From: Kirstie and Stuart
Subject: Into the Crowded Wilderness
Date: 23rd December 1999
Place: Coihaique, Chile
Sometimes in life
Sometimes in life you meet the most extraordinary people in the most ordinary places. We met Nadine in a Ferreteria (a hardware store). She was buying some magnets to complete the Polynesian handcarved storage cabinets for her 25 metre yacht. We were buying a litre of degreasing fluid. She interrupted us as we quibbled in English about the price of WD40. “You speak English. Great! Have you done any sailing before? Would you like to come and help crew our yacht around the Fjords and Islands of Southern Chile?”
24 hours later and we were loading our bikes and panniers onto “Nanu”, less of a luxury yacht and more a family home. A beautiful, white, twin-masted boat, built over 3 years in New Zealand by one Polish man, Bernard, Captain and Nadine’s husband. A young girl, dressed as a Polynesian dancer, took the panniers from us. “Do you know any Polynesian dancing?” she asked as she swayed her hips to a Tahiti rhythm swinging the bags around onto the deck. “You’ll need to. Don’t worry I’ll teach you” She showed us around the inside of the boat with its beautifully carved wood panel cabins. “This is where the crew sleep.. that should be you.” The Captain’s voice boomed down from the bridge where he sat poring over his charts, pipe in one hand, sextant in the other, “But instead we have given you the honeymoon suite.”
The honeymoon suite
The honeymoon suite turned out to be a tiny triangular cabin, with a soft cushioned floor, set right in the bow, next to the anchor. Not a place to be if the weather turned bad or when the Captain wanted the anchor raised, but as romantic as it gets for two cyclists more used to bedding down on a hard gravel floor. We climbed back on deck and heard a voice coming from high above us. “Do you know how to do a bowline?” Blonde, tousle haired Sylvan, 7 years old, more comfortable in flippers than shoes, called down to us from 50 feet up in the mast. “You’ll need to. I’ll show you how” he cried as he leapt off the mast into the sea, while Dinky, the three legged family dog hobbled around excitedly sniffing out the new crew.
Meet the crew and Neptune
The other crew were a couple of Americans from Seattle. They had come to Chile to live in Puerto Montt but their plan had backfired when they got there and found they really didn’t like it. So, they were on the boat to buy time, do some thinking together to decide what to do next. Some couples seem to be joined at the hip but these two were welded together. Doing anything required intensive consultation to get the full agreement of the other, accompanied by a mutual exchange of “Hey hunny, what do you think?”
As the boat set sail, the Captain deftly produced a half full bottle of his favourite Polish Vodka from underneath his charts and insisted it was customary for the whole crew to toast Neptune, God of the Sea. “One sip for you…. and one for Neptune. but not too much for Neptune” he grunted through his beard as he downed three quarters of a tumbler of Vodka and tossed a solitary drop into the Sea. With the formalities over, we cast off to the bark of the Captain’s orders. “Unfurl the sails. No, not that sail. Pull on the winch. No, not THAT one. Pull up the anchor. The big anchor not the small one. LEAVE THE SMALL ONE ALONE” he snapped at his wife while we stood helplessly at the end of the deck watching with alarm and looking longingly at our saddles.
An extraordinary family and dog
Over the course of the next week, we discovered this family was truly extraordinary. They had been sailing around the world as a family for three years, after having hand built the boat themselves in New Zealand.
Nadine was a French New Zealander with Vietnamese ancestry, an educational psychologist who started travelling as a teenager working on a prawn trawler and never really stopped. Captain’s mate, mother, host, cook and teacher of her children and each crew she took on. She challenged our beliefs about how best to bring up children and equip them for life in the world.
Then Bernard, 20 years older than Nadine, with a grumpy exterior shaped by the responsibilities of Captaincy but with a sense of fun and a wicked chuckle. This was the third boat he had designed and built himself. A natural sailor who had taken his family across all the world’s oceans and never had a day’s sea sickness.
And Sofia, 11 years old, already quadlingual, brought up touring the world on a papoose on her mother’s back. (Now there’s an idea!) She lived in a world of make believe which involved frequent changes of costume and was convinced that anyone who wasn’t involved in boating worked in the circus.
And finally, Sylvan, born in the Bush and raised on the boat. Already a skilled hunter and tracker who could make fire under any conditions, and usually did. He was already shaping up well as a good second mate to his Dad. Between them they taught us all we needed to know. An interesting experience being led and taught by a seven year old boy.. and sometimes putting your life in his young hands.
