I have persuaded the local cabby Placido Vallejos to take me to the Museo Arqueologico San Miguel de Azapa, about ten miles out of Arica. He’s a good sport and is happy to wait while I check out the artefacts. There was some informative stuff in there, and decent English notes to help me along. The locals were doing good weaving by 1000 BC, better than most current high street quality, whereas by 1470 they seem to have perfected an Inca version of the hippy shoulder bag much vaunted in the late sixties. (They made a brief return a couple of years ago in Hennes but I notice it was only for one misguided season).
There are also various musical instruments on show. The Tiwanaku had some serious panpipes in production but also turned out guitar variants such as the wandulina (mandolin) and chilladura (a sort of ukelele). Being a guitarist I fancied getting them out of the exhibit to see if they would generate a decent tune, but I thought better of it and I’m sure the museum manager was delighted at my decision. I’m convinced he’d been on tour with ZZ Top and had a bodyguard round the corner ready to beat me up. I was rather taken by a detailed model of a precordillera coastal settlement, which showed how they landscaped hills for cultivation. I had seen this all over the Bolivian and Peruvian hills. Whenever you think you’re in the middle of nowhere and you reckon no one could possibly have got up that hill/mountain/shoreline, you notice that it has a shape more organised than nature would have created.
The bastards got everywhere, which prompts me to ask how much of the planet have we not yet touched? The percentage must be small (I exclude the seas of course although we’re doing a good job of fucking them up as well). Wouldn’t it be great to have a worldwide campaign on the theme of “I tidied my bit up today”? A month later I saw a poster in Egypt for a Clean up the World campaign, but it was hidden in the corner of a hotel and wasn’t going to change much.
They said no-one would ever wear a sticker saying “I love New York” because it was such a shit hole, but people are essentially good-natured and proud of their patch, so why not? A few bob invested in this idea by Brussels would be better than prosecuting a greengrocer in Sunderland for refusing to go metric, but hey, that’s the price of progress. Hang all bureaucrats immediately!
There is a whole mummified family in here, and the baby makes fairly harrowing viewing. I’m on a bit of a fashion theme what with the hippy woven bags, so I am delighted to find a wedding costume display. In the modern version, the woman wears fantastic sarsillu earrings made of silver, glass and seeds. My girlfriend Judith would love these, but I wonder whether they need watering. Presumably with a bit of careful planning you could have year-round colour hanging off your ears? And where would the compost go? In your ears perhaps.
The man has a great get up: a chiuspa bag for keeping his coca leaves in (so he’ll be stoned all day – I’ve known guys who have done that on their wedding day), the fantastically-named pantalon wallifa (his trousers), and wisku, which are sandals whose soles are tyre treads. In Africa I believe these are called Thousand Milers, or so a voortrekker once told me. He also decreed:
“All Kaffirs drive at a hundred mile an hour on the wrong side of the road.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked. “Surely they must all get killed?”
“Oh no,” he said. “They’re totally safe because they can be guaranteed there’s another one coming in the opposite direction doing exactly the same thing.”
I finish my tour by scrutinising a forty-foot olive press – that’s a bloody big olive if you ask me and apparently the Spaniards are to blame because they originally introduced them to South America. This piece of kit would knock your average Olivio ad into a cocked hat any day – who says size isn’t everything? I was impressed, but not by the Parque de Petroglifios outside. These latinos love bleating on about how a certain scratch on a rock was generated by the Inca/Aztec/Tiwanaku/Azapa (insert your tribal name here) civilisation. What they need to appreciate is that there is a difference between technical scientific and public interest. I’m all for an anorakhead rumbling that a certain rock was scribbled on by x, which proves that y was the case. But asking Joe Blow to look at it and regard it as anything more than a botched job lot of paving stones from the local building site is asking too much. As with the Isla del Sol, they should have a sign up saying something along the lines of: “Deeply Boring Rocks: Approach with Caution”.
On the return journey to town I am reassured to see that the local equivalent of the Hackney Carriage licence on Placido’s cab is endorsed by Arturo Prat, or Arthur Pratt to you and me. I find this faintly reassuring in as much as this is precisely what I would like my London cabby to be called. I have asked him to take me to the local church which, bizarrely, was designed by Gustavo Eiffel, the bloke who did the tower in Paris. It’s just like any other church, only there’s a bit more iron. You can just imagine him cruising in with his sales pitch.
“Yeah hi – the name’s Eiffel. You’ll have heard of my tower in Paris. Or maybe even seen the brochure? Paris: cultural capital of the developed world. The Eiffel Tower: set to become the symbol of a generation, although I’ve only given it to them on a limited shelf life contract so they’ll have to cover the cost of taking it down when the rust sets in. But you lot never have rain do you? So no problem there then. Anyway, I’ll kick off with a limited edition metal church and if the locals go a bundle on it, I can knock up a monument to go on the hill behind the town because the virgin’s looking a bit world weary, don’t you think?”
Obviously you need to make certain allowances for the accuracy of my translation based on patchy A level French, but I’m pretty sure that’s roughly how it went. And they fell for it. The result? Er…a church that looks like a church. Another piece of colonial brilliance.
I was wondering how to generate a colonial league table. Would you base it on:
· Square footage of land area conquered
· Number of people who now speak your language regardless of current nationality, or
· Largest national average penis or breast size (whichever scores better, the country can play that card)
Ladies and gentlemen, the results! In category one, most land, the winners are the United Kingdom on a technicality! By cunningly retaining Australia and Canada as part of the Commonwealth. In category two, Spain! The clever bastards have ensured that Spanish is the first language in more countries than anyone else – English only comes in as a second language courtesy of Hollywood. Lucky the Chinese didn’t go for colonialism, eh boys?
