Thursday, 13 January 2011

Facing Reality & Fishing for Sympathy - It's Over

Hey lady!  Anyone would think that it was you who was about to get a cab to Santiago airport and fly 15 hours to cold, wet, misery-stricken Britain.  So lighten up dear.  Anyway, as a final souvenir of the most wonderful holiday of our lives,  I'll have a fillet of your freshest Patagonian toothfish and a punnet of whelks.     Oh my God - what are those?

These are called piures in Chile.  They are sea squirts.   The red blobs come from masses of knobbly tissue which look like the organic cores of daleks.

Gonzo, our guide around a Chilean fish market, explained that piures are famed for their aphrodisiac effect.    I suspect this has worn off by the time one stops retching.

All marine taxa seem to be fair game. Picoroco is a giant barnacle, which I suppose may taste a bit like crab or prawn, being a crustacean.   (For more extreme marine cuisine, I refer you to the food blog of Hummus Boy where you may even feel like leaving your carefully considered opinions about eating whale meat in HB´s comment box!)

Anyway, I am sure a plate of piures would be no worse than the in-flight meal which Iberia has planned for us later.

Flight over the mountains, glaciers and fjords of the northern Patagonian Andes in Chile.

This is the final post from South America.  After the trauma of the return to Britain is under control, there will be an extra post on the best and worst places we visited, hotels, restaurants, recommendations etc - and an illustrated bird list (which is for my own amusement).

Monday, 10 January 2011

Darwin on Memories of Patagonia

"In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless.  They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants.  Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory?  I can scarcely analyse these feelings; but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination."  Charles Darwin.

Huge thanks to Tom Maxwell for telling me about this quote from Darwin, which resonates with me.  In 1833 Darwin explored Patagonia as part of his Beagle voyage.   He was 24 years old then.  Towards the end of his life, he was asked which part of the world he most vividly remembered from his travels. The quote is the answer.

I am not surprised that memories of Patagonian scenery were so enduring for him.   The steppe we passed through in our three and six hour bus rides was less severe than Darwin's.  We were close enough to the Patagonian Andes for there still to be great rocky terraces and lakes fed by glacial melt, occasionally interrupting the plains.  That said, the barren expanses between, hour after hour, were mesmerising.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Penguin Island, Punta Arenas

Magellanic Penguins, on our last proper day in Patagonia. 

The place was the wind-blasted Isla Magdalena, two hours boat trip up the Magellan Strait from the Patagonian metropolis of Punta Arenas.  (Tierra Del Fuego lies enticing on the other side of the Strait...)

The penguins aren´t that fussed about the two hundred odd humans who spill off the ferry each day to visit them.  You walk along a path that you takes past the edge of this breeding colony.   Some birds will actually approach you and, in MJC´s experience, attack your shoes.

There are about 75,000 breeding pairs here.  The penguins are not on Isla Magdalena all year.  They swim ashore from the open sea during October.  Some come from as far away as southern Brazil.  

Following the shoe incident, MJC tries to blend in with the natives.

Each pair raises one or two chicks per year.  These chicks are little more than two months old.  By the end of April, they will all be out on the open seas.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

El Chalten Spectacular Trek 3 - Laguna Sucia

The last lot of photos of this massif I promise.  But the end point of this 8 hour walk was exceptional, even by the expectional standards of El Chalten.  We followed the Rio Blanco to its source.

Laguna Sucia.  An odd name given it means ´dirty lake´.  It was fabulously blue.  We saw hardly anyone on the final 90 minute trail up to it.  And we had it to ourselves for a good 1/2 hour before two others turned up.

Towering over the lake are Monte Fitz Roy, Cerro Poincenot and Aguja Saint Exupery.  Below them is Glaciar Blanco which hangs high over the lovely icy lake.

One of the roaring avalanches we witnessed, delivering ice chunks great and small into the lake.

This was a purely ironic act.  Though we were pleased with ourselves.  An amazing place to have to ourselves at the end of our week´s walking around El Chalten.   It was also the fifth of six days with blue skies and no clouds over the peaks.  Extremely unusual for the Fitz Roy Massif which is notorious for hiding behind cloud and subjecting visitors to days of gail force wind. 

