Magallanes

The Swiss couple’s alarm clock goes off at six and I’m up to watch Puerto Natales grow smaller. We aren’t moving right away though, so I hit the head and I’m disappointed twice, first by finding that they all seem to be occupied and second that the common areas of the bathrooms, that is, the areas around the sinks, all seemed to possess naked, hairy, European men, sort of drying themselves off but mostly just being European and naked. What kind of goddamned boat is this?? Initially I assumed it to be a necessity – perhaps the shower stalls were too small to keep one’s clothes and towel safely dry in, and changing in the bathroom general was a necessity – but after taking a shower myself I found that not to be the case at all. By the time I’d discovered an unoccupied shitter my naked-Euro count was up to two and a half.

Opening a hatch to go topside and taking a deep breath of fresh sea air, I’m clobbered by a nearly-overwhelming smell – and taste, being a mouthbreather – of extraordinarily pungent shit. (Apologies to anyone who eats while reading this, but really, you should know better.) In Punta Arenas I’d heard stories about the north-bound ferry occasionally shipping loads of cattle north and looking below to the open end of the hold I could see that this was the case. Cattle were visible in one trailer exposed to the elements but there were others, covered, that I have to assume held hogs, chickens, or perhaps just open barrels of those creatures’ manure, because the odor was far more offensive than what I would expect to come from cattle, regardless of quantity or density.

If you’ve stayed with me up to here, I can promise no more talk of naked hairy Euros, shitters or manure, at least for today. I have more to opine on all of those subjects but nothing that can’t wait.

Once I got away from the vicinity of the hold the unpleasantness wasn’t really noticeable and it was a beautiful morning, although we hadn’t begun to depart yet. It was chilly, and aside from my roommates, the crew and a handful of other exceptions, very few folks chose to brave it. That remained the case even as we set off, and for much of the next hour or two I had the starboard side basically to myself.

Setting off, before long to the northwest were a beautiful series of peaks. I’m not sure if this was part of Torres del Paine but I’m assuming that’s the case – there didn’t seem to be much in the way of civilization but here and there were metallic glints, giving away the presence of vehicles, hikers, maybe cabins, some sign of humanity at any rate.

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I venture over to the other side of the deck and while it’s not quite as grand, it’s not half-bad either.

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During the previous evening’s presentation Percy had mentioned an exceptionally narrow section of the strait we’d be passing through and that it was something he’d announce as it would be “magnificent”. Sure enough, as smaller islets began to appear around us an announcement came over the PA that we’d reached that point and the deck filled up. Although it made wandering back and forth on the boat a hassle, I picked out a good spot on the starboard nonetheless.

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As quickly as the previous PA message had filled the deck, a subsequent message of breakfast being served emptied it down to myself and perhaps three other people, even though, as far as I could tell, we’d just hit the best part of the narrows, in spite of a bit of rain. What happened next was fantastic in the literal sense of the term, like something out of the Old Testament (minus all the killing) or a Kim Dynasty myth (minus all the killing). As we were passing by some waterfalls descending from the snow-capped islands, about half a dozen dolphins became visible below, almost directly in front of me, leaping out of the air and swimming at a good clip. The rain, which had just ceased, created a rainbow over this scene. Are you fucking kidding me? There was only one other guy on my side of the boat who witnessed this and he was as speechless as I was. Absolutely unreal, my jaw really did drop and I truly had to give my head a shake. In describing it even now I almost feel a twinge of guilt as if I were bullshitting because it really did seem so unbelievable, but it was soon after followed by another group of dolphins, counting three this time, and more rainbows, and of course many more waterfalls. Their appearance all at once was just incredibly dramatic.

The rain picked up so I decided I’d better not miss breakfast and headed to the dining room to get my fill. I scarfed it down quickly and ran back up but the light drizzle had turned into a more potent mix of freezing rain and snow, obscuring the view and increasing the discomfort of the cold. Figuring this was a good time to head back to my bunk and pull the covers back over myself, I did exactly that.

