Patagonia conjures up visions of an unrelenting wilderness, untouched by man. Well, it’s changed a bit...
I edged the Patrol even closer to the rock face on my left away from the dizzying drop at my right. The tyres spun and scrambled for a bite of traction on the loose rocky surface of the road that had been blasted and hewn from this mountain’s solid granite mass. If you could manage to tear your eyes away from the narrow track in front, the view was actually awe inspiring.
The snow-crowned peaks of the Andes reared up from around the lake below us. Beyond those peaks, the tongues of glaciers just visible in the valleys between the jagged crests, was the ice-covered massif of Campos de Hielo Norte, one of the greatest expanses of ice outside Antarctica.
We were in southern Chile, in the heart of Patagonia, following the edge of the long lake, Lago General Carrera, from where we had crossed the Argentinean-Chilean border a few hours previously.
Our route swung south, meeting with the Carretera Austral, Chile’s famous road that slices south through the Andes, the occasional gap in the road network, over still impossible sections of country that’s bypassed by ferries or a quick detour through neighbouring Argentina.
That evening we bush-camped on the edge of the ice-melt swollen Rio Baker, our solitude only broken when a horseman searching for his cows trotted by. While we were comfortable enough, it was a bit like sleeping beside your freezer with the doors open – the clouds parted every now and again to let you know there were snow-covered peaks and glaciers seemingly just a stone’s throw away, overlooking our camp.
Our journey through Patagonia had started a few weeks earlier in Valparaiso, Chile’s major port for the country’s capital, Santiago. However, once we had our vehicles off the ship and out of the port, we hightailed it south to get away from the crowds.
The Lakes District stopped us for a few days, though. It is truly magnificent, with the high peaks of the Andes a constant companion, while turquoise blue lakes lay scattered among them. In places, the symmetrical cones of volcanoes dominate the scene, and while they were just lazing away while we were there, with an occasional puff of smoke from their caldera, it does add another dimension to the whole travel experience. Still, it is civilised, with tourist resorts, holiday homes and private enclaves for the rich and famous. We wanted a wilder country and somewhere just south of the Lakes District we officially crossed into Patagonia!
Patagonia; just the name conjures up images of a wild, untamed land, untouched by man, where any person strong enough to live there battles the elements every day just to survive. This is another Sahara or Siberia, with few equal on earth – or it’s supposed to be!
Bruce Chatwin's outstanding tale,In Patagonia (1977) and Paul Theroux's equally gripping yarn,The Old Patagonian Express (1979) are classics that any aspiring Patagonian traveller will probably read before or during a trip through these wild, windswept lands. Trouble is, they are so far removed from the everyday experience of the place, that you'd wonder how long they spent in Patagonia. Then again, maybe in the 30-odd years that have elapsed since their travels, the rest of the world has had time to invade and subdue the place.
Certainly, we didn’t even know we had entered Patagonia; the trappings of civilisation remaining much the same as elsewhere. We hurried south. We took the ferry across to the island of Chiloe, but the once-rich farming land has almost been deserted as the newfound wealth for this whole southern coast of Chile is found in the sea. Salmon and mussel farms lay scattered across each and every inlet and bay and, along with any other seaborne delicacy that can be harvested, fished for, or caught in pots, are now the region’s lifeblood.
With all the ferries booked out, stifling our plans to continue south on the Carretera Austral, we crossed the Andes into the Argentine section of Patagonia. Ruta 40 is Argentina’s classic drive south that parallels the Chilean border and the Andes, but it never climbs the high peaks. This route, across windswept dry and bleak grey saltbush-like country is slowly being upgraded to blacktop, which will no doubt increase the number of travellers, but it will make the enigmatic and historic Patagonian experience even more elusive.
By the time we got to Tierra del Fuego, the large island at the southern end of South America, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that Patagonia was civilised; the distances tamed by bitumen and fast cars; the isolation muted by phone, TV and internet services; the howling wind (that hasn’t changed) kept bearable by concrete and brick buildings and the bitter winter cold warmed by piped natural gas.
Of course, none of that takes away from the fact that the Andes are stupendous, and among the many peaks there are wild remote places untouched by modern man. And, for mere mortals like us, there was plenty to see and enjoy along their ragged, impressive edges.
At Esquel we joined the throngs (mainly locals with just a few international train buffs) and headed off on a short trip on the old La Trochita steam train – Paul Theroux’s Old Patagonian Express – from Esquel to Nahuel Pan. It was only 20km each way, but the train is so slow and rattly it takes a couple of hours in each direction, the door and door jam, along with the walls moving to a different beat to the wobble of the train on the rails.
Near the tourist beat of El Calafate, we took in the wonders of the Moreno Glacier – one of the dozen or so glaciers in the world still advancing – on one of the most extensive and best boardwalks I’ve ever been on. With damn near half a million tourists visiting annually, you are never alone, but it is worth it!
Adding to the experience, that night we had a great bush camp all to ourselves in the Los Glaciares National Park; when the clouds cleared, the view stretched across a lake to the high peaks of the Andes.
A few days later we bush camped just outside Torres del Paine back in Chile, and next day explored the park with its magnificent sheer fingers of towering rock among what is surely some of the most spectacular mountain country on earth.
The highlight though, for us, was our travels across Tierra del Fuego, the mystical 'Land of Fire' named by Magellan on discovering the straits in 1520, and which you have to cross to get to this remote island at the southern tip of the world.
In places, you are among rolling, stream-cut plains that are reminiscent of the Victorian High Plains or the Snowy Mountains. Here, on the Chilean side of the island, there are some top places to camp and enjoy, but time was against us to dilly dally too long and we had to push onto Ushuaia and the road’s end.
Edging up to the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is hemmed-in by high mountains, and is a fitting place to begin or end a trip through South America, or as a stepping off point for Antarctica, for which it is famous. Still, with a population around the 100,000 mark, and streets crowded with travellers wearing popular brand name outdoor clothing, it is hard to imagine that you are anywhere deemed remote.
Maybe in Australia we’re spoilt with our wide open places and distant hard to get to country that we take for granted. Maybe Patagonia is more of a place conjured in the mind’s eye, and cemented there by legend and literature, than a definitive spot on earth.
Or maybe we simply expected too much. Travel can do that to you. The research, the planning, the anticipation can make even the most spectacular destination almost an anti-climax.
Whatever, don’t let this put you off. An anti-climax of this scale is still a must-see. South America and Patagonia have plenty to offer – you just have to work harder to get really remote!