Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Rambler Man

"Well I dunnow. I suppose some of us are cave dwellers, some of us live in houses, some of us like to be loose-footed… me, I'm a rambler man!"

Wow! We've hit the big-time here! Am writing from El Chalten (no you're not, you're in El Calafate now - Ed) in Argentina, and what an amazing couple of days it has been! Upgrade your internet pipe, call your ISP, or pop round to Leggo's house! There are a few photos!

Last day in the Villa
Final day in Villa O'Higgins I decided to walk a local path that started at the Mirador I had visited previously.

Past the Church

Up there

On the way up, I bumped into two old ladies from Santiago that I had spoken to before. They were worried about me, asked me where I was staying, and I later found out went to my hostel, and told Ana Maria to call the police if I didn't return that night! How sweet! Walk was a pleasant one, through a mixture of petrified and thick forest up towards (though not reaching) two big glaciers in the mountains behind the village.

Standard English forest!

Spooky trees

Even spookier trees!

To be honest, I felt like I could be on a National Trust property back home. Apart from the large glaciers bearing down on me of course. Not too many of them in the South Downs.


Meeee with Villa O'Higgins behind

Looking down on Lago O'Higgins and the port where I'll catch my boat tomorrow.

Only later, when consulting my LP book, did I realise this was one of the two treks I wanted to do in the area anyway! The two day Reserve National Shoen trek! By accident!

We're off to see the Glacier, the wonderful Glacier of Higgins

Following morning had a bus at 7:40am to take us to the boat at the Bahia Bahamondez port, [GPS: 48.51187S, 72.60018W]. I noticed a couple of people had camped on the gravel at the dock, which was madness given how exposed it was, and the large amount of rain last night! The things people do to save a pound or two! The boat is surprisingly comfy given that we are in Chile! I board, main pack down below in the hold, then inside and a window seat. Sonny, my mad but very lovely Dutch friend is here. He's cycling down through Patagonia, and is a really nice chap.

Moody clouds over Villa O'Higgins as we head out

Beautiful mountains appear

Out into the lake, with dark clouds all around us as the wind picks up in the open water [GPS: 48.86745S, 72.69920W]. First we drop off people across the water at Candelario Mancilla, which is where I'll be dropped later in the day. These people are heading to El Chalten in a day, missing out on the Glacier trip.

Here we come. Note the colour of the water!

Next we head out into the main lake and round towards the glacier. The water gets more and more choppy, until the boat is being thrown all over the place, spray being thrown up over the top deck. I enjoy the fun for a while then head inside, as I don't want to get soaked given that I'm camping tonight!


The hardy bunch on top brace themselves for the next shower of spray

We reach the glacier, at [GPS: 48.91214S, 73.12061W]. It looks amazing. Icebergs float about in the waters in front, some very blue, which implies that they are fresh, and haven't been oxygenated yet. It's a stunning sight.


Getting closer

Lifejacket on. As if we'd survive the water!

Apparently the glacier is 80m tall, and 300m deep under the surface of the water! This glacier is one of several arms coming off the Hielo Sur ice field, the largest non-polar lump of ice, so it extends for miles in all directions, and in fact almost continuously all the way down to Torres del Paine, where I'm going next!

The wind seems to die down, or perhaps we are sheltered from the icy blasts, under the glacier.


With sky

Whisky seemed appropriate. On the fresh rocks!

The people who run the boat scoop some fresh ice out of the water and use this to serve glacial-chilled whisky. I'm not normally a fan of the stuff, but somehow this seemed appropriate.

To the Protestants!

I talk to Sonny on the boat. He's 61, and after cycling from Alaska to Mexico a couple of years back, he is now tackling Patagonia. The man's amazing. He's really well-read on Patagonia, and this trip is a dream for him. He lives in South East France, somewhere near the Alps.

