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a flight across the southern Andes visiting southern Chile and Patagonia including the Peninsula Valdez

Diego picked me up after lunch and we went to San Fernando airport to assess the reinstallation of the overhauled Attitude Indicator and serviced spark plugs in his new Cessna 206 airplane.

Dieter Heinrischdobbler 747 Lufthansa pilot was in town and he is an aviation buff. He joined us with Diego’s friend Buby Maratea in a test flight to General Rodriguez General Aviation airport nearby where I met Comm. Oswaldo Durana, head of Argentina’s EAA. To our dismay the Attitude Indicator did not behave properly and we rushed back and obtained the Instrument Techs who worked until 9 PM replacing it yet again (for the 4th time!).

The next morning Diego and I went to the airport early and took off in his C-206, which he named “El Moro” and Booby lifted off just ahead in his C-182 soon talking to other planes joining in the journey on a common frequency. We flew over very green but flooded Pampas, across the whole province of Buenos Aires, and landed at Santa Rosa de la Pampa to refuel. In the air we witnessed a devastating flood, which covered in many places 40% off all open fields. In some cases it was so deep that 2 story homes and large grain silos were totally underwater. This area generally gets 800 mm of precipitation per year but, so far it has already received 1,500 mm. Diego commented thru the intercom that in today’s Argentina’s depressed economy it is possible to buy a 10,000 hectare (1 Ha = 3.5 Ac.) farmland for raising crops or raising cattle for around $500 per hectare (3.5 acres) in western Buenos Aires province. Near the capital (2 hr. drive) however that same land would cost fivefold. This means that at $500 per hectare it would be possible to purchase a 35,000 acre farmland for half-million dollars.

The weather cooperated in an incredible way. Not only it was CAVOK to La Pampa and beyond to Neuquen but we had a very unusual Easterly TAILWIND the whole way! Soon we landed in Santa Rosa de la Pampa and 4 other Argentinean planes too. After a quick refueling we proceeded the additional 200 NM to Neuquen where we were joined by 5 additional Uruguayan planes including Felix Leborgne and his wife. After a quick lunch, refueling and Emigration we all proceeded to take off to cross the Cordillera de los Andes. Initially Diego and I climbed to 11,500’ attempting to climb the cumulus clouds in the pass and then decided to descend under them when it appeared that we have to be at 13,000+ feet to get over them. We descended and leveled off at 8,500’ under the broken cloud layer and over Lago  where Arturo Vercesi is building a 5 star resort with its own airport (similar to a small Atlin lake in Canada).

We also flew near Mt. Lanin, an active volcano, and Volcan Villarica as we started to descend into Temuco, Chile. Immediate verdant countryside greeted us in Chile signifying the large amount of precipitation. Compared to the only 200 or less millimeters in the Neuquen area. Turbulence was minimal and visibility unrestricted as we descended to Temuco. Unfortunately almost everyone arrived at the same time and we were instructed that our turn for landing was to be 6th.

We were greeted by the executive committee of the Temuco Aero club and were walked by a specially arranged National Police (Immigration), Customs and Agriculture, which were very through but took a long time.

We were taken to Hotel Tierra del Sur, a quaint and clean hotel near downtown.

That evening we were taken by two small buses to a lovely restaurant hosted by our new Chilean friends and tasted local seafood delicacies, including “Loco”, a large marine snail that tasted halfway between chicken breast and fish. Other dishes witnessed included delicious fishes and various combinations of mollusks.

The next morning we were unfortunately greeted by a changing weather pattern. North of us was a meteorological low aloft causing widespread rains and this system was marginally reaching our area. Additionally weather reports indicated that a major front was beginning to reach the southern most part of this 2,220 NM long country and will be moving into the area and closing the Andes’ crossing tomorrow. Therefore we elected to proceed southward to Puerto Montt and exit the country while the rest of the planes would remain in Chile. Initially we flew through scattered showers, which forced us to deviate from our direct routing, and followed the coast instead. We were concerned somewhat about “El Moro’s” suddenly increased high oil consumption and kept a close watch on the oil pressure gage. Chile’s coastline was beautiful from our low altitude and soon we reached the ocean entrance to Valdivia’s harbor. We flew low over the two Spanish era forts at its entrance and obtained some great video and still pictures. From here we proceeded southward directly over emerald verdant countryside with rolling hills and timberlands – this area surely reminded me of the US’s Northwestern States and Westernmost Canada…

