Patagonia

Dated: 13 DEC 18

Patagonia…I’m here in the northern reaches at last. To reach the start or what I am deciding is the start of my Patagonian experience I have taken a ferry from the town of Hornopiren. It is a delightful day slowly making the way south the skimming along the length of the Leptepu and Largo Fjords. My passage or I should say our passage is graced with calm winds and smooth seas. Plural because the hordes have arrived, four other cyclists are making the trip with me and a number of overlanders as well. We pass through the fjords with their towering slopes with valleys giving glances into the interior where snow caped mountains loom with glaciers nestled in their upper reaches. Waterfalls are the only break in the thick blanket of forest which covers every surface until the snow line. I’m eager to get going after months of excitedly saying “I’m en route to Patagonia.” There is time to put my feet up and have a good few celebratory cups of tea before the start whilst taking in the passing vistas.

Over the next few days I will realise just how popular a cycle route the Carretera Austral is, the road that winds its way south through Patagonia and eventually the “end of the world” at the most southern tip of land before Antarctica. Three days in and I have passed no fewer that fifteen fellow riders, some on long haul tours others on three or four week vacations. I’ve always wondered if I would ever make Patagonia, it wasn’t on my original plan but I thought I couldn’t miss it out if I’m on the continent, so southward I turned; but two or three weeks is enough to do a fantastic tour of the Chilean Part of Patagonia, don’t let the apparent isolation put you off a visit. So consider it for a future holiday, put on you hiking boots and trek through the mountains, along glacial streams and stand at the foot of vast glaciers; be sure to pack your anorak though the weather can take a turn at any minute even in summer.

A German couple Sven and Mia may not be on a global tour but over the twenty years of their marriage they have cycled everywhere imaginable and more. Not everyone can take a casual year off and I cant help but envy all the spots they have been that I haven’t and they tell me that they still aren’t finished; they are always imagining new places to add to the ever growing bucket list. Responsibilities of children and mortgages don‘t have to hold us back if we want.

So ramp down and I’m off. The northern reaches of Patagonia in the Aysén region or the “last frontier,” its all a dense mass vegitation in the Valdivian temperate rain forest; seemingly impenetrable unless you have an elephant and they aren’t to common in these here parts. Wild camping may prove tricky. It is a lush region thick with veggies, well trees, bracken, bamboo, plants with vast leaves bigger than any golfing umbrella and vines; none of which look to edible to me.

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We stop, the Germans and I, to walk a trail through the forest where a glade of ancient Alerce trees survive. These giants of the botanical world are over three thousand years old and are similar to the North American sequoia with reddish bark spiralling up their lofts trunks with just a small cusp of branches at their tops, they are strange looking trees. But barely an inch of the bark is visible for almost on every surface; be it tree trunk or vine, a blanket of moss, lichen and greenery grows as thick as any lawn. It is like a vertical garden, perhaps the inspiration for Singapore’s Garden’s of the Bay. This little gem is an amazing environment like no woods I have ever seen. But its sad at the same time for I assume it once covered vast areas and we humans got a touch to liberal with the use of saws, these trees would make a lovely chair or two hundred.

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That evening we camp on a well groomed lawn complete with showers…such luxury was unexpected. I am once again reminded of how the other half live. Zee Germans start putting on a spread, frying up onions and chorizo with aromas far better than the finest perfumes and into the pan it goes with their lavishly parmesan sprinkled pasta and to accompany, a smooth fruity Malbec. I look down upon yet another dinner of noodles with a sigh but of course they let me have a sip or to of vino. In the morning after being on the road for a few hours I can imagines them sat having a leisurely breakfast complete with a hot coffee to hold off the morning chill, I’m doing this all wrong.

The shower queue at the camp site was quite comical. I am at the back of the line. The three in front are somewhat despondent, eyes on the ground and not really chatting to one another or even looking each in the eyes. Its like being in the waiting room of the local STI clinic (I should imagine). We all shift our weight from foot to foot with the occasional outbreak of nervous laughter. We know what we are in for; from within the small enclosure of the shower block comes the sound of running water, fitful breaths and high pitched gasping profanities. I’ve had my share of cold showers this year but this one is Patagonian cold, water fed straight from the glacial stream running along the camp boundary. Fresh and yelp inducing.

Over the next few days as I meander south I have to pinch myself each morning to make sure I am really here. It is truly breath taking. The rainforest gives way to dense pine forests, not in organised parades like forestry’s but wild and unkempt. Countless waterfalls tumble down steep granite cliffs and form tributaries which flow into the valleys rivers. The water fresh from the glaciers is crystal clear, the clarity of which can only be found in such untouched mountain regions. You can drink straight from the streams, or even the rivers. And nestled up on the mountain sides and some not even far away are vast tongues of ice reaching towards the valley floors.

Glaciers galore and I’m not even in the thick of it yet. No picture can give justice to the majesty of a glacier or the indescribable blue which comes deep from within, photos are just a weak imitation, a shadow of the real thing. For me they have an aura which I will never tire of. Unlike glaciers I’ve seen in Europe of Asia which are high above the tree line some of these plunge into the forests creating a contrasting environment of ice and trees.

