The rain, for me at this moment, is a sound of elegant yet forceful fingers tapping on a tight drum, stretched cloth above my head; my tent, my home. I experience not much indoors anymore and feel like a dog on a sheep-truck: head in the wind, sniffing the smells of nature, including those of rain. I see faces, in contrast to the big town people, wrinkled from the harsh sun, protected by wide rim hats, farmers and gaucho’s. To be here, in a land with distances uncomprehending, with thoughts seemingly impossible to reunite with the Netherlands, is magic. The moon shining bright makes my face glow as I were a sunbeam.
Slowly, over the course of a few months, I have adopted a new lifestyle. I try to avoid hotels and campgrounds as long as I am in pricey countries. I wash myself in the ocean and rivers. My laundry is done there too. I usually ask ‘are you sure?’ when someone enthusiastically invites me, so they can always change their minds. I go without showers for a few weeks and things which needs to be done are done while cycling. No more crispy clean wardrobe, blink kitchen, shiny chain and smooth callus-free heels when I leave the premises of a hotel. Now I am happy when my kitchen has a clean kitchen cloth!
The cold has set in and sitting at camp fires has me slowed down to such an extent I wonder why I am still cycling. Yet, I think I am fast, and I need to flip the map of South America regularly, not without sporting a proud smile. I don’t know how far I will go and to where but I am so much enjoying that I keep this as my measurement for guiding me.
As expected, I have come to like the Argentinian people once again. They are surprised to see me cycling, direction Patagonia in autumn and offer me a lift or an empanada. I only accept the last mentioned. Many people give me thumbs-up, many honk in a melody, which has me laugh. They wave and my smile is brightest when I see a dog sitting atop a truck, often these dogs are sheep dog and after a day of work they like nothing more than showing who has the real mind of a master-worker.
On a climb I get warm, on a downhill I get cold. When the rain start I need to change clothes, and when the rain stops I have to stop again and change gloves and jacket once more. On a heavily overcast day I stop more to change clothes than to make photograph’s!
The rocky earth resembles cream in coffee, same wavelike movements appear here and there. A sea of goat hair too, and a strong waft of their smell, which make my heart jump of joy.
I try to find camp spots positioned in the sun, out of the wind, where there is fire wood and preferable at a river. Needless to say, this is rather difficult.
Staying at the bomberos voluntarios with an inside temperature of 15 degrees suddenly feels very comfortable.
Then, it becomes dull, or I have become accustomed to the nature around me and it doesn’t appeal as much anymore. I decide to go to Chile, cross a relative low pass and continue in the lush greenness over there. Paso Pino Hachado is where I am going. Turning West means a hard head wind. So hard it sweeps me over the road from right to left. The pass may be closed, due to snow, someone says.
After 10 kilometer frontal headwind I stop. I don’t like this kind of fighting against natural forces. It makes so little sense. Instead I search for a high, strong, healthy, prickly bush where I set up camp behind.
And for the first time I have a look at the map, and see that Argentina too has greenness a bit further southwest, there is no need to cross a pass really. But it is not simply greenness I am going for, it is the Monkey Puzzle Tree, in Conguillo National park.
I really would like to rest a day or two, but I can’t. I don’t want to stay in a hotel and not on a camping either. I am looking out for a river, with trees to find shelter, but either its heavily fenced, difficult to get to or I have not enough food, or I am too far between towns to resupply.
Even finding a good camp spot these days is hard. I need to take into account that I am protected against the wind, forgetting this inevitably wakes me up during the night. That there is wood to make a fire, because I like fires more than Optimus stove. I need to be sure that I that I wake up with the sun shining on my side, but this I usually fail too, so I leave with a wet tent and bone cold feet.
No fences means cows rumbling through. ‘Come cow, I don’t do any harm to you,’ I tell her when she’s moaning loudly. Turns out it are two bulls! Balls big as old-fashioned milk bottles…
The weather becomes cloudy, slowly less warm in the daytime and it’s freezing at night. After days of a low ceiling of thick whitish clouds with rain, occasionally extreme windy days where the camp-fire spits flames of a meter and a half across camp, I notice I am more happy when the sun is in full swing. And this, can happen overnight.
Then, on the climb to Pino Hachado pass, a very moderate one of 1880 meter, I meet with the first Araucanian tree. I am surprised how elated I am, get off the bicycle and start walking to the fence to make photograph’s. Of a tree in a far distance.
When I get closer to these trees I get off the bicycle again and need to touch them, make close-up photograph’s.
