Our Lips Are Sealed

IS it possible to be a fish out of water while actually in water?

It would certainly appear so, given my flailing around off the Argentinian coast in a wetsuit, flippers and snorkel.

Graceful was not exactly the word to describe my time in the water, unlike the local inhabitants we had come to see.

To walking with lions, being charged in a bar by an elephant, a cheetah eating my flip-flop and being knocked over by a gorilla, you can add another thrilling personal wildlife experience – snorkelling with sea lions.

If, by snorkelling, you mean floating about with very little control over which way you were moving or even which way up you were.

That would be me, not the sea lions. They are rather more agile in the water. It is closer-run thing on dry land.

Festive season comes early to Spongebob

Being in the water, let alone so close to such remarkable creatures, would have been pretty much unthinkable in the deep south of Argentina at Ushuaia, even with the help of a couple of wet suits.

But the weather improved as the miles rattled up on the long journey north, the warm clothes we have been wrapped up in for the past few weeks gradually disappearing to see out the rest of the trip in the depths of our locker as shorts, T-shorts and flip-flops again took over as the truck uniform.

Not that we could discard them immediately as we began the journey north in a truck newly festooned with Christmas decorations.

Our departure from the world’s most southerly city coincided with an abrupt end to the remarkably friendly weather we were served up in Patagonia.

It was cold at times – particularly one or two evenings under canvas – with the odd downpour, but none of the horror tales of gales and four seasons in one day we had been served up in the build-up to the southern leg our South American odyssey.

Early stages of the queue for the ferry

Right up until we left Ushuaia.

By the time we reached the day’s first intended border crossing – there is no way back to mainland Argentina via road without heading in and out of Chile – the wind was howling but with little sign of the problems it was about to create.

For the final time we went through the Chilean custom of unloading, scanning and reloading our bags – including those belong to the people missing in Antarctica, Buenos Aires and wherever else they might be across the continent, which at least provided plenty of room on board through several long drive days – and headed for the day’s other major hurdle.

Crossing a narrow strait of water had been fairly straightforward on the way down, but that wind was about to make the return journey a whole lot more troublesome.

By the time we arrived at the Bahia Azul ferry crossing at 2.30pm, a line of traffic was forming and the ferries could be seen anchored offshore, going nowhere as conditions had been judged too rough just half an hour earlier.

And so we waited. And waited. All the time watching the clock with the day’s second border crossing – about an hour’s drive away – due to close at 10pm.

At which point, we were watching cars being loaded on to the first ferry to dock when conditions were judged good enough to sail again.

Nearly back home

The intervening eight hours had seen us do… well, not a lot really. There was not a lot we could do, bar sit it out and occasionally brave the gale to visit the nearby cafe to use the facilities and search in vain for hot food.

We did convince them to reheat our big pot of chicken soup which we scoffed down on the truck as hope rose of our vigil finally coming to an end.

When it did, it was still not plain sailing – the 20-minute crossing taking twice as long as we looked out on the ferry and the surrounding waves from some very strange angles.

With the border closed until morning, we had little choice other than to park up amid the trucks waiting to cross and set up our own refugee camp for the night, bar those who opted for the safety of a night on the truck.

Yes, the hats are still fixed to the netting above. Doubt we noticed after a few glasses of red

Our early-morning border crossing was smooth enough, although our mood was not eased by a sign declaring it would be open 24 hours just two days later.

A quick stop for cook group shopping and we were heading north again, eating up the largely featureless miles as the temperature began to rise.

It was mainly long trousers and hoodies for our bush camp on a rocky beach, but by the time we rolled into the Welsh village of Gaiman for tea, cakes, ice cream and reliving my years on the western side of the Severn Bridge, we were into what would be described as a glorious summer day back in Wales.

And it was distinctly beach weather as we hit Puerto Madryn – where the first Welsh settlers arrived, on the cliff by our campsite in 1865 – which was pretty handy, considering we were at a beach and signing up to take the offshore plunge.

Which was how a group of us were up bright and early – very early for those of us on cook group duty – to splash around with the pups of a seal lion colony.

Bush camp on the shore

Having never snorkelled properly, nor worn flippers before, perhaps my less than graceful performance was to be expected.

Who knew it could be that difficult to keep your feet underwater?

But my struggles aside, it was a truly magical 45 minutes or so as the curious pups swam and played around us, letting us stroke them as they nibbled at our flippers and wetsuits.

