Category Archives: Patagonia

Back in Blighty

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We are back. In fact we have been back six months. How time flies!!

It took us a while to get back into the swing of things & even longer for our prized table top book to arrive from Australia.

Packed with memories from our Polar Pioneer adventures; our daily journals & photos brought together in a one off edition, for us & our fellow passengers..

With thoughts now turning to where we will go for my big birthday in 2016 – Patrick……if you are reading this, there is something I need to ask you! – plus our imminent trip to Sri Lanka to celebrate a friend’s wedding & check out elephants, we thought it was high time to recall the highlights…..

Our bucket list holiday delivered everything we could ask for – & so much more – up closer than close encounters with mighty humpback whales, curious & playful leopard seals & more penguins than we could possibly hope to see. We didn’t think much could top this – & then we went to the Galapagos Islands. Nature once again blew us away as we literally had to pick our way along paths & beaches littered with iguanas & seals, saw an enormous number of other species & swam with penguins.

There were other highlights of course; the mournful tango watched in an old dancehall in the heart of Beunos Aires, savouring wines galore in Mendoza & the first jagged peaks of Fitzroy coming into view…. Patagonia, a playground we will surely return to.

Even now, when someone asks us “so how was your trip” a wry smile passes our lips as we try to put into words just how utterly a-mazing our holiday was. We can’t. We dubbed it as a an adventure to the end of the world; it was all that & so much more.

Matt & Jules xxx

For anyone interested in reading our mini adventure in Sri Lanka, go to the link below:
mjules2013.wordpress.com

Navigating the fjords..

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Navimag in her brochure glory

Navimag in her brochure glory

We had pushed the boat out (sorry, too hard to resist!) opting to go on the Navimag ferry up the western coastline and myriad of channels, to Puerto Montt, booking a triple AAA cabin in advance. Not so much because we wanted to travel in style – let’s face it, it was a ferry boat that transported livestock and cargo as well as a few passengers – we wanted to have a window and didn’t want to book last minute; four days at sea … what if the weather was foul, and we had no port hole to peer out of? Thanks, but no thanks. And probably just as well.

Evangelistas cutting through the channel

Evangelistas cutting through the channel

We boarded in Puerto Natales, sadly saying goodbye to Kau Lodge (the girls really did produce the best coffee we had tasted since leaving home) hoping for good weather, great views and half decent wine served with lunch and dinner (we were in training for Mendoza), plus sightings of wildlife from the decks. We got off to a good start, with a welcome bottle of vino in our cabin and relatively informative briefing in our dining room – the cabins had their own, on the lower deck next to the officers mess, below the main dining area.

In the early morning grey light and tides, the ship passed through the skinniest passage on the voyage, Paso Kirke, a mere 80m wide, with a restriction (natch) on the size vessel that can navigate through these waters, heading up the Sobenes Pass, the southernmost channel on our journey.

A series of safety briefings and nature films followed throughout the day, English and Spanish, in the main dining room plus an exchange book programme and the promise the chance to flex your vocal chords at the karaoke evening…. With the hope of sighting a few sea lions on rocky outcrops and seals ‘playing’ in the kelp forests, we stayed firmly on deck, making the most of the dry weather.

Glaciar Skua

Glaciar Skua

Just before supper we got the opportunity of coming up close to Glaciar Skua, part of the O’Higgins National Park and Campo de Hielo Sur. it was magnificent, spanning the width of the channel, some 40 plus metres visible above sea level. Almost the size of Perito Moreno, it’s spiky seraks and deep blue fissures were a sharp azure blue, even in the flat pre dusk light and clouds plus touch of rain, that had just started to fall.

And fall it did. For pretty much the entire journey.

On lookout for seals ....

On lookout for seals ….

