(Patagonia to Isla Navarino – Argentina & Chile)
Adventurising from top to toe. Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in one long (wiggly) line. Sounds good, right? It even sounded pretty unique when I was talking about it a year ago. As I recall, a few of you were even quite impressed… But have you ever wondered why I had to use the entirely fabricated “adventurising” (which, incidentally, has opened up no end of unquestionably dull UK vs American spelling conversations over the past 8 months)? It was because someone else had already taken the “adventuringfrom…” blog.
That was a pretty big hint.
Then I looked at a map and found Ushuaia – the End of the Road. Sitting on the south coast of (semi) mythical Tierra del Fuego, next stop Antarctica. Wow, I thought, imagine getting there. What would it be like? How would I feel?
Turns out all I had to do was ask, well, just about anyone I have met along the way. Really, anyone. They’ve all been. I mean, even Jeremy Clarkson made it here (before he was chased out in the dead of night… More on that particular inflammatory subject later).
Well fine then. If Ushuaia is so last year, if everyone else has done it too, then I was going to go one step further. Because it turns out that, despite all best efforts of the Argentinian tourist board to tell us otherwise, Ushuaia isn’t quite the end of the road…
However, like all infuriating writers, I am going to hold you in suspense for just a little longer.
Because I still had to get through Patagonia.
Now, straw poll. What do you think of when you hear “Patagonia”? Vertiginous mountain peaks? Trekking the infamous W? Expensive clothing brands? A Welshman and his sheep? All fair, all true (except, perhaps, for the Welshman – didn’t find any, sorry). But what about mile upon mile of long, straight roads? Vast, flat lands of nothing but scrubby shrubs and dust? Wind, wind, wind and more wind? And a realisation that the most famous mountain range in the Andes is also, bizarrely, one of the lowest? (So no excuses for any huffing and puffing through any mountain passes here).
On the 24 hour bus journey from Bariloche to El Chalten, I finally finished “Wild” – a book I had been determinedly avoiding since last year’s film release, after so many unfair comparisons between the author and myself (for the record, the “unfair” part is to the author – her intrepid spirit is in a totally different league). Nonetheless, I still giggled in solidarity as she described her preparations and kit list – I still don’t know how I have survived all this way without a foldable saw, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be my undoing in Patagonia. But after the past few months in hostels, it was time to resurrect my tent (ok, and a few nights in refugios) – back to me, myself and I – and kindly locals (including, I may say, some particularly handsome Argentinian mountain guides) and the elements.
However, forget trekking the “W” or even the “O” for that matter. Meet the “A”. Seriously, look at the map. See what I’ve done there?
El Chalten is billed as Argentina’s hiking capital, and most people brave its whistling wind for day hikes. But having popped Torres del Paine back onto the bucket list for another day/season, I had decided I was going to make a multi-day trek out of El Chalten’s routes instead. And in true Scottish summer “it’s definitely brightening up out there” (cue next torrential downpour) style, I finally made it out with tent, sleeping bag, stove, and what proved to be the most revolting powdered pasta meals known to man. (Though I concede that they had become more appealing by the end of day 2…)
After 8 months on the road, I had also finally invested in a waterproof cover for my backpack – largely won over by the earnest saleswoman “but it’s made of silver, the same as tents!” What? There are tents made of silver? And no one told me this? Hmph.
The upside of setting out into faint mountain drizzle? (Almost) complete solitude. Clouds scudding across the sky, the trees with their autumnal foliage rustling gently in the wind, mountain streams gurgling by and, after the previous 24 hours’ rain in the valley that had fallen as snow higher up, the impressive rumbles of avalanches in the distance. Also, slightly closer at hand, the tell-tale clack, clack, clack of (completely unnecessary and footpath destroying…) metal-tipped walking poles. Grrr. I injected an extra burst of speed before Mr Rambler caught up with me.
Finally reaching the campsite at the base of Mount Fitzroy, I settled down for the night. Nestled amongst the trees, it was chilly but homely – though I did ask myself (not for the first time) why someone who suffers quite so badly from Raynaud’s should ever think this fun… But this is why a pair of fleece lined mittens is my number 1 luxury item. For my next trick, I just need to find a companion pair of socks.
And was it worth it?
I’ll let you judge for yourselves.
Though not even the best photographer could pay justice to the magic of Mount Fitzroy’s sunrise, and the next day’s moonset (work with me…) over Cerro Torre. Stillness, solitude (even the nearby Scousers shut up for a special 20 minutes!), ice bergs shaped like Nessie, and then a condor sailing overhead just as the first rays of the sun struck the tips of the mountains, pinks turning to orange, to yellow and finally to an almost translucent white, glowing from the snow, glaciers and rock faces.
All together now – ahhhhhh………
Shaking myself out of this reverie, and onto the next Patagonian marvel though – I made it, more than happily, through my three day trek, repacked (urgh) my bags all over again, and headed for the Perito Moreno glacier. Well where else would the Easter Bunny choose to lay his eggs?
Now I’ve seen and even been up close to a few glaciers in my time, but (well, aside from those buried under pristine ski runs in the Alps!) never actually walked upon one.
