rob mug shot

Chapter 5

Jungle of death & General Pinochet

Fri, 04 Jul 2003

Dear Friend of Rob,

OK, Here's the second bit. Sorry about keeping you in suspence regarding the ex-dictator, the international crime and the day I almost died. That was meant to be a integral part 2 of my last email but circumstances intervened - and as it was it probably would have been too long even by my standards. I wrote the last bit from the VIP lounge at Punto Areņas airport, fresh from my brush with the General and that's where I'm hoping to get up to with this missive. Right! Chocks away!

The temptation to return to Guernsey for some R & R after being ill in BA was strong but I'm not going to start with an aviating tale. You may rememeber that I was at that hostel in Buenos Aires, the place where everybody knows your name - but you don't necessarily know theirs. From there I got my worst bus ride so far (30 nasty hours) to Argentina's favorite mountain resort. On the way I was over-awed by those open spaces people always go on about in the mid-west of America or, in this case, the Pampas. I lost count of the cows and I think they deserve a thought for surviving in that flat eternity - it's enough to make anyone shiver with insignificance!

Apart from the space and the cows, the journey was enlivened by one tragi-comic incident. The bus I took was crap (which to a large degree accounts for the journey lasting 30 hours) and at one point, around midnight, we were forced to wait for an hour and a half at a small town called Bahia Blanca while the bus was taken away for running repairs (which incidentally didn't work! We broke down 2 hours later in the middle of nowhere!) During that time, in between nipping around the corner for a stimulating toot on the pipe or just walking up and down trying to keep warm, at the stand next to the vacant one where our bus should have been, I witnessed a heart-rending scene. The cast list was as follows:

After many tearful embraces and kisses with all parties waving and blowing kisses, the departing woman's bus pulled out ... and stopped on the far side of the station. For a while the emotional momentum carried them on - waving and tearful for a solid 10 minutes - but it couldn't last and after 20 minutes the tears had dried and the waving stopped. The remaining woman stood, arms crossed, still looking in the right direction but arms crossed and shifting from foot to foot and probably regretting having not turning around as soon as the bus pulled back; the children were now bored and ready for bed. The stand off lasted for a good 30 minutes until finally the bus mustered the determination to head out into the cold night and the episode could be concluded with somewhat rekindled fondness, renewed waving, a last kiss blown and a relieved departure from the bus station purgatory by all parties.

I arrived the next day. Bariloche is a lovely town with a big Swiss influence - both architecture and chocolate-wise. "Aaah!," I thought, "nothing bad can happen here!" - though, as things transpired, I was mistaken. The first thing that went wrong was the chocolate. Now I'm not Swiss chocolate's biggest fan - call me a philistine if you will but, on an on-going basis, I prefer the variety provided by Mssrs Rowntree & Mars of good old blighty; you don't get biscuit Boosts or the magnificent Crunchie in the cantons! But I don't mind Swiss chocolate - quite nice now and then - but the stuff you get in Bariloche suffers, like the rest of the world's warm-climate chocolate from the addition of some chemical tasting stuff to stop it from melting too easily (or at all!) Melt-in-the-mouth-ability is one of the key things I value in a good chocolate and is something which we take for granted in our cool-climate stuff, but it's something which the poor (sub)-tropics inhabitant might never enjoy - or even miss!

Anyway, all this focus on Argentina's disappointing chocolate is getting a bit out of proportion. Bariloche is an A1 destination for mountain holidays. A beautiful lake, bracing mountain air, a world-class ski resort nearby, alpine flora, correspondingly breath-taking walks (to which I'll return in a minute) and all suffused with the continuingly delicious Italian influenced Argentine food experience. The resort, called Cerro Cathedral, I was informed by the 3rd season Swiss ski-instructor I met in the hostel is as good as any Alp or Rockie. No-one goes off-piste, apparently, so if you've got a penchant for powder, capacious enough trousers, a PEEPS avalanche-buried-buddy-detector and a shovel, it's a blank sheet every day.

