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Perils of Polly: What a view -- just don't look down

Posted: May 18, 2012 - 9:19am
Driving in southern Chile means scary gravel roads and spectacular scenery.  Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford
Driving in southern Chile means scary gravel roads and spectacular scenery.

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.

My sister and I couldn't have asked for a better day to begin our trek into Chile and to the Carretera Austral. The sky was brilliant blue, although the wind was ever present.

After talking to the customs agent, we never gave a second thought to taking the ferry shortcut over to route 7. We were going to take the spectacular road he had said was "perfecto."

Once into Chile, we weren't going to see pavement for several days, so resigned ourselves to the bumps and dust. At least this road along the General Carrera Lake wasn't as bad as the road through Torres del Paine National Park.

Within the first 10 to 15 miles, the scenery was breath-taking, and the road was wide enough for two vehicles and wasn't too steep. Maybe Lonely Planet, with its description that the road was not for the faint of heart was exaggerated, or the road was improved.

But just as complacency was settling in, the road narrowed, the sides became cliffs without guardrails, and blind hills and corners became the norm. My sister was driving. That put me on the edge looking straight down, having to put all my trust in my sister that she would not send us careening over the side.

I held my breath at the curves. For some reason she seemed to speed up on curves to the left, centrifugal force sending me into the car door where the ground seemed to drop out from under me into the lake hundreds of feet below.

Of course there was always the potential we would meet a big truck or motorhome on these curves. Then we would have no road. We did meet these vehicles, but providence always provided a space to pull over when we did. It was never on a hill or curve. We never had to stop and back up.

At one point we came around a curve to meet a truck which was backing down a hill in the same direction we were driving. At first we couldn't figure out what it was doing, but then realized it was watering the road, and had to back down in order to allow gravity to flow the water out of the truck.

The road was 122 km long until we joined the Carretera Austral. It was 122 miles of unbelievable scenery. It took us a long time with many stops for pictures. In all of my travels around the world, it was probably the most spectacular drive ever. I wouldn't call the road "perfecto," but I'm glad the customs agent convinced us to take it.

Once on the Carretera Austral, we thought the gravel might improve, but instead it got worse, with more washboard.  It was just a little wider. We drove south as far as the confluence of the Neff and Baker River, and then turned around. The beautiful boardwalks of the tiny fishing village Tortel were not enough enticement to continue down 150 more kilometers of terrible road at 5 mph. From pictures, I could tell it was similar to Halibut Cove here in Alaska, so it was just something I wouldn't get to.

We never really understood the local traffic. No one ever stayed behind us. Every other vehicle on the road traveled faster than we did, sometimes zooming around us at what appeared to be 60 mph. Nearly all the vehicles were 4-by-4 pickup trucks, all adhering to the theory that the faster you drive, the smoother, as you only hit the tops of the bumps. We tried it, and while it worked for the smaller washboard, soon it felt like the entire Kangoo was going to fall apart. Back to 5 mph. We had to laugh at signs that posted the speed limit at 40 km. Like we could get up to that speed!

But slower is also safer. Careening around blind curves may not be so smart. One car passed us at a fairly high speed. We pulled over so he could pass. Then we met a truck coming the opposite direction. A quarter mile down the road, there was the vehicle that had passed us -- in the ditch. We couldn't help him, but we took a picture and said we'd tell people in the next town they needed help. We did, but no one jumped up to go help. Perhaps they assumed a passing 4-by-4 would stop to pull them out.

We only traveled 250 km this day, or about 150 miles. A short day in mileage, but a long day in dust and bumps. We were glad to finally find a campground with the ironic name of Puerto Tranquillo. This place turned out to be the windiest yet!

Check back next week for the next installment of Polly's perils.

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