Day64 - 68: 2.3. - 6.3.2009
Cochrane – Villa O’Higgins

Never go to the post office in Cochrane

What a disaster. It takes the lady in the post office in Cochrane the whole morning, literally until midday, to find out how much my 2 kg parcel to Germany would cost. And then she comes up with 80 Euro! This is only the result though. The whole story is one of a really bad (because lost) morning here. The morning starts well at first because I do manage to upload my homepage update from the free 30 minute internet access in the public library. It has to be said that the Chilean ministry that is accountable for libraries and museums has started a program to supply internet access to all libraries in Chile. Even in the most remote village. There they give away free 30 minute slots to everybody who comes in. A great initiative. Anyway, after I have done the upload I walk into the post office with a smile on my face. I expect to lose 2 kg of weight on my bike and look forward to get going after the parcel is gone. Wow. But not so fast, monsieur. The lady behind the counter first of all is much more concerned about her hairstyle and make up than about her customers. She is dressed as if she wanted to go into the discotheque. And she does have no clue about her business. She weighs my parcel on a standard (non-digital) people scale. One with this rotating scale with minimum differences of 1 kg. And she says my parcel is “exactly” 2 kg. Well. I believe it is better to accept her measure for now. Then she explains that she doesn’t know how much a shipment to Germany costs and that she needs to call the office in Coyhaique for that information. Ok, why not. Within the next hour she tries four or five times. She finds the line either busy or not answering and than tells me that they don’t answer her call. In between those calls she spends most of her time chatting with friends who come along or with redoing her hair or make up. By now it is already eleven. I know she has an appointment at twelve sharp because she told me this at least five times already. Then she will not reopen until 3.30 pm. That is too late for me as I want to get going again latest around lunchtime. I tell her that I will pack my things and check out of my hostel (which I need to do before twelve), then I would come back a bit before twelve. Hopefully by then everything can be sorted. Good thought. When I come back though I find out that she didn’t even try to call the Coyhaique office again during my absence. And now she almost begins to panic because her appointment is in 10 minutes time. Given the fact that I make very clear to her that she will not leave before she has found out the costs and packed the parcel ready to go she finds a new way to overcome the busy line in Coyhaique. She calls somebody else who can also help her with the information she needs (no ideas why she didn’t do that before) and comes up with this ridiculously high number of 80 Euro. A few days ago in Coyhaique I paid 25 Euros for a 1,5 kg parcel. Something is wrong here. At that point of time I don’t bother anymore though. This is too much for me. I am really pissed off. I swear a lot, fortunately for her it is all in German, and leave the office. End of story. So much for the loss of 2 kg which does not materialize. I separate between things I simply leave here and things that I will keep carrying with me. I think 60% of the stuff I put back into my bags. It would just be a shame to leave them here. So, bottom line this was a very bad morning. Half a day lost with a bad result in the end and myself being annoyed for the next few hours still.

Mosquito alarm !

The ride today starts late after the post office tragedy but the weather is fine and the scenery makes up for the bad morning. I follow the recommendation of my “Carretera Austral” guidebook and look for camping opportunities between kilometer 50 and 60. Indeed there are some nice ones, right next to a river, with a good mountain view. Somehow I cannot convince myself to stop yet though. My legs feel good and I think especially with this heavy rain experience from a few days ago I feel that I should make use of the good weather and should keep going further. So I ride until later into the evening and do only stop to put my tent down at the very last moment of light. I have chosen a scenic spot right at Rio Baker for my tent. Luck was with me when I was looking for a good camping opportunity. Or so I thought. I think differently within seconds after my stopping. Mosquitoes are all over the place. And they are aggressive and hungry. By now it is too late for me to keep going as all the next kilometers will follow Rio Baker anyway, so it would make no difference. Hence there is only one way out. Set the tent up as fast as possible and then hide in it for the rest of the evening. That’s exactly what I do. Within the ten or so minutes of building my camp, getting my stuff of the bike and retreating into the mosquito-free shelter I take more than ten bites away. And this although only my face and lower legs have been exposed. A good score, I have to admit. I prepare muesli in the tent, eat a full load and then retire into my “bed” early without ever leaving the safe shelter again. The next morning I eat in the tent again, get outside ready to ride with only my face exposed this time and get away with only a few additional hits. That was the first time I found a mosquito problem on my whole trip. I hope this will stay an exception.

