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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Splendid Isolation

The siesta in Uspallata really caught me out. I spent too long in the petrol station using the wifi and scoffing sugary snacks. When I left to buy supplies the whole town had gone to sleep. Not wanting to hang around for hours I simply stocked up on biscuits and left town, I still had a decent amount of supplies left, but my meals would be bland for the next few days. My poor planning also meant that I hit the road during the hottest part of the day. As the midday sun slowly frazzled my brain I felt grateful for how gradual the climb out of Uspallata was.

My tyres crunched the gravel and I wound my way up an old mining road, riding through a network of shallow canyons. Rounding each bend in the road new colours and rock formations revealed themselves. Taking breaks in any rare patch of shade to guzzle water, I marvelled at the views back towards the cordillera I had just come from. It was surprising how much I had climbed in just a couple of hours cycling this gradual incline. The sun beat mercilessly down. The delirious heat teamed with the otherworldly desert landscape, and the trippy techno mix pumping through my headphones made for a surreal afternoon cycling.

Close to the top of the pass things got steeper and I pushed up the final few hundred meters. On the other side I was greeted with a vast valley, bowls of grassy plains stretching as far as my eyes could see. My only companions, a few herds of vicunas, staring at this alien creature on an iron horse passing through their grazing grounds and scampering gracefully away when I got too close. In the middle of the valley I reached a snaking jeep track, joining a route that my friend Taneli had shared (he’d cycled here a year previously).

Pausing on a ridge top, the dividing point between two green valleys I just stood still, breathed the cool air and watched the shadows growing long. I would normally have looked for somewhere a little more sheltered from the wind to camp, but the views from this exposed ridge were just too great. Fortunately my little gamble paid off with a perfectly still night. I’ve never experienced such an ear splitting silence. It felt like I could have heard a pin drop on the other side of the valley, I could practically hear my heartbeat. After a restful nights sleep, I watched the suns golden rays slowly crawl across the hilltops and lazed in my bag for a couple of hours. Letting the sun and multiple cups of tea gently warm my tent and soul. Today would be a good day.

Traversing through vast wild spaces in total solitude never fails to evoke a sense of satisfaction in me. I often feel most alive, at peace and content in such instances. As I cruised my way across the next grassy plain this sense of complete satisfaction permeated my emotions, existing in the moment, the right place and time, total belonging and focus. The last set of tyre tracks here looked many months old, a couple of vicuña skeletons littered the side of the trail, I came across the largest puma footprint I’d seen in some time; all stark reminders of the wild ecosystem I was passing through. I was the visitor here, not the master.

On the ridgetop things opened up, off to the East the plains gradually lost altitude stretching away into a blur. However, it was the vista in the West that stole the show. Snowcapped peaks almost 7000M high clustered together like a meeting of giants. There was Ancongagua; the rooftop of the Andes and highest peak in the Southern Hemisphere. I wasn’t alone in marvelling at the view, a lone condor wafted on the thermals, stoically scanning the cordillera, then all too suddenly he dived off towards the peaks, soon just a spec amongst them. Progress was slow despite the riding being easy, I pushed up a few steep climbs, stopping often to take photos and daydream. I came across a lone vicuña and we sat together gazing off at the horizon.

After enjoying the lonely road I came down to a mining outpost. The place seemed deserted. Then I felt a warm licking at my ankle whilst pumping up my tyres, a friendly little pup greeted me, followed closely by a smiling Pablo. He lived here alone with his dogs for much of the year and seemed keen to chat despite my dodgy Spanish. His wrinkled grin and positive attitude were contagious. I asked if my friend had passed by on a similar bike, he hadn't, I was one of few cyclists ever to come here. After filling up my water bottles I was on my way again. A navigational error found me riding along a dried out riverbed for some time, but I was soon back on track and deposited out into a desert.

The track was sandier than it had been on my journey so far. I was glad to have such wide tyres; it made riding on such deep and loose sand far easier. This was the first time I’d ever been in a desert, I was in awe of the unique landscape. The way the air shimmered with heat, the angry sun casting shadows of the sparse mountainsides jagged forms, the only plant life being resilient little shrubs and thorny bushes, the wind whistling across the plains and the parched ground patterned with a spiderweb of cracks. It was all new to me, and an environment I had thought would feel hostile and intimidating was instead enchanting and beautiful.

The desert sunsets were stunning, mountains silhouetted in shades of orange, purples and blue. I camped near water sources or hidden from the wind. Often though, the winds would die off and I would be engulfed by the utter silence I’d experienced days before, it was in moments like this that I felt again the sense of splendid isolation all the more intensely.

A rough stretch of ripio took me across an incredibly wide desert valley, I could just make out the other side in the distance. Cycling felt like I was never getting any closer to the horizon, but eventually I found myself on tarmac again for the first time in days. After the slow progress across the corrugations and bumps I relished the butter smooth asphalt and tailwind that saw me sailing down into the lush oasis town of Barreal.

Friendly North Argentinian smiles greeted me and I feasted in the town plaza, my tastebuds treated to real food and flavour after what seemed like endless meals of plain pasta and dry biscuits. People here in North Argentina had warm hearts like the climate they lived in. Weathered old men passed by to shake my hand, plump mamas offered me food and curious kids asked what this gringo was up to.

In the evening I retired to the municipal campground, under the dappled shade of poplar trees I slurped down cheap carton wine and cooked up an assortment of vegetables. Movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention and looking up I was surprised to see Nathan rolling triumphantly into the campsite! Hugs were exchanged and tales from the road swapped late into the nights darkness, it was great to see him again.

Soon though conversation shifted to the next stage of our journey; the Puna. For months we had speculated about cycling this hostile yet beautiful region of South America and now here we were, on the cusp of it.

1 comment

1 Comment

dale hofman
dale hofman
Jul 04, 2019

Toby, I can’t thank you enough for the pictures and dialogue. This is such incredibly beautiful, inspiring country and now I have to see it with my own eyes. The rugged, alluring landscape and solitude is irresistible to me. Thank you for taking the time to share this incredible journey with the rest of the world. It’s on my bucket list for this summer in South America.

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