I've heard an adventure called ‘a journey with an unknown outcome’. I seem to have an addiction to them; I’ve never been one for too much routine, certainty or predictability in life, hence the attraction of riding a very long gravel road to a dead end in the South American wilderness.
It turns out that National Geographic has pronounced the Carretera Austral one of the top places in the world to ride a bike – but our trip was inspired by party games rather than a magazine of such acclaim. Christmas. 2016 was almost upon us, and with it a rising awareness of the pressure of the year ahead. We were all training hard to be selected for the Rio Paralympics; whether we would make it or not we didn’t know, but either way, we were pretty sure we’d need something to look forward to afterwards. A kind of ‘recovery’ plan, less for the body but more for the mind and spirit.
Our team came together without much effort, the idea hatched around tinsel and fairy lights with friends Steve and Caroline Bate. Team-mate Jaco van Gass was quickly on board too. Steve has no peripheral vision; when he was diagnosed with retinosa pigmentosa four years ago I had half-joked with him “Well never mind, you could qualify to race a tandem for the British Cycling team now.” He’d gone on to do just that and had successfully lined himself up for the Rio Paralympics. Caroline was new to cycle touring but keen to give it a go. Jaco was also new to it, but as part of the Paralympic cycling squad after losing his arm to an explosive device whilst serving in Afghanistan, he would have no shortage of fitness. All of us were focused so much on Rio, that we gave our Patagonian adventure little thought beyond booking our flights.
The Carretera Austral is a Patagonian forest rollercoaster, a smorgasbord of gravel with stretches of blissful asphalt as an occasional reprieve from the bone-rattling terrain. Within hours of starting to ride we were coated in dust and spattered with mud – mixed in with our sun cream and vaseline, this became a grubby exfoliant for the skin and lips. Our days were soon measured in kilometres rather than time. 1,240km seems an excruciatingly long way when the average speed is 3km per hour. Through the worst of the gravel – grade 3, as we decided to call it – it would have been quicker to walk than cycle. Our efforts were lost to the spinning stones, a layer of marbles on sand. We would see no traffic all day, then when we reached a section of grade 3, trucks would come blundering by, sending up plumes of dust like volcanic eruptions, obscuring the real volcanoes and their conical white slopes that peek above the trees, and adding a touch of grit to our mayonnaise wraps.
Does that tempt you to cycle Chile's Carretera Austral?
It should. Amongst the gravel and the grind are many wonders. Everything is super-sized: trees reach for the clouds, valleys yawn wide and long leaves cast shadows big enough to shelter under. The bumble bees are obese.
After rattling along the Carretera for 370km, we came to the small village of Puyuhuapi, the forest broken by a disarray of colourful timber houses and shops on the edge of a fjord. We filled our stomachs and souls with giant portions of homemade cod and chips, bread and salad. At Manuela’s there is one set menu, to be eaten with a view over the small harbour and the Christmas tree in the village square The warm evening sun was a reminder that we were in the Southern Hemisphere, a little different from the previous Christmas when wrapped up in woolies we had imagined ourselves in Patagonia.
It seemed an age ago, the year absorbed by the intensity of training and racing, the uncertainty of making Paralympic selection, the mental pressure, disappointment for some at not being selected, and the final push for others of us that were. The escape to Patagonia was exactly the tonic we all needed to recuperate. The lack of pressure was palpable, a relief to body and soul, but now I was re-learning how to live without it. I had felt broken after Rio, the months and years of pressure physically embodied, and I had a date for shoulder surgery when I returned home. Watching the sunset over the lake, I thought about how slowly yet quickly we humans adapt to changes in our environment. Like landscapes. In a few years when the asphalt spreads, Puyuhuapi’s character will morph. More people will come. More traffic will pollute. Maybe nature will become less super-sized. The price of development. For now though, Patagonia has something pristine and unique. I could feel it breathing life into me again.
