From the Andes to the Sea - Part 2
The sun streaming through the ill fitting wooden planks of the hut woke us up. We didn’t need to get dressed, we were already wearing all the clothes we had brought with us. After breakfast in the carabineros’ lovely warm kitchen, the boss's parting shot was "Tell Pablo we are expecting him.”
Angie outside our bothy
Angie with three of the carabineros
We left the enclosure and after a while I wondered why we were still heading uphill when we should have been going down. While I retraced our steps looking for the correct path, Angie took photos of the fabulous view.
We had been heading up the Tronador volcano. Once back on the right path, we reached the refuge without further incident. We had planned to spend a night here but Franco’s satellite phone weather update motivated us to keep moving as rain was forecast in two days time. We couldn't risk being stuck the wrong side of the Take-Your-Pants-Off River.
The right path this time
Shortly after the refuge we ‘enjoyed’ our first river wade. The path then follows the contour, high above the roaring Tronador River, through steep meadows and valley woodlands. Before setting off from Valdivia I had downloaded waypoints for the route onto the GPS and the next one read 'settlement'.
"Not far to go Angie, there will be room to camp at the 'settlement'," I offered, encouragingly. The truth was I couldn't remember passing houses when we were riding.
The waypoint came and went but there was no settlement. Later I realised that although the overall GPS route was correct, some of the waypoints had been mislabeled.
"Hey Angie, there are some hot springs in four kilometres (as the crow flies), we should try and get there for the night." We plodded on.
At last we emerged from the forest and entered a small clearing. The foundations of what used to be a house were still visible. We pitched the tent, we had gone far enough.
Our second night campsite
The next morning we left early and reached Juvenal's house shortly before 10am. A small group of walkers were slowly folding camp. They had set off a day earlier than us but we had caught them up. Juvenal came out and recognised me.
"You are the lady who gave the medicine when the guy got the swollen leg."
"This lady," he explained to his captive audience, "came on horseback but the cad who was guiding her went so fast she didn't have time to take any photos. She's had to come back on foot!"
Nonsense of course, there is clearly bad blood between Ciro and Juvenal, I would love to hear the story, maybe they both used to lust after the same beautiful girl (or horse).
No longer the taciturn old man from our last trip, Juvenal was lively, smiley, and holding court. Angie sat down thinking we would never get away. His discourse was interesting, unlike Ciro he has an understanding of maps and knows the local as well as the cartographic names which are often very different. He told us where we would find good drinking water and how to get to the second hot springs at Leticia's place. I passed on the carabineros’ message:
"If you see Pablo, please tell him that the carabineros are expecting him."
"My son came yesterday and told me Pablo isn’t home, he’s gone to Ralun," explained Juvenal.
The next obstacle was Witches’ Rock and although exposed, Angie didn't find it as difficult as the bridge to La Junta.
Approaching a small holding
The weather was glorious again and it wasn’t long before we trotted down the slope to Leticia's. There was no sign of Pablo but a huaso in a perfectly ironed pink shirt was resting his horses. He told us he was dropping off supplies higher up for a group of trekkers. I asked him about Juvenal, why had he mentioned working for a “patron”, when surely he owned the holding? Mr. Pink Shirt explained that Juvenal had sold his farm to the tycoon who has been buying up the valley and now works for him. We talked about the progressive abandonment of the holdings. He told us that his father had died, his brother gone to Puerto Montt and that he remained, unmarried, with his mother.
"I'm a batchelor, like Juvenal and Pablo, who has gone to Ralun," he concluded.
He saddled his horse and we wandered off for a soak in the hot springs.
Mr. Pink Shirt preparing to leave
The walkers we had passed at Juvenal’s arrived a little later and we made friends. They were a family from near Buenos Aires and we would see them a lot over the following days as our paths kept crossing.
Thanks to Juvenal's instructions, I found the second set of hot springs, bigger and better but harder to get to. Back at the camp, Niebla, Pablo's dog had appeared. She was home alone, and hungry. It seemed Pablo had left food for her but she couldn't get to it, so we fed her the stale bread from Bariloche that neither of us was keen on, she didn’t mind.
That night we cooked a feast over a bonfire.
The other hot springs
The weather was on the change but we managed to pack the tent before the drizzle started. Our Argentinian friends also appreciated Franco's weather forecasts as they were relying on buying food as they went and couldn't afford to get stuck for days on end because the rivers were too high. They passed us on their way to buy bread from the farm on the opposite side of the river.
