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learning to float

CHILE: PUERTO WILLIAMS — PUERTO MONTT (BY BOAT)

The Micalvi Yacht Club in Puerto Williams is a charming marina - I know a charming marina when I see one because I've haunted a few, in the past, hoping to find my way to sea. The clubhouse is an old ship run aground, casually listing, complete with original fittings. Lovely!

SETTING SAIL*

We leave Puerto Williams in the early evening, after an afternoon of frustration and debacle at the post office**.

It sunny and beautifully calm and the plan is to travel all night.

A SNOWY START

Leaving before dawn doesn't necessarily mean an early start - it doesn't get light until about 8.30AM, this far south, at this time of year.

When the wind picks up (if, as is generally the case, we are heading into it) we find a sheltered place to anchor, rather than push on into it.

When the weather is otherwise fine...

... a walk or other land based exploration generally seems in order.

Another snowy - but, in this case, mirror calm - morning. We chug away.

LIFE AFLOAT

Life aboard a yacht, even a very small one, is far snugger and cosier than travelling by bicycle and living in a tent. There is potential for heating, for one thing. And the possibility of far more elaborate cooking. I can bake bread and make jam and otherwise indulge my domestic sensibilities, such as they are.

Jam making involves picking calafate, a native blueberry that grows on an extremely spiky bush. Just about nothing pleases me more than gathering ‘wild’ food. (Photo: Ken Passfield)

Calafate are small berries, with a thickish skin and a lot of seeds, so it's best to remove both skin and seeds. I improvise a straining system with an old sock, which I am promised is clean. (Photo: Ken Passfield)

the oven

The Porvenir boasts a clever camp oven that works very neatly...

... to produce...

...perfectly respectable bread.

Mmmm, warm bread and freshly made calafate jam. Life is good.

The wood (or coal) burning stove is a very nice touch. It keeps the cabin toasty warm and is good for all manner of waste disposal, too.

With a hull of only 32 feet the Porvenir is pretty tiny. Ken has fitted out the boat himself and I admire it immensely for its practical minimalism and lack of nautical preciousness. There is not a lot of vanished woodwork or polished brass on display and the cabin is surprisingly roomy and liveable. My bike (wrapped in blue canvas on the left) gets to share the main bunk with Ken while I sleep with my feet tucked in underneath it on a bed that doubles as daytime seating.

NAVIGATION

There are various electronic aids aboard - radar, GPS, and even electronic charts - but I am very happy that Ken maintains an ample collection of paper charts. The charts please me on as aesthetic level, as well as providing a better sense of general overview than electronic charts do.

Yachties, too, it seems, have their guidebooks -- the Chilean Channel bible is a pilot book written by an Italian couple detailing hundreds of safe anchorages.

THE CHANNELS

No crystal blue waters, swaying palms, white sandy beaches. No, no. Snow and ice. Clouds. Rain. Wind.

Glaciers.

Evening light.

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DOLPHINS

I’m not really sure where dolphins get their mystical reputation from: as far as I can see, there’s no two way about it – dolphins are rev heads.

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TIDES AND EDDIES

The idea of navigating these waters before they were charted is truly terrifying. We take a technically illegal but nonetheless commonly used*** short cut through a narrow channel where the tidal currents...

... are pretty impressive.

Ken, however, finds his way through the wild waters...

...with...

...total confidence!

BAHIA WOODS

Bahia Woods, a beautiful open bay, is perhaps the nicest place we anchor. The cape in the far distance is the southern most tip of the South American continent and boasts a monumental cross.

Fox prints on the beach.

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Watching the passing traffic...(Photo: Ken Passfield)

...as...

...night falls.

LABYRINTHINE LITTORAL

Walking on the islands that give form to the intricacies of these channels can prove pretty challenging. The rocky shore line is normally bristling with dense spiky scrub and once free of its clutches... (Photo: Ken Passfield)

... the terrain tends towards spongy moss and swamp.

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Back on the water, the occasional wreck is a cautionary note more vivid than any beacon.

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Another wreck - this one, an insurance scam, apparently.

Rain, rain, rain. Plenty of fresh water to be collected in these parts.

PUERTO EDEN

Our first port of call is Puerto Eden,...

... a ramshackle village of slippery wooden boardwalks...

(Photo: Ken Passfield)

... populated and ruled by dogs, of course.

