Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Sunsets & Stamps

[Random observations of my life as an incomer, in the Falkland Islands.  The next post will not be for at least a month, as we are on our travels, again.  Hope this, and the older posts, will give you an insight to the Falklands].

This week the weather gave us some wonderful displays and also some horrendous and unusual conditions.  As I write, the lightning is flashing across the overcast sky, and the rain is belting down.  "The risk of sunburn is LOW", as the optimistic radio weather announcer puts it!
The Corniche?  
 I do like unpredictable weather - I don't think I could live somewhere where you know for weeks in advance what the weather will do.  Here, even if it is sunny and clear, you always take a jacket, and warm layers...
So, as we in the Southern Hemisphere slip into Autumn, and I slip out of the country, heading north for a change, I'll leave you with a few images and impressions of Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands.
I've also seen a water-skier recently...  plus kite-surfers like this chap >
You might see the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth in the background, and some dolphins appear after 30 seconds.
Evening light
 I've been showing a newcomer around Stanley, just to help her get her bearings, and also to show that not all penguins have disappeared.
Watching the penguins in the minefield
We were lucky enough to spot dolphins, but they were too far away for my little camera to capture.
Back from a swim
 Penguins are much easier to photograph, but I will practice on the dolphins.
I know what you're thinking..."Not another @#* sunset!" .  But they're all different....
However, I doubt there will be many more good sunsets for a while.  It's now dark by 6.30pm.
Lamplight at twilight
As an alternative to watching the skies, we now receive 3 terrestrial UK TV channels, (BBC1/2, and ITV) rather than the consolidated mishmash via British Forces Broadcasting Service, so we no longer see adverts aimed at the military audience on topics like PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder),  and what's on at cinemas in Germany and Camp Bastion!
Very southerly Nordic Walkers heading to strange cloud (or alien spaceship)
Unfortunately, we have also lost a fair amount of Sky Sports output, (which is a concern to cricket fans in the household), and also Game of Thrones.  Still, we can always look out the window if we want an interesting scene to observe.  The weather is rarely dull!
An official invitation (and  Falkland's marine mammals stamps).
"Mr P regrets....".   Sadly, I cannot attend this reception, but maybe I'll get another chance?    I do like the stamps here...New sets come out every other month (or so it seems), and most are memorable.  Let me know if you want me to send you a postcard (with a stamp!).  It might be the closest you get to a dolphin!
A scale model of Torres del Paine, or My First Pavlova?
One aspect of life that I've enjoyed here is having more time to experiment at baking.  While still very much a novice, I can at least try baking stuff I wouldn't even had considered 18 months ago - scones, bread, meringues, muffins, steam puddings,  and other  light options.
Not local fruit!
Last week, I cooked for some friends, and tried some South Georgia reindeer in red wine.  It was, even if I say so myself, delicious.  
Sunday saw the regular Ramblers walk.  The plan was to walk up Smoko Mountain, but heavy fog at about 200 feet, meant that idea was swiftly abandoned.  Plan B was to walk up a lovely river valley (at least, I was told it was lovely!), and hunt for the elusive Teaberries, which reportedly were ripe for picking!
Rock slabs rear out of mist
Some of the chaps felt a more energetic walk was required so wandered round in the mist, and tried, sometimes successfully, to cross a fast-flowing stream.
Male walkers eagerly awaiting the return of the berry pickers to the cave....
We agreed to rendezvous with the Teaberry pickers for lunch in a lovely viewpoint (at least, I was told it was a lovely viewpoint), but lunchtime came and went with no sign of the other group.   It was at this point that I realised I had all my partner's food and drink in my rucksack......Oh well: waste not, want not!
The elusive and delicious Teaberries.
Possibly more worrying, it soon became apparent that our macho group also had all the maps, the GPS, and most of the mobile phones!  After what seemed like an age peering into the fog, we eventually heard familiar voices floating towards us through the gloom!  An old myth about a certain gender's inability to navigate was about to be dispelled!

Quickly diverting attention from the unequal distribution of equipment and food, we eagerly asked our companions how they had got on with the berry-picking.  Hurrah! A bountiful supply had been found!
Recipes for Teaberry muffins,  Teaberry pavlova and Teaberry vodka were exchanged as we walked back to the parked cars.

An enjoyable day out, despite the fog.
End of an era?

A Public Holiday has been declared on the Falklands for Baroness Thatcher's funeral tomorrow.  The Islanders are very grateful to her decision to send a Task Force, 31 years ago.....

I hope the main London event, and the London Marathon, pass peacefully.  My thoughts are with the people of Boston.

Back in a month.


Monday, 8 April 2013

The Towers of Torres del Paine....

