Landscape photographer Mark Watson takes the concept of a ‘road trip’ to a new plateau; he’s on a bicycling adventure to traverse the chained mountain ranges that snake from the top of Alaska to the southernmost reaches of South America. Three years, two continents, unlimited photo opportunities
In 2009, photographer Mark Watson and his partner Hana Black embarked on a nine-month bicycle trip across the Asian continent; starting from one of the world’s most dangerous roads, the high altitude Sichuan–Tibet Highway, across the Himalayan Plateau, and finishing at the southern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Their regular lives on hold, living with what they could shackle to their bikes, bodies regularly pushed to the limits of endurance; by the time they had finished the 13,000km trip the couple knew one thing for sure — they wanted more.
“At the end we realized [that] neither of us … [was] ready to stop: we were too in love with the lifestyle of exploring new countries by bicycle,” Mark exclaims. “We went home to earn more money with the confidence that we could handle a much longer trip, and so the planning for a dirt-road tour of the Americas started.”
On 6 June 2016, their next, much more ambitious odyssey began: three years on the road, travelling an almost unbroken route from the northern tip of Alaska, within the frozen Arctic Circle, through to the Argentinian resort town of Ushuaia in South America’s southernmost archipelago. I manage to speak with the cycling photographer as he gets in to the coastal Ecuadorian town of Salinas for a few days’ rest, having just hit the two-year mark of the trip. So far, the pair have plotted a route that mainly avoids paved highways, and stuck to backcountry dirt roads, jungle, and alpine terrain.
“The theme of our ride is to follow the ‘American Cordillera’, which is the title of the nearly continuous ranges of mountains starting with Canada’s Coast Mountains, then the Rockies of North America, the Sierra Madre of Mexico into the Central American dividing ranges, and finally the Andes of South America,” outlines Mark.
This type of bicycle-driven journey is known as ‘bikepacking’; a hybrid of pavement-based cycle-touring mixed with the rugged adventuring of mountain biking. With all their worldly possessions packed onto the bike frames (using specialized bags that keep the bike’s profile narrow and balance correct), the pair cycle through the day — usually for five hours, though sometimes up to eight — with Mark photographing along the way, until they either set up camp or find somewhere hospitable to stay.
“It’s rare that we know where we will sleep at night when we set out in the morning, although we tend to have a rough destination in mind each day,” he says. “We have had many valuable experiences turning up in small villages and asking for somewhere to camp or sleep — throwing ourselves in the deep end [by] arriving in villages that have not seen ‘gringos’ before has always been rewarded with help and generosity from locals, who are usually fascinated by what we are doing.”
Travelling in such a self-sufficient, physically demanding fashion requires that the adventurous couple keep their gear as lightweight as possible. Destinations are often dictated by the need to resupply water and food, and only the clothes needed for the current conditions are kept on hand (for example, during tropical stretches, their cold-weather clothes are posted ahead). Their kitchenware consists of two plastic bowls doubling as cups, a small billy, and a spork each.
To navigate a path through the lesser travelled back routes of the nations they cross, the duo use a small laptop and digital mapping to plan their path in advance, and follow it via a handlebar-mounted GPS unit. They also have their smartphones for more detailed maps of the immediate area.
“It’s been a virtually fail-safe method so far, although we have occasionally been served surprises when what we thought was a road in satellite photos turned out to be a rough walking track,” Mark says. “But often, the remoter we go with the route, the deeper the reward, as we encounter isolated communities and rarely seen landscapes.”
And for the photographer, it is those unique photo opportunities that mean so much. A landscape and outdoor lifestyle photographer, Mark has three published photobooks to his name, as well as a host of commercial clients. The chance to document this ambitious trip through imagery is a dream project for him, but it can also complicate an already-demanding way to travel.
“Where a non-photographer might be free to go with the flow, I tend to structure my days around shooting possibilities and locations. This might mean aiming to be at a particular place by the end of the day for location and light, or spending extra time in places to get the best shots possible,” he explains.
The extra planning, grappling with equipment failure, and being left at the mercy of the weather is a small price to pay for the unfiltered, personal experiences that bikepacking the Americas has provided: great mountain ranges, yawning open plains, colonial architecture, vibrant indigenous cultures, and singular ecological wonders.
“Camping opposite an erupting volcano in Guatemala was a unique photographic opportunity,” he exclaims. “Colombia has been amazing for its diversity, as you can be riding high on a volcano and then, just a few hours later, in sweltering jungle.”
Along with its splendours, the trip has had its share of rough spots, too. In one section of the route through Ecuador, an ancient, rocky Inca trail, the cyclists pushed their bikes for 10 hours to cover 7.5km and gain just 500 vertical metres. In Colombia, two men rode motorcycles up to the pair and stole Hana’s phone (a beat-up Samsung with a dying screen, Mark explains without much regret) from off her bike, mid ride. And sometimes the weather proves to be the photographer’s biggest adversary, spoiling his only chance at certain shots.
“Ultimately, I’ll be producing a coffee-table book of this three-year journey, and that needs to be an honest portrayal of what a long bicycle journey is like: it can’t all be blue skies and perfect light,” he says philosophically.
On the final year of the journey, Mark and Hana will continue to follow the Cordillera chain of mountain ranges down the western coast of South America, traversing the Andes through Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, until reaching their ultimate destination of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The photographer hopes that his resulting images from the epic trip will inspire people not only to try touring by bicycle (“the best way to travel”) but to become more open to the world around them.
“I believe there’s a lot of fear of the unknown and xenophobia in the world. Travel, especially by bicycle, where the protective shell of the ‘tourism bubble’ is removed, exposes you to so much and teaches you a huge amount about yourself and the world,” Mark says.