But to get back to the walk and the almost dying, I was proceding in a northerly direction along the public footpath towards Cerro Lloa-Lloa as recommended by my hostel's resident Japanese hippy/guru. Everything went well until I came, through stunning lakeside scenery to the top of the hill. I enjoyed the view for a while sitting atop a vertiginous slab of rock plunging into the fecund jungle some undefined distance below before checking my map to find that my guru had drawn a continuous line from the top of the hill to rejoin some short way down below. It was, therefore, with some confidence that, a few minutes later, I passed a sign saying "Regresso de donde vino!" meaning "No footpath - go back the way you came" - or more fundamentally "Oi, you, the gringo with the hand-drawn map and the baggy shorts - turn around now!" Well it was a steep scramble down the hillside but after that came the tricky bit. The climb down had been do-able but definitely a real drag as a prospective upward journey, so the obvious way was to go through the forest/jungle. "Not far to the road," I assured myself. When I finally did find the road, some considerable time later and somewhat exhausted and bedraggled, it had felt like a very long way indeed.

I don't know if you've ever been in a bamboo forest but I can tell you that they're a right bugger! You know in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and that kind of thing, they're always hacking their way through the tortuous jungle with machetes, well they're not just doing it for show! The bamboos don't just stand considerately like a post-war bowler-hatted London bus queue all straight and evenly spaced. They're more like a post-club lager and alco-pops afflicted, corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street bus queue - all clumped and higgeldy-piggeldy, vertical, horizontal or diagonal and in various stages of decay. I'm not advocating the same for use at the No 253 bus stop, but you really NEED a machete - and a compass! If you have neither, you find yourself crawling, climbing and scrambling about in a kind of jungle-Brownian motion, with the local topography as one's only navigational aid, one's sight being blocked by the density of the forest. It's a real jungle-gym work-out, I can tell you, with great crops of bamboo to push aside, climb on and jump over (taking care not to become impaled) or duck beneath. It seems quite funny in retrospect but I can sincerely say that I wouldn't care to get lost in a real, big bamboo forest. An hour was enough for me before I was considering the prospect of being lost in there permanently - a full day would be enough to overcome the fittest, I would say!

"Well, onwards!", I thought, deciding not to let a few sticks get the better of me, after emptying the accumlated jungle humus out of my boots and relishing some happily relieved bamboo-free relaxation back on the path - this time willing to obey and "regresso de donde vino" strictly and to the letter.

So on I went, planning to enjoy the remainder of the day meandering along the scenic paths further prescribed by the guru, thinking perhaps that he had realised I needed a challenge of some kind. After perhaps an hour or so on the road, however, I was getting a little tired of the tarmac and when I saw a lake-side diversion, it didn't take much deliberation to tempt me down there... this time there was no mis-guiding guru to blame!

Before long I was sauntering through lake-side meadows admiring the rippled mountains reflected in the corrugated mirror of Lago Escondido.

Several points and inlets later, though, I was troubled to find that each headland fell more precipitously than the last into the water. However, it was clear that the admitedly rather inconsistent "path" I was following was rounding the peninsular to rendez-vous with the road bridge I could see on my guru-map and for which I was aiming - and the way back was getting longer and the prospect more tedious and yellow-bellied with every step. The second-to-last headland was steep and a little tricky, necessitating the employment of some rock-traversal techniques, modulated somewhat to accound for the walking boots I was wearing. I was therefore not happy to see that, contrary to my hopes, it was not the last headland and that another, bigger and steeper one had hoved into view.

Well, this one wasn't any easier than the last and the techniques employed had to stretch to encompass: rock traversal, not looking down, clinging on to any bit of handy foliage and positive thinking - regarding the distance to, temperature of and depth of the water, the weight of my bag and the ease with which I would be able to get out of it if I fell in fully clothed and wearing boots. As you can tell from my presence in this internet cafe, I made it, but I felt a pang of sorry for the poor Italian woman who saw me emerge looking even more bedraggled as if from nowhere around a seemingly inaccessible bluff and who, judging by her scream and retreat through the undergrowth into the arms of nearby boyfriend, could sense that my grasp on life had been recently and severely challenged.

Apart from those incidents, the rest of the day went fine. I rounded it off with a quick 12km march and half hour wait in the plummeting temperatures of the "main-road" in "Colonia Suisse", fortified by a quick call to civilisation to confirm my continued existence to T at home from the lonely and oddly incongruous phone-box opposite the "Swiss Cafe" which 10 minutes after relieving me of my tea and cake money hospitably kicked me out into the cold and gathering darkness to await my fate.

It turned out OK; the bus came eventually to retrieve me from the Swiss Colony and the rest of my stay in Bariloche was comparatively uneventful apart from a death-defying cycle ride - after the rocky, precipitous and thoroughly enjoyable mountain bike trails around Cerro Cathedral - on the truck and double-decker coach infested road back to town through the darker, poorer underbelly of Bariloche.

