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 reached 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 long-awaited moment did not come with a defining road-sign. And there were no candles and bright lights celebrating our arrival. We had taken the bait and came looking for the Patagonia we dreamed of as children looking through the glossy pages of National Geographic. Amazingly enough, in 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, we played cat and mouse for several days with big black clouds swimming between green mountains like aquatic predators, slowly writhing around obstacles and dragging tiny waves of diluted foam behind them. Puyuhuapi was a small village with a handful of fishing boats lying on their side at the end of the fjord. We were back at the Pacific Ocean, after nearly 10,000km of inland cycling. We enjoyed its salty shore smell, an old memory bringing us back to the present. It rained so hard that we found the first shelter we could to dry our gear. 

Beyond the 45th parallel the nights became clearer and shorter. Everything around us was wet and green. The sky had darkened further when the ferry reached the wharf at the other end of the fjord. The few cars quickly disappeared and, once again, we were alone among the fjords, surrounded by thick forests and heavy glaciers. We zipped up our waterproof jackets and made our way slowly under the light rain, alongside 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 rocks in the surrounding gorges.

The next day, after 50km on a fabulous track cut into the wilderness, surrounded by rivers and huge waterfalls fed by massive glaciers, we managed to see the distant roofs of the peaceful town of Villa O'Higgins, the extreme south of the Carretera Austral. Colourful wooden houses were covered with shells, split and laid in to soft wood. 

Ushuaia was 1000km away on our map. Nothing in comparison with the 30,000km we had cycled from Alaska to the bottom of one of the most famous peaks in the world, Mt FitzRoy. Indeed, Ushuaia was really close and we were almost there. This 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 a nice, warm day. Instead of crossing the Straits on an ancient wooden-hulled ship, we were granted access on a 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. "That's 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 midday, 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 favour, 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 Magallanes' day, it is estimated that the Yaghan numbered at around 3,000 individuals. Since he had little interest in them, they were largely ignored for 300 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 cuts 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 was up in Colombia, by the town 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 28,000kms of cycling in 600 days (450 nights in our tent!), we had arrived where the road abruptly came to an end. We where now at the southernmost road-accessible point in the world.