The Coronavirus Clouds Gather!
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Very bad news! The Delightful Danes have been told by their Prime Minister to go home and they start packing. I’m devastated! What will we do without the Delightful Danes? I do respectfully point out that their prime minister can’t order them about but they are mainly in their early twenties so if the PM says “You must come home!” then they are inclined to do as they are told. I can tell you here and now that if Bonking Boris tells me to come home then the response will consist of two words. Take your pick!
The Delightful Danes have a sleepless night trying to make preparations to fly get home and there are lots of tears. I tell them that the main issue is if their insurance becomes invalidated but that would only be for Coronavirus and the chances of them getting that at their age and being hospitalised are 0.0000000001%. They have months of onward travel booked and paid for. Sky diving over Machu Picchu, swimming with Llamas, living with native tribes on Lake Titicaca. You name it!
Jazz announces we won’t be crossing in to Chile as the borders are going to be closed by Argentina so once we are over the border, we won’t be able to get back. This means missing out on the Arcadian scenery of Chile and staying in the boring flat stuff. Apparently other borders in South America are closing. I’m upset about missing out on Chile but the alarm bells are going for the rest of my trip. You know the 101 day trip (we are currently on day 15!) all the way to Cartagena. I ask him about this and he says he knows nothing about this trip as he only has responsibility for the segment to Santiago. This is fair enough but I booked a seamless trip all the way up the Andes. Everyone, including me, I might add, feels sorry for poor Jazz. This is an unprecedented situation. There are murmurs of support for Jazz and he thanks us for being so positive. Then my sunset companion, you know, the one I sat around with for over an hour on a mountainside to watch the bloody sunset at her request, only 12 hours earlier, made some pointed and snidy comment about everyone but one person being positive. Of course, her trip ends in Santiago in only 9 days not Cartagena in the middle June. I can’t print here what I wanted to do to her! Several others are unhappy about not going in to Chile and later raise this with Jazz and Dragoman George so it’s not just me that dares to question!
Luckily, we head off grid again and get a bit of respite from the big bad world.
We travel north over the Patagonian Steppe for most of the day, arriving, unexpectedly, at an amazing gorge to bush camp. It is stunning! Once the tent is up, a military operation that Scottish Christine and I have got down to a fine art, I go for a walk with South African Amanda and Irma. There is a spectacular sunset on the precipitous walls of the gorge and the lovely ladies from South Africa, who are well travelled, say it reminds them of Fish River Canyon in Namibia.
It is the first cook group that prepares the dinner and they do us proud. We sit round a roaring fire, put on music and have Jazz’s mulled wine under a stunning Southern Hemisphere night sky. There is no moon which enhances the scene.
The toilet facilities are rustic! Women to the left of the bus and men to the right.
We all have Truck Jobs and bush camping is not good for my truck job which is to sweep out the bus. I have been warning them all on a regular basis not to drop litter and to bang their feet to rid them of dust, dirt sand and guanaco pool before boarding but they just ignore me!
Driver Darren sleeps on the bus in order to protect it and the safe with passports and lots of cash. “There was a car here when we arrived so they know we are here!” he says, ominously! Thanks for putting the image of an armed raid in my head for the night, Darren! You’re fine in your metal can but we’re only protected by a flimsy Dragoman tent.
We are woken by South African Amanda singing. The gorge acts like a natural amphitheatre and it is hauntingly beautiful. Who needs The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden when you’ve got South African Amanda and a gorge?! Scottish Christine recorded it but when she plays it to me, it is accompanied by her footsteps scrunching on the sand as she makes her way to the bathroom facilities!
Suddenly, it’s all change again! We are going to Chile but missing out Bariloche in Argentina. I think the reason is that Chile will close its borders too and many people have flights booked from Santiago rather than me stirring up a few people to complain about not going in to Chile!
We race to the border, hoping it will still be open and eat a lorry load of fruit and salad stuff on the way because you can’t take it over the border.
