The International Writers Magazine:The Road to Patagonia
Patagonia – The Road to Insanity
'It'll be great', I raved, as we sat around the dinner table in Buenos Aires. 'We'll see mountains, lakes – maybe even a glacier' I was on a roll now. Simon's eyes glistened with interest. Natasha eyed me suspiciously – but nevertheless, laptops were opened and credit cards brandished with the kind of bravado that comes after several bottles of fine Argentine Malbec.
Our options were simple. A flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, would take four hours. A bus trip would take forty-eight. One promised a swift, uneventful passage - the other - likely boredom, possible rectal damage, and potential insanity – but also, a great adventure. A visit to Patagonia had been a burning ambition for a long as I could remember. It was now time.
We had been together in South America for nearly two months. After growing fat on World Cup excess in Rio, and a stomach busting week in Buenos Aires – Ushuaia would be were we separated. Simon and Natasha, who were in their final stages of a round-the-world trip, would return to England. I would begin the long journey north – hopefully ending in Colombia.
We splurged slightly to get full sleeper class, and marveled in delight at our large, puffy, leather chairs - which reclined so far back it in fact became uncomfortable. Other, less fortunate souls, shuffled past our half drawn curtain – gazing enviously into our little world – as we sat, attempting (poorly) to not look smug about the whole situation.
Our bus charged out of the bus station and immediately became embroiled in the messy city rush hour. Stopping at another bus station on the outskirts, an odd, bespectacled middle aged woman nestled into the seat next to me. She was the kind of person you feel safe making immediate assumptions of great dullness. The kind of person who might bring up cross-stitching as a conversation starter – we didn't talk much. She stared blankly ahead for hours on end, before moving, to my great relief, to another seat.
Dinner was served. I made the mistake of eating my dessert before the main had arrived, but the generous servings of wine softened the blow. Evening slipped into night with a movie and a hearty glass of champagne that expedited a peaceful slip into slumber. It's a wonderful moment in life when you can fall asleep in public, with an alcohol beverage in hand, safe in the knowledge that nobody will draw on your face.
The sun rose over a winter desert - a brutal loneliness surrounded us. Nothing but small shrubs stretched to the horizon in all directions – a deathly flatness. A tiny lake appeared next to us, not a ripple visible as it reflected the perfect scarlet sunrise like a mirror. A rainbow appeared, which was strange, as it hadn't rained. Then it started raining.
Tiny rutted trails snaked out from the road, pushing to the horizon then vanishing. Who - or what - lives out here? Small desolate little towns appeared out of the emptiness. Hardly a soul visible, a few barking dogs – a few battered, windswept wooden houses. Hours drifted by without seeing any resemblance of humanity.
The bus made its way through the original Welsh communities of Puerto Madryn and Trelew - settled in 1865, as a way of preserving their heritage from the ever encroaching English influence. Patagonia beat out a number of rival alternatives, namely New Zealand, Australia – and oddly, Palestine – because of its remoteness. How different would the Middle East be today, had a large Welsh population settled in Gaza?
I gazed out of window hoping to see a little slice of Wales – the streets were mix of Jones and Mathews, but also Garcia and Ramos. I studied the people we passed, hoping for some distinct Welsh characteristics. They seemed paler, possibly more European, but nothing dramatic – then a man with a curly afro of fiery red hair sauntered passed. I sat back - very happy with myself.
Life was kept ticking along with a steady stream of movies - one of which was 'Alive' which deals with a plane crash a few hundred miles parallel west of us. I suspected it was to promote bus travel instead.
To our surprise we were treated to an on-board game of bingo, which took about twenty minutes to set up, and lasted about ten – but was as much fun as ten minutes of bingo has ever been. Somebody from the peasant class upstairs won - we grumbled a little, reclined our chairs a little further and poured another glass of wine. Life was tough. Normally a red wine buzz at 4pm on a Tuesday might be construed as an issue, but in the middle of the Patagonian wilderness – with little else to do - we fully embraced it.
The sun, having made its journey over the bus, began to set. The powerful glow of the morning returned once more before fading with a dying glory, as the thick blackness overcame our empty, barren world.
It was still dark as we woke to the frozen town of Rio Gallegos. We disembarked into the scruffy bus station. Our legs wobbling slightly, as they became used to being used as legs again. The bus had long disappeared when I realized I had left a camera bag on-board.
After a slow and fairly painful interaction with a bus employee, I was given directions to the re-fueling depot. I ran frantically down the dark, icy street, my breath swirling into mist above me. A bus appeared out of the gloom. I barreled into the road, waving my arms wildly and screaching like a rabid dog. It came to an abrupt stop, faces filled with fear peered out. I quickly realized that this wasn't my bus - thankfully it pulled up alongside it moments later.
Our downgraded bus crept out of Rio Gallegos thirty minutes late, but to a glorious sunrise that set fire to the icy town. The sun dazzled off the Evita Peron statue. Her hand outstretched, pointing the way down the empty, straight road. Snow began to slowly appear, followed by looming white capped peaks in the far distance. The Andes had arrived - but quickly disappeared again.
The border crossing with Chile is as blustery and unforgiving as you are likely to find anywhere in the world. Each of us inched past a simple table in a simple room. Argentina sat on the right, Chile on the left – bang, bang! Welcome to Chile.
Our stay would be a short one. The relatively straight border between Argentina and its western neighbor goes haywire as it nears Tierra del Feugo - carved haphazardly in such a way that if you want to go to Argentina, from Argentina – you must first go through Chile.
|The road soon ended. A narrow portion of the Magellan Strait lay ahead of us. This signals the southern end of mainland South America – in fact the end of southern mainland anywhere in the world. To the south lies a few scattered islands, then 1000km or so to Antarctica. A lighthouse lay in the frigid cold – our hands grew numb from stone skipping exertions. It began to feel like we were nearing the end of the world.
The ferry was essentially a vehicle ferry, with a long thin cabin area for passengers to sit, and warm their frozen limbs. The trip was brief, a brightly colored mural met us on the other side, along with a sign bearing the words 'Welcome to Tierra del Feugo. We clambered back onto our bus for a bone crunching ride through a harsh, bleak landscape – now almost completely obscured by the thick mud that caked every window.
The edge of Chile soon arrived once more. Seventeen kilometers of no mans land lies between the countries. I can only assume it's still no mans land because there is nothing of any interest there. We entertained ourselves with such thought provoking questions as - if we killed somebody here, which country would prosecute us?
In the town of Rio Grande we changed buses once more. The journey was taking its toll, tempers were beginning to fray – the madness was soothed with our two final bottles of wine -while the bus driver belted along at a speed that suggested he was late for dinner, and was in for hiding.
Mountains finally began to appear, their silhouette just about visible in the darkness. Their white peaks jagged and angry reaching to the sky.
'I see lights' Simon exclaimed. His finger pointing out of the window into complete darkness. There were no lights. The poor guy was losing it - possibly delirious – possibly drunk. It was just past 9pm when lights did appear. The bus swept into the dark town, and we disembarked at a petrol station.
I stood in the freezing cold facing the Beagle Channel, Cape Horn – and eventually Antarctica - feeling dead - and yet very much alive.
After a little over fifty hours; three buses, one boat and five bottles of red wine - we had reached Ushuaia – the end of the World.
© Olivier Guiberteau August 2014
olivier.guiberteau at gmail.com
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