And in the third and final category, the Portuguese have surprisingly gone for the penis option (cocks on the blocks boys!), whilst England and France have gone for breast size. The judges have agreed that they’re all a bunch of tits and dickheads for trying to conquer other countries in the first place. You’re all disqualified for being greedy power crazy twats – now fuck off and deal with two centuries of declining self-esteem, world renown and, of course, perceived knob size!
Just as I’m thinking what an arse Eiffel might have been, we drive through Colon Square – very apposite. This part of the tour is nicely redeemed by a majestic building entitled Aduana (customs). The place looks like a palace. UK customs is usually conducted from a Nissen hut on the edge of a port whose décor screams “We’re a drab lot but we’re not very discerning so if you keep your head down you can blend in and claim all of our state benefits.” This building quietly stated “We know what we’re about. We’re class. We’ll see if you can live up to it.”
On returning to the hotel the turkey vultures are still circling which reminds me of dinner and although I’m not a foodie I must pause at this point to outline the contents of a great starter I had today. I can’t do the flowery stuff like “a julienne de wotsit” or “a curly endive on a lovingly crafted jus de soupcon”, but I can tell you it had a killer combination of carpaccio, smoked salmon, green peppercorns, shaved parmesan, coriander and lime. Park that where you fancy, Delia!
Simply divine darling, and a perfect way to watch the lights on the harbour wall – my first considered viewing of the Pacific since I went to San Francisco with my school mate Leno in 1979. He’s a tall, good looking boy and as teenagers we strode into the gay capital of the world like a naïve Morecambe and Wise. In those days gay sex meant having a jolly good time whilst screwing a bird, so it was only a matter of moments before we were propositioned by moonies and a range of other inappropriate organisations after our bodies, minds and whatever else they could get their hands on.
But I digress. Hotel rooms can either be regarded as sanitised, passionless boxes or as a fascinating mine of trivia and hilarity. I have reached the peculiar state of mind whereby I actually finding it interesting what curiosities await me in the next place I visit. In Arica, the Do Not Disturb sign translates as Favor No Molestar, a clear message to the chambermaid to leave it out, thanks very much. The service questionnaire says “we look forward to the pleasure of having you again with us in a near future” which has a surreal afterlife effect to it. And the hotel brochure promises that “you will enjoy all day exiting outdoor activities” and “besides you can accede directly from the hotel to the beach.” But the bit that really cracks me up is where it claims “a capacity of up to 400 people equipped with sophisticated audio visual technology.” So unless you’ve got WAP, DVD, and a G3 Powerbook with projector, you can’t get in. That’s harsh I think, and may well explain why the place is empty.
In the middle of the night with the Pacific rollers crashing in I can’t sleep. Inexplicably my mind is racing with what the benefit of being forty is, and I think I have it: you’ve got twenty years experience of adult life so you know what you’re talking about, and another twenty ahead to apply it in your style. Brilliant! Let’s start a revolution! Tell the youngsters to sod off till they’ve been around a bit. Blind them with anecdote. Tell the so-called dotcom entrepreneurs where to park it. Stop discussing property prices at the dinner table. Stop having dinner parties! Don’t meet people you don’t like. Resign! Tell your boss what you really think. You get the idea. Now your time so get cracking before all your anatomical bits head irretrievably south. I’ve always felt it helps enormously to connect with younger generations if you can still see your own genitals, but that’s just my opinion.
Today I have persuaded Placido to take me up the Valle de Lluta (not a sexual perversion you understand) to the Lauca National Park, which turns out to be the most interesting landscape I have ever seen in my life. To picture the scene, put your hand palm down on the table and look at your first and second fingers. Imagine each is a sand dune a hundred miles long and several thousand feet high. Well, I am driving up the middle with the sea at your fingertips, heading inland at 7.30 in the morning. It’s overcast and I am cursing my luck with the weather but I couldn’t be more wrong. This is what El Norte Grande of Chile is supposed to be about. A river runs down the valley and is hugely deceptive. Today it’s about three feet wide and my daughters could wander through it quite happily. In flood it must be three hundred and possibly even half a mile across. The evidence of its power is everywhere: collapsed bridges every few miles, one with a railway line still hanging off, with no bridge underneath. Broken road in Spanish is ruta roto which sounds like a second division heavy metal band to me.
A juggernaut swings dangerously round the corner. “Bolivian!”, tuts Placido. I’m glad to know racism is alive and well on this continent as well. Then as we climb out of the valley something amazing happens- we drive through the fog line into brilliant sunshine. (Imagine the gap between your fingers stuffed with cotton wool.) We are now encima del nuebla, above the clouds. The landscape becomes pure lunar, very reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, with interspersed patches of yellow and purple plant life, and tinges of pink and white minerals. We drive through an area of candelabra cactus and suddenly in the distance snowy mountains appear – Nevada Putre (5824 metres) to the left and Mt. Socoroma straight ahead. I didn’t know that Nevada meant snowy in Spanish but I do now.
On and on we go through classic cowboy country as we climb into chaperal and garrigue. The roads are subject to frequent rockslides and there is a ten-mile stretch of roadworks patching them up. Here is a place where land is clearly the master. In most developed areas one can reasonably claim that humans have a fair hold on the land. But not here. There is no control and it is obvious who is in charge. You just have to stand back and admire it. Rocks will fall when they fall and if you happen to have built a road in the way then that’s your problem Homo Sapiens. Round the next bend we stop abruptly to let a herd of llama cross the road. Later we see two variants, the alpaca and the vicuna (pronounced beecoonia).
