I thought that in time honoured tradition I would share a round up of some of the highlights for Denise Yeats Creative Event Production in 2017. It has also seen the end of the first year of nnoodl, my new fledgling company which delivers surprise experiential events. A huge thank you to all of my clients - the charities, businesses and individuals who I have worked with this year.
I was honoured to be asked to work with the inspirational Ocean Brothers, Jude Massey and Greg Bailey, who are planning to row 3000miles across the Atlantic Ocean in January 2018. I worked with them to develop their fundraising proposition for corporate sponsors and individuals to raise £100,000 for the British Skin Foundation. I'm delighted to see their progress as they prepare for their grand departure in two weeks' time.
After a pilot event in December 2016, I held the first official nnoodl event of 2017. A team of intrepid adventurers went axe throwing, followed by a truly unique brunch at the wonderfully quirky Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town. Take a look at this great slo-mo video of Cat and Bob both landing a bullseye.
I was delighted to be back working with Place2Be, the children's mental health charity to deliver their biennial Wine Dinner. This was held in Middle Temple, the perfect backdrop for such a special evening, which surpassed it's fundraising total raising vital funds to support children's mental health in schools.
It was also time for another nnoodl event, and this time we had a truly uplifting time with a singing lesson in the recently opened Grand Hall of the little known gem that is the Brunel Museum.
It was back to my homeland in June to deliver 'Ms Frontiers' in Edinburgh. MS Frontiers is an event which brings the cream of the research community together to share knowledge to stop MS, and featured some truly inspirational speakers. It was also an opportunity to use the fantastic Mansfield Traquair for the celebratory dinner.
On a note of personal achievement, I also did the Olympic distance triathlon at Dorney Lake. Having done this one for the first time in 2016, I was delighted to take 17 minutes off my previous time, to complete it in 2:54, and secure 1st place in my age group!
In July, my colleague Joe Mearns of challenge events company Greenrock, and I spent a productive day in the Peak District doing a recce for a bespoke event we were creating for the Tesco National Charity Partnership with British Heart Foundation and Diabetes UK. We had already built a rough framework and were now trying out some parts of the route. We had a really busy, fun day, though I had to reign Joe in at some points on his idea of a 'scramble' as I hauled myself up a cliff face and thought that we could end up with a lot of Tesco employees with a sense of humour failure.
July also saw another nnoodl event, and this time our curious adventurers were met at Victoria station and taken to Sutton in Surrey. This one had them flummoxed, and a little anxious when I said we were going to be trying our hand at beekeeping at the wonderful Mayfield Lavender! Everyone embraced it though, especially once fully suited up, and they also had an opportunity to take part in a photography tutorial and enter the Mayfield Lavender photography competition. Have a look at some of the stunning pics on their website here.
Although not work, a real highlight of the year took place in August when I took part in a recce event at the Lee Valley Park Velodrome in Stratford. This has been on my radar as a potential event venue for a while, but I never thought I would have the courage to actually cycle on it myself. Thanks to the fantastic Team Liv Giant Camden Cycling Club though, we had a team of 15 female cyclists having a go at track riding on this most iconic of Olympic venues. Far from being stuck on the bottom as I thought I would be, I LOVED this experience and was whizzing around the top of the wall, what a rush!
Continuing the cycling vibe, at the beginning of September I co-led the first overseas cycling trip for Team Liv from London to Paris. Using part of a route suggested by my colleague Joe at Greenrock, we navigated a team of 14 women to Paris via Portsmouth and Le Havre over 3 days. This was the furthest that most of the team had ever cycled (including me) and I was so proud of everyone as we took our numerous photos at the Eiffel Tower.
The next nnoodl event also happened in September and saw a group of 12 people taking part in a fencing challenge at the London School of Fencing. This is an aerobic workout and a half - I can see why the matches (bouts) only last 3 minutes. With all of that gear on it seems like a lifetime!
This was a busy month for events as we finally delivered the Tesco National Charity Partnership Survival Challenge. Ten teams of 8-10 intrepid challengers set off to navigate across the 17.5km course whilst conquering abseils, scrambles and weaselling. We had also set some special navigational challenges for them to find hidden books along the way, inspired by the crazy Barkley Marathon.
I also delivered a very special event for the MS Society. As it had been 30 years since the passing of world renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pre to MS, her former husband, Daniel Barenboim had agreed to deliver two fundraising concerts at the Royal Festival Hall with the magnificent West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This was an outstanding success, not only culturally, but more importantly, raising over £1million for the charity.
What can I say, without a doubt the most memorable event of 2017 had to be my cycling trip with Greenrock across the Andes. Challenging weather conditions meant that the original route had to be changed twice, but our intrepid team achieved a ride which started in Salta, routed via Mendoza and ended up in the amazing Santiago. The full blog can be read in various instalments underneath this one, in the December archive folder...
My return to reality in the UK was helped by the announcement of my role as a Trustee with Women's Sport Trust. We had our introductory board meeting the day after I returned from South America and I was honoured to be in the company of such inspirational people.
