A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: SpannaB

The Fastest Way Back Home

Sorry it wasn't 80 songs...my writing is not as prolific as I hoped!

snow

I am sitting in Vancouver airport waiting for my final flight of my 8 month journey that I started planning over a year ago. With an 8 hour layover this is not the fastest way back home in a literal sense, but given I wasn't ready to return to live in the UK a year ago and am now very excited about it, I think the title works for my final blog post.

The final section of my travels have been very different to the rest as I thought they would. I spent a few days in both LA and Vancouver where I had the wonderful privilege of meeting up with some ex-students who are enjoying their post UWC life. It's great to see someone who was very academically able pursuing her career in a very un-traditional way, as well as seeing another student putting the maths he learnt with me to good use in his degree. This message here though, is identical to what I have found throughout my trip. That people should pursue what they enjoy and break out of the traditional jobs and expectations if it feels right for them.

LA was unseasonably cold and I did not get to go for a swim or surf despite staying on the beach. I did however hire a bike and cycle along the coast up to the famous Venice Beach where I walked through Muscle beach and along the boardwalk. I did admire the outdoor lifestyle that seems to come from living at the beach, but I can't say I got much sense of what LA is like as I did not venture into the city or anywhere near Hollywood.

Vancouver immediately felt more like a place I could feel at home. It's wonderfully multi-cultural and I wasn't disappointed with my beliefs that Canadians are super friendly and helpful. My first night I got very Canadian very quickly and headed to a Canucks (ice) hockey game with a group from the hostel. It was great to see live, incredibly fast and skilful. My hostel mates were generally very Aussie. Unlike Brits getting working visas for Canada (very hard) the Australians have an unlimited number and it seems to be the place to come, a bit like the Germans in New Zealand. For the rest of my time I spent time in Stanley Park, cycling around the city, at Granville Island where there may have been a brewery, and enjoying home cooked food at my first time in a student house for a while. It was a really nice finish to my solo travelling but I was getting excited about snowboarding and seeing Mum.

Over a year ago I was sat on a chairlift in Japan trying to think of what I was going to do with my year off. Jen suggested I could become a snowboard instructor. I laughed, thinking I wouldn't be good enough, but I was assured the first level was pretty simple. This set off my first major decision about how I was going to spend my time and not long later I had booked myself onto a 3 week snowboarding course with in Fernie, the supposed powder capital of Canada. The rest of my year padded itself out around that booking. Unfortunately Fernie had it's poorest season for snow in pretty much forever according to the locals, and so I was heading to resort a week before my course started to meet Mum being slightly unsure how much skiing we could do.

I arrived having seen not that much snow on my journey but headed into town and returned about an hour later with my new snowboard, bindings and boots. It was impressively quick work, but very cheap as all the shops were discounting everything after such a poor season. I was expecting Mum to arrive about 11 so when someone tried to open the door about 9 o'clock I was slightly concerned. Luckily it turned out that as she was the only one on her shuttle she left the airport earlier than planned.

We headed up the hill the next day to see what it was like. Initially it was a bit depressing when you arrive at a resort and see fields instead of runs and dirt beneath you as you go up chairlifts. However at the top of the mountain, it was much more white and it was great to be out on the snow again.

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Fernie itself is a great little town. Good food, yummy beer and lots of events and community facilities. In my 4 weeks there I went ice skating, curling, beer tasting, to a small gig, to a big gig, celebrated Hot Dog day in 80's clothes and to a Mr Fernie competition (yes it was like those ones at uni....) Me and Mum sampled lots of the local restaurants including some incredible Japanese food and managed to both keep our knees working throughout the week. It was great to feel like I knew the town and slopes before I started my course. The major concern was whether there would be any runs left to board on.

After our week together I moved my stuff to my new residence, the Red Tree Lodge and waved goodbye to Mum as the shuttle took her back to Calgary airport. I met some of the other people who had already been on the Nonstop courses for a couple of weeks and the general talk was what they would do if the snow completely disappeared which seemed very likely given the sunny warm days we had been having. However, the snow gods were smiling and on Sunday we awoke to snow and headed up the hill in snow and went boarding in snow. This meant by Monday then first day of our lessons was a powder day and the hill was incredibly busy compared to a week before as locals closed their businesses and headed up the hill to enjoy the 60cm of fresh snow.

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Out in the powder and my first double black diamond run...

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Our all girls snowboarding crew and some on the slope snacks we made

The next three weeks were great. My group consisted of me, Karen who had arrived the same time as me, and Poppy and Anne who had already been there for two weeks. We had 5 hours of snowboarding lessons during 4 days of the week but most people went up everyday - in 4 weeks there were only 3 days that I didn't snowboard. It was great to be being taught after several years of just 'getting down' a run however I could and that first week felt like there were so many things I could do to improve my riding. Like any learning curve there are jumps in improvement as well as getting stuck for a bit. After two weeks I felt I knew what I was supposed to be doing but it wasn't always working. The final week was not just lessons as it also included a 3 day course/assessment to become a level 1 snowboard instructor, and more worryingly Hot Dog day, a celebration of a dodgy 80's ski film where alcohol is often drunk fell right in the middle of our course. Although it was a little slow at times, it was good to go back to the very basics of snowboarding and understanding it from an instructors point of view, it definitely helped me with my own riding. To pass you had to pass an assessment of your riding ability and your teaching. Our group had different strengths between the riding and the teaching, but we all managed to pass despite looking like this for one of the days of the course!large_DSCN4032.jpg

Off the snow there was plenty of beer to be drunk and food to be eaten. There was so many lovely people and it was so nice to meet people once and know I would be seeing them all again for the next few weeks rather than the next few days. We all fell in love with Fernie and with the lifestyle of heading up to the snow whenever you wanted, and there were many conversations revolving around the fundamental question of 'how could I live here?' I would love to return as the place is incredibly fun and welcoming, as well as wanting to see the hill with all the runs open and not just half of them. These three weeks have been like a starting point back into 'real life' with the structure and opportunity for learning that the course offered. Of course, I feel like one more week would have been ideal in terms of embedding the improvements I have made to my boarding, or it could be I just didn't want to leave. There were many sad faces around the dinner table last night, which was compounded by us waking up to some serious snow coming down in town this morning as we had to finish packing.

