CHILE SAUCE, MY FRIEND?

To begin at the beginning, we should start with old Pinocchio himself, and the sudden storm which brewed on the otherwise tranquil horizon of Raleigh's work in Chile. With three days to D-day, their Head Office decided in their wisdom that they should adhere to Foreign Office advice. They postponed my flight by a week, with the caveat that if the situation changed I'd be able to go. Result: One not happy puppy journo.

A day later, I had acquired a French identity, and passport, from the Consulate in London (still not sure whether that means I'll have to faire le squaddie bit for a year or not...), signed a "I don't care if I die and I won't blame you" letter for Raleigh and basically stamped my feet until said OK. I left. I arrived.

After a few days running around in Santiago trying to get background on the green scene and issues in Chile, I took a train south. I enjoyed my days in Santiago, though buses choke and terrorize the streets and there aren't enough terraced cafes. The cafes there are seemed to all be stuffed with bunny girl waitresses. They stand behind shiny counters which vaguely conceal their impossibly micro skirts and pour sugar from the shaker as if they were fellating you. Very bizarre when you're still half asleep. I went out with an American guy I met and the nightlife is loud, busy, pseudo gringo and Chilenas are friendly and beautiful, though not as exotic as Caraquenas (ie, bananas are not their business). Best compliment I got: For a gringuito, you don’t dance badly. Wehey...

I arrived at the beginning of summer and the climate is warm but not sticky and there's always a breeze. Off in the smogged distance there are burnt brown mountains and there's still some decent colonial architecture about. There were a lot of police on the streets and there were some small demos while I was there but nothing big. Damn. The best police presence were women who ride around on litlle Honda Melodies with dark helmets and black "shiny boots of leather" to quote Lou Reed. Failed to get arrested by one of them however.

Train ride took all night and was more than the bus, but hey, the sleeping car dated from the 1930s, the carriages from the 1960s and the food from the 1980s. It was great. I stopped off at the seaside town of Puerto Montt, which was pretty dismal with a stained concrete pier and a big Pepsi neon sign that flickered epileptically at night. The biggest tourist attraction is a compound piled high with mountains of woodchips bound for Japan, followed by the shopping mall. Still, I managed to get to some picturesque fishing villages and spent some time in the Lake District which, with snow-capped Mount Fuji volcanoes and mirror smooth lakes, would have sent Wordsworth into a right old tis.

From there by plane to Coyhaique [COYAIKEE], where Raleigh has its Field Base up on a hillside above the town. Like Belize, they've been here for ages and the FB is therefore pretty sorted with dorms and a homely yet simple office. There's also space for all the venturer tents, with showers, washing, cooking facilities and a large hut for meetings, eatings and dancings. It's a beautiful place with great views of the surrounding snowy mountains and plenty of forests all around.

Differences to Belize include:

-- Due to the dispersed project sites in Chile, ie they're fuggin miles apart, "changeovers" at the end of the three week phases happen over a week. This makes sense logistically and also, from what feedback I got, seems to help with team dynamics, whatever they are.

-- No BASHAS (British Army Suffering Happily Altogethers) -- weird canvas bed thing you erect with pieces of wood and a Swiss Army penknife. I was gutted I can tell you. I found them to be a right laugh to fall out of at 4am in Belize, and also pretty essential for some personal space. This is due to the Hanta virus, carried by rodents, which results in rapid unseemly death from their shit or piss. Nice. Tents are therefore the norm now in Chile, and these are supposed to be kept shut at all times. These get trashed, leek, stink and are a right pain in the arse to live in over expedition if you ask me. Snoring tentmates don't help much either...

-- Adventure! Three weeks of sea-kayaking, canoeing, mountain trekking and piss-down-on-you-for-three-weeksing. None of this poncy four-day mallarky like Belize. Harsh and challenging conditions in extremely remote locations. No re-supplies and plenty of Manjar (squidgy caramel milk sugar stuff which the venturers smear on anything, yes, including themselves...)

-- Anything else? Oh yes, the climate. It's cold. It also rains menageries most of the time. Clouds swept up from the Pacific dump their loads as they hit the Andes, resulting in 5 metre precipitation rates a year. Winds from the Antarctic south also blow up the cordillera, and chill you to the bone. "I can't stand the rain" nominated as the first phase's song.... That said, some project sites basked in glorious sunshine and I was very lucky with the weather. Some sites however, saw about three days of sun for whole phases, the kayakers looked like drowned rats and stank equally...

