Call us overlanders

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We bought a car!  A 2008 Mitsubishi Montero 4×4 that would become our home for our journey through South America.  “SuperDolora” as we named her, had been lovingly transporting travellers around the continent for most of her life, and had been kitted out with a platform bed, storage and a great big roof rack.  We bought her from a sweet German couple who had been living in her for five months, and were ready to offload so they could go back home.

Mark finalised the paperwork in Santiago with the help of a friend from Uni who sponsored our tax number (RUT) and the Germans who walked us through the Notario process in order to get the contract recorded, and title transferred.  Austin and I stayed behind in Valparaiso.

Two days later, Mark arrived back in Valparaiso with the car, feeling the effects of the stress of the last few days.  The transaction required a certain amount of uncertainty that Mark hates in even the best of circumstances.  He researches, researches some more, and then researches even more. He doesn’t trust his sources, so he attempts to find answers from many (many) directions before leaping.  We had verbally agreed to buy on the same day we saw the car. For the man who once took a week to pick out a pair of $20 flip flops, this was remarkable speed to purchase.

The biggest leap of faith required us to release the payment via international transfer (Transferwise) and hoped that the Germans handed over the keys without running off with our money.  Blockchain applications for the casual user can’t possibly come fast enough. It all went smoothly and to plan, but it’s always better safe than sorry.

Making Superdolora our own

We pulled everything out of the car to assess what was usable and what we’d want to replace, and gave everything a deep cleaning before making a long list of the stuff we’d need.  We then spent the day kitting ourselves out for family overlanding in a 4×4, in anticipation of heading out the next morning.

Our goal for that first day was to just drive out of town and find somewhere to camp for the night on our way South to Pucon.  It took us several hours, but we eventually left Valparaiso behind, and using a variety of offline and online maps, plus the super useful iOverlander app, we arrived in Pilchemu at sunset.

Pichelmu is a town totally committed to surfing, and its black sand beaches provide a lovely backdrop for this laid back place.  We’re sure it’s packed in summer time, with a long beachside promenade lined with kiosks, but in mid Fall, we found it mostly boarded up.  

After circling through town a few times to cruise by all of the possible camping spots, we decided on a little pull out overlooking the rocky shore, where a few fishermen had set themselves up for the evening, and where we’d be able to hear the waves crashing below all night long.

We were eager to get out all of our new toys, but left it a bit too late, and it was fully dark by the time we parked and started trying to make dinner.  

We felt self-conscious pulling out our table, chairs and camp stove just there, in a parking lot on the ocean, but we continued on preparing until I realised we were actually out of fuel for the stove.  I’m the only one in our family who will eat peanut butter, and without that, we were pretty much stuck for dinner. So we packed our stuff back up in the car and left it there to go find food, not knowing it it would be there when we got back!

Everything we had read says that if you leave your car unattended, everything you love and adore will get up and walk away, right into the hands of a local.  But it was dark, we were hungry, and the bed had already been made out, meaning we couldn’t drive anywhere.

So we walked 200m down the road to a cosy little seafood restaurant and had a fantastic fish dinner.  We walked back to our car to find that one of our tatty dirty chairs had walked away from the top of our car.  Why a half broken chair and not one of the fuel cans in plain sight?

Oh well.  We crawled into our sleeping bags, and put a movie on Netflix and called it a night.  I didn’t sleep very well, expecting to be moved on by the police or harassed by bandits at any moment. After all, we are basically homeless and living in our car.  They don’t just let people do that anywhere they want, right?

Around midnight, a couple parked next to us for a little romantic stargazing.  That was all well and good, until his very nice luxury SUV wouldn’t start, and they had to walk home.  Later, a tow truck came to take the dead car away, all of which kept me from sleeping. Mark and Austin never knew any of it was happening.

By 6 am, I was desperate for a toilet, and determined not to do it under the streetlights where we were parked.  Only homeless people do that. So I woke my boys, we packed up, and headed out in the dark and the fog.

It was still dark for a long time. And it was foggy for a long time.  We drove for more than two hours with next to no visibility before the sky started to lighten even a little bit, all because I didn’t want to pee in public  

The first night of wildcamping wasn’t a complete fail, but we certainly did learn some lessons.

