Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Torres del Paine

By Sanne

Torres del Paine has the reputation as one of the best national parks in South America. It is in the far-south of Chile and the mountains in the park (Las Cordilleras del Paine) forms part of the Andes. It was always on the cards that we wanted to come here, so we set out from Puerto Natales on a very rare wind and rain-free day and rode the 100 or so km's to the park entrance. The main road to there was closed off because of a landslide so we had to take the backway in to the park which wasn't that much longer anyway. Most of the road to here is asphalt and after that good dirt road. The fact that there was barely any wind at all felt really odd in this part of the world where wind is just part of daily life. 

Upon entering the park we were immediately greeted by stunning scenery. The dirt road leading into the park was nice and windy and quite hilly as well and everywhere we looked we could see the impressive Andes mountains rising up in front of us, next to us and behind us. We rode to Lake Pehoe where we had been told there was a nice campsite. It was really nice. It was also really expensive at 8,000 pesos per person (about $16). But at least it had shelters that we could put our tent up inside, which was handy as the rain started falling as soon as we pulled up here. We went for a short walk that evening up the hill overlooking Lake Pehoe and it was beautiful. We marveled at the amazing turquoise colour of the water and the giant spires of the Cuernos del Paine across the water.

The next morning we woke up excited about the kayak trip we had booked to go out on at 10am. The tour was going to navigate giant icebergs floating down from Grey Glacier. But during the night we had gone from no-wind to full-on wind. Mark and I looked at each other with a worried look asking ourselves if this kayak thing would go ahead or not. But we had breakfast an geared up, got on our bikes and headed towards Grey Beach where we were to meet up with the kayak people. The first half of the way there wasn't too bad as we were mostly sheltered from the wind. The we crossed the river and hit the pampas (flat lowlands). Nothing could have prepared us for this. The wind was blowing with a vengeance I have never felt before. It was near impossible keeping the bikes in a straight line. Had this been a tar road it probably wouldn't have been so bad, but this was a gravel road with tracks and deep piles of gravel in between. When a powerful gust of wind hit us, we would inevitably be flung to the other side of the road with our tyres loosing traction on the loose gravel. It was a little bit scary. Slowing down did not help matters, in fact it just seemed to make things worse, and the bike harder to control. But, we powered on, we had an appointment to get to! 

Then we started climbing up a hill where the road has been cut in through a mountain and the wind just seemed to channel through here even stronger yet. The massive headwind stopped me and my bike completely and as soon as I stopped I knew it was game over. The wind bounced from side to side off the rocks and just like that, me and Christine were on the ground! Shit... Anyway, Mark helped me get the bike up and we rode to the carpark where the kayak people were waiting. I was fully expecting them to cancel the whole thing, but they said that it was still on so we drove to the water and started gearing up in wetsuits etc. While we were doing this the wind gusts were now so strong that the kayaks were being blown away from us, sliding down the beach. These were big heavy, plastic two-man kayaks so it really takes something to move them. By now it had been decided that it was going to be too dangerous to paddle among the icebergs in this wind, we were way too exposed where we were. Instead, we were given the option of going down the river which usually is more protected and calm. We accepted this solution and drove to the river. Well, the river was not much better. The water was flowing so fast that even when the experienced kayak guide tested it out he had troubles paddling across the other side. There was a lot of discussion going on between the guides as to whether it was safe or not to put us in the water. It looked like it wouldn't take much error to end up being tipped out of the kayak into the freezing water (this was glacier water mind you). In the end the decision was to cancel which was really disappointing but obviously the safest thing to do. One of the guides told me that this was the worst wind she had seen in the time she had been working here. And when we the following day got our money refunded in the office in Puerto Natales (in US dollars nevertheless - score!) they told us that this season has been the worst in the terms of wind. Well, lucky us. Why is that everywhere we go we always seem to hear the same thing: "This is the worst season we have ever had", "We usually never get this much rain/snow/cold/you name it" I'm starting to think that it is us who are bringing the bad weather with us wherever we go.
After the kayak disaster we made our way back to our campground, thankfully the wind had calmed down a little bit by now, not much, but enough to ride in it at least.

The next day we decided that it was best if we leave the park and head into town again. We had seen the weather forecast for the following day and the word was that the wind was only going to pick up even more, and we were running out of food so we couldn't bunker down for a few days if it came to it. At our campsite there was a young family, mum, dad and two little kids travelling on bicycles! I have no idea how they manage in this winds. They would definitely have to stay put for the next few days. We packed up around noon and headed first to a waterfall lookout on the way. It was only a short walk from the carpark to the lookout but the wind channeling through here was insane. We could barely walk forward that's how strong the headwind was. Everywhere you looked people were falling on the ground and struggling to stand in one spot. We took a few quick photos and we walked/flew out of there. Once on the road though the wind wasn't so bad, or maybe we were just getting used to it by now. We rode to another camp called Torres to get a closer view of the towers but although you could see the top of them, you really had to do the hike to get a good view. As we had no intentions of doing that, we were on our way again now heading out of the park. This time the wind was behind us giving us more of a tail wind allowing us to open the throttle and give it some gas, which was nice. Had we had a car instead of motorbikes we probably would have stayed in the park longer although doing hikes would have still been difficult with the strong winds. But this place is famous for that, it comes with the territory. So to conclude this blog post I will say that Torres del Paine is one of the most stunning national parks I have ever been to, but the wind...the wind is out of this world. 

Entering the park

Enjoying the nice dirt roads

Mark with a group of Guanacos in the background

Cuernos del Paine has layers of sedimentary rock on top of harder granite rock

Overlooking Lake Pehoe

Camping Lake Pehoe

Our campspot at Lake Pehoe and our saviour in the wind

Our disastrous kayak adventure

Sheltering from the wind

I got geared up looking like a fool for nothing!

Grey Glacier

Giant iceberg that has broken off Grey Glacier

Yes, I know I look like a muppet with my necksock over my hair but if I hadn't, 
the wind would have turned my hair into dreadlocks

The sign says: Caution: Strong Winds. I'll say!

 Quick, take the photo before I get blown off my bike again!

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