Following his successful journey from Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, to Mont Blanc, the continent’s highest point, Gareth Evans returns to the saddle after a depressing interlude for another epic adventure in a foreign land. This time his stage is Argentina, land of the horse-backed gaucho, of the Tango, of football, Maradona, Evita, corrupt politicians and heavily fluctuating inflation rates. It is often said that Argentina’s countryside displays scenes highly typical of every other continent in the world. From the vast plains of America to a capital city based on a model of Paris, from the Africanised deserts of the northwest to the jungles of the northeast to the Himalayan-scale mountains on the border of Chile. In parts of the north you could imagine yourself to be in the Australian outback whilst Ushuaia, it’s southernmost city, is the nearest city to Antarctica in the world.
Steve, another student from the University of Liverpool, accompanied Gareth and together they battled through the harsh Patagonian winter in order to (almost) cycle all the way from La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia to Ushuaia on the Island of Tierra del Fuego, a journey of over 5000km. On their way, they made many friends, acted as responsible ambassadors for Great Britain and finally made an appearance on national radio. Their motivation was a small childrens’ charity in the province of Santiago del Estero called “Niños Para un Mundo Mejor,” for which they managed to raise several thousand pounds. Twenty years on from the Falklands War with Great Britain Gareth and Steve, barely born at the time of the war, represent a new era of potential solidarity between the two countries. Six months prior to their entry into Argentina, one of the greatest political and economic crises in the country’s tainted history exploded into life, resulting in six changes of presidency in the space of little over two weeks. Minutes after their plane touched down in Buenos Aires David Beckham slotted away a penalty, indirectly causing Argentina’s future exit from a soccer World Cup that meant so much to the morale of the country. Gareth and Steve didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The scene was set.
**PLEASE NOTE: If after reading the summary and excerpt you wish to purchase a copy of the book, or sample the remainder of the book, then please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (completely non-profit) As well as the story of the journey, the book also contains a detailed route description, coloured maps and 32 colour photographs. I am able to make you a bound copy on A4 sheets, nothing particularly proffesional. All copy rights remain my own.**
For a man who loves mountains, my emotions were odd to say the least. In a fixated, unblinking stupor, disillusioned with city life, I thought of almost nothing. Nothing but sky and pampa. There is nothing. The flat land curves into infinity. It is icy cold, as if everything on Earth has been frozen still. Nobody can see me here, no-one can bother me now. There is nobody to answer to and all that matters is the moment. There are no obstructions; the world is devoid of clutter. I am alone in the vast emptiness of Patagonia. Maximum space. Space enough for the toils and troubles spawned by western society to diffuse into. There is a kind of spiritual cleansing of the mind. I feel an immense peace, but now it is lost again. Lost in my disillusionment, lost in my re-submersion into the developed world. I have returned to the rat race, but I left my soul where it could roam free in wide-open spaces. A man who cannot be with his soul is a troubled man, but I will strive to return, to reunite with my soul and be truly alive once more.
An Excerpt from Chapter 22:
22. Gold Diggers and Drunk Drivers on the RN3
The wind had mysteriously vanished. We battled uphill for six hours to the plateau of Pampa de Castillo. Huge oil drilling machines bobbed their heads like great beasts of the Pampa. They were everywhere, relentlessly sucking up the rich Patagonian resources. Night fell and the stars came out. It was a beautiful night. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. However, we soon found out where the clouds had all disappeared to when we started descending the huge hill down to the coast. Before long, we became submerged in a thick mist. It was difficult to see the lights of oncoming vehicles until they were almost on top of you. We knew that any cars coming from behind us would not see us until the last minute. In fact, the fog was so intensely thick that the headlights reflecting off the thick blanket of fog from behind would blind you. Frustratingly, the descent would have been an extremely fast one, but the mist slowed us to snail’s pace, wearing out our brake pads. Everything was soaked, the water vapour condensing on everything it touched. Eventually, we managed to flag down a passing truck, and I asked the driver where the nearest accommodation was to be found. He replied that the nearest thing was still right down on the coast. He was also confident that the mist would continue right down to the ocean. Ten minutes after leaving us though, he turned round and came back to find us. He had suddenly remembered the existence of a small cabin seven kilometres further down the hill. He offered to take us there, so we heaved our bikes onto the back of the truck. We were glad for any help that we could get in those perilous conditions. My stomach and back were killing me again, acting as an extra incentive to cease pedalling.
