What gets you up in the morning?

What gets you up in the morning?

If you’re like me usually it’s a simple need, like water, the bus schedule, a bursting bladder, hunger. From there, the things that drive us each day become more complex. Some people like to gaze lovingly at their bank balance, they work hard for a pay rise, or get dewy-eyed about a new T.V.

But for those who need more, for me and maybe you, I think our future selves would want to look back on moments in time that are untainted by slavery to money or status, or the accumulation of stuff. I think we would want to look back at where we ticked those boxes of those “oh my god I can’t sit still” need-to-dos. To climb a mountain, to ski untouched back-country powder, to dive deeper than ever, to taste a beer after surviving a day at a shallow reef break or maybe you’re bold enough to try to make a real difference in someone else’s life! To do all those things that have no real reward – but are the most rewarding of all – they are the moments we would be really proud of.

To do these things we need to learn how to think and understand what’s really valuable in life, so we don’t slip into the bland everydayness that I see in so many city-folks eyes.

Staying focused on what’s important became essential for me when I began planning a monumental adventure (for me, at least) over a year ago. I plan to ride a motorbike from the southern tip of Argentina to Alaska. Thousands of kilometres across the Americas, over freezing alps, sailing the Caribbean, through the temperamental Amazon, whisking the scorching sands of Mexico and all the way through North America to Anchorage Alaska.

All of these ethereal descriptions make it sound amazing, yes, and I would love to tell you that this is one of those soul-searching pilgrimages wherein I’m going to impart Zen-like wisdom unto you, readers… but the reality is, I’m just like you. I don’t fully believe that I’ll pull this trip off, I have my doubts and demons that I’m sure I’ll have to face. But that’s ok, failure, struggles and ass-kickings are a requirement for success.

I will explore extraordinary places and find new ways of exploring them. I will find people doing ground-breaking things and learn from them. I will find new angles and stories that haven’t been told.

This is as much a promise to you as it is to me. This idea will become my life.

The Galapagos

One of those days where you really want to wake up…lying in bed waiting for the first light to illuminate a dark and cool room. But this room isn’t your average, it’s curved, the bunks are snug, you can’t stand up completely and it calmly rocks and rolls throughout the night. I slowly creep out of bed, hold on to the bunk as my legs adjust to the movement, then make my way onto the deck. The cool grey of first light is yet to be interrupted by the orange hues of daybreak. I sit, listen to the ocean lap, watch the frigates swooping low across the water and marvel at the rich navy that fades into turquoise at the shore.

Most of my days in the Galapagos feel this way. Not too much chatter or traffic in my mind, just the sights sounds and (unfortunately sometimes) smells of this paradise. It’s easy to be like this, for the first time in a long time, everything is taken care of for me, there is schedule of activities, meals are prepared for me and the captain delivers new horizons each night as I sleep. I’m still travelling, but my mind isn’t.

Now I’d like to take a moment here to discuss the difference, in my mind at least, between travelling and holidays. To the untrained eye they may look the same. Both modes involve being away from home. Both will take you to the places of your dreams. But what is the difference! The holidayer (not a word, I know, just roll with it) has a sense of entitlement, they deserve to be here, whereas the traveller feels lucky. The traveller is not going to miss an opportunity, the traveller will get the most out of every day, eating every last scrap of food, taking every one of those 120minutes of snorkelling in the morning to explore and using every bit of the daylight to their best ability. The holidayer in contrast lets moments pass, they sit back sigh and wonder when lunch will be ready, tans and thinks of things at home. They are here, but not here. They walk a trail and look ahead, even though they know whats there, because he just looked a second ago. What they are looking for, what they want, is all around them, but they don’t want that, because it’s all around them. They are still imagining the place they were going to be as external, distant and wonderful as it was when they sat in their cubical at work.

I realised this while on the Encantada, a bright red 45 year old sailing boat which was my home for 5 days, with two Americans on board that we’re on a father-daughter holiday. It’s commonly and boringly said that travel broadens the mind, but a few conditions must be met for that to hold true. Firstly, you need to have a mind. Most people scrape a pass on this one, though we have to set the bar pretty low for this to be so. Secondly, you have to travel with an open mind. Now why I say these two were on holidays, not travelling is because they pass neither of these basic requirements. Their closemindedness was only outshone by their stupidity and obliviousness.

