Friday, 27 November 2015

La Marmita - Food to make you feel better

After the sad news of Laurie's death earlier this year, and yesterday's disturbing news of a close friend's serious condition, we decided to cheer ourselves up by enjoying some fresh fish (hake and salmon), and a delicious chocolate pyramid, at a nearby restaurant.

It was absolutely top notch in a town in which we weren't really expecting to find high end eateries. 

The ceviche we started with isn't pictured but was also absolutely delicious, as was the Pisco Sour.

We hope Robert and Lyn enjoy this posting, which finally brings us back up to date.

Punta Arenas

We were sad to leave The Singing Lamb. It was an excellent place to stay.

By the time we got up, our room mate had left for a day out to visit the Towers of Paine, so we breakfasted together with a guided Slovakian group who interrogated us on "why are Leicester top of the Premier League when we don't know any of their players?" I countered by way of a faux pas, saying that when I was last in Slovakia it was part of Yugoslavia! Oops.

The ten o'clock Bus-Sur service, one of seven buses a day on this route (which needed two coaches for this morning's passengers) saw us heading at a steady 50 mph on a well surfaced road on the 250 km or so route to Punta Arenas. Birds of prey floated over the stunted skeletons of what used to be trees, mingled with the two tone sight of trees in full, bright green leaf with pale green lichen clad branches.

The road was pretty flat, passing through a landscape of low trees that eventually gave out to a fairly barren zone with occasional wetlands full of birds - ibis, flamingo, Upland Geese,  oystercatchers, and numerous small ducks. In the distance, snow-capped mountains reminded us that we were still in the Andes region. A red-tummied Long-tailed Meadowlark sat proudly on a telegraph wire.

Police checkpoints were carefully negotiated (the bus slowed right down and was waved through) and two fighter jets flew past.

Bright yellow dandelions lined the roadside as far as the fences either side, beyond which rhea, of which we saw many today, and others grazers no doubt nibble the shoots before they have a chance to flower.

Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of the continent, was signposted but that wasn't our destination. Innata Casa hostel (more like a B&B, with just five rooms) is just around the corner from the bus terminus in the centre of Punta Arenas. We were welcomed after our three hour journey by Corina, from near Zurich, and Christian, a Twin Otter pilot. They are standing in for the owner who is away for a few days. And they are making a good job of it.

Admin sorted, tea drunk, lunch ingredients sourced at the Unimarc across the road, then we were all set for a stroll to the waterfront. Concrete tables and benches provide a solid venue for picnics, but crisps may blow away. Rock Cormorants and Imperial Cormorants, the latter with whiter necks, sat on a nearby pier in their hundreds, minding their own business with a smattering of skuas, petrels, fulmar and albatrosses.

Then a stroll into town revealed a central plaza with a statue of Ferdinand Magellan. Apparently if you stroke the toe of the Tehuelche Indian below Magellan, tradition has it that you will return to Punta Arenas. Monterey Cypresses grace the plaza, which seems surrounded by small palaces. It really doesn't feel like the bottom end of the world, more like a regular seaside resort.

We returned to the B&B to discover a message from Sarah Marshall, Laurie's sister. We hadn't heard from Laurie recently. We were very good friends with him for a long period and had some great times together before our interests diverged and he stopped coming on our walks. It was distressing to hear that he had died from cancer earlier this year. Very sad. A walk in memory of Laurie is taking place in Manchester on 5 December, starting at Simon's Bridge in the Mersey Valley at 5 pm and adjourning to the Didsbury pub at about 6 pm after scattering his ashes. Unfortunately we will still be in Chile.

Then we went to  a restaurant, La Marmita, to cheer ourselves up.

Today's pictures were taken in Punta Arenas. 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Puerto Natales (Episode 2)

25 November

A lazy day in Puerto Natales. Today's pictures are all taken around the town or on the seafront, which is littered with sculptures, Black-headed Swans, and Southern Lapwings.

It was another blue sky day in Patagonia. We now think it's a myth that people try to maintain that it can rain here, or that the weather can be windy, or even unpredictable.

We lunched at Café Kaiken, with Rosie, an outdoors instructor from Grizedale. She is now all set to walk the 'O' route, having been reassured by our 'tales from the back of the massif'.

Sue continues today's entry as follows:

"Café Kaiken provided our lunch again. For me, their Patagonia salad, with smoked salmon, avocado and sesame seeds as well as lots of lettuce. Martin and Rosie had the ceviche, also very good, just lacking the green leaves.

Heading back to the Singing Lamb around 2.30 pm, we transferred to our new room, where there is just one other person. Then, making the most of the sunny weather, we headed down the hill from the hostel, to the water. Puerto Natales is situated in a fjord, leading to Last Hope Sound, which, when the area was first explored, was hoped to be a passage to the Atlantic. It wasn't.

The wind was blowing but there were excellent views across the water to snowy hills, with glaciers evident on one in the distance. Stray dogs trotted around and lapwings were strolling on the grass.

Boards explained a bit of the history - Puerto Natales was established in only 1893.

