Monday, 29 June 2009

To the Land of Fire, Tierra del Fuego.

As a child, I can remember hearing about a place called Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire. This conjured up images of erupting volcanoes spitting fire with pools of bubbling mud and boiling lava. The fiery landscape was enshrouded by swirling banks of steam rising from hot springs and simmering pools of water. Now there was a place that I wanted to see and I immediately added it to my list of Places To Go When I Grow Up. Of course, when you are a child, you never really think that you are going to grow up and you never believe that one day you might actually visit these far flung places scattered around the globe in mystical countries that perhaps only exist in your imagination. Let’s face it, at that point in my childhood, the furthest that I had ever travelled was to various damp and soggy corners of the British Isles. Not quite the exotic flights of fancy that my mind took when I heard about places such as Tierra del Fuego.

Much to the chagrin of my childhood mind, it turns out that the Land of Fire was not named for its flaming volcanoes belching out fire and smoke after all. The name was coined by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. As he approached this cold and desolate land, he saw many fires burning. These were the fires of the native Fuegians, used, not to ward off the invading Portuguese, but to ward off the damp, chill air of the southern tip of South America. These people lived off the land and the ocean, existing on a diet of mainly guanaco or fish. So now, in my mind’s eye, I am imagining a land of small fires in front of huts made of wood and animals skins. There are meat and fish roasting over these fires and small nut-brown children with black unruly hair are running around in scraps of animal hide while their parents sit around whittling new arrows and spears to use to catch their next meal. I am, of course, a couple of centuries too late to witness such a scene since the number of native Fuegians has dwindled to nothing following European settlement in the area. So, instead of volcanoes or fires, I am greeted by waving grass and flocks of woolly sheep, contently munching on the tough grass that grows in this harsh, unforgiving environment. The ever present wind swirls through the grass and whips up whitecaps on the surrounding sea. I get the feeling that the sun’s appearance here is erratic and short-lived and is always a very welcome sight.

In order to reach La Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego, one first has to cross the Strait of Magellan. On our way to the crossing, we passed through an old ghost town that had been abandoned many years before. Everything was eerily quiet, overgrown, rundown and ramshackled. I tried to imagine a bustling little community, but my imagination let me down. It just seemed like a sad, dejected place, waiting for someone to come back to love it and restore it. Waiting for the shouts of children, bursts of laughter and the chatter of many voices to bring it back to life. The roses still flowered valiantly amongst the weeds and the apple trees blossomed in the vain hope that someone would be there to harvest their fruits in the autumn.

As if to reinforce the lost hope of the deserted village, the long narrow strip of beach that ran along its edge was the last resting place of several wrecked ships. These vessels were slowly disintegrating and decaying. Their hulls were being stripped of their iron skins and their bones were bared to the skies above. The rust orange skeletons were mocked by the hard blue sky as the wind whistled and wailed through the ribs of the once proud vessels. The human hands that had crafted these vessels and built the village were doing nothing to stop their gradual decline, deterioration and ultimate loss.

And so we reached the Strait of Magellan and, once again, my imagination has led me astray. I am beginning to think that I really should do a bit more research about the places that I am going to visit, shouldn’t I? Still, that might spoil some of the surprises that await me on my travels. The famous Magellan Straits, those dangerous waters, full of rough and tumble waves that toss ships from crest to crest and send many to their doom, either sinking into the green and murky depths to spend the rest of their lives as host to a myriad of sea dwelling creatures or ending up washed ashore to suffer the fate of beached ships exposed to the elements. A wild and dangerous stretch of water that has claimed the lives of many an adventurer struggling to find safe passage from one ocean to another. I can imagine slimy creatures from the depths rearing up out of the foaming maelstrom, wrapping their arms around the bow of a vessel, holding on with suckers the size of dinner plates and hauling the ship down into the cold, deep water, never to be seen again, all hands lost. Oh dear, perhaps I should take my Gravol so at least I won’t be heaving my guts up as I am dragged to my watery grave by a polypodous mollusc.

