On the sand,
With the treasure close at hand,
In the land of make believe
So onto Patagonia take two. Having done a tour with Helen I was now booked onto a tour with a company called KE Adventures to do some proper trekking. It was going to be a two-part tour, first of all 6 days in Torres del Paine, followed by 4 days in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciaires. There were 6 people on the trip, a small group, but this is actually much better when you are trekking.
So they all arrived on various flights from the UK, all of them having to experience the nightmare that is Iberia long-haul from Madrid
. No leg room, rubbish food and the entertainment doesn't work. The first person I met was Mary who was from Glasgow. Then Libby, John, Jim and Alison arrived. I was even more exicted to see them, not just because they were my new group, but because Jim and Alison had got my new cashpoint/debit card !! Mum and Bill had met them at Donnington Services on the M1 on Thursday for the handover. So I immediately ran to a cashpoint to get out some money. It wasn't just about the fact that it was costing me more to use a credit card, but I’d felt lost without it. I have been struggling anyway with a purse that has only five cards in it – four are debit/credit cards and my YHA card. I am used to carting around a stack of store cards, the Go Outdoors card, my Boots Advantage Card, and all of those other cards that you have that you hardly ever use but you must keep them on you just in case.
So the new group weren’t exactly on the young side. The next youngest was Mary who had 18 years on me. The rest were all retired. Never mind KE – I was booked onto a SAGA holiday. It turns out they were all incredibly fit and left me for dust - it was just a saga holiday in many other ways.
I was also very excited because I had my own room, and it had a bath and a hairdryer (sorry Sam I didn’t take a photo of it)
. Now I know that after 4 months without a haircut a hairdryer isn’t going to be able to save the day but it’s still nice to use one (no I haven’t done the dreadlock traveller thing yet). Also it looked like I was going to win on the room front for the rest of the trip. Alison and Jim were together, John was on his own (and the only male), Libby and Mary had been put together and as the last lone female I was to get my own room when possible !!! Maybe the hassle of getting myself down to Punta Arenas had been worthwhile.
So we met our guide Eduardo, who had a bit of a Michael Hutchence thing going on with his hair and then set off on Monday morning for Torres del Paine – stopping on the way in Puerto Natales (been there !!) We had a lovely lunch and I got something that closely resembled roast chicken with roasted potatoes. The rest of the group couldn’t quite understand why I was so thrilled, but I am really missing home-cooked food.
After Puerto Natales we stopped again at the beaver cave. I didn’t even venture in this time, instead I took a short stroll up a hill to get a few photos. Then onto the park itself. We were staying in place called the EcoCamp (Debbie you will be so proud of me). This is situated right beneath the Paine Massif (I can’t actually say it without it being the Paine Massive !
! – well as cool as I am ever going to sound – I’m hardly Tulisa).
So I have now found out a bit more information (read John’s Cicerone guide). The name Patagonia derives from the description of the native Mapuche population by Antonia Pigafetta in his record of the voyage of Magellan. Pigafetta described the Mapuche as 'Patagones’which has long been considered to mean big footed or big feet in Spanish (and you know what big feet means – yes – big hands). His description gave rise to legends of a race of giants living in the wilds of southern South America. However to him they were. The average height of the Mapuche was 5ft 11ins, whilst the Spanish was 5ft 1ins.
Now Patagonia might not have the highest peaks in the world, but what sets it apart from other areas I have visited is its sense of remoteness and the sheer power that the wind and storms have on its granite peaks. It really does feel like the end of the world. A description I have read says 'Buried like a rapier deep into the heart of the southern ocean, Patagonia is a land trapped between angry torrents of sea and sky’.
Then onto Torres del Paine. There is much debate over what the word Paine means. The general consensus is that is the Tehuelche (the indigenous inhabitants of this part of Patagonia) word for blue, which descibes the amazing colour of the lakes. It’s a bit like some make believe land, or something out of Lord of the Rings.