At the border when we are queuing to get our passports stamped, Dragoman George sidles up to me and asks me what I will do when the trip ends. I’m shocked! “So it’s ending?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” he tells me. All Dragoman buses worldwide are being taken off the road as the borders are closing.” I still haven’t had an email from Dragoman officially confirming this but when you hear it from the horse’s mouth, it must be true.
Dragoman George seems to have singled me out as Scottish Christine knew nothing about this dramatic development. I probably had “Person Most Likely to Cause a Stir” written on my forehead so he thought it best to broach the subject himself and try to head me off at the pass. He is clearly in a difficult position. He and Dragoman Heather are on a trip with a bunch of people who being told their trips are curtailed and they won’t get a significant amount of their money back. Perhaps a credit note, if they don’t go out of business! I will be £3,862.79 out of pocket! No doubt, my Sunset Companion would suggest I remain positive!
Once over the border, the scenery and sunshine go some way to take my mind off things. We wind our way around a huge lake and it is slow going because the roads are poor. We camp further up the lake in a jaw droppingly beautiful location and pitch out tents by the side of the lake. Again, the stars put on a show and there is a small wooden cabin for dinner and drinks. Aussie Heather and I have bought a bottle of wine to drown our sorrows.
We awake to the kind of news that puts everything in perspective. Irma’s husband has died of a heart attack. He was 70 years old and the South African police found him at the wheel of his car. She is in shock and the rest of us feel desperately upset for her. I have only known Irma for a few weeks but, as I have said before, you bond quickly on an overland trip and that two weeks is like a year of getting to know a work colleague with whom you become friends. I have enormous respect for Irma. She is 67 years old and is warm and generous. She is ten years older than me but was normally ahead of me on the hikes. We have often chatted about family and our shared love of travel. I was fascinated to hear that she and Amanda have a hiking trip to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia planned for June. Most people I know barely know where Moscow and St Petersburg are, let alone the Kamchatka Peninsula so I am full of admiration.
Thank goodness Irma has Amanda, her good friend, at this dreadfully difficult time. I know wonderful Amanda will be a great support to Irma. I have these awful images of me getting this kind of news when I am essentially all on my own. Like I said before, it puts the cancellation of my trip owing to Coronavirus into perspective.
We continue on and stop further round the lake to do a boat trip to The Marble Caves which are very unique. I jokingly tell a small group that it was where they got the marble for Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Aussie Heather fell for it! I only know it’s not true because the only other marble cave I’ve been to is in Tuscany where they really did get the marble for The Statue of David. Oh and the small matter of Chile not having been discovered by Europe at the time!
Bamboo Rick and I sit on the table opposite the young group of Delightful Danes. Bamboo Rick innocently asks Pernille the title of the book she is reading. They all laugh uncontrollably before telling an embarrassed 63 year old Bamboo Rick the it translates to “Your Boobs Go Up and Down when you have Hiccups!” I suggest he tries to get it in English on Kindle and he doesn’t know where to look!
We camp on a ranch where we are told we will have to pitch our tents and use a dome tent for eating. Normally, groups eat in the main house and there is the option to upgrade to a room in the house but owning to the coronavirus, the host has banned us from going within 20 meters of the house and will only have contact with Jazz. When she meets him she looks as if she is well prepared with rubber gloves and head covering. It’s like a scene from a dystopian film or is this just the new reality? There aren’t many people in Chile. It’s population is not many more millions than London but we start to see people in masks. Some even raise them when they see us.
It appears that it will, sadly, be our last night together. Irma and Amanda as well as the delightful Danes have made arrangement to fly home from a regional airport the next day. We gather in the dome tent to eat and drink. Jazz and Darren have bought large bottles of red wine and several bottles of gin appear too during the evening. Annie, on behalf of the Delightful Danes, and South African Amanda on behalf of herself and Irma, give emotional speeches. Dragoman George says a few words too. He says this is his first Dragoman trip since 1986. He certainly picks ‘em!
