the southernmost point

(and back)

Traveling back north by land from Puerto Natales would mean returning in our own tire tracks. Therefore, we bought tickets for the boat. This sails once a week between the many islands off the Chilean Patagonian coast from Puerto Natales to Tortel (a town on the Carretera Austral). The trip takes about 40 hours. Because the boat leaves at 5:00 in the morning and the airline has had bad experiences with inebriated guests during night boarding, we are expected to board as early as 9:00 the night before departure. Our bikes share the deck with about fifteen cars and a few motorcycles. For passengers, there are two spaces with a layout similar to that of an airplane, but with slightly more legroom. In the canteen on the lower deck, we can get a meal three times a day in turns. Even vegetarians have been thought of!

It feels strange to go to sleep the first night while the boat is still just ashore. On the lower deck I find a children’s playroom. There are some toys and otherwise the room is empty, the lights can be turned off and there are curtains. “Ideal!” I think. I go to fetch Paul and a little later we roll out our mats in our private bedroom. At least, that’s what we had hoped…. Just as I take my sleeping bag off the bike, one of the crew members comes to tell us that we are not allowed to sleep here. Supposedly because a family will be sleeping there. Disappointed, we roll up our mats again. Fortunately, several passengers travel by camper van and now sleep in it. So there are extra seats available. I roll myself up in fetal position and just fit on the seats of two chairs. How people can sleep sitting up is a mystery to me! In the morning, after a broken night, I stretch my stiff limbs with a walk around the boat. When I come below deck, the playroom is still exactly as we left it yesterday. No family to be seen! What a shame that no one here got a good night’s sleep.

Of the 120km to Cochran that now follows, we have already ridden 100 of them southbound. Never before during a trip have I “double cycled” such a distance. It seemed like nothing to me. Yet it is anything but boring. The scenery is beautiful again and we now see it from a different perspective. In addition, discovering landmarks and reminiscing about the previous trip here gives a pleasant feeling. “We know it here! Somewhat at home, we feel. In doing so, much is different. Last time we had rain here, now plenty of sunshine! As a result, huge clouds of dust when cars pass us. This time we also encounter several cyclists riding south. They react surprised that they don’t have to tell us what to expect…. normally one of the main questions when two cyclists cross paths.

Just as Paul has climbed a small hill to take a picture of me, another cyclist approaches me. Paul shoots a few pictures of our encounter. I have to laugh when I look back at them. We look like two little dogs sniffing each other’s behinds when we first meet. It’s really not that different either. Let two unknown bicycle travelers meet and they sniff each other’s gear and plans and see if there is anything for them to “get” from the other. Sometimes we only introduce ourselves to each other by name at the end of the conversation. Of greater importance is, “Where are you cycling to? Where do you come from? How long have you been on the road?’ After this curiosity follows fetching: ‘How do you like that …(insert name of part of bike or equipment here)…? Where did you sleep last night? How is the road surface/climb/decline in the next … kilometers? Many a time only when these questions have also been answered from both sides does the question follow: ‘What is your name actually?’

After 2.5 days of cycling we arrive in Cochran. After a stop at the supermarket we ride on to a campground that we liked. With the whole-wheat flour I bought at an exorbitant price (over €4 for a kilo) I bake (just like in the good old days) two loaves of sturdy bread. We can go on for a while!

The next day we decided to deviate from the Carretera Austral for 20km. The known route consisted of bad gravel and because of the national park there is a lot of traffic there. Our alternative route requires us to cross by a small ferry. It has to be one long steep climb and then an even steeper descent. The little road is just wide enough for one car. There doesn’t need to be much traffic, because habitation is also very scarce. All the more beautiful is the route! The further we climb, the more idyllic. Bright green meadows with here and there a cow watching us, beautiful views over the valley and playful green trees spread over the slopes. As I crawl forward in utmost concentration I notice that Paul has had to dismount behind me. Normally it’s the other way around! But I am on a roll and want to push on. As I crawl forward I realize that so many things must be harder than this climb. Surely there must be hidden strength in me somewhere? What if by finishing this climb I could save a life? How long could I then cycle before having to dismount? With my runaway imagination I squeeze all the strength I have out of my body to keep going in circles. When I get to the top I sit down in the grass, waiting for Paul. When he comes up he looks at me in disbelief: “How did you do that? That you could stay on your bike!’ I tell him my little secret, but he doesn’t believe it makes him drive faster. I do! I think I was even less tired once I got to the top than I normally would have been….

We can ride all the way down back to the Austral or…. we can lie in the sun in one of those lovely meadows and enjoy the beautiful view and peace and quiet. We choose the latter! We wash ourselves with the water from a small stream and, since only one car has passed us during the whole trip anyway, we lie in the sun with our bare bottoms after washing. Let the summer begin!

