Northbound: old ice, old art and fresh cherries

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Published: January 11th 2024

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Perito Moreno glacierPerito Moreno glacierPerito Moreno glacier

There are some rare occasions in life where you can only look on in wonderment, doff your cap, bow, kowtow, salute and pay homage.

A Christmas-eve amble along the shoreline of Ushuaia, popularly known as ‘the end the world’. Arrive at the iconic but cliched money-shot spot, and chance upon half-a-dozen champagne-swigging revellers and a smallish, taught, rugged, ruddy man standing next to the ‘you have arrived sign’ and his loaded, long-distance bicycle.

Intrigued, linger quietly aside, and try to unobtrusively capture the occasion with a photo or two.

It is cool, in the late afternoon, and the tourist spot is unusually empty.

One of the party approaches, and hesitantly at first in broken Spanish, then reasonable, thick-accented English, asks if I know who the cyclist is.

“Not a clue.”

“He is very famous in Russia, and an Instagram star.”

Unsure whether that means very lightweight star, or indeed heavyweight.

“At this moment he has just finished cycling, alone, from Alaska to Ushuaia, 31,000km* in 13 months.”

The popping corks are celebrating his arrival.

His face shows many hours of sun and wind, reddish,

Noshi arrives in Ushuaia the day before ChristmasNoshi arrives in Ushuaia the day before ChristmasNoshi arrives in Ushuaia the day before Christmas

tight, part-parched. His eyes carry an intense, long-range stare. There is a deep twinkle within, a steeliness of his body being unsure the marathon has ended, but a grin that reveals his mind knows it has.

His small group of supporters have flown from Russia to welcome him.

Christmas eve. The perfect landing moment. You could not plan it if you tried.

I shake his hand, request a portrait of ‘Noshi’ and his bicycle, and am invited to share in the celebratory beverages.

He had rolled in barely minutes before I chanced upon the moment. An hour of natter, chatter and cheers, he seems to wind down a fraction, hugs and swigs all around.

He’d been across Asia before. Africa is next.

There are similar men to be found in Lukla, jumping-off point in Nepal if you want to tackle Everest; hard, totally focused, disciplined. “Breathe deep, stay patient. A little bit at a time,” a summitter once told me years ago.

Hat’s off, Noshi. Merry Christmas!

He would certainly seem to be one of the kings of a curious band of marathon solo cyclists, many of whom aim for this same

Noshi rideNoshi rideNoshi ride

landing point. Others tell of their rides across the continent from Cartagena, north Columbia, or only relatively shorter stints from Buenos Aires. Like sailors, they too need to dance with the vagaries of the winds. Most, if not all ride north to south to avoid confronting the worst of the near-incessant howlers across Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

Two days prior, raise a toast to the summer solstice, longest day of the year at the bottom of the world. The sun gods lose the battle with a barrage of snow-carrying clouds after days of near-perfect clear sky. But the day’s glow still lingers and permeates late after its 10.12pm sunset, the chilly, near-freezing, dying light finally surrendering at 11.22pm.

Sunrise is not 1.48am, as I naively half-expect. Latitude and geometric vagaries of the earth’s tilt formally start the day at 4.52.

It snows on the shortest night of summer. The wind howls the next day. The sun bursts through between intermittent light drizzle. Weather patterns are described as ‘bi-polar’ by locals. They wryly boast of five seasons a day.

In the days leading up to Christmas, a well-cut and tailored brigade had queued and boarded an

11pm Ushuaia summer solstice11pm Ushuaia summer solstice11pm Ushuaia summer solstice

armada of ocean liners to spend their festive week gazing upon the Antarctic.

Three, four or five vessels per day had shipped out.

In and out, the turnaround time would seem not much more than a day or two.

On Christmas Day, there are eerily no ships in dock.

Nature decides the great block of ice also needs a break from rubber-neckers, and throws down a gale challenge. More than half of the ships are forced to return or find shelter from the raging sea, before they reach their destination. There is an explicit part of the purchase agreement: “You might not get there.”

A lot of money to watch a turkey slide across the dining table as the ship heaves and lurches while running for cover through the massive swells of the Furious 50s and Screaming 60s.

