As we are still in Argentina I have to start by again talking about the banks and trying to get hold of some cash. It is something that takes up a lot of our time here when we would rather be cycling than endlessly and hopelessly queuing.
Yesterday we unanimously decided that we hadn’t been enjoying cycling in this part of Argentina and as the next 200 km was a desert like terrain with no visible rivers on the map we thought that it was beyond our water carrying capabilities. So we looked at cycling back over the Andes across the Paso Pichachen into Chile. But this route also had water issues. The first 120 km up on the Argentinian side, which would take us 2 or 3 days to cycle, was not only very steep ripio but we wouldn’t be able to get at the river as it was down in a deep canyon.
There were lot of pick-up trucks in Chos Malal so we hoped we could persuade someone to drive us up as far as the Argentine Customs which would leave us 14 km to climb to the top of the pass where we could see small streams were crossing this section. We generally asked around and eventually a petrol pump attendant said he knew someone. So half an hour later we were sitting in a cafe arranging the trip with Juve, a mountain biking and marathon running guide.
And this returns us, unfortunately, to the banks and our lack of cash. We tried again to get cash out of the ATM that had worked for brief time yesterday but with no success. So it was my turn to brave the queue of more than 100 people that went all down the street. Not being a very patient soul I am afraid I shamelessly queue jumped and after a long conversation involving a lot of Google translate and struggling to remain polite they admitted that they couldn’t access any cash in the bank but they rang a Chinese Supermarket round the corner where I could buy cash with a credit card and arranged a withdrawal. Crazy but true. This worked a treat and we were finally off into the mountains again.
It was getting late as the ground flattened off in a high plain and we approached the main slopes of Volcan Antuco. We were tired and wanted to camp before we passed the Chileno Customs as we weren’t allowed to take fresh fruit and vegetables across the border. We had planned on eating all the banned food for supper. We had found a slight dip that gave a little shelter from the gale and was next to water. I was just chilling out taking photos of the local flora and fauna when the Chileno customs men drove past.
Again we had a language malfunction. We thought we had to pack up the tent again and go with them in their pick-up as we weren’t allowed to camp there. In fact when they started to put our bags in the back of their pick-up and were insisting that we get in the back seat I began to wonder if we were being arrested. They took all our bags but we followed on our now lighter bikes as we didn’t want them damaged. They had said that their base was just 3 km away, but I was having evil thoughts about them as we struggled, tiredly, the 6 km or 7 km against a strengthening wind and a blackening sky. When we got to their base they were all smiles and it turned out they were just worried about us as there was heavy rain and a thunderstorm rolling in. They offered us one of their portakabins to sleep in and we could use their kitchen and water.
It was here that we started to find the memorials all for the same date, 18th May 2005, and all for young men. We had heard there had been a disaster here with a lot of deaths but didn’t know more. It turned out that 400 new army recruits, with no mountain training and no survival equipment or proper clothing, had been sent out on an exercise on Volcan Antuco. The commanding officer did not go with them and sent them out against local advice. They were hit by gale force winds and a heavy snow storm and 44 of them died. The memorials were where they had been found and were strung out over 10 km as in the confusion of the terrible conditions they tried to get back to safety. It was very sad and no one was ever fully held to account.
Eventually we started to drop down steeply again and passed through a small and very closed ski resort. We began to pass hikers and then we were back in normal civilisation. Before long we were back on tarmac and the straightest road I have ever had the misfortune to cycle on all the way into Antuco village. In fact the road continued dead straight and busy all the way to Los Angeles (Chile) and has to rate as one of the most boring rides ever.
When we had set out on this trip our aim had been to head south so that we could cycle the famous Carretera Austral. We had forgotten that cycle touring is all about the journey and not about the “arriving”. Our journey to the start of the Carretera Austral had been fantastic, cycling in isolated, mountainous regions with dramatic scenery; just us and the wind. Now we had arrived at what was going to be the start of a tourist route we had somehow run out of enthusiasm for it.