March 05, 2009 GMT
Get The Ferryitis

Our first day on the road with Katie and the Bumblebee is like freedom incarnate. Finally, after 38 (!) days of waiting - either for the bikes to arrive or my sciatica to depart, weīre off.

IMG_4821 msc and Katie.16.JPG

The bikes sing their contented one-note song as we cruise along the highway, the Chilean sun is glorious, the countryside welcoming, the horizons generously distant. Ramon had helped map out a route that threaded through the vineyards of Casablanca south to Melipilla. It is a good one, for it is a narrow, two-laner, more interested in having the traveller see everything than get somewhere in a hurry.

On the outskirts of Melipilla, while pulled over and studing the map for a clue on how to get through town and find (unmarked) Ruta 66, up pulls Gabriel Peralta. Gabriel owns a fruit exportation business with offices in Chile and California. We immediately accept his offer to lead us through the maze and before you can say "Bobīs your uncle" weīre out the other side and on the road to Lago Rapel.

Now I ask you, when was the last time you did that for some stranger in your own country? It seems Chileans naturally greet strangers with arms outstretched ready to hug; we in North America greet strangers with arm outstretched as if to say "halt, donīt come any closer".

After an afternoon of cruising 70 to 80 km/hr through the rolling hills, surrounded by vineyards, orchards, pastures and farms, we arrive at Lago Rapel. A quiet cabana awaits among the eucalyptus. Outdoor swimming pool. Beer outside our room on the shaded veranda. Supper in the restaurant mere steps away.

IMG_0993 Ruta 180.15.JPG

Next day we work our way south, as we will over the next few days, always conscious we have 1136 kms to go to get to the Navimag ferry in Puerto Montt - by 09:30 Monday morning.

Get-The-Ferryitis I hate, for it plagues us with its incessant ghost whisperings to make the miles. We try not to listen: we want to truly enjoy the moment, or to sidetrack, which as my friends know, is one of my favorite weaknesses.

After joining the highly efficient Autopista Ruta Cinco Sur, we rip along at interstate speeds, stopping only at toll booths to pay a buck each for the privilege of using a super highway. At a modern service station cum outdoor patio coffee shop, we visit with young motorcyclist Fernando. We join forces and he leads for the rest of the day to Los Angeles. Dark clouds build as we motor south. By 5 PM a cold south headwind is driving rain right at us. We are warm behind windshields and Gortex clothes; Fernando, with his jeans and thin leather jacket, sits exposed on his naked Honda 250. Still, he pulls off at the L.A. exit, and with blue, trembling fingers, kindly points out our path into town. Then our hypothermic friend climbs aboard his little bike and makes off towards a dark horizon, with still 100 kms to go before dark. We smile and wave goodby, but silently worry for his safety.

An hour of confusion in Los Angeles and we finally have the bikes and ourselves safely settled for the night.

In the morning, a warm shower is not to be had: itīs cold water or nothing. Joyce just washs her face. Smart. I grit my teeth and go for the agua frio ducha. Bloody hell, it takes me an hour to warm up!

IMG_0996 P itchy head.15.JPG

Today itīs backroads day, and we wind along narrow two-laners again, paved and totally charming. Golden stubble fields, cattle ranches and clear cut forests roll by in the morning. In the afternoon itīs lush green sheep pastures, wooden, german style homes, blue mountain lakes, and distant snow-capped volcanoes. The narrow roads, while fun to ride, leave no opportunity to pull off and capture the many "National Geographic" photo ops.

IMG_4824 Lago Panguipulli.16.JPG

We spend a couple of too-brief days in the scenic Lakes District of Villarrica, Pucon and Panguipulli. Thereīs something for everyone here: extreme sports for the 20 something crowd; thermal hot springs, fine dining and wood cabins with lakeside views for the antigua crowd. Blooming roses line the boulevards in town. Generous spashs of colour from fresh fruit, flower and vegetable stands add to the summer palette. The happy sounds of music from verano festivals drift though the evening streets.