So, on to the international criminal activity. It's to do with smuggling. Chile had obviously learnt a lot from Old Maggie's mate, Pinochet. It's the most formal (or dare I say up-tight) country I have visited so far. On the bus from Bariloche to Perto Montt, they put a dog on the bus to sniff out drugs, ne'er-do-wells and ... illicit food and vegetables! I was guilty on the majority of counts! Amongst other substances, I was carrying: 1 banana (slightly rotten), a bag of peanuts & two(!!) tuna & mayonaise sandwiches. Everything got scanned and sniffed and I got away with it! I fought the law and the law lost! Haaa haaa! Up yours Generalissimo!

I only had a week in Chile before T was due to arrive so there wasn't much time for gloating - I moved on swiftly to Puerto Montt from where the Navimag boat was due to depart the next day and ply its spectacular way down to Puerto Natales. Chile is the world's tallest, skinniest country; it's 4300km long but only 350km across at its widest point and it's divided into 12 rather arbitrary administrative zones rather unimaginatively numbered from north to south. The boat goes south from the lush Cheshire-esque Region X to the Patagonian wilds of Region XII and takes about three days. Aaah! Time to catch up with all the diary writing, guitar strumming, reading and playing cards which had featured so prominently in my anticipation of my trip - and all of it punctuated by spectacular mountain, maritime and fjord scenery. The only worry in prospect was the season. Most popular at the height of summer, the passage cost less than half price now but I had been informed that sometimes the boat doesn't run because of sea conditions, especially in the notorious "Golfo de Penas" (The Gulf of Sorrows)!

I spend a night in a dirty, depressing hostel (which added insult to injury by charging one third (!!!) the price for Israelis!) but I had a spring in my step as I went to check in at the Navimag Terminal - I like a nice boat journey! And, apologies to those who prefer a story's protagonist to suffer (one Daniel Bennett springs to mind), that's exactly what it turned out to be - a very enjoyable, responsibility free journey with plain sailing, not bad food, good company, pertinent documentaries and good films available for viewing and plenty of time to relax in the cabin for four which I had to myself, whilst the wilds of southern Chile were brought to us for our viewing pleasure. If this is what going on a cruise is like, I could almost see myself becoming an addict!

It was relaxing not to have to make and decisions more difficult that whether to watch "The Matrix" or "Casablanca" first and it was with some reluctance that I packed my bag after the shocked realisation that we were about to dock on the morning after the third night on board.

Oh, and the scenery was nice too... if a little lacking in sunshine and visibility sometimes and it was interesting to stop in the harbour of Puerto Eden which must be one of the most isolated settlements in an area famous for its isolated settlements, linked to the world only by a twice weekly boat. What DO people do in these places? Perhaps I should have stayed and found out. I didn't - but I did feel the urge for some adventure one night.

It was the last night on the boat and, after everyone else had gone to bed and under the influence of various things I was struck by a Jim Morrisson-esque urge to do something thrilling and stupid and experience life to the full. So it was the work of a moment to crawl through the safety guard and climb to the top of the 25 foot mast on the top deck and turn my face to the battering wind coming from somewhere near the South Pole and stare into the void of the featureless night - for enough time to feel that I had experienced life sufficiently for the time being and that what I wanted to experience now was getting into a nice cozy berth in a nice warm cabin. Good night Jimbo!

Arriving in Puerto Natales was like coming back to the real world - reckon I should be a sea capt'n or some'in, me hearties! But it was a nice place to end up - nearby there is a giant sloth in a cave (well a model of one) and the spectacular Torres del Paine national park. Beautiful and amazing! I visited the next day and using a technique learnt from Yves, I petitioned Mother Nature for a break in the clouds to see the famous peaks - and was rewarded.

The day after that it was on to Punto Areņas and the VIP lounge in the airport. It was on the way that I met General Pinochet. I had a nice double seat to myself for half the journey but then I was joined by a corpulent old fellow with a rather dapper suit and a military mustache who looked so like the media images that I maintain it was The General himself. He didn't look too unwell, sadly, just a bit decrepit; his portly frame took up two thirds of the double seat and he fell asleep in my general direction, doing nothing to endear the old despot to me.

So after meeting Augusto and writing my last missive, I got on the impressive LAN Chile flight to Santiago (Region VII) and later checked into smart but bargain hotel, full of beans about meeting T the next day...

See you there next time.