‘You are the four crazy British boys doing over 100km days on the Carretera Austral’. These were the words of one Argentinian cyclist we met on our journey from Villa O’Higgins.
It has been an eventful few weeks for the UTA team up one of, if not the, most beautiful roads in the world. Despite making a reputation for ourselves amongst the many other cyclists on the Carretera Austral for our quick progress, it has proved a serious test for us, our bodies and not least our bikes. It is fair to say that over a month into the trip our development into proficient touring cyclists has taken leaps and bounds!
The Carretera Austral, or Ruta 7, is an isolated and undulating 1247km stretch of dirt and gravel road (known as ‘ripio’ by the ever-exclusive cycle-touring community) from Villa O’Higgins to Puerto Montt that winds through the Chilean archipelago requiring six ferries to link various sections of the road. The Austral is a beautiful and wild landscape of forest and mountains, gorges and valleys, turquoise lakes and crystal clear glacial streams.
It is very difficult for us to effectively put into words the scale and variety of the landscapes (that the Carretera Austral has taken us through.) Not wishing to bore you with similes, metaphors and adjectives that Jilly Cooper would have been proud of, you will just have to believe that the views we see each and every day are unlike anything we have ever experienced, and really are truly breath-taking – for the cynics amongst you, that is not just because we are struggling with the large vertical metre climbs of the Andes. The same cannot be said for the road! Ruta 7 in many ways is like all the best female villains – disarmingly beautiful but with an unpredictable and destructive character. Cycling on the ‘ripio’ is certainly a unique experience. The varying stone size and lack of surface solidity makes it impossible to cycle rhythmically and has wrecked our poor road bikes. Perhaps most aggravatingly, after a hard uphill struggle (literally) the downhill is far from a reprieve. The gradient and surface require total concentration and are amazingly hard on the upper body (something usually not associated with cycling!). It’s worth mentioning (before our heads get too big) that a number of other cyclists we have met have been so worn-out mentally and physically by the ripio that they have simply taken buses or hitch-hiked their way out.
Despite the amazing scenery that changes so quickly and spectacularly from luscious rainforest to sharp glacier caped peaks, it was not long before the Carretera Austral had the upper hand in our 1247km battle with it. Due to their irregularity, a number of these ferry crossings require some careful planning in order to avoid be stranded potentially for days. We camped 50km from our first ferry crossing at… leaving a nice gentle morning roll in to the 13:00pm ferry. Fuelled up on over a kilo of lentils, which played havoc with our digestive systems, we set off, shortly noticing that both Toby’s and Tom’s pannier racks had sheared as a result of heavy weight, low quality racks and the poor road conditions. With one screw and a thin piece of metal the difference between us moving and being fairly stuck we proceeded with caution on bumpy roads. Two conversations would take place whenever we stopped for short breaks, one about how we were to get the pannier racks to the ferry in one piece and two, the orchestral exchanges of…well, you get the picture... We have noted not to eat a kilo of lentils again unless we decide to ward off unwanted company or to attract skunks. With tensions fairly high Tom took a recoiling bungee cord to the cheek-bone while rearranging his kit. Lucky to have his eye, our morning roll in to the ferry became a 15km sprint on weakened racks. Fate was with us and we made it with seconds to spare.
With cable ties and tent pegs acting as temporary splints for the broken racks (Archie’s intuition) we continued towards Coyhaique. The worries of running out of water in Tierra Del Fuego seemed a far distant past as crystal clear glacial streams flowed at regular intervals. Up until now we have managed to escape the discomfort of camping in the wet, and we had no idea how lucky we had been. Pitching tents in pouring rain, taking off wet clothes to put slightly less wet ones on and then to get back into wet clothes in the morning is a ‘dampening’ experience. It has made us all dream of the simple comforts of showers and warm dry beds that now seem a very distant reality. This being said, our tents are a haven that provide such essential warmth and comfort at the end of long days. And although they are not exactly 5 star accommodation, to us, the respite and comfort they provide has become very important.
Just as things had started to move more smoothly, we had our first major incident as we moved out of Cero Castillo. A challenging switch-back climb in the morning heat took us to our highest mountain pass so far at 1220 vertical metres. On the following descent a mix-up led to Toby coming off his bike at 50kph! However, the cycling Gods were smiling on us and Toby miraculously came away with only minor concussion and some (quite severe) road grazing. His bike, aptly named (‘how do you solve a problem like…’) Maria defied her namesake and came off essentially unscathed. We therefore arrived into Coyhaique feeling rather lucky and all a little ruffled by an accident that could have been a lot worse – something that Toby’s shattered helmet can attest to! We are still very much learning our limits. Because we are Upping the Andes, Toby was allowed minimal respite, but after three further days in which almost 300kms were covered, our gruelling schedule began to tell on Toby with a brief post-crash illness setting in. Heroic efforts aside, it was a timely reminder to the team to be aware of how much our quick progress is pushing our bodies.
In Chaiten, we felt as though we needed a rest from damp camping so rented a cheap Cabanas for the night. Few cyclists have been able to keep pace with us over the Carretera Austral, however one man form Marseilles who we have aptly named ‘Frenchy’ has been on our heels for three weeks now. Without a single word of language crossover we invited him to supper and despite some initial awkwardness had a very funny evening of overly animated conversation over steak and avocado which felt like a very long game of Christmas charades.
True to form, our cycle from Chaiten to Hornopiren was anything but plain-sailing. We had planned a 4am wake-up to make the 10am ferry, but our early start proved in vain. With Guthrie’s new-found oat allergy, road grit in gear cogs, another broken pannier rack, an angry ferry man, and a very untimely first puncture, with the rain pouring down all the while, the day was well on the way to being a complete disaster. As the comedy of errors stacked up, initial tensions gave way to a certain degree of hilarity. The final kick in the teeth was served when following a last ditch attempt to grab some ham & cheese empanadas from the dock the GoPro was left on the quayside. Despite an 8 hour return ferry journey to successfully retrieve it, we made great use of our given time and remained in good humour. Staying positive has proved surprisingly easy at times like these, and we have still managed to make it to Puerto Montt on schedule!
After just over two weeks on the Carretera Austral we have subdued the temptress. We have experienced pretty much every obstacle possible – illness, injury, mechanical failure, bad weather, terrible road quality, but we have still fallen for the villain. It has been a huge learning curve for us and we will always remember it as the road that really taught us how to cycle-tour. While we are incredibly excited about leaving the gravel behind and getting onto paved road for the foreseeable future, the not-so-lovely Puerto Montt has reminded us how lucky we have been to have experienced such a wild and beautiful part of the world which the current program road-works would indicate will become rather less exclusive over the next few decades. Nevertheless, two broken pannier racks, four broken panniers, three broken spokes, two cracked helmets, our first puncture and a broken chain later, we are feeling immensely satisfied and very excited about the next stage of our adventure – from Puerto Montt to Santiago.