Despite the fact that they are roughly 3,600 kilometres apart, Steve insisted that the only two things he wanted to see in Argentina were Iguaçu Falls and Perito Moreno Glacier. Discussions ensued and less than convinced I picked out a few spots in Patagonia, including the ‘W Circuit’ of Torres del Paine for us to stop off at on our big trip South. Before I knew it we were boarding a train with bullet holes in the windows to Bahia Blanca, the first 13 hours of our 48 hour journey to the western side of Patagonia.
Our trip down to Patagonia was marked by curious locals trying to tell us about the mating habits of whales, gardeners in the plaza discussing the pitfalls of long distance relationships, hobos helping me win a game of chess, Steve nearly getting left behind at a bus stop, bus dance music in the wee hours of the morning (usually Papa Americano on repeat), a five hour bus delay, a missed bus connection, Steve having to pretend he had a seat on a full bus across the border with a policeman on board and stretches of nothing but straight roads and barren fields. Our usual bus game of tractor factor turned into anything factor – where you got points for spotting anything that wasn’t tussock.
The streets of Puerto Natales (the stepping stone to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) were filled with hostels, tramping gear shops and gortex clad travelers getting blown about by the cool gusty winds – worse than Wellington! Our excitement at getting to use the tent, mats and sleeping bags that we had been lugging around and being able to do something active after spending so much time on the bus started to turn to nerves… We had no gortex, no fancy trekking shoes and next to no tramping experience.
Our nerves eased on the bus to the park as we spotted some like-minded travelers. Although in hindsight, they were probably on a day trip. We laughed as we paid our entrance fee to the park and moved to the area where you can ask guides about the trail at the German guy behind us huffing ´What is this?! Some kind of presentation?! I don´t need this. I know everything.´ as he pushed past us. It was the first time we had a good look at the map (yes… alarm bells… hindsight huh!) and we learned that the first free campsite was 21 kilometres away! But the wind had dropped and the sun was shining so we set off on our merry way (after one false start to a lookout 20 metres away).
Day one involved heading up Valley Ascencio to view the Torres, the first of the three main view points on the trek. We were in for a real treat a passing American excitingly told us and that there was a special surprise! Eventually the three granite spires came into clear view… covered in snow… dripping into a glacial lake! As we reached the top, it started lightly snowing and we danced around like we were in a snow globe. The reality of what snow meant for our sleeping arrangements hadn’t quite registered.
Steve spent the whole night worried that we would freeze to death in our wee tent. But our cozy spot tucked in between a few trees did the trick and we woke up to an amazing view of all the trees and nearby mountains being covered in snow. I glanced up at the ranger’s cabin and saw the ranger and his friend waving and blowing kisses at me through the unfrosted part of their cabin window. I managed a smile back and turned to a frantic Steve who was packing up everything and told me ‘ I don’t mean to be dramatic Rach, but this is actually a matter of life or death!’
Day two we retraced our steps down the valley and followed the path right alongside Lake Nordenskjold . Steve had some kind of Bear Grylls thing going on… Girls we passed were winking at him and one Australian girl couldn’t stop talking about how good his thermal legging legs looked! I was loving my rubbish sack bag cover, but was very glad that it wasn’t raining hard enough for Steve to make me a rubbish bag skirt as well! Another 20 kilometres, another cold night and another night of worrying about the suitability of a $60 rebel sport tent.
Day three we moved only five kilometers up into Valley Frances. Chucks as it turns out are no substitute for trekking shoes, especially with a heavy pack. Steve did very well to put up with all my complaining. I had to laugh later on when we met an Australian girl who had got so fed up with walking she threw a rock at her boyfriend and told him enough was enough. Steve looked concerned. Unfortunately, hail, no wet weather gear and poor visibility meant that going up to the second lookout for a view over the mountains wouldn´t be worthwhile. So we wandered around the campground, played chess, practiced sharing a sleeping bag and getting into another sleeping bag.
Day four the sun was shining as we walked the 18 kilometres alongside Lake Stokenburg, Lake Pehoe then up the valley to Glacier Gery. I zipped up to one viewpoint along the way and told Steve not to bother – Just more mountains and lakes and some boats. A few bays round and it turned out that those boats were icebergs! Ankle trouble meant a slow last few kilometres and me having to take back my complaining from the previous day. This campsite was right by the glacial lake, Lake Grey and turned out to be our warmest night! My whole lower legs had swelled up and turned red (ick!) but nothing like dipping your legs in a glacial lake to fix that. Voltaren became as much as staples as our porridge and blueberry jam!
We saw the impressive Glacier Grey, the third lookout the following day and retraced our steps down the valley and past Lake Pehoe. It was at this point that winds started to pick up. At one point we just had to hold onto each other and a conveniently placed steel track marker. We were blown through ominous fields of tussock to our last camp site (21 kilometres later). ‘I know I say this every night but this tent is not going to last’. It’s probably the first night I took this seriously as the wind squeezed at our tent from all directions. I was then woken in the night by Steve searching for the spare tent pegs and the pot…. He had heard something… A fox? A puma? Makeshift bell did the trick and we will never know.
The last day was a breeze. Looking back it is amazing the sights we saw… A 360 degree turn would sometimes have us looking at four completely different landscapes. We were also lucky that although many people walk this trek, my slow pace, a bit of luck and a couple of late starts meant that we had all the main view points to ourselves and passed very few people along the way. The physical side of things was a big challenge for me! Knowing now what I do, I wonder if I ever would of made it to Puerto Natales… So an example of how good and bad poor planning can be!