Last month I wrote about my bikepacking expectations. We were about to head down towards Chilean Patagonia on our retro-fitted 1980s Thorn touring tandem. In the weeks building up to the trip I had done away with the bulky Ortlieb panniers and kitted it out with slicker, lighter-weight, snugger fit and generally far more fancy bikepacking bags.
The re-fit of our mobile home was going to be a kind of surprise for the stoker who sits on the back seat. I hoped we could ride further, and take on remoter trails. From now on we would be less sloppy station wagon, and more cut and thrust Corvette. Our bicycle-made-for-two would be a machine of aerodynamic beauty, no longer relegated to its freak show status in the bike touring slow lane.
When however the pimp-my-ride reveal moment came, it didn’t quite turn out as planned. Gently it was broken to me that toilet paper, jackets and wash kit were indeed essential items. A rear pannier rack was added, and two 20L Ortlieb bags and a drysack were clamped on. My Slim-Fast commitment to bikepacking was in rebound. During the long overnight bus ride south to begin the trip, I’m told that the flanel-grey lurid-yellow color scheme has been found wanting too. Apparently, I’m no expert in “fancy” either.
Patagonia draws us in slowly. From the city of Valdivia we head south along the costal road, bobbing past increasingly remote fishing settlements. On the first few days the road is paved and the mountains keep their distance. We spin along in a light gear and from my cockpit I can pretend that the bulky-back-end of our bicycle does not exist.
By day, wheeling tiuque birds keep us company startling up from a fence post as we pass, and then racing us down the line to settle on one just similar. By night we camp close to the surf and spray. And in the evening when the long-beeked bandurria birds land, I hunt clams and locos in the shallows, before roasting them over an open fire. The space that our panniers allow for evening-meal bowls, and sunrise coffee, I pretend not to notice.
And then the road grows narrower. On the ride south of Chauhin we park the bike in the salty grass, and eat eel and avocado salad and french fries in the last restaurant for a hundred miles. A long tongue of sand rolls out towards us from across the distant bay. It almost touches the shore on which we sit, but instead the incoming tide rips around it, cleaving clumps away and filling the cool green lagoon behind, where sheltered bathers swim.
Rolling out of town and passing the last supply store, I volunteer for quarter-master duties. Sizing up the mountains ahead of us and the weight we already have on the bike, I strike an agreement with the back-seat rider to take only the bare essentials.
Closely planted eucalyptus trees thrust emaciated branches towards the sunlight throughout the afternoon, pushing back the sea soundtrack and throwing an imitation shade over the dirt road we now follow. At nightfall we push the bike hungrily through dewey grass, pitching the tent in a clearing at 2,000′. I immediately regret the frugalness of my purchases some 30km before. Yet out of the depths of the panniers, my patient stoker magics a handful of sneakily purchased fresh vegetables, carefully wrapped seasoning and chocolate.
Over the course of the next week we float the tandem bicycle over a river; camp wild beneath solar-panel-sized nalca leaves and visit an alerce tree that has stood for 3,500 years. Each day we feel a little stronger on the bicycle; and yet each day we perhaps cycle a little less. The rhythm of bicycle travel sinks in. The weight of expectation about style and accomplishment ebbs out.
In the last few days we reach the Ranco Lake. In late afternoon we drop down to a thin strip of beach that runs along the shore. A row of exclusive houses press possessively along the water. Their windows all overlook the lake, leading your gaze far across the rippleless mirror to where the mist and cloud is broken by the square shouldered Futangue mountains, crowning the opposite shore.
With a little nod from a builder, we roll the tandem down the drive of a property still under construction. There is a discreet spot near to the water’s edge, and here we make our camp. Everything has its place on the bicycle. It only takes a few minutes to unpack. We carry enough food to stay here for the next two days, if we wish. There is no hurry.
As they say down here: those who rush in Patagonia, lose time. It’s probably the same with backpacking too.
Call for comment
- Is bikepacking’s “lighter, faster, remoter” somehow missing the point?
- Have you found your own form of peace by spending time on a bicycle?