Almost three months have passed since my last update. Three months full of wonderful encounters, impressions, unforgettable moments between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas.
Along the still adventurous Carretera Austral, under hanging glaciers, in hidden fyords, with rapid rivers, protected by giant trees thousands of years old, drinking Mate-tea with Argentinian boarder patrol…
The past two weeks we were four, travelling with our dear friends Romeo and Noemi from Austria that had come to visit us to share some of the experiences.
In Patagonia, Gregor and I consistently have been cming to places, where we excitedly proclaimed: “We want to show them that when they are here!” We have become so fond of some of the people and places that it was clear that we were going to re-visit them on this trip – despite of sometimes unimaginably bad transportation. There were encounters that had touched us and helped a lot with our work (me especially with the documentary I am doing), often it had felt like with long-time friends.
Since bus transportation or hitch-hiking with four people can take up quite a lot of time in Patagonia, we rented a car for a couple of days in Coyhaique to visit Parque Pumalín and the up to 3000-year-old Alerce trees once again. In Pumalín we had spent a whole week around new year’s, therefore, the visit felt like coming home. We went to see those lovely people in Caleta Gonzalo (where we found one of the most beautiful campsites in the whole world!!!) that had welcomed us before with open arms to drink Mate. We sat at the fire place of the cozy restaurant that – like the other buildings in the park – is made out of recycled wood. And we watched dolphins in the bay of the fyord early in the morning. The park had been closed for more than two years, because the unexpected erupation of the Volcán Chaitén had buried the nearby town of the same name with 80 centimetres of wet ashes, which made passing through impossible. Up until today there are no running water or electricity in Chaitén (only a few generators)! Some of the residents have returned to their houses on their own and without financial support are trying to rebuild or dig out their homes. Pumalín Park opened its doors again on the 15th of December. What a difference compared to all other national parks or nature reserves I have ever seen – the tenderly carved signposts, well-kept paths, esthatic wooden houses… In short, Pumalín is always worth a trip, despite the 7 metres of annual precipitation! And maybe others are as lucky as we are to experience sunshine during their visit (both times!!!), blue sky, full moon and clear starry nights. The Alerce trees (similar to the Caliornian Redwood trees or cypresses, only more gigantic and majestic) are impressive when it is raining too, but in other regions only to be reached after long and exhausting day-hikes. For example like that crossing of a pass we tried on Christmas Eve from Río Puelo to Hornopirén in the pouring rain, when we had decided to return and walk the six hours back to the village because missing signalisation made it hardly possible with the big backpack to go on.
In Pumalín Park the Alerce trees grow all the way to the dirt road. The story goes that on one of his many trips to Chile, Douglas Tompkins saw all these wood chips next to giant trees that had been cut down. When they told him that the chips were going to be processed into computer paper for Japan, literally from one day to another he sold his two companies, North Face and Esprit, in order to devote himself to the conservation of biodiversity. Together with his wife Kris, he has been doing that now for more than 20 years. Presently they are working on building the future Patagonia National Park that will include the former and pretty badly over-pastured Estancia Chacabuco and to national reserves in the north and south. (www.parquepumalin.cl, www.conservacionpatagonica.org)
I visited Chacabuco twice in order to learn more about the process of building a national park and the challenges of connecting ecological and social interests with exclusively economic once – or to question the the latter.
Along the legendary and seldomly paved Carretera Austral that connects Purto Montt with Villa O’Higgins – only interrupted in the Pumalín Park, where steep slopes and the many islands and fyords make the building of a road basically impossible – Gregor and I have been hitch-hiking a lot. The combination of little traffic and the big number of backpackers from Israel that aren’t particularly popular around here, often turns four-hour car rides into long day trips not knowing whether we could actually get to where we wanted.