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Ice-Hiking with Brazilians

Spot MJC in the middle of the line towards the start of our marvellous two hour hike on Glaciar Torre.   The Brazilians are a red herring really.  They weren´t very interesting. 

More lively were the three Israeli girls who were also part of the party.  The initial trek just to the edge of the glacier from El Chalten took about 4 hours.  The gals were 25 minutes late without an apology at the start in El Chalten.  Then they sulked about the pace our guides wanted us to maintain to make up time.  It had the feeling of a school trip going horribly wrong - especially when lead guide Matias and the troublesome chicas had a huge barney over their attitude.  That cleared the air and they turned out to be good fun.

So was this.  The Tyrolean rope over a freezing cold river which we had to cross.  At the other end of this lake lies the glacier Torre.

MJC, master of the Tyrolean rope on his virgin voyage.

Excuse the face but it was completely knackering, trudging up and down this bouldery moraine for an hour to reach the glacier edge.

MJC crampons on.  Posing in the background is one of the Israeli girls, with MJC´s other trekking pole for a prop.  MJC giving as ever.

Guide Matias, having put away his disciplinary rod of iron and now instructing us on the art of walking with crampons.

We had to wear gloves to avoid ice burns if we touched the ice.

The glacier is punctuated with sink holes and cavities like this.  The blue colour comes from the ice having had all the air bubbles squeezed out of it over thousands of  years.

After a picnic on the glacier, we did some climbing with ice axes and ropes up one of the 30 ft ice faces.

Walking backwards down the ice slope.   A day which began with us thinking it would be a disappointment because of the early antics was in fact fantastic fun. 

But then we had another 4 hours to do to get back to El Chalten, fording streams swollen by ice that was  rapidly melting in the late afternoon sun.

And crossing the river on that Tyrolean rope again.

El Chalten Spectacular Trek 2 - Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A view of Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Poincenot from a southerly aspect this time.  This 8 hour return trek from El Chalten village was to the top of Loma de Pliegue Tumbado - a towering mound of shale 1500 metres high with views of everything around the Fitz Roy massif.

Including the second highest peak, Cerro Torre at 3102 metres.

First full view of Cerro Torre on the left and the biggy Monte Fitz Roy on the right.  And sundry glaciers of course.

Do we ever get these ´lenticular´ clouds in the UK?  Anyone with a simple explanation of how they form?

Turn your head from the clouds and condors come into view.

Look down, and the only things apparently alive in the stony ground are this and one other species of flowering plant.

The final slog up to the summit of Loma de Pliegue Tumbado.  It gets ever steeper as you climb.   The vast lake in the distance is Lago Viedma.

About three and three quarter hours after leaving the village of El Chalten, we got the summit. See that glacier to the left of MJC´s elbow?  Next post will have us clambering around down there.

The way some people talk and write in guide books, you would expect the trails of El Chalten to be as busy as Oxford Street at lunchtime.   This is an exaggerated issue in our experience.  On this hike for example, we encountered just two people on the way up, two already on the summit and a handful on the way down.  Admittedly, within 5 minutes of us getting to the top, a group of 6 backpackers did sit down within 3 metres of us, chattering to one another as though all were hard of hearing. Ho hum.

Cerro Torre and its surrounding glaciers.   There´s an interesting story behind its conquest by mountaineers.  In particular an Italian alpinist, Cesare Maestri, who is as controversial in some circles as Italy´s current prime minister.  In 1959 this character claimed to be the first to summit Cerro Torre but his only companion and the camera with the photographic evidence were lost in an avalanche on the way down.   Many were sceptical about his claim.

In 1970 the Italian made another bid .  This time he caused outrage and further controversy by sinking hundreds of bolts with a drill into the final rock face to complete the ascent.  And he failed to climb the ´snow mushrooms´ on top of the rock to reach the very highest point.  The first undisputed conquest of the summit was by a group of different Italians in 1974.  I read this story in the Lonely Planet´s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes.