Strong winds blowing off the glaciers below tossed the little plane around like a leaf on the breeze, but Vincent didn’t appear concerned. He gently nudged the controls to the right and coaxed the Cessna precariously close to a craggy ridge. It seemed an odd thing to do given the immensity of open airspace surrounding us, but I knew he was an experienced aviator. Just as we neared a massive wall of granite an invisible wave of air pushed hard against the wings instantly hauling us higher into the sky. His mastery of air currents and familiarity with the terrain was birdlike, and certainly reassuring.
With the optimal altitude achieved, he put the plane into a hard lean, this time slicing an elegant arc between two alpine spires. As the wings levelled out his voice crackled in my headset, “There it is, Mount Fitzroy.” Scarcely able to comprehend the magnitude of the scene, I turned to him and said something I never thought I’d say to a pilot. “Can I open the window now?”
He pulled back the throttle, adjusted the flaps, and we slowed to what felt like an impossible hover. A little nervous of what to expect, I pushed the window open and a howl of cold air swirled about the cabin. I stuck my camera lens into the void and cracked off a rapid succession of shots before the peak slipped out of frame. Vincent’s voice came through my headset again, “Did you get it?” The plane abruptly yawed to the left. “Let’s make another pass.”
For the next hour we swooped around monoliths and skimmed the frozen surface of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. Coloured in ethereal shades of blue and white it was difficult to detect the line where the ice stopped and the sky began. I turned to my travel mates in the seats behind me, all of them wearing the same expression of utter bewilderment. Another voice came over the intercom, “This is the best motorcycle tour – ever.”
When I first spoke with Daniel Palazzolo of Moto Patagonia about the prospect of joining him on a motorcycle trip into southern Chile he was quick to mention many things. Motorcycles were not one of them. I took that as a good sign. Too many times I have sacrificed travel experiences for mile-making, only to let the world whiz by in a technicolour blur. What Daniel proposed sounded like high adventure both on and off the bike. Hours after Vincent returned us to the airfield, my head still lost in the clouds, I realized I had made the right choice.
A week earlier our group of six converged on the small town of Puerto Varas on the shores of Lake Llanquihue. Known as the City of Roses, its Bavarian-inspired buildings and views of Osorno volcano made for a beautiful introduction to Chile’s southern frontier. We busied ourselves the first day sorting gear and dragging our fingers over maps as Daniel outlined the itinerary in precise detail. As much as I enjoy trip planning, I relished the idea of relinquishing those duties to a local pro. Age has simplified my travel process. All I require these days is a bike and a wheel to follow.
Still weary from the long flight to the bottom of the Earth, our crew awoke early the next morning for a sunrise start. As I’m prone to do on the eve of a big adventure I didn’t sleep and had my gear mounted to my Kawasaki KLR 650 well before it was necessary. It was all I could do to not accidentally honk my horn to rouse the rabble and get the show going. Eventually our sleepy-eyed cadre gathered, and engines stirred. Amidst the glow of a pink-hued dawn we rolled onto Chile’s most famous road – the Carretera Austral.
Officially known as Route 7, the country’s southernmost roadway is relatively new. Commissioned in 1976 by Augusto Pinochet, it was built to access the remote villages and government outposts hemmed in by the Andes Mountains and the archipelago of the Pacific coast. The terrain is so unforgiving the southernmost kilometre wasn’t completed until the year 2000. Today the 1,247km route terminates on the shores of Lake O’Higgins at a tiny village of the same name. Beyond is a wheel-defying warren of glaciers and deep fjords flanked by impenetrable mountains.
With chilled coastal air sneaking into my jacket, our first few miles of paved highway carved a serpentine route along the rocky coastline. Small fishing villages dotted the shore with dozens of colourful boats anchored in the shallows or hauled onto rocky beaches. It was difficult to take it all in with our brisk tempo. Each successive turn seemed to bring more speed as we settled into our machines. It was all I could do to keep pace with Daniel and John. Quick reward glances occasionally revealed the headlights of Charles, James, and Curt. We weren’t racing, but we did need to beat the clock. And time was ticking.
Travelling the Carretera Austral isn’t physically demanding, but it is a logistical jigsaw puzzle. During our eleven-day trip to Villa O’Higgins and back, our timing had to coincide with the inflexible schedules of a dozen ferry boats. The most important departure, one we could not afford to miss, left the coastal hamlet of Hornopirén at 10:30am on the first day. Despite our swift tempo we managed to roll onto the loading ramp with six minutes to spare.
Had it not been for ferry schedules it would have been easy to get lost to Patagonian time. It is a place where summer days are curiously long, and epochs are measured in millennia. While riding through Parque Pumalín, a 400,000 hectare nature preserve established by American entrepreneur Doug Tompkins, Daniel pulled off the gravel road into a small pull-out. We shed our riding gear and walked down a narrow path into the thickly wooded forest. In an instant the clock turned back to the primordial beginnings of time.
