CHILE’S CHANGES by Glenn A. Baker

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I had taken much of my understanding of the origins of the Chilean nation from Inez of My Soul, the gripping and expansive novel by Isabel Allende, niece of the tragic president Salvador Allende, but within hours of arriving and on more than a few occasions thereafter I was offered an alternative, and apparently rather popular, scenario. It goes along the lines of: God made Chile last and, perhaps a little tired, gathered together leftover parts and molded them together in a sliver, a final piece for the mosaic.

As an explanation for incredible and even affronting diversity, I suppose it’s as good as anything else going because this country truly is diverse. Yes, it is long but then so is Japan and not a lot changes between top and bottom there. However, fly into Santiago, change planes and, in less than two hours, you can land in the driest-on-earth Atacama Desert, with all its stark, barren splendour. Take a domestic flight south, though, and in slightly less than an hour you are in the Chilean Lakes district, feeling that you’re moving through Wales or Ireland or even Switzerland – a lush, green, sometimes alpine environment.

Both are absolutely Chilean, both are peopled by citizens of considerable casual charm who stand apart from the assertive Argentinians and the boisterous Brazilians who make their way there in large numbers but you do find yourself wondering why you haven’t had to get your passport stamped moving from one to the other. Were you to continue down the sliver to Punta Arenas, one of the gateways to Antarctica, the sense of overwhelming change would be even more greatly enhanced.

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The sombre stature of the Atacama is apparent from arrival at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, dramatically sited beneath towering walls of red rock in the Catarpe Valley near the adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama. Well, it was once a village. Now it is a crossroads tourist town with traders, cantinas, museums, churches, tour operators and currency counters. There is an undeniable Wild West tone about it all that almost has you mentally conjuring up banditos in Zapata moustaches and sombreros with cartridge belts across their chests riding into town firing six guns and whooping war cries. Though if they did come, it would probably be to open their laptops and avail themselves of the free wi-fi in the town square or to enjoy the weekend rock concert that was taking place the day I dropped by. There is, however, an outpost not too far away, with a church perched upon a hill, that looks so absolutely evocative that it was used in the James Bond film The Quantum of Solace (though it was passed off as being in Bolivia, to the chagrin of the few locals).

The plush Alto Atacama has an eerie emptiness during daylight hours, as most of its guests are out participating in one of the almost three dozen excursions, which span the high, dry realm and take in lakes, streams, salt flats, mountains, gorges, dunes, passes, villages, gardens, cordilleras, caves and ancient shepherd’s paths. Some are accessible by bicycle, horseback and foot but mostly it’s a case of loading into air-conditioned (and, more importantly, heated) vans and heading thirty minutes to Moon Valley or two hours to the Altoandina Lagoons or the Tatio Geysers, which gurgle, splutter and spurt almost four and a half thousand metres above sea level, enticing busloads of backpackers to disrobe and dip. Wise heads at the hotel will keep such delights from you for two or three days, to allow you to acclimatise and even when you have got your mountain lungs to some extent, you’ll still find it prudent to ration yourself to relatively slow steps.

Llamas graze, flamingos fly and sharp eyes may spot vicunas, suris, viscachas and foxes. In the direction of the airport at Calama is the miniscule village Chiu-Chiu, with a history dating back to around 3000 BC. And it is at the airport that you will inevitably find yourself, returning to Santiago, a pleasing, vibrant city that has come on in leaps and bounds since the scars of coup and conflict could be discerned as mortar and bullet shell holes in the walls of public buildings. Today, a statue of the overthrown Allende stands in the city centre, with no memento to the dictator Pinochet. There is imposing open air art and inventive architecture, some striking fashion and some fetching bohemian barios, one of which, Bellavista at the foot of San Cristobal Hill near Pablo Neruda’s beloved La Chascona, houses the luxury 15-suite boutique hotel, The Aubrey, a restored 1920s Spanish Colonial Mission mansion with a terraced bell tower. The hotel is managed by a genial fellow from Wangaratta, Victoria, who does not seem to have lost his Australian accent.

