Roads have a huge conservation footprint. Their construction requires large quantities of stone that must be quarried and the clearance of large areas of habitat. Once built the vehicles that use the roads are responsible for direct mortality of wildlife in the form of road kill, produce significant carbon dioxide emissions and degrade the quality of surrounding habitat through noise and fresh water pollution. Roads fragment habitats and limit species movements, they also create easier access for people to vulnerable species and habitats which can lead to over exploitation. That said I loved the Carretera Austral. This part tarmac road gave me access to some of the most stunning environments and communities I have ever encountered and allowed me to experience remarkable human endeavour and kindness. Built under the orders of dictator Augusto Pinochet in order to encourage settlement of Chiles' remote southern districts this 1250 Km long slice of human presence services only around 100,000 people in what is otherwise exquisite wilderness. Home to glaciers, mighty snow capped peaks and the Rio Baker, the longest river in Chile this is a land shaped by water and home to some spectacular rainfall averages with some area receiving an average of over 5000mm of rainfall per year! I must of been wearing my lucky underwear because I only saw one day of rain in several weeks and had blue skies almost every day.
The good ship Amadeo I
My trip down the Carretera Austral began by boat. The upper part of the road had been closed due to a volcanic eruption and I had heard whispers about a spectacular ferry journey from Peurto Montt to Peurto Aisen. The rumours turned out to be true indeed. Before we even set off I saw my first ever penguin fishing in the harbour as the evening light cast a pink halo of cloud around the inshore mountains. Leaving after the sun had set I stayed on deck long after others had retreated from the cold and the howling wind. I turned up the volume on my cheep MP3 player and felt like a true explorer of old as the prophetic "Go your own way" by Fleetwood Mac blasted into my ears. Sure my foot wasn't braced against the bow but the salt spray blown by the bracing wind ripping across the southern ocean and knowledge that I knew next to nothing about the place I would wake up in filled me with a great sense of exploration. As we cut through the inky water in the moonlight four blazing trails of white appeared in the water and made a beeline for our bow. My mind, clearly grasping wildly at explanations, put forward the idea that some suicidal jet-skiers had chosen this as a somewhat elaborate way to meet their maker. As I searched the water for a more likely explanations I saw three more white tracks break off from lighter patches of the ocean and once again head directly for our bow. The realisation that these were small Cetaceans, probably Peale's dolphin (Lagenorhynchus australis) breaking off from the important business of feeding on fish shoals (the light coloured patches of ocean) in order to frolic in the frivolous activity of riding in our bow wave filled me with great joy. This journey into the unknown had got off to an amazing start and, had there been anyone else above deck in the now brutal wind they would have seen me wrapped up in almost every item of clothing I owned dancing around beneath the stars like a lunatic as more and more dolphins joined our caravan heading south. The next day saw me basking in glorious sunshine whilst watching an endless parade of albatross, sea-lions, volcanoes and uninhabited island passed our bows. The sight of our large boat squeezing between two tiny islands out of the thousands that littered the sea as far as the eye could see in all directions is one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Land, sea and air
The Carretera Austral
Its hard to become the best in the world at something, it takes the determination to train and the dedication and ruthlessness to fight off all the other aspiring candidates until you and you alone stand atop the heap of your defeated rivals. That said my time in South America was strongly hinting that I should give up scientific research and photography and base my future career around my seemingly instinctive gifts that were making me the worlds undisputed No. 1 hitch-hiker. Hitch-hiking can be the best or the worst way in the world to travel. At the extreme end of the spectrum you have the horror stories that put most of us off sticking out our thumb. At the comparatively minor end of the negative spectrum is the thought of getting stuck in the cramped front of a car with someone who turns out to be fanatical about their toothbrush collection, suffer from spectacular halitosis or worst of all is a proud UKIP voter. On the milder end of the positive side there's the chance to meet nice honest and descent people who are prepared to take a moment out of their day to help you down the road of life. They'll help you get from A to B and you might even make a friend for life in the process. At the spectacular end of the scale there's the chance to ride in the back of pick-up trucks. The back of a pickup truck is one of the best places in the world you can find yourself. With an openness to the landscape it gives you an unrivalled opportunity to study the world you're passing