Then I spot the big one: Mount Parinacota, a perfect volcanic cone towering 6520m just inside Bolivia. It looks like one of Madonna’s breasts with ice cream on it. It is absolutely stunning and completely dominates its surroundings. This is what I have seen from the air on my Arica-La Paz flights. Coloured lichen is now appearing as are small pools of water and flamingos swing into view as we approach the emerald coloured Laguna Cotacotami.
It just gets better and better, until finally we arrive at Lago Chungara, a fabulous lake at the foot of Madonna’s solitary mammary, at 4500m. I’m wheezing a bit when we get out of the car – it’s been three hours and the air is thin – but I take time to thank Tim Burford for recommending this to me. He writes travelogues and he certainly knows his stuff. In all my travels I have never known an environment where you can travel in a morning from coast to Mediterranean valley to desert to “the moon” to chaperal to Grand Canyon to Alpine pasture to Himalayas in the space of three hours.
I viewed the scene through a gismo I had bought with me – a one-lens binocular. That sounds very much like tautology so perhaps it’s a unicular. At any rate it’s a winner. It weighs nothing and is the size of your thumb – another triumph for the Innovations catalogue! Whereas I have put this device to good use, there will undoubtedly be pillocks that won’t. The telescope technos will probably decree that, with the right lighting, you can use it to determine the brand name on a light bulb in Sheen when you’re sitting in Hackney. More worryingly, the perverts will probably pioneer an infrared version that can penetrate household curtains, in an ocular sense, of course.
I remark to Placido that presumably the weather is always this amazing. Oh no, he says, it was raining all yesterday. I am truly charmed. We drive back past other mountains with dustings of castor sugar on them. Although we are taking the same route I am delighted to see it all again and it looks completely different now that the fog has gone. I see the full extent of a thriving river valley, and the power the river clearly has when it’s in the mood. After a particularly long descent I laugh at the salida emergencia sliproad which allows lorries that have lost it to cruise to safety rather than go over the edge.
Vultures hover above and I spot some piquen, Andean geese. Back down in the valley I can now see that the hills have geoglyphs on them – enormous stone drawings of men and horses. These are frequently phallic but there are no stiffies in this valley apart from mine. I am completely overwhelmed (which begs the question, who whelmed over me?). This spectacle was more impressive than the Grand Canyon, more interesting than the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and was like a geographical promotional offer: as many landscapes as you can handle in six hours! This is, without doubt, the best non-human experience I have ever had in my life, and that’s saying something. I retire to the pool at the hotel to ponder my luck.
Is it possible to have two opposites in the same person? I think so. Clementina was an atheist and yet she had two kinds of faith. She thanked God for her friends from the Catholic side of her upbringing, and the spirits of the sky for her health. The latter was based on a bizarre experience when she was eighteen. She had been very ill for some time and all the doctors could say was that it was probably an allergy but they couldn’t do anything about it. In desperation her mother took her to a witch doctor. He darkened the room and called down the bird god Condor.
She could hear the flapping of enormous wings. He then called down the bad spirit and asked it why it was persecuting an eighteen-year-old girl. The condor gave the other guy a bit of a kicking and she’s been fine ever since. Who’s to say it isn’t true? Try justifying a virgin birth, a resurrection and a three-in-one personality to a stranger without raising an eyebrow. It’s no more ridiculous. It’s whatever works for the individual and I deplore people who criticise someone else’s religion. If it works for them, it’s none of your business. If you mock theirs, then stand by for some scrutiny of your own.
Which brings me to sectarianism. Having different scions of the same religion is, without doubt, the most mindless development humans have ever engineered. All religions have the same central theme: conduct yourself well and you will live on after your worldly body gives up. That’s it. There is nothing else. Whatever you call your particular god and however you choose to worship is just a bit of detail. If we had stuck to that for the last 2000 years, I expect we would have prevented the same number of wars.
Tomorrow I enter the vaguest phase of my adventure. I’m certainly going to Antofagasta, a few notches down the coast from here. My intention is to hook up with my friend Nick Middleton who is shooting a TV programme here. Assuming we do get together, I’ll either tag along for a day or two or have a jolly nice dinner and head off on my own again. If it’s the latter I need to work out whether to visit some mines and coastal national parks, and then gradually work my way south, or head Northeast for some heavy duty salt lakes and geysers, albeit heading in rather the wrong direction. I won’t be disappointed however it goes. The whole thing is full of wonder and frankly anyone who poo-poos the choices on offer here deserves to have their fundamentals rearranged by a claustrophobic ferret.
Nick is a superb fellow. At college we got so fed up with the pomposity of much geographical theory that we invented our own: Common Sense Analysis (Duncan & Middleton, 1980). Now that Nick sets exam papers himself, he puts Common Sense Analysis questions into them. It is only the occasional student that goes for it and gets it. Lighten up guys, it’s not that serious! It is common practice in the academic world, as you probably know, to quote your source in brackets. I once quoted a source in an essay as Bigarella, Salamuni and Fuck (1975). My tutor had a similar sense of humour and simply wrote in the margin “See me afterwards for my complete list of dubiously named iron curtain geologists.” In passing I should thank Andrew Goudie for nurturing my love of landscape. He used to call physical geography Rocks and Relief, and he would have loved what I have seen today. Re-reading that last sentence I’ve made it sound as though he is no longer with us which is completely wrong. Sorry boss!
I am having such a laugh dreaming up a title for this book. If you lot ever read this you’ll assume I had a poncy publishing deal before I went, and that the whole thing was beautifully set up. Bullshit! I arranged it all myself and I am writing for my own enjoyment. If these pearls of wisdom never see the oily chaos of a printing press I’ll survive. My kids will just have something good to start fires with if the going gets hard.