So the first night we were in the ecocamp (Debbie you must be so proud)
. The basic premise of the EcoCamp is to maintain the nomadic spirit of the ancient inhabitants of the area, the Kawesqa, who lived in harmony with "Mother Nature". The bedrooms and dining area (and bar) are in these domes, like at the Eden Project. Apparently these semi-hemispherical structure are formed by a number of isosceles triangles that provides uniform distribution of the stress caused by severe wind loads. When you enter your dome bedroom it has a little door so it’s like entering a hobbit house. So showers are all solar powered and you have to use biodegradable shampoo etc (they had biodegradable conditioner so yes Sam and Caroline I did follow instructions this time ). The toilets are all compost toilets. Also it has amazing food and free pisco sours and wine, situated right under the Paine Massif, and there are stunning sunsets. And the domes have windows at the top with no curtains so you can lie in bed watching the amazing southern hemisphere stars (apparently you could make out the southern cross but I had not idea what it looked like - I could have had Patrick Moore and that bloke out of D:Ream with me and I still wouldn't have the faintest).
Anyway - Then we needed to prepare ourselves for the next few days as we going camping for the first two nights and then one night in a refuge, and a ported would need to carry our kit. This meant we were only allowed 4kg of stuff and it had to go into a 20 litre drybag
. You can imagine the drama this created !!! Well not with me, I just put in a spare t-shirt, a spare pair of trousers, enough pants (never skimp on the pants even if you only have 4kg) and walking socks, a pack-towel, a few toiletries (the Chanel beauty collection had to stay back at the EcoCamp). Anyway I was carrying the kitchen sink in my daypack. The next saga was about the down jacket and when did we need one (if at all). And what exactly was a down jacket? The problem was that Eduardo’s take on it was that it was a warm jacket with a bit of down or fleece, just in case it got a bit nippy. Everyone’s else (well apart from me as mine was back in Sao Paulo anyway) idea was of a full-on top of Everest bulky jacket. So everyday they would ask would they need it? It's 25 degreees in the shade !!! Also they would ask about the weather forecast. Patagonia is famed for having four seasons in a day. It can rain, snow, blow a gale, and be extremely sunny. But no, some people needed to know the exact forecast – I couldn’t comprehend it as these were people who had apparently done a lot of walking in the UK, especially Scotland. You know the weather forecast is meaningless and you carry stuff for every eventuality.
The first day we did a 24km hike at speed because Eduardo wanted to test us out. We cottoned on to this quite early on, by the fact we seemed to be being frogmarched across the steppe (grasslandy bit)
. So we all bust a gut to keep us as we didn’t want to look unfit and not be able to do the hikes later in the trip.
The next day we did a walk to various smaller lakes off Lago Sarmiento. There was a bit too much stopping to look at birds and ducks for my liking but the others seemed interested. We also got to see a Black Widow spider. The first two days were meant to be over by the amazing Glacier Grey, but this area was all shut off because of the fire. 24 000 hectares in total had been destroyed.
The campsite we were in was right by the beautiful Laguna Azul. The camp is situated at the end of the lake with an amazing view of the Massif and the towers. However, it wasn’t until the final morning that we got to see the view in all of it’s splendour (it had been raining a lot) with an amazing sunrise.
The last three days of hiking were in the valleys around the massif itself and this was what we had come for. Because we had proven ourselves on the first day Eduardo decided we could do some pretty lengthy hikes and pack a lot in. We were able to judge how hard it was going to be by how many sandwiches we were told to make
. A one sandwich day was a bit of a wander around some lakes. But a two sanwich day meant some hard core walking. And these days were all going to be two sandwiches. We were also joined by another guide called Roberto - great guide but really bad taste in music and hats.