We arrive in Puerto Varas the day before we need to be on the ferry. Compass del Sur is a fine little hospedaje, with parking in the back for our motos. But things are going too well. I fix that by twisting my back Sunday afternoon. The dreaded sciatica comes roaring back. Monday morning, as we pack to ride to the ferry, Joyceīs bike wonīt start. We have 3 hours to go 25 kms but weīve got to get the Bumblebee fired up. Push starting doesnīt work. Doesnīt help my back either. Now we really have Get The Ferryitis!!

Then Joyce spots a Mercedes Benz shop and goes for help. The owner comes out, tells us he loves motorcycles and immediately takes command. Back to his shop we wheel the BMW; heīs all over it like hair on an ape. Turns out we left the "Park Lights" on (why would BMW think that was a useful option?) and killed the new battery stone dead. While the mechanicing is going on, I hobble back to the hospedaje and phone Navimag to beg for more time to book in. They give us til 1 PM.

IMG_4929 Navimag ride.16.JPG

Needless to say, it is a true ClusterF... but we make the boat. We sail at 4 PM and I spend the next four days and three nights confined to our cabin. Thank God there are only two of us in a four person cabin: a VW Bug has more room.

IMG_4867 Sunset Day 3.16.JPG

Joyce roams the deck, makes friends with the 200 plus on board, including the shipīs captain and has the time of her life. We get four days of great weather and the scenery is magical. The "Inside Passage" allows grand views of islands a mere 9 iron away. I look out the porthole from time to time and entertain myself with some Tylenol 3īs. On Night Two, the dreaded crossing in open sea through the Gulf of Penas goes well as the seas are only three metres (last crossing they were eight metres apparently). Still, in the middle of the night I can feel the bow shudder as it re-enters the water on its downward plunge. Luckily for this land lubber Iīve got good drugs and all the rockinī and rollinīin our dark little cabin doesnīt bother me.

IMG_4893 narrow passage.JPG

The sailing has saved us riding 2400 kms on paved and gravel roads, and avoided the dreaded Patagonia cross winds. We arrive in Puerto Natales at 5 PM. By 7:30 PM, the bikes are released from the tiedown chains and weīre free to disembark.

A cool ocean breeze greets us as we roll ashore. Welcome to Puerto Natales, Patagonia and 13 Celsius. Need a place to stay, a doctor and some drugs, in that order. Puerto Natales becomes our home for the next few weeks while I try to recover one more time.

Posted by Murray Castle at 04:29 PM GMT
March 07, 2009 GMT
Back on Two Wheels

Hey, this is great! Iīm back on two wheels! Too bad itīs a wheelchair and not Katie, but itīs a beginning. So itīs training wheels for the next few weeks. But at least now I can get around. For amusement I can worry the locals and stray dogs gangs. After being confined to quarters for the last weeks itīs great to be outdoors again. Note I am sporting my alpaca toque (the thoughtful and very useful gift from Ramon), I have my baston - my cane - handy when we have to 4x4 it, and a baseball cap from the Evangelistas ferry. What all well dressed dudes wear here if they are anybody.

IMG_1009  Back on Two Wheels.15.JPG

My new wheels are the result of Joyce walking around town (population 20,000) searching to rent a wheelchair. The local hospital said, sure, take one for free and just bring it back when your merido is feeling better. What kindness! But thatīs Chileans for you, especially here in Patagonia.

The good folks know they could live elsewhere, but chose to live at the fin del mundo because they like living in semi-isolated communities. The hardness of the landscape and the weather encourage folks to stick together, to share, where family, friends, and even strangers are important.

IMG_1007  Artist P.15.JPG

Between "go-for" missions to get drugs, groceries, emails, etc, for her crippled partner, Miss P finds time to capture her impressions of this part of the world. Besides diary notes, her journal is full of maps, brochure clippings, rubbings, sketches, watercolours and colorful postal stamps. Itīs a true work of art, unique and very interesting. But thatīs my partner: sheīs happiest when sheīs creating something.