The next day we descend toward the main road and stop at the ‘Confluencia’. Last time we saw the confluence of two rivers only from a distance as we camped overlooking it. This time we get off our bikes to take the walk down to the confluence. Another cyclist also just arriving there, convinced by us, walks with us. It is extraordinary how the gray water of one river mixes with the bright blue water of the other. When we return to our bikes, three other cyclists who want to walk toward the river just arrived. As I wrote, this place is teeming with cyclists during the summer months. That same ride we meet two more (older) men who have come biking from Brazil, a French couple who cycled from Colombia and an English couple who just started their ride. We camp by a lake where we build a nice big fire, although for warmth it is not even really necessary this evening.

The next day we begin a route we saved specifically for this “return trip” along the Carretera Austral. Where we previously cycled along the northwest side along a lake, we now ride along the south side, heading east. This was strongly discouraged on the way out because the wind here ‘always’ blows hard from the west. So we were also told by the Englishmen we met yesterday who had not even been able to complete that ride along the south shore because of the headwind. As we cycle toward the turnoff, Paul starts to grumble a little: “I don’t believe that we’ll suddenly have a tailwind… I keep my spirits up: ‘You never know, the wind can come from a completely different direction along the lake. Or it could be something with the mountains…’ But eventually I also have to give in. By now we are cycling along the lake, in a north-east direction, and the wind is blowing full force in our faces. Paul is balking like hell. In the first village we do some shopping and treat ourselves from our last cash for coffee in a cozy little restaurant. We ask the bartender for an explanation of the wind. He confirms that it “generally” does indeed blow from the other direction, and briskly too. This wind from the east blows occasionally and is called the “viento leone,” the “lion wind. Totally can’t follow it, but it’s something about the mountains….

By now it’s also raining so we don’t have much appetite for it anymore. Yet it is not so bad once we get back on our bikes. The wind has subsided, the rain turns out to be drizzle. The scenery is beautiful, although you have to see through the gray. Paul has his gray glasses on and sees only rain and wind. So I am glad when we come across a bus stop/shelter large enough to pitch our tent in. Once washed, warmly dressed and out of the wind, Paul also takes off his gray goggles and provides a delicious meal after all. No matter how tough a cycling day is, no matter how much rain, wind, bad gravel. When afterwards you are washed, warm and dry in a sleeping bag in the tent it was all worth it…. at least, that’s how I feel.

The next day all is not too bad! The wind has turned a little and it stays dry all day. Even Paul, who had just adjusted his expectations to ‘headwind + rain’, is gladly surprised. We enjoy the beautiful surroundings immensely. During lunch on a field behind the verge we meet two black pigs running loose. When Paul finally feeds the curious male some apple, two more pink ones come running out of the bushes. These are a lot bolder than the others. During this trip we have barely seen any pigs. No idea to whom these four belong; there is no house in the vicinity.

At the end of the second day, a fierce pain comes on in my right knee (the relatively good one). Fortunately, the peak of the pain coincides with finding a camping spot. I don’t have to pedal half a kilometer more I feel. During the night the pain subsides somewhat but there can be no cycling the next day. In the morning Paul hoists our bikes from the riverbank back onto the road. By good luck I stick my thumb up to the first approaching car, there are not that many cars passing by here. He stops and has no problem giving us a ride to Chile Chico. At breakneck speed (he has been driving this road six days a week for years) he swings down the rocky path toward the town. We are happy when we and our bikes arrive unscathed in Chile Chico after 50km. There we buy a ticket for the ferry to Puerto Ibañez for two days later. A little rest for my knee is now a must.

4 thoughts on “the southernmost point”

  1. A lovely blog Hera. Some of those photos reminded me of when we were camping in the gers in Kyrgistan.
    Happy new year to you and Paul and I hope your knee is better now.

    Geoff

  2. I read it all in one breath.AMAZING.
    I did the same route/experience in 2006 but by foot or hitchhiking!
    Best time i had in my life.
    I wish you happy and safe 2024!

  3. A LATE Happy New Year to you! Life in Alaska has been too busy to break to read my favorite treat… a new Blog from you and your AWESOME adventures. It’s been 8 years of following your travels around the globe – since a casual meeting in a day room in Coldfoot Alaska on the Dalton Highway. I liked that you mentioned the highway in this blog. You were tent camping outside the old pipeline housing buildings and us in one of the strange hotel rooms inside. You were pedaling north to Prudhoe Bay and us driving back south after our wading in the waters of the Arctic Ocean, that was August 2016. Your drive to complete a days peddle through pain, weather and horrific road/trail beds is so inspiring. The comments of dialogue you run through your brain to complete the task at hand is something we could all use!
    I pray 2024 will find you peddling more on a healed knee and with Paul joining you in all the fabulous photography of your shared journeys!
    BTW – I’m really enjoying the simple way to enlarge the photos – SWEET!

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