Thursday, 29 January 2009

From glaciers to the end of the world

From El Chalten we did a full day hike past the Fitzroy glacier. The glacier was pretty impressive as was the rest of the scenery as the walk was through forests and by lakes and mountains. Even better, we were allowed a post-lunch snooze, very nice! Just out of interest what is the difference between a walk, a hike and a trek?

Next day we were off to the Viedma glacier. We had the choice between ice trekking and ice climbing. While I was sure ice trekking would have been fun, there was only really one choice to be made. Although the last time I did anything vague like climbing, probably when I was around 12, I was rubbish at it, so hopefully this would be an improvement. Only myself and Andy of our group had taken the climbing option, and it was a classic case of spot the English people. Andy had initially turned up in shorts which was not allowed, and had no gloves, while I had the wrong type of shoes on: "are these shoes ok", "do you have any others", "no", "well they'll have to do then wont they", "excellent." Don´t let anyone tell you you cant strap crampons to a pair of trainers.
So we trudged off across the ice to find a wall of ice to climb. Our guides found one about 15-20m high and started secured the ropes. It was really good fun and I was actually ok at it surprisingly. I managed to make it up reasonably quickly and while the crampons slipped a couple of times I never needed the rope to stop me falling. And surprisingly you don't need to sink the ice picks as as far as you can as just a gentle swing was sufficient to catch. Once you get to the top you just walk backwards down, kind of like abseiling. You just have to lean back, which even though you know you are attached to a rope and won't fall, it is still quite difficult. In the end I went up three times and I really enjoyed it.

After the ice climbing, the guides produced a bottle of Baileys, used their ice picks to get some several hundred year old ice into some glasses and we saw off the bottle. Not a prolific drinker of Bailey's (although it is known to be rather nice when mixed with a pint of Fosters...or Guinness!) but having it with such pure ice probably can't be bettered, so no real point drinking it again (except with Fosters....or Guinness!).
After this we drove to El Calafate where nine more new people joined the group. From El Calafate we did a day trip to see the Perito Moreno glacier which is huge. We viewed it from various walkways and then from a boat. You can hear thunder-like noises and occasionally bits break off.

Next day was another bus day as we headed towards Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. We stopped overnight in Puerto Natales before heading into the park the next morning. Crab was a local speciality here so had a big plate of King Crab for dinner - when in Rome and all that. This was really nice, but not the best idea when my family had a bit of previous of not agreeing with crab, and all before three days trekking. You have to try the local dishes - no guts no glory (no pun intended)! Survived without any major incidents though!

When we arrived in Torres early next morning, we did the Torres walk, a full day trek/hike/walk (delete as appropriate) where we walked through valleys and forests before scrambling up some rocks to get to a place where there are really good views of the giant granite pillars, which overlook a lake too. A few people turned back fairly early as there was a snowstorm in the distance but most of us pushed on and well worth it was too. The weather was fine and the views were great.

To get to the start of the trail we had to get a bus over a very narrow bridge. You have to be worried though when the driver asks everyone to move over to one side! On the way back we got off and there was only a couple of inches spare on each side, so the drivers did well not to prang it. If only I'd know the Spanish for "come on mate, you can get a bus there."

That night and the next two we were camping, so obviously we had to plan ahead and make sure we had liquid refreshment for the evenings. Well we wouldn´t want to be thirsty! Next morning we were driven round in the bus for a bit wildlife spotting - condors, rheas (small ostriches) and Guanacos (like llamas) - before doing a shorter walk.

In the afternoon, much against my better judgement given my animal experiences so far this trip, decided to go horse riding. They did actually have one big enough for me, although I did have quite a bit of sympathy for it having me stuck on its back for two hours or so. I managed to get on it without any major incidents, and it just kind of stood there while we waited for everyone else to get saddled up. While we waited, Catherine's horse did its business (not for the last time that afternoon!). But having made a mess on the grass, luckily there was a dog who came to clean it eating it. Nice.

