As we absorbed all of this, information emerged that Air NZ was immediately ceasing all operations out of Buenos Aires, and with that our lifeline home. We were crushed, and with Latam flight prices yoyoing on the internet between US$5000–US$14,000 each we were reluctant to make another online booking for a fight that might soon cancel. We’d already bought two! In the evening we made the news ourselves in New Zealand after I spoke to a reporter about our plight. Many other New Zealanders in Latin America were in the same situation and already pressuring the government for mercy flights, should the commercial option fail completely.
In the end we decided it best just to get to Santiago airport as soon as possible and try and resolve either our cancelled Air NZ flight at a counter there, or talk to Latam. Meanwhile we heard that Panama had closed to transit passengers, which would have been the ruin of our original booking before even making it to LAX.
Skies were clear for most of the 2hr 20 min flight from Balmaceda to Santiago and while Hana slept, I spent most of it with my eyes close to the window, looking down at the very same landscapes we’d painstakingly traversed by bike over the previous three weeks. Patagonia is incredible to cycle through, but from the air it’s displayed spectacularly as you can see every peak, every hidden alpine lake and the complexity of the land. During those peaceful moments on the aircraft I also reflected on how accepting we’d been of the situation, and the methodical way we’d undertaken the process of returning home, without focussing on the negatives.
While riding one day, just a couple of months back, I’d commented to Hana how arbitrary the notion of reaching Ushuaia actually was. If I’d said that during the first week of the ride it might have seemed mutinous to us both, but after more than three years on the road our perspective had shifted and we’d come to realise with more clarity than ever that it’s the experiences that count, not where you choose to stop pedalling. That day on the road I was looking over my shoulder at what was behind us and feeling an almost overwhelming satisfaction at what we’d accomplished during our ride: from every encounter with another human; to the astounding amount of knowledge and experience we’ve gained; to the physical challenge which has redefined our boundaries of possibility; to the synthesis of the two of us as a team.
If I were to put what I feel about our journey now into one word, it would be grateful. Sure, we haven’t reached Ushuaia, and seen the Patagonian Icecap or the Fitz Roy Massif, but we have experienced an incredible amount. From the Arctic to the Amazon, to the high altitude deserts and the barrios of Bogota and all that’s between them we’ve filed away an indelible catalogue of memories.
It was nearly 2am by the time we got to speak to a Latam representative at their ticket counter in Santiago. Air New Zealand had been impossible to contact, but there were flights with Latam still available. We bought a seat on standby for a flight in 48 hours time – possibly the very last flight – and were immediately upgraded to a confirmed seat due to ongoing cancellations in the system. We collapsed into our sleeping bags in a quiet corner of the international terminal for the rest of the night and then later in the morning caught a taxi to a nearby hotel for our final night in Chile. The airport felt like plague central and we were scared of contracting the virus there and then bringing it into New Zealand. We were repeatedly washing our hands and avoiding clusters of people, but awareness of the need for distancing varied massively. The taxi drivers were the worst; few wore masks or sanitised their hands after handling luggage, so we were happy to get out of there.
The 787 sat on the tarmac for what felt like an eternity after we finally boarded the plane and we never properly relaxed until it was actually in the air. The first beer tasted so good. 36 hours after we landed in New Zealand, the whole country entered full lockdown, which lasted nearly five weeks. During that time we self isolated for 14 days at the home of Hana’s parents in Te Puna, near Tauranga. We spent our days in an RV outside the house and used a single room inside the house to sleep. Our sanity was maintained by riding loops on local paths and roads. It was no substitute for the Andes, but short and intense rides most days helped stave off the ‘post tour blues’, which is common among long distance cyclists and hikers.