Patagonian 2010

Dear Auntie

Just back from the Big lands of Patagonia and so time for a quick letter to my dear Auntie on how the drives and the adventure of this heavenly land have delighted me during the past month away. I always think that one of the pleasures on finishing a rally is to write to the likeminded. I know your love of driving and adventure by the way you drive your Bentley wild in the lanes of Dorset! I hope you will delight in my reflection on this rally just done.  We all missed you Auntie and it is very cruel of me to write to you on how our wonderful group travelled across Patagonia.

This can’t be helped I’m afraid, and you have to read and be envious.

Patagonia has been so very different to our previous Asia rallies together; the contrast in sights, sounds and differing beauty would fill a book of contradictions. I don’t think I have time, or you have the energy for me to ramble on and on how vast this land of Patagonia is. How very different it is to driving the Indian lands we have driven many times together.

All I can say is this vast stretching pampas just sucked into me, or should I say blew into me: for the wind here is like nothing you have ever felt on your face before. Like, I image, the northerly are as one sails head wind across the great oceans. To come here and not feel the wind, which has a cruel blow, is like going to Spain and not seeing a bull fight. Ok ok – maybe the cruelty is not compatible, the point is that both are the makeup, and both should be experienced. Anyway I hope you understand me, even if you cannot feel the cruel wind bite.

What was I saying? Ah yes back to the vastness of the land I drove. Vast – day after day after day. Looking forever forward into a stretching unknown distance onto an unknown horizon.  I know you love India for all its teaming life, contradictions and intrepid interiors, but I must say let me show you this land and her contrasts. The lands of nothing in this world; for it is the land of everything! Lets us sit down and pen a route across Siberia or run the very northern land in Russia, or as my heart is now set on High Central Asia.  As you can see I have been sneaking a look at my maps again!

But not so strange for you to read, the roads I loved driving were made of Ripio. Ripio is a glamorous name for dust, or stones, or corrugations (which I was not so much in love with). And Ripio roads my dear Auntie are like women, or liquorice allsorts. They come in all sorts, from the bleak corrugations, constantly yapping away as the tyres bounce along until you are forced to slow. Or drive on round bulbas stones, more like driving an English beach than a road. Then there is the adorable – flattened until dust, silky, with light curvaceous curves crossing the rolling greens, encouraging you to drive quicker and quicker until….. But be aware Auntie for the road is not what is seems. This ripio is a temptress!  Once you think you are comfortable with her – she bites – you are suddenly gripless and sliding with your tail left flapping about behind you. And then you’re gone…….This happened to the poor old Lotus, coming to rest on her roof.

It certainly was an adventure of adversity. As you say Auntie ‘What is an adventure without adversity?’ And I agree. For all the planning in the world cannot take away the rules that change and shape a rally. First, and very soon after leaving Buenos Aeries, the rains came in full force. I wrote to you last year of the storm of all storms that hit Jim and I and wrecked havoc on our Italian Mistress. Back in October they were ferocious, in February the rain came back to bring down bridges and block our path again!

And I was so keen to take our drivers to Carmen de Patagones. An old trading port fortunately untouched by UNESCO and so with hotels of no consequence; just the locals enjoying cervasa and pisco sours (this bit may not be true, we did drink a lot of pisco’s, not sure if the locals drink picso’s even if the guide books tell us so!) In this hotel the bar and reception are the same place – which is convenient for you Auntie. I can hear you already calling your order – ‘One room, One G&T – no ice’, and not in that order!. Quite wonderful.

Disaster struck again the next day when I suddenly saw the big Bentley Continental of Peter & Sue driving the wrong way.  My heart sunk for I knew this would not bring clad tidings. They had received terrible news of their sick granddaughter and after a lot of deliberation decided to curtail the rally and get back to London.  A sad day to see them go. However within ten days good news came, all was well and they would be back to Patagonia to run the final stretch.

With the down bridge and the group split, we all found differing ways across the countryside until meeting again at the bleak Peninsular Valdes.  Flat and draffy (not the type of draft of your old house – wind – real blowing wind!) and off course the wonderful sight of the elephant seals, penguins, and if you’re lucky (as that old devil Jim was) the mighty whales.  Worth every mile of ripio.

I cannot write to you about Patagonia and not tell of 20,000 Welsh speaking ‘Roberts’ all serving tea and scones at Gaimen. Plas Y Coed and Ty Te Caerdydd to name a few of these delightful tea houses.

Gaimen, with her little red brick buildings with slate roofs, and of course the obligatory central chapel, does tell you something of the men & women who came a million miles to make a better life for themselves. To read of these pioneers, to hear their stories, gives an idea to the strength of these immigrants into Patagonia. However the sun shone and we had no rain for this to seem like the Welsh Valleys. (Also Gaimen is flat and dusty!)

The eastern coast drive going south gives a great perspective to this land. It is hard to image such lands exist when driving in your Bentley and eating up those Gloucestershire country roads and then in a flash your at the Shropshire boarder. Big lands now intrigue me and are an inspiration for Central Asia and the crossing of the Paners.