And when they opted for dry land, we were able to bob (or thrash around in my case) just off the beach where the giant bull kept rivals and youngsters in check and the colony went about its morning routine.

Which largely consisted of lying around, occasionally making the odd strange grunt.

A lot like a long drive day on the truck.

  • Next time: When overland trips collide, sweating it out in Buenos Aires and a little bit of politics. Just in case you hadn’t had enough.
It was long, it was flat. You start seeing things
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Ever South

The view from our campsite in Torres del Paine National Park – the bird hopped into view just before the camera clicked. Pretty much standard view in this part of the world

CHANGES in direction are taking many years, endless arguments and, quite possibly, another unclear election result back home.

But for the inhabitants of our big yellow truck, our whole journey takes an abrupt about face when we climb aboard in the morning.

Long road ahead

After 11 weeks heading south from Quito we can go no further and day 80 will see us roll back out of Ushuaia and north on the long road back through Patagonia.

We will do it with the truck festooned in Christmas decorations (met with a variety of responses from delight to, well, mine) but shorn of a large chunk of its passengers.

Five have not had enough of heading south just yet and are somewhere on boats en route to Antarctica, one has been forced back to Santiago by a passport issue while a growing number have opted to fly to Buenos Aires early to miss a series of long drive days and bush camps along the Atlantic coast with what could be some of the most inhospitable, least exciting conditions Patagonia has thrown at us.

Ice and drink is a dangerous mix

Not that anything it can serve up can wash away the lasting impression the whole region has made on us over the past couple of weeks – it is simply stunning.

It is difficult to keep coming up with superlatives for the constant stream of extraordinary scenery, so just take it as read that anywhere mentioned throughout this post is breathtaking, beautiful, dramatic, picturesque, unique, memorable and any other adjective you want to add to the list.

Often a combination of several or all of those things all at once.

And, considering what we had been warned could lie ahead, we have got away with the weather so far.

We have had the odd rainy day and a fair few clouds, while a couple of camping evenings have got a little bit chilly if you were not properly wrapped up in a sleeping bag or under a couple of blankets.

But the weather has played its part in helping us savour this remarkable part of the world, albeit wrapped up in a variety of layers – bar those strange people who seem able to wear shorts or a T-shirt in all weather.

When you left us in El Chalten, the weather was very much playing ball and it held firm as we headed around the neighbouring lake to El Calafate, enabling a group of us to dine al fresco in the pretty main street.

So deprived were we of winter conditions, we headed for an ice bar to cool down – dressed up in thick gloves and hooded winter capes for half an hour of unlimited drinks (always a dangerous thing to offer an overlander) in what was essentially a large freezer.

Calving at the Perito Moreno glacier (Video: Becky Clark)
Mother hen

It paved the way for a birthday celebration at a nearby restaurant – almost inevitably in Argentina featuring great piles of meat – and another one of those nights in a nearby bar which drifted on a fair bit later than originally expected. For a couple of us at least.

While we had been enjoying sun and ice, several of our number had done the same thing at the Perito Moreno glacier in perfect conditions.

Which was not what we got the next morning for our trip, via a couple of interesting stops at a bush – yes, seriously, got off the coach in the rain to look at a bush in the middle of nowhere – and a ranch which was supposedly notable but all we saw were the puppies which curled up, shivering, between my feet.

Up close to the ice in the rain

By the time we arrived at the glacier, the heavens had well and truly opened but it remains a mightily impressive sight, especially when it calves off large chunks of ice – even more so when we got up close under clearing skies during an hour-long boat trip.

Our relentless journey south bounced us back across the border to Chile – a common occurrence which we will do for a couple of hours tomorrow before leaving for the final time – and the town of Puerto Natales.

Selfie advice – watch out who is trying to squeeze into the picture

It is, to be polite, functional rather than pretty but serves as the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park for which pretty would be a remarkable understatement.

Shorn of four of our number – rather quicker than anticipated – who were heading off for the four-day W Trek, we tucked into takeaway pizza and steeled ourselves for three nights under canvas this far south.

Our first port of call was the same as our intrepid trekkers, to the point that we bumped into them on the trail of the Towers trek which ranged from sheer hell to people with a bad knee (the muddy, uphill early bits) to a fun stroll through Middle Earth.

The top of the Towers trek

Was regularly expecting a hobbit to pop out as we meandered our way through the forest and while most headed up the final steep section, some of us put discretion above valour – it was snowing after all – and headed back down the trail for what was still a long, rewarding trek.

