Thursday, 31 March 2011
Friday, 25 March 2011
It´s been an incredible journey through Argentina that´s captured the very essence of this whole trip - adventures, excitement and riding my bicycle through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. But when I first set out from Buenos Aires I was full of fears and doubts about cycling here and when I returned to Argentina from Chile, I thought the challenges of the desert and the distances too great to tackle on my own. But I took on the challenges and Argentina has rewarded me with a pannier-load of memories to mull over in years to come.
I've seen so many beautiful places - Bariloche and the Lakes; the Tromen Pass and the monkey puzzle forests below Volcan Lanin; canyons of red rock; Butch Cassidy's cabin at Chollila; desert landscapes and oasis towns wrapped up in poplars; vineyards and orchards that stretch to the very foot of the mountains; the beautiful city of Salta; the cloudforest of La Cornisa. And yet Argentina had one more trick up her sleeve . . . the final road to Bolivia . . . the Quebrada de Humahuaca.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a spectacular valley cut into the Andes that for centuries has linked the Altiplano with the plains below. It was first settled 10,000 years ago by the Omaguacas who gave it their name and today the population is still predominantly Indian. In 2003 it was designated a World Heritage site for landscape and culture. But before I tell you about my journey through the Quebrada, I should pick up my story back in Salta.
I cycled north from Salta on a beautiful route known as "La Cornisa" which was quite unlike anything else I'd seen in Argentina. The road climbed high into a subtropical landscape of densely-forested mountains, all damp and drippy and draped with vines, ferns and lichens. It was like cloudforest or jungle, except cold. I wouldn't have blinked an eye if Tarzan had swung by on a vine shouting "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh ... it´s jolly chilly in this loincloth". Cycling and camping in a damp climate, just like the desert, presents life-threatening challenges. For example, a week of wet weather made doing laundry impossible and (readers of a sensitive disposition should look away now) I had to recycle pants and socks from the dirty laundry bag. Things don´t get much tougher than this!
North of La Cornisa I cycled over a 6500-foot pass back into a semi-arid landscape and the delightful village of Purmamarca, gateway to the Quebrada. It´s narrow streets of adobe buildings and colourful Indian craft market were overlooked by a spectacular rock face, the Cerro de Siete Colores - the Mountain of Seven Colours. It doesn't really need any further explanation! I'll fondly remember the campsite at Purmamarca. It was accessed by balancing along a plank across a fast-flowing, muddy river - a bit tricky with a bicycle! When heavy rain persisted into the evening, the owner came round to tell everyone that if we wanted groceries from the village we should go now as the river would likely rise and the plank would become inaccessible! At Purmamarca the road splits - it's a left turn for Chile and a right turn for Bolivia. I turned right and entered the Quebrada de Humahuaca.
After a few miles I pulled off the main road into the muddy streets of Maimara. There were two things I wanted to see here - the colourful rocks on the mountainside above the village known as La Paleta de Pintor (the Painter's Palette) and the little cemetery built on a hill. Beyond Maimara the valley was vibrant and green with little plots of maize, vegetabales and flowers where people worked along the rows in broad-brimmed hats. Between the plots were flat-roofed adobe houses and where the fields ended, the mountains rose sheer into a blue sky. It was absolutely idyllic. At least it was idyllic when the sun shone but, boy, did it rain a lot through the Quebrada and not just that gentle pitter-patter stuff either - it was torrential. An afternoon downpour in the village of Humahuaca turned the streets instantly into muddy torrents and cut me off from the campsite. I've been told that this year´s wet season is especially wet and especially long - oh lucky me! Despite the fresher climate I have to remind myself that I´m now in the Tropics - a few days ago I cycled across the Tropic of Capricorn or, as they call it in Argentina, the Tropico de Capricornio (true!).
Saturday, 19 March 2011
That's quite a glamorous title: Base Camp Manager. It conjures up images of rugged types, wind swept and interesting, battling against the elements of a Himalayan tented camp, at the base of an ever-advancing glacier. The reality I'm afraid is far less impressive.
Base Camp it could be, if one counts the flat I live in being the place Pauline left from all those months before, with cupboards containing odds and ends of her equipment, discarded just prior to departure as surplus to requirements. Base Camp Manager I suppose, in the sense that most days I receive a text from Pauline advising of her current position, which I then plot on a world map stapled to my wall. I occasionally get the odd challenge though, requiring me to leave the comfort of my Georgian stone-built, terraced base camp "tent" and venture up into the icy ramparts (it is winter after all) of the city, to employ the services of a worldwide courier company, to carry an essential piece of replacement kit to wherever Pauline may be at that precise moment.
There have been times though when I have had an opportunity to prove my worth. Moments that also show modern day technology at its best. Take the time Pauline was in France. She was in the beautiful city of Bordeaux and was having enormous difficulty exchanging money. Back here at Base Camp, I powered up the internet, searched for the Bureau de Change in Bordeaux, then plotted it on Google maps. Once I found the address nearest to Pauline's location I was able to give her directions, even, thanks to Google Streetview, down to the colour of the door and what shops were either side of the office!
Occasionally in mountain expeditions, where the men are men, and the women are too, opportunities arise to experience an advance camp further afield. So it came about, just 6 weeks after Pauline left, that I was able to venture further afield for a month to Spain and join up with her to cycle the Camino, all the way to Santiago de Compostela. A phrase that was often said, which summed it all up, was : "and we cycled here"! It pales though, compared to the almost mythical number of 5,000 miles now cycled. However, the Camino was a truly memorable adventure and one that still pops into my head often. It was hard to return to the reality of every day life back in Edinburgh, but it did give me a better understanding of the daily life that Pauline has to endure. I recall being quite grateful, after 25 days in a sleeping bag, to be curled up under my duvet in a proper bed. So after almost 250 days living in a tent I can only imagine how feral Pauline must now be.
The other way that I justify my title is to assist Pauline in the production of maps to post on her blogs, which give her readers a better idea of where exactly she is at that moment. It is something I assume most people take for granted these days, but for Pauline to be able to write a blog and within an hour or two have a map drawn up back here in Scotland and added to the blog, still seems fantastic to me.
I'm guessing that when you are the one physically doing the adventure it may not dawn on you just how fantastic the whole thing is. It was only after returning from Spain and the Camino that I looked back at the photographs and the little mementos I had gathered along the way, and realised just how rich and varied it had been, not to mention an adventure of a lifetime. So for Pauline to already be able to look back at having cycled through Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal, to then board a gigantic ocean-going freight ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, cycle across Argentina and over high passes of the Andes . . . you couldn't make this stuff up! Rich and everlasting memories in the making, and privileged we are that Pauline has taken us along with her in her personal, colourful and captivating blogs.
Currently I am in the midst of planning to meet Pauline again, this time for a greater length of time in a much further afield advance camp (more on that nearer the time). Part of this planning process is physical training. After 5,000 miles and pedaling almost every day, I'm quite confident Pauline is very fit. For me I'm not sure watching videos of Mark Beaumont cycling and reading books on other peoples cycling adventures are quite good enough training sessions, especially if those sessions take place over coffee and cake. Getting the old gluteus maximus in shape for the pounding it is about to receive on top of that is quite another thing. I haven't looked recently, but I fear all that coffee and cake could have turned mine into something the size of a small country with the softness of a large blamange.
By the time I meet Pauline again it will be more than 10 months since she left the UK, and more than 8 months since I last saw her (not counting the marvels of video calling on Skype). It is a real test of friendship. In the past we were regularly away on adventures together. Although I feel part of her current adventure it's not the same as actually being there, feeling the wind in your face, picking up on the smells and being able to say to each other; "wow, look at that view". The other test of friendship is being able to spend an extended amount of time in each others company, 24/7, something we are about to do. I am reminded of the lyrics to an Abba song:
"Times of joy and times of sorrow
We will always see it through
I don't care what comes tomorrow
We can face it together
The way old friends do"
So in just a few weeks it will be time to go west, saddle up and join her big adventure.
I just hope I can get my duvet and mattress in my saddle bag.
Graham Kitchener, aka, Base Camp Manager
When Graham is not busy as base camp manager he is an independent film-maker and keen outdoors type. If you've enjoyed his blog here, you can follow his musings regularly on his own blog at http://gkitch.blogspot.com
Saturday, 12 March 2011
Monday, 7 March 2011
After Chilecito my own bicycle journey swung way out west as Ruta 40 left behind sparesly-populated areas and crossed an even emptier stretch with few towns, gravel roads and lots of river crossings. It became a real mountain road again, climbing up into the foothills. I'd been staring at this tricky section on the map for weeks, slightly anxious about the logistics of cycling across it. But in the end I made the crossing without any real problems.
Pituil was my first stop after Chilecito and I stayed in a simple hospedaje run by the lovely Rosa who also managed a small kiosk, served meals and cut hair! My tank was filled by two enormous steaks that I ate in front of the telly with the family and next morning I was sent on my way with my panniers stuffed full of peaches and apples from the local orchards. Then the longest empty stretch was conveniently bridged by the remote outpost of Hualfin, a pleasant little hamlet with a lovely old church and all the services a touring cyclist needs - a small shop, a service station and a hospedaje! A welcome splash of green was provided by the small vineyards,now heavily-laden with ripening grapes.
I cycled a little higher beyond Hualfin on ghastly gravel then crossed a barren plateau below snow-capped peaks before flying down a 40-mile descent that took me swiftly to the next settlements and the Indian ruins at Quilmes. What remians of this holy city today are a series of terraces and low walls, some with decorative stonework, built into a natural hollow in the mountainside. They are not as impressive as more famous sites such as Macchu Picchu but when I visited early in the day as the sun was creeping over the mountains, I was the only person there and I thought it quite special to gaze down over the ruins, the forest of candelabra-cacti and the beautiful valley with its meandering river, shimmering silver in the morning light.
North of Quilmes Ruta 40 took me across vast vineyards and delivered me to the delightful, wine-making town of Cafayate where, like the wine, I'm chilling for a few days. Cafayate is just how you would imagine a South American town to be. There's a smart central plaza with tall palms and views to the surrounding hills. On one side of the plaza is a beautiful old church with twin bell towers and on the other sides attractive colonial buildings that now house pavement cafes. It's touristy which is fine by me after the last few weeks of hard graft. I'm staying in a gorgeous wee hostel with rooms set around a tiled courtyard where there are rambling plants and comfy seats in cosy corners. I was lucky to get a room at all! Not only is the town very busy but there were so many mucky river crossings on the road here that Shirley and I arrived up to our knees in mud - I'm surprised anybody took us in!
It's here at Cafayate that I part company with Ruta 40 as I cycle a more direct route to the old city of Salta. It's been an incredible journey along this famous road. Although I've been cycling on it for weeks, I've covered less than half of its length. Perhaps one day I'll come back to cycle the rest ... in a few years time ... when I've forgotten how tough it's been!
There's an updated map below and some photos added to my Flickr site.