Caleta Tortel – a once forgotten village

This village - Caleta Tortel - could only be reached by boat until 5 years ago. A ferry used to go there 2 times per week in summer and once a week in winter. With villagers having the first right of transportation on a rather small ferry. This meant that visitors were a very rare species in Tortel. In 2003 the new road was finished and since then the 400 people village is connected to the Carretera Austral by a 22 km road that leads through deep wet lands and ends in a col du sac. The most interesting thing about this village is that there are no roads or ways as we would believe. As all houses are located on an inclining hillside that leads straight into the sea they are all built on wooden poles and connected via wooden walkways. By now the village has more than 6 km of these wooden walkways. This gives the village a very special charm and atmosphere and of course by now also attracts quite some tourists, at least in summer. I am one of those.

I learn a lot of interesting things about the village and the people here. First of all I realize that a “Stihl” chainsaw is by far the most popular tool in town. You can hear and see people using them to cut wood to size to build new walkways or houses or to repair old ones everywhere. I wonder how this has been done before the chainsaw was here. This must have been very hard work. I also wonder where all the wood comes from. On the one hand I see piles of wood everywhere, indicating that loads of building activities are either going on or planned to start soon. On the other hand I see that the forest around the village is intact, no trees missing. The answer to this question I got over dinner in a restaurant: Every native villager owns a big piece of land somewhere in maximum 3 hours boat distance from here. The people used to cultivate this piece of land in summer since a long time. They cut wood and have a small shelter there, even animals sometimes. From there they get the wood for building the village. Mostly these pieces of land are on the sides of nearby rivers and fjords that are not too mountainous and easy to cultivate. A while ago the government gave these pieces of land to those people as a property so that by now they officially have their own piece of land to support their life in the village of Tortel.

“We used to be like one big family. Everybody helped each other. We had almost only common goods for the village, no private property”. With the new road many things changed in Tortel in the last few years. The village used to be so alone and remote that everybody felt like in one huge family. In fact it was one huge family. Now there are many more new people in the village. This old feeling disappears. Many of the people I talk to do regret this. They are happy about the better connectivity though. The supply with goods is much better, information more up to date and life more comfortable and less insecure. Although, in the end, my interviewees all cannot hold back one comment: “But somehow we could live well in the old days as well, without the road…”

Also the library here in Tortel does by now enjoy the efforts of the government program of “free internet for everybody”. There are four computers in the first floor of an old house and one person in the ground floor that allocates 30 minute slots to everybody who asks for it. The computers or connection is so slow that I cannot open a single German webpage but at least it suffices to check the local Chilean weather forecast. The program seems to enjoy a great usage and reputation with the villagers. A great effort I believe. I suspect that the physical library, which does only contain two smaller shelves of books anyway, might fall victim to the internet age even in Caleta Tortel very soon.

In front of the “hostel” that I go into I meet Martina and Martin, both from Switzerland. They travel by bike as well. And they are on the same journey south towards the crossing into Argentina from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten as I am. They leave Tortel today but we will meet on the ferry on the 7th again as the ferry goes only twice per week. Those two are on a shorter holiday tour, just riding the Carretera Austral by bike in a few weeks time, and will then move on to New York, where Martin will write his PhD. I look forward to meet them again. They were nice people.

The ferry that is a bridge

Francisco points at the almost brand new ferry. “This is a bridge”. I believe I have problems to understand him because what I see is a ferry, not a bridge. But he insists that this is a bridge. When he sees my strange look of disbelief he keeps explaining and I begin to see what he means. This ferry does replace the bridge above the fjord Mitchell that will be built one day in the distant future. When the Carretera Austral was finished 10 years ago the decision was taken not to take the effort to build a monstrous bridge to cross the fjord but to simply take a ferry into operation that would connect with the other side on a regular basis. The ferry goes 1-4 times a day and its use is free. And now I understand better.

