As many of you have figured out by now, both Nick and I made it home safely to Melbourne from our last stop of Santiago, Chile.
After my harrowing defeat at the hands of the Lanin Volcano, I journeyed to Chile in search of some rather last-minute adventure. Puerto Montt was my first stop and the port town’s main industry is salmon farming… mmm. I like salmon. My plan was to arrange a visit to the San Rafael glacier from Puerto Montt. Unfortunately, it was low season and no tours were running, at least not in the places I looked, so I took the 22-hour bus ride to Coyhaique, the closest major town to the San Rafael Lagoon (which isn’t technically a lagoon) to see if I could get lucky.
While I was lucky to get off Lanin with my life intact, I was not so lucky with hitching a ride to the glacier. Being accessible only by plane or boat, unless I wanted to fork out a truly obscene amount of money to charter a 6-seater plane for only one person, I would have to settle with missing out on the glacier this time around. I resigned to spending the remaining day that I had sending off the last of my postcards and just relaxing before making my way north to Valparaiso then Santiago. However, it seemed that lady luck had one more surprise left in store for me. I managed to get talking with a pilot who was part-owner of a charter plane company who had an interesting idea.
Taking the 6-seater up would cost too much for it to be worth my while. They did, however, have a 2-seater Cessna which they use for training pilots which, although lacked the range for a trip to the glacier, would be a fun way of getting a (literally) birds-eye view of the majestically beautiful surroundings of Coyhaique. There was just one slight complication, of course – the weather. The start of winter meant that the order of the day was overcast which was not especially conducive to a sightseeing flight in a dual-control aeroplane.
Thankfully, on my last afternoon, at 4pm the clouds finally cleared. I was finally going up. Now, if I’d thought about this carefully, I would have remembered the well-known fact that I am not particularly fond of flying. When I was getting buckled up in the plane, I did finally remember and I suddenly became a little jittery. The Cessna wasn’t just a light aircraft… it was a light aircraft’s light aircraft. The cabin was smaller than his car, a Volkswagen beetle which had long passed its use-by date. We drove to the airstrip at breakneck speed in order to get as much time in the air as we could while there was still adequate light. My pilot friend was very casual about the whole thing, he went through a checklist which may have well been a shopping list as he twiddled the various knobs on the dashboard and prepared for the flight.
We took off without incident, all the while the pilot explaining to me, in spanglish, the ins and outs of how to fly a plane. Not that I was paying too much attention, I was concentrating very hard on not throwing up as every little eddy and gust made the plane shake in a way which would make you suspect that the pilot had Parkinson’s disease. At least the view was very good. Certainly not something you see out of a tour bus… talk about suffering for your art. Coyhaique was surprisingly smoggy from the air and the view was interesting in that it allowed for a great view of the pentagonal town “square” which confused me to no end during my first few hours walking about. My pilot pointed the nose of the plane down towards the town so that I could get a better view through the front window which was the only transparent surface which wasn’t hopelessly scratched up, then he did something very foolish.
He gave me control of the plane.
I fared surprisingly well. It was just like the hundreds of computer flight simulators I had flown, except that it made my stomach churn like no computer ever could. I managed to keep my guts on the inside and pilot a light aircraft for about five minutes. Then he asked me if I wanted to land it… which is about the point when I freaked out a little bit and gave a very sheepish “no”.
After Coyhaique, it was Valparaiso for a day and a night then onto Santiago where I would reunite with Nick who had spent the last week trekking around the Torres del Paine national park. By now thoroughly exhausted from travelling at a rather brisk pace, I wanted to just relax a little so we just walked around the city for a few hours during our last full day in latin America. That night, I arranged to meet with an old friend of mine who featured prominently in the minutes of my last meeting with this continent – Lucy, a kiwi lawyer who has now been working in Chile for about five years. I thought it apt to finish my time here with a meeting with one of the first people I met when I set foot on this continent (I also stayed at the same place I stayed at the last time I was here).
While at dinner, various things were discussed all manner of topics from the variation in different Spanish accents in latin America to rebellion while at boarding school to the merits of “broad individuals” and it was strangely reassuring to have a bit of a yarn with someone who had a fairly thick Kiwi accent. During this conversation I learned of an incident where the Chilean army was conducting a routine exercise high in the mountains and were at a mountain refuge when bad weather set in (does this sound familiar to anyone?). Anyway, they came to the same decision that we did, which was to turn around and get off the mountain. Like us, their hike back was 7-8 hours long. So off they went, in the awful weather…
About forty of them died.
I was very thankful that Lucy told me this *after* my adventure on the Lanin volcano. I knew that my little expedition was quite dangerous, but it had never really occurred to me that people could actually die doing the things that I was doing. My failed expedition to Lanin had suddenly rocketed up the rankings to the top spot for “most dangerous thing I did while overseas” (and it is definitely the thing I most want to attempt again on my return).
I looked down at my feet. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”. Click, click, click… nothing happened. Damn. I guess I would have to brave one more very long plane ride… oh well, 20 hours on a plane is nothing after what I’ve been though.
Returning to Australia was very strange. Not only did I find it strange that everyone was complaining about how cold it was (cold, but nothing compared to Ushuaia). While I’ve managed to get through five months overseas without getting significantly ill, I’ve still managed to do some very silly things. A leading contender for the title of silliest thing, however, happened the day after I returned.
I went to athletics training.
Although I had spent much time at altitude while away, I hadn’t actually done very much exercise. I bludgeoned my muscles through most of the session, but by the end, the lactic acid caught up with me. I sat down and said casually “I need to sit down”. One of the people on the squad who is also on this email list informed everyone else of the fact that I had returned to Melbourne after a 20-hour transit from Chile only a day ago… the feeling in the squad was unanimous – I was insane.
It is good to be home though. Being able to flush toilet paper, not worrying about where I’m going to sleep from day to day and being able to drink the tap water are just a few of the things which I’ve missed for the last five months. Interestingly, I will only be in Melbourne for another two months, then I leave for world speedskating championships in Cali, Colombia… then I fly to New York City to start a Masters degree at Columbia University. Hahaha, from Colombia to Columbia… (you can groan now)
In addition to the normal photographs of all the places I’ve been to, I’ve also added a gallery “signs of life” in which I present and comment on some of the stranger signs that I’ve come across during this trip. I’ve also added post-liminaries (as opposed to preliminaries) which includes a map, a grid and a pie chart.
I hope everyone on this list has enjoyed following me through my many marvellous misadventures over the last five months. I’ve really enjoyed all the feedback and comments that people have made in response to all that I’ve done.
In spiritu et veritate