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.......


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

... Patagonia: Make Mine A Double!

The valley glacier Glaciar Viedma flows into the western end of Lago Viedma, which it feeds with its melting ice. Viedma is one of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field outlet glaciers that has more than 20 square kilometres of area. That's a heck of a lot of ice!

A little after 8am I was enroute to Puerto Bahia Tunel to catch a boat that would take me ice trekking on the glacier for around 2.5 hours. The weather gods had been extremely generous quite possibly realizing that another day of torrential downpour would quite simply be cruel. The sun was shining and very few clouds were in the sky. Still, I looked more like a modern day Sir Ernest Shackleton and if not then I was certainly dressed for an Antarctic expedition.

The boat ride was relatively quick and painless. In fact the crossing itself wasn't bad at all although as usual there was the usual hurricane blowing. There was, however, one annoyance: a species known as Vegrandis penis amplus venit vir. Found commonly in areas such as this, the small penis large camera man is a pesky creature. Rude, arrogant and extremely confident they barge past other polite and patient photographers often knocking them flying in a bid to get their shot. You could hear a boatful of the same thought: "Hey buddy. You're not the only one here and there are 4 sides to this boat and plenty of opportunity to get your national geographic shot." You can imagine what it was like as we sailed by a huge iceberg. He was lucky he didn't get my elbow in his groin when he graciously sent myself & an elderly lady flying as he barged past us.

The glacier terminus is about 2 km wide at the point at which it enters the lake and ends in a cliff about 200 ft high.  As we disembarked the boat onto some rock just to the left you could hear the thunderous roar as a chunk of ice fell off the terminus and into the lake to float away.

The group was to be split into 3 for the trek across the awesome lunar landscapes of ice.  The guide tried to create a group that would consist of myself and the David Bailey-wannabe. Erm. Yeah but no. A simple "no" was all that was needed... albeit a little more aseertive than one might normally be. Once crampons were on it was time to start. The best way to walk "normally" is to walk like you've just got off a horse... that is until you are walking downhill where you walk with your feet forward and your back straight. Presumably to stop yourself from going arse-over-tit.

Glacial debris of soil & rock known as glacial moraines entwined with the white ice mass. Areas where the stress between the slower moving ice along the valley walls and the faster moving central glacial ice had cracked and formed crevasses. It was like walking on a frozen moon. There were even ice caves with most brilliant colours of blue. The guides were fantastic : extremely knowledgeable and safety conscious... then they whipped out two bottles of Baileys! Woo hoo! A bunch of plastic glasses were filled with ice from the one place ice was plentiful and then Baileys on glacial rocks was savoured. I suspect some people quite possibly trekked back at a rather slower more cautious pace.

If I hadn't walked enough in the last two days, there's a nice hike from the park ranger office up to a lookout point that gives you an awesome view of Fitz Roy.  Despite quite a bit of a climb it didn't take long. Well certainly not for this little Miss A-Type. And it was certainly worth it. I even shed a few layers along the way although promptly put it all back on at the top of course when re-exposed to the Patagonian winds.

A hearty veggie soup for dinner at La Cerveceria Brew Pub & Resto, who microbew their own pilsner & bock, was in order for this wannabe explorer before the 2.5 hours drive to El Calafate.