Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

A border crossing unlike any other!

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After an anxious 3-day wait in Villa O’Higgins, we were finally told by the boat’s captain that tomorrow the wind would be light enough for us to cross the lake in his small boat, to reach Candelario Mancilla 55km away. From there we’d make the infamous 20km border crossing from Chile to Argentina, where we’d then arrive at the northern shore of Lago Del Desierto to take a second boat and then ride the final 37km ride to reach El Chalten. The whole thing should take 2 days.The boat could only go in really low winds (and this is a verrry windy part of Patagonia) and the captain asked us to be ready at the dock by 7am. The dock was an 8km ride down a gravel road from Villa O’Higgins, so I got up at 5.30 am to have breakfast (knowing this day would burn a lot of calories), pack up my panniers, and make my way down to the boat. Rosanna – another Brit who I’d met at the hostal all us cyclists were staying at – pedalled and chatted our way along as the sun gradually rose in the distance.

It was great to have a riding buddy. We both knew this border crossing would be tough, but we’d both also been looking forward to the adventure and challenge. It was also a treat to have someone to share photos with for once – so here’s a rare shot of me on my bike:). More of those to follow.

We had time before the boat to take pictures to celebrate reaching the end of the Carretera Austral – one of the more physically demanding parts of my ride so far thanks to all its many kilometres of lumps and bumps along gravel roads. Time for a quick photo opp for Hope and Homes for Children – one of the two fabulous charities I’m fundraising for throughout my trip. You can donate here;) : http://www.virginmoneygiving.com/Sarah_Brindley .

Peter and Leila, our South Korean friends from the hostel who’ve been riding all over the Americas, also taught us how to look enthusiastic for photos at 6.30am! Although I think I somehow look like a terrapin.

The captain arrived and we loaded on all our bikes and panniers, along with a few others who were going to trek across on foot.

We all hunkered down in the small cabin and the crossing got off to a nice calm start. About 10km before the end though, as we crossed an open strait, the wind whipped up, the waves grew, and it all got rather ‘exciting’. You know it’s time to laugh rather than cry when the captain’s Mrs comes round and tells you put on your life jacket. I got the giggles. Rather than sit in my seat wondering if we might die attempting to cross the deepest lake in Chile in ridiculous weather, where I’m sure no-one would try to recover our bodies, I decided to take some photos. An ‘iceberg’ had dropped off the Bernard O’Higgins glacier and been blown about 60km towards us.

The bikes stacked up at the back of the boat. Emergency exit…? Pah!

(Ps. Only the very best in plastic bags will do for keeping my leather saddle dry! – It’s survived nearly 7000km by now.)

The waves lashing over the boat (although this picture is from early on and gives absolutely no idea of the craziness!)

Lonely iceberg

On the boat I got chatting to a local farmer who lived just on the other side of the lake (where there are no roads). He told me that outside of tourist season (Nov – Feb), the border is closed for the rest of the year, and a boat comes just once every ten days if weather allows, mostly to take sheep and cows to be sold at the market in Villa O’Higgins. He loved the isolated, peaceful environment and being self-sufficient. He never felt lonely.

A trekker we met on the path later had spent a few days there, and had joined the cattle boat to ride out past the Bernard O’Higgins glacier (as the tourist boat that I’d originally planned to take was currently broken down). He told us this same cattle boat also took food parcels out to the farms round the lake. They had to come out in their small motor boats to meet it to receive food and post. Apparently there are large subsidies for farmers living here, as the Chilean government wants to ensure there is a small population in place to protect the border from Argentina. Given the Aysen region has the lowest income per capita in Chile, you can understand the appeal, despite the harsh weather and living conditions.

The lake was beautifully calm and blue (thanks to light refracting off particles suspended in the water, coming from Glaciar O’Higgins melting into the lake further to the west) as we offloaded the bikes, having made it in one piece to Candelario Mancilla. There were a bunch of trekkers and cyclists already waiting on the jetty, very eager to get on the boat (making it rather more difficult for us to get off!). They must have been stuck there for up to 4 days waiting, and some were probably running out of food by now, so I imagine they were ecstatic to see the boat as it pulled up to the small jetty.

Now for the 20km border crossing. I’d been told it would take 4-6 hours trekking and longer with a bike. This would be the slowest part of my travels so far…

We began with a 7km track, all uphill, towards the Chilean border control post. Some of it was just about rideable, and with beautiful views out along the lake. Other sections had too much loose gravel and we had to resort to pushing. The trekkers were gleeful as they walked past us, commenting this was the one and only time they’d been faster than us cyclists.

