Wednesday, 8 December 2010

... Patagonia: Well n' Truly Scratched

The sun disappeared and the clouds arrived followed by the driving rain.

Descent into Vancouver... it wouldn't be any other way.

And so my itchy feet have been scratched once more.Temporarily I'm sure.

They were also reminded that we should do one thing a day that scares us. That which matters the most should never give way to that which matters the least. And most importantly dance, sing, floss and travel!

The end of an adventure is actually the beginning of a new one. 2011 is going to be an adventure all on its own!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

... Patagonia: Death By Penne

Someone with a sick sense of humour decided to play "Eat, Pray, Love" for the inflight movie. I couldn't even watch the travel map because I didn't have one of those little personal TV screens. Instead I found myself wanting to ram the nth pasta dish down Julia Roberts' throat. Mmmm these throat lozengers are so appetizing!

This was going to be a long flight.

Despite my buttocks feeling like they were no longer a part of me and my neck mimicking some extreme yoga position I fell asleep about mid-flight. I'm sure I looked a right sight but by this point I'd been traveling for about 13 hours and was beyond caring. Well, for most part. I did still position myself so that I could drool somewhat in private against the window. Particularly useful for any dreams about food should I have any!

I wasn't hungry though, right?

LAX is actually tolerable when you can simply grab your bags and leave. Don't expect to read that statement from me all that often however. Still, it was a welcome perk having already cleared Customs in Miami.

It also meant that any subsequent meal was going to be slightly more fulfilling than a packet of peanut M&M's that I'd been carrying in my backpack for 2 weeks. My stomach gurgled its approval and promised to stop digesting itself.

... Patagonia: I Queue, Therefore I Am - British!

I am convinced that the Boeing 777 is nothing more than a glorified sardine can with wings. When I'd finally walked the mile along the cabin to my usual spot at the back of the bus I found that the seat in front of mine had a metal box secured to the floor underneath it. There wasn't even enough legroom for a midget! Oh... wait....

Basically, if your feet touched the floor you were going to feel like you were anatomically rearranged so that your knees were beside your ears. A rare occasion I know but my feet touched the floor. They would need a shoe horn to get me out of my seat.

We took off on time and they were very quick to get dinner & drinks served. My dinner wasn't bad but it wasn't great either. At least it was veggie. Still, it felt like someone had looked down at the tray literally minutes before it was served and thought "Oh crap, half of this meal is missing" and then they quickly went around everyone for a food collection. This was the first time in the last few weeks where I've not been given bread. I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. My salad had some wilted lettuce and a pickled artichoke heart that someone had seemingly half hacked at in a bid to make it look presentable. In the middle of the tray was a tiny carton of olive oil and... nothing else. No balsamic, no lemon juice. Just olive oil. OK, so what on earth do I do with this?!?! I can only assume that dessert was the packet of crackers unless they were the bread substitute? The most bizarre thing of all was the tiny container that had a screw top and looked like you'd use it to store pills in perhaps. Someone had shoved in two balls of some kind of spread. Yeah I don't think I'll be risking that.

The flight headed north west towards the Andes before continuing north alongside them and over Colombia. For a brief period of time early in the flight I watched a very cool thunderstorm occuring to the north west of Buenos Aires around Rosario. It was huge and very angry looking lighting up the sky & clouds around it. The flight itself was not one of my most comfortable and I usually travel very well. Aside from the leg room issue the person next to me really had no concept of personal space. Last time I checked I didn't look like a pillow nor was I a punch bag for elbows. The flight also had a lot of turbulance. Normally I am able to cocoon myself in with my iPod and drift off to the land of nod. But it took me a long while to get settled on this flight. I awoke as we were flying over Jamaica: it was cool to see Kingston below and a million stars above. We landed in Miami just after 6am EST giving me over two hours before my connection to LAX.

But I hate this airport and it hates me. Immigration were painfully slow especially the line I had picked. Of course the carousel for my bag was right at the other end of the baggage collection room. There was more queuing to hand in your customs form followed by queuing to hand off your checked bag for your connection. More queuing for security which always feels like a violation and last but not least queuing at the gate to get on the flight. Gate 50 was naturally right at the other end of concourse D. I know I'm British but this is ridiculous. And besides I was surrounded by people that have absolutely no concept on how to queue!