For myself, despite having spent some time in the last few weeks doing some maths, and communicating with my new job, there is still a sense of unreality about this trip finally coming to an end. I have travelled about 40,000 miles, slept in 67 different places (I think), have travelled by foot, car, boat, bike, bus and snowboard and met so many incredible awesome people. But now I'm on the way home....

Posted by SpannaB 13:33 Archived in Canada Tagged snowboarding fernie instructor Comments (1)

Wandering Daughter

Ice ice baby!

This is a slight cheat with both my title and subheading being songs, but I couldn't quite bring myself to have Ice Ice Baby as the song represented by this blog, plus it doesn't quite account for the whole period I'm writing about. I had finished the W trek and got myself and my aching legs onto a bus to Argentina. I was heading to El Calafate a town named after a small red berry and famous for being close to the huge Perito Moreno glacier which is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world.

After a stroll around town I discovered that it was very full...not many rooms available. I had lots of people very helpfully explaining stuff to me in Spanish about where I might go, but I kind of understood the arm waving and found a hostel that had a bed for one night and the offer of sleeping in a refugio (basically a floor) for the next night.

So off I went to explore the town and get in some Argentinian pesos. I had heard from many other travellers that getting money out in El Calafate and El Chalten could be difficult but I wasn't prepared for all 4 banks giving me nothing on both my visa debit or my mastercard. I was slightly concerned about how I would pay for things given that despite the problems in accessing money, many places in these towns do not accept card and therefore you need cash! It seems to me like if they want people to spend more money that should invest in some decent ATM's. Anyway, luckily the reception at the hostel were incredibly helpful (plus this is not a new problem for them) and the effectively charged me a price on card, and gave me the cash. The best bit about this was they charged me in US dollars and so I got a better rate than I would at the banks. This is because there is a bizarre situation in Argentina where the government have tried to stabalize their currency by effectively making it illegal to get foreign currency. Whilst this has now been lifted their are still restrictions and Argentinians want to save their money in US dollars. This means that pretty much everywhere you can exchange US dollars for pesos at a much better rate than the official government one.

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Given my knees and my lack of ability to get too much money out, I just chilled out on the first day and booked a trip to the glacier for the next day. I did however find an amazing alfojore place, mmmm. I need to learn how to make these when I get back. The next day we got on the bus to head to the Los Glaciers National Park with a slightly exorbitant entry fee. We were offered a boat trip as well, but given what the day was costing I declined. The rest of us were going to be dropped at the walkways which took you to many different viewpoints around the glacier. We had over three hours there, which sounded like a long time to be staring at a block of ice, but in the end it was about right.

The thing I find with glaciers (having seen so many now!) is that a sense of scale is so hard to get. Much like the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine, I couldn't quite take in how big it was, despite having been told the face was 5km long and the height of it is between 50 and 70m I felt I need some small people to be standing at the base to really get a feel for it.

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The blue in the ice is an incredible colour and the surface of the glacier is like a hugely magnified version of the ripples you get in wet sand. The first time you hear part of the glacier falling you think that a huge piece must have come apart, then you just see this tiny block drop into the water. The thunder-like noise seems far louder than the size of the ice would suggest. Then it becomes a waiting game. You see parts of the glacier that seem to have more cracks, or look more unstable, and you think you will stand there until it falls. Then you start thinking that maybe it won't fall in the next half an hour so maybe you should move on.....but maybe it will.

The time passed quickly with an incredible finish, as hundreds of people stood waiting for this section to go, which it did! And then just as I was leaving the tops of two tower sections came away with a huge noise.

The next day I headed to El Chalten which is the home to Mount Fitz Roy, and the Cerro Torre, two famous mountains for climbing, at a slightly higher level than I could ever manage :) When we arrived the weather was beautiful and both peaks stood out against the sky. That was the last time I saw Cerro Torre for quite a few days.

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In my dorm I met Eva, an Argentinian from Buenos Aires who was in Chalten on holiday visiting her brothers who worked there. The next day we set off to hike to Laguna Torres which was supposed to be the easiest of the three main walks in the area. It was pretty flat and we walked the 10km pretty quickly, to get to the incredibly windy lake, where we ducked down behind some stones to eat lunch. We popped our heads out to take a few photos before heading back down but unfortunately Cerro Torre was in the clouds.

The next day the weather didn't look quite so good. My plan had been to climb Loma del Pliegue Tombado, which is supposed to give you a great over view of the mountains near Chalten. The clouds were quite high, but I wasn't quite feeling the drive to hike. I delayed with a hot chocolate telling myself I was seeing what the weather was doing, but not much changed so I set off thinking if it got worse I might turn back. Turns out I really enjoyed this hike (at least going up). It was 12km of all uphill, but nothing to steep so you got into a really good rhythm.

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At the almost top, you got a fantastic view of the Laguna Torre where we had been yesterday as well as the Fitzroy. There was an additional mound/peak to climb which would allow you to see in the other direction towards the Viedma Glacier but it was incredibly steep and stony, so I made the decision to not put my knees through the descent and sat and had my cheese and avocado on freshly baked rolls from the bakery whilst enjoying the view. So very tasty! It turns out Argentina has a large Italian influence which I was not aware of. I assumed the leading influence would be Spanish, but it's not the case. This means that almost all the food is Italian, bar the classic barbeque, which was not so much my thing. After pasta pasta pasta whilst camping I was not desperate for more, but it was mostly all that was on offer. There was a definite carb overload happening.

