Patagonia part 2: Coyhaique to El Chalten

I woke up in Coyhaique and for the first time in a long time didn’t want to get on the bicycle. But the sun was shining, a rare occurrence in the last few weeks, so we felt obliged to make a move. Brad bribed me with the promise of a proper coffee and a pastry on the way out of town. So after I had dragged myself out of bed, taken ten years packing up my stuff and savoured my coffee and cake, we finally rolled out of Coyhaique close to midday. I then misread the map and took us the wrong way out of town, down a very steep hill. There is nothing like a steep climb at the start of a ride to wake the lungs and legs up and get you going.

Given our late start, we had no planned end point for the day. It was just a ride until the sun starts to set kind of day. And what a glorious one it was. We savoured the last of the tarmac on the carretera, plugged ourselves into our books and watched the stunning scenery as it passed. We climbed up a narrow valley to 1100 metres, where we finally spotted a huemul (an endangered Patagonian deer) and snow started to fall. The road opened out and we were treated to a stunning view of the valley below lit by the setting sun and I was glad that I’d pulled myself out of bed. We called it a day at a camp site in Villa Cerro Castillo, after 94 kilometres and some decent climbs. The body is definitely capable of more than the mind would like to admit.

We left Cerro Castillo ignorant to the fact that this day was to become a very characteristic Patagonian day and a very character building one. I’m writing this two weeks on and I’m still unsure if type-two fun is the right phrase. From Cerro Castillo, there is no more tarmac on the Carretera, and so almost immediately we felt more adventurous and more in the wilderness. The road follows the valley west, which if you anything about the prevailing winds in Patagonia, firstly, I apologise for not putting a trigger warning on this blog, and secondly, it may induce a feeling of schadenfreude. For sixty kilometres we cycled in to a headwind. Not just a normal headwind, but a classic Patagonian gale force blow you off your bike kind of headwind. At times it was so strong we simply couldn’t cycle. We were struggling to push our bikes on the flat. Welcome to Patagonia! The road was also under construction for twenty of those sixty kilometres, turning the nice gravel road in to a naughty gravel road. Think mud, loose gravel and rocks the size of a fist (not my fists, proper adult fists, I’ve got child hands). Needless to say it took us seven and a half hours to cover sixty kilometres.

At four pm we stopped for a late lunch and were nearing the end of the westward travel. We were optimistic that when the road turned south east in to a new valley, we would be blessed with a tail wind. So we carried on, with no plans of when to set up camp, and I certainly had no plans to make it to the next village of Rio Tranquilo before nightfall. We were right to be optimistic. The road work had stopped, we’d reached the top of the climb and boy oh boy was the tail wind good. We flew along, passers by stopping and staring at the cyclists beating the land speed record, whooping as they went. Brad even tried to Macgyver a sail with various combinations of his coat, hands, legs and arms. We later met a Frenchman who used an umbrella as a sail. We envied his genius and Mary Poppins pannier bags. Seriously who brings an umbrella on a cycle tour.

All was going well, we covered forty kilometres in less than two hours, and here is where the lesson begins. We should have called it a day at this point, been pleased with a hundred kilometres on shit gravel and the worst headwind we’ve had. (For context, on a still day on tarmac we would cover double that distance with less effort). But in our heads we were only twenty five kilometres from Rio Tranquilo, it was two and a half hours until darkness and we were planning on having a rest day to visit the Marble Caves. It seemed silly to save these merger twenty five kilometres until the next day. Especially as rain was forecast. So we stuffed an Alfajores(a thick shortbread, sandwiched with dulce de leche and dipped in chocolate) in to our mouths and carried on.

The road turned to shit. The tail wind disappeared and it started to rain. All of a sudden, I realised how tired I was, my eyelids sagging and my legs heavy. Twelve kilometres in, I was deeply regretting my life choices. Why hadn’t I married a man who enjoyed luxury beach holidays. I could be sipping mojitos on a beach. I told Brad, rather pathetically, that I didn’t think I could make it. I asked if he thought we could? His reply, ‘the town doesn’t have a closing time’. And he cycled off. My husband, the motivational speaker.

Time is a funny thing, sometimes hours can fly by feeling like only minutes have passed and sometimes even minutes can drag. The last hour in to Rio Tranquilo was endless. We seemed only to go up or down, not flat. My stomach grumbled and despite the exertion I was cold. I don’t remember enjoying any of that last hour, which is a shame because the scenery was stunning. Once again, I was reminded that for us, cycle touring isn’t a race, it isn’t about making big miles in a day just because you can. There is no point being out in beautiful landscapes and hating it because you are punishing yourself on the bike. For us, the journey has never been about the physical challenge. It has been about travelling through more remote areas, experiencing the landscapes and meeting the people in a way not possible by motorised transport. Especially in Patagonia where there is a saying “el que se apura en la Patagonia, pierde el tiempo” which means “he who rushes in Patagonia, loses time”. But for the record, that day in to Rio Tranquilo was the biggest of the whole trip. One hundred and twenty five kilometres on shit dirt road, with a giant headwind and over a thousand metres of climbing. It took us eleven and a half hours, and two days to recover.

As we cycled in to the village at eight thirty pm, we were coincidentally met by two other cycle tourists and a gentleman explaining there was a couch surfing host in town. They asked if we would like to stay. At this moment, we felt so relieved that this offer had come so easily. They took us to meet the host at his marble caves tour shop across the road, where we hung out for about half and hour while he finished up the days business. It was now dark. He explained the terms of the stay. We could camp at his place for free, which he described as natural living. We could drink water from the glacier (which we took to mean there was a stream running by the property). There was no electricity, but we could light a fire. We could wee anywhere we wanted, but we must dig a hole to poo. And there was no hot water. So basically he was describing any patch of land we had ridden through for the last 125 kilometres. Now I’m a lover of a wild camp, more than happy to pee in a bush and poo in a hole, but I somewhat draw a line at doing this communally. I had images of digging myself a hole only to find a land mine waiting for me. The lack of a hot shower after several grubby days and a hard ride was the final straw. We realise the irony, that hosts for cycle tourists are often known as warm showers after the website that coordinates them. He didn’t call himself by this, instead using the more well known “couch surfing” but we suspected he might not have one of these either. We politely declined his kind offer, I’m sure looking very prissy and unadventurous in front of the other cycle tourists, and went in search of an actual warm shower.

The following day we took a boat trip out to the Marble Caves of Lago General Carrera. This lake is the largest in Chile, third largest on the continent, and like Lake Titicaca feels more like a sea than a lake. The marble caves were beautiful and it was hard to believe that the crystal clear and calm waters we were sailing on had intricately carved these structures. It wasnt until the journey back that we realised just how fierce the lake can be. We were in a large dingy with a fifty horse power motor and we battled through large waves and three metre swell. The driver took us close to the rocky shore, trying to escape the worst of the wind and the waves. At times we came perilously close. Not for the first time this trip, I tried to figure out an escape plan if the boat capsized. Would I take my clothes off? Which direction would I swim? Do I wait for Brad? Could I start a fire with my iPhone? Which of my fellow passengers would I eat first? Where is Winston?

I’m pleased that it took until the following day for us to learn that the lake used to be known as “Lago de las Tempestades”, “Lake of the storms”. And that the founder of The North Face died in this lake after capsizing in a kayak without a wetsuit.

Once my legs had fully recovered from our long day, we set off and were lucky to be treated to sunny skies, but less fortunately the wind was still raging. The road followed the south western shores of the lake and was easily spotted in the distance by the long stream of dust being blown from it.

We have passed only a few cycle tourists traveling in the same direction as us, and also surprisingly few traveling north. I often find the interactions we do have interesting ones. There seems to be a mostly-followed etiquette that one should stop for a quick chat, like fellow residents of a country town. But much like hiking on a trail, not everybody says hello as they pass. When travelling towards cyclists coming in the other direction, I find the scenario a bit like two dogs walking towards each other, trying to suss out the situation. There’s always the conundrum of – are they going to slow down and say hello – I should slow down and say hello, I wouldn’t want to be rude – and occasionally the ‘oh, no. They’ve stopped but I haven’t. How awkward’. I’m not sure if others have this or its just my socially awkward English tendencies shining through.

Anyway, on this day we came across four cyclists sat behind some bushes, as a wind shelter, not to hide from us, I think. They were clearly having morning tea but we had stopped a few kilometres before and surprisingly didn’t feel the need for another snack. So we had a brief chat and carried on. Despite this encounter being short, its always nice to chat to someone who in that moment you have so much in common with and yet in the grand scheme of life there’s little that draws you together.

We called it a day at the most southerly end of the lake, wanting to savour the spectacular views for as long as we could. We were lured down a steep driveway in the Pared Sur Camp, which we later came to learn was the humble abode of Pablo aka Mr Carretera Austral. Pablo showed us around his beautiful site. Wooden cabins with dorm rooms, tent sites with access to luxurious bathrooms and a shared dining room perched on the hill. And glamping domes complete with double bed, a wood burner and panoramic views. He explained that a large college group from Santiago had just cancelled their trip due to the unrest and so he was willing to let us stay in a fancy dome for a special cyclists rate. Now I know what I wanted to do. I wanted the night of glamour, but as is the way with women, I told Brad I didn’t mind and that he could decide whether we camped or stayed in the dome. Luckily, the dome brought back memories of our wedding day for Brad, when we stayed in a similarly styled yurt. The memories for me are not quite so vivid, on account of me having one too many wines (bottles) and falling asleep before eleven. So Brad was thankful for the opportunity of a second go at our wedding night, minus the alcohol. So we stayed in a dome and it was great.

Over dinner, we learned from Pablo that he was somewhat of a mountain bike legend in the region, having led tours on this road since its construction began. He had lost count of the number of times he had ridden it, but reckoned the number must be upwards of forty. He has also taken a mountain bike around the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, but was cagey about how much he actually got to ride it.

The next day was another beautiful ride despite the occasional rain. It largely followed the Rio Baker, a river so blue it is almost unbelievable, and this led Brad and I to have a discussion about why? We never resolved the matter, figuring it obviously had something to do with a glacier and probably something  to do with the sky, but we couldn’t reconcile why it then turned green when it met the Rio Neff at the “Confluencia” if the colour was solely due to the sky, and anyway, we are in Patagonia, the sky is never blue.

Cycling leaves a lot of time for the mind to wander and often results in either one of us coming up with random questions such as ‘what is the difference between a wave and a swell’ and ‘how many possums are there in New Zealand’. Brad often tries to answer my questions with confidence regardless of whether he knows the answer or not. We have often written these questions down, meaning to look up the answer later, but we rarely do, life tasks getting in the way.

We had a day off in Cochrane, and I’m glad we did.It is the day we learned that dogs believe they have a divine leader. Walking in to town we heard the emergency services/ volunteer firefighter siren go off. Every single roaming dog in the street, of which there are hundreds, stopped, turned their heads to the sky and started howling the same hymn like school boys in a choir, only these dogs all have their balls.

South of Cochrane there are two hundred kilometres of the Carretera Austral remaining. We decided to break this in to four days, mostly to savour the last moments but partly because our tails were still between our legs after “the longest day”. The sun was shining, we were cruising at a gentle speed, feeling as if finally after upwards of ten thousand kilometres we were getting the hang of this zen thing. We listed to various sounds of birds calling and the river flowing beside us. It was one of those moment where you find yourself thinking how lucky you are. And then a bird flew in to Brads wheel. Brakes screeched and we skidded to a halt. For the second time on this trip in an dead animal related incident, Brad screamed like a little boy and wailed “No, no, what!? No”

As the bird flapped around on the ground, a fox appeared and started trotting towards us. We both stood aghast hoping it would fly away. It didn’t. We did. For the rest of the day I referred to Brad as the bird murderer. I’m not sure he has quite got over it.

At the end of the second day, we arrived at Puerto Yungay, a one building port at the end of the one road. The time table stated that while during high season the last boat is at six pm, November is low season and our ferry across to Rio Bravo was only scheduled twice a day, the last sailing at three pm which we had already missed. We were surprised therefore to find this tiny place full of cars and people and with two boats in port. One was the scheduled weekly ferry to Puerto Natales. It was unclear where the other boat was headed, but it looked ready to go with its back down on the ramp and engine running.

We spotted the Argentine cyclists we had met in Rio Tranquilo and asked them in our terrible Spanish what their plans were. They were going to sleep in the ticket office when the boat to Puerto Natales departed at eight pm. It was therefore “clear” to us that there was no boat across the lake this evening and we would have to wait until the morning, as the Argentines were. But we couldn’t figure out where the second boat was going. The ticket office was closed and there was no one official to ask, just lots of people milling around looking hopeful. So we joined them, and had the same confused conversation over and over again

Sarah: where do you think that boat is going?

Brad: I don’t know

Sarah: all these people can’t be three hours early for the boat to Puerto Natales

Brad: maybe they are

Sarah: perhaps this boat is ours and will actually leave at six

Brad: perhaps

We flirted with the idea of asking someone, but the chances of us being enlightened was slim due to our questionable language skills . At six pm, when anticipation had reached fever pitch (I never knew you could be so agitated about a boat you’d already missed) the engines roared and two cars, in on the secret of where this boat was going, drove on. It was then I heard a yell of “Rio Bravo” from on board. We were in. This was our boat. We hurried on and as we did they lifted the ramp and we sailed off leaving most of the cars and the people in the point. Turns out, everyone does arrive three hours early for the once-weekly ferry to Puerto Natales. Or so we thought…

There were no cars on the other side when we got off the boat at six fifty five pm and so we began setting up camp. Meanwhile the ferry driver waited patiently for the schedule seven pm back to Puerto Yungay. Clearly no one was coming, like stopping at a red light in the middle of the night, it’s just something you do for that one in a million chance. As the ferry sailed around the headland, dust billowed from the road behind us. A Jeep travelling at rally car speeds came around the corner and slid to a hand brake halt at the top of the jetty. Two young me hopped out, one of them cursing in Spanish and the other (almost certainly said) “I told you everyone arrives three hours early for the ferry.” They had almost given up hope, but as the dust rose up in the the sky like a signal, the ferry honked its horn and started back towards the jetty. And so we bore witness to the biggest, and to his mate the most infuriating, “I told you we’d be fine” in history.

Over the last hundred kilometres, we had a great day cycling by the river, up a wide glacial valley and over a mountain pass. Cars came in ones and twos, only three times that day corresponding with the ferry. Otherwise we raced the road graders and played chicken with them. They won.

We pulled up stumps at another Refugio. This time owned and kindly offered for free by a local farmer, Jorge. The Refugio was a hut with a fire place, slats for ventilation and two benches. Jorge dropped by to see how we were going, laughed at our pitiful attempt at a fire and invited us in to his bachelor pad for a maté (a traditional caffeinated herbal drink sipped through a straw and often shared) before giving us some dry wood. We also joined him in feeding homemade pastries to his favourite sheep. Jorge played some music, powered by solar electricity and collected water from a bucket he had filled from the stream. We talked about an avalanche that had come threateningly close to his abode in the middle of the night during winter. I can’t imagine anything more frightening and isolating than being woken up in the middle of the night by the roar of an oncoming avalanche, unable to see where it is and unable to communicate with the outside world. Such is the life of lone farmers in this area. Chile has one of the highest inequality ratings in the world, and sitting in Jorge’s home and mentally comparing it to the affluence in Santiago, it’s not hard to see why. Given the geographical isolation of this area, it’s hard to see how this inequality will change any time soon. Nor how burning down one’s own metro system and supermarkets is going to help.

