Monday, March 31, 2008

Torres Del Paine 5

Saturday 29th

Day 5. Day 5 starts before dawn.

To people that know me, that is not normally possible, and there is no such thing as "before dawn". Days end and magically start again the following day without this mythical "dawn" business.

But this place has a strange effect and Jeff and I duly rose and hiked an hour up a steep boulder field by torchlight. Well we started by torchlight, until we realised that we could see enough by the half moon glowing in a perfectly clear sky. Hiking by moonlight is cool!

Just enough time at the top to break out the stove for Jeff to brew the Mate (pronounced mat-ay) - a foul tasting, bitter, tea like herb drunk by the gallon in South America, then test the valley sides for echoes (very satisfying), before the sun rose.

Clear days are about 20 per year here, and we got the number one! Sunlight strikes the tops of the towers and it´s like a neon show after that with the tower tips blushing crimson, which slowly creeps down the rock like blood as the sun rises higher. Awesome is a good word here.

For about an hour the colour slowly heats up through burnt orange to amber, all set off by the bluest sky I´ve seen since Buenos Aires. The sun strikes the tiny glacier which starts to grumble and rumble and melt down a crack in the rock. It was just a truly magical natural son et lumiere show. To cap it there´s a small lake and as the wind was curiously absent, the towers are doubled in reflection. Perfect.

And the rock wall looks just like the gates to the Mines of Moria. I spoke "friend", but the damn things were broken by the creature in the lake and remained obstinately shut. I could not enter.

After 2 1/2 hours I managed to tear myself away, hike down and break camp.

And the mice had got me. Hung all my foodstuff up a tree - but they can obviously levitate.
And open zips.
I swear the top pocket of my pack was closed, but my chocolate inside was shredded.

Hiking back down the steeps back towards the lake I wimped out of doing the full "circuit" as this is the end of the shorter "W" hike. Sore leg for 5 days - iced in rivers every night - and the prospect of 5 more days, I justified it to myself that I would not top dawn at the towers. And wimped out.

Someone was watching, so I missed the bus - I literally saw it go. Jeff left the towers before me as he was finishing anyway and I saw him in the window looking like a man who arrived slightly before me. I was 1 minute late and for once a bus in Chile left on time. So I waited 5 hours and got back just in time to claim an overspill bed in "The Cave" at the "Erratic Rock" hostel - the best hostel in Puerto Natales. Bill the owner made me say that, but it´s true.

Torres Del Paine 4

Friday 28th
Day 4. Nice easy day today, just 10kms up to camp by Los Torres (the towers) for which the park is named. Slight snag is the incline up the valley, and my magic gravity creating lead pack.

But another just great hiking day up a steep sided valley above a river. Yeah tough climb, but great views and then an up-down hike through some beech woods to camp just below the towers in the most idilic setting for a camp site.

Torres Del Paine 3

Thursday 27th
Marcin left early today - in a way I´m glad - he was a machine and was trying to kill me.

My excuse is that I´m nursing an ankle that I broke last year that flared up on the bike on the way to Puerto Natales. I just thought cycling and hiking are different so it wouldn´t affect me, but no, it´s large, red, painful and too slow to keep up with him. Not sure the enormous pack helped either, which was made entirely from lead with straps fashioned from barbed wire, where his was made from gossamer and velvet.

Or perhaps he´s really a machine....

Day 3 is a really nice hike along Lago Nordenskjold which is entirely lit from below by giant light bulbs.
Not really, but it is a really vivid creamy green from all the glacier melt water. The wind was up and sheets of lake wash over you as you lean in to it and make slow headway, watching ever changing rainbows. The route takes you from Valle Frances round to the Valle Ascencio and gives relly great views as you pass more closely to the horns. I really enjoyed this day, it´s just a beautiful hike.

Camp was at the bottom of Valle Ascensio and is set at the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, meaning you can see it in the distance for about an hour before you get there, but it never gets closer. Until you get there. Strange.

Torres Del Paine 2

Wednesday 26th
Day 2 began with mouse tales (tails?) over breakfast. Who´d lost what food, whether to eat or bin it, how many got into the tent, tactics for the next night - a regular feature of camp life for the next few days.

After hiking to the next site, we dropped packs and set off up the "Valle Frances" a glaciated valley between the main Paine Grande massif and Los Cuernos (the horns). About a six hour round trip takes you up the most beautiful valley overlooking the Glacier Frances which creeks and groans below you, to the viewpoint at the top. Awesome is an over used word, so I´m going to go with "humungous" - the ampitheatre of rocks surrounding you and the ever present horns in their two-tone splendour.

