Lessons from a storm
Paddy flagged me down, “I think we should put our rain jackets on.” In the rhythm, I grumpily responded, “Why? It’s sunny and hot. Do you want me to turn off my iPod off as well!?” He looked at me, pointed to the sky and said “It might be wise, it’s going to get wet.”
Following his finger, I looked up to see a black cloud enveloping Ruta 7, the road we were cycling along. Where we were stood it was bright sunshine, but 1km along it looked like night had fallen as a storm cloud raced across the flat pampas directly towards us.
The morning’s ride had been hot and we’d stopped for a picnic lunch in sunny Tres Sargentos, with Paddy’s dad, Kevin. He had joined us as support for a few days, after flying to Buenos Aires with a new wheel to replace Paddy’s broken one, and deservedly earning the name ‘Super Dad’.
Aside from a persistent crosswind from the north it had been a nice day. We, therefore, didn’t expect much rain and only put on our gortex jackets as we figured we’d quickly dry off once the clouds passed.
As we cycled on the rain arrived, persistent but not too heavy. The wind though was now coming at us from the West, blowing us off the road, which as a busy, single-lane highway with no hard shoulder was difficult enough to cycle on at the best of times. In the knowledge that our next rendezvous with Kevin was only 1km down the road we got off to push – encouraged by the thought of a break for hot coffee and cake in his car.
Sitting in the warm was too nice. So after laughing at how the weather had changed so rapidly we jumped back onto the bikes and set off. Kevin zoomed past us soon after to reece a hotel for the night in the town about 25km away, where we would see him next.
Five minutes later we were off the bikes again and looking at each other in horror. The winds had picked up to such an extent that we couldn’t keep pedalling at all. The rain had become torrential and it was far too late to don full waterproofs.
Forced to push along the grassy and now boggy hardshoulder we looked on as the local drivers continued to race each other even in these conditions. Next the thunder and lightning began, lighting the sky up directly above our heads. Out on the flat, featureless pampas we felt very exposed and it would be wrong not to admit I was scared.
In normal circumstances we would have quickly erected some shelter to hide in until things calmed down. Stupidly though we had left everything with Kevin. The only option was to carry on, although walking at less than 5km an hour it would take five hours to reach the next town. We considered flagging down passing pickups for a lift, but the visibility was terrible and we worried about causing an accident.
Our only hope was that Kevin hadn’t driven too far before the storm hit and knowing the severity of it would come back to rescue us. After what seemed like a lifetime, although was probably about 30 minutes, he appeared on the road and loaded us and our bikes into the car. Most definitely Super Dad.
An hour later, warm and dry, we sat in the hotel recovering with beers looking over drenched but sunlit fields. The storm had passed on.
It’s final point of call was the east coast of Argentina, hitting Buenos Aires that evening. The winds were so high that they tore down buildings, picked up trucks and knocked down trees. At least two people were killed and several injured. At the height of the storm the winds were recorded at 86km per hour.
We were lucky to have been able to evacuate as we did. The whole incident taught us that we can’t predict the weather and we learnt an important lesson about ensuring we can find or create adequate shelter at all times.
Hopefully we won’t have to put this into action, but it is good to be reminded as we approach one of the most difficult parts of the trip – cycling over the Andes in the winter.