The final day in to Villa O’Higgins was glorious. We only had thirty five kilometres to cover, but we took all morning in the sun, no wind, and clear skies to enjoy riding by mirrored lakes and snowy mountains. Villa O’Higgins is the end of the Carretera Austral, but for bikers and hikers it doesn’t have to be the end of the southbound journey. It’s possible to take a boat across lake O’Higgins and cross in to Argentina on a trail. Given the boat only goes twice a week we had a compulsory two day rest in town and we treated ourselves to a nice hostel, complete with private room and a fantastic breakfast. We met a conservationist from Valparaiso who was leading a group of North American students doing some field research on the endangered Huemel. We had an interesting discussion about the future of the land in Patagonia. He described a conversation he had with a local mayor about what Patagonias true resource is. Environmental tourism or industry. He had to zoom out on google maps to highlight how different Patagonia is to any other industrious parts of the world. Perhaps when a place like this is home it is easy to take for granted how grand the natural beauty surrounding you is and is therefore not intuitive to see how necessary planning and research for conservation is to protect that resource. For us, we are certainly astounded about how so few of the areas we have cycled through over that last 11000 kilometres are unspoilt by humans. New Zealand has two thirds of its native forest over the last 500years, in America nature feels like it has become a few theme parks dotted over the country and South America is full of mining, deforestation and rubbish blowing everywhere across the landscape. If only we could take every local mayor from every town in the world and send them on a cycle tour.

The boat across Lago O’Higgins could have been mistaken for a trip to Antartica. Waves rocked the boat back and forth between views of the water and sky, and at one point we passed an enormous blue iceberg. On arriving at the small jetty we cycled the 1km to the immigration office and it was by far the most relaxed we have come across. It felt more like an invitation to ‘come sit by the fire with me’ than the usual stern faced official process. They weren’t at all interested in the cocaine packed in to our tyres.

From here, trail was amazing. What a way to finish. On the Chilean side, naturally there was a we’ve-got-more-money-than-you dirt road. And when we reached the official border, it appeared to meet a forest in a dead end. There was simply a welcome to Argentina sign. Upon further inspection we located a walking trail. It took us about two hours to cover six kilometres. We hauled our bikes over fallen trees, pushed them through bogs and balanced our way across make-shift bridges. It was net down hill, and some parts were as technically difficult as things we had trouble with on mountain bikes back home, let alone with the weight of our panniers. It felt like a test of all the skills and fitness we’d gained over the year. And I’d say we passed. Simply because we came through with the biggest smiles on our faces of the whole trip.

One more boat trip on the other side and we would be on the home-straight in to El Chaten. We would make it that day, but not without a classic South American experience first. The immigration officials on the Argentinian side clinically informed us the five pm boat (ours) would not be coming due to a storm on its way. So when a boat arrived at four pm we hopefully inquired as to whether we could hop aboard. Nope. It was chartered to collect a small posse of three-star Argentinian generals visiting the outpost. For some reason they welcomed us aboard when a native Spanish speaker and fellow cycle tourist Victor spoke with the captain. I spent the journey wondering if I’d just been sold to the Argentinian army. Thankfully, they accepted our tickets for the rival boat company instead.

The road in to El Chaten was, at first smooth and net down hill. It felt like we were flowing as smoothly as the river beside us. We rounded a bend to see, on one side, flamingos perching in an emerald lake and a view of Fitzroy on the other (the inspiration for the Patagonia logo). I almost cried, not wanting this cycle tour to be over. And then out of nowhere, the road turned to shit. Rocks the size of hockey balls lay on corrugations and sand traps caught us off guard. It was perfect timing. I was f*$@!?#g done. Get me off this bike.

Patagonia part one: Puerto Montt to Coyhaique

Man time flies. Here we are already on the final leg of the cyclemoon: the Carretera Austral, Patagonia. The Carretera is a 1,200km stretch of road that starts in Puerto Montt Chile and runs south (literally the meaning of ‘Austral’) through Chile via some of the worlds most spectacular and unfettered natural splendour. The road was started in the late seventies, during the time of Pinochet’s dictatorship, with the aim to connect rural communities but wasn’t fully finished to Villa O’Higgins until 2003. With tourists flocking to it as an access to Patagonia, it’s now under construction again with the Tagline ‘the route of the parks’ as the government aims to tarmac the whole thing. Currently 40% is tarmac. The rest remains as dirt road.

The Patagonian landscape is like New Zealand and Vancouver Island had a baby and raised it on steroids. Snow capped mountains peak over the top of lush rain forest. The road is interspersed with fjords one must take a ferry to cross. And there is abundant wildlife. Its gorgeous and it seems we might have saved the best part of our trip til last.

After an overnight bus from Santiago, we spent a day preparing in Puerto Montt. We pitched our tent in Perla’s Garden, in the heart of the town. Not because we liked the look of her grass (that being said it was very luscious), but because Chileans have been renting out their homes as ‘hostals’ since before AirBnB was a baby. By preparing I mean that we mentally readied ourselves for the coldest wettest oncoming month of our lives. Over twenty-four hours we consumed copious amounts of coffee and cake in warm indoor establishments. Or at least that’s what I did. Sarah’s English heritage seems to make her somewhat more immune to terrible weather.

We had a casual first day of only fifty kilometres, but were nevertheless treated to quiet coastal roads, a ferry crossing and one of the best wild camping spots we’ve had all tour. We set up our tent by the sea and spent the evening watching pods of dolphins chase fish under a sunset reminiscent of the Patagonia clothing brand logo. What a start.

Of course it was a lure though wasn’t it. The next morning, the wind was howling in the wrong direction, the clouds were as low as our heads and the rain was precipitating like it was spitting out of a blender. The road turned to dirt and we passed through multiple roadworks. The mud stuck to our tires like peanut butter and the rocks/gravel were sometimes as big as metaphorical peanuts.

After fifty kilometres we arrived in the town of Hornopiren. We rolled down to the dock to learn what we could about the ferry. We were glad to learn that in the off-season it leaves only once a day at 10.30am, giving us a 100% nothing to do with the weather excuse to call it a day. However, being the off-season we discovered a few other things not operating at full capacity. Usually we use a wiki-based app called iOverlander to search for campsites and cheap accommodation. But today we had to resort to the sophisticated technique of knocking on the door of whatever looked vaguely open and trying not to listen to price, as most things on our app were shut.

Inside, dry and warm, we lay on the bed with a bombsite around us. Any and every hook, rail, knob, protruding object or bastion of furniture was being used to dry clothes and pieces of muddy wet tent. We flicked on the telly and became transfixed. There were images of the Plaza Italia in Santiago. We recognised it immediately having stayed just by it a few days earlier. It was packed full of people as it always was, except this time smoke billowed in the sky. The subway was on fire and people were looting supermarkets. Our jaws dropped. We had heard about there being issues in Santiago only 24 hours after we left, but we had no idea they were this bad.

It was triggered by a raise in the subway ticket price. But this was just the straw that broke the camels back. There are many Chileans who feel the state of wealth inequality in Chile is unjust and out of control. Under the Pinera government, there has been a great deal of privitisation of health and education, and little attention paid to pensions. Not just a few anarchists who loot and vandal feel this way, but so do a million people in Santiago alone who turned out to rally (peacefully). A lot of the locals we talk to say they don’t know how it is going to end (and it continues weeks later when writing this). But many people are calling for Pineras resignation.

The following morning when we headed out to the ferry, we came across our first mini protest. A group of about thirty school children were blocking the road in and out of town, each holding a pot or pan they had managed to sneak out of the house in the morning. They were banging them with spoons, causing a cacophony referred to as a ‘Cacerolazo’, a Spanish word literally meaning casserole. We hesitated for a moment in the face of such culinary passion, and then entered into a game of chicken. Perhaps they saw the determination in our eyes, out on bikes in such horrible weather, or perhaps they simply had no beef with tourists, but either way they parted like the red sea and we cycled through to the dock.

For reasons that may or may likely not have anything to do with casseroles, the ferry was late in departing by an hour. Over the course of a three hour journey, we debated whether our legs had the energy to make the 10km trip to the next ferry in time before it departed. That distance on hilly dirt roads may be possible, but we envisaged arriving just in time to see the boat steaming off. Fortunately the ferry captain had also spent the journey worrying how the two cyclists would make it to the next ferry (for context, one ticket is for both ferries) and approached us towards the end of the journey (I have no idea how he worked out who the cyclists were among all the passengers) and told us he had arranged a lift to get us there in time. Such is the power of a captain that he had simply picked out a man for no apparent reason other than that he was wearing a silly hat, and instructed him to cart us. Really it was an incredibly silly red and white beret and the sole motivation for this terrible story. It was that silly. But we are grateful.

In a story of what good luck, what bad luck, what good luck associated with off-season travel, we camped for free in a beautiful spot by Lake Blanco in Pumalin national park. Having done little cycling to deserve such a treat, we decided the next day to hike up Chaitén Volcano in addition to cycling to Chaitén. It is amusing to us that our cardiovascular fitness is currently so good that we can waltz up 600 vertical metres but then our physical conditioning for weight bearing exercise is so terrible that we hobbled around for days afterwards.

After some more pot banging in Chaitén we continued south. On the way we stayed in the township of La Junta, where we had one of the more memorable animal encounters of the trip. Dogs are a prominent feature of any cycle tour in South America. I would be willing to bet my bike seat that no cycle tourist has ever made it through South America without a dog chasing and barking at them. They are everywhere. They roam around in packs like a civilisation living in parallel to humans. In contrast, there are very few cats. I once joked at a hostel that maybe there are so few cats because they are killed by the dogs. And on this evening stroll, while we were being escorted home by two nice seeming mongrels, to our horror the joke came true. After ganging up on a poor unassuming cat, grabbing it by the throat, and shaking it around, the dogs continued happily escorting us home. We were mortified. And even more so, we were mortified to find the owner of our home-stay had a cat who was out front of the house when we returned.

Sarah focused on distracting the dogs while I ushered the cat back indoors. Phew, we thought. That was a close call. We were so relieved. But the look on the owners face said otherwise. ‘I had just put the cat out, we managed to understand her saying’, as she moved to the door, clasping both the cat and the handle. In a panic I put my weight against the door and could think of nothing else in Spanish but to shout ‘Danger, danger’. Then when she could see I wasn’t giving in and we both relaxed, I managed to say ‘Dogs! Killer dogs outside!’. She laughed replying ‘muy rapido’. He’s very fast. No dogs will catch him. We gulped, Sarah gave a eulogy, I cut ‘muy rapido’ in to some stone and el Gatos was committed through the door. (Who we later found at our window pleading to let him in.).

Did I forget to mention how much it rains in Patagonia? It rains a lot. By the sixth day of cycling we were very much used to cycling in the rain. We seek out bus shelters for lunch and wear all our waterproofing in between. However we draw a line at camping consecutive days in the wet. No matter how good gear is, water always finds a way. So we couldn’t be more relieved to find ourselves in Puyuhuapi in the homeliest hostals in all of Patagonia- Hostal Don Claudio. When the hosts Rosa and Claudio weren’t baking us fresh hot bread or bringing our cold wet shoes in from outside to put by the fire, they explained to us there was another cycle tourist staying here who had currently gone to the doctor. You guessed it, bitten by a dog. Worried about rabies. Fortunately for us and for Jimbo, who we later met, he did not have Rabies. He did however have veganism. Seriously though, jokes aside, we had some great conversations in which we agreed the more extremist vegans can give a bad name to their lifestyle and we found that his moderate stance had the effect of making us reflect on our behaviour. We spent a nice two days relaxing in the shared lounge by the fire, sharing travel stories, looking out over the fjord and eating one too many of Rosa’s home-made biscuits. If we have any cycle tourist followers, or really any followers at all other than our mums, who plan on travelling through Puyuhuapi, we can’t recommend this hostal highly enough.

Next stop was the famous hanging glacier of Queulat national park “Ventisquiero Colgante”. Another uphill hike was involved, but this time a much more sensible pace was enforced by maximum bog (muddy trail). Three kilometres of tip-toeing later, we found ourselves at a lookout having a full-blown “I’m in Patagonia” moment. On a canvas of silence, the wind roared coarsely in the distance. We listened intently to the faint rumble of stone and ice tumbling down the mountainside. The kind of scene that lasts as long as you are alone at the lookout. When another person comes, it’s gone, and you leave.

We were lucky to see the glacier in a good-weather window. For the three days that followed we were rained on generously in a stream of moments that would, if this were a movie, be a montage of dreary but triumphant cycling shots interspersed by images of us cooking beside rotund Chilean women in pinafores set to the Mamas and the Papas classic – California Dreaming. Except that instead of the leaves being brown, there would be an abundance of chlorophyll, glacial waterfalls and condors. The music would stop at a point when we reach the top of a mountain pass, the clouds clearing momentarily as we stood self-transcendent among towering giants (mountains), then resume as we slashed down the other side, stingingly cold on our hands and with the fleks of grit and water flicking up in our eyes. At two points we would pass semi-trailers overturned in a wreckage and abandoned on the roadside, and eventually we would reach the largest Chilean city in Patagonia, Coyhaique, where we take our leave.

Argentina

We caught a red eye train from Uyuni to the border town of Villazon, arriving at 6:30am. Surprisingly, Brad had one of the best nights sleep in a while. I did not, but given I’m used to sleep deprivation because of shift work, we decided to push on from Bolivia across the border in to Argentina. In the best welcome to a country we have yet received, we stumbled upon a paneria with pastries fresh out the oven soon after crossing. And then another! Which also sold coffee. Four pastries each later and supremely caffeinated, we figured we had the energy to push on to the next town – Abra Pampa

It was a long slow day with some of the most nondescript scenery you can imagine, but we made it. We settled in to a hostel and had a brief nap before venturing out again to look for an early dinner around 6pm. Big mistake. Turns out Argentinian’s do siestas properly. Everything shuts between 2 and 6pm. After their nap, they eat second breakfast, meaning dinner is late. Most restaurants not even opening until at least 9pm and not fully occupied until 11pm. Disgruntled and with the hanger setting in, we wandered back to the hostel and had a cup of tea in the dining room around 8pm. Seeing our forlorn faces, the hosts figured it polite to inform us that dinner occurred late in Argentina. Throwing in that they give the children, who can’t wait, cake around this time for “afternoon tea”. From the look on their faces, they were genuinely not being patronising. But the look on ours didn’t hide our hangry frustration.

The following day we began our descent from the altiplano down the glorious Quebrada de Humahuaca. Highlights included the Tres Cruces and Serrania de Hornocal (magnificent multi-coloured geological formations).

Sadly for Argentina, there has been a fairly significant economic downturn over the last year. Despite dubious efforts by the government to contain this, the value of the peso has gone to shit (technical term). Meaning most hotels cost less than a campsite in New Zealand, and don’t worry about the cost of food. So the first few days in Argentina felt like a holiday in comparison to Bolivia. There were cafes, ice cream, trees, birds, ice cream, and we continued to be able to afford a bed whenever it was available.

The down side to this holiday feeling and restaurant eating is that I got sick. Not just a bit sick. Quite a lot sick. Like the exorcist sick. From both ends. Although we were able to afford a bed for the night, this didn’t extend to private bathroom facilities. So I became very well acquainted with the somewhat less desirable shared bathroom in the hostel. At the point at which I almost fainted and had “an accident” reminiscent of one I had at the age of 5 that forced my father to leave my soiled underwear in the toilets of Marylebone station, Brad insisted I looked awful and took me to the local hospital. Given I’d eaten raw egg in the form of chocolate mousse the night before we thought it sensible to seek assistance sooner rather than later.