After a couple of false alarms, where I may or may not have been heard saying "help, its moving", we moved off properly, and the horse was surprisingly well behaved. It just kind of followed the others and stopped when they did, meaning I had to do minimal driving, or whatever its called. I decided after a bit I wanted to go faster, and was told you need to dig your heel into its ribs a bit. I didn´t know how hard though, and the first time it almost took off without me! I didn´t scream but I wasn´t far off! In case anyone from the animal rights brigade is reading, it wasn't even a kick, but clearly a gentle nudge is sufficient.

It was a fun afternoon though and we went by lakes and through forests, and even rode through water, where I was convinced I'd be thrown off but even that didn´t happen. My lack of control over it was quite amusing though, and it clearly knew it had some tall bloke on its back as it decided to go under the lowest branches where it could so I almost had to lean off the side Indiana Jones style. Enjoyed it but was glad to get off as sitting on one of those things for two hours or so isn´t the most comfortable thing you could do. When it galloped I couldn´t get the hang of the bending your legs thing you have to do to compensate for the bumps, so I just ended up bouncing up and down loads! My horse was called Cholo.

Afterwards me and Andy had a brief pun session. I said "I had a mare today" (do you see what I've done?) to which he replied "I had the trots." After a couple of other such witty remarks, we decided to stop horsing around.

Next day we got a catamaran to go over to do a full days trekking in the Frances Valley. There was a lookout point at the end with great views apparently which I was keen to get to but the map said it was five hours there and back and we only had a bit over 8 hours. Then when the first catamaran was full and we had to wait for the next one I had only seven hours, but gave it a shot anyway. It was a bit of a mission but I made it to the end in two hours 45 minutes and the mad charge was worth it as the view at the end was spectacular. Ate my lunch up there are chatted to an English girl called Roz for a while before charging back to make sure I didn´t miss the last catamaran home. If I did I would have been stranded. The total distance I trekked apparently was 30km, although the last section was less than the 2km the map suggested so don't know if this was right.

That evening at camp we did a wine tasting of some Chilean wines. As expected after a while I could no longer taste much but this didn´t stop several of us pushing on into the wee small hours knocking back red wine.

Having crawled off to the tent, I later had to get up around 4am to use the toilet. I was scared half to death when I got there to find Andy in there too - I wasn´t expecting anyone else to be in there at that time...and clearly neither was he as he explained because he was sitting there taking a number two with the cubicle door wide open. Seeing this though was actually an honour because Andy is a published author on none other than going to the toilet! The book is called "A Year on the Bog".

For a whole year he meticulously documented and timed every visit and had this memoir published! Apparently we each spend the equivalent of over 4 days on the pan during the year, although from personal experience if you go to Peru it will be at least five days. The book is not available from all good bookshops because the remaining 2,000 copies that were not sold (out of 4,000) are being pulped, but you can still buy it from both Amazon and Ebay. If you´re undecided take a look at the self made promotional video on YouTube.

Camping was good fun and it was a really beautiful location right beside Lago (lake) Pehoe and surrounded by mountains, but it was back on the bus the next day. As we left Torres Del Paine its fair to say that I´ve felt better. I had ´the thirst´, a type of hangover many of you will be familiar with where it doesn´t matter how much liquid you drink or what said liquid is, you will always feel thirsty and as if a small rodent is living in your mouth. Obviously I wasn´t about to take responsibility for my own actions, so I blamed my hangover on Sarah and Linda, two Irish girls (it usually is isn´t it) who were encouraging my drinking the night before. They weren´t letting me go to bed as every time I announced I was going to bed Linda would say "Pete, don´t be a bore." Peer pressure is a terrible thing, especially when you´re weak. Despite being exhausted I failed to sleep on the bus - if I was at home I would definitely have been bedridden the whole day. Fortunately the day was broken up by a visit to see the Magellane Penguin Colony.

The night was spent in the relatively non-descript town of Punta Arenas, where we shamefully tracked down the English pub, although not sure exactly what was English about it. We continued south the next day, visiting a now disused sheep estancia still full of bags of wool, before getting a boat across the Strait of Magellan. We were on deck trying to spot some white dolphins that live in the channel, but all we succeeded in doing for the first half of the trip ws get soaked as huge waves crashed against the boat. But once you´re wet you might as well stay there and we did in the end see a load of these dolphins.

