The Patagonian Guest
A story from inside the Fireflies Patagonia 1,000km gravel-bike raid.
Words and Photography by Matt Maynard
Dressed in blue jeans and a flat-brimmed baseball cap, the septuagenarian pilot takes us out across the bay. I’m so close in the cockpit that if I move my knee it presses against the joystick.
Puerto Montt is soon far behind, and we whistle over salmon farms, the atolls of Chiloé, and an islet where dolphins breach in the surrounding surf. ‘Sure, I can open the window,’ the pilot says. I stick the camera out, and fire off a few shots before all creative impulse is overcome by terror that my camera will be ripped into the propellers. There’s something reassuring about a bush pilot who made it to old age. He flew for Doug Tompkins, he admits when pressed, referring to him with the respectful yet distant Spanish ‘usted’ – took him up in the ‘90s when the conservationist was still scouting for land. I pull the thundering window shut and keep my knees to myself. Night comes down quickly once we land.
The cyclists I’ve come to photograph are fettling their bikes before sun-up. There are a dozen or so riders: Chileans, plus a smattering of canny foreigners who’ve somehow sneaked their way into the annual Fireflies Patagonia gravel-bike raid. Smells of coffee and woodsmoke fill the ruca, the traditional Mapuche roundhouse, where earnest questions in English about tire pressure and daily elevation get smiled away as cultural misfires.
We pedal out onto the last slither of dirt road in the Americas and it begins to rain. First it’s a driving mist. Then it comes down in great slashes.
Exactly 11 years before I had been here alone on my own bike adventure – and equally wet. I’d cycled all antipodean summer to reach the hamlet of Chaitén and the northern terminus of Chile’s Southern Road. But I’d arrived a day late and the last ferry to the mainland had gone without me. Chaitén was a miserable place in 2011. Ash from Volcán Chaitén’s recent eruption had half-buried the houses, and then the choked Río Blanco had burst its banks, washing entire houses out into the Pacific Ocean. Somehow the remaining inhabitants hung on. The driest camp spot was out of town, inside the bowels of a mouldering light aircraft curiously abandoned in the undergrowth. I spent a few more nights cowering from imagined pumas in Tompkins’ nascent Pumalín Park, sleeping to the soundtrack of bonnet-sized nalca leaves shuddering like snare drums in the downpour. Eventually I retraced my tyre tracks, crossed into Argentina, and threaded my way back to Chile via Bariloche and Junín de los Andes.
Now, 11 years later, our group is heading south. Straight into the same kind of weather I had fled from. It is already well into autumn and the nalca leaves have begun beating their tune.
Fireflies Patagonia is the Latin cousin of the original Fireflies Alps ride, first organised with backing of Sir Ridley Scott in 2001 to raise money for leukaemia research. Each consecutive summer the Fireflies Tour has woven a route over more than 20 Alpine passes before finishing in Cannes, pedalling under the rally-cry ‘For those who suffer, we ride’. By 2017, two Chileans, Polo Luisetti and Axel Brinck, had ridden several Fireflies tours through Europe and decided it was time to export the concept back home. Yet the seismograph geography of the Andes isn’t peppered with coffee shops, boulangeries, or gelato breaks. It doesn’t have hotels with beer on tap and fluffy pillows in every valley. There are no road markings telling you how far it is to each summit. Most of the time, the roads aren’t even paved.
Luisetti and Brinck sculpted their ride with the wild, untamed, and little-known raw material they had to hand. National gravel-bike champion Juan ‘Carbono’ Fernández was recruited. His idea to ride on gravel tracks, dirt logging roads, and indigenous cattle trails finally unlocked the logistics of forging a 1,000km continuous ride through the Andes in Chilean Patagonia.
Days quickly spin together in a cycle of sweat and goosebumps, grit and gravel rash. Rain permeates everything. Snatches of Dombey’s beech are visible through the rain, their great flanks breaching the fog, moaning in the wind like great grey whales of the forest. But my focus is largely directed between the handlebars, piloting the bike through potholes and the sodden banks of dust sprayed by logging lorries.
Patagonian washboard – known locally as calamina or corrugated iron – punishes bikes and bodies. My saddle seems to be mounted on a pneumatic drill. Force over finesse has long since been the way to cover ground here in the Aysén Region. In the 1980s General Augusto Pinochet employed his army to smash a dirt road through the wilderness, connecting the isolated communities whose inhabitants previously travelled by horseback to Argentina for groceries. The project is still ongoing.
Patagonia is often as abstract and unfamiliar to a Chilean cyclist from Santiago as is it to a rider from Los Angeles, USA. Both are tourists. Both are guests. Some 2,000km from the nation’s capital, people work here not with computers, but with dogs and knives. One afternoon, we ride up on a solitary gaucho and his dogs herding 50 head of cattle. They are some 50km from the nearest settlement. The horse’s hair glistens with sweat. Rain beads from the man’s poncho and drips from the animal’s steaming flanks, wetting the dogs that weave beneath the cattle and between the horse’s hooves. So far from shelter, it’s unclear where this team will weather the night.
That evening we make it to dry lodging and eat roast lamb between the rain showers. The carcass has been skinned, crucified on a stake, then slow roasted over a fire. Local men pull knives from their belts. The first morsels are the most prized. We eat proffered cuts with our hands, washing the fatty meat down with wine. It’s drunk from a goat’s stomach – cleaned, inverted, and sown back together. We squirt the alcohol under pressure through a small nozzle towards our mouths. Sometimes we miss and the liquid stains our necks. Before dark, there’s dancing. The women in our group follow the steps to a chamamé jig, their hands resting on the men’s shoulders, or just above the knives.
On next through the pampa. Decapitated columns of rock punctuate the tundra grassland. Perhaps once they held a roof. Wind gushes over this Patagonian steppe, strong enough to lift rocks that ricochet through the group sets of the bunched peloton. The grass heaves and sighs in the gusts, gesturing towards the sky. Nobody speaks much. Just angled faces, moored to their bikes and the bottom of the earth which, like the fulcrum of a spinning top, must always spin faster.
Days accelerate towards the finish. There’s a mirror lake in a hanging valley seemingly accessible only by foot. We stare, playing out the lives we could live there, knowing we will never come back, never build a house, never catch a fish there, never walk along its shore. Then we pedal on.
We spend a day or so in forest thick with cloying lichen. But we wrestle the gears and grind on, soon reaching a junction that I recognise. A decade ago I spread a sleeping bag in a solitary bus shelter here, and a mouse came for a snuggle after midnight. Now they’ve built a trucker’s stop with vanilla-flavoured civilisation and strudel. The service is excellent and we ride on.
The hamlet of Cerro Castillo, at the foot of Castle Mountain, is our final destination. We funnel through the Las Horquetas valley, flanked by glowing mauve and ochre sheets of sediment, capped by icy pinnacles. The light dims. The road and margin for error narrow. There’s a seriousness to the riders now. A need to push out of here. A need for closure. An escape that must be completed.
At a bend in the road, the valley finally drops its shoulders and a long winding descent leads into the sunset. At a viewpoint the cyclists dismount. Although the ride is not quite done, they begin to embrace one another – they sense that the steady clunk of time we knew before our stay has begun to return, that checkout has begun. Patagonia has hosted us briefly. We are humbled, a little chastened, but also grateful.