Posted by: cyclingsi | February 22, 2011

The old ways

What have we forgotten? We still have glimpses of the old ways, through stories, songs and art but as with many things… they lose their potency as they become diluted by time. But we can try, try to listen to the woods and rivers, understand the animals and forests and hear a whisper… a quiet word in our ear… giving insight into what we have, what we can celebrate and most importantly what we can protect for future generations.

I am in Patagonia, it is all my dreams. A land of stories told around wood burners, where fighting the weather just wastes time, cb radios, gouchos and ancient forests. I am sharing it with Adrienne (who is patiently rumbling along at a cyclists pace (eight hours for me… one hour for her!) so we can travel together and enjoy this sensational land. Glaciers tumble down into azure rivers that wind through moss-laden forests which are home to deer and puma. We are not alone, there are cyclists, hitch-hikers, motorcyclists and 4×4 motorhomes rumbling through the gravel with jaws dropped and cameras flashing.

We are following The Carratera Austral, a stroke of genius by the former Dictator Pinocet. He may have been up to no good (understatement) for most of the time but what a vision. To connect isolated villages and estancias with a gravel road that feels as though it has had to claw itself through the wilderness. It has opened a wondrous world, despite creating a scar 1200km long, and has been some of the the best cycling of my trip. It has been an adventure from the start.

Getting to Patagonia isn’t easy. You follow the tarmac till it fades to gravel until you reach the sea. From there you leave a ramshackle settlement of wooden huts on a small ferry to what feels like the end of the world… which it kind of is. A quick jaunt along another 50km takes you to Hornopiren, another ferry and start of the Caratera Austal proper.

trouble with ferries is that they fill up. They have a capacity that cannot be exceeded and this is Chile. I suspect that if you take a ferry in Argentina, they have an inspired disregard for health and safety, and there would be no issues but Chile loves to live by the book… and they do. The ferry from Hornopiren suffers from massive overcapacity and to get on board requires a certain amount of cunning. The day before I was due to catch the ferry I was staying in a campsite and met a German couple who were touring in a pickup. Over a couple of glasses of wine they offered me a lift to the ferry in the morning, about 5km. Perfect.

The next day I went to buy a ticket and was met with a resounding ‘No’. Worse still there was a four day wait for foot passengers. Cyclists had been waiting at the dock for days for the ferry with gave priority to cars and their passengers. Walkers, cyclists and motorcyclists were bottom of the pile. A plan was hatched and in a stroke of genius the couple offered to hide my bike in the back and I could pretend to be asleep until we were onboard where I would reveal myself and evicting me and my bike would make the ferry late. It worked like a charm. I was onboard. From the bridge I watched the other cyclists shrink into the distance. One life lesson I have learned on this trip is ‘Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.’ Ignorance is not always bliss but it often comes pretty close.

Blue skies, light winds and a small swell suit me just fine when travelling by ferry. I am not a sailor. The vistas come and go and there is only the wild, It is as if we (humankind) had never existed.

Arriving at Gonzalo is a puzzle, you cannot see the port… there isn’t one…. just a concrete slip obscured by rocks. You cannot see the road. It is encased in forest. We disembarked and began to grind through the gravel, the dust pluming behind. It is the start of something magical, a place where we are guests, a gift to be there, and our stay is permitted by our surroundings. It feels like if you turned your back for a minute the forest would reclaim the road and you would simply disappear.

There are people living here. Small towns and settlements but it is temporary. Chaiten, one time hopspot for travellers and adventure seekers is now a ghost town encased in ash from the bowls of the earth. A volcano reinstated it’s right to the land a couple of years ago, destroying most of the town. People still live there but it has a melancholy.

The cycling is perfect, one of the most famous cycling roads in the world, gentle undulations are made up of a thousand photographs, but the cycling becomes transport not sport. Quietly you slip through, unnoticed, and become your surroundings but I have been doing more than cycling. I have been fishing in rivers (without a fishing permit… can you imagine) that flow clear and where you see the salmon swimming by. There is a joy when filling your cup from the nearest stream or simply stuffing your face with berries till your tongue and teeth are blue. I have been passing through woods where the boughs hang heavy with old man’s beard and the leaves rustle with life. And… I have been sleeping in, lying in, being wonderfully lazy. The mornings are damp and wet so wake up, cuddle up, go back to sleep until the tent canvas goes silent and the sun warms the air. It is a very nice pace of life.

So why do we fear the wild? Maybe it is because we have no control over it as an individual. As a species we can flatten forests and level mountains but as just one … we are no more than the forest that surrounds us and spending time in this pristine environment has made me think about the old ways.

Indigenous peoples throughout the world have beliefs and not religions and they all ring a similar bell. They mostly believe in a creator but more importantly they have an overwhelming respect and love for their surroundings, which they define as spirits, and when an animal is killed or a tree felled a small prayer is given. This respect recognises the importance of all life and how all life is connected. These beliefs reflect the impact of their actions. The world is a massive, wonderful, awe-inspiring place and we are a tiny part of it. The world does not mean cities and humanity, The world is the world in its greatest sense.

One night when the cold began to encase our tent and sleeping bags were pulled up and tight, Adrienne and I were telling each other stories about home and childhood and she told me a story from the Canadian First Nations which shares my feelings on our responsibilities, love and our place in the world.

‘The was once a tree and a deer and they were deeply in love but they could not be together because they were a tree and a deer. It was impossible. One night the Creator spoke to a great hunter in a far away land through a dream, giving him clear instructions of what he must do. The next day he set off across the land for many days until he reached the forest where the tree and the deer lived. The hunter knew what he must do. First he cut down the tree and then he quickly killed the deer with a single arrow. He took both the tree and the deer back to his home. He carried then for many days. When he returned to the village he used all of the tree but kept back a special part, the heart of the trunk. He also used all of the deer but kept aside its hide. One night he took the heart from the tree and the hide from the deer and turned them into a drum. When the drum is played you hear the sound of the tree and the deer’s heartbeat joined together forever.’


  1. […] writing is often poetical, peppered with keen observations and reflections.  Here are some of his thoughts on cycling Patagonia: I am in Patagonia, it is all my dreams. A land of stories told around wood burners, where fighting […]

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