But apart from the human ugliness the Galapagos was pristine. I can’t say what exactly made me fall in love with it. The place maintains its wonder that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, it goes without saying that it has changed since Darwin’s day. For a long time it was a secluded haven for Pirates, merchants, sailors and fishermen from all over the world. After a long stint of Ecuadorian dictators, the first democratically elected PM laid claim to the islands for Ecuador in the 20’s, uniting the islands that were split between the French and Spanish for a long time. Then came the second world war when the US posted around 8000 troops as a strategic outpost a training facility on Baltra Island (now the airport), they did their usual damage, bombing some of the outer islands for target practice and eating any wildlife they could get their grubby mitts on. Since then however it has been rightly declared a national park and become the centre of the world for research of wildlife diversity and evolution.

As far as my time went there…I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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Home

Cake, sex and fame. Their lure is strong. If something pushes our sweet, sex or status buttons, we spark right up. Why? Because these things give us pleasure. But do they make us happy?
Well pleasure, is very different from happiness.
You could quite easily say that the trip that I have been on is a pleasure trip. Chasing the highest highs and lowest lows, to really feed my sense of adventure and escapism.
But pleasure isn’t what you want, like it’s a great – I mean it’s why you love scrolling thru instagram, people getting more of it than you, you want it. It’s why your envious of my trip, but it’s materialistic, it’s the most superficial form of satisfaction there is. Consuming satisfaction wherever possible has become the norm for many because consumerism is the ‘ism’ that has won and pleasure is what they sell you. But every now and the you have to step back from this and make the right decision for yourself, away from all the noise that is going on around you, and it is really hard. Like, really thinking about yourself alone, what’s best for you regardless of anyone else, or how much ‘pleasure’ seems to be only just out of reach, and then choosing to do that thing. It sounds really simple, but simplifying things can be very hard.

An opportunity for me to simplify popped up recently when I had been in one spot for about 10 days, the longest I had been still since I left. The surf hostel I was staying at included three meals a day, board and wetsuit hire and had a lap pool out the back for only $20 a night. I surfed twice a day every day and I was doing 12 laps in the pool each afternoon, studying two hours and eating three healthy meals a day. Life was made simple and I was as happy as Larry.
I was doing the old scroll thru facebook before dinner one evening, I was in a pretty happy state of salt and sunburn and I saw a post by Coastalwatch “Your dream job has just popped up” and it continued “Do you froth on the news of an Autumn groundswell and seeing lines to the horizon at your local? So do we! We’ll get on great.”
Now I have been in sales all my professional life, so my bullshit radar is pretty damn good but as I went through the detail it became more and more apparent – they are talking to me!!
So I went right to work, detailed my resume, reached out to a few old friends for some solid references and took a shot in the dark.
I was put through my paces with interviews, a presentation project and a handful of emails back and forth. I even skipped an afternoon surf to polish my presentation. After a few days of deliberation between myself and some other candidates, I was given a letter of offer…So starting the tomorrow, I’ll be working out of the Three Crowns media office in Avalon on the Northern Beaches of Sydney and living in Manly. I’m happy to head back to a much simpler life, which will be a combination of all the things I have loved about my previous work and lives.
Challenging role, lunch time surfs, working with both corporate and surf industries, a great small team, the ability to live in a quiet place, close to the ocean but still with access to the big city or a quick flight to the Gold Coast should I need a fix.
But don’t think this is the end of the adventures! If anything, it’s just the start of more, just with a bit more balance. Oh yeah and coffee, I get fucking great coffee again.
I couldn’t be more happy with the trip I’ve been on, in a short time I have lived a whole lot. I have done it without the travel becoming polarizing or too draining.
I know some of you may think I’m missing out or I’m throwing away the trip of a lifetime – If you are, you’re still concentrating on pleasure. Here’s a great way to think about it: My trip has been riding a bike to so many different destinations some of them incredible, others scary or challenging. What you’re assuming is that my trip is defined by the destinations I have been. But really the most amazing thing about travelling the way I did is how much control I had over where I wanted to go.

Wilderness appealed to me because I was bored and somewhat disgusted with man and his works. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting both melancholy and exultation.