The cabin was excellent. It was a gorgeous wooden hut, equipped with bunk beds, shower and kitchen. There was a separate reception, where we sat and chatted to the owners for most of the evening. There was cute, mischievous little dog running about the place and the owners were terrific cooks. We sat in the kitchen and watched Chilean TV while they cooked us generous portions of fried bread. For once, supper included some good helpings of standard vegetables. It had been a long time since I had tasted the delicacies of peas, carrots and peppers! There was some kind of political debate on the box. It appeared that Menem had decided to run for the presidency again. I knew that practically everybody that I had come into contact with would have been strongly opposed to the idea, but apparently he stood a good chance due to strong support in Buenos Aires. The general feeling was however, that Menem may give a lot to the people in the short term, but nobody was sure where the money was coming from. Menem had put the country in the mess it was in now, and people weren’t prepared to give him another chance. At one point, I thought he had been killed, as there was some sort of debate about “the death of Menem.” The owners of the cabin explained that it was his son that they were talking about though. Somebody had murdered his son a couple of years ago out of hatred for what he had done to the nation. On the other channel, the Chilean news was obsessed with the thick smog hanging over Santiago de Chile because of the heavy pollution in the city. Some new anti-pollution laws were being discussed.
For breakfast there was more fried bread and plenty of dulce de leche, along with some apple-filled Empanadas. It was a marvellous start to the day. We then glided easily down to the RN3 road on the coast. The mist had disappeared but the roads were soaking wet. I tried to phone the Comodoro Rivadavia press from a phone box in a petrol station but I kept getting passed around the system and used up a small fortune in pesos, so I gave up. We stocked up on food and drink from the petrol station’s shop and then set off on the traffic-ridden RN3. There were still quite a few hills as we dodged the many bays and inlets. At lunch, I looked out across the ocean. Africa was out there somewhere, as was Europe and Great Britain. “We could swim back to Liverpool from here,” Steve suggested.
“No thanks.” We finished our sandwiches and mounted our bikes again. The struggle to gain momentum, for all the practice that we’d had at it, was not getting any easier.
At five o’clock we arrived in Caleta Olivia, a town that had established itself from the oil boom, which bottomed out in the 1990s. Today, the depressing little town of 40,000 inhabitants is a far cry from the heady days of 1969 when the locals erected El Gorosito, a thirteen-metre-high stucco statue of an oil worker. There is widespread unemployment and graffiti to go with it. We did a spot of shopping, Steve found some new dust caps, and I bought myself some new trainers. Walking around town, we picked up the usual wolf whistles from twelve-year-old girls thinking that we were the Backstreet Boys. The owner of our hotel, the Hotel Capri, was Italian, and was very interested in my stories of when I cycled the length of his country. He had visited England a few times and had been in New York City on September 11th. When he left reception, a dodgy-looking guy who turned out to be a pimp approached us. He asked us if we would like some girls in our room. I played all innocent and told him that they were quite welcome to come and clean the bikes, at which point he gave up. The evening was actually spent consuming vast quantities of food to curb our depressive feelings. We had roughly a week to cycle on this lonely stretch of the RN3. In the next 600km before Río Gallegos, there would be nothing in the way of attractive scenery, just endless steppe. There was going to be a small settlement every 100km or so, and sometimes no more than a small petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It was going to be hellishly tough. It would be wet, windy, cold, monotonous and depressing. It would give me a lot of time to think. Maximum time. I knew that I would think about Penny a lot, and that thought would bring me through. I thought that I could feel the power of the bond between us, stretching right over the Atlantic. I hoped that she would be thinking of me too.
In the morning, we discovered that the hotel was out of bread. We were about to go to the bread shop to get our own, when the lady at reception insisted on fetching it for us. She returned with the bread and charged us an extra commission. We had a friendly chat with the pimp who was still hanging around, and then launched ourselves into the damp Patagonian murk. After a couple of hours of cycling, a red car pulled over and two men got out. One of the men was a cheerful-looking chap, short and stocky with a well-trimmed beard. The other, the driver, was taller and thinner, with glasses and dark, leathery skin. It soon became clear that they had both been drinking, and the driver was the worst. It wasn’t beyond possibility that drugs were involved as well. They didn’t seem a danger to us though, and were genuinely pleased to see us. They were happy to share in tales of our adventures so far, and filled in with some of their own. The shorter man was hitching his way to Ushuaia with a very small amount of kit. The rest of Argentina had already been covered, and this was the very last leg of his tour. He must have been desperate, we thought, to try and hitch with this driver! Soon, they confessed that they only had two more bottles of beer left. They shared one between them and gave the other one to us for us to share. Surprisingly for a non-beer-drinker, I actually liked the stuff. I can’t really remember, but I think it was German beer. They told us several times that cycling on the RN3 was suicide in disguise, and warned us of ice and heavy snow to come nearer to Ushuaia. I didn’t risk telling him what I thought about the comparative safety of driving on the RN3 after a heavy consumption of alcohol! Translating was very hard, as the driver was slurring considerably, as well as testing out pieces of bad English quite without warning. “I am pleased to see that you are having such a great time in such a crazy world!” he said, repeating “crazy world!” another twenty times in English. “Can I have a souvenir sir? Please?” He moved towards me and tripped over Steve’s bike. Steve caught him before he hit the floor.
