Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beautiful bus ride along the Carreterra Austral

The bus ride from Chile Chico to Cochrane has to rank up there as possibly the most beautiful bus ride I have ever taken in my life. Seven hours, starting at 1:30pm in the rather uninteresting border town of Chile Chico, and ending in a town deep in the Carreterra Austral (I discovered what the Austral bit means - the whole phrase means "Far Away Road").

We're heading in the right direction

The road climbs out of Chile Chico [GPS: 46.54044S, 71.72298W], at which point the mountains on the other side of Lago Buenos Aires (and I also confirmed my suspicious about the Argentine name being unacceptable to Chileans - it's called Lago General Carrera here) and some of the Hielo Norte massif comes into view.

I don't miss Kilburn High Road

Crash barriers prevent kamikaze swimming attempts..

..however inviting it looks..

The lake is followed for several hours, during which I finally realise how big it is - from Chile Chico I had been thinking that reports of its size were exaggerated!

This is what I'm here for..

..the fantastic backdrop to the lake.

One of those kind of roads

Past pretty Mallin Grande [GPS: 46.73652S, 72.49029W],

Mallin Grande

Close to Puerto Tranquilo [GPS:46.90095S, 72.78235W]

before the bus climbs up to moorland for a while [GPS: 47.12769S, 72.70500W]

River crossroads - Baker and Neff

Rio Baker idles down to the sea

then descending into Cochrane [GPS:47.25449S, 72.57273W], population 2,996 according to my book, which generally means it will actually be about 5,000!

The waters of the rivers and lakes on the drive were often milky light-blue - this is a sign that the water has run off a glacier - I presume it is calcium suspended in the water which gives it this look - perhaps it's a bit like ultra-dilute Milk of Magnesia! Anyway, this is difficult to glean from photos, but it looks absolutely amazing. It's probably the part of the scenery that I find it hardest to accept. Every time I see a river or lake this colour, I just think "wow".

Could almost add it to your tea

The rivers and lakes were all extremely choppy from the wind for the whole journey. It's always impressive seeing waves on what could almost be described as ponds. Strong old wind!

Also of note was that the mountains all appeared rather hazy. Why was not clear (arf arf!), but I presume it was heat haze? There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and no fog.

Towering above, the Campo Hielo Norte

The flora along the road was lovely - pink and white flowers decorating thorny shrubs, fuchsias, thistles with enormous purple heads (no Freudian thoughts please), trees of all colours and sizes, some trimmed.

The route was lined with these flowers

We bin dustin' those trees!

The only irritation was Israelis getting on and off along the way, with the inevitable attempt at haggling. Apparently it's fairly unusual for them to take a bus at all - most of them hitch the entire route. I wonder if they offer petrol money..

As Mien and I would have described it, a "loaf bus"

The lake goes on, and on..

Icing on the cake

On arrival in Cochrane, I go to the tourist information office on the main square, which for some reason has pop music blasting out from loudspeakers on top (I twig when I walk in and find three teenage girls manning the place) and ask them where I might buy bus tickets for Villa O'Higgins. I am sent back to where the bus arrived 5 minutes ago! Grrr! There, I stand in front of a miserable-looking girl behind the counter, who seems to be busy. However, after several people arriving after me are served before me, I become frustrated and consider being rude to get some attention. She says the bus tomorrow, Thursday, is full. Next bus Monday. I am beginning to worry about travel in this area. I had underestimated just how much time is being wasted by waiting half a week for each connection. It's not a problem in terms of getting to Puerto Natales in time for a boat, more that if I waste much more time, I'll have to start scrapping treks, which would be a shame. So tip to those following in my footsteps: call from a previous town and reserve. Of the 24 people booked into this bus, only a couple had paid, and this was the night before the bus. Call and reserve!

On the bus I finish reading Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Marvellous book, and I commend it to you. Not a difficult read, but an enjoyable one nevertheless. I will leave you with the final paragraph of the book (oh come on, I'm not spoiling the story for you, everyone knows he wins the bet!):

Phileas Fogg had won his wager, and had made his journey around the world in eighty days. To do this, he had employed every means of conveyance - steamers, railways, carriages, yachts, trading vessels, sledges, elephants. The eccentric gentleman had throughout displayed all his marvellous qualities of coolness and exactitude. But what then? What had he really gained by all this trouble? What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?
Nothing, say you? Perhaps so, nothing but a charming woman, who, strange as it may appear, made him the happiest of men!
Truly, would you not for less than that go around the world?

I'm staying here in a place called Residential Austral Sur, on Arturo Prat street. Prat was apparently a famous admiral on a Chilean battleship called Esmerelda (another road around here), who "jumped ship" just before the Esmerelda sank. Convenient! Anyway, the Austral Sur is not the classiest joint I've ever been in, but they seem fairly friendly. There seems to be a mad woman in charge, or at least the one who showed me to my room. When I asked for the key, she gave me a key which didn't work. Ahhh, she exclaimed, this room doesn't have a key. You don't need one. Pardon? Yes - that's what she said. I explained I was not "feliz" (happy) about this. So she moved me to another room, which seemed a bit nicer, incidentally the room that uses the key she gave me originally. En-suite, no less. However, I'm convinced this room hasn't had its bathroom cleaned. There are hairs in the shower, and a towel that I strongly suspect is not fresh! Yucks!

Over dinner here, which was a steak with penne pasta, and a strongly-vinegared salad, I get talking to Javier. He's a mobile phone sales exec working for Entel, who is sent from Coyhaique, the regional capital, to some of the more provincial towns to sell mobile phones. He's not doing too well here - on this trip he hasn't sold a single phone (yet), which is a bit hard given that he has to walk the entire town doing door-to-door. After eating, we head out for a beer. There are two pubs not far from the hostel. We go into this one:

Yes. The local pub. Bring me back to the Eel Pie!!

I would tell you the name of the place, but it doesn't appear to have one. The sign on the front merely says "Beer - large 1000, small 500". Inside was good though - in front of the bar sat a chap playing an accordian, and an middle-aged couple stood and waltzed.

Spot the prostitute on the right hand side

Unfortunately after a very short time, a drunk idiot from a table near ours decided to join us and our conversation, so we didn't stay for a second beer. Instead we wandered the town briefly, Javier pointing out the "Casa de Mate" - Tea House, as in it's in the shape of the mate tea cup they all drink from here:

Someone likes tea so much, they live in a tea mug!

We pick up some beers (Cristal) from a grocery shop and head back to the hostel, where we get talking to another chap, Patricio who turns out to be a producer for the Chilean national TV station. He's making a documentary about Cochrane next month, and is here doing some reconnaissance. He tells me that he has a car with driver tomorrow, and would I like to come with him to Tortel, a town 120km away from here on the coast? I accept gladly.

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