Darkness defines the mornings. The light of morning, a gift, saved for the road. The huge truck rolled painfully slow down an icy, winding road. The fear of a slip not far from our minds. Heavy snow caked the road sides, Ushuaia’s farewell to us. The tension sun’s glow emanated across the sky, breaking through the wooly, blue grey clouds that hung thickly over the sea’s horizon. In the West the night faded away, retreating over the plains of Tierra del Fuego, over the mighty Andes, across the great expanse of the desolate Pacific; finally to home. Frankie would be slinking inside at its arrival, the family gathering for the nightly rituals. The night would kiss them in their beds, guarding their sleep until it is time to travel again. Time to travel over the Great Australian plains, boundless salt water, and an ancient continent before returning back to me. Such thoughts accumulated in my mind as the long days of travel blended.It would be 2,650kms until we left the rough Patagonian desert. Our first bush camp was a few kilometres off the main road on a large patch of flat land. Building a fire with dead scrubs, for a second the incessant cold was conquered. Even the dense smell of smoke that latched onto our clothes seemed worth it to escape the icy fingers. I lay awake in my lonely tent in the early hours, wearing all the clothes I had, willing the time to fly; for the first movement of camp break to begin, as the toasty temperature of zero bit at my exposed cheeks. According to our bus, it was minus four degrees that night. (This photo was reposted by Dragoman’s Instagram!)
Overland travel has its perks and its downfalls. Striving to focus on the first, I was delighted when we pulled into a historic hotel on our way to El Chalten (because we could). As a fan of Indian and Cowboy adventures, visiting a site where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out was so exciting! I even treated myself to a gorgeous metal bracelet with bright South American fabric inside to always remember the place.
El Chalten is a new, touristy town, established in the eighties inside the Los Glaciers National Park. The magnificent Fitzroy Mountain welcomed us proudly on our arrival, with clear weather giving us a view of the allusive peak. The long, flat road that seemed to lead directly to the ancient rock appeared to be out of a dream. On my first day there, I was filled with determination to meet the mountain. I jumped from my top bunk early, dressing and eating some fruit before heading out into the dark morning with my backpack. I felt like a true hiker. Setting foot onto the trail just as the sky began to light, knowing I was one of the first this day. Soft pinks and soothing oranges glowed, a hazy light filtering through the trees as my blood pumped through me. Just the path, trees and I. Negativity that had lodged inside me seemed to float away as I focused on my legs; marching along the narrow, damp dirt road that winded up the mountain side. I am happy. I am strong. I am alive! The purity of the solitude and fresh air reminded me. I am blessed. My perception of trekking has rippled like water, the clear challenge now having many more layers. Trekking is like life – a challenge full of small successes and failures. It can be beautiful, exhilarating, painful, frustrating, revealing and enlightening. One moment I sang affirmations, the next curses at a bug that flew down my throat. It is the attitude that you maintain that shapes your trek, your life. The trek to Fitzroy was special because it was my first solo trek. I had no one to encourage me, no one to see me fail. There were parts of the path that seemed to wind on forever, my feet landing heavily and with lethargy. There were times a spring launched my steps with enthusiasm. Some parts were soothing and peaceful, the terrain resembling that of Japanese gardens. The last leg was cruel, a jagged path of uneven stones that zig zagged up the side of the mountain. Just when I thought I’d made it, one last incline of loose dirt remained. The view wasn’t bad, Fitzroy was shrouded by cloud as the day swapped between sunshine and spitting rain. It’s the accomplishment that makes the trek worth while, the sights an added perk. It’s being able to experience the joy and sorrow of life in a condensed, fast paced way.
El Chalten rewarded my efforts, or perhaps undermined my efforts with a decadent waffleria. Somehow I restrained myself to only make two visits, each one great. Two warm, slightly crunchy waffles drowning in a thick layer of dulce de leche (thick caramel used on everything here!), a creamy ball of decadent chocolate ice cream and a dusting of fine coconut. The next visit led to baked, green apples in rum, two balls of dulce de leche ice cream and a pinch of cinnamon. Such delight on my tastebuds almost rivalled my love of alforjas. Almost.
With two more bush camps until arriving in Argentina’s lake district, el cueva de los manos was a mesmerising sight before two days of road. To be so close to a people from a time so distant blew my mind. Hundreds of hands, each connected to a life, frozen in time nine thousand years ago. This hand, similar size to mine, how did it’s owner think? Feel? The storyteller inside sparking with inspiration. Tiny hands, large hands, even a six fingered hand. Did they ever believe their small blink in times expanse would last longer than themselves?
The scenery finally changed, the small, shrubby desert of the Patagonian steppe disappearing in pine clad mountains and glimmering, rocky lakes. Bariloche, just in time for La fiesta de la chocolate. Surrounded by chocolate, excitement and a little bit of family history, the pain of my first Easter alone lessened. Our hostel was nice, a bed immeasurably warm and comfortable after two nights in a chilly tent. The distance from town was a shame, but catching the local bus was an experience in its own. Instead of loitering around the hostel as I usually did in places, I was out everyday. Letting go of the need for schedules, designated alone time and other obsessive compulsive ideas, I was able to relax and truly enjoy Bariloche. I went out to a restaraunt for the first time since leaving home, tried something from the menu I’d never had and loved it. I journeyed up to the Cerro Otto via gondola to the lookout my grandparents had been over eighteen years ago. I took myself to the grande, neogothic church for the Sunday mass. I bought artesan chocolate eggs. Being in a new place every few days teaches you to enjoy atmospheres rather than sites. I stumbled upon a museum near our hostel – a small private geological and paleontological collection in a house off the main road. Opening the door enveloped me in the sweet scent of incense, booming classical music and ancient times. The fluorescent lights buzzed behind glass doors where history collected dust. Stuffed birds and musty indoor plants added to the timelessness of the place. Faded photos hung on the wall of past digs and people, a reminder of the exciting epic of archeology in days gone by. I wondered which proud, smiling face was the greying professor that sat alone in his office of old books.
Journeying over the Andes and across the border, Pucon is nestled at the base of an active volcano. The emergency alarm is tested in the middle of the day, and steam can be seen rising from the open cone. A town with endless opportunities for adventure, I admit my biggest accomplishment there was laundry. Of course I had been hand washing my clothes, but after two months without the crisp, clean scented clothes it was a much needed luxury. That night a large group of us went to the hot springs for the evening, enjoying the scolding pool, the hot but knee deep pool and the luke-warm swimming pool. Perhaps it was the seven-hundred ml Pina Colada I had, or it was this new, positive attitude but neither the traumatic bus drive there, or the winding walk (and small fall) in the dark tainted the night out with my new friends.
Now in Santiago I have made the decision to say good bye to them. 13 050 kilometres over landing. It was a rough few weeks at the beginning as I struggled to adjust to the different personalities I’d been thrown in to live with for the next two months. Last night I was voted ‘One Who Has Changed the Most’ and I’m so grateful these people helped shape and nurture me as I changed in the best way possible. Home warned me I’d return a different girl, and the thought terrified me. Now I can’t wait to show the world who I am. It will be odd the next few days, adjusting to another group of brand new people. I know it won’t be easy, sometimes I may even want to return to my old group who will be a day behind me on the road, but I can only hope I will be taught new lessons and grow even more. After all, I’m on my way, new friends and new places to see…PhotoCredit: Lee Hobson; Co-Editor: Hannah Gibbs 🙂