Auntie I’m slipping elsewhere – back to Patagonia – and next to our own wonderful island of St George, – the island of Tierra del Fuego, this Land of Fire, is the best small island in the world. Deserves to be a member of Best Small Islands of the World Group! No doubt I will have to explain the pun to you next time we meet.

Anyway this for me was the best place in Patagonia to drive. Yes I know there is the very, (very…) beautiful road from Chile Chico, and I will tell you a story about this road shortly. And then Torres del Paine loops, Seven Lakes, actually there are too many get drives to mention in such a short letter. So back to driving Tierra del Fuego…..

The first sight of the island is from a desolate road on the main land which suddenly ends into the Strait of Magellan.  Into the waters of Magellan no less. Nothing more. Nothing to say ‘You’re at a Ferry Port’. Nothing but Nothing. Very confusing for you Auntie, but this is how it is.

I have crossed this water twice. It is not long, may be half an hour.  However it is the strongest tide anywhere of any crossing.  The pull and drag of the tide is just short of what the engines can cope with. You sail across in trepidation of engine failure. If they do – you are washed out into the big Atlantic and her killing boulders.

I am being dramatic, allowing my imagination of adventure to get the better of me. Of course we were safe, just on this ferry of all ferries, when the wind howl’s, you start to slip away from your comfort zone. If an engine fails……….type of thoughts.

The ripio on the island is at its best.  Fine dust type and on this very fine dust driving is easy. The car floats and the suspension works with ease.  (But always be aware…) With all this you don’t want to be the car following. I ran behind John & Jean in their wonderful red SL, but the dust! I say red for all you see as you get close, and when I say close, I mean within 200 feet, is the dust; it is like flying into thick black cloud with a red spot inside. Same happened on the Chilly Chico road following Giancarlo in his Volvo (red again) and Jim in the not red Landy. I just stayed behind and followed the dust storm for 100 miles to the hotel.

I digress again. This island feels like the end of the world – because it is! We were driving right at the very bottom of the world. Next stop Antarctica. Quite strange to be at such an extreme end of the world. Surreal; very beautiful.

The road rolls along the contours of the landscape. Nothing but the extending backdrop of soft colours as we drove the low lying hills into the haunting forests of dead trees, and then finally the climb over the hills at Altos del Valle into Ushuaia. I asked if this was summer? The rain came, the mist rolled in from Beagle Channel ,the wind tried to bite into us. But we kept very cosy in our warm hotel thank you. This was summer at the End of the World.

I will quickly add Auntie, after a day’s rest and 4 am start we drove the best of ripio to the port at Porvenir. What a dust road, what a rollercoaster ride! The road dips and turns down to the sea shore – then back up to the cliffs above only to fall again with blind ridges suddenly going left at the crest. At each crest I expected to see one of our cars in not such good shape – remember the Lotus.

Chilli Chico we all agreed was the best road driven; for me the Porvenir road ranks second.

Then at a border tavern we watched with horror the powerful earthquake which had just hit the city of Conception. And as we stared at the tv it soon became clear the final days into Valparaiso were no longer possible.

Our drive now takes us up the west coast and what a contract like you cannot believe. Unlike the Atlantic drive every day along this Pacific coast gave a different drive. And not just different Auntie, the drives were staggering! If I write every highlight you will be receiving a book – no a trilogy. I will stick to a letter and I am so sorry much is going to be brushed over.

First port of call Paine’s. What a place. Go, for it has to be seen, and drive all the way there. The big flat lands of the pampas are behind us now. The land here rolls along with a vista of pastel yellows and greens.

And it was on the ripio of Paine’s the poor Lotus went belly up with chunks of fibreglass littering the road, including a popped out windscreen lying some feet away. Thankfully Peter & Alison walked away unharmed.

I must tell you of Rod, I am sure I have written to you before of this eccentric Aussiman, for he has been on a few adventures with us. You would not have forgotten him; anyway he was first on the scene with Cathy and Patrick to see the Lotus wheels to sky.  His thinking was this was not the best way to drive to Santiago, advising Peter & Alison that 4 wheel to the dust stood a better chance of getting to Santiago than roof to dust.

Humour is always the best antidote and they took his advice and together rolled the car back into the traditional position. Being old troopers Peter & Alison unsurprisingly made the journey to the finish. A great effort.

Following on from Paine’s we drove to see a glacier as high as a sky scrapper. 250 ft tall above the water. Can you imagine standing under an ice wall looking up upon a 20 story building? No you can’t! And until you see the Moreno Glacier you will never believe me!

At Fitzroy, hidden along a track winding into the Fitzroy valley we found a wonderful farm hotel. It reminded me of an Indian colonial bungalow, days of the Raj type and all that. Clearly it was not, but the same charm was there. I spent most of my time arguing, but that heated time is not for this letter.

