Chile 12: Punta Arenas and back to Torres del Paine

  Overlanders touring in South America know that, when crossing the border into Chile, the unexpected can happen. Some vehicles pass easily, others are subjected to a search – mainly for fresh produce. Taking the small border post Bella Vista after a public holiday should  have been quick and easy. It was not. The customs official subjected our vehicle to an extremely thorough search, even after we had voluntarily surrendered half a pineapple that we could not eat, as we were filled to capacity (the fruit was then deposited into an underground rubbish container in our presence). While it started sleeting this good official climbed into the vehicle, searched all over, found eggs in the fridge, which we said were cooked. This was not good enough -he made us open an egg in the vehicle in his presence – luckily it was hard boiled, otherwise we would have had a mess. With him, standing by, was his young son on holiday – we assume dad had to demonstrate to him how good a customs official he really was! After this short ordeal we proceeded via Russfin passing the derelict machinery from the gold rush, passed Cameron and ended up at our gaucho hut with its graffiti in order to have some shelter from the wind. The batteries disconnected, we spent a quiet, but cold and very windy night after the sun set at 22:30. After an early start, a quick breakfast we were ready to go just when the rain set in again. On days like this Karin really appreciated the fact that our cruiser had heated seats – within 15 minutes you felt comfortable and warm while the Tierra del Fuego harsh windswept landscape flew past. At Bahia Azul we again used the ferry which crosses every 20-30 minutes. Along the way saw some typical wild horses and the road remained virtually straight. Arriving back in Punta Arenas we immediately drove to Toyota in the Zona Franca ( close to Navimag port) to see whether a vehicle service could be arranged – after their customary siesta, at 15:00 they could accommodate us. So we drove to find Callegos Batterias in the hope to find replacements. Since the one good battery is a 145Ahr, we needed to replace both with the only available choice – a set of Turkish batteries. It is not quite what we would have intuitively selected, especially as they are identical, which meant some cable needed to be extended to fit them in. On the positive side the pair cost R 2978 – about half of what we had previously spent in Peru on Panasonics which had only lasted a year. Toyota serviced the vehicle in the afternoon, but while adjusting the handbrake cable at the rear, the thread snapped off. We needed to be back next morning for it to be brazed as no spares were available for our model. Luckily we got again accommodated at Hostel Aventure Austral where friendly Teresa checked us in. This gave us a chance to explore the city of Punta Arenas on foot and we took supper in a seafood restaurant – shrimps and Merluza. In the habour a luxury liner from Hurtigruten casted off – we never knew that they were also going into the Antarctic regions.   Just as we got ready to drive down to Toyota, Karin picked up a dental problem. With our knowledge of Spanish, how would we find a suitable dentist in a city we did not know? Toyota (here pronounced Toshota) came to the rescue! The friendly Venezuelan service assistant had a friend that is a dentista and Karin left by taxi to see Dra Pamela Eliana Luizaga de Munoz while I waited for Toyota to attend to the brake problem. By siesta time all was done – Toyota cost R 2624 for the service, R 1231 for repairing handbrake, checking brakes, rotating tyres and replacing some lightbulbs whereas Karin’s treatment was reasonably priced as well. We left Punta Arenas with the a good feeling –  things can be sorted out at this southernmost city of Chile. As we got closer to Puerto Natales again, the landscape metamorphosed from flat to hilly and the Andes mountains became visible again. With this change also the flora underwent significant changes. For the night we ended again at Camping Güinos with Francisca and her husband and we got our laundry done for P6000 for 6kg loads. Will we ever get used to the icy cold and wet conditions? Fortunately we could sit inside and share the communal kitchen with a number of backpackers and cyclists before creeping into our warm down sleeping bags which we had specially custom made in South Africa by Makoti Down Products – a manufacturer from Uitenhage we can recommend, their products proved robust and warm and they can manufacture to size.   Before we departed to the Torres del Paine we restocked provisions, as in the park no shops are available and we shall proceed from there back into Argentina. Since gas cycliders from our portable gas stove cost approx. 