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Perils of Polly: Nowhere to stop? Just keep driving

Posted: April 20, 2012 - 9:38am
Polly points out the distance from Alaska of the furthest point south one can drive in South America.  Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford
Polly points out the distance from Alaska of the furthest point south one can drive in South America.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

We left the Argentine-Chilean border crossing into Tierra del Fuego at around 6 p.m., leaving behind the stress of the four-hour nightmare. We looked at the map. I couldn't find any place between where we were and where we were headed that might be a safe place to sleep. Oh well. Just keep driving.

The first thing we saw on the Chile side of the border was flamingos. They were brilliant pink, but most of them had their heads stuck in the water, then took off flying. I added it to my bird list, as flamingos in the wild were fairly near the top of my to-see list.

The road was paved to the Straits of Magellan where we had to get on a ferry. I put on every piece of clothing I owned, including hat and gloves, to withstand the icy breeze whipping up from Antarctica. Then I stood out on the bow to see everything there was to see. I was so excited to be here. It had been a life-long goal to drive the Pan-American Highway down to Tierra del Fuego. I didn't quite drive all the Pan-American Highway, but at least I was reaching the end of it!

I suddenly heard English and discovered I was with a group from England that even had a tour guide. I chatted and got as much information as I could about the coming drive -- like which way to go, and where was there a place to stay -- there really wasn't ... hmm ...
But the biggest benefit of the group was that the guide knew we'd soon be seeing Commerson's dolphins -- cute little white and black dolphins that play around the ferry. They were too fast to get photos, but they were fun to watch.

Off the ferry and onto the narrow gravel road. Sue was driving, and for most of the trip we were heading straight into setting sun. We were blinded for quite a bit of the road, as, like Alaska, the sun took a long time to set.

Sue's rule of driving in a foreign country: don't drive at night, was about to be broken. We looked for pull-offs, and there just weren't any. The road was narrow, without even a place to pull off if we had a flat tire. The map said it was going to be that way for about 120 km. OK, if we can't stop, we just drive.

The dusk brought out the gray foxes, and we had several dash across the road in front of us. Sue tried to stay within tail-light distance of the car in front of us, since the ferry had dumped us all out together, but more often than not, they'd be zooming and spitting gravel, and we'd lose them.

We finally reached the border back into Argentina, and this time it took all of about 15 minutes. By now, night driving seemed OK, so we headed down the paved road to Rio Grande. It was around midnight, and all we wanted was a place to park. We drove down the streets lined with eerie yellow lights and found a YPF station that was open. They had showers, and this time they worked! Clean and refreshed, we collapsed and laughed about the day. It was hard to believe the previous night we'd been in beautiful Monte Leon National Park!

The next day we hopped over to Ushuaia -- the southernmost major city in the world -- and camped in a beautiful, free campsite next to a fly-fishing stream in Tierra del Fuego National Park. We had our first rain here and discovered the tent leaked between the fly and the van, collecting a puddle on the floor of the tent and soaking the bottom of our mattress.

By morning, the sun came out, so we dried our tent and were ready to go. We gassed up in Ushuaia, but when we passed back through Rio Grande, a little voice of wisdom told us to top off the gas tank.

Then we had a choice: Drive to Porvenir and hope to get on a ferry that leaves once a day and takes three hours to arrive at Punta Arenas, or head back the way we came, skip Punta Arenas and head to Puerto Natales. We had no reason to go to Punta Arenas. Most people go there to visit penguins, and we'd already seen thousands of penguins. So we opted for Puerto Natales.

This time we drove the 120 km of gravel in the daylight and took a slightly different way for variety. We crossed the Straits of Magellan again and drove and drove. We watched our gas tank get emptier and emptier but saw no gas stations. Our stress level once again rose, and a knot formed in my stomach as I watched the gas tank needle descend, miles from anywhere. I'd run out of gas once in Australia. I didn't want to do it again!

Look for Polly's next perils in next week's Peninsula Clarion.

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