Thursday, 28 January 2016

End of The World

The Patagonian and Chilean flags.
Family of ducks on the lake.
Ciao Torres del Paine!
One of the major highlights of my trip was now behind me, but it will never be forgotten. The Torres del Paine National Park, which covers 240,000 hectares, is probably the biggest tourism spot for Chile - it brings in about 150,000 people a year for it's wonderful views and (sometimes) challenging hiking. The 'W' trek is the most common, but there are also many people that day hike to see the 3 famous granite spires. It was first visited by foreigners in  1880 by Lady Florence Dixie and her party, and she wrote about it, calling these peaks the 'needles of Cleopatra.' Since it becoming a National Park in 1959, there have been many more visitors, mainly foreign, and sadly it has experienced devastating fires as well. In 1985 150km2 was burned down, again in 2005 by a Czech tourist and in 2011/12 a fire was started by an Israeli hiker. The Czech government offered aid after as well as US $1m for reforestation. Due to this, no fires at all are allowed in the park, only gas cooking in certain areas - I agree with this, but there was one night where are fire would have been very much welcomed!

A memorial the the Schooner 'Ancud' which was sent to claim sovereignty over Punta Areanas by Chile in 1843.
Baby seagull stretching his little wings.
You looking at me, punk?
The group moved on to Punta Arenas for 2 days before we lost Rob, who had to return to his job in The States. As a last thing to do together, we decided to go and see some penguins. The tour started early at 7am, and cost 60,000clp ($120) which I thought was a bit steep at first, but for what you get to see I now know it's worth it - it was also recommended by a few people we'd met before coming here. We got out life-jackets on and got on the boat which took us to two islands off the coast - Isla Marta and Magdalena. The first island was home to a colony of over 250,000 cormorants, which as we went past, nearly completely covered the island. Down on the rocky shore of Isla Marta there were so many 'lobo marinos' (sea lions), from babys to huge males pushing each other for the little available beach space. I've seen these great beasts close up in Valdivia, but it's always something else to see them in their natural habitat. Isla Magdalena was the highlight though, as we were able to get off the boat and walk with the penguins. I forgot about my life-jacket, so I looked especially cool wandering around on dry-land, but then again the captain had left his on. There were both varieties of penguins here, just like in Chiloe, and sometimes you get the odd lost King Penguin, but not today. It was just incredible being able to get so close to them, and to have them acting normally and walking and swimming, and occasionally getting stared down by a penguin. This time of year there are loads of babies, still with their fluffy down feathers, but nearly as big as their parents. There were also gulls and their chicks - these babies were kind of ugly, but cute at the same time. A great experience, one you can't get in many places, as penguins are only in the Southern Hemisphere and I haven't heard of any other place where you can actually walk with these cute little buggers!

BFFs taking a stroll on Isla Magdalena.
I miss the Chilean 'completos' now that I can't have them in Argentina!
Wink wink, nudge nudge, know what I mean...
We also spent New Years Eve in Punta Arenas. It wasn't exactly Sydney on the big night, millions packing the harbour to watch the 'first' New Year being brought in with a bang, but they had a crowd at the water and there were also fireworks! Rob was spending this event on the plane - hope you had a good one mate! We had a good night, some maybe too good, as my travelling buddies only had 2 hours sleep before our 7am bus on New Year's Day. The bus ride wasn't particularly pleasant for them, but I was doing OK, and even managed to see Commerson Dolphins on the ferry crossing to Tierra del Fuego. The road to Ushuaia was gravel for the most part, and the landscape was flat and dry, no trees and only grass to the horizon. We arrived in Ushuaia in the afternoon, and struggled to find a hostel for the first night - welcome to 'The End Of The World!' We did get a place, but far more expensive that we'd imagined. For a dorm bed (in high season) the price varied from 250 - 330 ARS ($25 - $33), and compared to Bariloche in low-season with prices of 160 ARS ($16) for a great hostel. Can't afford to stay here too long! As it so happens, we weren't able to book a room for the 3 of us (just me and the girls now as Rob had left) for the second or third night, which was the weekend, and we panicked a little. A brilliant idea hit us - we had a tent and cooking gear, so why don't we camp for the nights that we can't get a room? Fantastic idea! The next day we went out food shopping and got prepared for 3 days and 2 nights in the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Ushuaia - The End Of The World!
Commerson Dolphins from the ferry.
World's End!
The trip in wasn't cheap - a 300 pesos ($30) return ticket on a minibus run by, in my opinion, gypsies. It was the best option, other than hitch-hiking in, but that is never a sure thing, and then even if you get in, will you get out? The entrance fee was a steep 170 ARS ($17), but there were free camp sites and it was still far cheaper than staying in town! Our camping spot was Laguna Verde, right besides a river and surround by mountains. We got off the bus, and it began to pour down, not what you want when setting up a tent. Here down south, the rain stops and starts when it likes and usually 5 minutes after the other, so in no time the sun was out and we went off for our first walk. The weather got better and better, and we had a great view of the Bahia Lapitai and the Beagle Channel. The channel was named after the ship HMS Beagle when it first sailed through the southern part of South America during it's survey  between 1826 - 1830. Darwin was also on this ship when it returned in 1833 and eventually went all the way up the West Coast to the Galapagos. Easy walking and with some great photos, we got back to camp and started dinner and a camp fire. Having a fire while watching the sunset and having dinner is a wonderful feeling, and there's something about a camp fire conversations too!