Because I’m a marketing man I need to have a title for a project otherwise I struggle with the shape of it, and, boy, am I struggling with this one. A part of me says I’m in South America so that should be in the title. Another says you’re sounding off about all and sundry so that should be the theme And the remaining bit feels it’s all about a guy realising he’s going to be forty. So I’m reviewing my potential list: 39 Steps (revisited). Very pompous, try again. Latin Rant. Crap! Carry on. South American Soapbox. Oh dear!
And so it goes on. For a moment I actually quite liked Latin Examinations but as my girlfriend would say it’s pretentious rubbish. My tendency to wander off the point suggests But I digress or Which reminds me, both of which sound like Garrick Club nonsense. My favourite so far is Gringo Poco Loco, loosely translated as “White bloke goes a bit loopy.” That’s not far off and it has the appropriate latin feel. I’ll ask my publisher darling! Not that I have one. On a totally separate matter I have resolved to write down my viewpoints in pithy summary in a different book, provisionally entitled Silly Kant – The Original Armchair Philosopher. I hope you enjoy it, but I must write it first.
As I write I am approached by the Head Waiter, who asks me for my room number again. It seems that I have a more comprehensive grasp of Spanish numericals than his own staff: tres cientos cinquenta dos mate! Absolutely. I am surrounded by Germans tonight. I don’t really know what they are twittering on about but occasionally I catch bursts of conversation, which tend to sound like “knackered flasher”, “penis emblem” and “testicular growth bonds.” Actually I made the last one up. They don’t sound anything like that. Monty Python invented the Slater Nazi Testicular Growth Bond in the seventies. Well done chaps. Sorry for the theft. Was it me, by the way, who invented the self-righting chemical toilet? They always get knocked over at rock festivals and there’s usually someone inside. (Christ you’ve really lost it here. Ed.)
I’m having a post-prandial stare at the sea when it occurs to me that everything is peaceful round here – I’ve just come from La Paz, I’m staring at the Pacific, I’m heading for La Serena, and even the bloody cabby was called Placido. At little moments like this I miss my girls – all three of them – that’s two daughters to look after and a grown up to pester for deviant sex obviously. Keenan & McCarthy reckoned this place smelt of fish but it hasn’t whilst I’ve been here – either they’re off for the Easter break, or the fish have started taking a proper shower before diving into the net.
I enjoyed the small print on the back of my bus ticket to Copacabana: “Our company is not responsible for any delay in our service and will be not cover any damage caused by losed flights train or othe connections.” It’s priceless stuff and I must make it clear to my publisher, whoever it may be, that if some secretary runs spellcheck on any of this then we’ll be totally shagged all round. If there are technical problems I’ll just have to typeset the whole affair myself with a John Bull printing kit, some Dymo tape and Letraset. Takes you back eh?
The atmosphere in the hotel is a bit iffy so I return to my room. I fancy a scotch and ginger which means I shall have to introduce Johnnie Walker to the now famous Nordic Mist. I drift off to sleep and dream of a sexual liaison between a big busted Olga and a starchy guy with a monocle wearing a red coat and kinky knee length black boots.
Torres del Paine
As I take the cab to the airport I have a chuckle when I notice that the Pisco Control building is next door to La Recova. Very thoughtful of them to let you get slaughtered and then provide rehab all in the same location. I have called ahead to confirm that there will be someone to meet me in the polar wastes at 11 o’clock tonight so that’s reassuring. I’ve also ensured my bag comes off with me at Santiago to avoid a repeat of the lost luggage incident.
So it only remains for me to wander around this immaculately manicured airport and consider what to do with the six hour stop off this afternoon. I invest in a Collins English-Spanish dictionary and I can now reveal that austral means southern so whoever named Australia wasn’t that inspired. Mudanza is a great word and means change, which finally ends the riddle concerning an album by a rock band called Stray which I had in the seventies. It was called Mudanzas and I hadn’t a clue why. I have now completed the first half of my adventure but I’m still none the wiser about bloody Fray Bentos. (Much later in Britain I discover from a tin of corned beef that it’s the name of a small town in Uruguay where they first started producing top quality beef – so now you know).
Old joke: if you look anything like your passport photograph you’re not well enough to travel. In mine I look like a sort of executive hippy so I’ll be very pleased to update it next year when it goes in for its ten-year service. My destination is Punta Arenas (Sandy Point) which is part of the Magallanes, discovered by Magellan in 1520 when he tried to get round Cape Horn. He duly succeeded and was so pleased after a tricky storm that he christened it the Pacific Ocean because it was calmer than the bit he’d just come from. It’s also part of Patagonia, which is jointly owned by Chile and Argentina. Apparently the local Indians were big guys and Magellan attracted their attention by shouting “Hey, Patagon!” (Oy, Bigfoot!) Wise or not, the name stuck. It’s also part of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) which was originally called Land of Smoke after the Indian smoke signals, but some member of royalty in Portugal thought that fire sounded more evocative so it was changed. So that’s the naming and the history. Whatever you call it, it’s the southern most point you can go in the world and find habitation – unless you make a special trip to a research station on the South Pole. So I am to fly to Punta Arenas and be driven to the Torres del Paine via Puerto Natales. I was hoping this was called Puerto Natillas in which case it would be Port Custard – but it’s not. Never mind.