After my experience in the Argentinian public health care system, which is free at the point of use even for foreigners, I have some suggestions for possible budget cuts in the Australian and English systems. Namely, the patient must provide their own toilet roll. Thankfully, I had come prepared so was not forced to use unwanted items of clothing to clean myself up.

After an intramuscular antiemetic (injection into my bottom) I was able to keep down some rehydration salts and I slowly started to improve, I was at least, significantly less fainty. I was also given some antibiotics, that over the next few days helped considerably. Thankfully Brad managed to avoid getting it and continued to enjoy the Argentina delights of red wine and large amounts of meat. The highlight being a 1kg Tomahawk steak!

We arrived in Salta and made the decision to use motorised assistance to skip the endless Argentinian Pampa to Mendoza.

In Mendoza, we stayed in a hostel. We were quite charmed with our courtyard facing room. Mid-afternoon we received a knock on the door from a man who worked on reception. He was here to tell us that we were no longer young enough to stay in hostels. There was a pizza party organised for in the courtyard later that evening and so he was moving us from our private double to an entire dorm room he’d managed to free up on the opposite side of the hostel. Offended by the kind gesture, we accepted the transfer politely, promptly bought some beer and signed up for the pizza party. However, at 10pm when the music was pumping and the pizza still wasn’t ready, our sense of humour failed. We handed in our youth hostel membership.

The next morning we woke up body-clock early and were raring to go for our expedition over the Andes. We planned to take the scenic route for the first two days on a road called Route 13 and then take the main road the rest of the way. Route 13 seemed like the perfect off-road adventure, but there was not a lot of information about it online. The last GPS map by a cyclist we could find about it was six years ago. So we were excited but prepared to have to turn back.

The route was 90km long and involved two climbs. First from 750m above sea level up to 3100m and then from 2250m again to 3100m. We took food for three days and as much water as we could carry (20 litres). For the first ten kilometres the road climbed gently up out of Mendoza with the mountains looming like a wall in front of us. As we approached, we noticed which valley we’d be climbing up and the gradient steepened as we entered it. Here the switch backs kicked in and the quality of the dirt road downgraded to rock-garden. Memories of the Maungatapu pass came back to haunt us. I was heard muttering “I don’t think I can do this” between lines of “just keep swimming” and we pushed on. Literally.

Eight hours of cycling later, two of which were done the next day, we reached the top, managing to cycle about 95% of it. We were both absolutely knackered in a way that is unique to off-road cycling. I don’t want to bang on about this too much but we’re both pretty proud of this leg of the journey. It’s hard work hauling yourself +  gear up a big hill, but the thing that is most challenging is staying focused. We were both in our lowest gear, throwing our body weight into our pedal strokes and the hardest thing about it is staying on your bike among such eroded, rocky and loose gravel-terrain. It’s like balancing on a tight rope with a heavy pack on. And the more tired you get the harder it becomes. We both came off in a bike-dropping foot-stomping hullabaloo multiple times and I once even fully hit the deck (which marked the end of day 1). But we made it.

The views were incredible and we saw no one for the whole route except a cowboy leading some horses on the first day. It’s not the furthest distance we’ve been from civilisation but it’s the furthest we’ve felt from it. Such raw wilderness experiences are easily the most memorable parts of the trip.

Route 13 terminates in the adventure-hub-town of Uspallata. Arriving at 4pm, we temporarily considered the conundrum of accommodation, before shirking it in favour of celebratory ice cream. We’ve also discovered a dirty Argentina secret. They don’t actually have siestas. They all descend on their local heladeria for a mid afternoon ice cream in the shade. Every single ice cream shop we’ve been too (and we’ve been to many) has queues out the door, the longest lasting 40minutes, all during the time of siesta.

We stayed in Uspallata for 2 nights so that we could rest our weary legs before the next mountain pass ahead. The road up to Paso los Libertadores was asphalt the whole way and to start with felt smoother than a baby’s bottom, not that I’ve ever ridden over a baby! However, 65km into the day the wind changed direction, the temperature dropped, the gradient steepened and it seemed to take us forever to complete the last 20km. Once again, I had a sense of humour failure, almost certainly because of a lack of chocolate, but we made it just as the weather closed in. As we reached the top we were greeted by a round of applause from fourteen other cyclists who were taking shelter in a near by shed. We had met them two days earlier when we arrived in to Uspallata but they had taken the more leisurely and more sensible option of splitting the journey to the top of the pass into 2 days.

“Have you heard” they said, “it’s expected to snow for three days, and they might close the road!” Given it was 6pm with only about an hours light left it was impossible to descend in daylight to the next shelter. And to be honest, an enforced three days rest sounded great. Never mind that we didn’t have enough food or money. They are only minor details! We went to bed that night with an excited sense of adventure about what was to come.

The next morning we woke to a winter wonderland and a peleton of sixteen cyclists, us included, made our way over to the tunnel. At this point, if the weather is kind, there are two options. Ascend a further 300 alt.m on dirt road to the Cristo Redentor or take an enforced shuttle truck three kilometres through a tunnel. Given visibility was zero, the wind howling and the road was covered in snow we opted for option two. We managed to fit eight cyclists and their fully loaded bikes into the back of the truck and we set off through the tunnel. Seeing some cars lose traction in the snow and unintentionally do doughnuts we did wonder if it would be safer to cycle rather than stand up in the back of a soft sided lorry but rules are rules! And we made it through successfully.

We said fair well to the big group and began our descent. For me there was a slight complication. I had, somewhere in the last few thousand kilometres, managed to lose my gloves. To prevent frostbite of my fingers I had to wear double layers of Brads dirty socks on my hands. This made it slightly tricky to hold the handlebars and brake at the same time. An important requirement when descending downhill at speed, in a storm!

Thankfully after a few hundreds meters descending we made it through the snow storm clouds and found some clearer skies between the snow above us and the rain below. Doubly lucky this coincided with the famous switchbacks that we had been looking forward to seeing. Sadly, the wind was howling so the drone was grounded.

The descent continued all day into the town of Los Andes and we were only slowed by enforced stops to thaw off our extremities.

We are now in Santiago, mainly washing clothes and planning the next section of our trip, 6 weeks riding through Patagonia! With the odd proper coffee and slice of cake thrown in.

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We feel like we’ve finally cracked the ideal cycle touring formula. Periods of wilderness adventures and enforced simple living interspersed with a few days relative luxury in town. It’s only taken us 7 months!

La Paz to Uyuni

After pushing the eject button in rural Bolivia, we quickly found ourselves in the bustling metropolis of La Paz. We ditched our bikes and belongings in a hostel, ate, showered and headed to a bar. Were we celebrating or commiserating? We didn’t know. But we were going to spend an evening drinking 2 for 1 mojitos to figure it out. It didn’t take long. South America is a big place, we agreed. It’s nice to be able to say ‘we cycled from a to b’ through it. But with only so much time on our hands, its nicer to be able to cycle the places we most want to see. And since continental drift didn’t arrange said bits in a nice straight line like it did in New Zealand, we had no qualms filling in the gaps with the odd piece of motorised transport.

The first disjointed leg of our new approach was a trip down ‘The Death Road’ in to the subtropical Yungas, just north of La Paz. Naturally, the name had Sarah nervous and me excited, so we stopped in at a tour operator to gather a bit of intel. The road, technically called North Yungas Road, was built by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930’s. It originally got its nickname because so many of prisoners died making it. And then it became infamous as the worlds most dangerous road, claiming around 300 motorists lives per year. The road is narrow, winds along cliff edges, features waterfalls dripping on to the road and sheer drops on the other side. Fortunately, the Bolivian Government built a safer bypass road in 2006 and now ‘the death road’ is only really frequented by tourists on bikes. Assuming you don’t get distracted by a butterfly and fall off the edge (true story) it’s completely safe, the tour operator informed us.

Since we have our own bikes, we thanked him, left under the guise we would think about it, and made our own way to the top via a collectivo. We asked the driver to drop us at a pass called Le Cumbre around 4650m, which is 20km away from the start of the death road and 1500m higher. We massively lucked out with the weather and descended under gorgeous calm blue skies amid glacial mountains feeling the temperature increase with every minute and the oxygen become more abundant.

At the start of the death road, we and three motorcycle tourists had a snack while eavesdropping on a safety briefing being held by one of the tour operators. ‘The road still has some local traffic and so you are to give way to it by stopping on the open cliffside of the road to increase the chances of being seen’, he said. No one could believe what they had just heard. One of the motorcyclists choked on his food and another no longer bothered to pretend we weren’t listen. ‘Sorry – did you just say that the road is now a therapeutic tool for vengeful locals who are still bereaved by the death of their loved ones?’ He asked. ‘Yes, exactly’ said the guide. Everyone on the tour nodded dutifully and we doubled down on pretending we hadn’t heard the instruction.

We set off in what I first thought was fog and then remembered our altitude. Clouds. They were clouds! Nice. The road was somewhat rugged but much more scenic than it seemed dangerous. Other than flexing our index fingers it was relatively effortless. We took around five hours to descend a total of 3450m over 50km.

Feeling the oxygen in my lungs at the bottom, I set about persuading Sarah to cycle up the other side of the valley to Coroico. She obliged but later came to regret the decision more than she regrets agreeing to name our first born child Timtrillion. Not because it was 750 vertical metres of cobblestones on 10+ per cent gradient. Not because we watched the bemused faces of hundreds of people in tens of vehicles zoom pass us. But because she was struck by a stomach bug half way up, and those bemused faces were the reaction to seeing a well-to-do young woman from Oxford squatting on the cliff edge… on four seperate occasions.

Nearing the top, a small group of Bolivian girls saw us, smelled defeat and to our surprise they pitched in. Two per bike they helped us push up the final steep pinch. We tried to thank them with cookies, but they refused, and although we couldn’t understand what they were saying, I’m sure it had something to do with sisterhood. We rested for two days, got a full dose of greenery, and returned to La Paz, the altiplano, the desert via collectivo.

Back in La Paz, we stayed in the Casa de Ciclista; a house dedicated to accommodating cycle tourists. South America is dotted with similar such places run by kind folk with an interest in cycling. These people have set aside part of their residence to housing cycle tourists with the basic requirements. Meaning a floor to lay a mat, a roof to keep out the rain (except for when it unexpectedly pours through in the middle of the night and you are woken by your wife urging ‘do something’), walls for warmth, a bathroom for cleanliness and a gas stove for cooking. The fee is far less than other accomodation and it’s a great way to meet fellow cycle tourists. At a group dinner, we shared our intentions to go to Sajama National Park followed by the Bolivian Salt Flats, and discussed concerns about the amount of sand on the road between the two places. And by sand on the roads, I mean, roads in sand, or just well, sand. Thanks to an experienced German cyclist by the name of Heike, we got a tip off that there was an alternative route just across the border in Chile through the Vicunas National Park. And that it was not only less like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, but that it was her favourite section since Patagonia.

The journey to Sajama involved a wild goose chase across La Paz to find the sole collectivo that made the journey to Patacamaya, where if fortune favoured us we would be able to transfer the same day via another collectivo headed for Sajama. After two hours searching and three hours driving, we made it to Patacamaya just in time. There was plenty of room for our bikes, on top of a dining table, kitchen bench, gas bottles, a whole towns supply of liquor, miscellaneous drums, a spare tyre and of course the other ten passengers luggage. We fitted neatly inside between a lady with a crying baby on her lap and another with a years supply of eggs.

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We arrived in Sajama nearing sunset, helped the driver unload the kitchen sink and wandered around town looking for accommodation. In a great stroke of luck we happened upon a place where two other cycletourists and two backpackers were staying. As we ate a late lunch in the common room, we struck up conversation and found out that they were planning an ascent of the nearby volcano ‘Parinacota’. The top was at an altitude of 6348m; boots and crampons were requisite equipment; and they were leaving to start the climb in six hours at midnight. We were welcome to come. Naturally, I said yes. This being the first time either of us would climb a mountain, Sarah raised some sensible questions. Where would we get the gear from? Would our clothing be warm enough? We’re we physically ready to be at that altitude?

Fortunately the answers were all simple and we received a prompt response from our soon to be guide and Austrian friend Lukas. Lukas, for whom the difficulty of cycling across South America was not enough without the added bad-assery of climbing any and every mountain that took his fancy on the way, was an experienced mountain climber. The two backpackers (Matthias and Matthijs from Belgium) were inexperienced climbers like us and so we would be taking it easy (in a relative sense of the phrase). We could also hire gear from the very hostel we were staying in. It all felt so very fated to me, like one of those unbelievable stories of good timing and fortune you hear travellers tell, but I was actually in it. I couldn’t believe my luck. Sarah on the other hand didn’t have choking in high places on her bucket list. And there being so little time to work through the conversation that she may enjoy a little asphyxiation, we decided to do our own thing.

Six hours later (midnight) we were in a 4×4 heading out to the base of the volcano at 5200m. We climbed about 800 vertical meters on pyroclastic debris and then put on crampons for another 300m of an icefield that was filled with an ice formation unique to the area called Penitentes. In places they were like metre high pieces of broken glass and difficult to navigate.

At one point, one of the Matt’s (yes I’m ashamed to say lost track of which Matt was which and I can’t blame the altitude) was flagging. He wasn’t sure he could make it to the top. It was dire. He was shuffling up the slope, stopping frequently and couldn’t hold pace. Eventually he revealed that he hadn’t eaten breakfast. To this news, Lukas promptly removed a Snickers bar from his pocket and handed it to Matt, who was witnessed shortly afterwards charging up the hill. Meanwhile I flagged, struck by both the hard problem of existential dread that I am in the Truman Show, now with product placement, and the soft problem of working out where in Bolivia Lukas managed to obtain a Snickers bar. It got colder and colder, and the work became more and more difficult. I struggled on in a cloud of self-doubt that I have not experienced for years. Until suddenly, the sun rose, removing me from the darkest frigid depths of contemplation, and placed me unexpectedly 100m below a 6300m peak in Bolivia bearing witness to one of the most euphoric sunrises I have ever seen. I won’t forget that moment any time soon. We stayed at the top for about thirty minutes, took looks of photos and made the call to begin our descent when we were getting too cold to stay any longer.

The altitude experience was interesting and not like I imagined. When we were moving my heart rate would jump up to around 170-200, like I was sprinting home at the end of a marathon, but when we stopped it would go back to some unnoticeable lower rate that felt comfortable. Though stopping for long wasn’t all that desirable since it was around -15 degrees. I am super stoked to have done it. I was shattered by the end. It took us about ten hours and my heart rate has never been so high for so long, even in an ultra run.

We left Sajama and pointed our bikes in the direction of the border with Chile as we planned to ride the “Ruta de la Vicuñas”. The ride out of the park followed a sandy road along the river, through packs of llamas and involved wading through the river at various points. All with a beautiful view of Nevado Sajama on our left.

We arrived in the Bolivian border town of Tambo Quemado by lunch and decided to stop in at one of the several shop fronts and have some almuerzo. To start, quinoa soup complete with chicken feet, followed by llama, rice, chips and tomatoes. Washed town with a Bolivian version of Coca Cola. For $2.50. Brad admitted to me that he used to hate eating meat that at all resembled the animal –  no chicken wings or drumsticks, no whole fish, no prawns even. He’s thankfully moved on from his 11year old fussy eating days but the chicken foot was a step to far. He regressed. Pulled funny faces. Through himself on the floor kicking and screaming and couldn’t possibly consider coming back to the table to eat the soup until the foot had been wrapped up in a napkin and hidden from view. Maybe I exaggerate a little but that’s pretty much how it went down!