Continuing along the coast below the town, there were boats, jetties, including the remains of an old one, just posts in the water, then many sculptures, including two people swinging above the waves. At the start of town, a large milodon stands in the middle of the road. Remains of this prehistoric mammal were found in a cave around 40 km from here.

We returned via the main plaza, a green square with the church standing at one side. Modern, in terms of churches, the interior was peaceful, painted pale blue with a claret ceiling, lit nicely by the sun today. The town must have grown from this area, as this is where the oldest buildings are located. One, now a hostel, was built in 1925, from materials brought from Spain. The Mesita Grande pizzeria restaurant, fifth picture down, is situated in one of the town's oldest buildings, just a hundred years old.

Back at the hostel, I booked accommodation for Puerto Montt, and investigated car hire, whilst Martin continued to struggle with postings.

The evening was very pleasant though. Back at the plaza, we followed a recommendation from Stuart who we met in El Chalten. El-Living was a cosy bar and vegetarian restaurant run by Jeremy, originally from Croydon, who has been here for 20 years. Their avocado crostini were delicious, Martin had broccoli soup with blue cheese, and we both enjoyed the vegetable roasted pumpkin curry. Their rhubarb (from the garden) and ginger cheesecake (with two spoons) was excellent.

Jeremy was happy to chat, so it was nearly 9.30 pm when we left, only then to see Anthony in the pizzeria! He had tried for 45 minutes to find it yesterday, only to get too hungry and find a burger instead!

Rosie's bag was packed for the circuit which she aims to do in 7 days, and we wished her luck before bed."

A message from Sharon and Rich explained their absence last night, due to an urgent appointment in Punta Arenas. Never mind, we'll see them again when they get back to the UK.

The evening was darkened somewhat by some very sad news from a good friend at home. Our thoughts are with you.

The Torres del Paine Circuit - Days 7 to 9

Day 7 - 22 November -  Refugio Dickson to Camping Los Perros
11 km, 500 metres ascent, 3.5 hours including stops

We slept well in the Refugio on a silent night, rising just before 8 for a pretty comprehensive breakfast, courtesy of Lallo and Luigo (?).

After picking up a slab of surplus cheese from the Americans, and admiring Mark's accentuated limp, we set off on today's short section up to our final campground of the circuit. (We won't be camping again but most of those walking the 'Q' route are camping all the way.)

Dog Orchids were soon encountered, standing in regimented rows like mini wind turbines.

It was cooler again after yesterday's heatwave, hat and gloves being donned by me, although Sue braved it in a t-shirt.

We passed through dark Lenga (High Deciduous Beech) woodland full of massive trees on a day of high cloud and sunny periods. Several river crossings were achieved with the aid of wooden bridges, and as we ascended views opened out back to Lago Dickson (top picture) and ahead to Glacier Los Perros.

The path generally followed the Rio Los Perros up the valley.

There were a few insects around in the still spots, a few birds but no woodpeckers, and a number of flowers including the bright red Waterfall Plant and Rainberry.

A short pause for a mug of water and a hunk of cheese was the only real break we needed on this easy woodland stroll.

Towards the end of the walk a steep moraine was climbed which was exposed to the chilly wind. Below lay a green lake, with ice pushed to one end by the wind. At the other end the blue ice of Glacier Los Perros was intermittently crashing into the lake. The second picture was taken from the top of the moraine.

We reached the campsite, sited in sheltered woodland, soon after 1 pm, the first of today's visitors. It was back to earth on which to pitch the tent. The front zip failed. Perhaps the 11 year old Nallo is due for retirement. It has served us well.

There's a huge enclosed cooking shelter, with three long tables. We quickly brewed up and watched the  local fox wander through the campsite, leisurely inspecting his domain, gently swishing his bushy black-tipped tail.

The shelter provided a social hub for the afternoon, with Mark, Cali and Andrew, Stefan  (from Austria), Terry (from Ireland), Daniel (from Brisbane), Anthony (Australian - scared of pumas, he saw one eating a horse on the way to Campo Serón) and several others - notably Gabrielle from Santiago and a horde of friendly Chileans and their soothing mood music. Later, they practiced tight-rope walking.

Sunlight streamed through the plastic roof of the shelter whilst a Ranger (Danni) took everyone's details and advised an early start for tomorrow's crossing of the 1180 metre John Gardner Pass. The weather forecast? "Unpredictable". The stock answer. It is supposed to be rainy and windy most of the time.

Our last Tesco dinner was consumed - soup, flavoured pasta, tuna, lots of parmesan, and hot chocolate. Then we watched the sun fall below the mountain horizon from a clear blue sky before adjourning to our diaries and Kindles in the tent on a windless evening.

Day 8 - 23 November -  Camping Los Perros to Refugio Grey
20 km, 1000 metres ascent, 8.5 hours including stops

An early start was encouraged, as this can be a tough day. Apparently the weather is usually 'unpredictable', which normally means 'wet and windy, very windy'.

