By Dr Gavin Lindhorst
It rained on the day we arrived at the northern desert town of Arica, 19km from the Peruvian border. The airport was flooded, and the road up to our ?base camp? Putre, 10,000ft in the Chilean Altiplano, was strewn with rock falls. Dense fog and failing light made the journey more treacherous. This is also the main trucking route from La Paz to their nearest port of Arica ? a further hazard on this road - a good start.
Lorna Ramsden and I were on a selection visit from Cape Town. The weather cleared over the ensuing days giving us the best of the Lauca National Park with its snow capped volcanoes (10 over 6,000m/18,00ft), scenic lakes, abundant bird life and rivers flowing in the borfedales where the alpaca graze. We saw the rare rhea, vizcacha (like a tail-less hare), the Andean goose, and others. The mornings were very cold, even in mid summer, but got increasingly hot as the sun gained height during the day. Our selection was done over three days visiting some 15 herds and viewing about 2,500 animals. There was another European importer in the same area, but fortunately looking more for coloured animals and on a tighter budget.
The younger generations of the local Aymara Indians are moving out of the traditional Altiplano villages down to the coastal towns. The stone and straw houses are so basic, even compared to African huts, and their weather is very severe. It is important to the alpaca industry that these pastoralists retain their livelihood.
This was my sixth visit to Chile and Lorna?s second. I had seen parts of their Lake District, winelands and Valparaiso with its very populated coastal areas. Lorna wanted to see the Patagonian ice fields and venture far south. Our second week was then aboard the Skorpios II on a cruise from Puerto Montt through the channels, fjords and archipelago of islands to the San Rafael glacier.
The company operates two weekly cruises, one out of Puerto Montt (1,000km S of Santiago) and the other out of Puerto Natales much further south, accessed usually from Punta Arenas airport. They operate September to May, offering three seasonal prices, with December to February being their high season. The ships are not cruise liners so can offer personal attention, yet have comfortable accommodation for up to 140 passengers. The cuisine is excellent, and the cruise price is inclusive of shore excursions, a thermal baths visit, including a traditional Chilean BBQ, and full bar.
Sporpios II cruised in flat calm waters between the uninhabited islands in the Los Chonos archipelago southward. They were named after the now extinct Indians of these islands who lived off the sea. We were shown photos in one informative evening presentation of how they hunted in open hide covered canoes, nearly naked ? the woman did the rowing and the man stood on the bow to harpoon his prey of fish, birds and seals. Other lectures were on towns visited, the formation and movement of glaciers and the effects of global warming.
We were blessed with clear weather. The snow capped Andes of the mainland served as a back drop to the ever changing foreground. The unpolluted air and the lack of urban lighting gave star gazers an unhindered view of the Southern Hemisphere?s night sky. Birds kept us aware we were always close to land and dolphins swimming abreast the boat seemed to want to navigate us through the safer passages. I am a sailor and appreciated that passengers had unrestricted access to the bridge ? loved checking the charts, chart plotter, depth sounder etc.
The highlight of this cruise is the visit to the San Rafael glacier and its ice strewn lagoon. Access is through a narrow and shallow channel, avoiding floating ice. Passengers disembark into two smaller vessels with reinforced hulls to traverse the lagoon to the icebergs and glacial wall. Three hours later an exhilarated and very cold group of passengers returned to the mother ship for warm up rum cocktails and lunch.
San Rafael is at latitude 44.5°S, which makes it the closest glacier to the equator that reaches the sea. It is part of the Northern Ice Field of Patagonia, estimated to be some 1,400m thick. We were shown the devastation of global warming ? painted on the eroded slopes of the mountain was the year and position of the glacial ?wall? over the past 50 odd years. Only the large Pio X1 glacier of the Southern Ice Field is still growing, all the others are receding. Yet, one waits to hear the thunderous crack and watch the awesome spectacle of a wall of ice plunging into the lagoon ? another piece of the glacier lost.
Photographs cannot do justice to the beauty and colour of the ice. It is a translucent blue to turquoise grey, better appreciated in overcast skies than full sunlight. The icebergs are nature?s sculptures. Our boat rams the smaller floating ice to show us the best of them. A cruise tradition is to hack off some of this 30,000 year old ice, place it in a tumbler and pour over 12 year old Ballantine whisky. Anything to counteract the penetrating cold ?
Sporpios was small enough to dock against a town pier or anchor in the bay and take passengers ashore in lifeboats. Harbour towns visited all had some quaint attraction, whether it be the architecture, history or the nature of the isolated people. One passed numerous salmon fish farms -- a fast growing industry of southern Chile. The visit to the thermal baths and walks in the lush environs was memorable, as were the 19th century churches built all of wood on the island of Chiloé.
We ended our working holiday with a day drive to Puerto Varas and visit to the surrounding lakes. This is a very scenic part of Chile with wooded hills and snow capped volcanoes reflected in the calm lake waters. One is then unfortunately forced back to busy airports, Santiago city, the flight over the majestic Andes to Buenos Aires and home to Cape Town ? the route the selected alpacas will be taking after they have completed their quarantine.