I have to say Santiago is one of the most pleasant airports I’ve ever come across. It’s spacious and light, and there are cleaning staff tidying up everywhere. I’ve decided to stay here for the afternoon – a bit insane you might think but I’ll be visiting the place four times on this trip so today I can’t be bothered to go into town. Instead I put my bag into storage and wander about. I buy some chocolate and go and sit in the sun, cunningly smearing a goodly proportion of it on my white shirt. I’ve run out of moisturiser so I’ve taken to putting Lypsyl on my peeling nose on the grounds that it claims to have moisturiser in it. But if anyone sees me putting it on they probably think I have a co-ordination problem and keep missing my lips.
I’ve bought some presents for the gang at home and have rattled off some postcards. My night flight has a stopover at Puerto Montt, which suffered a massive earthquake in 1960 that demolished the entire harbour, but the airport thankfully seems stable enough. Chile has over 2,000 volcanoes, of which 55 are active. The sheer scale of the Andes is testament to the amount of tectonic activity as the Pacific and South American plates grind against each other. The Andes effectively disappear into the sea at Cape Horn, where the small islands that form the archipelago are really the tips of the range still peeping through.
The landing at Puerto Montt is a bit of a nightmare with one of the longest descents I’ve ever known and the thickest cloud cover since thick cloud cover was invented by Thicky McCloudcover. Only meteorologists know that cloud cover is measured in eighths rather than percentages. Equally, only they know why. A Meteorology Convention is therefore liberally peppered with remarks such as “Crikey it was a bit five eighths yesterday!” and “Couldn’t see a thing – it was totally eight eighths out there.”
It’s also pissing with rain. A group of a dozen young Japanese guys try to get off the plane because they think they’re already in Punta Arenas – they clearly have no grasp of either geography or language.
When the cabin door opens there’s an icy blast, which has us all reaching for our warm clothes and the stewardess comes round with blankets. I was happy in a T-shirt until now, but this is a clear signal that my Atacama days are over and I’d better adjust my thinking rapido. “La propuesta estatista a la reforma de salud” said the newspaper headline on the seat next to me. Proper estate cars are made of salad! Clearly a marginal overclaim by the Chilean Vegetarian Society.
Night flying is a different kettle de poisson to the glorious landscapes I’ve been seeing from the air so far. As we land at Punta Arenas the driving rain creates a bewildering high-tech laser effect on the window. Because the plane is going at 500 mph, this rain’s going horizontally. Add a little light from the aeroplane wing and a bit of refraction from the water droplets and it looks like brushed aluminium flying past at lightning speed. Far better than anything I’ve ever seen a computer generate.
We touch down at midnight and my driver Juan parks me in the back of a people carrier. I lie flat across three seats to get some shuteye as we hurtle through the night for five hours to arrive at the stunning Explora hotel at Salto Chico in the Torres del Paine National Park. There is a delightful note asking me if I would like to be woken at nine or left till lunchtime. I go for the early option because I’m feeling good.
When I open the curtains in the morning I am a very happy man. Chile 7, The Alps 0 as far as I’m concerned. My guide is Melissa from San Diego and we discuss the things to see round here. I explain I like a balance between physical exertion and visual reward – I am not a hardened trekkie! “Any chance of a spin round the lake in the boat?” She’ll have to make enquiries because they only usually use it as part of largish trips for a dozen or so. But we’re in luck. The captain’s around and in a good mood so I get a boat trip all to myself. We are on Lago Petoe (the hidden lake) and we sail right up to the foot of the mountains which have a shape that is totally distinctive.
I’ve never seen mountains like them. Imagine taking half a dozen jagged flints and hammering them into a block of wood. Now turn the block upside down and imagine the wood has been eroded away over the years. These are the Cuernos and Torres del Paine (Blue horns and towers). The “flints” are volcanic intrusions, which were originally underground. The surrounding sandstone which hid them was eroded away by glaciers and the result is razor sharp peaks which differ in appearance from the Andes (they are not part of that range). Each peak, whose appearance constantly changes with the weather, has a local name like the mask, the leaf, the spade, the fortress, and so on. If the equivalent features were in Britain, doubtless they’d be called Lord Herefordshire’s Knob, Big Bertha or The Devil’s Marbles, but since we have a paucity of such things we’re novices at calling them anything decent.
Condors cruise around these majestic peaks. Ah that condor moment!
“Fancy catching a thermal this morning, Brian?”
“Certainly do, Clive,” and off they go at unfeasible heights.
I return to the hotel for a pit stop. It is apparently the brainchild of a wealthy Chilean who has made his fortune in wineries and supermarkets. Every whim is at your disposal: deep pile dressing gowns, massages, outstanding cuisine. I have fettucini and avocado for lunch. It is immaculate and I’m thinking how the @*! did they get that up here in such conditions? As I dine I survey a landscape which many will never see in a lifetime. The sun glistens on the lake, the waterfall roars along, the adventure continues…
Example of Chilean humour, as told to me by my guide Melissa. She visited the nearest town Puerto Natales recently. It’s a small place and she got chatting to one of the policemen. For the rest of the day policemen she’d never met kept waving at her and saying “Hi Melissa!” She was the only white redhead in town and he’d spread the word. Nice one Pedro!
In the afternoon I have the chance to walk up to Mirador del Condor – the condor’s vantage point. I think you could safely say it was windy up there. Many have apparently lost their glasses in a particular gully we have to navigate. But we move at a good pace because it’s just me and the guide. It is billed as a one-and-a-half hour exercise but only takes us one. She decrees that I am fit, since I have been chatting all the way rather than gasping for breath. I am happy with this – as a novice you have no conception of whether you can keep up with the experts or not.
At the top I bump into a lone guanaco, another llama relative, munching away on the heather. His russet brown coat blends nicely with the lenga trees, the local beech which are turning a coppery colour.