and to do so with more of your senses that just your eyes. In the back of a pick-up you can feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair, you can smell the changing vegetation as you bounce around the landscape and if your not quick enough at ducking out the way you might get to touch the odd branch as it give your face a little more character than you started off with. Riding in the back of a pickup truck feels dangerous even when it isn't; it gives you an adrenalin boost and lets you see and photograph the world you're travelling through in a way that just not possible from inside a car. In a single day of hitch-hiking down the Carretera Austral I got rides in the back of three pickups, wove through scenery that made the Lord of the Rings look like it was filmed in Belgium and was given lunch by both lifts number 2 AND 3! Considering the remoteness of the area I hitched through this might be my single greatest achievement. Between lifts two and three I spoke briefly to a couple of French travellers sat by the side of the road. They were heading North and had been waiting two days for a ride. I walked a hundred meters down the road, wiped the dust from my thumb and five minutes later was nestled amongst some nice soft bags and tucking into lunch number two as one of the most beautiful mountains I've ever seen receded into the distance. I can still picture the jagged peak in the warm evening light with the faces of two bitter Frenchmen just viable through our plume of dust.
Muerto Burque: The greatest way to travel
The morning after my greatest day on the road I was brought back to the ground with a bang. Out once more by the side of the road and trying to teach myself to juggle with rocks as I waited (painful) I saw the father of the family who had given me the third lift running towards me and shouting "terremoto". I had no idea what he might be shouting about but followed him into the farmers house where his family had spent the night and in whose garden I had camped. The battery powered TV quickly cleared up any confusion. Chile had been rocked by a massive earthquake. details seemed sketchy and I was getting even fewer from the rapid Spanish coming out of the TVs speakers. The father of the family tried to translate some details however the images on the screen largely spoke for themselves. I'd learn later that the earthquake had weighed in at a terrifying 8.8 on the moment magnitude scale making it the sixth largest earthquake ever recorded by seismographic equipment. It took over 500 lives and cost the country in the region of 20 billion dollars. Being over 1500km from the epicentre I'd noticed nothing as I slept. Clearly a large proportion of the Chilean population had not been so lucky. It appeared as if the town of Concepción had been amongst the worst hit. I knew only a little about the family who had been so kind to me yesterday. I knew that the father was taking his family down the Carretera Austral so that they too could see the magical scenery. He himself had travelled the approximate route of the road on hose back before a road of any type existed. I also knew that he was passionate about the preservation of Chiles wilderness and made his money by owning a pharmacy (or possibly a chain of pharmacies) in the town where he lived, Concepción. The father told me that he had been unable to contact most of his close friends and family and that he expected the telephone lines would not be back up for several days. I expected him and his wife to throw bags and children into the car and head north as fast as the road would allow. It was, after all, at least a 24 hour drive to anywhere where he might be able to charter a small plane. To drive the whole way would have taken much longer still, maybe another 36 hours. Instead of the predictable he asked me if my parents knew where I was. The honest answer was that they didn't. They knew I was in Chile and they knew that at some point this month I was planning to head south. This was when the man and his family made the most selfless gesture I have ever experienced. They loaded up the car, pointed it South and told me they would drive me to a town from where I could take a bus and maybe make a phone call. I protested and told the family that they must head north. The father responded by saying that their current position made them effectively helpless in terms of their business, home, friends and family, by the time communication was restored they would still probably be a day away. He said that in a few hours my parents would see the images on the evening news and that one thing they could do to help would be to stop them worrying about whether I was OK or not. This selfishness touched me very deeply and even writing about this years later it makes my skin tingle. A few hours later we arrived in a tiny town just in time for the father to power slide his truck in front of the daily bus to stop it departing, send the text message home I'd written on his phone and bundle me onto the bus after a big hug from mum, dad and each of the kids. Loaded onto the bus and about to depart to who-knew where the bus driver once again had to slam on the brakes. This time because the little girl of the family was being ushered onto the bus to give me a bag of food so that I wouldn't go hungry on the journey.
