SOUTH­ERN EX­PO­SURE

The re­al­ity of Patag­o­nia far ex­ceeds the images the name con­jures up in the mind, writes AL­LI­SON LAU

#Legend - - Refresh / Trailblaze­r -

FOR THE EF­FORT it takes to get there, Patag­o­nia de­liv­ers an am­ple reward to the avid trav­eller. The re­gion is a slice of heaven tucked into the fur­thest-flung cor­ner of South Amer­ica, divided be­tween Chile and Ar­gentina, in the ex­treme south of both coun­tries. Get­ting there and then get­ting around it re­quires a lot of travel. My jour­ney in­cluded 38 hours in the air from Hong Kong to Ar­gentina and a six-hour drive that took me into Chile. But to see the beauty of this part of the world, barely touched by hu­man hand, makes the in­vest­ment of time and money truly worth­while.

My jour­ney brought me first to El Calafate, a quaint, cosy town in south­ern Ar­gentina. The bright­ness of the sun in the cloud­less blue sky, the fresh­ness of the crisp air, the pu­rity of the wa­ter, and the colours of the lakes, trees and flow­ers so rich that they al­most look fake: all this sets the senses a-tin­gle in a re­ju­ve­nat­ing rush – yes, re­ju­ve­nat­ing, even af­ter 38 hours in the air.

Some­thing strange and won­der­ful hap­pened to my mind and body as soon as I set foot in Patag­o­nia. I spent my first day exploring the lit­tle town, tast­ing delicious choco­lates in the lit­tle shops and roam­ing around the La­guna Nimez Re­serve to catch glimpses of the birdlife – which, most spec­tac­u­larly, in­cludes pink flamin­gos. In the evening I ate at Don Pi­chon, a res­tau­rant that looks out over the town and serves delicious fare bar­be­cued in the tra­di­tional Ar­gen­tinian way.

My sec­ond day was a big one. I rose early to make the 45-minute jour­ney by road to Los Gla­cia­res Na­tional Park. The park is the third-largest re­serve for freshwater lilies, found in the lake at the foot of the Per­ito Moreno Glacier. A short walk along the lakeshore brings within earshot the thun­der of huge chunks of ice crack­ing off the glacier and crash­ing into the wa­ter. A few more steps bring the glacier within sight. It stretches up­ward and away, fur­ther than the eye can see, glim­mer­ing in 50 shades of blue.

I was re­minded of a scene in the movie In­ter­stel­lar, where mas­sive ice­bergs split off from an ice field and slowly launch them­selves into the wa­ter.

The closer a boat trip brought me to the foot, the greater my as­ton­ish­ment at the scale, sight and sound of the glacier and the mam­moth chunks of ice it calves. The fre­quency of the calv­ing re­minded me of how frag­ile the ecosys­tem is. It made me won­der how fast the ice that cov­ers the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic must be break­ing up, be­cause the Per­ito Moreno Glacier is the only glacier in the world that is not re­treat­ing. The rea­son that the Per­ito Moreno Glacier is still flowing strongly is de­bat­able.

Peo­ple liv­ing near the glacier be­lieve the rea­son is that the out­fall is a freshwater lake rather than the salty ocean.

In the peak sea­son in Los Gla­cia­res Na­tional Park, vis­i­tors can go on treks up the Per­ito Moreno Glacier, lit­er­ally walk­ing on ice. They can re­fresh them­selves with whisky on the rocks cooled with ice freshly hacked off the glacier.

Amaz­ing as the beauty of Los Gla­cia­res Na­tional

Park and El Calafate is, even greater won­ders awaited me when I crossed the bor­der into the Chilean por­tion of Patag­o­nia. Six hours on gravel roads showed me what sheer empti­ness looks like. As the sun set, empti­ness was re­placed by Patag­o­nia Camp, on the edge of the Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park, my home for the next three nights.