The final nnoodl event of the year took place in December. Although the spirit of these events is that participants don't know what is in store for them until they turn up, on this occasion I had let them know that it was more of a celebratory event with food and drink as the overriding feel. And what better theme than South American? We had arepas, empanadas, and Peruvian soup, accompanied by Pisco sours and Micheladas to drink. The group got into the Latin spirit with some Cuban salsa lessons to the backing of the wonderful Rey Crespo and his Cuban Ensemble.
And so a new year begins. I am looking forward to working with some inspirational organisations, and also to be setting some more of my own personal challenges. Watch this space....
So here we are on the final instalment of my Andes Cycling Adventure, and thank you for sticking with me! In fact, I have actually been really surprised by the reaction to my little blog. What started as a bit of a diary for myself to catalogue this adventure, has turned into something much bigger. I have been really surprised to see how many people have been following it, and have been overwhelmed by the lovely comments I've received. It has also served to renew old friendships with some of my great sporting friends from years gone by, as well as introducing me to some new ones. Many people have been offering some helpful suggestions for future endeavours, so thank you! Although this will be the last part of the blog about this trip, I have been encouraged to continue some more blogs along different themes of sports and inspiration, but more on that later... For now, here we are at:
Part 9 - Uspallata to Los Penitentes
There was no putting it off any longer, this was the day we had to get to Puente del Inca, or as close to that as we could, just before the final climb over the pass into Chile. Joe advised that we might want to stop at a place called Los Penitentes just before that as it was a ski resort where we might have a better chance of a refuge or similar 'accommodation'. I planted the ear worm of 'Movin on Up' by M People in everyone's head before we set off. What is it about that band that just loved a motivational/power song (Proud, Search for the Hero etc). So here we are, try and get this out of your head today...
Although the wind had died down slightly from yesterday, it was still pretty strong on the first section of open roads, and as the ever present lorries whizzed past us, the backdraft they caused was pretty scary. Apparently this was another day of making some ground height wise, and the first 10km or so was indeed uphill. Then came some rolling sections, and a few more frightening tunnels thrown in for good measure - I was ready with my lights today, but it was still slightly terrifying. We made a short stop in a place called Polvaredes where the only helpful feature was an abandoned building site type area which at least offered a place for a sheltered toilet stop. Ah, it's the simple things. We had now done about 40km and I think pretty much as I said "It would be good if we could keep going like this before the strong afternoon wind kicks in", well then the strong afternoon kicked in big time, doh! This was hard going, we were now constantly climbing and the headwind was intense. I adopted my 'head down and get on with it' approach, which was frankly killing me. I was relieved when I heard Stu say "Denise, it's not a sign of weakness to stop every now and then!" Phew, 'permission' to stop. I tried to make us feel better by counting down the kilometres, especially when we got to 10km away from Los Penitentes, which felt just about achievable. But then about 4km further on, and with my chain having come off, we saw a sign that said that it was still10km to Los Penitentes, arrrgh! The wind was now so strong that we did a stint of about 10 minutes walking with the bikes as it seemed quicker. Time for a song interlude, and it matched the mood perfectly, 'Don't Give Up' by one of my favourite artists, Peter Gabriel, with Kate Bush.
It appeared that the road signs in this area were seriously messed up, and I didn't really know how much further we truly had to go. And just as things were getting seriously depressing battling against the wind, hooray, literally an oasis in the middle of nowhere - a small building that said 'Bar' on the outside. Really??
As we drew in front of the building we were at least sheltered by the wind, even if there didn't seem to be any sign of life. But then, literally minutes later, a man drew up in a car who apparently owned this place and it was a refugio where we could stay the night. A quick look inside to see that there were enough bunk beds and a fridge with beer in it and we were sold! As we kicked back out of the wind and had one of the beers with some crisps (late lunch!) Joe and Andy arrived, equally feeling the effects of the strong wind and relieved to see us. Again, I think Joe was amused at how happy I was with this very basic place - toilet and shower combined, mattresses that had definitely seen better days and sharing a room with three guys, I didn't care a bit! The stats below tell a story, see close to the end where we were averaging just 5 or 6km/ph!
Stu tried to tune up the guitar (another selling point!) with a set of pliers as it had lost it's tuning pegs. Top marks for perseverance here and he also managed to get a few tunes out of it. Dinner that night was one of our dried camping meals, and I noticed they tasted slightly better when you took the small silica gel packet out of them (oops, I realised why my last one just seemed to keep getting drier and drier as i ate it!) As we were now at about 2,500m, we could feel the temperature drop pretty quickly as the sun went in. Enter our able teammate, Andy ready to light the wood burner. We all gathered excitedly around it as it all started with such promise. Very quickly though it appeared there was some ventilation blockage though and we were all smoked out, adding to our already omnipresent 'Argentinian Coughs'. Always an opportunity for a beer though, and we indulged Andy with his playlist for a little bit, and I must admit I love this song, 'Slave to Love' by Bryan Ferry.
Part 10 - Los Penitentes to Los Andes
This was going to be an 'interesting' section - 23km of climbing to the top, and then an obligatory lift through a 2km tunnel that takes you to the Chile border. This really was hard as hell, the wind was already against us and the climbing was relentless. We passed through the small town of Puente del Inca, which is famed for it's hot springs, but as we couldn't actually see them from the road, even that wasn't a distraction. We passed the Aconcagua National Park and thought for about 30 seconds about going off road to cycle up to Christ the Redeemer - but at 12km away, we decided we didn't have anything that needed redeeming that badly.