I have exorcised a lot of demons on this trip and am much happier with where I am mentally. But physically, I knew I could be in happier places. Taking a step back from my life as I knew it has allowed me to gain a better perspective, but that perspective is that life was pretty damn good.

Obviously and naturally I still want these pleasurable things, but I’m exercising the control over where I want my life to go and that’s not north on a motorbike alone for no reason.

So I took a sharp turn west in search of something that I’ve seen glimpses of before, the kind of vision splendid, that Banjo saw. I’m putting a fresh roll in my camera and keeping an eye out for things unique. I am home now going looking for the great Australian dream.

Summit to Sea

After a day’s break I’m ready to move again. This time towards the tourist hot spot of Maccu Pichu, but with a bit of a twist. Instead of paying the exorbitant $1000 to have guide walk me up the hill, after a bus and train ride I decided to make the most of Katie. I found that it would be possible to ride Katie within two hours walking distance of the base of the mountain. And there’s a Hydroelectrical plant there…I’m sure they wouldn’t mind storing my bike for a night or two.

A friend who I have been bumping into for the entire trip, Agnes, arrived at the hostal and was probably even mlore excited about the plan than me, we would go together. We packed light and left first thing the following morning.

The ride out was about 60% paved, we’ll call this the first section. The first section followed a powerful river deep into a massive valley, as the valley narrowed, the road began t climb the mountain side via a step road, with exactly 36 hair pin turns. It is here that I noticed something – Peruvian drivers don’t care that I exist.

We climbed slowly and eventually over the mountain pass, which took us through the clouds, but we still felt miniaturised by the snowy peaks rising another two thousand meters on either side.

The second section of “road” came upon us quickly, on the way back down the mountainside it started to become patchy, just whole segments of road that seemed to have casually gone missing. After not long the patches gave way to a dusty gravel and sand combination of absolutely hellish riding. Potholes more closely resembled ponds, single lane the entire way with too many blind turns and by far the deepest river crossings I have ever tackled. I can see why this is not something most tourist tackle, instead taking the luxury train right to the base of the mountain.

After a quick chat with the manager of the Hydro Electrical plant, Katie is locked up and we are ready to go. From here, the story is one you have probably heard many times, the little town Agauas Calliente at the base is beautiful and Maccu Pichu drew all the ooo’s and ahhh’s from me that it does most tourist, there’s a reason why 2500 people visit each day.

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We decided to ride back to Cusco the same day we climbed Maccu Pichu, you know, cause why not push yourself a little (4hr hiking and 6 hours riding).

Loaded and ready to leave Cusco, two bags and one Pom heavier. Agnes decided to skip Colca Canyon so she could hitch a ride with me to Lima and I was happy for the company, even if it did make the riding a little harder.

We hit the road on the first day to Abancay, straight back into the hairpins. We dipped into the valley outside of Cusco, then climbed back into the mountains to find ourselves resting in abancay after 5 hours on the cycle, but only 200km under our belt.

The next day we rose early, Agnes was deftly ill and coughing and spluttering on the back of the bike, but didn’t complain once. It was a tough riding day, 465km up into the high plateau via more switchbacks. The whole day I couldn’t help but think how Martian the scenery was. Nearly completely scarce of signs of life, except for the off llama, donkey or lone vulture flying overhead.

We passed two KLE500’s with South Australian number plates on a tight turn where they were resting, then they passed us as we sat on the side of the road doing the same. In the afternoon we caught them. Kev and Karen, a sixty-something year old couple who had been married for 30 plus years. I remembered seeing the bikes in Patagonia many months ago. They had since taken a different route, up the east coast, Paraguay, brazil and then through the Atacama desert to Chile.

I pulled in behind them, they were stopped on the side of the road enjoying a view of the mountains and yellow wild flowers that rolled down their side. Before I pulled my helmet off I said “G’day” in my most booming Australian accent. To which Karen replied, “you’re kidding me, another Aussie”. Smiles and laughs were exchanged as introductions rolled of our tongues.

We let them enjoy their lunch but planned to meet in Nasca for dinner.

As the afternoon rolled on the road became more and more immaculate. I’m talking bends that were easily fit for a Moto GP track, perfect curves with cant and traction that had me laying a fulling loaded trial bike, two-up, on it’s side and scraping my knee. Agnes loved the curves as much as I did and said it felt nearly like flying. The riding was amazing.

