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March 21, 2009

Carretera Austral

Well I haven't got around to writing anything since embarking on the Carretera Austral - internet has been a rare and expensive luxury - so now that I've finished it I thought I'd try to sum things up.

The Carretera Austral, Chile's Ruta 7, links a number of remote settlements in Chilean Patagonia, extending 1,200km between Puerto Mont and Villa O'Higgins. Construction started during the brutal Pinochet/CIA regime in the 1970s, with the last 100km to O'Higgins completed in 2000. Along the way you can see memorials to soldiers who lost their lives during construction. Despite the difficult terrain, the overall design and construction is poor, with many sections subject to flooding and landslides, and with apparently little attention paid to environmental and aesthetic impacts.

Most of the road is unpaved ripio, mostly not too bad but it does get a bit bumpy in places, which takes its toll on body, soul and bike (I met other riders with broken rims, spokes, racks etc). It passes through vast tracts of pristine wilderness, some of it protected as national park/reserve but much of it that they simply haven't got round to colonising. The region was inhabited mostly by the indigenous Mapuche until waves of European settlers arrived in the early 20th Century. Now there is a pattern of large cattle/sheep estancias (estates) surrounding the towns and villages, though these can be separated by 100s of kms and so there are large sections of untouched wilderness in between.
The mountains, the southern end of the Andes, don't reach heights of much more than 2,000m, but they are nonetheless impressive and snow can be seen all year round on southern slopes, as well as a number of glaciers. There are waterfalls and cascades everywhere, often right next to the road. You never have to carry much water, sometimes you don't even have to get off your bike to fill up a water bottle.

Then there are the numerous lakes and wild rivers, always nice to stop to fish or swim (on the warmer days anyway). The forests are dominated by southern beech, with a dense understory, sometimes with large ferns giving the impression of a temperate rainforest. Actually it reminds me a lot of Tasmania and New Zealand's South Island, amazing since they've been genetically isolated for millenia (though I never saw anything resembling a wombat or kea). Birds are numerous, from petite hummingbirds to elegant waterfowl to giant condors. Frogs can often be heard ribbiting away close to the road. I loved the large dragonflys which sometimes seem to fly alongside you like a fairy godmother. There are no dangerous animals to worry about, though there are mosquitos in places: unlike the somnolent ones we get in Australia that hover around lazily and will maybe come and bite you if they can be bothered, these ones don't hesitate to make a beeline (or should that be mosquitoline?) straight for any piece of exposed skin.

Add the fact that there is little traffic, and you begin to understand why the Carretera has become such a popular place for cycle touring. Some days I met about 6 or 8 other riders, from countires as diverse as Estonia, Japan, Israel and South Africa, though the majority from Europe and especially Germany.
Unfortunately this unique place is under threat from plans by foreign corporations (among them Xstrata (Switzerland) and E.ON AG (Germany) to construct a number of megadams in the region to harness energy from the various rivers, with the world's longest high tension transmission line to deliver this energy to the north of the country where it will be used to fuel an acceleration in mining growth. The proposals have the support of the Chilean government (no doubt thanks to generous "political contributions"), though are strongly opposed by the local population, with whom consultation has been minimal. Chile's people are being sold the idea that the dams are needed to satisfy future energy demand, but there are a host of less destructive alternatives, chief among them improved energy efficiency and demand management. But who ever made money out of reducing demand?

And so, to the actual journy. I started in the South, in Villa O'Higgins, but first I had to get there from El Chaltén in Argentina, which was an adventure in itself. There is no road connecting the two towns, but there is a route involving a horse track and a couple of lake crossings. From El Chaltén it was 50km of ripio to get to Lago del Desierto, some sections of which were underwater and had to be waded through. I arrived at the jetty with five minutes to spare before the evening ferry left, pretty cold and wet and so not able to fully appreciate the journey along the long, narrow lake with steep forested mountains on either side. At the other end I got my exit stamp from the border police and set up camp before going to fish off the jetty. In just 10 minutes I had caught a good-sized lake trout, which I fried up with some mashed potato. (My first and, to date, only success in the fishing department.) That evening I met a Swiss couple who were coming the other way. They had a five year old son who they towed in a trailer, and had been biking for the last 3 years. I did wonder how fair it was on the kid, as he would have few possibilities for steady relationships or friendships other than with his parents.