Activities in Patagonia.
Evita monument in Ushuaia.
The second day was a little tougher. We had to spend half of the morning in the tent as it wouldn't stop raining. Well, just long enough for us to get out, get shoes and jackets on, then it would start again. Around 11am we started off in the rain, determined to get some walking in, and it just cleared up - not sure because of our positive attitude or just coincidence, but we took the opportunity and headed for the biggest mountain we could find! My legs didn't quite feel up to it, but when you're hiking with a Swiss and a German, you don't really get the choice - these two nationalities are like mountain goats, just born to climb the biggest and toughest mountains! So spurred on by my hiking buddies, we started up the Cerro Guanaco, a 4 hour one-way trip according to the sign, which always stated that you need to be in 'good physcial condition," and after Torres I thought I was. Made it halfway, and I felt that was ok for me, no need for more, but 'it's not the top, and we have to go to the top now after making it halfway!' Damn Europeans and their mountains. We crossed streams and mud and more mud and what can only be called a bog - I felt I was in the Lord of The Rings. Eventually the land dried out and the real climb began... pretty much straight up. Head down, lean into the walk, and don't stop. Works (nearly) every time! Reaching the top was incredible and very much worth the sore feet and sweaty everything - really on top of the world at the end of the world. Only 900 odd meters high, but we felt like the top of the world - the mountains here are the end of the Andean range, and although not high, are permanently covered in snowfields. We were up with the condors though, and saw one extremely close and even heard the wind in it's wings! We sat down to cook and eat a warm soup before heading down, but nobody had packed it.

The view from Cerro Guanaco.
The stamp at the End Of The World.
The End Of The World.
Apart from the un-packed soup, it was a great time. We survived until dinner time, and just tucked in even more and thoroughly enjoyed our meal of some sort of same-tasting past/rice camp meal. Day 3 hiking was easier, and much warmer. We were having breakfast when a herd of wild horses come down form the hills to graze, then got chased away across the river by a lone fox. We set off and hiked along the water, stopping at the odd beach for a rest, soak up the sun, and to eat the little remaining food we had. I still can't believe how beautiful this part of the world is - photos truly do not do it justice, even though I tried. Just before getting on your minibus back to town, we found, completely by accident, the World's most southern Post Office. A local guy decided to build a post office in the National Park so people could send post cards from 'The End of The World,' but as you're not allowed to build privately on National Parks, he built a small pier and erected his own building. He is now famous, sells very expensive post cards to happily paying tourists and gets his picture taken a million times a day - he even stamps your passport for $2!

Up with the condors.
Street art in Ushuaia.
"Fat Partners" dancing Tango.
I didn't buy or send any postcards from here, but I got the stamp, to add to my collection of strange passport stamps - Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the Luxembourg stamp, and soon the Machu Picchu stamp. After this spot of camping, it was nice to get into town and have hot showers and proper seats (rocks and logs get quite annoying after a while) and a nice soft bed. The next day we decided to do a small 3 hours trek from townto see a glacier, the Martial Glacier. We ended up hitching on the back of a Jeep to the ski lodge, saving us a 2 hours uphill walk, and then walked the 1 hour to the top. I didn't see a glacier, but the view was still very pleasant as you got to see the town of Ushuaia and the outlying bay. I made it back to the lodge just in time before the rain hit, and only did this by running/skiing/sliding down the snowy slope - much quicker than walking, more fun and more time for a beer at the end!

