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5 Things I Learnt from 2018’s adventures

Words and photos Dan Milner

In one calendar year Dan Milner visits enough wild places to last you a lifetime. This year he rode his bike in the mountains of Spain, Chile, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan and North Korea. Even if you can catch him on the trails, you’ll never keep up with his travel agenda! Here’s five lessons he learnt this year:

1. There’s a reason no one has mountain biked the most southern trail in the world before

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing, or so the adage goes. By this, I’m guessing the author, Wainwright, never spent much time on Navarino Island off the southern tip of South America. This Chilean outpost, on the southern side off the Beagle Channel, has a climate that is classed as ‘sub-Antarctic’. It is certainly home to some wildest weather on the planet, but it is also home to the most southern hiking trail on the planet and no-one had ridden it before. Jumping on a small boat ride across the Beagle, ahead of me was a new set of experiences, opportunities to learn about myself, and who knows, perhaps some incredible singletrack.

The singletrack box was ticked, but it came with all four seasons in an hour. I camped out two nights on the Dientes de Navarino trail, swimming in a lake in blazing sun one moment and pulling my jacket zipper up to my chin under a barrage of hail and sleet the next. But in between there were moments of almost visionary clarity: when I realised that curiosity is stronger than the discomfort of cold, when riding bikes where nobody has ridden before can deliver as many Zen-like moments as it does rushes of endorphins.

Navarino sits on the very edge of inhabitation, in a no-mans land inhabited by wildlife and hardy settlers and touched by adventurers. It is a starkly beautiful place, but riding here is not for the faint hearted. But having embraced its challenges, maybe there is no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable attitudes.

Land of the brave or the foolish? Venturing onto the most southern trail in the world. Photo Dan Milner

2. An electricity cable can make a great washing line in Kyrgyzstan

It wasn’t meant to rain; this was meant to be the season of sweat and dust and dehydration. But mountains often have other plans. So here we are, dodging lightning and thunder and trying to pedal off a 3500 metre high mountain pass in Kyrgyzstan as quickly as possible. Somewhere, far below, sits our village and a huddle of yurts that will offer us a dry bed for a night. All we had to do now was find the trail down.

We did. It was slippery, and fast, and a little scary in places. Brakes sliced through layers of sticky mud to find their biting points, chains crunched grit to deliver the welcome gear changes to empower us up the mini-climbs that punctuated the pull of gravity. And what gravity! Thousands of metres of it on myriad trails laid down by centuries of horse traffic. In Kyrgyzstan’s Alai mountains, where cars groan and wheeze and belch out black smoke, it is the horse that reins supreme and they have created a legacy of trails to ride.

When finally we rolled into the village, filthy but smiling, the rain eased and we peeled off mud-caked outerwear. We washed bikes in a stream and supped warm chai, and we looked for somewhere to hang our dripping gear. There was only one place: the electric cable that spanned between the yurts. It would do; adventure means seizing opportunities and at times like this throwing health and safety to the wind.

Washed bikes and dripping gear on a washing line in Kyrgyzstan - Dan Milner

3. That mountain biking in North Korea is a sure fire way to get you noticed

There are possibly fewer places on earth that seem so beyond the sphere of mountain biking as North Korea, but for me that’s like waving a red rag at a bull. So I went. Tourists are rare in North Korea, mountain bikers more so. In fact there are none. But there are hiking trails in the Myohyang UNESCO biosphere reserve, and they are well trodden by day-tripping workers and school parties. Like in many places on the planet, people in North Korea can identify with the bike —bikes are the principle means of personal transport here— but mountain biking its trails meant getting noticed, fast. Unlike in Pyongyang, where city-dwellers politely averted stares, once riding the trails we became a novel focus of attention.

