The Stunning Rio Baker

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For much of this day’s travels we ran alongside the river Baker, a stunning bright blue gash of colour through the greenery.

We passed some (you guessed it) beautiful scenery, including lakes the river feeds, a beautiful blue surrounded by mountains decorated by autumnal-coloured trees. The reds, yellows and greens of a Patagonia autumn are stunning. We passed through Cochrane, where we parked up in the square to cook lunch, then started heading further north than we’d been so far – it suddenly felt like we were making progress and we could do this! Santiago, here we come (in a couple of weeks…).

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An hour or so after Cochrane, we saw a signpost for a hike to the confluence of two rivers – the Baker, that we had been following, and another. We decided on a whim to ditch our plans and go have a look.

The confluence wasn’t that exciting – a small brown river somewhat diluted the startling blue of the huge Baker – but the spot was beautiful and there was a small waterfall. It was a lovely sunny day and we just enjoyed the exercise and being out of the car.

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Another day, another stick…..
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If you look at the far side you can see the grey waters merging with the blue…. 

After we finished the hike we clearly couldn’t make the town we’d planned to stop the night in, so we decided to have our first ever wildcamping  night, tucked off the road down a track right by the river. We slept to the sound of it rushing by, and woke to the bizarre blue colour through the trees.

I’d been reluctant to camp far from people (although the only possible risk there could be in Patagonia is from other people, and that is so minimal its barely worth considering) but it was fine – I slept soundly, no one bothered us, and it was lovely to wake in the middle of nature with no one else around. Lauren could mess about in the woods (she has a collection of sticks and stones now that she plays with more than her phone, which is never charged or asked for) while I made us porridge, and then we sat outside, watching the river and eating breakfast.

Life is good.

We are so lucky.

Tortel

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Tortel is brilliant. Population around 500, anywhere else but the deep south of Patagonia it would have been ‘heritaged’ and touristed out of existence, turned into a caricature of itself like Dubrovnik or Venice (I know that will cause outrage amongst the Ennis’s, but seriously, when tourists outnumber locals and you have to go searching for ‘real life’ that’s not somewhere I want to be).

Tortel is a remote (but then again what isn’t around here) village on a fjord that (eventually) connects with the sea. It’s a fair detour off the Carretera Austral, but it was the closest village after the ferry coming from Villa o’ Higgins, and I’d heard from another traveler it was beautiful.

First I have to mention the drive up to Tortel. In a place of jaw dropping scenery, this was some of the most spectacular. If you ignored the snow on the mountains, you could imagine you were in Thailand – steep craggy limestone (?) cliffs falling directly down to azure water of lakes and rivers, with lush, richly green vegetation. It was raining and not great visibility and I was tired and frankly Lauren was losing patience with my photo taking, but still…. beautiful.

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Once you get there, the entire place is built of wood, around a series of shallow coves, clutching onto the steep sides of the mountains. There are no cars, as there are no roads – everything is connected by (steep!) wooden walkways. We were told we could park up for the night at the town parking on top of the cliffs and set off to try to find a late lunch.

The small houses are built out of wood, on stilts, and burn wood fires. We saw one bakery, and one grocery store. The main ‘street’ is a wooden walkway hanging over the edge of the lake, on stilts, with incredibly steep side-walkways disappearing up the mountainside to residences and small shops. There are a number of ‘squares’ (wooden platforms over the lake, often with monuments and sculptures, and once with outdoor gym equipment). The main square has a naval building (wooden, two-story, locked with a sign in the window with the phone number of the guard on duty), a local council building, a library (every village seems to have a well-equipped library) and a school. Along the shore there were plenty of boats, some functional, some clearly long since left to rot. There was even a wooden cabin which was the ‘Department of Glaciers’ for a Chilean university, a few kayaks parked up outside.

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We didn’t have much luck at first finding somewhere to eat, we did pass a few comedores but they were all closed, and we were almost resigned to trekking back up the hill for pasta (again) in the van. We agreed to one last push up to a restaurant signposted from the main walkway. It was a steep climb, in the rain and I was seriously beginning to wonder how the residents of Tortel ever go anywhere, when we saw smoke coming from the restaurant – surely a good sign? We tried the door but it was locked, although we could see a couple eating in the gloom….. maybe they were the owners having an Easter Sunday lunch ….