A snow selfie at the glacier.
"English Pirate ships are prohibited from mooring"
Street art in Ushuaia.
It was time to leave Ushuaia. I wasn't sure what to expect before I got here, other than it being really expensive, which it was. It surprised me. The National Park was wonderful, the people in town very friendly, and the views of the mountains and bay pretty spectacular! The town started of as a base for British missionaries in the late 19th Century, and the first Argentinians to arrive here were convicts, sent by the government who were inspired by the penal colony in Tasmania. It has grown into a city of 56,000 people, and it's industries are fishing, oil and of course tourism. It's one of those places where you kind of have to visit - it's a long way down, a very long way, so when are you going to come back? It is also the place which is the closest to Antartica (1000km, compared to 2600 from Honart and 2200km from Stewart in NZ) and a lot of people I met here were either going to coming back from a $5000 trip to that big block of ice down there - I was jealous, but not $5000 jealous, which is basically by budget for my whole trip! It was good, but time to move on, and I was even more excited about our next destination - El Calafate, home of the huge glacier Perito Moreno, and EL Chalten and the Fitzroy mountains. More hiking!!

Sailing in the Beagle Channel.

Friday, 22 January 2016

In Patagonia - Part 2

Team 'Looking for Luke' at Grey Glacier on Day 1.
The Chilean and the Patagonia flag.
The 'Great Wall of Backpacks,' on the ferry.

So continuing on from the last entry, but before I go on, I want to talk about something I didn't mention in the previous blog - a guy called Luke. He was a very special guy we met on that epic bus trip to Punta Arenas, so special in fact that we still talk about him. He was a 20 year old guy from Adelaide (bless!), and he was over here doing a bit of travelling in South America. He'd never really done much travelling, and not alone, so he was kind of new to the game. You could tell this without having to talk to him in fact - the blow up U-shaped head cushion for starters (bought in airports by 'greenies' on their first trips), and the fact that he had no cash and thought could pay by card at the tiny and very much not on the map place we stopped for dinner. He was also doing the 'W' trek, but alone, and the only reason he didn't come with us was that he was in a hurry and couldn't take the extra day to prepare. Poor Lucas also hadn't booked a hostel - but there was no room at ours. He didn't speak a word of Spanish (we taught him 'hola' and 'gracias'), so we wandered Puerto Natales helping him find a place to rest his little head. The next day he headed out to do his food shopping and renting of sleeping bag and tent, but quickly as he was catching the afternoon bus. Just before he left, the hostel owner eyed his backpack up and down and simply said 'you're hiking with that?' We worried about Luke. He left, and we wished him luck, shaking our heads as he trudged off to the bus station (after asking for directions) with that dead weight on his bag, which was also wrapped in garbage bags to waterproof it. Would we ever see him again? It was then that 'Team Looking For Luke' formed, and we set off on the trail asking people about him, and always hoping to find him.

All quiet at Camp Grey.
Team "LFL" is formed!
The weather cleared on Day 3.
Back to the 'Day After Italiano' on Day 3. I mentioned that nobody was prepared, and it was true. Spoke to someone after this and they said further up north on the track at camp Britannia, the ranger made everyone get into his cabin, which had a wood fire, as it was snowing and he said they wouldn't last the night... our ranger didn't offer shit. Thanks dude. We had steaming hot polenta in the morning, and it was the best meal I've ever had. It tasted like nothing, consistency of mush, had lumps in it, but it was oh so warm! We gobbled it all down, laughing to each other at how crap it actually was, before putting on our soaked-through boots, packing up camp and heading out. At this point, there was talk of leaving the park and regrouping before hitting it again. I had such defeatist talk, but there it was. We got back to the ferry port, and at which time the sun came out and things started to look up. A beer while waiting for the ferry wasn't bad either. On the other side of the lake, we discovered that the bus wasn't due for 5 hours, which turned out to be the best thing for us. We set up 'Camp Gypsy' just outside the coffee shop. We spread out all of our clothes, smalls included, hanging them up in the trees, sleeping bags, tents were put up to dry, bread with Nutella and peanut butter (together!) was served, and we just enjoyed the warmth and dryness of it all. The weather had cleared and we were granted the best views of the Torres. What could be better? A few beers in the cafe later (that's what could be better!), the bus pulled up and we went to our next campsite - Camping Hotel Torres.