Tourist accommodation throws up the characters. The name on his satchel is ‘Jose Runner’. A Filipino Forest Gump who has taken part in over a 100 marathons, he says. Sprightly Jose, around 70-years-old, spends his life on the road, helping out at travellers’ guest houses. But that will not pay for serious long-distance sojourning, and he

Antarctic armadaAntarctic armadaAntarctic armada

refuses to say whether his home in southern Luzon, the main island in the Philippines, hosts a gold mine or oil well, or whether he is a relative of Imelda Marcos.

‘Mr Cuba’ extols with great pride the virtues of his nation and people. Transpires he lives in Miami and is a US citizen. “You’re a half-and-half, half Cuban and half Yankee,” the wag quips.

Cuba bristles, unamused: “I was born and bred in Cuba. I am Cuban. I am not a half-and-half.” Protesteth too much?

Vilius, the two-metre-plus Lithuanian cruising around Argentina on a small motorbike with a little dog, Chico, he has acquired, that travels in a pillion box with a hole in its lid just big enough for pooch to stick its head through. Has a puncture. Needs to find a mechanic to fix it. Not sure what happens if this happens in the middle of nowhere.

There is a lot of ‘middle of nowhere’ in Patagonia.

Big, wide, near-barren, dry, flat, windy, windy, repeat, repeat … is 80% of Patagonia, with the Andes and Chile lake-and-glacier strip to the far west, and into the southern tip of the 10,000km-long mountain chain

Perito Moreno full frontalPerito Moreno full frontalPerito Moreno full frontal

in more rugged Tierra del Fuego.

It is the flatness that transfixes, 1,600km from north to south.

Most has no shrubs above 60cm. The wind will not let them grow higher. The plants and small tufts are all extremely hardy, hard, spiky, thin of stalk and stem, with the tiniest of leaves and flowers, if at all, hugging the dry soil, offering the least wind resistance possible.

But ‘how big’ is really only a perspective of beyond the horizon, and beyond again, and again, travelling, sundown after sundown.

And empty.

Only small villages and towns, scattered often hundreds of kilometres apart.

In real terms: The area of Patagonia is just over 1 million square kilometres. South Africa is 1.2 million square kilometres.

Patagonia has a population of 2 million. South Africa has a population of around 65 million.

The population of Soweto is around 2 million people.

Take all the people out of South Africa, except for those in Soweto. That is how empty Patagonia is. Nobody, anywhere else, not one other person in the entire country.

And 80% as flat as the flatlands of the Karoo.

A full-scale

Merry merryMerry merryMerry merry

summer Argentinian barbecue party on Christmas eve with guesthouse patrons from a dozen different countries. Cocktail noise of a global Esperanza. It snows on the mountains, a summer white Christmas.

Time to begin the trip, tip-to-tip, bottom’s up, properly. Ushuaia gives a proper old send-off. Bus leaves at 3am. It is an outdoor bus station, wind chill factor flirts with freezing, and the portable wardrobe is 90% geared to the warmer climes, where the old grey will spend 90% of his time. Frisky.

El Calafate, top destination for foreign and local visitors alike. Surrounded by snow-topped mountains, high-end hiking trails, an array of lakes and an elegant town centre where, with shell-shock, observe the most concentrated amount of foreigners/outsiders on a strip that I have ever seen. This is Argentine’s summer holidays, school holidays, and Europe’s escape time-capsule. It is southern Argentina outdoor central, furnished by a dozen or two streets of side-by-side restaurants and adventure tour shops and stalls, and elbow-bustling throngs of punters.

Perhaps its biggest calling card, however, is Perito Marino Glacier, the easiest of its kind to access in Southern America, by foot and water.

A short bus ride, and take a

Reveller - farewell 2023.Reveller - farewell 2023.Reveller – farewell 2023.

walk along the gantries, or take a a boat ride up close to its face.

“Don’t forget to take the gin,” are the chortles before boarding. At 50km long and 5km wide, it is one of the biggest ice blocks around.

She is like a peculiar animal. Very still, yet alive, advancing, and currently mildly retreating. She creaks and groans, then cracks like cannon shot. And calves, the phrase used to describe a piece breaking off and dropping into the water. Ice and snow up mountain valleys gradually increase in weight, melt marginally, and infinitesimally slip slowly downhill.