Despondent, cold, and wet, we started back down the hill to walk the significant distance back to the parking area, by this time 3 coves away.

Suddenly we heard a voice from above – a guy of about my age with a shaggy beard and big woolly jumper was urging us back up the steps, telling us he was open.

We didn’t need telling twice.

Once seated it became clear there wasn’t a menu as such – he told us we could have conger eel soup or steak. We went for the steak, naturally. The place was like someone’s living room, with jazz playing on the stereo, easy chairs and tables, rather random artwork around… comfy, warm and welcoming.

I didn’t have high hopes for the food, but the steak was delicious, perfectly cooked as we asked (I order medium rare then I eat the outside bits and give Lauren the middle, bloody bits that she loves), beautifully seasoned, and – joy of joys – actually came with vegetables. A whole avocado between us (I got it all, Lauren says its yucky), sweetcorn, tomato, shredded carrot, beetroot and roast potatoes. What a feast. We have definitely been starved of veggies. I even got a berry smoothie.

The owner (he of the shaggy beard, even shaggier jumper and it turned out even shaggier dog) came over to chat – telling us he was from further north but fell in love with Tortel and moved here on a whim, barely breaking even but ‘enjoying the beauty’. He told us to connect to the wifi and stay all afternoon, to stay warm and enjoy the peace.  So we did, downloading a few audiobooks and enjoying being warm.

Around 5 the weather cleared, we bid farewell to our new friend and went for a walk down to the edge of the village and the beach, before heading back to the van for an early night.

We both have very warm memories of Tortel – such an unusual place but totally its own place – not tarted up for tourists (we saw no other foreigners there at all, and no Chilean tourists that we could identify), just getting on with life in its own, sleepy, way.

And of course, Tortel fed us well. That always helps.

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…..

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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….

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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.

Ah.

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 😊 .

Villa O’ Higgins

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Villa O’ Higgins is a small cluster of single story wooden houses, organized into 4 blocks across and 7 down, huddling below imposing mountains that almost completely circle the village. After the long trek south, we were happy to spend a day in the warmth of the campsite kitchen, swapping stories, charging our multiple devices, and drinking mint tea. Well, I say that, but Lauren spent most of the day out in the freezing cold, playing with her sticks and her new found canine friend (yes, after being assured he had had all his vaccinations…..).

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There was an interesting bunch of fellow campers – researchers for an American conservation NGO, backpackers, hardened cyclists ‘doing’ the CA, and overlanders getting close to the end of a 2-year trip down the americas. This was no ‘gringo trail’ bunch – people who make it down here need to have some perseverance and grit. Mind you, we’d done it the easy way – there are a hardened bunch of cyclists who are totally hard core and I have huge respect for them – we pass them occasionally toiling up a hill in the rain or struggling down a steep incline, covered in the dust thrown up by other vehicles – they camp out in the cold, windy patagonian nights, and are just basically super hard core. I keep wanting to stop, usher them in out of the cold, give them cups of tea and offer to give them a lift for the next few hundred miles…..

We did venture out into ‘town’ – it seemed deserted; the ‘supermarket’ was in someone’s house, the tourist information booth was manned by a young lad of about 16 who didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t give us any information about anything, and the only café we saw was closed. The grand ‘plaza de armas’ – main square – was deserted every time we passed through – I got the impression the state had built it, and the community centre and library (lovely wooden structures) to compensate for people living in such a remote place.

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The church and the town museum…..
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The bustling, busy main square…….

One imposing building was the library, where we went hoping for decent internet. Entirely built out of wood, heated, well stocked and welcoming, we lingered for a while chatting with the librarian, who had her three kids with her – but alas, our search for internet good enough to upload even one photo was frustrated. The librarian told us the only decent internet was at the school, so suggested I take my laptop, sit outside the school and connect – she got the password off her son, but I couldn’t get it to work, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered enough about updating this blog to sit in the just-above-freezing cold to do so.