  1. Don’t wait until it’s already dark to park
  2. Make sure you have fuel to cook if you’re going to cook
  3. Look somewhere else when you think something has been stolen – chances are it just isn’t where you thought it was (the chair wasn’t stolen after all)
  4. Relax, and sleep.  Nobody will bother you.
  5. Sleep in.  You definitely do not want to be driving on dirt roads in the foothills in the dark and the fog.

Figuring it out in Concepcion

Our drive the next day took us up into the high plains, and then back down again to the coast at Concepcion.  We stopped in at the local hardware store and loaded up on the things we now realised we needed – like camping fuel.  We then headed out to a rocky black sand beach, where we parked on the berm above the beach and spent the afternoon climbing, hiking and playing and saying “wow” over and over again as we explored what will be a very hard camping spot to beat.

The beach sat in cove protected by a rocky hill on either side.  The rocks extended into the water, and made for a gorgeous scene, and near perfect waves for surfing.  At one end of the beach was a pirate cave, and a short climb took you in to a pirate hideout from centuries past.  Trails snaked around the hill leading up to a brilliant lookout point over the Pacific, and the beach below with a large estuary behind.  It was easy to see how Pirates would have chosen this place – difficult to get to, good lookouts, and just craggy enough that someone would have to know where they were looking in order to find the stash.

While Mark and Austin explored the cave, I wandered up one of the trails and quickly realised just how many trails there were winding around that hill.  I thought they’d be able to follow behind me, but knew that was a hopeless cause, so I carried on up through the pine trees and cacti until I reached the peak.  On the way back down, I thought I could hear Austin whistling for me (his new trick now that he’s missing three front teeth, and one that is now on perpetual repeat).  I followed the sound of the whistles until I realised it was actually the sea birds who had congregated on a large rock in the estuary that they had painted white over many years of congregation.

So I started back down another path when I spotted it.  It looked like a stick, but it was not. It was alive.  It didn’t move, not even a flick of the tongue.  It certainly knew I was there, and I was definitely aware of it. I went in for a closer look (at a safe distance), and it still didn’t flinch.  But I did notice that it’s head was held elevated, its entire body taught, calculating and ready for its next move. In my imagination that next move would be to chase me down the hill at speed should I try to sidle past it.  I had at least 12 feet to work with in order to get around it, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

Ten minutes had passed while we both stood still, waiting for the other to make a move.  I contemplated calling my brother, Marcus, who has played with snakes in the most stomach clenching ways ever since we were kids.  It had a tiny head. Did that mean venomous or not? I couldn’t remember if that even mattered. I picked up a rock and tossed it toward its resting spot.  That’s when it made its mistake. It flinched. Ever so very slightly, but I saw it. And that’s when I knew this snake had me. It would win in whatever sword fight ensued, and I would be dearly sorry if I tried to continue on the path past its sunny spot.  

I had been looking out for snakes, but in the wrong places.  All of my upbringing in Texas conditioned me for snakes lying in wait under piles of leaves or pine needles – of which there were plenty on this hill.  This snake was hanging out on a rock, which is not my area of snake expertise. I don’t know much about rock snakes – only hidden woodland snakes. And where I come from, snake bites can kill or at the very least, make you seriously miserable, and I wasn’t taking any chances.

There were no suitable sticks around, so I picked a long dried out thistle, got several splinters in my hand, and went back up the trail to find another way down.  I was still shaking when I hit the sand dunes (another favourite snake hiding place in Texas), and didn’t stop until I hit the beach.

But where were Mark and Austin, and how could I warn them about the treacherous fauna on that hill without being completely made fun of?

I eventually spotted them at the crest of another part of the hill, but all I could do was futilely wave, and head back to the truck to start dinner.  They would have to fend for themselves against the evil snake.

Horrible death by snake averted, I relaxed again.  The waves had picked up, and the sun had dropped a bit further, and I watched the surfers getting their last rides in of the day.  The fishermen had begun to set up camp for an evening of fishing the surf, and all was peaceful in the world.

Just as Mark and Austin came back, a flock of black and white puffins with their distinctive bright orange beaks flew right past us toward the estuary.  Mark asked what a puffin is, and Austin explained that they’re birds who live in Antarctica. They nest there, and one parent stays behind to look after the baby while the other flies thousands of miles to catch fish to feed it’s young. He went on to explain some other puffin facts before exclaiming, “Those puffins came all the way from Antarctica, daddy!”