We spent a week cruising the deep blue fjords around Chiloe and Puerto Montt, taking kayaks to uninhabited islands under the heat of the Chilean summer sun. Each night local fishermen would drop by the boat offering their latest catch of giant pink salmon, fresh corvina, bags of mussels. One of them, Alfonso, also a boat builder, took an interest in Bernard’s yacht. In exchange for the Captain’s tour he offered to take us all on an hour long walk to the lake beside his house. We turned up, a motley crew dressed in shorts, sandals and sunglasses. Alfonso led the way, casually hacking his way through virgin jungle with a freshly sharpened machete. He was closely followed by Sylvan, brandishing a very large but thankfully blunt stick, mimicking precisely Alfonso’s every move. Progress was hampered not only by the dense jungle and slippery bogs but by the need to stop every few hundred yards to help each other burn leeches off our exposed skin, a tip Stuart had gleaned not through experience but through intensive study of the SAS Survival Handbook which had proved so invaluable with the volcanoes and earthquakes in Ecuador. None the less, he impressed the rest of the party and particularly Sylvan with his jungle savvy.
Three long hours later we reached the lake. and turned straight around to find our way back before dark. It was then we were hit by a really unpleasant smell. “Yuk. Dinky is REALLY stinky” said Sylvan disgustedly as he pushed the three legged mutt away with his stick. The smell was truly foul. It seemed the unfortunate dog had limped across a skunk while foraging through the jungle. This experience seemed to make him even more affectionate than usual as he rubbed himself up and down our legs, already raw and stinging from the burning of the leeches. We returned to the boat where the Captain refused permission to board until we had all been doused in a freshly prepared light bleach solution. As we wiped the last of the bleach away, Sofia suggested an N party to lift everyone’s spirits. We were all required to turn up to dinner dressed as something beginning with the letter N.
The N Party
At N o’clock, we sat down to a banquet of NOODLES and NECTARINES followed by NESCAFE . and of course the obligatory Polish Vodka, which we all agreed would be known for the evening as NODKA, much to Sofia’s dismay.
At the head of the table, dressed entirely in black with a giant N sellotaped to his tracksuit sat Captain NEGRO (black in Spanish). On his right sat Sofia as NARANJA, face painted bright orange, adorned with an orange peel necklace, wearing nothing more than an orange bikini. Next to her sat Dinky, proudly displaying his new orange peel collar, straining his neck trying to nibble at it as an aperitif. Then the Welds who had come as each other after a long period of consultation. Boy weld put on a skirt and filled out his blouse with socks, pinning a little sign to his soft new breasts saying “Yo Soy NATASHA” to ensure there was no confusion. She came as a NERD. Then sat Kirstie, bedecked as an old fishing NET, with old wellington boots and fish-heads hanging around her neck along with a collection of mussels left over from last night’s dinner. Then Stuart, with specially composed limericks about everyone one the ship pinned all over his body, all written in the style of Edward Lear’s NONSENSE poems. Then the piece de resistance, Nadine, the NUTTER, unashamedly wearing a frilly yellow nightie, her hair in bunches and curlers, delicately offset by earrings made out of Pistachio nut shells, her handbag filled with plastic bags and onions which spilled out onto the table, and finally fishnet stockings and slippers to show off her legs. She looked a treat.
Bernard fell in love once more and winked affectionately at Nadine. We silently wondered if he had seen this outfit once or twice before in the privacy of his own cabin on a long and boring sea crossing. At the other end of the table, sitting in a sulk was Sylvan.
“What have you come as Sylvan?” asked the NUTTER.
“Nothing .. .this stupid party wasn’t my idea.”
“NOTHING. That’s a very imaginative response to what must be a difficult situation for you” the NUTTER praised her child as we all downed another NODKA.
The party finished in disarray when a strong NORTHERLY brought proceedings unexpectedly to a halt, causing everyone (except Bernard) to run for the nearest bucket. NAUSEA, the perfect end to the perfect N party.
