The Carretera Austral (The end of the road...)

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May 17th 2009
Published: May 17th 2009
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Trudging up the hill, the only thing that prevents us becoming airborne it seems is the suction of our boots to the slop. The poncho that envelops us isn’t helping much aerodynamically, but beneath its shelter, shackled to my back, Kiva somehow manages to sleep. "It’s possible to experience four seasons in a single day in Patagonia", I recall, as a hail seeded wintry-mix swirls up through the valley gusting every-which-way, the sun's rays somehow penetrating the squall from a crystal-clear blue sky above; leading me to believe in the possibility of experiencing them simultaneously.

Begun in 1976 by the late neo-fascist Augusto Pinochet, in order to penetrate as far south as possible (lest Argentina lay claim to the territory) the Carretera Austral reached Villa O’Higgins in the year 2000, where bound by glaciers, virgin evergreen forests and the southern ice caps beyond, it dead ends at one of Chile’s last true wildernesses.

Rain-sodden god-forsaken Villa O'Higgins certainly feels like the end of the world, but by taking a boat across Lago O’Higgins to the two-family settlement of Candelerio Mancilla, and walking 20 miles through the mountains, our plan was to reach the end-of-the-world on the Argentinean side of the border.

What was not too long ago merely a claim on map, nobody had ever actually laid eyes on, is now a possession. Under civilization's laws this land is owned by the Chilean state. Under these laws, those that control the nation can do with it whatever they wish, including chopping down all the trees and damming all the rivers. Actually, they sold the rights to do that to the highest bidder.

A Spanish company Endesa currently plans to build five massive dams on the region’s two largest rivers (two of the world’s last remaining undammed rivers); one of which, the Baker, is the most pristine, I've ever laid eyes upon; a turquoise-blue pacific island dream, hurrying down through mountains as clean and wild as the day they were cast

The creation of the dams will "impact" 14 national parks and protected reserves; as valleys are flooded, ecosystems altered, and forests felled, the demise of countless fish and wildlife species is inevitable. Five thousand high-voltage towers will line the mountain tops all the way back to civilization, in order to power Chile’s cities to the north, in exchange for the promise of cheaper electricity. On a dying planet.

This planet is our possession. The pursuit of profit and economic progress is an ideal to be sought without delay or recourse, lest some other company or nation exploit it first. The fact that that something is pristine, irreplaceable and virginal, if anything, heightens the allure that someone should be the first.

On the morning of our departure, the rain fell lightly. Ominously, the clouds promised more. After some negotiation over breakfast, we decided to subcontract the transportation of our luggage to a man with a horse, thus trading the security of our camping gear, for speed (an optimistic word for a couple hiking with a one-year old baby). And since Señor Caballero would be trotting the 30kms over the mountains in a little over three hours, we couldn’t sit around all morning waiting for a break in the clouds if our arrivals were to coincide before the sun went down.

The wind and rain matched us pound for pound that first hour or so of the trek. We'd prepared ourselves mentally and physically for this day, with ever more demanding treks over the previous two months, as we'd made our way south through Chile. Down to the end of the road.

When we discovered a bridge had washed away at the approximate half-way stage of our journey we were forced to find a detour or turn back. But as the saying goes, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Some like to laud the brave man, I give credit to the intrepid little schoolboy in my head who couldn't turn down such a challenge. Whatever, we carried right on, and wade straight through that frigid river with our hearts in our mouths.

Soaked from the waist down, standing on the other side of that river the rain again began to pour and everything felt great. Despite trekking on some of the most waterlogged trails I’ve ever encountered - the rest of the hike went without a hitch. In a little over six hours we made our final descent down towards Lago Desierto, in Argentina, where a border guard in a wooden shack, nestled in an awe inspiring windswept valley nonchalantly stamped our passports, whilst watching the latest football offering beamed en vivo from Buenos Aires by DIRECTV.

We didn’t have to wait long huddled by the fire
enjoying the viewenjoying the viewenjoying the view

Sunrise Cerro Torre. Argentina
until the departure of the daily ferry across the lake, which, although monopolistically priced at $40US per person for a 45min ride, saved us a sodden nights camping on the lakefront and a further 5 hr hike the following day.

With a curious toddler running up and down the cabin trying to sneak up to the captain's deck at every opportunity, we were inevitably the last ones off the boat. Where we were met by a minibus and a random car - both demanding a cartel-ishly similar $50US to transport us the 22 miles into El Chalten. But It sure felt good to rest our weary bodies on those ergonomically squishy car seats.

The sky had reopened and the black of Patagonia’s night could be postponed no longer when the driver dropped us at the far end of town at El Chalten´s only ATM, so that we could withdraw the extra funds to cover the $130US we’d spent in little over an hour. He then took the opportunity to inform us that we'd have to remove our luggage, and our sleeping baby from his car, since he wasn’t prepared to take us any further from this point ...unless, of course, we paid him a little extra.

Not new to this game, I told him if that were the case, he wouldn’t be paid a single peso. Quickly Realising we actually wielded the power in such a situation he changed tact and proceeded to grovel to Jennifer for payment. To stop the misery we negotiated a reduced rate of $100 pesos ($30US - still a bloody lot of money), and he sped off in his car.

