A transportation interruption reveals the highs and lows of international travel as traveller Chris Olney takes the long way home from Argentina to Australia.
It was nearing midnight and the temperature had dropped to about 3C. It had started to drizzle but at least it wasn’t snowing.
I was standing at the entrance to the checkpoint on the Chilean side of the border with Argentina — a daunting 1950s-style red-and-cream building with a concrete floor — holding a sign reading Punta Arenas, a Chilean town about 400km away along a mostly unsealed road.
A fellow traveller and I had been there almost four hours without so much as a nibble. A grandmother in my late 60s, hitching is hardly my preferred method of travel. The last time I tried hitching was in Austria in the early 70s and it worked a treat then.
We opened our suitcases and put on our bright yellow, very warm polar jackets, essential equipment supplied on our Antarctic adventure which was rapidly becoming a distant memory.
We approached everyone — mostly truckies — who all seemed to be going to Buenos Aires, nowhere near Punta Arenas.
Hard to believe that just three days ago I had been standing on the deck of the icebreaker Ocean Diamond being entertained by a pod of 40 to 50 humpback whales and half a dozen orcas in a feeding frenzy near the Antarctic Peninsula. Stunning stuff.
Now I was just trying to get home by Christmas. Such are the highs and lows of international travel.
After 10 days on a sensational Quark expedition to the Antarctic — which I discovered is twice the size of Australia — we had been greeted with the news on docking in Ushuaia (appropriately promoted as “the end of the Earth”) that Argentina was about to embark on a 24-hour national strike over government pension changes, effectively cancelling all flights for two days.
I ignored advice by Quark not to head to Ushuaia airport and joined hundreds of others at the terminal. I was near the front of the Latam airline queue and, though my afternoon flight to Buenos Aires had been cancelled, I was overjoyed when I scored a boarding pass for a flight the next morning which meant I could still make all connections home to Australia.
I headed into Ushuaia with a smug grin and set about finding accommodation.
Three cruise ships had returned on the same day so beds were scarce with people dragging suitcases up and down the broken footpaths looking for a room.
Luckily, I had stayed at a backpackers a bit of out of town earlier in the holiday and headed there to discover that a hotel across the road had a room — a big improvement on a bed in the eight-berth dorm on offer at Los Cormoranes.
Next day I headed to the airport at 7.30am though the flight was not until 11.30am. The information boards were promising, indicating flights arriving and departing. Relieved, I sat down with a coffee. The next time I checked the board it was a sea of red CANCELLED signs.
Back to the queue, but this time I was well back, with about 100 people in front of me.
There were no announcements and staff did not arrive until well after midday — the strike was midday to midday — just lots of rumours among disgruntled travellers.
By the middle of the afternoon I reached the front of the queue and Leticia, an unbelievably helpful Latam staff member who seemed unconcerned there were at least 400 people behind me.
“Sorry the first flight I can get you on is December 26, with connections to Australia by January 3.” It was December 19 and another week in Ushuaia was not an attractive prospect.
I didn’t burst into tears but was not far from it.
Leticia explained if I could get to Punta Arenas in Chile, 800km to the north, she could get me back to Australia by December 23. But how to get there?
“I will try to book a bus for you ... sorry all buses are full until December 24 ... there is a plane twice a week for $US500 a person I can try to book that ...”
Then out of the blue a young Swiss girl at the next operator grabbed my arm.
“I hear you are trying to get to Punta Arenas. We have a mini-bus and driver booked and need two more people, $US250 cash each. We are leaving in an hour.”
I was beginning to understand why Quark had recommended bringing an extra $US500 cash “for emergencies”.
With the news of a mini-bus Leticia grinned: “Great I can ticket you from Punta Arenas, Santiago, Lima, LA arriving in Sydney on December 23.”
Leticia saw my jaw drop: “Sorry that is the best I can do. All flights to Australia from Santiago are fully booked until after Christmas.” It wasn’t until much later that I realised she had booked me business class all the way.
So we set off, four Australians, two Swiss in a late-model Mercedes air-conditioned mini-bus and a driver with limited English and the unlikely name of Norm.
Four hours later, about 7.30pm, we reached the Argentinian border checkpoint.
We were relaxed, telling jokes and sharing Antarctic experiences and most of all delighted to be leaving Argentina. Then two police officers took Norm aside and started searching his vehicle.
We sat around for half an hour or so getting more anxious by the minute but refusing to believe there was a serious problem until Norm returned with the devastating news his vehicle had been confiscated. He was not allowed to leave Argentina or drive back to Ushuaia.
He gave a garbled story about not being registered as a taxi and therefore not allowed to accept fee-paying passengers. Norm said it was a new rule. I felt just a tiny bit sorry for him as none of us had paid him anything.
One of my companions tried tears then cash with the border police but to no avail. We were stuck again. The checkpoint is in the middle of nowhere. There are no other buildings, not even a snack bar. The only option was hitching a ride or waiting for a bus the next day — which we knew already was full anyway.
So we set off in pairs. Trevor and I got a lift to the Chilean border, about 20km away, and that’s where we stayed until just after midnight. At least it had a snack bar selling coffee.
Just as I was contemplating curling up on the concrete floor a customs official told us he had organised a lift for us.
Ricardo had an empty car and was happy to drive us all the way to Punta Arenas, including a 20-minute car ferry crossing. I was so excited I gave them both a hug.
We arrived in Punta Arenas at 5.30am the next day, December 20. Ricardo had no English and I only had a few Spanish words but managed to get him to drop us at a five-star hotel. We gave him $US100 which he reluctantly accepted.
The hotel was fully booked — it’s peak tourist season in this part of the world — but managed to find us a room for six hours, enough time to shower and catch up on some sleep.
We left Punta Arenas just after midnight on December 21 with 30 hours flying — not including time in between flights — ahead of us.
But it wasn’t until I snuggled into 4L on the American Airlines 787 in LA and they announced it was flight 73 to Sydney that I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
More than 14 hours later, at the end of an epic five-day journey around the Pacific, the Sydney Harbour Bridge never looked so magnificent.
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