Following our Antarctic adventure, Geezer and I head north to Puerto Natales, Chile via Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas turns out to be a bit of a disaster because our main reason for going there – a chairlift up to Isla Magdalena – has just closed for the winter. The other reason is to visit a naval museum to learn more about the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and it is ordinary.
So we book a bus out of Punta Arenas and wait at the bus station. On the bus the day before, Geezer had spotted the time and noted it was an hour behind. We figured since we had crossed the border from Argy Bargy, there must have been a time change. Our bus to Puerto Natales leaves at 2pm. We stare at a clock for perhaps half an hour before realising it says 2:55pm, ask the woman at the desk showing her our watch and she tells us (looking at us like we are complete morons) yes we have missed the bus – turns to her co-worker and keels over laughing – not even trying to disguise that she is laughing at us. So we wait till 6pm for the next one.
Eventually we arrive in Puerto Natales, keen to start our five day hike through the ‘best national park in South America’ – Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We spend the day hiring camping gear and buying food for five days –all of which we have to carry with us (no sherpas here).
We are up with the sparrows the next day (and witness one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen) and catch the bus to Torres del Paine slightly anxious about the weight of our packs. But we figure it is a nice trek so we’ll be fine.
We arrive several hours later, get given a map with the trails and are left standing on the side of the road wondering what to do next. So we start walking, hit the first hill of the ‘W’ circuit and take our first rest. We are both sweating profusely and saying some choice words. What the hell have we got ourselves in to? Geezer has packed a chess set, hair gel, speakers and a litre of wine. I’ve packed more chocolate than I want to admit, all sorts of electrical equipment and ten changes of clothes too many. And we feel slightly silly. Our packs weigh more than they usually do.
We laugh about it and keep going – for about ten more minutes and then stop to have a cup of tea. The two hour walk takes us about eight. We arrive at the very top late in the day - just about dead – cook a moody pasta and collapse into our minus five degree sleeping bags, thinking that at least we’ll be warm. We wake about two hours later frozen solid. The temperature must be 0 degrees and the sleeping bags are nowhere near warm enough. We huddle together with teeth chattering till it’s time to get up for a pre-dawn hike to the see the stunning Chilean version of the Three Sisters.
The walk is just about vertical and everyone steams past us while we puff and pant our way to the top – and pretty much miss the sunrise. Geezer gets a second wind and climbs even higher to get a better view while I stay put and admire the view.
So it’s day two of the hike and now that we know what we are in for, we pfaff around until lunchtime, putting off the inevitable and walk 16km to the second camp past glaciers, mountains and some stunning scenery.
The next camp has a refuge with a chef and we are so exhausted that when we hear turkey and mashed potatoes are on the menu we fork out an exorbitant amount of money instead of cooking more moody pasta. Geezer is so tired that he props his head up with his knife and fork to stop himself from falling face first into his mashed potato. I hate turkey but I am so hungry and in need of hot food that I eat it anyway.
We skulk back to our tent in the bitter cold, cursing the people that are staying in the warm refuge. We hop into our sleeping bags and within minutes hear rustling in the tent. Geezer is sent outside to inspect. Poking around in our backpacks is a rat (Geezer initially tells me it’s a mouse because I am bordering on hysterical). He hisses at it and it disappears – for about five minutes. We bring the food inside the tent but all night there is activity outside the tent and neither of us sleeps.
The next morning we pack up and Geezer finds the cask of wine empty with a hole nibbled in the side. The bastard rat has drunk the wine! Having lugged the wine for the past two days, Geezer is absolutely disgusted. We then notice that there is a hole in the side of the tent near where the food bag was. Days later we hear horror stories of people waking in the night to find rats crawling over their sleeping bags.
Day three and we set off again late. We are tired, cold, dirty, damp and feeling every muscle. We walk another 6km and arrive at camp three (Camp Italiano) at 3pm. We set up the tent, cook a late lunch and set off for the 15km hike ahead leaving our packs behind. While the sun sets quite late, we take torches thinking that it will be touch and go as to whether we make it back before dark.
The hike takes us much longer because half way up we witness a massive avalanche on the mountain next to us and stand there captivated for probably far too long. We eventually get to the lookout at the top and the view is breathtaking. There is a pink sky and we can see all the way down the valley from where we have hiked and are surrounded by giant rocky mountains and a glacier. It is just before sunset so unfortunately we can’t stay.
By this stage it’s 730pm, the sun is setting fast and we have a 7.5km walk back to the camp. We practically run through a forest trying to beat the dark. But the sun sets and pretty soon we find ourselves walking in the dark. On the way up we had crossed rivers and scrambled over massive boulders marked by pink ribbons. The trail is fairly well marked but in the dark it’s a different story and a couple of times we lose our way. We are both nervous and comfort ourselves every time we find a marker yelling out in wobbly voices... found one! Pink ribbon over here!
When we know we have found our way back, we sit down in the dark and drink the rest of our hot tea. It’s only then we look up and see the mountains and glacier lit up by an almost full moon and the stars are out. The view from there is fabulous.
We arrive at the camp, spending what feels like ages looking for our tent and huddle in for another freezing night.
So far the weather has been terrific which is unusual in this park but today we wake up to rain. We are in agony from carrying our packs and the two hour ‘easy’ walk takes forever. We arrive at the bottom of the ‘W’ where the homeward bound ferry leaves from. We have one more afternoon hike but the weather is closing in and there is little chance of seeing the glacier at the top so we decide to jump on the ferry home – absolutely stuffed.
Was it worth the pain? Well I think so. And we lived to tell the tale.