Marseilles’ watch ticks at the slowest pace. He’s a seaman who’s been navigating this water for five decades but he has somehow managed to hit shallow reef within the first hour of our journey. He pulls up the outboard motor of our six-meter lancha and looks for damage. I hide my face in my hands. I’ve waited two days for a boat to depart for Colombia and I shudder at the thought of us canoeing back to where we started.
There’s no significant damage so the propeller splashes back into the ocean and we are away. Slap, slap, slap goes the front end of the boat across the chop and every so often, when the timing of the waves are right, the cross shore wind blows the wake into my face. I sit patiently on the wooden bench, in direct sunlight, counting down every hour until we reach land.
After three days of similar shenanigans at sea and an exhilarating ride on a fast boat, I place my feet for the first time on the continent of South America. The humidity is suffocating and I look around the Colombian town of Necocli for a cheap hostel so I can rebuild the bike and wash off three days of salt crust. Once I step into the cold shower, I feel as though I’m a dry sponge being dropped into a bucket of water. I wash down the bike from any salt spray and install a new chain. Ready to roll first thing in the morning.
I look down at the chain and clunk through the gears to the lowest combination. This is where it stays for a few days as I climb deep into Western range.
It’s good to be back on my own schedule and on a new continent. I cycle through Turbo and along fields of banana plantations. The road veers away from the coast, then into some foothills and eventually the Northern Andes. I look down at the chain and clunk through the gears to the lowest combination. This is where it stays for a few days as I climb deep into Western range.
I’m feeling more and more fatigued. The terrain is so challenging. I’m also mentally exhausted. I knew coming into this trip that being alone for a long duration would be tough. It’s not just physical loneliness. A few times a day I’m stared at, pointed at, laughed at, or called gringo. I look completely out of place and I’m constantly reminded of this. I usually smile or wave it off but there’s always a little part of it that sticks. In this exhausted frame of mind, one that’s had its limits continuously pushed for eight months, it’s hard for me not to take it personally.
I’m well into the Sechura Desert in the north of Peru, continuously battling a strong headwind that’s blasting up the coast. This is demoralizing stuff. Day after day of sand and wind.
My heart’s rushing, skin sweating and both legs shake under my skinny frame. I’m a notch above completely hopeless.
I can feel something off in my stomach. Perhaps I sculled too much water at the last gas station in preparation for this long, dry stretch. My mouth begins to salivate. I think I’m going to vomit. I jump off the bike just in time to empty my stomach onto the dirt road. My heart’s rushing, skin sweating and both legs shake under my skinny frame. I’m a notch above completely hopeless. It takes an hour and a half to move my bike and bags over an embankment. The sun is setting, my energy is fading as fast as my water supply is going. My body struggles to keep hold of even a drop of precious water. My lips are as dry as the rocks I’m laying on, and then, all of a sudden, it’s night. A full moon and I am in and out of poisoned dreams.
In the morning I manage the strength to get back to the road and cycle the remaining 50km to water. I sleep by the river another night and in the morning flag down a truck to take me to the next town with a farmacia.
“What is this life I have chosen?” I repeat over and over again. It’s raining quite heavily. I climb higher up the mountain and the rain turns to hail. There is a tapping sound of the hail hitting my jacket hood and a pinging sound of it hitting the top tube of my bike frame. Higher I go again, this time to over 4800m and it starts snowing. My feet are numb to my heel and I’m feeling very light headed.
“What is this life I have chosen?” I repeat over and over again. It’s raining quite heavily. I climb higher up the mountain and the rain turns to hail.
At the road pass, two men ride over from the southern side on horses, both dressed in ponchos. They stare at me but don’t say a word as they watch me put my feet inside plastic bags for warmth. I haven’t been this cold before. All I want to do is be indoors. I shiver the whole way down the descent, with wet feet and hands to the town of Oyon. A hot shower, steaming plate of chicken with rice and a lumpy mattress bring a satisfying comfort.
How much more of this am I going to go through? This is starting to get really hard. I take another day of rest in the town and reconsider my route. Perhaps the windy desert isn’t such a bad idea after all.
I meet two cyclists on their way from Costa Rica to Argentina. They are strong, fast cyclists and we join forces to overcome the steep valleys of Peru. I am so happy to have company, I couldn’t have met them at a better time – the lowest point of the whole trip. It’s hard to keep up on the climbs with my small 26” wheels, but being alone in this terrain will be brutal, so I push myself to match their pace.
I am so happy to have company, I couldn’t have met them at a better time – the lowest point of the whole trip.
We are making our way up a pass that’s a little below 4700m. Around the corner is this looming, dark grey rain cloud. Hannes turns around with a big grin on his face as he leads the way on the thin road. We stop and put our rain jackets on and then it starts hailing. We are about two hours from the top so we stop for some sugar treats at a tienda. Simon says an old German saying that roughly translates to running into the blade of the knife, smiling.
