TRAVEL: Ice and mud in no-man’s-land
Stephen Timm finds himself in South America, between two countries
At the end of one of the most remote highways in the world, in a no-man’s-land between Chile and Argentina, lies one of the world’s last great wildernesses. The only way to cross it is on foot or by bike.
That was perhaps why, like a growing number of travellers, I found myself on Chile’s Carretera Austral — a mostly gravel road that stretches over 1,200km between the southern port town of Puerto Montt and the isolated hamlet of Villa O’Higgins, where it dead-ends at the foot of the Southern Patagonian ice field. From there the only way to keep going south is by boat on Lago O’Higgins and from there to hike or bike into Argentina.
Having come halfway down the highway from the city of Coyhaique I made the decision on a whim to head on to Argentina.
After a night’s stay at a local hostel (now one of several in Villa O’Higgins since the road linking the small town opened just under 20 years ago), a van transported me and my fellow passengers to the port on Lago O’Higgins, a few kilometres out of town. There we boarded a small launch.
As we sped across the clear blue water, with Argentina on the one side and Chile on the other, I imagined what it would be like to be soaring high above this all.
I had contemplated the option of flying over the lake the previous night in Villa O’Higgins. A pilot, an Austrian-American who had moved to Chile for some peace and quiet, had been quite convincing. Accompanied by his 11-year-old daughter and armed with a laminated folder filled with aerial close-ups at his side, he promised to fly me from the local airstrip and over the great O’Higgins glacier, which is steadily receding, and then to make a turn past the famous rocky peak of Fitz Roy.
It might be my last chance to glimpse the great glacier before it disappeared, he said. On a map I noticed a small landing strip alongside the same track I would be tramping down the following day. He could set me down there, I thought. But I stuck with the boat and walking.
Two hours after setting out on the lake we finally reached Candelario Mancilla, a farm squeezed up against a cliff face on the far end of the lake.
Right away two American guys and a Chilean couple set off up the gravel road. The rest of us took the road marked "campsite", where we would spend the night. Some headed to a farmhouse for a meal of beef and rice. The rest of us dived into a shed filled with long tables, and took turns cooking on a barely operational gas oven. I handed out shots of Pisco to my fellow travellers.
Next to my tent was a solemn 67-year-old Korean man who kept mostly to himself. A young German couple related to me over dinner how they had spent the previous three days hiking 75km from El Chaltén in Argentina to get to Lago del Desierto, instead of taking the tourist van. This was the couple’s second night here. They were camped out and waiting for the boat to return to Villa O’Higgins.
A storm was due the next day, if the information from the boat company was anything to go by.
And the woman who had sold us the tickets had warned that you didn’t want to be out there when the waves rose.
As the light began to fade, the lake and surrounding snowy peaks turned an otherworldly blue. Then, as if drawn to the luminous night sky, huge mosquitos began to move slowly from one tent to the next. We could have been on another planet.
It must have been early morning when I heard the first patter of rainfall on my tent. When nature called, I was forced to leave the tent and brave the wet.
Above me the blue light had given way to a night sky so bright, it was like a drive-in movie, except that the show had already taken place thousands of light years away.
Morning in the middle
It felt like only moments later that daylight edged gently into my tent. I heard the Korean stirring. It was 8am and time to get going if I was to make it to the late afternoon ferry that crossed Lago del Desierto from the Argentine side.
The crossing was the last hurdle, before a van on the other side would take us to El Chaltén and the familiar comforts of craft beer and burgers below the peak of Fitz Roy.
After a small breakfast, I shouldered my 20kg pack and tramped off down the gravel road that led from the campsite. A 15km long track led to the border with Argentina. But first one had to pass through the Chilean border post, which took the form of a small prefabricated building.
Inside, two officers sat at desks separated by a roaring fire. One asked my occupation.
"Journalist," I told him. Did I report on sport, asked the more serious one. No, I replied. When I asked him why it was that certain things, such as foodstuffs, could not be brought into Chile, he thrust out a hand with a pile of pamphlets. He must’ve thought that I’d need them to write a story, or whatever journalists do with such things these days.
Just as I left the border post, it began to pour again. After pounding up the hill in the rain for a few kilometres I stopped to put a plastic bag over the top of my pack, improvising some basic waterproofing. My peaked cap was already a marshy mess on my head.
The track ascended through mist and rain. When the clouds broke, I spied the lake down below, before the path flattened out. At the top I passed a sign that read "Mirador Fitz Roy". From there I could have spied Fitz Roy, but at that moment it was impossible to see anything, so I pushed on. It’s a good thing I hadn’t opted for the plane. We’d have had zero visibility, let alone been able to land at that airstrip.
I told myself that I would stop at the 12km mark. But instead I passed another couple and then, on my right side, I saw it — a concrete landing strip surrounded by a wire fence and set in a small gap in the mountains. Why was it there, in the middle of nowhere? How would planes even land there, I asked myself.
Near the crest of a hill was the border between Chile and Argentina, demarcated by nothing more than two signs, with not a fence in sight.
At that spot, where the gravel road ended and was replaced by a footpath, I met a young Argentinian couple. They pointed to their muddied shoes.
The path, they told me in Spanish, was an absolute mud trap.
"There must be a way around," I told them.
"Good luck with that," they said.
From that point it was just 6km to Lago del Desierto, but it seemed to take longer than the Chilean stretch.
The two stretches contrasted each country’s recent economic history. The stability of the Chilean economy was like the well-signposted gravel road on the Chilean side. The path on the Argentinian side was about as unpredictable as Argentina’s economy has been in the past 25 years. The mud and clumps of logs and sticks that passed for improvised bridges were like unexpected debt traps or inflation crises.
I had my sights set on Lago del Desierto. I would wash my shoes there, at the lake, I said to myself.
I made it to the grassy plain that skirts the grey-blue of the lake. Inside a small building an Argentinian policeman sat, ready to stamp my passport.
And then, who should appear but the 67-year-old Korean man.
We bundled ourselves into the lake ferry, a monstrous thing. Somehow we made it across to the new country. On the other side a van awaited to take us to El Chaltén, where we would be surrounded by tourists and herded onto paths, like cattle, to glaciers and boutique hotels for warm fires and hot meals.
But where we were there was nothing — nothing except the Patagonian steppe and that sound the wind makes as it blows against your eardrums.