We had watched Blue Planet II and followed the plight of the puffins months ago, and he spouted back every fact just like it was yesterday.  It was one of those moments where he does or says something, and we just look at each other and say wow.

Camp cooking

Cooking our first camping dinner was painful.  I hadn’t set up the drawers to where I could get what I needed out quickly and efficiently, and didn’t know where anything was.  I spent an hour trying to find refuge from the wind, figuring out how to light the stove, finding things we’d need for dinner, putting them back away, getting them out again, and then starting the whole process over.  Eventually, we had a lovely dinner of pasta with fresh vegetables, and ate it in the “restaurant” Austin had set up for us in the truck.

It’s a good thing he had set up our lovely eating space, because the mosquitos swarmed en masse just as the sun set.  We hadn’t seen or felt a single one until that point, and then they were upon us in their millions. We locked ourselves into the car and killed the dozen or so who had followed us in.  Once we finished eating we looked at each other wondering what to do now.

Totally trapped in our car, we got out the ipad, and watched another movie – I can see this becoming a habit – until we were brave enough to venture out and put things away for the night.  By that time, the mozzies had disappeared, and we settled in for a quiet evening listening to the waves crashing behind us. It was a good sleep.

Knowing now how late it is when the sun rises, we were in no hurry to get up and out, so we slept in until it was light (about 8:30).  After breakfast, I went off with Austin to see the “house” he and Mark had built on a big boulder in the estuary the night before, while Mark set out to reorganise the car.

Austin proudly showed me around his home, where they had used the different levels of the rocks to make different rooms.  There was a bedroom, complete with a reed mat for sleeping, a table made out of driftwood and stones, and a sweet little set up for fishing with a table, a log bench, a palm tree vase with a feather flower, and a bottle of wine.  It was impressive to say the least, and not what I expected when he said they had built a house. I expected to see a little pile of rocks that had fallen over in the middle of the night!

He asked me to help him decorate, and we spent an hour finding flat shiny silvery shale rocks from the shore to “tile” the floor with.  It was one of those moments where it really hits home that this is what we’re travelling for. I would have had 50,000 other “mom tasks” weighing on my mind at home that would have stopped me from spending an hour playing with my son.  Instead, I had the mental free space to immerse myself in his world and just play.

As we sat back to admire our handiwork, I gave him a big cuddle, and told him this was why we were travelling.  He looked up at me with a soul centuries older than his little body, and said, “I know, mumma. I know.”

We eventually tore ourselves away from that beach around 1pm, and were pleased to have stopped to relax and play in a gorgeous spot.  It took us another couple of hours to navigate our way out of Concepcion and find a Copec for a hot shower, and to resupply our water before hitting the road.  

On the road again

We knew we had to stop driving by about 4:30 or 5 in order to be set up for dinner by dark, so we resigned ourselves to a shorter day of driving, and not making it to Pucon, our next destination.

Along our route, we found Las Saltas de Lajas – a tiny resort town with a big waterfall, and made our camp there for the night.  The town consisted of hundreds of camps advertising their cabanas (cabins), but all of them were closed for the season. We stopped in and asked if we could park overnight at a few, but they clearly didn’t want us because the fees we were quoted were out of line even with high season rates.  

We were desperate to find a campground with other people, but we’re beginning to realise we might be in the wrong place at the wrong time of year.  But here we are.

We found a spot on iOverlander that was just outside the closed municipal campground where many others had camped before us.  It was a little gravel lot on a back street that really had no privacy, but we didn’t have any other options.

I had bought some beef at the local country store where two elderly sisters weighed up your produce with a smile and a sweet “algo mas?”.  I grilled the steaks in butter, garlic and onions, and we had that with grilled asparagus and boiled carrots.

Those steaks were heavenly (if I do say so myself).  Perfectly seared and caramelised on the outside, medium rare on the inside, and soft as butter.  After years of skinny beef in the UK, and practically none all over Asia, this Texan Butcher’s Daughter is loving travelling through beef country.

Getting used to it

We’re still feeling a bit weird just camping in random places.  It seems that it’s totally acceptable – nobody has even given us a second look.  But we are still getting our “Boondocking” legs beneath us.

In the morning, we walked to the falls to see a spectacular crescent shaped waterfall through the morning mist.  We were the first ones there, and it was a little eerie and super cool to watch as the falls revealed themselves as the sun came up and more of the fog burned away.  

But then it was time to get back on the road, and head to Pucon.

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