So we woke at 6 and breakfasted in the large shelter with most of the other campers. Setting off at 7, shortly after the Americans, we ambled up through muddy woodland, our gaiters coming in handy for the first time on this trip. There weren't enough people on the trail today to make it seem crowded, and we knew all of them anyway. The Chileans had set off first. We caught them at the pass. Terry and Anthony were enjoying the ascent at the same time as us and the Americans.

After a while in the forest we emerged to a scene of windswept snow and rock. But the wind wasn't 'sweeping' today. Sue is pictured, third down, in her t-shirt with the snowy pass in the distance.

Fleeces were soon donned as the little breeze there was, was pretty cool. Looking back, we noticed that the green lake we passed yesterday had turned white, thanks to a massive icefall during the night.

Several easy snowfields later, we reached the broad 1180 metre John Gardner Pass. Grey Glacier stretched before us. It's shown in the fourth picture at the head of this posting. There's also a thin panoramic shot that attempts to show more of the glacier, 6 km wide at this point.

It had taken a little over two hours to reach the pass, renowned as one of the windiest places you can find to visit anywhere. We basked in the sunshine on the perfectly calm col. Today the only thing that might chase us down would be bugs, and there weren't many of those.

After half an hour of admiring the views and watching Terry behave like a child in a chocolate factory, we mosied on down towards the glacier. It was steep and slippery in places. Anthony just slid down on his bum; those of us with less robust knees exercised a little more care.

11.45 saw us at Campamento Passo. Time for a brew up and some lunch - pitta bread and soft cheese in tubes that we've carried from the start. Stefan was there and Terry soon appeared. He's very quick despite having various items hanging down from his rucksack and bouncing into the backs of his legs. "Isn't that uncomfortable?" asked Sue. "Yes" offered Terry. He's Irish.

After a 45 minute break we embarked on the walk down to Refugio Grey. A three and a quarter hour journey over about 8 km of very rough and undulating going. It used to take longer but two new suspension bridges make it much easier. Unless you suffer from vertigo, in which case they are pretty scary.

En route the Waterfall Plants were as pretty as ever, and we got great views of the snout of the glacier as we passed alongside and high above its left bank, above which scar lines indicated that it had once been much bigger. At a short diversion to a Mirador we watched a carving of the ice, leaving new icebergs and a small tidal wave.

Refugio Grey was reached at 3.45 pm, just beyond the campsite. Despite being clad in grey, it's cosy inside, where we have bunks in a room for four.

After varying success with showers we brewed tea in the camping kitchen, chatting with Stefan and Anthony and agreeing that the last few days walking around the back of the massif has the edge over the 'W' route, partly because there are far fewer people around the back. (We are now back in the 'Muppet' zone.)

As we lounged in the Refugio, a Chimango Caracara (medium sized bird of prey) stood on a chair next to the window and looked in longingly. So did Mark, Andrew and Cali. They succumbed, came in and we enjoyed beer o'clock with them followed by the Refugio's set meal of asparagus soup, chicken with mash, and pineapple sponge. Mark's damaged knee looks very painful.

Outside it is cloudier and breezier than of late.

Day 9 - 24 November -  Refugio Grey to Refugio Paine Grande
11 km, 400 metres ascent, 3 hours including stops

The two kayaking girls who shared our room were very quiet. They slept in whilst we got up and breakfasted, returning to the room to remove our possessions and pack our bags in a communal area.

After bidding farewell to the Americans and assorted other 'round the backers', we set off shortly after 8, from probably our favourite of the four refugios we stayed in. The penultimate picture shows Sue outside the refuge.

Today's best views were behind us to the snout of the Grey Glacier. Many stops were made to stroll across to miradors and take snaps like the final one in this posting.

We also had other pauses. We'd rejoined the Muppet zone - a single track highway of rude people (mainly guided) barging their way up to Refugio Grey for lunch.

Apart from that it was a beautiful walk in breezy weather with sunny periods, back to Refugio Paine Grande. We found the campers' vast cooking shelter and spent an hour there with Anthony before wending our way to the queue for the catamaran. We queued far too early and spent forty minutes in a rather breezy, sandy area. Our eyes are still smarting! There's plenty of room for everyone in the catamaran, and it's a case of 'last on, first off'.

The half hour ride took us to our Maria José bus, and the three hour ride back to Puerto Natales. The bus was extremely hot. Eagles soured and Guanaco watched.

The Singing Lamb welcomed us back and we enjoyed an excellent pizza at Mesita Grande restaurant. Sadly our guests, Sharon and Rich, Gary and Charlie, and Anthony all failed to put in an appearance, but we enjoyed the meal all the same, mainly in the fine company of Katie and Michael from near Sydney, with Sue later raving over her pannacotta.

Wifi - after a nine day break - might have put us in touch with the world, but after downloading a few message headings we were unable to get any service. Is it a provider problem or something else, I wonder.

I managed to make a comment using a hostel computer, but who knows whether anyone will look at that.

On then, after this most enjoyable nine day excursion, to the next phase of the trip. I hope you enjoy following our progress once a connection has been reestablished. (Which it must have been if you are reading this.)

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Magellan Orchid

Chloraea magellanica, locally known as Orchidea Porcelain, this is for David, the orchid man.


