Puerto Montt is the southern end of the Pan America highway. It is also where we buy tickets for the ferry to get us to the start of the Camino Austral, a gravel military road built on the orders of General Pinochet, which runs from Puerto Montt to O’Higgins way down south in Chilean Patagonia. It is here that we need to do the final preparations on the car.
We felt we needed more ground clearance for the uneven gravel surface, we knew we needed good tyres to withstand the cutting action of rock gravel and we knew the suspension would come under considerable but unknown strain. Before we left NZ we reset the springs, both front and rear. That gave us an extra inch and a quarter ground clearance. We fitted an oil cooler as high up out of the way as possible but we had to move the Panhard rod so that it now faces towards the rear. We also beefed up the front and rear shock absorber brackets with fillets for extra strength. We carry a spare top main leaf spring, one front and one rear, lashed underneath to the outrigger brackets that carry the running boards.
We pondered long and hard about the type of tyre we should fit. Some advised us to fit taxi or light commercial tyres for endurance. We were also advised that such tyres would wear us out, that they are unforgiving and would not help the rest of the car or us to survive lousy roads. We already had a perfectly good full set of Avon Turbospeed radials 185 x R16 92S fitted that we had run for a few thousand miles already.
For the front axle we settled on a pair of new Michelin radial tubed tyres, 185 x R16 92S to give us and the car more of a comfortable ride. We fitted the less worn Avons from the front to the rear wheels, and fitted a new Michelin to the spare wheel and carried a spare Michelin tyre on the rear carrier. The new front tyres are narrower than the rear but with a deeper tread. We accepted that we may very well have to fit a full new set somewhere along the road. In case we do, we have the contact details of Longstone Tyres in the UK, who can air freight a full set out to us within 5 days. Assuming that the Argentian MG Car Club cannot find us a set in South America.
We carry a puncture repair kit, the injection kind that pumps a glycol based substance into the tube. Later we found something called Blu Goo, a water based product that you put in your tyre as a preventive measure. It sloshes around in the tyre until you get a puncture, which it instantly seals on contact with air. The Blo Goo went in the night before we set off on the Camino Austral. A foot pump is an obvious accessory. We also carry a couple of spare tubes.
We fitted headlamp guards and have a flexible but thick plastic shield for the windscreen. Apparently, if you press your thumb up against a glass windscreen, that prevents the glass from chipping or breaking if it is hit by flying gravel. The paintwork will have to take what comes at it.
We left Puerto Montt to discover the delights of gravel, or “ripio” as it is called in South America. We had to cover 30kms to catch a first short ferry that ran every hour and a half and took half an hour, then another 40kms of gravel to the second four hour ferry that we had to reach by 1pm. By the time we had finished finding a Shell petrol station and doing last minute supplies shopping (where Roberto learned how to fend off lowlife and a drug pedlar in the back street parking area), we were running too close to schedule.
Chileans consider the worst parts to be the stretches up to the long ferry crossing at Hornipiren. These turned out to be the easiest for us and the TC. Loose gravel ranging from dust to rough rocks as big as your hand covered a slightly potholed and lightly corrugated base layer. On this, the tyres absorbed most of the damage. We averaged 30kph on the first stretch and got to the first ferry ten minutes before it arrived and joined the queue of four-wheel drives. We were the only two-wheel drive car there.
The second stretch was sort of the same standard as the first, if not worse. We arrived on time but the ferry didn’t. We departed at three thirty for an exquisitely rough four hour crossing that took six hours. The TC started the trip filthy with dust, it disembarked the ferry spotlessly clean, regularly sluiced down by huge waves washing over the boat. We arrived at Caleta Gonzalo as night fell on a staggering beautiful spot, worried about accommodation but relieved to find cabanas immediately.
We had landed into part of Park Pumalin, a huge nature reserve where puma and condor live in peace. The cabanas and restaurant building had been designed to fit into the landscape unobtrusively. What a gem of a location, sat at the foot of high pyramidal tree-clad mountains and on the edge of a fjord. So peaceful and quiet, no electricity, no internet, no cellphones; just the flap flap of sea onto gravel beach.
Some people ban swearwords from their conversations. After our experiences on gravel so far, g----l will never pass our lips again. What a torment. After a couple of days on the stuff you need an osteopath and a dentist. And the TC, well.
To start with, its filthy stuff. You end up covered in dust, its up your nose, in your hair, between your teeth and other places best not to mention. The TC was filthy almost immediately, inside and out. You also cannot relax for a second, the stuff changes in characteristic metre by metre. Sometimes we drove at walking pace, sometimes at cycling pace, sometimes we could manage 30kph.. Loose g----l on corners was like driving on marbles. The potholes needed constant attention, the corrugations were torture for the car.
We had about 10kms of this worst bit left to negotiate when we heard a knocking sound from the rear left-hand side. After emptying the storage box behind the seats, we found the top shock absorber mounting bracket had sheared at the bolts where it fixed to the chassis. The shock absorbers we have used for years are Koni type telescopics. So, off with the shocker, off with the plate, leave the shocker loose and carry on to Chaiten, our next port of call and rely on the unprotected spring to get us there.
