I am now in the South. It is incredible. Details will be forthcoming, but in the meantime you are able to delight in my tales from the North, including details of my first (yes, there?s been another since) encounter with real penguins in the wild.
A few hours drive North finds us in the small fishing port of Tongoy. We drive onto the Beach for lunch, prompting a frenetic bidding war for our custom, in which the proprietors of the half-dozen or so restaurants that overlook the surf each try to outdo each other with boasts regarding the quality of their fare. We select one at random, and pretty soon I?m digging into a plate of Loco, shellfish the size of your fist so rare and coveted in expensive Japanese restaurants that their trade is frequently banned. This is followed buy a plate of Lenguado, a delicious white fish baked in tin-foil and surrounded by a sauce comprising a large number of small and unidentifiable shellfish. It?s quite delicious. We sink a few beers as the sun sets over the ocean, the ambience improved even further with the addition of a cigarette of the herbal variety donated by the friendly waiter. This is not at all like London.
The following day we arise late after spending the afternoon on the beach before travelling further North to La Serena, Chile?s third largest city and a place with a well-deserved reputation as something of a party town. Sadly we?re all completely wiped out, so instead of testing the theory we settle in for an evening in front of the TV. This choice, however, has it?s own rewards. The highlight of the evening?s schedule is what appears to be the local version of Graham Norton show, ?Morande & Compa?ia? with Chilean machismo replacing the high camp of the UK version. I don?t understand a word of it, but it?s fantastic entertainment. First up is a piece of cowboy karaoke, where strange looking fellows wearing Stetsons and leather chaps attempt to sing along with Elvis or The Beatles, all the while attempting to keep their balance on an increasingly violent mechanical bucking bull. Next up we have a trio of elderly comedians who perform a sketch that seems to go on forever, all the while pretending to be afflicted by a series of spastic tics. The next segment sees one of the presenters blacked-up and wearing an afro, throwing tin cans around the audience in what I can only imagine is, well… I can?t even begin to imagine. With this strangely non-PC content ensuring that the show is unlikely to settle in for a lengthy run on British TV screens, the producers now aim for the animal rights brigade, as a bewildered looking crocodile with it?s jaws tightly gaffa-taped shut is let loose in the studio. It?s all too much, and I go to bed.
After the traditional breakfast of fresh bread and avocado, it?s back into the car as we drive East towards the Andes and Argentina, lunching in the town of Vicuna, home to the Capel Pisco distillery. We arrive just in time for the final tour of the day, where we learn how the grapes are crushed, pressed, fermented and distilled, before being aged in huge oak casks and diluted with water to the appropriate strength. More importantly, we receive a free glass of pisco sour and the opportunity to have our photographs taken next to the giant bottles that flank the distillery?s entrance.
Next we head up the Upper Elqui valley, through a series of one-horse towns where the horse has moved on in search of brighter lights, leaving behind in most cases a forlorn looking donkey. After climbing mile after mile of unpaved roads we reach Pisco Elqui (pop. 482), our base for the next two days. It?s like a miniature Woodstock in the mountains, the streets roamed by pregnant hippies selling the kind of jewellery you?ll only find in this area (or in Bali. Or Thailand. Or Goa. Or anywhere there?s a beach. Or hippies). We find a place to camp in the belly of the valley beneath the very grape vines that?ll be processed further down the hill and settle in for the night.
Nobel-prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral was raised in these parts, and had this to say about the valley:
It contains in perfection all that man could ask of a land in which to live: light, water, wine and fruit. And what fruit! The tongue which has tasted the juice of its peaches and the mouth which has eaten of its purple figs will never seek sweetness elsewhere.
Predictably we have neither fig nor peach, but a jar of succulent papaya more than compensates as we wait for darkness to fall. And, as Gabriela Mistral might possibly say, what darkness! It?s little wonder that this is one of the prime spots on the planet for astronomy ? several of the World?s largest observatories are based nearby, including one housing the impressively named WLT (World?s Largest Telescope). Imagine the largest number of stars you?ve ever seen, then multiply that amount by several hundred (admittedly this calculation probably works best for Londoners). It?s amazing, a Jackson Pollock canvas in brilliant monochrome, and the milky way even looks, well… milky. A nearby tent is playing Chile?s finest reggae band, Gondwana, and as our BBQ fires die we gaze up at the sky above the canopy of vines. Life is good.
By 3am life is not so good. The hippies next door have moved on to Bob Marley?s ?Legend,? it?s too loud, and none of us can sleep. I?m tempted to seize my baseball bat, stride purposefully over to their tent and smash the confounded ghetto-blaster into pieces but, realizing I?ve left it at home, settle for tutting quietly to myself in my tent. Next morning they wake everyone up at 9am by playing A-Ha at maximum decibels. Cunts.
The next day we take things easy, settling in early after our noisy neighbours leave, and the following morning head first West and then North, crossing a dry river valley where wild llamas roam on the way to the tiny outpost of Punta de Choros. This is the jumping off point for the next stage of the adventure, two days on a desert island. The boat taking us to Isla Damas first circles Isla Cha?aral, where get close-up views of hundreds of basking sea-lions, nesting cormorants, a couple of twitchy looking otters, a trio of playful dolphins and, in the distance, some Humboldt penguins. Finally we disembark on the shore, and the first thing I see are some bones that appear to be human in origin. This does not bode well, but the boat has already left, the helmsman promising to return in a couple of days, honestly guv.
Making the best of the situation, we pitch up and I go exploring and there, at the northern most tip of the Island, I find what I?ve come for. Penguins. Real ones. These are more of the Humboldt variety, drawn this far North by the Humboldt current that gives them their name, and they?ve gathered on a rock to catch some afternoon rays. They start braying as I approach, which I suspect to be some kind of warning signal, but I?d like to think they were greeting me ? I do sponsor one of their kind in London Zoo, after all. Quietly I approach to within twenty feet or so, and eventually they relax and get back to what they do best ? falling over and looking daft. It?s at this point that I notice something very peculiar. The rock hosting the penguins is covered in seagull droppings, whilst other rocks nearby are virtually spotless. The leads me to believe that these cowardly birds are using our flippered friends as target practice, nature at its most cruel. I could watch the penguins forever, but I?m getting hungry so settle for an hour and a quarter and head back to camp, but there?s one more surprise in store. As I clamber up the rocks, I suddenly hear three distinct thumps behind me. I backtrack a couple of metres, bend down and there, in a hollow, is a nesting female. We stare at each other for a few moments ? she?s so close I could reach out and
throttle her violently before carving her up into delicious penguin steaks pat her gently on the head ? but I don?t want to scare her and move on. I turn around to take a final look at the penguins on the rock, and could almost swear that one of them is waving goodbye.
If you open up a dictionary and look up the word ?idyllic,? you?ll find a description of our time on the Island. We camp on the beach, I get sunburnt, we play games in the surf and cook our food over a camping stove. There?s no running water here but it doesn?t matter and yes, the boat turns up on time to ferry us back to shore. We drive the 600 kilometres along the Pan-American Highway back to Santiago without stopping, the sun sinking towards the Pacific Ocean on the right and the mountains rising up on the left. It?s been some trip.
Any complaints? Only one: I?m disappointed to announce that we didn?t make it as far as a Northern village called ?El Donkey.? It really exists. Check your atlas.