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Patagonia: Cycling the Carretera Austral

The air is gone. Not only am I flattened after the Paso Rio Mayer, but also my front tire is. No big problem, after all I have a repair kit and even a replacement tube. And the front wheel is easier to remove than the rear wheel. The panniers are quickly removed, the brake released, the screw released and the front wheel removed. The bike simply balances on the fork while I loosen the tire and take out the inner tube. Sounds like routine, but it would be a lie if I would claim to have done this procedure many times. The Marathon Mondial tires don´t get bothered by many things and also this time it is not a screw or nail, but the tube is torn at the valve. Exactly the same problem I have had twice in recent times, most recently in Buenos Aires and before that at the airport in Auckland, where I did´t have a spare tube, but a bicycle shop was within walking distance. The rim tape seems to shift and this causes the tube to rub against the sharp metal edge of the rim valve opening and I haven´t yet found a satisfying solution. Such a puncture is difficult to repair and I decide directly for the spare tube. Around the valve I wrap, as a precaution, a piece of old rubber tube for more protection. After a short while the journey continues, only to end a few hundred meters again. This time it is not the valve, but the tube is torn directly over a length of three centimeters. This is called bad luck – or poor quality. My best chances are to fix the other tube at the valve. I cut a hole in a patch and glue it over the valve, hoping to get everything tight. It seems to work, to hold the air. At least for 20 minutes.

It´s still thirty kilometers to Villa O`Higgins. And the last night I ate up all my supplies, assuming that I could quickly get into a shop today. If I don´t want to ask for food at one of the few houses, or one of the few cars for a ride, I have only one thing left: Pumping, cycling for as long as 20 minutes until the tire is flat, pumping, cycling, pumping, cycling. My arm hurts because of the pumping and next time I will buy a more expensive two-way pump, which pumps air when pulled and pressed

 So it takes me a while until I reach my destination exhausted and hungry, more precisely I stop already 200 meters before the village. Here is Tsoneks Eco Camp, and I had already decided to ask if I could help out a little bit and then camp for free. I´m really looking forward to a good shower and some comfort. The Eco Camp is located in the forest and consists of a community lodge, a building with composting toilets and small homemade huts made of earth and recycled material. Here I meet Max, a German whom I had met before in El Chalten and who volunteered here for a few weeks. He tells me that the owner is not there at the moment and that he is responsible. Even before I have expressed my question about the possibility of helping out, he says “Sure! Yesterday another volunteer left, no problem at all. “Not only can I get a place to sleep but I also get free food. In return, I help to keep the community facilities clean and take a few pictures for the Ecocamp’s website.

Spare tube No. 1

The next morning I walk into the villageVilla O’Higgins. A few hundred people live here, most probably from tourism. And although many cyclists come through here, there is no bicycle shop, just a Ferreteria, a kind of hardware store, which should also sell bicycle tubes. Unfortunately, it is closed with a sign “Three weeks on vacation!” So long I don´t want to wait and luckily there are always a few cyclists in town which I can ask if they can sell me their replacement tube. Lothar from Canada is my savior. With his wife he is traveling from north to south and agrees to sell me his spare tube. Finally, two days later in El Chalten, he will have the opportunity to buy a new one.

On this occasion he also invites me to his home. On my way to Alaska I would have to go right past his house anyway. Assuming he is at home by then, with cyclists you never know when tehy will return home and so many short trips get extended indefinitely. Lothar also gives me an advice for an alternative route around the Lago Gral Carrera to Chile Chico. The track should be beautiful and I could hope for a tailwind.

Again air in my tires, strength in my legs and food for a few days in my panniers I start my trip the next day.

 

Spare tube No. 2

The landscape is breathtaking. Pure nature. Green forests, impenetrable. Wild rivers, unstoppable as the waterfalls that plunge down the rugged mountain massifs. The source of life is everywhere. The climbs are breathtaking as well. Steep up and down goes the road, always offers the best views and behind every curve, the eye is spoiled anew.

On the first evening I find again a refugio, a simple hut with a fireplace. Dark clouds have formed in the sky and shortly after my arrival it starts to rain. It’s pouring rain and the rain is drumming on the corrugated iron roof. It will rain through until the next morning and seldom before I was so happy to have a roof over my head. The hut is regularly used by cyclists and the walls are decorated with sayings, greetings, names of cyclists.

I find the traces of a few acquaintances and a new bicycle tube. A cyclist left two brand new tubes, for whatever reason. One of them wanders into my panniers and so I have a working spare tube. At least I think so.

Unfortunately, I have nothing that I could leave, but in another place like this I had left my speedometer, for others to use. I like this idea of ​​free giving. To leave behind things that you don´t need anymore. Or to get things that are no longer needed by someone else. I have received many of my clothes and other things in this way.

Cyclist encounters

The next morning it stops raining and I continue on the road. The first of a few ferrys is to take to cross a lake and it is free thanks to government funds. What a service. Only about 15 cars fit on the ferry and so there is hardly any traffic on the next section.