Lunch at 'The Gyspy Camp.'
The hard hike to Camp Torres.
Camp Chileno.
We drank the last of our wine here, which we were saving for sunset at the Torres, but as we had learnt the previous night, you are never sure if you'll survive the night! We cooked and ate and went to bed pretty early - it had been an emotional day. The other reason was that I knew that Day 4 would probably be the toughest - it would be an uphill walk all day to Camp Chileno and then onto Camp del Torres where we were due to sleep. Uphill it was. Heavy was my backpack. Tired were my feet. Up I went, but as Team Looking for Luke (we hadn't heard from him at all sadly) worked so well together, nobody left anyone behind. I was always with someone, and someone with me, we stopped to drink, to look around and appreciate, to take photos and to have a breather sometimes too. Camp Chileno was busy and not a great place to camp - tents right next to the over-trodden muddy path and loads of people. We stopped for a snack of peanut better and jelly sandwiches and a re-fill of much needed liquids. Already we could just see the Torres peaking out, and we were getting more and more excited.

Hiking the "W" with all the gear.
The 'artistic' shot.
The 'group' shot.
We pressed on and continued to climb till we reached camp - set up the tents and grabbed some food and headed straight for the viewpoint, the reason we had come so far. It was a fairly tough 45 minute hike to the top, the trail littered with day trekkers (those horrible people that carry a handbag and an umbrella for the sun and get in your way and break your strike as you climb with 15kgs of gear), but it was all worth it - the view we got was 'precioso!' This is what people come here for, and it's usually covered in clouds, or raining, but today was the day to be here. We got all the normal photos in, groups, individual, funny ones, took some of other people, washed out feet (dont drink downstream for a while!), then sat back and chilled in the sun with our food and good company. We also met some people that we had bumped into all along the track, which happens more often that you think it would, and so enjoyed our food and conversation with them, and they in turn shared their wine!

What we had come to see... the Torres peaking out into the sky.
A fox slinking around the Torres.
A large condor soaring in the wind.
Truly blessed with the weather and the trip in general. I still think about it and smile to myself. We saw a few condors flying overhead too - Condors are the symbol of Chile, and extremely large birds, with a wingspan of over 3m. We also saw a fox (zorro) creeping around the Torres too after most of the noisy tourists had gone. Day 5 was very relaxing, but the most exhausting. The trek was nearly over, and all we had to do was walk back down the hill and catch a bus back to town, but my body knew it was nearly done so it was hard going pushing yourself just that little bit more. On the way down, we saw people riding up on horses (bastards!) and more day trekkers, but the weather wasn't great today (wasn't worth getting up for sunrise either), and we just looked at each other and smiled and knew we'd had our day yesterday. Reaching Hotel Torres and the bus stop, we bought some cold (and expensive!) beers and a big bar of chocolate, slumped down and didn't move till the bus arrived. It's hard to put all the feeling, thoughts and emotions into this - it's just something that you can't do. You have to come and experience the Torres del Paine yourself, walk it, camp it, do it with friends (old or new), take a camera and just open your eyes to what the Torres is. It would take a lot of convincing for me to do it again, even just the 'W' trek, but there is no regret this time, only one of the best 5 days of my life. I am also so happy to have spent it with 3 great people!

The Torres del Pain(e) at sunset on Day 4.
On arriving back in town, the first order of business was, apart from peeling of the filthy rags we called socks and underwear, was to ask about our little Luke. We had already come back to the hostel to collect his stuff and headed out of town. He'd actually done it! He'd survived! He had come back to town, grabbed his stuff, and continued on his way. I hear he is now in northern Argentina somewhere - go Luke! We had placed bets along the trail - I thought he'd leave after a night camping and being unable to cook his pasta and nearly die of cold. To be honest, it was a joke, and we knew he would make it, and we were so proud of him! Now that business had been attended to, we went out to eat (Guanaco steak) and drink (loads of beer and Terimottos) and to celebrate our victory over the Torres of Pain(e)! Well done Team Looking For Luke!