The view out over Lago Nordenskjold on the way down is nice too....

Torres Del Paine

Tuesday 25th
Hired the back pack, bought the copious quantities of pasta, rice, oatmeal and dried fruits to take on a nine night "circuit" of the Torres Del Paine massif with roughly 65lbs of camp gear, fuel and the most boring food known to man. Rudely optimistic as I´ve never hiked with more than a day sack, I set out with a Canadian hiking machine (Marcin) and an over enthusiastic American (Jeff) who shot off like a man on a mission.
(The team members - Marcin, Jeff)

Torres del Paine is a seperate range to the Andes and rises 3000m over otherwise flat land, with light coloured granite spires pushing up to form the characteristic horns and towers, the horns being capped rather incongruously with black sedimentary rock.

Starting at the park administration, the first days hike gives an overview of the whole range that you don´t get from closer up and is well worth the extra time. The view point over the lake is amazing.

First night camp was 20kms away in an organised site by a lake with an over large mouse population lying in wait to chew through anything not hung in trees, including backpacks and tents.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Getting to Puerto Natales

Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales is 250km of windswept pampas and the scenery is pretty dull until you get within 40kms of Puerto Natales and start to see snow capped Andean peaks again - first viewing since a day out of Ushuaia.

A few pictures
Punta Arenas has a pretty amazing plaza (Muñoz Gamero) with a huge statue of Magellan - kiss the foot of the Ona statue for luck...

And another amazing cemetary (Cenetario Municipal) with family mausoleums. I´m sure I´m spending too much time with the dead....

Flamingoes!! Honest - check out the pink blur in the middle.

This guy wanted to share my tent at the roadside - I know I smell pretty bad, but to be mistaken for a fellow skunk.....

The road may be dull....

But the sunsets are really nice....

And so are the moon rises....

You get to meet the locals....

A llama parked outside of the first cafe/shop/business I saw in 160kms at Morro Chico. And they have a rock too...

Individual accomodation for the night....

Seriously this bus shelter/hotel room provided the luxury of not having to pitch the tent in 100kmh winds. Made to measure too - my head touching one side, my feet the other. But just to be out of the wind felt so good.

Speaking of wind see if you can guess which way it blows....

Saturday was the hardest day so far - 86kms to get to Puerto Natales in the most brutal winds yet. Some real strong gusts and vicious cross winds which have you see-sawing from side to side, on and off the road. Legs of jelly and a rest day whilst I plan some hiking in Torres Del Paine National Park will be the order of the day for Sunday

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Adios Tierra Del Fuego

Wednesday 19th
Glad I got some cash yesterday as the only bank in Porvenir only accepts mastercard. Not too great for a guy packing Visa. And I am going down with some kind of lurgy so need a proper bed in the cheapest hostel available. Hotel Central charges a fortune at 13000 pesos (about 13 quid), but by agreeing to not sign in I manage to knock this down to 7000 - a bargain in my condition. Including breakfast of course.

Ask 3 people here and get 3 different times for the ferry. 9am is the distinct outsider, with midday and 1pm joint favourites, so I decide a leisurely breakfast is in order before cycling the 5kms at 11am.

Met Stephan and Eva, a German couple staying in the same hotel and touring on some heavily modified ancient BMW Boxer motorbikes with about 450,000 km between them. They agree to keep me alive by feeding me for the entire boat crossing as my money is now gone. And a couple of Spanish cyclists are also heading in the same direction.

We are joined by a school of about 12 dolphins (I think dolphins go to school?) for a couple of miles which is just great as they are literally 5m away. The crossing is smooth as well as for once the wind has died. Apparently the crossing is often cancelled, or at least more of an ordeal for a landlubber like me as the sea boils and swells.

In Punta Arenas the campsite hostel is full, the next place is closed as the owner has just died, so I end up by coincidence sharing accomodation with Stephan and Eva again.

Meeting up with the Spanish cyclists, we clean out an eat as much as you like restaurant for the next 3 hours. These places should ban people on bikes, I think I eat 8 courses and all for about 4 quid. The best way to beat the lurgy is to bombard it with grub.....

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Igloo Camping.

Monday 17th
Woke up in an igloo! 2:30am and the wind has picked up again, howling and lifting the end of the tent. Zip has frozen shut and the whole tent that was covered in condensation last night has frozen into a crust of ice. It´s cold, and I don´t want to think about cycling.

