Camel Trophy's grand finale

Melanie D. Goldman reports on the last leg of the craziest road trip on earth, the Camel Trophy, which takes competing teams through the wilds of South America for three weeks.


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Melanie D. Goldman
September 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Hotel del Glaciar, Ushuaia, Argentina; Aug. 20: I just finished reading Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia." In it, he writes, "I left Ushuaia as from an unwanted tomb." But when I arrived here, nothing could have been more welcoming. Ushuaia is on the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at South America's tip that is split between Chile and Argentina. I am almost as far south in the Southern Hemisphere as the bottom tip of Greenland is north in the Northern Hemisphere. At one time, Ushuaia was the prison where Buenos Aires sent Argentina's second-time offenders. Later, it was a naval base, and now it's simply known as the "southernmost city on earth" or "the end of the world." It doesn't sound like the most hospitable destination -- but I'm here, and I'm alive, clean, warm and fed. In Camel Trophy, that counts for a lot.

I left the U.S. team -- Dean Vergillo and Greg Thomas -- for the last part of the Camel Trophy and made my way down here to explore the town where the event will end in five days. The hotel is in the Andes and looks down at Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, bordered by more blue mountains and named for Darwin's HMS Beagle. It snowed about a foot yesterday, covering up the gray houses that face every which way on helter-skelter roads. They all are designed differently, and they all seem to be under construction, as though money ran out mid-project. Without exception, each home has a tin roof and white lace curtains, both as common in Patagonia as mountain roads and sheep farms.

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The toughest thing about being stuck in this cozy hotel at the end of the world is that the wind forcing its way through my window sounds like a bazooka, and the huskies across the lawn howl all night. So I didn't know what to say when Greg called from the road -- in Puerto Natales -- to check in.

"How's Ushuaia?"

"It's a different pace here," I said, diplomatically. What I didn't tell him was that my days on the road with the team seemed far, far away. I have a fuzzy memory of sitting in a car for hours on end and racing from a kayaking checkpoint to a mountain biking checkpoint, and I know that I went 48 hours eating nothing but chocolate and Clif Bars, and I didn't shower for five days at a time. But now, without hesitation, I'm back in the conservative world of people who sleep in beds, eat at tables and change clothes daily. The power of a long, hot bath is incredible.

Today, I met Tony Ocanto. He is the hotel's 50-year-old activity coordinator, and he lives in the room right across from mine on the third floor. He also is a musher. Mushing refers to any dog-powered sport -- in this case, a team of eight huskies pulling me in a sled. The musher is the guy who stands behind them, barking commands. Tony is about 5-foot-6 and has a salt-and-pepper beard, Santa Claus spectacles and cheeks that look like cherry tomatoes. He speaks Spanish, some French and very little English. I speak English, some French and very little Spanish. With him behind me in musher position and dogs pulling us at 15 miles per hour, we yelled to each other in Franish -- a creative combination of the three languages that worked fabulously.

Tony taught me the "international mushing commands," some of which come from Eskimo words. "Gee" means go right, "whoooo" means go left and "deten" means stop. "Gogo" means forward, and "goodboy" simply encourages the dogs. Tony says it's very important to let the dogs know when they're doing the right thing, just as with children.

We went on a 20-minute ride on snowy roads and paths behind the hotel, making a tricky U-turn halfway through. Tony told me how he races all over the world, living six months here and six months with his dogs in the Pyrenees, where he is an outdoor guide in Barcelona. Tony talks about himself in the third person: "Tony race with dogs in Antarctica in 1989 ... Tony also race bike in mountains in Spain and Argentina." As we were mushing along, we ran into Jen, the coordinator for the U.S. Camel Trophy team, who was walking back from skiing. She hopped on the sled. "You see?" Tony smiled broadly. "Tony is Latin lover; he leave with one woman and return with two!"

Tonight, I met Tony at the hotel bar, and he showed me hours of professional dog sled racing videos, where he pointed excitedly whenever he was on the screen. He was drenched in cologne and wore jeans, a T-shirt with a husky on it, argyle socks and loafers. At 11:30, when he started naming his dogs on the screen, I gathered the courage to tell him, "Melanie is tired." I thanked him in three languages, trying to match his enthusiasm and his smile with my own, then came back here to my room where the wind is still honking and the dogs never sleep.