Team 'Looking for Luke' - we made it (and so did Luke!).

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

In Patagonia - Part 1

Free as the wind in Puerto Natales!
Street dog in Puerto Natales.
Lucky it's cheap AND good in Chile!
Still behind on the blog writing, but catching up slowly. This time I'm writing this from the airport in El Calafate after being stuck here for 2 days, unable to get a flight to Buenes Aires. Long story short, I booked my flight in El Chalten, using their satelite internet - which happens to be slower than 1996 dial-up, and disconnects at very important stages in the booking process, much like when your parents would ring you at home and kick you off the net. I managed to buy a ticket after 3 hours and 2 bookings later (no kidding), but there was a problem with it as when I got to the airport there was no seat or ticket for me. I hitched back to town with a guy called Jorge, who was lovely but drove way too fast (120kph plus in an 80 zone) and loved his beat thumping dance music turned up to 11. I have finally managed to get a flight after several more failed online booking attempts (never book with Opodo...) and an over inflated price. Hey ho, that's how travelling goes sometimes - I will just have to balance the cost with no drinking and (really) cheap food for a week in Buenos Aires.

Hello Puerto Natales!
So let's go back to Christmas time, the 21st of December to be exact. I had just found a fantastic deal for a bus from Castro in Chiloe to Punto Arenas - but it would also turn out to be the longest bus journey I have ever taken, surpassing even the marathon 26 hours from Ho Chi Mihn City to Hue back in 2011. This one was a mammoth 2,300kms and 37 hours hours - with a stop for dinner and one for lunch the next day. I got on the bus at 7am on Monday the 21st of December, content with finding a hiking partner for the Torres in the German girl I met in Chiloe, but little did I know that I would also join forces with two other awesome people for the next 3 and a half weeks. Rob from Alaska, Alicia from (the German speaking part of) Switzerland, and along with Stephie from Stuttgart and myself, we made a pretty awesome team. After sitting down on the bus, Rob had the seat behind me and Stephie one back and was sitting next to Alicia - we started talking to each other immediately, and just hit it off, with none of the usually travellers fake interest. Neither I nor Steph had a tent, and the others did - but we liked them for their personalities really. The bus trip was made much easier having these people along to share it with, and didn't seem that long, and none of them snored so we had found good hiking buddies. The man next to me, however, snored like a runaway 2-stroke chainsaw on speed.

Bird life around the Torres.
Bird life around the Torres.
Getting to Punta Arenas, we had to get another bus (this one only 3 hours) to Puerto Natales, the gateway to the Torres National Park. Along the way, we were quite lucky and saw some of the rarer local wildlife - Guanacos and Rheas. The Guanaco (which comes from the Quechua language in South America) is in the camel family but look much more like llamas, and are found in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. The Rhea is a flightless bird related to emus and ostriches, and are very hard to spot amongst the scrub in a bus whizzing along the road. No pictures unfortunately, but I really did see them! We had one day of preparing in town before heading out on the 5 day 'W' trek. Sleeping bags to be renting, mats, last minute things and of course the shopping for what we would eat for the next five days. We did the groceries at the end of the day, just before dinner, as we knew it would be the toughest thing to do all day - and to make it worse, it was the 23rd of December, and the 24th is the day celebrated here for Christmas (not the 25th like in Australia), so it was normal Chilean slow service in supermarkets combined with festival time stocking up. Nightmare! Luckily my shopping/tent buddy was organised and we got it all sorted out fairly quickly. Tomorrow was the big day, and so after dinner, the packing (and re-packing) was the last thing to do... this took hours, and we didn't get to bed till 2am.