What she sees in part is this. Puerto Natales sits on a small, flat plain just meters above the sea. The surrounding terrain is windswept, grass covered, with low hedges but without trees. Houses, typically made from brick and corrogated tin, sit huddled together and close the ground, like the hedges that seem to shrink from the cold west wind. A semicircle of mountains forms the horizon, most rising 2000 meters above our little town. On a clear day, we can look 80 kms up a fiord to the northwest and see the 3000 meter Cerro Paine Grande with a shining white glacier draped from its shoulders. I should mention most days usually have clear periods - the air, fresh and pure, is the breath of Antarctica. The weather changes more rapidly and often than a Kananaskis spring day.

Days can have warm sun, bracing rain then calm all within a couple of hours. Quite often at night, we are lulled to sleep by the drumming of rain magnified on corrogated steel roofs. As I lie in my cosy warm bed in the Aquaterra Hotel, in the dark early hours, I ask myself again, why would anyone want to ride a motorcycle down here? Travellers tell us of 100 km crosswinds while riding the gravelled Ruta 40, out in the exposed rainshadow part of Argentina, some 2 hours east from here. There is a good reason why some roads are less travelled, voices say. Then I fall asleep and quit listening to the 3 a.m. worry-gremlins.

Puerto Natales used to supply cattle and sheep estancias and act as main port of entry in this region. Some of the ranches served were quite literally the size of small countries. For example, these grand-scale cattle operations helped feed the soldiers of World War I. Like so many one-industry towns of old, the town had to remake its raison dīetre; nowadays, the main business is tourism (Torres del Paine National Park is an hour away).

IMG_1019 Rosita, P, Maritza and Loreto at Aquaterra.12.JPG

The superb staff at our adopted home at Aquaterra Hotel take exceptional care of us. A jug of water with a leaf of garden fresh mint brought to our room unexpectedly, our dinners made with thoughtful, extra touches, countless phone calls made on our behalf to help us, and always a cheery "buenos dias" each day. Rosita, far left, keeps our room spotless, Loreto, far right, does double duty as receptionist and phone call maker. Annie and Jackie, below, are true chefs and create incredible meals.

IMG_1025  Jackie y Annie.12.JPG

IMG_1021  Marlen, Joyce, Maritza.5020.JPG

Marlen, far left, also sets the gold standard for customer service as receptionist and restaurant hostess. It should be mentioned too, that in 2003, Marlen climbed Aconcagua. Thatīs the highest mountain in South America, with a summit near 7000 meters.

The lady that has the most impact on our lives is Maritza, far right. No ordinary massage therapist, Maritza has the same skill, infectiously positive attitude and compassion as Claudio, our massage therapist friend in Valparaiso. Slowly, day after day, week after week, she works the knotted muscles, stretches the inflammed sciatica nerve fibres and releases the burning pain from my right leg. This damned enfermedad is reluctant to release its grip but has no choice under her strong, healing hands. I must admit though, never has any woman caused me so much physical pain. But itīs the only way, so I just turn up my PDA so that the MP3 music hopefully drowns out my whimpering & crying.

But because of her encouragement to positively visualize the future, I now see a new picture. Joyce and the mardarin yellow Bumblebee are leading on some wickedly scenic gravel road, the grand Los Andes off to our left. Katie and I are following. Iīm standing on the peg with my right leg, left leg stuck out behind like a circus performer. And we ride off as a welcoming sun rises, illuminating our dust a pastel rose as it curls up behind us.

Posted by Murray Castle at 02:57 PM GMT
March 27, 2009 GMT

It is time to take a one-day bus tour of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Why? I`ve got a bad case of cabin fever, having been confined to quarters so long with this damn sciatica. As a kind of trial, we load the wheelchair and ourselves onto the Comapa TurBus and head off. Not surprisingly, we thoroughly enjoy the 12 hours looking out the window, walking around a bit and seeing wilderness, glaciers, real mountains and critters up close and personal once again.

IMG_1032 Torres del Paine.12.JPG

Torres del Paine contains very little vegetation taller than a hiker. At itīs leisure, El Viento blows up to 120 kms/hr. and can strike down all but the hardiest trekkers mid-stride. We strike one of the handful of days per year when El Viento decides to give it a rest. The park is calm - almost as unheard of as winning the lottery.

