The dying sky alight with orange and pink clouds pinned on the twilight background. The water below flowing steadily into the small bay, the constant current highlighting the stillness of all else – rocky beach, clouds, concrete wharf. Sea gull cries and soft lapping water create a peaceful harmony as a brisk, frigid air accompanies the fading light. A trawler with bright lights is anchored alone, holding endless stories of the open sea. Gone are images of crowded, sandy beaches. Here the ocean meets the land, cold and sure, the sleepy town barely a point on the map. This was one of the first stops of our descent to the end of the world. Not far from this nameless village was a Magellan penguin colony which allowed visitors to get right up close to the adorable, small dog sized animals. It was disappointing to see so many people leaning through the railings and patting them, more concerned about their own experience than the lasting impact on the threatened species. Alas, a tourist rarely cares for the future of their destinations, only the minute experience. It is the traveller that respects deeply the culture, flora and fauna of another’s land, not the tourist. I urge everyone to be the traveller, and not give into the greedy needs of being a tourist.
Next followed very long drives, the Southern scenery desolate and blending into an endless road. We stopped for lunch on a beach that’s shoreline was covered in huge sea lions, grunting and roaring at each other, oblivious to the humans that pointed cameras just metres away.
El Calafate was the warm bed I’d been craving since we left Buenos Aires – because of course it makes sense to do most of the camping in the coldest section of the trip! Ski town charm, El Calafate was startlingly similar to Queenstown, NZ. I was able to find some peace in this familiarity, taking time to pick up things I needed on a leisurely stroll down the touristy main street.
It’s too easy to forget the small things in life, and as I woke up a few times that night, toasty from the heated floor and warm blankets, I smiled to myself remembering I was in a bed! Recharged and the happiest I’d been in a while, it was time for another adventure.
Cotton wool clouds clutched to the sides of rocky, shrubby mountains, a snow capped peak glowed pink in the distanced through the eerie mist. The gloomy day added to the immeasurable peace found in a small, cabin cafe along a lonely road. A stove emanated warmth into the cozy room consisting of a wooden bar, chairs and tables. Great windows filled the room with light, offering a breathtaking view of long, flat farming plains below the shadow of a towering mounted shrouded in cloud. The exposed rafters were decorated in animals, metal trinkets and trophies – a brief history of this little ranch. Tasting my first quince pie on that gorgeous gloomy day in the warm, wooden country cabin, I was in love.
With so much more to see, I was snapped from the romantic countryside view and planted in an entirely different world. Misty, ice blue water lapped onto black sand and speckled rocks. Gnarled beech trees twisted on the hillsides, tufts of bright green moss growing from wet, dark wood. The small green leaves were turning red and brown, the first touch of autumn. Padding along a slippery, metal walkway in this enchanting scenery was surreal. But my heart stopped when the huge expanse of ice filled my view. Thunderous echoes and growls of splintering ice shards echoed within and on the edges of the deep wall of ice. Glowing blue in the grey light of cloud, ancient lines of black sediment were etched like frozen lightning into the current face. A tremendous crack would sound, followed by a splash, and you would realise that face had changed once again. The frozen, giant of ice was by no means dormant despite the ages of time etched into its layers. Perito Moreno glacier moves as much as two metres a day, one of the worlds few advancing glaciers. I could have stared at it all day. Simply blessed with a perfect day, I experienced its gorgeous colours only visible with cloud, and then with the appearance of sun, saw it glitter as a freshly cut diamond. That day was definitely a highlight. Freedom, beauty and comfort. Next I lost that comfort.
Comfort is so important to me. It’s warmth in cold, it’s calm in anxiousness, it’s having personal space, it’s not pushing too far. Torres del Paine National Park looked at me and laughed. As much as the name seems ironic, Paine was a native word for blue. Fortunately, despite settlers wiping out the natives, and tourist fires wiping out the trees, the natural and blue beauty of the park still exists. I could write pages describing it all, but I won’t. (Note the three towers on the right.)
Relatively comfortable, Torres greeted us with a warm, sunny day. I found a lovely grassy flat just big enough to set up my tent. Rolling up the canvas window flaps and leaving one door open, a fresh mountain breeze filled the air as I happily admired my view – a stunning, snow capped mountain. It’s not everyday you can wake up and go to sleep beneath such a sight. Everything seemed so easy and comfortable. It got a bit cold that night, but soup and stew was delicious for dinner. I even started drinking the wine. Frozen in my sleeping bag, it was a fairly sleepless night but I wasn’t too fussed. The stars were so clear outside that I felt I was back in the crystal waters of Rio da Prata again. Tiny diamonds glistening in the black pit of sky, a trail of fine stardust lining the milky way, so clear it almost was blurry. Jewels of the universe.