The food for the meat eaters is copious amounts of lamb cooked on the grill and it is consumed gratefully and gleefully by the carnivores. The food for the vegetarians and John, the vegan, is white rice and a few frozen vegetables! Um, didn’t we all pay the same for this trip?
We move the tables out of the centre of the room to create a dance floor. The Delightful Danes shout, “Hey, Jayne! It’s our nightclub!”. It appears they got me there in the end! After several glasses of red wine and two shots of gin, I was putty in their hands! I was practising my dance moves at the Warwick Uni’ Whip Round every Friday night (that’s a free band and you give a donation before any of you start to think I was engaging in kinky sex!) years before they were even born so I like to think I can groove with the best of them! Well certainly after that amount of alcohol. Playing it back in my mind the next day, I wasn’t so sure! I certainly wasn’t the only one making a fool of myself, I might add! I suggested we do ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ but the Delightful Danes can’t find the music to go with it. We are all so drunk, we do it anyway! At one point even the American Man and I share a high five and he says, ‘Good job, Jayne!’ He’d had a few whiskeys!
I stagger back to the tent via the toilet block at about midnight. Yet again, I don’t have my torch so negotiating the toilet block is, therefore, challenging! Even in my drunken state, I can’t help but admire the stars. Scottish Christine goes to bed at 9.30 pm each night so I try not to wake her.
We awake to an icy morning. The grass is iced with frost and the tent has a covering of ice on it. I remember feeling very cold over night but I think all the alcohol helped to numb the pain of sub zero temperatures. The mountain scenery all around is displayed in all its glory on this crisp day and makes the cold weather worthwhile.
I go and have a chat with Irma. I can’t imagine the sort of night this brave woman must have had in a freezing and claustrophobic tent. Her two daughters live in Germany and Canada and they, like her, are on their way home. She is still clearly in shock. She tells me it hasn’t sunk in and that she is worried because she is getting messages from people back home about arrangements for the funeral. I feel desperately sorry for her as I am standing with her in a freezing field in Chile observing her raw pain, something those back home can’t, understandably, comprehend. I tell her, for what it is worth, that she should ignore those messages and just focus on getting home and being reunited with her daughters. There will be plenty of time to worry about arrangements.
We have breakfast next to the truck as we are persona non grata at the ranch. I get chatting to Kristie from Sydney. She has spent a number of years working on luxury yachts. It is a fascinating insight in to this world which I have only observed from the walkways of the ports popular with the super rich in Europe such as Monaco, St Tropez and Montenegro. ‘Are the rich all as mad, weird, entitled etc as they are often reported to be?’ I ask. She tells me that she worked for a billionaire who was a model employer and treated the crew very well. Another yacht was chartered by the likes of Simon Cowell, family and friends. Unsurprisingly, she said clients from the Middle East were not pleasant to work for as they literally ‘expected you to clean up their shit!’
Kristie is 27 years old and was unwell at the start of the trip but is fully recovered now. She is as lively and vivacious as The Delightful Danes and has a trip to Europe planned after the Dragoman trip but is in the process of cancelling this and returning to Australia. It is very sad that these young people, who will soon be tied down by jobs, mortgages and children are having their trips of a life time cancelled. The 30-50 age group is conspicuously absent on this trip for this reason. If they are not careful, they will be someone like me who comes out of the other end of life’s responsibilities before they are back doing an overland trip in 2060! I would hope to join them at the grand old age of 98. Hopefully, by then I will have had enough time to train for the famous W walk in Torres del Paine National Park and buy the appropriate bamboo clothing!
We travel north through more spectacular Chilean scenery and before we know it we are at the regional airport and saying our goodbyes. This is ten days too soon and feels like a travesty. How did we get here? I look back on the initial group meeting, so full of hope and expectation. There are hugs, tears and promises to stay in touch. I suggest I have a photo with the Delightful Danes by the bus as I am practically one of them. They insist on picking me up so it is
Team Photo Style. This turns in to an opportunity for The Unwanted Audience to go back in to action and get lots of shots of me looking stupid which they can later use against me on the What’s App Group!