There was no time for Starbucks - of course positioned just outside of the very same security that won't let you through with liquids, no time to grab food for the flight and just enough time to empty one's bladder. I reached my gate just as they had started boarding. Over 90 minutes of my life I will never get back. Still, I guess it meant less time to wait to board my connection. A sliver of a silver lining perhaps.

Oh... wait. I'm flying into my favourite airport. And to top it off I've just realised my pink Canon point n' shoot is missing complete with over 200 photos.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

... Patagonia: Just A Little Touch Of Star Quality

There are usually plenty of subtle clues to tell that this is the "last day" of a trip.

You fancy that "one last good meal" before you submit your digestive system to the abuse of junk food at the airport and something that you most likely will have to pep talk yourself into eating on a plane. Choice of breakfast, lunch or dinner is usually based on time of departing flight. So you open your wallet and if you're lucky a couple of notes might fall out along with the shrapnel which has already been allocated a spot in the souvenir draw or the charity collection envelope on the flight.

Great! There's enough here for the downpayment on a Mars Bar. Winner!

My last day in Buenos Aires wasn't quite that bad but my body was telling me it deserved a day off from making any substantial effort. It was, admittedly, greatly helped by the fact I'm still getting over being sick. A day of window shopping, people watching and coffee drinking sounded like a great way to spend the day. And so I did! I expertly ordered my non-fat cappucino and watched the world tango by.

It was time for these itchy feet to bid a fond adios to Buenos Aires and the great Patagonian adventure.

Friday, 3 December 2010

... Patagonia: Could It Be That It's Just An Illusion?

Believe it or not, the world's southernmost international airport is fit to receive planes as large as a 747. That statement however is more for my reassurance after I experienced a departure from Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia - Malvinas Argentinas.

The airport is very tiny but modern looking with lots of wood decor and it is very clean. Food options for myself were extremely limited and I knew that wasn't likely to improve on the airplane either. One might say a diet of ham & cheese in between some kind of flour-based carbohydrate has been the bane of my existence during this itchy feet experience. Seeing as I never travel thinking about food options above more than a "Meh. I'll make it work" this really wasn't that big of a deal to me if any. Check-in was a breeze although there is a departure tax to pay even for domestic flights. There is a duty free shop which is always handy for pre-travel depongification and last minute shopping. Customs was even easier than check-in and quite possibly my fastest for getting through to date! There are a considerable number of airports on my hit list that could learn from this! See! Bigger seldom means better.

The Aerolineas Argentinas Captain didn't waste any time in pushing back once everyone was seated. The plane had arrived a little late but they unloaded and reloaded that bird like someone had lit a fire under the airport personnel. May be someone had purely for warmth?? The engines roared to life and the plane began picking up speed along the runway... yet a few seconds after this fact I nervously exclaimed "I hope this plane is going to start moving a damn sight faster than it currently is!" Something definitely wasn't quite right. And then, as if the Captain handbrake-turned it, the plane slowed and did a 180 degree turn. I just happened to be looking out of the window at that time to see the end of the runway and its drop off into the sea. I guess someone decided I needed one final Ushuaia-borne adrenaline rush or perhaps my oblivion-falling waterfall was at the end of it?

Take off for real then followed and we were up in the air quickly. The air version of the Beagle Channel certainly appeared to exist for the first few minutes whilst we made a couple of tight banked turns and our way through the clouds over the mountains. I am not used to sitting so far forward in a plane i.e row 3, I'm usually a back-of-the-bus rider and so things really sound quite different. Really. Different.

You know those moments you have where you can hear youself speak just as your brain realises it hadn't yet given you permission to do so? What do you mean "no?" Someone really should tell me that I should stop watching Mayday and then I perhaps won't blurt out such utter crap as "why is that engine making a funny noise?" in a mad moment of nerve-induced insanity because I'm convinced for a picosecond that it has stopped. If I'm looking to shift blame in a bid to reduce embaressment, boy-racer pilot's antics earlier hadn't really helped either. I quickly came to my senses though being a lover of all things aviation and enjoyed the view of  Argentina's coastline during the 3 hour flight to Buenos Aires, whilst I picked off the ham & cheese on my sandwich. Thanks for the bread and water AR1892 but I'm LEAVING the former penal colony!