All good things must come to an end
At the end of 8 days cruising we found ourselves back where we started, at the beginning of the Carreterra Austral. As they dropped us onto the jetty and cruised off, we waved goodbye and were entranced for a watching imaginary silver trails of a school of Dolphins following them out to sea. And then we were back on our bikes, ready for the long ride on the road to nowhere. Five days of isolation on a rough dirt track and we hadn’t seen any other cyclists or tourists. And then.. disaster struck when the chain on Kirstie’s bicycle snapped clean in two. The disaster became a crisis when the only tool which could fix the problem sheared in half as well. We sat and looked despairingly at the chainless bike and broken tool, holding the ends of the chain in either hand. And the rain poured down. We were four days ride and a twelve hour, once a week, ferry crossing from the nearest bike shop heading North. and six days ride from the nearest cycle shop South. What’s more we were at least 50km in either direction from a phone or any signs of population. “What are the odds of this happening.. both the chain and the chain repair tool breaking? We are really stuffed.” We decided the only thing we could do was sleep on it and see what the morning would bring. We went to sleep praying for a miracle, dreaming up crazy schemes of pushing the bike 200km to an airfield where we could charter a plane to Santiago for repairs.
When we woke, the reality of our situation hit us once more. ” We are done for” said Stuart as he unzipped the front of the tent. “I don’t even know what to suggest. This is worse than the bike going missing.. Oh my God, I don’t believe it.. Kirst another cyclist. RUN AND STOP HIM”
Kirstie got up, barefooted, dressed only in a bra and knickers and legged it onto the stony road after our potential saviour.
“STOP. HELP ME. PLEASE. I NEED YOU.”
Ten yards ahead the bicycle skidded to a halt and its trailing trolley full of luggage veered off the road and into a ditch. A lonely looking, bespectacled young man, dressed in a pair of baggy shorts, looked Kirstie up and down in amazement thinking that maybe his prayers had been answered. Kirstie pounced on him, “Do you speak English and are you carrying a chain link extractor?” Praise God he was.
We effected a temporary repair and the other cyclist, a Canadian, offered to cycle the 50km with us to the next village in case the chain broke again. As we gratefully accepted his help, out of the rain came a sleek, streamlined, impeccably dressed being, the silver of his helmet glinting through the mist. Wearing a lycra cyclists’ jumpsuit over a crisp white Tshirt, with Armani sunglasses, a shaven head and an unshaven chin.
“I am from Milan” he said.
We could have guessed. In the hand of international friendship, we offered him a cup of instant coffee which he turned down disdainfully.
“Italians NEVER drink Nescafe.”
Help from a hero
We set off together, the Italian in the lead. At the first hill he got off his bike and pushed. Kirstie was delighted.
“Excellent a pusher. Now I won’t feel so bad about pushing up some of these hills. Hey wait a minute. Why is he pushing? It’s not even a big hill. I can’t believe he’s pushing this hill. I’m cycling it. There’s no way I’d push this hill. He’s an Italian wimp and I’m a cycling machine.”
At the top of the hill, the Italian stopped and changed his T-shirt as we cycled on ahead. At one o’clock the international cycling tour stopped for lunch. The Canadian impressed us all by getting out a bag of flour, proceeding to build a make-shift Tandoori oven in which to bake his own bread. Thinking that a bit ambitious we English brewed up a nice cup of tea on our camp stove. Meanwhile, the Italian changed into yet another Tshirt, hung out three more to air along with a pair of pure white socks and began to nibble on bread and honey. An hour later as we were packing up, the Canadian was forced to abandon waiting for his bread to rise and hurriedly cobbled together a flat fried bread sandwich with a bit of old cheese and we began to see cracks in our superhuman saviour. Having shared bread and water we all cycled on together to the next village.
We were grateful to the Canadian for his help with our chain problems and wondered how we could possibly repay his kindness. At the village we checked into a Hostal, longing for a shower after five days roughing it.
“I’d like to camp” said the Canadian, “Perhaps I can camp in the garden of your hotel?”
We negotiated this for him and offered him the use of our shower. We then went off to try and phone England to organise the shipping of a new chain. When we returned, the freshly showered Canadian was cooking his dinner outside our room. Unable to get hot water for our showers , we asked him how he had managed.
“Oh I had to have a cold one. I couldn’t get the pilot light lit.”
We lit the pilot light with a match, showered and went to dinner. The Italian was already seated with a glass of wine, tucking into his soup.
“I have checked into the nice hotel down the road. It was there and I was knackered. It is very expensive though so I have to eat here.”
We sat down to dinner with him and tried to generate some conversation.despite our limited shared vocabulary.
“Have you ever been cycle touring before?” Stuart asked.
