you and have the permission waiting for you at the border. Go ahead.”
As the boat dropped us off at Candelaria Marcilla, a policeman stood threateningly above us on the upper deck of the landing stage, his khaki pants and sleeveless kacket flapping in the wind. Behind us the boat sailed out of the bay on its two week journey around the community settlements of the Chilean part of Lago O Higgins. As we stood on the jetty, now littered with panniers, bicycles, tents, rucksacks, helmets, spare tyres and other touring debris, we wondered whether the Mayor had delivered on his promise and our permission to pass had arrived.
The police encampment at Candelaria
” What do you want here?” the policeman demanded coldly. “We wish to cross to Argentina” we replied. “There is nothing here but a police station. You cannot cross to Argentina. There is no pass. You will have to go back.” The policeman informed us. “But the Alcalda has organised us a special permission.” we informed him. “Permission from Santiago would take at least 90 days and besides that is unheard of. The Alcalda is a potato chip. Like all politicians he is clever with the truth. You will have to go back.” We stood in a forlorn, silent standoff for a few minutes. With the boat gone there was no way of getting back to Nowhere. Candelaria Marcilla was like an island, a small piece of Chilean territory, landlocked by the Argentinian border on one side and cut off from the rest of Chile by Lago O Higgins on the other. Eventually the policeman shook his head and sighed. “You will have to come to the Police Station then. Get into the tractor.” We loaded all our belongings onto a trailer and then the procession began. A dinky red tractor chugging painfully up the hill, the hefty policeman perched precariously on the tiny drivers seat, a trailer full of baggage clattering along behind and a single file of four mourning cyclists processing solemnly at the rear. And at the top of the hill, we arrived at what must be one of the most beautiful police stations in the world.
|Tantalising views of Fitzroy from the Police Station at the border|
After a short period of consultation with his colleagues, the policeman reached a decision about our fate. “You cannot pass here and we will organise a police boat to take you back to Villa O Higgins. It will pick you up from here in six days time. You will have to stay here until then.” Our faces must have betrayed our disappointment and misery. And then, with a little smile, he added, “We can put you up in one of our police houses” and pointed .to one of six beautiful white wooden cottages, their balconies reaching out towards the cliffs high above the bay. Inside ours we found three little bedrooms containing six neatly made-up beds, a country kitchen warmed by a wood stove and a dining room with a wooden table dressed in a fine white lace tablecloth and a magical view over the lake to the peaks and glaciers of the Campo de Hielo Sur. “Feel free to explore. You can get great views of Fitzroy and Argentina from the top of the hill but you must not cross the border. If you cross the border we will arrest you. And if you get bored come and join us to watch some TV. We have 140 channels of SKY digital television … oh and a game of table football. If you need anything just ask” Our misery began to lift.
The next five days were like a holiday. Exploring the countryside, relaxing by the lake, sunbathing on the police helicopter pad outside our cabana. The evenings were spent at the cinema… well watching movies in the police lounge, although we were never allowed to select for ourselves. An unseen policeman kept a firm hand on the remote control as if to remind us who was in charge here. And over the coming days the initial cold reception melted into warm hospitality and we were made to feel very welcome.
On the third day we were summonsed to the border post to meet the Chief who wished to ask us some questions. For a few brief hours as we walked to the border we convinced ourselves that our luck had changed and the Mayor had proved himself to be more than a potato chip and different to other politicians. When we arrived, the Chief opened the door, shuffling towards us on pieces of rabbit skin strapped to his feet, designed to protect the polished wooden floor. “Let´s have some cafecita” the Chief said, “and then I want to ask you some questions.” He showed us to a hard wooden bench opposite a big TV screen. The four of us sat down on it in a line. Then, on cue, shuffled in two police officers, ´Little´ and ´Large´. Little looked about 17, slim built, smiling widely, he chewed gum as he skidded to a halt before us on his police issue rabbit slippers. The second was a giant in rabbit shoes, flip-flopping in awkwardly on his tiny skins. Little lifted over a heavy wooden table and placed it down in front of us, while Large put a well ironed, red checked tablecloth neatly on top of it. Little returned to the kitchen and came out laden with plates, cups, saucers, knives, spoons, coffee, tea, bread and honey. Large went to a cupboard, took out a selection of paper napkins and made a delicate napkin fan for each of the guests and the Chief. He then opened the tiny sachets of Nescafe for each of us and poured them carefully into our cups while Little shuffled around lugging a massive kettle filling all of our cups. While all this was going on, the Chief proudly demonstrated his new SKY digital TV system and gave us a sample and running commentary on the merits of each of his favourite channels. The two helpers then stood to attention, one either side of the Chief and the Chief announced “Now we have tea and then the questions.”
