Finally – Starting the Carretera Austral

Today was the day I’d been looking forward to for many months, and we’d been actively working towards for a couple of weeks. I wanted to do the whole of the Carretera Austral, and that meant working our way to its southern end, where we would start the 2200+km trip north to Santiago.

Technically the CA, or ruta 7, runs from Villa O Higgins in the south, to Puerto Montt in the north. That’s 1,240 Km of mainly unsealed, rural road, roughly running up and down through the Andes.

Despite starting our roadtrip south of the CA, there is the enormous southern ice field (basically, a big lump of ice, glaciers and mountains which are totally impassible) in between the very far south of Chile, where we collected the van, and the end of the CA. The rest of Chile is only accessible via Argentina (what we did) or by boat.

Anyway, here we were, fueled up, tyres checked, chains tightened (so we don’t lose the camper off the back of the truck on the mountain roads), extra diesel secured on the roof, supplies bought, odometer zeroed, devices charged, maps consulted, wildly differing electronic estimates of journey times consulted then ignored – as ready as we could be to get underway. Even though the first couple of hundred KM we’d be re-tracing our steps, this genuinely felt like the start of yet another adventure.

We waved goodbye to the various people we’d met and chatted to at the campsite, and left to a chorus of ‘good lucks’ and ‘see you on the road’ and ‘be careful on the bends’….. In our enormous 4 by 4 I felt a little bit of a fraud, as many of these guys were genuinely roughing it – some were even planning a 6 day walk through the mountains to Argentina, the only other way out of Villa O Higgins apart from the CA.

The weather was glorious and spirits were high as we set off.

I had promised to keep photo stops to a minimum, as the scenery is always stunning and you can never capture it properly on a camera, and we did have 1200+ KM to go, excluding the trip north after the CA to Santiago….. but just on the outskirts of the village is a beautiful lake, and I couldn’t help jumping out for a quick snap…..


Later on, we stopped for a quick drink – Lauren reveling in the idea of drinking pure mountain water….. I told her it probably didn’t have too much guanaco poo in it….


I had consulted the information I had for the ferry section, and though we’d arrive a couple of hours before the 4pm ferry – then we’d either wild camp or keep moving, depending on how tired I was. My memory of the journey down was of endless steep mountain trails, slippery in the rain, but we made much better progress on our return, mainly due to better weather conditions. I started to think we’d be super early, but no problem, we could park up and cook some lunch.

Around 12.15, we were overtaken by a fast moving truck – who almost lost control as he careered past us. Odd. There was no habitation between us and the ferry – and the ferry wasn’t until 4pm, right….?

It occurred to me to check, and sure enough, there was a 1pm ferry.


Could we make it?

I decided we’d try. This was Chile – if there’s a ferry scheduled for 1pm, it’ll go at 1pm precisely – but if they see us coming, they’ll wait. Chile seems to get the balance right between organization and friendliness.

For the next 45 minutes, I balanced speed with safety – it was impossible to go faster than about 50km/hr safely, but I kept doing the calculations of average speed and km to go in my head, and was convinced we could make it, if I could just keep the average up….. Lauren kept track of our location on the gps, and I took every bend as fast as I felt was safe…. Which wasn’t very fast…. About quarter to 1, we suddenly met a stream of cars moving fast – clearly coming from the inbound ferry and not expecting anything to be on the road, as you are supposed to arrive at the ferry 15 minutes before departure…. Everyone careered into the ditches and kept moving, while I just sat there letting them go. Once they’d passed, we saw a 7km mark, and I thought we could make it…. I kept pressing on, ready to slam on the brakes should we come across a dawdler … we passed 7km, no ferry … 8km, still no ferry…. No time to stop and check the gps, anyway what good would that do, its not like there are multiple roads…..  at 8.5km the ferry came into view – but could they see us? It was now 5 to, or 3 to or 1 to depending on whether we believed the car clock, my watch or my phone….. I kept pressing on, round and round the muddy bends by the side of the lake, lauren telling me every minute what time each device thought it was (I bit my tongue).

We raced to the edge of the river at one minute to by my phone, which turned out to be the most accurate.  The same guy who’d been working a couple of days before on our outward journey was working and was laughing heartily as I spun the vehicle round and started reversing without taking breath…. They had to bring the boat closer to shore to make the angle of the ramp shallower, then we were on, no messing, and before I even turned the engine off we were a good few metres from the shore.

It was an unexpectedly stressful moment on the CA – but really not that stressful, because if we hadn’t made it we’d have just cooked lunch and played Uno til 4.

I love not having a real schedule 😊 .

Author: choosingourownpath

Mother and daughter, travelling the world.

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