We’d probably walked a block back into town when a car came screaming around the corner, forcing Jennifer (who was carrying Kiva) to jump for the safety of the pavement. Out hopped our joker-friend and two uniformed Argentinean National Gendarmerie (border guards), who took the lead in demanding we pay the driver what we 'owed', whilst joker-boy stood there, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

Jennifer hit them in Spanish so fierce and quick fire I had trouble keeping up with it all. She immediately took the wind from their sails, and once they realised what had happened, and got a view of Kiva’s confused little eyes and rain sodden cheeks peeking out from under his hood, they were completely deflated. All that was left for them to do was give the driver the kind of pitiful look of derision he deserved, get back in the car and retreat from whence they came.

El Chalten's popularity as a tourist destination has mushroomed in recent years, and as yet, it appears doesn’t have the means to handle it. Arriving late at night during high season isn’t the best policy if you want to find a room. This situation was compounded by the previous few days relentless rain which meant many had put their hiking expeditions on hold, creating a backlog of people refusing to leave town until they’d completed their missions. We went from hostel, to hotel, to guesthouse in the rain that night; all the while our joker friend stalked us from a distance in his SUV. Though just when we were about to fall back on our tent and camp we found the last 2 beds in town (bunked).

The next morning I tried to switch the laptop on, and it was, dead... the cold, the water, shock or an aversion to horses; I'm not really an expert.

We spent the next few days hiking around the glorious mountains of the Fitz Roy Range and Cerro Torre. After a beautiful trip to Perito Moreno outside Calafate to suage our Glacier fix we were able to tackle what I dubbed ´the saucepan´ at Torres del Paine (basically the ¨W¨ minus the visit to Grey Glacier, thus cutting the hike down to four days and three nights).

Preoccupied by the weather we’d encounter on arrival, due to countless travellers’ stories of relentless rain, frigid nights in damp wind-whipped tents, and elusive cloud-covered mountains; and with summer fast drawing to a close, we were gifted with the best weather we could possibly have hoped for (minus a few snow showers and gale force winds that threatened to tear the tent from its moorings). Mission accomplished, we just had to turn around and head north through the uneventful nothingness that is Argentinean Patagonia.

Though this immense rolling void of identical scrub-land affixed to the bus window for 30 odd hours is virtually synonymous with word ‘Patagonia’, it was as alien to us as domesticated sheep seem to be in this inhospitable terrain. Having just travelled down through the evergreen rainforests of Chilean Patagonia; it seemed as great a contrast
Fording the river...Fording the river...Fording the river...

border trek between Chile and Lago Desierto.
as anything on earth; the sharing of the word ´Patagonia´ both side of the Andes, surely an act of geographical ignorance on the part of cartographers having never set foot on the continent.

In a quirk of fate, whilst in the Argentinean town of Rio Gallegos, a good 8hrs from El Chalten, who walked into our restaurant but Mr Joker + middle aged tourist. You might even say he looked like he’d seen a ghost, as he span on his heels and disappeared as quickly as he’d come. The truth is, if I’d had a car, I’d probably have stalked him - just for fun mind.

We waited until Buenos Aires to try to have the laptop fixed - but apparently it was "too new" for any of that treatment. So we shipped it back to the US to be fixed on warranty, knowing we probably wouldn’t be seeing it again on this trip. US Customs took an interest in it for a few weeks before it was delivered to Silicon Valley. MSI held up their end of the bargain and fixed it without explanation, though they wouldn’t ship it back to South America.

The best photos of our current trip, spanning three continents, have been saved and edited; the memories, impressions and opinions logged in my mind, but the wherewithal to blog is now tucked away in a basement in Wisconsin. The bureaucracy of having it shipped here to Bolivia isn’t worth considering.

Back in 2004 when I started this blog, I was blogger #90 to join a website called Travelblog (now boasting more than 120,000 bloggers) I travelled with a Fujitsu Lifebook™, weighing in at a little over a kilo, equipped with a hard drive capacity of 3 GB (not RAM - HARD DRIVE!). It was perfect for use as a word processor and sorting through photos before I burnt them to CD. Its latest descendant of similar dimensions is a veritable PC with all the trimmings - allowing me to watch Live Premiership matches, Skype™ home etc etal, from the comfort of our hostel room at the far end of the planet. It seems only yesterday I remember tuning into the BBC World Service on my SW Radio and sending home things called postcards.

But the truth is, I miss that laptop - ANY LAPTOP! (Preferably with WiFi) The sheer laboriousness of tapping out a blog, uploading and captioning pictures - on antiquated computers, with pedestrian internet speeds - complete with a restless toddler bouncing off your knee, has me yearning for the freedoms of an office job.

So for my own sanity, I’ve taken the decision not to spend the rest of my days down here touring the internet cafes of Latin America; I'm quitting the blog

I could catch up on the backlog of blogs including China, Kazakhstan, the Baltics et al, when we return ´home´. But our nomadism is about to face its stiffest challenge, and we’re expecting to quite busy. The irony is, we probably have the cash to continue travelling for another year or so after our last stint in Korea, yet we’ve decided to wind this current trip down in July. Having recently re-enrolled as a postgraduate student. This time Jennifer and I will be studying anthropology (We’ve both been given a free ride - due to Jennifer’s flawless academic record and, well, I think they took pity on me) commencing September in Alberta, Canada.