We were making our descent into Ezeiza International when I heard "¿Hay un doctor a bordo?" over the PA system. If I were to list the top 5 things learned on this trip, this statement has to be one of them. I looked to my left and simply stated "I believe they're looking for you". I'm sure my travel companion appreciated being volun-told her medical services so soon after the last incident, even more so when I decided not to go with my gut and asked the bloke behind for confirmation. Thankfully it turned out to be just the pasty clammy looking bloke I'd seen at the back of the plane not long earlier when I'd quickly ran to the washroom. He was probably suffering from what I was likely now in the latter stages of after suffering through the worst of it the previous night with hot n' cold sweats & fever- ridden sleep. Some 48 hour flu-type thing certainly seemed to have been doing the rounds.

Twenty-three minutes after landing a Religious text-whilst-driving cab driver was speeding and weaving towards the city centre fasting than the speed of light. He just happened to have me as one of his passengers for the ride. More than once I looked over at my fellow traveller to see a matching pair of widened eyes and a hand trying to appear like it didn't have a death grip on the door. Comic relief came in a variety of forms during that cab ride that's for sure. Topping the list has to be at the toll booth as you leave the airport. As we pulled up the occupant was totally rocking out to Imagination's "Just An Illusion". Of course I was able to join right in... lyrically that is. I didn't want to steal his thunder after all. This was closely followed by the driver complaining about the way other people drove and finally, when he did the sign of the cross as we drove past a place of worship I sat there thinking "that's rich mate!"

I'm not quite sure how I made downtown Buenos Aires in one piece but I did and it is my belief I left my aura dancing along to Sad FM at that toll booth, not through choice but sheer G-force.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

... Patagonia: (Wo)Men Overboard!

When my shambolic seafaring legs hadn't improved by later the previous evening I figured there must be something more going on than me being a wuss on a boat. Sure enough I awoke in the middle of the night with a raging fever that I was convinced had me bound for Davy Jones' locker.

Surely I'd therefore spend the day in bed, right?

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego was Argentina's first coastal national park. Only a small part of it is actually open to the public however in a bid to protect the environment. Despite this, there is some beautiful scenery to take in. I guess this is what led me to be on a minibus with a day of canoeing and hiking in store despite my delicate disposition. Or may be there was a touch of insanity thrown in there too? I was actually feeling a lot better after a spot of breakfast even if that was served with a side of self-convincing.

There was a drive of about 20km west of Ushuaia with pick up of a few more adventurers and the canoes. Unfortunately you can't often choose whom you might want to spend a day with. One couple left us at our mini pit-stop at the visitor centre and by the time we were trying to sort through what became a total farce of canoe designation, the remainder of the group were all highly irritated by another couple. We were also running into extreme language difficulties with the tour operator, which concerned a bunch of us given the fact that we had limited experience in a canoe between the group. Safety instructions and even general instructions being given in Spanish was not well received. This led to frustration on all sides and it was getting hard to enjoy oneself. On top of that we then had to deal with the extremely rude and judgemental couple who decided to make the most absurd statements about whom they should be put in a boat with and their reasons why. Laughably it was to do with fitness although sadly there was a hint of bigotry & racism. Quite rightly and most eloquently, if I do say so myself, they were put in their place in true British bulldog style by a member of the group. Winston Churchill would be proud! Go Team Penguin!

The initial portion of the canoeing started at Lago Roca and alas it didn't start off well. One boat went off course and got stuck. Language difficulties and a extreme lack of experienced guides meant confusion and both occupants standing in the water after one yelled at the other to get out of the canoe. You can perhaps guess who the person yelling was despite my thinly-veiled attempt to remain diplomatic and neutral.Innocent But just to clarify, I was watching this unfurl from the safety of my own canoe in disbelief.

