Chile’s Navarino Is­land

The Southland Times - - Front Page - as Andrew Bain dis­cov­ers. – Trav­eller Andrew Bain trav­elled cour­tesy of Chile Tourism.

It’s as though the num­bers lie. The raw, rocky moun­tains of the Dientes de Navarino tower above me, their sharp tips seem­ing to scratch at the sky.

A lake lies frozen far be­low me deep into sum­mer, and snow con­tin­ues to fall for a sec­ond day.

I feel as though I could be stand­ing 4000 me­tres up in any of the world’s great moun­tain ranges, and yet I’m just a few hun­dred me­tres above sea level on Chile’s Navarino Is­land, and not one of these peaks around me ex­ceeds 1200 me­tres. They might be the big­gest lit­tle moun­tains in the world.

Loop­ing through this ser­rated line of peaks is the Dientes Cir­cuit, a trail billed as the south­ern­most trek in the world. Set­ting out from near Puerto Wil­liams, the world’s most southerly town, the trek crosses the 55th par­al­lel as it jour­neys through the Dientes de Navarino.

But this trek’s beauty is about more than ge­o­graphic boast­ing rights. Lonely Planet has called it the best trek in South Amer­ica, and the moun­tains are ev­ery bit as rugged and im­pres­sive as their big­ger-name, larger-sized coun­ter­parts else­where on the con­ti­nent.

‘‘Two years ago, half a mil­lion peo­ple trekked in Tor­res del Paine,’’ says lo­cal trekking guide Ce­lio Le­bailly. ‘‘Two years ago, only 400 peo­ple trekked the Dientes Cir­cuit, and yet this is much more wild.’’

By those stan­dards, it’s a busy day on the Dientes Cir­cuit as I set out walk­ing with Ce­lio, with four days and around 50 kilo­me­tres rolled out ahead of us. It’s the day af­ter the weekly ferry has docked in Puerto Wil­liams af­ter its 30-hour jour­ney from Punta Are­nas, which al­ways leads to ‘‘crowds’’ on the trek – this day, five other peo­ple are set­ting out.

The trek be­gins in deep beech for­est at the end of a ridge over­look­ing Puerto Wil­liams and, dis­tantly, the Ar­gen­tine city of Ushuaia across the Bea­gle Chan­nel. The ground is dot­ted with white orchids, and we graze on wild berries as we climb, although we’re a few weeks too early for the wild straw­ber­ries that grow across the slopes.

Lit­tle more than an hour from be­gin­ning, we rise out of the for­est and onto the first sum­mit along the ridge – Cerro Ban­dera, or Flag Moun­tain, named for the large Chilean flag that’s flown here since the 1980s when it was hoisted dur­ing ten­sions with Ar­gentina, which lies just 5 kilo­me­tres across

the chan­nel. Each year on Chile’s national day, the flag is re­placed. Less than three months on, it’s al­ready tat­tered and torn by the fe­ro­cious Patag­o­nian con­di­tions.

The way ahead is along the ridge, cut­ting across a steep, loose and, at times, pre­car­i­ous scree slope. Beech trees grow pros­trate, stunted and pruned by the wind, and soon ice and snow are spit­ting in our faces as clouds skate across the sky. Five min­utes later, we’re aglow with tepid sun­shine again.

‘‘The weather they might get in a year in Europe, you get in one day here,’’ Ce­lio says. ‘‘You’ll never be bored by the weather.’’

This first day we’re hik­ing to La­guna del Salto, one of a mul­ti­tude of lakes that form a neck­lace around the range. From here the moun­tains feel suit­ably named – the Dientes de Navarino, or Teeth of Navarino, with sharp peaks ris­ing like fangs.

Stand­ing on the shore of La­guna del Salto, I can’t shake a feel­ing of dis­be­lief. These moun­tains ap­pear as rugged as any­thing in the world, and yet they’re no higher than the Blue Moun­tains in­land of Syd­ney or Ho­bart’s Mt Welling­ton.

There are no huts any­where along the Dientes Cir­cuit – the only bit of in­fra­struc­ture is three wooden lookout plat­forms – and we pitch camp this night on a stony plateau atop bluffs that rise from the lake. By now the snow has set in, smoth­er­ing

the moun­tains and our tent. Gusts of wind as­sault the tent, but by morn­ing all is still, even as light snow con­tin­ues to fall.