Over breakfast one day, we got talking to an American guy who was part of a team of environmental researchers working for an American NGO on conservation in a number of countries, including Chile. Their focus in Patagonian Chile is on Huemels, a rare deer whose numbers seem to have been declining. They had been carrying out a baseline on the huemel population in various areas around the southern ice field – all only accessible by boat – and invited us to join them at a meeting in the community centre later that day to present their findings. We had a long conversation about conservation and community involvement in such efforts – I had been tangentially involved in similar work in Mozambique in the past – and it was fascinating to hear what they had been up to, and to note the parallels and similar challenges despite being a totally different context.

We duly turned up at the community meeting, doubling the audience, and enjoyed the presentation and in particular the drone footage of the area. They had put together a virtual reality programme of the local glacier and surroundings, which they gave to Lauren, who wandered around quite un-self-consciously ‘exploring’ the glacier in her headset.

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Lauren is actually out on the glacier……

Over chocolate biscuits and mate we discussed community participation and what could be done – I felt a bit of a fraud, but only two members of the community actually turned up – and I think it was good for Lauren to be exposed to such discussions and to meet people actually working on conservation, as she has in the past expressed interest in following a career in this area. The Americans and their Chilean counterpart were clearly very dedicated, and tough, as well as having a scientific background to support their work, and I wish them luck as they face familiar challenges of institutional coordination among government bodies, community and NGOs, the impact of increasing accessibility as the road will eventually be upgraded, the need for remote communities to supplement diet and income with hunting….

It was an unexpectedly interesting discussion at the end of the road, and made our trip to Villa O Higgins worthwhile in itself, instead of being just a starting point for our ‘real’ start of the Carretera Austral.

Cochrane and the Deep South

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The ferry that took us across the section of the Carretera Austral that doesn’t have roads. 

After Parque Nacional Patagonia we drove the short journey to the town of Cochrane, where we had various faffy things to do – I wanted to get the tyres and chains checked on the van before heading even further south and even further from ‘civilization’ as we now term any town over a few hundred inhabitants. We also needed groceries after the Chilean border crossing, and desperately needed to get some laundry done.

For the first time we parked up just on the road – although this time, in the company of other overlanders in the main square, which gave us access to the free town internet, enabling us to contact family for the first time in a few days and let them know we were still alive. We met a swiss couple who had just spent three days with one of the couples we’d met on the boat on the way over, and the German family we had met at the border also turned up, having finally finished off their stock of fruit and veg. Lauren enjoyed playing with their 5 year old twins, who reminded her of her much loved, and much missed, cousin in Portugal.

Cochrane is a pleasant little town with a real frontier feel – there really is not much south of here before the road ends at the impassible southern ice field. There are no high rise buildings, the town square is a pleasant space with gardens and benches and free wifi, and the main supermarket is also a hardware store and a clothing store. Everything has strange opening hours – only afternoons, or a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon – and even in a couple of days you see the same people multiple times. I love these little towns that aren’t big enough to have separate shops for each product/service, so the ‘shop’ sells food and clothes and fishing tackle, the cafe is also an electronics store, and the laundry is someone’s house, which doubles as a campsite.

By lunchtime, we had managed to get a mechanic to look at the van, to buy gas, fill up with fuel, get groceries, get laundry done, and still found time for coffee and cake in the café.

After this, it was time to set off on the most southern leg of the Carretera Austral. The Carretera Austral just means ‘southern highway’ and runs from Puerto Montt in the north, to Villa O’ Higgins in the South. It was built under Pinochet, who wanted to connect the remote region that at that point was only accessible by boat or through Argentina. Chile was in conflict with Argentina (something to do with the Beagle channel) and didn’t want to depend on them for access to their territory. More than 10,000 soldiers worked on the highway, and many died in the process. There are little memorials to different soldiers along the route at particularly scenic spots.

The CA cuts through incredibly remote and mountainous territory, and a number of sections remain dependent on ferries. We joined almost at the furthest south and the plan was to go all the way to Villa O’ Higgins (by the way, named for Bernardo o’ Higgins, a half-Irish, half-Spanish guy who is seen as the liberator of Chile and was the first leader of independent Chile) and then turn round and ‘do’ the full Carretera Austral, supposed to be one of the most challenging and beautiful roadtrips in the world. And the section to Villa o’ Higgins, only completed in 2000, is the most remote part of this remote route.

