Friday, January 21, 2011

Nitty Gritty

The endless flat

Camping under the truck

Big tent pegs to hold back the wind.
Today I cleaned my fingernails with a baby wipe.  I can’t tell you how happy this has made me. 

We’ve been back to bush camping the last couple of nights as we drive the long multi-day trip north to La Buitrera.  Bush camping is a romantic term that conjures images of cosy tents scattered among shady trees, far away from the hubbub of urban living.  What bush camping actually means is pulling over to the side of the unrelentingly straight road through country of unrelenting harsh sameness.  The Patagonian steppes are flat, featureless plains, sparsely vegetated with low, scrubby clumps of tough, thorny belligerence, just itching for a bathroom stop encounter.  And then there’s the wind.

Wind is such a small word.  It is blindingly inadequate to describe what we have experienced in Patagonia.  The wind here bullies you constantly.  Always with the shoving and the jostling.  Always trying to tear off your hat, snatch things from your hand, steal your breath.  It’s like a physical weight that you don’t realise you’re carrying until you stop, sheltering in a shop, tent or truck, where you’re able to straighten up, pull your shoulders back and again experience verticality and breathe easy.  I wonder about the kind of hardiness that the people who live here must possess to just get on with life despite the conditions.  And this is the summer.

Last night we camped in a quarry by the side of the road. We opted to sleep under the truck after our tent surrendered to the wind at 4am the previous night. Our starlight view was replaced with a gearbox and transmission ceiling.  The wind ganged up with the rock-hard ground to make tent erection a near impossibility.  Tent pegs bent, tent flies escaped across stony ground, dust again wedged in every conceivable place.  Eyes are constantly gritty, fingernails constantly dirty and we’re constantly covered in a layer of dusty grime.  And yet….

Small things become sources of joy.  Hence the fingernail cleaning; the hilarity when Vicki heroically outran the gale to rescue Gareth’s tent bag, thereby proving that she is “faster than a Patagonian wind”; the bliss of actual butter; the lift you get from “dressing up” in a clean pair of khakis to go to the local cervezeria; the camaraderie as you eat sweetened rice cooked with vaguely lemony-detergent-flavoured water for breakfast for the upteenth time and reminisce good-naturedly about crumpets and fresh-roasted coffee.

Breakfast on the go.

Camping in quarry
Mmmm, Real Butter!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guts and gusts

A couple of days driving and bush camping landed us at El Chalten, an odd town that seems to exist purely to sell hiking gear, souvenirs and an odd assortment of grocery items to tourists…usually at the same shop.  This is the first place that has offered plentiful climbing opportunities.  And it does a fine Patagonia wind.  There are lots of hikes through forests flanked by jagged peaks, many snow-capped with glaciers.  Glacier-fed rivers and lakes are dotted about fetchingly.  We spent several days here, climbing in the wind, hiking in the wind, camping in the wind… 
On the walk up to glacier

Marese does her first tyrolean!

Mountains finally come out of the clouds after days.

On excellent 4 pitch route near Fitz Roy

As close as we got to glacier due to weather moving in.

At a glacial pace

Headed out of Punta Arenas towards the Chile-Argentine border on our way to El Calafate, the town closest to the Perito Moreno glacier, a 60m high, 5 km wide, wonderland of ice.

We drove 4 hours to the border, only to be deemed unworthy to enter Argentina (tellingly, Chile was well-happy to be shot of us), so we retraced our steps and after a 600 km detour to a different border crossing, managed to trundle back into Argentina.  We spent some quality time on the roadside while Simon, the mechanic on the trip, fiddled with the truck when it failed to restart…twice.  Simon spotted a local locking up what looked like a truck yard, littered with truck trailers, demountables and shipping containers.  He and Roger, our fearless leader, managed to talk our way into camping there the night.  It was windy and tent peg hell so Martin scouted out a trailer and we camped like gypsies for the night.

Another several hour drive and we made El Calafate, a shiny tourist town that serves as the main base for people heading to Perito Moreno glacier.  We camped the night under the stars (when the sun eventually dropped) then, the next day, spend 3 hours marvelling at the glacier, which Andy, our driver, insisted on calling “the iceberg“.  It is massive, gorgeous and awesome…. and everyone spent their morning hoping for it’s destruction in a dramatic, crashing fall into the lake below.  We saw several episodes of ice falling, sending waves rolling out to the icebergs bobbing at the base of the glacier.  It was spectacular.

From peaks to beaks

Our first drive day in Ernie had us heading north into Chile. Two hours of paperwork at the boarder and after fixing Ernie’s leaking diesel tank, we boarded a ferry to land on South America proper. Black and white porpoises dove under the ferry as we approached the mainland and we spent our first night rough camping by the roadside. Martin cooked while the Hot Rockers setup camp and built a raging fire to keep out the chilly Chile wind.

Punta Arenas, a port town just north of the Argentine-Chilean was our destination to pick up vital parts for Ernie. So while Ernie was getting a new clutch and brakes, we boarded the Nuevo Galicia for a day trip to a penguin colony on Isla Magdalena.  Approaching the island, we watched the penguins as they darted through the water, speedy and agile, leaping out of the water like missiles and knifing smoothly back into the water to dart ahead again.  Once they hit land, however, not so much on the finesse.  They were clumsy and ungainly, waddling along, toppling over stones on their way up the beach. 

We spend an amazing 1 ½ hours on the island watching them and sitting with them.  They hid in their burrows with their young, greeting each other, stretching their beaks to the sky and honking like geese in tuxedoes.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ushuaia Photos

A few quick photos from our first crag climbing day in Ushuaia and our first Mountain Peak climb.

The New Hot Rockers ready for first day climbing at local Ushuaia crag
Marese cranking on the local crag.

Maritn at the local crag.

On top of our first peak for the trip.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sydney - Buenos Aires - Ushuaia

Buenos Aires was very hot and sweaty after our 13 hour sleepless flight. We wandered the streets trying to stay out of the sun and loitering in any air conditioned shops we could find. These were our largely unsuccessful attempts to stay awake and stave off jet lag. Dinner was al-fresco opposite the impressive burial district, where grand mausoleums poked their spires ever higher in a morbid race with keeping up with the Joneses. We innocently ordering steaks that could have been led to the table with a ring through their noses and climbed, whole, onto the plate.

Another 3 hour flight had us in Ushuaia - a frontier tourist town and landing place for Antarctic cruise-goers. It’s so far south that this time of year it doesn‘t get dark until 11:30 and light again at 3:30. Wandered the town and discovered that the local economy relies not on tourism, fishing or farming but on the sales of penguin memorabilia in all its forms - must…be…strong…

Met up with Ee Fu and Damian, Vicki and Richard, fellow hot rockers and hiked to the local glacier, Martial Glacier, for spectacular views of the glacier on one side and over the bay on the other.

We abandoned our hotel and last real bed for many months by heading to the campsite on New Year’s Eve. We were eagerly awaiting the truck’s arrival and the remainder of the Hot Rockers for this leg.

 We headed back to town for some last minute shopping when we ran into the truck crew and got a lift back - our first time in Ernie which will be our home for the next 7 months!

Ernie is a newer, more conventional truck than Birt. This is Ernie’s first trip with Hot Rock so we have a mechanic onboard, Simon, to iron out all the problems. From first glimpses, Simon is going to be busy over this tip. Ernie has significantly less storage space than Birt. No huge external lockers, only small lockers under the seats.

Chances are, we’ll be swimming in gear with the 12 Hot Rockers on this leg and drowning when we get up to the maximum of 25. We will find out when we make our first move out of Ushuaia in a few days time.