Across Chile's Torres del Paine

BY DAVID S POTTS
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2010
Torres del Paine national park
Reuters

BEAUTIUL DESOLATION: The stunningly beautiful Torres del Paine National Park is one of Chile's most-visited parks.

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The chiselled, ash-grey stone towers rise like a three-fingered salute above the Patagonian landscape.

They are the most recognisable features of the stunningly beautiful Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nay) National Park, one of Chile's most-visited parks.

(Patagonia means 'the land of the people with big feet' in the language of the local indigenous people.)

To get to the park we've driven 450kms from Punta Arenas, the nearest international airport, via Porta Natales. We've crossed the immense flat, windswept and treeless Patagonian steppes where sheep and cattle prosper.

Except for the final few kilometres on a fatally potholed gravel road, the highway is sealed and easy driving.

Rising to 2,850 metres, the Torres del Paine mountains are visible from most parts of the 181,414 hectare park which in 1978 was named a UNESCO treasure, given its high botanical and zoological value, extraordinary landscape and challenging climbs.

The Paine massif is a small mountain system independent of the lengthy and magnificent Andes range, some of which we also see from the park. The nearby icefields are the world's third largest.

It's mid-summer but the mountains are covered in permanent snow and ice. Tongues of glaciers also peep out of the mountains.

From our vantage point in the Cascada Ecocamp, on the slopes below, where we are staying, we watch the sun and clouds constantly changing the face of the sheer rock faces. It's an awesome sight.

Our home for four nights is this environmentally aware camp. Accommodation is an insulated, green plastic dome, which looks like some weird spacecraft, sleeping two.

Remarkably comfortable, its interior is rough-hewn timber. It has an ensuite bathroom, with solar-heated water, and potbelly stove. Even the composting toilet system is eco-friendly.

Clear plastic 'windows' give us a grand view of the mountains. With cold winds a summer feature of this region we are very snug inside our dome under warm, fleecy sheets and with our stove fired up.

The Ecocamp was built a decade ago and until recently catered for only serious hikers who would tackle the famous Big Circuit, a seven-day hike, and the 'W', a five-day hike, around the mountains.

Using our camp as base, mobile tented accommodation and meals, complete with happy hour drinks, are provided for these hikers. Porters and horses are used to carry supplies ahead on the trails.

In the past year, however, the camp has built 10 superior suites to attract also the part-time walkers, the softies like us, who do day trips from the camp and want more comfortable sleeping quarters.

The park is criss-crossed with a network of 200kms of hiking trails, including some which offer good walking and great views. Our guides are Nicolas and Javier, both very fit young men who know these mountains, their flora and fauna well.

Over dinner on our first evening, after we'd spent much of the day being driven from Punta Arenas, they brief us on what drives and walks we could do the next day.

We have a choice between a 'soft' walk and a 'hard' walk. We middle-aged, part-time walkers chose, of course, the 'soft' option. As it turned out, the 'soft' is a matter of judgment - the last part of our day, after a drive around beautiful lakes and pampas, involved a two-hour walk to see indigenous paintings (reminding us of Australian indigenous paintings) in a cave. We certainly worked up a sweat in our warm, thermal clothing.

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One of the most popular day trips involves little or no walking. It is to take a boat on Lake Grey and do a circuit in front of the impressive Grey Glacier.

The more skilled and adventurous can hike on the glacier itself. The lower region of the park comprises rolling hills and a network of lakes of colours that range from pale green to deep blue. Here and there are thundering waterfalls.

Timid pink flamingos line the shore of Lake Azul but take off when they see us. A silver fox slinks across the pampas in front of us. And everywhere are the guanaco, a lama-like animal that has bred abundantly in the park.

The guanaco are so used to the road traffic and the visitors in the park that they barely bother to get out of our way. Guanaco are also the main diet for the pumas, members of the big cat family.

There are 28 in the park. We almost saw three - staff at our Ecocamp sighted them at dusk from their kitchen but, of course, by the time we arrived the timid pumas had gone.

Birds include the ostrich-like rhea and the condor. With a wingspan of up to four metres, the Andean condor is the largest bird of prey. They scavenge, often cleaning up after a puma kill. Water birds are plentiful in the park. Among them black-necked swans and wild geese.

The next day we again have a choice of 'soft' or 'hard'. It is along part of the famed 'W' track which winds in and out of the glacier-carved valleys of the mountain range.

I, of course, choose the soft option which is to go partway along the trail, the flattest and easiest part, a mere 7.6km to what's called the Italian Camp.

The longer hike reaches 5.5kms further into the French Valley as far as the British Camp. It takes the hiker past the mouth of the French Glacier.

To get to the start of the trail we must first take a half-hour catamaran trip across Lake Pehoe. We join a boat crowded with hikers, their level of competence, perhaps, marked out by the dress they wear and the gear they carry.

The amateurs, like me, are in baseball caps and jogging shoes: the serious hikers are in woollen hats and scarfs, waterproof leggings and hiking boots.

Mugs of hot chocolate warm us and help bolster our courage. The first part of the walk is on the flat pampas but this soon gives way to the pre-Andean shrub land with its distinctive native lenga tree forests with dark trunks and twisted branches covered in beard-like moss and lichens.

The landscape is strewn with small, round rocks that have been worn smooth by glacial action. In November and December this region is alive with the colour of wildflowers, including white and yellow flowers which remain in late summer to colour the hillside.

We also find several different varieties of tiny and exquisite orchids. Up here there are no animals, other than the odd condor floating overhead. The puma has, therefore, nothing to hunt.

Summer days are long in this latitude. Back at the Ecocamp we relax over pre-dinner drinks of pisco sours, the Chilean national drink (grape spirit with lemon juice).

We enjoy the company of other walkers from all corners of the earth. The common bond is a love of the outdoors.

IF YOU GO

LAN Chile has flights from Auckland to Santiago in Chile, with frequent connections to Punta Arenas.

Torres del Paine National Park is a six-hour drive from Punta Arenas. So you need to allow a day to get to the park and a return trip to Punta Arenas.

A three-night package staying at Cascada Eco Camp in Suite Domes starts from $1568 per person twin share and four night packages from $1898 per person twin share.

For more information, check with Natural Focus Safaris.

For the serious hiker, you'll need the right equipment, including hiking boots (waterproof and broken-in), waterproof jacket and pants, thermal underwear, thermal gloves and socks, warm hat and scarf.

* The writer was a guest of Natural Focus Safaris and Cascada Ecocamp.

- AAP

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