“A souvenir. We would like a sticker or something. We are collecting them. Collecting them we are, on our journey to Ushuaia!”
I dug around in my pannier bag and pulled out a sticker that I had picked up at the El Viejo Obelisco restaurant back in Esquel. The guy moved towards me and tripped over the bike a second time. “Careful!”
“Thank-you very much!” He grabbed the sticker off me and proudly inserted it into his top pocket. His next move was to insist on a photograph session, putting his arm around Steve and posing next to the car, bottle of beer in hand. After the photograph, he gave Steve a huge hug.
Steve’s facial expression said “help!”
“Te amo,” said the drunkard to Steve.
“What the hell did he just say?” Steve could see me smirking.
“He says that he loves you.”
“That’s what he said.” There was an awkward silence. “Shall I tell him that you love him too?”
“Umm, if you think it’s safe…”
“OK. Err, Steve says he loves you too.”
“Muy bien, muy bien!” The man started ferreting about under the bottom of his pullover. He then took his belt off. Steve suddenly looked quite startled and took a step back. The man proceeded to detach a sheath from the belt, and held it out in front of Steve. “Look, look!”
“What’s he saying now?”
“He’s asking you to look at his sheath.”
“Oh right.” With a huge grin on his face, the driver pulled a small knife out and waved it about in front of Steve’s face. Now I was getting worried! I had the distinct feeling that Steve was more worried though, if not a little bewildered, bemused and confused. “What’s he doing?”
“I don’t know! Hey, what’s with the knife?”
“Yes. Very nice.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s lovely. Do you like his knife Steve?”
“Lovely. Tell him to put it away.” The man had already reinserted the blade in its sheath. He held it out to Steve and tried to look him in the eye. Steve stood in front of him, not really knowing where to put himself. “What does he want?”
“It’s a gift.”
“He says it’s a gift. I guess you can take it.” Sheepishly, Steve took the knife off him. I was quite relieved that Steve now had possession of it!
“Gracias,” said Steve.
“It is a souvenir for you.”
“Gracias. Hey Gaz, this is the most crazy thing yet!” The driver gave Steve one last hug, and shook my hand, tripping over the bike again on his way. He then made his way back into the car, tripping over twice on the way to the door, and him and his friend swerved away into the distance. “That was weird.”
“Bloody strange bloke.”
“I wonder if he’ll make it past all those police checkpoints.”
“Possibly not. Hey, it’s quite a decent knife you know. A bit like my river knife. Quite a good present that, from a man I’ve never met before!”
Steve: When the man told me that he loved me, it was definitely competing for “Most Random Event Award.” It is quite worrying when a drunk bloke puts his hands on you and tells you that he loves you! It is even MORE worrying when he then starts to take his belt off! Fortunately it was only to remove a knife.
We rode on over the plateau near to the peninsula of Puerto Deseado, and continued on to the hamlet of Fitz Roy after a spot of lunch. There were two hotels, opposite each other. We chose the one with a satellite dish and a shop. We later learnt from chatting to the owner, that we were going to have to cover enormous stretches of road in order to find any shelter for the next three days. It was going to cut out estimated arrival time in Ushuaia down to only twelve more days, but it was going to be hellishly tough. Confident that we were remote enough to be away from thieves, we left our bikes out the back and got an early night. There was a massive Alsatian chained up to the rubbish skip, another thief deterrent. As we climbed into bed, I gave Steve an amusing reminder of the day’s events. “Goodnight Steve. Hope you dream of your new-found Lover-boy!”
“Shut up! He liked you as well!”
“Not as much as you though Steve. You know you were his favourite.”
“Yeah well, suppose I am more attractive. You kinda get used to putting up with those sorts of things when you’re as attractive as I am. The YMCA are constantly on my back you know. Anyway, I got a knife out of it didn’t I?!”
