Between fire and ice

An ice field, vol­ca­noes, gey­sers, beaches, lakes, fjords, forests and rivers. Kate Turk­ing­ton goes to the end of the world – Fin del Mundo – in Patag­o­nia

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You have cer­tainly heard of Brazil’s Rio Car­ni­val, the fa­mous ru­ins of Machu Pic­chu in Peru and Ar­gentina’s beau­ti­ful cap­i­tal city, Buenos Aires. But Chile? What do you know about Chile? Well, prob­a­bly not very much. Nei­ther did I, un­til I trav­elled there re­cently and im­me­di­ately de­cided to make Chile my favourite South Amer­i­can des­ti­na­tion.

Chile, with its long, long coast­line, stretches down the west­ern side of South Amer­ica and lies be­tween the Pa­cific Ocean and the mighty An­des moun­tains. It’s home to a won­drously di­verse land­scape – the world’s dri­est desert, the world’s sec­ond-largest ice field, vol­ca­noes, gey­sers, beaches, lakes, fjords, forests and rivers.

But let me tell you, in par­tic­u­lar, about some of the vol­ca­noes, the glaciers and fjords.

Puerto Varas, about half­way down Chile’s coast­line, is a pretty lit­tle town on the shores of lovely Lake Llan­qui­hue (lank-ee-hway). You could be in Switzer­land, ex­cept, on the op­po­site side of the lake fac­ing the town, loom two snow­capped vol­ca­noes. The Osorno vol­cano looks ex­actly like Mount Fuji in Ja­pan.

It’s a bit­terly cold but sunny morn­ing when a small group of South African friends and I ride the ski lift up the ac­tive but quiet Osorno vol­cano with its spec­tac­u­lar views over other vol­ca­noes and the lake.

Think two ther­mal vests, a sweater, ther­mal leg­gings, track­suit pants, thick socks, boots, a padded weath­er­proof jacket, gloves, scarf, a beanie and sun­glasses. By the time we get half­way up the vol­cano, we’re start­ing to feel re­ally cold. After a quick round of snow­balls, we de­cide it’s too cold to go fur­ther, so we get back on the ski lift and, af­ter dis­em­bark­ing, drink hot choco­late laced with Cognac in a lit­tle Alpine inn.

As we gaze at Cal­buco, the vol­cano right next door, our guide tells us: “It sud­denly woke up.” On April 23 this year, for the first time in more than 50 years, Cal­buco erupted, spew­ing flames, lava and smoke sev­eral kilo­me­tres into the sky, with jagged shafts of light­ning adding to the in­ferno.

Both vol­ca­noes are quiet now, but ev­ery­where for kilo­me­tres around, thick vol­canic ash still coats ev­ery­thing.

When we hike in the nearby na­tional park, we walk an­kle-deep in ash.

FIN DEL MUNDE Days later, we find our­selves at the end of the world – Fin del Mundo – at the tip of Patag­o­nia. This is a land like no other – des­o­late, bleak, al­most un­in­hab­ited. We drive for nearly five hours from the air­port at Punta Are­nas to Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park.

Apart from one lit­tle town where we stop to re­fuel on cof­fee and Pisco Sours (the na­tional drink – think mar­gar­i­tas on steroids), all we see are bare plains dot­ted with scrub, emu-like rheas, gua­na­cos (an­i­mals re­sem­bling lla­mas) that are as plen­ti­ful as im­palas, Suf­folk sheep and not a tree or build­ing in sight. The wind whis­tles from the Pa­cific, rain sleets down and night be­gins to fall.

Stars blaze over snow­capped moun­tains as we even­tu­ally reach our camp and feel our way along board­walks to our com­fort­able yurts (Mon­go­lian tents). Next morn­ing we awake to a fab­u­lous land­scape of turquoise lakes, tow­er­ing peaks and bright sun­shine. But this is a fierce, un­com­pro­mis­ing land. The jagged moun­tains are men­ac­ing, the steep hill­sides un­for­giv­ing. It’s an un­tamed wilder­ness. A con­dor (the largest bird of prey in South Amer­ica) scav­enges among huge boul­ders as a Patag­o­nian skunk bus­ies it­self among the peb­bles at the base.

The park, all 227 298 hectares of it, was cre­ated in 1959 to pre­serve this wilder­ness. The spires and peaks of the Paine mas­sif are com­posed of ig­neous, sed­i­men­tary and meta­mor­phic rocks – unique in the world – and to­day it’s a Unesco bio­sphere re­serve. It’s also been des­ig­nated the fifth most beau­ti­ful place in the world by Na­tional Geo­graphic.