We crossed the border into Argentina in the afternoon, and I got my fourth Argentina entry stamp of my trip. We spent the night in Rio Grande, which used as an Air Base during the Falklands War and now has a lot of Memorial type stuff. Nothing much else there though and we moved on first thing next day and arrived in Ushuaia at lunchtime, which bills itself as the end of the world, as it is the southernmost city in the world. Puerto Williams, part of Chile is further south, but its not a city so Ushuaia can continue its tourist gimmick. It was the end of the world as we know it but I felt fine.

After sneaking into a cafe to watch the first half of Man U v Chelsea (we had a hour to kill and it is almost the first English football I've seen of my trip) we went on a boat trip in the Beagle Channel and say lots of Cormorants and some sea lions. Some of the sea lions were huge. We didn't see any penguins but it wasn't the end of the world...oh hang on...

That night like pretty much every night I was going to have an early night, but ended up out late drinking. Naturally it was all instigated by the Irish girls. We went to one of the two Irish Pubs in town (the third had closed). At this point I've been asked to point out that Sarah and Linda do not go to Irish pubs when they're on holiday...apart from every town they are in that has Irish pubs, as on this trip wherever there was one (albeit only Ushuaia) they went in it!

At some point on the tour, I almost put my foot in it with Catherine, another Irish girl who joined the trip in El Calafate. As with a number of Canadians I met, I was demanding an apology from Patrick for Celine Dion, when Catherine said how much she loved her. I better shut up then!

Next day was a full days walking in the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Not as spectacular as Torres del Paine but pleasant all the same. Some of our group saw beavers there later in the day but I didn't unfortunately. That night we had a party back at the hotel - our room had a kind of living room area - and we polished off some of the leftover wine from the wine tasting.

Headed up the Martial Glacier with Andy the next day. We walked up as far as we could go - about 850m - without needing crampons. The top was 1,000m. We were getting strange looks as it was quite cold and we were both in shirts sleeves and everyone else was in big coats. We explained that this classed as hot in England.

Was a nice view over the harbour. At the top we met a couple of Argentinian teenagers and chatted football. All Argentinians I had met so far when asking me who I supported said after I had said "Nottingham Forest" "ah yes, Tottenham" which is completely overstepping the mark. So I had decided that the next time it happened words would be exchanged. But not only had they heard of us - as they should as we have won the European twice back to back - but they also know we're now rubbish! Outrageous! Still, it's better than being mistaken for Spurs.

That night was the final group meal followed by some more drinking in Irish pubs. We finally got back to the hotel at 4am to find it locked and there was no door bell. Great we thought, we're gonna freeze to death. But luckily someone heard us and came and let us in.

All these late nights were tiring!

People started to leave the next day, although I wasn't leaving until the following day. I visited the Jail/Military Prison and the Maritime museum but generally just had a relaxing day. Noel from the tour was off on a cruise round Antarctica so some of us went to wave him off. Security wouldn't let us out to the jetty, and I was about to get my wallet out to suggest a small bribe but thought better of it. Linda offered her handbag as collateral but that was no good either. I later suggested Linda should have offered herself as collateral but that wasn't especially well received.
And that was pretty much my Patagonia trip. We saw some really nice places and some stunning scenery, and just like Cuba, the trip was made even better by a really good, fun group of people.

Friday, 23 January 2009

New year with a random local family in the middle of nowhere

Even though it was official day 1 of the tour, I wasn't due to meet the tour people until the evening so still had the day to myself. Went up a cable car to Cerro Otto where you get good views over the lake. Had a walk round too but couldn't really get far, so decided to head to Cerro Catedral, which is about 2,500m high. Unfortunately I didn't make it to the top though - to buy a ticket for the chairlift was taking forever with some inefficient system I never did work out and there were giant armies of noisy students (the worst kind) already in the queue for the lift, so by the time I'd got up I would have had to come back.

All wasn't lost from the day though as I managed to get a photo (without getting caught) of two Bariloche policewomen. Their uniform includes a reasonably short skirt and black high-heeled knee high leather boots. Not that practical for chasing criminals in but who cares about that!