The kilometre marker next to Fitz Roy was “1982.” The year of the war in the Falklands. It felt like time travel as we progressed through to kilometre marker number “2114!” On the way, we saw mist, grass, road, the white kilometre markers, a few random piles of stones, occasional lorries, a handful of cars, and even more grass and mist. The mist was being caused by unusual easterly winds coming straight off the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately for us, there was also a fair bit of north in the wind, which blew us along quite nicely. A four-by-four stopped Steve in one instance and bagged a photograph of him before tearing off southwards once again. Steve said that they had “Deserts to the End of the World” stickers all over the vehicle. We guessed that they must have been in some kind of race to get to Ushuaia. Near to kilometre marker “2114,” which we guessed was the total distance away from Buenos Aires, we found the only sign of urbanisation for hundreds of miles. It was a petrol station, named “Trés Cerros” after the three tiny hillocks that could be seen on the opposite side of the road. It consisted of facilities for long-distance lorry drivers and not a lot else. There was a garage, a restaurant, a mini hotel, a phone, a small shop, and the petrol pumps, and that was it. We tiredly limped towards the bare, white buildings and were greeted by a couple of men, both of whom spoke American English, one perfectly. We were shocked to be able to conduct an entire conversation in English. So few people along the way so far had been able to speak more than a few simple phrases. Apparently they had passed us in their car earlier on in the day and had felt very sorry for us. They seemed delighted to find that we hadn’t dropped dead in the fifty kilometres or so since they saw us. They were an interesting duo, with an appearance not unlike that of Little and Large. The larger man, the one who spoke brilliant English, was from San Juan, and the thin man was from Bariloche. When we explained that we were cycling from La Quiaca to Ushuaia for an Argentine charity, they agreed to pay for all our food and accommodation. Over supper we learnt that the pair were geologists, otherwise known as Professional Gold Diggers. They had been contracted to come and hunt for a line of gold in the barren terrain surrounding San Julián. So far, they had not struck gold, but were optimistic. They promised that if they struck gold the very next day, they would officially proclaim us to be their Lucky Cyclists. They would then come looking for us in Ushuaia to share the riches!
The shower in our room was the biggest challenge of the day. There were about seven different taps to be turned on the wall. Taking a lucky guess, I first of all fired the bedé up to the ceiling. Then, the cold-water tap being painted red fooled me. The tap painted blue shot red hot water out of the shower’s nozzle at a very peculiar angle, scalding me and soaking everything inside the room. I quickly cooled myself off with a very rapid cold shower, and left Steve to fight his own battle. I was just drying myself off when I heard screams emanating from the bathroom. The shower had clearly claimed its second victim. Suddenly, the lights went out. The generator had shut down to save money. It was only 11pm, but I guessed that people got easily bored out here.
After bidding farewell to our generous Gold Diggers, we continued through the desolate steppe to Puerto San Julián. We cycled two huge pushes of seventy kilometres each, with an hour’s break for lunch. San Julián is the true birthplace of Patagonia. It was here that the Portuguese mariner Magellan first set foot on Patagonian soil in 1520. It was on the shingle-banked bay that he made the first contact with the indigenous peoples, then described as “giants.” Sir Francis Drake and Magellan both survived mutinies in the bay. One of the finest specimens of the town’s past was left unnoticed right in the middle of the town square for many years. One day, somebody noticed that a loose slab in the square contained a rather large footprint. The print was that of a sauropod, a crocodile-type reptile. Unfortunately though, having survived through the millennia, the slab was cracked on being transported to the local museum! Today, the port is still surviving due to the discovery of gold reserve at Cerro Vanguardía, having originally seen a boom in sheep farming and, later, the oil industry. The penguins here live closer to human civilization than at any other site in the south. In fact, it is sometimes possible to see penguins walking down the street, and local radio has been known to put out appeals for qualified people to remove penguins from the Town Hall! We managed to find an Internet café, and I got uplifting messages from friends and family. I also made contact with a woman who worked for Radio Continental, the principal national radio station in Buenos Aires. She agreed to let us stay at her flat in the capital when we returned to catch our flight back to England. A radio interview was also in the offing. On the TV, I noticed that there were some more riots in Buenos Aires. We were going to be glad not to have to look around for a place to stay! I also saw that there were riots in Santiago del Estero too, upturned cars and violent demonstrations against the local governor. There had been an attempted murder on the ex-president Menem. The man in the locutorio said that it was a shame that he hadn’t succeeded!