Once back down the hill and in the hostel I was hungry with aching knees. Luckily I had plans for food! Erin and Gerald who are the Canadians I met what felt like ages ago back in Punta Arenas and then on the W trek were also in Chalten and we successfully arranged to meet for dinner despite the terrible internet connections. The plan was the local microbrewery but unfortunately it was very busy. However, the pizza place we ended up in was delicious and also had some giant local beer and a very tasty lemon meringue pie!

The next day I had penciled in for a rest day as I had a whole week in Chalten. This was also to prepare for the next day's fun of ice climbing! After being thwarted in my kayaking at Grey Glacier, and the 'Big Ice Hike' in Calafate was fully booked I decided to go all out and spend a day on Viedma glacier and do some ice climbing. It turned out to be a good decision. An incredible and unique experience, you got crampons and went trekking over the ice to find some suitable walls. The guides took you through caves, up and down steep sections, along narrow ridges, occasionally hacking out steps for us with their pickaxes so we could get down harder parts that they just ran down.

The climbing itself was very cool, they drill in three anchors to set up top ropes and then you get your ice axes to start climbing. Very different to rock as there is no 'where do I put my feet'. I found the ice axes to be very steady, but the crampons were a lot harder and you had to concentrate on the correct technique that they taught us so your feet didn't slip from under you. Once we had done the 'easy climbs' we moved location, had lunch with a very cold bum, then got lowered down into a mini crevasse to climb back out. A final hike back included getting some fresh glacial ice, adding some Tia Maria and having a drink. A brilliant and tiring day.

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Looking stylish in my crampons and the crazy bubbly blue of the ice cave

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Guides setting up the anchors and my first ice climb

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Me loving the ice!

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The final walk of the main three in Chalten was the Laguna de los Tres, which took you up close to Fitzroy. We had been warned that there was a tough section and you didn't want it to be windy when you did it. When I woke up it was not windy (unusual) but it was cloudy. However my weather forecasting ability was telling me that the clouds were going to clear as it got later in the day. But again I set of with the possibility of turning back if it didn't. After an hour of walking I got to a lake and you can see how the weather was going. But the walking was very flat after the first kilometre so I kept going for a while longer and started to get tantalising glimpses of Fitzroy in the clouds.

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The walk continued to be pleasantly flat and I covered 9km (of the 10km total) in 2 hours. Then I got to the sign that warned of the steep slope ahead. This final kilometre took me almost 50 minutes. It was steep, stony, with huge steps. It was tough and I knew it would be tougher going the other way. Luckily I had been warned that what looked like it was going to be the top, wasn't. So as I reached a flat section and rounded a corner, it was actually a pleasant surprise to see only a small slope ahead. All the effort was totally worth it, the clouds had cleared and I got one of my first totally cloud free days in Patagonia which allow you to take photos that look like this....

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Of course then I had to get back down the slope...and that was the end of my knees for quite a while so I had another rest day (read - eat calafate ice cream) before heading back to El Calafate to fly up to Buenos Aires.

I'm never that fussed about cities - especially when travelling by yourself. I think a 'city break' generally involves finding nice places to eat and drink which is not as fun when you are by yourself. However, I had a nice morning wandering around the Plaza de Mayo although there were still barriers and a police presence from the protests last week over the death of Alberto Nisman. Eva, my roommate from Chalten had suggested some places for me to go and we had also arranged to meet for a beer that evening. So I headed to the Recoleta cemetery where many famous Argentinians including Eva Peron are buried. It is a popular spot because the tombs and mausoleums are so ornate, it's fascinating to just wander around. I did follow the crowds to Eva Peron but it was a classic 5 second stop seen though your camera, so I wandered elsewhere and found this:

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After beers with Eva, the next day I also got to meet up again with Emily (of W trek fame) for lunch. It's always so nice seeing people again from earlier in your travels. After stuffing ourself with some delicious food I was heading for the airport and for LA.

I felt like this was sort of the end of my 'travels'. A few days in LA and Vancouver followed by 4 weeks of snowboarding almost feels like a holiday end to my trip. I think this partly comes from being excited about the ease of which I will be able to navigate around these cities as I won't need my Spanish anymore and partly from the fact I know people in these places and will be not moving on every few days once I get to Fernie. But as I thought about it, I realised I was just pleased to be finishing this part of my trip. I'm so glad I came to Patagonia. It is beautiful, the hikes I've done have been incredible, I've started to learn a new language and like everywhere I've gone, I've made new friends from around the world. I would love to come back. But in someways it has been the least enjoyable part of my trip. I've found the hostels to be less homely than those in NZ, which has generally meant spending more money by being somewhere else. I think most people plan their trip to Patagonia very carefully, and therefore have a strict itinerary. This means there is a lot less 'randomly meeting people and going with the flow' kind of travel than elsewhere. I've spoken to a few others about this and mostly we agree that it's harder to make new friends to have fun with. Also, I think it has been the timing. The moving on frequently and the long distances to travel between places mean that after 6 months on the road, the packing up every few days and the not knowing anyone without first having a conversation that starts with 'where are you from?' has become a bit of a chore. That's why I am so excited to meet up with some wonderful ex students of mine in North America, see Mum in Fernie, and ultimately, get back to the UK. It has been a great trip so far, and I'm sure the last 5 weeks will be the same, but this Wandering Daughter is ready to come home.

