Tuesday, 21 January 2014

El Calafate y El Chalten

By Mark

We left Puerto Natales after a few relaxing days awaiting for better weather so we could hit the road for El Calafate, where the glaciers Perito Merino is.

We left with reasonably good weather and very little wind which we were very happy about. Good things don’t always last and after crossing back into Argentina and making our way up the famous ruta 40 we were hit with the winds once again taking us both by surprise, even more so for me! We were just making good time and speed up the bumpy and rocky road when I see Sanne ahead of me get hit hard with wind from nowhere, she was sensibly closer to the centre of the road and had room to move if hit by the wind, I on the other hand was on the right hand edge of the road, riding on the smoothest section of road. I was hit twice as hard with the wind and next thing I am off the road, through loose gravel headed straight into the ditch, legs flailing along to keep upright. Luckily I managed to stay on and was even more lucky to have been blown off the road where there was actually a chance to stay on the bike. I don’t think Sanne knew what the hell had happened, just seeing a yellow flash disappear out of her mirrors. I managed to make my way out of the ditch easy enough but could not believe what had just happened. From there on we slowed down a little and I gave myself more space from the edge of the road for if this would happen again.

We stopped for a quick break where the road went back to tarmac and looking over the bike I see once again another snapped bracket off my subframe, again one that holds the pannier rails in place. I think now it would have been a great idea to reinforce the entire subframe before leaving on the trip! Anyways, we had sealed roads and I was sure it would hold until we hit El Calafate. Sanne and I rode into town and headed for the first campground. We were starting to realise we were on the tourist trail now. El Calafate is built on tourism but it was not in a bad way. We had heard of earlier reports that the town was for lack of a better word a ‘shit hole’. Well, I have seen much worse!

So, we were here for one thing, just like everybody else, Perito Merino Glacier. It is one of the fastest advancing glaciers in the world at up to 2 metres per day. At five kilometres wide and over thirty five kilometres long at a height of sixty metres you may have an idea of its sheer size. On our way into the park who do we run into again? Tim and Heather! So we headed off together to the glacier catching up with one another of our past days travel. You cannot believe the scale of the glacier until you are standing up front and personal with it. It is a marvellous sight to behold. We planned to arrive in the afternoon as this is when there is a greater chance of seeing large portions of ice coming off the glacier as it cracks under pressure advancing towards land. The cracking sound is just like hearing low level thunder, as you sit patiently you find yourself on the constant lookout over the face to see that large piece of ice breaking off. The sound even of ice the size of basketballs makes for some impressive noise as it echoes and reverberates through and around the glacier. We sat with awe taking it all in when we realised we had to find Tim and Heather as they were kind enough to let us leave our helmets in their van for safe keeping. As we made our way up the stairs to the carpark and with no view of the glacier we start to hear more cracking and then large splashes as more ice breaks off, bugger. We had seen some good size pieces come off but we wanted big, really big. We all met up back at the carpark and talked about how impressive the glacier was, at this time Sanne was in the bathroom when all of a sudden the cracking of ice became incredibly loud like nothing I have ever heard before, it was a an intense roaring followed by huge splashes, we had missed it! That one big piece that lets go everyday had just broken off and we missed it. We ran to a viewing platform to try to see something but there was nothing, Tim pipes up and says it may just have been Sanne doing a number two!

We got our helmets back and decided to head back to the glacier for a couple more hours to wait for more ice to break off. When we got back down we saw the aftermath of what had broken off earlier. It was a section of ice about 60 metres wide and the height of the glacier also about 60 metres! We did not get to see anything else this big break off but we did get to see a few decent size chunks come down. After all this it slowed down and we dragged ourselves away hoping we would not hear that sound again, and we didn’t.
The following day I had arranged to see a local welder to see to my frame. Well, he must have had a big night as he never showed up, even after an hour of me waiting. But I used my time well and looked all around the outside of his workshop at the dumped and broken down cars. I managed to find a large piece of metal with two holes in the right place that I could use as a brace/bracket to affix the pannier rail back to the bike. I also found some large washers and bolts that would do the trick. After fidling around I got it to fit. It is not pretty but it works and I did it for free. With that done I headed back to camp, we packed up and hit the road for El Chalten and of course our friend the wind would be with us once again.