We arrived to Puerto Montt 1 ½ hrs. after take off with a scattered layer of clouds at about 2,000 feet above the surface and proceeded to fuel up. “Booby” and his wife’s cousin “Tommy” had joined us, sharing our feeling of the impending weather. Once again Puerto Montt’s excellent Meteorological office warned us of the impending cold front and admonished us to make the crossing eastward today. We soon cleared outbound Customs and Immigration and took off. It was my intention of leading the two planes via a low altitude crossing spectacular crossing over lakes, glaciers and remote waterfalls abeam the north side of Mount Tronador. This can be quite a treacherous journey at low altitude requiring careful and unforgiving pilotage frequently with severe turbulence. I have done this same crossing in 1999 uneventfully and was hesitant to ever recommended to the uninitiated for fear of a fatality.

With the previous caveat forewarning it can then be revealed that route is to immediately head north from Puerto Montt near Puerto Barros and over Lago Llaquihue, between volcano Osorno and Punteagudo, then followed the raging river feeding it from Lago Todos Los Santos after flying its entire length with Mt. Punteagudo on our left. Then a sharp left turn is made at its end and via the narrow gorge alongside of huge Mt. Tronador (the “Thunderer”, named after its frequent avalanches). At this point the route gets tricky at low altitude and resembles a large labyrinth of narrow passages, which greets you with certain death if the wrong passage is chosen and rewards you with a spectacular passage at an altitude of 3,000 foot high if only correctly navigated. We then followed the dirt road along the glacial river wash while admiring gigantic glaciers close up, waterfalls, etc., over glacier Lake Frias (Puerto Blest) entering Nahuel Huapi and following its shore over flying the resort of Llao Llao to San Carlos de Bariloche.

The entire journey takes only 45 minutes and is passable at low altitude and often in weather conditions that defeats other attempt. During this crossing we flew close formation with Booby and got some great video and pictures also.

Checking back into Argentina was uneventful and we witnessed a “VP-“ registered Global Express on the ramp and J. Lewis’ (Hard Rock Café) Global Express also. We took a remise and headed for town lodging at the Tres Reyes Hotel that evening. I treated the group to dinner at “Alberto’s Parrilla”, of which I have fond memories from my prior journey.

The next morning we proceeded to the airport and were told that the Vice-Premier of China and its entourage would be arriving around noontime in a 747-400 directly from Beijing. We witnessed a lot of security preparations and a greeting ceremonial party prepared to perform customary malambo dances. We also had a fine conversation with a newer “XA-“ registered aircrew of a late model 4-engine Jet star from a wealthy Mexican family going around the Americas in style.

Unfortunately the weather at our next destination, Puerto Madryn/Trelew, did not looked favorable with low ceilings and scattered precipitation. Just as we prepared to depart the entrance to the tarmac was held up due to the disembarking Chinese VIPs who were coming to tour the Bariloche area – guess that some Communist live a lot better than others!!

After clearing a fouled spark plug during run-up we lifted off and headed for Trelew, 300 NM clear across Patagonia along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Initially we saw a tailwind of up to 40 knots at low altitude tapering to nil 2 ½ hours later at arrival. This area of Patagonia is mostly uninhabited with rolling barren hills that reach 6,000 feet. Although we were at relatively low altitudes I did not discern much wildlife, even tough Diego assured me of much of it, including the nandus (ostrich like bird), Vicuna (small Llama-like camelid), and many others were there.

Weather held for us until within 50 miles from our destination where we had to dodge some shafts of rain. Soon we landed at Trelew, capital of Chubut province and refueled for the 30-mile short flight to Puerto Marin since there is no fuel for small planes available there. We, of course, made the flight most challenging by heading directly to Golfo San Jorge and following its shoreline at very low altitude searching for whales and wildlife. The views were spectacular at this level and we continued towards town then later over flying it and landing at its airport. Once on the ramp we “staked” the planes well out of the way to withstand the severe Patagonian winds and went to a hotel along the beach. That evening we all went for a long walk along the beach taking advantage of the 5 meter tides in the Peninsula Valdez area and dined on local Dover Sole (fish) at a recommended restaurant in the main street of town retiring to our rooms around midnight.

After a hearty breakfast in the hotel we embarked on a private tour of the Valdez Peninsula, which we had arranged the evening before. Fernando was our excellent guide and we were first taken along Puerto Madryn’s industrial area on the way to the National Park. AlumAr is the biggest employer here in its huge new aluminum smelter and finished material plant. Electric power for the operation is generated at El Chocon hydroelectric dam nearby and its production is mostly exported to Japan with some going to Europe and the United States. A bit of controversy exists about this operation involving the discharge of polluted waters in the otherwise pristine bay. Roger ?? had been studying the effect of pollutants on the Frank Austral whale and its associated skin cancer here. We also learned that seagulls are another enemy of these whales – they peck at their tender backs removing pieces of skin allowing infections to sit in.

 

Fernando recounted that since his great-grandparents his family has owned a lot of land in Patagonia. Sheep raising is the main economy in Patagonia, specifically the fine Merino type. Prices for wool used to be $60.00/ton thirty years ago but now is down to $2.00 after rebounding from a low of less than one dollar. Prices for fair ranch land (in 10,000+ hectare size ranches) are now in the $0.90 per hectare ($0.30/acre) range now as a result and many large landowners are forced to work at menial jobs in town in order to make a living and keep their land.

Soon we reached the park entrance and promptly proceeded to “Piramide” port to board powerful twin-engine boats for whale watching. Fernando waved us to hurry up to the beach for boarding as one of the boats was about to depart and it could only take 4 more fares. This 50-foot long fiberglass boats with twin-225 Mercruiser outboard engines were sitting on top of huge trailers on the tidal beach. Attached to a long support arm towards shore was a large powerful 4-wheel drive tractor. Boarding actually takes place on the beach and then the tractor pushes the whole arrangement into the ocean where the boat’s engines take over and all aboard are on their way!

Immediately we saw a frolicking whale. Pregnant cows come here to give birth and some which were unsuccessful, or in “heat” also came looking for love. This is one of the few species on earth where the females are much larger than the males. We were told to imitate the sounds of whale’s songs calling for mating since this would attract the cows that are not pregnant, but did not expect our success to be so effective this soon!

After some fine picture taking and videography we headed out in the bay with the four of us in the stern of the boat. Calling again was successful and soon we were surrounded by both mothers with babies and single females, which laid upside down on the surface waiting for a male to mate. We recorded again and again the sight of these huge mammals since were totally unafraid of us. They breached up in the surface and looked at us with their huge eyes while others waved their pectoral fins and tails. Soon the sea began getting a bit stormy and the captain headed back to shore as some passengers got sick inside the confined cabin and came outside with us to relieve themselves.

Arrival to shore involved ramming the large trailer submerged in the waves and immediately the attached tractor pulling the entire arrangement back to dry land. We were later explained that because of the large tides in the area and adverse effects from the development of a formal port in this natural preserve this is a much better method of loading and unloading passengers. Shortly after we came to shore the Prefectura (Coast Guard) closed the “port” because of stormy seas leaving many wishful tourists longing for the trip…

We headed with Fernando at the wheel again along the southern shore of this egg shaped peninsula connected to the mainland by a tiny land isthmus. We came to a couple of dry lakes one of which was 45 meters below sea level and proceeded to Punta Delgado on the southeastern most point of Peninsula Valdez. This facility used to be the Navy’s Lighthouse keeper’s school in days bygone and is now operated by a family under a concession arrangement as a lodge and restaurant with an adjacent well-maintained gravel strip. We first headed down many steps on the high cliff shore to see an elephant seal rookery. Our guide allowed us to come very close to the many adolescent and young bulls, which still remained there, and we again documented this very well in graphic manner. Walking up the steps was not so easy but the Patagonian lunch of abundant baby lamb on a spit roast fire was an outstanding reward. We topped this off with homemade desserts and then checked the lodging facility to keep this place in mind for a future visit with our families.

Off we went again and now we stopped overlooking another large rookery of Lion Seals below. Then along the way we saw “Maras” (very large Patagonian wild rabbits), “choique” (small nandus-ostrich like birds) and Guanacos. We then stopped at a rookery of Magellanic penguins and witnessed these cute birds, which were totally unafraid of us before heading back to town around sunset. We had covered over 400 kilometers driving here today and it was a most rewarding experience!

That evening I showed the previously produced video of last year’s trip to Alaska and the Yukon with the Argentinean pilots and the raw, unedited video taken so far on this trip.

To watch a theatrical trailer of the trip click VIDEO

Note: All theatrical trailers are onWindows Media 9 Series Player

(send me a message if you want to see the entire videos produced by Oak Canyon Studios)

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