We made our way up the 6km to the top of the pass at 4680m where the official border crossing into Chile was located, only stopping to exchange a few bolivianos to Chilean pesos and to plug in to a podcast for the effort up the hill. The border crossing was a combined affair, leaving Bolivia and entering Chile in one very fancy building. The Chilean side was a little more ‘official’ scanning our panniers for any undeclared fruit and vegetables, even declaring we needed to register our bicycles with them to be allowed to cycle on the roads. It was at this point, when looking for the card with our mobile number on, I realised that somewhere between exchanging money with the ladies at the side of the road and the ride up the hill to the border, I had lost the wallet. Cue the mad rummage that only occurs when an object is lost. I looked in all bags and all pockets with no success. I walked back into the office where brad was registering the bikes and  broke the news. He didn’t believe me and ran outside to have another look, leaving me to explain in rusty Spanish that I’m an idiot and have somehow managed to throw our wallet onto the road without realising it. Brad returned, also walletless and we had a discussion about what to do. Could we even cycle back? Did that mean leaving Chile, re-entering Bolivia and then returning to Chile again? The, actually very kind and helpful, border officials told us that we could go back because the road to Tambo is no mans land so we wouldn’t have to go through a border crossing version of the Hokey Cokey. I tried to not so subtlety ask if anyone could drive us the 12km down and back up the hill but no one offered. I’d prefer to think it was my terrible Spanish meaning they couldn’t understand what I was saying rather than nobody wanting to! Thankfully the wallet only had about $150 worth of cash in, no cards and no passports but Brad being the hero he is, decided that he’d cycle back down and retrace our steps up the hill to see if he could find it. He returned an hour later, still walletless and significantly out of breath. We hope whoever ‘found’ it had a fantastic celebration on us.

We now found ourselves in Chile, with no Chilean money and no plans to go through a town big enough to have a bank. I explained this to one of the border officials, saying we had some American Dollars we could change, and he marched off, only to return a few minutes later with a lady willing to exchange our money for us. We waved goodbye and the Chilean border officials breathed a sigh of relief. After 3 hours at the border causing drama, they had finally got rid of us!

We cycled about 10km into Chile on fast downhill tarmac, for which brad was thankful after his unexpected double climb up to the pass, before pulling off the main road onto dirt/sand, on which we would remain for the next 250km. We found an abandoned hut by a lake and stopped to set up camp and endured the first of several chilly nights camping above 4200m. One particular night was so cold, our whole bottle of olive oil froze, along with our water filter, the fuel pipe on our stove and all water that wasn’t in our sleeping bags.

The next 3 days cycling through this small part of Northern Chile was amazing, one of our highlights of the trip so far. Enormous valleys with snow topped volcanoes in the distance, herds of Vicuñas and Llamas. Multiple hot Springs. And for the first 48hrs, no people. We were carrying 4 days worth of food, including 8 packets of cookies, so stopped regularly to recharge our batteries (stuff our faces). We were also carrying more than enough water, filling up in lakes, at abandoned taps and at the police guard. This meant we had the freedom to cycle until the sun started to set, find a suitable place to camp out of the howling wind, and fall asleep to the lullaby of our tent blowing in the wind. It was magical.

We met Cristal whilst stopped at the side of a lake taking pictures of the flamingoes. She is from France, working for ski patrol in winter and a rock climbing guide in summer. She was travelling around Chile in a converted Land Cruiser and finding all the good spots for climbing. We sat on the side of the road swapping stories and eating morning tea, waving her off a short while later thinking that would be the last we’d see of her, given she had an engine. Later that afternoon, whilst we were bathing in the thermal pools of Polloquere, Cristal pulls up in her car. It doesn’t take long for both of us to decide that this spot, a hot pool in the middle of a salt flat with views to the mountains, was too good a place not to spend the night. She gifted us fruit, our first fresh produce in several days and we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. We remarked how amazing the location and how empty of people it was. Fate intervened because we were soon joined by a Chilean couple who played terrible music very loud from their car stereo and another pair of cycle tourists. The hot pools in the middle of nowhere became the busiest location we’ve slept so far in South America! Most hostels we’ve been in have been empty!

The following day we took a short cut, heading up over a 4500m pass. The alternative, an additional 30km over a 4700m pass. The short cut technically passes into Bolivia and then back into Chile but isn’t an official border crossing. We had heard it was a well known smuggling route into Bolivia but the couple we’d met at the hot pools had ridden it with no problems so it was too tempting to miss. The only dodgy thing we encountered were footsteps in the sand. Who was walking this way, miles away from any towns, food or water supplies? In my head it was the smugglers up to something, but we saw nothing. Honest!

We crossed pack into Bolivia at a town called Colchane. A somewhat more chaotic crossing than any we had done previously. Trucks queuing for miles. Tens of buses full of passengers all queuing at immigration. The officials didn’t really know which way we should go so lumped us in with the bus passengers. Leaving our bikes locked up outside we entered passport control with all our panniers. A simple no we have no fresh produce was all that was required at Bolivian customs, no scanned bags required here. On leaving the building through a different door I exchanged some heated words with an official who wanted me to leave our bags unattended whilst we moved our bikes. Even though I was annoyed I couldn’t help but congratulate myself on the improvement in my Spanish!!  I could finally join in with Spanish heated discussions!

Our excitement and anticipation were building as today was the day we were finally going to ride on the salt flats. The Salar of Bolivia were high on our list of things that we most wanted to do whilst in South America. I have some more intrepid friends from home, Laura and Herbie, who cycled from Alaska to Ushuaia (Fin del Mundo) a few years ago and cycling across the lesser know Salar de Coipasa came highly recommended – no tourists, no jeeps just you and the Salar. We headed towards Coipasa village and arrived by lunch. We stopped to make our noodles in the completely deserted village square and decided that after we had (hopefully) found a tienda to resupply, we would head out to camp the night on the Salar. We were soon joined by Domingo, an elderly gentlemen carrying a cart wheel and had a lengthy discussion about our lives and he told us of his six children and twenty grandchildren that lived nearby. He advised us that we couldn’t camp on the Salar because it was too wet and we should leave in the morning, following the tracks on the Salar towards Tres Cruces. After sharing our chocolate, he said goodbye and we did what all stupid cycle tourists do, ignored the locals advice. We restocked our biscuit and noodle supply and headed out towards the Salar.

To our surprise (!) the Salar was indeed too wet to camp on and we headed towards the edge of an island to pitch the tent on land. This happened to be next to an area completely covered in water allowing Brad to get his much converted ‘reflection shot’ of the salt flats.

We had a fantastic nights sleep, the quietest night we have ever spent. There was no wind, no vegetation rustling. Nothing. Just silence. We woke the next morning excited to cross the 35km of Salar de Coipasa and headed out early, on what would become an unexpectedly character building day. Definite type 2 fun.

We started out on what we thought was a track that would take us straight south across the flats. On our downloaded map I had a GPS route to follow and there were multiple tracks marked. We were in ‘the vicinity’ of these so carried on. Our track then came to an abrupt end. No problem I hear you say, just follow the compass in the right direction. Except the surface of the Salar is not smooth. In places it was like cycling in a big puddle with salt flying at you, in others it had large chunks of salt that made a very slow and very very bumpy riding. In other spots the salt surface was so thin that you simply got stuck in mud. I’m glad we don’t have a GPS tracker because we zig zagged across this perfectly flat perfectly featureless landscape looking for the tracks. We didn’t find them. So we said “duck it” and pointed our compass in the direction we wanted to go. After a few hours we got stuck in mud and had to push. This mud became sand which eventually joined with the GPS track we had downloaded. Once off Salar de Coipasa we followed an incredibly sandy road towards a town called Llica. We would ride for a few km, stop when the sand became unrideable, push for several hundred meters and repeated like this for 25km. It was a long day. But definitely a day I don’t regret. Salar de Coipasa was beautiful and definitely, in hindsight, worth it!

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The following two days were spent on the massive Salar de Uyuni. Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desertlike, 11,000 sq km. landscape of bright salt and islands. We cycled 160km over 2 days, in a straight line, not a single turn. It was an otherworldly experience. It was also a serious mental game of keeping your mind focused on something other than the seemingly endless expanse of unchanging white in front of you. On day one we pointed our bikes towards Isla de Inchahuasi on the horizon. And cycled towards it. For 6 hours. Needless to say, we kept ourselves entertained with games like “can you name every single camping spot we stayed at in New Zealand”, by listening to several hours of podcasts and, to Brads delight, a playlist of mine with  Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and multiple Disney songs on!

Brad also took the opportunity to take many photos, get the drone out and take some stunning night sky shots. Uyuni is much drier than Coipasa and we spent the night camping on the Salar. Another stunningly silent night, only disturbed in the morning by multiple passing tourist jeeps trying to catch the sunrise.

I read a lot of blogs and travel books about cycle touring. Many of which have covered cycling across Uyuni and not a single one described the surface. My expectation was that it would be relatively smooth, maybe a little bobbly. However the first 60km of Uyuni from Llica were quite uncomfortable. The surface was so dry it had formed perfect tessellating hexagons, with whopping great cracks between each one. The effect was like cycling for several hits in a straight line on a badly cobbled road. It somewhat ruined the serenity! The result was that we both arrived in Uyuni town with sores on our bums for the first time, almost like friction burns from the endless bouncing on the seat.

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I’m sure it’s partly because we are at the end of the dry season and I’m sure the surface is changeable. But if you’re planning on riding it in late September, you have been warned!

All in all the Salars were an incredible, otherworldly experience and I’m so glad we are fortunate enough to witness the sheer expanse of nothing away from the tourist crowds.

We are now having a rest in Uyuni town before heading towards Argentina and because of time constraints, a want to get as far south as possible and our sore bottoms, we’re getting on a train.

Cusco to La Paz

We said goodbye to Hostel Estrellita and the friendly faces we’d met there and headed out of Cusco. Both unable to shake the slight fear of the unknown and the completely unfounded feeling that our bikes could shit themselves at any moment. Have we got enough spares? Enough food? Enough water?

Once we’d run the gauntlet of the city traffic much like Simba and the buffalo stampede in the lion king it turned out to be an easy days ride on quiet enough roads, mainly downhill and winding through multiple little villages where children waved and shouted hello and dogs nipped at our heels. We ended up staying 30km further up the road than we’d intended – we often have a Plan A and a Plan B for the day. A longer option if we’re feeling good and a shorter option if things don’t go to plan. On this first days ride our excited rested legs felt great and we cycled on past our plan A. We then missed a hostel which was our plan B so carried on to plan C but found a fiesta in town and no room at the inn. So plan D it was, cycle until we find somewhere to sleep. Our first lesson of cycling in S.America, have no plans. We finished the day satisfied and happy with the feeling of freedom that comes with being back on the bikes.

The next day took us to Sicuani, a relatively short day compared to the previous but we didn’t want to go too hard too soon and we were secretly putting off climbing over a big hill! We arrived in time for our first “Almuerzo” and were treated to what we think was a minestrone soup, chicken for me and possibly beef for brad with rice and veg followed by an orange. Certainly more filling than the homemade sandwich we had the day prior but with the added element of risk we might see it again later that day!

We made the point of riding in one of the many Tuk-Tuks in town – throwing us back to our trip in India at the beginning of the year. In comparison to India however, these were first class. They had doors, cushioned seats, head lights! Even a grid to stop a ‘Gringo’ getting in to help drive. One of the main differences this tuk tuk had however, was the lacking in a flaming turban that was a feature in one of Brads more inebriated tuk tuk adventures of India.

The following day we set off from Sicuani and for the next 4 hours gently climbed up hill to our first pass of South America, standing at 4335m. We stopped at Aguas Calientes , a hot springs on the way, not to have a cleansing dip although in hindsight it would have been nice, but because I was convinced I was about to die and was mentally preparing for my heli-vac out of there. I had developed a cough at around 4000m and the medical hypochondriac in me diagnosed high altitude pulmonary oedema. Was I more short of breath at rest? Was that phlegm a little pink and frothy? I was feeling a little cold, perhaps it was the fever I had developed suddenly. I asked Brad if my lips were blue. They weren’t. I told him I thought it was possible that I was about to gasp my last breath but he seemed a little sceptical. I finished the biscuit I was eating and we agreed that we should continue to the top of the pass slowly and see how I felt. We made it to the top and I felt a lot better and the cough had cleared up. In hindsight, it was probably all caused by me inhaling a biscuit crumb. I celebrated the fact that it was unlikely I was about to die by buying an Alpaca fur jumper from a lady with a stall and we sat down to have some lunch. I made sure not to inhale a bit of my sandwich.

We made it to Ayaviri and stayed in another hostel, rooms have been so cheap that we haven’t bothered to get the tent out yet. But think basic. This hostel room had no windows, smelt like paraffin and no hot water. But it was relatively warm in comparison to the outside and the owner was very friendly. And was comparative luxury to some others we’d stay at later on.

For dinner we had went to our first Polleria. A chicken shop. And had our first comically poor Spanish speaking experience. There was no menu. You had to know how it worked, like a secret code for a secret club. We didn’t know, we tried to explain to the waitress that we didn’t know but she couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand her. There was no option of just pointing to a menu item. We tried simply saying “two dinners please” in Spanish. To which she replied “no dinner, only chicken”. We said yes, chicken please. To which she replied with something that may or may not have been our options for the chicken. We went round and round like this for some time, becoming the evenings entertainment for the gawping locals. Eventually I heard the options of 10soles or 6soles and said in Spanish “two 10soles please and two coca colas.”The waitress nodded and walked away. We were in. I’d cracked the code. There was sadly no secret handshake or initiation ceremony but we were treated to half a roast chicken each, a pile of rice and a pile of chips so it was a club I’m glad we joined!

From Ayaviri we left the main road to take a series of back roads to the north side of lake titicaca. We were treated to some stunning scenery, vast valleys flanked with impressive hills, grazing alpacas and high alpine lakes. It was tough going and some of the roads were pretty bumpy but it was nice to be off the main road and exploring. We’ve started getting used to being stared at. Most people working in the fields will stop and stare but often also wave and shout hello and children leaving one of the many tiny rural schools race us with their rickety bikes. In the towns it becomes fairly obvious staring though. People stop in the street and follow us along. Teenagers laugh. It’s probably because we’ve left the main tourist route and not many tourists pass through. Our bikes also look big and cumbersome, we’re both comparatively big compared to the locals and I’m a women wearing short shorts at the beginning of spring. The main reason though is almost certainly Brads ridiculous adventure beard. This staring reached a climax when we past a road construction crew who all downed tools and took out their phones to take a picture for their wives ‘“see I told you our new road would bring tourists” they would say when they got home “and we’ve not even finished it yet!”

The next few days was some more tough off road cycling along the shore of lake titicaca, culminating in our last Peruvian village, Tilali. The weather had turned very cold, we were being battered by a howling headwind and six days of hard cycling was starting to take its toll. On riding into Tilali though we were rewarded with a round of applause by thirty elderly men wearing hats and matching ponchos, sat in the town square. We never did find out why they were sat there. Maybe there is nothing better to do than greet the weary cycle tourist. And why not do it in matching outfits?!

We managed to change our Soles to Bolivianos in one of the small shops and then excitedly went to immigration for our first border crossing. I’d read about some of the other, more widely used, Peru/Bolivia border crossing points and read about corrupt officials, long queues and a lot of drama. In the sleepy village of Tilali we were treated to an empty office, a lovely immigration lady who asked us about our trip and we got our exit stamp in a matter of minutes. Easy.

