The Wild Way: Riding Chile’s Carretera Austral

1240km seems an excruciatingly long way when the average speed says 3km per hour.

I've heard an adventure called a journey with an unknown outcome. I seem to have an addiction to it; I’ve never been one for too much routine, certainty or predictability in life, hence the attraction to ride a very long gravel road to a dead-end in the wilderness. It turns out that National Geographic promoted the Carretera Austral as one of the top places to ride a bike in the world – but our trip was inspired by Christmas party games and a bit of gin rather than a magazine of such accolade. It was Christmas and almost 2016, and with it a rising awareness of the pressure of the year ahead. We were all training hard to be selected for the Rio Paralympics; whether we would make it or not we didn’t know, but either way, we were pretty sure we’d need something to look forward to. A kind of ‘recovery’ plan.

The is a Patagonian forest rollercoaster, a smorgasbord of gravel with stretches of blissful asphalt, reprieve from the bone-rattling terrain. We were rapidly coated in dust and smattered with mud; mixed with suncream and vaseline, a grubby exfoliant for the skin and lips. Our days became measured in kilometres not time. 1240km seems an excruciatingly long way when the average speed says 3km per hour. In the worst of the gravel - grade 3 we've called it - it would be quicker to walk, our effort lost to the stones spinning, a layer of marbles on sand. There is a curious traffic all day, but when the grade 3 arrives, trucks come blundering by with plumes of dust like volcanic eruptions, obscuring views of the real volcanoes and their conical white slopes that peek above the trees, adding a touch of grit to our mayonnaise wraps.

Does it tempt you to cycle Chile's Carretera Austral?

It should. Amongst the gravel and the grind are many wonders. Everything is super-sized; trees reach for the clouds, valleys yawn wide and long, leaves cast shadows big enough to shelter, the bumble bees are obese.

370km south on the Carretera is the small village of Puyuhuapi, the forest broken by a disarray of colourful timber houses and shops on the edge of a fjord. We filled our stomachs and souls with giant portions of homemade cod and chips, bread and salad. At Manuela’s there is one set menu, a view over the small harbour and the Christmas tree in the village square; a reminder in the warm evening sun that we are in the Southern Hemisphere.

In a few years when the asphalt spreads, the character will morph. More people will come. More traffic will pollute. Maybe nature will become less super-sized. Development...

At first it seemed impossibly far to reach Coyhaique, the regional capital, halfway along the Carretera. Two weeks later and a lot of dust ingested, we were getting close. Our day began in a grassy clearing with sounds of flapping tent, wind whispering in tall trees, exotic bird-call and the rush of a bulging turquoise river. We had journeyed from a wide rolling valley splashed with lilac lupins and yellow gorse, the occasional peek of a high white summit glistening bright against a flawless blue sky. Any delusions of having arrived in heaven were soon ground away by a joint-labouring climb. It is curious how far 14km can seem when the road is up and your limbs are weary; when a steep gorge flanked with high walls takes away the horizon; when you sense you are a cycling in treacle, or it's South American equivalent of dulce de leche. The latter is pure, delicious, liquid sugar sold in kilogram bags that soon becomes addictive to the hungry cyclist.

The others were spread up the road ahead of me, a relay team in formation, ready to hop off their bikes and turbo-boost me up the hill. It is not what I had imagined or wanted; this dependency on my friends to manage the steep or slippery hills. But I felt grateful for them and the way we had found to journey together...our circus of bikes and trailers, my wheelchair precariously balanced on one, pots and pans and washing tied to others.

I have spent years wishing I were stronger, faster and more physically able than I am, but my arms will never match the strength of legs. Maybe that has left me feeling less at times; perhaps it has led me to incessant pedaling. However, I am in fact amazed by what my body sustains. I ask a huge amount of it and it rarely fails my will. For the journey of the Carretera Austral, I was asking my apparently advanced arthritic shoulders to pedal me through at least 60 kilometres a day of mountainous, gravelly Patagonian terrain. I reveled at the absence of pain or complaint from them, especially given how bad they had been after an injury I’d acquired just before flying to Rio; I had felt I had no option but to sign up for shoulder surgery on my return home from Chile. But something about the place, the people, the nature, was making my soul dance in a way it hadn’t been able to for a long time. I had felt suffocated by endless months of cities, hotels, treadmills and races in concrete jungles. They had raped me of something vital. Here, cycling all day through forests and mountains, camping on dusty roadside verges, gravel lay-bys or if we're lucky a small grassy clearing, I felt somehow at peace again.

The rain fell as constant as the gradient was up, from the moody fjords of Chile towards the yawn of Argentina, but we would turn south before then to the black spikes and ice-crusted peaks of central Patagonia, deeper into region XI. Coyhaique had been the last significant town along the Carretera, and now it felt like the real adventure was beginning...the wilder half, the tougher half.

