Saturday, 29 December 2012

Chilly in Chile

Reunited with our faithful Ithaca, it was time to hit the road for our first truck journey, and our first bushcamp.  As everyone settled into the truck and started to explore the many goodies on board – fridge, library, games, stereo to name a few – we headed south.

Our first bushcamp was definitely memorable…  Patagonian weather is unpredictable and often extreme, with bright sunshine one minute and a howling snow storm the next.  And so it was that we found ourselves setting up camp in a wild storm!  It was clear that several of the group were wondering what they had got themselves into with this camping lark as they desperately tried to hold onto their tents that were in danger of sending themselves, Mary Poppins-style, over the surrounding hills, not to mention the fact that we all ended up soaking wet!  And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, it was over.  The wind died down, the rain stopped and the sun even made a brief appearance.  Four seasons in one day?  Try one hour.

After finally getting camp set up and changing out of damp clothes, we enjoyed our first truck meal, soup followed by spaghetti bolognaise.  A warming feast that restored spirits.

The next day we had our first border crossing of the trip, from Argentina into Chile.  It was a fairly gentle introduction to borders, although Chile’s strict quarantine laws make it impossible to take fresh food across the border so a customs inspection gave everyone the chance to practice loading and unloading the back luggage locker.  And then with the thunk of a stamp, we were in, and our journey continued.  A quick shop to stock up on supplies for the coming days, and we headed for the Torres del Paine National Park and our lovely campsite on the shores of Lago Pehoe. 

Torres del Paine is considered to be one of South America’s best national parks and for many of our group, the opportunity to “hike the W” was something they had planned for many months.  The network of refugios (huts and hostels) along the route make it possible to do a multiple-day hike carrying only your day bag, or there are campsites for those hardier soles keen to carry their own tents and food.  And so 15 of the group set off on the 4-day, 3-night hike.  Here is what they looked like before…

And after…

We are delighted to say that everyone successfully completed the hike, and all came back elated, if not a little stiff and sore.  The highlight?  Well, for some the highlight was having the opportunity to hike amongst stunning scenery and soaring granite peaks.  For others it was the feeling of achievement at having completed such an epic hike.  But for most, the highlight was the views over the incredible tower peaks which they reached on the last morning.

For those not keen on a multiple day hike, there were plenty of options for shorter hikes, or no-hiking-required boat trips.  Vanessa, Pete and Kirsten headed off on a day hike to Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier, which can be reached in an 8-hour round trip hike.  Mikkel and Anthony combined the Lago Grey hike with a quick foray into the Valle Frances as well, while Karen and Steve opted for a boat trip on Lago Grey to see the glacier up close.

Leaving Torres del Paine hopped on the ferry across the Magellan Straits, happily avoided the surrounding storms and found a lovely bushcamp with views over the straits where we were rewarded by a lovely sunset.  Then it was time to say farewell to Chile (at least for the moment) and return to Argentina, heading for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, and the self-proclaimed “Fin del Mundo” (end of the world). 

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The other side of Patagonia

This is perhaps what most of us expected when we thought of “Patagonia” – mountains, glaciers and lakes, and our time in Los Glaciares National Park has definitely delivered!

We started in the southern section of the park, staying for 3 nights in the town of El Calafate. Looking a bit like a ski village, the town is full of camping stores and adventure tour operators offering a range of ways to experience the nearby park. The area’s most famous attraction is the Perito Mereno Glacier.

This glacier is remarkable for a number of reasons – unlike most of the world’s glaciers, this one is advancing not receding, and it is very active, moving up to 2m per day – the result is that you can observe spectacular “calving” where chunks of the face of the glacier break off and crash into the lake below. The location of the glacier means that it is possible to see the face from land, and an extensive system of walkways gives a great variety of observation points.
Lesley, Jeanne & Terry
Sue, Vanessa, Lisa & Heather
Jane & Colin
Some of the group chose to experience the glacier from the lake as well, doing a short boat trip on the lake which allowed them to get a perspective on the height of the face, which dwarfs the boats below. 
Another way to experience the glacier is to walk on it, which Geoff and Tony headed off to do.