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Cafe de la Esquina, Ushuaia; Aug. 21: I'm sitting in the corner of a busy, smoke-filled cafe on San Martin, Ushuaia's main street. It's siesta time, and all the stores in the city are closed from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. I'm not convinced this is a city, but for purposes of being one up on Chile, that's the name Argentina has given this 43,000-person plot of civilization. The two countries have a history of fighting over borders, land, mountains and titles, and the current battle is over which country is home to the southernmost city on earth. Chile says it's Port Williams, just south of here. And Argentina says pshaw to Chile; Port Williams isn't even a city.

I just ordered an hamburguesa. I haven't had more than a bite of red meat in a decade, but I can't leave the country without sampling the world-renowned Argentine beef, and besides, I'm feeling a little adventurous today.

This morning, I went to Salon de Balleza down the street for a $15 haircut. I put one foot in the door, surveyed the establishment to make sure they had scissors and not sheep shears, and decided to make my entrance official.

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There were three people there -- a woman having her hair cut, a stylist who looked like a tall David Spade and a short stylist with curly, black, over-gelled hair. I desperately wanted Spade. I got Gel. He sat me down with hair magazines, and I picked a photo. Being a woman, I felt the need to talk about my hair, to feel a bond with my stylist before going under the scissor. The problem, clearly, was that my vocabulary and Gel's vocabulary overlapped with about 10 words.

"Mi pelo es delgado," I told him, as though I was offering classified information. "Delgado" is used to describe a thin person, but maybe it doesn't translate to hair quality. Gel looked confused. Or maybe he didn't care that my hair was thin. But he said, "Sí," enough times and we made eye contact often enough for me to feel comfortable and to carry on with the procedure.

Gel's real name is Ruben, and he wore a thin, pink button-down shirt, open about halfway over a white T-shirt. He had pasty white skin and dainty fingers and he was gentle-washing my hair. I tried not to look at his shiny curls.

Ruben combed my hair and I noticed that he smelled like salami (a common breakfast food here), so I tried not to encourage conversation. The band on the radio kept shouting "Olé!" every 10 seconds. Before long, I realized that Ruben smelled like salami all the time -- it was either coming from his breath or his pores. So I gave in and talked to him as he tilted my head this way and that. When it was all over, we had volleyed a few sentences back and forth and he spun me around to look at his masterpiece. Bueno! Not too short, both ears still attached, no gel and no permanent damage to the olfactory nerves from salami fumes.

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With luck like that, my hamburguesa should be a real treat.

Hotel del Glaciar, Ushuaia; Aug. 23: Ushuaia's first claim to fame is that it's the "end of the world." Its second claim to fame is the penguins. The problem is that penguins leave for the winter and the only ones you can find here now are the tacky plastic sort in the gift shops.

Yesterday, I went out into the Beagle Channel (where the penguins would be if they were here) on a 27-meter Coast Guard boat. I spent most of the time looking at maps with the seven-man crew; even if they were wearing bulky navy blue snowsuits, they were still men in uniform, and I couldn't resist. Pablo, the first officer, introduced me to maté, a drink I've eyed from afar all over Argentina. The drink is as common as tea in England or coffee in the States. Maté smells like green tea and looks like a watered-down, puréed spinach soufflé. I held the mug and cautiously sipped it though a fancy silver straw with a filter at the end and, surprisingly, found it to taste better than it looked, although it was a little bitter. When you finish drinking, there's green sludge left over, which is the boiled green leaves of something I couldn't understand.

We passed by two rocks in the channel that were covered with walrus-sized, groaning sea lions and cormoranes, which fooled us for pinguinos until someone pointed out that they were flying.

Today I went with a guide, Esteban, into the National Park. At the Lapataia Bay, we saw the end of Ruta 3, the road that starts 17,848 kilometers away in Alaska. I asked Esteban what kind of people he usually takes on hikes and tours and drives. "You get all sort of crazy people here, who have traveled the world and want to end at the end of the world. People walk from Alaska or bike from Europe. Once, a Japanese man came here on a donkey." And in two days, I thought, 40 yellow Camel Trophy vehicles will arrive here, and Ushuaia will add another feather to its crazy-people-who-visit-here hat.