At first it seemed impossibly far to reach Coyhaique, the regional capital, halfway along the Carretera. Two weeks later and having ingested a lot of dust, we were getting close. Our day began in a grassy clearing with the sounds of flapping tents, wind whispering in tall trees, exotic bird-call and the rush of a bulging turquoise river. We had journeyed from a wide rolling valley splashed with lilac lupins and yellow gorse, the occasional peak of a high white summit glistening bright against a flawless blue sky. But any delusions of having arrived in heaven were soon ground away by the joint-labouring climb. It is curious how far 14km can seem when the road goes relentlessly up and your limbs are weary; when a steep gorge flanked with high walls takes away the horizon; when you feel you are cycling in treacle, or its South American equivalent of dulce de leche. (The latter is pure, delicious, liquid sugar sold in kilogram bags, and soon becomes addictive to the hungry cyclist.)
The others were spread up the road ahead of me, a relay team in formation, ready to hop off their bikes and turbo-boost me up the hill. It is not what I had imagined or wanted, this dependency on my friends to manage the steep or slippery hills. But I felt grateful for them and the way we had found to journey together, with our different physical challenges and circus of bikes and trailers. Steve was riding a fat bike, the wide tyres soaking up bumps and potholes and compensating for his limited vision, my wheelchair precariously balanced on a trailer behind him. Jaco had struggled to ride down the first hill we had encountered, the massive weight on his trailer tricky to control with one arm of carbon. Caroline was physically intact, though not so well trained as the rest of us and she too was balancing a full load of panniers along with pots and pans and washing tied to the back. I knew the ride was a challenge for each of us in different ways, even before the unexpected need to shove me up hills that my spinning wheel couldn’t gain traction on.
I have spent years striving to be stronger, faster and more physically able than I am, but my arms will never match the strength of legs. Maybe that has left me feeling lesser at times; perhaps it has also led me to my incessant pedaling. However, I am nonetheless amazed by what my body sustains. I ask a huge amount of it and it rarely fails my will. For the journey of the Carretera Austral, I was asking my arthritic shoulders to pedal me through at least 60 kilometres a day of mountainous, gravelly Patagonian terrain. I reveled at the absence of pain or complaint from them, especially given how bad they had been after an injury I’d acquired just before flying to Rio; I had felt I had no option but to sign up for shoulder surgery on my return home from Chile. But something about this place, the people, the nature, was making my soul dance in a way it hadn’t been able to for a long time. I had felt suffocated by endless months of cities, hotels, treadmills and races in concrete jungles. They had robbed me of something vital. Here, cycling all day through forests and mountains, camping on dusty roadside verges, in gravel lay-bys or (if we were very lucky) small grassy clearings, I felt somehow at peace again.
The rain fell as constantly as the gradient rose, from the moody fjords of Chile towards the yawn of Argentina, but we would turn south before then, to the black spikes and ice-crusted peaks of central Patagonia, deeper into region XI. Coyhaique had been the last significant town along the Carretera, and now it felt like the real adventure was beginning: the wilder half, the tougher half.
There seemed to be many reasons why I should not be continuing, pushing on towards the festival of gravel ahead. I hadn’t been feeling strong or good, and was constantly challenged by one small thing or another: the worry about my shoulder; my bladder and catheter drama; enforced constipation to avoid my new-found dread of shitting in the wilderness; a broken tooth and emergency dental treatment. What was I thinking? Almost 700km of 'el ripio slipio' (my Spanglish slang for the gripless dirt road leading south) stirred up a cerebral cocktail of uncertainty, doubt and trepidation. But maybe it was this mix that inebriated me enough to continue, to travel a road that might be hard, to seek beyond the certain predictability of a comfortable life.
My bike wheels flicked the heavy rain like an unruly showerhead, and despite my good waterproof jacket, I felt the drops running across my skin, seeping where they shouldn't. Each incline forced me to push hard, made me hungry for gears – but there were no more and instead it felt like a gym workout, reps of a bench press. Was this body-building or body-breaking I wondered? Character-building or spirit-crushing?
We needed to stop, to make camp before dark, but ironically, despite being fed by the clouds all day, our drinking water was low. I felt thirsty, hungry and tired. And life seemed distilled to those simple basics. Water. Food. Rest.
"You feeling okay?" I asked my team-mate Jaco.