The Torres del Paine Circuit - Days 4 to 6

Day 4 - 19 November - Refugio Las Torres to Campo Torres, plus a side trip to view the Towers
11 km, 1000 metres ascent, 7 hours including stops

We rose with the Explore group couple. There was no hurry on the grey morning as we had a short day planned.

Breakfast was substantial. We couldn't manage it all. Caramel spread was an interesting ingredient.

We set off with our packed lunches bulging from the tops of our rucksacks at 9.20 am (again), after paying US $266 for the second time for the privilege of last night's accommodation. It's clear why some people stay outside the Park and get bussed in every day. They will try to find Sue's first payment and refund us if they can track it down. In the meantime it's just as well we have loads of US dollars, which is the preferred currency at the Refugio.

Making our way up the glacial moraine towards Refugio Chileno, we paused after an hour to enjoy the view back down the valley. Sharon and Rich turned up, providing the first of a number of natural breaks that we enjoyed today. They had started early from Campo Torres and watched sunrise on the Towers. They are a day ahead of us now, so we won't see them again on this walk. We planned a rendezvous in Puerto Natales. We hope that works out.

A little further along the excellent path, came Gary and Charlie. They had also been to the Towers, and they are also a day ahead. We invited them to gatecrash our party in Puerto Natales.

Refugio Chileno came into view. Chris was outside, eulogising about the fine view of sunrise in the opposite direction to the Towers.

We adjourning to the cooking area for a brew and 'half lunch'. It was cool compared with the heat inside the Refugio, where much beer was being quaffed. For many folk spending 4 to 5 days here, this is the final part of their 'W' route. Many would be leaving for Puerto Natales on a lunchtime bus. Chris is another person we won't see again.

Beyond the Refugio the path leads pleasantly up through woodland. A bridge (pictured - top) was crossed before reaching the campsite after an hour or so. It was virtually empty. We found the good spot (second picture down) recommended by Sharon and Rich. The tent was soon up and another 'half lunch' - a rather indigestible beef and lettuce roll - was ingested.

Then it was a 45 minute, 300 metre, climb without the encumbrance of our luggage, to the top of a moraine and a fine view across a lake to the Towers of Paine. On the way we met a very jolly Canadian couple who we encountered at breakfast. (Another natural break.)

The Towers were partially, from time to time, visible across the lake. We met the American / Canadian couple with whom we dined last night. They had been up there for three hours waiting in vain for a view. A stalwart effort. We chatted for a while, and later when we caught them up on the descent. They are Jeff and Julie, observant enough to discuss various items of gear, varying from Suunto watches to Berghaus Paclite overtrousers  and Pacerpoles. Very few people spot or show interest in the Pacerpoles, which surprises me. Julie is a physiotherapist, which perhaps explains her interest. Sadly we won't see them again on this trip, but we do hope to meet again either in Canada or the UK, or maybe both.

We spent the best part of an hour watching rockfalls, a scavenging fox, and soaring eagles. The Towers offered occasional glimpses. Then it was quickly back to camp, now quite busy but not a patch on Campo Italiano. The cooking shelter was crowded but convivial, with a multitude of nationalities dominated by Brits and Canadians. Our risotto with added tuna and blue cheese dressing was delicious.

Meanwhile the camp warden juggled outside his sharp sided house with three large knives.

Day 5 - 20 November - Campo Torres to Campo Serón, plus another side trip to view the Towers
23 km, 700 metres ascent, 13 hours including 5 to 6 hours stops

Sue's alarm went off at 4 am. We left the tent at 4.20 and joined a parade of headlamps heading up to see sunrise at the viewpoint across the lake from the Towers, where we had been yesterday afternoon. Folk ascending from Refugio Las Torres must have had to get up before 3 am.

Soon the first daylight allowed torches to be stashed, but it got colder as we rose to reach the viewpoint around 5 am. About 15 minutes too early.

Today's pictures, the third and fourth down, are of the sunrise that is the climax of many visits to this area. My hands and feet were extremely cold.

Some people bring sleeping bags and mats on which to watch the sunrise. Entertainment was provided when one of these mats was blown away. It made a very passable impersonation of a demented circling eagle before disappearing into the heavens.

We heard that it was one person's fourth attempt at seeing the Towers at sunrise. Fourth time lucky. They are usually in cloud.

After 30 to 40 minutes in the icy, windswept broken boulders choked with snow, and many photos later, a quick descent back to camp. And a welcome breakfast.

We took our time packing up from our earthen pitch, then embarked on the pleasant path to reach the warmth of  Refugio Chileno after less than an hour. Coffees were welcome as we chatted with Nick and Jess. It's their last day in this area, which they are visiting as part of a two week holiday. They will have got a bus to Punta Arenas this afternoon. It must be galling for them to know that the vast majority of people they have met here are on much much longer trips.

N and J and a Canadian couple were good company on the easy path down to Refugio Las Torres.

Then we endured the next episode of the lost booking saga. Sue had paid for full board tonight at Refugio Las Torres. They had failed to locate either of her bookings through fantasticosur, made and paid for back in around June. And unfortunately we have no proof with us that Sue made a booking.

