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Cruising Chile’s Fjords


With a little help offered by a huge tug boat, M/S Magallanes leaves the docks of Puerto Montt. And with a loud blast from its horns that sends sleepy gulls flying in all directions she makes sure the whole city
know about her departure on yet another of the weekly trips southwards.

The sailing, among the longest of its kinds in the world, take the passengers on a stunningly remote and beautiful trip through fjords and channels bordered by majestic and somber mountains, passing open stretches of ocean before ending in Puerto Natales, a city 900 nautical miles further south. Followed by uncountable sealions (in spanish “lobos”) and with a bit of luck dolphins, whales and penguins, the boat takes a good 4 days to reach the uttermost south of the South American continent. The ship has become famous among many different kinds of people and when I “check in” to my bunkbed in the economy class, there is at least as much english spoken as spanish. But counting the other types of more private accomodation available in the cabins on board the mix of countries travelling on the ferry gets a lot bigger and even this trip at the end of the season have more than 10 nationalities represented, from Norway to New Zealand.

M/S Magallanes was originally built in 1978 in Japan. It was rebuilt in Chile in 2000 and is today a RO-RO (“Roll on-Roll off”) ferry of about 120 metres with a capacity of 300 passengers. Navimag, the ferry company that owns her, supplies the passengers with good food (including vegetarian options if you ask for it) and also a multi-lingual guide in the high and middle seasons. The starting point for the southern route is the capital of Chiles 10th Region, Puerto Montt. Lying about 1100 kilometres or so south of the chilean national capital Santiago, it’s a city of about 200000 inhabitants and an important ferry port for travellers southwards and to the less visited Aisen region. On its way the ferry make a call at the remote Puerto den, where the last of the Kaweshkar indians live, before finally reaching Puerto Natales, a town of about 20000 and situated close to the hauntingly beautiful ends of the Andes Mountains range and the starting point for trips to the incredible national park Torres del Paine. No road through Chile connects the startand finish of this ferry route and the only other options of travel are either by air or by bus through Argentina. Under Augusto Pinochet, a way today named “Camino Austral” was planned built to connect the whole length of Chile together by road. The road was started built, but it became clear that the whole project was both over ambitious and close to impossible to finish. Today the road reaches as far south as Villa O’Higgins, a tiny settlement close to the border of Agrentina and constant work is required to keep the road open at all. No onwards building is planned and it’s very unlikely the road will ever be finished.

Shortly after departure from Puerto Montt, Isla Grande Chiloe appears on our right, together with the first couple of “visitors”; a couple of dolphins who playfully follows in the ferrys keelwater for a while, before leaving us for more important business. Me, silly sod that I am, missed them elegantly; I was already busy chatting in the bar on the top deck and knew nothing about our two newfound companions. The mood among the passengers aboard the ferry is very congenial and you find yourself “mingling” before you even know it, often even before you have the chance to get on board. This is especially true for the passengers on the economy class, which more resembles a floating youth hostel than a normal car ferry; normal in the sense it actually is a normal ferry, unnormal in the sense it brings its passengers on a wholly unique journey on the way towards the ends of the continent. But this is not only a trip for young travellers. Among the passengers you’ll find people of all ages, and even a shipdog or two are to be found wandering the ferrys decks.

The next day in the morning we have left both Puerto Montt and Isla Chiloe far behind us, and find ourselves in channels surrounded by uninhabited islands covered in thick forests. Every morning, the on board guide gives a short briefing for todays route, waypoints and special thingsto look for and also special presentations on board, including documentaries both in spanish and english. The programme presented aboard is very informative and covers many different topics, from fauna found in the channels, to different indian cultures presented in the southern part of Patagonia. Sadly, most of these indigenous cultures have today disappeared alltogether and only a couple of the diiferent tribes are still left.

The day is mostly passed on deck with the other passengers, watching out for a multitude of different sealife and gazing at the majestic landscape that slowly floats by. And for the patient, the rewards are many. We spot so many sealions that we’re almost tired of seeing them in the end. “Oh, another seal” is among the most common phrases as time passes by and the occasional penguins skipping through the waters are more of a novelty. But being able to see all these animals in their rightful element is a privilege that not many have, and every seal and penguin make us jump for the railing to look. The whole thing must look rather silly from the unsuspecting animals point of view: about 30 grownups hanging over the railing,like a load of seasick sailors that is “feeding the fishes” alltogether at the same time.

This first day the M/S Magallanes passes mostly among lower islets and islands covered by the seemingly same forest as can be seen throughout the day. The whole vastness of the landscape together with the slow, monotonous movement of the boat make most of the passengers hush their voices. It’s almost like the sounds coming from the people on deck is drowned and subdued from the immense silence around us, a silence only broken by the wind, a lone bird and the rare passing of a ship on its way for somewhere else.  On our whole trip we pass only two other boats and nature is left totally to itself inbetween these brief passings in this true wilderness.

Closing onto the second evening aboard, M/S Magallanes reach the Bay of Darwin, named after the famous Charles Darwin himself who also passed through the channels of Patagonia, and we start to feel the slow waves from the open seas. Low, rainful clouds make a beautiful spectacle with sunbeams that break through to spotlight parts of the landscape in a bright, yellow light. A full rainbow seems to be only some few hundred metres away as we head for Golfo de Peñas, a gulf where our route takes us over a long stretch of open seas and where the waves from the immense Pacific Ocean hit the ship. People who easilly get seasick might think about swallowing a seasickness-pill or two a couple of hours before reaching this part of the trip. Being of a more adventerous nature myself and not the sort of person to eat pills whatever they are for, I decide to brave the open waters without artificial help. But even if I never have had any kinds of problems from motion sickness before, I have to break the evening short at dinner and am only saved by a quick run for my bed where I spend the rest of the night in a stable sideways position; the absolutely best way to wear off a spate of seasickness. Before I fall asleep, I can feel the constant rising and falling of the boat, hear the loud crashes and feel the whole hull shudder and shake when the boat falls down in the empty spaces between the huge waves. Then, finally, I am lulled to sleep by the movement of the ship.

The next day I rise early and fresh after the night. I am almost the only one on deck while we glide through the Messier Channel, one of the deepest points on our journey and where the water reaches a depth of almost 1200 metres. The scenery has started to change a little and the mountains are more barren, taller and more forboding of what is to come. A little later, after breakfast and our usual morning briefing, we pass a rock called Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi is a shallow part of the channel where ships run a real danger of being stuck on the sharp rocks. About 30 years ago, a greek ship called “Captain Leonidas”, in a bad attempt of an insurance scam, were run straight into the rock by its captain. He subsequently spent 3 years in jail after selling off the ships load of sugar rather prematurely in Montevideo and not in Chile where he was supposed to. The rusty hulk of “Captain Leonidas” remains however, and today works as a lighthouse to warn todays ships of both the danger of the rocks and the danger of fooling with the insurance companies…

Once again I miss the action when two or three orcas (killer whales) break the surface some hundred metres off the boat. Being busy in the bar once again at the time, I decide that the rest of the day shall be spent in quiet vigilance with my camera on deck. On our way, we pass through the English Narrows, a channel only around 200 metres wide and only passable by light of day for larger ships like the M/S Magallanes. The ferry gives a blast from her horns in greeting when we pass a statue standing alone in the middle of hits endless wilderness. “Stella Maris” are standing there alone in her neverending vigil; the light of the sailors in the shape of the Virgin, guarding and protecting seamen from the dangers of life at sea.

After the English Narrows we reach Puerto Eden, our only port of call between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. The tiny fishing village of about 200 inhabitants are only connected to the outside world by the ferry who make a stop here two times a week, once on her southwards journey and once on her way back north.

Puerto Eden was founded as a meteorological base and today house the last Kaweshkar indians who can still speak their native tongue. Their language and whole culture is in grave danger of dying out as only about 15 people still master the language and the youth only learn spanish. And if this sounds hopeless to salvage, the Yamana indians on Isla Navarino south of Tierra del Fuego today has only one living speaker left of their tongue. It must be the ultimate loneliness knowing that when you, the last speaker of your native language, dies, your whole culture dies with you. The Kaweshkar indians lived throughout the area where M/S Magallanes make her trips. They used to live in small family groups with a nomadic lifestyle and where closely connected to a life with the channels by using canoes. Supposedly very few of the men could swim, since the women were the ones to dive into the water for shells, crabs and other things the sea would give them to eat. The men were the canoe builders and the children were left in charge of the fire who was kept alive even inside the canoes. The canoes were kept from burning by a layer of wet moss and earth lying between the canoes bottom and the fire.

The little village however, seems completely asleep when we arrive. But shortly after our anchor hit the quiet surface of the water with a big splash and a rattle of iron chains, small boats start moving out towards us, some rowing and some by motor. The Wednesday market of Puerto Eden is about to start. The boats pull up against the lowered drivewayat the back of the ferry, where supplies brought from Puerto Montt are hauled onto the smaller ships. Some of the locals come on board the ferry as well; some to sell small wooden canoes as souvenirs, others to go on with us to our final destination. The canoes are very popular and are sold in the blink of an eye, and after only about 15-20 minutes, the whole thing is over. The small boats pull off and leave back for shore, the driveway is raised, the anchor lifted and we’re on our way once again.

Later in the afternoon the channel is once again closing in on us, with steep, dark mountain sides rising to craggy peaks and the still, dark waters surrounding us. In front it’s possible to see the beggining of Paso el Abismo, a narrow channel we have to pass through and where dozens of waterfalls fall down the steep sides in the spring and summer months.

Then suddenly a huge, dark form breaks the surface in front of the boat. It rolls up, raises its gigantic tail in the air, before it slips silently back into the deep again and the whale disappears as quickly and silently as it appeared. So, at last, even I were able to catch a glimpse of one of this awesome animals who have no natural enemies except the ones standing aboard the boat almost hooting in excitement for the quick glimpse and just wishing for another brief look at these elegant rulers of the deep.

Paso el Abismo is probably more interesting in the spring and summer months when the waterfalls are still being fed by the snow from the mountainpeaks above. Where we’re passing into afterwards is a lot more eerie for the moment, with dark and heavy autumn clouds hanging low above the ship. Everything is wrapped in an eerie otherworldly silence as the mountain sides and the sea take on a dark color, in stark contrast to the ice starting to drift around the boat in the water, a remainder of how far south we’ve come and the proximity of huge glaciars lying just out of eyesight.

Then our last night aboard the M/S Magallanes arrives, with bingogames and a party lasting long into the night. In just a few days you’ve suddenly got about 20 new friends, which you’re almost bound to bump into again many times if you’re travelling on around in the area. At about two o’clock in the night I leave a party that still seems to feel the night is young, promising and full of opportunities. I head for my bed, exhausted from the most excellent mix of fresh sea air during the day and loads of beer in the bar in the evening.

Early next day we reach Puerto Natales. I am only just able to reach the deck for the beutiful red and orange dawn and see the sun paint the sharp mountainpeaks pink in the first light of the new day. We pass through Paso White, the narrowest channel on our trip and only 80 metres wide, before passing into the wide, open and permanently windswept landscape of Southern Patagonia, where the Andes end and a green, flat and open country takes over. After the two last hours of a wholly unique trip, M/S Magallanes finally reaches her goal; the docks of Puerto Natales. We leave the ship, feeling the land heaving slightly with an unfamiliar steadyness quite forgotten aboard a boat journey were most other things seemed far away and rather unimportant compared to the vastness, loneliness and wildness of an untouched part of our world: the fjords and channels of Chilean Patagonia.

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