-- oh yes, a distinct lack of female representation. In Chile they're outnumbered 5 to flippin 1. The ones there are would scare Fatima Whitbread (In fact I was well impressed with how the women coped with the sometimes very harsh conditions..).

So why were you there again Dom? What's the story? I had two main ones in mind for Raleigh. Uhuh. The first was the work they've been doing over the last two years in the Laguna San Rafael National Park. Funding comes from the UK Darwin Initiative. As with the reef in Belize, the project aims to accumulate baseline data within the park for a biodiversity survey, but also to help with the management of the growing tourism trade there. Raleigh and the Chilean Foresty bods should have a $750,000-project confirmed in the next few months, so I reckon there's a good story there.

The second was to try using a travel angle on Raleigh, which I think is particularly pertinent for Chile -- the whole of South America opens up from there. As well as the obvious wanting to travel and doing it in a safe, controlled environment, there's also learning a bit of Spanish, acclimatising to Latin culture and meeting travel mates before you set off on your own. About half the expedition go onto to travel afterwards, for anything from a month to two years. I reckon it's a good piece for a travel section.

So the Laguna was my first stop. After three days at FB, the weather finally cleared enough for a small plane to fly me and my PR dahling Mark II down there -- the only other access by two-day boat journey. Raleigh have a press officer who look after visiting journos and such and get their work into the local and national media. Since this was all on hold during the Pinochet crisis, there wasn't a whole load to do.

The Park itself covers all of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, and in southwestern corner of this lies the lagoon. Awesome flight down in a six seater plane with a stunt pilot who grinned insanely as he banked back and forth to let me get some great photos of the glaciers and mountains. We arrived to find the camp deserted. It's housed in the burnt-out hulk of an old hotel built in the 1970s. Welcome to the Hotel Patagonia...there's a song in that somewhere.

At one point we were going to have to go back to FB since there was no radio contact and no-one around. I could feel my second Raleigh rebellion brewing. Thankfully, people did turn up. We whizzed off (as much as you can whizz when trying to avoid bloody great icebers and icefields) in Avon inflatables across to a beach on the other side of the lagoon where they had established another camp.

The project consists of tracking a rare and endangered wild cat called the KodKod. They're trapped, collared and weighed, and then the venturers spend 24hours a day monitoring their habits and habitat with radio receivers that go beep, beep. Sounds quite wild, but in fact the cat resembles my neighbour's in size and ferocity, and are getting increasingly used to human company -- one tended to chill out in the park warden't hut and eat the food left for it. Needless to say, "Tibbles" was very popular with the KodKoders who would sit in the hut next door with a fire and go beep, beep without moving or getting drenched at 4am...

The Beach was situated slap bang in front of where the San Rafael Glacier slides inexorably into the laguna's waters. On either side, towering snow-capped mountains embrace it with robes of green forests. Truly a wondrous place to spend a few days researching (hmm). To me, the glacier resembled a mammoth Aquafresh Mr Whippy machine - d'yer want a flake with that luv? But hey, that's just me.

The glacier calves chunks of ice as big as houses every so often, creating waves that ripple across the waters. Cobalt and aquamarine icebergs drift on the lagoon, flecks of cork on a giant grey-blue wineglass. Some of these drift up to the shores where they get stranded, slowly melting and metamorphosing before your eyes like old ships in breakers' yards. Washing next to icebergs will be one of the more surreal memories I'll take home with me. The glacier also groans and roars . It seems like Old Man Time is aching as the echoes reverberate around the mountains and shores. There are also porpoises, sealions, terns and albatrosses that never come out on photos.

I spent about five nights there in all. Basically there wasn't a lot to do but wait for the cats to fall for the Whiskas bait and do some drawing of the odd plant. Life of Raleigh indeed. I got on very well with Tamsin the PRO. We soon decided we were on honeymoon together, and the christening of our medialoveydahling child, you'll be glad to hear, will be at the June 99 reunion.

