Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Hosteria de la Patagonia", Chile Chico, Chile

Lago Bertrand

11:30 p.m. Chile Chico, on the border with Argentina

Camped in an orchard here, I think. The town's dogs are out of control. It's another community that sounds like a kennel! This has been one hellish day! Included were about 275 miles of off-pavement riding today, much of it in difficult conditions. The story follows...

Lago Bertrand

The confluence of the rivers Neff and Baker

On the road before 9:00 this morning, chocolate my breakfast. (Great start!) After 70 miles, I reached the turn-off for Estancia Chacabuco. But it was necessary to refuel before crossing the Estancia to Argentina.

Continued past the turn-off, ten miles south to Cochrane, where the only gas station in the area is to be found. Cochrane's a small town and virtually everything was closed when I arrived this Sunday morning. But I found the gas station open and then a grocery. Loaded up on snacks and quickly moved on.

Returned to the Estancia turn-off and headed east. A short distance down this road, I came to the Estancia administration complex. There, I met "Alfredo", who immediately treated me as a guest. After just a few minutes chatting, he invited me to lunch in the ranch dining room. Tuna burgers, made from canned tuna (or jurel?) and breading, formed into a patty. Not bad. French fries, rice and fruit punch too.

The road leading into Estancia Chacabuco, the 75,000-hectare parcel purchased by American Doug Tompkins. The land will be protected as a nature preserve.

At Estancia Chacabuco, I was greeted by Alfredo Valderrama, who immediately invited me to join the "ranch hands" for lunch

He said Doug Tompkins purchased the 70,000-hectare (173,000-acre) Estancia as yet another preservation project. Goals include restoring habitat of the huemel, a South Andean deer and reintroducing the puma. Pablo Curasco, the manager here, also worked with Doug and Kris on the Pumalin project.

Alfredo said twenty volunteers are coming soon to help remove fencing, opening up the land for migrating wildlife. After lunch, he showed me around the complex. There's an air strip in the compound. Doug's a pilot ("a good one!" according to Alfredo) and he and Kris frequently fly here.

One of the residences

I didn't want to linger long, but Alfredo seemed to enjoy having someone to talk to. (It can be a lonely place out here!) He introduced me to "Christian" who's the project manager for wildlife. We had a look inside the large barn where the Estancia's sheep are sheared. The sale of wool and hides helps finance the project. Near a grove of trees, workers were gathered around a large wood fire, a lamb being barbecued "on the cross."

The sale of wool helps support the conservation project at Estancia Chacabuco

Skins from the sheep used for food will be sold

Estancia Chacabuco's wool, destined for foreign markets (and a "gaggle" - or whatever you call it - of vultures in the background)

I was off again about 2:00, slowly riding east. The road is good for about 20 miles, then things deteriorate: washboard and rock. The river-bottom areas are the worst. It's a beautiful land, much of it an arid chaparral. Lots of wildflowers, lakes and rivers.

A small section of Estancia Chacabuco

Estancia Chacabuco

But the road grew steadily worse toward the eastern boundary. The hard rock surface was providing a pounding, and my body was fatiguing, my muscles tense and aching.

At the border outpost, there were three parties waiting to be processed. I had to wait. Couldn't believe it. Officially exited Chile. It was seven miles to the Argentine checkpoint. It was emotional to finally bid farewell to Chile (though I'll touch it again briefly around Torres del Paine.) I had been in the country a long time!

A powerful wind was flowing over this low pass, which is an enormous alluvial fan spreading eastward toward the pampas. Beyond the Chile guard station, the gravel was thick and there's some serious washboard. I wasn't having fun. "This isn't 'adventure', it's stupidity!"

A teasing glimpse of Argentina

It was a battle with roads and wind, and I only hoped things would improve beyond the Argentine checkpoint. Arriving at the station, I again had to wait for the others to be processed. When it was my turn, I turned over my documents. The plain clothes official asked for my "seguridad international".

"Excuse me?"

He wanted to see my international insurance. I didn't have any. I've been in Argentina twice already. It hasn't been an issue.

"Without seguridad international, I cannot let you pass," he explained.

"Where can I purchase it?"

"Not here."

"I'm not going back. I dropped my bike three times coming over here. (Well, almost dropped it.) The road is bad. I'm not going back." I was talking to a wall.

He explained that here they are responsible for people accessing Ruta 40. If I were to have an accident out there, he would be liable.

I wasn't buying it. "It wouldn't be your responsibility. It would be mine!"

He just shook his head.

"I've crossed to Mendoza and to Bariloche before. Why wasn't this an issue at those crossings???"

No matter what happened at those crossings, he was not going to be responsible for my safety. It wouldn't happen on his watch.

"So you're going to make me drive back, at probably even greater risk?"


