I am lying face down on the table at the visitors centre in Talampaya National park. I feel distinctly nauseous and as if my head is on fire. As I drift in and out of sleep, I can hear Faye encouraging me to drink some water. I raise my head a little and glug some from the already unscrewed bottle in my right hand, before returning my face firmly to where it belongs – the table top.
It is Christmas day. And although it is customary to succumb to unwelcome bouts of narcolepsy in the afternoon, today has been rather unforgettable: on all counts.
The festivities for my amiga and I began at bang on midnight. I hadn’t been able to sleep. It was going to be Christmas after all, and I was so VERY excited about it. I’m not sure why, as a 32 year old in the middle of nowhere, I was quite so excited. I think it was the knowledge that everyone I loved at home would be well fed and happy that day. That, or it is ‘Christmas residue’ – excess excitement leftover from years of exeberuence as a child. In which case I have a well of Christmas residue deep enough to last me into my seventies…
“Happy Christmas!!!” I yell at Faye from my tent as fireworks go off in the distance at the stroke of midnight. I’d like to say I didn’t wake her up, but I did. It’s Christmas for gawd’s sake. Ain’t no time to be sleeping. We poke our heads out of the tents at our roadside camp spot and ‘ooohh’ and ‘arrrr’ at a lit up night sky. Now I am definitely too excited to sleep, and so read for a few hours before drifting off around 3am.
At 6am, I am awake! Making more noise than absolutely necessary in a bid to wake my tent neighbour. Breakfast consists of ham, cheese, crackers and orange juice. Oh the luxury!! Messages to loved ones are sent via GPS and orange juice loving flies are cursed around camp. My knitted Santa and snowman are stuffed under some strapping on my handlebar bag (so I can look at them and talk to them all day) and we roll out to take on a mountain pass in the already warm morning sun.
Swooping past giant red rocks, into canyons and past cacti, an hour later, we arrive at a small gap in the barrier at the side of the highway: ‘This is it.’ Says Faye with a grin, as we wheel down the track and make our way to a well hidden swimming hole, framed by giant sandy coloured boulders.
It’s not the most beautiful swimming hole I’ve ever seen (nothing beats those in NZ), but it is secluded and calm and, as we soon discover, icy cold. We splash around, dunk heads, revel in the rude awakening of every weary body cell, before clambering up the side of the pool to lay on the rocks like lizards in the sun. We watch locals go into the pool (fully clothed?!) and splash around too. The waft of their bush-side BBQ then saunters up to our nostrils. Oh how I wish my Spanish was better, and I could pluck up the courage to chat with them in the hope of being thrown a rogue rack of ribs.
Pedalling away an hour later, we are both grinning like Cheshire cats. Today is a marvellous day and I announce to Faye that the only thing that would make it more marvellous would be an ice cold Fanta. ‘Haha! Yeah!’ Faye scoffs, both of us knowing full well that my wish is not even a remote possibility – there are no shops out here, and certainly none open on Christmas Day. That would be Santa-sacrilege after all.
10km down the road, we wheel into a town that’s not shown on the map and I see a small shop. I think it strange that it should have a sign out front and then notice that it’s only bloomin’ OPEN!!! We screech to a halt and pile inside to stock up on ice cream, water and cool Fanta (Sprite for Faye), before sitting on the steps to inhale our hoard, pausing often to hi-five and giggle at our good fortune.
It’s now midday, and time is ticking on to cover the remaining 80km of the 100km we have to pedal before sun down, so we make our move to leave. Just as I get on my bike Faye-bomb stops, dead in her tracks. ‘Wait…’ she says, slowly while staring at her phone. ‘They have wifi.’ Fanta, ice cream and wifi?! It’s a triple threat!
We spend the next hour calling surprised family members and loved ones on FaceTime. I manage to catch Jamie while he’s on his Christmas Day run, and (after trying four family members) at last get through to the McNuff’s. I am passed around a fully occupied Christmas dinner table, from person to person and informed by my three year old nephew that he is ‘Dressed as a penguin. Like Pingu.’ Obviously.
Bellies full and hearts even more so, we begin the day again at 1pm. It’s started to get very hot now. A sticky, itchy kind of heat that wraps itself around my body like an unwanted thick down jacket. We take an off-road route towards Talampaya National park just as the temperature begins to soar. I check my watch and it says 40 degrees C. Crikey O’Riley. This section especially feels like riding in a blast furnace. The surrounding sand seems to be reflecting heat onto us from all directions, and with a bike still heavily laden with food and water, the going is tough and slow.
My gloves have started to melt onto the handlebars, creating a gloopy webbed mess and giving Spiderman a run for his money. My black brake levers have become almost too hot to touch, I am inhaling hot air and the salt stains on my clothes are starting to look like a moving art installation (if it were exhibited I would call it: ‘RANCID’). Over the next few hours the water in our bottles reaches an obscene temperature and threatens to change the shape of the plastic around it. ‘What’s going on?!’ Faye says, both of us completely baffled as to why it feels so much hotter today than on any previous days.
We hit paving again and I start to feel decidedly odd. I’ve drunk eight litres of water since leaving the swim spot, but most of it has been equivalent to drinking hot tea, and so all I seem to be doing is warming my insides while the sun’s glare warms my outsides. I ask Faye for a rest break and we sit for 10 minutes in the shade of a tree. ‘Come on McNuff’ I think, ‘You’ve made it through 43 degree heat already, this should be fine.’ But I can’t help shake the feeling that I’m coping as well as I normally do.
I start pouring hot water over my head, in the hope that it will cool a little as I pedal, and wobble onwards for the final 20km. At the National Park entrance are told by several men in VERY official looking uniforms that we can’t wild camp in Talampaya, and that we must head to the visitor centre and camp there instead. It’s not what we had in mind.
I love wild camping. We’ve wild camped for 61 nights of this 77 day trip so far and something about an official campsite feels restrictive. ‘They might have cold water…’ offers Faye as a consolation. And that does it – campsite it is. I’m just chatting to the man at the counter in the visitor centre (I say chatting, mainly I’m swaying and nodding) when I suddenly feel very feint and rather sick. I turn around and mumble something vaguely coherent to Faye before stumbling to the table and resting my head.
And so I find myself, slumped over in the visitor centre, Faye looking on, trying desperately to conjure up some appetite for dinner, and the will to pitch a tent.
Later that night, after a brief nap and a small pee that looks like liquid gold. I decide I am fully recovered from the day’s events. That is until my foam roller is picked up in a small sandstorm and begins blowing away from camp across the plain. I leap up and begin chasing after it, yelling aloud: ‘Wait! Wait! Where are you going?? Come back!’ Reasoning with my foam roller? Definitely still tired, and definitely still delirious then.
What a day. There were unexpected gifts, smiles, joy and afternoon naps. It was certainly Christmas, but not as I’ve ever known it.
Keep tabs on us as we wind south towards Patagonia here: http://z6z.co/AndesAdventure