Roll on Routa 40 – the great road in all Argentina! Deserted and desolate. The hardest run of the rally. Nearly 600km of changeable ripio and very little tarmac. For all my love of ripio Auntie I will admit that after so many long hours on dust I could have stopped and kissed the tarmac when the black stuff came back. For 600 km I saw no one, not even my fellow travellers. Had my first puncture with loads of problems.  Anyway if you’re looking for the best road of endurance and adventure – this is the one.

And now for the Chile Chico road. Not an easy road to access. As we both know all too well in India the law makers make laws to govern everything – but in India there are no laws. We found the Chilean equivalent.  After ten or so trips across the Argentine / Chile boarder, without a murmur about our wrongly placed steering wheel, suddenly on our recce a short Napoleonic woman takes great delight in enforcing an unknown Chilean law.

Auntie she was one of these dark women who enjoyed enforcing bad news and so turned us away! Can you believe such unneeded meanness? She actually enjoyed enforcing this law!

So for our return journey, thanks to the good fortune of having people who know the right people, and I thank Bibbi and Nowell again for they pointed us in the right direction towards the powers to be; this time we came armed with a permit.

However, once at the boarder the Argentines hurried us across. The Chilean’s, with permit staying in glove compartment, followed suit and also hurried us across, and before we knew it we were in Chile. No permit shown, free to go forward not back. All because this cruel woman started work at noon and her colleagues saw no purpose in such a pointless law.

It was People Power Aunty – They acted as they saw the law should be not as the law is! Just think of the false laws we have to live within Blighty. Oh to be able to pick and choose. That would make the law makers thing.

And what a drive this was. Utterly stunning. It was, and I speak for all on the rally, the finest drive in all Patagonia, if not all South America, if not in all the world!

All I can add Auntie is, this is why we came to drive in Patagonia. If Patagonia only had this one road to offer then She would not have disappointed. This one road…., this drive was the fusion of driving to live, live to drive, whichever way you see driving; driving and life came together on this road.

One more quick story from this road. Giancarlo had the great fortune to breakdown along this road. Yes a great fortune. I came tumbling along at the back, as I always do, and what do I see? One broken Volvo with Jim and Giancarlo brewing tea, enjoying the warm of the day, the view, and the many other distractions, as poor Elbio, our mechanic, worked away on the Volvo. I don’t believe the car ever broke down! They just wanted to stop and enjoy the day.

We rolled on north heading to the greatest hotel in Argentina at Llao Llao. Here the Alfa died on me; maybe just all too much for her. I thank the team for trying their best, partially Klaus, who took the bull by the horns, much to the muttering of his wife Maja, and had us all organised and working on the Alfa well into the night. Off with her head. Off with her belts. Off with her Webbers. Still to no avail. I took it in my stride, and accepted my fate. On the other hand Klaus looked forlorn at breakfast and the problem of my difficult mistress played on his mind and in his nightmares.

Then again she is Italian and so delicate! I was very apprehensive about bringing her. I have to be careful for if Agneta ever sees this letter she will raise her voice, her hands will be gestrulating, and I will be shot down! What defence would I have?

At least the dear Alfa completed one lap of the Llao Llao loop, sick but moving. A delight to drive Argentines own Nuremburg.  You Auntie would have spent all day driving around and around in the Bentley.  My great regret is I left her behind. I felt very awkward, but one has to be strong and there is a rally to run.

To take my mind off my loss I hitched a ride with Patrick. And what does he do to cheer me up – straight back into adventure! 36 hours of action, with breakdowns, all night repairs, sleeping under the stars, wrong ways, petrol shortages, for does his Chevy drink! And when we were not in darkness, being two straight night drives, we drove the magnificent road across the volcano lands. After earthquakes, petrol shortages, floods and high winds we were in fear of being chased by melting lava. No joke, for I am sure it crossed everyone’s mind when they drove between monkey puzzle trees and the volcanic mounds. A countryside of austere beauty, certainly not the natural radiant beauty of the Chilli Chico drive and the Carretera Austral.

And then in Mendoza, as I sat feeling sorry for myself, I have a delightful surprise to find the Alfa is fixed and running to catch up with me. You can see it now Auntie. There I am having turned by back on my Italian beauty and there I am sitting in the comfort of the Chevy, for this car is a very vivacious, the Alfa is chasing, wanting me back behind the wheel! Well, so I like to think.

However once back behind the wheel she was not well. For the last day she coughed and sputtered over the high Uspallata Pass.  12,500 ft over the Andes back into Chile with just enough life in her to reach Valparaiso.

And does Valparaiso feel big! After all the small country towns and open space of Patagonia, to arrive into the bright lights and the mad traffic of Valparaiso is like arriving into Los Angeles or Tokyo. Off course this is not LA, only a sleepy port. But what a great place, this is somewhere you would love, for its streets invite you to walk. It is extremely pleasant and will be the perfect start when the rally regroups to run north.

There you are Auntie a month of more fun and adventure than a man or woman deserves in a life time. Roll on the Paners and the story of the Great Game….

Your dearest nephew…