The predominant themes are the melancholy ones of old rotting boats and mildew.

San Pedro, of the fishermen, sets symbolic sail with his own framed zarpe****.

There are only a few tenuous connections to the rest of the world.

PUERTO AGUIRRE

Our second brush with human civilisation is Puerto Aguirre.

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Just another one of those 'how far' signs. Valparaiso, Aysen...

... and the South Pole.

SAILS UP

Finally!

As soon as the winds do turn in our favour, the sails go up! I am far, far, happier.

We even manage to raise three, on one occasion.

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CHILOE AND HER ISLANDS

Chiloe, marks the end of the Channels proper and the beginning of our final approach to Puerto Montt.

Famous for historic wooden churches...

...and fisherfolk...

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... Chiloe and her outlying islands are a well populated contrast to the uninhabited islands further south.

The streets of Castro, Chiloe's principal town.

A village on one of the smaller islands -- now I no longer have the charts at my disposal I can't remember the name of either the village or the island.

Local traffic - is either bovine, or...

... water based.

The distinctive local architecture consists of wooden stilt houses perched above the waters at high tide.

Despite a very visible and theoretically lucrative local industry of salmon farms, the Channels dominant themes of gradual decay in the face of the elements...

... appears to hold sway here, too;...

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...but, still, there is plenty...

...of beauty...

...to be found...

...in those themes.

It's all about...

...shingles.

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*In a manner of speaking – actually, we leave Puerto Williams under engine power.

The truth about sailing – in this expedient world – is that most sail boats spend way way more time burning diesel than gathering wind. Disappointing, perhaps, but that’s the way it is. In this case, we are travelling against the prevailing northerly winds and so relying solely on sail would make for a lengthy and arduous trip.

**A note on the Puerto Williams Postal Service:

I have had a previous success with Correos de Chile in similarly remote San Pedro de Atacama: a small package of presents for my baby niece in Australia arrived from the deserts of northern Chile, relatively promptly, and for a reasonable cost. So I am hopeful that a disc containing digital images might find its way to Sweden from Puerto Williams within a month or two.

I arrive at the post office half an hour after the time appointed for recommencement of operations after the extended – really, I mean it, an extremely generous – siesta hour, only to I find the place wide open but mysteriously unattended. As potential customers come and go various – well, two – hypotheses are posed: an (unspecified) emergency has arisen? alien abduction, perhaps?

The post office remains deserted (with the mail and parcels in its care accessible to any casual passer by) for the best part of an hour. Finally, lacking a viable alternative, I deliver my package into the dubious care of the woman responsible when she deigns to return to her post. She relieves me of the equivalent of US$30. (The return of this officer of the postal services occurs in a moment of distraction on my part when I have wandered off to browse in a nearby second-hand clothes shop. Thus, the question of alien abduction is never resolved.)

Eight weeks later the package has still not arrived at its destination. So, in short, my advice is that Puerto Williams Correos de Chile is best avoided. It may well be a portal to another dimension.

***See note below.

****A zarpe is an all important document issued by the Chilean Admiralty to all boats navigating Chilean waters. The Admiralty take a strict and paternal view of its role of keeping the fleet – naval, merchant and recreational – safe from harm. Daily calls to report position and welfare are mandatory and failure to do so can result not only in unnecessary anxiety but, possibly, an unwelcome (and expensive!) search and rescue.

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beyond the end of the world

CHILE: ISLA NAVARINO — CALETA SANTA ROSA — PUERTO WILLIAMS

I arrive on Isla Navarino at the twilight hour. The sun is sinking towards the horizon behind Caleta Santa Rosa,...

...as I set off on Isla Navarino's barely 200 kilometre scrap of road.

I enjoy being back on two wheels in the last of the day's sunshine...

... and so it's not until deep dusk that I stop to camp.

The inexorable creep of winter lends the graveyard...

...of a vanished indigenous community an extra dose of melancholy,...

... while a wolfish mask mysteriously adorning a bridge, adds a sense of intrigue.

Melancholy and nostalgia dominate, though.

Autumness.

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I arrive in Puerto Williams already wondering how on earth I am going to retreat from this far edge of the world, where I have, half unwittingly, found myself. Transport off the island is notoriously unreliable and expensive; the short ferry trip to Ushuaia, across the channel in Argentina, costs well over a hundred dollars and regular services have already ceased as the town starts to wind down for winter hibernation.

