Indiana Jones and the Isle of Oblivion

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I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s a story about boundaries.

About the boundary at the end of an empire and the boundaries that turn waters into oceans. About the boundaries between darkness and light and between man and beast. About the boundaries that separate the past from the present.

And it’s a story about the people drawn to those boundaries, those desperate to escape them, those who lived for them, those who died for them, and about a man searching for a place with no boundaries at all.

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It’s a story that begins in Santiago, a city of 5 million people that started out as the last boundary of Spain in South America. And didn’t start out terribly well.

Founded in February 1541, Santiago’s initial party of settlers was hopelessly small. Turning up with a few seeds, grand designs for a lovely street grid and town square, and a good frontier spirit, they promptly discovered that it wasn’t nice to be hungry, that streets required a population to live on them, and that the neighbours had a frontier, too.

Their venture lasted seven months, at which point the governor popped out to do something more interesting and came home to find the Indians razing his village to the ground.

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That, perhaps, was what you get for pitching up on a rock (the present-day Cerro Santa Lucia in the city centre) that the indigenous peoples called “pain and melancholy”. But the Spanish – as headstrong here as they were in Guatemala – decided to stay and switched to doing what they did best.

They killed everyone who didn’t run away. And, after that, Santiago, Mark II, prospered.

Ignoring the sprawling suburbs, central Santiago is an attractive place today, and one that’s overcome its frontier complex.

Beyond the aforementioned rock, where lovers do what lovers do, you find a network of pedestrianised streets and arcades teeming with people from every walk of life.

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And you also find some of the finest religious rain protection in the world, from the barrel-vaulted, fresco-adorned roof of the cathedral to the magnificent wooden cupola of the church of San Francisco, finished in 1618.Rocks and ceilings aside, though, I wasn’t in Chile to see Santiago. I was in Santiago because it’s one of the few places that gets you to the biggest boundary of all, Patagonia, and the end of the inhabited world.

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Near the southern tip of mainland Chile stands Punta Arenas, a city of 130,000 people that’s cold, rainy, weirdly desolate and has lost its prime reason to exist.

The biggest settlement on the Straits of Magellan, Punta Arenas was founded in 1843 (Spain’s other attempt to cast its boundary over the seaway, nearby Port Starvation, did about as well as the name suggests). For 70 years, it enjoyed a golden age as every ship sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans floated past. And then the Panama Canal opened in 1914 and the place ought to have been a goner.

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But, somehow, Punta Arenas failed to disappear. People just carried on, leaving relics like the statue of Magellan in the square to languish in an atmosphere of deterioration, cultivating a sheep-farming industry that’s now also gone, and – latterly – making a strong effort to woo tourists and a methanol industry.Today, it makes for a fascinating town: a living battle between history and the modern world.

In the museum of the Salesian missions, you find out how missionaries civilised the “primitive peoples” indigenous to Patagonia (the majority of whom died from western diseases), stare at stuffed two-headed mutant animals, then head upstairs to contemplate a glorified advert for methanol production.

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In the windswept and topiary-mad cemetery, the old tombs are organised by country – so that shipwrecked sailors and immigrants from Croatia, Germany, England and further afield lie with their compatriots – while the new ones are stacked in giant vaults like housing estates for the dead.

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And in the streets you walk past political rallies, where dogs get frisky for passing cars, and restaurants, where you eat meat the Patagonian way – with your bare hands – while they flirt so brazenly you start wishing you weren’t gay.

Punta Arenas might best be described as “pleasantly strange”. To cross the line into “extreme”, though, you need to take a drive 250km northwest to the town of Puerto Natales.

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A ten-thousand-strong community of part-time workaholics, Puerto Natales sits next to the charmingly-named Seno Ultima Esperanza: the Sound of Last Hope.

It’s called that because Spain sent some chaps there in a boat to find a way out of the Straits of Magellan. Unfortunately for them, they were in the wrong place, and by the time they arrived at the Sound they’d not only run out of food but were carrying a fair number of dead people.

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That was 450 years ago. Nowadays, Puerto Natales pootles along in its own special way, with most of the population employed by tourism and a few still working in fishing.

In summer, they sleep four hours per night, work every single day, including Christmas and New Year, and try to ignore the out-of-control dogs that do the dirty anywhere they can find that’s warm.

And in winter?

Night time in the Patagonian summer means it’s light until 11pm. In the winter, the sun shines (through clouds) for seven hours each day, I heard several reports that it’s so cold icicles grow from your nose, and there’s not one tourist.

I heard two solutions to the problem. One was simple: “You sleep. A lot.” And the other was simpler: “You get as far away from here as you can.”Which rather begs the question: why does anyone live in Puerto Natales at all?

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Quite simply because there are a lot of tourists.

Puerto Natales, you see, is the gateway to a place nearby that’s the pinnacle of Patagonian weather, the pinnacle of Patagonian wildlife, the pinnacle of Patagonian scenery, and the world pinnacle of hiking by letters of the alphabet: the Torres del Paine.