What could have possibly passed itself off as extreme black humour then turned into shock and horror when a boat capsized under a bridge in some rapids on Lapataia River. Survival mode in action and a bunch of us running to assist. I didn't envision a day trip dragging soaking wet freezing people off the outer frame of a bridge. Then again I doubt anyone did. The two medics were probably wondering if they were ever going to get any respite. Thankfully people were ok. Just very very cold and suffering the loss of electronics. One thing this company did do well was get them wrapped up with warm blankets and driven off to a place of warmth very quickly, although for one girl the incident led to the end of her day as she hadn't brought a change of clothing with her.

Human resilience is a wonderful thing. Once fed and defrosted, the remaining survivor not only wanted to stay but wanted to partake in the 3 hour hike with the rest of us. Of course two out of the 3 people who got wet were part of Team Penguin.

My main question, no doubt shared by everyone else, was why on earth did we only have one guide with us? Every time I have done something like this there has been at least two guides plus someone in a separate kayak whipping around between everyone telling them what to do.

It really was too bad because when you were out on the waters of the lake, the river and the Beagle Channel (vastly different conditions to the previous day) it was so spectacularly beautiful. The peace & tranquility was amazing. You were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and lush green forests that smelt so fresh. The hike, whilst somewhat tame compared to those previous, meandered along the coastline or through those forests of coihue, canelo and lenga. We even managed to finish it in under 2.5 hours. This was what we had no doubt all signed up for just minus the unnecessary drama I'm sure. I'm all for adventure but this was just a little extreme even by my standards.

I suspect that tomorrow's breakfast is going to be with a healthy dose of "take it easy" for my remaining few hours in Ushuaia before a flight back to Buenos Aires

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

... Patagonia: End Of The Earth

Charles Darwin had exclaimed that the original inhabitants of Ushuaia, the Yaghan (or Yamana), were "the lowest form of humanity on earth". Yet a mission made Ushuaia its first permanent Fuegian outpost and one missionary, Thomas Bridges, even learned the native language proving its complexity. The tribe eventually died out, victims of foreign-brought illnesses and infringement. Today the Alpine-looking-San Franciscan street-mimicking Ushuaia is known more for being a port, an adventure base camp (primarily Antartica-bound travellers) and a former penal colony.  Oh and did I mention it is the End of the Earth??

My quest to find where you would just quite simply drop off into oblivion was to come in the form of sailing the Beagle Channel aboard a boat that resembled something you'd find floating in your bathtub. Would it all just end in a huge waterfall that fell into nothingness?

It had snowed overnight giving a wonderful Christmas feel to Ushuaia & the surrounding peaks but the weather started off nice enough albeit a tad nippy. The waters of the Beagle Channel were quite calm. Nice! My kind of sailing. Close up views of Isla de los Lobos (very cool sea lion colony) and Isla de los Pajaros (extensive cormorant colonies) provided some fantastic wildlife photo opportunities even from the boat.

The boat continued west to a lighthouse and that was when it all started to go a bit pear-shaped. By the time we had come around this small island I felt like I was an extra in the big wave scene that batters HM Frigate Surprise in Master & Commander. My seafaring legs were letting me down miserably. Surely we weren't far from the shore? My stomach was either in my feet or my throat, it kept alternating I think. The problem was there was still another island to visit where you could get off and hike. The thought of stable land and some fresh air sounded appealing but by the time we arrived at Isla Bridges I felt so sick and was practically driven back into the boat by the shards of rain and the wind. No hike for me. I stayed on the boat and drank copious amounts of tea instead. The short hike would've enabled me to look at conchales left by the Yaghan.

My gag reflex believed that we rode every single wave across that Channel whilst the totally unfazed Captain whistled what must've been some Fuegian sea shanty. Arriving back at the wharf in Ushuaia couldn't come quickly enough. Falling-into-oblivion waterfalls? Who cares?!?! I needed to feel like half of my body wasn't following the other half a couple of seconds after the fact.

I suspect that the only reason lunch at the rustic Almacen Ramos Generales was tolerable so soon after was the fact they make chocolate & meringue cakes shaped like Magellanic penguins!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

... Patagonia: Arewethereyetarewethereyetarewethereyet?