Posted by SpannaB 17:17 Archived in Argentina Tagged glaciers el_calafate el_chalten Comments (2)

Blowin' in the wind

A 6 day hike in Torres del Paine National Park

all seasons in one day

So I was heading for Puerto Natales on the bus, so far a little disappointed with the bleak landscape of Patagonia that I had seen so far. But then things started to look up as I saw 'mountains Gandalf!' As I keep seeming to be reminded every few days down here, I should have probably done more research about Patagonia, what to do and the cost of everything before I came, but in this particular instance it was not helpful. Having stumbled across the W trek on a blog long ago in my trip planning, I had endlessly searched out as much information as I could. However, as vast as the internet is, it was failing to give me much in return. Information is sporadic, conflicting, and mostly reduced to blog posts rather than official sites. Mostly what I found out seemed discouraging. February is the most popular time as it is Chilean holidays, the refugios where you can stay on the trek are often booked out weeks or months in advance, companies offering the trek as part of a package were incredibly expensive. As I was starting to have doubts about whether I would be able to do the trek, I finally found a fabulous blog post that explained all you needed to know, including that if you were camping you did not need to book in advance.

I had been trying to decide whether to camp and carry all I required on my back, or head to the refugios to sleep each night. It seems a lack of planning and the cost had made my decision for me. I arrived in Puerto Natales, having shared my one piece of useful knowledge with the Canadian couple from Punta Arenas and another Swiss couple, that there was a 3 o'clock talk at the Erratic Rock hostel/pub about everything you needed to know to do the trek. It was impressively long (1 1/2 hrs) and impressively free. It really did explain everything as there are some very confusing things. The bus in, the separate shuttle bus to the start/or the catamaran across the lake depending on which way you are going, the bizarrely privately owned refugios in a National Park compared to the free campsites. The idea is that they give you enough information to sort everything out that evening and head of the next day, but I wanted to be sure about everything and I was in no rush so I headed out for dinner instead (pancakes anyone) and my first taste of Patagonian beer. Pretty good!

The next day was spent booking buses, hiring equipment, and buying the all essential high energy but low weight food. The talk had given some great suggestions on what to take including spreading tortilla wraps with peanut butter and having them for lunch - this turned out to be genius and tasty! So I found myself in the hostel kitchen at about 8pm making peanut wraps with about 3 other people, because good ideas spread. Below you can see my equipment to carry and my 6 days of food.

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My only regret was that I hadn't met anyone else doing the hike by themselves, and whilst I was sure to meet people along the way, I was a bit concerned that 5 days hiking by myself might be a bit ... long. Despite planning on going to bed early, I walked through the common area to see a repeat of Wales v England on the TV, so of course I jumped on a bar stool and shared a beer or two with an Aussie, a Scouser and two American med students who seemed confused. In the morning I had agreed to meet the med students to walk to the bus after breakfast (scrambled eggs and delicious homemade jam). Whilst waiting I had a quick chat with a girl who was doing the same as me only opposite. The W trek is usually done in 5 days/4 nights but I was adding an extra day as I had found you could go kayaking through icebergs and up to a glacier at one end of the trek. She was doing the same but starting with the kayaking whereas I was finishing. We both lamented the fact we hadn't met 24 hrs earlier so we could have hired one less tent and one less stove, but that was it and we parted without exchanging names.

Day 1: Puerto Natales to Las Torres campsite

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I started the day with the awesome hostel breakfast then almost missing the bus as I waited for the American med students to get ready. On the way to the park I saw rheas (ostrich like birds) and guanacos (llama like creatures). Once we were paid up and in the park the bused all head off to the different starting points.

I headed off with a Swiss couple I first met in Punta Arenas but soon left them to walk at my own pace. It was pretty hard work uphill, and according to the sign, was uphill all the way to the campsite. Just as this was sounding pretty unappealing I came to the crest of a hill and saw the path winding down into a valley and what appeared to the refugio Chileano which was on the way. According to the times, this appeared far to soon and with so much experience of thinking you've got further than you had I refused to believe it was until I walked in and read the sign. Turns out that we discovered over the trek that the altitude diagrams provided were not only inaccurate but often just the opposite of what actually happened! However, the timings did often seem longer we took, which is always the pleasant way round.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed the 'we'. Once I had reached the Las Torres campsite, put up my tent and got my first taste of the refreshingly pure glacial water from the stream I was headed back to my tent and saw a familiar face. It was the girl I had met that morning only she had obviously started the other way. It turned out she had been incredibly unlucky and had her wallet lost or stolen, sometime between getting on the bus and getting to the park entrance. Fortunately the rangers were incredibly helpful, letting her into the park for free and sorting out a reservation at this campsite and she had been lent some money by a friend of a friend. After finally introducing ourselves. I helped Emily set up her tent and we became the dream team of hiking for several days.

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My first camp at Las Torres and drinking delicious water!

Once we were all set up we set off up the final path to the Torres del Paine. These are the famous towers after which the park is named, and are three spiky peaks rising up from a lake. The jagged nature to the top of the peaks has been something that has become more familiar with my time in Patagonia, but the first viewing of these sorts of peaks was pretty incredible. Despite the fact the many photos we took don’t do the scenery justice at all, I will be leaving any attempts to describe it to the pictures.

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Once we had been up there an hour or so, had chocolate, got cold, got my foot wet trying to get out onto the lake for a jump shot and taken many photos for other people, we headed back down to camp thinking of dinner. There was a shelter for cooking, but as everyone was cooking more or less at the same time we found ourselves some rocks outside and got creating. One of the food suggestions from the talk had been rather than taking sauce, which is heavy, even when in packets, was to take powdered soup to add as a sauce to pasta. This was generally taken up by most people as you can really save weight here. So on my first evening I had cheese ravioli with tomato soup/sauce which whilst not being gourmet cooking, was warm and filling.