With the ferry the mini-village of Puerto Yungay was built as well. I am only 100 km from the Southern end of the Carretera Austral now and it does indeed feel like it. “Middle of nowhere” is the right term to use here. I have been crossing a literally unpopulated area since almost 200km, with the exception of the village of tortel which is located at the back end of a 22 km col du sac though. And Puerto Yungay itself consists of 10 proud inhabitants: Francisco, his wife and his daughter, they run the kiosk at the ferry gate, to entertain waiting people. Five people who operate the boat and two more people who do something else that I forgot again already. When I reach the kiosk at three in the afternoon I have two hours of heavy rain in my bones and feel a little uneasy to say the least. Hence the warm oven in the kiosk and the great lunch I get are a very welcome way to help regain my spirits. Also the conversations are great. There is no TV or Radio out here and as a consequence Francisco and his family are still used to real conversations rather than being spoiled by the TV as most of the households in the villages I have been to (I think at night I count a 95% score for running TVs in the houses I pass on my evening walks when I am in towns). Thank you, Francisco.

Why do I do this again ?

It is one of those moments again. I might repeat myself here but while I am lying there on the floor in this little shed in my sleeping bag I have that burning question on my mind again: “Why do I do this here again? “ It is one of those moments where I regret to be alone because it is a lot harder to regain motivation all by yourself, with nobody who could help. Motivating each other is often more easy then to self-motivate in difficult times. (Maybe this is one of the reasons why I do this alone, to overcome difficult times alone to prove o myself that I can do it?). The ferry has dropped me here at the other side of the fjord at 7 pm, together with three other cars which have also decided to “cross that bridge”. They are gone within seconds and I am left here all alone. In the heavy rain with about 100 km to go to Villa O’Higgins, which will mark the end of the Carretera Austral. There are supposed to be very few decent spots for putting up a tent at the side of the road between here and Villa O’Higgins (either too rocky or too much wet land). Only one suitable spot has been promoted in the Carretera Austral booklet that I carry but it is risky to trust that one because by now the book is outdated by 10 years and not fully reliable anymore. Nevertheless, I decide to ignore the old shed at the ferry dock and to use the rain break to get going to cover some kilometers before resting for the night somewhere. Three kilometers later the rain is back and I regret that decision. I revise it, turn around and cycle back to the shed which is at least a dry place for the night. I am annoyed with myself. I should have stayed here right away. Why did I move on in the first place? Sometimes I am just too driven to keep going. At least I was brave enough to revise my decision and not to insist on it stubbornly (which I can be good in at times too). Now I will stay in the old shed for the night. I have a müsli dinner and cuddle myself into my sleeping bag early to protect myself from the mosquitoes. As it is only around 9 pm I have plenty of time for my negative thoughts now: I should only go on camping holidays in good weather areas. I should only travel with friends, not alone. All together I should be enjoying my sabbatical back home at the warm oven, with a good book, a glass of wine and friends around me etc. The only chance out of this thinking now is some good music from my I-Pod. This helped a few times already. With the right songs usually come the right memories which can help to put me into a different, more positive mood. And luckily I fall asleep soon anyway.

Good morning snow !

What a spectacular view I have from my floor-position out the broken window of the shed when I awoken by the first daylight. The mountains are covered in a thin layer of fresh snow from the night all the way down to pretty low altitudes, only a few hundred meters above me. And the thermometer shows 3°C. This would all be wonderful if I was in a bit of different conditions here...obviously my bad mood has not completely left me yet. Do I stay in the sleeping bag for a while or do I get packed and going? I get going. It doesn’t rain and I should make use of that. The ride starts tough. Cold and windy conditions and a hilly profile of the first part of today’s long stretch are not the best thing to get me motivated or smiling. I do still feel lonely, cold and demotivated. I should be positive though because today I am on my final stage of the Carretera Austral, this famous tough road that I have been on for the last few weeks and that I have been expecting for so long now. I have almost finished it and should enjoy every one of the last few kilometers. I am back “vorn”, no doubt, so I should feel like it as well. Why would I suffer this whole long day in a negative mood while I could enjoy this success and experience with every minute passing by? Frank Sinatra comes into my mind, with some phrases from his song I heard last night: “And now, the end (of the Carretera) is near...I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain. I’ve lived a life that’s full, I’ve travelled each and every highway…and I did it my way. Regrets I had a few…I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption…” Not that I want to put myself on one level with Frank Sinatra here but that song gets my spirits back up. I find myself now singing out loud on the bike and enjoying what I am doing again. Wonderful.