Tony getting his crampons fitted
Tony in the ice cave
Patagonian lamb is a local speciality – you know another meat feast is on the way when this greets you at the entrance to the restaurant:
Colin, Jane, Jeanne & Ken
After a lovely couple of days in El Calafate, we boarded a bus (for the last time before the truck joined us!) to the small town of El Chalten. The town was only established in 1985, and it retains a real “frontier town” feel, with wide windswept streets and small town friendliness. The town proclaims itself to be the “national capital of trekking”, and that is what brings everyone here – the opportunity to explore the surrounding mountains on foot. There are a number of treks available, from short, flat 1 hour hikes, to multiple day hikes, something for everyone really.
Heather, Lisa, Sue, Vanessa & Anthony
The view from our accommodation in El Chalten
On our first day, most of the group decided to set off on the trek to Laguna Torre which was recommended as the most sheltered of the walks, and with windspeeds of over 40kmh expected, sheltered sounded like a good idea! It was a spectacular walk, offering fantastic views of Cerro Fitz Roy (Mount Fitz Roy), and Cerro Solo, and a surprising variety of terrain and environments from windswept (bit of a theme in this part of the world) rocky outcrops, lush woods and sandy scrublands.  Our efforts were rewarded by views over Lago Torre and the Grande Glacier. Estimates vary as to how long the walk actually was (anywhere from 22km to 30km), but safe to say that everyone was very pleased to sit down and take their boots off at the end of the day, many of us reconvening in the Cerveceria (micro brewery) to compare aches and pains!
Robin on his first (and last) ever trek
Ken, Jeanne & Robin
Tony, Ken, Mikkel, Robin, Jeanne, Lesley, Neil, Terry, Geoff & Heather

For some, the walk signalled the beginning and end of their trekking ambitions, and for others, it was just a warm up for the “W” trek in Torres del Paine the following week. There were treks available to suit anyone really, with walks to a viewpoint over Viedma Lake, and the lovely Chorillo del Salto waterfall being great shorter options, and plenty of longer treks for the keener (and fitter) amongst us.

Sue & Jeanne
El Chalten is the gateway to the Viedma Glacier, and so spurred on by Geoff and Tony’s reports of the ice trekking in El Calafate, Lisa and Anthony headed off onto the ice for a great day which culminated to Lisa's delight with a Baileys served on glacier ice (although Anthony was hoping for the whisky that Geoff and Tony had enjoyed at the end of their trek in El Calafate!).

El Chalten was also where we were finally united with Ithaca and reunited with Pete and Graham.  Having driven 3,000km in super quick time, they had arrived a bit earlier than expected and it was a very welcome surprise, and we were all ready to start the next part of our epic journey!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Having a whale of a time

For many, the word “Patagonia” conjures up images of glaciers, lakes and mountains, but our journey through this region so far has shown us a different aspect of this southern region of Argentina (which also extends into Chile) – the Patagonian Steppe.  This area, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Andes mountains to the west is also known as the Patagonian Desert, is the 7th largest desert in the world.  With an annual rainfall of only 200mm (compared with over 6,000mm in parts of the Andes), the landscape is dominated by endless grassy plains and small shrubs, with extensive grazing of cattle and sheep.  It is perhaps surprising then that within this environment sits the Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes which is considered to be Argentina’s premier wildlife experience.  And it certainly didn’t disappoint, providing us with a fantastic day of wildlife viewing under a brilliant blue sky.
Valdes Peninsula coastline
The roads through the reserve - plenty of wide open spaces
Starting out early on Saturday morning, our guide Martin and our driver Roberto picked us up from our hostel and we drove to the reserve.  Martin was a fantastic guide – plenty of information delivered with a touch of humour – and we all started to learn more about the flora and fauna of the reserve. 
As well as being a wildlife reserve, the peninsula is also grazing land, and the wildlife co-exists with sheep, cattle and horses.  In order to allow the wildlife to cross farm boundaries, the fences have been specially designed – slightly lower than standard fences to allow the guanacos (llama-like animals) to jump the fences, which they can do from a standing start, and with a slightly larger gap between the ground and the first string of wire, to allow the ground animals to pass underneath.
Guanacos - tony
We stopped briefly at the information centre where we were able to see the skeleton of one of the reserve’s major drawcards, the Southern Right Whale.
Colin & Heather with the Southern Right Whale skeleton
From there we headed out into the reserve to Caleta Valdes where there is a colony of Magellanic penguins.  It was lovely to watch them interact with each other, and they didn’t appear to mind our presence at all, watching us with equal interest.
Who doesn't love penguins?