As we sipped our tea, he sympathised with our predicament. “It is not logical that you should have to cycle in a circle for 600km to get to a point you can see from here, just 30km up there.” he pointed to the border. “It is not logical, it is political. This is a disputed border, a political hot-spot, a delicate situation. It will be some years before things have cooled off sufficiently for anyone to cross here. I am sorry for you. Your best bet is to cross to Argentina on the horsetrack at Villa O Higgins. That can be done. A Boy from Cochrane did it and had a lovely time. But don´t believe the stories you hear about him biking it, he and his bike went on a horse. Now, I have those important questions for you” We sat in silent anticipation.
“What is groovy? Is it the same as a foxy lady and is a foxy a small fox? I heard that George Michael is going out with one of the Spice Girls. Can this be true given the stories about him and the toilet?” We began to suspect he had been watching too much television. The remainder of the afternoon was spent answering his many questions triggered as a result of the arrival of digital television at this remote outpost. After tea we were escorted to the border line, the planned end of the Carreterra Austral in years to come. “You know, you are the first cyclists to ever reach here” the Chief said. We were now truly cycling pioneers of the Carreterra, numbers 1,2, 3 and 4 to complete the road before the road was even completed.
A few days later, the police returned us to Villa O Higgins on their boat. The Road to Nowhere had led nowhere. To avoid further nights in chicken shit, we sought permission to camp in the village park, the site the Mayor had in mind for his dream camp site. There we met Fransisco, the park warden. He had heard of our plight and was quick to offer to sort us out with horses to make an escape on the infamous horsetrack. Conveniently, his father in law owned almost enough horses to carry four people, four bikes, 16 panniers, 3 rucksacks and a guide. “We will put out an appeal for the other horses on the radio tonight. Why don´t you drop in a say hello… my show is on from 10.00”
Unsurprisingly, it turned out that despite his big claims the Mayor had nothing to do with the radio station apart from having a show once a week on it. It was funded by the church as a community project and had been going a month. It was a wooden hut with two rooms, the booth (a table with two microphones) and the control room (a table with two cheap cassette decks and a box with four faders on it). A cupboard in the control room contained hundreds of home recorded cassettes of music from around the world. Fransisco´s show seemed to consist of an argument between him and a young man with thick lensed spectacles about the merits of traditional Chilean folk music interspersed with distorted tracks from a cassette of Abba´s greatest hits. We arrived during “Knowing Me,Knowing You” and were quickly ushered into the booth. We pushed Sandra into the only chair available, in front of the microphone as Fransisco signalled the end of the music and the beginning of an interview. “And now we are live on the radio for an interview with our cyclist guests who you have all heard about.” It appeared that everyone in Villa O Higgins knew our story already, everyone except the interviewer who was flummoxed, to Fransiscos obvious delight. “What am I going to interview you about?” the thick spectacled boy asked Sandra live on air. “How about my journey from Alaska to Villa O Higgins” she suggested. At the mention of Alaska, we smiled with pride. “Tell us about your journey from Alaska to Villa O Higgins” the interviewer prompted Sandra. At this point, Fransisco made an editorial intervention on the other microphone, “Now we will have some more Abba and when we return you will have thought up some new and better questions for our guests” he scolded his bespectacled anatagonist live on air. A version of “Dancing Queen” tried desperately to make its way through the clogged heads of the cassette machine to the Villa O Higgins audience, now on the edge of their seats. Half way through Dancing Queen, the studio clock struck twelve. The studio was plunged into darkness, the Dancing Queen was stopped in her tracks and the interviewer was put out of his sweaty misery. The show was over. The interviewer deftly lit a match, and in the brief glow of matchlight we could see the obvious relief in his face as he led us out of the studio onto the darkened streets of Villa O Higgins. Every night at 12 the Mayor turned off the electricty supply to the village to conserve fuel and save money. It was the only time we saw the Mayor wield his power over the community with any effectiveness.