The AAA lunch and dinner club

The AAA lunch and dinner club

Murphy’s Law as we wouldn’t get to see much of the stunning scenery around the small channels and islands that made up the fjords. We consoled ourselves with an extra glass of wine with lunch, ‘retiring’ to read in the afternoon, aperitifs before dinner plus a few more glasses with dinner . And really got to know our fellow cabin passengers from Australia as we spent rather a lot of time in their company; like naughty school kids we also skipped some of the lectures and demos in favour of chilling in our cabins watching movies and seeing what we could spot from the port holes…

Puerto Eden, the small (and only) town between Puerto Natales and Golfo de Penas was shrouded in mist as we passed at sunrise; we could just make out few rooftops as we slid by in the silent waters. Angostura Inglesa, English Narrows, so named because only one ship can pass through at a time, came and went without incident and we headed towards the deeper waters of Messier Channel and beyond it, Golfo de Penas and open seas.

It wasn’t the Drake Passage but it was a bumpy 12 hour ride. Just as we were finishing off supper we hit the first big swells and cross winds; time to ‘batten down the hatches’, steadying our tableware and helping our steward Andreas, gathering glasses that crashed over and bottles that had toppled off the table next to us, as he set about lashing closed the china cupboard and cutlery drawers. The evening film was cancelled and probably just as well, as the ship began to pitch and roll with a deep clunky groan echoing through hull as she rode the troughs. Off to our cabins we went…

Misty islands magic around Chiloe

Misty islands magic around Chiloe

The final day aboard dawned a little dryer and brighter – time to stretch our legs on deck and be on the look out for seals, dolphins and sea lions as we sailed around the Chiloe Archepelago. Shouts of “whales, whales” draw a small crowd, but we missed them and watched as sea lions fed on what looked like mini man-of-war jelly fish!

Two books, a handful of movies and a few pounds heavier (four course lunches and diners were beginning to take their toll) we finally arrived at Puerto Montt. Next stop Santiago.

The windy W

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Torres del Paine is famed principally for three things; the Torres, three granite monoliths for which the national park derives it’s name, the “W Trek” that takes in the three main valleys and seriously high winds…. We experienced pretty much all of them – poor weather meant we missed out on one valley.

After Refugio Grey, we headed to Mountain Lodge Paine Grande. An e-nor-mous refugio, complete with cafeteria, bar and minimart. And a hotel. With full reception. For some, this was the start of the “W”, for us, the end of the circuit and farewell to a few friends we had met on the way. Over Pisco Sours (2 for 1 happy hour stylie – woop-woop!!!) we said our sad goodbyes to our new buddy Paul, plotted the best way to tackle the “W” and set the world to rights.

There were now only a handful of trekkers that were heading the same route us; completing the circuit before the W- Paul, Elisabeth and Stefani, “the Aussies”, plus “the Russians”, (as the two out of three groups were known), were all finishing in these parts and heading back to, and beyond, Puerto Natales or Puerto Arenas. We missed them already as they had been a constant over the past five short, yet seemingly long, days.
With weather closing in, our penultimate day trekking, happened to the hardest by far.

You heard it before you felt it; racing down the valley, gusting at a rate of knots you didn’t want to think about. And then to hit you. Full force. Knocking you sideways, slamming into you. Dust and dirt from the paths filled your eyes and mouth, as you squinted behind your ‘buffy’ hoping it was but a small gust of wind.

Water spouts on the lake

Water spouts on the lake

Across the Lago Nordernskjold, the wind whipped the surface water into a series of long spouts, tossing more than a fine mist ashore to cover the unsuspecting trekker and animal. We slogged across the headland, trying to time the more exposed sections as we were buffeted by the weather.

Looking for the pot of gold...

Looking for the pot of gold…

As we headed round the headland, the force of two weather systems across both valleys collided and mini water spouts, that looked like whirlpools, appeared on the lake and the oncoming winds were much worse. Glad we weren’t kayaking as it would have been hard work, and then some, for sure. As hard as it was, we were still ever grateful we weren’t tackling the pass, as it would have been infinitely worse and far more treacherous.

Onwards we toiled across open grassland and scrub; head down into the driving wind, thankful for the well-trodden path, which meant all we had to focus on was putting one foot in front of the other! Without any obvious shelter to be seen, we ducked down at the base of a small hillock, ready for more than a handful of trailmix to see us through the rest of the day. We gave up on the idea of a warming cup of soup and settled for crackers with the last of the lomo vetado and queso de oveja, conscious of the fact Campamento Torres was a good few hours away.