The reality is, at least on the day that we were there, of course, quite different. The Strait of Magellan is 570 km long and 2km wide at its narrowest point. It is protected from the worst of the weather by La Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego to the south and the mainland of Chile to the north and it is the favoured route to travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, so avoiding the treacherous, unprotected seas further south. The Straits are considered to be hazardous to navigation, due to the narrowness at certain points and due to the ever changing, often inhospitable weather. However, we were merely crossing the Straits and the day we were there, the weather was probably as good as it gets this far south. The sun was shining and the water of the Straits was flat calm. The ferry was in much better condition than the boats that we had seen earlier in the day and during our twenty minute crossing we were kept entertained by the leaping, spinning and dancing acrobats of a small pod of Commerson's dolphins. These splendid little cetaceans shot through the water like little black and white missiles, exploding through the surface with a spray of water, only to disappear beneath the waves in the blink of an eye. They were incredibly fast and agile and you never knew where they were going to pop up next.


Half of La Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego belongs to Chile and the other half to Argentina, so we were soon approaching another border crossing. You never know quite what to expect at a border. Will it be a hut occupied by one lonely old man and a couple of sheep or will there be official looking men in official looking uniforms, with orderly queues, forms to fill in and guns to intimidate? Now, since I am a Canadian and a British citizen, I get to choose which passport that I use to cross a border. I figured that for this one, the Canadian passport was the way to go. All I had to do when at the border was avoid speaking as much as I could and say “eh” a lot. That should work. Not that I was particularly worried – we had been in Argentina for a couple of weeks before and no one had made any mention of the war. However, as we travelled further south, we saw more evidence of the battles that were fought and the lives that were lost. We saw maps and posters showing the Falkland Islands coloured white and blue. Old banners were still up, marking the 25th anniversary of the war for Las Islas Malvinas. I made jokes about not mentioning the war – “I did once, but I think I got away with it” - and wondering whether we should tell them that they had lost - "Who won the bloody war anyway?". Mr. DBM was not amused and he gave me several stern looks. We then arrived in Rio Grande. This city is one of the southernmost in Argentina and it was one of the bases used to fight the Falklands war. Here, under a dark and brooding sky, we visited the war memorial. And here, I stopped, I stared out over the ocean and I thought back to my childhood.

2nd April, 1982. I was barely a teenager. Things were pretty simple for me back then. If another country invades yours, you fight back, no matter what. Of course we were going to fight back when the Argentines landed on British soil, even if that British soil was over 12,000km away. We sent aircraft carriers, submarines, jet fighters and bombers. We sent men, all that way to fight for Queen and Country, to give their lives for some isolated and desolate rocky islands in the middle of nowhere. It goes without saying that I was very naive back then and not cognisant of all of the complexities of the world. Things are not that much different now and I would find it very hard to make a decision about going to war or not. But as I stood at that monument all I could think of was the loss of life, the pain and suffering of the men who fought and their families back home. It didn’t matter where that home was or where those men had come from. It didn’t matter that “they” had invaded “us”. It didn’t matter that I was English and they were Argentines. The pain was felt just the same, the agony was no different. The sorrow and the loss were felt by all. War, no matter whether it is right or wrong, justified or not, is a terrible thing. It is brutal and it is ugly and people suffer and they die. As I stood there staring out to sea, my thoughts flew out to those who had lost their lives and to their loved ones and a silent tear fell down my face. The cold, harsh wind whipped through my hair and dried the tear from my cheek.

As I walked away, I turned to Mr. DBM and said “But really, don’t you think that someone ought to tell them that they lost!?”

I shall finish this post on a slightly lighter note and give you something to look forward to. Penguins, everyone, penguins! Yes those loveable, laughable, flappable, flightless birds are coming to a blog near you! A whole post dedicated to these gorgeous little creatures. I bet you just can’t wait can you? Here are a couple of the little fellas, just to whet your appetite.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Would You Like Ice With That?