Never too far from a stunning view

Even more rewarding were the views which greeted us en route and around our campsite deep in the park on the edge of Lake Pehoe which deserved the toasting they got deep into the night. Maybe too deep in some cases.

Which may have explained a slow start to the next day which largely consisted of too many cooks doing their best not to spoil a variety of dishes being cooked on an open fire to mark Thanksgiving for our American contingent.

Our final day in the park brought more walking, although for some of us it was little more than a stroll up to a waterfall and around the edge of the campsite, but even that was enough to test the superlatives.

Look, the views were amazing. Just take my word for it
Penguins at home

Especially with the local wildlife more than happy to put on a show for the cameras, right up until the gloriously clear final morning as we rolled back out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.

Reunited with our trekkers – with around 100km banked in their legs – we kept on rolling south, not without mishap as a coach opted to cut a bit too close to Spongebob (remember, big, yellow, square and hard to miss) as we were parked up waiting to board a ferry.

And overlanders at home for the night up the road from the penguins. We were warned the weather would be awful

Black and white dolphins bouncing around in the wake were enough to keep us entertained, as were the king penguins at a colony which provided an interesting backdrop (and soundtrack if you listened carefully) in the distance to our bush camp for the night.

Our final few hundred kilometres heading south took us back into Argentina and on to Ushuaia – the end of the world.

End of the road south

And we feel fine. 

It is a landmark stop, providing not only a welcome bed (and we have managed to shed five roommates to Antarctica and Buenos Aires inside 24 hours), ample opportunities to shop, eat and drink (which may have seen a couple of us locked out of the hostel and forced to sleep on the truck) but also to get lost on a relatively simple trek up to a lake.

Not to mention its significance in the trip.

In the morning we head north through possibly the longest (and most Welsh) few drive days of the trip which will begin to take on a new shape as the terrain changes, big cities return and layers of clothing are consigned back to our lockers.

But until then, we will continue to savour southern hospitality.

The lake was worth the trek – whichever way we went
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My Favourite Dress

The glorious view back to Mt Fitzroy on the trek back to El Chalten

WE may have packed our bags as individuals – some a lot better than others – but a form of uniform inevitably becomes the norm on an overland trip.

Some may fight the inevitable and stick with their own stab at individuality, but a look around the truck on most travel days will reveal a reliance on the same style of clothing.

There will be an array of T-shirts, normally one or two of the trip design (mainly in black) since their arrival in Cusco, with the main debate on how many days in succession you can get away with wearing the same one. 

Messing about in boats at Bariloche

That number will get longer as the trip goes on and in relation to the number of consecutive days we are camping.

They will normally be matched with shorts and, in the mornings, the odd fleece or hoodie which is usually discarded around the time of the first comfort stop. After the pockets have been stuffed full of snacks if the stop is at a decent petrol station.

Some persist with long trousers, usually of the zip-off trekking variety, while others will fight against whatever the weather throws at us and stick with shorts – the only concession to a fall in temperature being winter shorts which come with added pockets.

Footwear will be largely flip-flops or, to please our Australian brethren, thongs. Thankfully the lack of native Kiwis has stopped jandals becoming a realistic alternative name.

Celebrating back on dry land

Amid this, there are variations. Mainly worn by Cam who has mastered wearing items of clothing in multiple ways – the right way, back to front, inside out and both inside out and back to front.

Others have tried something similar with certain items of clothing when clean laundry is running short.

But over the past few days as we have headed south through Patagonia, that uniform has changed out of necessity.

There’s still plenty of T-shirts being worn, often more than one at the same time. But they are buried under fleeces, hoodies (two at a time in my case) and waterproof jackets, while the trousers have grown in length and thickness, the footwear has become closed and sturdy and wooly hats have appeared from the depths of bags.

Even socks have been dug out of lockers – or, warm and fluffy, bought at supermarkets and worn night and day.

Relatively dressed up for a long night…

The fashion choices have been made for us at times as the nights have got cold, we have been hit by a few downpours and keeping warm in our tents has moved to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

The weather is not all bad. We have had a pretty glorious couple of days in El Chalten to complement the stunning surroundings.

And it was still pretty nice when we rolled into Bariloche, our entry point into Argentinian Patagonia after another stunning drive day through the country’s version of the Lake District.

My main issue after a relatively quiet night around camp was not rain but a water bottle leaking all over my sleeping bag, pressing my alpaca blanket and moose onesie – an impromptu pillow until Lisa took pity on me and bought me a proper one – into service in a bid to have anything approaching a warm, dry night.

