Five and half months ago the Upping the Andes team embarked on a journey of epic proportions. Our blind, and fairly naïve, ambition to construct a challenge on such an immense scale all those months ago presented us with challenges far greater than we could have ever anticipated. But, at 4:31pm on the 9th of June after 155 days of battling mountain, desert, cold and heat, illness, mechanical failures, exhaustion, and sometimes each other, we made it to Faro Punta Gallinas, marking the northern most tip of South America and the conclusion of the UTA Charity Challenge.
The final 8-day stage from Medellin to the end illustrated just how far we have come and how much we have learnt since arriving in Ushuaia pushing our bike boxes through the airport like little boys on their first day of school. With the end in sight, we unanimously decided to push ourselves as hard as daylight hours would allow for a final gruelling stint in order to finish as quickly as possible. As we came down out of the Andes for the last time, it had felt like the battle was won. However, the days were long, the roads were flat, and the sweltering heat was exhausting. What we thought would be a relatively easy sprint to the end evolved into anything but. Testament to how our perspectives have changed the distance covered in our so called ‘sprint finish’ alone was still equal to a “John O’Groats to Lands End” - so very much a challenge in itself. As we drew closer and closer the days seemed to slow with the hours becoming as stagnant as the air around us, and the kilometres stretching out in front of us like a never ending piece of string. Added to this, our trusty steeds that had carried us so far were well and truly on their last legs. Our tyres, now smooth from hard ware, were getting punctures frustratingly regularly. Toby and Archie’s gear cables also snapped, leaving them to tape pebbles found on the roadside to hold their derailleurs in place. Being now very experienced tourers and so close to the long awaited end, even the largest of problems didn’t worry us or pose a significant hurdle. So, despite the heat, boredom, and mounting bike problems, we managed to make incredible time often covering far over 150kms a day to bring us to our final nights rest over 6 days ahead of schedule!
Our lack of Spanish throughout the trip has been one of our biggest regrets, and was a particular hindrance when we arrived in the very remote desert settlement of Cabo de la Vela, but 8hrs+ a day on a bicycle is not at all conducive to learning a foreign language. As we rolled into the village we came to realise that it was not the tourist hub that we had been led to believe it would be. The Wayuu people looked at us strangely as these three hairy men and Guthrie slowly pushed the final peddle turns of what had been a torturous day. Our principal aim of the evening was to find a driver willing to accompany us at our pace for the final day and in doing so lead us through the labyrinth of desert tracks to the mythical light house that had dominated our thoughts for over a year now. Our initial attempts to organise this however were fruitless, and the locals simply stared at us clueless of what we were trying to ask. Fortunately, the cycling Gods shone down on us one last time and after running into the lovely Canadian Jessica we managed, with her Spanish persuasion skills, to sort out a guide. They said we were crazy and that it wasn’t possible to cycle to the lighthouse but we made our final preparations and got a few hours of sleep ready to set off for our last day.
Not knowing how bad the track was going to be, and not knowing the exact distance to the end either, we were determined to be making our getaway as the sun was coming up at 4.30am. However, all packed up, breakfasted and ready to go, we were still waiting on our driver, Pacho, at 6.30am. Finally, just as we were giving up hope on Colombian efficiency, which is average at the best of times, Pacho arrived bleary eyed but ready to go. So with a jeep full of water we embarked into the unknown unaware if our final exhausted efforts to make it to the end were even possible. The terrain varied from hard packed dirt almost like concrete, to soft tyre-sinking sand, with rocks of varying sizes punctuating the track. The bikes held up miraculously without a single problem all day despite us pushing them very hard over some incredibly rough terrain. Nine hours of biking later, the elusive desert lighthouse of Faro Punta Gallinas finally came into view. As clichéd as it might sound, there are very few words to describe the feeling of rolling those last few hundred metres. It is a beautiful, wild, and quiet place, and there was no one there but us. It felt almost rude to shout or scream, and after a gruelling day we didn’t feel like saying much in any case. Relief was certainly the word that comes to mind if we had to sum up our feelings at the end, though tinged with a weird feeling of loss at the hole that was left where cycling had been. After battling with the most intense physical and psychological challenge of our lives, sitting on the sand looking at the ocean, and contemplating what we had done was an incredible feeling.
As we now sit in the shade of a vine-covered terrace with palm trees over head having boxed up our bikes, the fact that we have finished has finally begun to sink in, and will no doubt continue to do so for a while yet. The last five months have been the most amazing experience. So far, just waking up every morning and not having to get on a bike – and soaking up some Colombian sun – is enough for now.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the trip as a whole was the process of convincing people that the UTA challenge was just that, a challenge and not some jolly up South America. We early established that our overriding single aim was to support and raise money for four amazing charities that mean a lot to each of us by doing something fairly outrageous that would capture a large audience. In some ways we feel that the ride itself can be likened to doing a puzzle… (bear with us)… Some sections - like reaching the top of mountain passes, meeting fantastic people and seeing breath taking views - were unquestionably some of the most amazing experiences of our lives (in the context of a puzzle, the exhilaration felt when you find and fit together an obscure piece). Other parts of the cycle - such as mechanical failures in remote areas, cycling uphill for day after day, its relentlessness, terrible weather and inevitable group squabbles - tested us all to the edges of our endurance (similar to the frustration felt when looking for and not finding puzzle pieces). But, the real purpose and enjoyment of the trip comes from its very completion and the finished product. Despite having had experiences that will litter the highlights reel of our lives and had a successful fundraising campaign (not there yet though!) it is fair to say that we are all amazingly relieved to have finished and will not miss perching on top of a saddle, at least for a few weeks anyway!
We have a few thank yous to make. First of all to everyone who has donated; it is very easy so underestimate how much your support meant to us during the worse moments on the bike, and of course also to our charities – it gives the last five months of our lives purpose. Secondly, to everyone who has supported us from home and all those who have shown us such amazing hospitality throughout our epic journey. Thirdly, and most importantly, massive thanks to our sponsors, Jackson Stops & Staff, Ayla Furniture, Ruta 40, and the rest, without whom this challenge would never have got off the ground!
We have nearly reached our £80000 fundraising target, but we still have £7000 to go. We really can’t even begin to thank your kind generosity enough and without all of you there really wouldn’t have been a UTA challenge! Our fundraising campaign will continue into the summer with our return and we are focused on making the most of this opportunity to raise as much as possible for four really amazing causes. Please please please continue to donate! All information about our charities is available on our website.
Thank you all for following our journey, our final gallery will be put up shortly. We are planning some talks at various dates throughout the summer so will keep you posted about those via all our social media avenues. If you have any questions regarding our trip, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us, contact info on webpage.