Morning has broken. The sky has shattered into pieces of orange, indigo and grey, with golden light seeping through the cracks. A light dusting of virgin snow blankets the craggy peaks surrounding the valley as it slowly emerges from beneath its blanket of night. It is early, far too early, and we are on our way to visit the Grey Glacier at the southern end of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. When we arrive at our departure point, we are greeted by a Patagonian fox, the soft morning light highlighting her thick, luxurious coat. She studied us for a while, licked her lips, yawned and then trotted off into the trees.

While we were waiting for the boat that was to carry us across the waters of Largo Grey to the glacier, the sun realised that it also got up far too early and so it retreated behind the clouds that were racing in from the north. By the time we boarded the boat, the clouds had descended around us and cold, icy rain started to fall. Things were not looking good. In fact, things were not looking anything, since we couldn’t really see any things at all. Some very helpful soul did point out that it is called the Grey Glacier and Grey Lake and so we should have expected it to be all rather grey, shouldn’t we? Hmmmmm. As the boat began to plough its way through the steely, frigid waters of the lake, one of the more optimistic members of the group decided that there really was a brighter patch of sky to the east and that, perhaps, the clouds were starting to lift and lessen in that direction. Hmmmmmmm. Then the Captain assured us that this really was the best light for viewing the glacier and that we were, in fact, lucky that the sun was not shining. Apparently, the blue colours of the ice are more vibrant, more alive when the sun is not shining and the surroundings are monotone grey. Hmmmmmmmmm. Still, all was not doom and gloom, and spirits began to lift when the crew bought us all an ice cold pisco sour, the ice freshly chipped from a nearby iceberg. Excellent, just what we needed to warm our hearts and our souls. As I sipped my drink, I couldn’t help but think that a hot chocolate might have been a tad more appropriate, given the frozen state of all of my extremities.

As the boat chugged nearer to our destination, the mood lightened as the pisco sour started to numb our brains and warm the cockles of our hearts. As if to mirror our mood, the clouds began to lift and the rain began to lessen. Our drinks were topped off and the sun didn’t shine – how lucky were we!?! Well, since I never did get to see the glacier with the sun shining, I can only assume that the Captain was telling us the truth and not some long-nosed yarn that he told to keep the tourists happy, since when we did finally get to see the glacier and some of the icebergs up close, the colours were spectacular. The glacier itself was all soft hues of blue and grey, with an icy heart of cobalt blue. The icebergs, sculpted by the biting winds into fantastical shapes, floated out of the gloom like apparitions of imaginary vessels carved from glass. Some of the icebergs had toppled over and their bases were exposed to the air. On the fractured and sheared planes and surfaces of the nether regions of these icebergs, the most stunning, vibrant, clear and sparkling shades of blue could be seen. You could stare into the heart of the iceberg and drown its deep blue depths.

I will finish this post with a quote from Darwin himself, made during his voyage through the fjords of Southern Patagonia:

"It is scarcely possible to imagine any thing more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow."—January 29, 1833.

As for the name, the Grey Glacier, one can’t help but feel that the Beryl Glacier would be far more appropriate (and I am, or course, talking about beryl, the beautiful blue mineral as opposed to Beryl, the dear little old lady with the blue rinse).

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Hike of Pain - The Day I Nearly Died, Twice!

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
Length: 18km, elevation gain: 800m, time: 7 hours.

Those are the vital statistics of our hike to the Torres del Paine. Not too long, not too much uphill, lots of time available – no problem for a seasoned hiker, such as myself. Or so I thought…………..

See, the trouble is, I still think of myself as a young, fit, twenty-something year old that can scramble up a mountainside, hopping from rock to rock like a mountain goat, reach the top, have lunch, admire the view and still be back in time for a nice cocktail on the deck before dinner. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. I am, in fact, a forty-something (just) year old, whose girth has increased while muscle mass has decreased and whose stamina is now about the same as a limp leaf of lettuce. I am now more like a lazy sloth than a spritely goat and so completely useless at anything that requires any kind of physical prowess or endurance. But why would I let that stop me!?!