Leaning into the wind at Grey Glacier.
The view from the ferry.
Family day out at the lake.
Fresh faced (more or less) we got on the bus to the Torres National Park, paid for the park entry of 17,000pesos ($35), booked our campsites for the next five days, then jumped back on the bus to the ferry port. The Ferry would take us to the start of the 'W' trek - there are many ways of doing it, and you can even do the 'O' trek (because after 10 days all you can say is 'ooooooooohhhhh'), but we decided to go from West to East. The ferry trip was another 15,000 pesos ($30) for a 30 minute trip to the other end of the lake, which I thought was a bit steep, but hey, what are you gonna do, swim? We enjoyed it though, a bit windy and the mountains were half covered by clouds, but still a nice little trip. Reaching the other side there is a hotel and the last piece of civilization that we would see for the next few days. We also saw the casualties of the trek - tired, hagged and and half-starved trekkers who 5 days ago looked just like us, fresh and hopeful. We won't look that bad. We're young and fit (and I had given up smoking 3 weeks ago just for this!), we'd stick together and help each other out and the weather would be fine. Ah well, at least we were positive! We did 11kms on day 1, and I was tired already. We did stop just over half way to see the Grey Glacier. I've seen a few glaciers in my day (2 in New Zealand), but this was still something to behold. The wind on the other hand was more impressive - it was blowing so hard that you could (and we did) lean right into it at nearly a 45 degree angle and not fall over! I was told that winds here get up to 220kph, and at this point I became a believer.

Enjoying the view of Glacier Grey.
Cute little bird at Camp Grey in the National Park.
A little mouse out for a bit of sun.
Camp was great, if only because we could dump the 'beasts' that had attached themselves to our back and were slowly sapping our strength. We set up tent, and went for a (much lighter) walk to get closer to this glacier. The weather in Patagonia can change, and often does, every five minutes, and this was the case today - wind, rain, followed by a glorious bit of sunshine and a rainbow. We were alone, and just sat (in the rain then sunshine) enjoying the view, and were very lucky to see a small mouse peek out from behind the rocks - if you are quiet and still, it's amazing what you can see! Back at camp, we prepared our Christmas Eve dinner of salmon and 2 litres of wine... and a bottle of champagne that I had bought in town and carried all the way just for this day. They called me crazy, it will be heavy and warm by the time we get there - nobody complained when the cork was popped and the bubbly was being poured around - Merry Christmas! The first day was over, we'd survived it and felt very confident about the next four days. Oh how innocent we were! We went to bed in a great mood, although with slightly wobbly legs and slept like babies, ready for tomorrow.

Young and fresh-faced - Day 1 and our first (cloudy) view of the Torres.
Grey Glacier.
Getting into Camp Italiano.
Day 2 on the trail was a little tougher, and something nobody was prepared for, not even the rangers in the park. It was drizzling when we set out from Camp Grey, but our spirits were up and we weren't feeling too bad after the wine and champagne celebration from last night - it was Christmas!! We retraced the 11km back to Salto Grande, the starting point and were we disembarked from the ferry the day before, and stopped for lunch at 2pm already wet and tired. It had been raining non-stop since setting out, and over lunch we debated whether to camp here or to keep going and to Camp Italiano. The vote came in to continue as we didn't like where we were, far too many people and not very pretty, and we figured that the rain would stop. The rain stopped alright - it turned into a cold and damp snow which went through the afternoon and into the night. This night stands out in my mind, along with the other people who were at Camp Italiano that day - it is now mentioned as 'The Night In Italiano' by it's survivors, and we now share a kinship that you just can't fake. I thought I was going to die I was that cold - I could barely get changed out of my soaking soaks for the shaking. Huddled in the tent, Rob and I shared chocolate and almonds (as cooking was out of the question), trying to stay cheery. It's said that just before you drift off into a hyperaemia death-sleep, your body gives up and stops shaking - so shaking as I was, I knew I was safe. The shaking did stop eventually, but at this point I could feel my feet (just) and went to sleep... only to wake up and need the facilities. It was still snowing when I stumbled out of the tent, started shaking all over again and use the nearest tree, not caring where I went as there was no way in hell I was walking anyway in that weather (yes, still snowing). Rob and I became close that night. Real close. Spooning is normally something a couple do when they are in love and can't bear to sleep facing opposite directions - this however was two grown men that thought they would die if we didn't. Luckily the weather for Day 3 was much better - but I will have to leave the rest of this story for the next entry!

Camp Italiano - survived!

Castells in Tarragona

It's Castell Time! The Concurs de Castells, held every 2 years in Tarragona. The 'pack' - forming the pinya for a Huma...