THE MORENO GLACIER

Israeli travellers were always distinctive characters, and Izhak Levy was no exception. Brazen directness, seemingly a lack of romanticism, practical, acutely aware of prices, forthright and my new travel partner. Rob had returned to Santiago.

An Australian always seemed the obvious balance to the scale to an Israeli. I knew where they were coming from and would generally relate to them on my own terms .... of humour! They had nearly always "just finished" their initial three year term in the army and had come to South America to get as far away from war and anger as they could. I could never have imagined myself coming straight out of school and entering the army. I could, therefore, start to understand their evident post-army characteristics.

We had both heard of the potent beauty of one San Moreno Glacier, and were quickly town hopping south towards Port Aisèn. Port Montt was typical of the southern Chile lakes district. A picturesque town amidst a stunning landscape. Horizon of cragged mountains and perfectly formed volcanos, all snow capped.

From Port Montt a ship would take us further south to the island of Chiloè. As distinct from other towns in the south, this seemed to hold back the metronome of 20th century pace even further. People commuted on horses or on foot. Everywhere was solid green, wildflowers and trees. A bustling fish market greeted us on arrival. The pace was slow and the air clean. People were mostly old but strong. Southern Chile really was a special place.

How could life be more complete than sitting inside a rustic undersized restaurant, full of seafaring paraphernalia and hand-made décor, of kitsch. Eating fish and drinking red wine, by candlelight. Outside it was clanging to the winds of the South Pole. The temperature had dropped sharply since sunset, but as the base of coals heaped higher and higher, I would peel off several layers of clothing. The night passed. Rich "Gato Negro" or "Black Cat" wine warming the veins, the bed of glowing coals piled higher.

Izhak told stories of life aboard submarines at nineteen years old. Inevitably, we talked of Arabs, Israelis and history. We talked of Nazis. They said there were a number of those war criminals living in Chile, and especially here in the south. Always preoccupied, and concerned. They said they had to be. It was their duty.

The rhythmic bells of my watch alarm had napalmed their way intrusively into my dreams. A hero stopping mid-deed to lay down his lines and armaments, stepping forth through the door marked "reality". Another day of travel to be pursued. Passenger ship to Puerto Aisèn.

Quite different to dusty twenty hour rides rattling in the back of trucks in Bolivia. This was a tough ocean going liner, a passenger and cargo beast, which would open its mouth to the shore and swallow a car as easily as a human. It needed to be tough. At Puerto Aisèn we would already be below the southern most latitudinal point of Tasmania, and from there the ship would plough through some of the wildest and most temperamental waters in the world; towards the southern most tip of South America, halved by Chile and Argentina. Cape Horn, no less.

There was no official accommodation in Aisèn, so we arranged to sleep in the local gymnasium. This also allowed me some physical release by playing basketball with the locals, scoring two pointers at will. Later that night, asleep, I would score six pointers without so much as a pump of an artery.

Generally, I had relied on the fact that I walked eternal tourist kilometers, to be my daily exercise. Since being in the colder south I had been walking less, eating more and, consequently, felt less fit than in months previously. I had really taken to being able to eat dairy products in the same carefree way as I would in Australia. Throughout Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador I had shied away from dairy products as they were generally considered the best way to gain stomach problems .... diptheria, whooping cough, foot and mouth disease, big pox .... small pox! Almost at the top of the bill with thievery and bus trip stories were the tales of bodily woes that had bestruck fellow travellers. I now fantasised about being the author of yet another South American travel throw-away best seller titled, "A thousand and one Classic Illnesses".

I remembered how, only a week (or so?) before, in Santiago, I had been sitting up on my bed bending and twisting pieces of gold wire, learning to make hooks, O-rings and thread beads to match. How to craft earrings.

I had pounded the back streets of Santiago's commercial sector to find the supplier of the wire they called "alpaca". It was the base material for making that jewellery, which was a type of trade mark of hippie craftspeople. Everywhere I'd been I was eager to "create" and this seemed a cheap and portable way to partly fulfill that need. A bundle of wire, small pair of cutters, a selection of glass and ceramic beads, and cone-nosed pliers, all fitting neatly into a small cardboard box.

Totally engrossed in my art, I hadn't given a thought to my occasional itching. It was hot and muggy, and I'd given a twist of thought to "heat itch". I slept and scratched that night away. I was up and into my art as soon as I awoke next morning. I was still itchy and decided that it was possibly my lack of washing in the last two days. I showered and dried, ate breakfast and returned to my bed workshop; and itched. As was usual with my own medical opinions, things were okay until there was blood. And so, as soon as I realised I'd scratched just behind my knee enough to tap into my bloodstream, I diagnosed something more than heat.