Our destination for the day was a lookout for the Torres del Paine. This is often translated as Towers of Pain, and the hike is endearingly referred to as the Hike of Pain. This is certainly a very apt name, as you will soon see, although the actual translation is Towers of Blue. However, since the Hike of Blue does not convey the reality of this hike, I am sticking to the mistranslated name. We started by ascending from the lush valley floor into the mouth of a narrow, glaciated valley. The glacier has long since retreated and instead we were accompanied by a laughing, chattering, babbling brook, dancing in the valley far below our feet. Each side of the valley was clothed in old, gnarled southern beech trees crowding over the path, like old men leaning towards each other trying to catch the words of a whispered conversation. As we hiked through the tunnel of trees, the sunlight filtered down through the bright green leaves, bathing our path with vibrant spring green light. All was peaceful, all was good.

Time passed and the path continued to lead us, enticing us onwards and upwards. The trees aged and shrank, curling in on themselves, trying to hide from the worst of the Southern Patagonian weather. As we hiked, clouds began to gather in the cornflower blue sky. The wind started to whip strands of stray hair into my face and dust devils swirled around my feet. The path seemed to sense the change in the weather and it too began to transform. No longer a meandering trail following the contours of the valley, it became strewn with small rocks which morphed into large boulders. The gradient ramped up, literally, and soon we were scrambling from one boulder to another on the face of a steep, exposed boulder field. The trees were now reduced to diminutive carpets of green. The wind tugged at our clothes, whistling past our ears, trying to wrench us from the face of the rocks. My entire being was focussed down onto one foot, ensuring that it was placed safely, without slipping into a crevice and breaking an ankle, without stepping on a rock that looked big enough to support an elephant but in reality would tip as soon as a mouse so much as breathed on it. As I climbed, up, ever up, endlessly up, I met people coming down. They all smiled at me and had words of encouragement to try to lessen the torture and pain that I was enduring:

“Keep going, you’re nearly there!”
“The view is worth all the effort!”
“How on earth are you keeping that hat on your head!?!”
“It is only another ten minutes!”

Initially, all these comments were very welcome. However, after the fourth “It is only another ten minutes!” after I had been struggling up that boulder slope for at least 40 minutes since the first its only 10 minutes comment, I did nearly lose it. The next person that turned to tell me that it was only another 10 minutes nearly died a ghastly, hideous death involving as much torture as I was suffering at that time. I haven’t watched all those episodes of Law and Order: SVU or read Val McDermid for nothing, you know. Luckily for him, I was far too close to death myself to attempt murder and, as it happens, he was the first one that was actually right. Ten minutes later, I got to find out whether it was really worth it.

Well, what do you think?

After admiring the view, taking oodles of photos and generally collapsing on the rocks in a heap of exhaustion, I came to the realisation that I had only completed half of the hike. Oh crap. While toiling my way up the boulder slope, there was a nagging thought, tugging away at the back of my mind, a little whispered thought along the lines of “Don’t forget, you still have to make it back down again.” I, of course, ignored this thought, since my mind was completely focussed on just one thought “Just keep going, you will make it to the top.” Now that objective had been completed, my mind was free to entertain new thoughts. And so, the little nagging notion was now a full blown cry of “Oh my God, how on earth am I going to make it back!?!”

Well, the human body is an amazing piece of biological engineering, as I had already witnessed on my hike of the Inca Trail. Even when you feel that you couldn’t possibly walk as far as a flea can hop, you can still manage to drag your carcass 9km down a mountainside and back to civilisation. Now, I did have some encouragement from a couple of sources. The first was from Mr. DBM. He kept reminding me that the bus would be leaving at 5pm sharp and that we couldn’t possibly stop, since if we missed the bus we would have another 5km hike to get back to the main road and then we would have to try to hitch a lift back to our camp. Is that what I wanted? Well, no, obviously. And so the forced march continued.