Fully surrounded by these curious shaped trees, which reminds me of umbrella’s caught in the wind, I stop more than I move. Not only the trees are remarkable, the rocks they sprout from too.
When I am close to the pass, the wind is fierce and snow appears but the trees have vanished, I curse ‘damn it’. I really wanted to sleep among the trees. I stop and turn, to stop again and tell myself I should move forward. That once in the tent I don’t see the trees, so I should really try to make a few more kilometers. I cycle on. I stop and turn. I cycle on, stop and… cycle just a bit more.
Then I pass a fence which is open. In one elegant swing I shove the bicycle through and walk over an open windy expanse, to see Monkey Puzzle trees! Suddenly I get a boost of energy and push the bicycle on a hill with loose stones. It’s icy cold and the wind is making a sound as if warfare is about to break loose.
Suddenly I am right in the middle of the trees. I feel remarkable alive and jump out of joy! See where I am! I keep running and circling the place like I’m some idiot.
The trees are so extraordinary, their bark seems made out of cork, their leaves sharp and very thick fatty kind of needles, yet not resembling anything like a cactus.
This spot is truly magnificent. What the photo doesn’t show is how the wind marches over the pass from the Chilean side, it shakes my tent and howls through the branches of the giant Araucanian trees.
The next morning I cycle up the pass with snow flecks piercing my eyes, the wind makes these tiny soft dots hard as a missile.
Once over to the Chilean side all the trees have vanished and so did the wind. A tick unattractive cloud hangs over me and suddenly I wonder whether it was a good idea to cross, all beauty is gone! It takes me 1 day sailing down to come to conclusion it was a good idea.
Suddenly the vast barren expanses of Argentina has transformed into lush forest and a myriad of mountains. When my head for once crank to the right I am flashed a gigantic snow-covered volcano! That’s where I need to set up camp, and so I do: in the middle of a tick bushy patch, and I don’t see a glimpse of the volcano.
Nights turn my tent fabric in an icy sheet, my feet cubes of the same substance. I wonder why I still like camping, as I was a real comfort junkie in my student years, sitting on the stove all evening.
Each time I enter a little shop it dawns on me how fantastic warmth is. It really embraces your whole body, reaching quickly the toes.
With trying to avoid unnecessary costs I usual don’t stay in hostels. But in Curacautin I do because I need to replace the chain and change the oil in the Rohloff. I hope for a new Shimano brake too, as the rear Magura hasn’t been properly fixed in Mendoza. I use my time extremely well: wash my laundry by hand, in cold water, on a rainy day. This is not exactly a fun job but the laundromat is too pricey.
I go to the bicycle mechanic, who calls himself ‘Rambo the Invincible’, I like people who are confident, but this Rambo is so convinced he thinks repairing the Magura simply by unscrewing the hydraulic system. I ask him to remove the whole brake system instead. This he can. I write and publish -if this was a paid job I would definitely be the employee of the decade- and I tend tenderly to my bicycle -outside in the cold- while I only take a 6 hour sleep.
With being inside an antique wooden house with central heating, a kitchen exclusively for myself, as there are no other tourists, and something as pleasant as a thick glass cup in where I drink milky Nescafe, I can do nothing other than wonder why I love camping outside in cold frosty Patagonian autumn?
But once I am outside again I remember, and since I gain warmth by my own efforts to move, there is not really any cold to be worried for. Sure, something as normal as a warm house and warm water are great, but frying my own bread in a tent has it charms too. It’s easier to focus on the surroundings around you and drop all excessive activities once you are camping.
The start of the ride towards National Park Conguillo has me noticing a dead animal on the road. I tap it lightly with my feet, and the dog moves! I never leave dead animals lying in the middle of the road, I usually drag them to the side, but this dog is still alive! I kneel down close to him, place my hand on his neck, which is glowing with heat. His heart is pumping hard and his body unable to move.
I halt the first oncoming car. The young men move the dog to the side, the young woman start crying, and I stay with the dog after they leave. I know he’s dying. It’s a half-breed of the Border Collie type, a sheepdog. I want to stay with him until he dies. A tickle of blood erupts from his nose. His hind legs are shaking a bit. I try to encourage him to die, to stop breathing, to close his eyes. But his heart, as I have seen with my mom, is not in any mood of giving up so soon. His brain will fight to the very end, even though his heart is racing, his belly movements slowing down, but each time I want to leave he lift up his silky smooth brown eyes, flashing a rim of bright white and I know that he knows I am here…