… probably too long

Mission partially achieved, kept largely dry if not exactly warm as a small group of us headed out on a yacht for a fairly leisurely few hours crossing the lake alongside our campsite before heading into town for a few early drinks and an evening birthday celebration over fondue which, via various dramas, dragged on into the early hours.

Which was when the heavens opened. And continued to do so for hours, ensuring a quiet morning as people sought refuge in their tents or in the only covered area at camp.

Thankfully, the rain was not an issue for our trip to an escape room which lightened the mood considerably, especially when we got out with 18 minutes to spare and did our best to make the most of the spare time by finding a bar.

Not so easy in the world of siesta when you have to get back for cook group.

Most definitely not part of the uniform – grabbing whatever was around in the rain

The rain returned just as we rolled into our next stop, one border crossing, a search of all our bags and more spectacular scenery later at Futafelu in Chile, which meant the chances of our little group emerging from our cabin for long when we had wine, cheese and salami to keep us company were slim.

When we did emerge, it was to stunning surroundings (you may be spotting a trend here) of mountains, waterfalls and a fast-flowing river – too fast for the proposed rafting route, but not enough to stop those brave enough to take on the alternative.

Local delicacy

Another birthday was marked by a Patagonian lamb roast supplied by our hosts, more wine and, for some reason, an impromptu transatlantic rugby lesson which reversed the result of the US War of Independence.

Just not hard enough if the evening which followed is to be taken in evidence,

That remarkable scenery and rain dominated the next couple of days as we racked up the miles glued to the passing views on the road to Coyhaigue – a touch of tree surgery enabling us to enter our camp site ready for an early start to miss feared protests.

Home for the night

The start of a two-person bid to watch every episode of The West Wing before the end of the trip later, we were back out on the road, this time with little to see as the rain blocked out any scenery – handy to catch up on some sleep without feeling guilty at missing something.

The rain was still hammering down as we reached Rio Tranquilo and the only campsite still open in the conditions, so what could make more sense than getting even wetter on a boat trip?

The Marble Caves – supposedly glorious in the dry. In the wet, looks more like… well, you decide

The Marble Caves are supposedly much more spectacular (and less, ahem, anatomical) in the sunlight, but it proved a more than enjoyable diversion before heading back to dry land and our more normal habitat. The bars over the road.

There were no bars the following night as our home after a long drive day and another border crossing was on cliffs above a salt lake, although still managed to be on the truck with a couple of bottles of wine until fairly late – an evening which had consequences well beyond the morning after.

Which brings us via, you’ve guessed it, more spectacular scenery to our current stop in El Chalten which has the feel of a ski resort but rather than winter sports enthusiasts heading off to the slopes, it is walkers hitting the trails into the surrounding countryside.

Setting off up the Fitzroy trek. Knee still in one piece

And then apres-walk rather than apres-ski.

Most of us donned a different uniform of trekking gear and headed out in small groups up a glorious trail to a viewpoint of Mt Fitzroy and its surrounding peaks which rise above one end of town.

The walk was fairly straightforward up a few rises, through forests, across streams (which at times masqueraded as the path) and alongside a lake for the first nine kilometres before a steep rise up the final stretch to the best viewpoint.

A creaking knee made by decision to skip the final stretch but it was still a lovely walk, topped off by a rapid, painkiller-fuelled descent back to town. Which is where things went a bit awry.

Plans to head straight for a shower, change and wait for others to return were derailed by a welcoming party in the bar next door – our base for the next 11 hours, bar a quick switch of venue to the nearby waffle house.

Which is beginning to beckon again.

The spectacular sight on the lake at Puerto Rio Tranquillo – once it stopped raining
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Santiago

Welcome to Chile

HAVE spent many evenings in bars over the years, a fair few of which have ended in bizarre circumstances and tears.

The details of many of those nights remain hazy – partly because they are, partly to protect the innocent. And the quite possibly guilty.

But our first evening in Santiago produced a fresh interruption to an evening’s drinking.

We were showered, freshly laundered, enjoying a few beers and welcoming new arrivals – who officially join the truck tomorrow as we bid farewell to two existing truck mates, part of the reason we headed in to a troubled city – as we waited for the evening’s barbecue.

It was all going so well, considering we were pretty much confined to barracks by the escalating anti-government protests on the streets around our hostel.

And then there was a thud on the roof above the bar.