By the time Agnes and I find the Hotel Karen and Kev had mentioned they were already there. We unloaded, showered and then all went for a beer. It was like we were family immediately. Kev was an aircraft engineer in the Air Force since his late twenties and had just retired. Before going into the service, at 19, he and Karen bought a combie and drove it around Europe. They say it changed their life, made them value travel over money, a philosophy they have been living ever since. Karen had lost her brother recently and Kev his uncle just the day prior. Kev was a quiet and reserved guy, so when he leaned over the table to speak Agnes and I shut up and listened, he had the kind of presence that made you listen.

He said that life is too short and you never ever know when you’re going to meet your maker. Make sure you are living everyday, filling yourself with memories worth something, because it’s the only thing that is.

We enjoyed two beers, more than they would usually have in an evening and pizza.

They left early in the morning and we unfortunately missed them, I wish we would have exchanged details. But they left a lovely note under our door.

“Hi Shane & Aggie, Sorry we missed you guys at breakfast. Stay safe & might see you along the way! Cheers, Kev and Karen”

This combined with an incredibly inspirational email from my first boss Ross, combined with a cool breeze and is indicative of a hot day was a perfect way to start my last leg to the coast. Inspired, present and happy in the world. There are great people out there and I am lucky to have met some of them.

From here we headed for Huacachina, a place I had never heard of and probably would have ridden straight by if it wasn’t for Agnes. Fuck I’m glad I didn’t.

This place is a literal Oasis. Dune buggies roar through the dunes and take you to the top of the biggest ones for scream inducing sandboarding.

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Just a short ride north I had my first taste of the ocean again. We rolled into town around midday, I’m pretty sure you could see a trail of my riding gear strew from the car park to the beach, I couldn’t get back in the water fast enough. With the ocean came back a flood of memories, one dive underneath and I was transported to swimming in the Sydney harbour at summer time.

My body didn’t react quite as well as my mind did to the change. My Andean tan that I have been working on since Patagonia quickly turned from a shade of snow-cap to British-backpacker-red.

The main reason (apart from its obvious abundance of fish) that Paracas exists is due to the Islands just off the coast. Lonely Planet calls them “the poor man’s Galapagos”. Still, I was in awe of the abundance of wildlife and really, I was just happy to be on the water.

From Paracas it was a short hop skip and a jump to Punta Hermosa, a town that exists for two reasons, stark in contrast. The first being a weekend escape for Lima’s elite, rich and famous types who just must have a beach house here. The second is waves, I decided to come here simply because of that reason.

My knowledge of the waves here was exactly that, that they were here, nothing more. We arrived, they were here, I found a place to stay, board and was out there. The main break, sits in the middle of a deep bay, around a 400m paddle through deep water. By the time I got there my arms were jelly, 4 month out of the water has not served me well. I figured the line up, only three guys out, they were old and salt, so I sat inside them – the ego of the young – which I was punished for when the first set rolled in, 6ft and powerful and seemingly out of nowhere…I had well and truly lost my rhythm.

I came back to the hostel ready to eat and sleep, I was in the water for less than 45minutes, using the cold as an excuse, but really I just got whipped. The guys I was talking to knew, but they humoured me. While we were chatting I started to notice their boards, the usual round square, a semi gun AND a gun…like a big wave, balls to the wall, rhino chasing gun…each of them had one. This isn’t the kind of thing you just carry around hap hazard, they show a fierce intention, just seeing them sit there is a huge statement. I wandered around the hostel, saw the jet skis, photos on the wall and the fact that most of the guys staying here had one in their quiver. I’d unknowingly walked into the dragons den, “Lucifers” as the hostel is aptly named is a home for the daring, with three jet skis in the car park, the sole purpose of this place is to house the most bad-ass (generally Brazilian) surfers around. Lucky for me, I’d come on a “flat week”, I almost choked when I heard them call it that, it was still 6ft out the front!

I have been sitting here for a few days, surfing, swimming laps and watching the sea birds skim the ocean from the cliffs. This is a happy place, I’ll stay here for a while and get out of the way when the swell picks up and the big boys get their guns out.

I’m not going to Alaska

I wrote a little while ago about happiness on the road, I plan to continue that train of thought here.

Before I dive into this, let me set a scene for you.