The boathandler was a mad Cornishman by the name of Nelly who'd been a venturer out in Belize back in 95. His favourite expression was ARSE (West country accent required) which soon became the verbal totem of the three phases of KodKoders. The Project Manager was an army sergeant called Geoff who was very popular and had the respect of all the venturers. He spent most of his time talking like Smashy and Nicey from Harry Enfield -- it's a lagunatastic day and all for charidee, right kids?

The other project site was over on another shore of the lagoon. They were cutting a trail through dense forest so that, one day (ie not manana), a 10 km trek will be possible to another, even bigger, glacier. Erm, they managed one k in three weeks. Very hard work. The best part was the fording of a river which had to be done with ropes and carabiners and all that. I spent a night in the forest with them, sleeping in Goretex "bivvy bags" and got dunked on the way back over the river. Cheers.

Back to the Hotel Patagonia where Christmas beckoned. This was done in true Waleigh spiwit, including, as well as the usual decorations and presies, crackers, stockings, Midnight Mass, the Queen's Speech, holy bread, the singing of carols and lashings of food (hoorah!) saved up especially. Very surreal but very endearing too Really great bunch of venturers, and I had a top time with them. Played footie on the airstrip after the Queen's speech and we had to take the goalposts down cos a plane wanted to land, as you do.

On Boxing Day we all went out for a jolly, and got right up close and personal to the glacier. Its phallanx of spiky blue ice looms a hundred or so metres above you and it's a very humbling experience. It's also pretty scary since you never quite know when a bloody great council flat of thousand year old ice is going to hurl itself into the water and squish you. My photos of this day are tops including one where the whole boat pulled a moony on me as they went passed by at full pelt. You have to laugh.

After ten days, the "indefatigable" Austral III turned up to take us all back north and to drop off the 3rd phasers. This old bath-tug, usually employed to freight cows, is chartered by Raleigh and is home for the next 16 hours of diesel asphyxiation, rolling seas and dodgy toilets.

Chilled changeover (2 beers and up at 6) at FB where I was able to wash minging clothes and meet some more of the expedition. Then came the rude awakening of Mountain Trek/Schlep which I thought would provide a good example of ardcore adventure on Raleigh, and well, cos I love the mountains and fancied spending a few days up 'em without a crampon.

The trekking takes place in the Cerro Castillo National Park, two hours south of Coyhaique. The peak is only 2,600 metres but still takes your breath away. The base camp was a four hour march up from the Landy drop off, and getting all the kit and food up there took three days in all. Fun fun fun. Finally got all the stuff up late one evening, started to cook dinner, and one anomymous journo spilt the dinner about two minutes before it was ready. Doh! We were all freezing, sodden and knackered, but hey, shit happens right? Group linchings do to, so I've heard.

The base camp was situated in the last of the southern beech forest before the scree and snow began in earnest. Towering mountains loomed over us on three sides, their cathedral spires and gargoyle peaks incandescent in the last of the evening light. I woke up on breakfast duty the next day, and all the water in messtins, etc was frozen solid. You try starting a fire! The next days were spent learning skills and sliding very fast on our ARSES down snowy slopes using ice axes to come to a giggling halt. Lots of fun.

On what I thought would be my last day, we got up at five and headed up to a col with a rock-strewn gulley. Hard going all the way, using ropes and crampons for the last bit in hurricane winds that blew you over the minute you stood up and seemed to scream DeathMetal songs at exceedingly high wattage down your earholes. Lunch and group photos (where I end up with fifteen cameras wrapped round my arm) were spent in the shelter on the other side, before more bum sliding all the way back down the hill to base camp.

The next day I went down the hill, someone having confirmed by radio (there's lots of Overs, Foxtrots and Repeat four times on Raleigh) that there would indeed be a Landy to pick me up. Two hours passed waiting and no sign. Two venturers then appeared from nowhere to tell us there'd been a cock up. The Flying Scotsman Neil (all 5foot5 of him), the PM, was not impressed. He swore a lot in Invernessian. I swore a lot in Spanish just to make sure.

