Subject: Into the Crowded Wilderness
23rd December 1999
Sometimes in life you meet the most extraordinary people in
the most ordinary places. We met Nadine in a Ferreteria (a hardware
store). She was buying some magnets to complete the Polynesian
handcarved storage cabinets for her 25 metre yacht. We were
buying a litre of degreasing fluid. She interrupted us as we
quibbled in English about the price of WD40. "You speak
English. Great! Have you done any sailing before? Would you
like to come and help crew our yacht around the Fjords and Islands
of Southern Chile?"
24 hours later and we were loading our bikes and panniers onto
"Nanu", less of a luxury yacht and more a family home.
A beautiful, white, twin-masted boat, built over 3 years in
New Zealand by one Polish man, Bernard, Captain and Nadine's husband.
A young girl, dressed as a Polynesian dancer, took the panniers
from us. "Do you know any Polynesian dancing?" she
asked as she swayed her hips to a Tahiti rhythm swinging the bags around onto the deck. "You'll
need to. Don't worry I'll teach you" She showed us around
the inside of the boat with its beautifully carved wood panel
cabins. "This is where the crew sleep.. that should be
you." The Captain's voice boomed down from the bridge where
he sat poring over his charts, pipe in one hand, sextant in
the other, "But instead we have given you the honeymoon
The honeymoon suite turned out to be a tiny triangular
cabin, with a soft cushioned floor, set right in the bow, next
to the anchor. Not a place to be if the weather turned bad or
when the Captain wanted the anchor raised, but as romantic as
it gets for two cyclists more used to bedding down on a hard
gravel floor. We climbed back on deck and heard a voice coming
from high above us. "Do you know how to do a bowline?"
Blonde, tousle haired Sylvan, 7 years old, more comfortable
in flippers than shoes, called down to us from 50 feet up in
the mast. "You'll need to. I'll show you how" he cried
as he leapt off the mast into the sea, while Dinky, the three
legged family dog hobbled around excitedly sniffing out the
The other crew were a couple of Americans from Seattle. They had come to Chile to live in Puerto Montt but their plan had backfired
when they got there and found they really didn't like it. So,
they were on the boat to buy time, do some thinking together
to decide what to do next. Some couples seem to be joined at
the hip but these two were welded together. Doing anything required
intensive consultation to get the full agreement of the other,
accompanied by a mutual exchange of "Hey hunny, what do
As the boat set sail, the Captain deftly produced a half full
bottle of his favourite Polish Vodka from underneath his charts
and insisted it was customary for the whole crew to toast Neptune,
God of the Sea. "One sip for you.... and one for Neptune. but not too much for Neptune" he grunted through
his beard as he downed three quarters of a tumbler of Vodka
and tossed a solitary drop into the Sea. With the formalities
over, we cast off to the bark of the Captain's orders. "Unfurl
the sails. No, not that sail. Pull on the winch. No, not THAT
one. Pull up the anchor. The big anchor not the small one. LEAVE
THE SMALL ONE ALONE" he snapped at his wife while we stood
helplessly at the end of the deck watching with alarm and looking
longingly at our saddles.
Over the course of the next week, we discovered this family
was truly extraordinary. They had been sailing around the world
as a family for three years, after having hand built the boat
themselves in New Zealand. Nadine was a French New Zealander with Vietnamese
ancestry, an educational psychologist who started travelling
as a teenager working on a prawn trawler and never really stopped.
Captain's mate, mother, host, cook and teacher of her children
and each crew she took on. She challenged our beliefs about
how best to bring up children and equip them for life in the
world. Then Bernard, 20 years older than Nadine, with a grumpy
exterior shaped by the responsibilities of Captaincy but with
a sense of fun and a wicked chuckle. This was the third boat
he had designed and built himself. A natural sailor who had
taken his family across all the world's oceans and never had
a day's sea sickness. And Sofia, 11 years old, already quadlingual, brought up touring
the world on a papoose on her mothers back. (Now there's an
idea!) She lived in a world of make believe which involved frequent
changes of costume and was convinced that anyone who wasn't
involved in boating worked in the circus. And finally, Sylvan,
born in the Bush and raised on the boat. Already a skilled hunter
and tracker who could make fire under any conditions, and usually
did. He was already shaping up well as a good second mate to
his Dad. Between them they taught us all we needed to know.
An interesting experience being led and taught by a seven year
old boy.. and sometimes putting your life in his young hands.