[Continuing a personal blog of life in the Falkland Islands, with the occasional detour to Chile. Last week, I described getting to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.  This week, I try to show some of its highlights.  By the way, I see there are some readers of this blog in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.  Hello to all!]

Torres del Paine National Park is famous for its guanaco herds.
In January, my wife and I had a short visit to the Torres del Paine National Park, in Chilean Patagonia.  It's in a remote landscape, much of which is covered in a huge ice-cap, with scores of glaciers still shaping the land.
Icebergs in Lago Grey
I've always been interested in physical geography and found the park a fascinating display of the topics I learned about in school (many moons ago!) - glaciation; erosion, hanging valleys, etc.

Glaciers have gouged out deep troughs between the mountains and these were filled with countless years of melt-water.  One in particular, Lago Grey, had a huge glacier at one end, which regularly calved icebergs into the lake.
Glacier's end
You can walk to, and onto, the glacier, but we were short of time and took a 3-hour boat trip from one end of the lake to the other, and back.  The boat took about 30 passengers and we reached it by a short zodiac trip as the lake had silted where the jetty was.
The glacier has retreated about 200m in 10 years.
The area is notorious for its strong winds, and that day was typical.  Most people got some icy water down their neck, and once under way in the middle of the lake, the "cruise" resembled a desperate expedition in mid-ocean.  So passengers stayed below decks in a bid to keep themselves and their cameras dry.
Ice scouring the tilted layers of sandstone
But after about 30 minutes we approached the far end  of the lake where the mountains afforded some shelter.
Glacier or meringue nest?
It was amazing and breathtaking to see a glacier snout close-up.  We could sail right up to rock faces that, until a few years ago were covered in scouring ice.  The marks left by the ice were still embedded in the rock.
Zodiac picking up walkers.
We could also see the thousands of exposed layers in the sandstone rock, much of it twisted and contorted by huge forces.
Future iceberg
I have seen glaciers in Iceland, and Antarctica, but none as close as this, or with such an easy access.  No hiking miles across wastelands -  there was even a bar to serve hot drinks once you noticed the temperature had plummeted!
New icebergs making their way down Lago Grey
The cruise sailed for a mile across the end of the glacier, hugging the shimmering ice cliffs, before turning and heading back to base, dodging icebergs, and providing an unforgettable highlight of our trip.

Our other main highlight was a walk up to the Torres del Paine themselves.  "Torres" is Spanish for towers, and is extremely appropriate - 3 vertical, windowless, granite skyscrapers!  (It's not clear who or what "Paine" was, but we did "feel the pain!").
View from hotel

We could just glimpse the top of the towers from our bedroom window, but quite often they were shrouded in cloud.   We had heard tales in the bar of people who had hiked uphill for several hours only to gaze at mist when they got to the viewpoint!   However, we only had one day spare to do this, so set off early one dank morning, hoping for the best.
Happy not to meet some horses.....

We followed a well-worn horsetrack up a side valley for about 3 miles, stopping frequently to enjoy the growing view, and to get our breath back.  The path was very narrow in places, and it was with some relief that we didn't meet any horses coming the other way.  There was a 500-foot drop into the river on one side!
4,000ft waterslide, and contorted landscape.

After a couple of hours we came to a Refugio - a hostel and camp-site on the banks of the river.  Here were toilets and a cafe,  and for the campers, it meant a shortened walk to the Torres.

We continued on the path, crossing the river, and enjoying the shade provided by the evergreen beech forest.
Evergreen beech forest

The path undulated higher and higher up the valley, until we came to the foot of a steep scree slope.  This is where the real uphill effort started, like climbing a set of stairs for an hour,  and where I missed my Nordic Walking poles the most.  Oh, how I missed them!   (Given the number of people using trekking poles, I assumed they were readily available to hire.  But, it seems, only in Puerto Natales, 80 miles away).
The scree slope approaches...

Gradually, with many stops to admire the view, we steadily gained height.  Our total gain was about 1,000 metres - about the same as climbing a Munro in my native Scotland.
Nearing the top of the scree.

But it was definitely worth the effort!  Thank goodness the clouds had cleared!
Raw glaciation.  Ice vs Granite
For a glaciation nerd, this was seventh heaven!