Any problem can be, if not actually alleviated, then at least temporarily forgotten, in the pursuit of food. Applying this foolproof strategy, I leave the super-market with a couple of empanadas in hand and manage to strike up a conversation with a man as we pass out the shop door together. As we chat, I discover that Ken has just set off from his home, in the Falkland Islands, on a round-the-world cruise aboard his 32 foot sailing boat. Aha! now this could be a friendship worth cultivating! The invitation to have a cup of tea aboard his boat is readily accepted.

(You can see where this is heading, can’t you?)

So, let’s fast forward: scrolling through a cup of tea, idle chat, a general sounding out, then, the tentative proposal – do you need crew? hmmm, why, yes, perhaps, I do… This followed by the suggestion of time out, to consider, and the proposition of a smaller, a less irrevocable, shared expedition, to wit, a short walk, the following day. I use my time out wisely, preparing a Spanish tortilla to provision the planned trek. Hearts* and stomachs are intimately linked. The day dawns rainy and miserable but, no matter, I arrive at the marina at the appointed hour, rations carefully stowed in my pack. We take refuge from the rain in the cabin and idle a few hours away, talking, before the weather clears.

I think the omelette made a good impression because by the time we are walking up the hill the decision seems to have been reached. I’m signing on as crew aboard the good ship, Porvenir, 1100 miles from Puerto Williams to Puerto Montt. No swaying palms, white beaches, and crystalline blue Caribbean waters for me, my entry into the world of sailing is going to be by snow and ice in the Chilean Channels, against the prevailing winds, as winter draws in.

By the time we trek up the hill above Puerto Williams it is already decided that I will travel to Puerto Montt aboard Ken's boat, Porvenir.

A huge Chilean flag flies above Puerto Williams, a town that exists largely because of its function as a naval base. Puerto Williams has a population of around 2000 while Ushuaia, just across the channel in Argentina's chip of Tierra del Fuego, is home to more than 55, 000. The relationship between the two countries is edgy.

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We stomp around the top of Cerro Bandeira, trying to get a glimpse of Cape Horn, which is not a true cape, at all, but another island further to the south.

Cape Horn is over there somewhere. There is a four day trek to be done in these hills and I sorely long to but Ken is keen to sail as soon as possible. And he's the captain.

Next time. Sigh.

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* And, also, perhaps just simple goodwill — I have no designs beyond getting aboard.

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ice in the land of fire

CHILE: CALETA MARIA, TIERRA DEL FUEGO — CALETA SANTA ROSA, ISLA NAVARINO (BY BOAT) — PUERTO WILLIAMS

Fair weather still holds as I board Alakush, at Caleta Maria, late in the afternoon. The boat belongs to Andres. He and Jorge (who was kind enough to offer me my passage) are in the process of researching the potential of the area between here and Puerto Williams for boat based trekking and kayaking tours. This is a stroke of good fortune for me because it means we will be visiting and exploring a number of spectacular glaciers and fjords on our way to Puerto Williams.

The calm sunny afternoon affords an uncommonly tranquil moment to the captain and crew of a boat that navigates the infamous Chilean Channels.

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Finally, we set sail into the gloaming.

Andres and his associates discuss the merits and attractions of various fjords and glaciers in determining our route.

Nautical charts are pure joy to an inveterate cartographile* like me. I love the inversion of positive and negative space - land remains a fatuous blank, while the inscrutable waters of the ocean receive all the attention. These channels were originally surveyed and charted by FitzRoy in the Beagle, with Darwin aboard. The icy cold waters - in many places hundred and hundreds of metres deep - were plumbed using weighted lines. Imagine.

I like to think that Captain Garcia has memorised the charts, although I suspect, in reality, that he has additional electronic aids such as GSP and radar.

Captain Garcia is at the helm all night and by dawn we have been transported to a new and icy world.

Accompanied by dolphins, we set out in the zodiac along the fjord...

... to where we can go ashore for a closer look at the glacier, which descends from the same enormous ice field that I already glimpsed in El Chaten and Calafate in Argentina. We try to find a way...

...across the braided streams running off the glaciers...

... but the going is not particularly easy. The alternative to stream's treacherous quick sands is dense scrub.

These berries are edible. (I think. They taste alright, at any rate, but don't take my word for it!)