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In high season, there are flights directly into Pucon down in the lakes district and roughly level with the Argentinian resort of Bariloche but, even if you have to fly into Temuco and be transferred for an hour or so around the shores of Lake Villarrica, past cheese factories, contented herds, farms, forests and a panorama line of snow-capped crests, the soothing nature of it all enriches every kilometre. While still wondering just how the Atacama could have slipped away so swiftly, you are taking part in another acclimatisation.

The well-travelled and well-heeled have been coming here for decades, seeing it as one of the pearls of the southern hemisphere. When you arrive at the famed clean-lines and sleek Hotel Antumalal you bring to mind the lines with which has long been touted in prestige guides: “Built in the 1950s as an ultra-modern lakeside resort, its Bauhaus-influenced architect Jorge Elton was inspired by a terraced 13 acre park that surrounds it”. And, indeed, the lobby does combine tree-slab tables, shaggy fur rugs, primary colour cushions and views, views to have you rubbing your eyes. In the 22 rooms are wood panels, fireplaces and wide windows, all the better to bring the vastness of Lake Villarrica right to you.

In the foyer is a fascinating wall of photographs, including some of guests who’ve made their way to the property over the years and made themselves very much at home – actors Jimmy Stewart and Emma Thompson, first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, assorted scientists and academics, assorted European nobility and a young and beaming Queen Elizabeth II, with Duke. The proprietor, engaging Rony Pollack, daughter of the Czech immigrant whose dream the hotel was, tells a beguiling tale of being a young teen when Regina descended with her bossy courtiers and ladies-in-waiting and of being placed in the front seat of the royal vehicle for a journey to a barbecue, forbidden to initiate conversation but expected to navigate and becoming a tad flustered when it became apparent that they were lost, if momentarily.

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Just down the hill is the town of Pucon, sort of a Chilean take on Jackson Hole, replete with chocolate shops, restaurants, a beach, design emporiums, waterfront accommodation and an intriguing flower shop where every stem and petal is in fact carved out of wood, sort of like large pencil shavings. Thronged when ski season is in full-flight, it maintains a presence and energy all year around, standing as one of the principal drawcards of Chilean tourism.

There is a nearby Mapuche reserve where local cuisine can be sampled and a Mapuche museum tells a tale of a self-contained world before the Spanish came. Within easy reach of Pucon and the Antumalal is the base of the softly-smoking and very much active Villarrica volcano, which doubles as a ski lift station. Slightly further away but well worth the expedition, past wooded rapids, lake towns, handicraft factories and chalets, is the Termas Geometricas hot springs. Here some 17 slate-lined pools have been artfully constructed along the path of a mountain stream just below a waterfall. While the stream is expectedly icy, the pools are filled with steaming water that arrives beside it, coming out of holes in the mountain side that descend to a magma chamber some 14 kilometres below, deep in the bowels of the earth. Splashing about in a pool of pure 40 degree water while snowflakes floated down upon me was as fine a way as I have ever passed a morning.

A good guide is the key to deriving the most from this lush, green land and, for one afternoon I had the best, in Rony Pollack, who is known to one and very much all; sort of an unofficial mayor. She ranged across the landscape to just near the Argentinian border, taking myself and three animated Brazilians who find themselves in residence at the Antumalal each year inside churches and pastry shops, to a high farm where wool is fabulously fashioned, through rarely visited villages and atop precipices with commanding and inspiring views. This is the world her father came to and brought to the attention of thousands with discernment and a desire for sumptuous serenity and she and her late husband continued to make accessible. Inside the Antumalal is a level of cosy comfort and warmth, of the human variety, that sets it apart from most resorts and spas and, as I found, entices back those who discover it.

Glenn flew to Chile with Lan Chile.

Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker.

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SWIMMING AT THE NORTH POLE by John Borthwick

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

I’m standing at the North Pole in board shorts. The air temperature is well south of zero and there’s a Russian behind me with a machine-gun. Behind him is another with a bottle of vodka. In front of me is an ice-hole. I jump.