There are two hiking circuits, complete with well appointed refugios (staffed mountain hostels). The five day "W" circuit can be hiked with only a daypack, the wealthy can chose comfort each night with a warm bed, hot shower and 3 squares - the lunch packed to go, just like they do in the Lakes District in the UK.

For those with hormones, not money, to burn, there is the more rugged 7 - 10 day "complete circuit" around the perimeter of the park, staying each night in designated but user-friendly campsites. Only the pumas (mountain lions) and the fierce winds and/or storms can be unfriendly.

IMG_1034 P y msc Torres.12.JPG

Besides the National Geo. picture perfect mountain peaks of the three Torres (towers), further along the chain are the three Cuernos (horns); equally difficult to climb, by the way. The horns are light colored with a black top. The geological explanation we get is the sedimentary rock was there first. Then igneous rock formed when lava flowed up fault lines within the sedimentary. Weathering and glaciers left the present two-tone design. It was either that or PFM: two colors of rock and no one knows why. Geologists, like lawyers, never agree on these "which came first" kinds of things. But really, the Cuernos look cool and thatīs all we tourists really care about.

IMG_1037 Cuernos.12.JPG

Poor olīKatie and Bumblebee. Ignored for weeks in the backyard of the hotel, the battery on Katie decides to have its own enfermedad. After charging the gel battery at a local shop, we get the bikes fired up and ride īem north of Puerto Natales for a "battery-charging" run. The open air feels glorious. Fresh, with a scent of sage and dry grass. There is little mistaking that smell of clean but bracing mountain air as the crosswind buffets our bikes. That kind of recently-frigid air that slides off glaciers and flows like invisible liquid across neighbouring grasslands. I feel it like an icecube across the back of my neck, in the gap between collar and helmet.

Later, while refueling back in town, the attendant, a jovial senora, jokes that Joyceīs bike should be called "Chicatita". Joyce agrees immediately. Bumblebeeīs Latino AKA may stick: she does look like a "cute little girl".

IMG_1045. Katie Puerto Natales.12.JPG

Having successfully passed the first test, we decide to strike out further. Ushuaia beckons like the sirens calling to Ulysses in the Odyssey. The decision to rent a car for a week and do the Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego/Fin del Mondo circuit makes sense, given our options. Summer has ebbed faster than my sciatica. We either go by ignoble auto or not at all.

We rent a superb little Samsung SM3 (thatīs a CAR, not a TV, and itīs built by Nissan). On the bright side, it is a peppy little five speed, has a CD player - and a heater. And as our friend Michelle Malmberg reassures in her email, "youīre still travelling on a total of four wheels and youīll arrive with better hair".

IMG_4992 Punta Arenas.12.JPG

Three hours and two Sarah Brightman CDīs later and weīre in Punta Arenas, population 156,000. By contrast, Puerto Natales, our home for the last 3 weeks, entertains a modest 15,500 honest and friendly folk. So we are in the Big City now, muchachos! Like its shoreline, The City has the ebb and surge look of one too many economic changes in tide. Once a mandatory stop for ships transiting the Straits of Magellan on the way to Points East/West, Punta Arenas dearly felt the blow of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The Big Ditch made a big difference to the lads with the Captain Sparrow earrings driving the square riggers and early steamers. "New York to San Fran, take yer pick, me hearties : will she be 22,500 km* by the Straits, or 9,500 km* by that new fangled Panama Canal?" (*Ed note: nautical miles have been expressed in kilometers for the benefit of the distance-conversion challenged).

OK, so since then, what with wars, the vagaries of fortune with cattle and sheep estancias, the discovery of petroleum, advance of ecotourism, ya ya ya, Punta Arenasīs fortunes have been up and down like the proverbial drawers of a ..... never mind, there could be young innocent minds like Luc Brown reading this..

We pick fifteen stones - no, make that "Carefully Select" 15 stones from the very historic Estrecho de Magallanes. Why? Ferdinand Magellan (his mom called him Fernão de Magalhães), a Portuguese sailor in service to the Spanish King, became the first European to navigate the strait in 1520, during his global circumnavigation voyage. The South American spanish call him Fernando Magallanes. Luckily no one thought, that lived anyway, to call him "Chicatita".