1/3 of what they cost in Argentina, we stocked up and then drove to the little town of Villa Serano just before the entrance to the park, drove through town past the last house with its red roof and carried on a track toward the mountains until we found a lonely wild camping spot on the bank of the clear Rio Serano that runs from within the Torres del Paine park. Of interest were the cleansing stations for anglers - Chile tries to prevent the spread of Didymo, a type of thin grass that cloggs the rivers. All equiment and angling boots/trousers need to dipped before and after the activity. The only noises we heard during this quiet night were some cows, sheep and horses grazing close to where we found shelter. Before we entered the park the next morning we prepaid Camping Serano for the coming night and then drove in. At the Mirador del Condor we hiked up the mountain for 1 hour, enjoying the splendid views. On the way we saw the rare Porcelain Orchid as well as Guanacos and Andean hares. Next we visited Mirador Grey and walked to see the Grey Glaciar – rain made the walk a wet one and we spent some time hiding under bushes at the Mirador and waited for the rain to pass and were rewarded with a glimpse of the glaciar and some drifting ice. Back at camping Serano we appreciated their shelters to cook in and then it got late after Sven and Iris also arrived and the red wine flowed liberally.   We had to skip the hot shower the next morning as the generator, required to pump water, had not been started yet. We decided to leave early as it promised to be a beautiful day, but this might only last minutes here. Luckily for us we could do a Panorama or two with all mountain peaks exposed except Cerro Paine Grande, the highest with 3050m. This was followed by a walk past Salto Grande, the waterfall up to the Cuernos lookout, a worthwhile point to see the glaciar as well as Condors on the way. From our vantage point we could see an excellent example of an Aréte (Grat in German), that was formed through two glaciars running down two valleys, leaving this knife-edged aréte in it wake. For the night we met Sven and Iris again on camping Pehoé, another site with shelters and warm showers and we enjoyed another supper in good company.   After a short trip to Lago Azul we decided to leave via the northern entrance toward Cerro Castillo. The border is at Cerro Castillo . Here we enjoyed a coffee and cake at the restaurant on the border and met Julia and Markus again, the Photonomads from Austria, we had originally met at the museum in Ushuaia. Leaving Chile at this border post certainly was a lot less stress than entering at Bella Vista a few days ago. This post covers 2nd to 8th January 2018

Argentina 10: To the End of the World – Ushuaia

  On the RN3 going South we made good headway , this road being the main connection to Tierra del Fuego and ends in Ushuaia. Turning off at Tolhuin we stopped at the Union Bakery – known for a good coffee and cake. Down the road was Camping Hain owned and run by Andres. First we thought we ended at the wrong place, part being an outdoor playground for kids, the entire camping site being built from recycled material and imaginary theme structures everywhere.   A helicopter, wigwams,  a viewing platform built from driftwood and scrap metal and plastic, a wooden cooking shelter with greetings from all the travelers that have visited. (The word Hain describes the lodge that the Indians used to build for their ceremonies and normally only men were allowed in). However, the showers were hot and ablutions were better than average. Here we met two overlanders with most unusual transport – two 3-wheeler model Apes of the Italian Piaggio manufacturer. They are delivery bikes converted completely with miniature kitchen and sleeping quarter. Ricardo Suter and Richard from Germany were also on their way to Ushuaia and the evening passed quickly with a lot of interesting tales. At 11:00 it was still light when we crept in and at 3am it got light again and it seemed the sun wanted to already rise. We had a good view over Lago Fagnano from our tent, a night without cloud cover, yet not many stars were visible (it never really got pitch dark). The morning was cold and windy and as we continued south the rain set in and we passed the two 3-wheelers that slow down to 20km when it goes steep uphill, their engines being around 200cc. Then RN3 before Ushuaia passes through some of the Andes, a scenic road all the way with a lot of indigenous forests and lakes. As we reached Ushuaia ( Fin del Mundo – End of the World) we looked around and had to negotiate a few roads under construction – the town is growing at a rapid pace. Down in the harbour a number of luxury vessels were moored, leaving from here into Antarctica. In town itself no camping could be found so we decided to drive west into Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. Entry not cheap at P350 pP ( being approx. R320 pP), however it allowed us to camp free for two nights in a beautiful forested area. The park can also be reached via a small train, which many day visitors make use of. The Alakush visitor and Information centre was worth of visit, giving interesting facts and information about fauna, flora and the indigenous Alakush that inhabited this region. We selected the open campsite on the shores of Laguna Verde and camped next to a German motorbiker, Hubertus