Chile 93A - Expedition Report

by Rob Birrell



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During the first three months of 1993 I was lucky enough to take part in an expedition to Chile run by an organization called Raleigh International. My place on the expedition was gained after a series of selection exercises and various money raising exploits.

Look in the document "About Raleigh International" for further information on the organization and its aims.

The journey

I left Motherwell in the depths of winter, after several attempts as blizzard conditions meant that roads were blocked and the train I had intended to catch was cancelled. I eventually managed to get on a suitable train and had an uneventful journey down to London. Here I made my way to the Gloucester Hotel to be treated to my `Last Supper' by my Father, who was down on business. After, there was time for the `Last Bath' in his room before I was treated to a Taxi out to Heathrow. I arrived there at about 1 AM and joined some of my fellow venturers for a sleepless night stretched out over the seats in the departures lounge.

We departed Heathrow at about 9 AM on the Wednesday morning having been split up into flight groups and arrived in Amsterdam at about 11 AM (all times local). After a wander round Schipol airport we were ready to leave for the first leg of the flight to Santiago via Rio De Janeiro and Buenos Aires. The flight, in a massive new Boeing 747-700, to Rio took about 12 hours. We were able to track our progress across the Atlantic on animated world maps which were displayed on the video screens in between the feature films. Unfortunately even the copious quantities of food and drink served to us during the course of the journey couldn't make up for the monotony of the journey.

Buenos Aires passed almost unnoticed and the next morning we were greeted by a glorious sunrise over the Andes as we descended to Santiago. Thank goodness I hadn't seen the film Alive at this stage which tells the true story of a plane crash in the Andes where some of the occupants survived by eating the bodies of the passengers killed in the crash.

Early on the Thursday morning we arrived in Santiago where, having met up with a few `International Venturers' and some Chilean Venturers, we transferred to a coach which delivered us to the city centre for a few hours sightseeing. We dumped our rucksacks at a seedy hotel and `hit' the centre. To my dismay my flight group decided to breakfast in Macdonalds. For the sake of team solidarity I grudgingly went along with the decision. We then had time for last minute purchases of silly hats and sunscreen before boarding another coach to take us on the long 1000 mile journey south to Coyhaique where Raleigh International has its base in Chile.

Two nights came and went in a blur. We passed through Argentina on our journey, through its beautiful Lake District and through its not so beautiful customs posts where we were hassled for hours on end. The roads for the most part were unmetalled and we were periodically entertained by the driver and his accomplice changing the tyres as punctures were a common occurence. Finally, on the Friday morning and several passport stamps later we arrived in Coyhaique where we unloaded our gear for a short march upto the HQ at El Verdin. Because Raleigh has been in Chile for so long there is a fairly well established base setup at El Verdin with a large stores building, buildings for eating and washing, showers and a huge and evil smelling latrine.


At El Verdin we were split into different groups for a three day training period. As well as having our first taste of trekking with heavy packs we covered:


Each group has to have a transceiver (radio transmitter) with them at all times. These consisted of a heavy Army issue 320 radio with a clip on hand generator and battery. The whole ensemble weighed about 10Kg and proved a considerable burden throughout the expedition. We had to learn the correct `voice procedure' as well as the Alpha, Bravo ... Zulu phonetic alphabet. In addition we had to learn how to give our regular sitrep (situation report) and, hopefully, not so regular casevac (casualty evacuation).

Maps and navigation

The Chilean maps have contour lines spaced at 50 metre intervals. Consider the fact that ordinary Ordnance Survey maps in Great Britain have 10 metre intervals. Trying to read the `lie of the land' from a map that can hide a hill up to 150 feet high is a tricky business. Being in the Southern Hemisphere also meant that we had the added confusion of having to add the magnetic compass variation (as opposed to subtracting it as we would normally do in the North ern Hemisphere).

Some of the other training took place on the Argentine border near Lago (Lake) Castor. Here we learnt aspects of camp craft( latrines, cooking, firstaid etc.), did more radio and navigation work, did an exhilerating abseil from Chile into Argentina (its OK no one saw us!!) before doing a swimming test in the icy cold lake. We also had our first introduction to ration packs subsequently referred to as RAT PACKS for good reason. On our return to El Verdin, after a sleepless first nights biviing, the staff made sure that we were thoroughly wet and miserable by subjecting us to a river crossing which involved being swept off our feet in the torrential river as we clung on to a taught rope strung across it.