Patag­o­nia Camp is an eco-ad­ven­ture camp set against the beau­ti­ful back­drop of Lake Toro and the Paine mas­sif. The camp has jaw-drop­ping views. It con­sists of 18 snug, yurt-like tents, which are dot­ted around a for­est and which blend in with the trees. The tents pull off the trick of giv­ing vis­i­tors pri­vacy, while ex­pos­ing them to the majesty of na­ture. Each tent has its own ter­race, where you can wrap your­self in a blan­ket, sit back, watch the sun­set and then watch the stars as they come out at night in num­bers you could never hope to count. In­side, the tents are fit­ted out sim­ply, with­out any pre­tence of ex­trav­a­gance, yet con­tain ev­ery­thing a vis­i­tor needs for an ex­cep­tion­ally com­fort­able stay. Any­way, no vis­i­tor to Patag­o­nia Camp comes all that way just to sleep the night away and then spend the day hang­ing around in a tent.

The ser­vice at the camp is im­pec­ca­ble. The staff know their jobs in­side out and are al­ways happy to chat about their knowl­edge of the area and their ex­pe­ri­ences there. The range of food and wine of­fered is wide. Most of the food is grown lo­cally, and it is pre­pared de­li­ciously. So it should be, be­cause the ex­cur­sions the vis­i­tors take re­quire hearty nour­ish­ment be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter.

What makes Patag­o­nia Camp spe­cial is the thought be­hind it. It is founded on the ba­sis of re­spect for the place it is sit­u­ated in. The camp sets out to ed­u­cate vis­i­tors about the need to

“The park is... found in the lake at the foot of the Per­ito Moreno Glacier. A short walk along the lakeshore brings within earshot the thun­der of huge chunks of ice crack­ing off the glacier and crash­ing into the wa­ter”

pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment. The ar­chi­tec­ture of the camp re­flects the care taken in de­sign­ing it to en­sure it does as lit­tle harm as pos­si­ble to the sur­round­ing area. Spe­cial mea­sures are taken to deal with the waste it gen­er­ates. At Patag­o­nia Camp, the con­cept of eco-tourism has been well thought through and then put into ac­tion beau­ti­fully. This can be seen in the brief­ing on the en­vi­ron­ment given to vis­i­tors when they ar­rive, in the depth of knowl­edge of the area that the staff show when tak­ing vis­i­tors on ex­cur­sions, and in the hand-crafted and sus­tain­ably pro­duced con­tents of the tents.

In the sum­mer, vis­i­tors can take ex­cur­sions on horse­back, on bi­cy­cle or on foot. They can take to the wa­ter in kayaks, or go fish­ing. The Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park has many trails of var­i­ous de­grees of dif­fi­culty, so there are trails suit­able for very kind of hiker. One of the eas­ier treks takes about three hours. It shows the hiker the wildlife in the area, in­clud­ing foxes, gua­na­cos and con­dors. If you are ex­tremely lucky, you will see a puma. The trek also takes the hiker to see cave paint­ings 6,000 years old.

A much more de­mand­ing trek gives the hiker an up-close view of the Tor­res del Paine moun­tains, and the scenery at ev­ery stage is mag­nif­i­cent. The trek is about

25km from start to fin­ish and can take up to 10 hours to com­plete. The trail climbs 880 me­tres, and the as­cent is, to say the least, in­vig­o­rat­ing. When, at last, I reached the base of the Tor­res del Paine, my guide pun­ningly trans­lated the name of the moun­tains as “the tow­ers of pain”. The reward for suf­fer­ing on the climb is a great sense of achieve­ment, and the chance to en­joy a great lunch spot and the op­por­tu­nity for a power nap. On the de­scent, the ache in your knees is soon ban­ished from your mind by the knowl­edge that back at Patag­o­nia Camp some great food and a glass or two of Car­ménère are await­ing you.

The beauty and tran­quil­lity of Patag­o­nia take your breath away. For the long-suf­fer­ing city dweller in need of a dose of na­ture in its purest form, Patag­o­nia is a shot in the arm. Patag­o­nia is also shock treat­ment for those of us that for­get how few places re­main in the world that are so lit­tle touched by hu­man hand, and how they must be pre­served. Patag­o­nia must be pre­served at all costs – to reward fu­ture trav­ellers for the ef­fort they put into get­ting there, just as it hand­somely re­warded me for the ef­fort I put in.

Clock­wise from top: the Per­ito Moreno Glacier; Patag­o­nia Camp; a gua­cano spot­ted in the Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park

Top: hiking iconic Mi­rador Las Tor­res Above: in­side a Patag­o­nia Camp yurt

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