Imagine you’re travelling alone, proper alone, 6 hours a day with nothing but your head in your helmet, alone with your thoughts. But then when you arrive at a place, you can’t dive into the things that are in your head…because you don’t know anyone and everyone at home is asleep.

So you dive into any conversation you can…which is the standard conversation you have with anyone else who is travelling.

Name? – which you immediately forget.

How long have you been travelling? – To get a measure of the kind of traveller they are.

Which direction have you come from and where’s next? – To see if you might bump into them again, in which case, add them to facebook (so you don’t forget their name).

Do you want a beer? – Yes

You that this doesn’t give you much chance to crystallize your thoughts. Crystallizing thoughts is an interesting thing. Imagine inside my head, that is rattling around inside my helmet, thoughts are water. Sloshing around without any rhyme or reason, unchecked and unchallenged. Including these thoughts in conversations helps pull them together, gives them structure and presents them in a more graspable form. It’s like crystallizing water by freezing it.

Writing has been the only reprieve I have found from the constant flow of thoughts, without having anyone to bounce them off. So when I finally stopped in La Paz for 10 days AND had Ash to bounce thoughts off things crystallized quickly.

I found quickly that I was unhappy with the haste and way I’m travelling. It might seem weird from a distance and that I’ve made a mountain out of a molehill, because all you see from distance is pleasure. Your estimations of how happy or unhappy I would be becoming are more exaggerated the further away you are. The pleasure of the experience is what I project, the highlight reel, of course. But always wanted to communicate more honestly than that.

I realised I hadn’t explored destiny lane in a long while and which version of me lives down it. I was diving blindly towards a destination that I didn’t really have a care for anymore and was anxious because I know that the bike won’t make it that far. I had no flexibility in my own head and therefore had lost the freedom that I changed everything for.

I realised I wasn’t working towards anything anymore, realistically, I have proved to myself that I can do it. I can live through massive change, I am comfortable in the world alone, I can ride through vast expanses, I am capable of high adventure. I have smashed my expectations and I’ve never been one to jump up and down about something that I know can happen anyway.

But even after thinking all this, I know my happiness was waning. Working towards the goal of Alaska, meant I had lost control of the drive. I was making sacrifices to make sure I could achieve it and frankly, I don’t care for it anymore. I had to be honest with myself, the answer I had spat so often, “2 years, to Alaska on a motorbike”, had become mundane. It was to impress people, which meant THEY were driving me to my destination.

So I went to work. I spoke with Ash, friends, family and mentors. Posing similar and different questions to all of them about life, travel and me.

I slowly began to compose a vision of my ideal self. It ended up being 5000 words of different versions of where I could go and what I could do, for the next month, year and forever. From there I have worked hard to whittle it down to something simple. Asking simple questions help.

What aspects of my life are there because of external forms of validation?

What parts of my life are there because of genuine passion and joy?

What useless activities and possessions can I get rid of?

What small and attainable goals can I set for myself?

 

Here’s what I have come up with so far.

I think what is needed for my happiness is simple – the possibility of being useful or kind to people who it’s easy to do good, who aren’t used to have it done to them. Work, which I hope will be of some use, then rest, nature, surfing, love, books, music, my friends and family – which will make up my community.

I have exorcised a lot of demons on this trip and am much happier with where I am mentally. But physically, I could be in happier places. Taking a step back from my life as I knew it has allowed me to gain a better perspective, but that perspective is that life was pretty damn good.

For now, my plans are to get to the coast and start surfing again, meet a friend in Lima, then go to the Galapagos. After that, Columbia. Then…who knows?

To quote an amazing surf film “There was once a man who became unstuck in the world – he took the wind for a map, he took the sky for a clock, and he set off with no destination. He was never lost.

The Amazon and Bolivia

So, Bolivia is the weirdest country I have ever visited, but god dam I was stoked to get there. Mainly, I was stoked to get out of Argentina with Katie and get rid of some nasty documentation that by this stage was like a very tightly stretched rubber band threatening to drag her back to Chile. Luckily the Argentinian border guard didn’t have any affinity to Chile or care for their red tape and I cruised in to Bolivia without a hitch and got that monkey off my back for good.