This sec­ond day will be spent in the in­ti­mate com­pany of moun­tains as we rise up rocky slopes, our steps muf­fled by the snow, and cut be­neath the two ‘‘teeth’’ that have been dom­i­nat­ing the view for hours. In quick suc­ces­sion we cross two passes, in­clud­ing the com­fort­ingly named Paso Aus­tralia, com­ing to a breach in the moun­tains that marks one of the trek’s truly rev­e­la­tory mo­ments.

On one side, a large lake lies grey and frozen, while on the other is an open lake so blue and clear it al­most in­vites a swim ... or at least it would if the air tem­per­a­ture wasn’t a miserly six de­grees. Ris­ing from the shore of this lake is Pi­ca­cho Diente de Navarino, the is­land’s high­est moun­tain.

But the part of the view that im­presses most – at least in the mind – is also the most dis­tant. Be­yond Navarino’s flat south coast rise the hazy is­lands of the Cape Horn ar­chi­pel­ago, where South Amer­ica ends and no­to­ri­ously wild oceans be­gin. It’s a spot as near to the end of the world as we know, and it’s lit­tle more than 100 kilo­me­tres away.

This night’s camp is now just a short walk away, on the gor­geous shores of La­guna de los Dientes. We have walked around 8km and yet we camp lit­tle more than two straight-line kilo­me­tres from our pre­vi­ous night, on the op­po­site side of the range. The snow has melted away, and as day drags into long evening – sun­set here is af­ter 10pm in sum­mer – the moun­tains glow like em­bers.

We wake the next morn­ing to a per­fect blue day and winds that roar down the val­ley. This is how I re­mem­ber Patag­o­nia from pre­vi­ous vis­its – the raw, rasp­ing winds that have played such a role in shap­ing this most ex­tra­or­di­nary and ab­stract of land­scapes.

Na­tive quails skit­ter about the trail, and the moun­tain walls are bent and twisted by forces even more cat­a­clysmic than the winds.

We seem to as­cend the next pass less by walk­ing than by the whim of the wind. By the time we crest the pass, it’s blow­ing in ex­cess of 100kmh, and stand­ing still is a game that I lose.

From here, the cir­cuit fol­lows a chain of lakes across the foot of the Lin­den­mayer Range. Ev­ery lakeshore is scarred by beaver ac­tiv­ity, the North Amer­i­can an­i­mals in­tro­duced so de­struc­tively to Navarino Is­land in the 19th cen­tury for their pelts. Hik­ing among the rav­aged val­ley’s dead, bleached trees is like walk­ing through an ele­phant grave­yard.

Our last day brings a fi­nal moun­tain pass and the long­est and steep­est of the Dientes Cir­cuit’s climbs. The day breaks over­cast but hushed, as though the world blew it­self into ex­haus­tion the pre­vi­ous day. The only sounds are the Guer­rico River hur­ry­ing past our tent and the crackle of our camp­fire as we cook our break­fast fa­ji­tas.

We fol­low the val­ley through peaty mead­ows and past myr­iad beaver dams be­fore turn­ing up the slopes to­wards Paso Vir­ginia. The climb heads first through a mire of mud in­side the lenga for­est and then onto wind-chilled alpine slopes, with Ushuaia com­ing back into view across the chan­nel.

Paso Vic­to­ria is a broad pass – around 1.5km wide – cov­ered in shat­tered red rock so that it feels as though I could be walk­ing on the sur­face of Mars. At its end it falls away into obliv­ion, plung­ing hun­dreds of me­tres to the bar­ren shores of La­guna los Gua­na­cos. A few steps away, the last glacier on Navarino Is­land clings to the moun­tains like a bar­na­cle.

The sense of ex­po­sure and el­e­va­tion is im­mense, and once again I feel as though I’m thou­sands of me­tres up in a grand and cel­e­brated moun­tain range.

Yet I’m al­most at the ocean edge, barely 1000m above sea level, liv­ing it large on very small moun­tains.

The trail on Navarino Is­land in Chile is one of the most southerly hik­ing trails in the world.

Navarino Is­land in south­ern Chile.


A trekker in camp on the shores of La­guna de los Dientes at the foot of the Dientes de Navarino moun­tains.

There are no huts any­where along the Dientes Cir­cuit.

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