Sunday, 3 July 2016

Horseback across the Andes

El Condor
Chile to Argentina 
The six-hour struggle in high seas from the island of Chiloé back to the southern mainland of Chile had been tedious. We arrived in darkness at a small cove. The ferryboat lowered its ramp like a huge sigh, allowing a dozen cars and a lone Japanese girl on a small motorcycle to drive off into the night. We made our way ashore in driving rain and joined a group of foot-passengers huddled under a solitary quayside lamp.  

A bedraggled teenage girl approached and touted us with an offer of accommodation. We glanced briefly at her plastic book of wet photographs and hurriedly accepted. A waiting van took us to her hospedaje above a family laundry shop..

The Challenge 
 Welcome to Chaitén – gateway to the Ruta Austral, southern Chile.

Our objective was to travel to the far end of Ruta Austral, to the small pioneer hamlet of Villa O’Higgins, where the track was blocked from further travel by huge mountains topped with ice fields, and glaciers that plunged into the sea. We had heard a rumour that horses could be hired from O’Higgins to cross over the Andes into Argentina. If that was so, then it was too good a challenge to ignore.
But first we had almost 1,000 kilometres of narrow unpaved track ahead of us, along a narrow strip sandwiched between the mountains of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The route had been recently built by the Chilean corps of army engineers – an amazing feat comparable to that of the Alaskan Highway. 

It took us eleven days to reach Villa O’Higgins, using various private minibuses and trucks that ran unscheduled services between the sparse towns and villages. The journey, over a packed gravel track, went through some of the most spectacular and varied scenery in the world; past stunning mountains, hanging glaciers, lakes and rain forests, and with frequent sightings of soaring condors. Overnight accommodation was basic and often difficult to find.
The further south we travelled, the colder and wetter it became. We befriended a woman and her two children on the final minibus into the grey, soggy hamlet of Villa O’Higgins. She confirmed that horses were occasionally available from the Chilean border post on the far side of Lago San Martín. She kindly offered to accommodate us for a few days whilst we made enquiries.
O’Higgins seemed an improbable Irish name to find in Chile, yet airports, streets, universities, even naval ships, are named after him. Bernardo O’Higgins was the illegitimate son of an Irishman, who, with José de San Martín, freed Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence 1810-1821. His name has since been revered as a famous son of Chile.



Bernardo O'Higgins
Chilean Farewell
Within two days of arrival, we had made tentative arrangements to trek across the Andes into Argentina. We were unsure what to expect, except that a truck would call to collect us at 5 a.m.
 It duly arrived and also stopped at other lodgings around the village to collect an elderly French couple, a middle-aged Chilean couple and an Argentinian girl.

Preparing the pack-ponies


International Horse Trek 

It was there that we found an ancient Chilean campesino waiting with eight very suspect-looking horses, and two pack ponies. He spoke a barely intelligible dialect of Spanish, and avoided conversation by busying himself with sorting out a ragbag of questionable looking bridles and saddles. 
Although none of our newly acquired international companions was skilled in horsemanship, we at least had a common language of English with which to communicate. 
Our journey across the Andean continental divide was cold and wet, but unimaginably stimulating. We rode through forests and glacial streams on stout horses using a motley collection of saddles ranging from English and Spanish to just a sheepskin.
Ruta Austral
    
Unfortunately, just one kilometre from the western end of Lage Deseado, the well-chewed rope bit on Jean’s horse gave way when it got into difficulty on a slippery 60-degree slope. Jean ended up going over the horse’s head with one foot trapped in the stirrup. Fortunately she suffered only a slightly sprained ankle, but horrendous bruising.  She completed the trek on foot, which required wading through two glacial streams that had the effect of numbing the pain in her sprained ankle.


Stranded without  Paddle

 We had aimed to arrive at the lakeside in time to catch a small launch, which called once a week with supplies for the six-man military border control post. The boat was not there; it had broken down and was awaiting spare parts.

The army’s own boat was also out of action. We were stuck! No food, no tents, no Argentinean money, but lots of camaraderie. We pooled what little food we had, set up camp in a mountain refuge and made a damp smoky fire to keep warm from the overnight snowstorm.
         Meanwhile, the army captain had radioed an S.O.S. to the nearest provincial government for help. An inflatable rescue dingy was located at a mountaineer’s village at the base of Mount Fitz Roy and hauled overnight to the other end of Lago Deseado.
Ouch!

Its arrival the following afternoon was a welcome sight. However, the drama was not yet over. Two-thirds into our fifteen-kilometre journey across the choppy glacial lake, one of the outboard engines failed. Silent prayers were said for the remaining engine until we finally limped cold and wet into a deserted jetty.
   
       
Happiness is a bunkhouse

Wet, but safe.
     We were cold, wet, shivery and 40 kms from the nearest town. To keep warm, Jean and I went walk-a-bout and happened upon a returning wilderness hiker, whom we persuaded to give us a lift along the 40 kms of flooded track to the recently established township of El Chalten. 
We arrived in darkness and promptly found a timber bunkhouse hostel, complete with a roaring fire, hot showers and a nearby café selling pizzas. It proved to be a welcome retreat to catch our breath for a couple of days, during which we planned the next stage of our journey - the 2,753 km journey north through Patagonia to Buenos Aries.
A traveller's journey is ever onward.
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