An awesome beast. Perfect welcome to 2024.

At some point in different epochs much of Patagonia was covered by similar. Great melt-offs and runoffs scoured, scarred and even flattened its landscape.

It is a ‘clean’ glacier. The ice is mostly shiny white, set against blue, blue sky. Stark.

Unlike some of the glaciers very high up the Karakoram Highway, through the western end of the Himalayas, where Pakistan drives into China. Here they often carry a greyish nature, a mixture of erosion, snow and water. Perhaps they are cleaner at the bottom ends of their ice

Hands 1Hands 1Hands 1

blocks.

The rivers flowing down the east flanks of the Andes exhibit the same sediment-carrying, turgid grey-white colour as the rivers flowing southwards from northern Pakistan and Nepal.

Sometimes there is a destination that you just cannot avoid. Los Antiguos, the cherry capital of the country, also famous for strawberries and raspberries. A small, slow village tucked up tightly next to Chile, the neighbouring country across the river, along which the national boundary meanders. Cherry orchards are everywhere. There are signs to buy freshly picked cherries everywhere. It is the season. They are lush, thick of meat, small of pit, and sweet as you wish. In Spanish, the word for cherry is ‘cereza’, which is the word one sees all around, in a comforting kind of poetic self-satisfaction.

Much amusement when I buy a bag (US$1 for 1kg), or order a cherry cocktail, and then reveal what my ‘family name’ is. The name now becomes ‘Senor Cereza’. I am not sure if all the cherry-boy, cherry-girl, I-am-your-cherry etc jokes work the same way in the local patois. They are difficult to discuss and dissect gently without a subtler grasp of conversational skill.

And then the cherry

hands 2hands 2hands 2

on the top (chuckle, as I hear the groans). But the real deal.

The site of Cueva de los Manos (The Caves of the Hands) lies 100km south of Los Antiguos (The Ancestors).

In kinship with San rock art, the ancients of the area, too, left their own marks, set deep inside a canyon.

Estimated up to 9,000 years old, the early dwellers set imprints of single hands on the side of the cliffs. Excavation relics hint they would blow powder or liquidised colour, through a hollow bone, over a hand that had been placed against the rock face. The colours were formed from a mixture of crushed earth, rock and plant.

Some 90% of the outlines, a few thousand, are left hands. Today, roughly 10% of people are left-handed. The artists would seem to have managed the blowing tool with their dominant hand.

Interspersed to a far lesser extent are examples of hunting, local animals like guanaco, and angular artwork.

The jury is out as to why the hands were painted, with the obvious reasons contemplated ranging from various ceremony, to coming of age, to ‘we were here’. A lack of middens intimates

Cherry capital cherry cocktailCherry capital cherry cocktailCherry capital cherry cocktail

the people were not long-term permanent residents, and would roam up and down the hundreds of kilometres of valleys. One of the pigments originates from a rock only found at a lake some 200km away. While this zone is regarded as the chief site of the art, there are records of 300 other instances, mostly found on private land.

Northwards, north, north now hovers the compass. First south down the eastern flank of Patagonia, now upwards along Argentina’s western edge, inside the mountains. Nearly a U-shape around the southern end of the continent.

The landscape hints and then delivers differences. Much of the east was dry and flat, seriously cooling southwards. Now, west and slowly more north, the temperature moderates. People begin to wear shorts, for the first time in six weeks. Greener valleys and forested, snow-capped mountainsides mingle with lessening expanses of the barren land.

There is a fabulous, though subtle evolution of flora, of the flat land wanting to become, and then becoming rolling land. Grasses are greener and softer. The multi-colours of roses and lupins are littered across the towns I chance upon. They seem to grow very easily. And there is much water

Perito Moreno cliffPerito Moreno cliffPerito Moreno cliff

for their attention.

But it is the rolling unfolding of the changing nature that enthralls. Inch by inch a warmer sun wants to intrude, perhaps more fertile soils want to deliver, there are more cattle, dry green begs to become lusher green, scrub begets brushes, bushes then trees and forests.

All of this is the magic you can only see if you do the hard yards on the road.

*(With apologies and thanks to Noshi, for stealing his map from his website)






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