Beautiful ice-sculptures

The glacier almost leaves me without words. It is so beautiful, one could just stare in fascination at the deep blue jagged spikes and crevaces all day. One can enjoy looking at a mountain for a while, but a glacier is almost infinite in patterns and beautiful random shapes. The boat floated back and forth in front of the glacier, and from every angle one would make out new features, new ice forms. Truly awe-inspiring.

Of course what one is hoping for is a big ice break. They happen frequently, but of course entirely at random. Just before we headed off, there was a crack, and a small roar as a large boulder of ice came down into the water, bringing snow and ice with it, creating a big wave eminating from where it fell. Hoorah! The trip is complete!

Woo! Ice break!

We head back, a happy bunch, though the wind soon picks up as we weave our way between icebergs and back to Candelario Mancilla. Interestingly, I am going to the "famous" glacier later, Perito Moreno (and Glacier Grey in Torres after that), but based on what I'm seen, O'Higgins is just as impressive, and far less accessible, meaning I shared the trip with just a dozen or so people. PM apparently has hundreds of people going to see it every day, so will just not be the same. I'm really glad I did this border crossing!

On the way back, the chap in charge of the boat tells us that a couple of bridges are down on our route, and usually we would be able to wade through the knee deep water, but as the weather has been fairly good the last few days, the glaciers have melted faster and consequently we would be wading through neck-deep water, which probably isn't an option. Hence there is some sort of diversion through a forest. Marvellous!

Superman's lair?

I have the excited anticipatory feeling I always get just before starting a trek. There's something so cool about exposing yourself to the elements, everything you need on your back. Note that this trek I am carrying everything. Nothing left behind. It's going to hurt. I have full backpack on back, full daypack on front, and camera in hand. Nothing like what Nepali porters lug, but I am a soft English wimp remember!

Back to Candelario Mancilla, and I jump off, and promptly lose my bearings within about a minute, despite a nice English couple from Bristol giving me a map. Slightly embarrassing, but soon am on my way, through Chilean Emigration at [GPS: 48.86796S, 72.74424W]. The officer tries one of the cunning Chilean tricks on me - having examined my passport, "Are you German?" he barks in Spanish. Eh? I was confused for a moment, then denied the suggestion. Okay then, you're free to go! I wonder what would happen if I said "Yes, err no, ohh you got me again!". Then up into the mountains, in the "no-man's land" until Argentine immigration about 22km away. It's about 5:30pm now. My boat is tomorrow at 12:00pm. I follow Sonny and his friend up, me keeping pace with the bikes until the road levels off.

Bikes are all very well on the downhill bits!

I cleverly pick a path which branches off the road and takes me miles away before stopping at a heavily-flowing river. Great. Cursing, I head back towards the road through boggy ground.

Dangerous bushes of small spiky things

Tantalising glimpses through the clouds!

Even the map is exciting!

Back on the main road, I decide some inspiration is required, so out comes the Electric Light Orchestra! Mr Blueeee Skyyyy! That plus the brief views of Fitz Roy soon restore my happiness. Am buzzing! I'm a rambler man! Why do I not have Lemon Jelly on my mp3 player at the moment. I resolve to get it on at first available opportunity!

Sun will be down soon and I'm feeling quite tired, then I meet the other guys camping in the middle of the road, at [GPS: 48.93246S, 72.79395W]. I was planning to head on further, as we hadn't reached the border yet, but of course it's always nicer to camp with other people, so I set my tent up, although this spot was terrible for camping, absolutely nowhere flat!! The guys have a fire going, and I do point out that naked fires are banned, but of course they carry on till a chap comes along and tells us in no uncertain terms to put it out. Neil starts arguing with him. Not a good idea. Sonny's tent is impressive. It's more like a bivouac bag! I shall never brag about my tent again, this thing must fit in his pocket!

The next morning a fairly late start, setting off at 8:20am. Boat is at 12:15pm. I worry about the time. Had originally planned to camp a bit further last night. I listen to the BBC Now Show Xmas Special. Calms the nerves. Plus I set a good pace and find myself completing the 3-4 hours in about 2! Oops! Next up From Our Correspondant with Kate Adie. Somehow the BBC just gets me all sentimental.