So onto Day 3 and an 18km jaunt but with a 400m climb near the end (2-3 sandwiches). We headed off on an undulating path along the stunning Lago Nordenskjold. There were incredible views of the ice cap and you really see the devestation from the fire when you looked south. We then went up the Valle Bader for some stunning views of the Cerro’s. That night we were staying in a refugio over looking the lake. All 6 of us were in the same room. I ended up on the very top bunk which was right in the rafters and quite a climb up the ladder. It only seemed right that I should volunteer as I was the youngest of the group, but other than from Mary I didn’t seem to get much credit. Our dry bags had been carried in by a porter so after dinner we had to sort out a tip – So another Saga ensued. A can of 330ml beer (and it was warm) in the refugio was 2500 Chilean Pesos (£3). The discussion was whether 2000 pesos per person was too much to give a porter. At this stage I did lose it a bit, and said ‘I can’t believe you are willing to pay 2500 peso’s for a warm beer but you can’t give that to a porter who has carted your stuff for you and will be taking it back for you’. I think they were a little bit shell-shocked that normally quiet Liz (and the youngster) at that had dared had an input or even questioned the status quo. Anyway my point was made.
So Day 4 and the hardest so far . We were going to be walking 26km (pretty much needed 3 sandwiches – and a lot of chocolate)
. We were really lucky because the day before the stunning Valle Frances (French Valley) was reopened after the fire. This is one of the highlights of the stunning W trek you can take in Torres del Paine. So we hiked for 5 hours to see the valley and it’s glacier which was incredible, it was one of the most amazing views I have seen and the weather was perfect. We also saw several avalanches on the snow pack above the glacier another hazard for my list - no jökulhlaups
though. After After that we had to walk past the refugio and then another 4 hour hike back to the ecocamp. Then we had the next saga as when we returned the ecocamp had run out of towels (or maybe it was so eco they just weren't giving you one - use the drip dry method). You would have thought the world was about to come to an end. I just used my pack towel, had shower and headed for the bar. But then there was a crisis !! – the bar had run out of beer !!! However they did give us lots of free pisco sours and more free wine. I also finally got to wash my walking clothes I had been in for the last four days and quite a lot of km. I had to break my vow and use the hotel down the road's expensive laundry service but no amount of travel wash and hand washing was going to have any impact. My t-shirt and trousers practically walked down to the laundry themselves.
So our final day in park and we off up the Valle Ascencio to a viewpoint at the base of the torres (toss up between 2 and 3 sandwiches)
. It was to be a 20km hike with an ascent of 800m before the viewpoint. The best-known and most spectacular summits are the three Towers of Paine They are gigantic granite monoliths shaped by the forces of glacial ice.The South Tower of Paine (about 2,500 m), is thought to be the highest of the three,. It was first climbed by Armando Aste (know him well). The Central Tower of Paine (about 2,460 m) was first climbed in 1963 by Chris Bonington (have actually heard of him) and Don Whillans, and the North Tower of Paine (about 2,260 m) was first climbed by Guido Monzino. We had an amazing walk and an incredible viewpoint of the towers. However, it was a bit of a slog to get back, especially with the last 4 days of walking in the legs. Though I did get commended for my ability to walk back down a steep slope. Roberto said he was extremely impressed by my technique. I explained that I had been trained by the wonderful Dr Anne Cooper. By the time we nearly out of the valley the word shattered doesn’t even come close to how I felt - although the r/ est of my group were fine - they must have been taking steroids. Do you think by 60 I will be that fit? I had to use the emergency chocolate to get me back. However, when we did get back to the Ecocamp I did win out from all of the stressing that had taken place the night before. We all got a free beer because of the towel saga (the one which I hadn’t even uttered a word about at the time). I actually got two !! Then we had an amazing meal - it was Saturday night and hence Patagonian BBQ night. We were given the most amazing lamb and chicken but the bit I got very excited about - was the sausage !! It was the first time in about 3 months I had some sausages. Eduardo and Roberto were quite taken aback by my excitement at it all. When the waiting staff came round for seconds - there were no sausages left !! So our wonderful guides did everything they could to try to get me some more sausages - sadly with no joy.
So I had now visited Torres del Paine twice but I have a sneaky feeling that I will be back one day
. It is known as the most beautiful national park in South America (and one of the most beautiful national parks in the world) and I am inclined to agree. The 5 days we had only gave me a brief insight into the park and I would love to return one day to do the famous circuit of the park, which is a challenging 10 day hike around the Paine Massif.
So off back to Argentina (again !!) ...