Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Merry Patagonian Christmas and... (24-29 December 2010)

On Christmas Day there was no seafood or barbie for me! From 7.10am to 5.50pm, I trekked a total of 28km, up and down narrow, rough, rocky terrain. 13 of the 28km was with a 25kg pack on my back. I weighed 63kg at the time. Was I out of my mind? Not exactly. Unfolding before me was the trully breathtaking geographical magnificence of the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile! This is the crowning area of a region known as "Patagonia" which is shared by Chile and Argentina and was first visited by the Spanish explorer Sir Ferdinand Magellan in the early 1500's. Legend has it that Magellan named the area "Patagonia" because the indigenous people he met were so tall they had HUGE feet, since in Spanish, "Pata" is a foot and "onia" is BIG!

Patagonia is almost treeless. It is officially a "steppe" which is like a vast semi-arid desert or olive drab hills with clay and sand (like a tundra). Wildlife include "Guanaco" (look like Llama but are actually in the camel family!), fox, condors (like vultures) pumas (rare) and the "Huemul" or Andean Deer (also rare). The key flora is the "Calafate Berry", like blueberry, used to make jam, ice-cream and even liquer. Patagonia is famous for its "Estancias" or sheep ranches which average 10,000 acres just like the stations in Oz. They are big! Patagonian lamb tastes just like Australia's.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Here is how my Christmas saga went from back-breaking to wine and song!

On Christmas eve, I flew 1.5hrs from Ushuaia to El Calafate in Argentina. From there, I took a minibus tour with 8 others and we drove 3hrs to enter the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile (UNESCO pretected, covers 181,414 heactares formed by volcanic eruption 12 million yrs ago). Our minivan tour visited several lakes and took in views of the "Paine Massif" (literally "big blue bolders") and the famous three "Torres" or "towers" which I would hike to later. After a lovely panoramic lunch, I was dropped off at Lake Pehoe to start my trekking adventure. I went for a run before catching the boat across to Refugio Paine Grande (my first night camping) but I got caught in 70km/h winds which is typical for this time of year. After a night of howling wind and rain in my tent, I greeted a grey, windy Christmas morning as I started my 5hr trek to Grey Glacier and back (ohne pack!).

My 5hr, 20min trek from Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Los Cuernos was simpy back-breaking. However, things got better. The sun was out and it was warm enough to go shorts and T-Shirt. Unreal. I spent Christmas evening in Refugio Los Cuernos by Lake Nordenskjold with massive snow covered mountains through the windows outside, a Christmas tree on my left and a Dutch couple, an older German guy and one willing Chilean gal on my right, washing down BBQ Pork and Chilean "fried rice" with gallons of "Tres Medallas" 08 Cab Sav from maker Santa Rita in Valle Central, Chile (lunch red, ripe fruit but no body). The German guy at dinner was a former executive of a big German car maker. The Chilean girl was his personal "guide". He would not reveal his true identity. Yeah sure, "I like to have relations!"

Boxing Day saw me wake up from my second tent night (slept like a dead man!) and then trek another 11km over 4.5hrs to Refugio Torres Central, right under the 3 granite towers that make this place so famous. The Torres Refugio is classy. I get a bed in a room with 3 others! Along the way to Torres, Thomas, a Chilean-would-be-sherper, offers to take my 7kg day pack (with all electronic gear and documentation) to lighten my load - what a glimmer of human hope! I was impressed. I did not give it to him. I made this cross and I had to carry it!

The morning of 27DEC saw me into my "summer" running gear and at 8am I headed off to the base of the 3 towers. The sun was out, no wind and the towers in no cloud - perfect. The map quotes 4.5hrs to do the 9km trip from the Refugio 137m to the 886m viewpoint. I did it in 2.5hrs via a combo of running and fast trek climb. The view from the Torres Mirador (Spanish for Towers Viewpoint) simply takes your breath away - again I land on another planet - it is easily the most spectacular trek and view in my life so far!

The 3 granite towers are jagged and have an alien look about them. The highest one is Torre Sur at 2,850m. The lake in the foreground completes the picture. The return trip is all jog and takes 1.5hrs! I took one stack at Refugio Chilean, where I lost my camera but realised it immediately and collected it! Lucky. The entire return run was exhilarating but very painful! Since my time back was much quicker than I expected, I went on another trek.

This time slow and easy from 1:50pm to 4pm on the track to Campamento Seron which is part of the "perimeter track" that encircles the entire park. I am now back at Refugio Torres Central soaking my feet and my mouth in lovely Chilean Sav Blanc! It is 10pm and 52yr old Dutchie "Kristina" shouts me several red wines after singing in Spanish to the entire kitchen (4 cooks and 8 staff)!

The 28DEC was a rest day because I could not walk. I finally push myself to do a run around the camp and then head off on a 9hr bus ride to El Calafate which should have taken 5hrs! Welcome to South America!

The next day is perfect. Blue sky, sun, 20C and the Perito Moreno Glacier, 83km away looks spectacular. It has a 5km face, up to 60m high, 33km long and advances 30cm a year (this is fast, most glaciers do only mm). Seen one glacier, seen them all? No. This one is special because it looks great and "calves" (huge chunks of it fall into the lake) around a dozen times a day. Golfco Pictures managed to film one and it was big according to our guide! The one hour boat ride to the face finally put its size into perspective.

As you can see from the photos, the Torres Del Paine National Park and Perito Mereno Flacier was EXACTLY the magnificent places I expected. Except for that bloody 25kg back pack!
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Congratulations to Eliana Braga from Fortaleza Brasil who took the "lick photo" in this blog - easily the best one so far. She is in the running for Golfco Pictures "Best Signature Shot" of this trip!

NEXT BLOG: "...and a Pantanalian New Year !!!" due 4-5JAN11.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) I saw Thomas again, 10min into my return jog from the towers - what a coincidence! Did not stop to talk because joggers time trial rules must be obeyed - at all costs!

HINTS & TIPS: 1) Refugios Cuernos and Torres take credit cards! 2) Set out early. If weather goes bad it is typically after 4pm. 3) Better to book and pay for all day trips when you are there - tons cheaper! 4) I did not have time but go to El Chalten to see Mount Fitz Roy (3,405m).