It is nigh on impossible to give any sort of guidance as to how to pronounce the word guanaco. Not being a linguistic expert, my untrained ear has heard a number of permutations. It variously sounds like some sort of Mexican tortilla chip, an abbreviation of a corporation whose main business is bird shit, or the local slang for testicles as in “on the trail this branch flicked back and caught me right in the guanacos.”
When you look up at what you’ve scaled it feels quite impressive. You also become an expert at spotting condor nests. Bluntly they are identifiable by white washes of condor shit so they’re quite easy to locate unless it’s snowy. I return to Salto Chico (Little Falls) and have a massage and a hot bath. Then I watch an excellent National Geographic video on the puma that was filmed here – quite charming. This place is great. Tomorrow I’ll be off to see Laga Nordenskjold. Apparently some enthusiastic Norwegians came round here and named a couple of the lakes at some point just because no one else had bothered before. Chileans outdone by Scandinavian efficiency? Now that would never do. Chile promptly rushed off to the South Pole to claim a sixth of it just to prove that they can have their own bearing on remote access snowy bits.
“My hat blew off in the heather and I’m determined to find it today.” These were the first words I heard on waking. I glanced at my watch. It was a very respectable 8 o’clock and I had had a solid nine-hour kip. My bed was by the window so I tugged the blind to be greeted by blue sky with the odd wisp of pink post-sunrise cloud. That’ll do me. One or two charred tree trunks were silhouetted against the horizon. Fifteen years ago a campfire caused chaos and destroyed 40,000 hectares of woodland here – all because some prat couldn’t control his Swan Vestas or his Brymays – or, indeed, keep his Zippo fastened. Spray rises gently from the waterfall outside – better get out and see some nature! When you watch a waterfall for a few minutes it’s quite spellbinding. When will the bloody thing ever stop? And of course they don’t. Then you look at the lake it flows from. Why doesn’t it drain away? Because of the mountains, with their theoretically endless supply of melting snow. It’s a brainteaser, I can tell you.
As we muster in readiness for our hike, a hopelessly prepared English couple are trying to buy gloves. The wind is biting and they are wearing thin leggings. I am frequently astounded by people’s ignorance about, or lack of respect for, their environment. They think they can walk around a glacier in little more than a tutu and a pair of stilettos. Ah well, it’s their problem.
My guide today is Maria Ines, which holds a mild amount of irony for me because that’s the name of my Portuguese cleaning lady in London. It’s all a bit confusing. I have visions of her saying: “Can you get some more Flash when you go over the next ridge?” or “The J-Cloth on the right is quite treacherous at 6,000 metres.”
Out here when you say your name is Kevin, they tend to say “Ah, com Costner!” In the seventies it was “Ah, like Keegan.” Duncan in Scottish is Brown Warrior, so in Spanish I am Marron Guerrero, which makes me feel rather macho with all those rolling Rs.
It’s windy up here and we hang on to our fundamentals as we survey the Salto Grande, the larger of two waterfalls with a ninety-foot drop between two lakes. The water in them has a very appealing green quality to it, but it’s also ferocious stuff and you can see tiny tornadoes working their way across the surface. I take a tissue out of my pocket and it’s off over the hill before I can get it to my nose. Sorry guys, not very environmentally sound but it wasn’t intentional.
We stop at a vantage point to scrutinise the Torres at close range. You have to be careful if you sit down for a rest out here – the most common shrub is a low-lying affair with a circumference of about four feet. It’s covered in thorns and the locals have wryly christened it Mother in Law’s Cushion. Scrutinising the mountain with my now famous unicular, I’m fascinated by a long, flat dollop of snow seemingly dripping off the edge of the top. This is a hanging glacier and provides most of the material for the frequent avalanches that occur here. They make it look as though castor sugar is always tumbling down the steeper sides.
We have a nibble on trail mix of walnuts and sultanas. I chuck some on the ground and say “Patcha Mama,” respecting the old Indian tradition of always returning something to the great earth mother. Well it’s better than chucking Kleenex at her anyway. I’m having a good old natter with Maria Ines. She’s a twenty-year old Patagonian who speaks Spanish, German and English with ease. Apparently the fire that hit this place in 1985 burnt for a month and the wind was so strong that it enabled the damn thing to cross one of the rivers – a humbling reminder of the awesome power of the elements round here.
There was a little moment in McCarthy and Keenan’s book where they visited this place and were deeply privilged to see two puma on their first day. Their driver had raved about it because apparently it’s a very rare thing. I established that this was a guy called Pancho who still works at the Explora, so I showed him the book. The puma is a fine beast, variously called cougar and mountain lion. I say that of course, but their mates may call them all sorts of things such as “Oy, short whiskers!” or Pongo (this last, incidentally, meaning fetch in Spanish).
Looking a bit like lionesses, in the summer they cruise the mountains gobbling guanacos, and in the winter they ravage rabbits. Anything they leave behind is hoovered up by the carrion-loving condors and the local foxes. Then when they’ve stuffed themselves they retire to a quiet cave for kipping and sex, invariably producing two or three cubs in the spring, one of which tends to starve or freeze to death. That’s the rough shape of it puma-wise.
They remain patently unaware, meanwhile, that they have leant significant credence to a worldwide sportswear brand without being paid a peso in royalties. I think that’s a poor state of affairs and would like to see them reap some benefit by way of the odd sports car or speedboat. With a few boys toys I’m sure they’d come down from the hills a bit more often and belie their shy reputation. That’s my theory anyway – in particular I would love to see one at the wheel of a 1959 Chevrolet wearing a set of Ray-Bans. Now that would be cool.
