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Published: February 4th 2020
The next morning we were up early and out. It was raining quite a bit now so heading into the national park seemed a bit flat. But people were still enthusiastic so that was good. We travelled on a bright yellow, private overland vehicle. My sub-section of the group ended up at the "party" end of the bus which had train style tables and access to the music and USB ports. The bus came equipped with UNO and various other card games so we whiled away a few hours playing games, and getting to know each other. The bus was really comfy for long journeys however it did have little in the way of heating so the windows misted up with the rain beating against them so it was hard to see out.
We stopped at a desolate roadside café for a break where I obtained a meat empanada. I have no idea that the meat was, but it was quite good actually. I quickly became the test bed for these - only after the others in the group watched me eat them and not immediately fall down dead, would anyone else buy one. This became the norm throughout the
trip. It was still fairly soggy out so we huddled in the café drinking coffees and eating things. To entertain us, there was a cat that was trying to climb a wet children's slide. I took a video of it so maybe I will send it to You've been framed and claim my £250. Anyway, I digress.
We carried on on our 4 hour journey - next stop - Puerto Natales. This is the closest real town to the parks on the Chilean side, and here we collected our 3 walking guides and chef who were to stay with us for the next few days, plus all the food we were going to eat for the next 4 days which all got loaded into the bottom of the truck. We were told there was a free toilet in the supermarket, and we had an hour. So we all gathered in the supermarket, trying to keep warm, one by one using the toilet which had no flush and was pretty unpleasant as it went on. The supermarket, inexplicably, was selling the Waitrose essential range - I never really got a good explanation for that one, but there were all the
jams and marmalades etc you could handle from your favourite middle class shopping haunt. Puerto Natales didn't seem to be flush (sorry) with facilities but a few of us ventured out and found ourselves in someone's front room, buying cakes and sipping coffee. (It was an official bakery, but you couldn't tell). The woman there at least was friendly, if a little baffled by our presence. We made one more stop on the way, at a tourist tat shop which was near the border with Argentina. It had the most amazing wood burning stove in it, which we all gathered around, all having been on a bus with no heating for just a bit too long now.
Back on the bus and into Torres del Paine (TdP) national park. Its pronounced pai-nee in case you were wondering, something I had been getting wrong for years. First we had to stop at the ranger station and pay the fees and the guides talked to the staff there to work out what restrictions were in place at the moment. TdP had had a very cold winter so there was still snow at quite low levels. Then we trundled on into the
park along dirt tracks. The weather, not being that good, made it hard to enjoy the scenery to start with, but you were sort of aware that very special views were unfolding beneath the grey clouds. There were also groups of Vicunas - cousins of the Llama - dotted around in the area. Our guide told us to look out for Pumas - but no matter how much you looked, they weren't there to see. We had seen a group of flamingos on the road side though, which we pulled over and looked at for a bit, but given how grey the skies were, they felt a little out of place. We got glimpses of cracking views, but nothing more, as we travelled another hour into the park and arrived at our Campsite by the side of Pehoé lake, a stunning bright blue lake surrounded by various mountains.
The next three nights we would be camping and first job was setting up the tents. After a helpful demonstration from Steve the driver, we got down to building our uniform brown tents, complete with colourful Tucan on the side. I was sharing with Sergio, the Swiss chap, who was quite
good at putting the tent up, so between us, we were all sorted quickly and able to help others. The campsite was fairly basic; one toilet block with hot water, showers and a washing up area, a shop which opened when it felt like it, and a café that was sort of the same and was closed most of the time we were there. I couldn't help but go for a walk, despite the rain. I made it to the top of a reasonable hill that overlooked the lake. It was a stunning view over to the mountains behind, the Cerro Paine Grande. It was the first experience I had of real wilderness, and it was nice to be away from the group for just a while while I took it all in. I met a number of birds along the way which was nice. I turned and saw the only couple from our group on a separate distant hillock - they obviously felt the same as me about some isolation. Despite how exhilarating it was to be out, on the top of a Chilean hill, by myself for the first time with such amazing scenery, I was being fought
back by the rain, so I headed back down - it was time for dinner. On the campsite were various lean-to sheds, that had picnic benches in so you could shelter from the rain. One of these had become entirely taken up by our chef and his cooking equipment. Another became a sort of mess-hall and had a blazing fire outside it with a constant source of tea and coffee on it -amazing but by the end of the time I spent here, everything I owned smelled of wood smoke. Dinner tonight was chicken and rice and was delicious - the best thing I have ever eaten on a campsite. Every night were three courses including soup and dessert, and always came with hot sauce! How amazing to have a chef to yourself in a place like this! Also, we had all bought beers and red wine to have with the dinner and sit around, which were stored in a cooler on the truck.
That was enough for that day - as most people had been up early, people slunk off to bed fairly early too, knowing the next day was going to be a big one. It was
still cold and damp and each night the temperatures hovered around freezing. (Again, glad for the extra padded layer I bought before I left). In the tent, we all had floor mats which insulated us from the ground, but the thick outer lining wasn't quite enough to insulate from the strong Patagonian wind during the night, but did keep the heavy rain off. Combined with the rain and Sergio snoring - I didn't get a particularly good night sleep but there were moments where you could just lay there and consider how far from home you were, and just occasionally how quite it was. Oh, and whether there were Pumas nearby.
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