A Career Gap Spent Cycling in Chile
We caught up with 54-year-old Jeremy Fitch, who took five months out to cycle the length of Chile - all 5,000km of it - with his son. What a legend.
Tell us a bit about what you were doing before you took your career gap
For some years, life had been a bit too stressful. That contributed to heart trouble, six months off work and a heart bypass. Then there were work difficulties, depression, hard times.
How did you get the idea of cycling the length of Chile? It's quite long - did you ever worry that you were being too ambitious?
Well, my son Sam had been off backpacking in Australia; the story goes that one inebriated night, back at the hostel, he and some friends were wondering what they'd do next. One of them had a little pocket diary with a map of the world in it; they were looking at that and wondered about the long, thin, orange strip called Chile. "We could go right from one end to the other." "Hitch?" "Donkey?" "Walk?" "Biplane?" "I know, cycling." It was only a little map.
Later on, the friends went on to universities or something. Back home in England Sam was regretting that. I was a bit desperate, needed a change, so I said "I'll do it!" I was really surprised that he said "You're on." Yes, when we got a bigger map it seemed a long cycle-ride, but hey, nothing ventured - give it a go. We've got five months, if it works, brilliant, if we don't make it, or if we fall out, or if either of us wants to head off elsewhere, hey-ho, never mind. And we decided to cycle tip-to-top of the country: even though it looks upwards, it worked better with climate - we didn't fancy the farthest south in winter-time.
What preparation did you need to do for the cycling?
Err... we were neither of us serious cyclists before (we're not after, either) - Sam had never even mended a puncture, I reckon. We soon realised we'd need bikes! I think we only bought those three or four weeks before departure. We'd realised there'd be some pretty rough riding (yes!), so we got good mountain bikes with panniers and two small tents, and my friends gave me a survival bag. And training, yes, one or two country-lane jaunts... I was quite pleased to manage 25 km over to my sister's for Christmas dinner (I think I got a lift back); what's 5000km, 3000m passes, after that?
What sort of things did you need to sort out at home before you could go?
I needed some life changes. I gave up my jobs, and some really nice friends who were looking for somewhere to live agreed to look after my house and cat and garden - suited us all.
So finally you set off - what were your first impressions or first experience of Chile?
Long flights (ah, useful info: you can take a boxed-up bike as one of your pieces of luggage), changed planes three times, only booked onto our Santiago-to-south flight when we got there. So then it was night-time, a little airport far from anywhere, no fit state to put bikes together - we borrowed a luggage-trolley and pushed the bikes and bags just outside of the airport fence, pitched tents, had a beer and crashed out. We were woken just after dawn by five soldiers with real guns and all - restricted area (did we look like Argentinean insurgents?) But they smiled, gave us time to get our bikes ready. Then we're off, this is it, south to the Straits of Magellan that I'd learned about in primary school - via a supermarket and a bank.
Tell us a bit about the cycling - how far did you go and what were the conditions like?
Maybe 5,000km. With a few local coaches, a day on a boat, a Landrover trip... First few km were concrete road, a doddle, "This is okay!" The next few thousand km went from the best to the very worst. From cycling on brand new almost-motorway to corrugated rutted tracks, up endless hairpin bends (ah, every up's got a down, though that's not easy to remember sometimes. Every down's got an up, too. Perhaps it depends where you start and finish. We got philosophical on some of the long bits (When we weren't counting pedal turns, or watching armadillos, or looking for firewood, or cursing the always-in-your-face wind!)) At one point we'd heard of a new route which saved a long pampas haul, so steep and windingly narrow we had to carry the bikes on our shoulders and a local horse took our luggage for 10km. Some very steep, no-choice-but-to-push paths. But some absolutely phenomenal long downhills - I think once it was half an hour without needing to pedal!
So, Chile - it's long, right? Your challenge is to describe the country in less than 100 words!
WONDERFUL! Landscapes, people, food, wildlife, music... Chile really does have something of everything, from almost-Antartica to the tropics, snow-topped Andes to never-rain Atacama Desert, with some pretty good lived-in bits in between. And along the way there were sections where we cycled over the border, in Argentina and Bolivia.
You were travelling with your son - how did that work out? Did you get on well?
Yes, mostly! He never got up in the mornings, though! Seriously, it was very good to share a journey like that with him. I reckon he'd say the same! We'd neither of us have done it without the other. We met up with a lot of other travellers, too - most days there were a few cyclists, either coming in the other direction or overtaking us, or sometimes in hostels. Sam got together with a German woman cyclist: even that was okay, there was always plenty of space and we kept going more-or-less together for a month or more. But after Santiago, which is about halfway up, I went on by myself. They wanted to do a bit more of the city stuff, and then travel northwards on a coach. So we met up just over the border in Bolivia. Then Sam got sick, horrible stuff, he ended up flying home. That left me solo for the last month - and by then I was really into what I was doing, happy with myself, by myself.
What were the best moments of your trip?
So many. I'll tell you three places-to-see-before-you-die. In the south, we left our bikes for a few days whilst we walked in a National Park called Torres del Paine, stunning mountains, glaciers and lakes and totally-untouched forest. In the north, the Atacama Desert is endlessly glorious. And the trip over the Chile/Bolivia border, past hot springs and across the Salar de Uyuni (a vast, flat salt-lake), which we did in a Landrover with the bikes on the roof - wow!
And the low points?
Oh, that in-your-face wind over the southern grasslands. Looking back, some other hard times that don't look anything like so bad now - like being swept away fording a river, like being snowed on just below an Andean pass, frozen fingers letting go of a bent tent pole that sprang into my eye, like 20 starving km to the nearest food (but a lovely family gave us some chocolate), and once or twice like major aloneness (more learning.)
You're a bit more mature than the average gapper - did you find that your age was an issue at any point?
How sensitively put! Well, the worst of it was that the other cyclists and sympathetic travellers were all younger than me. A lot of great people - but I'd have liked a few more oldies! I saw some occasionally, there were the 'tourists', in hotels and smart air-conditioned coaches with guides - not my way, though, I'm glad to say. Health and fitness - I came back in much better shape than before I went!
Finally, how has your gap in Chile affected you? What did you gain from it?
Discovery, adventure, exploration... It's a wonderful world. I'm much happier with myself, with my life. I'm going to keep on travelling!