|Loading bikes onto horses to cross the pass|
The horse appeal had been a success and the following morning ten horses were being saddled up just 200m from our tents. The riding team were a mixed bag, the Swiss with 15 years each of horse riding experience, and the Brits who had never even sat on a saddle and had just 15 minutes to prepare themselves for a two day horseride to Argentina. The bikes were stripped down and the various parts strapped onto the back of a pack of horses in a haphazard fashion. Then it was time for the riders to mount. Kirstie was first up and with a leg up from the guide threw herself wholeheartedly onto the horse, like she´d seen in the movies. She ended up sitting squarely behind the saddle, looking pleased to have even got that far. The guide roared with laughter “It´s going to be an interesting trip!” Stuart meanwhile was given a horse about three sizes too small for him and was nicknamed ´Don Quixote´by the Swiss. The horse was more interested in munching than moving and totally ignored the demands of its oversized cargo. It did its own thing… mostly nothing. The experienced Phillipe knew the cure for this one and with a large whip whacked the horses rear causing it to stop grazing and start galloping, leaving Don Quixote bouncing high and low in the saddle. As he passed Kirstie, now the right way round, Stuart shouted “I think I´ve just found second gear. I´m not sure I like it”
|Just keep following those feint tracks|
The two days riding was like trying to master Nintendo´s Super Mario Brothers. It started easy but just as we´d negotiated one set of obstacles the going got tougher… and tougher… and tougher. Level 1 – trotting on flat road became Level 2 – forest ride,up to Level 3 – up the gravelly hill. By the end of our first day, six hours in the saddle, we´d reached Level 6 having mastered riding in the rain, simple river crossings and beach galloping. The next morning we rose at six for another 8 hours fun taking us to new and terrifying levels – teetering along cliff top paths, sliding down slippery slopes, persuading tired horses up and down steep narrow gullies, forging crossings through deep, fast flowing rivers. Throughout all of this we kept in mind the instructions we were told would see us through anything..”Pull left to go left, right to go right. Pull up to stop and kick the horse to make it go” By the time we made it to the end we felt as if the Grand National would be a trot in the park. “If that had been my first time on a horse I´d have died of fright” Phillippe congratulated us as we dismounted in the middle of nowhere…… another Nowhere, with nothing in front of us but a tiny, delapidated plank bridge across a raging river… oh and 4 bike frames, 16 panniers, 8 wheels, 8 luggage racks and 3 rucksacks.
As the guide rode off into the sunset, his wallet fattened and his horses in tow, he shouted to us “The road to Argentina is that way” and pointed across to the collection of planks and wire now blowing alarmingly in the Patagonian wind. It took us three hours to get all our belongings across the bridge no more than one person and one bag at a time… and a further three hours to reassemble the bikes and repair the damage inflicted by the 16 hours on horseback. It took a lot more than 16 hours to repair the damage to our arses. What´s more there was no road to be found. Exhausted we all slept by the ´bridge´.
|A warning of things to come|
The following morning Stuart found a pedal clip while going to the toilet and Phillipe convinced himself the Boy from Cochrane had passed this way and began a search for his tyre tracks. An hour later he convinced us all he had found a faint impression of a track in the wasteland and persuaded us to follow it. For three hours we followed almost imaginary impressions of track, along pebble river banks, through wide open prairie, across bogs and rivers, building bridges out of drift wood where none existed and wading through up to our waists where there was no other option. Miraculously, after all this a road appeared which finally took us to the Argentinian border post. The border policeman took our passports to give us an entry stamp and quickly spotted we were English. “We have never forgiven your country for the Malvinas but you have my total respect for Benny Hill” and in a further bizarre moment of camaraderie and a release of days of built up tension, the policeman led us all in a rendition of the theme tune from the “Benny Hill Show”
Then, just when we thought it was all over, we found ourselves on Ruta 40 and met the full force of the Patagonian wind. All the guidebooks warn you to stay away from it, describing it as the worst road in the world, through the bleakest and most desolate landscape. We had tried to bypass it via Villa O Higgins but now there was no way of avoiding it. It was theonly way South from the border. And it was worse than words can describe. In the rare moments the wind was behind you there was no need to pedal. You were forced along needing all your efforts and concentration to stay on your bike and keep it upright in the deep, gravelly grooves left by passing cars. And when it was in front, it could be forcing you backward at up to 90km per hour while you struggled to pedal downhill and make any progress at all. And when it was from the side, and it was often from the side, it pushed you across the deep grooves to force you onto the Pampas. And if you got clever and tried to beat the wind by leaning sideways into it, it would suddenly stop and you would fall over into the gravel. Alternatively it would pretend to stop and then sneak in one last great gust, leaving you and your bike upended on the other side of the groove, doing a close up study of Argentinian Pampa.