The official border is at the top of the hill outside Tilali, up a windy but newly tarmaced road. We were escorted out of Peru by a lovely black dog who bounced up the hill as we cycled, stopping to check we were close behind. Only occasionally being distracted by something more interesting in the bushes. It was like he was apologising for all the aggressive dogs we had encountered, wanting to give us fond doggy memories of Peru. He was certainly more friendly than the first Bolivian dog we encountered on the other side, where we had to go through the, now very familiar motion of, stopping, getting off the bike and making sure the bike is between you and the dog. All to ensure it doesn’t rip your leg off. It’s amazing how this simple act calms an aggressive dog down. Almost like as soon as you get off they see you’re a human not a strange silent rolling object coming to reek havoc on their turf. So far, this method has worked every time, no dog stick, water pistol or sling shot needed. As soon as they’ve stopped barking they also always have a wee. Marking their territory, just to make sure.

As soon as you reach the border the road turns from tarmac to very bad rocky road but the ride into Puerto Acosta, the Bolivian border town was lovely despite the road. It wound up to 4100m with uninterrupted views of more mountains on one side and the lake on the other. The descent dropped into a small valley with multiple switch backs which was fun given the state of the road. It was a great welcome to Bolivia. We reached the immigration office and it was closed for lunch, so we went to the nearest little shop offering ‘almeurzo’ and had a great soup followed by fried cheese with rice and salad. It was during the meal though, that Brad started to feel that very uncomfortable feeling that your bowels are about to explode. We found a ‘banos publico’ and he settled in for the afternoon! This public bathroom was also rather handily the only hostel in town, so because Brad had the shits and because it was pretty much snowing we called it a day and spent our first night in Bolivia in Puerto Acosta, a sleepy unassuming village. Where, I found out later in the afternoon, the locals get on the beers from 2pm and are rather keen to have a chat with the strange girl walking round town.

I stopped in at a little shop to buy Brad some more loo roll and found four men sat around drinking two litre bottles of beer. One of them was very keen to chat, so I bought a Fanta and joined them. My basic Spanish managed to navigate the usual conversation of where I’m from, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Midway through, one of the gentleman wandered off to have a wee outside. On returning he noticed I’d finished my fanta so shook my hand and we said goodbye.

Later that afternoon I was sat in the courtyard of the hostel reading my book, when the same gentleman, now significantly more inebriated, walked in clutching his loo roll, to use the public loo. On finishing his business, omitting the washing of his hands, he immediately came up to me and shook my hand again. If Brad was trying his best not to pass on his illness to me, this lovely gentleman was trying his best to make up for it!

This hostel, was called “5th November” and has a tribute to the fallen soldiers of 1998 in the courtyard. Intrigued by this Brad did some google searching and found that in 1998 there was pretty much a civil war in the district over the privatisation of water. The government was keen to privatise but this would mean up to a 300% rise in water prices or, if the private companies felt it wasn’t financially viable to provide water to these remote areas, no water at all. Close to one hundred local men died. Here we were feeling uncomfortable about the lack of a flushing toilet, when people had died for there to be water at all. In Bolivia, the supply of water only officially became a basic human right in 2006. A staggeringly eye opening statistic.

The following day Brad was feeling much improved. I however, was feeling somewhat jaded. I was so tired, despite ten hours sleep. My body felt heavy and my legs like lead. It was still freezing and the wind still howling. We got up and cycled for a few hours before stopping for a snack. We sat down in the town square and I cried. I was all out of energy. The altitude, the cold, the hills had all got to me and I was finding no joy in the cycling. In fact, at that moment, I wanted to go home. I couldn’t face another day and half of cycling to La Paz. But I felt guilty for feeling like that. Here I was crying because my holiday was hard work when we had just passed an elderly lady carrying about a tonne of corn wearing only one shoe and the town we stayed in the night before had had a civil war about water provision in the last 20years. I felt ridiculous.

We discussed our options and decided there was no point in cycling on miserably. Brad found a ‘collectivo’ (minibus) that would take us the 160km to La Paz.

We piled all our stuff in and set off. I had another little cry because I felt like I’d failed. This was the first time in the trip that we’d pulled the pin half way through a day and skipped a section of road. The self assessing harsh critic side of my personality was chastising me for taking the ‘easy’ way out. The realist in me knows there are no rules to this trip and no failing, but it took a few cocktails and dinner in La Paz for me to shake that feeling of failure and start to enjoy myself.

We are now relaxing in La Paz trying to plan the next stage, which looks vaguely like a ride on the death road to the lower altitude area of the Yungas. And then, we’ll see. We might explore that area for a few days and then head back to La Paz before heading back out on the Altiplano towards the salt flats.

All we know is, this trip is what we want it to be. There is no failing. There are no rules.

Our first weeks in Peru

Our flight from LA to Cusco featured a stop over in Bogota. We weren’t hugely keen on this, since stereotypes are always true and we were therefore going to become drug mules. Our steel bikes in their flimsy boxes must, we hypothesised, make for the most optimal target. We could see the delight in the faces of all those sinister aviation workers on the tarmac in Bogota. Silly tourists they would be thinking, while packing cocaine into the forks of our Surly Ogres. Images of the popular tv show ‘banged up abroad’ flashed before our eyes. We would spend the rest of our lives in a South American prison run by its inmates, where Sarah’s skills as a doctor would see her thrive and my highly sought after ability to design and analyse randomised controlled trials would see me become a bum boy. However, this was admittedly just a possibility, and the reality of spending a few hundred dollars more on a different flight path was clearly the inferior choice.

Flying in to South America, the view out the window couldn’t be in more stark contrast to what we’d seen flying in to North America. In North America, there was hardly a patch of earth that wasn’t developed in some way. Flying in to South America, it was hard to see anything that was developed. Firstly, trees as far as the eyes could see, for hours. Then rolling hills, like god had taken Australia’s tallest mountain and copy pasted it across the landscape as merely foot hills to the Andes. Snow capped peaks then came in to view and towered over the landscape with incredible prominence. I haven’t felt nervous about much on this trip to date, but seeing this landscape, how little it was populated, how little there is that one can find out about these regional parts on the internet and how little of the language we knew, I now most certainly felt nervous.

Our arrival in to Cusco put me entirely at ease. Immigration, baggage collection and customs all occurred in the same room, the size of a basket ball court. The room was filled with smiling Peruvians, the most notable of which were sitting on a bench stamping passports. After a short queue, a polite greeting and a simple question ‘how long do you want to stay?’ , we were collecting our bikes and bags in no time. On the way out we passed the customs officials who asked what was in the boxes. ‘Bikes’ we replied simply. ‘Anything else?’ They followed up. ‘I hope not’ came to mind but Sarah jumped in with ‘tents and camping gear’ first. Satisfied with that, they let us through with our bikeload of cocaine and we made our way in to town.

Cusco is fantastic. It reminds me of India. Which is also fantastic. But Cusco is like India without the bad bits. India’s tourism bureau has the slogan “Incredible India”. It seems to me they came up with this slogan in part because the word incredible has the connotation of the word ‘amazing’. But technically it means something more akin to unbelievable or not trustworthy. This seems appropriate for describing both India’s amazing treasures such as the Taj Mahal and the Ganges, as well as describing the general sense of disbelief you feel as you see the extent of poverty polarised with massive wealth. And through snatches of pity, you feel twisted emotions of frustration as person after person tries to con you to get your money.

The Peruvian tourism bureau can thank me later for this one. I’ve been struck by inspiration and propose the very catchy slogan of “Credible Peru”. Since Peru is similar and yet nothing like India. All the beautiful stonework, mud brick houses, terracotta tile roofs, plazas and churches have the classic and charming Spanish style. And their setting, built among mountains, gives them the appearance of gigantic amphitheatre and yet cosy feel. It has some of the hallmark experiences of a developing country: streets littered with both life and rubbish, powerlines that hang like spider’s webs above streets and the occasionsal smell of raw sewerage eminating from some unseen source (although nothing on the disturbing scale of India). But overall it is exceedingly beautiful.

The aspect I find most charming is the people. Unlike India where you have to walk away from a vendor to find out the true price of any goods or services you desire, in Peru, the price is the price and all you get out of walking away is embarrassment upon returning for a thing you really did want to buy. Peruvians are kind, pro-social and community minded. Every Sunday there is some kind of spectacular parade in the town square bringing a different part of the town together.

In planning our trip to South America, we had decided it might be mildly useful to learn some Spanish before going cycling off in to regions where speaking English is less common than a sensible brexit proposal. So we spent a week in Cusco taking Spanish classes in the morning and staying in the home of a local in the evening.

Being back in a classroom, with Sarah, was a remarkable experience. Having previously attended an all-boys school, I was astounded to find that females are capable of learning as quickly as males, and that neither of us was distracted by the urge to mate. In fact, by the end of the week, Sarah caught up to my level of Spanish mastery obtained through fifty hours of duolingo practise. That is we were both competent speaking in that cringeworthy use of the present tense that is undeniably effective and understood all the world over. “I go learn more Spanish tomorrow again yes”.

Actually her Spanish surpassed mine on account of the fact that she can hear what people are saying. I on the other hand only seem to hear a gobbledygook continuous stream of syllables that sound like an audiobook read by Sylvester Stallone on 2x speed. This has been somewhat of a crisis of confidence for me since I previously thought my ability to hear without listening to what Sarah is saying as a kind of capability, not a disability. However, I think this minor issue is more than adequately compensated by my speaking ability. I have the capability to make up Spanish with reckless abandon, adding ‘O’ on to the end of any English word I don’t know the corresponding Spanish translation, in a manner of simultaneous confidence and cultural insensitivity that only a male can muster. So outside the classroom, we work together as a team. Sarah listens, provides me an English translation, and I respond. Together we are the Spanish speaking equivalent of a small Peruvian child.

We spent the afternoons after class in a similar way each day. First we would have lunch with our fellow classmate Jack. Jack was an English backpacker who had  been in Cusco for a week before us and Latin America for ten months. We gratefully received all his tip on good places to eat and assistance speaking to waiters. After lunch we would explore the city and or undertake some errands like getting a SIM card, or train tickets to Machu Picchu. Then retire to a bar around 4pm with a drink, a view of the city, a sunset and a readiness to practice more Spanish. It was basically like our university days and it was great. Although alcohol had the effect of further degrading my ability to listen to anything she was saying, it improved Sarah’s confidence in speaking, and that, in my opinion, is a team win.

In the evening we returned to an apartment on the outskirts of the old city, where we resided in the home of an elderly Peruvian woman, named Doris, for the week. On the whole, staying with Doris was an awesome experience which helped in our cultural adaptation. We got to practice speaking with a person who was patient with our learning. And although she professed not to know English, she always seemed to be able to guess the word we were trying to say when she could see we were really struggling. We learned much about Peruvian culture with her and managed occasionally to have a chuckle about our differences.

Staying with Doris also brought with it exactly the kind of authentic experience we wanted in theory, but less so in practice. We learned the hard way that outside the luxury of the tourist district, the water supply in Cusco turns off at an inevitable but unpredictable time in the afternoon and remains off until about 6am the next day. To the unsuspecting tourist, this makes for a rather embarrassing situation that doesn’t go down well, if at all, when one tries to flush a pre-bedtime bog down the loo.

Showers in Peru are also somewhat different. In the absence of both a gas distribution network and a developed world inclination to burn as many fossil fuels as possible by keeping water hot in boilers 24/7, Peruvians turn to a peculiar invention for having hot showers. On first glance, it seems to be a gigantic shower head, but on closer inspection one sees the wires running to it via the bathroom light and realises it is an electric shower head. Now I don’t know what Peruvian children are told, but I most certainly was told as a child that mixing electricity and water was an absolute no no. But here I was standing under a contraption that resembled a toaster which had the crumb tray removed from the bottom, allowing water to run through the middle.

With a background in mental health research, I happen to know that the rates of suicide in South America are among the lowest in the world. I had heard that this was attributed to a strong sense of community among South Americans which in contrast to the increasingly socially isolating nature of the Anglosphere mitigates the ‘thwarted belonging’ factor which contributes significantly to a persons inclination to kill themselves. There is some speculation that religiosity and issues with data collection may underlie some of the discrepancy between rates reported in South America and elsewhere, but I now know the truth. Turns out it’s simply impossible to tell the difference between a suicide and a commonplace electrical fault.

As of the weekend, we moved out of home, moved in to a hostel and went on two excursions. First we tested the legs and lungs on a bike trip to the town of Pisac in the Sacred valley. This involved a 600 metre climb out of Cusco followed by a 1000 metre descent in to Pisac. The legs and lungs faired great, though admittedly we were each about thirty kilos lighter without any pannier bags. It was a very successful trip. We found out that the drivers are courteous of cyclists and that the street dogs are not. Actually we knew the latter already and encounters with dogs are going to be such a frequent experience that I’ll save it for another blog. In Pisac, we celebrated our rabies free existence with a stroll around the market, inspecting every stall before Sarah finally made the rather extravagant purchase of a single scrunchy for something like 75 cents. Though she is muy proud of it. Upon finding out that we could put our bikes on the roof of a taxi that would drive us back 26km over the steep pass to Cusco for the somewhat less steep price of 6 dollars, we planted ourselves in a cafe and celebrated a successful outing.

The second excursion was a three day trip to Machu Picchu. This involved a four hour bimodal bus and train trip to and from the town of Aguas Calientes on the first and third day, and a visit to the famed ancient citadel in the middle. Aguas Calientes is a tiny town at the base of Machu Picchu which exists for no other reason than as a base camp for visiting MP. It sees 1,500 tourists pass through its gates daily. Technically its name means hot water, because there are some hot springs, but no one goes because they are cold muddy and gross. For a place as unnatural as a town built entirely for tourism, it has quite a nice vibe. Everyone is either excited about the bucket list item they’re about to see or stoked that what they just saw more than lived up to the hype. We had an early night knowing we’d be up at 4am to get the first bus. A task helped by the fact there is nothing to do or see in the town except MP the next day.

In the morning we got in line at 4.30 for a 5.30 bus, thinking we were dedicated and would be front of the line. However, there were about 20 tourists more dedicated than us and another 40 or so who to our amazement had hiked the vertical kilometre in the night to be that much closer to the front of the queue at the gates of MP. Turns out the joke was on all of us because there’s more than enough space for everyone in the first group of three hundred to get an uninterrupted view/photo. In being super early, I did however manage to snap the internationally coveted picture of the man who gets to whipper snipper Machu Picchu.

Aside from being breathtakingly beautiful, Machu Picchu is also hilarious for people watching. Never in my life have I seen so many #boyfriendsofinstragram photo shoots occurring simultaneously. Not even on LA’s Venice Beach caught between a gaggle of girls taking photos of their butt’s inclination to be flossed by a bikini, and hugely muscly men with body dysmorphia disorders had I seen more. There were people flying like Jack and Rose on Titanic, people reclining on rocks like it was a chaise lounge, people pouting and jumping and spinning around completely immune to the condescending looks of strangers until… and this I found hilarious… intermittently a guard would blow a whistle for no apparent reason, and simultaneously all the instafamous wannabes would identify themselves, showing they had and shred of self respect left, by stopping what they were doing for a moment and looking around alarmed under the assumption they were in trouble.