Cousin to the albatross, this was one big bird!
Continuing through the reserve, we headed for the southernmost point, Punta Delgada, which is home to a permanent colony of elephant seals.  Although the males are currently out at sea, the females and their calves can be found lazing on the shore.  These huge creatures can reach 5m in length and several tonnes in weight.  Their name comes from the large “nose” on the males which are used as megaphones to allow them to call to the females and intimidate the other males so as to secure their harem during breeding season.
Punta Delgada lighthouse
Elephant seals
Elephant seal - tony
Hard to capture in a photograph the noise that accompanies this seal's open mouth! 
Stunning coastline
Heading down to the beach
group - tony
Angela, Steve, Karen, Heather, Anthony and Neil

Nope, they aren't rocks on the water's edge!


The seals weren’t the only attraction, with Mikkel continuing his wildlife capture and release programme with a lizard, and Robin spotting a huge tarantula!

While driving through the reserve, we also found a mara (an endemic rodent), a Darwin’s Rhea (similar to an emu or ostrich), and a burrowing owl.
Mother and baby Mara
Mother and baby Rhea, superb camouflage
The burrowing owl comes in to land
The park’s main attraction from July to December are the Southern Right Whales who come into the protected bays around the peninsula to breed.  Although they can often be seen from land, the best way to see these magnificent and endangered creatures is on a boat trip and so most of the group headed out on a large zodiac to find the whales.  The weather could not have been more perfect, with no wind (Patagonia is known for its wind!), and so the seas were calm and the water clarity amazing.
Just a few minutes after we set off, a pod of dolphins came up to the boat, their grace in the water quite incredible to watch.
Boarding the zodiac on the beach, before the boat is pushed into the water by a tractor 
Playful dolphins

Continuing further into the bay, we found what we were looking for, whales!  The mothers and their calves treated us to quite a show – “sailing” (the mother inverts herself leaving her tail above the water), diving and approaching the boat.  It was an amazing experience, even for those who have been whale watching before, and topped off a fantastic day in the reserve.

Steve brings out the big guns
The v-shaped blow that is unique to the Southern Right Whale
The massive head of a mother whale
Just doing a bit of sailing

KLA whale photo_fix
Time to dive
Duncan puts the Odyssey stamp on our Valdes tour bus
The next day Francois and Tony went diving and snorkelling with sea lions, while others explored the town, visited the Eco Centro or relaxed on the beach.
The Welsh settlers originally lived in these caves on the shore of the bay 
Heather and Lisa test the water
The Eco Centro
Then it was time to say goodbye to the hot weather for a while as we head south towards the glaciers, lakes and stunning vistas of the Andes mountains.  Another overnight bus, this time with bingo (a great way to test our knowledge of Spanish numbers!) and a glass or two of red wine, took us to Rio Gallegos, and then another bus took us on the (relatively) short hop to El Calafate where we are today.  While on the overnight bus we received the fantastic news that our expedition vehicle, Ithaca, has finally made it onto South American soil!  In only a few days we should all be reunited – we can’t wait!!
Vanessa and Lisa enjoying a bit of bus luxury