Monday, February 1, 2010

Idle Days in Patagonia

Photos: from top-1909 shipwreck on Straits of Megellan in Punta Arenas, waiting for ferry Christmas Day, cramped quarters on ferry, journal writing at the Shackleton Bar, "cormorant's fork" in Punta Arenas, Port Williams, Chile.

I limped into Punta Arenas on December 16th. The leak in my front shock had recently started gushing, and I was starting to wonder exactly how much oil could be in there. The winds outside of town, along the Straits of Magellan, were brutal and I was waiting for the shock to fail completely, turning the frontend into a pogo stick. Luckily, it never did.

Punta Arenas is a windblown maritime township on the shore of the famous Straits of Magellan in southern most mainland Chile, only a day’s ride from my goal of reaching the end of road in Ushuaia, Argentina. I was to meet my friend Kristin in Punta Arenas, and we were going to explore the area off the bike. I was pleased to be there, and happy to have someone to spend Christmas with.

We toured the nearby penguin island, the cemetery, and the French Baroque mansions of the early sheep ranching magnates. It did not take long to exhaust the short list of sites in Punta Arenas. So, Kristin researched and found a working ferry that traveled through the fjords of Tierra del Fuego eventually docking in Chile’s most southern town, Port Williams. It was a 36-hour voyage with seating that made any airline's coach seats look luxurious. Each morning a cardboard box full of sandwiches (two slices of white bread, butter, and one slice of processed ham or cheese) was dropped off in the room of 22 backpackers, along with a jar of instant coffee packets. The 13-inch TV that was mounted in the front of room played ‘80’s German music videos and dated Spanish sitcoms, from a mysterious source somewhere else on the ship- we had no control over it. If it sounds tortuous, it was…initially, but then it became fun, kind of a parody of backer packer travel. We were fed a proper lunch and dinner, and began passing through some amazing scenery. Snowcapped peaks and glaciers were around every corner, and you couldn’t help but feel like a bearded explorer in tights searching for new lands and a passage out of the maze of islands.

We made it to Port Williams on a crisp clear Christmas morning. After a short walk around P. Williams, we found a water taxi to take us to Ushuaia. The ferry was to leave at 1:00 pm, and we were to be at the marina at 12:45. The ferry left at 7:00pm. No worries, we had two bottles of wine, cheese, and crackers. We drank, and got sunburned on the deck of a wrecked steamer that acted as the marina’s dock house. Not a bad Christmas at the end of the world.

Kristin flew out of Ushuaia on the 28th and I took a 12-hour bus trip back to Punta Arenas to deal with the wounded bike. Before I left Seattle I had a tougher suspension mounted on the bike to handle the heavy load and bumpy dirt roads. Ohlins, a Swedish company, has a solid reputation and builds competition shocks for track and dirt bikes. The fact that my front shock seal had failed AND that my rear shock had begun to leak was not sitting well with me. My knee-jerk reaction was to have a used BMW front shock sent down to me from Seattle so that I could at the very least, get out of here. I would deal with the bigger problem later while in Buenos Aires or Santiago. However, after doing some more research and due to the fact that I wanted to take some tougher, more technical roads going back up north, I wanted complete confidence in my suspension. I decided to do the right thing and have the shocks, both front and rear, sent to the Ohlins’ dealer for Chile per the company’s website for a complete rebuild. It is something that needs to be done periodically anyway. I made contact with the rep and was assured a quick turn around time.

I got the shocks back five weeks later.

I will not bore you with the excruciating details, but will tell you that I did not handle the situation very well. I knew this time would come, and knew that I would not be able to choose where and when it was to happen, but nonetheless, I was not prepared for the boredom. I learned that I am not yet the laidback, easy-going, “c’est la vie” kind of guy that I was hoping for, but still the same uptight white guy that left almost a year ago. In my defense, it is one thing if someone tells you that you are going to be stuck somewhere for five weeks - you can adjust and plan, but when you are told “one more week”, “four more days”, “sorry, parts where lost in the mail”, “parts are stuck in customs”, “this has never happened before, maybe two more days”, well then you start to go a little crazy. Depressed actually. In a town that suffers incessant winds and erratic weather patterns and a cool populace that keeps to them selves indoors, it becomes burdensome to try and fill the long days (it is only dark five hours a night this time of year). Sound bitter?

Meanwhile, I found some salvation working out at the gym in the swanky new casino nearby, trying every restaurant in town, and reading. I was able to get through Paul Theroux’s “Old Patagonian Express”, Greg Mortenson’s “Stones Into Schools” a book of Patagonian history, and after catching the Antarctica bug in Ushuaia (all the Antarctica cruises leave from there) I read Ernest Shackleton’s memoir “South”.

During all this downtime, I had also been communicating with two travel brokers in Ushuaia that handle cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula. Of course, I could not commit to a date, so I had to sit by and watch as many “last minute” deals came and went with each departing ship. At first a frustrating inconvenience then a source of a new stress – the Antarctic season ends with February. I was starting to wonder if I was going to make it.

Eventually the saga came to a close and I was able to leave for Ushuaia on February 12th. I would have to deal with cruise matters once I got there.

I know its part of travel, but I don’t have to like it. The time and money wasted really set me back, and I am not sure that I will ever get use to gross incompetence. I learned a lot, but knowing what I knew then, I would have done the same thing all over again.

Heading South

The plan was simple, I would continue south on the paved Ruta 3 along the Atlantic coast all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, and take the more adventurous dirt roads of the famed Ruta 40 on my way back up north.

Leaving the Valdez Peninsula on December 8th I made a series of stops as I traveled down the coast:
  • The penguin refuge of Punta Tombo was my first excursion. Over a half million Magellan penguins come here every year to lay their eggs. The park is unique in that you can walk amongst the birds, while staying on designated walking trails.
  • Back at the highway junction, I had to decide if I wanted to continue south under the darkening clouds, or backtrack north a bit and get a place in the city of Trelew.... Once in Trelew, I easily found a hotel and enjoyed a beer in a joint where Butch Cassidy once stayed.
  • Continuing south on my way to the Glacier National Park in the El Calafate, I stayed my last night on the Atlantic coast in Puerto San Julian. Not much of a town, but rich in history: Magellan wintered his fleet here before discovering the passageway that bears his name, Charles Darwin ventured about while the Beagle was anchored in the nearbay bay, Sir Francis Drake stopped over here while on his circumnavigation of the world, and it's where Mike Lewis lost his Spot GPS sender. Also, earlier that same day, I noticed that my front shock was leaking fluid. Not a great day.
  • The Perito Moreno Glacier in Glacier National Park is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is like a living breathing sculpture. The ice has filled the mountain valleys since the last ice age and the ice flow continues to move down towards the lake. The ice is ever cracking and creaking, breaking off, and reflecting hues of blue. You can't stop taking pictures. I went on a day hike on top of the glacier using crampons. It was a beautiful day, and exhilarating to actually be able to get on a glacier.... before they all melt.
  • On December 17th I crossed the Argentina/Chile border for the third time on my way to Punta Arenas. I was meeting my friend Kristin, who I had met in Guatemala, and who I would thankfully be spending Christmas with. I am not to the bottom of the continent yet, but very close.