from Berlin. As the weather remained cold, windy and rainy we set up our awning and tent and Hubertus was very happy to spend some time with us rather than remaining in his one-man tent that many bikers travel with. Over the next day Sven and Iris with their double storey Sprinter joined, as well as Willy Wabnegg with his older red Mercedes truck. We decided to stay and did short day hikes down to the Beagle Channel to observe some birds. During the night it had snowed, all peaks covered – yet it was at 4degrees relatively warm, as Hubertus was here for the third time, previously he always had snow right down to the camping site at this time of year. Despite this weather we got plagued by Mozzies and needed to spray to have a quiet night’s sleep. After two cold nights we could not start our Landcruiser – starter batteries were flat (the vehicle has two in parallel), it was the second time we had a defective battery ( we had bought an expensive set of Panasonic batteries in Arequipa in Peru exactly one year before). In the end the park rangers and the local police assisted to get us going again so that we could move back into town to celebrate New Year’s Eve. En-route out of the park we also visited the other possible camping site Rio Pipo – also a nice spot. Then we made a turn at the southernmost Post Office in the world to send off a postcard to our little granddaughters. In Ushuaia we visited the old prison – one of the old penal colonies that were established to banish murderers as well as political adversaries. Today it is a museum and gave us insight into the very harsh living conditions that prevailed. The Indians used canoes made of bark for fishing, which was exclusively done by the women, while the men did the hunting. Baby girls were taken into the icy cold water from an early age to make them used to the cold conditions. In the evening fires were lit to warm up and dry - the fires seen by the first seafarers who then called this area Tierra del Fuego - the land of fires. Prison conditions were harsh and hardly anybody managed to escape alive. The first prisoners had to build the penal colony as well as ensure a regular supply of wood to the early inhabitants – back breaking work in icy cold conditions – how much can a human body endure? Part of the museum complex is also the maritime as well as an art museum – a worthwhile visit while in Ushuaia. Works of the local artist Alejandro Abt appealed to us shown in the current exhibition. There is open Wifi at the museum complex – useable but not very fast.   Before we proceeded down to the promenade area to find a place to celebrate New Years Eve, we went to the café Tante Sara and spoiled ourselves with a decadent cappuccino and cheesecake -wonderful.   When we finally got down past the promenade, Sven, Iris and Willi already had parked their vehicles, we closed the ring and soon we had built a cosy and wind-sheltered ring of vehicles, tarpaulins draped to close the gaps to stop the wind. Soon the two 3-wheelers Ric and Richi with their Apes-Piaggios joined in the fun as well as Thomas and Karin from  Germany that also had booked a hotel room. Soon the Glühwein started flowing generously, the meat was on the coals and we huddled together celebrating the new year with a few bottles of champagne and a fireworks display across town. Although Sven and Iris as well as Rick and Richi had booked hotel rooms, nobody left and we celebrated until late and after a short night sleep, prepared a scrumptious breakfast. Although we blocked off half of the road with our camp the police came by, ensured all was fine and nobody chased us – it seemed like overlanders were a familiar sight gathering here at year’s end.   Before heading north again, we drove leisurely along the Camino Playa Larga parallel to the Beagle Channel until it ended and enjoyed the sight of Ushuaia from a different angle. Then we drove north via the RN3 until Camping Hain, where we decided to spend the night with a welcome hot shower which we had none to enjoy while in Ushuaia. During the afternoon it got overcast and rain set in – suddenly a knock on our window and Werner and Pia Rechsteiner from Basel invited us for supper in their large overlander vehicle truck. What a pleasure to sit in a vehicle with heating inside – so cosy and it made us wonder what is actually the ideal vehicle to travel in.   Since we disconnected one of the batteries and charged the other overnight, we did not battle to get started again but knew that we will need to drive back to Punta Arenas to find replacements. As we had to cross the border back into Chile, we gave away all the remaining fresh produce and departed. Before Rio Grande we turned off onto the “b” via Cauchicol to the small border post at Bella Vista, a scenic back road. This border post is only open during summer due to the Rio de la Turba. The stretch of road is ripio, a lot of corrugations on the Argentinan side. Snow on the peaks, impressive clouds and open spaces. Exiting Argentina was quick, we were the only vehicle crossing.   Entering Chile was not so smooth……     This post covers 29th December 2017 to 2nd January 2018