The plan was to get up at 4.30am to head back up to the Torres del Paine to watch the sunrise and so feeling quite tired I was planning on heading to bed. However, we got pulled into a card game of moderate violence with some Israeli campers which kept us occupied for sometime.

Day 2: Las Torres campsite to Refugio Cuernos
Invariably you wake up during the night when camping and each time I did there was rain pattering on the tent. It always (I think) sounds worse than it is, so each time I was hoping it wasn’t too bad. When my alarm went off at 4.30 it was still raining and so I started the should or shouldn’t I get up. After about ten minutes I stuck my head out and it didn’t seem to be too bad but I thought I’d give it a bit longer. You could hear people trying to make the same decisions in other tents and the general consensus appeared to be no. In the end it seemed too cold and wet and I went back to sleep feeling a bit guilty in case Emily had gone by herself. At around 7.30 Emily came to see if I was in my tent, also concerned I might have gone without her! Luckily it seems we made the right decision as some of the campers who had gone up said they spent about 5 minutes up there before coming down. This was the first time of many, where the weather didn’t quite go our way.

Unfortunately it was still raining, so we had to the pack up in the wet. It sort of looked (very hopefully) like the weather at the other end of the valley was brighter so it seemed best to get started. As we passed the camp further down the track we saw lots of people who seemed undecided as to whether to head up to the Torres. Lucky for us we had gone the day before.

We made our way down the valley and off onto the shortcut that took us towards Las Cuernos. All this while the weather was being endlessly hopeful with brighter skies and sun further away, but never quite improving enough to stop raining. As we headed out of the first valley and along Lake Nordenskjold we got our first glimpses of some more amazingly jagged snow covered peaks. With the clouds misting around them they looked stunning, but no photo captured what we could see.

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Smiling in the rain

As we walked we found that firstly people seemed to be leaving hats all over the trail (or two) and secondly, the signposts that contained altitude diagrams of the trail to come seemed to be wholly inaccurate. Sometimes this was great, as the uphill you were expecting never came! Given our relatively early start we got to our campsite at the Cuernos Refugio around 2.30, and rudely it started raining again. Luckily, this is one of the privately owned sites and is therefore not free, but had slightly more facilities than Las Torres. This meant we could sit inside a proper room with a wood stove in the corner keeping us toasty warm. However, despite the facilities, the actual camping spaces were a bit thin on the ground (at least flat and sheltered ones). I had made a quick scope of the sites available and despite being some of the first there, we still didn’t seem to have much option. I quickly headed back to get Emily and our stuff so we could get our tents up before anymore were taken.

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Drying my tent and feeling clean after a hot shower.

By now the weather was being kind and a good wind was blowing which dried our tents very quickly. We also had the luxury of taking a hot shower which all seemed incredibly decadent whilst camping. Whilst exploring the campsite we found a great waterfall, and a beautiful hot-tub which unfortunately was not included in the price of camping..

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Dinner was busy in the shelter whilst people waited for spots at a table to open up. We were in there early so grabbed a spot to cook this deliciousness!

I also met up again with my Canadian friends from Punta Arenas who were going in the opposite direction from us, so we swapped stories of what was to come. It was a beautiful end to a generally wet day and we enjoyed it down on the shores of the lake wrapped in all out clothes and Emily’s sleeping bag to keep warm.

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Day 3: Cuernos to Camp Italiano

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We had a relaxed morning as it was only a short distance to Camp Italiano where we could put up our tents and leave our packs before heading up Valle Frances. It was a nice straightforward walk to the camp, and there was even sun for us. Italiano was the other free campsite, next to a fast flowing river and after setting up our tents in a sheltered spot, we left our packs and our walking poles behind to head up to the mirador for Glacier del Frances that we had been beginning to see all morning. The trail was steep and rocky and initially quite hard work. However we came to the first mirador sooner than we thought for some stunning views of the glacier and back towards the lake. Here we stopped for lunch, which was delicious. The peanut butter wraps seemed to be getting better and better! It was incredibly windy up there, so after a short break we set off to head further up to the next mirador. The trail was long, windy and rocky, but without our full backpacks felt straightforward and we headed up at a good pace. Finally we got to what was currently the top, as the last section of trail was closed. Here you got a combined view of all that is on offer in the park. We could see glacial ice coming down between peaks, snow capped mountains and jaggedy peaks in the style of the Torres.

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Eventually we decided to head down which is when we realised we maybe should have brought our walking poles, as of course downhill is far worse on the knees than uphill. As we were coming down through the woods we heard a huge noise, like a rumble of thunder right overhead. I peered out to the glacier to see if I could see anything falling and then I saw this huge white avalanche of snow and ice and water heading down the mountain. A massive part of the glacier must have given way and the noise and sights were amazing. Even once the main cloud had dispersed, a torrent of water was pouring down from high up the side of the glacier where the ice must have fallen from. A few minutes later we reached the first mirador and met a park ranger who informed us that was a big one and we had been really lucky to see it!

Back down at camp we were nailing the cooking, getting just the right amount of water for a perfect sauce, as well as meeting up with the American med students from the hostel and chatting to a Brit who had been living in Antarctica for the last 15 months. You always meet some interesting people in places like this!

Day 4: Italiano to Refugio Grey

Windy would be how I would describe this day of hiking. We knew it was going to be quite a long day and we wanted an early-ish start so we could get to the campsite before the majority in order to get a decent camp spot. The first part of the hike was relatively flat but the wind was getting steadily stronger. As Emily was filming this wind, I may have been blown over - and not on purpose! Despite this we reached Refugio Paine Grande in good time and quickly found some shelter. We were grateful to not be camping there, since it was basically an open field where the tents were getting the full brunt of the wind.