Katie wasn’t much of a fan of the Bolivian altitude, so we were restricted to a top speed of about 90km/ph. I wasn’t much of a fan of the first few Bolivian cities, Potosi, Oruro and others along the way were nearly completely devoid of charm. The landscape is bland, the people were too shy to be any fun and the dogs are super aggressive – launching themselves from behind cars in an effort to dine on my calf muscle. It was a stark contrast to the beautiful Salta region in the north of Argentina that I had just come from.

So I opened up the throttle and headed as quickly as possible for the capital – La Paz. I was here to meet Ash, one of my best friends, but I arrived a week early and quickly found myself bored of the city. Not because the city is devoid of things to do, it’s just…city life. So I found myself a job in a bar, as the official photographer it was my job to get as many people as possible doing regretful things on camera. I’d say I succeeded.

Ash arrived and I had three days to bombard her with all the kinds of things you need a good friend to talk to about. Oh yeah and we needed to do some cool shit, make her flying to see me worthwhile – Enter Death Road.

I feel like calling it a road is a bit of a stretch. It’s a 70km dirt track that used to be the only connection between Coroico and La Paz, in its hay day it took an average of 300 lives a year. These days, most traffic avoids it, thanks to a brand new highway and it’s generally left to thrill seeking tourists who take mountain bike tours from La Paz. It now takes the lives of around 5 to 10 tourists a year and just two days before we planned to tackle it on my motorbike a 22 year old girl sadly went over the edge. Nevertheless, we decided to tackle it.

From the top, it’s easy to see why it’s so dangerous. It’s barely wide enough for a car, let alone a bus, it’s nearly completely devoid of guardrails and at some points has sheer drops of over 1000m into the valley expanse below. Oh yeah and it’s wet, slippery and muddy and in some places it’s necessary to ride through waterfalls. Right now you’re probably asking “Then why would you bother?” and the best way I can answer you is with the visuals….

Unfortunately Ash’s stay was a short one, but if anything, it has made me think of home and the amazing friendships I have there.

From La Paz it was on to Peru and what a welcomed environment change it was…after I made it over the border of course. Five hours of hell, pushing, shoving, arguing in spanglish but eventually…getting thru. I changed my Bolivianos to Soles and hit the road, planning to get at least 500km inside friendly (Peruivian) territory in the first day. Katie unfortunately continues to struggle and I’m hoping it’s just the altitude.

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I made Cusco after a few days of beautiful riding, friendly locals and swirl of beautifully patterned clothing. From here, unlike most who charge straight for Maccu Pichu, I decided to head deep into the Amazon for some much needed greenery and incredible wildlife. I left Katie to rest and hopped on a bus, 11 hours later I was at Atalaya Port boarding a “speedboat” and doing something I had always dreamed.


A swollen, post wet season, river that was beset on either side with most classic looking Amazonian rainforest. It was a real bath of the senses, the lush green was overwhelming, the air think and humid and carrying the smells of the jungle. I sat back and smiled, enjoying every bit of it to the extent of what I can only call Zen.

The next few days were filled with everything you imagine the Amazon to be (minus the Anacondas).

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The sound of Argentina

I finished up in Argentina recently and I was treated to a near perfect last few days.

Two friends I made in Mendoza arrived the same day as I did and we got right back to some solid banter (I crack a joke, they laugh….you know, the usual). you can see my hilarity in action pictured here.


We made our way north to Humahuaca, I rode, they hitched. I pitched my tent for the last time in a beautifully warm campground full of off-the-beaten-path kind of travelers. You know, the type who aren’t quite sure how long they’ve been on the road. This part of the country isn’t exactly on the standard tourist trail.

I unloaded my gear and we road three-up for nearly 50km of dirt road to see the fourteen colour mountains. We really had no idea what to expect, none of us had done any research, other than knowing the town was mentioned in lonely planet, so could be a nice place to stop. So when we rolled over the 4300m peak Agnes screamed, I yelled “holy fuck” and Yuval also threw in a few profanities of her own. The view was to say the very least, spectacular.



 We spent the evening huddled in the mess hall of the camp ground and were treated to the sounds of Argentina from a few troubadours. Listening to the recordings of the night really takes me back there, it was an out of this world kind of day. I hope you enjoy them too.

Ruta 40

Road trip. Whether you’re a grey nomad, going surfing with a bunch of mates, gearing up as a family to go visit the relo’s, these two words roll off the tongue into a smile. When you get your licence it’s a rite of passage to independence.