We set off from Cochrane and (I know this is probably getting quite boring, but it’s true) the drive was spectacular, although this time the weather was a mixture of sometimes torrential rain (making the incredibly narrow tracks and sheer drops even more fun) and brilliant sunshine. We were rewarded with some fantastic rainbows. I lost count of how many waterfalls cascaded down the mountains by our side, and the vegetation looked almost tropical at times, and somewhat alpine at others.

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Halfway we reached the ferry section, and waited in the heat of the little café (nescafe coffee and powdered milk…) for the boat to arrive. When it did, it disgorged four Argentinian bikers and a local couple who all piled into the café to warm up and dry their gloves. We exchanged stories and warnings about particular sections of road.

Backing the van onto the small ferry was somewhat nervewracking, as the guy in charge insisted I watch him rather than my mirrors. He knew what he was doing, but instinctively I wanted to look in my mirrors….. and kept getting shouted at in Spanish.  Anyway, we got aboard without incident, and went up to the tiny cabin for the half hour crossing. A young American couple who had driven down from the States with their dog were also on board, as well as an Argentinian couple with a camper, and a couple of local families. The ferry is free as it is seen as simply part of the highway, and runs twice a day out of high season and four times a day in ‘summer’ (Nov-Mar).

The section after the ferry wound through steep sided mountains with dozens of waterfalls.  The autumnal colours were more pronounced here (I guess we are heading into colder territory) and some of the reds and yellows on the mountainsides were really beautiful. Often, we’d go round a bend and gasp at the view, but I couldn’t stop on such steep and narrow roads. Not that it would really have mattered, there was very little traffic. We listened to a BBC podcast series, which seemed incongruous with its references to social media and various British scandals, as we meandered up and down the mountain trails. Patagonia is a great antidote for worries about Brexit, politics, corruption and the general parlous state of the world. I was too focussed staying on the road to worry about anything else.

The ‘road’ now was genuinely single track – this part of the Carretera Austral was only constructed in 2000 – and while there were few vehicles, it was always a shock when we met one. There are two ways of approaching this kind of track – go slowly and cautiously at all times, assuming you might meet someone round every bend (my approach), or go fast and assume there’s no one round the bend and take evasive action when necessary (locals). One reason for my caution is that the sides of the track fall away very steeply – sometimes down a mountain or into a lake, often simply a metre or so down the gravel – and with our top-heavy vehicle I don’t fancy our chances of staying upright in a quick swerve off the road. Quite often, the track was simply a line of gravel dumped on top of wetlands or up the side of a mountain.

We averaged about 40 km/hour, but eventually made it to Villa o Higgins, which seems a quiet little place, literally at the end of the road – a population of 600, supposedly, though I don’t know where they all are.

 

Parque Nacional Patagonia

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This park is set in a stunning valley, surrounded by mountains, and filled with huge herds of guanaco, including numerous young.

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As we arrived, after a long but exhilarating drive through the mountains from Argentina, it seemed as if we might have the campsite to ourselves. However, as we rounded the last bend, I spotted a British-registered Landrover Discovery and trailer.

Bugger.

They were bound to be boring old farts who wanted to talk.

Turns out, they were a very interesting couple, who not only invited us over for dinner in their fabulously kitted out trailer but shared their last Gin and Tonic with me. Along with ‘nibbles’.

They were retired management consultants, and on a 5-year retirement trip, starting in Canada and heading later to Africa then Australia. Lauren was immediately in love with their custom-built trailer, which featured heating, a proper bathroom, a full oven, a microwave, wardrobes and comfy sofas. I enjoyed some adult conversation, which ranged (of course) from Brexit to the Galapagos, from Mozambique to China to Trump to the environment.  The food – roast salmon and vegetables, followed by fresh mango and mint tea – was a far cry from the stir fries and pastas we have been managing on with our one ring and two pans. It was almost embarrassing how excited Lauren was about the food…… They even had little tiny dishes for olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping bread in. It was a very civilized evening as we moved on from G&T to delicious Chilean wine.

