Our man [formally] of Amsterdam


Stoney-faced in Rapa Nui
February 26, 2010, 14:00
Filed under: Chile, Travel

Ever wanted to get away from it all, to really get away? Well, the one place on the planet that is furtherest from human habitation is Rapa Nui. Apart from its 4000 inhabitants and a steady stream of tourists, the nearest thing to a permanent civilisation is almost 2000 kilometres away to the west in Pitcairn Island, or roughly the same distance east to Chile.

Such isolation has its challenges. Lots of things have to be flown in (there is no port or ship loading facility), and this costs lots, as does maintaining basic infrastructure and providing essential services. Most roads are not paved, but are dusty rock-strewn tracks with potholes as big as tractor tyres. Packs of mostly friendly dogs either lie about in the molten humidity or bark wildly. Come to think of it, most of the humans on the island, including the tourists, did too.

Centuries of tribal warfare has left the island stripped bare of any forestation, leaving no trees for shade and a landscape more barren and infertile than most deserts. So everything has to be flown in, and this costs lots.

A common mode of local transport is on horseback, and piles of manure left on the streets of the island’s only settlement lend the air the scent of a stable. That’s why you need to take a torch with you at night because the street lights don’t always work, and you never know what you might tread on after dark.

Rapa Nui is a Chilean territory, so this means good ice-cream and tasty pisco sours are never far away. Neither are the stoney-faced statues (know as moai) that define the island’s international identity and provide its chief source of income. Most moai were desecrated  during prolonged internecine fighting hundreds of years ago. Apart from the free-standing monoliths at various stages of construction on the slopes of Rano Raraku (the volcanic quarry where the statues were carved), most other moai have been re-erected by locals, usually with the help of aid organisations or philanthropic initiatives, to not only preserve an integral cultural legacy, but attract tourists as well.

And it works. More than 50,000 of us turn up annually, and most of these during the ‘peak’ season from December to March, when the tradewinds abate slightly and the UV meter drops from Extreme to High. True, you can scuba dive or ride a wave or hike a hill or burn some skin while here, but you can do these elsewhere, probably cheaper and likely much better.

For us, Rapa Nui was a very convenient stopover, a neat midway rest stop on our long haul home across the Pacific from Santiago to Sydney via Tahiti. It’s a stopover, not a destination, which you could probably say about a lot of Asian or Middle Eastern cities (Bangkok and Hong Kong; Dubai and Abu Dhabi), but they are stopovers you could easily revisit, and Rapa Nui is definitely not.

Click here for Rapa Nui Flickr set …

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In Patagonia
February 6, 2010, 17:58
Filed under: Argentina, Chile, Travel

Like Bruce Chatwin In Patagonia, we went to the southernmost town in the world:

Ushuaia began with a prefabricated mission house put up in 1869 by the Rev. W. H. Stirling alongside the shacks of the Yaghan Indians [the lowest form of humanity, according to Darwin]. For sixteen years Anglicanism, vegetable gardens and the Indians flourished. Then the Argentine Navy came and the Indians died of measles and pneumonia …The settlement graduated from navy base to convict station. The Inspector of Prisons designed a masterpiece of cut stone and concrete more secure than the jails of Siberia. Its blank grey walls, pierced by the narrowest of slits, lie to the east of the town. It is now used as a barracks.

That was in the late 1970s, when Chatwin came this way. Today, the prison come barracks is a museum, like Alcatraz, open to the public and meant to show how penal justice was dispensed a century or so ago. Mornings in Ushuaia began in flat calm for Chatwin:

Across the Beagle Channel you saw the jagged outline of Hoste Island opposite and the Murray Narrows, leading down to the Horn archipelago. By mid-day the water was boiling and slavering and the far shore blocked by a wall of vapour.

He also noted that, “The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly. The men worked in a crab cannery or in the navy yards, kept busy by a niggling cold war with Chile. The last house before the barracks was the brothel. Skull-white cabbages grew in the garden.”

Well, the men and women today are much more friendly, they’re reproducing and most likely work in tourism or hospitality, though the cannery survives, supplying the plethora of Ushuaia’s restaurants with the local King Crab delicacy, a crustacean sensation unequalled for size, taste and the wrangling, wrestling effort needed to separate its succulent flesh from the hardest shell I’ve ever tried to crack. Eating one is an exercise in resistance training.

Plus, we cruised the Beagle Channel, lunched at Estancia Harberton, rode the El Tren del Fin de Mundo (the train at the end of the world) as well as the Old Patagonian Express, trekked the Parque Nacional Tierra Del Feugo and ate more Argentinian beef than is humanly possible. Later, in El Calafate, we clamped crampons on and toured the Perito Merino Glacier, as well as criss-crossed the Chilean border into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, perhaps the alpine highlight at “The Uttermost Part of the Earth”, with its rugged granite pillars soaring almost vertically to nearly 3000 metres above the Patagonian steppe. Welcome to the end of the world; where nature in all its glacial glory lies untamed and unfurled.

Click image for Patagonia Flickr set