From Del Desierto there was a horse track to the Chilean border, the first part of which was so impossibly steep and muddy that I had to make two trips - one with bike and one with luggage, and even then it was hard work. I started to think that I should have hired a horse to help me, as many others opt to. Looking back from the top of this climb the Lago was a spectacular sight, which helped to restore my motivation. From then on the climbing was more gentle, but still tough going with lots of mud and tree roots. I was pushing the whole time, a couple of times slipping in the mud and having the loaded bike fall on top of me. This would be a moderately difficult hike - what was I doing hauling 35kg of bike and baggage with me?

There were about five creek crossings, where I had to unload the bike and make multiple crossings (either wading or using a makeshift bridge). Some were narrow enough for me to throw the bags across and just make one crossing with bike. It would have been much easier in a pair or group, but I enjoyed the logistical challenge and by the fifth had a pretty smooth routine going.

Some people manage to get to Lago O'Higgins in one day, but I'd given myself two, and a good thing too because by 5pm I hadn't even made it to the border and was pretty much spent, so set up camp for the night.

The next day was much easier. After 30 minutes I got to the border and from there the track widened, virtually all downhill, and I could finally ride again. All was going well until I got to the washed out bridge. I'd been warned about this by a hiker I'd met coming the other way, who told me there was a makeshift bridge 100m upstream. Well I walked 150m upstream and didn't see anything, and tried downstream just in case, but still didn't see anything (I later found out that it was more like 300m). Only one optiopn presented itself: to wade across. The water was freezing and deeper than I anticipated, up to my thigh at its deepest. On my first crossing with the bike on my shoulder I was almost toppled by the powerful current. For the remaining four crossings I used a stick but it was still tricky. Any deeper (or had I been shorter) and I think it would have been way too dangerous and I'd have had to have waited until the level dropped. Anyway, I finally completed the task, shivering with cold but exhilerated at having conquered it.

After a few more kms, including some very steep and rocky descent that I chickened out of and walked, I arrived at Candelario Mancilla on the southern shore of Lago O'Higgins, in plenty of time to get the 5:30 ferry. But when I went to get my Chilean entry stamp, I was told that the ferry wouldn't be coming until the next day (due to flooding preventing the fuel truck from arriving) . Fortunately there was a campsite with hot showers, so I had the opportunity to relax and try some more fishing.

Waiting for the ferry the next day, two other riders arrived, Spencer & Amy from the U.S. I liked them instantly and we ended up riding most of the next few weeks together until Coyhaique. They were telling me about a Brazilian guy they'd met at Lago del Desierto who was planning to do the horsetrack on a motor scooter. We were just discussing how impossible it would have been, in particular the washed-out bridge, when we heard the noise of engine. Somehow he made it but to this day I can't imagine how.

The ferry was late and didn't get to the other side until 11pm, I ended up hitching a ride for the 12km to Villa O'Higgines, sharing the back of a truck with half a dozen dead sheep.

After a rest day we started for real on the Carretera, together with Dutch couple Robin & Nicky, and made about 60km before the weather got the better of us. We asked a farmer if we could camp in his field, but he wanted to charge us $7 each - the first time in S. America I'd been asked for money (I guess he gets lots of reuqests). So we ended up camping under a bridge a few 100m up the road. The farmer came along later and invited just the girls into his home for a coffee - what a creep (they declined).

The next day we had to get to Rio Bravo 40km away by 1pm to get the ferry to Puerto Yungay. I got a puncture on the way and, despite going flat out afterward, only arrived in time to see the heart-sinking sight of the ferry leaving. I settled down for a six hour wait for the 7pm ferry, but then was offered a ride in small RIB with some oceanographers who had been surveying the channel. Even though I hadn't lost much time, I only made it another 10kms after Puerto Yungay as I'd spent all my energy racing to catch the ferry.