Mid-morning, coming towards us at full speed, propelled by two walking sticks was a fair haired woman.
"How's it going?" we greeted her.
"Bad, really bad, my companion has dislocated his shoulder."
"We have a sat phone ..." I offered.
"No, no helicopter," she shouted. "I'm going to get horses."
(I’d never mentioned a helicopter.) "But there are horses closer in the other direction," I explained.
"I know this area and I'm going this way."
I wasn't going to argue. At the bridge we found a young couple. They were clearly in shock but had managed to put up a tent. She was Sandra and French, he was her Spanish boyfriend. They explained that a Danish guy in the group had been playing on a rope and fallen into the river dislocating or breaking his shoulder, he was still lying half in, half out of the river and another member of the group, a Chilean, was trying to get him out. The fair-haired woman was in charge. She had bought land up in the mountains and that is where they were heading, it was their gear that Mr. Pink Shirt had been transporting.
At that moment the other two men appeared. The Dane was in considerable pain, wet through and shivering. His shoulder was misshapen and his arm stuck out straight in front of him, resting on the other man. I gave him painkillers and instructions on how often to take them while Angie suggested that Sandra pitch the second tent and get the casualty into his sleeping bag as fast as possible. She was grateful to be given directions and got to task. Her boyfriend seemed at a loss and after losing the lid of his flask in the river was wandering around with a large blunt machete. He tried knocking it into a trunk but it just bounced back. We didn’t think there was much more we could do for them so we left.
The airstrip before the black house
At the abandoned 'black house' we stopped to pick apples and plums. We would stew some later for desert. We reached Las Bandurias as the cloud started to lift and I went in search of Tito. Franco and I were hoping he would teach us horsemanship, unfortunately he was nowhere to be found.
Mini hydro scheme at Las Bandurias
From memory, I didn't think it was far to 'funny belly' camp. The ground is easy and we had covered it in no time at all on horseback. Walking was a different matter and Angie ceased to believe me each time I said, "Not far now, I recognise these trees."
Angie admiring the creeper
Our reward was delicious stewed apple, sweetened with banana candy. The river runs slow here and there is a lot of cow dung so this time we sterilised our drinking water with the UV stick and neither of us suffered from ‘funny belly’. Franco's evening forecast was more encouraging; the next day, ‘River Crossing Day’, would be dry and it looked like we might even make Ralun before the heavy rain came in. The mosquitoes sent us to bed early but happy.
Kath preparing dinner at Funny Belly Camp
Scrumptious stewed apple
It wasn't quite light when we passed Marco Velasquez's farm where our trekking mates had stopped for the night to eat roast lamb. Once more we were in front of them. Today would be a long day. The first few streams were small enough to leap or cross on stepping stones. The first ford of Take-Your-Pants-Off River was just downstream of Lago Palo and the water came up to our knees. The next two crossings were of its tributaries. We decided to keep our sandals on rather than change back into our walking boots, the downside was that they filled up with mud on the boggy sections and the grit started to rub.
Setting off early
The Velasquez farm
Wading across the river downstream of Lago Palo
Angie the gladiator, in her mud sandals
Around mid-morning, André, the youngest son passed us, he was travelling fast and explained that they had loaded their rucksacks onto Mr. Pink Shirt's horses. "Wusses!" we thought, while at the same time envying them their cunning move.
Our Argentinian friends travelling light
After a while I put my trainers back on, my sandals were drawing blood. Shoes on, shoes off, and on it went. Some of the crossings required wading for a considerable distance downstream to find the path on the other side. We had to be careful not to miss the cairns. Mr Pink Shirt and several other huasos arrived and asked us to hide in the bushes while they drove the cattle past. We caught up with them when they rested in a paddock.
The sun was low in the sky and still we crossed and re-crossed Take-Your-Pants-Off River, and we did at times as the water came up to our groins.
And we did at times as the water came up to our groin
It was gone five by the time we got to the Lake Cayutue marsh. I thought I recognised the trees where we had crossed with the horses but I was wrong. There were no boards sunken into the swamp to help us wade through so instead we struggled across in deep water enrobed in a cloud of mosquitoes. The little blighters were biting through our clothes, and the noise was debilitating. Once on the other side, we scrambled into the woods and to our relief the plague didn’t follow immediately. I left Angie sitting on a log and went in the direction of the lake to look for the path. Everywhere I looked there were cliffs and no way up. When I got back, the mosquitoes had caught up with Angie and were eating her alive. We set off in the opposite direction, the path couldn't be far away but the sun was setting and it would be dark soon. We found a flat area in the bogwood and pitched the tent. I cooked instant noodles with my head wrapped in a towel. Passing anything in and out of the tent was a two person job to keep the critters out.