Back up the hill to join the others who had been digging snow holes all day. Yes, this is Raleigh, and digging a hole out of sheer ice is a challenge and, let's face it, a bit of a laugh. I reached them on the slopes, ensconced in their icy chambers, which at night were candle-lit and very cosy. I, however, was well into the idea of sleeping outside in the snow and proceeded to dig myself a little ditch out of the wind. I think that was my most memorable night of the expedition with the snow, stars and howling wind, the liquid, magic-potion clouds quicksilvering across the haloed moon, and the jagged black incisors of the mountains biting into the lapis sky. The company of a most beautiful and lovely venturette has no bearing whatsoever on this. You try snogging in sub zero temperatures in a Force 7 gale in nine layers of clothing in a plastic slug bag with holes in !!!!!

The next day I found myself back at FB and my time with Raleigh over. ?Que?

After two days sorting myself and kit out, I left for two weeks on my own, with promises to return for the WashUp party at the end of the expedition. Remembering what it was like to enjoy my own company, after three weeks living in other people's pockets was refreshing. It's also a bit weird at the same time. I've managed to research two travel articles which I reckon are juicy, to be sure, though I don't think I'll be selling them in the UK do you? The one about the American philanthropist millionaire who's bought up a 1,000 square miles of northern Patagonian wilderness is pretty much in the bag I reckons. I spent about four days visiting the park he's set up, centred around the shores of a forest-blanketed fjord with cabins, cafe/restaurant, camping and trails to waterfalls and viewpoints through the forest. It's a beautiful, tranquil place though it would have been more so with a bit more sun. I got about 6 hours' worth in four days, and the rest was constant drizzle. Waterproofs a good item to bring then? Er, yes. Luckily I had invested in an excellent coat in Coyhaique, which, apart from the fact I looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street, served me well.

From there I travelled south a bit along the Carreterra Austral Agusto Pinochet (good place to be British, no?) to chase my Chatwin story. Title In Chatwinia? Not sure how that's going to get written or come out, but I know it's good. Basically I was trying to find a valley which is mentioned in a story of Bruce Chatwin's which isn't in the In Patagonia book. It's a bit eery, quite autobiographical and I think it contains all the themes of Chatwin's work.

The valley in the story is "lost" and has a warm microclimate in the Andes near the Chilean-Argy Bargy border. I found a mention of one with a lake in my guidebook, and thought I'd go and investigate that. What I found was a very friendly family who run a small tourism set up at the lakeside. They organise horse treks, fishing for massive trout and there are lots of walks to do nearby. I shunned their cabins and stayed in the tent I'd borrowed from Raleigh, which was saggier than an African woman's breast after 13 bouts of childbirth and flapped like a spinaker in a gale. Location, location though, just by a shingled beach with the lake hemmed by snow-hoarding mountains and birds chattering late into the night. I rented a boat with outboard from Anibal, the deceptively Jolly Green Giant man -- he was in fact very perceptive and sensitive, and his brother is a star of the folklore/country and western music scene and sings about sheep-- and went off to explore the other end of the lake. There I found a teeny community with a wooden church perched on hillside, painted orange. Chatted with farmers, who are huasos not gauchos in Chile, wear fluffy fleece leggings, ride sterdy horses and have big knives and furtive dogs.

I'm not convinced that Chatwin came here. I know he spent about six weeks in a village just over the border 40odd Ks away. He was always walking everywhere and the story talks of walking from the town towards the border and looking down on Chile, so.... I went to this village. It was founded by Welsh settlers at the turn of the century. Very odd to see the red Welsh dragon on the blue and white Argentinian flag. Local rumour has it they like sheep too. I spoke to a woman who is mentioned as a little girl in In Patagonia, though I don't think she was very pleased with her fame. In the book her father's favourite saying is "Bring me another horse piss" when he wants a beer... Anyway, I enjoyed my detective work and think I've got the material for a good story, it's just sorting it all out...

I also managed to get a bit more under the skin of Chile and the Chileans, something that was niggling me after more than a month in the country and so much time with Brits. And of course, there was more stunning scenery, mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and coiling, snaking, knackered roads and and and...

With regards to my experiences of the Pinochet situation, I've been saying on first meeting people that I'm French. Although I don't really like the idea of being a Frog, having won the World Cup, I'm prepared to live with it for a while. Well, till England win anyway... With a name like Dominic and an un-English accent on my Spanish, I got away with it.