Wet and cold we crossed and recrossed the swollen river, Rio Ascendcio, a raging torrent matching the sound of the wind that howled down the valley. The undulating trail through the dripping lenga forest, was a welcome refuge… we were temporarily out of the wind, and rain. We passed boughs that looked like twisted rope, some weathered by age, some by the fierce winds. Coffee coloured rivulets of rain coursed down the paths, picking up loose soil on their way to the river below. Exposed shiny tree roots and slick rocks providing perfect foot holds as we carried on up the valley.

A bridge across the river A

A bridge across the river A

Traversing terminal moraine plus a suspension bridge led us to our quickie pit stop, or potential home for the night….refugio El Chileno. Bedraggled day walkers and campers alike sat huddled in a riot of multicoloured Gortex and woolly hats in the camps “cooking hut”. With thoughts of comfy beds farther down the valley and/or the next camp spot north, one thing was a certain…it was futile hiding from the weather- there really was nowhere to hide on the open scrub, woodland or scree that stood between man and mountain.

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Fixing up soup in the fly of our tent


After a quick Scooby snack we headed along the path that would take us to both the Mirador Las Torres and the campsite Campamento Torres and it’s well laid out and numbered pitches, at the foot of the scramble up mountainside. As quickly as we could, we put up the tent – after nearly two weeks, we had it got it off pat and were tucked inside the tent in no time at all, with a warming cup of soup on the go, in the ‘fly’.

The rain eventually stopped and slowly the winds subsided, no longer roaring and ripping it’s way through the treetops. Dawn broke, with a clear, cloudless almost full moon….hope for us yet!!!!

Well before sunrise the ‘camp’ began to stir, early morning brews made (bed tea had been booked for 5.30am) and tents secured before the procession of head torch wearing trekkers began – all eager to see the torres in all their glory in the early morning glow, scrambling up a well marked trail, across the glacial rubble, with luminous markers to guide us…. We weren’t disappointed!  As the sun came up the mighty granite columns changed colour, gradually turning a fabulous shade of orange for a fleeting few minutes; mirrored in the rippled glacier lake below.

Towering torres at daybreak

Towering torres at daybreak


Even though we were finishing the trek ahead of schedule and hadn’t managed to take in Valle Frsnce we were leaving on a high, walking out with the sun on our backs. As we headed back down the valley, passing groups of trekkers and day walkers, slogging their way up to see the magnificent views of Torre Central, Norte and Cerro Nido de Condor.

We stood watching horsemen leading small parties on the paths up to the refugio … We finally understood the “give way” signs we had seen on day one!

Four legged tours

Four legged tours

Informacion ...

Informacion …

First time foragers

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Given that, once we made camp we were all supposed to use either the picnic tables scattered amongst the tent pitches, or in some refugios, the cooking “hut” provided, an element of (good natured) beach-towel-bagsy-sun-lounger syndrome emerges around 6.30pm when thoughts turn to supper….

After a few days together on the trail, we had checked out each others kit, swapped stories on where we had been and where we were going. Picnic table conversation became the preserve of fave foods and what we were missing and less so about what we were preparing for supper. We thought we had been pretty smart by adding a few fresh ingredients to our de-hy curries, risottos and pasta base meals, so we had to take our hats off the the guys that trekked with bacon plus fresh eggs too!

With bacon running low; onion, garlic and Parmesan, the staple of our non dry stores, we decided to add a few things we found along the way to sex up our suppers…..

Chancing our luck with chanterelles

Chancing our luck with chanterelles

On the trail leading from Refugio Dickson, chestnut mushrooms, morels and chanterelles were all within tantalising and easy reach of the trail. We even thought we spotted a few field mushrooms near the boggy meadows, but weren’t sure enough to risk picking them. Stopping for a spot of lunch, on the banks of the Rio Los Perros, we spied several clusters of chanterelles…. too good an opportunity not to miss! After all, we could always check with the ranger that they were edible.

Mushrooms cleaned, chopped and added to the garlic and bacon lardons, Matt produced the best risotto of the trip. It was perfection on a plate…all that was missing was a big bowl of salad!!