Now, I have to make an admission here. Normally Sarah is strongly opposed to a posed shot and I have to chase her around like paparazzi to get a human I know in a photo. I generally support her approach and only occasionally beg her to stand somewhere staged for a good shot. But on this day, something hilarious happened that turned us into a bunch of idiots as well. We stumbled across two llamas having an intimate moment in possibly the most romantic spot in the world. We took some photos and looked on in envy until it became apparent the event only lasted 60 seconds. After which the male came over proudly to say hello. I gave him my personal respects and we showed each other our sex faces. Then full of the llama ‘who gives a fuck what any one else thinks’ spirit, we went and captured this quintessentially idiotic panomagic picture of Machu Picchu. We had a blast.

Overall, I cannot tell you how nice it was to have a period of consistency that didn’t involve consistently cycling somewhere new every day. We’d both been craving it from about a month back. It’s left us feeling recharged and ready to take on the challenges and unknowns ahead of us. It’s all very exciting.

Riding part of the US Pacific Coast

We dropped the car at San Fran airport, built our bikes, and cycled out towards Half Moon bay. We spent the next forty kilometres dodging traffic and ducking into toilets. I either have an allergic reaction to airports, or I ate something that didn’t agree with me. I have no problem pooing in a secluded bush but feared the people of San Francisco may take offence to me pooing on the pavement. We seemed to be cycling on the only roads in America that aren’t lined with fast food outlets or service stations. At one point I had to stealthily enter a university library just to use the facilities. We failed to find accommodation we could afford anywhere before half moon bay, so we just had to push on. All my concentration was going in to not pooing myself and so in a rare moment of delegation I handed the captains hat over to Brad so that he could navigate us to Half Moon bay. He tells me he didn’t know what he was doing, but I’m still not sure I believe him. Instead of taking us along the tarmac road, he took us up and over a 400m hill on single track. The views at the top were spectacular and it definitely was a nicer ride than along the road. At times I even let my mind wander away from my bowels.

We decided to stay two nights at half moon bay to let my stomach settle. I’d like to tell you what a beautiful spot it was, but for forty eight hours we could see no further than about 100 yards in front of us. We drank a lot of coffee and Brad ate a lot of food, and we used the time to begin making some plans for South America.

A lesser known fact to us before cycling this route, is that summer time on the Californian Coast is dominated by fog, especially in the morning, sometimes stretching all through the day. I’m no geographer, but my brief google told me it’s something to do with the cold water of the pacific and the heat of the land. Whatever the cause, it’s a key fact tourist boards seem to gloss over!

We cycled out of half moon and by lunch the fog had cleared. We stopped at an elephant seal rookery and saw multiple male elephant seals, lying on the beach as they shed their winter coat. They are fascinating creatures being much more solitary than other seals. And a female is able to carry a fertilised egg for several months before implantation, allowing her to gain weight and strength following an extended period fasting while on land. They also have silly faces.

It was here that we ran into a young man, who was keen to talk to us about our travels. Now I don’t wish to judge anyone else’s planning, strategies or ways of cycle touring, but this young man left us speechless. And who am I kidding, a little judgy. He explained that he had started a tour from San Fran heading east but 48 hours in, he had to call for the parental search and rescue as he had managed to completely run out of food and the only way he could think to solve that problem was to call the dad taxi. Mystified as to where we got our food, he asked if we used the little farm stands selling fruit on the side of the road. ‘No’ we replied ‘we use the supermarket’ to which we got no response. Undeterred from his close encounter with a slow and painful starving death, he was planning continuing his tour south the following day. Hopefully, we had enlightened him about the existence of large shops selling multiple food items, not just fruit. We’re doing him a disservice though, running out of food in this part of America seemed like an impressive achievement.

We camped at New Brighton Beach, just south of Santa Cruz. It was sunny when we rolled in and we wondered if this would be our first dip in the ocean. Sadly, there had been multiple spottings of juvenile great whites along the beach. Enjoying having eight limbs between us, we decided to avoid the water. We camped in the hiker biker section with only one fellow camper. There was no evidence of him that evening and we wondered if he’d had an early night. We had a lazy morning, leaving just after ten and there was still no sign of life coming from the other tent. Over breakfast we wondered if they were still alive and if we should check on them, but decided it was a job for the rangers. We just hope he didn’t go for an evening dip and find himself well acquainted with Jaws.

We cycled through endless fields of strawberries on the way in to Monterey. They filled the air with a wonderfully sweet smell. Every so often though,the strawberry fields were interrupted by fields of cabbages. I’ve never seen so many cabbages. Who actually buys cabbage, except for nursing homes and hospitals? They always smell of cabbage. It was always a relief when we returned to the glorious rows of strawberries. It took all our strength to not pilfer a few fallen fruit.

It was in Monterey that we got our first impression of there being a very fine line between being a cycle tourist and being homeless in California. We noticed a few people in town towing trailers behind their bikes with lots of gear. They didn’t immediately look homeless, so we didn’t think much about it at the time. As we continued further down the coast, it became more and more apparent that homeless Californians tend to have a bicycle among their possessions. It may be a coincidence but we received many more pitying glances and fewer friendly chats than elsewhere in the US. It also explains why I was offered food on one occasion when sitting on the street with our bikes, waiting for brad to return. I thought I just looked grubby. We later realised the only way to tell the difference between us and a homeless person was that we are marginally less dirty and we are not seen rummaging in bins. Emphasis on marginal and not seen!

In all seriousness, we’ve met some people for whom cycletouring is a lifestyle choice and not a travel method.

The hiker biker spot in Monterey was interesting. And by interesting I mean uncomfortably eye opening. It was full of seemingly wealthy people who had ‘hiked’ from the nearest bus stop with their wheely suitcase. They were camping for the weekend and there to enjoy a lengthy drug binge, not wanting to pay the inflated weekend motel prices, prioritising their high. Only alcohol seemed off limits. One gentlemen of note seemed high for the entire 48 hours and talked at length and at volume about his philosophical ideas, stopping intermittently for a very loud, very forced and very annoying coughing fit, before carrying on his with his joint, seemingly undeterred that he had just lost a lung. A few days later, we bumped into another cycle tourist who had left Monterey early because he couldn’t deal with Mr Stoned Socrates and his irritating habits. We learned later that this group of people are infamous on the west coast and earn themselves the nicknames ‘trustafarians’ since they live off ‘old money’ in their families trust. Regardless, I can overlook the drug use but the coughing was really bloody annoying.

The following few days were by far the highlight as we cycled through Big Sur. Rolling hill after hill, stunning coastal views, and one of the best hiker biker spots nestled in a forest of redwoods; and no bus stop nearby. At one point on our ride, three condors swooped down only metres above our heads. I was awed by their size. We stuck around to see if they’d return. But only turkey vultures came back passed. Admittedly, we only found out they were turkey vultures a few days later.

This was a great part of the coast because we were also starting to feel like old friends with some of the other cycle tourists heading south. In Oceano and Lompoc we had arranged to share a campsite with a gentleman named Stewart because of the lack of cheap hiker biker spots. In total we spent six nights camping with Stewart. We never cycled together because he was an incredibly early riser and visited every old mission building he could find but it was nice ending each day swapping stories. Brad and I very much enjoy each other’s company and that of the acquaintances we make but it was nice to have someone else joining the ongoing conversation.

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The last of the pre LA coastline climaxed with a pretty-as-a-postcard camping spot, Refugio Beach. We spent two nights camped a stones throw from the beach. We entered holiday mode and recharged our ice cream and beer batteries. Spending our days doing nothing but eating, drinking and relaxing.

Our last camp before L.A was at Leo Carrillo State Beach. The ride towards it involved a considerable distance passed a navel base. We discovered it is a testing centre for missiles. Not because of google. Because we saw one. We were cycling along side fields of hemp and strawberries in a silent tranquility when all of a sudden we could see and hear a rocket launch into the sky, no more than 5km away from us. We looked at each other to make sure we weren’t going mad. I got the map out and spotted the base. We came to the only natural conclusion, Trump was finally sending missiles to China and this marked the beginning of WW3. We embraced, professed our love to each other and carried on our way noting that we’d be in the number one spot for a counter strike and if this was for real we wouldn’t have to endure it for long!

The cycle in to LA was as hectic as you can imagine, even though we left the campsite at 6.30am. Imagine cycling on a really busy dual carriageway with a shoulder filled with parked cars. We had to decide between the risk of coming face to face with an opening car door or cycling in a lane with traffic moving at 70 miles per hour. Intermittently we were passed by clearly sadistic individuals out for their early morning ride ‘for fun’. I can think of much more fun things to do, like episodically sticking my head into a bucket of acid. And I’ve cycled in London rush hour.

Eventually we hit a big traffic jam and cruised passed many of the cars that had just tried to kill us. We were chuffed until we realised the cause of the traffic jam was that one of these ‘doing it for fun’ cyclists had been knocked off by a passing car. Thankfully he looked ok as he sat in the back of the ambulance. No doubt he’ll be back for more fun next weekend. We arrived in Santa Monica, ready for a very large drink and a change of underpants each!

The next few days were filled with the usual mad dash that is preparing to take bicycles on an aeroplane. We did manage to sneak in a day of luxury, courtesy of a wedding present from my high school friends.

Flying out of L.A was as stressful an airport experience as they come. We had failed to investigate whether you can fly to Peru on a one way ticket with no evidence of departure. Turns out, you can’t. We had to book a bus ticket from Peru to Bolivia as proof we would eventually leave before they would let us check in. Even though they knew we weren’t going to use it. Because the criminals clearly haven’t thought of doing that!

They first delightful check in lady decided that we couldn’t take the bikes in the plane at all. The boxes were apparently too big.

We decided to retreat and let this lady go on her break, she was clearly hangry and clearly needed a KitKat. After booking our pretend exit strategy, we returned to the check in desk for attempt number 2. This time, the exit strategy was accepted but Brads passport was not. She was initially unhappy that one of the blank pages had a slight water mark on it. His photo page was pristine. She didn’t want to risk it and let him fly, but she delegated this hefty responsibility to her manager, who thankfully possessed rare common sense and gave us the green light. This time, the boxes were of adequate size and were checked in with no issues. Good thing they didn’t have a water mark on them!

It’s possible this post seems a bit negative at times. We did enjoy our ride from San Fran but had clearly been spoilt by the amazing natural splendour that America has to offer in other areas. The Pacific Coast Route definitely won’t be on the top of our recommended ride lists but it was good to have less navigation, food and water concerns than the weeks previous.

We are now in Cusco, ready for the next stage of our adventure. We’ll keep you posted!

Bryce Canyon to San Francisco!!

We cycled out of Bryce Canyon on 25km of cycle path that took us first along the flat Paunsaugunt Plateau and then down into Red Canyon of Dixie National Forest. A very aptly named canyon, with red cliffs, large hoodoos and pink soil. The cycle path followed the very empty river and we were thankful for the lack of thunderstorms on the horizon which could mean flash floods. The Red Canyon is also home to a pair of massive arches, created like all rock arches by the surrounding elements. This time however, the road goes under each arch. Almost like Mother Nature has provided a grand entrance into Bryce Canyon Country. The local authorities have rather pessimisticly(or sensibly) built a small single lane diversion around the arches which is closed at the moment but presumably is present just in case an arch collapses and blocks the road! It did make us feel a little vulnerable cycling past though!

Having once again risen at dawn to get the majority of miles in before the furnace got going, we arrived in Panguitch just in time for second breakfast.

We decided to fill up with pancakes, bacon and eggs in an attempt to make ourselves heavier and therefore less susceptible to the raging head wind that had plagued us for the last few weeks. Seemed like sensible logic at the time!

Following a big second breakfast and 10litres of free refill coffee each at Cowboys Smokehouse Cafe we carried on up hill to Panguitch Lake, a further 30km up the road. I only realised it was uphill after a very many kilometres of moving slowly. We have discovered that I may be the very first person with, and now documented case of, an inability to detect small changes in gradient that aren’t Appalachian , Dolomite or Andes in size. We have an almost daily conversation where I sense that for some time our pace has slowed down, and I ask Brad if we are going up hill. To which the only reply I now get is a chuckle and a disbelieving shake of the head. I can’t help it. I genuinely cant detect a gentle rise in the road, even one that goes on for many kilometres. I just think my legs have got tired and Ive slowed down. We’ve named the phenomenon DysMurphia. You heard it here first folks.

We left Panguitch lake the next morning, ready for a long way of cycling up. We had 1300m to climb in the first 50km, but its ok because I only realised we were going uphill half way through! Several hours later we reached the summit. After the effort we’d put in I hoped that at the top there would be a man selling cold beers, ice creams and a welcome party with balloons and banners. I was disappointed. There wasn’t even a sign telling us we’d got there. An elevation of  3260m, or the much more impressive sounding 10690 feet. Definitely a reason why the Americans are still using the Imperial system. In a land where bigger means better, how could you reduce the height of all your mountains by a third?!

We had to settle for a picture 150m downhill at a lookout. Taken by a Frenchman who didn’t understand the significance of getting the whole number in.

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We may not have been rewarded with beers and ice cream but Mother Nature did provided Cedar Breaks National Monument. A natural amphitheater plunging several hundred meters below with hoodoos galore. Like Bryce but without the crowds. The park area is also well known for its wild flowers and given the late snow fall, they were blooming late so we were treated to the spectacle of blues, yellows, pinks and white.

Since cycling through Grand Staricase Escalante National Monument we have both been troubled by the difference between a national park and a national monument. Not troubled enough to google it but we took the opportunity in Cedar Breaks to ask one of the many wondering rangers. And it seemed like we struck a nerve. National Parks are designated by congress and therefore are fully funded and fully protected areas by legislation. National monuments are proclaimed by the president through executive decree and that protection can just as easily be removed, by a future president or congress. This leaves National monuments more vulnerable. The nerve we hit, was yet another one of trumps glorious plans. This one to turn parts of Grand Staircase over to the oil, coal and gas mining industries. Genius.

From Cedar Breaks Brad finally realised a trip long dream. To cycle a road that descends right down into a town. We always tell ourselves ‘it’s all downhill from’  and it rarely is. There’s often a random hillock or boring flat slog but on this day, it really was a 1600m descent right into the centre of Cedar City. We were also excited because we were descending to a shower and a bed for the night. In Cedar City we stayed with Ginger and Mark, a couple whom we me whilst on a hike in Capitol Reef National Park. We were sat on a rock under an arch having a biscuit and a drink when Ginger called over that she must take a picture for us because we were sitting in such a picturesque spot. She wasn’t wrong, the picture was great. We returned the favour and got chatting. This chat culminated in a very kind offer of a bed for the night if we were passing through Cedar City. Too everyone’s surprise, we were!

So that afternoon, we rolled up their road and found Ginger sat outside ready to welcome us into their home like long lost friends! They treated us to a fantastic evening of snacks, beer, amazing steak, ice cream and good conversation. Ginger is an elementary school teacher, often working in Spanish speaking schools. This inspired us to get back on the Spanish learning and we have booked a weeks residential Spanish course for Cuzco. We are also keeping her number on speed dial to get us out of any tricky situations!!! Mark is an Economics Professor specialising in Tax and this had brought them to Utah from Colorado for the year. Brad has (obviously) spent the trip thinking about the American Tax system and was therefore only too keen to pick Marks brain on the populous psyche on tax, given it is always added on separately to every purchase. Like a nasty sting. Look at the government stealing my dollars it seems to say.

