Well, considering it has been close to three and a half months since I last posted an article its time to do a whistle stop tour of what I've actually been up to. Leaving Patagonia back in February and setting off alone provided me with the sense of departure that I'd found lacking when leaving home. The reality of riding alone quickly hit me, and with both a sense of apprehension and pure excitement I set my wheels turning northwards through the Argentinian Pampas. That first week was hard - with a target of Mendoza in only a matter of days and a daily distance of 180km I sat in the saddle and began to feel like I was at last tackling the South American continent, the holiday of Patagonia was over and it was now time to knuckle down and pedal! Things took a slight turn for the worse after I left the main tarmac highway and headed into the hills on some abandoned dirt roads - my back wheel started throwing spokes out left right and centre whilst my rear derailleur gave up the ghost and the free hub ceased to exist. I was forced to push my bike for kilometre after kilometre of small sandy tracks, hoping a car would come along in either direction to give me a lift back to the main road, but for three days I was completely alone. Both the broken bike and being down to my final litre of water with no apparent streams for the next 100km resulted in a real sense of isolation and exposure. I felt out of my depth, unable to cope with the predicament that I had unwittingly put myself in. The broken bike I could deal with, I am a hopeless bike mechanic but with bicycles I've always found trial and error to be a pretty good methodology to 'bodge' a job. It was however the lack of water that really frightened me. I decided not to touch another drop of what little I had left until I could be sure of finding some more, rationing it until I knew I was in a safer situation. Thankfully this lasted only the remainder of the afternoon, as the darkening clouds in the distance drew ever closer, accompanied by the low rumble of thunder and sporadic flashes of lightening. Most people would see a storm coming and wish to distance themselves, however for me I knew that a bit of rain and my tent would sort out all my water worries. So, as the storm drew closer and erected my tent, placed as many bottles and pans as I had at the each corner of the tent and settled in for a long wait, confident that all the while I'd be collecting enough water to get me through to the next two days riding. Success! The heavy rains provided 5/6 litres and by the middle of the afternoon the next day I was off, with a slightly improved bike and slightly improved hydration. And so I cycled the remainder of the dirt road towards Mendoza.
Following a short stay in the mountain hugging Argentinian city I head up into the Andes to cross over the Paso Agua Negra, a dirt road pass between Argentina and Chile that would take me to the highest point of the trip thus far at 4,779m. I'd set myself the target of covering the 300km from San Juan to the top in just three short days - knowing full well that this really wasn't an appropriate level of time to acclimatise but anxious to keep on making progress north. I'd become weary with both Argentina and Chile, to me they felt European; but for the scenery I could have easily been passing through western Europe. I questioned whether this was really where I wanted to be, I'd left home on this trip in order to experience a whole different world and culture and yet after three months in these places I was far too comfortable. This wasn't really the adventure I'd set out to find. Nonetheless I headed up the pass with my lungs gasping for some oxygen and my head pounding. Each bump on the dirt roads felt like my brain was being rattled around my head. It was hard, really hard. Much harder than I had anticipated. And so on the third and final day I reached the summit more exhausted than I'd yet been after 90 km and more than 2,000m of climbing and 11 hours in the saddle.
Next up was the Atacama Desert, a place I felt compelled to cycle through ever since dreaming up this trip. For me the Atacama conjured up images of difficulty and hardship - I was looking for a challenge and I hoped this desert would provide it. How wrong I was! The Pan-American highway cuts through this empty landscape and provides a quick and easy passage northwards on smooth, wide tarmac roads with an ample hard shoulder. The constant flow of traffic along this route means that what once may have been a difficult stretch of land to pass through was really very straight forward. The knowledge that, if you ran out of water, there would always be a car or a truck that could be flagged down and would no doubt be more than happy to fill up the odd bottle or two. Additionally every 100-150km were small 'posadas'; truck stops for the passing cars which were always happy to fill up my bottles. I found crossing the Atacama to be really quite easy. Although the burden of carrying anywhere between 8 and 10 litres on the bike added more weight to my already heavy set up (I was drink between 6 and 8 litres a day!), the spectacular landscapes and frequent climbs were enough to distract from the tedium of simply dedicating each day to covering as many kilometres as possible. It really was a simple case plugging in the iPod and turning the pedals - as long as I carried enough water with me then the progress northwards would tumble away.
With the Atacama behind me I headed into the Sud Lipez region of Bolivia; volcanoes, high altitudes and plummeting temperatures. It would be the first time I had been over 4,000m for a prolonged period of time and would take me over passes falling just a fraction below 5,000m. However it wasn't the altitude that would be the issue. The only way to cross through this region was along the 4x4 tracks carved into the sandy ground by the many tourist jeeps that ferried people from Bolivia to Chile over a two day tour. These were both a blessing and a curse - the jeeps would often run you off the tracks as they raced from one photo spot to the next and had contributed to the worst corrugations I have ever experienced. However, flagging down these vehicles and asking for water was an easy task and meant that, although carrying 10 days worth of food through the region I didn't have to carry 10 days worth of water! In the end I'd overestimated the difficulty of it - online blogs put the time to cross it anywhere between 8 and 10 days, but the reality was that it was only 6 days, including the first two days battling through an unexpected snow storm! The region was however spectacular, like nothing I had ever seen before and despite the regularity of the tourist 4x4s the isolation felt within this region camping out at night was unforgettable. It was a fantastic way to start my time through the heart of the Andes and had ticked the 'adventure' box I'd been searching for since leaving Patagonia.