I digress. Nearly 500 years ago, the big M sailed through these very waters with five ships and 237 men. After three years, in 1522, the remains of one ship and 18 men arrived back in Spain - Fred wasnīt one of them, sorry to say. Sounds like my kind of odds. Anyway, the significance of all this, dear reader, is that those stones I have chosen probably were present when history sailed by. If presented to friends as a historic reminder of all that brave exploration means, then each stone represents all that is good about mankind. Iīm thinking of engraving "E de M" on the face of each stone. And Michelleīs young son Lucas gets the first one.

IMG_4987 piedras Estrecho de Magallanes.12.JPG

After a quick couple of days in Sandy Point, as the Limies used to call it, we leave Punta Arenas for the ferry across Estrecho de Magallanes. El Viento blows gayly across the hood of our TV cum CAR at a popular 70 to 80 kms per hour. Hey, same speed as us. We stop along the side of the highway so I can hop out for a whiz. Bad idea. Makes me think of Roger Millerīs lyrics of "the hitchhikerīs pant legs go whooptie-whoop as the semiīs go drivinī by". My pant legs and jacket arms flap just as crazily in the Patagonia breeze. I have to lean into the wind so Joyce can take a photo with the Straits of Magellan in the background.

IMG_5009 leaning into Patagonia wind.12.JPG

We cross the Straits of Magellan at the first narrows at the east end of the strait. The ferry, similar in size to ones on Kootenay Lake, BC, powers our three-dozen-vehicles cargo across the wind-raked Estrecho with little regard for the weather. Wave spray crashes over the 10 meter high bow. Those of us foolish enough to stand out in the elements get a wet surprise. My hotdog suddenly tastes salty. My sunglasses have streaks of agua de Magdallanes which trickles onto my jacket. To a person, we retreat to the enclosed passenger "lounge" onboard. For the next 20 minutes, to hell with history.

Posted by Murray Castle at 09:20 PM GMT
March 28, 2009 GMT
Ushuaia, Fin del Mundo

We cross the Straits of Magellan in a long 20 minutes and bounce ashore onto dry land. Dry land, what an understatement - there is more moisture in popcorn. Dry, flat and arid in the north, Tierra del Fuego, more than twice the size of Vancouver Island, has mountains, sub-antarctic forests of beech and low ground cover in the extreme south. Our little Samsung TVcumCAR rattles over the gravel road as we head south to Rio Grande, Argentina (ownership of the island is divided between Chile and Argentina).

IMG_1080 Tierra del Fuego norte.12.JPG

For roadside company, we have small herds of guanacos to wave at as we pass, and nandus, half size ostriches. Neither can be domesticated so they run free over the landscape. Foxes show their faces occasionally. The most notable birds are the black condors circling overhead. Also there are small gaggles of geese here and there, but dressed in mottled grey, and looking a little lost. Unrestricted, the wind blows here too with relentless abandon. Neither feather nor fur seems to notice.

IMG_5049 guanaco.12.JPG

In Rio Grande we stay the Yawar Hospedaje, the best bargain mini-hotel yet for $50 Cdn. Not only new and fully equipped but we are the only guests. We stay two nights.
IMG_1088 Yawar Hospedje.12.JPG

Heading south, we hit pavement all the way to Ushuaia. Thatīs new. Less than 3 years ago it was still ripio (gravel). Garibaldi Pass marks the divide where, to the south, old forests live in the mountain valleys. The old beech trees have pale green moss hanging from the branches like silk scarves. Two adventure bikers pass by on BMW Dakars heading north. Itīs spitting rain and canīt be more than 11 C. I pretend not to notice but inside I feel my ego twinge a little.

IMG_5029 Garibaldi Pass.12.JPG

Ushuaia, another hour later, has the air of a frontier town that has found ecotourism and saved itself from a slow death. Cruise ships depart for Antarctic tours here. Even Charles Darwin stopped here with his ship the Beagle in 1832.

For the last minute adventurer shoppers, stores sell everything from nuts to Nikon lenses. A Banff with a maritime flavour, it even has ski hills nearby. Because of the maritime influence, the temperatures here hover, on average, from zero in winter to +10 C in summer. Even though in sunshine the air has a chill, a salty damp feel even, the town itself has a vibrancy that ensures the middle aged adventure tourist, many wearing Tilley and Ex Oficio clothes better suited to African safaris, will not grow cold or unentertained. Because of the eclectic energy, pleasantly surprising to both of us, Joyce feels the locals chose to live here. I think itīs a former harpoon whaler meets hippy enterpreneur meets ecotourism goldmine kind of thing. We think Dave Clark would like it here. But not one damn guitar strap for sale.

IMG_5030 Ushuaia msc.12.JPG

IMG_1098 Main Street Ushuaia.12.JPG

After paying 100 pesos ($33 Cdn) at the gate, we enter Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego, a park of scenic little lakes, 30 ft beech trees, long fiords and stands of long green grass. We arrive at Lapataia in the early afternoon. Itīs a place, not a town, a place where the road ends. If driving south in South America, one can go no further south than here. It is, in that regard, el Fin del Mondo, the end of the world. OK, so itīs a little theatrical, and untrue, but a charming thought nevertheless. Joyce and I pose by the sign for the obligatory photo, then do a wee walkabout to study the peaceful but hardy flora and fauna. There is a virgin cleanness to the place, a faint scent of green life evident, but carried in the air with a rawness that is familiar. Like camping near the Columbia Icefield in September.

IMG_1091 Lapataia.12.JPG

On our return trip to the Yawar Hospedaje, "base camp" for Samsung adventurers like ourselves, we discuss the pros and cons of riding Ruta 40 on our motorcycles. Over the next three days we waffle back and forth. Ego vs logic, health vs climate, the classic struggle continues.

Last on our Gringo Trail list is El Calafate, gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier. We drive two days north across windswept and empty Patagonia, lonely estancias scattered every couple hundred kilometers apart. It is big country - and did I mention utterly vast and empty?

El Calafate is an Argentinian Canmore. Backpackers, adventure bikers, seniors on luxury bus tours, cripples with sciatica, weīre all here. Wood carved signs, highlights painted in bright primary colors, swing overhead the crowded sidewalks, bushy and bright green pine trees shade the main boulevard.

IMG_1126 Lago.12 Argentino.JPG

The Perito Moreno glacier flows into Lago Argentino, apparently one of the few glaciers left still advancing. It enters the water at sixty meters high and 5 km wide, truly an impressive sight. At the viewpoint, visiters can look 11 km up the valley to its origins off the main glacial mantle. Sharp cracks like rifle shots signal another slab calving off and plunging into the ice blue waters below.

IMG_1135 P y Perito Moreno.12 Glacier.JPG

On our one-day drive south back to Puerto Natales, we hash out the Ruta Cuarenta option again. I even do a risk analysis on it - likelihood and consequences. Jayson Nelson would be proud. The score comes up with the odds against us. Damn, sometimes I hate logic and science.

IMG_5071 empty Patagonia.12.JPG

We spot a strange object on a fence post. It is our friend zorro but looking a little parched. We wonder if the landowners put up the desicated carcass as a warning to zorroīs relatives. Perhaps they donīt like foxes here anymore than they do at home.

IMG_5072 Ruta 40 zorro.12.JPG

By the time we arrive back in our adopted home of Puerto Natales, we have nearly made up our mind. But then the next day we take another "battery charging" run north. Black clouds, rain slanting in the wind, stalk us from the nearby mountains. Temp mid-day 9 C. All clothes on and after an hour itīs clear Iīm getting cold soaked. Itīs a wonderful spirit-charging experience for us to be on Katie and the Bumblebee again but the signs are obvious, even to my stubborn ego. We book the Navimag ferry for northern climes and start packing for the sailing Monday, March 30. Regretfully, Ruta Cuarenta and the Carretera Austral will have to wait for another time.

Posted by Murray Castle at 11:04 PM GMT

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