As we got to about 15km and were going up a soul destroying section of road around a concrete wall I started to question whether Joe had said 23km or 23miles....please don't let it be 23miles!! I asked Stu if he had a song for the day in his head and his reply was "I have nothing for this!", which said it all. The only thing I could draw on was one of my favourite little tomes from the 90's, Baz Luhrmann's 'Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen'. I love the lyrics in this, definitely ideas to live by, and for this instance, it would have to be "sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind, but in the end the race is long, and it's only with yourself".
A little further along the road we came to a tunnel which we couldn't see the end to. But surely this wasn't far enough on to be THE tunnel? We were discussing our strategy (try to squeeze along the narrowest footpath at the edge of the tunnel, and push our bikes for safety, possibly?) when a man pulled up in a tiny car and seemed to be offering us a lift. But as we motioned to our bikes and the amount of kit, we despondently pointed out that we had too much stuff. "No, I follow behind you, it is too dangerous" he said. We set off as quickly as we could as our escort driver followed behind us with his hazards on - it was such a relief as the tunnel was uphill and we could hear lorries slowing down behind him. What a lovely man, and we shouted our thanks as we waved him off at the end of the tunnel.
Just after that we came to the actual tunnel in question and here was a truck ready to take our bikes and us through to the other side. First challenge, how do you pass your bike laden with 35kg of panniers up to the man on the back of the truck? Ah but when we were in, what a special few moments. The driver firstly put on Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' followed by Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Sound of Silence' as we all sang along and he excitedly pointed out the Chilean border halfway through the tunnel. I particularly like the Simon and Garfunkel song, as I remembered that 'El Condor Pasa (If I Could) being on the soundtrack of the inspirational film 'Wild' - the true story of Cheryl Strayed's emotional trek across the Pacific Crest Trail.
It was like another world when we emerged from the tunnel, and our helpful driver offered to take some Chilean border shots for us. And it was suddenly freezing! We layered up and set off on a downhill to the border. Ah but the real surprise for me was yet to come. I famously prefer uphills to downhills, and so just past the border control, when I was faced with the scariest road I have ever seen I had to have a real word with myself! This road is pretty infamous for its 29 switchbacks, and of course the ever present lorries and yet more tunnels to navigate. The guys were all stopping along the way to take photos as I screeched my way down, worried that if I stopped I would lose my nerve. By the time I got to the bottom of this epic run I could hardly prise my hands off the handlebars and brakes. But I had done it! Suddenly we were back into 30deg heat and so it was time for some sunscreen and a giant empanada for lunch. The final 45km + into Los Andes were pretty much all downhill. Again, great for most people, but mostly a test of mettle for me. The landscapes were quite a contrast to the previous few days as we passed vineyards and waterfalls, but with the heat and wind rising, there were few photostops on this stretch, and instead a concerted push to our hotel in Los Andes. In fact we were so focussed that just a few km from our hotel I misjudged the traffic and got knocked off my bike by a bus, arrgh. To be fair, the driver did stop and check I was ok as I lay on my side, pinned to the ground by the weight of my panniers, and with my feet still clipped in. A few scrapes and covered in dust, but mostly just dented pride! The quirky little 'Residencial Santa Rosa' was another welcome sight, and the staff were super helpful. It is in this town, however that we became aware that there is not an 'afternoon drinking culture' in South America like there is in the UK. We were desperate for, yes, you guessed it, a beer. We finally found a nice hotel tucked away down a side street where we sat outside near a little pool and proceeded to drink our way through the local beers on offer. Not content with that, our lovely hotel staff were on hand when we returned to set up some small tables in one of our (massive) rooms, so that we could have a 'nightcap'. Had we known what was ahead of us tomorrow, I can't help but think we might have taken it a bit easier on the premature celebrating!
Part 11 - Los Andes to Santiago!
We had received various pieces of information both online and via our helpful hotel staff about the best way to cycle into Santiago. The fact was that this was of course never in the plan, but part of our necessary re-route to take this busy road into Chile's buzzing city. We were told it was basically the main trunk road - "Be careful, you may get stopped by the police", and also that there was another one of THOSE tunnels which we would need to be driven through. What we weren't expecting though was just how bad the start of this road was. We were basically cycling up a strip of gravelly tarmac about 50cm wide next to a dual carriageway that was an uphill drag with lorries and traffic shooting past. At just 9am, the temperature was already creeping up to 30deg and we were being squeezed into traffic barriers by unforgiving drivers. As we got to the top of the first climb we were stopped at the mouth of a tunnel where a driver loaded us onto his truck. As we waited at the other side for Andy and Joe to join us, I was hoping that Joe would tell us to give this idea up and thumb a lift. Ah, but Joe isn't like that, and neither am I really I suppose, but he did advise us to get as far as we felt we could cycle safely, and that we might well get stopped by the police. Apparently they had got chatting to a road cyclist, who was also a policeman, who had told them that there was an opportunity to get off the main road, but it would take us on a hillier route, which would be hard going with panniers. Cue for a song in these slightly depressing circumstances, and a favourite of mine, from one of the best bands - The Smiths and 'Please, Please, Please (Let me get what I want)'. I didn't realise that this song was only actually a B side, as we coincidentally also heard it later in trip.