After waking up in time for lunch and dispatching some meat and potatoes I returned topside to a new terrain. While we were still surrounded by islands on both sides, the narrows had widened considerably and rather than jagged rocks topped with vegetation and on some occasions snow the islands were sheer but smooth granite faces, usually completely barren.

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Rather than dolphins we were now accompanied by groups of seals. A group of four or five would be swimming alongside, drop off into the distance, then be replaced by another similar group within a few minutes. Seabirds were whizzing this way and that as well, but as for what they actually were, for the most part I couldn’t say. The best I can say is that I recognized an albatross of some kind, a duck of some kind and a goose of some kind.

The real treat came when I was standing near the bow and thought I could see a spray of mist come straight up from the sea, quite a ways ahead. I changed my position on the deck, trying to move into a more advantageous position and within two minutes my suspicions were confirmed – it was a group of minke whales. (I didn’t know what type of whales they were at the time, a member of the crew filled me in later.) Four of them that I could see were surfacing and descending a few hundred meters from the boat. Pretty cool, but it got even better as two simultaneously appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, almost directly below where I was standing, maybe thirty meters from the side of the boat. About this time the PA rung out with a message about whales being spotted and the crowd stormed up to get a look but by the time most of them made it up the stairs, only their spray was visible without binoculars. Most trudged back down under, discouraged. A few of us remained in situ and were rewarded, perhaps five minutes later, with another close encounter: this one a single whale, maybe thirty or forty meters away, seemingly the biggest of the lot. Rather than surfacing and going back down immediately, this one stayed up for close to fifteen seconds, swimming alongside. Pretty cool.

My luck wasn’t all good though. While I was chillaxing on a bench on the starboard side with headphones in I heard the PA in the background. I got it off and tried to hear what was happening – orca on the other side! By the time I got over it was history though, although a guy who ran over at the same time swore he saw it.

Seals became commonplace as the day progressed and for a while it seemed that was all there were, and when we reached another narrow section I noticed the bridge was open so I sauntered in to scope it out. Neat stuff, they didn’t seem to mind me poring over their maps or cross-referencing things with their navigation system. Everything looked ship-shape and with the MacKay Nautical Seal of Approval I let them continue their fine work, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

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Besides staring at the water and harassing the crew, I spent much of the day reading an eBook titled “Across Asia on a Bicycle”, which I’d downloaded from The Project Gutenberg, a free eBooks site I’d inadvertently visited while searching for the Steve Guttenberg Fan Club page, having accidentally deleted my bookmark. Unsurprisingly it’s about two dudes crossing Asia by bicycle, but it was done in the early 1890s shortly after the invention of the “steel horse” and it’s entertaining to read how people were scared or mystified by their steeds, and how they occasionally had to resort to fisticuffs to defend themselves. Although they didn’t take much equipment, true to the times one vital piece of kit they both carried was a revolver, which came in handy more than once.

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A truly epic Mustache Ride indeed, complete with jaunty head attire. It’s also entertaining if you find old-timey prejudices hilarious, which I have to admit I do. They casually throw around the term “Chinaman”, talk about how filthy and vermin-ridden locals are, and remark on the ignorance and simple-mindedness of the peoples they encounter while ironically making statements like “[t]he Chinese language, the most primitive in the world, is, for this very reason perhaps, the hardest to learn”.

Between reading, staring out at the water from the deck and keeping my MP3 player in my ears, I’d spent most of the day being antisocial, saying very little to anyone and engaging in no real conversation, but at dinner I was joined by a party of three Irish/English travelers, one dude and two chicks. They asked how the fish was, as I had only rice on my plate, and I had to explain that I’d stupidly forgotten to inform the kitchen staff of my allergy, so it was rice a la carte for dinner. We spent the next while comparing trips and talking about where we were headed next; the guy and one of the girls were in the process of moving to New Zealand, while the other girl was a friend tagging along for the Chile/Argentina section of the trip down.

The sunset was late but extraordinary. By this time the terrain had reverted to being mostly a series of small, forested islets and as the sun went down over them, they broke up the reflection in the sea, creating an effect not unlike like the Japanese imperial war flag. As it neared the surface of the water the islets were replaced by a larger island with a very steep cliff, and as we rounded it the sun “set” horizontally.

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