Day 86 -90: 24.3. - 28.3.2009
Puerto Natales – Punta Arenas

Cold rain !

Okay, the hot weather part of the trip is definitely over by now. Approaching the Southern end of the American continent also means facing some though weather. I knew that but get another real good example of this today. Fortunately the weather changes rapidly here and hence the tough experience doesn’t last all day. Setting off from Puerto Natales towards the south Ronald and I enjoy a strong tailwind. Today will be an easy day. We will do probably half of the distance to Punta Arenas (250 km altogether). With the wind as it is and a pretty flat paved road to go on this shouldn’t be too much. It is not warm (11-12°C) but the sun is shining and it is good weather for biking. After a while dark clouds appear at the horizon behind us. Because of the distance we assume that we will have some more hours before they will hit us. We know much better 30 minutes later when we find ourselves packed into our raingear, in the middle of a heavy, cold rain and a strong sidewind. We have had more enjoyable moments on our bikes. To say the least. The thermometer drops to 5°C. “My hands are gone. I cannot feel them anymore. “ “Can you please shift one gear up for me? I cannot move my hands away from the handlebar nor move my fingers anymore.” These are the kind of comments that keep us entertained during our tour in the rain. Unfortunately they were no jokes but true. Nevertheless, sharing the pain keeps our spirits up.

Strong winds !

The rain stops after a while because the dark clouds move as fast away from us as they have approached us beforehand. That is good news. The horizon looks good now. No dark clouds. The wind feels invited to become more fierce now though. And unfortunately our road turns a bit to the right, meaning that we get a full side wind. This leaves us in a strange position on the bike. First of all we keep our raingear and especially hats on because the wind is so cold now. Secondly we really have to lean to the right into the wind in order to not be blown away to the left. I wonder which angles we achieve here. As the wind comes in gusts as well sometimes we struggle very much to keep a straight line. I believe we need about 2-3 meters of the road by now (basically our entire lane). Fortunately passing truck and car drivers know (and see!) this and only overtake when there is no oncoming traffic. Otherwise we would be in a severe “being sandwiched between cars or trucks” risk. Of course the buses struggle with the side wind as well. Some of them look very much skewed to the left and do not sit straight in the suspension anymore at all. A very weird picture. The older the buses are the bigger their problems seem to be.

All in all – an easy day

“I am glad this is an easy day today (as we agreed to do when we left town).” Ronald doesn’t look happy when making the comment. The irony is apparent (somehow we find ourselves being quite ironic a lot during the last few days, no idea why..). Bent low over the handlebar he tries to escape the wind as good as possible. Wrapped into the windproof raingear to protect from the cold wind he keeps pedaling at a low but steady speed. We know we have to make 150 km today if we do not want to stay in the tents. The strong wind combined with almost no wind protection opportunities along the road don’t invite to a tent night so we decided to keep going at least to the one and only village on the way to Punta Arenas. Villa Tehuelches, at km 150. It gets colder and colder with the sun beginning to set and the wind is not our best friend either but we finally manage to arrive in the village. There is exactly one “residencial” (a place where somebody rents out a room in his/her private house). We are happy. Save from the wind.

Real scientists at work

“I am an idiot! I have by accident deleted all the GPS data of yesterday’s ride before saving it for my records. Now I have to make up the data again manually by myself. Shit.” Ronald observes and comments: “Now you finally become a real scientist!” We are laughing. Both of us are scientists by education. Quite a bit of this comes through in what we do and especially how we do it. A lot of our discussions during the last few days were about scientific subjects. Or they were at least a scientific dissection of a non-scientific subject. Both of us enjoy that. It is simply a lot of fun. Ronald does currently work in a company at introducing business intelligence systems / procedures. He uses a lot of dashboards to track, monitor and qualify data. When he saw my dashboard in my webpage he was surprised to see somebody use such an approach even in personal life. Since then he learned quite a bit about how Mars does apply dashboards and I have learned about how this works (or doesn’t work) in his company. A nice diversion into business life on a non-business sabbatical. I am actually surprised to see how far away from the business I already feel after these three months on the road. I know the stuff well still but it sometimes feels like talking about something that is so far away and almost in a different world. I guess that is a good sign.

Panorama pictures

This autostitch software (freeware on the internet) is really amazing. Even with my crappy camera I just take various pictures next to each other to try and build a panorama of them all together and the software finishes it all automatically in seconds. Wonderful. This is exactly what I needed. A superb tip from Ronald and a good way of capturing some of the bigger impressions by photo. The result is that I am uploading some panorama (widescreen) photos to my webpage now. They might be small on small screens but still the contents could just not be captured well enough in a single photo.