Well I think the roadsign below says it all here. We had cycled along this road for about 40km, and every time a vehicle pulled over to the side we secretly hoped they were going to stop us. But no, we continued to where the road branched off to Colina where we stopped for our lunch and a look at 'mappy map' to consider our options.
Joe and Andy arrived just after us, and Andy plugged the walking route suggested by Google into Santiago. We decided we would see how far we got and book into the first suitable hotel on the outskirts of the city. Well this was another experience and a half! To start with, the minor road was just an excuse for lorries not to pay a toll and so it was a case of yet again dicing with death along a narrow road edge. We ended up basically 'off-roading with panniers' as we navigated another 20km along dirt tracks which were supposed to be pavements. All the while we thought we must see a hotel soon, although at the same time, we were in the deepest industrial part of the outskirts of the city. Ah but tenacity pays off, and hats off to Andy, he only navigated us into one of the hippest and buzziest parts of Santiago - Bellavista. Oh, how happy we were, we had actually cycled into Santiago, which I can, on reflection only compare to cycling into London down the M1!
For this final part, as we cycled into this mecca of a city, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and had one of my favourite feel good songs in my head, 'Fantastic Shine' by the wonderfully named 'Love of Lesbian'. Some might associate it as the soundtrack of the Estrella Damm beer adverts, and that's fine and appropriate too...
We landed on our feet with our hotel that night - a bed so big that I almost lost myself in it, and a full set of complimentary toiletries. We then had one of the most bizarre nights of the trip as we went to a Peruvian Restaurant (proper food, and vegetables, and Pisco sours!) and then happened upon a bar which is apparently legendary - La Piojera. (Credited as 'Santiago's oldest and best dive bar'!). Here we made friends with some hilarious Chileans who gave us some advice on how to look after our personal safety, and what to drink (NOT such good advice it turns out with this jug of luminous Terremoto - translating to 'earthquake'!) It seems by the look on Joe's face in the picture below that he could see what was to come and so made a hasty exit....
There was still another 10km or so to cycle the next day, to our final destination at the Best Western Hotel in Los Condores. Well done again Joe, a touch of luxury for a couple of days at the end of the trip! It was now time to unwind, pack our bikes and generally get to know Santiago. This involved:
- an overexcitable night of trying out cocktails at the hotel bar, and then, not content with that, drinking our minibars dry, whilst listening to more favourite 80s and 90s tunes from my playlist (see below)
- buying something new to wear that wasn't encrusted in dust (felt like I'd been released from captivity)
- an open top bus tour around Santiago (this is some city - it takes over 2 hours to see it all!)
- a spontaneous midnight trip to Bellavista involving some near death taxi driving
I felt SO sad to leave Santiago. This trip represented so many firsts for me - the furthest place I had been to; the longest and hardest bike ride I had ever done, and of course the independence of carrying all of your own kit and camping. I made the best group of friends there in Joe, Stu and Andy, who kept me laughing and inspired me that yes, I could do this. A quote from Andy that sticks with me is "If anyone ever tells you that you can't do something again, tell them to.....(fill in the blanks!)"
Huge thanks to you guys, and in particular Joe, for making it actually happen against all the odds. I had the best time!
So, as I said at the beginning of this final episode, I have actually been asked to do some more blogs around things like 'Goal Setting' (note to self - should you sign up for a half ironman when you have had a couple of beers?Possibly not) and the 'Power of Music', so look out for those in the new year!
Although it was approaching Christmas in Santiago, it was weird to get your head around the heat, but also the reindeers and Christmas songs in the shops, and so I will leave you all with one final piece of music as I wish you a Merry Christmas, or should that be 'Feliz Navidad'. And if you're going to choose a cheesy song, who better to sing it that....Boney M? I laughed out loud when I found this version!
Meanwhile I am trying hard to embrace Christmas, and have set up a turbo trainer in my living room where my tree would normally be. Well, I'd better get training for the next trip! Maybe put a bit of tinsel or some lights on it.....
At the risk of sounding like a cliche, what's happening with the weather!? This is messing with my head big time - in two weeks I have gone from cycling in desert like conditions and 40deg heat, to being rescued by an Uber driver on an ill-advised bike ride in a blizzard (you idiot Denise!).
It has been an interesting week back home in the real world where I've hosted a South American party, attempted 'that bike ride' and had the Liv cycling club Christmas Party. Much to my surprise I was nominated for awards in the categories 'Zero to Hero', 'Most Improved Rider', 'Polka Dots' and won the 'Powerhouse' award! I love these guys, they have definitely got me to where I am in the past 8 months. Go Team Liv!
But back to 'Andes Nostalgia'. We are now on:
Part 6 - Coronel Moldes to Salta
A super early start (skipping another crap breakfast) to avoid the 40deg heat ahead, and some nice gentle riding to get us going. As it got closer to 9am though, we realised that Argentinians are no different to us in that they have a commuter peak time too. This road started to get super busy and we were now more aware of how narrow the many bridges were (remember we had already done this route the other way?). There were a couple of scary moments where Joe almost got knocked off his bike by a lorry trying to pass him and another vehicle on a bridge. So I tried a rather 'bold' I think it was called, move where I thought cycling two abreast might stop the same thing happening to Stu. Hmmm, didn't quite work out like that as I then noticed the bus bearing down on us trying to overtake anyway. Ever tried to get a sudden spurt of speed on a fully laden bike? Adrenaline, that's all I'm saying.