‘Greenery’ in any shape or form, was absent in our camping food and four days in, we were both beginning to miss it. Spinach, broccoli appeared as headliners on the longed for list. Between Refugio Grey and Refugio Dickson, the grassy plains were studded with daisies and dandelions.. pis-en-lit is a well used salad leaf in France, so, once again we thought why not! Washed and wilted they were fantastic in our pasta with arrabiata sauce.

Patch of Calafates on the trail

Patch of Calafates on the trail

Calafate berry breakfast

Calafate berry breakfast

Having spotted so many Calafate berry bushes close to the trail and tasted them in ice cream, we decided to spruce up our morning porridge with a handful of these, instead of raisins. Close to Campamento Los Perros we found a patch of sun-ripened and almost blueberry black berries. Picked and rinsed we added them last minute. Similar to pomegranate seeds they popped in our mouths. Sweet but watery, rather than juicy, we wish we had picked a few more… We would tomoz for sure!!

Getting over John G

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We had been a little spoilt on our previous trek, having camped with no more than eleven people, tops, at any one campsite. Just the two of us, on one occasion. Torres was a lot more popular and the campsites were awash with orange, yellow, green and blue tents; groups huddled together in matchy-matchy hired ones, their guides perfecting their peacock routine before the refugio care-keepers and rangers, who were equally perfecting their own dance, ‘miraculously’ feeling the need to tightrope walk (two out of three campsites) chop wood and fix/build fencing in the late afternoon, just as the first wave of trekkers arrived.

The night before tackling the pass, we had stayed at the tiny forested Campamento Los Perros. Named after the nearby river, Rio de los Perros, river of dogs, reportedly named after two herders’ dogs that had drowned in the fast flowing waters, we were glad the numerous crossing we had made over the streams had proved uneventful!

Approach to Refugio Dickson

Approach to Refugio Dickson

Views from Dickson

Views from Dickson

With no real facilities to speak of, it was a far cry from the fully serviced campsite we had experienced the night before – Refugio Dickson – an oasis beautifully set on a lakeside spit in flat meadows where we had eaten our first home-cooked refugio meal; ushered to a seat by the pot bellied wood fire, we had eyed each other nervously, as we were not entirely sure what Matt had agreed to when he booked supper. Pleasantly surprised, we tucked into a salad of tomato and onion with fresh coriander and garlic dressing, asparagus soup (packet) followed by a tasty and hearty stew, a cross between a beef bourguignon and stroganoff with rice, finished off with a dust of paprika on the plate. It had been delicious albeit bereft of vegetables.

Having overslept we packed up in record time (for us) and began our first climb of the day, through the stunted forests and boot sucking peaty bogland, with roped-together log bridges and the odd stepping stone to save us from a muddy foot bath. Onwards and upwards we trudged towards the tree line and barren rocky slopes of the terminal moraine that marked the start of the climb over the pass. With a few spots of rain on our tent in the night we had been expecting the worst. Overhead “Lenticular” clouds were forming in the sky, and as we had learnt on our Antarctic trip, they only spelt one thing – high winds were on their way.

The way forward .. And up..

The way forward .. And up..


The glacial river below ...

The glacial river below …

John G was a straightforward kinda fella but nonetheless he did lead us along with a number of false summits on the way. We traversed the moraine, dropped back several times to the raging river below and back up amongst the craggy rocks and boulders, one step at a time, zig-zagging our way to the summit and over the saddle. At 1241m, it is the highest point on the Torres del Paine circuit and worth the slog…..

The astonishing view across to the colossal Glaciar Gray ahead and to the right, the vast edge of the Campo de Hielo Sur, the Southern Patagonian Ice fields. You could take a hundred photos and never quite capture it’s magic or immensity. Unreal and beyond amazing.

Looking towards the Hielo Sur

Looking towards the Hielo Sur


Time for the dreaded descent…..
Here’s the thing, you feel every step of effort ascending; lungs and calves screaming as you focus on placing one step at a time. Downhill can be just as gnarly and decidedly harder, as your legs start to shake with the effort of keeping upright in a wider leg stance, back leaning into the mountain, placing each step with care to avoid sliding and slipping your way down the next ten metres. I have what can only be described as an irrational (bordering on pathological) fear of steep descents and exposed ridges; basically when I feel I am not in control and start imagining the very worst with every small stone that dislodges and careens down the escarpment, bouncing off rocks as it makes it way to certain death. A touch melodramatic, I know.