Some road trips take on an almost ethereal sense – route 66 for example. You don’t know why you want to do it, you just do. The road of bones for the more daring, the great ocean road for any surfer, the Stelvio pass in Italy for the driver or death road in Boliva – all famous in their own way.

I’d like to tack the less-known road I just travelled on to the list, Ruta 40 , in Argentina. It is one of the longest roads in the roads in the world at over 5000km, rivalled in length by only a couple of others in length (the Stuart Highway in Australia being one). It starts at sea level in the south and goes up to 5000m in the north, travels through 20 national parks, over 18 major rivers and traverses 27 mountain passes thru the Andes. But as with most roads, the stats aren’t very exciting, why I think this road is worthy of mention is much more romantic.

For starters, it’s sparsely paved in the south and the only access to some of the most stunning landscape Patagonia has to offer. It punches a line thru terrain that has never been populated. There is times when you’re the only person for 200km in every direction, completely isolated. Because of the extremities of the south it has become a must do for adventure tourism of the motorised kind. Cyclists even pit themselves against the Patagonian gusts at times. Safe to say, it has humbled many egos.

By the time I hit the 3000 km mark, I had come to know the road quite personally. I had a close call that saw the road nearly take my trip from me (read about it here). I have spent equal hours cursing the ever illusive dead straight horizon (the longest stretch I measured was 67 km dead straight) as I have being bug eyed, in absolute awe of the scenery that Ruta 40 delivers.

Further north the seemingly never ending horizons give way to twists and turns, beset by olive groves or wineries. The scenery can change so quickly, within four kilometers you can climb a mountain pass, arid on one side, the other lush, green and humid. Also the valleys, shit how could I forget about that, the valleys are incredible, grand canyon incredible.

I’ve put together a little series of photos so you can get a feel for its diversity. But seriously, if you’re an over-lander, road-tripper, adventurer or the kind of person who likes a challenge…you must.

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Christ on a bike

Mendoza, what a city. Great beer and wine. I’m sure there was other things too, but it’s rather hard to remember. Safe to say I blew off a little steam here. I rocked into a hostel, no rooms (apparently it was Easter weekend, missed that memo), so I asked if I could roll out my mat in the garden and that was problem!

While I was unloading my gear I got chatting to three German guys, who are research scientists working on the rock glaciers in the Andes. They were down from the weekend and asked If I wanted to grab a beer with them. Three days later, many BBQ’s and laughs later, we finished the last beer.

Rather fitting that I was resurrected on Easter Sunday, ready to throw the leg over the bike once more. I hobbled hungover a few hours up the road to San Juan, which really, was just the next blob on the map. I somehow stumbled into a conversation with a few local students when I arrived and they offered to show me around the city. We started with a history lesson at the Museum, which included a pretty amazing earthquake machine to give you an idea of the trauma the locals experienced in 1944 when the city was obliterated. Then onto the artisan markets to pick up some produce (vino) and back to their place for a dinner of empanadas and paella.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and rather lonely when I arrived in San Juan, I’m not sure if it was written on my face, but they seemed to make every effort to make me feel at home, even allowing Katie (my bike) to sleep in the living room. It was just what I needed.

 

The next day, with spirits high and heart full, I set out for a big day of riding. On the map, it looked like nothing but a mass of desert expanse. It was, to begin with, under a bleedingly bright morning sun I was wearing my visor down and sunglasses, it was still too bright (remind me to pack a welders mask next time) I headed east, for the first time in a long while.

The riding at first was the usual, full-speed dead-ahead, but after a couple of hours a few long sweeping bends started to creep in and they gradually because more regular and closer together. The scenery started to change too, there were mounds and hills, small at first and growing constantly. The sweeping turns where magic on a the cycle and I made my way thru an area I could only imagine is similar to the grand canyon.

As I climbed and the desert plateau disappeared behind me the scenery changed quickly.  There was red rock, cracked river beds were given reprieve by small streams. I saw my first cactus too. Goats darted across the road at times, chickens too, this is a land where life is sustainable.

I spent 10 hours on the cycle – physical discomfort was apparent, but I find it drifts away when the mood is right. It’s easy to blame unsettled problem on discomfort, but usually you can think it away. If not, a short walk or a few star jumps does it.

