Seven Go Mad in Patagonia: Veterinary Surgeon and Writer Andrew Coe, Together with His Wife Sarah and Their Five Children, Took off in a Land Rover on an Eight-Week Expedition from Southern Chile to the Brazilian Border. (South America Adventure)

Article excerpt

PATAGONIA -- THE SOUTHERNMOST REGION of South America extending from the Andes to the Atlantic -- is one of the most magical destinations in the world. Its very name evokes a sense of space and wandering; free will and solitude; desolation and a pioneering spirit; of mountains and forests in the west and of wind and dust in the east.

So after three years of planning we left the Falkland Islands and shipped our Land Rover, Bluebell, from Stanley to Punta Arenas, Chile. We were setting out on our own pioneering journey to see if our `tank' would take all seven of us (me, my wife Sarah, and our five young children), northwards and then eastwards, back to Santana do Livramento in Brazil, where we had lived nearly ten years previously. We were going to camp our way across the Andes for the next eight weeks, crisscrossing between Chile and Argentina.

There were lots of things to consider. We had put together a comprehensive medical kit including inflatable splints; intravenous fluids and most important of all, a combination of antibiotics which we were assured would cure 90 per cent of appendicitis cases. As a vet with no mechanical aptitude, I had nightmares about Bluebell breaking down when one of the children was ill.

We had previously spent many weekends camping in the Falklands, so we knew how much gear we need: two 25-litre cans of water, and three 25-litre jerry cans of petrol on the roof rack, plus two spare wheels and a big bottle of propane gas. For food emergencies, we stowed away a bag of rice, powdered milk and several kilos of sugar. While wanting to buy and eat as much fresh food as possible (which fortunately we did), we reasoned that we should be able to survive for a considerable time if the need arose, we also took a good supply of black plastic bin bags for all of our rubbish, so that we need leave nothing behind and could deposit it at the next town on the route.

Before we left Punta Arenas we all touched the big toe of one of the native Fuegian Indians at the foot of the statue of Magellan to ensure that we would return. Then we headed north on the paved highway to Puerto Natales, loaded with food and drink, extra petrol, tents, bedding, a stove and all our cooking and eating utensils. The joy of being back in South America where children are welcomed everywhere and the people are universally friendly was like coming home after a long period of exile.

To the north of Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine National Park has been described as a miniature Alaska--a breathtaking landscape of mountains, aquamarine lakes, green fields and forests, glaciers and icebergs. We camped for four nights in a valley bottom beneath the Towers (torres) of Paine; flat-sided, weirdly shaped granite peaks that rise to 2,800 metres. It was early summer and the nights were cold in the strong wind so we huddled around a blazing wood campfire on which we barbecued a whole lamb given to us by the campsite owner. During the day we walked and fished, watched by herds of guanaco with their young fawns. Giant, mystical, Andean condors patrolled the park; we came across ten or more resting on a ledge and they launched themselves into the wind to soar above us on outstretched and upturned wings.

Leaving Torres del Paine we entered Argentina through a tiny border crossing, where the young customs official looked with dread at our one-page Falkland Islands vehicle registration document. He disappeared to a room out of sight and I heard him shouting excitedly into the telephone. I don't know what was said but he returned having regained his composure, stamped all of our seven passports, walked outside to raise the barrier and then he saluted as we passed.

Other than the occasional small windswept town there was nothing to be seen from the dirt road for hundreds of kilometres. Flocks of rheas (South American ostriches) crossed in front or ran alongside our vehicle; pink Chilean flamingos stood feeding at the occasional waterhole. …


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