I was excited to finally get to drive on that dirt road that ruggedly rocks you to sleep, when you sit on a bus or in the back of a car. Romeo and I alternately drove the pick-up, and we felt a little bit like ralley-drivers. From the city of Coyhaique, which – thanks to Peter’s warm welcome – that carries an enormous amount of water. Peter coordinates the campagne against the building of the dams at the rivers Río Baker and Río Pascua has become a sort of “home base” in the south, we took the bus further down the Carretera Austral to Puerto Bertrand, where the turquoise Río Baker arises (www.patagoniasinrepresas.cl). At one of his daily Mate morning ceremonies he told us very emotionally about the Río Baker that we were inspired to spend many weeks with the river. Here as well we experienced fantastic encounters, and again were welcomed back with open arms. With Romeo and Noemi we spent the night at our dear friend Marianne’s land, right at the junction of the two rivers Baker and Nef, where the Río Baker changes his colour distinctly for the first time. The sound of river in the background, a clear starry night, looking up at the constellation of the Southern Cross – there simply are no words!
From here we actually did manage to hitch-hike as the group of four that we were. On the back of a pickup we went all the way to the small town of Cochrane, further down along the river. The driver was a German biologist accompagnied by his Bolivian girl-friend, who together were trying to find a certain kind of plants for his PhD research. Next day we went to Villa O’-Higgins. Only since 1999 the road has been connecting this even smaller village with the rest of the country! And one day later we hiked across the boarder from Chile over to Argentina, the mountain top of Fitz Roy in front of us. Here the Argentinian boarder patrol invited us to drink Mate together and Calafate Liqueur.
I had really been looking forwad to Argentina, but what a shock to arrive in El Chaltén after having travelled the remote Carretera Austral. Gregor noted that over the last few years the town has grown at least three times. El Calafate too was everything but a moony village. The city seems to be living solely from tourism to the close and certainly spectacular Perito Moreno glacier. Noemi and I felt a little bit like “walking wallets”.
Yesterday I was sitting in Puerto Natales, starting point to the famous Torres del Paine national park, where we spent two days. After all the other hikes and places I was not accustomed to meet that many treckers and campers in a national park, but this is where people usually go, if they want to do trecking in Patagonia. I am not writing about all the other places that we have visited in Patagonia so far, because I am filming a lot anyway and will finish an exciting film once I get back. In that film some people tell their moving stories, they have shared very personal moments with us. And condors fly over rapid waterfalls to rise up further to the mountains.
Today I am sitting in Punta Arenas, and over the next few days I will most probably hike to the lighthouse that is located at the southernmost point of the American continent. Then I will have seen Patagonia from North to South, I have gotten to know this part of the world a bit better and maybe learned to understand parts of it.
Places like Coyhaique and Puerto Natales have a live without tourism. And I ask myself if there are ways to support the so-called eco-tourism (even a field of study at the universities of Santiago and Vina del Mar) without the places loosing their character, even in the more remote regions of the country, where they have high unemployment rates. Let nature be with all its beauty and erratic force, like it is still allowed to exist today in most parts of Patagonia. Without destroying it for energy generation for the mines up in the north thousands of kilometres away.
Thus we have decided to take all the time we want and need on this trip we keep meeting people that stand up for the conservation of this uniqueness, simply because they care. These encounters have inspired me, and we can always award each other with the right words to maintain courageous and give strenght, when dreams seam to be very far away. Because it DOES matter, if the flow of the Río Baker is distroyed by the building of two dams, or if it is allowed to continue streaming down savage and untamed. It matters to the people who live there, who would be forced to give up their land, it matters to the many animals that live there and it matters to me now that I was fortunate enough to experience parts of the river a little bit, after rafting over two rapids, after looking out at this unique blue colour for many hours.
The name Patagonia describes a vague area, the “boarders” of which are not defined, where still exist unexplored territory. A place that reminds me of how enormous the force of our earth is and how small we are compared to that. And so Patagonia stays a myth to me, a myth that encourages me to dream and much more: it shows me how important it is to stay on the personal and professional path that I have chosen for me and to try and do something in live – like Douglas Tompkins said to me: “All of us have to roll up our sleeves before it is to late!”