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As I near the town of Villa Santa Lucia I come across a vast stretch of forest which has been decimated. I am shocked that they would allow the logging industry to get their dirty mits on these beautiful forests. Almost as far as the eye can see is mud and debris but it doesn’t look quite right, there are no tree stumps nor tyre tracks. I don’t pause to take a snap shot for I’m on a down hill stretch and I have discovered that my brakes are on the fritz, I resort of the manual brakes, feet to the floor trailing my heels like a child trying to stem the speed. As I approach what is left of Villa Santa Lucia I realise that a rather large flood has obliterated the village not loggers. It turns out that just over a year ago a flood swept through the valley obliterating 70% of the village but some how only taking 20 lives. Beauty has its costs.

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Twin Peaks

Dated: 09 Dec 18

I’m pitched on the shores of Villarrica lake in a secluded spot but essentially in the town centre. I don’t mind urban camping but it comes at a risk of being debunked by the Policia and pestered by the locals. Its worth it though because the views are sublime. Across the water rising out of the flat landscape is the volcano Villarrica. I’m in the town of Villarrica, they aren’t very imaginative with names. What I quickly realise is that this scenic secluded spot attracts a certain clientele, not drug addicts and vagabonds such as myself but young lovers. Around my tent are couples in sweet or not so sweet embraces. I attract the odd whisper followed by a giggle as I get about my chores. Its laundry day and there is the perfect rock in the water to act as my wash board.

 

I first spotted the volcano in the morning and some eight hours later I’m finally near-ish the base, well its still 80km to the summit. It sits at just under 3000m but despite this not so impressive height it seems ginormous in the expanse of flat land and its white summit is in contrast to the rich green vegetation of its surroundings. There is a chain of similar volcanos dotted about the region. From its top I can jut make out wisps of smoke or at least I think I can, I’ve never had the chance to visit an active volcano and I’m slight dubious, am I wishing a passing cloud to be putrid fumes from the depths of the earth or is it actually an active beast? A search engine, the destroyer of imagination, shall be used to decide if I am hallucinating or not.

 

The occasional dog walker totters by my campsite and one seems to have taken an interest, on his second pass he comes over. A friendly chap with a little French to match my petite française. It concludes in “mi casa es su casa” in an invitation to stay at his (I’m fully aware that that isn’t French), as I said he has very little. Now that sounds grand but I’ve literally just blown my mattress up and it is a pain in the arse to squeeze it back in the unnecessarily snug bag. So I politely decline.

 

A short while later he walks past with a wave and then again. But he is persistent and apparently that is all it takes to get me into a bed. Persistence. His warning of the police moving me on and the fact that in the morning I will have to decamp anyway which will involve squeezing the life out of my mattress, I decide to accept his kindly offer.

 

On my way through the streets a loud wailing siren breaks the tranquillity, I won’t be needing the internet to find out if it is an active volcano the eruption alarm drill is obvious enough. A short while later after my ear drums have recovered I knock on the door to a ramshackle of a building, he shows me into a small cabin in which he clearly sleeps, there are three bunks one definitely slept in. Oh joy it looks like we are bunking together like a couple of kids at a sleep over. This is not what I had in mind. But I had jumped the gun. I’m promptly shown into the main casa and introduced to his brother, who is in fact his sister, like his French his English isnt so good.

 

Sprung on the sister, she quickly sets about making me a cuppa and produces some bread and butter. It is a small kitchen space with an amazing steel cooker, not unlike an aga but in miniature. The flume must run up through the rooms circulating the heat. Pigeon conversations as I think of them when there is very little common tongue quickly become tremendously tedious which is why I tend to shy away from built up areas; like a hermit I sometimes shy away from people. But an atlas does provide a fantastic means of pictorial conversation and we whittle away some time by examining the pages and pointing with accompanying smiles and nods.

 

He is a bubbly character, often bursting into song when wondering about the house, energetic at times he seems to be on the cusp of spontaneous dancing. With a shock of white hair high up on his head, wide eyes and an infectious smile of slightly crooked teeth. He produces a children’s English book with more smiles and nodding in which Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse team up to teach English. It proves a useful tool in our conversation, that is until he starts just point and things and announcing spoon or fork in English; but always with that smile.

 
What do you call a male spinster who really isn’t what we would normally call a bachelor? Him and his spinster sister live together they are in their 60s with a lovely German Shepard. A bachelor, a spinster and a German Shepard sounds like the opening of a bad joke.

 
That night lit up in the moon light the pyramid that is the Villarrica Volcano looms in the distance its snow caped summit reflecting the moons pale silvery light. She is in fact Chile’s most active volcano having last erupted in 2015. I can’t help but be a little disappointed that in the cratered summit I cannot see the glow of the lava within.
I decide to take a closer look and seeing as I may never be in this neck of the woods again I better scale this smouldering mound. After all I’ve never climbed a volcano before and there is a chance I can tick off an item on my bucket list, seeing molten rock….lava. But its not meant to be; I’ve not even put on my crampons or swung my ice axe before the weather swoops in obliterating the peak and the trek to the crater is called off. Typical, the weather has been gleaming all week but the moment I actually need clear skies the clouds make their move. I am bitterly disappointed but will just have to come back.

 

To perk up my mood I am ushered on a night out and make a discovery, my new career, and there isnt a desk insight. Excellent. I get chatting to a professional surfer, living in Hawaii and touring the world year in year out sounds perfect; plus if all the women are as stunning as she it is a life I could put up with. We are chatting away and things are going well (so to speak), perhaps I will be summiting twin peaks that evening after all; as I have this thought or something similar the chap sat on her right, as if my telepathy, pauses in mid conversation, glances over with a sly smile whilst casually linking arms with the lady in question before carrying on with his story. The alpha claims his mate.

Lips, Nipples & More

Travellers, myself included, love a good whinge about the escalating costs of travel. “Chile is unbelievably expensive,” is a common turn of phrase and “watch out for Patagonia.” I’m sure noodles, bread and cheese cant be that expensive. Though now in a new country the first important thing for me to do is go to the supermarket and gauge the price of fish. It is an important process and not to be rushed. Decisions must be made, which shall be my go to biscuit? Ideally not cheap and lacking substance but nor can they be top of the range that would be at least 30 pence over budget, somewhere in the middle, preferably with oats. I have a lot of stress in my life with all these big decisions. Chocolate is a no go here at well over a quid. It turns out Chile is expensive, its plain cheese sarnies for me, ham and salami are just a few bob more than I’m able. And don’t get me started on honey…its over a fiver!

The supermarkets are playing the below par Christmas music, the likes of frosty the snow man, I even saw my first distastefully decorated giant fake Christmas tree yesterday. It doesn’t matter how much tat you through at the problem of a hot Christmas it just doesn’t have the same festive feel as a wintery season.

We travellers are a touch self entitled, mainly from Europe, Australia and a few of the Americans who actually have a passport – coming from the “developed” world we feel that everywhere else is cheap or should be. When a traveller visits somewhere which is expensive they are taken aback, how can this be? You were rubbing sticks together to make fire a few years ago, things should be cheap. Well Chile doesn’t do to bad for its self, though I must admit I do wish that it was cheaper than things are at home. Once again I am reminded of how very affordable things are in the UK despite our complaints, whether people are actually complaining I do not know but the media often tells us that we are or comments on the sky rocketing price of a pint of milk; farmers are practically giving the stuff away. One thing that is cheap here is the fruit and my god it is good. The strawberries, simply magnificent. Life will never be the same again. I actually regret having them for I may never bother buying a great British strawberry again.

You don’t travel to Chile for the food though. Completo Italiano o Salsa sounds exotic, well Italian, which is perhaps exotic if you are a Chilean. But what it in fact is, is a “Italian” style hot dog. They are famous for them after all. You know, the sort you might feed to a lover whilst slowly cruising the canals of Venice and supping Prosecco. Oh wait no, its in fact the sort that you might nosh down at a ball game in New York or perhaps drunkenly purchase from a new hipster street vendor. Come the light of day the following morning you realise that your bearded hipster is actually the local homeless man using a shopping trolley as a make shift grill positioned above a steaming vent from the subway on which he also lives.

These hot dogs are everywhere and I cant help but think that the ingredients can only comprise of lips, nipples an another unappetising body part. Just look at the end of one and you can probably guess which. They are however disguised, hidden beneath an ample layer of tomatoes and smashed avocado; squint as you eat them, I always buy two, and it could be an Italian ciauscolo on focaccia with fresh tomatoes drizzled in olive oil and avocado to top it off.

The national dish is a mountain of chips, non descript meat, with two fried eggs on top. The cyclists dream but more the sort of thing you might have with a pint whilst watching the footy rather than in a place with table clothes.

Cuisine aside and Chile is proving nice, all country lanes and vast vineyards; in the distant the snow caped mountains loom, a number of them are that typical conical shape of now dormant or extinct volcanoes. Occasionally you see one with its top lopped off, a reminder of a more volatile time when it lost its head with and almighty pop.

The food might be questionable but the wine has a good reputation. Casablanca is their answer to their rivals Mendoza. They don’t always get on with their neighbouring Argentina. It dates back I believe to the Islas Malvinas translate the colloquialism, the Falklands. I have now however left the tranquil settling of winding roads through vineyards and fruit plantations and have moved on to the Pan Americana, the main highway through Chile. It is part of the longest road network in the world, linking the two continents of North and South America it stretches 19,000miles from Alaska to Patagonia. It does however have a small blip in the Darien Gap between Panama and Columbia; so it doesn’t really connect the two land masses. I’m in a rush to get to Patagonia and its the most direct route, I’m very excited.

You might think that a motorway or highway is frightfully dangerous but there is ample space in the hard shoulder and I am highly visible. Its the blind corners of the country lanes and the perilous edges of the mountain roads that pose the most danger. Plus the motorway is straight and flat just how I like it. That and I want to make sure that I am somewhere decent for Christmas, not camping on my tod in the sticks with nothing but mozzies company.

The Great Train Robbery

The morning started well, weaving down from the Uspallata Pass which divides the Andes from the South Atlantic side and the Pacific facing slopes and I cross from Argentina into neighbouring Chile. It is the third time that I have crossed this mountain range in the past two months. The climb up there is a winding dirt road occasionally dissected by the remnants of a recent landslide or expanse of snow. Above the fern line the snow is crunchy on top, but a foot then plunges through wet unstable snow beneath. To reach the pass I have to traverse a rather precarious stretch of this stuff to reach Chile.