Mouth of the Rio Baker
48 hours later and still reeling slightly from the earthquake and massively from the kindness of the family who treated me as if I was their own flesh and blood I stumbled into the town of Caleta Tortel. It was the only town I knew the name off in the far southern section of the Carretera Austral and so the one I headed for in order to call home and reassure friends that I was OK. Little did I know that I was about to stumble into a fairy tale world which left my jaw on the floor for the four days I would spend there. Located at the mouth of the Rio Baker, Tortel was founded as a settlement for those processing cypress trees floated down the river. Built around a headland and over marshy groud the residents of Tortel do without streets in the conventional sense and each house is connected by a series of wooden walkways raised as much as 3 metres above the ground. The wooden houses themselves are also raised on stilts. The town was described to me by a Chilean friend as being like the Ewok village from Star Wars. It's not a bad description but comes a long way from doing Tortel the justice it deserves. the walkways are community managed and a rota for repair work is found outside the town hall. Their narrow width makes it impossible to pass by on the other side of the street, you find yourself stopping and saying hello and exchanging news with every resident on an almost daily basis. Even the cats and dogs have territories mapped out I a unique way. Add the remarkable scenery of Fjords, islands, mountains and the proximity of the Southern and Northern ice sheets and you have a truly unique village. Throw in enough emerald coloured dragonflies and hummingbirds to cover the southern beach trees and you do indeed feel as if you are in a galaxy far far away. I trod the board walks in Tortel for four days in something of a daze. The fact I had sunshine for three of those days and remained oblivious to the Tsunami risk whilst camped on the shore were both blessings that helped me to enjoy this wonderland but I honestly can't think of a set of scenarios in which you could arrive in this beautiful place and fail to be transported in a state of bliss to way of life that operates on a completely different set of rules. I managed to phone home from the only phone in Tortel and the remoteness of my location was driven home to me when the operator had to dial a code to connect me to Chile before I could dial the UK. Tortels remoteness by land will always help protect it from mass tourism but I've heard that the number of visiting boats is increasing rapidly. How this isolated jewel manages the increasing number of travellers wanting to come and gaze in awe at its marvels will define its future in the same way that its remoteness has defined its past.
On my last day in Tortel I reviewed the calculations I'd made a few weeks before. I now only had two days until my 90 day visa would expire and I was a LONG way from any border crossing. The majority of the few travellers I'd met along the way were turning around at Peurto Eden and heading back north. In fact there was only one group who I met that were following the same route that I had planned and these were long distance cyclists. for those aiming to cycle the length of Chile or even further the Caratera Austral, particularly its latter stages, represent the last major challenge before a comparatively smooth run down to Ushuaia. The greatest challenge of the Caratera Austral comes on its final day. The day of the border crossing into Argentina and back into civilisation. I arrived in Villa O'Higgins on the weekly bus from Tortel. The journey was, above everything else DUSTY. skirting the Southern Patagonian Ice Sheet we passed forests in which I longed to hike and along the flank of an endless series of unclimbed peaks. Finally we crossed two large lakes on ferries that ran daily during summer and then weekly until closing completely in winter. We were travelling on the last daily ferry of the season and the south of Chile already had a feel that it was bracing itself for a long winter. We arrived in Tortel and I was covered from head to toe in pale grey dust and was greeted at the only hostel in the village by a Catalan man who was just a ball of energy. He looked at my dishevelled and dust laden appearance and said "dont worry señor, we have a device for this very problem" and them scrubbed me vigorously from head to toe with a household broom. I hit the carbs that night in anticipation of the next days border crossing. At 6am myself and 5 long