"Yep, kind of. There's no choice not to is there?"
There really wasn't.
But what is harder really? An elemental day on the road dictated by the crucial ingredients of survival? Or a day rich in comfort, choice and the crazy stress of our daily busy-ness? Despite our dry mouths, empty stomachs and weary muscles, there was nowhere else we wanted to be.
The days passed and we adapted to moving ever more slowly. The forest became woven with lakes and rivers; startling glimpses of turquoise luminosity and rushing current, a surprise for the eyes after the kilometres of gravel and endless trees. Coniferous or deciduous, their personalities differed; the forest darker, more mysterious and forboding, the woodland warmer and more hopeful. I preferred it when the trees fell away to meadows and big skies, when rises in the road were crowned by white summits, where horizons expanded all around and I felt things expand within me as well.
On long journeys with hours of riding, there is plenty of time to think. But mostly I don't. That’s part of the attraction. Hours of emptiness are punctuated only by fleeting thoughts.
What a beautiful valley!
Is that really only 7km we've done so far today?
It must be lunchtime soon…
I wonder what it's like in the UK just now?
Probably cold and dark, since they’re approaching the winter solstice.
At other moments I am transported, time-travelling from Patagonia to another place. My local café: the comfort of a sofa, a hot milky chai, good chat with a friend.
Then a sip of diluted juice in some exotic South American flavour would burst my senses and I’d be back, on the road again, dodging potholes or navigating washboard that would rattle my brain and bones until I had to clutch the brake to make it stop. A brief moment of peace from the rumbling Carretera. A glimpse of my cap in the rear view mirror, its 'Patagonia Sin Represas' logo reminding me of the campaign to prevent damming of the pristine rivers and spoiling of the wilderness we were riding through. I felt happy to wear it, for its ethos of protecting the beauty of the place we were in as well as for the shelter it offered from the hot sun. I feared losing it every time a fierce gust of wind grabbed at its peak. But when I tightened the band enough to keep it, a headache would grow under its vice.
So went our routine, and so passed our days on the road. Simplicity is bliss.
Finally we were only 120 km from our destination: Villa O'Higgins, the end of the Carretera. As I lay in the tent, the rain pattering hard and the wind sweeping through the branches high above, it still felt like a thousand kilometres. A mountain pass of mud and gravel climbed immediately from our campsite, and since the previous afternoon not one vehicle had taken it. We were heading to the end of something. The road, the journey, maybe the earth... A place not many people go. Blue sky turned to grey, the temperature was almost negative, the gravel was back to grade 3. I reluctantly peeled the cosy warmth of my sleeping bag away. There was no time to waste – after 20 km there was a ferry to catch. We had allowed ourselves four hours. We would have been faster walking, except I couldn’t. So we began pedalling.
“You should lie on a beach and relax for a month, not ride the Carretera Austral,” my brother had advised me.
I had wondered if he was right, and for a moment I did again on the final day when the end seemed never to come. But lying around just isn't me. I understood him, as I struggled to imagine how riding 1,240km of largely unpaved road would do me any good when already in a broken state. But somehow, somewhere along the Carretera’s torturous bumps and gravel, a bit of magic had unfolded. My mind had gradually emptied and time had steadily slowed down. Life had been distilled back to basics, had been invigorated by good energy. I hoped the others had had such a positive experience. In our different ways and for varied reasons, it was a journey we had all needed.
On the final day, we lost Jaco. For days, the rumbling road had been aggravating his body– an old shrapnel injury - to the point where his pain was so intense that he had opted to cycle ahead that morning. He needed to stop and lie still as quickly as possible. We missed him during that last long day of cycling in incessant rain. The hours stretched out towards nightfall, and it was 9pm before, finally, we trundled through damp mossy forest into town, and gathered around the signpost that marked our arrival at the end of the road. The rain was heavy, every cell of our bodies was sodden and cold, but we were celebrating. It had indeed been a journey with an unknown outcome, but we’d made it. An adventure. A unique wilderness experience.
I had no need for shoulder surgery anymore. I phoned to cancel it.