It sums up the situation perfectly. We joke about the absurdity of our journeys as a senora gifts us a large bag of coca leaves to chew on. We return to the climb with our bulging cheeks of plant matter and that annoying sensation of something caught in the back of a numb throat. The sun comes out. We start feeling happy, powering up to the pass, past quinoa fields, leaving our mark on the road by spitting out clumps of green mush.
A farmhouse appears on the side of the mountain and we are granted permission to stay the night. We choose to sleep indoors to avoid the cold and we lay out our mats on the dirt under the house. There is no power; we lie in the dry storage area next to bags of onions and potatoes. Occasionally mud rains down upon us between the large cracks in the hand-sawn floorboards. There’s quechua being spoken upstairs amongst candle light and at times a small goat can be heard.
An extended break from cycling in Cusco has recharged my batteries and the comforts of a major city encourage the desire for adventure. I blast through the long valley towards Bolivia, traveling alone and putting on a good pace. Llama and alpaca are grazing in the grass and I’m feeling strong and happy. It’s nice to be traveling along a relatively flat road. The 4000m altitude doesn’t affect my stamina but it becomes apparent in the night time when the temperature plummets. I sleep on the streets of small villages from La Paz to Uyuni. I roll into the main plaza and place my mattress on the footpath, up against a wall. It’s not the best night sleep but it’s free and I feel safe.
I come over the crest of a hill to see the Salar de Uyuni stretch from the far left of my view to the far right. What an incredible scene. It reminds me of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in person. The pictures online and in magazines can’t convey the sheer magnitude of this place. I stand there, speechless, and then torture my bike by spending the afternoon riding around the seemingly endless salty surface.
Snap. My chain breaks and falls deep into the sand below. This road is steep and with five days of food and six extra liters on the back, there is no wonder it gave out. Fortunately, I have spare link and just as well because I’m in the middle of the Eduardo Avaroa National Park in Bolivia. A very long way from a bike shop. Any shop for that matter. This corrugated dirt road looks like a dusty ribbon through the mountains and valleys. Incredible scenes and challenging cycling. When I begin measuring myself up to the surrounding 6000m peaks I am quick to realize how insignificantly small I really am. I’m one tiny little speck of dust in this universe and that’s the most empowering feeling I’ve ever had. I can make this life whatever I want it to be. I scream at the top of my lungs; no one is around to hear it. I tell myself not to take life too seriously and then try to do a handstand.
But I have to be serious now. This is the Atacama Desert. The driest non-polar desert in the world. Of course there is wind, a few days from the north and a few days into my face. I’m surprised at how hilly it is. There have been a few cars that have stopped and offered rides or water. It feels like I’m on the Alaska Highway in terms of support. However, there aren’t any lakes or trees here. Just rocks and sand.
Cyclists have feelings too…
I get stung with a huge reciprocity fee at the Argentinian border, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth for the first few days into the country. I have a look on the map. Only 2000km to go. The Ruta 40 is not what I expected at all. It’s painfully flat, there are huge distances between towns, and the nights are going below zero. I want to hit 100km targets but the days are short and there is no way I’m getting out of the sleeping bag before the sun’s up. Asking my weathered and beaten body of this is only just possible. I’ve reached new levels of exhaustion. I start to feel nervous as I roll onto the ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir. Only a few days to go.
It feels as though I’m cycling to the end of the world. The sun does a low arc on the horizon behind me as I travel further south. The air feels still, occasionally there is fog. There is an eerie feeling present. I hit the 25,000km mark and stay at the casa de ciclistas behind the Tolhuin bakery on my final night on the road. My alarm sounds at 7am the next morning and I fill my food bag with warm, fresh bread. My rear derailleur cable snaps. No spare, only the three front gears for the day.
I make it over the final pass, a tiny 500m above sea level, which even after all these kilometers leaves me short of breath. How did I manage to climb 10 times this height? How did I manage to get myself this far? A memory from a tough day in Panama pops into my mind and triggers thoughts of Central America. I scan back through my mind to Mexico and the rest of North America. My heart is racing with emotion. So many memories, so many experiences.
I ride through the entrance pillars of Ushuaia, tears streaming down my cold face. My body feels numb with joy or perhaps it’s because it’s 2 degrees.
I stop on the side of the road to view a video that I have kept on my phone from the first day in Alaska. I look a lot younger, with a cocky, overconfident smile on my face. It was that overconfidence that got me to the start line. I knew once the ball got rolling that I was never going to back down. Commitment took me to places on this Earth that reduced me to tears with beauty and had me fearing for my health and safety. Stubbornness pushed my physical limits and took me to places in my mind that I’m not sure I want to revisit. And persistence introduced me to caring, generous people and also proved that I have the ability to accept help when I need it. Something I have had problems with in the past.
I ride through the entrance pillars of Ushuaia, tears streaming down my cold face. My body feels numb with joy or perhaps it’s because it’s 2 degrees. I can’t believe it’s over. Down at the waterfront I stop two people to get them to take a photo of me at the “Fin del Mundo” sign. I sit on a park bench, in disbelief. I take slow bites from the last piece of bread and look out over the Beagle Channel. It’s so cold. Time to go home.