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The Southern Hemisphere is funny. The stars are upside down, water drains out of plugholes the wrong way round, you can cross mountain passes by boat and I’m doing this cycle tour flat on my face. But at least this means I can report on the roads in unrivalled detail. The roads are composed of (i) large stones (ii) smaller stones (iii) sand, which is probably what caused me to fall off in the first place. I have lost count of the number of times I have fallen off but the bramble bush incident surely counts twice. I have not lost count of the number of times Colin has fallen off because that number is precisely zero.

We have flown to Temuco and are riding south through the Chilean Lake District, crossing into Argentina, and back into Chile again to finish up at Puerto Montt. We’re in the Andean chain, but on the Chile side the mountains are conical volcanoes interspersed with glacial lakes. On the Argentine side there are more of the usual mountain shaped sort of mountains. Because of the heavy glaciation, the roads don’t go all that high, compared with (say) the Alps, which is just as well, as the tarmac runs out after a couple of days’ riding and what replaces it makes life hard enough as it is.

Villarica’s a pleasant small town, and very typical of the area – a grid-plan of wooden buildings in spacious plots. It’s a town of cricket pavilions and scout huts. It sits by a lake underneath the snowy cone of a volcano, which rather unfairly, seeing as we’d come halfway round the world specially to see it, sulked under a cloud half the time. A dirt track goes halfway to the top: I rode up it, but couldn’t see anything because of said cloud. A bit of a waste of time, really, so I called it a training ride.

Another dirt track climbs a ridge between Volcanes Villarica and Quetrupillán to take us to Coñaripe. We’d imagined the 30 miles would take us a day but by lunchtime we’d barely done a quarter of the distance. Fortunately there’s a spa here and a nice enough place to stay if you like cavernous wooden rooms lit by 30w light bulbs. All the other guests were ancient and, to our disgust, mixed their wine with coke.

But this was the best ride of the trip. The road goes right into the thick of the forest. It’s nothing like the tidy woodland back home, this is real jungly, organic, extra-virgin forest. Waterfalls let rip from impossible places over ferny cliffs into dark pools sunk among the wild fuchsias, bamboo and giant rhubarb. We hear strange cries of unseen birds. (“Hey, there’s one that sounds just like a chain squeaking”. “That is your chain squeaking”.)

From Coñaripe, we rode round the lakes. The roads here were all gravel, and increasingly bad gravel. Even if we went for a day trip out and back on the same road, we were convinced the road had deteriorated over the course of the day. Distances were subject to the old Latin American bane of hyperinflation. A map would mark some distance as, say, 30km but when you got there and totalled the signs on the roads, it had already got to something like 45km. And even while you were riding along, the distances were doubling.

The best waterfall of all was near the Argentine border – the Huilo-Huilo falls where the river is squeezed into a narrow channel and blasts through a gap in a big black scooping cliff. We sat and watched the swirling spray for hours, mesmerised (or were we just putting off getting back on the road again?). But the next bit was easy, two hours cruising along a lake on a ferry. Embarrassingly, this was almost as fast as cycling. We got to the Argentine border and cleared various customs formalities. The road suddenly improves from a boulder field to a pleasant smooth track, and deliriously, we motor along at the eye-watering speed of 10mph, rather than the usual 6mph, deciding that we like Argentina more than Chile. This lasts for about half a mile before the track is back to the usual odious rubble. We get to the hotel marked on the map to find it is a cartographer’s fiction. It’s now 6pm and it’s going to take us 4 hours to get to San Martin.

The road surface was worst going uphill, downhill, and round bends, and this road did a lot of all that, mostly the “uphill” thing. Hairpin bends were steeply cambered. If you couldn’t do a car’s speed, and no, I’m afraid we couldn’t, they’d suck you in, spiralling you into the sandpit in the centre. I couldn’t remember ever enjoying cycling – that part of my memory was completely blanked out. Instead, a veritable film festival of classic grovels played itself through my head. A seamless chain of miserable rides dragged itself out of that special part of my memory. All those interminable winter training rides on the bleak Cotswold tops inhabited by grey cloud and headwinds and Ifor Williams trailers, all those off-day 50s, oh yes, and the one in Cheshire when I was overtaken by a marshal. I seemed to have spent my entire life getting nowhere slowly.