Now it was time for my first trek, to Torres del Paine towers. Described as Cleopatra’s Needles, the towers were easy to see from miles away between the mountains. Twenty-two kilometres return, no problem. Hiking boots laced up, check. Light-weight back pack and lunch, done. Steep hills and drops, um wait a second. Exhaustion and sore body, what!? The challenging internal battle of will, stop!
The first hill I marched up, tiring by the top but feeling accomplished. It was very long but hey, I made it. Now it was a steady downhill path, etched into the side of a cliff, a gushing river below. I trotted down it gaily. Oh, naive first time trekker. Now it was time to go through a forest, but this forest path was a squiggly line. Up, down, up, down. My knees were starting to complain, hip getting stiff. A lovely fellow trekker helped take care of a hot spot on my heel. The base of my back began to ache and my lungs burned in the icy air. Out of the forest, were we done yet? Tears kept welling in my eyes as I contemplated returning to camp. I think I can, I think I can… The little red train from my childhood chanted in my ears. You have to do this or you couldn’t possibly do Machu Picchu! I reminded myself. But you’re so sore, no need to push it. What about an injury? The other voice conspired. No shame turning back now, you’re not the first one. At camp is a hot shower, a sleeping mat to lie on in the sun. Sitting alone at the second third of the trek, taking a break before the last third, I was miserable. Never good at decisions, this one was tearing me up. I had decided on defeat, convincing myself I could still do Machu Picchu, even though I knew full well I’d sob the whole walk back and wallow in self pity for the remainder of the day. Hating my weakness, my unfit body, I dejectedly pulled out a chocolate bar. A little red train chugged on the wrapper.
The last third of the trek was rocky and upward. Literally climbing up a stream, boulders as stairs, began the long way to the towers. Some steps a metre high, I nearly crawled. Filled with hot, aching pain from the waist down, I fell to the very end of the group, shuffling along in a numb, broken shell. Here was the eighteen year old, barely keeping ahead of the seventy year old. With legs shaking so badly it was hard to step, I eventually fixed on a large rock that I would get to before turning around for the painful decent. At that rock was a small clearing, a large tooth of rock, powdered in snow was just visible from the sharp angle of the mountain. Could I really be that close? Summoning the non-existent energy I had left, I forced my weary feet on. And then I was there. The sound of running water filled the cool air of the mountain’s cradle. Three jagged pillars of rock jutted into the sky across the bright blue glacial lake, a rocky outcrop to my right and snow capped mountains to my left. It took a long while to realise I’d made it. It wasn’t even the view that filled me with accomplishment, it was myself. For the first time, I finally understood why people put themselves through so much hardship to trek. Only the smallest fraction was for the view. The rest was for the battle, the pride of accomplishment against the threat of failure, conquering the doubts. It would have been so easy to quit, and I know there will be times in my life I will have to quit. But not that day. I finally caught a glimpse of why I came to this foreign land so far from home, and it was so pure and refreshing.
The next few days were calm, a much needed break from the endless overlanding and trek. Warm porridge for breakfast and herbal tea (I hated tea before I came), dodgy sandwich lunch, soup and hot dinner with wine (didn’t drink wine either). We drove around the park, did some little walks. To my pleasure there were hundreds of guanaco’s! Even a six thousand year old wall painting. On our last night, the sky became a brilliant light show of farewell. The sun and moon shared the sky, the dying, glowing orange behind the western snow capped mountains as twilight hues of pink, purple and blue bloomed beneath a crescent moon to the east. The bright, white snow faded into the dark rock of the mountain as the light faded. Guanaco’s were silhouetted, grazing on the hillside below the icy moon.
Now it’s the end of the world, Ushuaia. The cold is easy to forget when it’s the first room and warm bed you’ve had in a week. I even found a tv room which I’m having trouble staying away from. In an unusual way it reminds me of home, the chilly days that make a warm couch and blanket that much more welcomed. Exploring the town today was uneventful, the museum bland and easily overlooking pre-settlement, native culture.
I’m counting the days until we begin our ascent north, and the days until I can see my wonderful and dearly missed family again.