Ray Mears has definitely been through here before me

Woohoo! The mighty Fitz Roy appears in the distance

The diversion due to the bridges being down is a nightmare for bikes - it's a thick forest with large trees felled in all directions. After this the path narrows and starts undulating. I realise there is no way Sonny and Neil will make my boat. I pass a couple of Italians who are carrying their bags up then returning for their bikes! This means they are doing three times the distance, no light undertaking! There are times when it's definitely better to be on foot!

The border. Ciao Chile

So after getting my stamp at the Argentine border, on Lake Desierto [GPS: 48.99959S, 72.83948W], I gaze across the lake, then get comfy and brew a nice pot of tea with lake water.


The boat comes eventually, and is packed with people and bikes. From the other side, a bus takes us to El Chalten, the base town for FitzRoy. I bump into two Israelis whom I had met in Cochrane. They ask me why people come here? Err, for the rather impressive mountain about two hours walk away, I reply. Do these people have no clue whatsoever?

El Chalten is a dusty tourist town which didn't exist 15 years ago. From parts of the town, Monte Fitz Roy is clearly visible. There isnt' much accommodation. Rather than camp, I end up at Hosteria Koonek [GPS: 49.32524S, 72.89410W] where I misunderstand the price. Not 55, but 150 pesos!! Crikey, it's the most expensive place I've stayed at on my travels. Nice though, and I need a bed after sleeping in the road last night!

I head to the supermarket to stock up on nosh for the trek. I buy some "Ades juice". Whatever it is, it certainly is not juice! The supermarket doesn't have mineral water! Will have to take tap - after all, I'll be drinking river and lake water for the next week anyway! We have packet soup, onions, carrots, salt (which comes back unopened, man those soups are so salty!), dulce leche (this sweet caramel spread stuff they have down here), plenty of bread from the Panadaria, and some instant "fried rice" which should be fun. Ooh and cans of tuna and "machas" both of which like an idiot I carried from Villa O'Higgins! I don't know what machas are and the picture is a bit vague, but looks like it might be salmon. Or spam. We shall see.

Next some beautiful home-made icecream at Domo Blanco. Lovely. No photos as I have to say (cough) I had to eat it immediately, it was melting, honest guv! I had Banana split and Andean Chocolate flavour. Yum! Domo Blanco is actually the name of a mountain in the range near Fitz Roy. Presumably it has a.. white.. dome.. peak..?


After ice cream, I happen upon a micro-brewery (woe betide those who suggest there was no chance in this encounter!). They serve a weiss-bier, which bizarrely they describe as a pilsner. Not bad, not bad at all. Cloudy beer, just like the glacial waters round here, slightly sweet taste, but with a malty hoppy aftertaste (okay that last bit isn't true). But the slowest service I've encountered since I last visited France. My goodness. One basically has to order the next beer when the girl brings one.

Back to civilisation!

Finally to the YHA - where I enjoy an enormous steak milanese (breaded) with chips, and an enormous salad, with a litre of Quilmes beer. I don't even manage half. Of the food. This YHA place actually has a really nice vibe to it - an enormous social area serving food and booze, with an upstairs bit overlooking with internet PCs etc. Suddently feel very tired. And amazingly here, I can buy postcards for the first time in a few weeks! That's how remote the Carretera Austral is in Chile - not even any postcards of the place, despite it being beautiful.

Suddently a couple start dancing tango on the ground floor. He explains what he's up to in Spanish, I don't understand, but they are good. Perhaps they are practicing for Strictly Come Dancing. I use the internet - 3 pesos (50p) per 15 minutes! Extortion! I still use it.

Tomorrow I start trekking - I plan to spend 5 days up in the hills, and on the fifth day come down and take the bus straight to Calafate, for Glacier Perito Merino and the bus to Puerto Natales in Chile for Torres del Paine.

Fitz Roy update later today!

"I'm a rambler man!"
"And you're going to keep on rambling?"
"Oh yes, have to!"

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