In Patagonia, from Chile, with my tour group, over the border to Argentina and El Calafate, the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. Patagonia is possibly the most stunning place I have ever been - Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares in the spring- wow! The colossal Perito Moreno glacier is nearly 300 feet high, 19 miles long and 3 miles wide, at its terminus on Lake Argentino. A land area the size of Buenos Aires and a mass of blue peaks, like giant frozen penguins marching into the sea. (There are more real penguins, too). This is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world's third largest reserve of fresh water. And it's one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding, as its mass is continuously replenished. No-one is quite sure how.
We watch the glacier calving icebergs into the iridescent lake. They fall with a giant roar, creating mini tsunamis and an explosion of ice, before floating off.
The Argentinians are not like the Chileans. As the Chileans say:
“How does an Argentine commit suicide?”
“He jumps off his ego.”
The weather is colder now and whenever anyone remarks “It’s chilly”, we chorus: “No, it’s not, it’s Argentina”.
We venture out to sample the renowned Argentine steaks, but our food arrives overcooked. Duncan, the guide complains and they eventually bring another round, so we end up devouring two meals. I haven’t felt hungry since.
The expedition is becoming a little sedate. Duncan has foolishly told me that, in his opinion, Mount Fitzroy is the most impressive sight in South America, but it isn’t on our itinerary. So I decide to see it anyway, sign off the tour for two days and take a four hour bus ride to El Chalten, the capital of Patagonian trekking. I end up in the middle of nowhere at midnight with a map I can't read and I have virtually no Spanish. I'm rescued by a lanky drunk musician, toting a guitar home after his gig.
My walk is great. I get a taxi to the end of the trail and work my way backwards to the start. It's easier for transport back to Calafate, I'm told. Duncan warned me it would be busy: 'You'll have loads of company', but he is wrong. I wend my solitary way for two hours accompanied only by a large, noisy, persistent horsefly who will not depart despite my constant entreaties. He keeps reappearing, not satisfied until he has stung me hard. Perhaps, like the locals, he doesn't understand English.
Fitzroy, a wall of stone, is carved out of the sky, like the Last Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit. It is a beautiful, beautiful day. Parrots peek out of holes, gunacos leap and hares lollop. When I finally get back, I scan the park noticeboard. 'A steepy (sic) trail', it warns. 'To prevent bad encounters with pumas do not walk alone.'
From Calafte to Tierra del Fuego and it's national park. Lucas Bridges, the son of a Missionary, and one of the first Europeans to settle in Tierra del Fuego poignantly referred to this land as The Uttermost Part of the Earth in his 1948 book of that name. He wrote about his youth among the coastal Yaghans in Tierra del Fuego and his adult initiation into the Ona tribe, Their culture is now virtually extinct. However, there are replica huts in the grounds of the Estancia Harberton, the family home. built by Lucas's missionary father, Thomas. in 1886. The estancia was named for the Devon home of his wife. Tourism keeps the ranch afloat today.
It's very strange to think I'm poised at the bottom of the globe. The weather is a little fresh, but not too uncomfortable. Zodiacs again on the (windy) Beagle Channel, probably the most famous of the three navigable passages down here. The channel separates the larger main island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from various smaller islands and its eastern area forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina.
On to Ushuaia, southern most town on earth and gateway to the Falklands and Antarctica. It's a windswept place, perched on a steep hill and surrounded by the Martial Mountains. There are maps of the former hanging in the port, though of course here they are called The Malvinas. There's another sign in the harbour:
Smile, it really is the end of the world.
I re-organised this part of my tour as I thought New Year in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina would be fun, but in the event it's a quiet and sobering experience. There's a nightclub fire the night we arrive and many people are killed and injured. This is a city in shock and mourning. Much is closed.
.On New Year's Eve all the office workers throw last year's files out of the window to make way for the new. The streets are covered in paper. I just hope they have an electronic back up. Then it is a steak dinner and early bed.
On to Los Angeles and then Thailand.
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