The difficulty came as we headed off towards Grey. We were now heading up the valley that the wind was coming straight down. And going uphill. It was hard work. Luckily we had been warned about the misleading (again!) signs that seemed to imply we would be at the highest point much quicker than we were. The highest point was also the mirador and first place to properly see Glacier Grey. Until then I had got very excited about seeing some icebergs in the water that were that incredible blue that seems to exist in glacier ice. When we reached the top we stopped for lunch, sheltering behind a bush and our packs before crawling to the lookout for the view and some photos. Sitting down seemed to be the safest option as the wind was pretty ridiculous!

We had heard that the last section to Grey was tough going, so we assumed it was uphill. However, it turned out to be downhill, but very steep and some scrambly sections which are tough when you’ve got a massive bag on your back. But we made it, all the time seeing the glacier get closer and closer and seem bigger and bigger. It was so hard to get a sense of scale, I couldn’t tell if the face of the glacier was 2 metres or 20 metres high.

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The wind had made me think about the kayaking which I had planned to do the next day and I was concerned that they wouldn’t be running it in this wind. I was right. We headed down to the BigFoot base camp on the shore of Lake Grey and had a chat with one of the instructors. He said he doubted they would kayak the next day either, but they might go with Plan B and take us out in a boat and show us the glacier. I kept my fingers crossed for a good weather turnaround.

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Refugio Grey was definitely the nicest of the private sites we decided. In their dining room area for the guests that were paying for their meals was a proper bar section. So after deciding against queueing for the showers (what was one more day?) we headed to the bar and I tried my first Pisco Sour. This is a classic cocktail of Chile, made with pisco, lemon juice and egg white. Pretty delicious and a good celebration of effectively finishing the W trek!

Day 5: Staying at Refugio Grey

The night did not raise my hopes for kayaking. The tent was battered to and fro by the wind, and if anything, it had got stronger. We headed down to the kayaking base at 10am instructed to be informed that Plan B had turned into Plan C, which was come inside and drink mate (the South American hot drink). This we did for a while, whilst some of the instructors did some training on ice axes hanging from the ceiling.

Eventually we headed back into the wind and set off further up the track to get to a lookout that was over the glacier. This is the part of the track you continue on if you do the ‘O’ which is the whole circuit, rather than just the ‘W’ and would take about 8 or 9 days. We were just enjoying that we didn’t need to pack up our tents or carry a heavy bag today. Although before we left we did pick up our tents in their entirety and move them to a better, more sheltered spot as people packed up and left!

The views were again, spectacular. We crossed steep suspension bridges, went down sketchy ladders pinned into the rock and eventually found a lookout over the glacier where you could see the folds, crevasses, and lumps and bumps on the surface. Even now, the scale was difficult. We had been shown a map in the morning of how the glacier was receding about 100m a year, and so the island in the photos is around 3km long even if it doesn’t look it. The glacier is one of many that come of the South Patagonian Ice Field, which I believe is the largest collection of fresh water in the world after the two poles.

Saying goodbye to the glacier, we headed back down to camp for our final pasta/soup meal and a much quieter nights sleep in our new position.

Day 6: Grey to Puerto Natales

Finally the weather was on our side and the sun was shining for our final day in the park. We walked back along Lake Grey to the mirador, and this time we were able to stand and take photos at the edge! In plenty of time for the catamaran that takes you back to the bus, we reached Paine Grande and enjoyed a celebratory Twix and whisky that Emily had managed to carry the whole way! The boat ride showed us the amazing colours that appear in the lake when the sun is shining and then we collapsed onto the bus to be taken back to Puerto Natales where we had plans to eat fresh veggies!

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Finished! Celebrating in style!

We met up in Erratic Rock where we had to take back our hired equipment to share a first beer. Then we headed to a veggie restaurant I had found, for a delicious spread of veggies and hummus, sharing falafel and lasagne, before finding room for a slice of lemon cheesecake.It tasted so good - just what we needed.

I had already booked a bus to cross the border into Argentina the next day and Emily had to sort her wallet situation out and so was unsure what her plans were. We said goodbye after dinner, hopeful that we would meet up in a few days in El Chalten, which unfortunately wasn’t to be. What was a wonderfully random 5 minute chat on the first morning, led to a great 6 days of speedy hiking, great photos, lots of chocolate and lots of fun, as well as a new friend to visit in San Francisco.

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Posted by SpannaB 10:52 Archived in Chile Tagged torres_del_paine puerto_natales w_trek Comments (3)

Pretty fly for a white guy

Hola de Chilean Patagonia!

I have finally left New Zealand (sob sob) and have embarked on the more or less penultimate journey of my travels. New Zealand was amazing but obviously it shares a common language and culture with the UK. South Africa was culturally very interesting, and while my Siswati is very poor, it is still an English speaking country. Asia, where I have spent the most time in the last few years, has it's share of difficult languages both to speak and to read, but the language of tourism is again English. Chile and Argentina are the first places I've been in a long time where English might not be enough.

Originally there was a possible plan I might be meeting up with an ex colleague from UWC to travel with. This would have been ideal as he has been learning Spanish in South America. However, this wasn't to be which is why with a few weeks left in NZ I started to try and learn some Spanish.

I touched down in Santiago with some great phrases. Classics like 'los gatos bebe leche' and an inability to count to six in Spanish without repeating five twice. The former came from Duolingo, a great little free app if you are looking to pick up or improve a foreign language, the latter is where the name of the blog comes from and a problem that all 90's teenagers will also have! Luckily the girls at the reception spoke English but I quickly downloaded some podcasts to supplement my Duolingo progress.

