From: Kirstie and Stuart
Subject: The End of The World….. As We Know It.
Date: 25th February 2000
Place: Ushuiai, Argentina
Well, here it is the final installment… the end of our world of cycling… for the moment.
We left Chile for the last time on Valentines day. We had crossed in and out of Chile several times on our journey to the end of the world, spending almost four months travelling there. It was more than a little sad to be finally leaving this country we had grown to love on the “Dia del Amor.”
We woke that morning knowing it would be the day when our affair would have to end. We shared the last bowl of muesli, the silence only broken by the gusts of wind outside kissing the tent with an occasional violent smack. There was nothing to be said. After breakfast, we gathered our things together and made our way to the place where we always knew the final scene would be played out. We sat at the empty Bar La Frontera. Outside, the wind hummed its melancholy note idly on the telegraph poles, brightly coloured flags flapping in a helpless accompaniment. Inside, cutlery scraped on empty plates as the only other couple in the place finished off their silent breakfast, a few coins clattering onto the table as they paid their bill and left. The waitress came over to deliver the coffee we had ordered, a depressed looking baby in one hand, coffee pot in the other. It seemed to take her forever to pour.
And then, in a country which had been full of surprises, we were surprised for one last time when with a dirty grin she reached under the counter and pulled out a plate which she slid in front of us. On it sat two pieces of swiss roll, hand moulded into heart shapes. “For lovers on the day of love” she smoozed. We chatted to her about our experience of her country and how much we had enjoyed our time there. As we chatted the baby seemed to grow sadder and sadder, his little mouth turned down and quivering. Six cups of coffee later, hearts now just crumbs, silent tears rolling down the baby’s face, we settled up for the last time in Chile and made for the door. “Wait” she cried, leaving the baby for a moment, balancing on the counter, wailing. “I have a little gift for you” She pushed two golden wrapped biscuits into our hands. “For the honeymooners. Good luck in life” And as she comforted her baby, a 60km per hour tailwind pushed us quickly towards Argentina.
At the Frontier post we were reminded, for one last time, of the other side of Chile, officialdom. Having had our passports stamped, we got on our bikes to leave and before the pedals had turned even once, were stopped by an officious looking policeman. He stamped a scrap of paper, scrawling ’2 x bicicletas’ on it and insisted we took it around four different control posts, collecting a stamp at each one and then bringing it back to him before we could leave. We began our game of Frontier Bingo at the Ministry of Agriculture desk. “We’ve eaten all our herbs this time” we declared. Bingo. Stamp 1. Easy. Next was Passport Control. “Already seen you haven’t I?” Bingo. Stamp 2. Third was Vehicle Control. “Con bicicletas, no hay problema.” Bingo. Stamp 3. And then Customs. “Anything to declare?” “No, nothing.” “Are they your bicycles?” “Yes” “Can I see your Import Documentation please?” “What import documentation?” The game was halted as the caller paused to dream up a further course of inquiry. In a desperate attempt to get the full house we needed to leave, Stuart began to recount the whole sad story of the bicycles. Five minutes in, the caller called time out and reluctantly stamped our card. But, not wanting to concede the game, he took one last jibe at us before allowing us to pass. “Now you have what you want, when are you going to give us our Grandfather back?” We looked at each other perplexed. “Grandfather?” The other Control Post Officers joined forces in laughter and the final official booed us out of the place. We promised to write to Jack Straw about the General on our return and left, tails between our legs, embarrassed to be British. As we mounted our bikes the first policeman came back for the Bingo Card he had given us. Kirstie reached into her passport and mistakenly handed him a receipt for a campsite. He was not impressed. The look on his face made it clear this would not win us the prize we were after. Another quick shuffle in our pockets produced the winning ticket and we were finally away, the earlier sadness, displaced by a sense of relief.
