I never intended to visit Patagonia. A mid-trip decision to change plans – allowing me to fit in a spur of the moment yoga teacher qualification – left me with insufficient time to visit Peru and trek the Macchu Picchu trail.
Whilst this meant that the altitude sickness medication (scored by a bit of elbow twisting of my obliging local GP) could stay firmly in my backpack, I’d quite fancied the idea of an epic hike to finish my year.
A wandering to end all wandering.
It probably would have been a good idea, when searching for a replacement adventure, to do a bit of research beyond looking at a map of the world and thinking, ooh Patagonia, that’s a nice word and look how near the South Pole I’ll be!
When a friend commented that it was the one place from my trip that she really in no way, whatsoever, envied, I took time to listen – after all, she knew what she was talking about – she’d been there a couple of years previous.
I think her words were ‘you couldn’t pay me to go back’. Sadly by then my flights and trek, the famous W trail, were all booked.
My hand-clapping enthusiasm for new experiences and a desire to take immediate action really are a pain in the backside combination at times.
But let’s think about this. How hard could a walk around some valleys be? I remember watching that Alpine kids show – Heidi – on TV, valleys were pretty flat and covered in little daisies. Even the little girl in a wheelchair, Clara, sent to the country to fix her legs with that well-known cure of fresh air managed to get around ok. Probably I’d caught my friend on a bad day and she was being uncharacteristically dramatic.
I’d entirely forgotten those pre-Christmas words of doom until a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed another friend comment, on a popular social media site, how freaking hard the trek had been, and she’s a Tigger-like 30 year old far more travel hardy than I. Hmmm.
Sensing a growing chilliness in my feet, I then did what all impetuous people do when they want to make sure they don’t quit. They make themselves socially accountable. Up went my charity fundraising page the same day – documenting my intended trek and asking friends and family to support my endeavour (feel free to donate if you haven’t yet x).
No quitting now then!
In the occasional quiet moments in my life I wonder why I do this to myself. Answers on a postcard please.
After a bunny hop of three short flights in the same plane – down, down, down – to the southern edges of South America, we spent a pre-hike evening in the quaint town of Puerto Natales, savouring every moment in the cosy hostel and our last night in a bed until the trek was done.
Quite how I’d sufficiently suppressed memories of a sleepless month of camping in the US only nine short months ago – to sign up for overnighting in a tent in one of the potentially most inhospitable places on the planet – I’ll never know. It’s probably the same way anyone ever ends up with a brother or sister.
And so the day dawned on the start of our 64km trek around the mountains of the Torres Del Paine national park. The sun was shining and I decided to hope for the best – this was going to be easy. A walk in the park, in fact.
Day one was planned as a warm up session, with the true W due to start on day two. Our guide confirmed that the 12km hike was, indeed, easy, so I tentatively put all remaining trepidation aside.
A short upward trek into the valley rewarding us with breath-taking scenery. Shards of granite jutted skywards, softened with a powdery dusting of icy snow.
Torres del Paine park covers nearly a quarter of a million hectares of land and you can quite believe it, as the land stretches away and away and away before you, with snow blending into cloud, blurring the edges between earth and sky.
Imagine for a moment a mad scientist, intent on designing the world’s most beautiful animal (we won’t judge him on his motivation, each to their own tastes and all that). I expect he’d take the genes for the dark brown eyes and luxuriant lashes of a cow, the shapely thighs of a muscly gazelle and the soft fur of a teddy bear (Shush! Teddies ARE real, they just only wake up when their owners are asleep. Don’t you know anything?).
Mix them all up in a magical petri dish and out would pop a guanaco. A cousin of the llama, but far far prettier, these creatures dot the hillside, chomping grass and hoping that their neighbour is a slower runner when one of the fifty-odd native pumas feels peckish.
At points along the trail their huge skeletons litter the path. As a new friend said, as we dodged the bits of spine, it’s just like friday night outside the local fried chicken take away.
As well as the pumas (which have only ever eaten one hiker – I asked the guide, possibly a bit too loudly), guanacos share the hillsides with the well camouflaged emu-like rhea.
And the even better hidden South American gray (sic) fox. You’ll have to look closely, it’s in the middle of the picture, snacking on a dead guanaco.
The destination of the first day hike was a hill top cave housing indigenous paintings, daubed on the walls some 6000 years ago by members of the Aonikenk people, hunter-gatherer native Indians that once lived here.
The walk was really quite lovely, until we got to the side of a hill and the path disappeared from under our feet. All that lay ahead – well below, as there was no more ahead, just down – was a long scree slope. I expected us to admire the view, then turn around. Oh no.
Sliding down, my heels firmly dug into the sharp black stones, I was reminded of my one skiing experience, in a tiny French village, which ended with me being swooshed down the red run on the back of a hunky ski instructor. Sadly I’m no longer 12 plus I’m a lot more stubborn these days about doing what I say I will.
