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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

The Wheels Start Turning

Updated: Nov 24, 2018

My head hit the pillow with a dull thud and I was enveloped by its soft embrace. After a lengthy 12.5 hour flight to Buenos Aires, mind numbingly dull 25 hour airport terminal wait and subsequent flight to Ushuaia I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to sleep. Since waking up Wednesday morning at 6:30am for 65 hours until reaching the hostel in Ushuaia I didn’t sleep a wink. I was starting to hallucinate whilst putting my bike together outside the airport! Certainly an interesting start to this journey, I just think all the excitement, nerves and discomfort of the journey created a sort of perfect storm for insomnia.

Nonetheless I was overjoyed to be in Ushuaia and the felling was quite a surreal one (perhaps in part due to my sleep deprived state). I enjoyed a solid 12 hours sleep and emerged from my room to a glorious breakfast that did the perfect job of nursing me back to my usual self. A few hours were spent stocking up supplies, sorting the bike and getting my bearings. Then before I knew it the journey was underway and the wheels started turning. But I was headed in the wrong direction! I cycled Southeast out of Ushuaia, because I had to reach the true “Fin Del Mundo”. In the beautiful national park the road through South America ends at the Beagle Channel, it was this end of the road that represented the start of my true journey North up the continent.

The first night I found great wild camping spot in the park with some shelter from the wind and fell into a deep slumber. I awoke once due to some peculiar aggressive snorting and mooing type noises that I can only assume originated from a cow, or maybe some deer mating calls! With a sunny morning I set off cycling back through Ushuaia and along the Beagle channel. The route I was following took some twisty single track along the clifftops with spectacular views across the Beagle Channel. Progress was slow because I kept stopping for photos, but also due to the sections of physically demanding hike-a-bike through overgrown and steep parts of the trail. However after several hours I reached an impasse, there was a river, and its flow was extremely fierce. All the rain from the past few days had left the river in spate, there were only two options to cross. One being a thin bent tree with a rope for a handle and a 60ft death drop into the torrent below, or I could try fording the river on the beach where it met the ocean. The rain begun to drizzle down and I hid under a tree and drank tea, deliberating over my situation. A kind man named Omar was hiking past, shared some coffee with me and suggested I turn around. I decided to camp the night at the spot and see if the flow was calmer in the morning.

Upon waking I found that the flow had only gotten stronger. My decision had been made, the risk wasn’t worth it. I had to backtrack to Ushuaia and take Ruta 3 over Paso Garibaldi. It felt a bit futile having come this way to turn around right at the start of my journey, but I was still very grateful for the views and riding, it felt like the adventure had begun. At the top of the pass some snow was falling, I wrapped up warm and enjoyed a windy gravel descent down to Lago Escondito. Here I spent the night in an abandoned cabin that cyclists have adopted as a refuge. I lit the woodburner and heated myself back up and dried my damp clothes.

The next day was spent headed further along towards my next resupply point in the town of Tolhuin. I cycled through forrest tracks, fantastic isolated Estancias and along the shores of wind blasted Lago Fagnano. In the late afternoon as the winds begun to pick up and the dust was blowing into my face I cycled into Tolhuin. After a big shop in the supermarket I cycled up to the legendary Panderia La Union. This bakery is an institution, it has built a real reputation and is the busiest and largest bakery I have ever seen. The reason it is so popular with cyclists is not only the multitude of tasty treats, but the kindness of the owner. The bakery keeps a small room with beds, a shower and basic facilities for cyclists to shelter. I was alone there for the night, so I drank my wine solo, feasted on the bakeries delicious empanadas and spent the evening reading the hundred of messages on the walls and guestbooks from years of travellers. It is truly a very special place and steeped in cycling history.

The next stretch of the route proved the most demanding for me both physically and mentally. I had to cross the windswept steppe in the centre of the island. This meant several days of isolated and rough gravel roads or “ripio”, and crossing ancient forests. The weather took a turn for the worse almost as soon as I left Tolhuin. The temperature dropped, and the rain fell for two days. This turned the roads into a mud bath and slowed my pace considerably. I was also in a constant battle with the fierce and notorious Patagonian headwinds. At several points over these days I had to get off and push because of the force of the elements. I did however have a couple of great camping spots and still found the route enjoyable. The toughest point came when crossing one estancia, the mud was so sticky and thick that I had to push for several miles. Every few meters I had to pause and scrape mud from the wheels, frame and drivetrain in order to be able to move. For days on end my only companions were the guanacos, birds, a couple of cars a day and the ever present wind.

I crossed into Chile at Paso Rio Bellavista. The border point had only recently opened for the season. After a tough two day push I reached the Western coast of Tierra del Fuego. The small village of Cameron was my planned resupply point, but I soon found that the owner of the tiny shop there was away and it was closed. My dwindling supply of pasta, some oats and a cube of cheese was going to have to be rationed out. From Cameron I received my first tailwind of the route. I whisked along the clifftops, marvelling at the views and astounded by the speed I was suddenly travelling at. That night I spent in an old bus shelter. I met a French couple here and chatted for a while before they headed off. I set my alarm for 3:30am, hoping to make an early start against the wind in the morning for a big push to the ferry port at Porvenir. From this port I wanted to take a ferry to Punta Arenas on the mainland. Awaking bleary eyed, I wolfed down my final portion of measly oats and cycled off.

The next 100km was a gruelling push into the wind. Made tougher by the fact my only fuel for the day was one cube of cheese! I rewarded myself every 25km with a bite of the block; it was a ridiculous situation. Luckily a kind Estancia owner refilled my water bottles and after several hours of cycling I rolled over the final hilltop and saw Porvenir. I had crossed Tierra del Fuego. At the ferry port I met the first other cyclists of my journey so far; Emma from Sweden and Julian from Argentina. We spent some hours chatting and waiting for the boat together, I was glad for the company and the rest.

After a long delay the ferry eventually departed and in just a couple of hours we docked on the South American mainland. We were all very hungry and craving some carbs and wine. Being late on a Sunday night most place were closed, but we managed to find a small restaurant and enjoyed a great meal and drinks. We perhaps got a little carried away with the good times, as when we left the restaurant it was gone 1:30am. The town was now deserted. We knocked at many hostels but had no luck, we even resorted to asking at the police station. After a long and futile search we decided to investigate a local park. In the dark we fortunately managed to find a hidden glade in the park and wearily pitched our tents, all passing out exhausted shortly after.

Waking after an excellent nights sleep, we laughed to find that we had been so lucky to stumble onto such a great camping spot. Cycling back into town we feasted on an extravagant breakfast in the main square, watching people and enjoying the sunshine. The eight day crossing of Tierra del Fuego has thrown me right into the experience in the best way possible. Setting out on this trip I wanted an adventure and I feel that I’ve certainly found myself in one. The first part of my journey has been perhaps more challenging than I expected, but equally as rewarding and spectacular. It’s quite amazing looking back over how much has happened in just a few days, and this only fills me with excitement over what else I have in store.


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