9:00am - same wind. "Only" 65kms to go, but at least it´s too warm for ice. Just good old rain now and I know it´s another fun packed day.

1pm - same wind. "Only" 45kms to go. 4 hours - 20kms. Disaster. My saviour was in the form of an old steel shack on the shore, where 3 fishermen took pity on me and fed me at least half a sheep of hot mutton and a gallon of sugary tea. Fine dining in my condition and much appreciated. Huan, Marciello, Manuel I am ever grateful. These guys and many others fish by hand using an old plastic pipe suspended from a wooden boat with a compressor supplying air. Huan fished for mussels up to 50m below in a wetsuit and flippers. 2 guys for 3 days in a 5 by 7 foot shack. Crazy!

Met Michell and Virginie, a couple of French cyclists coming the other way and managed to procure some Chilean Pesos in exchange for Argentinian. At least I can afford the boat should there be a problem getting cash in Porvenir.

Dried out at the wood stove and with my boiler stoked again, the rain cleared and onwards to Porvenir, thinking how different jobs can be.


Sunday 16th
Crossed the border!

Nothing changed. Same scenery, same ripio road, same winds! But it´s Chile - not Argentina, completely different.

And not used to having 13kms between leaving a country and entering the next one! Who owns the land? If sheep are born there, in what accent do they baaaah? Who made the road? If I get flags of "Sweeneya" made can I claim the world´s narrowest country? Do radios work here - or is it just static?

Headwinds are tough and dull and make you think strange things. 90kms today to leave just 65kms tomorrow to Porvenir and a ferry to the mainland, just in case the winds are worse.

The Frontera

Saturday 15th
A tough, dull day into more headwinds. 80kms to reach the border crossing to Chile - a minor milestone.

Nothing at the border except a petrol station and a bare patch of ground to sleep on. Saturday night celebrated by washing my cycle shorts in the petrol station toilets. Livin' Da Vida Loca!

And the winner is..... The Wind

Friday 14th
Not moving today. No legs left. The wind wins. And I don´t care about admitting it.

Chance to catch up with some other cyclists here as well and get some route tips from old salts. Ethan and Brook if you are reading - RESPECT. These guys are riding road bikes with skinny tires, Brook with a carbon fork, on the Carretera Austral.

To non cyclists that means - Insane.

Or to use more words, something light, built for speed, and prone to shattering if stressed or chipped, on roads made out of what you get when you demolish a building with a wrecking ball.

And the industrial strength footpump! Must have weighed 10 lbs, doubled as a weapon, and I now know was christened "Pete" by some other American cyclists I later met who thought you were equally insane.

Starting to discover "the club" now as people you meet have all met other cyclists going vaguelly the same way. You get news about where they are and hear rumours of their adventures. Met Cesar, another American who had actually heard about me from people I´d met on the road and was trying to catch up so as to hike together later in Chile. Weird world.


Got my first taste of the real Patagonian winds today. It´s just rediculous. It doesn´t gust, or die, it´s just a constant noise in your ears, and a drain on your strength, physical and mental. I´d read about it, but nothing prepares you for the maddening relentlesness.

Every time you change up a gear it´s a minor victory, and you celebrate with increasingly maniacal glee. I cycled down a steep hill and was working hard to do 6 mph. Going up hill is the only releaf as the hill temporarily blocks the wind - you accelerate to 7mph! The lorries pass and you hear the SMASH of wind against your chest and just hold on to the bike until it stops dancing beneath you. Scary stuff. If the road turns a bit, you cycle with a cross wind and try to get 50 metres before you lose the fight and drop off the road again. 10 hours of the hardest effort I´ve yet endured (including running with Mr G. Cookson! ;-) got me 85kms to Rio Grande and a well earned tent pitch at the back of the seemingly famous (mentioned by every cyclist I met so far) Hostel Argentino.

Drained. Need sleep. Fortunately there are other cyclists who understand and take pity on me with food. Oh how the food intake is increasing.....

Friday, March 14, 2008

Things that go "Splash" in the night

The next nights camp is less inviting, being an river dug out to flow under the main road. I pitch my tent in a field full of cows and am given a strange warning by a passing fisherman complete with mimes of teeth biting and wild gesticulations towards the Agua (water) - the only word I understand in sentences I know I would be better off gleaning more information from.