The weather is no­to­ri­ously un­pre­dictable in Patag­o­nia with rain, sleet, wind, snow and sun­shine.

To­day, the storm clouds sweep­ing over the moun­tains are still in the dis­tance. The wind is cold, but as we be­gin mak­ing our way along the trail up the arid Patag­o­nian Steppe, a no­tice warns us: Plan your trip with your phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity in mind. But hey, we’re from South Africa, so we bravely set off armed with walk­ing poles and bil­tong to scale the moun­tain and see the fa­mous rock paint­ings at the top. We all make it – just – to find in­dige­nous pre­his­toric paint­ings very like our own San rock paint­ings.

The im­ages were painted with a mix of iron dust and an­i­mal blood, and ap­par­ently served as a mes­sage to hunters that there were preda­tors in the area. An an­cient im­print of a hu­man hand sig­ni­fies “I was here”.

To­day, the Aonikenk painter and his peo­ple are ex­tinct (most na­tive tribes per­ished with the set­tle­ment of Euro­peans in the late 1880s).

We have a fan­tas­ti­cally lucky sight­ing of a huemul (hway­mul), one of the world’s rarest an­telopes. Only 3 000 are left in the world and only 44 live in this park.

GRAND GLACIERS But the high­light of the trip is still to come when, a day later, we take a boat ride through the silent fjords to seven gi­ant glaciers.

We have trudged along a stony beach for an hour to board our boat. There’s a cou­ple of Amer­i­cans, a few women from Hong Kong, some Ger­mans and us. They all look much big­ger and stronger than us, but we’ve scaled and sur­vived the rock-paint­ing trail, so we are con­fi­dent.

It’s a small rust bucket of a boat. Our life jack­ets don’t fit and if we fell into the sub­zero wa­ter, we would die in­stantly. No thoughts of this en­ter our minds as we gaze in awe at the ma­jes­tic beauty all around us and chug along Grey Lake in the South­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field, the big­gest con­tigu­ous ex­panse in the world af­ter Antarc­tica and the North Pole.

No cruise ships can en­ter these nar­row straits. There are no other peo­ple, no birds sing, and noth­ing lives in the min­eral-rich wa­ters. It is ab­so­lutely still. Only the chug­ging of our boat, an oc­ca­sional chunk of ice fall­ing into the wa­ter, and the omi­nous crack­ing sound in the depths of the glaciers dis­turbs the si­lence. We have all fallen silent too. The beauty is over­pow­er­ing.

We’re deeply sad­dened to be told by our guide that these ma­jes­tic glaciers are melt­ing at the rate of 100 me­tres a year be­cause of global warm­ing.

Of course, Chile is much more than un­tamed wilder­ness. It’s the fifth-largest ex­porter of wine in the world and at a gen­er­a­tions-old wine farm we sam­ple some of the best on of­fer. It’s also the sec­ond-big­gest ex­porter of salmon (af­ter Nor­way) and a 4kg fish only costs R100.

The most charm­ing town is the his­toric port of Val­paraíso, once South Amer­ica’s busiest Pa­cific port. But it’s fast los­ing that po­si­tion with the ship­ping ac­tiv­ity in the Panama Canal.

A city of steep hills still served by lit­tle rick­ety fu­nic­u­lar rail­ways, vivid, strik­ing street art adorns ev­ery wall as packs of friendly street dogs roam look­ing for tourists and tit­bits.

Our guide tells us that the dog shel­ters are so “aw­ful” that Chileans pre­fer the dogs to re­main as strays. But these strays are so pam­pered, the lo­cals even make win­ter coats for them and build ken­nels on the pave­ments.

Chile is one of South Amer­ica’s least known tourist des­ti­na­tions. Go while it still stays that way, and ex­pect friendly, cour­te­ous peo­ple, fan­tas­tic food and wine, and gor­geous, unique land­scapes.

PHO­TOS: KATE TURK­ING­TON

MA­JES­TIC MOUN­TAIN

Hik­ers pause to ad­mire the im­pos­ing Tor­res del Paine

WILD THING

A gua­naco for­ages for food

CHILLY DOGS

Pam­pered strays stay warm

ROCK ON

Pre­his­toric paint­ings on a moun­tain

BLUE ICE

The South­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field

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