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Time and distance are rolling on.  In a strange melting of distinctions, the days have become loosened and flow together making recollection harder.  Our bodies and bikes (well mine, anyway) are increasingly protesting the load we have grown used to placing on them.  Parts are failing, thankfully most anticipated at a time passed, leading to a lightening tools-spares bag (silver lining) and an accelerating succession of road and camp-side repairs-replacements.  Motivation and energy for fully fixing punctures slips to an “it’ll do” minimum.  If I can keep function by pumping every couple of hours, rather than tarry o’er long at sparse rivers-streams trying for the definitive it now seems normal-enough.  Home and finishing although partly shunned offer an end to this diminishment.

The fuzz enveloping us means we’ve only realised recently that we finally left the tropics in Northern Argentina, that Mendoza is about level with Fremantle-home, and that we’re now as far south as Tasmania – soon to be beyond it.  It is now possible to count our remaining weeks in single digits – an act discovered and shied away from equally quickly.

Cars in Argentina seem to be either swish and swanky – or the complete opposite. Breathing a sigh of relief a couple of days south of Mendoza we escape onto quieter roads and encounter these immovable friends when we scrounge a roof as a hail storm approaches.

Heading on along the old Ruta 40 from Pareditas to El Sosneado there are plenty of locals to keep us company. Some big – 2 pairs of condors, and some smaller…

Water and greenness isolated in the arroyos

zingy, luminescent green!

Thankfully the periods of white-line dominance don’t last more than a day – especially not in such straight lines as this one. North of Malargüe – home to Argentinian skiing.

Arriving in Malargüe just after the beginning of siesta we resort to cooling substances from the local Heladeria. Signs of extreme civilisation cause us to pause and oggle. Drinking fountains on the cycle paths – the off-road mostly paved cycle paths!! Whatever next?

Several of Sarah’s favourite things – strong wind (sidewards here), lots of heavy trucks and corrugated roads. Works on the road south promise nice things for future users, but not us for now

After a dash to Bardas Blancas to hit the shop(s) before lunchtime shutdown life’s much better. Minimal traffic, as here the Ruta 40 is labelled “en mal estado” or poor condition on the maps. A few potholes don’t cause us problems as our tyres are only 2 inches wide.

An uphill afternoon is punctuated by a pause for cold water from passing 4WD tourers (angels) and a broken chain (already! – was new in Mendoza).

(June 2012 – I discover the blog of our 4WD saviours – here a link to their thoughts about the encounter with us)

Our hurry to leave Mendoza meant I only passingly considered spares for Sarah’s new Look.  Remembered thoughts – “brake pads – check.  Other things should be covered….”  Too other-minded then to remember chains.  Hers 8-speed-wider and mine 9-speed-narrower.  Spares incompatible so I can’t fix the bust one. (¡maldición!)  A solution occurs and I even lose some weight as a cobbled 9-speed chain from hoarded bits gets us going again.

Campsite rest-day in Barrancas.  I explore the cause of my creaking steering – a dissolving headset bearing. I realise that I can fix it – the spares-bag contracts, and my riding is eerily quiet. A small smile at my over-prudence so long ago.

Rising up into the sharp morning clearness. Away from the Ruta 40 for a time while we take the straighter line past Volcan Tromén.

All the while nursing a scary sidewall tear, now a sewed scar, but still a time-bomb. The smoother road would have been the safer option – but not something I feel like now – silly-reckless?  Probably.

Still climbing

The reward – one of our best campsites yet. Cresting the rise and seeing Laguna El Tromen nestled below the volcano we’re initially disappointed as it’s not the swimming place we’d hoped for. Coming down to the northern shore we’re pondering filtering some overnight cooking water when a group of horses approach. Minutes later we’re offered a short-cropped grass campsite, fresh water, maté and all surrounded by more bird species than the shepherds know. (Photo S.Hedges)

Morning gold-light and swathes of different birds disturbed by our tent-opening-waking (Photo S.Hedges)

Claudio, Jessica and her cousin are up here for a while getting away from Chos Malal. Claudio tells us that he once took 9 hours to ride up here on a bicycle – without gears. Between sips of maté they take great care to tell us of every up, down and turn between us and the big smoke. Amazing, unhesitating kindness and hospitality. (Photo S. Hedges)

Then down again

Sarah’s new bike has now finally gained enough of a grime covering to not feel so new.  The biggest functional loss with the old bicycle has possibly been the saddle.  She’s always viewed them as instruments of torture and stunned me with her pain tolerance and tenacity in still riding day after day.  The saddle we lost was nearer than any other to a semblance of comfort.  Chos Malal turns out to have a surprisingly well stocked bike shop – not running into Sella Anatomica saddles, but having a nice fat tyre to replace the scarily ripped one I’d tried to mollify-sew a few days earlier.  Unfortunately we got there on Sunday, thus had to hang around until Monday to buy the tyre – not to begrudge anyone their day of rest though!

Smaller road options continue south of Chos Malal, feinting towards Chile at Paso Pichachen, then southwards at El Cholar. Shortly after leaving Ruta 40 a couple of locals made us an offer too good to refuse – a shorter, even quieter route. A 20km round-trip later it turned out to be a dead-end… Not happy Jan!

The intended road loosely follows the river valley – dropping down into the gullies formed by every entering stream. Great fishing territory apparently – we’re not suitably equipped.

The next stage in the masterplan is to spend 40km or so heading uphill towards the Chilean border at Pino Hachado then turn left onto a dirt road south into the Argentinian Lakes District. Our map confidently told us that there were towns along the way, so we blithely bought the bare minimum of food in Loncopue. They didn’t exist, but being of excessive stubbornness we unanimously elected to head straight up to the pass rather than make a 20km side-trip into Las Lajas. Our lack of lunch wasn’t helped by a stout headwind and road-signs telling us about ‘official’ hills….

The dirt road heading up and over towards Lago Aluminé was quiet, well surfaced and just what we needed. Monkey Puzzle trees abound, along with 3m tall road markers as the whole area is deeply snow-bound in winter. For us it had campsites aplenty and even some downhill tailwinds later in the afternoon. Still no food shops.

Another non-existant place-name came and went, but the riding was great, if a bit more populated – heading for Aluminé past yet more prime fishing.

Aluminé existed, and provided a birthday lunch for me and food to head us on our way :-)

A great bit of absolutely river-side camping to finish the day. Good swimming too. Perfect birthday end :-)

Now we’re less than a couple of weeks from the Carretera Austral and Chile.  Despite rumours and stories of deep piles of volcanic dust further south in the Argentinian Lakes we’ll be sticking to this side of the border, but could end up dashing west if we run into problems….  She’ll be ‘right! (this reckless streak seems to be taking hold…)

Route notes here.