Saying goodbye to Irma and Amanda is, understandably, much more somber. I just tell Irma I will be thinking of her and that I will miss her and Amanda. We agree to stay in touch.
Both Amanda and Irma, and the Delightful Danes had to pay a fortune for new flights and they have two days and many changes of plane and waiting around in airports ahead of them. I am sure the youngsters will be fine but I worry about the impact of this on poor Irma in her fragile state and I am very grateful that she will have Amanda with her every step of the way. They have to change in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Angola and Johannesburg before arriving in Cape Town. We later hear that the first flight out of Buenos Aires was cancelled so they had to take a much later flight which must have been stressful, and that their bags were lost in transit. The Delightful Danes flew via Santiago, San Paulo, Lisbon and Amsterdam before arriving back in Denmark.
The bus seems very quiet and subdued as we make our way in to the local town of Coyhaique. Aussie Heather, Scottish Christine and I get hot food from the deli counter at the supermarket and eat it outside the bank which conveniently has a small park with benches in front of it. We have to meet back at the bus to check in to our Bed and Breakfast at 2pm. Suddenly, at about 1.30 pm, the Whats’ App starts to ping every two seconds on Christine and Heather’s phone. Thank God for the i-phone which doesn’t do that. When we look at the messages we see that advice suggests you get out now or Chile will close its borders and you will be stuck! We return to the bus and within just over an hour seven more people have decided to leave from the regional airport so they can get to Santiago earlier and get a flight home. We are still days away in the bus. We head back to the regional airport, about 30 minutes drive. The scenery is idyllic so it is worth the ride. This time we say goodbye Newcastle Dean and his wife Sarah as well as Aussie Kristie. The next morning, Rachel, Matt and the two Americans share a taxi to the airport. The cost of these unscheduled flights are eye watering. Someone is making money out of this crisis!
On the bus back to Coyhaique, Jazz reflects on the fact that in his 3.5 years as a Dragoman guide, only one person has left the trip before and that was only a day early but he has just lost 15 in less than 24 hours. Strange times! Going back to the one other person that left a trip on Jazz’s watch; earlier in the trip, Dragoman Heather had told me that Jazz had really matured in to the role of guide. I joked with Jazz that if he was supposed to be mature now, I dreaded to think what he was like in the past. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I did get in to trouble for giving passengers shots before they did sand boarding down one of the biggest sand dunes in the world in Namibia.’ Having filled in thousands of health and safety forms, I can see the issues with this approach! Apparently, it was the woman who left the trip who complained!
Back at the Bed and Breakfast, the shower and room were heavenly after 3 nights in a tent, the last being at sub zero temperatures. Scottish Christine and I wallowed in it and didn’t even go out for dinner.
By the next morning, we are down to seven passengers out of twenty two and two of them own the company so I’m not sure they count! We are joined by Jason who has been travelling on the other bus and their passenger leave rate is even worse than ours as he is the last man standing!
The day is spent winding our way through landscapes of wooded mountains often topped with glaciers and steep river gorges. The roads become dirt tracks and we wind our way up over a steep mountain pass that is barely fit for a quad bike, let alone our bus and the articulated lorries coming in the other direction!
In these times of heightened tension, there are all sorts of wild rumours flying around which include Chile closing the roads and not allowing any movement. I keep expecting us to round the corner to find a check point which says, “Stop, you can go no further!” This, of course, doesn’t happen and we continue to progress north.
We camp in a very rustic (a.k.a miserable) campsite and are told by the crew from the other bus that we need to book a flight home immediately because it is government advice and that they want to know what our plans are for going home. I have to really bite my tongue. My Dragoman trip is a stand alone 101 day trip that they have chosen to end after only 18 days so, quite frankly, what I do after it ends is none of their God damn business! Scottish Christine, Aussie Heather, American Jason and I have quick chat and agree we all want to stay and wait it out until borders open and such times as we can continue with our trip. Jazz checks in with Scottish Christine and I about our plans. He knows us only too well so didn’t try any strong arm tactics. The crew are being told that they will be flown home which seems to be news to Driver Darren who has been based in Peru for the last six years and who has only just returned from a visit to the U.K. so had no plans to go back any time soon. He is worried that every time he raises what is going to happen with Dragoman George, he disappears. Like so many, it appears that the Dragoman Crew have an uncertain future.