After combatting the jet lag with an afternoon sleep, the next day I set of to try and find a Wally. In Santiago and Valparaiso (where I headed next), there is walking tours for tips, headed by tour guides in a stripy Where's Wally t-shirt. This was a great way to see the city. I was on the 'Alternative tour' so we saw the markets and the cemetery, and learnt about the history of the city and it's two sides of the river, as well as trying a terramoto, a cocktail named 'earthquake'. As is often the case on things like this, you get chatting to those on the tour. By the end, myself and two other girls decided to head out to lunch together before I headed back to the hostel to book some flights to Patagonia!

As I mentioned above, my Spanish was pretty poor and I really felt like it should be better if I was to head out through the Spanish speaking world for a month. When out wandering near my hostel I spotted a sign for a language school and with a bit of investigating I found that several language schools seemed to offer classes for 1 week. I thought this might be a good use of my time before heading south, and would hopefully improve my confidence about travelling alone as well. Unfortunately it was Sunday so nothing was open, so I made a plan to visit a couple of schools in the morning and see what I could sort out. The school round the corner were really welcoming and said they had a beginner class that lasted 4 weeks, but it had already started. However they invited me to try it for the morning for free and see what I thought. As I was heading up to class with the teacher, she informed me that no English was spoken in the classroom, only Spanish. Gulp.

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I think it was a very good experience for me to sit there as a teacher only understanding about 5% of what was going on. I imagine that is what many students feel like in maths classrooms, and it's not much fun. Turns out they hadn't told me this class was on week 4 of 4! There language skills were just a mile ahead of mine. At the break, the teacher agreed it was probably a bit much to join this week, but she invited me to stay for the whole day if I wanted, and without paying. I stayed until lunch, actually picking up a few things that made sense, but with so much vocab I didn't know, I thanked her and headed off at lunchtime to make a different plan that involved going to Valparaiso the next day. I headed out to try my first taste of Chilean wine and have dinner with Louisa, an Irish girl from the walking tour yesterday - just look at this wine list!

24hrs later I was in Valparaiso feeling pretty happy that I had managed to successfully take the metro (uno boleta, por favor) and buy bus tickets to Valparaiso and Puerto Varas. I had taken a crazy local bus to where the hostel was, only to struggle to find it as the sign was teenytiny. I wasn't sure if the people who worked round there also didn't know where it was, or they just didn't understand my Spanish (Donde esta hostal Luna Sonrisa?) I had convinced Molly, a Canadian girl in my dorm to come on the tours for tips and we were currently sitting on a balcony overlooking the city with a German girl and a French girl, having dinner and trying local cervezas.

Valparaiso was a recommendation of Ingela from Wanaka and I think it is best described in photos. You have the street art, the funicular railways all round the city, a boat ride in the bay and some classic Chilean food, alfahoras and empanadas, mmmm!

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From here I took the night bus (14hrs or so) down to Puerto Varas in the Lake District, which is almost, but not quite, in Patagonia. Having slept incredibly well I woke up to scenery not looking to dissimilar from home. Long thin Chile has pretty much every climate going and here you have a pretty temperate place which could possibly be the UK, if not for the volcanos. On a recommendation from the last hostel (which was brilliant) I arrived at Casa Azul to find that no-one around spoke English. This is when I wanted better Spanish, I was starting to be able to read things (so many nouns just have an 'o' added on the end which helps!), but my ability to understand anyone talking to me is pretty much non existent. I have found travelling by myself that you can go from feeling unsure about what to do and a bit lonely, to being busy having loads of fun very quickly. I guess the first couple of days here I was feeling a bit of the first despite heading white water rafting on Rio Petrohue and getting to jump out the boat and float down some rapids. However the next day I had booked to go canyoning on the recommendation of Molly from Valparaiso. From the start the trip was incredible. For one it is about a third of the price of canyoning in NZ, we had a fun group and Phillipe (an aquatic monkey in his own words) and his German work experience girl led us on an amazing ride of jumping, sliding, falling and abseiling down a beautiful clear river. Strangely we were also being filmed by a French TV company for a documentary). There will be video of evidence of this when I can find a decent computer with a CD drive! After sharing a couple of beers with the Americans on the trip I headed back to the hostel to be persuaded to head out for my beer (a tricky job!) by my new roommates, a Brit and a Mexican who had returned from a couple of months working on an estancia with gauchos.

Everything is pretty expensive this far south in Chile and so whilst trying to save money and take two local buses to get myself to Puerto Montt airport to head into Patagonia proper, I had some timing issues and ended up having to get a taxi. Luckily I had already thrown my budget out the window with a 'when will I ever be here again' thought process but it still is painful to spend money that could have been used trying more of the local cerveza. There is actually a lot of local brewing in Chile, especially in the region I was leaving as it has a heavy German influence. Thankfully, the journey at the other end was a lot more smooth as I headed into Punta Arenas, although I was starting to find that it pays to book ahead in Patagonia. After 4 months of just turning up and deciding what to do day by day, it does not come naturally to book ahead but that is what it pays to do, especially in the crowded summer months. Several travellers I met expressed surprise and were impressed that I was not stressed about just turning up in new places with nowhere to stay. It worked out great in Punta Arenas where a recommendation was full, but the hostel next door was super friendly and incredibly helpful. It also helped that down here in the touristy areas there was definitely more English spoken although I by now I had increased my stock Spanish phrases to include asking for a room for a night.