I removed the patchy bedsheet to reveal a mattress; a canvas of some manic abstract artist, home to my assailants. Bedbugs. Fleas. What more could I have expected from one of the cheapest hotels in Santiago. One clearly noted as "not recommended" in my travel bible, The South American Handbook. Time to move on! Surely worth a paragraph in the "A thousand and one Classic Illnesses" book.

We had to be out of the gym by eight o'clock next morning as there were some navy recruits coming in to train there that day. We were up early and cooking up a hearty storm of edibles for breakfast. The extra room the stove had taken up in my pack seemed miniscule on mornings like this where it was put to full use. Hot milo, oats with nuts and sultanas and a finale of fried bread with jam topping. Two kings at their roost in the early morning mist. The breaking daylight. Cock-a-doodle-doo! and behold all yee the grand life of a traveller.

We sat on the rumps of our packs. Sipping our third cup of all-warming milo for the morning. The mist lifted slowly, clouds parted. The sun finally spearing its warming rays down to us.

We would need to stay one more night in Port Aisèn. The boat that would take us to the Moreno Glacier had been delayed in a bay to the south, a consequence of stormy weather. We arranged a day trip inland, to a small alpine village nearby. I could have hardly been prepared for the dramatic and unearthly beauty of the condor in flight. It soared and swooned in the swirls of the thermal updrafts. Although it was way above us from our walking path, and would, at times, become indistinguishable with the blackened teeth of the craggy precipice above, I knew that I had seen a bird of true royalty. Majestic master of Andean myth. A wing span of around ten foot I estimated .... maybe even larger. A lesser bird would have been belittled, totally consumed, by the mountainous landscape around us. The condor stood out and declared its presence. I left my camera in my bag, sat on a comfortable dry rock and took in every moment of that flight. I became the condor. Joy flight for dreamers. I whistled a tune; breathed the air deeply into my lungs. Following the flight of the condor.

Another rendezvous with the boat to Moreno. The excitement of it all. New acquaintances on board the smallish Navy boat. A day passing through the channel of a thousand islands. Of a mainland clouded in. Leaking from its eternally greened chin, spouts of water falls and gushing mountain rivers. I knew that beyond the thick grey layering of clouds would be the beauty of the Andes. My imagination drew in the necessary background. The full surge, feelings direct from a powerful landscape.

There were several Swiss, a couple of Germans and two Israelis with whom Izhak was now locked in with. Intense conversation that only they knew how to involve in. Swapping of practical (strategic!) information on "best of's" and "best buys". News of home, mutual friends, a chance to let their "lingua franca" flow.

The day passed with patrols from the below deck shelter of our communal cabin, to the on-deck vantage points of our surrounding environs. As the day progressed, people began to personalise their space below. Sleeping bags appeared to map out sleepland for the oncoming night. Sandwich preferences displayed at disparate intervals, bodily odours now converging to form a multi-national scent. Some people read, others listened to music, whilst the motion of the boat soon encroached on others. Although the scenes to be had outside were stunning, the movement of the boat against a slight breeze meant there was a "wind-chill factor" to be dealt with. Consequently, anything more than ten minutes outside meant methodic pacing up and down the deck just to keep the blood lines in full flow.

I had borrowed a Time magazine from one of the other travellers and had all but consumed it. I scrutinised it and wondered just how much I should believe. I was becoming overtly aware of the vastness of political thought and persuasion that existed. I wanted to make judgments but preferred, for the time being at least, to sit on the fence and observe, to feel. Politics, like religion, philosophy .... time .... must surely be worthy of a lifetime of thought, observation and study. I must not "kid myself". My pallette had its colours pre-mixed. I would have to work hard to paint with my own style. From the heart. A must!

The sky cleared for sunset, and everyone was up on top deck to view the dipping of light. Scarves, hats, gloves, coats and wind jackets, thick leather boots and jeans abounded. The captain had dropped the speed quite considerably and would navigate through the next few hours by radar and sonar. The light stopped to a jolt behind a huge peak we were passing, and sent everyone scurrying for the more homely atmosphere below deck.

Someone produced a guitar and the universal Beatles, Rolling Stones and Simon & Garfunkel repertoire emerged for some communal, slightly atonal, singing. Playing guitar was a great thing, I thought to myself. Maybe I'd learn to play music one day. I remembered my childhood days of being "sent" to the nuns. Even on this day that line inspired comical, but negative, thoughts within me. Having a stern faced nun peering over your shoulder, dictating that scales equalled music; technique equalled music; discipline was integral; surely this was not the best route to the creative tap of young children. For me it was the direct stimulus I needed to become a basketball "freak".