Looking across to the towers, some people said they could see climbers on them, but I couldn't make them out.  In fact, until I read a book, "Against the Wall", by the climber Simon Yates, I doubted they could be climbed at all!  They were sheer, for 2,000 feet.
We made it!
And, in fact, I later discovered that the Central Tower (at 8,100 feet; 2460m)  had first been climbed as recently as 1963, by the renowned British mountaineers, Sir Chris Bonington and Don Whillans!
A quick snap before the weather changes.
I would have loved to spend hours up there, but we could see the weather changing by the minute.  Simon Yates describes, in his account of the climb,  violent storms that threatened to blow him off the cliff, and yet were not felt at its base!
One last look before heading down.....
So, we enjoyed probably the most scenic setting to eat a packed lunch, took dozens of photos as the light changed, and then turned to negotiate the scree slope.  It was probably a good thing that the view disappeared in seconds, meaning we could concentrate on our footing.  
The sign guides you through the scree.
Once again rueing the mistake of not bringing poles, we gingerly made our way down the path, through the beech forest and back to the Refugio.  
Grey granite, topped with brown sandstone
This route is part of the famous "W" trek, so-called due to its shape.  We had just walked the right-most part of the "W" .  The whole circuit takes about a week, so, sadly we could not do it all in the time available.  It's not actually a circuit, as some of you will know, but the boats and ferries that ply the lakes connect hikers to the next section, or to lodging for the night. 
Excellent signs don't hide the truth.  It is uphill!  Torres in distance.
A last glance back at the tops, and then we continued for about an hour back to civilisation and our hotel and a hot soak  - very tired; very happy.  I feel for those who got all the way up there, only to see cloud.
Friendly sparrow at the Refugio.
But, perhaps it's better leaving something unfinished, as an incentive to go back?

If anyone would like more details on the Torres del Paine National Park, check this site, or ask away.  I'll try to help if I can.  There are also good online travel forums such as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor.

I wonder where we'll end up next...?


Friday, 5 April 2013

Torres del Paine: Grandeur, Guanacos and Gauchos

[The weather has been  glorious in Stanley this week, but a cruise ship, Veendam, has yet again cancelled a visit, which has meant more time for me to sort out photos from a recent trip to southern Chile....    This blog recounts some episodes of my life in the Falkland Islands.  This chapter covers a week in Chile.  It's a bit longer than normal, as I thought the scenery worth sharing, and it may be the last for a while due to mundane activities getting in the way of publishing a blog.....]
Lenticular clouds above Torres del Paine National Park
"Torres del Paine is not a mere park, but a park of parks, a destination of travellers to whom a park is more than a place in which to be entertained, but rather an  experience to be integrated into one's life.  Torres del Paine is the sort of park that changes its visitors....."
...........from South American National Parks, quoted by Sara Wheeler in "Travels in a Thin Country", a great insight into Chile.   They are not wrong!
The park is home to thousands of Guanacos
One of the reasons my wife and I wanted to live in the Falkland Islands was....to get away from the place!  No, seriously, one reason for moving there was for the opportunity of seeing South America, which otherwise would be beyond our reach.
Andean Condor, biggest bird in the Americas...rarely seen on the ground.
The Falkland Islands are about 350 miles east of South America, and there's a weekly flight to Chile, operated by LAN, which is the only flight away from the island, apart from the regular one to RAF Brize Norton in England.
So, if you ignore the 35-mile bumpy drive to the international airport at Mount Pleasant, and the long, dull wait before the flight, it is quite a convenient way to start explorations of South America.
Similar in size to the English Lake District....
Our flight continued on to Santiago, but we disembarked at the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan.
Unusually calm lake.
Our destination that evening was Puerto Natales, a 3 hour bus drive to the north across the flat Patagonian country that looked similar to the Falklands.  Puerto Natales is about 2 hours drive from the Torres del Paine national park.  Next morning, we had an early breakfast overlooking the fiords and mountains, and then continued on to the park.
Los Cuernos - The Horns
As we got closer to the park the landscape changed dramatically, and snow-capped mountains loomed in the distance.
Grey granite, below. Brown sandstone above.
Soon we entered the park and enjoyed the incredible scenery the park had to offer.....
Salta Grande (people at lip of Falls). A waterfall between two lakes.
The main massif in the park is not part of the Andes chain of mountains, but a separate, albeit adjacent, geological feature.  It was formed when molten magma forced its way up and into the layers of sandstone, then cooled forming a 2,000 metre layer of granite, sandwiched between the older sandstone!
The Horns, from the south. Grey granite, brown sandstone.
The whole massif was  uplifted when continental plates collided.  Ice caps covered the land for millions of years, and eroded the rocks into dramatic shapes.  When the ice melted about 10,000 years ago (roughly about the same time Man first reached this region), the underlying granite was exposed.
Bring your own seat, for one of the best views on Earth.
And so, we are left to gaze at Nature's beautiful creation......

It's like a gigantic Pavlova with a chocolate topping!
"Beef or Chicken?" Chilean style
Talking of food...... lunch was taken in a  beautifully-located lakeside restaurant, with panoramic views.  We sampled the traditional Chilean grill, and were offered the choice familiar to many long-haul travellers, of "beef or chicken?" !  What it did show was how easy it can be to deliver delicious food to hordes of visitors all arriving at once.