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As is the usual way when you are on the tourist trail you start the same people. A couple who had been on my flight, then the bus to Punta Arenas also were in the same hostel. I started chatting to them down by the beach where we watched some of the stray dogs (there are many in every town) try and attack the cormorants. In the end we headed to the see the Magellan penguins on the same trip the next day and I got some great recommendations for veggie food in Vancouver! Really Punta Arenas is just a gateway to the rest of Chilean Patagonia, and as my time did not really allow for a trip to Tierro del Fuego, the island of the bottom of the continent, I was heading to Puerto Natales the base for the famous W trek in the Torres del Paine National Park. So after a day with the penguins and a so far fairly uninspiring landscape compared to what I had expected, I got the bus to Puerto Natales. This little adventure requires a whole blog post for itself. Coming soon....

Posted by SpannaB 13:43 Archived in Chile Tagged santiago puerto_varas valpariso Comments (1)

Everything is awesome!

When you're part of a team

sunny

It’s New Year’s Eve. I’ve just arrived at a holiday park in the middle of nowhere to meet up with Maddy and Kat, friends from exciting days out such as ‘getting lost on the way to some caves’, ‘cycling and drinking lots of wine’ and of course 'epic adventure on Mt Fyffe'. Then it rains.

Still, everything is awesome, and as some of you may be puzzling over the song title for this one I’ll let you listen to this one to find out more (although I recommend watching the movie as well!)

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The rest of the evening was spent helping out with the quiz. Turns out I quite like standing in front of a large group of people and getting them to listen to me... Come midnight it was raining still but we still managed to have some Auld Lang Syne and fireworks. However someone then put Maddy in charge of the playlist and who knew that Let’s Get Ready to Rumble would clear a tent so fast? Turns out that’s only song for people born in the 80’s, and from Britain, and that wasn’t really the demographic of the tent. WIth sparklers and gin we somehow stayed up til 4 which meant it was 2015 in Australia by this time as well.

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The next couple of days were very relaxing just helping out with some of the cleaning around the camp and planning out where we were heading on our road trip. The main question is would everything fit in the car? Last time there wasn’t much room and now there was four of us as Julie had joined us for #epicadventure2.

With some vague plans for walking around and camping, we headed off and started by eating lots of food (cheese, chips and ice cream) in Oamaru. We were headed to Queenstown for a couple of nights with the plan of not spending too much money (for those that have been to Queenstown, you’ll know that is quite difficult!) However with exception of a few beers to drink by Lake Wakatipu, and some Queenstown classics of a Fergburger and an ice cream from Patagonia we did pretty well. We warmed up for our trip further south by heading to Glenorchy for some walking. It’s a beautiful drive along the lake to get there, and several places in the area were locations for LOTR filming (an excitement to the four geeks in the car).

On leaving Queenstown we headed to Te Anau. With an obligatory stop for lunch at the pie shop, mmmm pie, we got some information on camping and tramping at the DOC office and then headed to the closest campsite for the night. It was a beautiful position, right on the shores of Lake Te Anau, which is where we sat to cook dinner, drink wine and the classic....play chocolate Guess Who? whilst watching the sun go down over the mountains.

The next day we set out on a two day hike next to Lake Manapouri which involved getting a boat across to the start of the walk. Most of the walking was fairly straightforward although there was some good mud to dodge through careful balancing on trees, something we all failed to do at some point. In the evening we stayed in a 4 person hut where we had the longest game of ‘what person is stuck on my forehead’ that I have ever been part of. Who’d have thought that Leonardo DiCaprio, Thorin Oakenshield, Sylvester Stallone and Smurfs would be so hard to guess! (Yes, Smurfs - blame Kat for that one!)

The next few days involved more walking, mountains, swimming in lakes, singing ‘Everything is awesome’, LOTR quotes and sleeping in cars and slightly too small tents in amazing campsites. On our final day we drove to the Milford Sound to go for a cruise where we were lucky enough to see a large group of dolphins playing around the boat. Slightly in need of a shower, we stayed at a holiday park that night and had our final bottles of wine together as well as swapping photos. Or in my case stealing photos as with these keen photographers around I didn’t need to take any. (So all photos here belong to Kat or Maddy.) This explains why I am in them all - posing as usual!

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An epic coach ride later I was back in Christchurch for the 4th time! I have to get back to Auckland for my flight and it was cheaper to bus/ferry/bus than flying. However, being in the area meant that I could 1) go to Dimitri’s souvlaki food truck again and 2) go and stay with the Parkers - my wwoofing hosts from November. It was great to catch up with them and see them before I leave.

Since then I have been in Picton, which is right on the top of the south island, and is where the ferry leaves from. But it is also a nice little town and a base for walking the Queen Charlotte track which I did two days out of the three. You get the boat out to the Ship cove in the Queen Charlotte Sound, which is where Captain Cook anchored several times. Then you walk back towards Picton. Two days of relatively easy walking, but long distances - over 25km each day.

Since I’ve been in New Zealand I have found hiking quite meditative. Your feet are occupied so your brain thinks about all sorts of things. In the last two weeks I have noticed I have a lot less to contemplate, as earlier in the trip I kept going through questions like ‘what country do I want to live’, ‘shall I try and get a job in NZ’ etc. This time I’ve been mostly thinking about how I’m looking forward to living in the UK again. (Or at least living close to friends and family - maybe not so much the UK.) So the hiking has been a bit more restful!

Today I get the ferry back across to the North Island, and my time in NZ is almost done. I am heading back to Raglan Backpackers, where I was at the beginning of my trip, as it is such a great place. Then a week from now I will be in Santiago getting ready for a month in and around Patagonia. New Zealand has definitely been awesome, I have met lots of fun people who hopefully I will get to see again as lots of them are based in Europe. It’s strange to think in two and a half months I will be living and working in the UK....

Posted by SpannaB 13:43 Archived in New Zealand Tagged milford_sound picton te_anau Comments (4)

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