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Hotel del Glaciar, Ushuaia; Aug. 26, 11 a.m: The end of the Camel Trophy was rather uneventful yesterday. At 9:30 a.m., there was a parade of cars through town with a kitschy band that played the theme song from "Rocky." Then the cars caravaned up the mountain road to the hotel for the awards ceremony.

The governor of Tierra del Fuego, Jose Arturo Estabillo, welcomed the teams to the southernmost city in the world and told us -- through a translator -- how proud he is, how proud Ushuaia is and how proud we should be. Every time he referred to the event, he said "Camel Tropic."

We were all fairly certain that the French team had won. The U.S. team had gone from fourth place to 14th during the three-week event, and Greg and Dean were hoping to place in the top 10. Competitors, journalists and event staff from all 20 countries stood outside in the snow next to the hotel as the category winners were announced: Kayaking: Italy; Andean Sports (skiing/snowboarding): France; Driving: South Africa; Mountain Biking: Switzerland. Then it was time for the grand announcement: France won the Camel Trophy, and the U.S. placed 11th. Dean and Greg were voted -- by other teams -- third in team spirit, which has always been an important award in the Camel Trophy competition, but didn't make up for unmet expectations in other areas.

The lobby of the hotel smelled like the inside of a Camel Trophy car and looked like the unclaimed baggage room at an airport. There were muddy boots on the floor and waist-high stacks of sleeping bags. Some bags -- and their unshowered owners -- smelled so pungent they made my eyes water. I helped Dean and Greg carry their bags up four flights of stairs to the room as the black-vested hotel staff watched in horror as muddy parkas were thrown over lobby chairs.

After lunch, the competitors cleaned out the cars -- their homes for 21 days and 5,000 miles -- and turned in their gear. We went to a banquet in the hotel and ate, drank and danced until after 2 a.m. I listened to Dean and Greg do radio interviews and feed sound bites to the event public relations staff. I knew they were disappointed with their finish, and I heard them explain their strategy and discuss their weaknesses over and over to reporters. And when the French team started throwing people off the stage onto the dance floor and eyed me as their next victim, I graciously declined and went to sleep.

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This morning, I said goodbye to the competitors, who boarded a bus for the Ushuaia airport. I'll fly out tomorrow morning. For the last time, in the lobby, I played the kissing game, which involves kissing a non-American athlete or journalist goodbye or hello and trying to anticipate how many cheeks they will attempt. Most do two, but some only do one, which puts your nose in a precarious position when you go for the second. Others do three cheeks, which really catches you off guard. Of course saying goodbye to Dean and Greg (or any other comparably non-touchy-feely Americans) involves an intimate slap-on-the-back hug with no kissing -- cheeks or otherwise -- involved.

Somewhere between Rio Grande and Buenos Aires, Argentina; Aug. 26, 8 p.m: It's only fitting that this mother of all road trips should end with the biggest challenge of all. In the last several hours, on my own, I faced all the defining components of Camel Trophy: driving on icy mountain roads, expecting the unexpected, having a small window of time and reaching a goal. My goal was to get to the airport.

After the teams left this morning, those of us at the hotel learned that the Argentine airline had overbooked the flight out of Ushuaia, and Greg was the only American who made it on. Dean and the American journalists were bused three hours to the closest airport in Rio Grande for a 7:20 p.m. flight. Mid-afternoon, I found out that my flight from Ushuaia tomorrow is overbooked as well, so the only way for me to get to Buenos Aires in time for my flight to Miami would be to meet the guys at Rio Grande. I wasn't packed, and it was 4:15. I frantically threw everything in my bags and hopped in a cab with Fabian, a 26-year-old Argentine in jeans with shiny black pony-tailed hair.

I sat in the front, so I was forced -- once again -- to have a painfully elementary conversation in Spanish, answering the same questions I've answered for weeks: Do I have a husband? Is your sister as beautiful as you are? Does it snow in Washington?

Rio Grande is on the other side of the Andes, and Fabian sped into the mountains with a broken speedometer and a crocheted cross hanging on the rearview mirror. Once, the car spun about 50 degrees to the left in the snow, then at least that far to the right as Fabian tried to correct the spin. My fingernails dug into the armrest, and he asked if I was frightened. I nodded.
"No problema," he smiled, as if everything were under control.

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I told Fabian that we drove on a lot of icy roads during Camel Trophy, but our cars were bigger. "They were Land Rovers," I boasted, subtly patronizing his rickety car. All of a sudden, I longed to be in the back seat of the capable Freelander, and I wondered how I could have ever complained. I wanted my driver to be Dean, not Fabian.

