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Kili or bust (Sean P O'Rourke): Patagonia Nov 2008
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Patagonia Nov 2008 · Nov 30, 06:41 PM by admin

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For my fourth Dublin Simon Community charity trek I headed off with 25 other intrepid trekkers, including my son Sean, to take on the wonders of Patagonia on November 9th. Most of us are now used to the customary 30 hour journey from Dublin, this time via Madrid, Buenos Aires and Calafate in southernmost Patagonia, which strangely enough has only a 3 hour time difference with Ireland. The final three and a half hour plane journey crossed endless moonscapes of desert scrub and low rounded hills till finally we came in to land without a sign of an airport. I was getting worried for a bit till suddenly a tiny strip appeared and we touched down at a one horse airport of Biggles proportions.

Some hills rising to the West reminded us that we would soon be approaching the snow clad Andes.
A bumpy 3 hour ride on a fairly luxurious bus took us skirting the hills for a closer look at the dry barren landscape which was occasionally dotted with “High Chaparral” type ranches. We stopped at a halfway hacienda, the inner walls of which were festooned with memorabilia about the real Butch Cassidy and Sundance during their short escape from the law in the States. The surrounding hills seemed perfect for them. After coffee and a mountainous lemon meringue pie, we left and eventually reached the centre of trekking for the entire area, a wonderful little frontier town called “El Chalten.”


This collection of charming wooden structures was set up by Argentina as recently as the mid eighties in order to lay down land claims during some border discussions with Chile. Though it was dark when we reached the new town, the taste and thought that were applied in equal measure to the timber constructed hostels and Inns was amazing. A real backpacker’s paradise!
Being that close to the Antarctic it was not surprising that we almost withered in the cold breeze while taking our gear into the small and thankfully well heated hotel. After a meal and a lengthy briefing we slept soundly till 10.00 am so we could start the trek refreshed.

Damp Start

We had no idea of the mountain views that surrounded us till we woke on a bright but threatening morning. The entire 360 degree view consisted of nothing but snow covered pointed peaks stacked, as one trekker put it, like one Alpen packet after another!
We were trekking into the Los Glaciares National Park where no pack animals are allowed on many sections and we were without porters also so each trekker had to carry everything he brought himself.
The Park covers more than 6,000 square kilometres and offers a remarkable combination of breathtaking glaciers, huge mountain ranges, vast emerald green lakes and rare plants and animals. One of the major attractions is the Fitzroy mountain range (named after the captain of Darwin’s ship, The Beagle) with its dramatic peaks of grey and red granite. The site of these peaks lit up by a low rising or setting sun really has to be witnessed.

With a change of clothes, wet gear, food, water and sleeping bag etc. most people were carrying in excess of 10 Kilos. Some decisions still had to be made about high sections of the trek as there had been more snow than usual but we headed out of town and into the surrounding hills in a light drizzle. For the first couple of hours we walked on tracks quite similar to the Wicklow Way with high snow peaks visible on both sides. Unfortunately the weather was of the Wicklow variety also as the drizzle turned to more persistent rain. Not a great scenario when you are heading for a cold night in a tent!
We passed within a kilometre of the nearest geocache to El Chalten but that was as near as our trekking route ever came to one. As we entered a long river valley we meandered along the bank for some time while the rain deprived us of further views of the dramatic peaks of the Fitzroy range.
At last, our sodden group reached the first campsite at Cerro Torre where thousands of euros worth of so called waterproof Gore-Tex had let in quite a bit of rain. I was forced to spend the first couple of hours trying my best to dry out in the tent while most of the remaining group strolled further down to the lakeside to view the drama of our first glacier which was dropping mini icebergs into the lake.


The other “drop” that had to be negotiated was the now almost comical visit to the “long” version that most seasoned trekkers have come to know and hate! Enough said about that!

Spirits were still amazingly high after such a start and the usual fun was had in the mess tent over “dinner” of pumpkin soup (I think) and lentil stew, a bit meagre in my view, with trekking in mind but there you go! Off to bed at 10 pm and I was really glad that I had sacrificed the weight of my camera for an inner lining for the sleeping bag. The first day in a tent after some time usually does not go well as the body takes a little time to adjust. The rain was still pelting and some violent gusts of wind rose that would scare a banshee. I have no idea how the surrounding old “Lord of the Rings “gnarly trees didn’t come crashing down on us. After a short while I slept well.


Next morning the sun was shining and gear was dried off in no time (the positive side of all that expensive rain gear) and all was well with our Patagonian world again. This time we set off on a more serious 17K hike with packed lunches and spirits renewed. I would love to be able to do descriptive justice to the vistas to which we were treated throughout that day. The stars of the show were the uniquely shaped pointed peaks that seemed to go on forever. Our guides were describing ice fields among the peaks that stretched for 140K and that were 80 K wide. Every hill or moraine that we crossed presented us with panorama after panorama of jagged snow capped sierras that seemed within touching distance and now and again there were huge blue towering glaciers suspended magically in gaps created by packed snow moving slowly down over thousands of years.


The trek route we took seemed to be specifically created with the best views in mind and at the greatest physical ease. Other than the weight we carried, the hiking was relatively easy. We turned into yet another glacial valley which revealed the gouged out base of grey and red granite. It was joined by another with a lagoon at its base and our guides described how displaced cool air over the lagoon had to escape which created violent gusts in short blasts that were capable of lifting a person off his feet. It was not long before we experienced these at first hand and boy was he right! The only solution was to crouch down for 30 seconds or so and wait. A few people left their hats on during one of these blasts and some were taken to infinity, never to be seen again. One could see these winds starting out on the lagoon and water would be whipped up and come charging the length of it and then hit like a hammer with an accompanying roar like a train at full speed. Quite exhilarating and scary all at once!
Several weeks training in Wicklow prepared us somewhat for the heavier bags but nothing could prepare one for these conditions. It was funny at times to see people with heavy bags being swayed like juggernauts ahead of you and, just like you, unable to do much about it.
We stopped for shelter in an old forest where one or two intrepids tasted the “bread of the Indians” which was a fungal growth of the mushroom variety that attached itself to trees and looked rather like a bunch of yellow golf balls. Continuing on our way, we reached the second campsite at Laguna Capri just at the right time as some heavy rain arrived. This campsite was privately run with a lady looking after matters and the tents were in pristine condition. We were able to use the lake itself for our water supplies but it needed a great deal of dexterity to fill bottles etc. as the temperature of the water was as cold as anything I have ever experienced.
Thankfully we were able to laugh at the rain while sipping “mate,” the Argentinian herbal tea, before dinner in the mess tent.


Our briefing that night included a talk by Luis, one of our Argentine guides, who proclaimed with great certainty that there would be no more rain after this. “Tomorrow the rrain will estop!” We all laughed then of course but he turned out to be absolutely correct. There was no more rain for the remainder of the trip and grown (well nearly) adults were bowing down to our new found weather God after that.

Next morning we walked along yet another long glacial bed with huge moraines left by the receding glacial monster. There were more miles of stunning vistas and towering granite spikes on either side. Luis, our leader on the day, described how the forests are so jealously guarded by the authorities. There were only two types of trees as these forests were relatively new, after eons of ice had covered the area.


We lunched just below the imposing blue towers of the receding glacier itself, ironically named “White Rocks.” The entire area was a feast of photo opportunities and the group spent quite a snap happy while there during which I struggled manfully with the lunch of cabbage pie which added strangely to the surreal experience!

We continued along the base of the glacial bed for a time clambering over rocky outcrops and crossing endless log bridges and then swiftly turned up into privately owned forest land. Here we climbed up and up where we spotted hawks and owls that spied us suspiciously and Luis pointed out puma and fox droppings. According to him, even the guides rarely caught glimpses of the shy puma. Other than those mentioned there was a strange lack of insect and small bird life which Luis explained was due to the relatively new forests. The covering of earth below our feet was only about 20 cm deep which went some way toward explaining the large numbers of dead and dying trees we came upon. We must have trekked for 8 hours or so that day till eventually we arrived at our next campsite which proved to be yet another notch up the quality ladder. There were showers and a wooden structure for our mess hall with a bar included. We had two nights to look forward to in this luxury which also meant that we could leave lots of gear for lighter trekking the next day.


Firstly though, we had our indoor meal and even though we were captive customers and the bar prices were unashamedly expensive, we took appropriate advantage, as only the Irish can, and a full scale hooley ensued in celebration of our endeavours so far. Being late spring in the southern hemisphere it was light up till 9.00 pm and we had our first clear views of the Mount Fitzroy massif towering magnificently above us. One can only guess at Darwin and Fitzroy’s first thoughts when they saw this spellbinding mountain for the first time.
We found out pretty quickly that we Irish don’t have a monopoly on fun loving nights out. Our Argentine guides got into the swing quickly and very soon they were out singing us. A great night was had and I have a feeling that all slept quite well that night, if only for a short while!

The next morning we trekked in the direction of Marconi pass and the light packs made us feel like we were walking on clouds. We passed over several moraines before heading up to a high lagoon below yet another monstrous glacier. Our original plan had been to trek up to the ice fields themselves but our organisers felt that snow levels had been too high to take the risk. We stopped for lunch at the side of the lagoon and we were treated to some magnificent views up close and personal with the glacier. Its size and power was so evident in the path it created while advancing or receding.


On our way back to camp a large group of trekkers decided to become a little more adventurous and we headed up a mountain side in the direction of Fitzroy. We spent a couple of hours climbing a very steep section in an attempt to reach the snow line. We were able to get clear views of Marconi Pass and the ice fields beyond from our high vantage point before time ran out and we spent quite a lengthy time picking our way gingerly back down.
We arrived back at camp to the smell of spread-eagled lamb being roasted over a fire and it was not long before we were tucking into it in our luxurious mess hut.

Our final hiking day was short due to the change of plan by the organisers. As we approached the road and our minibuses back to civilisation we were treated to the fabulous spectacle of several condors gliding low above us. My son and I, who are avid raptor watchers, were enthralled by the sight of these majestic creatures sailing in a beautiful blue sky amid snow-clad rocky peaks. For my son and me, their appearance was something of a consolation for the slightly cheated feeling we had that the snow levels had shortened out trek and kept us at lower altitudes than we expected. No matter how hard or how high the trek was though, we were treated to some sights that many people will simply never get to see.

After picking up our bags at El Chalten we headed back across the dry scrub, including the customary stop at the “Butch Cassidy” hacienda, to the town of El Calafate where we had two nights in a modest but warm hotel to stay and enjoy the sights. It turned out to be quite a modern town with plenty of souvenir shops for the trekkers and we dined in the hotel that night. Some elderly European guests were not best pleased when our bunch of chatty Irish trekkers arrived at the hotel bar but such is life!! Nothing like a few days trekking to release the bit of craic.


Next morning we did the touristy thing and took a bus to the Perito Moreno glacier and the first of three Unesco site visits my son and I planned for the trip. Nothing we had seen at the other glaciers had prepared us for the sheer scale and power of this mighty monster. They have parapets that bring you as close as you would care to get to this still advancing goliath that is about 2K wide and rising 60 metres out of the water and anything up to 700 metres below it. Small pieces the size of cars drop from it regularly and crash down to the icy depths with frightening noise. I can’t imagine what it must be like when large chunks slide down.
We took the tour boat ride out to gaze up at it from the lagoon on the north side which just added to the staggering view. I couldn’t help think of school children back in Ireland learning about glaciers in geography class and how they shape the landscape in our wooded glens and valleys. Five minutes in front of this thing and the message would be received loudly and clearly. The sight of something this big snaking down in several directions from the mountain ice fields above and advancing inexorably with tower after tower of rocklike compacted blue ice toward the lagoon below, without anything with enough power to impede its progress, is awesome indeed. Deep rumblings would occasionally emanate from within its massive bulk indicating large chunks descending with fearsome regularity. Watching the face of the glacier crumble was like watching geological time itself. Blue compacted snow that fell hundreds or even thousands of years ago was dropping into the lagoon in front of us.

Along with hundreds of other tourists we stood for ages watching the glacier before heading back by bus to Calafate. We took the scenic route back and travelled through greener goucho country during which we spotted many of Patagonia’s indigenous flora and fauna. We saw more condors and eagles and rheas (a smaller version of an ostrich), flamingos and many more. We stopped at a goucho ranch in the middle of an endless plain and we could see the peak of Torre del Paine in Chile off in the distance. At the ranch we saw pictures of local pumas and the damage they do to local sheep populations when they are teaching their young how to hunt.

Back to Calafate and our “Gala” night out. Everywhere we went in both Patagonia and later in Buenos Aires there seemed to be a fascination with 80s popular music. We enjoyed some magnificent Argentinian steaks, the size of which are mind boggling, and then we danced away the night in a local disco. Some of the trekking ladies even put on an impromptu disco show on the tango stage for the locals.


Next morning we had to leave and that sadness that grips when leaving somewhere really special hit home as the plane taxied out to the tiny airstrip and we took off across the Patagonian vastness. In a world becoming smaller and more crowded here is an oasis of time, space, beauty and natural remoteness that I believe everyone should get to see at least once in a lifetime They seem to be keeping it that way and long may it continue.

There was a free day in Buenos Aires before the bulk of the group took the long flight back to Europe. Six of the group, including my son Sean and I stayed on, and took a short flight to Iguazu Falls where we stayed for 2 days on the Brazilian side of the Falls. This was the second Unesco site of our trip and again I’m afraid I fall short of the descriptive powers to do justice to it.
900 different varieties of butterflies (just about all of which were maturing in the late Spring of our arrival), every conceivable species of bird of prey clearly and consistently visible, plant life of every colourful variety and birds of paradise, parrots and macaws of staggering beauty were just some of the sights to be seen. The Falls themselves are just as amazing as the Moreno glacier.


They claim to be the biggest in the world (meaning widest and most amount of individual falls) and strolling around with large lizards and cuddly racoons in 35 degree heat on parapets of incredible audacity perched over, under and almost literally in the Falls was a fabulous experience. Swallows nest consistently behind the Falls and it was wonderful to see them flitting in and out of the huge falls of water. We did the tour of the Argentine side and the Brazilian side and then we took a white water rib trip up right under them. We were drowned at all three but it was super fun though Alan Markey continually complained that he never saw a monkey!

SPECIES NO 823 NO 88 NO 667

During the Brazilian side of the tour my son and I were unable to locate a damaged geocache and we replaced it with a new container and cover so hopefully it will survive better than its predecessor.
Beside our hotel was a bird park which we toured for several hours while butterflies as big as birds fluttered around and every conceivable species of coloured parrot squawked and humming birds as small as insects buzzed past.


On our final night there we dined out in the city of Foz at a place recommended for Brazilian cuisine by our tour guide. The best service I have seen in years and skewers of delicious meats towering over a metre above the table, langoustines as big as small lobsters, together with exceptional wine, made for a sumptuous feast. If memory serves correctly it all came to the equivalent of about 25 euro a head! I imagine a small mortgage may have been required for a similar meal at home.


We flew back to Buenos Aires and had a further 6 days to enjoy a huge (around 13 million people), wonderful and very varied city with strong Spanish and Italian influences. We had organised two apartments for our small group at very reasonable rents for the 6 days. I guess you would need a few weeks to visit many of its historic and artistic sites but we did our best in the allotted time. Just about every block of this thriving metropolis has shopping and food choices to suit every pocket.
Five of us took in a local premiership match at the River Plate stadium where the ‘78 World Cup final was held and the carnival atmosphere created by the home fans (even though they lost the match) was great. Most of them just sang, danced and drummed all the way through the game.


My son and I picked up a virtual and then a magnetic geocache in Buenos Aires during one of our many walks around the city. We then did a day trip to a small quiet town across the River Plate in Uruguay called Colonia, the ancient historic centre of which was our third Unesco site. Sean Og and I hired a moped and we set off to a local vineyard to find the first of two caches. The owners of the vineyard are the guardians of the cache and we were staggered firstly by the change of temperature just a few K inland from the town and secondly by the beauty of the vineyard and its surrounds. The temperature easily passed 40 degrees and it was difficult just to breathe in the area of the vineyard. The actual cache site was surrounded by some young bulls so I was not about to continue my now infamous exploits with the species so we gingered around for quite a bit in the searing heat, hopping over and under electric fences and managed to retrieve the cache without difficulty. Unfortunately the owners of the vineyard were not present so we missed the wine tour but we carried on down to the “beach” and an old castle where the second cache was located quickly. My son took a welcome dip in the river while I propped up the one seat bar at a mobile cantina. Our final day back in BA saw us strolling around the slightly less affluent but very colourful La Boca area where we dined for next to nothing. There were more tango dancers performing for us and Maradona impersonators and lots of souvenir shops to enjoy.


We checked out of the apartments and then negotiated the taxi guy down to the bare minimum amount of Pesos to the airport with the few that we had left.

Another trip of a lifetime in a lifetime of trips! It was a unique and wonderful experience made extra special for me because I had my son with me to enjoy and experience every step. The group dynamic is exceptional, in particular when there are plenty of old trekking friends, yet every trip, in my opinion, needs new blood. This one was blessed with some great new and interesting characters who added hugely to the enjoyment of it.
On a personal health note, I was fighting a flu bug just before the start which I never managed to fully shake off and which took over again as soon as I returned to Dublin. There were one or two others who suffered to a greater and lesser extent with bugs when we were there and it was probably a blessing in some respects that this turned out to be by far the easiest physical test of our trekking abilities.

All in all SUPER!!! Bring on the next challenge!!!!

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