We passed between two large stone towers and arrived in the place that I had been dreaming about for so long. USHUAIA said the large white letters. I had thought about this moment of arrival way back on lonely mountain roads in Ecuador, during times of sickness in Peru, fighting through the heavy traffic of La Paz, in the deserts of the Ruta 40 and in the rains of Patagonia.
But after the sheer emptiness of the last 6 days of riding through Tierra del Fuego, it was an utter shock to arrive in this busy city, heaving with cars and packed with tourists. We fought past the tacky souvenir shops and the touristy restaurants to drink a Pisco Sour to celebrate the end of the long road. But then we realised that there was no place for us to stay. High season in Patagonia meant that everything was fully booked. The sun was so intense and along with the alcohol that I had become so unaccustomed to, an ache began to pound through my head. I felt disorientated in this urban maze. Making the rounds of the fully booked hostels, searching for a bed, Fabian found a large cardboard bike box for his flight home and went carrying it through the streets. We then bumped into a cyclist who had just arrived from his home country of Venezuela. He carried his surf board attached to his bike with a home made set up made from plastic bathroom tubes. Him with a surfboard and Fabian with a giant piece of cardboard, homeless, kind of drunk, and in the city at the end of the world. It all seemed rather surreal.
After camping in the tiny garden of a hostel, we left for the Tierra del Fuego National Park and Bahia Lapataia which was quite literally the end of the road. It was here where the road would stop and the sea would begin. But it was not quite the magical place to be expected. Instead there was a row of coaches and crowds of chubby holiday makers. Surrounded by inquisitive holidaying Germans, answering their questions, I thought…”now the trip is really over”. A shudder, a feeling of sadness and sickness collected in my stomach. The trip was over but time was not.
How would life ever be the same again? After all the challenges, the tears, the emotions, the adventures, the sights, the views, the secret camp spots, the lessons learnt, the tests endured. It had been a journey of joy, frustration, excitement and strength. Vivid and ever-lasting memories day after day, new things to see, decisions to make, kilometres to ride. We spent our days buying supplies, planning routes, asking for directions, crossing borders, chatting to locals, jumping in rivers, finding campsites, cooking pasta, drinking coffee, taking breaks, taking photographs, watching the street life, looking at the view, fighting the climbs the kilometres, the heat and the cold, relaxing in the sun…It was a happy routine, a simple way of life. We had learnt to sleep everywhere and anywhere: in police stations, fire stations, back yards, behind rocks, jungle huts, football pitches, yards, gardens, farms, sheds, huts, between cacti, in silence or by the city, in an empty museum, at the rangers station, among ancient forests, creepy woods, in tunnels, in garages, outside, inside, in hippy camps or starred hotels. The questions had been never ending, amusing us, surprising us and entertaining us at every corner: Where are you from? Where are you going? Aren’t you getting tired? Don’t you want to take the bus? Aren’t you cold in that tent? Won’t water come inside? Are you rich? Are you a millionaire? Did you cycle here from England? Do you have children? Do you believe in God? When are you getting married? The pictures, paintings and views I had collected portrayed a colourful view of a dynamic land: the first view of La Paz, Machu Picchu, the island of the sun, the Huapi pass in the Cordillera Blanca, the view of the Huayhuash mountains, the volcanoes of Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Sajama. The wild and untamed peaks without name, the jungles, the canyons, the deserts, the pampas, the high passes, the fast rivers, the dark forests, the rocky open road. The wilderness always giving silence, time to think and to feel. The people who lined our route, the colourful characters, the inquisitive locals: the farmers, immigration officials, curious children, solemn gauchos, fellow cyclists, passers-by, teachers, tourists, shop keepers, policemen, tour guides and street sellers. The chaotic clutch of a different culture: the colourful clothes, the dirty markets, the boisterous behaviour, the simple mud houses, the never ending friendliness. The bustling or deadly silent villages, towns or cities. Certain key moments would be etched upon my memory forever more: running up to Acotango across white rock at 5600metres in Bolivia, boating down the Magdalena river in Colombia, cooking bread and empanadas on the fire in Patagonian Chile, drinking bottles of wine on sunny terraces in Argentina, getting caught in a storm on the salt flats of Bolivia, trekking past 6000metre peaks in Peru, cycling through the jungle in Ecuador, riding the trampoline of death in Colombia, random conversations, unexpected encounters, breathtaking views…18000km, 250.000m of climbing, 6 countries, 9 months. And all the moments and memories trickle down to our arrival in Ushuaia at the end of this great continent.
The following days quickly passed by in a sluggish blur. Packing, preparing, cleaning and washing, ready for the long flight home. But in the end I found myself in yet another tricky situation, on my last night in South America, smelling and sweating profusely in the hot bright office of my airline at Buenos Aires airport. After months of travel, always careful with my possessions, I had forgotten to collect my credit card from my last ATM use and it had been swallowed up. I couldn’t quite believe it. So there I was pleading with the airline staff to let me take my bike on board for free, I had no other way of paying for it’s transit. That was my bicycle, my best friend, it had crossed a continent with me, been there for me in every moment, I had to take it home! Then, I managed to call my mother in England, waking her in the dead of night, instructing her to find my other PIN code for my other card, noted down in the back of my diary I had previously sent home from La Paz. The final disaster successfully averted, I dashed for the gate and made it just in time.
I knew that the days and weeks that followed would be difficult, slipping back into a life that felt like another planet. Flashbacks and daydreams would regularly transport me back to those bleak mountain tops or those sprawling markets or those vast desert views…secret camp spots. All of this leaving me with a deep longing and ache for that chaotic and lively, remote and wild life that had once carried me across a continent. And that big hole now carved inside me…what would I now fill it with?….more adventure, of course.