No amount of "comfy" nor "reclining" could prepare your body for this bus ride - an estimated 12 hours travelling from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. The bus pick up was at 815am and by the time I got off it just prior to 8pm I couldn't feel the lower half of my body. I had also been riding the equivalent of a mobile sauna, much of it along a gravel road. I'm going to need to see my RMT when I get home.

From Punta Arenas is was a couple of hour drive to the Punta Delgada-Bahia Azul ferry crossing across the Strait of Magellan. Everyone had to get off the bus so it could board minus the weight and you then walk on. The ferry ride only takes you about 20 minutes  and it was a very gentle crossing despite the gale force winds that blew me out of the hotel that morning in Punta Arenas.

The Strait of Magellan is a known home of the Commerson's Dolphin. I had been told that the chances of seeing one were about 70%. Hmm that was enough to make me stand outside on the deck freezing my bits off on the off chance I might see one. Naturally, scanning the surface of the water had you convinced that anything that moved, be it the crest of a wave, was a dolphin. I was just starting to complain about having not seen anything other than some "bloody seaweed" when I looked over the side and saw it! There there was a dolphin chasing the boat, typical behaviour for this very active mammal. Commerson's Dolphin has a very distinctive patterning: a black head, dorsal fin, and fluke, with a white throat and body. Needless to say I was very pleased.

The gravel road east along Baha Inutil to the Argentine border is apparently in good shape. You try telling my back that. Crossing the Chilean border was quick and simple. The Argentineans took a little longer. Still, it was good to be able to move around and stretch. No-one said travelling to the end of the earth was going to be easy!?!

Tierra del Fuego has a mystical and unknown past. And a very cool name to boot! Unrelenting winds sweep its northern plains whilst high rainfall is found in the southern mountainous region. It is (in)famous for its trout fishing, naked men painted in black (Yaghan) and as a route for adventure seekers to Antarctica.

Rio Grande passed by as a blurry half-asleep haze of roundabouts and a monster trout sculpture. I suspect that unless you come with fly-fishing rod in hand or are looking to make it big in the wool or petroleum worlds then you aren't likely to stay long. The bus still had 230km to go and I was glad that it kept on going.  It was good to be back on smooth asphalt as the bus raced past Lago Fagano into the mountains.

The driver was a strange breed. One minute driving like he was Formula 1, the next like he was a grandad. So many hours into this godforsaken ride, this wasn't received particularly well. I was so dehydrated I feared I was about to turn into the human equivalent of dried fruit. Nevermind End of the Earth, I was at the End of my Tether! Just. Bloody. Drive.

Thankfully not long later the End of the Earth was in sight. Would the earth just stop suddenly causing me to just fall right off the edge? Was there a fence or does Darwinism kick in?

I guess I was about to find out.....

Monday, 29 November 2010

... Patagonia: P-P-P-Pick Up A Penguin

A 3 hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas, the capital of the Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region, started the day... in style.  The bus had big reclining leather seats! Coast Mountain take note! I could get used to this.

Punta Arenas is the third largest city in the entire Patagonian region. Founded as a penal settlement and military garrison, it later flourished with sheep farming and now has a thriving petrochemical industry and port status. It is a good base for travelling around the Magallanes region, much of which is remote. The town itself has a nice tree lined plaza in its centre surrounded by opulent mansions and there's a monument commemorating Magellan's voyage. Crazy dogs run amok and play a dangerous game of chicken with the local traffic and there's lots of graffiti. So a pretty typical South American town really.

But I wasn't here to visit Punta Arenas.  I was here to head about 65km north to visit the Seno Otway Pingüinera, one of two substantial Magellanic penguin colonies. This colony is moderately sized with over 6000 pairs making this spot of shoreline their home. These penguins normally live 25-30 years and always come back to the place where they were born for the mating season. They usually have 1 or 2 offspring and both the male and female penguins take turns to watch & feed the young 'uns. They live in small burrows in the ground where they raise their young.