Chile 11: Wind, Clouds and King Penguins

  By now we had two goals: visiting the only colony of King Penguins and reaching Ushuaia for New Year.   As we drove southward the wind increased and it grew colder by the minute, light rain set in that sounded like hail hitting the vehicle. Around us nothing……really nothing. Flat country-side for miles on end, no trees, no hills, no estancias. We started wondering whether tonight would be the night where we had to sleep inside the vehicle without opening the rooftop tent.   As we deliberated our options, a small hut appeared on the horizon – amazing that it withstood the gale. As we got closer our decision was taken – we shall park next to the shelter on the lee side. Since wind in Patagonia normally blows from the west, the door opened to the east and to the roadside. As we came closer we realized it was not inhabitated – this is a type of shelter for herders passing with their flocks. One room was reasonably intact and still had floor planks -the other must have been used as firewood. The stench was barely bearable – a herder with his flock and dogs must have stayed here for a while. Judging by the graffiti on the walls the herders must be lonesome and longing for their loved ones. We moved in, happy to have found a little niche in this nothingness. After a supper and a tea the world looked much more attractive again. Next morning we were greeted with an overcast sky, the world looked a lot friendlier then and in the distance we could see the large shearing shed and winter quarters for the animals on the estancia. An hour later we reached Parque Pingüino Rey in the Bahia Inútil – too early, it was still closed. However, the local ranger ( very knowledgeable, also having visited Cape Town’s penguins in Boulders Beach as part of a Penguin Conference in the previous year) had mercy with us and allowed us in early at 10:00 to make good use of the prevailing sun which just poked through the clouds for about an hour (the park opens at 11:00). The King Penguins used to breed in substantial numbers along the Magellanic Channel, then disappeared as the fishing depleted the channel. Since about 7 years they have returned and commercial fishing is no longer allowed. Their numbers are slowly increasing again, currently there were about 100 of which are 30 breeding pairs. They also stay here for the entire year as there are sufficient Sardines in Inútil Bay. We considered ourselves lucky being able to see Penguins of all ages here – some still in their infant brown downs, some moulting into adult and some with eggs breeding. King Penguins reach a height of 1,20 meters and age to 25 years. Here we also met Sven and Iris from Germany travelling in their double storey Mercedes Sprinter and we might  see them again in Ushuaia as they were travelling in the same direction as us. From the park we continued along a good gravel road, a very remote area, drove through the village Cameron with the Communa Zimaukel and observed some ducks along the coast. Along the road we saw many trees strangely formed by the constant winds of this region – reminding us of some trees at home in Cape Town that also grow in the direction of the South Easter winds. Just before Parador Russfin, as small hospedaje that seemed to have catered for the gold miners many years ago, we left the road and found a clearing in a small forest providing us shelter from the wind for the night and with an idyllic view over the plains. Since we would be passing over the border next day into Argentina, we had to finish all fresh produce – Asparagus with Ham – not a bad meal in this desolate area. We had done 20000km since we had started in September in Montevideo and we realized, that travelling this part of the continent requires a lot of distance driving, much more so compared to our first 11 month going north in 2016. The next morning greeted us with drizzle and 8 degr. C , we left early, passing some old gold digger machinery at Dragua Aurifera. Along the Y895 road we spotted four grey foxes ( Zorro gris),  some guanacos with foals (or what is a small camel called?), passed some beautiful old estancias, normally situated in depressions with some wind shelter through small forests. Here we  met a gaucho along the road, who was keen to know where we were coming from and heading to. We reached the 257CH again that took us down to San Sebastian, the border town, where we stopped next to the police station (less wind) and prepared a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and mushrooms – ensuring that border control does not have a chance to seize it. Passing the Chilean border here was quick and the Argentinian side is about 15km drive, again no problems and was quick to enter.   Entering another country always means to find a supermarket as soon as possible, in order to stock up again. In Rio Grande we found a La Anonima  - thereafter we proceeded to find our next stop for the night. Little did we know what weird place we would find for the night.       This post covers 27th to 28th December 2017