We decided to have lunch - a three course meal comprising very tasty local dishes, at the Refugio and then continue to the campground at Serón. We would have just enough food and gas for the extra night's camping.

Lunch - '12 to 2' was based on Chilean time. It started at 1.20. But the receipt for our extra payment for Wednesday's accommodation etc, took even longer to produce.

Eventually we set off again at 2 pm after a two and a half hour break, on the gently undulating path, including the crossing of marshy areas and numerous small streams and passages through woodland. The weather was fine with sunny periods and just a smidgen of cloud on the summits. We saw five other people in the three and a half hours we spent on the winding trail. Bliss.

Eventually we descended to walk beside a wide river, the path taking us through grassland and wooded areas, with the occasional grazing horse. Upland Geese and Southern Lapwings were in residence. High mountains towered in the distance. It was great to be on a good but quiet path.

Campo Serón was reached at around 5.30. It's a great spot. There is grass on which to camp, and a pretty clean area for cooking, with large new picnic tables under cover. After the statutory brew-up  (Yorkshire tea), we managed to cobble together a good bowl of tortellini in mushroom sauce with parmesan cheese, followed by hot chocolate. So that's our 'emergency provisions' gone.

We are pleased to have come here rather than stay at Refugio Las Torres. It's a calm, sociable place with a sunny disposition. We talk about favourite destinations with a variety of like minded folk. We seem to have lost the trainers and jeans brigade (the Muppets, as Sharon so eloquently described them).

That's because we have left the 'W' route that most people do and have embarked on the 'reverse Q' route that will take us around the back of the Paine massif. 

Another advantage of continuing from the Refugio is that tomorrow's walk is rather shorter than the 31 km endurance test we'd originally planned!

Day 6 - 21 November - Campo Serón to Refugio Dickson
19 km, 500 metres ascent, 6 hours including stops

I woke to the sound of chirpy birdsong, Sue's snoring and melodic Chilean music in the background. It was perfectly calm. The sun was drying the condensation on the tent. Apparently it had been a frosty night. A blue sky day with no vapour trails.

Breakfast (pictured 5th down) was a leisurely affair despite us having to rummage for ingredients, after which we got going on the riverside path at 9.40 am.

This delightful path undulated over a couple of bluffs after crossing meadows with no livestock.

The remainder of today's posting is based on Sue's diary.

... We climbed to a shoulder, past flaming red shrubs. Below was the lazy blue-grey river. It was hot, as there was little wind. (The bottom picture was taken near here.) A lake was soon passed and from a shoulder was a view of Lago Paine, with snow covered mountains lining the horizon.

A descent followed, in and out of trees, crossing small streams. In many places dandelion clocks awaited a breeze to disperse the seeds. The flowers were a feature of today, with Magellan Orchids and lots of others, including the Wild Blue Pea, plantains, stitchworts, buttercups, pasque flowers, thrift, Streaked Maiden, clovers and more orchids.

There was a large area of bright red compact prickly bushes, bursting into flower. Then copses of low knarly trees looking like wind blown skeletons, and the musky smell of airborne pollen.

There were relatively few folk on the trail. We got to know the Americans, Andrew and Cali, and Cali's father Mark, who has joined his daughter for a short part of her six month break.

Half way along today's 19 km route was Coiron, a guarderia, with a dome tent (very warm inside) and a couple of toilets. We completed the record (our passport numbers are now committed to memory) and munched a few nuts.

We haven't carried water, as there are sufficient streams that a handy mug provides a cool drink at regular intervals.

The afternoon was less undulating and the views were stupendous. All around were snow-capped mountains, and now we were seeing the back of the Paine massif. Large cliffs of granite divided the dark, jagged volcanic rock.

A section of boardwalk crossed an area of marshland. In the distance a huge glacier tumbled. It turned out to be north of Lago Dickson, where tonight's refugio is located. A last moraine provided a lovely view over Lago Dickson and the refuge and camping ground.

A lone iceberg floated in the lake. Later, Daniel swam out to it, climbed on, and swam back - he was suffering and only just made it! Then the iceberg rolled over and fell apart.

Refugio Dickson is small compared with the others we have visited. We have a dormitory for six to ourselves. Our booking is recognised - we were expected. We showered immediately after arriving around 4.45 pm, which was lovely. Washing was done, and hung on a sunny line. We brewed on a picnic table in the camping area (excellent pitches), looking down the lake to the ice at its end, and chatting with the Americans.

Avoiding insects (not really many to speak of) we adjourned to the cosy lounge in the refuge. Dinner was asparagus soup, a beef and rice dish, and brownies with a caramel sauce. It was delayed slightly by the chef's desire to take full advantage of sunbathing weather.

Outside, a mother Lapwing was trying to teach a small chick survival lessons.

Then further socialising before the Americans adjourned to their rather too thin sleeping bags.