Anyway deciding that maybe I won´t go for a swim, I settle down for the night. Then comes the first SPLASH of something large in the water. At first I think someone is throwing things off the road bridge above to scare me. I sit freezing in the growing gloom to try and detect movement - nothing. But with an intelligence that is worrying, the splashes only recommence once the tent is zipped up. I reason that nothing has tried to eat the tent so far and install headphones so as not to hear any more. A good ploy as I awake the next morning, alive, and with my MP3 still on. Never did get to see what lurked beneath, but something big and with teeth if the fisherman is to be believed.

Argentinian Hospitality

First "proper" day of cycling today started with soaking wet clothes and ice in my panniers - last night was freezing. Still the hills getting out of Ushuaia get the blood flowing, its a lovely sunny day and the cycling is fabulous amongst the mountains. There´s a 500m pass (Paso Garibaldi) which winds on past a couple of small lakes to giant Lake Fagnano where the views are stunning across this 100km long expanse of water. The wind is starting to pick up - warnings of what´s to come, but for now it just causes the water to shimmer and lap at the shore whilst I take a standard lunch of bread and cheese.

Reaching Lago Escondido a small village some 60kms from Ushuaia, I enquire of a woman about a campsite and am immediately invited to pitch in her back garden. Before the tent is out of the bag, I´m ushered inside for a beer and then plates of food start to arrive. This looks very promising. The whole family turns up and it´s the grandson´s 3rd birthday party and suddenly I´m the guest of honour. The evening is a blur of psuedo Spanish (for me - their´s is fine), beer, photos, wine more beer and enough food to kill off any hunger. The tent gets pitched at 1am in an alcoholic haze.

The next day is a slow start as I wade through breakfast and lunch before wobbling away at 2pm after hugs and tears (I kid you not). The hospitality to complete strangers is humbling, and as I ride away it makes me think about the way we perceive strangers back home.

Tierra Del Fuego National Park

Had my first taste of "Ripio" (unpaved gravel roads) as I left Ushuaia to get to the National Park. Only 25 kms of not too rough stuff, but it´s a taste of things to come and the dust kicked up by passing lorries is like a white out in snow.

Had my first bike mishap when a peddle worked loose and seperated itself from the bike, probably due to vibrations on the bus (and a lack of checking on my part) taking a good chunk of thread with it. I seriously thought I would have to get a new crank arm, but 2 hours of bodging with a knife and screwdriver managed to cut enough thread to get the pedal back on. Just hope it holds.

The national Park is beautiful - Beech wooded slopes and terrific views over the Beagle channel. I just had to cycle to the end of Route 3 - the road all the way back to Buenos Aires, as the official start of the ride. Camp was rough (and free) in a secluded dell next to a river with hawks circling over head and rabbits all around with a roaring fire to cook on. Bliss.

There is a great hike up a 970m peak (Cerro Guanaco) with fantastic panoramic views all the way back to Ushuaia 20kms away. I met a couple of American cyclists who joined me on the hike and whom I may meet up with in Chile to hike in Torres del Paine.

The sign says 3079km back to Buenos Aires - it starts to sink in about the scale of this place. Then a freezing 20 kms in the pouring rain back towards Ushuaia to meet up with the Americans for a free camp just off the main road.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Martial Glacier

Thursday 6th
Got a seriously nice day weather wise for a hike up to the Martial Glacier. Cycled (yeah actually used the bike!) the first 5km up a seriously steep hairpin road with the view over Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel just getting better as you ascend. There is a chair lift for wimps up the first half of the climb, but in total it´s about a 2 hour hike up to touch snow in March. I know that sounds like nothing, but this is Southern hemisphere March - the summer kind. The glacier itself is not that impressive, but the views of the bay and the mountains definitely is and well worth the effort.

Strange sight for the day - a cruise ship of Japenese tourists desposited all over the mountain in high heel boots (OK only the ladies), and white felt "Michael Jackson" gloves - men and women. Makes a nice contrast to Gore-Tex I suppose.

Kept up the "Todas del mundo" (rest of the world) end in a hard fought battle of table football with Hernan and Roberto the hostel owners over a couple of cold ones. Serious stuff over here complete with full on Gooooooaaaaaaallllll celebrations.

....And I´ve just fried the memory card from my camera. Bugger. Got a shock from a dodgy old PC and now no photos. Real pi$$er as I had some great shots of the mountains in the sun - that´s pretty rare as they are often obscured by cloud. So apologies pictorially challenged posts for the last couple of days.