We had planned to head to Cochrane the next day, but a ‘short stroll before lunch’ ended up being a 14km hike up a mountain – we kept agreeing to go just over the next hill or just round the next bend, and before we knew it, we had climbed a massive lump of a mountain, giving us spectacular views of the valley (most unfortunately on my camera and therefore unable to upload as too big for the rubbish wifi here, but you’ve seen enough ‘big views of mountains’ from me by now). It was effectively 7km of straight up, followed by 7km of steep down, and my knees, back and ankle reminded me that since I last did any serious hiking, I’ve had spinal surgery, buggered my lungs with long-untreated pneumonia, torn the ligaments in my ankle, and put on way too many kilos!

Even Lauren admitted to being ‘a bit tired’ as we reached the summit. Although she said this while attempting to climb a rockface, so I didn’t really believe her.

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It doesn’t look much, but we climbed all the way up here and round the other side into the next valley. 
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Lauren still had energy to climb rocks…. 

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It was worth it though; as I hobbled home through the curious guanaco, I felt completely wrecked but also full of life.

If that makes sense.

Vanlife Day One

Our home for the next month

After a full 24 hours off grid, here we are at a lovely campsite that has wifi! Weak wifi though so doing this partly on my phone so excuse typos

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I hope everyone enjoyed Paddy’s night last night. I couldn’t find Guinness or Jameson’s so had to settle for eating an awful lot of Kerry Gold cheddar cheese with some local red wine. The cheese gave me a hangover…. Oh, and congratulations to the Irish among you on the rugby.

Yesterday we picked up this monster – its enormous, I pulled a muscle in my shoulder just getting into the driver’s seat. I still haven’t worked out an elegant way of getting in, this car was built for cowboys not dumpy English girls.

Double bed, table and benches, kitchen and bathroom on wheels.

Having already been upgraded at no cost from a single cabin basic model to a 4 x 4 deluxe double cabin, due to the rules on children in a single cabin in Argentina, when we arrived we found we had been upgraded yet again to their top model, as ‘ours’ was returned a couple of days ago with ‘something broken’. This means more space and heating, but a much larger vehicle to drive. And park.

After a very thorough explanation of all that could possibly go wrong, the lovely German guy who works at this remote outpost handed me the keys and wished us good luck. He said we were welcome to stay and organize our things, but he had to go round up his horses….. and left us to it.

We loaded all our food supplies into the cupboards and fridge and dumped everything else on the bed for later.

I wanted some easy driving to get used to the vehicle, so we headed about 30 km to the ‘end of the road’ – the furthest point its possible to drive on the mainland of South America. This part of the world thrives on being the ‘furthest south’ – whether it’s the ‘most southerly lighthouse on continental South America’ or ‘most southern estancia’ (ranch) or ‘most southern chocolate shop’. In fact, there is a murmur of angst at the moment from the residents of Ushuaia in Argentina – long marketed as the southernmost city in the world – because Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, which is further south than Ushuaia, has just been elevated to city status, rendering Ushuaia only the second most southern city in the world. People in Argentina are genuinely annoyed and claim Puerto Williams is ‘nothing but a fishing village’ and its elevation a provocation….

Whatever, we are a long way south.

Having reached the end of the road, literally………

Truly the end of the road….

we parked up and went for a walk along the beach.

It was beautiful but freezing, and we only went a couple of km, both too excited about the van and keen to get back to it. I made a cup of tea and drank it in the back, because I could :-).

Lauren kept saying “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!”. The van, not the tea.

We then set off for a national reserve not far away where I had planned we would spend the night. It was only an hour and a half drive (basically like nipping round the corner in Patagonia) as I didn’t want any major driving on day one.

Having spent a good few hours the night before trying to get the two critical navigation programmes on my phone to talk to one another offline – ioverlander, an incredible user-populated app listing gps coordinated for places to wildcamp, repair vehicles, find fuel, groceries, or just get out of the wind for a bit and mapsme, an offline map application that works like google maps but you can download whole countries as opposed to small areas – I was keen to test them out before they were really needed. All seemed to work fine, thankfully. Although in fairness, it would be pretty hard to get lost around here, there are so few roads.

Ripio….