We spent a week cruising the deep blue fjords around
Chiloe and Puerto Montt, taking kayaks to uninhabited islands under the heat
of the Chilean summer sun. Each night local fishermen would
drop by the boat offering their latest catch of giant pink salmon,
fresh corvina, bags of mussels. One of them, Alfonso, also a
boat builder, took an interest in Bernard's yacht. In exchange
for the Captain's tour he offered to take us all on an hour
long walk to the lake beside his house. We turned up, a motly
crew dressed in shorts, sandals and sunglasses. Alfonso led
the way, casually hacking his way through virgin jungle with
a freshly sharpened machete. He was closely followed by Sylvan,
brandishing a very large but thankfully blunt stick, mimicking
precisely Alfonso's every move. Progress was hampered not only
by the dense jungle and slippery bogs but by the need to stop
every few hundred yards to help each other burn leeches off
our exposed skin, a tip Stuart had gleaned not through experience
but through intensive study of the SAS Survival Handbook which
had proved so invaluable with the volcanoes and earthquakes
in Ecudaor. None the less, he impressed the rest of the party
and particularly Sylvan with his jungle savvy.
Three long hours later we reached the lake. and turned straight
around to find our way back before dark. It was then we were
hit by a really unpleasant smell. "Yuk. Dinky is REALLY
stinky" said Sylvan disgustedly as he pushed the three
legged mutt away with his stick. The smell was truly foul. It
seemed the unfortunate dog had limped across a skunk while foraging
through the jungle. This experience seemed to make him even
more affectionate than usual as he rubbed himself up and down
our legs, already raw and stinging from the burning of the leeches.
We returned to the boat where the Captain refused permission
to board until we had all been doused in a freshly prepared
light bleach solution. As we wiped the last of the bleach away,
Sofia suggested an N party to lift everyone's spirits. We
were all required to turn up to dinner dressed as something
beginning with the letter N.
At N o'clock, we sat down to a banquet of NOODLES and NECTARINES
followed by NESCAFE . and of course the obligatory Polish Vodka,
which we all agreed would be known for the evening as NODKA,
much to Sofia's dismay. At the head of the table, dressed entirely
in black with a giant N sellotaped to his tracksuit sat Captain
NEGRO (black in Spanish). On his right sat Sofia as NARANJA, face painted bright orange, adorned with
an orange peel necklace, wearing nothing more than an orange
bikini. Next to her sat Dinky, proudly displaying his new orange
peel collar, straining his neck trying to nibble at it as an
aperitif. Then the Welds who had come as each other after a
long period of consultation. Boy weld put on a skirt and filled
out his blouse with socks, pinning a little sign to his soft
new breasts saying "Yo Soy NATASHA" to ensure there
was no confusion. She came as a NERD. Then sat Kirstie, bedecked
as an old fishing NET, with old wellington boots and fish-heads
hanging around her neck along with a collection of mussels left
over from last night's dinner. Then Stuart, with specially composed
limericks about everyone one the ship pinned all over his body,
all written in the style of Edward Lear's NONSENSE poems. Then
the piece de resistance, Nadine, the NUTTER, unashamedly wearing
a frilly yellow nightie, her hair in bunches and curlers, delicately
offset by earrings made out of Pistachio nut shells, her handbag
filled with plastic bags and onions which spilled out onto the
table, and finally fishnet stockings and slippers to show off
her legs. She looked a treat. Bernard fell in love once more
and winked affectionately at Nadine. We silently wondered if
he had seen this outfit once or twice before in the privacy
of his own cabin on a long and boring sea crossing. At the other
end of the table, sitting in a sulk was Sylvan. "What have
you come as Sylvan?" asked the NUTTER. "Nothing ..
.this stupid party wasn't my idea." "NOTHING. That's
a very imaginative response to what must be a difficult situation
for you" the NUTTER praised her child as we all downed
another NODKA. The party finished in disarray when a strong
NORTHERLY brought proceedings unexpectedly to a halt, causing
everyone (except Bernard) to run for the nearest bucket. NAUSEA,
the perfect end to the perfect N party.