Went to meet my tour people in the evening. The omens were good when I met my roommate for the trip not in the room but in the hotel bar! We waited an hour for everyone else but then decided to head to the pub and wait there. When we left a note at the hotel to say where we were, the receptionist tells us the group were delayed - the tour started in Santiago and picks others up in Bariloche - and won't arrive for another 4 hours. Might have been useful to tell us this earlier maybe, but never mind. So had a couple of beers and then an absolutely enormous steak. The tour people finally turned up at 11.30pm so we went for another drink with them. Apparently they were delayed getting across the border and even bribery didn't work!

The other people who joined the tour in Barlioche were Gary and Denise, an Australian couple. As they had spent twenty something hours flying, they hadn't heard the cricket score so I took great pleasure announcing that Australia had haemorrhaged another winning position and lost the Boxing Day test to South Africa...and the series!

Next day was a free day in Bariloche. Most of the group headed towards the Circuito Chico that I'd already been to so I decided to have another go at getting to the top of Cerro Catedral. The buses are every hour and a half and having just missed one I think I was at the wrong bus stop for the next one (even though it was the same stop as I'd used the previous day) but eventually did get on a bus. At the chairlift there was an even bigger queue of students there - I never did find out why...or why they were all wearing matching anoraks - but there was a cable car running as well so got up on that. Was well worth it too as I could see for miles over several lakes and valleys. Was pretty spectacular.

I knew I'd miss the last cable car back down so walked down. It is difficult to see which path you need going down so ended up having to 'off-road' down some bits but following the chairlift path. Was quite fun though and managed not to fall over and break anything.

Group meal that evening, so the end of day 2 of the tour and I actually got to meet the tour group properly.

Next day was spent entirely on the bus pretty much. It was new years eve and our stopover that night was to be Perito Moreno, a tiny town (nowhere near the glacier of the same name) which if you found it on a map you will notice it is precisely in the middle of nowhere. The tour company had real trouble booking both a hotel and a restaurant that would open for us. They did in the end, but we were concerned about whether we'd be able to buy booze for new years drinking. So when we stopped for petrol in the similarly small town of Rio Mayo we found the supermarket and grabbed some beers...but they refused to serve us because the only way you can buy new beers is to bring empty bottles back. We even offered to pay more but they weren't interested. It's no wonder Argentina's economy is in trouble with capitalism like that! It also begs the question how kids can take up drinking when you need to start with empties, although I'm sure they find a way. So we were still without alcohol. Not good.

But luckily the off license in Perito Moreno was still open when we arrived so we stocked up. Once we had the beer though there was an issue with how to keep it cool as we had no fridge to keep it in, and you wouldn't want a warm beer! So myself and Patrick managed to fill a carrier bag with cold water, put the beers in and stand it in the bath without it all spilling. The carrier bag did not have holes in it so small children could suffocate, but the most important thing is you can keep your beers cool!

We were the only ones in the restaurant so it was looking for a while like we might see the new year in with beers on the tour bus. But then approaching midnight seemingly the whole family of the restaurant owners piled in and a big family knees up ensued! So we stayed and it was good fun. There was music and beer and we all danced with various elderly family members. Two blond Dutch girls also turned up at 11.59pm obviously realising this was the only party in town, metaphorically and literally probably! So new year was fun for its randomness really!

We did then head onto the tour bus for some more drink and some cards. At one point, Nikki, the tour leader and Antje started pole dancing! With their clothes on its worth pointing out, but what must their poor mothers have thought...Nikki's folks were actually on the tour so they probably did find out!

Next day was another full day on the bus, but was pretty subdued due to the previous night's exploits. Destination was El Chalten, a tourist town near the Fitzroy glacier and some good trekking. That night I went for a wander round, but managed to get lost trying to find the hotel, my lack of navigational skills coming to the fore again. Cleverly I couldn't remember what the hotel was called or an address! But when I was wandering round a Japanese girl asked me for directions, so I had to sheepishly explain I was lost too! I did shortly find my hotel though so I went back to find her as I then knew where we were on the map.