The tour of the colony is usually self guided over a boardwalk and viewing platforms that criss cross the reserve. Penguins are known to be loveable, comical creatures in their little black & white suits and this visit provided numerous incidents that had me in stitches. On land the penguins certainly aren’t the most graceful of creatures, just watching them waddle along makes you smile and laugh. You can't help it! That and "awwww I want one!", although the stench of penguin poo might make that thought pass rather quickly. They frequently fell flat on their faces when presented with the smallest of obstacles and whether intentional or not, this would occasionally be in the form of a penguin tripping another one up! But the power and agility they show when entering and exiting the water is in impressive contrast to their exploits on land as I got to see first hand on a number of occasions. This tour really does offers a fascinating close up view of these unique birds! This was such a wonderful outing that I had been looking forward to since I knew I was heading down to these parts.

And boy are they cute! What do you think my chances are sneaking one of these through Customs?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

... Patagonia: Hike B*tch Hike!

My iliotibial bands quite possibly hate me right now. They can join an ever-growing list of body parts I'm sure. One might think that having certain parts of you feeling like they're on fire would perhaps deter you from going on yet another hike. Add to that the weather had changed: it was very windy and trying to rain.  Still it wasn't cold and I am willing to bet my little Miss A-Type personailty was in charge this morning. This is, after all, the very same person who has a motivational picture that reads "Run B*tch Run!" Not long after breakfast I began a 10km hike that would take me along parts of Lago Grey and to a lookout for Glaciar Grey.

The hike followed a relatively easy trail despite the blustery winds. At certain points you could see the deep grey lake and turquoise-blue icebergs that had resulted from the glacier up ahead calving thunderously into the water.

As I reached the lookout point for this hike you work out what “the Camino de Los Vientos" means... and then some. Even more so when you suspect that the 3 measley pictures you managed to take with your tiny point n' shoot are all blurred because you can barely hold your camera steady, you are blown onto your backside when you rapidly decide "OK enough, I don't need to see this glacier that badly even if it is is the largest glacier inside the national park" and your sunglasses are blown off your face and get intimate with rock. Path of the Wind?!?!  Try wind tunnel of aerodynamic testing standards! It was a hand-knee-bum shuffle descent and thankfully my glasses were waiting near the bottom albeit with a chunk missing from the bottom of the lens.  Oh well, all part of the 50 km Chilean Patagonian hiking experience!

Arrival back in Puerto Natales at around 330pm via catamaran/mini-bus meant a hot shower, a warm comfy bed and more importantly a lovely java at Patagonia Dulce! Hey the wind blew me in. Oh and that horse-bear type mascot thing? It's a giant prehistoric sloth!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

... Patagonia: Is There A Dr. In The Tent?

I awoke in Tent Burj Al Arab feeling pretty good for having just spent the night in the wilderness ...admittedly having worn 2 long sleeved tops, 1 tshirt, a sports bra, a jacket, a ski jacket, 3 pairs of pants, two hats, two pairs of hiking socks and a pair of fingerless gloves. I also turned my Sigg bottle into a hot water bottle which started at my feet but I'd somehow ended up hugging during the night. I could still move my limbs and nothing had dropped off. That's a good start me thinks. Even better was the sun I could feel coming through the tent wall.

Of course it's a sobering thought when in the next field you spy a slaughtered guanaco. Probably a puma being the culprit.

Hielos Patagonicos Catamaran was the mode of transport across the Carribean-blue Lago Pehoe. That is after a quick hike, nay meander by my recent standards up to the windy Salto Grande waterfall. The catamaran takes hikers to the Mountain Lodge Paine Grande and most come here to start the "W" circuit, which takes 4-5 days.

Today's hike was to be a measley 19km through the Valle Frances affording views of Los Cuernos (The "Horns") and Glaciar Frances, which often has avalanches. It is said to be one of the most spectacular cirques in the Paine range.

The hike was going well through the beautiful plush green valley, that is until my foot decided to pick a fight with a tree root. All I remember seeing was the tree trunk that my face decided to plant itself into. Then it went dark.  I don't really remember anything else until hearing someone calling my name, c-spine being applied and then looking up into the leaves of the trees above. "Do you know where you are?" Yes, I might not know who I am right now but I've still got an hour of this hike to go! I picked the best group to hike with - it consisted of not one but two medics. I make an awful patient but they took excellent care of me. Not sure how I managed it but aside from a bit of dirt, a grazed finger and a bruised ego I was fine. The liquid coming out of my nose wasn't cerebral fluid, it wasn't even blood, it was good ol' fashioned snot. After some pick me up sugar in various delectable forms and another check over I was up, on my feet and surrounded by my newly appointed body guards, protecting me from the evil that is Mother Nature. I suspect there was a collective sigh of relief from all present, it would've taken the park rangers about 4 hours to reach us and then the thought of being stretchered all the way back?!? Not high on my list of things I particularly want to do on this trip. Funny that.