So I donned the crampons and the harness – to which, ummm, nothing was attached… Must remember to retain consciousness when I fall into a crevasse – and did I remember to pack my Scouts book of knots? Help! After getting over the ridiculousness of the insurance company-imposed upper age limit (45 – what is the life expectancy in this country?! I’ve spent my whole trip feeling younger and younger, but now find that I’m close to being classed as an OAP…), I happily pottered up onto the ice after my guide.
And into an alternative pure blue universe with an only slightly worrying soundtrack of loud pops, cracks and booms. It was like an entire mountain range with hillocks, serrated peaks, lakes, ponds, streams, caves – but all made entirely of ice. I promise I didn’t start singing songs from Frozen in my head. I didn’t. Really. Well maybe only a little bit.
All the same, I did get some odd looks from the guides when I insisted on tipping out the (especially chiselled) chunk of glacial ice from my glass at the end of the day – it may only have been a cheap blend rather than single malt that they were pouring, but there are standards to uphold, people, standards. Honestly.
Finally time to embark upon my last few leaps and bounds to America’s toe though. And across another border crossing. For all of the antagonism between Chile and Argentina, they share such a narrow part of the continent down here that border formalities become nothing more than a smile, a stamp, and a wave. And a magic airport scanner that even detects chocolate (the Chileans are very strict about this whole “transport of organics” thing – either that, or the Customs officials just really, really like bananas and chocolate).
Having said that, when I came back into Argentina a couple of days ago, I was greeted by a sign at Ushuaia’s port: “No mooring for English pirate ships”. In Spanish it sounds official and unwelcoming. In English, well… I’m not going to get into politics here, and proclaiming that I am Scottish seems to get me past any awkward conversations (I am also British and proud of it, but this is not something to shout about in southern Argentina…). But I know quite a few Englishmen who probably rather like the idea of dressing as a pirate and prancing around Ushuaia with a parrot on their shoulder. Jeremy Clarkson isn’t even one of them.
Anyway, Chile is slightly more welcoming to Brits this far south, and so that was where I was going. To the end of the road.
Punta Arenas used to be a bustling port, shelter for ships preparing for Antarctic expeditions, and others who had just rounded Cape Horn – before the Panama Canal sounded its death knell. Or at least it might have done. But I liked it – it is still a hustling, bustling town, and rather than being run down, it wears its southern heritage proudly. It is still an important gateway to both north and south, and murals, statues and monuments remind us of its heyday.
This was where Shackleton set off on his doomed Antarctic expedition, and where he finally returned 100 years ago, seeking rescue for the rest of his men still stranded on the ice. I dutifully popped my head around the door of “his” bar (allegedly the room in the grand industrialist’s house where he made his appeals), before heading for another Punta Arenas institution, Kiosko Roco, for my banana milk and choripan instead.
And the next day, in perfect mirror of the start of my trip all those months ago, I boarded my cruise ship to the end of the road… So where were the dancing girls, the casino, the 24-hour ice cream bar? Ah, no. Slightly different scale.
As I stepped off mainland Americas for the final time though, I felt I should have marked the occasion somehow. But how? There weren’t even many people around. So I settled for waving to the ubiquitous flocks of nearby cormorants instead. (On that note: are cormorants wannabe penguins? Or are penguins wannabe cormorants? Or does nobody really care, because they both have comedy value anyway?)
This was only a 30 hour ferry trip, but I still watched seals leaping through the water after the boat, gulls swooping figures of eight low over the water, wind sweeping spray off the top of the waves, rainstorms shrouding uninhabited islands, all rocky outcrops, glaciers, greens of mossy forests. We even had our own, slightly more authentic, “dancing girl” up on deck. And the films on board? The Hobbit and Dracula – specialising in end-of-the-world fantasies?
Finally I stepped off, slightly bleary-eyed as the sun was rising low in the sky, and onto Isla Navarino. The “real” end of the road. And no, there is no huge sign, no crowds of people. Just a track running down into the sea.
It was cold, wet and windy. And beautiful. There was even a rainbow.
How did I celebrate this momentous moment? Champagne? Whisky? A fine bottle of Chilean wine? No. With a nice cup of lemon tea and a chocolate brownie.
The next day I climbed up through woodland to the top of Cerro Bandera, snow drifts up to my knees, to views over Puerto Williams (the real most southerly town in the world) with its vivid blue fishing boats bobbing in the harbour and smoke from the wood stoves hanging in the cold air. The snow-capped mountains of Tierra del Fuego lay across the Beagle Channel to the north (hear that, Ushuaia? The north).
And it’s funny, I got to the end of the journey and far from being the anti-climax it might have been, I felt hugely content, a smile on my face even whilst my toes froze in their woefully inappropriate running shoes. Why? Because, what with winter wonderland walks through woods of beech and pine, and moorlands of purples and browns and greys, and sea lochs and fishing boats, and shared stories and friendships formed around cosy log fires, and smelly damp clothes and bubbling cheese on toast…
…It felt just like home.