The derelict house where we took a wrong turn
As the light faded, the orchestra started to arrive. The first musicians to tune up were the "tic-tic, tic-tic" frogs, followed by the main body "ribbit, ribbit", then the base “croak, croak” and finally the soloists "toc, toc, toc, toc". That night’s special guest "poc poc poc poc" ensured the performance was a roaring success. The beauty of the marsh music made the mosquito horror worthwhile.
The Cayutue Marsh
In the dawn coolness I crawled out of the tent before the mosquitoes had had time to defrost their wings. Angie would pack up the sleeping bags while I hunted for the path. I was back in just a few minutes, we had camped practically at the start of the track.
Up and over the shoulder we hiked, then back down to Lake Cayutue. We caught up with our friends just as they were breaking camp. Mariella and her family had been attacked by grumpy bees, in addition to the mosquitoes. They were pleased to see us as they had been concerned we might not find the way.
Angie looking fit
Angie confidently crossing a log bridge
One last time we entered woodland, and Angie started to pine for the beautiful forests we were leaving behind. The end was approaching fast and she didn’t want to leave. At the top of the pass we came to the gravel track.
The road was lined with fuscia bushes and hundreds of humming birds flitted around us, gathering nectar from the flowers. We kept stopping to watch them but if we took too long we would never catch the bus in time to avoid the torrential rain forecast for the evening.
A humming bird
A couple of huasos were riding uphill towards us with a herd of horses. The first said hello and the second was … Pablo! He dismounted to greet us and at last I was able to deliver the carabineros’ message.
Pablo heading off
The Estero de Reloncavi ahead
The lorry we had seen parked further back, came thundering down the track so I stuck my thumb out. The driver loaded our sacks into the back and when we started talking we realised we knew each other. Marcelo had collected the horses at the end of our first horse trek with Ciro. It’s a small world. He dropped us at the bus stop in Ralun. We had a forty minutes wait for the 2pm bus.
The bus was twenty minutes late and when it came it didn’t stop, it was already full.
“What do we do now?” we asked the other people waiting at the bus stop.
“We catch the 5 o’clock bus,” they replied.
“But what if that one is full too?”
“Then we wait until tomorrow.”
I love the Chilean pragmatic approach to life, if only I could be so patient. As for Angie, she was already half way down the road, hitching.
We wondered what had become of our friendly Argentinian companions, we hadn’t said goodbye and it felt like unfinished business.
We turned the corner and there they were, waiting at the next bus stop. They too had been ignored. We hugged and kissed and took photos before wishing them a safe journey home.
We walked as far as the next turn-off and started hitching. True to Angie’s prediction, the first vehicle to pass picked us up. The driver, Claudio, is building a guest house and campsite in Ralun and wanted to tell us about his business in broken English. He dropped us at the bus stop in Ensenada and ten minutes later we caught the bus to Puerto Varas.
Steam locomotive outside Puerto Montt bus terminal
By 5pm we were back in Puerto Montt, looking for somewhere to spend the night. We ignored the depressing guy selling hotel accommodation who told us he hated everything about Chile in an American accent, and went with a tiny woman advertising her B&B. The conversation was somewhat circular, “my B&B is very clean, yes very clean” but I admired her bravery, collecting complete strangers at the bus terminal. Because she has a bad leg, we needed to take a collectivo (fixed fee/route shared taxi) but finding three seats in one during rush hour was worse than a bad auction. Our landlady practically (wo)man-handled some poor bloke out of the cab to make room for us all.
Our host told us that we needed to pick up the daughter before going back to the hostel.
“Here we go,” I thought. We had booked dinner at ‘Cotele’, Jeremy’s restaurant and time was ticking by.
“I didn’t agree to go to your B&B to be taken on a grand tour of Puerto Montt,” I complained. “We need a shower now.”
It was only when I heard the driver phoning her daughter and telling her she would have to wait at school another hour that I realised my misunderstanding. The lady had agreed to take us subject to the proviso that we would pick the kid up on the way. I felt bad.
As I stepped into the warm shower, all was forgotten.