The other force driving me on was a natural one. As we were hiking up to view the Towers, the weather was starting to close in on us. While we were at the Towers, the clouds began to gather ominously, first one, then another Tower being swallowed up into the swirling, menacing void. The wind howled, the sky darkened. It was definitely time to get moving. As we headed along the path, you could see the blue sky and the sunlit valley below beckoning us forward, the valley’s wide and welcoming arms waiting to greet us with her warm embrace. If you dared to look behind, it appeared as if the hounds of hell were being prepared for release, ready to chase us down and out of the valley, nipping at our heels, jaws snapping at our backs. The sky was a boiling mass of grey and black, and the wind was barrelling down the valley tearing past us, tugging, pulling and pushing. The rain began to fall, mixed with ice and hail, flying horizontally past us and pounding into our backs, soaking us in seconds. Gravel flew past, a hat went flying and I swear a small furry animal went sailing past, emitting a plaintive meeeeep, meeeeeeeeeeep as it disappeared. At one point, right where the path was at its narrowest and the drop on one side at its steepest, the wind gathered all its strength and hurled itself at me. I started sliding and slipping towards the precipitous edge. I crouched down and flailed and grabbed at the loose gravel, finding nothing to hold on to. I wailed at Joe, but my cries were lost in the shrieking of the wind. Luckily, just as I thought I was going over the edge, I managed to grab onto sturdy, solid and stationary rock. My slide stopped, the wind, as if realising its defeat, subsided and I did not die. What a relief.

The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. As we descended into the valley below, the wind was left behind, the sun dried our soaking backs and the mood lightened. We were going to make the bus, and we might even have time for a refreshing beer.

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is probably one of the most beautiful parks that I have ever visited. The park is well known for its outstanding natural beauty in terms of both scenery and flora and fauna. From the three majestic granite towers that rise vertically into the sky to the other quintessential emblem of the park, the Cuernos del Paine, the Horns of Paine.

The monumental granite peaks are surrounded by lakes of turquoise blue and a mosaic of vibrant greens, vivid reds and oranges and yellows of the low growing shrubs and flowers that carpet the valley floors and the rolling hills. We spent one day touring the park, stopping the bus every ten seconds or so to oooh and ahhhh over the scenery or some cute and furry animal. One of these animals was the guanaco, a smaller, daintier version of the llama. They can survive in this cold, harsh climate due to their ability to digest the poorest of vegetation and their double coats, a coarse outer layer that protects the warm, soft, luxuriant inner layer.

As we rounded one bend, a black shape glided past, wheeling and soaring over the valley. The bus screeched to a stop and we all piled out and craned our necks up as the creature circled above us. As we watched, another arrived, followed by another, and then another. Within minutes, we were surrounded by majestic birds – the Andean condor. If you remember, I spent hours huddled on the top of a freezing cold canyon in Peru waiting to catch a glimpse of one of these colossal birds, and, while I did catch a brief, fleeting, very far away glimpse, I never really felt as though I got to see the bird. Well, all good things do come to those who wait and, just as with the giant otter, when I least expected it, I got to observe these fabulous birds, up close and personal. In total, we had 11 birds circling above us, floating effortlessly on the endless winds of the Patagonian landscape. This bird is the largest flying land bird in the Western hemisphere, with a wing span of up to 10ft. Despite its size and its not-so-pretty demeanor, it is remarkably graceful and is adept at catching thermals, allowing it to float in the sky, rarely having to flap its wings to maintain altitude. Darwin once spent half an hour watching these birds and commented that in that time he did not see one flap its wings even once.