Talking more to people I then admitted I was actually English. It was hard to know how people were going to react. The reality is that Chile is pretty much split pro and anti the ex-dictator, so sometimes people shook my hand and said "nice one", and sometimes they were scornful/antagonistic. I tried not to commit myself to anything before the other person had declared their view. That I found quite hard, since I've studied the Pinochet era and my aunt had to leave the country having lived here for years when he came to power. Friends of hers disappeared. In general, people talk passionately about the issues, and I found it frustrating to act in a non-committed and impartial way.

If people are pro-Pinochet, they tend to claim that what's said abroad isn't true, that he did great things, and that the country was in such chaos before he took power something had to be done. The road which courses south through Chilean Patagonia was his brain-child. Without it, there would have been no opening up of the frontier and no lives for the people who have settled here. It's also recent, some sections were only completed in the last ten years. Therefore, it's pretty much given that if you travel along the road and talk to the villagers, they're all going to be in favour of the old man and anti-Brit.

At the end of the day however, I myself didn't have any unpleasant experiences at all. In fact, I feel it was a fascinating time to be in Chile. I was told before that the Pinochet Era or Question was a great unmentionable. With news of his fate dominating the media 24 hrs a day, that certainly wasn't the case during my trip. What's even more remarkable is the diversity of opinion that you encounter. You can generalise to a certain degree, but everyone I met had lived it and saw it distinctly. You'll never put your finger on it.

I think the most important point to take on board is that the events of the last two months have seriously damaged the reconciliation process begun in 89. Chile is once more a divided country and its democracy, with its numerous parties and fragile coalition, has been substantially destabilised. That this should happen because of foreign countries' intervention is the worst part, I find. Chileans need to decide for themselves, and deal in their own way, with their country's historical baggage. Whether they follow the South African, Guatemalan, Argentinian or even Spanish examples of post-dictatorship democracy, they should be allowed to do this themselves or they'll never reconcile what happened, or find the concensus required to build a strong unified country.

Great Dom, enough politics, tell us about the Full Monty bash and more goss (useless fact: Belize expeds go through five times the amount of condoms as Chile's) As ever that proved hilarious with some great skits and some painfully embarassing attempts at amateur dramatics. There was of course the usual dose of nudity, water drenching and casualties the next day -- but no lightweights on saline drips I hasten to add. I did appreciate the cool Chilean morning-after as opposed to the blazing dusty heat of Belize...

It was fun to meet more of the expedition then, though I found it frustrating to meet some good people only to say goodbye to them the next day. The venturers all left on a two-day journey back to Santiago, via Argentina, and, though I would have loved to have stayed on with the staffies, I decided to fly back to Santiago to finish off the interviews and research I wanted to do there.

As you might have noticed by now, I had a shite time and Chile is a bunch of icy arse -- sorry ARSE!

I feel privileged once again to have been welcomed back into the Raleigh Family, and to have had the opportunity to share great experiences with stimulating people. It's sometimes claustrophobic, pedantic and frenetic, but also very friendly and lots of fun. I enjoy my fly-on-the-wall status too, since I get to see all sides of the story and don't have any responsibilities (when do I ever?!) I was reading a lot of Chatwin while on this trip, and he refers to writers as 'cutpurses' raiding other people's experiences. I reckon that makes me the Artful Dodger on Raleigh, and -considering- the song he sings in the Oliver Twist film, it's not a bad analogy, though a bad pun. Oh yeah, and I'm a JAMMY bastard to boot!!!

The landscapes of Patagonia are epic and wondrous, and I feel like I've only scratched the surface of Chile's Pandora's Box of delights. I also have some wonderful material to flog when I get back home. I've long dreamed of coming to Chile, and the reality of its scenery, people and culture was infinitely more intense. Two months,pah! nada...

It's so crap in fact, I'm even considering coming back as PRdahling on the same exped next year...(do they realise what they've let themselves in for I wonder) I met the next expedition leader, who was shadowing Keith the present one before taking over for January's exped and we get on very well. Keith is off to do Oman if that happens (Iraq?!?), and I'd be well up for trying another angle on Raleigh for that. We shall see...

Asleep yet? Sorry to regale you with these sickeningly-wonderful sights and sounds, but, like, no one forced you to read all this crap...

Season's bleetings and all that

Dom Out (of it)