We slept like kings and despite our early departure both Ginger and Mark were up to make us breakfast, provide us a packed lunch and wave us off. Once again we were astounded by the kindness of strangers. Welcoming us into their home and treating us like friends. Ginger remarked at one point Australians have the sophistication of the English and the friendliness of the Americans. I’d never thought of Americans having this stereotype but now recognise it as true. And if all Americans are half as friendly as Ginger and Mark, Australia will be doing well.

We cycled from Cedar City to Zion via Kolob reservoir. This involved scaling a bloody massive hill on the edge of Cedar City. And by hill, I mean 1200m of mountain. It was the steepest longest cyclable hill we’ve been up. Persistent 15% gradient on sandy dirt road. We made it to the top in 90minutes with only a brief break in the middle. We were throwing our body weight into each pedal stroke, in our granny gear, just to be able to get the pedals to go round. We both had sore backs by the top. But we made it without pushing and without another ‘character building’ experience. Definitely a sign we are getting fitter and we feel a little more ready for South America.

The ride from Kolob Reservoir into Zion was another glorious descent. This time treated to views of Zion from every angle on a road that very few other people were using. We finally understood why Zion is so popular. Many people have told us we must go to Zion but few could explain quite exactly why. This whole vista had an almost biblical feel about it. So hard to explain, no one distinguishing feature. Just epically beautiful.

One of the highlights of Zion is Angels Landing, a landing on a ridge edge so lofty and hard to get to it was once said it could only be reached by angels. It is now a hiking trail and it’s hard to believe it actually exists. Having heard there can be three-hour queues at the start of the trail, we got up at 4.30amto cycle into the park and beat the first shuttle bus of the day. The hike starts with a casual stroll along the Virgin River and a sign telling you how many people have died attempting it since 2004 – nine – comforting. It then becomes a steep trail up the mountain turning eventually into switchbacks carved in to the cliff face. After about 400 vertical metres, the trail arrives at a saddle with a view of Angels Landing. It’s at this point disbelief sets in about where the trail goes. Up that thin rocky crag with a mere chain for aid. It’s almost a rock climb. We arrived in time for the first touch of direct sunlight. It was serene and we enjoyed a glorious thirty minutes before turning back to avoid the hordes coming up. I couldn’t imagine having to battle people for space on such a precarious trail. All in all, one of the best hiking experiences we’ve had. Couldn’t recommend it enough.

We spent two nights in Zion and given we were getting up early to see the park outside of furnace hours, we were left with many an hour to relax and start to plan the next part of the trip. We were both dreaming of a rest. A rest away from the melting pot of the desert. A rest with less cycling and more sleeping. We dreamed of a cruise into Mexico but none were running. We then dreamed of a relaxing trip to Cuba but the logistics of flying to Cuba from America were not too great. Next dream was some time by the sea on a beach in California. Too expensive. In a nutshell, we were over the desert and the thought of cycling out of Zion to spend another 2 weeks cycling through the desert just too see the Grand Canyon and reach some arbitrary end point was not an exciting or enticing prospect. And just like that we had another ‘we can do whatever we want’ moment. And we wanted to get out of the desert.

We pressed the eject button, booked the closest rental car and found ourselves excitedly making plans to be out of the desert in 24hrs, driving to San Francisco to cycle the Pacific Coast back down to L.A.

Cycling in to St George regional airport, we spied three cars and a tin shed. Suddenly we had the creeping feeling that booking a car from a budget company with less than 24 hours notice, having had no actual contact with a human in the process, and expecting to pick it up from a shack in the desert, might have been a sub optimal strategy. However we were delightfully wrong. One car belonged to the woman who was there to collect our signatures and the other two left us with a choice! A red VW Beetle and a Kia Sentra. As much as cruising into California in a beetle fit the image, leaving Bettie and Bertrand behind to pursue Sarah’s teenage dream of living the OC seemed an unforgivable act of treason. We therefore made the right choice, and picked the boring Kia.

We made straight for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. At one point, Sarah asked me if the experience was going to be disappointing. Since I had been to the Grand Canyon previously. I dodged the question, thinking it would surely lead to disappointment if I said no, and worse, lead to a battery of questions about why she was driving an extra four hours to see something underwhelming, if I said yes. There was an emphasis on her doing the driving, since I had cleverly let my drivers licence expire on my birthday a week earlier. Anyway, I didn’t know what to say. In one sense it’s a beautiful canyon carved out over thousands of years by the subtle but unrelenting force of water, in another sense, it’s just a big hole in the ground. As it turned out, I probably could have said anything since there was a bushfire nearby and the smoke somewhat obscured the view. It took the glow off the self-transcending spiritual connection with time and nature that I’m sure we would have otherwise felt, but you could at least see that it was a big hole in the ground.

We spun on our heels and started the eight hour drive towards LA. Feeling quite comfortable now with making plans up on the fly, we decided we had the time to visit San Diego, so long as we drove most of the way that night. After four hours of cycling and ten hours of driving we finally called it a night at 1am and slept exhausted in a motel on the outskirts of the city.

Refreshed and ready to enter holiday-on-a-holiday mode, we visited a winery on our way in to San Diego. We, but more so I, had a bibulous time, and I vowed to Sarah I would never renew my drivers licence. She was delighted.

In San Diego we visited Balboa park: A precinct of museums, galleries, theatres, and the zoo, all housed within beautiful Spanish colonial architectural buildings dating back to the early 1800’s, and interspersed among luscious gardens and parklands. It was beautiful and buzzing with both tourists and locals on a sunny sunday afternoon. Since my interest in photography has taken off on this trip, we paid a visit to the museum of photographic arts. I’m not sure where I got the idea we would see something vaguely resembling a history of photography. Maybe something to do with the name museum. Who knows. But we were instead treated to an exhibition of modern art. Sarah and I have differing views on art. We both like photography because it captures something remarkable that was at least once real. While I also like other types of ‘more creative’ art because I enjoy thinking about the perspective they brought to the creation, that kind of thing isn’t additionally appealing to Sarah beyond the aesthetics and semantics of the piece of art. But when it comes to modern art we both stand steadfastly in agreement. Modern art is what happens when people are pushed in to a corner of creativity trying to do something novel for the sake of doing something different, because no one otherwise appreciates the nuances of their art. And it is shit. My personal favourite display was a piece of raw photographic film that had been exposed to the saliva of artist, mother and grandmother, and smeared around the film as they saw fit in that inspired moment. This symbolised inter generational connection through DNA, according to the caption. You may as well just write these things down in a book of random ideas to be appreciated solely for their zaniness. Never mind actually creating them.

In San Diego City we checked in to a hostel, strolled along the waterfront, ate pizza and drank beer. Then as if through divine intervention designed to help ground us comfortingly back down with our true plebeian tastes, we stumbled upon the most incredible performance I have ever seen. It was the simple combination of two “duelling” pianos. Never before have I seen such an electric crowd, reacting dynamically, erupting with applause at each new song and singing at the top of their lungs, as each pianist took turns playing requests from the crowd. They seemed to have an endless depth to their repertoire, answering the call to play and sing songs as diverse as ‘gangsters paradise’ and ‘moonlight sonata’. On multiple occasions people were pulled up front to be serenaded for their birthday, and each danced willingly on the piano as if they were part of the act. Either all Americans can dance, or there was something truly magic about those pianos.

The next day, we drove another eight hours, dropping and picking up another car as we drove through LA due to logistics I won’t bore you with with. But I will say. If you ever find yourself booking a car in America advertised as costing $15 a day thinking you’ve found a great deal, don’t. You will end up paying $360 for two days hire. Thanks litigously loony and fiscally f****d America.

We drove on up to San Francisco dipping in to the famed Orange County to satisfy Sarah’s teen dreams, but otherwise avoided highway 1 (since we would cycle back down that way). We took a days rest in Monterey and visited the aquarium. There we discovered the delights of staring at fish, who had already discovered an unending joy of staring at humans. We watched a performance about the history of Monterey and its sardine canning industry. Monterey, as we found out, was almost single-handedly responsible for feeding the American troops in both the First and Second World War. It was packed with themes of multiculturalism and environmental conservation and performed as a thrilling spectacle, accompanied by costumed actors and synchronised swimmers. Call me a cynic, but I swear there is something especially modern in the western cultural inclination to turn a story about racist collusion and absolute depletion of an aquatic ecosystem, all underpinning a war effort, into a feel-good performance about fish. Now that’s what I call modern art.

Salt Lake City to Bryce Canyon

We dropped the car off in Salt Lake City at 5.45 am so that we could get an early start on the heat. But by the time that we had unloaded the car, packed up the resulting bombsite and loaded the bikes, it was nearing 6.30. We had decided to cheat our way out of Salt Lake City and get the train to the suburbs. So we cycled the three kilometres to Salt Lake City central station. Given Salt Lake is the capital of Utah, we expected the station to be fairly busy as we were approaching rush hour. However, we found only two platforms, a few stray dogs and the usual collection of homeless people who seem to frequent railway stations all over the world. We could almost hear the tumble weed rolling passed. We had just missed the train, so we sat down on the platform and ate our breakfast. I was quite relieved that the station was quiet. Because that morning, in the rush to get going, I had neglected to put on a bra. Only realising half way to the station. And almost had an accidental nip slip. I managed to subtly put on a bra while sitting in the platform, employing all my skills honed in school girl changing rooms. Meanwhile Brad struggled with his breakfast, having accidentally poured Powerade on his milk powdered cereal. He looked grim.

One hour later, the train rolled into Provo station on the southern outskirts of salt lake, and we carried on our way aiming for a small town called Nephi. Around 2pm, we cycled down the ‘’main” street in Nephi and felt like we had somehow missed the zombie apocalypse. Every house, business and shopfront had an assortment of chairs and picnic rugs laid out on the verge, but there was nobody around. This continued all the way in to the centre of town. We half expected a zombie in a cowboy hat to chase us down the street. Eventually we spotted a poster advertising the Ute stampede rodeo, which was happening that weekend. We hoped the chairs had more to do with the rodeo and less to do with zombies.

We camped in a small campsite on the edge of town, and immediately downed a cold Diet Coke and soaked off the days sweat in the shower. As we sat down for a late lunch (of an enormous chicken and bacon sandwich we had acquired from Walmart for a bargain price) I spotted an older gentlemen with a fashion sense that all retired men should aspire to: jeans, braces, topless, wearing a Stetson. He noticed my admiring glances, waved and strolled over with his dog. And this is how we met Loren, and Muffin.

Loren was a paratrooper in the Vietnam war, completing a second tour, because of how unwelcome he felt back home. We had a long discussion about veterans and how the public perception has changed over the years. He seemed both happy and sad about this, reporting sadly it was much too late for him. He spent his summers in Nephi and his winters in the warmer St George, living in an RV park with his dog. We often feel guilty talking to people in small towns about our trip. And purposely leave out the full extent, often just saying we are cycling through America. The median household income in Nephi is 28,000 US dollars per year. Hear we are, two privileged young people with well payed jobs, escaping the ‘real world’. When we think back to some of the stresses and annoyances of home, we just look like whinging entitled princesses.

Loren also explained the chairs on the Main Street, confirming they were out for the rodeo and the parade happening later that day. Once he found out that the young lady in very short shorts, sat in front of him, was a doctor, he became even more friendly, showering me with thanks and was only too pleased to help us, lending us some washing powder and quarters for laundry. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the short shorts and my profession, perhaps it was just the unpleasant smell wafting towards him. Although later, he did return to solicit medical advice about his rising liver function tests and his love of a strong margarita. A conservation introduced subtly by the question – ‘what do you know about agent orange?’

At five o’clock we cruised back in to town to watch the parade, all the chairs and picnic blankets were now full of excited locals. The parade kicked off with some old war vehicles filled with veterans. And without the national anthem playing, every single person lining the street stood up and clutched their hand to their chest. Almost echoing the words of Loren only hours earlier. This was followed by every type of beauty queen / pageant winner imaginable. From every small town of Utah. Almost like a parade of every Barbie ever made: Cowgirl barbie, small town barbie, voluptuous barbie, equestrian barbie, Mormon barbie, the list goes on.

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Once agin the alarm was set for 5am and we headed towards Salina. We stopped for a coffee in Levan and the lady behind the counter asked where we were going. I tried thirty seven different ways of saying Salina, including Sal-ee-na, sally-nar, salna and so on, without even a hint of recognition crossing her face. The penny then dropped and she said ‘oh, you mean Sal-I-na’. Brad glanced at me nervously. We payed and left. On the way out, he said with a relieved look on his face ‘I thought you were going to say “oh Sal-I-na, like vagina”’, which probably wouldn’t have gone down well in this conservative part of the world.

We rode through Gunison around morning tea. And we were both entertaining the fantasy of ice cream. This is a dangerous game, because so often you can be left disappointed, finding out that the town you are cycling through only has four houses, eight dogs and a church. On this 34 degree day however, our dreams came true, and we cycled passed Mr Freeze. We treated ourselves to an Oreo ice cream milkshake each. It was clearly only called a milkshake to alleviate disappointment with rapidly melting ice cream in the heat. We were served multiple scoops of ice cream in a one litre Pepsi cup, and given a spoon first, then a straw. It was heaven. We both felt a little guilty as we had just been judging a family of slightly round young children, each walking away with their own one litre tub. We hoped they were about to all cycle the 80 kilometre journey home to justify it. Mr Freeze was also complete with a sprinkler. And we took the opportunity to run through it multiple times. Only stopping to let the manager move the sprinkler further into the garden. Sadly, there were no further sprinkler gifts on our way out of town. The manager has clearly called ahead to warn them of our arrival!!

We made quick work of the rest of the journey in to Salina like Vagina and camped for the night in a place called Butch Cassidy RV park on the outskirts of town. Given our early starts, we have had the afternoons to chill, and so to escape the sun we went to sit in their ‘media room’. The room was more like a museum of western life than a media room, and had a large stags head on the wall. We battled for some time to get the tv to work. Just as we were giving up, the stag leapt off the wall and onto the floor, breaking its antlers. Brad screamed like a little boy and wailed ‘no! no! what? no!’. We stood staring at each other in disbelief, and then had a discussion about how we were going to explain this to the owners. Surely they wouldn’t believe it just leapt off the wall. We had fears of having to pay thousands of dollars to replace the antlers. Our trip was over.

The owner rushed in, clasped her hand to her mouth, and ran out again. Was she going to get her gun, shoot us and mount our heads on the wall?. Thankful this stag had a reputation. When she returned, she was gunless. She recounted a story about how they had acquired the stag. It had been hanging in her father in laws garage above his classic car collection, and one day, it leapt off the wall and onto one of the cars. It had been hanging on her wall ever since. She could not work out how it had come loose and after tidying up she left the room saying, ‘I always thought we had ghosts, maybe it was the stag’. A few minutes later, when I was sat quietly reading a book. The back door to the room suddenly swung open on its own. There was no one there. The ghost had left the building. We quickly followed, thoroughly spooked and didn’t return.

We left Salina like vagina the next morning at dawn and were tested to a beautiful sunrise across the valley. We then climbed a 1000 metres up a seemingly never ending hill, stopping only to shove cookies in our face and repair a puncture on brads front wheel. We were treated to a long down hill in to a town called Loa. Sadly we couldn’t completely relax and enjoy it, because there was no shoulder, and random piles of sand were on the side of the road. We were passed by a 4×4 towing a caravan, so close that I could tell you the colour of the drivers eyes and that he had garlic for dinner. I shook my head in disbelief. But, heard a crunch and Brad yell ‘Sarah’. I was convinced he had been hit by Mr garlic breath. And turned around to see Brad picking himself up off the floor. I jumped off my bike and ran back to him. Thankfully he hadn’t been hit. He had smelled Mr garlic breath coming, swerved into the non-existent shoulder and slid out in a pile of sand. It was a close call and we descended the rest of the hill very slowly.