After lunch, we explored more of the park by bus.  The gravel roads were twisty, narrow and undulating, but much of the park has no roads and hiking and horses are the main modes of transport.
Lunch with a view
Coming around one bend, our guide suddenly asked the driver to pull over and let us get out to take photos.  We couldn't understand why she was so excited, taking photos of the mountains herself.  Surely she had seen this view hundreds of times?  "Oh yes", she agreed, "but never reflected in that lake.  It's always so windy!  Today is special!".
Reflections from our trip....
deliberately left blank!
Another famous lake, Lago Grey, has a glacier at one end, and the wind has blown icebergs from it, 15 miles to the other end of the lake!  The place is notorious for the strong winds.......
Lago Grey.  The rickety pier for the Glacier boat trips.
Horses are popular form of transport.
Eventually, we had driven about 40 miles from north to south within the Park, and were dropped off at our hotel near the southern entrance, whilst the bus returned to Puerto Natales.  Prior to travelling, I had checked the map and had concerns that our hotel was too far away from the mountains to get good views.  I needn't have worried!!
The hotel had panoramic views of the park, and we were soon treated to a display of lenticular clouds, which occur fairly often in these windy latitudes.  They are caused by high winds being forced up over mountains.
Sunset, moon and lenticular clouds.
Dawn on the Horns.
The next day we took a zodiac trip down the Serrano river.  Although not really "white-water rafting", we had to get inside a wet suit and wear life jackets, in case we fell out the boat.
Ready for anything
The river skirts the edge of the Southern Patagonian Icecap - the biggest in the southern hemisphere outside Antarctica - and we could see numerous glaciers flowing down valleys to calve into the river.
Serrano Glacier
Without the boat, access would have been difficult and time-consuming.  There are no roads.  This area was one of the most remote in South America, and one of the last places where Europeans migrants encountered indigenous people.  Sadly, about 100 years ago, most of these people succumbed to the usual cocktail of introduced diseases like smallpox.  So the area remained a wilderness, until tourism began about 20 years ago.
Glacial ice blocking the outflow of the lake.
Now, the region is mostly National Park.  The Torres del Paine park abuts the vast Bernardo O'Higgins National Park (13,000 sq. miles, compared to 927 sq. mls for Torres).  By the way, in my old stomping ground of Richmond upon Thames, London, there is a statue of Bernardo O'Higgins, a former resident who went on to liberate Chile from the Spanish!
The end of the glacier
 The closeup views of the glaciers tumbling down the mountains allowed us to see how much they had retreated in recent years.  Spectacular...... but better was to come!

Rickety bridge and person with vertigo.....
On subsequent days, we tried to do less-sedentary activities, and the main one in the park is hiking.  The paths are well-signposted,  with time and distances to the next viewpoint or camp-site clearly marked.

 However, apart from occasional bridges and rustic hotels, the park is very unspoilt and the landscape is undiminished by the growing number of visitors.
Spanish - English directions
We were to see several birds and plants which we were familiar with from the Falklands.  Most had different names, but it is clear some have migrated across the ocean from Patagonia at some point in the past.
Well-marked paths
One aspect of the wildlife we noticed that was similar to that of the Falklands', was that it was not frightened of people, and didn't run or fly away until we got very close.
Black-faced  Ibis. Familiar to Stanley residents...
Quite the opposite.  One evening, we watched two Patagonian foxes run around chasing hares for about 20 minutes, sometimes walking between groups of people and coming within touching distance of us.
Patagonian Fox hunting hares at night.
Patagonian Fox walking past us in the dark...
Hare!!  One of many.
Don't stand on the wildlife...
On one walk, there was a little mouse in our  path which didn't seem the slightest bit bothered by our presence.
"O, wee, cowerin', timorous beastie!" Rabbie Burns.
The Caranchos are scavengers and quite common on the Falkland Islands, away from settlements, but these were spotted very close to our hotel, so were obviously adapted to live off our scraps.
Southern crested Caracara. (Carancho)

Ready for the gauchos
 Horses were used for getting about, and tourists could learn to be gauchos for the day, or even head up into the hills for a camping expedition.  I usually sneeze when near horses, so declined the offer of a day in the saddle.
The trainee gauchos head off for the day....
Near our hotel was a large hostel and camp-site, with a shop and restaurant.  There was also one of those world maps, where you can post up where you come from, although there seemed to be some dispute on whether the Falklands were part of Argentina or not.
The political debate even reaches a hostel in the park.....

A board in the hostel, showing where everyone comes from....
 Peter the Penguin, posting from Antarctica, and someone from the  Islas Malvinas, Argentina, oops, The Falkland Islands....  You just can't get away from politics!

Misty dawn
So, I hope this has whetted your appetite, as the most spectacular part of our trip is yet to come.   More soon, domestic chores permitting....