We soon turned off the tarmac and onto the infamous ripio. This is hardpacked earth with a top layer of gravel and sand. Now I admit I may have been a little overconfident, given I’ve done plenty of offroad driving and covered my share of gravel roads before. The ripio decided to teach me a lesson. Given the very bright light and the undifferentiated colour of the ripio, its very difficult to judge depth of the gravel, or inclination – the sides are often steeply banked but its hard to see this. I simply edged a little too close, noticed, corrected too fast, and lost control of the back end (incredibly heavy of course, with a whole camper back there). We fishtailed three times before I regained control (here my African experience did come in handy) and breathed a sign of relief. I stopped a moment – Lauren looked up from her book and asked why I’d stopped – when I explained she said she’d assumed I was just going round potholes! I had only been going 40km/hr and the result if I’d lost control would have been an ignominious slump into the ditch rather than anything more scary, but still, a good lesson to respect the ripio!

Eventually we made our way to the Reserva National Laguna Parrilar. The warden greeted us and said if we didn’t want a fireplace we could just park without paying camping fees. Great. No way I was making a campfire. The reserve is beautiful, remote and relatively unvisited, and home to puma as well as some endangered birds and the Patagonia fox. Lauren spotted a fox while I was preparing dinner.

We went for a walk along the lake; it was beautiful in a harsh kind of way. Bizarrely, while we were out walking, a local taxi had pulled up about 4 metres from our van (there was lots of space, maybe they were trying to use us as a wind shield). A couple who looked to be in their 50’s were sat in the back drinking a bottle of wine and flirting shamelessly (it was impossible not to see). I mean, I know it was Saturday night, but still…. At one point, I swear the taxi driver received some oral gratification while I did my best to distract Lauren… maybe this is a new variation on dogging where you actively seek out helpless ‘spectators’????? Mind you, that bothered me less than the music they insisted on playing. Not ridiculously loud, but enough for the noise to ruin the peacefulness of the site. It was a bizarre situation, and not how I imagined our first night in the beauty of a Patagonia national reserve.

We decided to turn in early and played a few games of Uno before bed. I was asleep before Lauren, exhausted by the stress and nervousness of the day.

We both slept remarkably well and woke excited for ‘proper day one’ of campervan life. Yesterday had been quite anxious with all the things to learn and organize and nearly ending up in a ditch. Today, there were no rogue taxi drivers and their mistresses, the place was deserted and beautiful, the air pure and my morning tea tasted especially good as the Patagonian wind ripped through us. We packed up and headed back to the gate, where a different warden showed us (well, mainly Lauren) pictures of a puma he’d spotted, a lump of fossilized tree, a beaver skull etc. He seemed quite lonely, I guess they don’t get a lot of visitors.

Once we escaped, we stopped in Punta Arenas for (yet more) supplies, and encountered our first real challenge in finding somewhere to park the van. It clearly doesn’t fit in a normal parking space and I’m not yet super confident of just how long it is. Even the wing mirrors are of limited use as the camper body is wider than the truck base… I eventually left it in a spot that I am not sure was 100 percent legal… but its Sunday, we were quick, and I was happy to play the innocent gringo.

We then had a surprisingly grueling drive to Puerto Natales. The wind was insane – it made driving a two-hands-at-all-times strenuous job and my arms are aching tonight.

Enjoying the famous Patagonian wind…

For the second half of the drive, torrential rain plus the wind made conditions less than ideal. At lunchtime – before the rain – we stopped by a lake with a flamingo colony on it, with the romantic notion of having lunch then going for a walk round the lake. Lauren could hardly make forward progress in the wind, and while we sat in the van it genuinely felt like it could tip over. We ate quickly and got back on the road. We saw the flamingos from a distance and agreed that would have to do. At one point the wind also ripped free the spare fuel tank (thankfully empty) attached to the roof, and Lauren incredibly competently climbed up and undid the ropes so I could release it and stow it inside.

By the time we reached Puerto Natales I was exhausted, and we decided to stay at a formal campsite, where we have access to a refugio (a big room with a kitchen, picnic tables, mellow music, and lots and lots of charging stations for everyone’s devices). They are now playing planet earth so I’m writing this to the soothing soundtrack of David Attenborough talking about termites….

We made fajitas, always a favourite, and chatted with some of the other travelers – the main draw here is the Torres del Paine National park and many have just finished or are about to start multi-day treks. We plan to head there tomorrow and do some rather less ambitious hikes.

We love our van 😊.