The next morning , again up at dawn, we cycled from Torrey into Capital Reef National Park. We wanted to make sure that we got a spot in the campgrounds in the park. Capitol Reef is a glorious little national park with stunning red cliffs, mesas, hoodoos and arches. The main centre of the park is based around an old Mormon pioneer settlement called Fruita. The park service had maintained multiple orchards that had been planted by the Mormons. One of these orchards was alongside the campground. So after we had set up the tent we treated ourselves to one too many free apricots.

We spent the day looking at petroglyphs, going on a hike to a rock arch and relaxing in the shade. There was an old fashioned bakery next to the campground, that sold freshly baked fruit pies and enormous cinnamon buns. We had a mixed berry pie, a strawberry and rubharb pie, and a cinnamon bun each. Capitol Reef gets a big thumbs up from us. And it’s not just because they bribed us with baked goods!

After looking at a map, we noticed there seemed to be an unmaintained road that leaves the park from the south. Taking this road would shave off some distance but would still mean 1400 metres of elevation gain, because we had to get up and over boulder mountain. We went into the rangers station to ask about the state of the road and the terrain. We explained we were on loaded mountain bikes. He said that is was definitely an unmaintained road, only recommended for experienced four wheel drive owners. But probably doable on a mountain bike. He finished with – ‘it should be fun’. I’d hate to see what else the ranger does for fun, because as it turns out, 15% gradient rocky staircase in the middle of the desert, in the heat is not my kind of fun.

We set off at dawn and I was a little apprehensive. Brad explained we could turn back if it got too difficult. He had said this before and I knew he didnt really mean it. It started as a scenic road through the park, and then turn off in to South Downs road. Road was a misleading term. Dry river bed would have been much more accurate. We stared climbing at manageable gradients on the rugged dry creek bed, with equal parts rock and sand. We then hit our first steep up hill, and the river bed continued. We had to get off and push. Brad was optimistic it wouldn’t continue. We made it to the top and I looked at the map, this wasn’t even the steep part. I voiced my concern to Brad. He encouraged us to keep going, saying again that if ended up having to push a long way, we could turn around. We shortly arrived at the rock staircase. I put my bike down and said this is getting silly. Brad was once again optimistic it wouldn’t continue. He jogged up the hill and returned five minutes later reporting it levels off in two hundred metres but that he couldn’t see much further up the road. He was again keen to continue. I wasn’t. It was pushing forty degrees and only 10am. We still had thirty kilometres and six hundred metres of up left to do on this road. And we didn’t have enough food to camp over night if something went wrong. I voiced this to brad and he was again optimistic. We pushed for about fifty metres and for the first time I actually said, ‘I don’t want to do this’. Reminding him about my rib and bursting in to tears. Brad quietly turned around and came back down to meet me. He agreed we should turn around, becoming quite emotional himself as he’d forgotten about my rib, and felt he was needlessly pushing us too hard. We sat in the shade of a rock, ate some donuts and cried. A few hours later we were back where we started at 5am.

Over a cup of tea, and the remainder of the donuts we talked about why the decision to turn back was so difficult. My job is about making decisions, but I’m usually armed with facts and I’m somewhat less emotionally attached to the outcome. It’s the unknown that makes the decisions hard.

Whilst we sat in the shade at the bakery, we were approached by an Hispanic looking gentleman and his wife. They were impressed to see us as they had passed us on the road out of Salt Lake, recognising my iconic shirt. We had the usual conversation about where we started the trip, how many miles we do a day, and where we were from. He was pleased to hear it is true what they say about vegemite. Brad loves it. I hate it. Toward the end of the conversation, he started talking to his wife in Spanish. Now Brad and I have been learning Spanish using the app Duolingo but he mentioned nothing about apples or how many computers the university has, so we didn’t understand what they were saying. Moments later he was taking money out of his wallet, and handing it to us, saying he was inspired by our trip and wanted to buy us lunch. He gave us twenty dollars and made a quick exit. Such a kind and unexpected gesture changed our miserable defeated morning. We stopped at the first burger place we saw and bought lunch. We said cheers to Mr Capitol Reef, not even knowing his name.

We made it the long way out of Capitol Reef, over Boulder Pass and through Grand Staircase Escalante Monument to Bryce Canyon, struggling up some of even the smallest hills towards the end. There we had ourselves some much needed off-the-bike time, spending nearly three days sleeping in, hiking in the morning cool and napping again in the afternoon. On the second day we celebrated Brad’s 30th birthday and then aimed our bikes in the direction of Zion National Park.

Apologies for the lack of pictures, we haven’t been able to find any decent WiFi to upload. Fingers crossed for next time.

Utah road trip

Riding in to Salt Lake, we made a bee line for a cycle path that would take us all the way to the rv park where we planned to camp. On the way, we stopped for lunch under a shelter in a park. Perhaps inspired by divine Mormon intervention, or perhaps subconsciously provoked by the homeless man who shared the shelter with us, Sarah suddenly had the urge to check availability in the RV park for the night. This was odd, on account of the fact that we had stopped calling rv parks in about the first week of our trip in New Zealand. We were ridiculed on a few occasions for our conscientiousness and concern there might not be room for a single tent. Soon learning no one camps these days, and that indeed there is always spare grass for a tent, we’d stopped worrying about booking long ago. So when Sarah called and received the news they were full, we were surprised. She accepted this news graciously while on the phone but the moment she hung up she exclaimed – ‘what’s wrong with them, don’t they want our money!’. Receiving odd looks from the homeless man, we formulated a new plan quickly and headed straight for the car rental company, hoping we could get the car a day early. But we failed on that count too. Apparently they didn’t want our money either. Motel 6 however, graciously accepted fifty of our finest dollars.

We’d received a hot tip from Tamara and Chris that a place called Red Iguanas was the most authentic and delicious Mexican food in all of Salt Lake City. So, inspired by our wallets desire to prove it had value, we went for dinner. We arrived at the restaurant and felt instantly at home. Much like the ten year queues you stand in to get a table at a new restaurant in Canberra, we waited an hour on the street. Just as Sarah was about to turn from pleasant wife to hangry witch, our names were called and we were in. Having perused the menu for an hour already, as soon as the waiter seated us we were pushing our order on him. He clearly had a hangry witch of a wife at home. Without speaking he returned with chips and salsa. We ordered two of the Red Iguana specials, which essentially comprised one of everything, including envious looks from our table neighbours.

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This meal reminded us of a Mexican restaurant we dined in on our trip back to Australia between New Zealand and North America, where we had mistakenly ordered chargrilled watermelon under the impression it would be a steak. Don’t ask. And if this wasn’t enough, it was followed up with ridicule from the waiter for ordering a corona without looking at the beverage list. The waitress had a look on her face that said ‘don’t you know, Mexicans don’t actually drink corona and we don’t serve it!’

With a belly full of a divine selection of chicken, beef, pork, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, fajitas and nachos, all washed down with corona, the watermelon-gate Mexican experience of Byron Bay seemed like another lifetime ago.

In the morning we picked up the car and hit the road on what would end up being a 1,200 mile road trip. Driving the exact roads we would have found ourselves cycling on, and finding them as dry, hot and sparsely serviced but still full of traffic with no shoulder, we congratulated ourselves on making the decision to see this part of Utah by car. Four hours later, we arrived in Moab, where it was a cool 42 degrees Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit). So we went in search of ice cream. As if the gods knew our plight, we happened upon a place that Sarah declares to be the best ice cream she’s ever eaten. Maybe it was just the lack of ice cream over the last few months, which to Sarah, you have to understand, is like being in a desert and happening upon an oasis. Which ironically we were. But this oasis made its ice cream using liquid nitrogen.

Suitably creamed, we made our way into the Arches National Park. We headed straight for the end of the single out-and-back scenic road that winds it way through the park and stopped at every attraction. We reached the final attraction, double arch, conveniently around the time of sunset. After viewing the arches, we set ourselves up on a nearby hill to cook dinner and eat it while watching the sunset. It was likely our most scenic dinner location to date.

That night, we tented (that rare kind of camping that doesn’t involve putting wheels on your home) in a campsite beside the Colorado river. And there, with our stupidly expensive tent that can’t stand without its fly, we faced the classic dilemma – would you rather die from heat exhaustion or mosquito exsanguination. And of course I am using dilemma in the true sense of the word, because we all know that either choice leads to death by sleeplessness.

In the morning, we fled early. Reminiscing about the beauty of Arches NP, we mustered the energy to go for a run to see one of the best arches of the park, and that had been out of our reach the day prior, Landscape Arch. Americans, being as vocal they are, we just about had a cheer squad the whole way there.

Next, we headed just across the border to Colorado to visit Mesa Verde National Park. The park hosts ancient ruins of the cliff dwelling ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in the cliffs of the Mesa around 750 ad. We were ably led on a tour through one of these dwellings by an enthusiast in rangers clothing. Seemingly enthralled by the fact that we were ‘essentially the same’ as the Pueblo people, on account of the fact that both they and we ‘worked together in teams’, our guide spent half of the tour talking about teamwork and wouldn’t let us climb a ladder into the dwelling until we had each told her about a time we had worked in a team. Sarah, who had only a few days earlier written a job application, speaking to criteria about her ability to ‘work under pressure in a highly dynamic team environment’ aka an emergency room, glazed over as if she had just entered the interview room, and then froze. Seeing this, I quickly blurted out ‘marriage is a team’ and we were granted access to the dwelling.

That afternoon, we drove on to Monument Valley, and drove right on through. Actually that’s not true. We stopped momentarily, and I got out to take a photo of the long straight road with a backdrop of buttes made famous by the movie Forest Gump, and found myself competing with other tourists for a spot on the road between cars. Now, I can deal with a beautiful location crawling with tourists like ants, but when it gets to the point that people are competing for the chance to take ‘that’ photo, I lose all my photo mojo.

We were also mindful that we needed to book a tour for Antelope Canyon for the next day, and we didn’t realise we’d entered a wifi desert with no phone reception. Knowing what everyone was thinking, an oasis-like McDonalds restaurant had a sign up larger than its arches that read “free wifi” and we happily obliged by stopping in. We thanked them by buying a sundae, although were disappointed they did not prepare it using liquid nitrogen.

After making our booking and submitting our suggested improvements form, we continued on passed Antelope Canyon to the town of Kanab. Kanab is the home of ‘the wave’, officially known as North Coyote Buttes. The wave is an incredible geological formation that the town managed to keep secret until the eighties. It has the appearance of an ocean of rock, swirling with colour in each contour of its form. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people apply for only ten permits (one permit per person) available each day to go see it. The allocation is decided by a lottery and the odds of getting a permit are less than 1%. If you are game though, there is also the option of just turning up on the day prior and applying for one of a further ten available permits for the boldest of travellers. However, there is on average around two hundred such risk-taking travellers per day. So unfortunately the odds only increase to about 5%. We were one such pair of silly travellers. And at 9amwe sat in the Kanab Visitors Centre lottery room, receiving a lecture on ‘the wave’ from the local ranger. To our surprise (Sarah wants to point out it was I who was pushing for the visit to Kanab and our surprise was a function of my inability to look into anything beyond the point of excitement one gets from the initial discovery of a thing being a thing), we found out that visiting the wave involves a 10km unmarked trek through the desert, with one source reporting that 30% of people don’t find it. And that’s only those who admit it. Another source pointed out that there have been multiple people who have died in the desert in search of the wave and many others that have been saved by search and rescue. This source was the ranger in front of us and he looked like he wanted to die, from having to give the same spiel every single day. It had the effect building great anticipation for the lottery though, as if the unlucky chosen ones were being sent to be executed. When he finished his spiel, he gave each of us a number, clearly to distance us from him emotionally, and entered us each, represented by a numbered ball, into a spinning cage. We were number seven. A beautiful young female sidekick did the spinning, as if we were on a game show, and announced the victims with a smile. The first number to be called out was seven…teen. Our hearts skipped a beat. Behind us a man began crying. It must be him. Poor thing I thought. But then the first smile of the day appeared on the rangers face and he looked as if he knew this man. ‘How longs it been?’ He asked. ‘Eleven days’ said the man. He had been turning up for eleven days straight! Applause erupted. And then an Indian family who had been trying for five days won the next lot of permits. More applause. And so on until all ten permits were allocated. We did not receive a permit but we were glad to be alive.

Feeling energised by the morning spectacle, we decided to squeeze in a visit to Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River on our way to Antelope Canyon. We dashed in. Had a look. Were amazed. Sarah felt her usual tendency to throw her keys over the edge, even though she doesn’t have any, and we dashed away again.

We expected Antelope Canyon to be a consolation prize for not getting to see the wave. But in hindsight it’s hard to believe there’s any swirling geological formation more beautiful. It’s no surprise the worlds most expensive photograph ($6.5 million) was taken there. The colours created by light bouncing multiple times off the walls is just incredible. The ten metre deep canyon seems to create every colour on a spectrum from yellow, through orange and red to purple. It took us an hour to walk four hundred metres, the whole time with our jaws on the ground. Although the place was swarming with tourists, the canyon was so tight that at times we felt like we were the only ones there. Our guide was delightful, explaining the history of the canyon and how they maintain it. She was a keen photographer and so we got a lesson in photography on the way too. I couldn’t recommend visiting Antelope Canyon more highly.

Since we had left a day spare in our itinerary in case we lucked out in the lottery, after the tour we were at a loss with what to do with ourselves. We had about 40 hours before the car needed to be returned and no plans. So we did what any commiserative risk-takers, who understand how luck works on average, would do. We drove four and a half hours to Las Vegas.

On the way we booked a motel. It was both conducive to our budget and our inclination to be walking-distance from the strip. Upon arriving, we waited in the reception behind a gentleman who was politely inquiring as to the rationale that he must provide photo identification when paying for a room with cash, and a slender woman accompanying him with an alluring look about her of heroin sheik. By gentleman I mean pimp and by heroin I mean heroin. For a moment I was mortified, but then I calmed myself, remembering we had the credit card and realised we would face no such similar issues.

We dropped our stuff in the room, showered for no practical benefit and headed out down the strip in 42 degree heat at 7pm. And for the second time that day we walked with our jaws on the ground at a rate of 400 metres per hour, minds blown by the light display. By 9pmwe made it to the opposite end, stomaching a burger and beer that cost more than our motel room, and drifted into New York New York to ride the roller coaster. And again for the second time that day, we were convinced we were going to die. We walked back to the motel, stopping to look at the Bellagio fountain display and discussed the working conditions of the burlesque- and barely-dressed girls available for pictures at a small cost. Sarah, concerned for their well being, failed to see my couldn’t-be-clearer point that it was an entirely appropriate uniform considering the weather. When we returned to our motel, having had a charming evening involving not a single dollar spent in a casino nor more than a single $20 beer consumed each, we decided that on the small spectrum that exists between the worlds most beautiful natural wonders and the worlds most debaucherous unnatural city, we felt somewhat more at home in the former. This was supported at 6amwhen we informed a drunk man banging on our door that the hooker was in room 151 not 115.

As if to confirm our suspicions that we enjoyed Nature’s light displays over Man’s, upon our return to Salt Lake City the next evening, Mother Nature put on a spectacular sunset which we watched from a secret campsite Sarah scouted out up on a hill in the ‘flight park’ where hang gliders launch from. That night, with nothing but the sound of crickets to bother us, we slept like we had overdosed on calm.