An unexpected hot lunch

After almost 5 hours of riding (and singing) I need a bigger break to prepare some decent food (müsli again maybe??). While I am looking for a shelter I run into this little refugio, where I meet Martina and Martin, the Suisse couple that I met in Tortel yesterday. They have stayed there for the night and are about to leave for Villa O’Higgins now. The guy who lives in this place has invited them to put the tent into the backyard, to eat with him etc. Within minutes I enjoy a hot chicken soup and bread and sit next to the warm oven to relax and dry my clothes. That is a nice surprise. While M&M (I will use this short version for Martina and Martin as of now) head of f I stay with the guy for a bit longer to listen to him. He talks very fast and a lot. There do not seem to be breaks between his sentences and he jumps from topic to topic. At least I understand enough of what he says to give some polite comments now and then or to ask a question that builds on what he said. He doesn’t want any money for the food, is just happy to have some company. He is a very hospitable person indeed.

Kevin Costner & El Loco

When I move on to catch up with M&M before O’Higgins I meet two guys on the road that I have been on the ferry together with yesterday. They travel by minivan and do some scouting of the region to prepare organized bike holidays for the future. Mariano runs guided bike tours all around the world since many years. He is “El Loco” because some years back he went up Ojos del Salado (almost 7000 meters high) with a bicycle (on his shoulder in the end of course) to find sponsors for his first own world tour by bike. Since then he has been everywhere by bike, ridden more than 160.000km and passes on this knowledge to his customers. His friend (who keeps making the point that Mariano is a bit “loco” and hence inspired the nickname here) supports the whole activity from a logistics point of view. I only realize later who he reminded me of all the time. He does look like Kevin Costner in his adventure guy movies. Both of them are really nice and funny guys. Mariano takes some pictures of me and promises to put them into the “Carretera Austral” part of his website ( Good luck for you planned tours, guys !

End of the Carretera Austral !!!

Unbelievable but true. On our last hour on the Carretera Autral (which I ride together with M&M) we even get sunshine. “Wo wir sind ist vorn” is back. The change of mindset was followed by a change of conditions. After more than 1200 km , 18.000 meters of altitude and more than 80 hours in the saddle Villa O’Higgins does welcome us with a some (relatively) warm sunshine. This is nice. And also much appropriate I think. Here it does indeed not only feel like the end of the Carretera Austral but much more than the end of the world. A few houses make up a village of ca. 300 inhabitants. Their connection to the outside world was by horse only until the Carretera was finished in 1999. To get South we will have to cross Lago O’Higgins in a 4 hour boat ride and then trek over the mountains to El Chalten on the Argentinian side in a 10 hour trek. This whole journey is supposed to be a real adventure. The boat is only scheduled twice per week and it is often delayed because of bad weather. Just the latest one that was scheduled for Wednesday has been delayed to today (Thursday). Some of the passengers that came over from the Argentinean side on the way back check into our hostel late at night. Their stories are scary. Almost all of them got sea sick and threw up on the ferry. It seems that I will finally get my chance for a sea sickness-test after all. For the trek almost everybody recommends to hire horses to carry the baggage as it is extremely steep and narrow, muddy and with fallen trees to climb over and water streams to pass. Even without bike it is supposed to be strenuous. Hence with bike and the baggage it will be a real nightmare (some who did it used the words “it was hell” to describe their experience). We will see what we do. I suspect we will go the clever way and hire horses for the baggage and do the trek with bikes only. Why should we not learn from the experiences other people did before us? Having written that I just got a detailed report from a polish guy who was crossing over and who recommends us to not use the horses, we might be fine from this side, much easier than crossing over from Argentina to Chile. Just another version to complete the confusion. So lets see what we will do…

Villa O’Higgins – more modern than most European capitals

“Si, estamos en O’Higgins pero ya estamos un poco moderno”. The lady who runs the hostel is almost surprised about my question for Wifi-Internet. I was expecting her to laugh at me but indeed what I find is a stunning surprise to me. First I didn’t really believe her and thought she was promoting the one computer they have downstairs for internet usage, somehow mistaking what I meant by Wifi. Later my thinking is corrected though. The village of Villa O’Higgins has six Wifi-transmitters that supply the whole area with free wireless internet access. I can sit here in my hostel room and connect to the closest one of the networks, free of charge. This is a service of the ‘Higgins community to the people. They welcome you on their opening website and invite you to use the internet. Now that is truly modern. I wish that was the case in German cities. I would have liked to have seen my face when I opened my netbook at the perceived end of the world and found the set of wireless networks offered. I guess I looked quite puzzled in disbelief. I will use the chance to update my homepage again before I head over to Argentina.