The Torres del Paine Circuit - Days 1 to 3

Day 1 - 16 November - CONAN Administración (Lago Toro) to Refugio Paine Grande
17 km, 300 metres ascent, 5 hours including stops

The day started, for the third day running, with a bus ride. But not before Fasthosts finally got their server running just before 7 am, hence the last posting just made it, then we said goodbye to Internet access for nine days. So I've decided to group the postings into three chapters, each covering three days, with two pictures from each day.

Today's pictures, the top two, comprise:

1 A photo from the bus as we passed in front of the Towers of Paine, and
2 A view towards the Paine massif from our walk in.

Lots of Guanaco were passed during the scenic bus ride. One of them had a baby and another was trotting alongside a South American Grey Fox. As usual, Upland Geese and Southern Lapwings lined the verges. At the entrance to the National Park (various formalities and a payment equivalent to £18 each) two eagles circled high over the proceedings. Lower down, the ubiquitous smaller birds of prey were up to their usual acrobatic antics.

Some folk left the bus, one of five or six that does this trip every day, at the entrance to the Park. The bus then continued to Pudeto, from where it's a half hour journey by catamaran to Refugio Paine Grande. The bus emptied, apart from us and a random girl. Half an hour later, at the end of the road for the bus, we were at Administración with our rucksacks and walking poles. After more 'Park Admin', and in my case rucksack repacking, we were on our way, nearly. Sharon and Rich arrived on a later bus. We paused to swap cameras for some photos before Sue and I set off and S and R went to be 'processed'.

The five hour walk to the Refugio was a delight. Here's Sue's take on it:

'We set off towards the Paine massif at noon. Remarkably, it was fairly calm, with broken sunshine and high cloud. The path started across flat grassland. Around 1pm we had a bite of lunch. Hares were common. After an hour and three quarters we passed Campo Las Carretas and a small stream where water was picked up. Beyond that the path undulated past vivid red Fire Bushes above the steel grey, fast flowing Rio Grey.

There were plenty of flowers, from Lady's Slipper Orchids, Dog Orchids, Common Yellow Violets, Streaked Maiden, Wild Blue Pea, to Native Anemones and Buttercups.

A loud crack revealed an avalanche from one of the glaciers - the resulting cloud of snow showed its location.

Sadly, there were a few areas of blackened trees, perhaps the reason for very tight rules in the Park relating to fires. We risk a heavy fine and a prison sentence just for brewing up beside the trail.

Sharon and Rich joined us and the last few kilometres passed quickly as we chatted. At Mirador Pehoé, we looked down on Lake Pehoé - it was a breezy spot, and the weather was becoming cloudier. The last part of the walk was beside the lake, over a bridge, and over a rise to Refugio Paine Grande, a large brown building with a city of tents behind it.

We were just in time, as the first of a series of showers arrived as we reached the Refugio.'

Sue and I were just in time anyway, but Sharon and Rich would need another couple of hours to reach Campo Italiano. They were good company today. We hope to see them again.

Meanwhile, having paid US $190 for full board at the Refugio, we thought we'd best stay put. We are in a dormitory with four others, where we need to use our sleeping bags. There are signs apologising for the lack of hot water. We enjoy tea and coffee in the bar, then Pisco Sour, a drink recommended by many. It was great. We have no idea of its components.

Dinner was served in a large canteen, where we collected various ingredients on a tray, very much in Canadian Ski Marathon banquet style. A woman several inches taller than Robert towered over us in the queue. We sat next to Kunal and Rajni and their guide. He'd been telling them about a walk in Italy, and didn't seem at all upset that we knew more about walking in Italy than he did. The evening was spent in front of a log fire in a room with fine views to the mountains and across the lake.

Day 2 - 17 November - Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano, with a side trek to Mirador Britanica and back
18 km, 800 metres ascent, 7 hours including stops

The four others in our dorm were French. They rustled crisp packets in a way that only the French and Graham Stevens have mastered, but we were awake anyway and they were polite.

Breakfast was substantial, as was our packed lunch.

We were not in a hurry. We watched as groups of walkers kitted up to brave the elements. It looked cold and windy outside, on a grey day with low cloud.

We got going around 9 am, on a pleasant but crowded trail. The trail also has crowds of hares, giant by UK standards, seemingly dashing about in a confused manner. There are lots of guided groups. The guides have a tough job! There is only one trail - a groove from which you are not allowed to stray. Junctions are clearly signposted. Posts regularly indicate latitude and longitude (but beware of these, a number of them are incorrectly positioned). It is impossible to get lost. We haven't bothered to buy a map although we do have the excellent Cicerone guide written by Rudolph Abraham.

The upper reaches of the Paine massif were engulfed in cloud which merged with the snowy lower slopes on the grey day. It took us two and a quarter hours to reach our destination, just 7 km from our starting point.

Campamento Italiano is a 'Free Camp'. There is no charge. Facilities comprise a toilet and a cooking shelter. Cooking in your tent is not permitted. A sign points to the river, for water. The Chileans are proud of their healthy river water.

There's a cabin manned by a Park Ranger. You have to sign in, and you are allowed to stay only one night.

We bagged a flat earthen pitch at the edge of the site. Soon we had neighbours - less than a metre away - some friendly Canadian girls. Space is at a premium here and our Nallo is one of the larger tents.

We enjoyed half a lunch and at 12 noon set off up towards Mirador Britanica. There used to be a campsite there, and the trail went a further kilometre up the hill, but nowadays both the trail and the campsite are closed.

The weather was fair. Birds flitted about in much closer proximity than in the UK. Commonest were Rufuos-collared Sparrow and Austral Blackbird. We also noticed Patagonian Sierra Finches, the Thorn-tailed Rayadito (a sort of tree creeper) and a Magellanic Woodpecker with its distinctive crimson head. And more.

Sharon and Rich were coming the other way. They had seen nothing but fog after the first Mirador on the 5.5 km trail. We soon reached that viewpoint and devoured the second half of our lunch. The mountains were still largely in cloud, but there were fine views down Lake Nordenskjöld.

High above, one of several large avalanches we saw today.

After a brief snowstorm the weather had cleared. We found ourselves gazing up to lofty peaks surrounding us in a vast amphitheatre. At the circa 800 metre high point we enjoyed a few minutes in the company of Gary and his son Charlie, from Norfolk. The views were stupendous.

The easy walk down was marred only by Sue temporarily mislaying her poles and my need to test certain characteristics of the local type of moss. Enough said.

We hadn't been looking forward to dinner in the rather messy cooking area, but we managed to get a corner of a picnic bench that was otherwise occupied by a delightful group of twelve Chileans. We hope you find these words and make a comment, and we really did enjoy your company over dinner.

Today's pictures, the third and fourth from the top:

3 Looking back to Refugio Paine Grande from this morning's path
4 A small selection of the many summits visible from near Mirador Britanica.

Day 3 - 18 November - Campamento Italiano to Refugio Las Torres
17 km, 500 metres ascent, 7.5 hours including stops

We slept well at the quiet site, despite it being full of tightly packed tents. I did wake a few times to itch at the multitude of bites I seem to have picked up at Refugio Paine Grande.

A leisurely departure on a fine, calm morning, saw us heading past the 'Chile's are better than Argentina's' toilets to an undulating footpath beside the turquoise waters of Lago Nordenskjöld.

Fire Bushes were the plant that dominated the day. They are, shall we say, ubiquitous in these parts, like bright red honeysuckle.

The single file path was crowded with people coming the other way. Lots of 'guided' groups as always, trying not to get lost! There are also 'Pack Carriers' - not real Sherpas but regular guys, mainly students, from places like Santiago who make a holiday income from portering two packs at a time for lazy rich tourists. The packs are distinctively stashed one above the other in brightly coloured waterproof containers that tower over the wearer's head. These guys, despite their heavy loads, are some of the more courteous on the trail. It won't surprise you to hear that, with some exceptions, the guided groups are the rudest.

Lovely birdsong, waves crashing on the pebble beaches of the lake, and a cool following wind, all featured.

Half an hour after our 9.20 am start we passed the platforms of Camping Frances. Our next landmark was Refugio Los Cuernos, where we failed to get a coffee as the staff were all in a meeting. However, the campsite reception had a superb indoor picnic area, so we brewed up. 11.20 am. We chatted at length to Chris, a 25 year old Londoner, and his two Chilean mates. Time passed. Lunch was taken. It was nearly 1 pm by the time we set off on the 11 km leg to Torres.

There were fewer people about now, but also some horses, with grauchos in the saddle and horses in tow carrying rucksacks. Good views of the mountains to our left, with only the very tops draped in cloud. There was a bitter wind that didn't deter Sue from walking in her t-shirt.

Approaching Torres we encountered Jeff and Tori, from near Indianapolis. They had spent some time with Peter and Dorothy. We were sorry to hear that Peter had lost his phone. Later we dined with a Canadian / American couple who had been just about to pick up a dropped phone when a horse trampled it.

Refugio Las Torres was located at the far end of the Torres complex, which also features a large hotel and a campsite.

Unfortunately the Refugio had no record of Sue's booking. Nor did Sue have any substantive evidence of it other than her entry on the trip spreadsheet. She had paid over £300 for two nights accommodation. Her bank account password wasn't available. After about an hour the staff took pity on us and found us space in a dormitory, and we were given some meal tickets. Next episode tomorrow....

It was good to get a hot shower and wash some clothes, and the meal was fine. We are sharing a room with people on a trip organised by Explore. They had an epic crossing of the high pass (Passo John Gardner) that we are due to cross in a few days' time. The group got split up, porters were injured, and two bags have still to be recovered. It sounds shambolic, but apparently the guide saved the lives of an ill-equipped couple who were not on the Explore trip. It's a trip we nearly booked on. It sounds as if they need to look after their porters better.

Today's pictures, the bottom two, feature the beach at Lake Nordenskjöld and Fire Bushes overlooking the same lake.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Puerto Natales

15 November

Another bus ride. This time we left El Calafate at 6 am and arrived at Puerto Natales around noon. It's further south, so the days are even longer here - daylight lasts almost until 10. In fact the daylight hours are very similar to those in Scotland in May.

The road rose to around 800 metres, where we drove through slush for many miles in a white, foggy landscape. And it wasn't only the windows that were fogged up.