Bike Safari in Torres del Paine
A little hair sculpture
Goodbye and hats off to Chile
We stormed across the Northern Pampas of Argentinian Tierra Del Fuego with the wind behind us, arriving at Rio Grande, International Trout Capital of the World, the same day. We had seen notices for camping at the town’s Club Nautico, right on the banks of the Rio Grande, where it met the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived at dusk and went into the clubhouse to enquire about camping. We were greeted enthusiastically by Benjamin, a young, lively Latino, dressed in dungarees and chain smoking Marlboro’s. He rushed off to flush the toilet and then came back to show us around an amazing hangar like space. Dozens of kayaks stacked high above our heads on scaffolding, a music system filling the space with a reggae beat, the air filled with the smell of chicken and lamb cooking on an open fire parilla. It was empty apart from a ping pong table and outside the steamy windows the tide could be seen, lapping at the edges of the car park. He showed us around the kitchen and showers, explaining proudly how new it all was, only open since January this year.
The Club Nautico is the Rio Grande sea sports club, famous for one event, the ‘Raid de Tierra Del Fuego’, a three day event which takes place once a year in November, when the spring meltwater from the glaciers makes the Rio Grande navigable along its length, from its source in Chile to its end, on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. It’s an international race across Tierra Del Fuego, involving three days unsupported kayaking from the mountains to the sea, camping at night and negotiating a frontier crossing with the Chilean and Argentinian Authorities. Participants come from around the world but mostly from Chile and Argentina. “You must understand though, it is not a competition beteen Chile and Argentina. It is a community event.” We had never yet come across anything between Chile and Argentine that wasn’t competitive, especially where border crossings are involved. The Club Nautico raised a lot of money through the event and bingo evenings to build a new club house. They had spotted the fact that a good clubhouse has many of the same facilities that campers need and so, were offering camping at the clubhouse as a way of subsidising club running costs. They’d only overlooked one thing, the tide. “This all looks great. Where do we pitch?” we asked. “Ahhh, come with me” Benjamin jabbered with an air of mystery and excitement and led us up some stairs to a loft space where two giant tents stood ready pitched in the middle of the room. “Here is for camping. No need for tents. We have them.” Dismissing the problem of the tides, not wanting to let the forces of nature get in the way of a good idea, the Club Nautico had decided to pioneer all year round, Indoor Camping, And it was excellent. We spent a pleasant evening hanging out in the clubhouse with Benjamin and his friends. They shared their wine, their favourite music and little treats of tiny hard boiled eggs and spinach bhajis. They talked of the ‘Raid’ and questioned us about life in England. Conversation eventually turned to comparisons of the Falklands with the situation in Northern Ireland and we realised how far our Spanish had come on when we were able to explain something of the complexity of the Irish situation without giving the Falklands away.
Rejuvenated by our first warm nights camping in a long time, the following morning we sat in the kitchen having breakfast. The door flew open and in waddled an old man, tufts of greying hair protuding scruffily from his head, a huge rucksack on his back and a battered paperback in his hand. “Ya, ya, ya. Is this the camping? I’ve got to keep my taxi running. Ya. How much is it to camp here? I assume there is room for me here. Are you staying here? Who runs it? And where do I put my tent up? Ya, ya, ya.” His stream of conciousness came to an abrupt end when he opened the back door and met the rising tide. At this moment, Benjamin’s tousled, sleepy face appeared at the top of the stairs and he wandered down, toothpast in one hand, toilet cleaner in the other. The old man started up again, “Ya, ya, ya. Are you the owner? I need to camp here. I’ve been chasing a bloody bird around South America and I think she’s in the area. Ya, ya,ya. I’m hot on her tail. It should only be for one night. Where do I pitch? The tide seems to be in. Ya.” While the wittering old man paused to draw breath, Benjamin put him straight about the camping. Lungs full, the man was off again, “Ya, ya, ya. Indoor camping. How original. I’ve never done that before. How much is it? I never pay more than $10 to sleep. After all sleeping is something I do for myself. Ya. Why should I pay for it?” We looked on in wonder, as the old guy twittered away at an unecessary volume. It turned out the bird he’d been chasing around South America in a taxi was not the young Latin ‘chica’ we’d imagined but something which was proving equally elusive to him, the Magallenic Plover, a very plain looking dove like creature which he thought he had tracked down to roadside pools near Rio Grande.