Fortunately for me someone has beat me to it and has trodden stepping stone like foot prints across the steep incline giving me a sure footing. But its off the bike, I have to decant each bag over one by one and then finally the bike. I better not slip or drop the bike for that matter as its a bloody long way down. At first it might be a fun slide albeit a wet one with cold snow getting down your underpants but once the snow runs out it is a near sheer slope of bone breaking jagged looking rocks.

A few hours later and there I was sat in the sun enjoying a good coffee all in one piece when things to a slip for the worse. I’m stood at my bike having a good rummage through a bag as I’m about to get back to it, when a women approaches me and mumbles something, my go to phrase “pardon no Espanola” is repeated a few times (I’m really mastering the language at this stage); I reside to ignore her and the long tanned legs, so I avert my eyes from her somewhat exposed cleavage and take my seat. God she is stunning, one more look wont hurt but she’s gone, I didn’t even blink. Time to pay the bill and get going.

The next minute I am running round the corner in pursuit of this mystery women and accomplice. Whilst she fluttered her eyes at me her partner in crime snatched my wallet from the table and casually strolled off. So now I am knocking shoulders with disgruntled by standers as I make chase. A head of me they split up, the women left down an alley and the man clambers over a fence. Decision made, I go for the man. The last thing I need is to detain a women down a back alley and for her to cry wolf a the top of her voice, “help……rape..” before you know it an angary Spanish mob could form and pleas of “pardon no Espanola” would do little to quell the discord directed at the gringo. “I’m not a sex offender” hasn’t made it into my Spanish vocab yet.

So its over the fence. As the 1 o’clock from La Calera to Valparaiso rhythmically trundles along the tracks picking up speed the train sounds its horn, if the passengers happened to be looking out of the window they would have seen myself and a man locked in the clutches of a fight. I had tackled the man to the ground, we both clattered down a rocky slope off the tracks but as the train rolls passed with its deafening din the passengers would have then witnessed the thief making off along fence line with his bounty secure; I myself was left lying on my back, catching my breath and putting a hand to my head. As we tumbled down the slope he had clasped his fingers around a rock and before I knew it I was lying back slightly dazed with a trickle of blood at my temple after my attempted heroics failed in their execution.

….. what in fact happened was that a distinctly average looking women with her dark her in a ponytail high up on the crown of her head pulling her forehead taught, exposing her large gold hooped earrings and wearing an all in one red tracksuit, distracted me whilst her partner pinched my wallet which I had carelessly placed on the table when waiting for the bill to come. I sat down to finish the dregs of my coffee when it finally dawned on me that the buggers had done one on me I did dash round the corner but nearly knocking an elderly gentleman to the floor, it was to late. They had seen an opportunity and pinched the wallet carelessly placed there and disappeared into the streets of La Calera with my wallet and my dignity. What a stupid way to get robbed. On the up side I did get a free coffee out of it for I had no money to pay my bill.

A poor start to my Chilean leg, to add salt to the wound I had just been to the bank and had not had the opportunity to split my funds between the various places I keep cash so that it cant all be stolen at once. Ah well such is life, looks like I will be on an even tighter budget for the foreseeable. I doubt Chile is a land of criminals, the generosity I’ve been shown still far out ways this one instance of criminality though last night in the early hours someone was shot and killed just 20m up from my hostel.

Argentina

Dated: 20 Nov 18

I’m a believer that people who don’t like camping are doing it wrong. There is no need for discomfort, bring a pillow, a thick mattress and a duvet and enjoy a night under the stars. That being said I camp on the verge of debunking to the camp of none campers. It’s the flies, they can be relentless here in central Argentina. It is a small relief that they aren’t biters like the Scottish midges. But why do they get off from pestering people? What do they even get out of landing on any exposed flesh or buzzing about one’s noggin? Perhaps they feed of their victims shear annoyance alone.

Two nights on the trot now, without the trots, I have pitched camp on a delightful spot amongst a dell of trees or along side an aqueduct of clean fresh water funnelling the mountain run off into the depths of the wine region; its summer and the evening sun baths you in its warming glow; you can almost feel the endorphins and become wholly content after a tough days ride. But instead of lounging on the grass air drying after a swim, with a mind to read a good novel, on such fine evenings I find myself wolfing my dinner down like a china man, bowl to face and slurping before diving headlong into my tent to take shelter from the flying marauders. I wonder how many of the blighters I’ve eaten. But its not over once in for I have to play a game of tent pacman where I am the wobbly octopus chasing Mr Pacman (the flies). The little buggers pack a surprising amount on bloody when you do catch them.

It has been some time since I’ve thought to myself that life is good but as I ride though the countryside on yet another nippy early morning that I really do think that life is fucking good. But god it is. How lucky am I to be out seeing, smelling and feeling the world day in day out whilst most plebs are stuck at a desk? The answer is very, its a privilege.

Each morning whilst I shadow the spine of South America that is the Andes the vale drops. East facing slopes in the moments before sunrise show as just a slight silhouette against the deep ink blue of the night. As the sun makes its move skyward its vanguards of light begin to dilute the dark ink of night, then the peaks glow golden like a fine whisky I could never afford and the vale begins to fall; for nothing can hold back the illuminating tide. With in minutes its reached the valley floor revealing fields, roads and small clusters of houses with rising chimney smoke, people are already up and about. The mountains now exposed, almost naked save for dark shadows mottling their slopes concealing cool streams, ravines or craggy slopes. You would think that we humans would tire of sunrises or sunsets, they occur twice daily, an inevitable and quite arbitrary event but every now and again one catches you off guard.