The descent from Paso John Gardner was deemed difficult, a straightforward trail yet steep. In fact horrifically steep in places. Although I really don’t like being on exposed sections, on itsy-bitsy paths, the initial descent was ‘relatively’ easy, as we slipped and slid only a couple of times on our way back and forth the moraine to lower lengas forest. The views at each turn, almost more spectacular than the last, which gave us something to focus on rather than our stumbling feet.

Working our way through the forest was an altogether different story. Grab ropes and railings made from metal tubing were a godsend as the trail descended sharply through the evergreen forest, weaving back and forth; the ice field coming ever closer into view. Rocks, tree boughs, limbs and roots all played a part as we scrambled our way steadily, but slowly down. we were supremely grateful it was not raining as we could only imagine how slippery and treacherous it would be in poor conditions. Someone was definitely looking out for us on this trip!

Glaciar Gray and lake below

Glaciar Gray and lake below

Arriving at our next stop, Campamento Paso, we decided to push on to the next camp site; it was only 4.30pm and yet the small site, packed in either side of a bridged stream was already over flowing with tents. As we rounded the next slope, the trail opened out and we had the most amazing view of the snout of Glacier Grey with the Hielo Sur behind. Fuelled by the vista unfolding before us and a desire to make camp well before dusk, we almost skipped along the undulating wind blown path that hugged the mountain slopes.

The steep slopes gave way to an eerily pretty exposed section that had not yet recovered from a series of forest fires; stunted blackened trees lined either side of the path, ragged steps cut into the slopes and makeshift handrails kept walkers on course and away from the crumbling edges. The wind off the glaciers started to howl as we carried on towards the gullies and much talked about ladders we would need to climb up and down. Having seen some of the ‘maintenance’ carried out on the trail I had already started to worry what health and safety checks had been carried out on the ladders!

Up...

Up…


Down...

Down…


They were easier to climb up, rather than down, or it may have just been the first one (up) was shorter and felt much sturdier by a long shot. Gingerly leaning over, placing hands either side of the rail I did say a little prayer (as did Matt before me) as the pin holding the right hand rail visibly moved a fraction out of its holding plate. Clutching on for dear life, you could feel the weight of your rucksack catching gently in the wind with each slow (and for me, quite terrifying) movement down the ladder…

Back on solid ground, albeit it rocky boulders that lined the ravine, we got our second wind. Probably just as well, as the the next site was most definitely closed with tree branches covering the pitches, and for a very good reason… There was no longer a viable drinking supply close to the camp. Although we hadn’t planned to, we would have to push onto Refugio Grey. Either the path was easier or we were just pumped with adrenalin, but either way, we made it into camp, well before the sun set, pitched tent and hit the camp showers and shop… A sight for sore eyes with rows (and I mean rows) of luxury things you start to lust after when you are camping for a while. We settled for a litre of vino to celebrate our double walking day! We were gonna suffer tomoz!!

Blackcurant sun-days

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Torres and the odd tree ..

Torres and the odd tree ..

From Laguna Amargo, we set off at a fair ol’ pace in the company of Jan, a young chap from Germany, taking the slightly longer alternative route that took us along the rolling grassy floor of the valley; the path was easy to follow as we walked through scorched and twisted trunks of trees, a legacy of a careless trekker who had tried to burn his toilet paper/make camp many moons ago. The story changes depending on the teller, but the fact remains, the dry tinderbox landscape, with its scrubland, open grassy plains was prone to forest fires. Torres sadly had seen a few in the last decade.

Up and around gentle slopes, with stunted nirre trees and scrub revegetation, we crossed and recrossed little channels and streams, back onto the wide open river flats. Jan was heading onto the next refugio from us and had to reach our stop, Puesto Serron before 2pm, if he was to make to Dickson before sundown. Do-able, but meant he would have to push on ahead. Having swapped stories on our similar experiences on the West Coast trail, we said our goodbyes.

This way to Seron ....

This way to Seron ….