It is truly a dream route for cyclists. In the evening, there are plenty of opportunities to pitch your tent undisturbed and listen to the rushing of the rivers or watch the lights of the stars.

And there are also enough cyclists to share these moments. Every day I encounter a few. Many young Chileans, who get to know this beautiful part of their country during a few weeks, but also cyclists from all over the world, on a year long tour or a monthly holiday. One evening I meet Tim from New Zealand. He started in Colombia and wants to go to Ushuaia. Despite his age he is fit, sleeps in a tent and feels ready for all the challenges of such a trip. Inspirational for me and I hope when I’m the same age as Tim that I still live my dreams too.

I meet a Swiss couple on World trip and get valuable tips in these encounters. One evening in the town of Cochrane, I meet Felix, a German cyclist, and we camp together for one night. It is nice to speak German again and to be able to talk about all kind of things. But the next day our ways separate, we are traveling in different directions.

Patagonia sin represas!“

Patagonia without dams

 The first five hundred kilometers of the Carretera are gravel road. Sometimes good and flattened, sometimes rough and full of bumps. The beautiful views and campsites are hard earned. Most of the time I don´t do more than 60 kilometers, sometimes less. Especially in the mornings I take my time to enjoy the peace and nature before I get back on my bike.

One day I camp at the mighty Rio Baker. The freedom of this river was on the edge just a few years ago. The Chilean government sold the water rights to large corporations which wanted to contain several rivers with large dam projects. The electricity generated should be used for copper production. The idea of ​​high-voltage power lines through the wilderness of Patagonia and the massive intervention in valuable ecosystems not only raised concerns among the few people living in Patagonia. Large protests followed and after the start of construction was delayed for several years, the project was finally stopped. In large part because of falling copper prices on the world market, which made copper production less lucrative. The Rio Baker is allowed to flow freely and form the landscape with its turquoise-blue waters.

But a road is always the beginning of development of an area. More and more people are settling in Patagonia, more and more tourists are coming here. The earth is again wrested a piece of untouched nature. That’s how things goes.

At the Lago Gral Carrera the road splits and you can turn left around the lake to Cerro Castillo or right around the lake to Chile Chico and from there take a ferry to get back on the Carretera. I decide for this variant, following the advice of Lothar. The beautiful views over the lake keep his promise, but apparently he forgot to mention that the road is just up and down and the climbs are particularly steep. Also, the tailwind will not blow and so I curse my choice of route already after 30 kilometers.

But then, in the distance, I see a lonely figure sitting by the lake, and as I approach, a bicycle is leaning against a fence. Jacob is just as finished as me. He has only been on the road for a few weeks and started his trip in El Calafate without a plan. On the Ruta 40 he went on the Argentine side to the north, always against the wind. He fought his way through the dry and hot Pampa, while only a hundred kilometres to the west, on the other side of the mountains, lies the beautiful, though not always easy, Carretera Austral. He knew nothing of all this and he is delighted with the other landscapes here on the Chilean side. I get along with Jakob immediately. It doesn´t happen that often that I really feel like traveling with another cyclist. He wants to convince me to join his direction, left around the lake, but if I think of the ascents and descents of the last 30 kilometers, I don´t want to do that again. But we arrange to meet in Coyhaique a week later, because he is also on the way to the north.

An unexpected meeting
If I had known that the next 100km would be as tough as the last thirty, I would have been better off
joining Jakob. The road winds steeply up the mountains which are surrounding the lake, only to drop down to sea level and climb again. Often so steep that I have to push. My worn shoes slips on the gravel and every incline becomes a torture.

 

It is probably one of the most exhausting routes on my trip and I’m glad when I arrive in Chile Chico. From there a ferry crosses over the lake and there is an asphalt road waiting for me. When I push my bike off the ferry, I greet with a nod two other cyclists and continue. I hear someone shout “Schmale!” behind me. That can´t be, who knows me here, and then even my last name. With a big grin, a guy comes up to me. “I know you, I know your brother, in Germany!” he tells me. I have no idea, but it turns out that Julian is a friend of my little brother and used to be at our house back home.Together with his girlfriend he cycled down from Colombia. And of course he knows about my trip, knows my blog and then actually recognizes me in this unexpected encounter. We take a picture together and then the two have to go on the ferry and I stay behind, puzzled and perplexed. What are the chances of meeting someone from your town randomly somewhere in South America? These two encounters, with Jacob and Julian, let me see more sense in my decision to choose this route.

The asphalted road curves up a pass, and then it´s only downhill for hours. The difference in altitude is not huge, but the road has only a very small slope which goes on for quite a while before I find myself in the catchment area of the 50,000-inhabitant city of Coyhaique. The wild mountain landscape becomes fenced pastures and the traffic increases steadily as I get closer to the city. It’s weird to see so many people, to shop in a huge supermarket and to have to watch for traffic lights and cars. I want to continue soon, but my body needs a little rest first.

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