“No, never before. Never on a bicycle. I read about this journey in a book. This book” he said as he produced a pristine, hardback copy of a large book from his saddlebag, “It’s very famous in Italy.. by an Italian pop singer. I’m not following him you understand. And I don’t like his music. Just the journey OK?” he growled.
We nodded and loudly slurped our soup wondering what to say next.
“So what tools are you carrying in case you have chain problems?” asked Kirstie.
He thought for a moment and then, “Well, I have got four of those rubber things that go inside the wheels.” and then he paused for a long time, and continued “and nine Tshirts.”
We gave thanks he didn’t come along instead of the Canadian but his conversation was very entertaining. He recounted how he had been sent to catch the Hornopiren ferry by a travel agency in Puerto Montt.
“I cycled for 4 days to get there. And it wasn’t running. People in Puerto Montt are very stupid” he spat, “Actually when I said stupid, what I meant was arseholes.”
At the end of the meal we bid goodnight to our companion, and went to our room, a portacabin affair next to the Canadian’s tent. He was waiting at our door. “Can I use your toilet?” Ten minutes later he came out of the bathroom. “I’m sorry I’ve used up all yout toilet paper.” We began to think the debt was repaid.
At four in the morning we were shocked from a deep slumber into conciousness by an incessant banging. With our adrenalin pumping, the room door flung open violently, throwing one of the bikes resting behind it onto the floor. A white searchlight darted around the room catching each of us sitting bolt upright like startled rabbits caught in a car’s headlights. As we waited for the sound of SAS gunfire, the light was fumbled on to reveal the spectacle of the unspectacled Canadian in his baggy shorts and Tshirt, head torch stuck to his matted hair. “I’m terribly sorry and very embarrassed about this…but is it alright if I use your toilet again?” The last words were shouted as he grabbed the bathroom door and threw himself inside where he and his bowels collapsed into the toilet. “You see.. I’ve got this violent diaorreah.” Kirstie turned over in her warm bed to go back to sleep muttering “I’m sorry there’s no toilet paper”
Two visits later, and morning arrived. As we went to breakfast the Canadian was waiting on our doorstep with a pile of things. “Can I use the bathroom?” We returned an hour later and he emerged from the bathroom, dribbling toothpaste. As he spat the last remains of mouthwash into our sink we felt the debt had definitely been repaid and the time had come to say goodbye. We never saw the Canadian again, but we met the Italian several more times along the road. Each time he caught us brewing up a cup of tea. Eventually, we caught him at a vulnerable moment. After four days of incessant wind and rain, when he was cold and wet, we finally persuaded him to surrender to a nice warming cup of Nescafe. As he sipped gratefully on the hot black liquid, he swore us to secrecy, to protect his reputation and that of his nation.
Christmas in Coihaique
Thankfully our repair held out until relative civilization in Coihaique… with its one bike shop containing a selection of bike parts from the 50’s and 60’s. We eventually managed to get a new chain and a new chain tool. It took three days and a cast of thousands including.. the local welder, called Madrid; Manuel Chaudra, President of the Coihaique Club de Cyclistas (total membership 7); Bike shops in Santiago, Puerto Montt and Puerto Aisen; three officers from the Regional Tourist Information Service; and a woman in a Sewing Shop who claimed she went to school with the queen and sang us all the verses to Auld Lang Syne (in English) encouraging us to join her in rehearsal for the big day coming up. Yes, really.
The crowded wilderness
And as we tuck into our Xmas dinner, we are once again looking forward to breaking new ground. After all, we’ve met more people and made more friends in the wilderness than we ever did cycling through civilisation. Maybe that’s what wilderness does to people. A guy in a coffee shop has told us it is just about possible to cycle the last part of ex President Pinochet’s dream road to Villa O Higgins.”It’s still something of a building site and just about the only people to have travelled the distance are the army and local cowboys.” So, we sought the necessary permissions from the army and the police, and now know it is theoretically possible to cross into Argentina via this route to complete our journey. All we need to do when the road runs out is find a man called “Pichincho” who owns the boat in Villa O Higgins and might be willing to take us across the lake from Chile to Argentina.. for a fee. Apparently he’ll do anything for money. So that’s the plan. Sounds a bit dodgy. But, as the Chief of Police in Coihaique said, “If it works.. EXCELLENT!! And if it doesn’t. then you’ll just have to pedal all the way back again! Good luck” he chuckled. “And a Happy New Year.”
And the same to all of you too.
Lots of love
Kirstie and Stuart