For the next couple of days riding to Cochrane the weather improved dramtically and I was able to enjoy the Carretera in its full glory, stopping to relax/eat/swim/fish every now and again by a lake or river.

I met up with Amy and Spencer in Cochrane, staying a few nights in a really homely hospedaje. The owner, Ana, lived there on her own and seemed to really enjoy the company her guests.

After a few days I set off again with Spencer (Amy hitching because she was sick). After a forgetable morning of ups and downs in foul weather, the afternoon was a delight, riding alongside the dazzling blue Rio Baker (one of the rivers under threat of being dammed) in warm sunshine until we reached Puerto Bertrand, a real gem of a place on the shore of Lago Bertrand. There was a free campsite right by the lake with plum and apple trees - heavanly.

We had a rest day at Villa Cerro Castillo, where it was decided we'd have a feast on the way to Coyhaique (it was only two days' ride away on pavement so weight wasn't too much of an issue). Spencer suggested lamb so, as we were walking back from the nearby Cave of the Painted Hands, we stopped at an estancia and asked the farmer if we could buy some from him. He was a real character, sitting on his horse with a warm toothless grin and a wrinkled weather-beaten face. He offered to go and slaughter one of his lambs for us but, when we clarified that we only wanted half a lamb, he asked, still grinning but in a more bemused way, what he was going to do wit the other half. So we ended up having to buy a frozen lamb leg in the village, but it was nonetheless a priceless encounter.

And so we rode out of Cerro Castillo the next day on wonderful smooth pavement (felt so good after weeks of ripio), the lamb leg bungee-corded to Spencer's rear rack. By early afternoon we arrived at the national reserve campsite, and within a few hours were enjoying roast lamb and vegetables, accompanied by some porcini mushroom that Amy discovered in the forest, washed down with Chilean merlot. It certainly made a nice change from the normal staple of pasta with tomato sauce. The next day we had a pretty strong headwind, but with the three of us drafting off eachother it wasn't too tough and even quite fun.

Coyhaique is only a small town but it seemed like a bustling metropolis after so much time in the wild. While Amy & Spencer left after two nights, I spent a pleasant few days there recuperating, restocking supplies, making bike repairs, and meeting with activists campaigning against the dams.

My next stop was Villa Ortega. There was no campsite or hospedaje, but the lady who ran the local store, Alicia, invited me to stay and then proceded to feed me and fuss over me. Again she lived on her own so probably just wanted company. I was tempted to accept her invitation to stay another night but decided to make the most of the nice weather and hit the road. As I was leaving she presented me with a big tub of homemade jam made from the plums in her garden - as always in these situations I felt bad about not being able to return her generosity.

That night I experienced the other side of Chilean hospitality: I made it to Mañihuales where there is a campsite in the national reserve, but it was $9 so I decided to camp in a nearby wood instead. Unfortunately I was discovered by a group of boys with catapults who then encircled and bombared me. I retreated into the shelter of my tent, hoping they'd get bored and leave, which they did after a final salvo. But I had a restless night anxious about further mischief.

I continued north, passing through the spectacular Queulat National Park until I reached Puyuguapi, where I was stopped in my tracks by another bout of gastro. But it was the ideal place to recover, a small village originally settled by Germans at the head of a forested fjord, and boasting a warm, comfy café serving great cakes and espresso. On the day I left I stopped at the café for lunch and the most wonderful thing happened. I saw that a hummingbird had got stuck inside the glassed-in veranda. It was getting quite distressed flying into the glass and not having any perch to land on. I tried guiding it out the door but this didn't work, so I held out a finger for it to land on and, to my surprise it did, and I was able to take it outside and release it.

The Carretera continues north to Chaitén, which was evacuated last year becuase of the volcano erupting, although a few people have chosen to remain. Water has to be trucked in and electricity is only avaialble a few hours every evening. Plans are underway to build a new settlement in a safer zone. I decided to turn off at Villa Santa Lucia and cross back into Argentina. My adventure on the Carretera Austral had exceeded all my expectations in terms of natural beauty, just a shame that the government and foreign corporations are hellbent on destroying it in the pursuit of profit. I would definitely do it again though.