The projects

The expedition was loosely split into two halves, the first half, in my case, being land based and the second half being coastal based. Each half was approximately one month long and was further split into a number of projects. The land based phase was split into two, two week projects while the second half was split into nominally three 10 day projects. At the halfway stage we had a couple of days back at HQ to collect new instructions and a resupply of rations and equipment. While we were there we had time to do some work at a local orphanage and to run a selection day for prospective venturers from the local area.

Project 1 - Geological trek in the Jeinemeni area

Life in the ash

Trekking in the Jeinemeni mountains

This project involved helping some geologist from Liverpool University and one Chilean scientist to do detailed surveys of the mountain plateau near to the Rio Jeinemeni which runs along the border between Chile and Argentina some 400km south of Coyhaique.

We spent two weeks trekking over the plateau mapping bassalt and sedimentary outcrops and taking measurements of the density of the underlying rock (using a very delicate and frustrating instrument known as a gravimeter). The data collected will enable the geologist to get a far fuller picture of the geological makeup of this area which, apparently, is of great interest as it lies near the tripple junction of three tectonic plates.

We carried equipment and rations up on to the plateau where we camped and bivied with out contact from the outside world other than by radio (apart from a solitary shepherd). Conditions on the plateau were very harsh. We had constant high winds which compounded the effects of the fierce sun. Ash and grit, from the eruption of Mount Hudson two years previously, covered the landscape and permeated our clothes, our food, our drink and every exposed part of the body (YES, EVERY PART! Going to the toilet was not a pleasant experience). My hands looked like two raw pieces of meat having been subjected to two weeks of these hostile conditions. All the water on the plateau cam from snow melt and yes, you've guessed it, it was full of ash too and had to be strained through muslin cloth before it could be used. There was apparently no wood on the plateau so we were unable to light a fire for four days until the shepherd came along and showed us how to make a fire from the roots of a heather like shrub that grew in abundance.

We made our base camp in a dust bowl, one of the few flat pieces of ground available, which meant that our tents had to be weighted down with stones to stop the pegs from being pulled out by the wind. In spite of such precautions one of the geologists tents com plete with most of his gear was blown off into Argentina somewhere.

This was undoubtedly the most arduous phase of the expedition for me but looking back on it I think it is probably the phase that I will remember most fondly.

Project 2 - Community project, childrens playground in Murta

Lincoln sampling Chilean hospitality

Local farmers in Murta

Helping out on the farm

For the next project we moved about 50 km North West (160km by road!!) to the small Patagonian village of Bahia Murta. We were all looking forward to a rest after our exersions of the previous two weeks but it was not to be. We took over from another group on the design and construction of a playground for the village school. The aim of the project was to give us experience of living and working in a small Chilean community while pro viding them with them with a useful amenity. We also spent sometime teaching English to the village children while they in turn tried to teach us Spanish.

One of the local farmers had kindly agreed for us to camp on his land. In return we helped hime with the daily farm chores of milking and hay cutting etc. This was an interesting exercise indeed considering that at least one of our number came from innercity Liver pool and was more accustomed to hotwiring cars than milking cows!

During the first week of our time Murta the village was holding a festival and we were fully involved participating in football matches, judging various competitions and party ing each night all in the interests of international relations. It was demanding work of course but we came through it with flying colours and had a great time in the process. One of our group Lincoln Abrahams (no I'm not kidding!!), a tall, black, post office clerk from Wandsworth became a celebrity in his own right by dancing with the Carnival Queen in front of the whole village at the end of festival knees up.

We, for the most part, completed the playground successfully (leaving the next group to make the finishing touches) and left for the next project with a great feeling of fulfilment having achieved a great deal and made lots of new friends.

Project 3 - Golfo Elefantes pollution survey

Speeding down the Rio Exploradores

The San Rafael Glacier

Penguins in the Golfo Elefantes

Working with Dr Ralph Manly from Kingston University we travelled around the Golfo Elefantes in Avon inflatables carrying out an inter-tidal survey of the fiord to establish baseline data of an unpolluted pristine area.

We spent about six days darting backwards and forwards across the Golfo Elefantes land ing on beaches to do lightning surveys of the life down the beach. We didn't ever quite manage to get a penguin in our transect but one of the group did manage to sustain a nasty nip from one (she didn't try to stroke it again!).

We spent our nights biviing wherever we could which included an old sawmill and a semi derelict hotel. You've no idea of my suprise when I found a steam engine built in Ipswich (where I used to live) in the sawmill.

The highlight of this phase was undoubtedly our visit to the Laguna San Rafael where a huge glacier enters the sea. The glacier is fed from the Patagonian icepack and constantly grinds away. We sat for two hours just watching lumps the size of houses falling off the 300 foot high face of the glacier. Navigating our inflatables through the icebergs in the laguna was an exhilerating experience never to be forgotten.

Project 4 - Archaelogical exploration of the Los Chonos penninsula

Camp chores at Los Chonos

Sunset over the Los Chonos archipelago

Working with Dr Patricia Curry from Cambridge University we spent ten days locating ancient settlements of the Los Chonos Indians, beachcombing for artefacts and tools and sinking potholes and pits to discover more about the way of life of this now extinct civilization.

By this stage the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the rain fell relentlessly. I spent 4 days in the depths of a forest excavating a pit 0.5m x 1.0m x 1.0m deep only to find a few bird bones. Other members of the group were luckier and found a couple of human skeletons and a musket ball.

Another 3 days were spent out on a `recce' in the Avons looking for new sites with some success ... we found ten new sites. The Chonos Indians travelled around in bark canoes so we worked on the basis that the sort of places we could land were much the same as the places they would have landed and subsequently settled. As far as we can gather there diet consisted almost entirely of shellfish. The Chonos women were used to dive for the shell fish at they had better resistance to the icy cold waters. Hard as we tried the lads in my group couldn't persuade the girls of the benefits of this approach. Anyway, the result of this diet of shellfish were piles of shells at the edge of the sites. It was within these shell middens where we concentrated our excavations.

At night we bivied on beaches or at modern shell fishing sites using a tarpaulin as a communal bivi. Luckily we were blessed with good weather for these three days so the eve nings were spent eating round the fire watching the sunset and listening to the dolphins `spouting' in the bays.

Project 5 - Jetty building on the Rio Exploradores

Pile driving on the jetty

Exploradores Camp - note the water level!

Me posing

Working with members of the Ministry of Public Works, we constructed a jetty and corral to allow the farmers in this remote region to move cattle to market.

My final project was to have been Sea Kayaking but due to injuries sustained by the lead ers and bad weather this had to be cancelled. Instead we returned to Exploradores, about 150km south of Chonos. We had been there briefly before, before heading out on our pollution survey. In the ten days since we had been there another group had done a lot of work on the jetty and it was left to us to make the finishing touches. We spent 10 days working hard in continuous rain to get the jetty finished but in the end it was tremendously reward ing to see the jetty being used by our `escape' boat. I use the word `escape' advisedly as by the time it arrived to take us back to Port Aisen, where we were to be picked up by truck to take us back to El Verdin, it was 4 days late and our rations had run out. Thankfully the local farmers had donated us a sheep (Minty) which they cooked for us to thank us for our efforts.

Return to HQ

When we eventually arrived back at El Verdin after a tortuous journey we had half an hour to put up tents, shower and put on some clean clothes. The other groups, some of whom had been back at HQ for three days, helped us with the tents and before long we were sit ting with the rest of them at the Galpon for long awaited feed. It was extremely welcome after four weeks of ratpacks. Then we partied through the night unhindered by the limited Chilean band and disco. Apparently our beer consumption was not as good as the previous expedition but I gather that we put in a resonable performance.

The next day was spent meticulously cleaning all the stores and equipment we had been using for the previous month and then in the evening there was just time to nip down to Coyhaique for some last minute souvenir shopping.

The journey back was a reverse of the journey out except that this time we flew via Rio, Sao Paulo and Montivideo and Amsterdam. It was no less tedious needless to say. After the shuttle to Heathrow there was just time for some sad farewells before I hurredly jumped on the first flight I could get up to Glasgow.


Well its sometime since I returned to Britain. I've presented my slide show dozens of times to various groups of friends and sponsors. My friends and colleagues are utterly fed up of me telling them `when I was in Chile ...' but you'll have to ask them whether I'm a better person for my experience. Getting over it is not easy. We were warned about the `Post Expedition Blues' syndrome and certainly I have felt it but not as much as some. Its quite nice getting back to a roof over your head, good food and above all BATHS! Having experienced a month of almost continuous rain during the wettest Patagonian summer for fifty years (we had 4inches of rain one night) I'll never complain about the Scottish weather again (well hardly ever).

Well that's the end of my report. I can only say that its an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world. I managed to settle down to life back home to a certain extent but I'm itching to get off travelling again as soon as possible within the constraints of money and work.

Author: Rob Birrell
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