Virgile Charlot in Patagonia

In 2013, Marion and I decided to cycle down the Americas, from Alasaka to Patagonia, for 2 years. In November 2014, we had reach the wide region of Patagonia, south of the Americas, and had to reach Ushuaia, most south city of this continent, to achieve our adventurous journey.

Patagonia: A name that immediately stirs our childish imagination to a distant place and an even more distant time. Picture vast horizons dominated by mountains spearing high above a blanket of bone-white glaciers; Picture sapphire lakes and virgin forests breathing a chorus of fantasy; Picture a wind so fierce that knees buckle and teeth chatter when one dares to make peace with it.

 

The moment we were waiting for so long did not come with a defining road-sign. And there were no candles and bright lights celebrating our arrival. We had a bit the bait and came looking for the Patagonia we dreamed of as a child through the glossy pages of National Geographic. Amazingly enough, with Patagonia, we started to find some good products we had not seen for months in local shops : cheeses, olives etc. 

On Carretera Austral, further south, for several days we played cat and mouse with big black clouds swimming between green mountains like aquatic predators, slowly writhing around obstacles of nature and dragging behind them tiny waves of diluted foam. Puyuhuapi was a small village, with a handful of fishing boats lying on their side at the end of the fjord. We were back on the Pacific Ocean, after nearly 10 000 kilometers of inland cycling. We enjoyed its salty shore characteristic smell as an old memory back to present. It rained so hard this day that we entered the first shelter on the road to dry our gears. 

Beyond the 45th parallel, nights were clearer and shorter. Everything was wet and green around.  The sky had darkened further when ferry hit the strike at the other end of the fjord. The few cars quickly disappeared and once again, we were alone among fjords, surrounded by thick forests and heavy glaciers. We zipped our waterproof jackets to the lips and hit our way slowly under the light rain, along with powerful blue rivers, fish, tracing our progress in the gray moraines fringed with mossy vegetation. Condors were flying in the sky, supported by a furious wind as hard as the stones surrounding gorges.

The next day, after fifty kilometers on a fabulous track cut into wilderness, rivers and huge waterfalls fed by massive glaciers, far away, we managed to see the roofs of the peaceful town of Villa O'Higgins, extreme south of the Carretera Austral. Colorful wooden houses were covered with shell split in softwood. 

Ushuaia was 1000 km away on our map. Nothing in comparison with the other 30,000 kilometers we had cycled from Alaska to the bottom of one of the most famous summit in the world, mount FitzRoy. Indeed, Ushuaia was really close by and we were almost there.  This feeling made us feel strong and very enthusiastic. We would soon reach Tierra del Fuego.



The Strait of Magellan separates South America from Tierra del Fuego (literally, "Land of Fire"), the island-archipelago that forms the bottom tip of South America. When Magallanes arrived, he saw dozens of bonfires burning along the coast of the island. These fires were lit by the Yaghan and Ona tribes who lived on the islands to ward off the intense cold of the region since they wore little to no clothing. He feared that they were trying to lure him into the forests to ambush his armada, so deftly avoided contact and was largely uninterested in these groups.

As we arrived with our bicycles in Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city on the American mainland, Tierra del Fuego loomed in the distance. Far from seeing any bonfires, it was nice and warm day. Instead of crossing the Straits on an ancient wooden-hulled ship, we were granted access on super-modern cargo liner that made the crossing daily for passengers, vehicles, and cargo.

 

"These Southern waters are some of the harshest conditions in the world," explained the eccentrically moustached captain. "See those things sticking out of the water?" he asked, pointing to what seemed like an abandoned dock with roughly strewn planks of wood. "Thats what happens to unlucky ships."


We lucked out on the Straits, and made the crossing in a rare day of light winds.  We touched ground on Tierra del Fuego around mid-day, and the wind now howled in its full fury. Even standing up proved to be difficult. However, the Patagonian wind in Tierra del Fuego was finally in our favor, and we were excited to ride at warp-speeds towards the culmination of a long journey. Needless to say, although we harbored hopes of conversing with native Fuegians, the only people we encountered were descendants and immigrants of European ancestry.

During the time of Magallanes, it is estimated that the Yaghan numbered at around 3,000 individuals. Since he had little interest in them, they were largely ignored for three hundred years until Robert FitzRoy sailed to Tierra del Fuego on the maiden voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1830. He captured four native Fuegians and decided to "civilize" the "savages," teaching them "English... the plainer truths of Christianity... and the use of common tools" and intended to return them as missionaries. They were presented to the King and Queen in London and became instant celebrities.

Much of the the Northern half of Tierra del Fuego is Patagonian steppe; in common language, windswept, shrub lands where a rough dirt road cut across into the horizon. The winds fully in our favor blasted me across Tierra del Fuego all the way to the Atlantic Coast. The last time we gazed on Atlantic waters were up in Colombia, by thetown of Turbo, nearly a year ago.

 

This was it. Sold to tourists as "the end of the world," Ushuaia - meaning "bay (waia)" in the "upper back (ushsha)," in the Yamana language, is set in a spectacular bay, with snowcapped peaks all around. After more than 28 000 kms of cycling in 600 days (450 nights under our tent!), we had arrived where the road abruptly came to an end. We where now at the southernmost point accessible by road in the world.  

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