A few days ago I made the rather blasé statement that South America isn’t as interesting as Africa and Central Asia and that I have not experienced the same generosity here either. Africa certainly had more stimulus, there was never a quiet moment and Central Asian history I find particularly fascinating. But to say that SA is an unwelcoming stingy place would be a disservice to its people. It must be said that I do not find myself writing as prolifically or that I have been offered a free bed for the night with dinner; yet.

Here in SA there is simply so much space that I do not have the need to knock on peoples doors and politely charade a request to camp on their lawns. The children are just as wide eyed as I ride on by but they do not have the audacity to ask for money, calling “muzungu.” In fact the opposite can be said to be true.

On the morning approaches to Mendoza a van driver scared me out of my skin as he shouted to out of his window, before I know it he is accelerating to draw along side and waving a plastic bag at me. I receive it with thanks, he speeds off and I come to a halt to play lucky dip. I was handed cheese, salami and bread, not a bag of dog poo, fantastic. Later that same day, a car slows at maybe a distance of one kilometre, they stop, a door opens and a bottle is place in my path, before the door shuts with a distant thud and off they shoot. Again I pull along side to inspect; an ice cold bottle of water left for me in the desert. They sped off not needing the gratification of my thanks, how very altruistic. But Is it poisoned? Its not urine as its not yellow. The cap cracks as I unscrews it, its not poison after all. And finally that very same day as I approach the city, a car pulled over on the hard shoulder revers its engine as I pass, I roll eyes, what now? And in a flurry of dust and stones the old tiring muscle car is churning along side, the man behind the wheel is yelling something, I smile and before you know it he is waving money out of the window at me…..hello steak dinner.

Culturally I’ve not spotted anything to wow me or anything out of the ordinary. There is certainly the European influence in the architecture and there are plenty of patisseries; though it must be said that the pastry, of which I have sampled ample, is a touch dry and stodgy, perhaps they are a touch stingy with the butter. If you have ever seen croissants being made you will realise just how much butter is necessary! Something’s are better left to the unknown though.

One thing I have noticed is they way they grieve or maybe the phrase, remember their loved ones, is better. By the road side I often pass great elaborate memorials which families construct themselves. Normally they are painted bright red, with fading flags hanging from the adjacent trees, benches provide mourners or cyclists somewhere to rest the bottoms and built in barbeques the likes of which you might see on rustic garden patio provide cooking facilities. It provides the facilities for extremely sinister cremations, I wouldn’t want to be the one stuck for hours by the smokey BBQ. But in actual fact on public holidays of which there seems to be many or weekends families visit these memorials together and spend time cooking up a feast where they can be close to lost loved ones.

In La Paz, Bolivia, I happened to be there on The Day of the Dead, Halloween; I visited the main cemetery. Thousands of people were entering in a great throng, it was all hustle and bustle. Gifts of food, drink and trinkets are placed at the site where one’s loved one rests, some had mountains of sweets, flowers, fruits and intricately platted breads all arranged about a photo at the foot of the tombs. Families gather to grieve, whispering prayers, singing or even playing music. The entire cemetery teemed with people in a great hubbub of noise.

Many people have faded memories of say a grandparent who died when they were to young to really remember them so I suppose this annual ritual allows them or enables them to feel a connection with past family members. It was a very personal day full of emotion, with few dry eyes to be seen, as a tourist I found it an odd thing to be part of, but moving none the less. With all the food about it is probably Christmas for the local rodent population who get to add a bit of fruit and veg in their primarily carnivorous diets. I did spot one or two scurrying little feet.

As I continue this long desert section south it has become apparent to me that my brain in need of some stimulation, as it took far to long to figure out a five years olds puzzle, killing flies only strains the brain so much: A man is on a journey when he comes to a river, with him he has a bunch of cabbages, a goat and even more bizarrely a wolf (though that might just been his pet name for his wife). There is a boat which can ferry him and one load at a time. He cant take the cabbages leaving his wife behind for left to her own devises she will eat the goat, hooves and all, and the goat the cabbages. How does he get across? I think when I was in pre school it was a guinea pig and a dog.
“Mendoza?” each day as I zig zag south, ideally with as little zig zagging as possible, I chat to a local or two and tell them my route, Mendoza, Santiago, Ushuaia.

At the mention of Mendoza a internal bell goes off and I start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs….steak, wine and cheese. At some point on this last leg I surpassed the 18,000 mile mark and as a reward I am having the full Argentinian experience in Mendoza. Cycling in a leisurely fashion around the vineyards of Mendoza, supping Malbec’s and eating cheese followed by a no holding back steak dinner most likely with a side of more wine. I say no holding back, I will still be wearing my one dirty t-shirt and grubby shorts so the table clothes won’t be the whitest nor the waiters the smartest but hopefully the steak will be the juiciest.