We get up bright and early and head down to the ferry terminal to get the ferry from Chaitén to Puerto Montt. This is a 9 hour journey that winds its way up a fjord through spectacular scenery, but I’m afraid the weather, that has been on our side since this crisis began to give us something to sing about, has let us down today and it is grey and miserable. It could be described as atmospheric but I’d rather blue sky and sunshine.
We have to be at the terminal two hours before departure which turns out to be three hours before departure because the boat has to be checked by a crack team of health officials. All for show if you ask me. What are they going to do? Track down the Evil Coronavirus in 30 minutes? I even saw the navy disembarking to give it added gravitas!
As we wait, I observe Dragoman George trying to pack his bag for the journey back to the U.K. by air which will begin for him once he disembarks the ferry. I’m shocked! A man who has spent most of his life travelling is screwing up his clothes and trying to force them in his bag with little success. I suggest he rolls them but he doesn’t seem to grasp this concept. I suggest he sweet talks Dragoman Heather in to helping but he tells me she’s never helped him with packing so no point asking now. In the end, it’s so excruciatingly painful to watch that I offer to help. I roll his screwed up clothes for him (including his boxers- I didn’t see this in the terms and conditions of the trip: Clause 5 “Roll the Chief Executive’s boxer shorts!”). He’s very grateful and agrees it’s given him more space, however, he then tries to attach a holdall to the outside of his rucksack which definitely wouldn’t get past the Rottweilers of Ryan Air, my airline of choice (or should that read cheap?).
The boat is old and rundown with large areas of floor covering missing but it is only about a quarter full and the seats are comfy. The nine hours flies past as I can catch up on my diary and blog and watch a bit of You Tube. My phone package has what it calls ‘feel at home’ in 71 countries and luckily this includes Chile as it appears I will be stuck here for the foreseeable future!
From the passenger lounge there is a distressing view down in to a lorry load of cows that have no room to move and no access to food or water. It makes me glad to be a human being, in spite of all the current trials and tribulations!
The ferry arrives late and it is a race to the local airport on the other bus for the Dragomans and father and son team, Bamboo Rick and John, all of whom have to fly to Santiago because the buses are staying in Pucón where it is cheaper to store them rather than in Santiago. Dragoman George told me that rats get on them when they are stored for a significant period of time and do considerable damage. Who knows what kind of a rat party there will be on Carmen, our trusty steed for nearly 3 weeks, before she is back in action, if ever. If Dragoman goes out of business, as I suspect many travel companies will, this could be her final resting place as transporting her home is too expensive to be cost effective. Jazz is clearly fond of her because he got very upset when I accidentally called her Camilla on the group chat. You’d have thought I’d forgotten the name of his girlfriend!
The final Die Hards still on the trip along with Driver Darren and Jazz drive north through the night to Pucón, a fancy resort in the Chilean Lake District. It is a soul destroying Four hour drive. I didn’t come to South America to see it by night. All the drives on the itinerary should be by day.
We get news about one hour after leaving the ferry that the other contingent have made it on their flight, in spite of the 20 kilometres to the airport! If it was London Heathrow in normal times, you’d barely get through the revolving doors in that space of time!
There is plenty of space to spread out and sleep now that the pandemic has seen off most of the original passengers. I doze off but wake when we stop at services which could easily be The Watford Gap! When we re-board, it is harder to sleep and I feel as if I’m about to be thrown off the seat I’m stretched out on. When I ask Driver Darren if we’d gone on to a dirt road, he said, “Nah, Jazz took over the driving!”
Finally, we arrive in Pucón at 2 am and have to make up our beds before our heads can hit the pillow at the hostel.