Just outside Salta we decided to have a stop at a petrol station for a drink and to plan our best route into the city. And here something very random happened as the owner of the hotel we had stayed at in Coronel Moldes drew up and was filling up with petrol. We excitedly waved as he came in to pay. Cue Andy to engage with some friendly banter and the command 'Speak!' as he waved his phone/translator app into our friends' face. As the translation magic happened we all laughed as we saw it type "I have no idea what you are saying, but I am going to the bank now". Ah, but all said with a winning smile. Thank god for Andy's data bundle all round as he and Google led us through Salta via the route that we were least likely to get mugged, and so we arrived at Hotel Iris - hoorah!
Time for a quick musical interlude and a song that was in my head for this section of the trip - 'Get your Rocks Off' by Primal Scream. I have no idea why, except the pace of the traffic and prospect of arriving at Salta and onto the next stage of our journey seemed to call for something with an upbeat vibe!
After a few days of the same old bland food, we were now very excited to find a restaurant which served not only steak, but VEGETABLES too, and a fried egg! We spent the afternoon in there drinking red wine, and for some reason, all speaking with a Scottish accent as Andy again endeared himself to the proprietor, Jorge. All I will say is that there was a moment that we thought we had lost him to the Argentinian's charms.
You can clearly never have enough steak in a day, and so the meal that night was in an Argentinian restaurant where they took the whole theming very seriously, costumes and all. The best bit about the lovely Hotel Iris was the roof terrace, oh I love a roof terrace - outdoor drinking!
This was one of my favourite nights. It was so warm and we sat out taking advantage of the wifi to play some of our favourite songs on YouTube. There are too many to mention, and one special comedy moment where Andy did his pub singer rendition of 'Hi Ho Silver Lining'. I have just found a recording of this one, accompanied by my hysterical laughing, and it still makes me laugh out loud. I now realise why my stomach muscles hurt so much the next day! The song of the night there for me was 'Somewhere in my Heart' by Aztec Camera. I had forgotten how much I love this song. It reminds me of re-enacting the 'floor dancing' scene from Gregory's Girl with my friend Fiona in 'Sir Laffalot's' nightclub in Aberdeen (I appreciate I'm losing some of the romanticism created by John Sinclair and Clare Grogan there...).
The next two days involved a bus transfer to Mendoza to pick up our third, and hopefully final version of our route. Top marks to Joe here for making this happen in amongst everything that had been going on over the past few days. This was a bit of a haze of boring roads, bad toilets and generally feeling restless. Another service station, another cheese and ham sandwich. As Joe said "I have never known a country to wear you down with food like this!" I kept myself distracted with my iPod and reading 'Around the World by Bike' by Alastair Humphreys. So not much to speak about here in terms of cycling, but a few songs on my playlist and also randomly on the bus driver's collection...
Part 7 - Mendoza to Potrerillos
So here we were, finally ready to make our three day ascent over the Andes, now via Mendoza. There was a bit of anxiety about routes as we found out that not only was this the main highway for freight and lorries between Argentina and Chile, but it was also a bank holiday, and so we were warned there would be extra traffic. Great, well we clearly like a challenge! The route out of Mendoza was actually very smooth and then we were out on the main roads and our first glimpse of the Andes ahead. But before that we cycled through the oil refinery at Lujan de Cuyo. Andy might have tried to make this lunar looking landscape sound exciting, by describing it like 'something out of Captain Scarlet' but it weirded me out. However, this road isn't too bad, we thought to ourselves, what is all the fuss about traffic?
Time for a little musical interlude from my head here. As we were finally out on the open roads, I thought about a song I had been singing before the trip, 'Born to Run' but the acoustic version by Amy Macdonald. A Scottish woman singing a power song, what's not to like?
And then, wham, we were onto the main road and we knew exactly what the fuss was about! This is a single lane main trunk road, but which feels like it should be a dual carriageway. Every other vehicle is a lorry and there just isn't room for them to pass each other and a bike at the same time. Joe warned us, as soon as you hear a lorry, pull over. There was a LOT of pulling over! The strip at the side of the road was usually gravel and so trying to keep cycling on it, with panniers unbalancing you was very unnerving. There was high excitement though as we saw the first signs for Santiago - and so finally it seemed very real. Now the climbs started and at least with them came a crawler lane which helped us out in the nerves stakes. We started to spot something which was to be a regular feature along this roadside. Bottles of water, next to small religious shrines. It turns out these are offerings to Difunta Correa, whose husband was forcibly taken to join the military in 1940. She set off walking to find him, across desert conditions, where she died of thirst. These small altars are now left to quench her eternal thirst. Although there are the odd bottles of 'lorry drivers Tizer' in amongst there which take something away from the romanticism of the story. The scary roads were about to be rewarded though with one of my favourite photo moments as the small town of Potrerillos came into sight, landmarked by the bluest of lakes! Time for another little musical moment, 'Half a World Away' by Oasis. This view did seem like we were on another planet. This version is from the wonderful Barrowlands venue in Glasgow.