And so we sang and laughed at our improvised lines and lack of musicality. We drummed rhythms on cooking pots, and whistled when all else failed. Laughter rescued all. The boat motored along without our noticing.

Another night passed where I was glad to have spent the extra dollars to get a good quality down sleeping bag. My "mummy bag" allowed me to completely enclose my body from head to toe. Looking a little like the Egyptian mummy the bags were named after. If needed, I could pull draw-cords from within so that all which remained exposed was the end of my nose and mouth. Inhale and exhale. I set my watch for six, closed shop by pulling zips and inner chords. Shuffling into the mat below me to finally melt into the imagery of sleep.

My watch alarm rings just as I'm pulling myself up the iron railed staircase from below deck. The excitement of not knowing "how it was" outside had spurned me to extract myself from my mummified glory to face the day before electronic time had said its piece.

Eyes focussing with the help of controlled and glinting eyelids. A body calling for more layers of clothing. The sun had not yet appeared, would not appear for a time at least, as all was grey.

The water was a carbon grey, the sky smoke grey, and the silhouette of the land, a grey-black. The grey of cold. The wind was far less than the previous day, but still enough to push a few zero degrees up sleeves and on to cheeks. The opening vistas were drab and uninspiring, so I returned to sleep another hour.

One or two, who cares!? But by the time I arose again, everyone else had flown and were up on deck, cameras to the ready. Again, I went through the layer system. I slept with long-john and long sleeve top thermal underwear on. First movement upon loosening the cords, which held the bag around my head, was to put on my double knit wool "beanie". Next were two layers of pure woollen socks, ritualized morning recognition to the generosity and craft of my mother's mother. Then came the jeans and a shirt before too much body heat was lost. Thick leather walking boots, scarf, jumper and three quarter length weather proof jacket. One of those excessively priced Goretex numbers! (Imagine wandering past some buckled over indian labouring their produce to market in Peru or Bolivia, knowing that the cost of the jacket you're wearing was equal to two years' wages to them! Ridiculous! Worth a second of thought!).

It was still the shades of grey outside, except that the curtain of cloud had lifted to unveil eerie black-green cliffs. Then someone spotted a piece of ice in the water. Shutter speeds and apertures were set. Armed and ready! Then another piece of ice about the size of a tennis ball. As the hour passed, the droppings of ice became more frequent. Sizes swelling.

A hundred meters off the stern there was a large piece of ice. And another. Small icebergs. For the next three hours the frequency and magnitude of the ice continued to grow at a proportionate rate.

By the fourth hour, the knots had been decreased, a sailer had positioned himself at the bow of the boat and there was a silence of awe at the blue white bergs that were scattered all around us.

Some were two or three stories high, with deep clefts and cracks slicing their way into a dazzling steel blue core. The spears and crevices produced a most scintillating display of the colours of blue, the surface a distillation of the purest white. We were glad that it was overcast as these monoliths would be all but impossible to look at with sun reflecting and refracting from the huge conglomerations of ice crystals. Nature's own ice carvings. Splendid and spectacular. Awesome!

Rounding a corner of land we were presented to the Moreno Glacier. The penultimate power of nature. Virginal beauty; untouched by the destructive human hand. A huge carpet of ice flowing from high in the Chilean Andes and finally squeezing between two mountains before entering the relief of the Pacific Ocean. Only a short time later the thicket of icebergs, both household size as well as the smaller debris that lay near them, forced us to drop anchor.

We then boarded two smaller life launches and headed off towards the face of the glacier. The scale of the whole area had misled. The face of the glacier had seemed nowhere near the hundred foot assault that it was. After buffeting our way through the minefield of ice debris, the boatman finally switched off the motor. We were still five hundred feet away from the icy face of the beckoning glacier. The silence was eerie, powerful. The glacier talked. Groaned. A thunderous rumble and splashes startled everyone. A large slab of ice, about the size of a car, went crashing to the water below, sending the still and dotted landscape bobbing up and down. After some minutes small waves lapped at our boats, signalling the distance that we were from that ice fall. Maybe that slab had been as big as a house .... not a car? Sizes were deceptive. The soundscape very active. I could sit there for days. A total over-indulgence of the senses of sight, sound and smell. Nature hedonist. Doctrine of nature untouched. Ban Man!