The Dictator's Highway
The Dictator's Highway
Prologue: The South
Stretched along the western face of South America, there lies an intriguingly shaped land. Surprisingly long and unusually narrow, Chile is unmistakable. She is a bamboo cane; a drainpipe. If she joined a fidgeting queue of nervously excited aspiring fashion models, bulbous Brazil and pot-bellied Bolivia would steal envious glances at Chile's sleek and slender figure. From head to toe, her skinny form extends an extraordinary 4300 kilometres, similar to the separation of London from the North Pole. Measured along the road, rather than in a straight line, the distance is even greater. The capital, Santiago, is a 2000-kilometre drive from northerly Arica and 3000 from Punta Arenas, 1 the largest of the scattered settlements that cling to mainland America's tapering tail.
Beyond Punta Arenas is a remote headland known as Cape Froward, principally noteworthy for its location at the very tip of the tail. Despite that accolade, this inaccessible spot is not the southernmost point of Chile. In fact, it's not even close. Across the Strait of Magellan cluster hundreds of inhospitable islands in an intricate, tangled web of fjords and sea canals. Among the jigsaw pieces are familiar names: Dawson Island, the Beagle Channel and the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego whose ultimate, defiant outcrop, where the Hermite Islands finally cede to the Drake Passage, is Cape Horn. Even the Cabo de Hornos , which maintains an expressionless vigil over volatile churning waters long the subject of sailors' nightmares, is not the endpoint. Beyond the horizon the Diego Ramírez archipelago, the final smattering of land in South America, breaks the surface of the angry ocean.
As far as my friends were concerned, their country projected further still. Maps invariably inset a diagram showing the Chilean Antarctic claim, a 37-degree slice of the icy continent that inconveniently overlaps with the sectors claimed by Argentina and the United Kingdom. Chilean Antarctic Territory also includes the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. Given their less aggressive latitude, both of these have been selected by numerous countries for their Antarctic research stations, and they consequently rank among the more thoroughly explored parts of the continent. Whenever the topic arose, colleagues spared no trouble in eliminating any doubt I might carelessly have expressed: Chilean entitlement to that frozen land was an accepted fact, not a point for discussion. Accordingly, the mid-point of Chile is marked by a monument at Puerto Hambre, a small Patagonian bay that lies 4000 kilometres from Visviri in the northern desert and 4000 from the South Pole. Which, as everybody knows, is in Chile.
Once I'd arrived to live in Santiago, not long passed before the high regard in which my neighbours and colleagues held 'The South' became apparent. It is precioso , stunning, I was constantly told. Consequently, as evenings lengthened in the latter part of that inaugural year, I spent hours poring over maps of southern Chile, my deliberations aided by a glass or two of vino tinto . The outcome was a ticket to Punta Arenas, the most southerly destination within range of a domestic flight. When the school year lurched to a close in December, amid award ceremonies, balmy summer evenings and exhaustion, I took my trip to The South. I ate fire-roasted Patagonian lamb, lodged in a pink-painted clapboard house, and slept under canvas around the renowned W-circuit of the Torres del Paine National Park, losing in the process the first and finest of several cameras that disappeared throughout my South American years. These were places that few Chileans visited, I learned, since many lacked the means or opportunity or inclination to do so.
For a novice, it was a commendable first foray into Chilean Patagonia. Proudly returning to Santiago, brimming with tales of fearless endeavou