The ride was not so bad and the wind only gave us a bit of bother on the last 90 kilometres into El Chalten. We were lucky to arrive in town on a clear day and get a great view of the mountain range and of course the most famous point of all Mt Fitzroy standing high at about 3405 metres. Chalten comes from a Tehuelche word meaning 'Smoking Mountain' due to a cloud that usually forms around Cerro Fitzroy's peak.

We set up camp in a very busy campsite, full of hikers. This is the place to come if you want to hike. We did not hit the trails but the closest bar, in need of a cold beer. Slowly with each kilometre north we are noticing a difference in the temperature, finally the mercury is on the rise. We knew of this great little bar that Heather and Tim had suggested and after finishing our first beer and starting on our second who do we happen to see wander past outside? Heather and Tim of course along with their daughter Izzy and ex-exchange student Laura! So we ended up enjoying a few more beers and then went back to their cabana and cooked dinner together. It was great to see these guys again and spend time together.

The next day we had organised a horse ride in the local valley at a nearby estanzia. We were lucky with the weather and this time even the wind had died down a little so it would be more enjoyable. There was about eight of us that went out and we were all given our horses and I was really hoping for a more comfortable saddle; after the last time I rode I was in a whole lot of pain after only two hours, this time we were out for four hours, and I was lucky and my prayers were answered with a nice big cushy saddle. We hit the trail and slowly made our way around this stunning property across flat plains, to wooded forests, crossing streams and back up steep hills to make our way to a little farm house for a cuppa before making our way back to where we had started. Along the way I started to find that my horse liked to eat and that’s all it wanted to do. At every opportunity it would try and shake my hands free of the reins and go munch on some grass. He was so stubborn that at one point he would not move at all and I was left behind the rest of the group until one of our guides came and got him moving. On the return trip though it was not so bad, I think the horses knew they were headed for home and behaved and made their way back quickly, up until one horse was either spooked or tripped and went crashing into the ground with a young woman coming off and she luckily was uninjured, from there her horse was tied to the guide for the last ten minutes of the ride. It wasn’t until she got back on that she realised what had happened and broke down into tears but she managed well to get back with no further problems.

We returned to town on a high and happy that the weather held up for us. We ran into Heather and Tim again who had now joined us at the campground and enjoyed a few drinks together as they were to leave the following day. It was a sad farewell as we were really enjoying seeing these guys now on a regular basis, they invited us to come stay with them in San Martin in one week’s time but it would be too big a ride to make it there and try and do all the sightseeing we wanted to do along the way.  We did promise to keep in touch and hopefully we would see each other on their return south through Chile.

We did manage to get out on the trails for a hike but this was after our horse ride and some one being Sanne was in a little bit of pain from the ride so it made for a hard hike up the mountainside to get a better and closer view of Mt Fitzroy. The walk was great and we enjoyed lunch by a stunning lake with a view of Fitzroy but today its peak would be hidden in cloud.

Our plan was to leave the following day but in the early hours of the morning the wind had picked up ferociously and went about reeking havoc in the campground tearing up tents and blowing over others. Through the night you could hear people trying to fix their tents or pack them up all by torch light. The following morning we got up to see a much more empty campground. Lucky for us our new tent was holding up well but we took no chances and moved to a new spot along a fence line that blocked us almost entirely from the wind. Little did we know that we would sit here for the next two days awaiting an open window of good riding weather to head further north and back into Chile!

Beautiful wild flowers by the road side

Our campground in El Calafate

Anyone up for Maccas? McDaniels that is!

Me, Heather and Sanne at Glacier Perito Moreno

Photos do not do this place justice or show the real scale of the glacier

The darker colour of blue is where we missed the huge amount of ice break off

We did manage to catch some ice breaking off though

I told you it was windy!

 Mt Fitzroy in all its glory

The view from our campground in El Chalten

Another queue, always waiting in lines in this country, this time for 45 minutes to get fuel!

A closer shot of Fitzroy, we were lucky to get clear shots of this mountain

Sanne enjoying an afternoon on a 1 horsepower vehicle

 Stunning scenery everywhere you look

Yes, even I managed to throw a leg over a horse, it was a great way to see the local area

I found a friend...

The gang at our last night together in El Chalten

We even managed a hike up towards Fitzroy and had lunch by this lake

The view on the way back down

It is a rock climbers heaven here, they can have it!

As I said, beautiful scenery everywhere you look

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