Reaching the lookout point for a spectacular view of the Horns whilst listening to the roar of the avalanches on Glaciar Frances and the waterfall of Rio Frances was a bit more fist-pump worthy, in view of how I decided to spice up the hike there. It’s hard to imagine just how deep the snow banks on the glacier are. Needless to say I watched my step far more closely on the long trek back. They do say that hiking the national park is memorable.....

It was good to finally get back to base camp and some well earned food.... ok, ok it was good to finally be able to sit down. I would have probably done better eating my food by use of a straw - less effort. A 24 hour watch meant my celebratory post-hike pisco sour was"taken away for medical reasons". To be honest I suspect one of the crafty medics drank it.

Friday, 26 November 2010

... Patagonia: Towers Of Pain

I reckon that there is a chiropractic/massage therapy group somewhere around here that has shares in the road from Puerto Natales to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Initially the 112km road is pretty decent but then it turns into a bumpy gravel road. The kind of road where you can get air time and are convinced that you are on only two out of four wheels going around corners. Trust me, I know.

This was also quite possibly a warm up for my body as to what was to come over the next 3 days.

A set of spectacular granite pillars soar almost 3000m above the Patagonian steppe. However, I learned that to see the Torres del Paine in all their glory was going to require an 18km hike. Easy peasy! Right? I am now a firm believer that a "moderate" hike by Chilean standards is somewhat misleading. Add to that the typical windy conditions. Oh and did I mention the incline? I was under the wrong impression that surely when you've been walking uphill for hours at some point there must be a downhill. My body certainly hoped there was. Alas it never seemed to come except when it was time to walk back and by then everything was just an exhausted blur.

This "starter" hike through Ascencio Valley certainly got the blood pumping - even more so when you're A-type like me and you hoof your way up that sucker. The views were already spectacular and I knew that the best was still to come. There are a couple of campsites dotted along the way but aside from a brief stop for lunch in the forest it was onwards and upwards. The last hour of this hike to the mirador is a knee-popping, quad burning uphill march over boulder after boulder.

And then you reach the top......

I wasn't prepared for the sight that has inspired countless hiking pilgrimages. I don't think anyone was. Such desolate landscape yet so amazingly beautiful.  The reward was the peaks in all their glory and a lake glistening in front of it. It was like something out of a Tolkien book. And it had started to snow. It just seemed right somehow.

A night in a tent seemed like a night at the Burj Al Arab when base camp was finally reached.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

... Patagonia: Chilly in Chile

An early start to the day went a tad smoother once I had some java and toast in my system to give me a jolt. I ate my breakfast whilst watching pink flamingos, yes flamingos, on Laguna Nimez. Then it was a quick taxi ride to El Calafate's bus station to catch a Puerto Natales-bound bus for a journey that was expected to take about 6 hours.

The bus ride was uneventful as bus rides go. I can't quite remember the last time I rode a bus that had reclining seats. I'm lucky if I get a seat when I ride a bus back home. I suspect that only a fool wouldn't realise what a tourist goldmine they were sitting on here and it seems to me that considerable time and effort has been put into making your Patagonian experiences worth the money you have paid. This includes comfy luxury "buses" and smooth paved roads... well the latter for most of the time. But who cares about a gravel road if you're riding a 12 tonne equivalent of a 4WD?!? As we raced along the vast steppe towards the Chilean border I fell into a half-comatosed slumber with my iPod "Berry Manilow" keeping me company.

