Surely cows need to sleep too? It was a question I asked myself many times while camped on a farm one night out from Cochrane. Throughout the night, like a foghorn going off and with the same mechanical regularity. Every 5 seconds or so a great bellow that not even my earplugs could attenuate. Still, it was not all bad.. a night in a beautiful spot on the banks of a river, oven-fresh bread courtesy of ‘farmers wife’ and a terrific chunk of BBQ’d chicken to take with me on the road next day.
I had needed an extra day of rest in Cochrane, feeling quite run down with a bit of a sore throat. The Carretera and its consistently difficult surfaces and weather was slowly wearing me down… but no matter, Cochrane was a fine place to hang out, muy tranquilo.. nothing much in town to look at as such.. except perhaps the ‘supermarket’.. stocking the usual limited selection of foodstuffs it was nevertheless reassuring to know that, should it be necessary, one could pick up a handgun or rifle along with a selection of truck tyres with the weekly grocery shop.
Leaving town I met Kevin the motorcyclist from New Jersey. He was just in the business of rolling up his bivy by the side of the road where he’d spent the night. He had been on the road for 2 years from home, ridden all the way down, taking his time, exploring all the little places in-between. Having had so much time to think, accumulate baggage and so on he said he was increasingly keen to trade his well-worn and battered motorcycle for the “simple, elegant purity of a bicycle” (his words!)… his offer of a trade was only half joking but I said if he could wait until Ushuaia, he is headed that way too eventually, I might be persuaded to sell him mine ;-)
It was a slow day out of Cochrane, reluctant legs as always after more than a day off, a lot of climbing and a fresh headwind so I camped early, turning west off the Carretera after 48km to ride another 3km along a wooded track to reach the aforementioned farm. Arriving at 2pm gave me lots of time to slob out in the shade with some reading and multiple mugs of tea :-)
The afternoon of rest paid off, my legs were in much better shape in the morning. It was a beautiful day for riding too.. warm in the sunshine with a pleasantly chill wind coming down from the icecaps to the west. A headwind but not too vicious. Ideal for the final 89km to Tortel but the headwind and poor state of the ripio meant I needed 7 1/2 hrs to get there.. 5 1/2hrs riding time.
Leaving the rainshadow of the icecap the terrain turned back to thick rainforest, humid in the afternoon heat. The final 20km or so followed along the banks of the Rio Baker, small settlements in the wilderness on the opposite bank of the very full, somnolent river combined with the heat & humidity gave the scenery something of a Heart of Darkness feel.
Met a friendly Dutchman (aren’t they all?!) on arrival and went off for a terrific slab of local salmon and a number of beers. Peter was hitch-hiking his way north. It had taken him 4 days just to get out of Villa O’Higgins…
Tortel then,.. a remarkable place. A village of houses perched on the steep sides of a series of rocky bays. The location is incredible, the sole reason for the place is the Cypress that grows on the mountainsides in the area. Between 1954 and 2003 the only access was by sea or air. A spur off the Carretera Austral connected it to the rest of Chile in 2003.
There are no streets as such rather the hillsides and waterfronts are covered with a tracery of wooden walkways. The entire town is built from the same fragrant cypress which gives the town its reason to be. One wonders how frequently house fires occur.. There is a firestation.. a small red hut on the hillside with a small wooden motorboat, red hoses coiled on the cabin roof, moored below.
It rained during the day I spent exploring, the clouds came down thick over the enormous snow-capped cliffs behind the village and great waterfalls, cascading thousands of feet down the almost sheer rock faces, sprang into being where none were before. Beautiful.
From Tortel the road crosses a steep mountain pass, following the Rio Vagabundo, to Puerto Yungay 50km later. Puerto Yungay barely registers on the map.. a couple of huts and a slipway.
I arrived, along with Ennio and Dina that I first met on New Year in good time for the third and last ferry of the day at 6pm.
Alonside the slipway there is a small kiosco run by a precocious 8yr old and her mellow father. The first thing the little girl, whose name completely escaped me, said to me was “como se dice ‘once’ en Ingles”. “Eleven” I said. She proudly counted to eleven in English before introducing me to the first of her pets… a long suffering shaggy dog decked out in a pair of pink tracksuit bottoms.. the creature had very much an air of having given up protesting such treatment long ago as it shuffled around the yard between periods of dozing in the shade. The second pet I suspect will be long suffering but at present is too young. A fluffy little grey kitten with a sneeze. The third had neither trousers nor a sneeze… a tiny blue hummingbird, dead since it flew into the window, housed in a little nest above the wall clock. She told me she was the only little girl in the village as I sipped at my coffee and watched an upturned icecream tub with little grey paws shuffle across the floor. Yup, the kitten is in for a ‘busy’ time…
An hour later on a cold, bleak evening the ferry dropped us and the one motorvehicle on board at a remote slipway. We camped for the night just one km further on at the top of another, disused slipway.
The final 100km of the Carretera Austral are a suitably wild and woolly ending. A fabulous, albeit rough mountain track that carves it’s way through a wonderful wilderness of forests, sub-alpine scrub and dark, windswept lakes in the shadow of snowcapped peaks.
Some very steep climbs along the way test the legs but reward the effort with terrific views. It is a very quiet stretch, I saw just 2 vehicles all day.. and a few horses and the giant hares that are everywhere down here. For lunch I sat on some old bridge timbers while watching the antics of a small rock from within the shelter of my rainjacket.
I had 70km under my wheels for the day when I experienced an overwhelming desire to sit by a windswept lake with tea and cake.. very English… so I wedged my tent in the shelter behind a large rock and sat out on a rock in the gale with a brew and the homemade cake I bought from the chap at Puerto Yungay. Possibly the most expensive cake in the world. I ate it all of course.
The final 30km into Villa O’Higgins in patchy rain were ace. I met a Kiwi couple on bikes heading north so swapped all their Argentine pesos for a wedge of Chilean ones. Found my legs too and steamed the last 10km at 30km/hr, flying over the rocks and corrugations. It felt good.
Villa O’Higgins is the end of the road, and it feels it too. The Carretera reached here in 2000. Prior to that time the few hundred inhabitants traded in Argentine pesos. Strictly speaking the Carretera ends 7km further south on the shores of Lago O’Higgins, the deepest lake in the entire Americas… 836m at it’s deepest point.
For motorised traffic there is no option but to turn around and head back at least as far as Cochrane… haha! For the cyclist or those on foot however there is a more interesting option for getting into Argentina… somewhat dependent on the weather I am waiting here now for a day or two, along with Ennis & Dina, and kiwi Nina for the gales to abate…. No bad thing, I enjoy days filled with copious quantities of bugger all. Also time for the glue to cure on my cycling shoes. Glued in Bolivia after a hammering I may have been better off buying new but decided to take my chances… and take some glue as well :-)
So, there you have it.. the Carretera Austral, 1200km long plus detours. 1000km of dirt and about 200 of asphalt. Brilliant.
p.s in case you are wondering a word may be in order about the O’Higgins chap whose name graces many streets, towns and lakes here in Chile. In short he was the leader who, along with Jose San Martin, freed Chile from the rule of the Spanish during the War of Independence. If you wish to know more of course then point your browser at Wikipedia as usual ;-)