Chile 93A - Expedition Report
by Rob Birrell
Search for tours in Chile
Search for brochures for Travel in Chile
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.
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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