Cycling in the middle of Patagonia’s wildlife

“Man, just stop, you stupid ostrich. There is no need for you to run there ahead of us all the time. Just stop and relax.” They won’t listen to us (of course). This is a great experience we are in here. We feel like in a movie. We get a life presentation by an entire ostrich family (mother, father and 8 kids) that impressively shows us that they are not all that clever. We ride on the road at ca. 20-25 km/h. Next to the road in the ditch is where the ostriches run a few meters in front of us. A bit to their right is a fence which they cannot get through (so it seems). Mother and father panicked first and started running when they saw us coming. The kids of course followed their parents’ example and now the whole family is in panic and running away from us. It goes on for some minutes because they cannot really escape. Every time they begin to slow down we get closer again. When we are too close they panic and accelerate again. Hilarious. An extremely fascinating experience. The kids are last in the group and seem to play the game “I don’t want to be last. I don’t want to be last.” Ronald and myself feel reminded of our childhood when we had that same feeling when running away from something in a group of kids. The one thing you did not want to be was the last one. We enjoy this. We cannot stop laughing. At some point of time the smaller ones of the family lose energy and have to stop running. Then they find out all by a sudden that nothing happens to them when they simply stop. They seem to be extremely puzzled by that experience. One even manages to find a way through the fence in that puzzled moment. One by one we overtake them until even the parents cannot run anymore. Maybe they are only puzzled to not have their kids behind them anymore, we don’t know. Finally they stop as well and are as surprised as the others that nothing bad happens to them. We are sure that this is not the first time they have gone through this experience and hence do feel right in assuming that ostriches have much more power in their legs than in their brains.

Another wildlife presentation we get today is delivered by a big herd of Flamingos. They sit there in a huge lake with a dry, salty edge at the side of the road and carve a nice pink sign into the lake. We see this only from a distance but the picture is still great. This is the second time within a few days now that I see a big group of Flamingos. Such a big group is simply a very impressive view. Their color is so intense and puts a great contrast into a lake as background. I see this as another good chance to try to build a compiled panorama picture.

“Those poor sheep have already been shaven. They must be freezing to death.” What those naked looking sheep do is to find the only little bush available and to hide behind it from the wind in a bigger group. It looks funny. As if they had forgotten their pullovers and now cuddle together as if their learned from the Penguins how to best escape the cold. It is amazing to see the size of the estancias. We have seen Gauchos on horses with dogs that have directed the sheep into the right direction. Now, many kilometers later we see the “collection point” where they will have to get to. That will still take a while. Dimensions are different here. I think I will try to spend a few days on an estancia in the end of my trip to appreciate how estancia life really is.

Even stronger wind!

“It feels like we’re gonna have lift-off any second. This hut here must be anchored 10 meters deep into the ground.” The bus stop houses are strange and most welcome at the same time indeed. They look as if they were imported from Saudi Arabia. The roof and entire shape look very Arabic. Nevertheless. It restrains the immense wind that is now storming around us outside. We estimate the wind at 100 km/h by now. It is a storm. And we have it from the side on our bikes. No fun. We have decided to hide for eating a bite in the “Arabic hut”. “Get the fat fly out of here. She is gonna poison our food.” We open the door, push the fly out and see it immediately taking off in the heavy wind passing by the hut. Just disappeared. An amazing acceleration. “I guess it is in Punta Arenas by now (50km from there). If it survived the turbulences.” Fortunately we seem to have stopped in the strongest wind area of the day. As we keep going later the wind is a bit less and we manage to arrive in Punta Arenas without casualties. Well done. We are proud. This is the southernmost point on the continent that we will go to. From here we will take a ferry to Tierra del Fuego.

Parting ways

“Four days to catch a plane or two weeks to get a boat? I know what my preferred choice would be.” Yes, true. My schedule from now looks much more relaxed than the one that Ronald is on. He needs to get to Ushuaia to catch his flight to Buenos Aires in four days. From there he will head back home. Hence he leaves with the ferry to Porvenir (Tierra del Fuego) today in the morning. I have a full two weeks before I will board my cruise ship in Ushuaia on the 11th of April.
Overall I believe we have fit together pretty well (that is for Ronald to comment on still..). The tall Dutch and the small German. Our speed on the bike was comparable (most important criteria in bike travelling). We both balanced between tent and comfort in the same way. Both of us have a good sense of humor and a strong sense for irony. We both have scientific backgrounds and the same general inquisitive mind, hence enjoy diving into in-depth discussions on topics that appeal to both of us. So, bottom line, a good fit. And by the way: I learned how to work with panorama pictures by the photo expert and Ronald learned from the Mars manager how dashboards and business intelligence works in Mars. Good deal.