18,000 is a bench mark, no different to a thousand or two either side really but when the likes of Mark Beaumont who I’ve mentioned a few times for he is the world record holder for two wheeled man powered circumnavigation or Jenny Graham who has just pegged the women’s self supported record by covering this distance. There are other arbitrary requirements that the Guinness World Record dictate are that “a rider must travel the same distance as the circumference of the Earth — 24,900 miles — in one direction, starting and finishing in the same place. Travel by sea and air is allowed, but at least 18,000 miles of the route must be cycled.” random body f individuals who have probably never done it them selves. The circumference of the earth is 25,000mile (roughly) which is what I hope to reach but its looking like I will fall short, ah well who’s counting? ME.

Desert Island Disks

Kirsty Young (in her very soft BBC Radio 4 voice) : Hello I’m Kirsty Young and welcome to Desert Island Disks where every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks, the book and the luxury item that they would take with them is they were cast away on a desert island.

Music: Intro

Kirsty Young: My cast away this week is the person Harry Morris you may not have heard of him at all. To date he has not appear on television or on the silver screen nor has he won a Grammy, Oscar or any other accolade that we would normally celebrate and expect from our guests on the show. Welcome Harry Morris.

Harry Morris (in his deep, sexy, husky voice like perhap Chris Hemsworth in Thor or Batman): Hello and thanks for flattering introduction. I suppose I should start by saying that I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I’m tone deaf and talentless. I had various forays into music, obviously we all played the recorder in school at a young age, I never even mastered Baa Baa Black Sheep. But the first instrument I remember having instruction on was the accordion, yes that’s right leather straps and all; plus it came with a bullying bullseye on my back aswell. After that it was the piano, the saxophone and finally drums; all at great expense and all complete failures. I was so bad to the point that at a Christmas carol service one year, attended by mine and all the other parents, that before going on stage with the orchestra with my saxophone’s reed moistened and ready to blow that my music teacher took me to one side and instructed me, “just pretend to play, move your fingers in accordance with the music as best you can, but don’t give that instrument wind.” I think tone deaf is the phase.

Kirsty Young: We lets go to your list you’ve found it hard making your selections but your first choice if you please.

Harry Morris: Well I’ve just given you a brief history of everything musical for me and that explains the difficulty in choosing this short list. But to that end my first selection reminds me of childhood blunders, it makes me cringe just thinking about it, I give you Shania Twain, Man I Feel Like a Women”

Kirsty Young: (laughter) So tell me the story behind it.

Harry Morris: I was an awkward child and in some ways I still am today. I was with a small group of kids who unlike the rest of the school listened to the likes of Nirvana, Green Day, Metallica and even Marilyn Manson, we used to bring our CDs to the assembly room where there was a big sound system and hang, listening to music. Music was a huge social aspect in school. But for some reason I had formed friends with the kids in the year above which posed problems; we didn’t go to class together, play sport, we were in different dorm rooms with different bed times. So in an attempt to get in with the Top of the Pops lot in my own year, Top of the Pops was an unmissable Friday night event, that and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had a plan. One weekend I went out and bought the number one, the chart topper, my way in. Well unfortunately it was Shania that week, she was number one and surely the thing to get me in with the other kids. Talk about a swing and a miss.

Kirsty Young: Your father was in the military, your mum a nurse and you along with your two brothers were packed of to boarding school at quite a young age. Tell me about your parents and your young life, how was it?

Harry Morris: Well firstly I loved boarding school. What’s not to love, you are there with all your friends 24/7, running around like mad men at the weekends, seven seven year olds in a dorm room…..madness. yes I’m sure there were tears at times and fallings out but you never remember the bad bits. Then when you go home for the holidays you are spoilt rotten.

Unlike most characters you interview Kirsty, who have either come from an extremely disruptive family back ground and have had say, six step mothers by the time they were twelve or have had a dark period of drugs and depression at some point throughout the course of their life I have lived a normal unexciting life. Yawn.
Me and my two brothers or I suppose I should say my two brothers and I had a perfectly normal southern up bringing; we say “bath” not “bath.” I actually had an Essex twang in my early youth as we lived in Colchester, my father used to remind me with a clip round the ears “little has two “t’s” in it boy” as I would always drop a t, “lit~le.” But boarding school quickly put a stop to that.

Kirsty Young: Tell me about this second disk, why is it on your list?

Harry Morris: We are not a family of huggers but my parents are fantastic, patient and let us make out our own mistakes. I suppose I’ve always been restless and after my GCSE’s decided that I needed a change and asked if I could move schools. So my supportive parents started window shopping, I went to look at a number of fine educational establishments and settled on one up north. It was in fact military school. So off I went bags packed and shirts starched. well things didn’t exactly go to plan and a year later I find myself at another school after a torrid relationship with the latter. This panned out to be a great thing for many of my closest friends I owe to that change in schooling. And for first time I was a day pupil and had to endure a morning commute each day. In the car with the old man or old women twice daily, we would often put in The Rolling Stones, Forty Licks. I’m sure this one has come up before and perhaps isnt very adventurous of me but here is: (I can’t get no) Satisfaction. The theme tune to the morning school run.

Kirsty Young: We’ll here it is then, The Rolling Stones, (I can’t get no) Satisfaction.