Clearly visible through the open skylight was a streaming canister of tear gas.

Our hostel the morning after

Like to think it was the journalist in me that opted not to run but head towards the scene for a closer look, but not sure any of us fully realised the extent of what was going on.

Right up until the point we were ushered out of the bar to another part of the hostel and we were introduced to the effects of tear gas.

It is another experience ticked off the list and not one that will be trying to recreate anytime soon.

Basically, imagine cutting onions and, just to make sure you felt the full impact, rubbing them in your eyes. All while a nasty taste develops at the back of your throat.

And up your nose. While your eyes burn.

Thankfully, our exposure was minimal and with hostel staff on hand to spray something helpful on the affected areas, the effects did not last long – although think it was more behind the discomfort in my eyes the next morning than anything drank the night before – and we were soon getting on with the evening’s festivities.

The entrance to the subway at Plaza Italia, the heart of the protests

But it was a clear reminder we are in a city and country that has become a powder keg over the last month since a group of secondary school pupils began a fare evasion campaign against proposed price rises on the subway system.

That campaign – and the subsequent crackdown by the authorities – sparked a programme of civil unrest which has seen subway stations burned down or badly damaged and the protests spread to wider grievances against the government and President Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera has declared a state of emergency but the protests show little sign in subsiding and neither does the response to them.

Last night’s protest, which is all over Chilean CNN on the TV behind me and reports say involved up to 1.5million people in the Plaza Italia a few blocks from us, was described as largely peaceful.

That’s largely peaceful as in a university building a couple of hundred yards from us burning throughout the night, the church over the road being looted and the streets being littered with rubble and graffiti.

With the odd stray tear gas canister from the police thrown in.

We checked out the damage the morning after as the aftermath of the protest became a tourist attraction.

All very sad as you can see the skeleton of a very attractive city. Those of our group who have been here before spoke highly of the place and it does look pretty once you look beyond the damage.

Chile is no stranger to internal issues with the military dictatorship under Augustin Pinochet which ran the country for much of my youth from 1973 until 1990.

Honouring the disappeared

Sorry to confess, bar a couple of songs by Billy Bragg and U2, Pinochet’s eventual house arrest and lack of trial in Britain – and a former colleague’s mix-up with former Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot in a match report – plus tales of people disappearing and some pretty awful press collaboration with the ruling Junta, cannot claim to know too much about it.

Which is why this morning’s visit, prior to wandering around to view last night’s fallout, to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights to colour in some of the gaps was very welcome.

Not easy, certainly uncomfortable but very informative.

Have been to a few museums and memorials of difficult history – Auschwitz, Rwanda, Ground Zero, the Jewish Uprising Museum in Warsaw – and always come out with head spinning and trying to process what we have seen.

They are always tough going, but recommend them for anyone travelling to understand the world they are heading through.

Beyond the undoubted horrors of the dictatorship – topped, like those previous examples, by the powerful wall of pictures of the dead and disappeared which forms the centrepiece of the exhibits – two major issues came to the fore as relevant to today.

First was the way the press backed the Junta with false stories and propaganda to excuse their actions (before an independent, radical press played a key role in the resistance).

The road from the border

Inexcusable and no wonder my profession struggles with its reputation.

But also a signal to the dangers of certain powerful figures decrying anything they do not like in the media as fake news. Asking the awkward question is journalism, anything else is just PR and propaganda (to misquote Orwell).

And the tale of the opposition to the regime and fight to find out what happened to the disappeared echoes throughout the protests we have seen close up – no wonder people feel so strongly about the power of public opinion and their right to express it.

We can only hope they do not have to come close to the depths of those dark years before finding resolutions which will enable this city to get back on its feet.

The trouble has spread throughout the country, but there was little sign on the road to Santiago – which we were still unsure about taking a few days ago – which took us from Mendoza across a high pass through the Chilean border via a spectacular road down a ribbon of hairpin bends.

Soccer Dog

Sort of a South American Alpe d’Huez.

Our three days camping in Mendoza, reached by a bush camp which saw our team win the truck quiz, was fairly relaxed with a fair amount of wine and steak – normal service was resumed – both around the campsite with a footballing Labrador and on a day in town which started as a tasting and ended with rather more than a taste.

And we got clean – both us, our clothes after a couple of weeks without laundry that left several of us rationing underwear and Spongebob, a group effort taking apart and tackling every part of the truck.

All to head into the issues of Santiago from where we head off to the relative peace of the countryside.

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