|The incredible Ruta 40|
|A clear day and then a car passes|
After an afternoon of being blown sideways and falling over we realised it was impossible to cycle any further. The wind was just too strong. We were 100km from any habitation in a landscape resembling the desert, totally flat with no shelter whatsoever. A tent would have blown away to the West at 90km per hour before we´d have got a single peg in the ground. Then the Swiss spotted a concrete drainage tunnel under the road, a metre high by a metre wide, just big enough for two sheep to pass through side by side. “We read a book about a cyclist who spent the night in one of these” Sandra said brightly. A moment later without a further word, we had all sized up the tunnel and were jostling for position in it. Fortunately, it was just big enough to sleep four. We sealed the ends with bikes and groundsheets to keep the wind out and did our best to make it like home. Phillipe got a stone and began to bang in any protruding nails. “Can you leave one as a picture hook for the map?” Meanwhile Sandra worked on lighting, placing an old candle on another nail to give the tunnel an atmosphere of a cosy crypt. And Stuart and Kirstie set up a small soup kitchen, making garlic bread and spaghetti bolognese for the cyclists who had survived the wind but had been finished off by an hours unplanned DIY. After dinner we played ´Twister´ as we tried to find a way of laying out four sleeping bags and thermarests without touching each other. After half an hour we found the magic combination although Stuart´s feet were in an ants nest and Kirstie´s head was poking out of the tunnel. She was told it was her job to monitor the wind situation and wake everyone should it drop of change direction. As we lay waiting for sleep to come, Stuart filled the small box with a cheery goodnight thought..”
It´s like sharing your coffin with three cyclists” And each time someone drifted off to sleep, Kirstie would twitch and offer an unwelcome alarm call, “I think the wind has changed, let´s pack up and get back on the bikes” The others would chorus wearily, “Shut up Kirstie and get back in the coffin.”…in a canon which eventually lulled everyone to sleep.
|A good camp spot in a storm drain|
Three days later, at a campsite in El Calafate, we met the Boy from Cochrane. Well actually he was a 37 year-old, strapping Belgian bloke who was the first to cycle to Villa O Higgins and escape. He didn´t come from Cochrane but he did start his holiday there. He did go on the horsetrack but he didn´t cycle. He did make it out alive but his bike suffered more damage than he wished to discuss. He was pleased to be reunited with his pedal clip. What´s more it took him seven days in total, he got lost twice and was abandoned by his guide after being charged $200 for the privelege… But we were able to confirm, direct from the horses mouth, that contrary to popular opinion, he did not have an excellent time, he did think he was going to die and indeed, it was the worst experience of his life. We were obviously luckier. All this just goes to show that there is often more than a grain of truth in the stories pèople tell you.
And, whatever else happens in our long journey South, there are two things we can be certain of…. life is full of adventure if you open yourself to it…. and it will continue to be windy in Patagonia.
Love to you all
Kirstie and Stuart
“No importa la lluvia ni el frio
Porque esto es un trabajo espirituale
Y por eso siento orgulloso”
Or in English: “It doesn´t matter about the rain,nor the cold
Because this is a work of spirit
And for that I feel proud”
Inscription on the rock face of the Carreterra Austral dedicated to the pioneers who gave their lives building this extraordinary road.
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