Expletive-unfucking-deleted! Take my frozen word for it: polar ice water, at – 1.1 degrees Celsius, stings like the furies, all over. Then you start to go numb, which is a relief. It’s also hypothermia. I burst to the surface, yelping profanities, gather what’s left of my wits and swim back to the “shore” of pack ice. As I clamber out, the Russian with the bottle gives me a big swig of vodka while his mate with the Uzi keeps watch for polar bears.

Playing the ultimate fool at Ultima Thule is, for those who’ve gone gonzo, the climax of a trip to the North Pole. We’ve parked our monster conveyance, the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, right at the geographic Pole, 90 degrees North, and dropped the gangplank. A crewman sticks a red pole in the ice to mark “the spot”. After my swim — and now sanely clad in thermal underwear, parka and boots — I stroll around the Pole, thus completing a circumambulation of the world in twenty seconds.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

I look up at our massive Russian vessel, seemingly marooned amid a White Limbo icescape that stretches to the horizon. In fact, packing 27,000 horsepower of nuclear grunt, she’s far from stuck, having muscled her way here, 1382 nautical miles from our embarkation point, Murmansk, northern Russia, through dense sea ice. We’re now sitting atop the 2.5-metre thick polar ice cap. Some 4261 metres below us on the sea-bed sits a flag placed by a manned sub in 2007 — Russia’s ambit claim for the Pole and its minerals.

It has taken us five days to reach the Pole, time for the 120 passengers on board to get to know this 75,000 tonne behemoth which spends 10 months of the year keeping open High Arctic shipping lanes between the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We’re in the two-month “summer” (the term is relative) during which the ship takes paying, charter passengers to the Pole.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Our day at polar ground zero is about more than having fun with hypothermia. We form a circle around the Pole sign and observe a moment of silent respect for the planet and this shrinking ice cap we stand upon. The kitchen crew then set up tables, benches and a barbecue, with the hot toddies and mulled wine flowing generously. Later we explore this ultimate realm, this lemon granita landscape, where the polar silence sings, ice crystal forests rim pale turquoise pools and a fog-bow arches over the ship’s Martian silhouette.

After this day of awe at the top of the world, will the rest of the cruise be an anticlimax, all downhill, as it were? Far from it. The big ship turns, crunching its way south again through the pack ice — it feels like we’re in a bus driving forever over an unsealed road — while we settle into a semi-routine of meals and naps, plus lectures by our expedition specialists in polar history, glaciology and wildlife.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Far below decks we get to inspect the ship’s engine-room, its truck-sized turbines, massive steering gear and nuclear reactor control room. It’s strictly “no photos” in the latter, with beefy Russians of unspecified occupation keeping an ursine, Soviet eye on us. “The ship’s got three, not two, first officers,” notes a passenger. “The third one must be KGB to keep an eye on the other two,” he speculates.

Before I left, friends had joked that I should wear lead-lined undies on this nuclear hot rod. (“She does 22 knots, ’officially’,” says Captain Valentin Davydyants, hinting at somewhat less — or perhaps more? — speed.) One American passenger takes the radiation idea dead seriously and brings his own Geiger counter. To his relief, or disappointment, the only furious clicking we hear is scores of camera shutters during any polar bear or walrus sighting. My friends had also joked that meals would be borscht and cabbage, with yellowcake for dessert. On the contrary, with the catering run by Austrian hoteliers, we sup like minor czars.

I perch at the bow, peering out across an ivory desert, a Lake Eyre in ice. Crazed by fissures and leads, the pack ice parts before the ship’s massive bow to reveal brilliant teal-green waters. The wind-chill up here might be bone-snappingly cold but there’s always a gaggle of passengers watching as the prow cracks through ice sheets like they were the toffee crust on a crème brulée. We’re also scanning for polar bears. “Just look for what seems like dirty ice moving,” says Alaskan Kara Weller, one of our voyage naturalists. Whenever someone spots a polar bear — they are rare this far north — there’s an announcement from the bridge, the ship slows and we rush to the rail like kids at a zoo, with camera shutters in overdrive.