 

In stark contrast I rolled into Catamarca late 7pm, much later than I usually try and find camp. The city is industrial, surviving solely on local mines, factories and natural gas, the streets are tight, one way and busy. I got lost looking for the campground and hopped off the cycle to ask a local. While chatting, with my back turned to the cycle a guy was trying to rip my dufel bag off the back. I turned around when I heard the side stand scrape and in what felt like an instant was in a physical argument with the guy, who didn’t see me coming back. Carbon knuckles on my gloves and full body armor made short work of it. The police where there in a minute and everyone else was rather supportive. It’s an experience however, I’d rather forget. I stayed in a hotel that night, had a long hot shower and slept restlessly.

I spoke here about being happy, it’s about controlling how you see things, perspective. I spent the next day on the bike, working on this. I now feel sorry for the guy, he had nothing and was clearly living a tough life, my bag and things could have made it much easier. It’s sad to see people in such desperate situations. However, to stop myself ending up in one, I will be more vigilant from now on, so violence is not necessary.

 

With that behind me I was able to enjoy the ride to Tafi de Valle’, which is lucky because holy crap, it was one of the best yet. Climbing to two thousand meters from corn fields back into the mountains. The road clings to the cliff and moss to all the trees. The air was cool and damp, it felt like home in early spring. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves here.

Nowhere in particular to wine country.

Monday, 21 March 2016

5:51 PM

I am sitting in the dining room of a small camp ground on the outskirts of somewhere. The sleepy town seems to be here for no reason at all. The kind of place that just is. The plaid table cloths and vinyl chairs remind me of what I imagine a small American diner circa 1970 would be like, I suppose all that décor had to go somewhere.

The town is dusty, with no paved roads, a supermarket the size of the first coffee shop I worked in (big enough for two people), it also features a 4 hour siesta, so I’m glad I came here with snacks. Now it sounds like this town has no charm, it has, which is why I decided to spend the night.

I ride through many small towns you see, clocking up around 500km each day, so you start to get a feeling for the good ones, the real ones. Where the kids stop playing soccer to wave when you ride by, where people stand in open doorways to see who it is, when you stop and ask for information and the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and where you plan to go.

Now I’d already spent 5 hours on the road when I pulled up here and my bum was just too sore to put in another three to the next town on the map, so it was also convenient. The cherry was powered camping, with wifi and a beer for around $8 Australian a night, with Argentina being pretty expensive, it was hard to say no.

I woke early the next morning to the sound of a persistent rooster who had decided next to my tent was the perfect place to roost. Probably a good thing, a big day ahead, so I start with the usual boil-water, make-coffee and then function routine. Tent is down in a matter of minutes and I’m ready to roll.

I know it won’t be long until the road turns to gravel, sand and mud, so I let some air out of the tires and decide not to fuel up, the less weight the better.

I arrive at the gravel with the sun still behind the hills, great contrast and few people on the “road”, perfect riding conditions considering…the conditions. The route ducks back and forth over a river system engulfed in desert, red shale canyons and black rock valleys, really beautiful riding. All I have heard about this section of road is the dangers, no one told me it was going to be beautiful, I suppose that’s a bit of neuroplasticity at work.

I spend the next two or three hours weaving in and out of this desolately incredible countryside until I hit the paved road again. Then it’s all pistons firing (ok I only have one) for the east and the next mountain range. After an I-SWEAR-TO-GOD-HURRY-UP-AN-END 65 kilometer dead strait road and I mean dead straight, not the slightest curve, I start climbing into the hills and it’s here that things begin to change.

As I round into the first bend on the way back down the other side, I see a tree, this is no shrub, brush, tumbleweed or pampas, an actual proper-sized tree…and not much further there’s another and another! Even more excitingly, these trees aren’t in rows or lines, they are just growing where ever they see fit. It feels like I haven’t seen a scene like this in a long while.

As I descend I feel the humidity start to engulf me, I open the front of my jacket, lift the visor and breathe deep. The scent of olives on my tastebuds. Vineyards on one side of the road, olive groves on the other, maple lined streets and a warmth that feels like home. For the first time in a while I sing to myself in my helmet – Nina Simone’s “feelin’ good”. I will sleep well here tonight.

(apologies for the lack of photos, I was a little swept up in the riding!)

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