Colin wasn’t finding it much fun either.

Half an hour after the light had faded we rolled into a town made of gingerbread. Blimey. Four hours of glycogen starvation and my brain hallucinates buildings into food. You see, San Martin has gone for the Bavarian look, all Hansel & Gretel houses with icing, I mean, fairy lights all round the edges. We spent a day drinking coffee, making up for days of suffering Nescafé, and hunted for maps. Perhaps if we looked really, really hard, we’d find the one map that revealed a tarmac road all the way to Bariloche.

The scenery this side was mountainous and lakey, but drier than the west. There weren’t the volcanoes, but there was a mountain that looked like a submarine. The roads were sandy which made a change from Chile, but these, if anything, were worse and I fell off a few more times. Colin was getting fitter. Either that, or his luggage was getting lighter. I had a suspicion that the books which he was carrying, were being disappeared once we’d both read them.

Bariloche sat under some impressively spiny mountains which we didn’t see for long because the weather broke. The beautiful blue lake turned into the North Sea, complete with backwards-flying gulls. Bariloche itself was a ghastly place composed of secret police headquarters built in leprous concrete, but it was partly redeemed by the Sainsbury-sized chocolate shops.

We crossed back to Chile on more boats. This is run as a pleasure-boat excursion and therefore had a 1000% hike in prices over the other crossing. It goes through some of the best scenery, not that we saw anything more than the bottom 10ft of it.

And now: “Jeux des Frontières”... it’s a Knockout!!! (cue jaunty music, Eddie Waring etc). Well, in this game they’ve first got to ride up that slippery track and find somewhere dry to eat their lunch, oh dear, they’ve completely failed to do that, never mind ... now they’ve got to bump down the other side, without dropping any panniers – mind that condor! – and find the first customs post. Remember they can’t see a thing in all this rain!! Great, found it, now they’ve collected the piece of paper. Now for the next customs post, find the bloke. Now the next ... there’s no one there ... that’s it – you’ve got to hammer on the door – ha, ha, more than that – he’s upstairs, still snoring away... it’ll take at least half a hour. Oh, it’s not all over, there’s one more ... have they still got the piece of paper? Oh dear, what a soggy mess ...

We discover pisco sours, not before time.

This part of Chile reminded me of the north of Scotland. Partly it was because it had the same sort of rain, the sort that just materialises out of the air, inside your clothes, inside the panniers. But it was more than that – there’s the same increasingly sparse and scattered settlement, and the same landscape fragmented by the sea.

Puerto Montt was disappointing, even more of a hole than Bariloche. People say tourism spoils places, but it could only improve Puerto Montt. Restaurants were too much of a challenge and we’d had enough of challenges. We found a likely-looking place on the waterfront, decorated eccentrically with maritime clutter – flags, nets, a stuffed bear, a wind-up gramophone, a lavatory...

... but no printed menu. Instead, the waitress rattles off an incomprehensible list. We get her to repeat it three times before giving up and ordering two Pisco Sours instead. We discuss tactics, and try again.

What is there to start?

– (something incomprehensible)

Is there soup?

– yes, asparagus.

Is there fish soup?

– yes.

Can we have that?

This was more successful. The soup was excellent, even if some of the ingredients (seamonster claws and pale creatures of the sunless deep) were a bit frightening.

The weather changed back to glorious summer the day we left. All the volcanoes reappeared, gleaming in the sun. I started planning our next trip, down the Camino Austral. (“But yesterday you were saying you’d never do any more roughstuff, ever again...”.)

TCM. 1997

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