This view was accompanied by a big downhill (not my favourite thing at all, especially when chased down by lorries). Now was the first use of 'mappy map' as it will become known. Galileo was a great app that Joe had introduced me to, which means you can download maps to use offline, but which still track your location - genius! Mappy map confirmed that we were almost there. Joe and Andy arrived just behind us to tell us that Andy had broken two of his spokes on the way and so his wheel was seriously compromised. This resulted in an afternoon of trying to communicate with local cyclists and mechanics ('Speak!') and improvising a 'chain whip'. Who even knew what that was, let alone what it is in Spanish? I did warn Andy to be careful trying to literally translate that in his inimitable friendly way. However, enter the Spanish version of Guy Martin and boom, the chainset was off and the spokes were on! Our next achievement of the night must be cooking 'actual' food (pasta, tomato sauce and sweetcorn) rather than dehydrated camping food. However, note to Joe, raw garlic is not a good idea, I only ate it because you said it had 'antibiotic properties'. Despite a 'new friend' on the campsite, I didn't fear for my life that night, and so result, I think I have nailed this camping lark!
And before we go into the next day, here is another little song that was shared along the way. It must have been inspired by the arid conditions, but coincidentally it was also a 7" single that my uncle gave me when I was about 9 years old. Slightly odd? Yes he was, but it remains a karaoke/jukebox favourite of mine. Glen Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy'.
Part 8 - Potrerillos to Uspallata
Shall I even mention 'breakfast'? For some it was crisps, for me it was those 'lady finger' biscuits again!
Back out onto the main road and straight back into the crazy traffic. Although we knew we had to climb up to another 600m throughout this 56km, there seemed to be a slightly depressing amount of downhills - don't make me lose height when I know I have to gain it again! This was our first taste of tunnels to add to the drama of the roads. To start with these were short sections of about 20m through the rock, where you could clearly see daylight on the other side. However, these started to get longer and darker and involved a dash through, just hoping that any vehicles coming behind could see you. as there was definitely no option to stop or pull over. I have to admit to being slightly terrified by these sections and was glad when Stu said he had lights and would go behind me to go through them. Time for another piece of music, and Tom Petty again with 'Free Fallin ' This was a good distraction song on those scary downhill tunnels!
Our next little challenge was a diversion off the main road due to roadworks. This was basically a narrow, uphill winding section on gravel. There was hardly room for one lane of traffic, let alone two, and so we ended up pushing our bikes for most of this stretch, just hoping it wouldn't last too long. As we got closer to Uspallata, the landscape was changing from a mixture of the dry, red desert to some lush greenery and even some water in the rivers, with the Andes moving ever closer.
Another song that was in my head on this day was KT Tunstall 'Other Side of the World', making me think how different this backdrop was to my London life.
Uspallata was quite a vibrant little town, and once we navigated our way to the centre, still avoiding the ever prevalent lorries, it was great to see a mountain bike race in full flow. We did still have the prospect of finding a campsite, however, and so when Joe and Andy arrived, we had a look at a couple of options.
I was very excited when we discovered the Randul campsite and to discover that for an extra £5 per night we could actually share a cabana and not have to camp. Ah, time to crack out the beers that they had in their little shop fridge and go out for a giant steak!
It's weird looking back at the stats for this trip. I think, like running a marathon, you can forget how hard it felt at the time, but the speed and amount of stops below say it all I think!
Extreme winds the following day meant that we took the decision to stay another day in Uspallata, where we took in some of the sights, mostly involving animals ranging from cute puppies in a shopping trolley; a dog that followed us home and was determined to sit guard all night, and then the "Is that dog dead?" moment, when it clearly had rigor mortis. Well, just call me an optimist!
Join me next week for the final instalment as we go up over the top of the Andes and into Chile!
This little blog is almost like a therapy session as I still struggle with getting back to normality. Physically I am feeling the fittest I have for a long time, and it is showing in my cycling and swimming training sessions - but mentally, uurgh, why is it so hard? Along with my exercise, my friends, my singing and guitar have been saving my sanity. On the positive, my appetite is completely shot and I have lost almost half a stone in weight since I came back, and who else can say that in the run up to Christmas?
It's taking me a while to process all of the various parts of this three week cycling adventure and so as not to bore everyone totally, I decided to break it down into chunks of the trip. So, this three part blog will look at some of the detail of the route, the landscape, the stats, and some other bits of interest. When we were rerouted during the trip, I know we found other people's blogs really helpful in our journey to make the right choices of where to stay and some other little useful quirks. Just as importantly for me, however, is the music that kept me going throughout. No MP3 player of course, that would be dangerous, but the internal playlist in my head. A friend had put together some songs for me before I went which I listened to on the flight, but many of the songs which popped into my subconscious were quite random. I know some of my travelling companions shared these with me along the way, but some of them stayed internal and they will probably be glad that they did!