At the end of 8 days cruising we found ourselves back where
we started, at the beginning of the Carreterra Austral. As they
dropped us onto the jetty and cruised off, we waved goodbye
and were entranced for a watching imaginary silver trails of
a school of Dolphins following them out to sea. And then we were back on our bikes, ready for
the long ride on the road to nowhere. Five days of isolation
on a rough dirt track and we hadn't seen any other cyclists
or tourists. And then.. disaster struck when the chain on Kirstie's
bicycle snapped clean in two. The disaster became a crisis when
the only tool which could fix the problem sheared in half as
well. We sat and looked despairingly at the chainless bike and
broken tool, holding the ends of the chain in either hand. And
the rain poured down. We were four days ride and a twelve hour,
once a week, ferry crossing from the nearest bike shop heading
North. and six days ride from the nearest cycle shop South.
What's more we were at least 50km in either direction from a
phone or any signs of population. "What are the odds of
this happening.. both the chain and the chain repair tool breaking?
We are really stuffed." We decided the only thing we could
do was sleep on it and see what the morning would bring. We
went to sleep praying for a miracle, dreaming up crazy schemes
of pushing the bike 200km to an airfield where we could charter
a plane to Santiago for repairs.
When we woke, the reality of our situation hit us once more.
" We are done for" said Stuart as he unzipped the
front of the tent. "I don't even know what to suggest.
This is worse than the bike going missing.. Oh my God, I don't
believe it.. Kirst another cyclist. RUN AND STOP HIM" Kirstie
got up, barefooted, dressed only in a bra and knickers and legged
it onto the stony road after our potential saviour. "STOP.
HELP ME. PLEASE. I NEED YOU." Ten yards ahead the bicycle
skidded to a halt and its trailing trolley full of luggage veered
off the road and into a ditch. A lonely looking, bespectacled
young man, dressed in a pair of baggy shorts, looked Kirstie
up and down in amazement thinking that maybe his prayers had
been answered. Kirstie pounced on him, "Do you speak English
and are you carrying a chain link extractor?" Praise God
We effected a temporary repair and the other cyclist, a Canadian,
offered to cycle the 50km with us to the next village in case
the chain broke again. As we gratefully accepted his help, out
of the rain came a sleek, streamlined, impeccably dressed being,
the silver of his helmet glinting through the mist. Wearing
a lycra cyclists' jumpsuit over a crisp white Tshirt, with Armani
sunglasses, a shaven head and an unshaven chin. "I am from
Milan" he said. We could have guessed. In the hand of international
friendship, we offered him a cup of instant coffee which he
turned down disdainfully. "Italians NEVER drink Nescafe."
We set off together, the Italian in the lead. At the first hill
he got off his bike and pushed. Kirstie was delighted.. "Excellent
a pusher. Now I won't feel so bad about pushing up some of these
hills. Hey wait a minute. Why is he pushing? It's not even a
big hill. I can't believe he's pushing this hill. I'm cycling
it. There's no way I'd push this hill. He's an Italian wimp
and I'm a cycling machine." At the top of the hill, the
Italian stopped and changed his Tshirt as we cycled on ahead.
At one o'clock the international cycling tour stopped for lunch.
The Canadian impressed us all by getting out a bag of flour,
proceeding to build a make-shift Tandoori oven in which to bake
his own bread. Thinking that a bit ambitious we English brewed
up a nice cup of tea on our camp stove. Meanwhile, the Italian
changed into yet another Tshirt, hung out three more to air
along with a pair of pure white socks and began to nibble on
bread and honey. An hour later as we were packing up, the Canadian
was forced to abandon waiting for his bread to rise and hurriedly
cobbled together a flat fried bread sandwich with a bit of old
cheese and we began to see cracks in our superhuman saviour.
Having shared bread and water we all cycled on together to the
We were grateful to the Canadian for his help with
our chain problems and wondered how we could possibly repay
his kindness. At the village we checked into a Hostal, longing
for a shower after five days roughing it. "I'd like to
camp" said the Canadian, "Perhaps I can camp in the
garden of your hotel?" We negotiated this for him and offered
him the use of our shower. We then went off to try and phone
England to organise the shipping of a new chain. When we returned,
the freshly showered Canadian was cooking his dinner outside
our room. Unable to get hot water for our showers , we asked
him how he had managed. "Oh I had to have a cold one. I
couldn't get the pilot light lit." We lit the pilot light
with a match, showered and went to dinner. The Italian was already
seated with a glass of wine, tucking into his soup. "I
have checked into the nice hotel down the road. It was there
and I was knackered. It is very expensive though so I have to
eat here." We sat down to dinner with him and tried to
generate some conversation.despite our limited shared vocabulary.
"Have you ever been cycle touring before?" Stuart
asked. "No, never before. Never on a bicycle. I read about
this journey in a book. This book" he said as he produced
a pristine, hardback copy of a large book from his saddlebag,
"It's very famous in Italy.. by an Italian pop singer.