Crossing the border at Don Guillermo was kind of interesting. You stop at the Argentinean border to get a stamp in your passport as you leave then you drive another 10 minutes or so to the Chilean border. Wow, this border is pretty thick! Both borders crossing are your Latin American standard chain or rail across the road. At the Chilean border crossing you hand in your papers, get things stamped and then send your luggage through an xray machine. They're really strict on things like fruits, nuts, veggies and so it's kind of funny watching people fill their faces so they won't get fined. I was, surprisingly, sans banana.

About 45 minutes drive from this Chilean border, the windswept town of Puerto Natales is found on the shores of Seno Ultima Esperanza. Once a fishing village, it is now overrun with Goretex & Vibram. It is, after all, a gateway to the magnificent wilderness that is Chilean Patagonia, in particular the continents number one national park Torres del Paine. This is a good thing because to be honest there's not much to do here in the town itself although I've heard that there are several really good eateries worth trying out, especially those that serve fish/seafood dishes: Chile is renowned for them. It's a little dreary looking and cold although I did get a chuckle out of seeing a street named Arturo Prat (there's also a mountain in the distance called Cerro Prat). I was blown down the promenade and then back up it again so that's an indication that it's not only windy in Argentinean Patagonia but the Chilean one too. And I am still trying to work out what the creepy looking bear-horse statue is at the entrance to the town.

There is a really good coffee shop called Patagonia Dulce which not only serves awesome coffee but the kinds of homemade desserts and chocolates that go straight to your hips from just looking at them. And whilst Chile is supposely a tad more expensive than Argentina I would say that this place is worthy of a splurge. You can always blame a gust of wind for blowing you in.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

... Patagonia: Glaciology 101

A mere 80 km away from El Calafate at Peninsula de Magallanes, is one of the planet's most dynamic and stunning ice fields. Layers of ice sculpted by the elements and then cracked & split by immense pressure, the raw magnificence of a glacier is something that has to be seen. And today I did just that.

Glaciar Perito Moreno is a 250 km2 ice formation that is 30 km in length, 5 km wide, 60 m high and boasts being the world's third largest reserve of fresh water. What actually makes it exceptional in the ice world is its constant advance (up to 2 m daily) with huge building-sized icebergs calving & collapsing into the Canal de los Tempanos. On the rare chance that you might not get to see this occur then you will certainly hear it. Your visit is not only a visual experience of amazing shapes and colours but also auditory. Calving of glaciers is often preceded by a loud cracking or booming sound.

The glacier formed as the moisture-laden Pacific storms turned into snow over the accumulation area. This eventually compacted as ice which ran like a river thanks to the wonder than is gravity. See! Not just for apples. As the ice river surged downhill, melted ice mixed with rock and soil grinding that into a lubricant. This in turn kept the glacier moving along and also caused the formation of moraines & crevasses. 

A series of catwalks and lookout points allow you bring a  to see and hear the glacier. You can even bring a picnic - just remember that what you bring into the National park you must take out with you.

Boat trips allow you to get up close and personal with Moreno. Well as close as they can for it to still be safe. You will still get a sense of the magnitude of this ice beast. Boats mimicking sardine cans leave from Puerto Bajo de las Sombras. I suspect it fills up like that because it is the first dock you see upon entering the park. A far better idea (and resulting in way better views in my humble opinion) is to get there before the big bus loads arrive, do the catwalk (and shake your little tush on it if you do so desire) and then take a far less crowded boat from the other side to go view the north face of the glacier. Both boat trips run for an hour anyway so really it depends on how intimate you wish to get with an absolute stranger. It was quite simply the best AR$50 I've spent. Several times bits of the glacier collapsed in an explosion of ice and it was absolutely amazing to watch. When the glacier carves into the lake, its "glacial flour" of ground up rock gives the water a milky colour. When the sun's light is diffracted off unsettled sediment a stunning array of turquoise, pale mint and azure are created.

Another fascinating sight of this glacier is its hue. There were some absolutely beautiful shades of blue here too. These are caused by wavelengths and air bubbles. The bluer the ice the longer the path light has to travel caused by the ice being more compacted. In the uncompacted areas, air bubbles absorb long wavelengths of white light so what you see is white.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer force witnessed today. The sight and sound of ice falling so hard is something I'll always remember. I doubt that few places on this planet could offer the same speech-stopping encounter.......