I see four bears during the voyage — supreme, solitary, creatures gliding over the infinite ice, unperturbed by the sudden intrusion into their white-on-white world of a 160-metre long, red-black gargantuan. We track each bear at a distance until it ambles off into the lunar emptiness.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Our twin-berth cabins, normally those of the ship’s officers (who are bumped downstairs during charter season), have en suite bathrooms and blackout curtains. Travelling beneath the midnight sun means for us 12 nights of constant daylight. We might be alerted to a bear or whale sighting at 3 am, or to depart on a helicopter trip at midnight. Add to this the ship’s bar being open till 2 am, or until the last passenger slumps, and our sleep patterns go haywire. “I’m going to bed when it gets dark,” says one woman, absent-mindedly.” “It gets dark in August,” Kara reminds her.

Returning from the Pole, we plough south through the Barents Sea, aiming for the Franz Josef Land archipelago. I have time to consider the eccentrics among our company of 22 different nationalities. There’s the Englishman who wasn’t sure if Russian hospitality yet extended to toilet paper — he brought huge supplies of his own. The girl from New York who did headstands at the Pole. The Russian crewman who dived in but could barely swim. The cashed-up hard partyers from Beijing who observed the ship’s total “No Smoking” policy by lighting up only in their cabins — thus setting off at four a.m. the fire alarm and the Captain’s considerable Russian wrath.

Shackled to the aft deck is a huge MI-8 helicopter that we use for landings and sightseeing. Franz Josef Land appears out of the fog, a monochrome maze of low, dark islands drizzled with glaciers. We pile into the chopper, 14 at a time, and shuttle ashore to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island, the northernmost point of the Eurasian landmass. Like all 191 of these basalt islands, it is uninhabited. As the sun comes out, we roam across its tundra of lichen, spotting bear tracks, a nesting Eider duck and a lonely wooden Orthodox crucifix facing the Arctic void. Enormous domed glaciers slump off the island’s flanks but are off-limits for hiking because of bears.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Next day we weave through the island maze, down the Markham Strait to another landing at Champ Island. Time for a serious hike but always with a machine-gun man not far away. We clamber up a steep scree and into birdland — hills where thousands of auks, black-legged kittiwakes and glaucous gulls wheel and cry, sending our considerable pack of birders into their own exclamatory raptures.

Cape Tegetthof on Hall Island, a place of bleak and gothic beauty, is (as Tom Waits would say) “colder than a well-digger’s ass”. We find the remnants of an 1899 expedition hut that echo a time when this shore was at the extreme limits of the human reach. Beyond here was so forbidding that it wasn’t until 1948 that the first person stood at the Pole — when Russian Aleksandr Kuznetsov’s party flew in and hiked to 90 degrees North. Today, some 25,000 people aboard 81 ships have been to the North Pole and, it being the alleged residence of Santa Claus, Canada Post has even assigned it a post code, HOH OHO.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

Our last explorations are to the ghostly, abandoned village of Tikhaya Bukhta, a former Soviet “weather station” (aka Cold War spook listening post), followed by a Zodiac excursion to the extraordinary Rubini Rock. We are greeted here by some 100,000 squalling guillemots and kittiwakes that nest among the giant rock’s basalt “organ pipe” formations. But their raucous welcome is also our farewell to the High Arctic as 50 Years of Victory turns for her home run down to Murmansk.

As we step ashore, the ship’s doctor hands me a certificate attesting that my plunge at the Pole was “an act of indubitable courage — as well as extraordinary, incomparable foolishness”. Probably so.

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

© 2014 JOHN BORTHWICK

For information on 50 Years of Victory’s North Pole trip: http://www.peregrineadventures.com
Words and images ©2014 John Borthwick. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.