The following day was windier and colder. We passed an overturned lorry, marked up as carrying a highly explosive load. “I’m glad I wasn’t around when that thing came off!” We then passed the Gran Bajo de San Julián, the lowest point on the American continent. It really wasn’t anything spectacular though. I laid my bike down at sea level at the side of the road and pointed my camera lens down into the sterile valley. The photo was going to need an explanation. The arid basin didn’t look any different from any other arid basin around the place. It just happened to be very low indeed. I was privileged to have seen the place in person, but it warranted no more than two minutes of my attention. The evening’s sunset appeared to set the whole pampa on fire. It was a truly incredible sight. That fire warmed my heart, as if it wasn’t warm already with all the hard work that it was doing. The road into the darkness seemed to go on for ever, up and along and into the wind. Then, all of a sudden, the lights of the town of Commandante Luís Piedra Buena sprang up out of nowhere below us. We screamed down the hill and into down, stopping at the service station for some expensive chocolates. We needed a break from Surtido Bagley biscuits! We booked into the friendly Hotel Andalucía, and the owner got a pork and potato omelette takeaway for us. He also showed us some photographs of a refuge that he used to work at up in the mountains around El Chaltén. He had some amazing pictures of some quite staggering scenery, and his ever-faithful dog always accompanied him. He now kept a multitude of budgies. He seemed to have screw loose somewhere, but we liked him. He had character. We worked out that seven more days cycling would be required to reach our Holy Grail of Ushuaia, which now had a sacred ring to us. We had decided to catch a bus through the Chilean part of the journey. It wasn’t Argentina, we concluded, so why should we have to cycle through it? Having already cycled for forty-one consecutive days, seven more seemed like almost nothing. We were nearly there!
The mundane RN3 however, continued to throw new surprises at us. On one occasion, a lake had flooded the highway and then frozen over. A diversion on a dirt track through the pampa had been set up to avoid the perilous ice. After taking the diversion, we cycled back in the opposite direction to take a closer look. The ice was incredibly thick, enveloping the metal barrier at the roadside. We left the bikes and skated around on the ice for a while, taking in the unreality of it all. We took some photographs of Steve pretending to cycle on and off the ice, so that it seemed as if he had cycled all the way across it. There was a great potential for more comedy photos, and we regretted not having taken any. Our next stop, the last before Río Gallegos, was the French named, remote service station of Le Marchand. It was the only safe place to stay for many, many miles. Unfortunately, the hot water tank had frozen, so we had no hot water. Luckily though, they had a TV, which became our entertainment for the evening once again. There was a live hostage taking incident in a Buenos Aires supermarket, where one lady was almost shot. There was a news flash with typically dramatic music, simply stating that a Chilean lorry driver had been shot dead by a Highwayman near Mendoza. It was crazy! We then watched the National Lottery. It dragged on for ages and the boys and girls who handled the lottery balls looked as if they had been trained to be as miserable as possible.
At supper, a lady who shouted at us constantly served us. At first, I thought that she was shouting in an attempt to drill in what she was saying into us “stupid” foreigners heads. I was about to tell her politely that shouting really wasn’t helping me to understand Spanish any better, when it dawned on me that she was actually half deaf and couldn’t hear herself speak, let alone anyone else! There was a cute little fox running around in the gloom outside which also kept us entertained for a while. The lights, depressingly, went out at 11pm again as an energy saving measure. There was nothing left to do except get enough rest as possible.
The rest did me no good at all. I spent a lot of the night running to the toilet, and faced an energy barrier the next day. There had been a sudden dip in temperature again and the pampa was covered in frost and cloaked in mist. Steve however, was facing no such energy barrier and tore into the distance, not stopping for 85km! I panted, stopped and started, and gripped my stomach in agony as I struggled to keep going. I just wanted to stop, but I had to keep up with Steve somehow. The ratchet for my front gear shifter had finally given up the ghost. I could still change gear, but the shifter had to be held in place on the largest cog. In the circumstances though, it was just one more annoying thing to cope with. Near the airport, there were signs telling us not to take photographs in the military zone. Just to be cheeky, I almost decided to take a picture of the sign that told you not to take pictures! Late in the evening, we finally arrived in Río Gallegos, most southerly town on mainland Argentina. Within minutes of arriving a man from the Diario del Santa Cruz, the province’s daily newspaper, stopped us. We were tired and wet and in need of food, but we agreed to the interview anyway. We went to the gym that he owned and he made a tape recording of me talking about the ride. We then pushed the fully loaded bikes up a steep staircase for a photograph session. The man was very good to us and found us a cheap hotel in return for our efforts, the Hotel Colonial. The staff here were very friendly, much unlike the staff in the Club Britanico restaurant, which was where we chose to eat. Here, we were charged an appalling forty pesos for our two meals. By arguing strongly, I whittled the bill down to twenty-six pesos with a few extra items thrown in to the bargain. Steve ungratefully swiped the menu again. We had been hoping to spot some Brits there, but we didn’t succeed. Now in a remarkably more upbeat mood, we returned to the Hotel Colonial. Ushuaia was within spitting distance.