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

In Patagonia

Protest on the streets of Pucon

MY A-Level English reading list featured a lot of the usual suspects – Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and some Philip Larkin poetry we perhaps did not take as seriously as we should have done.

Somehow managed to cobble together a decent grade without reading all the books in full – could not begin to tell you anything about Lawrence’s The Lost Girl – but one more modern addition to the list had me hooked.

Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, the tale of twins spending their entire lives together on a Welsh hill farm through much of the 20th century, was devoured and pretty much guaranteed to be my choice of essay come exam time (although had some pretty exhaustive answers worked out for Hamlet and Passage to India which suited most questions).

And while ignoring the stuff which would have come in handy to pass exams, went searching out more of Chatwin’s work.

Don’t try this at home kids

Which took me to his travel book In Patagonia.

Sorry to say, remember very little about it except its unusual structure – a series of sections, some just a single paragraph – and could not find my copy when moving out of my flat before this trip.

But it did plant Patagonia in my head as a place that needed visiting.

And having spent most of the last fortnight heading south through its amazing landscape spanning the Chilean and Argentinian borders which we have been criss-crossing, it begs the question of how it took me so long to get here.

It is increasingly remote (averaging two people per square kilometre across the southern extremes of the continent) and wild as we have battled bouts of torrential rain and cold, but it is spectacularly beautiful.

The sheer distances involved have meant some long drive days, often on some less than user-friendly roads which at least have served to shake us awake to savour the extraordinary scenery passing by the truck windows.

Every corner seems to open up another remarkable view of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, lakes and rivers while the most recent border crossing carried us back into Argentina and an instant change to an arid, rocky desert landscape. 

The dominating feature looms over Pucon. And an interloper

At least it was dry.

Well, it was arid right up until we stumbled across another vivid blue lake, complete with icebergs – the source of which is next on our places to visit – and we found ourselves face to face with more towering mountains above the town of El Chalten which has seen us exploring its trails, bars and waffle houses.

But that’s what’s happening now. What have we been up to since dodging the anti-government protests in Santiago?

Eyes cleared from tear gas and opened to the extent of unrest which has left huge scars on the Chilean capital – and would continue to pop up as we retreated to the countryside – we got out of town early in the morning, the truck rather fuller with the arrival of five new inhabitants.

Their first experience of truck life was one of the longest drive days to date, albeit on some of the smoothest roads as we headed to the lakeside town of Pucon.

Anyone not paying attention could easily have awoken from a nap to think we had emerged in Switzerland, courtesy of the alpine scenery and the type of tidy little town you would expect to find in ski resorts. Sort of a smaller version of Banff in Canada.

The one thing you could not miss – bar the ice cream parlours and cake shops lining the main street as it swept away from the lake near our campsite – was the snow-capped volcano looming over us which meant various photo stops for anyone out hunting for that night’s dinner.

Cheese, wine and steak – the South American diet

A group of us got as far as the supermarket, loading up on wine, cheese and probably a bit too much meat – we ended up finishing it for breakfast – for an impromptu barbecue back at camp.

The onset of the cold which had been threatening for a few days prevented me from spending the next morning throwing myself down rapids on a body board and an evening hot springs visit, but was not enough to stop a trip into town which yielded cake, hot chocolate, ice cream and a pair of Homer Simpson Havaianas which just refused to stay on the shelf.

The cold did not stop me joining the hike up the volcano the next morning. A decision based on common sense ruled that one out, although those who made the journey and slid back down through the snow came back glowing. 

Literally in many cases, courtesy of a few missed patches with the sun screen.

Not that it looked like the sun was going to be a problem from our perspective back in town with the entire volcano blanketed in cloud and invisible from down below.

On a clear day…

Right up until we wandered into a coffee shop, came out again half an hour later and it was bathed in clear blue sky.

Not that we were looking too closely, our attention taken by what was going on at ground level as the protests which had been such a key part of our Santiago stay crossed our path again.

This one was on a slightly different level.

The march of maybe 900-1,000 people through the main street, stopping outside the municipal offices for 10 minutes before heading off on its merry way, was more akin to a carnival than the running battles of the capital.

There was little shouting or signs of trouble – police either applauded or videoed, filming me at one point, but kept their distance as the crowd kept up a relentless, catchy beat on whatever they could find to hit.

It made for an interesting way to while away some time following the crowds.

They have a series of demands but the uniting call seems to be Dignidad Para Todos – Dignity For All. Which seems a fair request.

They were back in the evening, blocking the junction with the main road near camp. We wandered up and into the crowds for a closer look as they let cars through if the driver got out and danced for them.

And who can fail to appreciate that as a way of solving unrest?

Especially in countryside this beautiful.

The evening shift takes over the protest


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.


Bed, Bugs and Ballyhoo

What happens when Gaucho Day coincides with Halloween – and there’s a onesie market round the corner from the campsite

BEDTIME as an overlander can rely on many things.

The prospect of an early start the next day – and breakfast later than 7.30am would be classed as something of a lie-in – is likely to curtail a few late nights. Not all, especially with the chance to catch up on sleep on a drive day.