The man we fondly nicknamed the Birdman of Alcatraz had been on the road for two years spotting birds in South America. Like us, he was also approaching the end of his journey but refused to go home until he had spotted one member of each family of South American birds. “Ya, ya, ya. I’m not a ticker you understand. I just need to see this naughty little Magallenic Plover before I can sleep easy in my own bed. Ya, ya, ya. Some people are tickers. They have to tick off species any way they can. I’m not like that. I’m a purist. I won’t use organised tours, videos or other spotting aids. I like the thrill of the hunt… I like to hunt them down myself. Ya, ya. I prefer to use taxis. But I’m not as young as I used to be. My hearing has gone now and my eyesight isn’t so good. But I’m not obsessive. I’m not a ticker. Ya, ya, ya.” As he continued to obsess about the Magallenic Plover, chanting its features as if possessed, he showed us its picture on page 67, plate 11 of his Collins Guide to South American Birds. And as we flicked idly through the pages of the book, we became aware of the rows of neatly ticked and dated birds. Page after page after page. Two years worth of ticking at a guess. Our conversation was cut short by his taxi hooting and he announced that he was off to the Rio Grande Water Plant where he had heard the Magallenic Plover was hanging out these days.
Rio Grande International Trout Capital of the World
Indoor camping at Club Nautico
The end of the world is not easy to find
We had an appointment at the local bike shop. Kirstie had a slightly buckled wheel which we hoped the owner could do a fast repair on. The shop bell tinged to summon the grey haired owner through rows of gleaming bicycles and shelves of Shimano parts to meet us at the front desk. Compared to the other bike shops we’d visited in South America, this was heaven, a 1990′s shop run by a well informed 1940′s owner. Kirstie and the ageing mechanic bent down to examine the damaged wheel. “Hmmm” he mused, “It’s not a big job but I’ve got a lot on today. I’m not sure I can do it for you today.” After the inspection, Kirstie and the mechanic stood up at the same time to negotiate further. As they stood up the shop was filled with a giant crack as their heads crashed together with enormous force. The old man adopted a foetus position for a period of some five minutes, hands over his head, Stuart looking on worriedly. When he finally surfaced, the headbutt had obviously worked. “Your wife is very strong. I’ll have it ready by four o’clock.” On the way back to the campsite, Stuart suggested we casually mention to the Birdman that we had spotted a Magallenic Plover on the way to the bike shop. “I don’t think that would be a good idea” Kirstie replied, “I’ve already assaulted one old man today, I don’t fancy emotionally crippling another.”
That evening, bike repaired, we were cooking dinner when the hum of a taxi announced the return of the Birdman from Alcatraz. “Ya, ya, ya. No bloody luck. She’s nowhere to be seen. Ya. Damn this stupid bird. I’ll have to get a taxi to Punta Arenas tomorrow and see if she’s gone back there. Ya, ya, ya” He came into the kitchen. “Ya, ya, ya. Are you cooking?” We stood gently frying up some fresh slices of chicken breast, as the Birdman peered over our shoulders at the first meat we had had in almost two months. “Ya, ya, ya. Do you know what human flesh tastes like?” We stopped stirring and started staring, unsure if we had heard him correctly. “Ya, ya, ya. Human flesh. It actually tastes quite sweet. Ya.”
Desperate to try and change the subject, we decided to test his twitching skills by asking him to identify some of the birds we had spotted on our journey. “OK. What’s this one? It’s grey. It hangs out in fields, often stands on one leg and when it walks it walks like John Cleese?” “Never mind, what about this one then. We call it the wierd yellow beaked pecking bird. It’s wierd looking with a long yellow beak and it pecks a lot?” “I know these descriptions might be difficult for you but what about the small black swooping bird that swoops around when you’re having picnics?” He was unable to identify any of the birds based on our descriptions. Maybe there was only one bird on his mind these days, the bird he had stalked from Venezuela to Ushaia, the Magallenic Plover. But his poor performance in our test together with his comments about human flesh made us worry a little that our nickname for him had been a bit too close to the bone, so to speak and that bird spotting was just a cover. We finished a spooky day by catching the only film showing at the local cinema, “The Bone Collector”, a film about a serial killer who collects flesh and bones from his corpses. “Ya, ya, ya” But when we returned to the house of tents we were relieved to hear the sweet trill of the Birdman snoring and talking in his sleep, his book left open beside his tent, page 67, plate 11. “Zzzzzz, Ya, ya, ya, Magallenic Plover… naughty little thing… ya ya. Punta Arenas. Hmmmm. Zzzzzzz” And the next day we passed him getting into a taxi, ordering the driver to take him to Punta Arenas, Chile while we continued our journey to the end of the world.