Harry Morris: School is not surprisingly a hugely influential part of one’s life, I’m a tad younger than some of your interviewees and therefore have less experience to draw upon. They say school is the best part of your life, so make the most of it. I call their bluff, I should certainly hope it isn’t for that would mean life goes down hill from 18, in my opinion life keeps getting better and better, with a few bumps of course. It is probably the most care free, depending on the child, but the best things about school is the sheer volume of time spent playing sport. Unless you are a professional sports man or land a job out doors you will never recapture that. Well the next one harks back to those school days and sport I suppose. Each morning we would have assembles and part of that was hymns. Now I’m an atheist so it s rare after being out of education for a number of years that I am afforded the opportunity to have a good sing song (conspicuously in a crowd). It is why I enjoy a good wedding, that and the free booze. This is one of the classics, we used to sing it in the morning assembles before a rugby match. Its an anthem, the hymn, Jerusalem by the poet William Blake.

Kirsty Young: So take me through your next track.

Harry Morris: I don’t think you hand talk about your musical history without bringing up your first ever gig. It is a monumental moment in any young persons life. My friend Matt and I were the first in our year group to go to a proper gig, unsupervised. We must have been say twelve at the time. His dad was the head master of the junior school and one Saturday he drove us up to Bristol, he dropped us off at Bristol Academy and we excitedly joined the queue to get in and see Jimmy Eat World. Over the next few years we and a few friends were listening to the likes of One Hundred Reasons, Hell is for Hero’s and Biffy Clyro (before they were extremely famous) and when ever they came to the southwest we would be there. So this song is by Jimmy Eat World, taken from their album Bleed America, it’s The Middle; and is dedicated to Matts dad, Justin Backhouse. For a headmaster he was a good egg.

Kirsty Young: So you are in your thirties, single, where is Mrs right?

Harry Morris: Ha, are you fliting with me? No I cant say there is one, I always seem to have one foot out of the door and I have hand my share of blunders like everyone else. Lots of my friends are women but no one has stuck in that sense. I am perfectly capably at talking to women sometimes, a drink helps of course but at times I can be very awkward, like Father Ted in the M&S Lingerie department.

My first school boy crush was I remember was Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell, and for every child growing up in the 90s the Spice Girls were everywhere. Spice up your life. So for my next song… it has to be….no I could never take the Spice Girls to a desert island they just wouldn’t do.

Kirsty Young: Harry Morris, you let school and went straight to the university of Leeds where you read Geography, you have not given me any indication that university was a significant time for you. In term of the university its self for some people it really defines them and the rest of their life.

Harry Morris: I feel into the middle class trap of leaving school and going to university, not because I had a calling for academia, medicine or engineering, no, more because it was expected of you by your parents and school; frankly I had nothing else better to do. It was from school, to university and then straight into another big institution, the Navy, which is essentially school with more rules.

I could never regret university, I wouldn’t turn back time if given the opportunity, I met great people, lived independently (ish) and drank oh so much which obviously means I had a lot of fun. But it is at university that I first got into travel. I worked in various bars during the year, saving for my summer travel fund. For my first trip I went to South East Asia and did the standard circuit through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand . One thing I remember from this trip was visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia and learning about the Khamer Rouge. It was eye opening, then it was to Vietnam and an education in agent orange. It really was eye opening and travel still is today, just eye opening. Apparently I’m not feeling very articulate today as “eye opening” seems to be on repeat. There is so much about the world we don’t learn about in school or discuss in the media. Why we learn about the Tudors and ancient Egypt in school I don’t know, sure its interesting but there is so much important modern history that we don’t get told about.

I also had thee opportunity to study abroad and applied on a whim to move to Canada for a year. It turned out to be one of the best things Ive ever done. Living over there I made fantastic friends who I still see today, we travelled around the states a bit and I ended up in Australia for a few months as well. A girl. The music that reminds me of those days is Empire of the Sun or Architecture In Helsinki but the song I will choose is MGMT’s, Time to Pretend; it just takes me back to those care free times.

Kirsty Young: I’m afraid we have run out of time and we only have enough spare seconds for one more track selection so make it quick.

Harry Morris: Oh ok. Ummmm well I better quickly pick one of my last three tracks (…..the sound of fidgeting, a brain deliberating and a cough…..) I’ve got it. I was going to go with the music from the Last of the Mohicans, it is a great piece of music it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and my heart rate increase, Promentory by Trevor Jones. But there is little music out there with the ability to get a group of people laughing, happy and moving their hips than my last choice. My not so final selection will have to be Parov Stelar, All Night.

Kirsty Young: Harry Morris, it’s time now for me to give you a couple of books, you get the complete works of Shakespeare, the bible and another book of your choice.

Harry Morris: Um yes the bible, well paper is useful in many ways and Shakespeare will certainly keep me going. Well I’m not really one to read on holiday, I normally like to keep busy but I suppose I will need some entertainment for all that free time I will have on my sandy oasis. Well there is no point in taking my favourite book as I know what happens, plus the hobbit is really short. I will go for Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clark. It is a book I once started and didn’t finish and I hate leaving books incomplete.

Kirsty Young: And of course your luxury item. Nothing to useful mind.

Harry Morris: I will go for one of those catering sized bags of Yorkshire Gold, you cant read a good book with out a good cup of English Breakfast; so long as a get a good porcelain mug and milk to accompany it.

Kirsty Young: I will tell you what, you can have a life time supply.

Harry Morris: No no, one bag, well one bag of at least 1000 bags. It needs to be finite for it would make each cup special and when you get towards the end you would really savour them. It would be ever increasing motivation to escape.