Part 1 - Salta to Chicoana
The first leg of our journey was from Salta to Chicoana. The seven of us gathered at our hotel and tentatively screeched our way down the very steep hill to exit Salta as we got used to being fully loaded up with panniers. Our first lesson was that buses in Argentina stop wherever they, or other people want them to. I thought cycling in London traffic was unpredictable! Most of this route was along a main road, with quite a bit of traffic, but even as we started off I found myself shouting excitedly "I'm cycling in Argentina!" Shortly after that I hit a large roundabout and almost came unstuck....But just before this, one of my fellow cyclists captured a shot of me cycling past some street art which we came to realise captured the mood of Argentina towards the Brits about the Falklands.
So this first part of the journey was fairly short, flat and uneventful, but as we got out into the countryside I was struck by the similarities with the landscape in my favourite place of Andalucia and so the amazing Paco de Lucia came to mind. This piece is called 'Entre dos Aguas' which translates as 'between two rivers' and I found quite ironic as every time we went over a bridge the riverbeds were bone dry. This piece is one which some of my fellow flamenco guitarist friends and I started to learn in Seville two years ago and I realise we will never be able to play at this speed! It truly is a magical piece of flamenco guitar.
Part 2 - Chicoana to Talapampa
Today was the first day I had a taste of what Argentinian breakfasts were to be like as I found myself eating cake and other 'sweet crap' in the absence of anything resembling normal breakfast food. That said, the little hotel we were staying in 'Bo Hotel' in Chicoana was really cute and welcoming, run by a lovely couple who were very cycling friendly.
The other thing I realised I had to get a grip of in this country was the currency which seems a bit bonkers. I totally confused a woman in the shop by confidently handing her the equivalent of £40 for 2 bottles of water. Today's cycling involved heading back onto the main route from El Carril towards Talapampa. This was a nice, gently rolling route where we started to get some nice shots of the mountains and could even feel the small climbs in my thighs. This is where I first noticed that there are various police check points along the roads in Argentina. What is it about police presence that suddenly makes you feel like you've done something wrong? Anyway, all good as I was waved through. We stopped for a short drink break in a small town called Coronel Moldes (look out for this one making an appearance again!). From here it was onto Talapampa, and some nice little moments including where a small school of kids ran out excitedly to see the crazy cycling lady and were laughing and waving. There were a few moments of confusion at the spot we had hoped to camp at, which turned out to be no bad thing as we then went onto the quirky little 'Posta de las Cabras' - a little restaurant with accommodation cabins, and of course plenty of goats! Although this was a cute little spot to stay, yet again, the food was to be a low point. This was our first taste of 'Chicken Milanese' (the previously mentioned mullered chicken) and the bizarre breakfast of flakes and strawberry milk. We were told it was probably goat milk, but have you ever seen a strawberry goat?
I felt like I was getting into my stride on this cycling leg, and finally getting to grips with the panniers which were no longer falling off every time I went over a bump. So the song that I was singing for this part of the journey was Florence and the Machine 'Dog Days are Over'. I had practised this one in a few singing lessons over the summer as a motivator for a couple of triathlons I did. I love the energy of it and the opening line of 'Happiness hit her like a train on a track....'
Part 3 - Talapampa to Cafayete
As we departed the 'goat place' we realised that perhaps some of the food was taking it's toll as a few people seemed to be suffering with dodgy stomachs. Enter Andy though with the classic line of "Chin up Princess" to make everyone 'feel better'! This leg of the journey was where things really began to change. There were now some real uphills, but more than that, some fantastic photo opportunities as the landscape changed from green to ochre, with amazing desert like backdrops and sculpted hillsides like the Grand Canyon. The heat started to rise and I thought to myself that I would stop at about 45km, which would be approximately halfway. Shade was scarce, but right on cue we came across a funny little shack called 'El Rancho'. As we sat an ate our sandwiches, Stu and Andy did some rousing renditions of some Wurzels songs - one of those hilarious moments which it is important to catalogue! As we set off for the second leg, things started to feel really tough as the wind picked up, making even downhills challenging. We realised that you could pick up some Malbec wine along the roadside, but could you find any water in this 37deg heat? There was also a scary moment as a pack of about 8 dogs ran up to Ricky and I - despite my full course of rabies jabs, I wasn't keen to get bitten! I asked Ricky "Where do they come from, how do they live?" to which he replied "They could be asking the same about us!"
The final 5km were really hard - the road looked flat, but definitely wasn't as I look at the stats below, and I drew up next to Andy as we both had to have a final sugar rush to get us into Cafayete. Ah, but when we got there, Joe had pulled it out of the bag again with Hostal Andino. A lovely little complex of rooms with a small pool, which although freezing was just what I needed to cool off my now sunburned thighs! As we arrived at the hotel, Ricky said to me "You are the terminator on a bike!" which I was both surprised by, and of course secretly proud of!
After dinner, Andy, Stu and I played a game of 'Name that Tune' 80's style which was lots of fun and brought out my competitive side, as we tried to guess the song in the shortest time. I think Andy was actually impressed by Stu and I's random knowledge on this topic. Although this wasn't a song in my head during the cycle ride that day, guessing the following song within less than a bar definitely earned me some kudos! I love Grace Jones, her energy and her craziness!