A national park centred on an offshoot of the Andes mountain range, it’s hard to know what to make of the “Blue Towers”. On the one hand, the nature and the hiking are spectacular. On the other, the Park is so well-developed, and so well-known, that it’s become something of a theme park for walkers, not helped by an explosion in visitors from 21,000 in 1991 to over 115,000 now.

Let’s start with the nature and the hiking.

I spent a lazy four days in the Torres del Paine doing the W trek (other choices include the O, the Q and the U). It’s an 80km hike that takes in the principal wonders of the park but allows you the luxury of staying in refuges and/or hiring a tent, rather than lugging one around.

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The walk takes you from the Torres themselves – granite towers that, curiously, are the least interesting things in the park – past snow-capped peaks and meltwater lakes and on to the Horns (the Cuernos del Paine) with their distinctive bi-coloured summits.

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Up the French Valley, the most rugged section of the route, you see glaciers crack and tumble off the edges of cliffs, where they disintegrate into waterfalls of snow and ice. You bask in an amphitheatre of mountains among picturesquely-dead trees. And you come across tourists who think shouting as loudly as they can around 2,000 metres of really, really loose snow is a really, really clever idea (because they’re really, really stupid).

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And, walking along the westerly edge of the W, a battle with some of the strongest winds imaginable gets you face-to-face with the majestic Glaciar Grey, 28km of ice creeping slowly off the Southern Patagonian Icefield and into a milky-green lake.The W isn’t the hardest walk in the world (and it’s certainly not Bhutan – see my post from October). But it’s not easy, either.

And that’s where the theme-park nature of the Torres del Paine comes into play.

When the third person in a day comes up to you wearing a brand-new North Face jacket, designer trainers and soaked jeans, shivering, looking utterly miserable and asking to “borrow” a bandage while they fiddle with their mp3 player, you do start to wonder whether people know what walking up mountains involves.

Worse, you come across people who stroll into refuges 20km from anywhere and demand a cappuccino/Cognac/Goldschläger. When, against all the odds, there’s none in stock, they throw a scene and head off for a piping hot shower.

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Perhaps, though, that’s part of the place’s unexpected charm. The Torres del Paine gathers an extraordinary collection of people right in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Yes, there are the ones who expect wining and dining on the mountainside, and those for whom watching condors soaring into the clouds would be nothing without a Beyoncé soundtrack, but the majority of people there are less high-maintenance. They come from all over the world, and all of them, for whatever reason, are searching for their final frontier.

You meet the bankers from London. They came because it was the only way to get through Alan Greenspan’s biography and a hefty tome on the financial crisis without interruptions. There’s the Canadian biker, who’d been there before but rode 5,000km back because the last time he saw the Torres del Paine it was on fire.

You chat with the German quality control inspector who came to get away from his control-freak ex-girlfriend. You drink with the Polish friends living in America who wanted to be anywhere else to be sarcastic again. And you dine with the man passing through on his quest for oblivion (I’ll get to him later).Leaving Torres del Paine, with its unique blend of raw nature and international eccentrics, is a jarring experience. There just isn’t anywhere else on earth quite like it.

But it’s particularly jarring if your next destination is Argentina, and possibly the most brazenly touristy place in all Patagonia.

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Now, before I turn to the Perito Moreno glacier, I’m going to tell you a little bit about who Mr Moreno was. It’s not going to shed much light on the glacier, but it will give you some idea about the difference between Chile and Argentina.

Perito Francisco Moreno was Argentina’s version of Indiana Jones (with an added interest in fossils). A geologist, geographer, archaeologist, anthropologist and – most importantly – an explorer, from 1872 to 1885 he spent much of his time going back and forth to Patagonia. On his travels, he discovered natural wonders such as Mount Fitz Roy, revealed completely new indigenous cultures to the world, and escaped from Indians who wanted to kill him.

But, sadly, that’s not why he had a glacier named after him.

Perito Moreno became famous because of his role in a spat between Argentina and Chile. It was a spat that lasted from the two countries’ independence in the early 1800s to the early 20th century and, arguably, right up to a treaty concluded between them in 1985.And the spat, as with everything in Patagonia, was about a boundary: the boundary between Argentina and Chile which, for reasons you don’t want me to go into, depended on the dividing line between waters that flow naturally into the Pacific Ocean and those that flow into the Atlantic.

Argentina got upset because they realised that that line meant a fair chunk of Patagonia didn’t belong to them. Given that it was their idea to put the boundary there in the first place (Chile, you see, couldn’t really have cared less, busy as they were adding large swathes of Bolivia and Peru to their toy chest), you’d think they’d have noticed that when they dreamt it up. But, apparently, they didn’t.