Charting the sunshine factor...

Charting the sunshine factor…

Earlier we had spotted the UV indicator board near the entrance to Park HQ; heads up on how sunny it would be and dutifully applied suntan lotion before we set off. As the sun climbed higher in the clear blue sky and we began to feel it’s heat, we stopped for a spot of lunch in the first place we could find with any shade, near the banks of the rushing Rio Paine. Pitta liberally spread with Philly cheese, slices of queso de oveja and lomo vertado, plum tomatoes… All that was missing was a chilled glass vino rosso!

Time to up the ante on the sun protection and get the big guns out – SPF50. What we hadn’t realised on our quick pharmacy dash was that as a hypoallergenic kid friendly version it was not just a delicate shade of puce in the tube…. It was tinted purple. Great, Matt looked like he was auditioning for a Ribena ad, and I, a poor cousin of a geisha girl… No more arguments as to whether or not it had been applied fully!

Meditating on benefits of SPF ..

Meditating on benefits of SPF ..

We rejoined the trail, following the burnt orange painted markers, mirroring the path of the river. Not long after, we began a game of tag with a small groups of trekkers all heading for the campsite, alternating pitstops along the broadening trail, now heading over meadowlands and pastures scattered with nirre woodland.

Our first official campsite came into view; a small simple structure that housed the bathroom (hot showers!) attached to a main building for those that preferred to have their meals cooked for them and chance the reputation of the care-keeper cum cook…who spent his spare time practising his tightrope walking between trees (!?!)

Campsite caracara

Campsite caracara

More trekkers arrived, tents started to pop up and as the sun began to set, the mozzies made their appearance. Happy sharing the campsite with the caracaras that wandered into camp, the mozzies were not a welcome addition. Perched around picnic tables, preparing our collective suppers was a great- ours a mix of Austrians and Americans, we chatted about were we were heading, our trip so far and traded travellers tales; it also meant covertly (or not) we could check out what the others were preparing for supper.

Having seriously liberally doused ourselves in “Jungle Formula” (post shower sweetness replaced with ‘Eau de Deet’) we were surprised they were going anywhere near us. While we were busy flapping our arms to keep them away, had admire Paul, a proper dude from New Mexico, who calmly let them hover, settle and ignored them. And they seemed to ignore him. Wasn’t working for me – I retreated to safer ground and zipped up the tent until it was time for supper – pasta with fresh Neapolitana sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan. 1- 0 to the mozzies.

Trekking in Torres

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We packed more keenly for our ten dayer in Torres; with extra rations and knickers required it was time to examine a little more minutely what we would use/need. Out went the thicker down gilet in favour of a smaller synthetic and lightweight version…. With the promise of a bed in the nearest refugio dorm if I got THAT cold at night, I was comfortable downsizing on a few extra ‘home comforts’.

Also unlike Fitz Roy, Torres del Paine had a number of serviced refugios along the circuit and in the well trafficked trek known as the “W”. In my mind this meant steamy hot showers, warming plates of meat stew and rice or potatoes on the nights we didn’t camp cook, washed down with the odd glass of good vino to aid sleep, of course. You get the picture. Reality was likely to be a different ball game as two different companies serviced the park and reviews were mixed.

Park ride

Park ride


A bone rattling ride took us into the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine; excitedly we checked out the real life gauchos riding alongside, on the dusty dirt road that led to the entrance. As we wound our way through the barren scrubland, we were met by unexpected views of the imposing and distinctive Torres, towers of batholic rock, part of the Paine massif and the pinnacles that form part of the infamous “W”. With the sun shining down on us, we reckoned were off to a pretty good start…
Weather report TDP style

Weather report TDP style


We stopped off at the Guarderia Laguna Amarga, to register at the park headquarters and listen to the brief. A far more formal set up than Fitz Roy, the pep talk was a little on the hurried side, as we were processed for park fees, directed into a room to watch a video on the do’s/don’ts and pick up the latest weather report and csmpsite info. Our hearts sank just a little as we saw the spike in the per km winds coming in. Beaufort scale of 6 was brewing on the day we were expecting to cross the pass!
Pretty as a picture... The Torres

Pretty as a picture… The Torres