Part 4 - Deja vu! Cafayete to Rio de los Conchas
Poor Joe had been up against it for the past couple of days as it transpired that our second rerouting of the trip wasn't going to work out either as the pass we were going to use was going to be reaching temperatures of 45deg with extreme headwinds. We had spent a rest day in Cafayete, but one of our team had ended up in hospital with dehydration from the exertion of the day before. The suggestion for our next rerouting was to return the 200km we had cycled over the past 3 days to Salta and from there take a transfer to Mendoza to get us onto a route over another pass. We all signed up to this trip knowing it was a working recce, and so happily went with the plan. It's a funny thing really, as I always do my best to avoid doing 'out and back' routes when I cycle in the UK! However, we were going to split the route up differently to mix it up a bit. We were down to a team of five as two of our team decided to take the bus the 200km to Salta following the 'hospital episode'. Having spent the night in a campsite the night before though, there were a lot of bleary eyes as it seems that Cafayete is the town that never sleeps with loud music that went on until 6am.
The first 10k or so seemed like a nice downhill, confirming how uphill the final part had been a couple of days before. The heat was already starting to kick in though, and seeing some uphills ahead, I decided to dig in and try to get to the shady El Rancho before it got too hot. The song in my head for this first part related back to our 'Name that Tune' session a couple of nights before and the 80s icons that are Duran Duran and 'Rio'.
There was a really steep hill just before the ranch at 'Tres Cruces' and the heat was intense. I stopped at the long anticipated shady spot and had a lie down as I waited for the others. However, an hour passed before Stu arrived to say that they hadn't seen Ricky for a long time, and so they had decided to stop for a while to wait for him. However, by the time Joe and Andy had spread themselves out and arrived at El Rancho, two hours had passed. I tried not to let my natural disaster gene kick in, but where could he be? Joe explained that Ricky was resilient and doesn't like anyone to make a fuss - we had seen lots of trucks passing, and also other cyclists, and so were confident that he would have got a lift back to Cafayete in case of any bike problems and could then either get the bus or a lift onto our camp stop for the night. This is when you are very aware of zero mobile phone coverage, and I was feeling guilty for having gone on ahead.
Of course all the time we had sat waiting, the dreaded afternoon wind had picked up. Joe advised that the camping spot we had told Ricky about was around 20km further on. Well that wasn't too far was it? Oh dear, the head winds were brutal! Joe and I were taking turns at the front, but even cycling downhill was hard work. I could hear Andy shouting "This is bl**dy hard graft!". The stats below show how slow we had to go, although aren't a true reflection due to the 2 hour stop. Our camping spot could not have arrived sooner. And well, well, look at this, there was a little house, and even more goats than in our previous accommodation! These really were comedy goats who saw these new visitors as an opportunity to try and get into the house as the owner spoke to us. The walls were covered with messages from grateful travellers who had found respite there. We set up camp for the night, and even had a wash in the river. I've already referenced this camping spot in my previous blog, so no need to revisit the bad night I had thinking that there was a maniac on the loose around our tents....
Song of the day today that was in my head was Tom Petty and 'I Won't Back Down'. This is another one that had been on my playlist and that I have also done some singing and playing to. It really helped when we were up against the wind and heat in that final 20km!
Part 5 - Rio de Los Conchas to Coronel Moldes
As we packed up our tents we are acutely aware that our colleague Ricky hadn't arrived at our camping spot overnight. However, we would be in mobile reception within about 20km and so surely would have an update then. We had decided to leave at 7.30am to get ahead of the heat and wind and it was a welcome relief to be doing some nice rolling, and mostly downhills, as the sun was just coming up. We decided to stop back at the Posta de las Cabras to pick up mobile signal. The lady, remembering us from a few days previously, but recalling seven of us enquired where the others were? I wondered if she had seen the film 'Alive' where the plane crashed into the Andes and passengers were forced to eat their colleagues....
Imagination working overtime again!
However, the reality was actually quite depressing. Joe received a message from Ricky to say that he had had a mechanical problem and had ended up going back to Cafayete and had changed his flights to go back to the UK early. There was real shock and disbelief amongst us, particularly Joe, as this was his close friend. At this point I could almost feel the trip slipping away - we were three people down and Joe was constantly up against it with having to change the route by the day. There was a definite low hanging over our small group as we set off to get to Coronel Moldes. Not only that, but the wind was picking up. I can laugh about it now, but cue another one of Andy's classic quotes..."Just when you think it can't get any worse...it does!" It's hard to believe the profile of this part of the route was so flat looking back at it as the wind made it feel like it was all uphill. Plus it was 40degrees...this is spring in Argentina??
There is only one song that sticks in my mind from this day, as it was not a particularly happy one. 'Faith' by George Michael came to mind as it was one that had come up on the 80s quiz in Cafayete and this leg of the trip certainly called for a bit of faith in each other that we would finish this trip!
Not many photos were taken on this section of the trip, I think we just wanted to get to the next stop. However, when we got there, we were (eventually) rewarded with another 'accidental accommodation' scenario at a hotel called the Hosteria Cabra Corral. I hadn't actually realised that was it's name until now - another goat reference, but not a goat in sight actually. It had not one but TWO pools, the usual bad food selection, but that didn't bother us - we decided we would stay here for two nights and hence do some 'relaxing' that night. A few beers were consumed let's say - well it had been a hard few days!
Congratulations if you've managed to read this far! Hang in there, next week I will post the next few days cycling, songs and general shenanigans....
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.