distance cyclists were stuffed into the dust wagon and driven the last km to the true end of the Caratera Austral. Here a final ferry was waiting to take us on the two hour journey across the lake and past epic glacial fronts. Small icebergs, formerly part of the southern ice sheet, littered the lake and its shores and at one surreal moment the ferry stopped and a man, I can only assume a local, hopped into a rubber dingy we had been towing, rowed himself the 20 metres to shore, dragged the boat onto the beach and then dispersed into the woods. It was the end of the season, this was the LAST boat, where was he going what was driving him to set off towards one of the largest ice caps outside of the polar regions wearing just a woolly jumper? The cyclists and I discussed the bizarre event and then the 12 hours ahead of us. For one of us the day would be rigorous yet enjoyable. For the remaining 5 it would be torture. As the ferry docked they cycled and I hiked up to the Chilean border control hut that was improbably perched with spectacular views over the lake. Waving goodbye the cyclists powered off along a wide track, I didn't envy them. I knew that soon enough I would pass them all. The immigration official stamped my passport and noted that today was the day my visa expired he then took me outside, pointed to a mountain and said "the Argentinian immigration is 18km in that direction". The weather was perfect for hiking and I ate up the first 10km. Then the wide track stopped and became a foot path. Here I found two bicycle without their panniers and a km further down the track I found the couple who owned them coming back along the road to collect them. The narrowness of this track had been the focal point of the cyclists conversation since I arrived in Villa O'higgins. Apparently the best way to tackle it was to take off your panniers, walk 3 km and drop them, walk 3km back for your bikes then walk with your bike (peddles having been taken off) to where you dropped the panniers. drop the bikes and take the panniers on for another 3km, this patten had to be repeated three times before the heavily forested mountain could be crossed. Each of the cyclists I passed seemed to be experiencing a trial of both strength and patience as I apologetically overtook them and headed for what tuned out to be Nirvana. For the second half of the crossing of no-mans-land I had been guided by a spectacular beacon, Cerro Torres. This dramatic mountain peak grew as the day progressed and by early afternoon I found myself on an expanse of lush soft grass that ran down to the lakes edge. The Argentinian immigration post was to one side and featured a note on the door asking those wanting to enter or leave Argentina to please pop back later. I pitched my tent and went fishing but didn't catch anything and didn't really care. The five cyclists arrived over the next 4 hours looking knackered but triumphant. First to arrive was a Canadian couple who had started their epic journey in Cusco, Peru. Then came a lone and slightly bonkers German who had begun even further north in Ecuador and finally an American couple who after retiring from their jobs as teachers had peddled out of their drive in Montana and weren't planning on getting off the bikes until they had reached Ushuaia, crossed the ocean by boat to Cape Town and then cycled the length of Africa and arrived ultimately in Paris! As the exhausted cyclists were coaxed back to life with pasta and wine that had been bought at great expense in O'higgins we settled around a camp fire to exchange stories and plans and in some cases to show off the scars we'd picked up along the way.
Cerro Torre viewed from between Chile and Argentina
I neither planned to nor set a 4.30am alarm yet my watch went off anyway. As I peaked out of the tent window I saw the best sunrise of my life. The cyclists (who my alarm had also woken) and I sat around in a huddle with cups of hot chocolate and watched dawn rise over Cerro Torre. It was the perfect end to an amazing road trip and left us on a high. Our spirits were also raised by the thought that it was only another 1 hour ferry journey and then 2 hour bus journey/cycle into a town with a cash point, beer and pizza. It was the closest any off us had been to modern living for weeks and we all felt a rush of joy at the thought of a hot shower but it was a joy that was tempered by the knowledge that each one of us would spend the rest of our lives missing this wilderness. Once touched by such awesome isolation and majestic wilderness it never, ever leaves you.