Kirsty Young: And which would you save from the rising waves, if you only had time to rescue one?
Harry Morris: Well that’s easy it would have to be Parov Stelar, All Night. It would always pick you up when you were down.

Kirsty Young: Harry Morris, thank you very much for letting us listen to your Desert Island Disks.

Harry Morris: No thank you.

Music: Theme tune.

Perspective

As I near the edge of Salar de Uyuni a small building takes shape around which a cluster of Land Cruisers and a gabble of tourists loiter. There is something satisfying materialising as if out of know where, first a pea sized dot on the horizon which slowly takes the form of a cyclist. The tourists are all stood in clusters taking photos and laughing at the results. Every person to visit Bolivia comes here to get the photo. As I stiffly remove myself from the frame a few tourists give a quizzical glance of where the hell did you come from? Before hopping back in the air conditioned 4×4.

I need to get off my high bicycle, there is nothing wrong with being just a tourist, I’m just a tourist (apparently a self important one). I’ve even been here before and laughed at my own amusing photos. There is no break in horizon or the surface here, the stark white salt and the perfect blue sky mean that you can make it seem like you are, I don’t know, being squashed by a gigantic foot or spilling out of a coke can; the can is placed close to the lens and the model at a distance looks minute in comparison.

A picure paints a thousand words.

To reach the point where I dismounted my high bike on the edge of Bolivia’s iconic salt flat Salar de Uyuni and the largest in the world I cycled from La Paz in an uneventful journey to reach the salty shores. But over the course of two days I would cross the lesser known but equally salty Salar de Coipasa and the big one Salar de Uyuni. Together they take up an area of 11,388 square kilometres and comprise of an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt beneath which sit reservoirs of lithium rich brine.

It looks like snow, it smells like snow, you would even get salt blindness on account of the snow like albedo but it tastes nothing like it and it is in fact it is odourless, that nostalgic whiff of the salty sea you get when going on holiday to Blackpool is in fact ocean dwelling bacteria. This salt flat is by all accounts a hostile environment void of almost all life, few bacteria can even call it home.

As I start out across Coipasa I quickly discover that I wont be breaking any land speed records, it is slow going. At times it is smooth and I make good time, that is until the salt becomes saturated and turns to slush. Other patches are slick like black ice and I’m at risk of toppling. Or hidden beneath a thin crust of salt are pot holes which compress the spine as I unexpectedly jerk over them; I’m just holding my breath ready for a pond sixed chasm which will engulf me whole. The line of alpaca quietly crossing this expanse don’t seem to be having the difficulties which I am subjected to.

Fortunately salt flat day two is more successful. Salar de Uyuni.

There isnt a sound not even a chirp of a bird or the squeak of a mouse, nor is there any man women or child, building or even a sign post, hell for once there isnt even any litter. Its at times like these that I feel a real sense of satisfaction in the fact that even today in our over populated world you can still find yourself in great wildernesses free of humankind. I’m truly alone, solitude at its best. Stop and there is complete and utter silence, its just you, your breath and the beat of your heart.

Salar de Uyuni was a different kettle of fish….as I make my way onto the salt it creaks and crunches like fresh pisted snow after a cold night. I follow no road just a rough bearing towards Isla Incahuasi, a cactus strewn island at its centre; making dead reckonings to estimate my course across this sea of salt. I crunch my way across a lattice of honey comb ridges in the surface making a rhythmic bumping as I go.

Despite the desert like appearance there is water here though, beneath the surface. Occasionally a hole will reveal crystal clear saline water, I plunge an arm and am chilled up to the armpit without reaching the bottom; perhaps I’m luck some salt monster didn’t pull me beneath. God knows how deep it is. This makes it seem like l’m a ice roads trucker on just a few thin inches of supporting salt.

Perspective is distorted out here, with nothing to break the horizon judging distance is impossible. On a flat surface such as this of the sea, the curvature of the earth means that you can only physically see approximately a mere 5km, that’s it! So as I approach Incahuasi at first just its peak can be seen floating above the horizon at a great distance; a watery mirage makes it appear as if to be floating in mid air. Its a big bloody island so it is a long bloody time before its base fills the watery void and comes into view and even then it seems to take an inordinate amount of time to reach the reprieve of soil.

This trick of the salty void and its deception of perspective, means that it is difficult to judge distances; islands slowly grow, first black shapes on the horizon before forming browns and soft yellows as these draw slowly nearer. Occasionally a vehicle might skirt into view appearing as if it a toy car moving of its own accord. Times seems to slow or my progress seems to regress and the monotony of the featureless salt‐scape is mentally exhausting; occasional bouts of bone shaking roughness do its best to be physically tiring to boot, as my wrists and undercarriage take the brunt of vibrations.

But its not all bad by any means; it is truly breath taking and unworldly, nature is full of surprises. It is truly amazing, the shear isolation, the barrenness, the beauty. As the hours pass by with no distraction I nod in and out of a meditative state, taken back to old memories, faces and music only to be brought round by the occasional sight of black ant like masses moving along the horizon following some sort of trail; vehicles just on the edge of the horizon so that they are out of focus. And eventfully the gabble of tiny tourists begins to take shape little peas at first before taking tourist form, I mean, human form.

 

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