You know when you’re advised to pack a large can of tyre weld for your trip that the road ahead may not be all plain sailing but nothing could have prepared us for the demands and exhilaration of driving the Carretera Austral through some of the most incredible landscapes on the planet.
“The owner of the Último Paraíso telephoned to remind you to be there no later than 8:30am tomorrow to meet up with Jimmy for the glacier trek,” says Marcel, the manager of the BordeBaker Lodge in the Aysén region of Chile where we’re staying. “I guess that means you’ll want breakfast early again?”
His eyes betray a quiet resignation at a second morning of dragging himself from his warm bed to make us breakfast at some ungodly hour. I would really like to be on the road by 7:30am but I already feel guilty at Marcel’s disrupted sleep pattern so we ask if he can do breakfast for 7:25am.
The next morning we head down to the lodge at 7:20am in the hopes that Marcel is running, if not early, at least on time. He isn’t. We sit patiently at the picture window watching the day form over the teal waters of the Baker River that flows directly alongside, and at the snow covered mountains of Northern Patagonia beckoning beyond. It’s a mesmerizing landscape and I feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, spinning deeper and deeper into the void of its vastness and its indescribably beauty.
Little by little, the components of our breakfast begin to appear: fresh, tropical fruit cut into bite-sized chunks and served in an elegant glass; melon juice, strawberry yoghurt, home-made jam, ham and cheese, fragrant coffee and warm toast but we have no time to savour Marcel’s carefully prepared and presented culinary delights and, after eating the minimum possible so as not to insult, we ruefully make our apologies and leave.
It’s 7:50am before we’re on the road and now the pressure’s on. It’s only 40km from the BordeBaker Lodge to the Último Paraíso in Cochrane, a journey that should take no more than 40 minutes but it’s along one of the most breathtaking, and in parts tricky, sections of the Carretera Austral, Chile’s main highway.
By now, I’m no stranger to the wiles of this extraordinary road, if indeed you can call it a road, having clocked up something in the region of 1000km on it since landing at Balmaceda airport and collecting our Mitsubishi pick-up truck just over a week ago. Since leaving the distant memory of tarmac in Coyhaique’s main street, the Carretera Austral, or Ruta 7 as it’s known, has consisted solely of random potholes held together by dust, jagged stones and grit. In parts, deep ruts run along the surface, pitted by holes of varying depth and diameter. Those are the worst parts as they intermittently pin and then repel the tyres, sending the rear end of the vehicle spinning out of control.
Surfacing the Carretera Austral is an ongoing work of Biblical proportions. Anyone contracted to work on the project clearly has a job for life. At any one time, at least one large section of the highway is ‘under construction’ which, for the motorist, means long hours of road closure followed by a nerve-jangling crawl over the sort of surface you’d normally expect to see in a quarry, except that this one is frequently alongside steep drops on one or both sides. Unless you’re happy to sit in your vehicle for five hours waiting for the road to re-open, you have to plan journeys to get through these sections either before or after their published closure times.
We encountered one such section in between Coyhaique and Quelat. Having stopped to hike into the Bosque Encantado, we time our arrival at the road works perfectly. Unfortunately, three articulated lorries have also timed their arrival well and are directly ahead of us. As the barriers are raised, we set off in convoy, each lorry creating a dirty, billowing fog of dust on the bone dry surface so that, in seconds, my field of vision is reduced to zero. Intermittently, the dust beside us clears enough for us to see abyssal drops directly alongside us, tightening my grip on the wheel and sending shock waves to my brain. I keep close to the dim tail lights of the truck ahead of me, hardly daring to take my eyes off them for more than a second. That 5km stretch of road ranks right up there in the short list of two nightmare drives of my life.
Early on in our trip I had received some invaluable tips from our guide in Coyhaique. “Try to use your gears only to slow down,” he had emphasised. “Never touch the brakes or the clutch on corners, avoid the potholes, and stay out of the deeper gravel that lies at the edges of the highway.” Sometimes I misjudged a corner and instinctively applied the brakes. On those occasions, the back wheels would start to lock and I learned to quickly ease off the pedal and steer into the skid, even if that meant sliding across the width of the road. The only reason we hadn’t collided with another vehicle was because there were so few of them. So far, we’d avoided any kind of major incident and still had all our tyres intact but it made progress a slow business.
Today I can’t afford to be overly cautious. I accelerate away from Puerto Bertrand and race down the dusty, rocky highway alongside the Baker River, the rear end of the car swinging gaily like a balloon in a breeze. The scenery blurs as I speed past the Confluencia where the Baker and Neff rivers meet. Then the more tricky bends begin as we climb high above the Chacabuco Valley before descending towards Cochrane. I try to keep the speed around 60kph, braking hard just ahead of corners and then throwing the Mitsubishi around them sending thick clouds of dust to obscure the panorama in the rear view mirror, like an over zealous bridal train in a stiff breeze.
As we pull up outside the Último Paraíso, I have to prise my white knuckles off the steering wheel. Despite my best Jeremy Clarkson efforts, we’re five minutes late but in the long run, it’s infuriatingly academic as, due to a mix-up in communications, our guide Jimmy doesn’t show up for another hour.
The following afternoon, after an amazing day of Guanacos, mosquitoes, Magellanic woodpeckers and wading across icy waters in the Parque Patagonia, we decide to have a beer in the bar of the Parque Patagonia Lodge. Time slips by in the silky swallowing of a craft ale and I suddenly realise it’s getting precariously close to dinner time at BordeBaker. Having already asked Marcel to go above and beyond in our breakfast times, it seems nothing less than surly to arrive late for dinner. Reluctantly, we drag ourselves away from the conviviality of the bar and hit the road. 35 minutes later we’re back at our lodge and I’ve added another tip to my list of advice for driving the Carretera Austral – relax before getting behind the wheel, small beer optional.
By the time we take the Mitsubishi back to Balmaceda airport, we’ve clocked up 1700km and everything we brought with us has acquired a uniform dull beige hue. Never have I been more sorry to hand back a set of keys than I am that day. It’s been an incredible trip and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.