North Koreans, adults and kids alike, stared and laughed and threw us high-fives before pulling smart phones from their pockets to film our exploits — whether that was rolling down a vast bed rock slab, or slinging our bikes on to our backs to climb another steep ladder that scaled a vertical rock face. We had no idea what to expect in North Korea — that’s the lure of adventure— or how we’d be seen, interpreted or greeted. But we became stars, albeit for just twelve days.

We had this idea of a trip to try to see past the sabre-rattling and politics and find some common humanity in a little known part of the world. And in reflection, maybe the North Koreans aren’t so different from us: after all, if I saw a bunch of guys carrying bikes up a ladder I’d stop and take a photo too.

Harald Philipp and Max Schumann draw the crowds in North Korea. Photo Dan Milner.

4. A concrete floor is as good as a 5-star hotel in a storm in Argentina.

There are not many hotels in the Argentinean Puna. In fact once you immerse yourself deep in the rolling hills of this high altitude desert, you’d be hard pushed to find any. Which is why, during a four-day traverse of this wild, sparsely populated region of Northern Argentina, we were packing tents. Now, like any other advocate of the great outdoors I love tents. I love the al-fresco living they offer, and ours had done us well for two nights, warding off dust, wind and enormous ants alike, all at the kind of altitude that makes it hard to sleep let alone ride. But tents and electrical storms don’t make the best bedfellows and there was one almighty storm chasing us.

Our last day crossing the Puna, following an old mule track hoofed into the dirt centuries ago, we pumped our bikes along a serpentine trail that stubbornly refused to release us. It led us through, around and over a dozen tight bedrock outcrops, exhausting us both physically and mentally. It was a blast, but we were slowing and out of the corner of my eye I could see the darkening clouds slowly closing the gap behind us.  After 35 kilometres, we launched into the final descent — a clattering rock-strewn ribbon slicing through sage brush— determined to make the tiny village of Santa Ana (population 25) before being caught in the inevitable deluge to come.

But the inhabitants of La Puna know about storms. They know how their bridges get washed away, how roads become impassable, and they know how to offer shelter to travellers. On cue, the village mayor appeared to greet us and eyeing up the sky, offered us a simple tin-roofed shelter to overnight in. He swung open its creaking door just as the first raindrops fell, and we leapt inside to unfurl our sleeping mats on the cold, concrete floor. The storm raged for four hours, pounding on the metal roof and illuminating the sky with sheets of lightning, but we didn’t care. We’d learned that you don’t need hotels in La Puna, just hospitality.

Recharging the batteries to continue the journey in Argentina. Photo Dan Milner.

5. Abandoned villages in Spain are not really abandoned.

The town of Ainsa in Spain is well known for mountain biking, the surrounding region not so much. But threading through the pre-Pyrennees are countless old trails, many leading between old villages abandoned in the years following the Spanish Civil War. In June I joined a Spanish guiding outfit to explore the adventurous side of riding in the Huesca region. To properly get after the adventure, we left behind Ainsa’s picturesque medieval ramparts and comfortable hotels and opted instead to camp out in an abandoned village that sits hidden deep in the mountains.

Today’s tech-laden enduro bikes can turn any trail –even the barrelling, unforgiving rock gardens of the Sierra de Guara— into a grin fest, and so with a mix of exhaustion delivered by five days of riding and faces cracked by smiles from the last onslaught of endorphins, we rolled into an abandoned village to camp.

Ahead of us was an evening of kicking back with some good wine and chat, while cooking up some supper. No T.V., no internet and almost completely alone; but we had no idea our every move was being watched from the shadows. Something was watching and come dawn the village inhabitant had introduced itself: a fox. It pottered about between our dusty bikes and tents before seizing our packet of breakfast muesli and making off.

Bikes are the ultimate ticket to adventure. They open up experiences and moments that would otherwise pass you by, unnoticed, unappreciated, whether you’re railing a rocky trail or simply sat still watching a fox reign supreme on his turf.

Pablo Irigoyan Claver makes friends with the wildlife in Spain. Photo Dan Milner

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