It seemed there are many reasons why I should not be continuing, pushing on towards the festival of gravel ahead. I hadn’t been feeling strong or good, constantly challenged by one small thing or another; the worry about my shoulder; my bladder and catheter-drama, enforced constipation to avoid my new-found dread of shitting in the wilderness; a broken tooth and emergency dental treatment. What was I thinking?! Almost 700km of 'el ripio slipio' - my Spanglish slang for the gripless dirt road leading south - stirred up a cerebral cocktail of uncertainty, doubt and trepidation. Maybe the mix inebriated me enough to continue, to travel a road that might be hard, to seek beyond the certain predictability of a comfortable life.

My bike wheels flicked the heavy rain like an unruly showerhead, and despite my good waterproof jacket, I felt the drops running across my skin, seeping where they shouldn't. Each incline forced me to push hard, made me hungry for gears; but there were no more and instead it felt like a gym workout, reps of a bench press. Was this body-building or body-breaking I wondered? Character-building or -breaking?

We needed to stop, to make camp before dark, but ironically our drinking water was low despite being fed by the clouds all day. I felt thirsty, hungry and tired. Life seems distilled to those simple basics. Water, food, rest.
"You feeling okay?" I asked my team mate Jaco. "Yep, kind of. There's no choice not to is there?" There really wasn't.

But what is harder really? An elemental day on the road dictated by crucial ingredients of survival? Or a day rich in comfort, choice and the crazy busyness of daily business? With our dry mouths, empty stomachs and weary muscles, we were happy to be there.

The days passed and we adapted to moving ever more slowly. The forest became woven with lakes and rivers; startling glimpses of turquoise luminosity and rushing current, a surprise for the eyes after the kilometres of gravel and trees. Coniferous or deciduous, their personalities differed; the forest darker, more mysterious and forboding, the woodland warmer and more hopeful. I prefered it when the trees fell away to meadows and big skies, when rises in the road were crowned by white summits, where horizons expanded all around and so things expanded within as well.

On long journeys with hours of riding, there is plentiful time to think. But mostly I don't. That’s part of the attraction. Hours of emptiness are punctuated by fleeting thoughts: what a beautiful valley; is that really only 7km we've done so far today?!; it must be lunch soon; I wonder what it's like in the UK just now...cold and dark, approaching the winter solstice. Other moments I am transported; time-travelling from Patagonia to another place; my local café, to the comfort of a sofa, a hot milky chai, to good chat with a friend. Then a sip of diluting juice in some exotic South American flavour would burst my senses and I’d be back, on the road again, dodging potholes or washboard that would rattle my brain and bones until I had to clutch the brake to make it stop. A brief moment of peace from the rumbling Carretera. A glimpse of my cap in the bike mirror, it's 'Patagonia Sin Represas' logo, the campaign to prevent damning of the pristine rivers and spoiling of the wilderness we were riding through. I felt happy to wear it, for it’s ethos to protect the beauty of the place we were in as well as for the shelter from the hot sun. I feared losing it every time a fierce gust of wind prised at its peak. But when I tightened the band enough to keep it, a headache would grow under its vice. So went our routine, and so passed our days on the road. Simplicity is bliss.

Finally we were only 120 km from our destination, Villa O'Higgins, the end of the Carretera. Lying in the tent, the rain pattering hard and the wind sweeping through the branches high above, it felt like a thousand kilometres. A mountain pass of mud and gravel climbed immediately from our campsite, and since the previous afternoon not one vehicle had taken it. We were heading to the end of something...the road, the journey, maybe the earth...a place not many people go. Blue sky was gone, the temperature was almost negative, the gravel was back to grade 3. I reluctantly peeled the cosy warmth of my sleeping bag away. There was no time to waste; after 20 km there was a ferry to catch. We had allowed ourselves four hours. You could walk faster, except I couldn’t…so we began.

“You should lie on a beach and relax for a month, not ride the Carretera Austral” my brother had advised me. I had wondered, and for a moment I did again on the final day when the end seemed never-ending. But it just isn't me. I understood him, as I struggled to imagine how riding 1240km of largely gravel road would do me any good when already in a broken state. But somehow, somewhere along the Carretera’s torturous bumps and gravel, a bit of magic unfolded. My mind had gradually emptied and time had steadily slowed down. Life had been distilled back to basics, had been invigorated by good energy. And so we gathered around the signpost that marked our arrival at the end of the road. The rain was heavy, every cell of our being sodden and cold, but we were celebrating. It had indeed been a journey with an unknown outcome, but we’d made it. An adventure.

By Olympian, silver medallist and adventure addict. Paralympic hand cyclist Karen Darke shares her journey riding through Chile's Carretera Austral. Share her passion for adventure, the wilderness and more here.