Two minutes, and a palmful of spiky thorns later (courtesy of a hand plant into a scrubby bush known affectionately as ‘mother-in-law’) and I was at the bottom. And actually it wasn’t that bad after all, except for the dozen or more splinters embedded firmly into my fingertips.
Obviously I have no pictures of this episode, as I was busy trying to not die. This was to become a theme over the coming days.
Day two was the first ‘proper’ hike, a 18km round trip to the Las Torres lookout. Defying the rules that valleys are flat, this trek saw us up some fairly steep ascents that would rival any stair-master gym session. How is it that on a map they look easy?
I have since come to dislike, severely, the word undulating. F***ing knackering would have been a more accurate and honest way for Armando, our guide, to describe some of the climbs in our pre-hike briefing sessions.
But then for him they were easy, something he’d done a hundred times before. At moments of flagging motivation I would look on with envious eyes as he ambled along, arms folded, mind distracted by where he and his girlfriend might find enough feathers for her upcoming art shows (really). His legs seemed to move half the speed of ours despite him remaining just that little bit out of reach. How does that even work?
If I’d drawn that wooden route map, I’d have made sure there were sufficient exclamation marks towards the top, or a photo of this.
For the top can only be reached by a scramble over the wind-battered glacial moraine of loose rock. A bit of loose rock is fine, unless it happens to be this big and you are walking in front of it.
But hard won prizes often taste that little bit sweeter for the battle – internal or external – required to win them.
As sandwich eating locations go, the otherworldly nature of the glacial milky blue water edged by stark granite towers, is going to take some beating. Even the chunky mountain top glaciers on our descent paled in comparison.
Safely back at camp, Armando looked pensively at the sky and remarked that the cute looking UFO lenticular cloud on the horizon meant that the wind was going to pick up.
I didn’t really give it much more thought – we’d had a couple of lovely sunny days that had taken the edge of the light breeze and it was only at the top of the ascent that we’d really needed all our layers of clothing.
Seriously, what were people whinging about when they regaled tales of Patagonian weather with an involuntary shudder?
Next morning I crawled out of my tent to get ready for our boat ride across Lake Pehoe and was almost blown back inside. Hmmm.
Traipsing in the pouring rain to the jetty, past a field of trees burnt out in a flash fire last year - one step forward, one step sideways, my backpack throwing my balance every time a gust of wind caught it, I started to understand.
Even the captain wasn’t sure he’d get us safely to the other side – but figured he’d have a go at reaching the middle of the lake to see if we sank or not. Waves crested majestically outside the snug sanctuary of our boat and as luck would have it we didn’t all drown a horrible watery death. Yay!
Armando retained his nonchalant arms folded posture throughout.
He wasn’t quite as calm an hour later when he and our other guide put up our tents – they had quite rightly assessed that in gale force conditions we would have ended up ripping them to shreds if we’d set them up ourselves. It’s funny how in some languages prostitute is a very popular adjective, it’s been many many years since I’ve called my hairdryer one – something I used to do regularly when I lived in France.
Sadly the weather was just too poor for us to set off on our day three hike as planned and I sat in the canteen pondering how to make up the miles so that I didn’t let my charity down.
Slowly the whip like rain against the windows softened to a drizzle and we grabbed our moment. Unfortunately for my right knee this was the start of the end. Rushing to avoid the worst of the weather we marched the trail towards the grey glacier at a pace I never wish to repeat.
At one point Armando shot off at an angle and ran up a steep hill, my heart sank as I thought ‘Oh god now we have to run!’. Turns out his hat had blown away.
I asked, not unreasonably I thought, whether we could return to camp at a more sensible pace. And he agreed, but then near-jogged back down. I expect he was hungry.
After the shame of spitting out my dinner on my plate, when I realised that meat-tasting lump of pizza in my mouth was in fact meat (well as near to meat as mechanically recovered spicy sausage ever gets), I headed for ‘bed’ – my human condom of a tent.
Day four was the big one, the 25km plus trek into the French Valley. We were fairly subdued as we unzipped our tent doors, thanks to a night literally without sleep – the Patagonian gales had done their best to lift us and all our possessions into the nearby lake.
Curiously puffy-eyed (to the extent we could barely open our eyelids and looked like we had an unfortunate skin complaint) we steeled ourselves for a battle against the elements. Imagine the giddy excitement then, when this was what we woke up to.
Blue skies, sunshine and only the whisper of a breeze. I wonder whether Crowded House had recently been on a trip to Patagonia when they penned their famous song?
We weren’t the only ones enjoying the sunshine. I’ve never seen an owl look as content as this little pygmy owl perched happily in a tree.
By now though my right knee, which occasionally tells me when I’m pushing my luck in yoga, was really not impressed. My vivid imagination had it exploding catastrophically at any moment. Luckily one of my fellow hikers was a trauma surgeon, so I figured if my knee did burst through my trousers Alien-style I was in good hands.
Knowing that other people – specifically children living on the streets of the UK and India – were relying on me completing the trek kept me going every single step that day.
And the views were unquestionably worth it.
Once again nature demonstrated it really is quite the talented sculptor.