He went through the motions of calling another border post (I don't even know if he actually talked with anyone). A young uniformed officer who was standing by, watching the scene, rolled his eyes as if to say "he's crazy!"

"Mr. Asshole" came back with confirmation that his was the proper decision. "No. No entrada."

He then started to fill out a formal "denial of entry" which he wanted me to sign.

"What's that? I'm not signing your fucking form!" By now, I was swearing and just wanted to wring his neck. I stormed out.

Outside I looked west. 48 miles of tough road and I have to go back!

I wanted to scream, or cry. Not sure which. "Now what?" I couldn't face going back. The thought crossed my mind to try again tomorrow, but I'm sure these guys are stationed here for days at a time.

As I calmed down, I tried to figure out the lesson here. (It's easy to hate the messengers.) I’ve often resented "laws" and “authorities” (perhaps since my dad once dragged me to the police station as a child!) One lesson, of course: be prepared.

"Adding insult to injury", I now had to go back through the Chilean entry process! Just riding back between the two border stations, I was nearly blown from the road twice.

The Chilean officials were sympathetic and quickly took care of my re-entry. They told me "you have to drive around to Chile Chico" and showed me the route. In Chile Chico, they said, you can buy international insurance. And it's right near the border crossing. It's about a 170-mile ride.

One small consolation: the road is always easier the second time (if conditions haven't changed.) And I knew this particular road across the Estancia would improve as I traveled westward.

I pressed the speed as high as I dared. Having to replay almost all the day's riding challenges was something I had difficulty accepting. All the washboard, rock, construction zones and hazards. What a waste. There were numerous near crashes today, but you have to keep playing the game.

Approaching the Carretera Austral once again, I met two young backpackers walking east toward the Estancia. After introductions, I asked "Dante" and "Matias" if they were going to work (volunteer) on the Estancia. When they said "yes", I warmed up. They had no food and water, so I gave them chocolate, a banana and a bottle of water.

Then I found out they were going to a tourist estancia near the border, not the Estancia Chacabuco preserve. Dante said his parents own a hosteria in Chile Chico and that I must go stay there. "And tell them where you saw me, so they know I'm all right." This seemed a good omen. At least I knew there was a place I could stay this evening.

After an hour or so traveling north, I took the turn-off for Puerto Guardal and Chile Chico. This was unknown terrain for me, and it was turning dark. Despite the gravel and washboard road, I drove as fast as I could, putting the maximum mileage behind me before darkness forced me to slow. I still had about 75 miles to go. In Puerto Guardal, the road dumps into the town, where construction forces a detour. But the detour is not marked! You're just left to stumble through the unbelievably bad streets of this town. I finally found someone to direct me to the secret route.

With nightfall, the ride became a nightmare – literally. I lost it on this one. It challenged me as much as anything I've yet encountered. It was totally unpredictable. I came to a stretch of new asphalt. "Is this just a tease?" Yes! It only lasted a short distance. And it was followed by some of the nastiest construction zones and washboard. (The washboard is almost always on the uphill and downhill slopes, where it pounds the bike. And this road had plenty of hills.)

The road surface was constantly changing, and without warning. You need to recognize from a distance the surface ahead. (And visibility was perhaps fifty yards.) Often the transitions came at the most inconvenient places, especially in curves.

I was forced to go slower and slower. With blind curves, you can't be too cautious. At night, there is little warning and on these dirt roads, reacting quickly to an on-coming vehicle or a sudden hazard is treacherous.

Screaming mad with this surreal experience, there's a part of me that knows you shouldn’t ride angry. You shouldn't ride after dark. You shouldn't ride too fast on unfamiliar roads. You shouldn't ride angry and fast, on dark, unfamiliar roads. I was inviting disaster.

In the twilight, I could see that this road hugs the cliffs along Lago General Carrera's southern shore. By day, it must be an incredible sight. I forced myself to stop for a few moments to enjoy the view. Climbed down a hill to take a picture. Returning to the bike, I stumbled in the rocks and fell, my camera hitting hard. In the dark, I heard the cracking of glass. Took out a flashlight to have a look. I was relieved: it appeared only a protective ultraviolet filter was broken, the telephoto lens unharmed. Things were just not looking real good this evening.

I’m sure that enjoyed from a car or bus, this is a much more dramatic and scenic road. On a bike you must constantly watch the road, and not allow attention to stray for a moment. If there’s a distraction, one must be especially on guard; that's when things tend to happen.

Nightfall on Lago Generale Carrera, near the Chile-Argentina border

Dante said it would take two hours to reach his town. It was more like 3-1/2. Arrived in Chile Chico about 6-1/2 hours after meeting that asshole bureaucrat. The main streets of Chile Chico are lighted and paved! I could finally relax. I had directions to the hosteria, on the east end of town.

No comments: