Trip Notes – December 29th, 2010

We were in Argentina from December 24, 2010 till January 3, 2011 as part of a bigger trip that also took us to South Georgia and Antarctica. In Argentina we spent the first 3 days (incl. Christmas Eve and Day) in Buenos Aires. On December 27th we flew to Rio Gallegos where we picked up a rental car (Toyota hi-lux) from Riestra Adventure 4×4 Rental. We set off on a mini-roadtrip that took us to El Calafate, Puerto San Julián, Laguna del Carbón (we hoped), Parque Nacional Monte León and back to Rio Gallegos. December 29 was the big day for

That morning we set off early from El Calafate, on the unpaved but very good Ruta 9 towards Cmte. Luis Piedra Buena. We got a sense of the remoteness of the area on the R9: for the 3,5 to 4 hours it took to cross the high plateau to the R3 we saw 2 cars and a truck. We caught glimpses of some of the Estancias, but mostly only saw the access roads leading to them. We did see hundreds of guanacos (of the lama family) and rheas (ostrich-like birds). We got to Cmte. Luis Piedra Buena, on the properly paved R3, and had lunch there around 1:30pm.

After lunch we set off on our final leg towards Laguna del Carbón. I was getting pretty excited (and a tad anxious by then). I did however have a good feeling about our whole upcoming adventure. This was after all ‘le moment suprême’ for I was either going to get to the laguna or not!

Originally we were going to spend an extra day in El Calafate, but after seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier we decided to drive towards our 7lows destination a day early in order to give us an extra day there. As mentioned in ‘Preparation’, we only had the maps we printed from Google Earth with our own GPS waypoints and possible access routes. Whether any of those access points were actually going to be true access points was another matter. We had also changed our mind about our primary access route: our original plan was to take our first chance at the gas plant. However, with having obtained permission from neither the plant nor the farm, we had decided to first try our luck at the first access road we were going to come to.[1]

Around 3:20pm we arrived in the exact area on the R3 to start looking for that first possible access road. Turned out we blew straight past it – somehow we got confused about the WP’s[2]. We did see something of an access road in about the right spot but decided it didn’t look very promising. In hindsight that was lucky as that track would eventually have led to the track running to the fence at ‘WP no road intersection’. We didn’t know it then, but that was our first bit of very good luck. We never saw the second access point[3], not a gate to be seen. Not to worry, on to look for the third one we went. That one we found easily enough because of our ‘WP microwave antenna’ and there was indeed a microwave antenna there. Unfortunately there was also a locked gate in front of it that looked very official and was in no way passable with a car.

So, there we were, with only one possible access point left, the one leading to the gas plant and the farm. As mentioned before, no longer our first choice. At the gas plant we expected locked gates. And then there was the matter of the farm. We believe this low point, Laguna del Carbón, is the only one on private land (Lake Eyre in Australia is on tribal land) and as also already said, we did not get prior permission to enter the land. That’s why we had decided to ‘sneak’ in on one of the other 3 access points, but since these had now all been discounted, ‘WP turn off to gas plant’ was our only remaining option.

We turned off the R3 and onto the dirt road and were faced with a big sign “Planta Turbo Compresora San Julián” and a very open gate with a clearly visible smaller sign on the gate that read something like: “People with no business at the gas plant don’t have any business going any further”. We looked at the sign, the open gate and each other… and I thought: Well, I do have business here… maybe not exactly what the gist of the ominous sign was, but business nonetheless. And we’d run out of options; we’d either get in this way or not at all. So, we drove up the access road, a little apprehensive, and after a few kilometers saw the Estancia on our right. This had to be the landowners place. No need to go bother them.

On we drove towards the plant where we were faced with no less than 3 locked gates: one to the plant[5] and one to either side of it[6] onto private land. OK. We stopped the car and sat a while contemplating our situation. I decided this couldn’t be the end of our adventure after getting this close. So I got out of the car and walked up to the gate to the plant. I saw an intercom but couldn’t imagine trying to explain our business in poor Spanish through an intercom.

  • And then I saw the man. And the man saw me.
  • And the man walked away from me toward the building.
  • And then the gate swung open.

Now, I was about 20 meters from the car and frantically trying to get Stephen’s attention. I mean, picture this: the first gate just opened and he didn’t even notice it! I was afraid the gate was going to close again and did not want to miss what might be the start of an opportunity. Shouting didn’t work because of the wind, waving didn’t work either. So what was I to do? Go in on my own? You bet! I was not going to pass up on this opportunity to explain, and if necessary plead, my case to a person (instead of an intercom).

  • And then the man came back and walked towards me.

In my best Spanish I tried: “Olá! Soy Caroline. Hablo un poquito de Espanol. Quieremos visitar Laguna del Carbón, (upon which the man looked up at me and I’m thinking: Caroline, keep talking… in Spanish…) – porque es el punto mas bajo en el America del Sur – and the man interrupted me at that point: ‘No! Es el punto mas bajo de America Continental!’

I’m not sure what I expected: indifference, ignorance, friendliness, … (because believe you me, not that many know about this… I mean it’s not exactly The Dead Sea or even Badwater, and until fairly recently maps had the wrong low point for South America).

And then the man and I actually struck up a conversation: me in a mixture of poor Spanish and good English, he in a mixture of poor English (but as understandable as my poor Spanish) and good Spanish.

Man: Did we have permission?
Me: From who? The gas plant?
Man: No, the Estancia.
Me: No.
Man: Let me look up the number for you to ring… and did you know that National Geographic was out here to certify this?
Me: Yes, I did, and thank you. Yes – 105m.
Man: -109m! Here’s she is: Margarita something and here’s the number.
Me: Any chance we can ring from here? Now? (I cringinly added).
And the very nice man (VNM) picked up the phone and dialed…
VNM: Olá! Margarita! Yaddayadda.. Tengo dos estrangeros aqui, from New Zealand and Belgium who want to visit the laguna. Blablabla… Numeros de documentos?
The VNM looks at me, I nod and he says: ‘Si, Margarita, no problema.’
VNM: Ok Margarita!

I was actually shaking a bit by then. Did the VNM just obtain permission for us to proceed onto the Estancia? He opened the main gate again for Stephen, who was paying attention by then, to drive the car in. We gave him our passport numbers, but that now seemed only a formality as he was not that interested in the piece of paper the numbers were written on. I think it was simply to see whether we’d be reluctant to ‘formally’ sign in. When he then whipped out the key to the North access gate and opened it for us we couldn’t believe our luck! He made sure we had maps and more importantly a GPS – we were after all going to drive around in the desert, warned us not to drive in sandpits and waved us through. We were now truly on our way to South America’s Low Point!! It had just turned 4pm. So off we drove… and promptly took a wrong turn through the first unlocked gate we saw; we were that excited. The gate we wanted was only about 80 meters away but in our defense, the one we wanted was obscured by a steep rise. We found the right one soon after and were now on the track we had mapped out in preparation.

The dirt track was most certainly very doable; having a high clearance vehicle was definitely a good idea and in few places necessary. Seven hundred meters drop the track we celebrated our first achievement, namely crossing the zero-altitude point. Naturally we got out of the car to take photos of the event. Our maps and WP’s were just about spot-on. Some side-tracks weren’t there and one or two features were a bit out, but we didn’t encounter anything that we didn’t expect. Remember that first access point from R3 that we didn’t find? Well, we did see where that track eventually ran in to a fence and we would have been at the wrong side of it had we seen and taken that track; luckily we were now at the right side of that fence.

We caught our first glimpse of Laguna del Carbón at 4:43pm (WP first view). We decided to drive to our originally planted WP for ‘end of the road’, but then back tracked a bit to get onto the Laguna. Now that we were there it was easy to assess the situation and make decisions on the spot.

At 5pm I set foot on the Laguna!  It is a mostly (at least at the moment) dry lake; its surface a salty mud with a thin dry crust. We had walked about 100m on the Laguna when Stephen decided to go back to the car and drive the heavy monster truck onto the dubious surface of the Laguna. By the time he caught up with me I had walked another 200m and for the last 100m I started noticing the surface getting softer and muddier. The crunchy top salt layer was still crunchy but beneath it was another matter. Stephen caught up with me, so about 300m into/onto the Laguna we took our photos. We had done it! We had descended to the Low Point of South America!

After about 20 minutes of taking photos and movies and enjoying the moment we packed up our cameras, got in the truck, started the engine, put it into gear – reverse that is, reversed up for about 100m and turned the car around. Stephen put the car in first and put his foot on the pedal and promptly spun the wheels. And the same in reverse. We heard echoes of the VNM telling us not to drive into sandpits and wondered whether this was what he’d meant. A few worried glances were exchanged, breaths were held, 4WD engaged and off out of the Laguna we drove.

On the drive back we made notes on our WP’s so we could update them later. We got back to the locked North Gate, which Stephen jumped at 6:30pm, as agreed with the VNM, to go press the intercom to get someone to come and unlock the gate. A colleague of the VNM appeared and we were on our way back to the main road R3. We were back on the R3 at 6:43pm and on our way to Puerto San Julián.

References and Useful Links

  1. WP turn off from main highway.
  2. Waypoints.
  3. WP fence gate with track.
  4. WP access road.
  5. WP entrance to gas compressor plant (gated).
  6. WP Locked gate (North) and WP Locked gate (South).
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