We found a welder easily, every frontier town must have one somewhere. He quickly did a welding job on the plate and added a thin supporting plate for extra strength. He helped us fit it to the car, shake of hands and exchange of a small sum of money and after an hours delay, we were off on the road again.
The road surface did improve after Chaiten and we managed to maintain an average speed of 35kph. The further south we went, the scenery got steadily more drammatic and impressive. We ended the day on a campsite attached to a fishing lodge on Lago Yelcho, an unbelievable location. There were a couple of English people staying there, and later the next day they caught us up on the road. The used to have an MG dealership in the UK, had owned a TA and a TC, now had a Vauxhall dealership. Small world.
The day to our next stop at Puyahuapi was one of the most memorable ever. We had been so lucky with the weather, the scenery just got better and better. The TC was holding up OK, so were we, and we found a primitive campsite that we shared with a group of cyclists. If people think we are mad, you should try doing what they do. Anyone who cycles the Camino Austral needs serious help. We have done some cycle touring on tarmac with a bit of gravel work but nothing as brutal as this stuff. We take our hats off to them. They were actually enjoying themselves.
Another wonderful day for weather followed with yet more fantastic scenery. I will run out of adjectives shortly. Sadly, that is where our good luck ran out, and for many other travelers too. We hit “Profundo” road works of the “Danger Explosives” sort. Some motorcyclists had been stuck for an hour before we got there. We waited three and a half hours before we were allowed through. It was an important loss of time - this was going to be a long day in the saddle anyway. The powers that be seem to be intent on improving the road by widening and resurfacing with more g----l. The four-wheel drives found it better, we found it too traumatic for words. The potholes and corrugations were appalling. Maybe they will come along later and put down a finer surface.
Dodging huge earth moving equipment, massive boulders just blasted out of the rock face, potholes galore, mud and anything else the road could throw at us, we started a hairpin accent of a mountain pass. We still don’t know how the TC got around some of those bends. The descent was no easier. Then we hit a level stretch, horribly corrugated. That was the final straw that broke the welds. Off with the mounting bracket and continue on appalling roads for another hour, then finally tarmac as we headed for Coyhaique, darkness and the first cabana we could find. Stuff camping, just let us hit the sack.
After going over the car next day we discovered that the rear bottom shock absorber mounting brackets were showing signs of cracking. We found a welder who did sheet metal work and designed a new, stronger form of bottom mounting bracket, and a stronger, bigger top mounting bracket. He made a new set of bottom brackets and one top bracket from thicker material for the princely sum of 30 quid. That lost us two days but we needed the break anyway.
Off again into relentless glorious sunshine to see what else we could break. The scenery changed, much lower hills to start with on a tarmac road and then back onto gravel past drammatic stuff, fewer trees, bare mountains of verdigris, ochres, siennas, purples and greys with serrated skylines. Coming over the brow of a hill we were confronted by Cerro Castillo - a breathtaking sight of multiple jagged peaks, followed by hairpin bends down to the river valley Ibanez. As the scenery got better and better, the road condition got worse and worse. This day we somehow managed 200 kms.
We were on the edge of a part of Chilean Patagonia that we had been looking forward to for a long time - to drive the shores of Lago General Carrerra. We were not disappointed. Words cannot describe the iridescent aquamarine of the water, or the surrounding mountains. The western shore was sublime. About half way along the southern shore the landscape changed to drier, parched scrub-bush covered semi-desert; not to our liking at all. It was hot, the road was impossibly bad, the TC was misfiring (still on 95 octane), the engine was overheating with the steep gradients taken in first gear to mitigate the effects of currugation.
Without a trace of a campsite or accommodation and running out of water, we had no choice but to plug away at it. It felt like we had been beamed up to a world of eternal g----l. The more tired we became the harder we had to concentrate, the more we had to weave about the road to find the better bits, the hotter the engine ran and everything on the TC seemed to be shaking or rattling. Of the 200kms we did this day, the last 75 were a battle. Where the hell is Chile Chico? We did the last 25kms at less than 15kph, sometimes at walking pace. Never has a dusty, dirty, slightly seedy place looked so welcoming.
In all we have covered 854kms on ripio, plus 200kms on tarmac. On the best day we averaged 40kph, on the worst day 26kph. It is a fabulous road to travel, quiet even in the tourist season - we met other vehicles about once every 5 minutes and the vast majority of those were four-wheel drives. Anyone who lives within 20,000 kms of Chilean Patagonia should try to drive this road, but please, make sure it’s in a four-wheel drive. This road is made for them, not Kensington High Street. Even then, they couldn’t travel at normal road speeds and they were not immune to punctures or major accidents. We have held the view for many years that the best driving in the world is in New Zealand; that is no longer the case. Chilean Patagonia now sits at the top of our list.
Tomorrow we cross the border into Argentina to Los Antiguos, still on the shores of lago General Carrera, and head east to Perito Mereno, then south. We have to see what the Argentinian ripio looks like. We have studied the maps and the choices we have on how to reach Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego. We have 500kms of ripio (excluding a possible extra 400kms of side trips) that takes us southwards alongside the eastern side of the Andes, against double that amount on sealed roads that takes us across to the Atlantic Coast and down. Can the TC take much more? Can we? We pour over the maps and make the call - we’ll tackle the ripio once more.