We'd hoped for a coffee stop and had saved 70 pesos for the purpose, having swapped our excess 3000 pesos for €200. That did us a favour, and Tom and Natalie, a German couple, needed some currency. They gave us a good rate, so as they were on the same bus we gave them our remaining few pesos as the bus didn't stop until leaving Argentina. The two drivers managed to swap over whilst the bus was travelling at 50 mph.

So we arrived in Chile. Our position at the front of the bus saw us accepted into the country at the head of the queue. Our dried food was declared and was deemed acceptable, so we finally had chance to enjoy a coffee whilst others queued to be let in.

This was at Cerro Castillo, where condors or eagles soared high above and most of the passengers left to enter the Torres del Paine National Park on day trips or backpacking treks. Along with a few others, we had chosen to go A bit further on the bus, to Puerto Natales. This fits in with our longer term plans.

Our hostel, The Singing Lamb, is excellent. We dumped our bags there and enjoyed lunch in Café Kaiken, where we met Rich and Sharon, an English couple on a long trip. Our salads were great.

The afternoon was taken up largely by a talk from one of the staff at another hostel, Erratic Rock. It was helpful and illuminating. Lots of folk then braved the bitter weather to lay siege on the local supermarket.

A domestic session washing clothes, sorting food, etc, was followed by a very nice meal at Carlitos.

We have another bus ride in the morning, when we return to the park to embark on a nine day backpacking circuit. We are assured there will be no wifi or phone signal, so we now need to sign off for nine days, I think.

Sod's law dictates that the Fasthosts server that we rely on seems to be down, preventing us from communicating with the outside world. So it may be nine days before you receive this missive.

Today's pictures are from the bus, of lunch (for Robert and Lyn) and our accommodation and room before our gear bomb hit it.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Laguna Nimez Bird Reserve, El Calafate

Still 14 November

We spent several hours in the delightful presence of the denizens of this bird reserve, involving about a 7 km circular walk from our base at America del Sur Hostel.

It was a perfect way to spend a day with no particular agenda before returning to the luxury of the hostel.

The Reserve was created in 1986 to preserve:
  • wetlands with reeds that offer protection for nesting and breeding of many species, 
  • swamped grasslands where ducks and shore birds feed and rest, 
  • and shrubby Patagonian steppe that provides food and home to birds and small vertebrates.
(Add the usual blurb for such places.)

A list of 77 bird species presented something of a challenge. "You could see between 20 and 30" said the wardens, "we counted 23 when we walked round the other day".

We were up for that challenge on an otherwise lazy day. Just for the record, we spotted the following:

Black-faced Ibis (ubiquitous and noisy)
Chilean Flamingoes (lots)
Coscoroba Swan
Upland Goose
Crested Duck
Chiloe Wigeon
Andean Ruddy Duck
Red Shoveler
Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle
Cinereous Harrier
Chimango Caracara (with many spectacular fly past/bombing raids)
White-winged Coot
Southern Lapwing
Wilson's Phalarope
Kelp Gull
Scale-throated Earthcreeper
Austral Canastero
Spectacled Tyrant
Austral Negrito
Grass Wren
Patagonian Mockingbird
Correndera Pipit
Rufuos-collared Sparrow
Austral Blackbird
Long-tailed Meadowlark

plus others we aren't sure about...

The pictures were taken in the reserve. The birds are the Upland Goose and the Southern Lapwing. 

Happy Days...

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Another Bus Ride

14 November

Snow plastered peaks are slowly left behind as we move from rain to rain shadow on the coach ride back to El Calafate.

The driver sheds three layers of clothing and consumes a flask of maté provided by his mate.

Cattle, horses and sheep chew on the tough grasses of the steppe as we travel alongside Lago Viedma.

Herds of Guanaco and flocks of rhea are passed. Apparently the male rhea look after the chicks. We spotted one surrounded by a kindergarten of twenty or so.

I ponder the size of the 'lamb' in last night's stew. A 'micro-lamb? Or a large guinea pig?

Flamingos paddle in the roadside ponds.
Dessicated corpses straddle the low fence beside the road. Guanaco can't be good hurdlers.

Our view back across Lago Viedma reveals a rainbow where Fitzroy should be.

A quick break for coffees and a potato fritte at Hotel La Leona, then on past barren wind sculpted formations rising gently to maybe 1000 metres above the road.

White fronted geese and colourful birds of prey line the verge as we approach our destination.

We reach El Calafate by 11 am. Time for the most expensive coffees* of the entire trip (including Paris).

Then it's a short stroll back to America del Sur Hostel.

The pictures:
Approaching Hotel La Leona
Two images of 'Steppe Country'
The most expensive coffee bar in El Calafate
Typical El Calafate architecture

* A redeeming feature was a row of books on which shelf I found a volume called 'Six Great Ideas' published in 1981 by Mortimer J Adler. Academics like HMP3 may remember it. It reminded me of some US based management courses I attended around that time. According to Adler there are three ideas we judge by - Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and three ideas we act on - Liberty, Equality and Justice.

I rest my case!