More or less thwarted in our desire to walk on or beside this particular glacier, we reboard the zodiac...

... and head off, into the ice...

...which requires some warding off, with the zodiac's emergency oars.

We manage to return, safely, to the Alakush where we find that the sacrificial lamb has been bisected and half is sizzling away on the barbeque...

... while hungry crew members stand by.

The following day, brings us a new larger glacier...

... and this time...

... we manage to get...

... close!

There plenty to look at here, in any direction you choose,...

...and so we spend the rest of the afternoon exploring.

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The true drama of a glacier is hinted at by constant creaks and groans and then suddenly revealed with an explosive crack as tons of ice break away from the shifting straining mass of ice in constant flux. It is an truly unforgettably awe-inspiring spectacle...

... and the suspense is constant.

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And then, the next day, there is more.

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Finally, the Alakush makes her way out onto the main channels,...

... and...

...cruises...

...the...

...Beagle Channel...

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... until we arrive at Caleta Santa Rosa on the north-west coast of Isla Navarino

* I despise GPS and electronic maps.

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a scarificial lamb

It’s all organised. Having ridden to the very end of a dead end road that goes to precisely nowhere*, now by flukey chance, I’m suddenly lined up to go on a four day boat jaunt via the fjords and glaciers to Puerto Williams.

The captain and crew of the boat are mostly Argentinian and so the most important preparation for the trip is to make sure that there is enough meat on board.

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*Where, oh, where, is ‘nowhere’ and what, exactly, is being defined as ’somewhere’  in contrast … but I don’t have time to clarify what I mean right now. Well, actually, maybe I should just make time to — I’m using ‘nowhere’ as a socially agreed synonym for remote, unpopulated, without the trappings of modern life. Nowhere is the place without infrastructure. Nowhere is the place without vehicles. Nowhere is beyond the range of telecommunications. Nowhere is beautiful. Nowhere is where I want to be.

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why i didn’t go to ushuaia (or, how to avoid the end of the world)

Well, the border was closed. The river had risen and the men in uniform deemed it unsafe. I should ride to San Sebastian, cross the border there, and follow Highway No. 3. That is, back track 150 kilometres. And, then, 250 kilometres of pavement, traffic, towns.

The river appears around thigh deep. I appeal to reason. Cite my qualifications, my previous experience of river crossings. Show them photos to prove my case. Deaf ears. These men don’t care. I am a woman, a foreigner. What would I know?

So I ride south on the road available to me on the Chilean side of the border in the golden light of a lingering Indian summer. The day is still, warm, sunny. Last week’s snow, sleet and rain gone as if it never were. I ride through turning trees, across dun brown pampas. Herds of guanaco wheeze at me with aggressive disapproval. Condors soar overhead.

I ride where nobody can stop me – through the forest, past lakes, alongside streams, over two mountain passes – until suddenly the road ends again with another barrier.  A red sign screams – STOP!

This is frontier country. On both sides of the border there is a history of aggressive military government and there are still unresolved territorial claims in this continent’s far southern reaches. Argentina’s chip of Tierra del Fuego is densely populated while Chile’s claim is barely inhabited and that makes the Chileans edgy.

I turn to one side, to a less formidable gate, and enter. Forest closes overhead. The track ends in a footpath which leads to a cottage surrounded by ancient dogs dozing alongside it, all with one wary eye open. I stand before the barking cantankerous pack and call out uncertainly until an elderly man limps unsteadily onto the veranda.

“I don’t know why I am here,” I admit. “But I am looking for the end of the world.”

“It’s a bit further that way.” He gestures.

“There is a gate,” I say.

His wife offers me lunch.

In this house, on the shores of Lake Fanango, I am 30 kilometres from Ushuaia, as the crow flies, and 9 kilometres from the border. It is a three day walk by way of the lake and over another mountain range. The old man, Don German, tells me that you can see the reflection of Ushuaia’s lights, from here, on the snow clouds over the mountains.

I want to walk. I don’t want to retrace my steps to Rio Bella Vista to argue, again, my apparently hopeless case with the men in uniform who will not let me pass a river that is eminently passable and then, thwarted, ride to San Sebastian to cross the border there and ride on to Ushuaia on despised highway. Walking from here would be fun – an adventure – but there is still the border to cross, which complicates things. Those damnable men in uniforms.