In the afternoon we drive across the Grey and Pingo rivers, which contain what must be very cold trout and salmon, to the base of the Grey glacier, pride of the Chilean Antarctic. This takes the form of a massive beach with a natural wall about ten foot high across it, which is the terminal moraine formed by the glacier washing all it’s stuff down. The shore is covered in chunks of blue ice the size of houses. It appears blue because it is so heavily compacted, which changes its light reflecting characteristics. Six kilometres away is the glacier itself, which is 26km long. You are tempted to think that this is a river but it isn’t – it’s actually a giant puddle caused by the melting ice, and the wind does all the movement.
Every time I go out round here I say it’s windier than the outing before. This was like being in a giant refrigerator with a fan on. Don’t worry, said the guide, if it exceeds 120kph we’ll have a bar of chocolate. Yeah right. Everyone should see a glacier once I think, if only to stop them from complaining when there’s a bit of snow or a strong wind. The terrain now is reminiscent of English woodland – deciduous and leafy. Bizarrely and rather incongruously, its inhabitants include the cachana, a green, chattering austral parakeet, which you would normally associate with a tropical rainforest. We return over a suspension bridge that can only handle two at a time, and are ferried back in the large Ford people carriers they have here. Many have cracked windscreens caused by flying wind-fuelled stones. A black crested eagle circles high above as the Japanese guy to my right reviews all the glacial images he’s taken on his digital camera – a collision of ancient and modern phenomena if ever there was one.
Fauna had been a bit sparse here up till now but today was a bumper wildlife day. I took a 5 mile hike from Lago Sarmiento to Laguna Amarga, which means Lake Full of Bitter, so I was hoping for a couple of pints at the end of it to offset my exertions. It might also compensate for the interrupted night’s sleep courtesy of intensive wind howling through my room. My door rattled as though somebody was constantly knocking on it but I eventually managed to silence the bastard by wedging a combination of Do Not Disturb signs, magazines and hotel stationery into it. Over this side of the park there are hundreds of guanacos, whose numbers have swollen from a few hundred to 3,000 since they were afforded the protection of national park status. There’s one standing on almost every hill and I’m sure their job is to alert the others that humans are coming.
“Oy lads, pack up the deckchairs! Humans! Diego, douse the barbecue. Juan, kill the stereo, and Pedro take those bloody shades off for Chrissakes!”
But no matter how vigilant they are, the skeletal vestiges of puma kills are all too evident, particularly along the perimeter fence edge. The puma know that baby guanacos, which constitute 50% of their diet, can’t jump the fence, so they often start a stampede and pick off the ones that don’t make it over. Here there are also flamingos, beautiful falcons called caracara or carancho, and the nandu or rhea, which is a mini ostrich. These guys are flightless and the male builds a nest on the ground and then awaits the visit of various females. When they’ve done the business, the ladies lay their eggs in his nest and bugger off, leaving him to bring up as many as twenty kids. I’m sure there’s an inappropriate Child Support Agency gag lurking in there somewhere but right now I can’t find it.
We climb high to a cave where there are some markings, possibly made by ancient tehuelches Indians. Alternatively it could have been Terry and Sharon from the village having a laugh: who knows? Bizarrely you can also find marine fossils high in these mountains because the whole thing used to be a massive lake millions of years ago. We stop for an enormous barbecue lunch, which includes three complete roast sheep, and in the afternoon I take to horseback for a hill country ride. I’ve never done it before but I asked them to give me the oldest nag and heavily sedate it beforehand. Her name was Pechuga which I thought was a bit mean because it means tit. But she didn’t behave like one and I came away with my fundamentals in tact and the same pitched voice with which I arrived.
Unlike one Frenchman who started a mini stampede by falling off and spooking the rest of them, unsaddling another poor lady in the process. Meanwhile I got chatting to a variety of nationalities including the first people I’ve ever met from Uruguay, and a lone Japanese guy who turned out to have several hit singles, that’s 2 million sales, in Japan. Later on we proudly play each other our songs, although I couldn’t claim any of mine had ever been a hit. At this stage I’m just about mountained out. I’ve seen staggering scenery and intriguing wildlife the like of which I’ve never seen before. I’m looking forward to dossing on some paradise-style beaches for a while. I feel fit and healthy but I don’t really have a tan – now there’s a good old fashioned white preoccupation for you! More likely I will develop a multitude of freckles, go pink and peel, but that’s not the point. On return from an adventure I feel it’s essential to look a bit weather-beaten to add authenticity to all your tales of derring-do. But I draw the line at having some sort of dodgy traveller’s beard. They’ve never been my thing really. I don’t like having face fungus myself and I can’t imagine a girl particularly likes kissing a doormat with an orifice.
Before I quit this place there’s the small matter of a peace treaty to be arranged. On my last night I am part of a truly international dinner in which I exchange ideas with a German, a Japanese and an Aussie. Minoru has a great little computer which enables him to look up words and other encyclopaedia-type details in seconds. Terry the Aussie works for Henkel so he’s an engineer. Martin the German has immaculate English and is a much sought-after museum organiser. There is much piss-taking going on: which country do you really hate? Who can you trust most? And so on. Meanwhile the enormous pharmaceutical party who won the sales incentive scheme are all getting drunk with their partners, and as I retire to bed I can still hear the drinking songs echoing up from the bar.
Best be off then
To avoid nineteen hours of solid travelling I need to take a pit stop in Santiago before my final run home. To be honest I would rather be back there by now, but nothing will get me there quicker.
