It’s amazing how much better a place looks when you have had a feed, a sleep and a shower. Chile Chico didn’t look half as bad as it did when we arrived tired, dirty and hungry. It was another cloudless hot day when we crossed from
The terrain looks like it started off life as undulating and then some huge mega-corporation came along and indulged in relentless, comprehensive, haphazard, disorganized opencast mining with a few explosions thrown in for good measure. Vegetation is technically known as sparse, barely a tree anywhere and prickly, ground hugging drought-resistant bushes covering about 25% of the surface area.
That leaves a lot of bare ground, ranging from sand to rocks in a riot of colours - ochres, siennas, umbers, blacks, greys, greens and that strange red that you get in outback
Patagonian hares have a problem. They have hundreds of square kilometers to be going at, the surface area covered by roads is miniscule, the amount of traffic is small and yet you see so many flattened on the road. Does the hare community have a problem with pubescent youths playing chicken on the ripio, or are they just “burro”, a lovely word that means stupid.
Routa 40 heads roughly south from Lago Buenos Aires (Lago General Carrera on the Chilean side) down to Punta Arenas; some of it is tar sealed, most of it isn’t. It is ripio again. Where there were regular stops on the Carretera Austral, on Routa 40 there are very few. Perito Mereno, one gallon of petrol east of the border crossing, is the last place to fuel up before Bajo Caracoles. After that it is 365kms to the next petrol station. We must fill up in Bajo Caracoles. We camped at an estancia 25kms into the first gravel section. 50kms further along Routa 40 are cave paintings, now a World Heritage Site, but up a diversion 92kms there and back. By this time we were back to the rough stuff; we went through the pros and cons (we have seen the
Pulling up to the pumps in Bajo Caracoles there seemed to be a lot of people milling around and a sign on the pumps “No Hay”. Ain’t got none. People were waiting for the petrol tanker to arrive. Our tank holds 14 gallons so a quick calculation meant we had just about enough to get to Tres Lagos, the next petrol down the line. Good job we didn’t visit the cave paintings or we would have also been hanging around for the petrol tanker, with no shade, in soaring heat, slowly going mad.
Then things got worse. The road surface deteriorated further, we hit roadworks that stretched on for 56kms while a new Routa 40 was being built. Some of it was already tar sealed and the rest of it had a much smoother surface than the temporary Routa 40 which ran beside it. Sometimes you have to be opportunistic, so at every chance we nipped onto the new road, dodging earthmoving machinery and surprised workmen. Most of the time they waved us on or through obstructions, once we were told to get off but we got back on once out of sight. We saved hours this way. Two possible stops had been obliterated by the road works so we soldiered on until nearly dark. With another 75kms to Tres Lagos we stumbled across an Agritourism estancia down a 5km long dirt road so we took that and camped in the grounds. Several of these estancias actively encourage visitors and those that don’t usually allow people to camp on their property.
Driving on ripio redefines everything you have learned about distances. We stopped thinking in kilometers and switched over to hours. 100kms becomes 4 to 6 hours for us, depending on the state of the ripio. We judged how far we could get in a day by writing the estimated hours on the map between each junction. We did 485kms by the time we reached Tres Lagos and had a couple of gallons left in the tank. A tankful of petrol cost £12. That’s about a quarter of the price in the
The closer Routa 40 got to the
Onwards to El Calafate, another more popular growth town that has already benefited from tar seal. God bless Mr Macadam. This town is more established with organized roading and most places finished, a tourist town but very pleasant. The big draw here is the
The road up to the Mereno glacier is where we decided to settle this misfire problem once and for all. By a process of elimination it came down to the lead to plug 3 not carrying a charge. A bit of brutal surgery to the lead end and bingo, no more misfire. It took many stops and several changes of plugs to get to the bottom of it but worth it. The TC ran smooth as silk after that. The Mereno glacier is spectacular; we’ve never seen anything like it before. People sit there quietly listening to the glacier groaning and wait for huge or small chunks to fall into the lake and cause a big rolling wave. Boats full of tourists try to get close but no closer than we were from viewing platforms. Thirty-eight people have been killed by flying ice blocks in 20 years. There are tourists from all over the world here looking in awe. There is a boat trip to the Upsala glacier, even bigger than Mereno but one glacier is enough.
El Calafate was where we met other long distance travelers. A Dutch couple in a converted long wheel base Land Rover had been on the road for over 8 years. Another German couple toured in a huge lorry-like vehicle with wheels over a metre high. We got to know another German couple quite well – Rolf and Bettina. They toured in a large truck that looked like a security bullion wagon. They spend the summer months in
Our next target was the Torres del Paine national park in
At first we thought we were just wusses but the wind then became unmanageable to walk in, the rain got worse and the temperature dropped like a brick. We made it back to the campsite just before it really turned nasty. Lord help those stuck up there. It was a rough night but the next day dawned absolutely crystal clear with fresh snow on all the mountains.
There is a lot to see and do in the Torres del Paine national park but we left that day, unwilling to submit the TC to the dreadful roads in the park. Whatever the park authorities spend the entry fees on, it isn’t the roads. They were the worst we had encountered; this is real four wheel drive territory. Our top speed was 8kph, so it would take us all day to make it to the Lady Grey glacier and back out of the park. That same day we headed south for Puerto Natales and
On this ferry you cross to Porvenir; it will never be a tourist destination but the clean, warm, cheap hotel was great. The temperature had been falling steadily from El Calafate and now it was freezing and raining. The morning drive to yet another border crossing did not bode well. It was flat, barren, boring and extraordinarily windy. Why do people live here?
We were heading for Ushuaia at the southern tip of
It looks like we made it in one piece. I could have stayed there longer, it was a charming place. Tomorrow we turn this ship around and head back for the mainland via a shorter ferry on the north of Tierra del Fuego and on up Routa 3, a tar sealed road that takes us up to Commodoro Rivadivia on the way to Bariloche in the Argentinian Lake District.