Next travel tip - upload stuff to PicasaWeb regularly. Luckily only permantly lost 2 days of photos, otherwise seriously upset!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Finally on the move

Wednesday 5th
Oh it´s just so good to leave Rio Gallegos. The bus to Ushuaia was like seeing a prison warder with your signed release papers. 13 hours gets you to the southern most town in the world! I´m a geek so I looked it up and the nearest rival is Invercargill in New Zealand at a puny 46 degrees 26 minutes. Ushuaia is 54 degrees 48 minutes so it´s south in a big way. 2 border crossings (to Chile and back to Argentina) and a ferry crossing later, you start to see some seriously amazing scenery as you hit the southern tip of the Andes and I started to remember why I am here. And this time I saw the bike going on to the bus and there are no stops for it to get off on the way. We are both going to arrive at the same time. A unique experience so far!

Got met at the bus terminal by Hernan - a seriously nice guy with a car waiting to take me to his dormitory, which just seemed like a fine plan after travelling all day. So the panniers can stay packed and I can have a hot shower for the first time since Buenos Aires. Tomorrow views over the Beagle channel, and maybe, just maybe a chance for a bike ride.

Hopefully get some pictures up tomorrow - can´t post from here....

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Bored, bored, bored

Saturday 29th to Tuesday 4th
Not much to report really. This place is the pits. The Mavenas museum was closed for renovation, and the only other museum is a strange conbination of dinosaur bones and modern art. Odd. Bike turned up yeasterday which was a surprise and a relief and I managed to get a bus out of here to Ushuaia for Wednesday which is just great news. Buses last week were booked up for a week and I don´t think I could handle another 7 days here.

Nice people on the site though and my Spanish is improving as the locals insist on keeping me company as I´m on my own. Quite sweet, but a bit like hard work when you just want to chill. The other travellers passing through here have been great as well and I´ve had some good company.

Still - bored, bored, bored

Sunday, March 2, 2008

To Rio Gallegos

Thursday 27th
Arrived at the bus terminal in good time to get the bike boxed up and sent on ahead, then had a mild panic when my bus was 20 minutes late arriving. I just assumed I had heard the stand number wrong and the bus had already left. Must get used to South American timings.

This is the view from the side of the bus 1 hour later......

........And this is the view 36 hours later

The road is like a knife arrowing off to a distant horizon never changing in 1600 miles and you just go off in to some sort of twilight zone to pass the time.

Friday 28th
Finally arrived in Rio Gallegos to a familiar story.
No Bike again! It made it as far as Comodoro Rivadavia (about half way) and apparently it's too big to get any further until Monday. This is not great news as Rio Gallegos is not exactly bouncing. A bit like Grimsby with the fun removed. The main attraction - a museum explaining why the Falklands do in fact rightfully belong to Argentina is mercifully closed for renovation. Merciful as I'm not sure how welcome a Brit would be anyway. So I'm just kicking my heels here till the bike turns up when I can get an onward ticket to Ushuaia. Unfortunately these tend to be fully booked up for a couple of days and I don't want to book ahead in case the bike doesn't make it. Could be here a few days. Bugger....

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Day of the Dead

Tuesday 25th
You can´t spend time in BA and not visit the dead. The cemetery at Recoleta just blew me away. It´s where the jet set went to be planted and it´s almost a mini-city contained inside it´s own walls with an expensive game of up one upmanship in terms of ornate splendor. They´re pretty well packed in mind you - you don´t want to wind up with the wrong neighbour here for all eternity. Guess that´s why they keep the riff raff out - it´s more your presidents, generals and influential aristocracy including Eva Peron.

Wednesday 26th
Bought a ticket to the South today - at least I think I did. The whole conversation was in Spanish (obviously) and I got a piece of paper with a seat number on it in return for a wad of crumpled notes, so I´m going somewhere. You can´t go direct to Ushuaia from BA, so you need to go via Rio Gallegos; a 36 hour journey, with a further 12 to Tierro del Fuego. Wasn´t expecting to destroy my backside until I got on the bike, but at least there is food and drink on this one. I was offered an earlier bus with no food - for 1 and a 1/2 days?? Sounds like a scene from the film "Alive" to me. No I went for the food option.

Spent the afternoon in Palermo, another upmarket district just outside the microcentre complete with stunning parks and a Japanese garden with the most overfed Coy Carp I´ve ever seen. Picture a wounded German U boat trying to surface.