The plan

My plan for the remaining month is as follows: Tomorrow I will visit a Penguin colony on Magdalena Island in Magellan Strait and see sea lions on Marta island. The day after tomorrow I will take the ferry to Porvenir. Then I will allow 5-6 bike days to get to Ushuaia (500 km) where I will stay for 3-4 days. Entertainment options are hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park, a (real) mountain bike tour, some other hikes at the shores of Tierra del Fuego or some other stuff. I will not be bored. After having done the cruise with the boat back to Punta Arenas (including setting food on Cape Hoorn) I will use the remaining 5 days in Punta Arenas to go and visit an estancia to play gaucho on a horse and to find out about estancia life. Then I will fly to Easter Island, be in Santiago for a weekend and finally fly home. This is a wonderful plan, I am happy and looking forward to it.

About penguins, sea lions and other wildlife in Magellan Strait

Sea lions are big. And they are aggressive between males. Each dominant male has between 5 and 12 female partners at the same time. What casanovas! And the dominant male also makes sure that the other males around do not mess up their own group. They literally kick them out of the group. This is why there are always a few smaller groups of pure male sea lions around. They have not been strong enough to have their own harem (yet). Maybe they are discussing how to get out of this sad situation best. I feel sorry for them.

“Dolphins, there. There are dolphins on the left.” The boat almost falls over to the left after the guide has hinted to the dolphins because of course all people in the group immediately rush over to the left and press their noses against the windows to see the dolphins. Including me. A few of them appear here and there on the water surface. They are close to the boat and seem to inspect it for a short while. Then they disappear again. A short but nice encounter. At least the boat can go back into normal mode now.

“Shall I go to the beach or not? I think I will go. Aeh, no, maybe not. I think I have changed my mind. I will not go. Maybe later.” This seems to go in the heads of the small Magellan Penguins when you see them walking first towards the sea, then stop all of a sudden, change direction, then approach again etc., and always in group mode, almost never alone. One starts, plenty follow. Very funny. They are cute and entertaining little animals. It is fun to observe them in their natural habitat. One can see that they are not made for walking. They seem to only have one upright position in which they are stable enough for walking. Every time an even little step down comes up they approach carefully, then lean forward and bend down to see how big the step is, then step a little closer to finally jump down (the really little step) with an extra straight back. Hilarious. I am laughing a lot here on Magdalena Island. When there is a steeper downhill without steps they struggle to stay in control. Once one of them kind of panicked on such a downhill, accelerated a bit too much, fell over to the front and then slid down (unwillingly) the whole descent on the belly. This is better and more entertaining than any movie could possibly be. The penguins come to Magdalena Island for breeding. They come here, find a partner, mate, bring the next generation to life and then move out to warmer areas for the winter. I was in fact lucky that I could still see the colony because they already started moving on out of the Magellan Strait up the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean into warmer regions. Penguins live in monogamy for life. They are good role models for mankind indeed. They walk around in pairs, stay at their whole together in pairs, everything seems to be very pair oriented. Amazing. And they make a lot of noise for their size. They put their heads up into the air and shout like seals. And with so many of them around this is quite loud. What I haven’t understood until the end of our visit was how their hole-numbering works. How the hell can they find their hole again within these thousands of holes on the island (the whole island does literally look like a Swiss cheese) when they return from a swimming break? They must have a good sense for navigation and probably mark their holes with their smell as well. Although, to me the entire island is covered in one intense cloud of smell anyway. But then, I am not a penguin.

On our way back we see Cormorants and Albatrosses flying around. The latter are just so much more elegant up there in the air. They are lean birds with long wings and fly fast without a big effort. For the Cormorants it seems to be a big effort to even manage the lift-off from the water. They kind of run on the water during the first meters of their take-off before they finally get airborne. And then they have to move their wings so much faster than the Albatrosses. They seem to be less made for the air, more for the water. And the Albatrosses exactly the other way round. It is interesting to see how nature designed the animals differently, depending on how and where they live. That was a great trip today!