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Published: February 12th 2013
Our Beloved Truck, Elle
The Dragoman fleet are all named after supermodels.
The next part of my journey would take me through the wind-swept plains and snow-covered mountains of Patagonia, and down to the End of the World. I had signed up to a 34 day overlanding trip with my favourite company, Dragoman. We'd be covering thousands of kilometres in a giant truck laden with camping equipment and outdoor cooking gear. The truck was called Elle, and she was a tough lady capable of driving over rough terrain. Our trip would take us into the true wilderness of Chile and Argentina. Our crew consisted of eighteen people of varying nationality, age and background. It was an interesting and eclectic mix of personalities, and over the coming 34 days we would get to know each other very well. We would become a small community where everyone has to work together to make the trip run smoothly. Each person has a job on the truck. Jobs included filling jerry cans with water, throwing tents down from the roof, setting up the cooking stoves, loading/unloading supply boxes, and ensuring all windows and hatches in the truck are secured. This was not a trip for the lazy. Nor for anyone not prepared to bush camp without showers,
Salto De Lajo. We camped at the top
or to pee at the side of countryside roads while traffic goes whizzing past.
Starting from Santiago we had the first of our long driving days, covering 500 km. Our first campsite was at the top of a magnificent waterfall called Salto de Lajo. We had a lot of distance to cover the next day, but our early start was foiled. The camp administrator had left to catch a train at 7am and forgotten to unlock the giant iron-wrought gates at the entrance! The next shift guy wasn't due to start until 10am, so we were trapped. Our escape plan was simple and elegant. We simply dismantled the gates and took them off their hinges. After driving through, we put them back. The guy on the next shift would be left wondering how a ten-ton truck and 18 passengers had vanished into thin air!
Our next stop was the town of Pucon, a bland place overflowing with wooden-clad restaurants designed to look charming, but actually sterile tourist traps with overpriced menus. It was also filled with souvenir shops, outdoor stores and tour agencies. Anyone hoping to find the essence of small-town Chilean life would be sorely disappointed. However,
The Perfect Volcano
Mount Villarica. Stunning, and still active
this town was a bustling epicentre for adventure sports. You name it, you could book it here. Abseiling, rock climbing, canyoning, kayaking, hiking, rafting, quad biking, horse riding, mountain biking and lots of other activities ending in "ing". The other redeeming feature of the town was the view in the background. Looming over the town was Mount Villarrica, a huge active volcano covered in snow. It was a textbook volcano with a perfect cone shape. This was what baby volcanos aspire to look like when they grow up. And of course, it was begging to be climbed. So the next day we set out to conquer the volcano.
Our tour agency equipped us with helmets, crampons and ice-picks, and worryingly gave us gas masks. Villarrica is an active volcano, and we had to be prepared in case it got a bit feisty. Choking to death inside a cloud of sulphur dioxide would have easily ruined our day. Assuming the volcano behaved itself, the other potential issue was the weather. Over here it can change in the blink of an eye. Sometimes sooner, at the mere quiver of an eyelid. If there are howling winds, biting cold and snow, the
Our Volcano Assault begins
Ice-picks, crampons and gas masks at the ready
top of a mountain is the last place you want to be. So there were several checkpoints during our ascent to assess the incoming weather. Apparently, less reputable companies sometimes push to reach the top when weather conditions are not favourable. And last year, five people died climbing Villarrica. So I was pleased that our company was being cautious. Although when we tried to pay, the guy said "you only have to pay if you come back". IF we come back??
The ascent wasn't technical. No climbing was involved. You were just plodding up a very long and steep hill. But it seemed never ending, and soon the thigh muscles were starting to ache. After two hours of climbing we were ambushed by some cold weather, and sleet started blowing in from the side. Operation Volcano was then cancelled, and we had to descend. Gutted. We saw another group ahead still climbing (muppets). Our descent was a lot more fun than our climb. Inside our backpacks were miniature plastic "bum sledges". So we scooted down the volcano at high speed on our backsides!
The next day we signed up to a Ducky trip. I had never heard of
Crazy Waterfall Antics
Rodrigo kayaks off a waterfall !!
this before. A Ducky is a one-man inflatable kayak, made from the same materials as a white-water raft. So it's tough, buoyant and a lot of fun. Imagine a white water rafting trip, except you are the one steering and choosing your path. You follow a guide who demonstrates the best route, but you're being thrown around in the fierce water and bouncing off rocks, so it's an exhilarating experience. Our guide, Rodrigo, was a serious adrenaline junkie and an elite kayaker. I've attached a photo to show you his crazy antics kayaking over a waterfall!
After Pucon we headed across the border into Argentina. Without putting too fine a point on it, border crossings are a bloody pain in the backside. In theory they should be simple. Stamp me out of one country and stamp me into the next. In practice, they take aaaaaages. There's always a lot of staff at border crossings, but many of them are just milling around doing nothing and scratching their arse. The guys on the desk are so slow that time actually goes backwards when you're in their vicinity. You think they are checking your passport, but they are secretly
Duckies are the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Or with a wetsuit on anyway. Tijana leads the way for our team of Duckies
updating their Facebook status. I feel like getting a long stick and poking them. Or going up to them and saying "excuse me mate. What the flippin' heck is taking so long?"
So, three days later (or so it seemed), we made it across the border into Argentina!
(more photos at the bottom of the page)
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