I'm not following him you understand. And I don't like his music.
Just the journey OK?" he growled. We nodded and loudly
slurped our soup wondering what to say next. "So what tools
are you carrying in case you have chain problems?" asked
Kirstie. He thought for a moment and then, "Well, I have
got four of those rubber things that go inside the wheels."
and then he paused for a long time, and continued "and
nine Tshirts." We gave thanks he didn't come along instead
of the Canadian but his conversation was very entertaining.
He recounted how he had been sent to catch the Hornopiren ferry
by a travel agency in Puerto Montt. "I cycled for 4 days
to get there. And it wasn't running. People in Puerto Montt
are very stupid" he spat, "Actually when I said stupid,
what I meant was arseholes."
At the end of the meal we bid goodnight to our companion, and
went to our room, a portacabin affair next to the Canadian's
tent. He was waiting at our door. "Can I use your toilet?"
Ten minutes later he came out of the bathroom. "I'm sorry
I've used up all yout toilet paper." We began to think
the debt was repaid.
At four in the morning we were shocked from a deep slumber into
conciousness by an incessant banging. With our adrenalin pumping,
the room door flung open violently, throwing one of the bikes
resting behind it onto the floor. A white searchlight darted
around the room catching each of us sitting bolt upright like
startled rabbits caught in a car's headlights. As we waited
for the sound of SAS gunfire, the light was fumbled on to reveal
the spectacle of the unspectacled Canadian in his baggy shorts
and Tshirt, head torch stuck to his matted hair. "I'm terribly
sorry and very embarrassed about this...but is it alright if
I use your toilet again?" The last words were shouted as
he grabbed the bathroom door and threw himself inside where
he and his bowels collapsed into the toilet. "You see..
I've got this violent diaorreah." Kirstie turned over in
her warm bed to go back to sleep muttering "I'm sorry there's
no toilet paper"
Two visits later, and morning arrived. As we went to breakfast
the Canadian was waiting on our doorstep with a pile of things.
"Can I use the bathroom?" We returned an hour later
and he emerged from the bathroom, dribbling toothpaste. As he
spat the last remains of mouthwash into our sink we felt the
debt had definitely been repaid and the time had come to say
goodbye. We never saw the Canadian again, but we met the Italian
several more times along the road. Each time he caught us brewing
up a cup of tea. Eventually, we caught him at a vulnerable moment.
After four days of incessant wind and rain, when he was cold
and wet, we finally persuaded him to surrender to a nice warming
cup of Nescafe. As he sipped gratefully on the hot black liquid,
he swore us to secrecy, to protect his reputation and that of
Thankfully our repair held out until relative civilization in
Coihaique... with its one bike shop containing a selection of
bike parts from the 50's and 60's. We eventually managed to
get a new chain and a new chain tool. It took three days and
a cast of thousands including.. the local welder, called Madrid;
Manuel Chaudra, President of the Coihaique Club de Cyclistas
(total membership 7); Bike shops in Santiago, Puerto Montt and
Puerto Aisen; three officers from the Regional Tourist Information
Service; and a woman in a Sewing Shop who claimed she went to
school with the queen and sang us all the verses to Auld Lang
Syne (in English) encouraging us to join her in rehearsal for
the big day coming up. Yes, really.
And as we tuck into our Xmas dinner, we are once again looking
forward to breaking new ground. After all, we've met more people
and made more friends in the wilderness than we ever did cycling
through civilisation. Maybe that's what wilderness does to people.
A guy in a coffee shop has told us it is just about possible
to cycle the last part of ex President Pinochet's dream road
to Villa O Higgins."It's still something of a building
site and just about the only people to have travelled the distance
are the army and local cowboys." So, we sought the necessary
permissions from the army and the police, and now know it is
theoretically possible to cross into Argentina via this route
to complete our journey. All we need to do when the road runs
out is find a man called "Pichincho" who owns the
boat in Villa O Higgins and might be willing to take us across
the lake from Chile to Argentina.. for a fee. Apparently he'll
do anything for money. So that's the plan. Sounds a bit dodgy.
But, as the Chief of Police in Coihaique said, "If it works..
EXCELLENT!! And if it doesn't. then you'll just have to pedal
all the way back again! Good luck" he chuckled. "And
a Happy New Year."
And the same to all of you too.
Lots of love
Kirstie and Stuart