Have you ever wondered what the End of the World would be like? Five and a half months on a bike gives you plenty of time for wondering about questions like this. A nuclear holocaust? A natural disaster where oceans swamp the land? A plague of locusts consuming the worlds food supply? A Jurassic Park where dinosaurs once again rule? Ushuaia is the self appointed End of the World, the southernmost city on Earth. It is a touristic holocaust. An unnatural disaster where tourists swamp the locals. A plague of bars and tea-shops consuming the visitor’s money supplies. A giant Pënguin Park where tour agencies rule.
We’ve been in Argentina this time for only a week and by now we are very suspicious about their self appointed claims. Rio Grande IS the International Trout Capital of the World, yet we could’t find a trout to buy on any supermarket shelf. In fact the only trout we found there was a giant 6×10 metre plastic trout, part of a monument proudly staking out Rio Grande’s claim. Very fishy. Ushuiai IS the City at the End of the World, despite the fact it’s only as far South as Scotland is North, conveniently overlooking the fact that the Chilean town of Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino is 2km further South across the Beagle Channel. It IS also the Millenium Day Capital of the World. Sorry Sydney. And there is no doubt that the Falklands, or Malvinas as they should be known, ARE Argentinian. We were first informed of this at the Frontera where an enormous sign asserts this fact in huge letters to all passers by: “Las Malvinas are Argentinian” We thought Maggie had sorted this out once and for all but the Argentinians clearly did not ‘stick it up their Junta’. In Argentinian everyday life, the Malvinas truly are a part of Argentina. They appear on all their maps. The weather forecast always includes the forecast for the islands. It’s in all their guidebooks. And every town has an Islas Malvinas main street. It’s only the price of a local call to phone there, cheaper than calling Chile which is nearer. And Ushuiai aiport is officially the Ushuiai Malvinas airport despite the fact that planes do not have permission to fly to the islands from Argentinian territory. In the deepest recesses of our minds we knew we had seen this kind of tactic before from the Argy Bargy’s. It took us a while to work out where. Finally, it came to us… “World Cup 90. Hand of God” Clearly the Argentinians believe that if you believe in something hard enough, and protest and proclaim that it is true for long enough then others will believe it too. Interesting idea. Anyway, just to put the record straight, having asked around it is clear to us that there is no way that Maradonna would have done a handball. And while we’re putting the record straight, we had a great day out at the Penguin Park, we had some lovely tea and cakes in the tea shops (although they were a little pricey) and we’ve got our “I’ve cycled to the End of the World” certificate from Tourist Information. Well, who could resist.
The end of the road
A moment’s contemplation at the end of the world
Latino hairstyles and ready to Tango
So, as you can probably tell, we made it on our journey from Ecuador, the Centre of the Earth, to the End of the World. 6000km, 71km of vertical climb, over 700 hours in the saddle (plus 16 on a horse), 0 punctures, 1 broken chain, 1 lost bicycle, 3 rows (2 over batteries), and used over 100 packs of Tritons. Tritons are biscuits not condoms. Well, it was our honeymoon. And you might guess, it’s not over yet. We’re off to the mad city of Buenos Aires, self appointed Tango Capital of the World… well that sounds reasonable. We’re already thinking about a future trip… an unsupported Tango from Pole to Pole and we have a soft drinks sponsor in mind. We are sure we will be good at it. Well. if you believe in something long enough and hard enough it may just come true.
Love to you all …. and watch your toes on our return.
Love Kirstie and Stuart