Little bother, though, because Perito Moreno came to the rescue with a spot of patriotic geology. He proved that, at some point in the dim and distant past, when ice covered the earth, the water now flowing from some Patagonian lakes into the Pacific had actually gone into the Atlantic. So Argentina deserved its chunk of Patagonia after all and, in 1902, an international arbitral tribunal bought the argument.

Argentina regained some of Patagonia (thought that didn’t stop them making increasingly wacky boundary claims that kept map-makers busy for years, and I’m not even mentioning a little set of islands in the south Atlantic…), Perito Moreno had his glacier named after him, and I’ll be touting my script for Perito Moreno and the International Arbitration in Hollywood soon.

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So, what of Mr Moreno’s glacier?

Well, it’s big and easily-accessible. It’s swarming with tourists, who’ll be able to smack gum and push people around in front of it for a good long time because, unusually for a glacier, it’s not retreating. You can walk on it for an hour (for an extortionate price) and get served a glass of whisky at the end with – guess what? – glacier ice. And 60-metre-high chunks of it break off every so often: a process that, unpleasant tourists or not, is breathtaking.

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In summary, it’s the Sarah Palin of glaciation. A little bit tetchy, a little bit trashy, a little bit spiky, and not-too-fussed about global warming, it still manages to be curiously attractive.

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Heading back down south, whether Sarah Palin would like Ushuaia is anyone’s guess. She might find it a little uncomfortable waking up each morning to the Beagle Channel, named after the HMS Beagle (which carried a certain Charles Darwin). On the other hand, since her actual views on that subject are one of life’s greater mysteries, she might not.

Patagonia-041Either way, Ushuaia’s always going to be one of the more interesting places on the planet.

The southernmost city in the world, 60,000 people live there, on the southerly edge of the island of Tierra del Fuego, staring across the water and the boundary that separates them from Chile (Argentina wants that one moved, too). 70 per cent of the residents are under 18, 30 per cent of them aren’t there in summer and no one – ever – is allowed to set off fireworks. Which makes New Year a bit dull but does mean the town hasn’t burned down for several years.

Ushuaia likes tourists. Men in bear and penguin suits parade the streets; cruise ship passengers acquire a bagful of leaflets before they’ve even touched the shore; and every café knows the difference between a cappuccino and a latte.

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Boat trips into the Beagle Channel get you up-close with cormorants, sea lions, a lighthouse that was not the inspiration for Jules Verne’s novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World (no matter how many times they tell you, people still assume it was) and penguins.

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 You can see how trees like living in a wind tunnel, the ranch a man from Bristol built when he got sick of being a missionary and where volunteers now prepare the bones of marine mammals for research, and a rather cheerful population of Canadian beavers that wreak havoc with the landscape but cause no harm because, as a local helpfully explained, “nothing else lives here anyway”.

And that’s all well and good, and, on the whole, worth doing. But far more interesting is finding out what possesses human beings to live here, in a place that makes Puerto Natales look subtropical and is three times closer to Antarctica than it is to Buenos Aires.

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The answer I came to, aptly-enough for a former prison colony, was about imprisonment.

I met only two kinds of people in Ushuaia: those who had escaped everything to be there, and those who wanted desperately to escape.There was the management consultant from Buenos Aires who’d swapped a six-figure salary in “a glass cage with a secretary” to work the phones at a hotel while training to be a tour guide. “It is paradise down here,” she said, “and so beautiful when it snows”. Her one lament was that her Ushuaian boyfriend was a psychopath.

There was the accountant from Córdoba (a large Argentine city) who’d gotten divorced, hated his career and was being eaten up by loneliness. He moved down “because I needed to breathe”, worked in a restaurant, and liked that “you aren’t lonely here because everyone here is alone”.

And then there were the others, like the woman who ran a guesthouse because she had children to support and “you make more money doing it here than anywhere else”, and spent every moment of the low season somewhere with sunlight.

And the graduate who grew up in Ushuaia and summed up his life thus: “You’re trapped on an island. If you wanted, you could buy a car, but what would be the point? There’s nowhere to drive to.”

It was a comment that took me right back to the Torres del Paine and the night, over dinner, when I met a man who wanted to be neither trapped nor free.

He had walked 1,000km to get there, he told me; he had taught himself to survive without food for four days at a stretch; he had learned how to stand on his own in a crowd and feel no solitude.

He told me he dreamed of finding an island where only sheep lived. When he found it, he said, he would settle there, he would live out his days, and he would die.

Wouldn’t he feel trapped, I asked. He wouldn’t, he said, and, when I asked him to explain, he reminded me of the legend of Pandora’s box.

“What was the last evil to come out?” he asked.

“It was hope,” I replied, after giving it some thought.

“When you break the wall of hope,” he said, “there are no more walls at all.”

And there, on Christmas Eve, while I pondered my own hundred days drawing to a close, I realised I’d met someone who’d crossed a boundary more distant than any I’d ever find. For better or for worse, that man had reached what everyone else thought they’d come for.

He’d reached the end of the world.