On either side of the path fist-sized fiddleheads poked up from massive ferns. They were big, but dwarfed by the leaves of the nalca plant. More commonly known as Chilean rhubarb, their leaves are often two meters in diameter. Towering above the primeval underbrush, and challenging my sense of scale, were the real megaliths of the forest. Like woodland skyscrapers closely spaced alerce trees reached heights of 45m. A close relative of the redwood, the most ancient alerce trees are nearly 4,000 years old.
The further into Patagonia we travelled, the more enchanted I became with the landscape. Glaciers and waterfalls draped over cliff walls and low clouds snagged on rocky summits. Valleys were carpeted in purple seas of blooming lupine and the calm waters of narrow fjords took on a glassy sheen. But Mother Nature has a fickle, and not always serene disposition. While taking a break from the bikes we stopped to take pictures of Chaitén volcano, still steaming from its 2008 eruption. Some mountains wore the scars of landslides, often intersecting with roadways and villages. They served as reminders of the natural shapeshifting of Patagonia’s landscape.
When Pinochet sent his construction crews south to scrape Route 7 into the unforgiving frontier, he may not have fully appreciated the scope of the project. The route is continually interrupted by wide rivers, high mountain passes, lakes the size of inland seas, and the ocean itself carves deep into the mountains with narrow inlets. For the 20,000 workers to have toiled over the course of two decades, the project must have seemed interminable if not impossible. It’s easy to revisit those years of hard labour, as it continues today. The Carretera Austral is in a perpetual state of construction with work zones a regular backdrop to a day’s riding.
Before I departed for my trip I had been warned of the inevitable creep of pavement slowly blanketing Chile’s once rugged road. A friend went so far as to say, “You missed the golden years of Route 7. It’s a gentlemen’s lane now, tarmac top to bottom.” With my wheels cutting a deep furrow into loose gravel as I bumped the throttle hard to stay upright, I revisited his words and revelled in the fact he was patently wrong. Despite the best efforts of Chile’s road crews, the Carretera Austral remains defiant. While many miles have been paved, the bulk of the route is still rough and wild.
As the days carried on, I began to notice how the roadway had taken on a life of its own as it fought against the paving machines. After another early morning start, we rode headlong into a thick wall of grey clouds just as the route made an abrupt transition from pavement to gravel. I downshifted to a more prudent gear as the road began to twist upward into the clouds. We had arrived at the 16 switchbacks within Parque Naciónale Queulat.
Rolling onto the throttle as I exited a sharp bend, the rear wheel wagged and resisted. I gave the KLR another kick, my speed increasing with each oncoming hairpin. The road continued to narrow as it got steeper. Rock walls closed in on either side with massive nalca leaves protruding into my path. Up ahead Daniel’s speed increased as a headlight behind periodically popped into my mirror. Faster and faster we went, making sport of the wet rocks and potholes strewn throughout the road. It was obvious, this section of the Carretera Austral didn’t want to be paved. It wouldn’t be paved.
My visor covered in wet dirt, I tilted it upward to get a better view. We had arrived at the summit of a high mountain pass. In just a few minutes we had ascended 800m into a verdant cloud forest. Overhead I could see a teasing glimpse of the Queulat ice field perched atop a crop of high alpine summits. We stopped briefly to soak in the vista as clouds drifted around the peaks. All I could hear was the quiet patter of rain on my helmet. One by one we fired up our engines. Only twenty minutes later, after dropping down more twisted and narrow roadway, we arrived in the tiny village of Puyuhuapi. A fleet of fishing boats moored at the end of the fjord belied our proximity to the open ocean which was more than 100km to the west.
Adventure riders have always been drawn to remote tracks, particularly those with distant ends terminating in far flung destinations. After arriving at the sign marking the southern-most terminus of the Carretera Austral and taking the celebratory pictures to prove we had been there, we gathered at a small restaurant in the center of Villa O’Higgins where Vincent and Daniel had arranged a special meal.
In the center of the room a whole lamb roasted on an iron rack in front of an open fire. A cook carefully tended to the meat periodically basting it with salted water, shifting it closer or further from the flames as needed. Our group of six, still buzzing from the 1,247km covered and our flight over the ice fields, tilted beers and recounted the adventures of the previous week. We then took turns with knife in hand carving large chunks off the roasted lamb. The room was instantly made quiet as everyone tucked into their meal, almost euphoric by the smokey flavour of our guest of honor. Over the clink of joined beer bottles, someone broke the silence and said, “This is the best motorcycle trip ever.”
This article first appeared in Overland Magazine issue 22