I have no reason to go to Ushuaia anyway: it’s just what people on bikes do to finish off their America tour. It occurs to me that I have lost my way. It is a sudden revelation: the Carratera Austral bored me rigid. I realise, that I don’t particular enjoy riding the ‘classic’ routes. That I don’t want to trek in well-trodden National Parks, no matter how beautiful they are. It is not beauty I seek, but wildness.

While I contemplate these thoughts engendered, no doubt, by my proximity to the end of the world, I remain with Maricela and Don German. My tent is tucked away in amongst the trees, which provide an abundance of fallen wood to build a cracking fire at night. The days are still uncommonly sunny, windless, warm. It seems an enchanted realm.

The old man and his wife have lived in this place for 40 years and there has only been a vehicular access road to their property for the last eight of them. It used to be a three day ride on horseback from the nearest estancia, over the mountains, camping on the way, with their two daughters. The enormous cast iron wood burning stove that stands in the centre of the kitchen was carried in that way.

I try, one afternoon, to ride as far as the sea, to Catela Maria, but a bored soldier, watching television in the huts behind the barrier on the road prevents me. The soldiers are responsible for the on-going construction of this road, which will eventually reach as far as the Beagle Channel and connect, by ferry, to Isla Navarino and, thus, Puerto Williams, the southern most town in the world.

Over lunch, Maricela consoles me with the promise of a trip to Caleta Maria tomorrow, in the truck, with Don German – who no-one would presume to stop – and Jorge, an Argentinian friend, who is expecting the arrival of a boat there, from Puerto Williams.

And so, one thing leads to another, and it isn’t long before I find myself on a boat heading to Puerto Williams, marvelling at the serendipity of it all. And I feel like somehow, miraculously, I have managed to avoid the end of the world.

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tierra del fuego

CHILE: PORVENIR — CAMERON — RIO BELLA VISTA — LAGO DESEADO — LAGO FAGNANO

The ferry from Punta Arenas arrives in Porvenir, a scene of former glory, current decrepitude, and undeniable charm .

Everywhere there are old wooden boats with evocative names: Luz Mar = Sea Light

Ricketty wooden structures...

... and abandoned buildings.

I leave the faded glory...

... in exchange for dirt roads and lowering skies.

A bus stop break reveals bicycle traces - I met these guys in the Atacama desert in the north Chile back in December.

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The former glory, it transpires, was funded by gold mining.

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Guanaco's are everywhere on Tierra del Fuego and they stand about wheezing at cyclists with aggressive disapproval before bounding over fences with casual elegance.

But there is evidence that fences do, in fact, pose a hazard to these lovely animals...

...and are responsible for many a sad accident.

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A 'historic' and abandoned estancia building.

Chile is plagued by introduced beavers and their dams are everywhere.

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Lake Fanango.

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penguins

CHILE: TIERRA DEL FUEGO — PENGUIN COLONY

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beachy

CHILE: PUERTO NATALES — PUNTA ARENAS (VIA THE BEACH*)

I am ecumenical and so I manage to enjoy a hundred kilometres, or more, of pavement over the pampas on the road out of Puerto Natales. There is not much traffic...

... and Patagonia's charming bus shelters, designed to protect travellers from the incessant wind, provide handy shelters for a snack and a break.

Letter boxes, roadside signs...

... and lupins all hint at distant habitation.

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And then I diverge from the highway on a beachy route scoped out by Skyler, a like-minded cyclist with a penchant for exploring off road possibilities. Fisherman's shacks,...

... and an abandoned dinghy,...

... windswept vistas,...

...a scrap of weed,...

... with not a soul to be seen, all day.

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It's pretty much all joy...

... until a sudden spider web tangle of barbed wire fences around the slag heaps of an open cut mine. Un-cowed by this show of exclusivity, I hoick my bike over a total of five gates during the course of the day but I am finally deterred from the last part of Skyler's excellent route by the presence of a car-full of people parked beside the last barrier which tips the balance and conspires to make it impassable. It is not the heavy steel but their potential disapproval that bars the way, in my mind.

* See Skyler’s blog for route notes.

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puerto natales

CHILE: PUERTO NATALES

The hand of god.

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pampas pedalling

ARGENTINA/CHILE: CALAFATE — CERRO CASTILLO — PUERTO NATALES

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Miracle.

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