The prospect of settling down in one place for two years (minus our fieldwork) is strangely exciting... Don't

Colonia, URUGUAY
quote me on that.

Kiva will also be enrolling in local day care. Though having already completed his first ´Gap Year’ before his second birthday we sincerely hope he can adapt his nomadic life to that in the ‘real world’. And that his charismatic, intelligent, outgoing, adventurous personality developed on the road (actually, probably inherited from his father) won’t be tempered on the frozen Canadian Plains. Though on the other hand, random strangers plying him with candy, and taking his picture wherever we go can’t be ideal for his emotional development either, right?

He’s got quite a travel rap sheet now; having circumnavigated the globe before his first birthday, been carried to, crawled in or now toddling through Korea, USA, The Philippines, Taiwan, China, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, England, Ireland, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. Fortunately he's yet to reach the age where he picks up and repeats everything he hears - else his language development would be a little labyrinthine, and he would likely believe his name is "Muy Lindo" or “Que hermoso”. Yet by his third birthday we're confident that he'll have at least a basic grasp of Spanish, as both Jennifer and I will be conducting our fieldwork research in Ecuador for six months in 2010.

So this will be the end of the road for my blogging - though I never was too vigorous with my postings, in case you ever didn't catch one, so hopefully they won't be missed.

Twaddle, rubbish, and gossip is what people want, not action...The secret of life is to chatter freely about all one wishes to do and how one is always prevented - and then do nothing" Soren Kierkegaard.

Additional photos below
Photos: 174, Displayed: 32


Kiva and PapaKiva and Papa
Kiva and Papa

Torres del Paine

Argentina, Mendoza

near Rio Tranquilo (on the Carretera)
Fire and IceFire and Ice
Fire and Ice

Sunrise Cerro Torre. Argentina

17th May 2009

You'd be missed.......
Hi Jason and Jennifer......oops hi to Kiva too. I have been reading up on your blogs (including the earlier ones) and now feel like I have met you, played with Kiva, and traveled with you. Just want to let you know that I wish you good luck on your new academic endeavor, but also wish you wouldn't quit blogging altogether. Your stories have made us all better-informed, even amused, and overall wanting to follow your path!
17th May 2009

Thanks my friend
Thanks for all the fantastic stories. Its been a true pleasure to follow your travels thrue the world. And oboy ship o hoy your son looks just like you hehehe All the best to you and your family Andy the captain Vos Digging away in Sweden
17th May 2009

Hasta luego
Hope it's not too long before you're back :-)
17th May 2009

Your photo are very impressive and stunning. Actually I like to go to these places and your photo make me to visit these places even more. Anyway, Kiva is very cute, one of the cutest kid I ever seen. Where was he born? Travel save!
17th May 2009

you two just never stop!! nice work on keepin it real with Kiva by you side (or on you back)!I´m in Chile right now but it´s not the time to explore Patagonia! Where are you three now?
18th May 2009

Good luck to you, Jen and little Kiva
with the study and the new non-nomadic lifestyle in Canada - I'll miss your blogs with or without bloglag! - enjoy your deserved retirement blogger number 90.
19th May 2009

Hi ZT, Kiva was born in Korea, which may not be apparent at first glance. Megan, we are currently in Sucre, Bolivia; planning to to stay in Bolivia until our visas expire in mid July, before ducking into northern Chile (Lauca and Arica) on our way to Lima, Peru, where we fly to Miami via Mexico City (we got a real bargain with Aeromexico for some reason?). If you´d like me to give an exact address Ali (so you can send that gold retirement watch) PM me! P.S. As for enjoying my retirement; I've acquired a little experience in that department over the years;-)
15th June 2009

Hi Jason,
Well, I wish you well with your studies then. And, of course, your new status as what is most likely to be the first stationary nomad on earth. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your blogs (and felt a wee jealous of your travel writing skills…). Good luck! René
10th July 2009

Such a shame you've decided to quit blogging; I've really enjoyed following your travels! Travelblog will be a poorer place without you. You are a great writer and a highly talented photographer; may you have lots of success in your new adventure. AJ
27th December 2009

A simple note of gratitude. You're an inspiration. The selfishness of us readers await your return to the story-telling (as nomads in retirement don't last forever), yet the selflessness of us followers wish you well in your continuing journey and blogs or no blogs, thank you for all you've given us. Cheers!
17th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009, for the C and S America/writing category
Check this out. :)
14th April 2010

Inspirational Blog
I discovered your blog very late in the game, but I've been hooked from the first post to the last. Your intrepid nature has been truly inspirational. Even if this is your last blog I'm sure it won't be your last adventure as you still have they other half of the world to still to explore:D. I wish you and your young family good luck.
3rd July 2012

Thankfully it was not goodbye
I'm so very glad that you decided to recommence blogging - please don't quit again, just modify the blogging regime.

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