There you have it – Torres del Paine National Park. A place of spectacular beauty, amazing wildlife, glorious hikes and where I nearly died, not once, but twice. Visit at your own risk, but do try to visit, since a near death experience or two just makes you relish your visit even more!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Ice, Ice, Baby! Argentine Style

The long and winding road ............ yes, I realise that it is quite straight in the photograph above, but it did get very winding a bit later on when we reached the mountains. We had finally left the dull, featureless and endlessly boring grasslands behind us. Ahead of us lay the snow capped mountains and ice fields of Southern Patagonia. I breathed in lungfuls of gloriously fresh air, each breath tinged with a nip of cold, hinting of cooler climes and alluding to the snow and ice in anticipation of our destination. For we were on our way to the Perito Moreno Glacier, located in the Los Glaciares National Park of Southern Argentina. On our way to the glacier, we passed cobalt blue lakes, fields of buttercup yellow overshadowed by towering mountains of white and slate blue-grey and delicate anemones in all their creamy white finery. We even stopped at an old homestead that would sell you any number of dead things, including sheepskin rugs, goat skulls (horns and all), fox and puma pelts and rhea eggs. Suffice it to say, I did not get much Christmas shopping done there!

We then hit the winding part of the road. As the road ascended, the trees appeared to age before our eyes. Once tall, straight and strong, they began to shrink and wither, their backs bending in surrender to the cold harsh winds, becoming emaciated, twisted and deformed. They finally submitted to the merciless forces of nature and the scenery changed to one scattered with small, hardy shrubs. The most dramatic of these shrubs was the Chilean firebush, whose bright red flowers burst into flames, dotting the landscape with miniature conflagrations. After each twist in the road, there it was ............... another twist in the road and then another and another. Oh come on, where is this glacier, already? Anticipation was building, the bus was getting restless. It has to be round the next bend. A hush fell over the bus; we all held our collective breath. And then .........................

Cue the music:

And there it was..............the Perito Moreno Glacier – 30km long, 5km wide, 60m high above the surface of the water, total average ice depth of 170m, maximum ice depth 700m i.e. it is HUGE!!!!! And it is AWESOME!!!! I would even go so far as to say F!#$%^&G AWESOME!!! Now that is a word (the awesome, not the other, I use that one far too much) that I hardly ever use, but on this occasion it did seem entirely appropriate. As we rounded that last bend in the road and were confronted with this massive ice monster, I was left speechless. Oh, it was big, but the true scale of this moving escalator of ice did not really hit me until I saw the size of the boat in front of its sheer face. It was so tiny, like a miniature remote-controlled toy. Which you would be able to see if it wasn’t for the fact that I spend so much time ensuring that there is no human presence in any of my photos. Perhaps this was one occasion where having a person or a boat in view would have been a good idea. Well, I just did a bit of CSI-type investigation into my photos and, after a lot of zooming in and sharpening, I realize that I do have a boat in one of my photos. I have labelled it for your convenience, since it is pretty hard to make out otherwise. Now, this is not a small boat. It can hold over one hundred awe-struck tourists, along with enough hot chocolate and alcohol to keep them all warm and happy.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not retreating. It all begins with heavy snowfall over the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It is here that the glacier is born and where it begins its relentless journey down from the mountains. As it crawls down from the snow fields, it matures and ages. The ice thickens and begins to crack. Small creases become large crevices; its smooth surface breaks up into wrinkles, fissures and furrows. The glacier starts to creak and crack, sounding like an old man as he struggles from his armchair after an afternoon nap by the fire. The glacier is a very vocal entity, to be heard as well as seen. Along with the creaks and the cracks, you can hear the ice moaning and groaning. Then you hear a pistol crack and a shotgun boom. The old man has made it out of his chair and is now scaring off the rabbits from his vegetable patch. The large booms are made as the ice breaks apart as it nears the end of its long, inexorable journey. When this happens at the face of the glacier, huge slabs of ice split away and slip, slow motion, into the frigid, steel blue waters that lap against the glacier’s base. This is known as calving and it is the beginning of the end of the glacial ice. It now begins its final journey, floating across the lake as a miniature iceberg, slowly shrinking and melting, its identity lost as it coalesces with the lake.

Finally, for those of you that are interested in discovering the identity of the latest unknown from my previous post, here it is. A glyptodon. This mammalian Volkswagen was an herbivorous mammal common on the Patagonian grasslands until approximately 10,000 years ago. It is related to the modern day armadillos and was covered with a bony armour plating that provided it with protection from many a marauding predator.