Nights out or access to bars when staying in hotels or hostels – a rarity over the last week or so before reaching Santiago, which came with its own dramas – will have an obvious impact on what time people roll in to bed.

While camping, conditions and access to alcohol (usually red and straight from the bottle since stocking up in Argentina, to the extent the truck has a distinct clink when it goes round corners) will dictate evening behaviour.

The world’s largest empty swimming pool

At bush camps people tend to head for their tents early, bar those who opt for one more bottle before bed. And then maybe another one.

But for two successive nights under canvas, the decision on what time to head to bed was rather taken for us by the local, buzzy wildlife and the weather.

Hiding under canvas was not always enough for some of us.

Let’s roll backwards a bit first, something we needed to get Spongebob to do after a night listing in a dried river bed.

But freed from our Bolivian shackles and, eventually, through the first of several crossings of the Argentinian border (we bounce in and out of Chile in the next few weeks) we crossed into the fourth country on the trip and an almost instant increase in temperature.

And an increase in the consumption of red wine, starting with our night in the quaint hillside town of Purmamarca which we sort of explored in between trips to the off licence, empanada stall and town square to use the free WiFi.

Our cook group had rather more things to buy as we reached the town of Salta ahead of three nights camping alongside the most enormous swimming pool, easily bigger than two football pitches but sadly devoid of water.

Argentinian steak – the start of a great love affair

Somehow, had managed to only cook once up to this point and managed to forget how long it can take to make a white sauce while camping after suggesting it as the best way to make a macaroni cheese.

Arm muscles given a work out, the evening’s choice of activities was watching The Goonies on the side of the truck or downing a few more bottles of red. While getting chewed by the local insects.

The start of two recurring themes.

With the temperature rising, sitting by even an empty pool seemed a good idea the next day so while others headed off into Salta, several of us hung around camp, sorted our stuff out and fell into a long game of Monopoly Deal (the board game, just played with cards which became a truck obsession) and some suitable refreshment.

Breaking only for some shopping for Halloween onesies before heading out for an evening with the third recurring Argentinian theme, great slabs of steak cooked to perfection and washed down with a nice soft drink.

Or a nice bottle of red, you choose.

Very few pictures, we were too busy eating.

We went even more Argentinian the next day, heading out with gauchos for a spot of horse riding – well, some did, no poor animal deserves that fate with me.

Reunited, we tucked into the piles of barbecued meat and wine which flowed onto the table, all while dressed in a variety of bizarre onesies and Halloween costumes.

Still to work out whether mine is a moose or a reindeer, but it is likely to come in very handy when it gets cold further south and is already doing sterling service as a tent pillow.

After a few days of gluttony and relative inactivity, it was time for some action to work off some of that steak and we headed a few hours down the road for an afternoon rafting.

Not the toughest river – harder challenges lie ahead for those who want it – but a fun afternoon which involved more splashing the other boat than serious threat from the churning water.

But our visit to Salta Rafting will be remembered not for the challenges on the river but those buzzing around the campsite, especially as dusk and dinner approached.

This was after it had started to go down

Regardless of the temperature, we dug out hoodies, long trousers and socks to keep out the nasty, still unidentified little buggers.

Should really have gone for gloves as well before diving into the protection of the tent immediately after dinner and refusing to come out – even with the offer of a couple of bottles of wine in an adjoining tent – until nature dictated.

With just my hands exposed, the right one took the brunt with a string of pin prick bite marks – 26 at one count on the back of it – which as the race to get out of there the next morning intensified, began to bubble up into something rather bigger.

As did my hand.

By the time we had rolled into our next stop in Cafayate via some spectacular scenery, it had swollen up considerably and could not form a fist so rather than head into town, spent much of the afternoon crashed out on the truck – partly the effects of some tablets, mainly the impact of feeling rather sorry for myself and fearing another onset of the cellulitis which dogged my Trans Africa trip.

Beware swinging doors

But snoozing was cut short by the heavens opening – supposedly for the first time in nine months in this part of the world – to apocalyptic proportions, turning the campsite and much of the town into a lake.

Not the best time for two of us to spend half an hour waiting at the entrance for a taxi to hospital – one to check on the results from a scan following a coming together between head and truck door, the other convinced cellulitis had returned.

Thankfully, seems we both got lucky.

No idea if it was cellulitis, but one quick injection later and was dispatched back to the campsite to wait on the truck for a brief cessation in the downpour to make a break for the tent and a night listening to the rain and thunder which drowned out the music in my headphones.

We bought a few of these

By morning, the rain had stopped, the tents were still dry – bar the person who opened his to check on the surrounding water while facing uphill and let the torrent in, but he was concussed – and my hand was on its way down to the point where it could grip normally.

Which was handy, considering how much gripping of wine glasses it did throughout the day as we headed out on a tour of a the local wineries.

Well, we toured a couple of them, grabbed lunch which consisted of huge piles of empanadas and then headed back to one of the wineries to check our original assessments of the wine in their rather nice courtyard.

We were still assessing and discussing, rather loudly and passionately at one point evidently, until well into the evening with a takeout order which somehow came accompanied home by the winery’s dog.

She just had a better idea of when to go to bed than the rest of us.


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