After our slip 'n' slide adventure, Fabian made three consecutive crosses on his chest. Oh please, God of Argentine Taxi Drivers, don't let him be praying that we'll make it through these roads. I asked him why he made the crosses. He said something about Catholicism and pointed to an area we'd just passed. I didn't understand, but I was hoping he was paying his respects (all over the country, there are crosses on the side of roads where people have died in accidents) rather than counting on God alone to get us through the mountains safely.

For an hour, I thought about asking Fabian to slow down, torn between wanting to arrive in time for my flight and wanting to arrive at all. Finally, I did. "Mas despacio." This prompted an excruciating, 30-minute conversation where Fabian tried to ask me if the plane would wait for me at Rio Grande if I didn't get there in time. I could tell he was asking something important. His communicating this to me required a painful combination of charades, repeated words and tangents to aid in translation, and finally, I understood what he was asking. "No," I finally said, miffed by the complexity of it all for such a ridiculous question.

So that's why we must drive rapido, he said.

"If we have an accidente, no airplane," I snapped back. It didn't have the venom that I intended; had he understood English, I would have yelled, "I just want to make it home alive, you speedy bastard!!" But he understood me, and my wimpy comeback had done the trick. For Fabian and me, it was our first fight. He drove in silence, a bit slower, and I looked out the window, away from him.

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After almost an hour, I spoke first. I asked him if that was the Atlantic Ocean we were passing on the right. He gave me a one-word answer. We were off the icy road, and although it was still unpaved, it was dry. With a migraine and a growling stomach, I gave in to sleep as Fabian sped up the coast.

I opened my eyes, and it was dusk. The car was stopped on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and Fabian turned off the ignition without saying anything. I stopped breathing and kept my eyes focused on the glove compartment. For the first time, I realized my potentially dangerous situation, which had nothing to do with a car crash. I was there with a stranger on a quiet road, at least an hour from any town, in a foreign country. In two seconds, I created a horror show in my mind. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Fabian leave the car, heard him get something out of the trunk, and watched out of my side mirror as he walked toward my door. He stopped. I looked over my right shoulder. I started breathing again. We had a flat tire.

Back on the road again, it was raining, and the wipers stopped, sticking in an overextended position like they were doing the splits. It only took 10 minutes to change the flat, but every minute was precious. It was 6:30, and we were 77 miles away from the airport. Fabian pointed at his wrist every five minutes, and I reported the time, always asking -- as though I were shaking an Eight Ball -- "¿Es posible?" He would crinkle his eyebrows and squeeze the steering wheel tighter, giving me my answer in body language: Chances are slim.

We pulled into the airport at 7:13. I already had briefed Fabian on how to talk to the ticket agent for me, and he rushed out of the car and asked them to hold the plane. All I remember is showing my ticket to a man in a tight blue airline sweater and showing my passport to a man in an olive uniform and not sending anything through an X-ray machine. I handed Fabian his $100 fare and double-cheek-kissed the man for whom I'd felt an entire lifetime of emotions in a three-hour period. I was led to a door and pointed to a full plane, 200 yards away, waiting for me, at 7:20.

So here I am, in seat 18C, en route to Buenos Aires with my American teammates, reflecting on the past three hours and the past three weeks -- the former a microcosm of the latter. This road trip has been all about focusing on small tasks and larger goals: first Santiago, then Pucon, then Futaleufu, then Torres del Paine, then Ushuaia. As soon as the teams reached Ushuaia, however, dreams turned quickly from competing and exploring the unknown to homecoming and returning to routines, where our adventure will sink in and we'll appreciate it much more than we ever could here. For most of us, there is an unspoken, urgent feeling of wanting to go home, wherever that may be. I feel so desperate about heading north that even the relatively small diversion of changing airports at the last minute was a devastating hurdle.
Now, I feel secure in saying that the road trip is finally over. Our last, seemingly straightforward task was to get out of the end of the world alive, and the mission was accomplished. We're on a plane, heading toward the Northern Hemisphere, toward home. And in that sense, we won.


Melanie D. Goldman

Freelance writer Melanie D. Goldman is writing dispatches for Wanderlust from the Camel Trophy road.

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