Not a bad spot for border control!

Having got our exit stamps from the friendly Chilean border officials, we pedalled and pushed for a further 7km towards the border itself. The track on the Chilean side wasn’t generally too bad (they had dug it out years ago in preparation to build a road across the border), and once it levelled out, it was even quite pleasant as we rode in and out of forests and between lake views. The Patagonian weather dictated numerous stops to add and remove jackets and layers as it rained/brightened up in 15 minute cycles, but that would soon be the least of our concerns.

We met a couple of trekkers and cyclists coming in the other direction. They were wishing us luck for what was to come with knowing looks. They were all still in one piece though so we figured it couldn’t be all that bad…

And then we reached the border with Argentina, where the lovely Chilean track ended and the fun began…

Mud, rocks, tree roots, stream crossings, then river crossings, a swamp crossing, steep gulleys with boulders in inconvenient places, and all with a good dose of rain. The trekkers were complaining about the path, so you can imagine the fun we were having with 50kg+ of fully-loaded bike to push/haul/shove through it all. Here are some of the pics of the fun:

After all of the rain, one of the river crossings was particularly tricky. Rosanna and I had joined up with Andrei and Georgia – two Italians also from our hostel. Andrei had a trailer which made manoeuvring his bike all the more difficult. Leading the way, we would be alerted to each new obstacle by his shouts. I learnt a superb repertoire of Italian swear words that day!

(Also note the oh-so-helpful trekker standing off to the side;).

Some time before this, whilst the others were valiantly balancing and edging their way over tree roots to try to cross streams and rivers unscathed, I’d decided there was no way we’d get to the end of this crossing without wet feet, so had generally just waded straight through everything. I’d intentionally worn woollen hiking socks so my feet would eventually warm up again. When we reached this ice-cold river though, we all got a good dunking. The best way to cross was hard to find so I just waded straight out into the middle to pick the least difficult root across for us. Thank god for my waterproof Ortlieb panniers. My main concern was to protect my chain ring and derailleur from the submerged rocks sticking up from the bottom of the river, and from the branches jutting out into the pathways. Wet feet would eventually dry off and warm up but a broken derailleur could put an end to any more cycling. My bike came first!

Plus, after crossing the swamp, my shoes needed a good wash anyway:

The trail saved the best to last for us and for the final couple of kilometres, just when we thought the end was in sight, it morphed into a narrow gulley. The sides came half way up my back panniers, and there was just about space to have one foot with the bike inside the gulley, and the other up on the top. The gulley was on a steep hillside and with all the rain it was extremely slippy as the water ran down it. There was nothing to catch your footing on and it was like trying to control the bike down a steep toboggan run.

I tried straddling the bike, then walking up on the side of the gulley, and then doing a hokey cokey ‘one foot in, one foot out’ crab-like version. My hands (especially my left with the knuckle I’d previously injured) were sore and swollen from trying to stop the bike pulling me down the hill. I fell underneath the bike four times. It was hard to get up again with so little room to move and the full weight of the bike on top of me. But we kept going, and after taking over an hour to do 1km, finally came out by the lake at the bottom, right next to the Argentinian customs.

Despite the trials and tribulations of this last section, we were all still in pretty good spirits after a total 7 hours of huffing, puffing, grunting, groaning and a lot of swearing (mostly in creative Italian). This was one day where I really appreciated the extra company. We helped push each other’s bikes up steep slopes, out of mud, and over large rocks many times. It was a team effort. Trying to do this alone must be pretty soul-destroying and I think would require multiple trips back and forth in some places, as you’d have to remove some panniers to be able to handle the weight of the bike alone. In the end, all I had was some wet shoes, a few tears in my back pannier side-pockets which I could easily sew up again, a very muddy bike, a bruised bottom, a sense of achievement and a sense of humour still fully intact. It could definitely have been worse!

And our adventurous day didn’t end there….read on for the next instalment…

4 thoughts on “A border crossing unlike any other!

  1. Sarah, you are a marvel. No idea how you are finding the amazing courage and resiliance. YOU GO GIRL!
    Kord & Tom

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  2. Wow Sarah, Have been catching up on a few of your posts this morning. The trip sounds and looks incredible and the people you are meeting are generous and building positive travel karma.
    Hats off to you as you brave the elements and crazy tough ‘road/track’ conditions. Inspirational stuff , all enjoyed as we slothfully sit in a warm dry bed. Have a happy new year in Patagonia. Pete & Fi

    Like

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