Essential South American Anagrams
South America : Cue shit aroma
Lago Titicaca : Goal – a caci tit
Tierra del Fuego : Leafy turd goer
Santiago : Tos again
Punta Arenas : Ant anus rape
Antofagasta : Go a fasta ton
Patagonia : Pain a goat
Isla de Pascua : A pissed cuala
Things you didn’t know you’d eat until you came to South America
*Not strictly true this one
Old joke: An architect, a doctor and an advertising man are sitting in a pub with their dogs when they each start boasting that theirs can do more tricks than the others. “Here Slide Rule!” shouts the architect, “Do something with those bones.” So Slide Rule rearranges a pile of bones into a scale model of St. Paul’s cathedral. “That’s nothing,” says the medic, and he instructs Stethoscope to top the feat, which he promptly does by creating a bone-perfect replica of the human skeleton. The adman raises his eyes to the heavens and orders his dog Expense Account to do his stuff. The dog kicks the bones around for a while, shags the other two dogs and sods off for lunch.
I fancy a curry and the concierge puts me in a cab to the Taj Mahal, which has closed down. I repair instead to the local Chinese, which is strangely called the Blue Danube. The food is fine, but I have the agonising experience of hearing AC/DC’s You shook me all night long played instrumental on the flute – oh dear, oh dear. It’s not rock n roll kids now is it? I have a reasonable night’s sleep, delayed slightly by the couple shagging in the room next door. It’s a peculiar business listening to someone else on the job and on reflection not an entirely pleasant one. It’s highly intimate stuff and I’m not sure I want to hear all the noises if I’m not involved myself. Given that I’ve never even seen the girl, you can count me out, thank you very much.
In the morning the sun is out so I decide to do some urban hill climbing. It’s May Day, which is like a public holiday and the streets are much the better for being quiet. Remarkably the same guy who thrust a poem in my hand three weeks ago does it again – statistically unusual you’d have thought in such a large city but there you are. I told him to knob off and do some work instead of handing out poetry on a public holiday. He looked a bit non-plussed: “I’ve seen your trick before pal now on your way!”
The Cerro Santa Lucia is one you walk up via a maze of terraces and lookouts. It’s where some guy called Valdivia originally founded the city in 1540, not that you really care about that and neither do I – but the view’s good. Then I walk to the Cerro San Cristobal. It would take ages to get up on foot so I take the funicular. The most popular method of ascension, however, appears to be the mountain bike. Apart from via immaculate conception that is, because there’s a shrine to the Virgin Mary at the top, as there is on every bloody hill in South America. When I get to the top the place is teeming with macho-looking characters wearing significant quantities of spandex, comparing tyre treads, and debating the merits of various gear changing mechanisms. Well that’s their choice but it’s not my bag. I’m just happy to sit in the sun and enjoy a coffee.
There’s a restaurant up here which catches my eye, because at first glance I think it’s called the Intoxica and that might tee up a solid afternoon’s drinking. But on closer inspection it’s the Enoteca, so I head for the zoo instead. Zoos always stir up mixed emotions for me. On the one hand it’s a privilege to see these magnificent creatures right up close. On the other hand I’m very unhappy with the conditions a lot of them are kept in. Most species are represented here. It’s not in the same league as the zoos in Miami or Basle (Switzerland) but it’s interestingly laid out on the side of the hill.
I was intrigued by the porcupines, and the white peacock chicks with their little crested headgear, and in the main the smaller species seem to be happy enough. The fox, however, (the zorro culpeo I was supposed to see in the Pan de Azucar), is very unhappy, as are the ocelots. They are showing all the classic signs of frustration in captivity, clawing at fences and pacing about in repetitive patterns. The pumas, tigers and leopards demand a big stomping ground and here they get little more than a couple of human-sized living rooms and a hut to kip in.
But the species I am most upset with is man. There are enormous notices everywhere saying do not feed the animals, and in a two hour visit I must have seen forty or fifty people do it, including parents encouraging their children. These twits really piss me off. Eagles do not eat fruit gums in the wild you fucking morons! Leopards don’t have ready access to tutti-frutti and Monster Munch in their natural habitat! On this evidence it’s a wonder all the animals aren’t perpetually throwing up.
Seeing the birds of prey caged up was a low point for me. The condor has a wingspan the length of your car – here it can’t even get off the ground. The eagle can spot a mouse a mile away: ditto. The only guy who had it right was the chimpanzee. He held court in the middle of his den blowing raspberries at all the onlookers. Quite right mate. Tell them all where to get off!
I trudged off down the hill, mildly consoling myself with the thought that, of all the species on display indigenous to this continent, I had seen the majority of them happily going about their business in the wild. I genuinely leave it to the people running our zoos to use them judiciously for sensible, constructive breeding programmes, rather than money-spinning tourist attractions. I just hope they’re getting the balance right.
I wander down to the mint, La Moneda, where Pinochet sent the tanks and the Air Force in back in 1973. It’s all tarted up now so everything carries on as normal. I’m ready to go home. I’m not physically tired because I’ve had plenty of lie-ins. I’m not mentally tired because I’ve been constantly stimulated by new things. But I am slightly spent. I think it’s because I’ve said what I had to say. No matter that I haven’t actually said it to anyone. I just wrote it all down. After all, travel gives you the excuse to say anything you want.
Nor does it matter whether my mad ramblings see the light of day. Whether published or not, it feels like I’ve said my bit. As I consider how to finish what I’ve started, I have a beer in a bar and go to wash my hands. The graffiti on the wall pretty much sums the whole thing up for me:
“All Argentinians need penis extensions!”
So there you have it. Wherever you go, things are different, yet exactly the same. You learn everything, and yet nothing. The world can provide an endless source of fascination, but it will only give back what you put in, physically or mentally. Sitting idle will reap you little reward. You can either find it boring and switch off now, or find it endlessly fascinating, keep your sense of wonder and stay positive.
Me, I’ll go for the latter every time, if that’s alright with you.