dimanche, août 18, 2002

Across Patagonia

High Plains Drifer

Chilean Patagonia is a place of extreme beauty. Where the hot deserts meet glaciers. Janet Street-Porter's formidable hike was eased by two luxury hotels built for climbers who like their comforts

18 August 2002

On 11 December 1878, Lady Florence Dixey sailed from Liverpool to Rio, starting a journey that would change her life. Accompanied by her husband Lord Queensberry, Lord James Douglas and her two brothers, she was to spend six months travelling on horseback over inhospitable and unexplored South America. Across Patagonia was published in 1881, a fascinating account of her trials and tribulations. Opting to take "only one servant", and in spite of atrocious weather and difficult terrain, she proved herself a fearless traveller, captivated by the size and emptiness of the landscape. "Nowhere else are you so completely alone," she wrote in her journal, and then went on with detailed descriptions of meals shot and eaten en route. Guanaco, a species of llama, was a particular favourite, along with rhea, a Patagonian version of ostrich. The fabulous scenery takes second place to endless descriptions of daily hunting sorties: in some respects she transposed life in the Scottish Highlands to deepest South America.

A 21st-century trip to the most remote parts of Chile won't include guanaco soup – it's now a protected species – but you will see some of the most unspoilt and spectacular landscapes imaginable. In two weeks I travelled from one end of this long, narrow country to the other, but both my destinations made the tortuous journeys worthwhile. I climbed an extinct volcano to 18,500 feet on the edge of the Atacama desert on the northern borders of Chile and Bolivia, after thrilling hikes in the south, following Lady Dixey's horseback route in the remote Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.

Chile stretches 2,666 miles from north to south, a long arm down the western coast of South America, nowhere more than 125 miles wide. It's a country of geographical extremes, from high desert to coastal fjords and towering mountains. Chileans often boast they can surf and ski on the same day. The capital, Santiago, is the best base for a visit, and it's well worth a stopover – full of terrific Spanish architecture and extremely hospitable people. Now that political stability has been restored, Chile feels confident and thriving, with a conservative middle class which is well educated and travelled. Nitrate and copper mining, farming and wine production are crucial to the economy, with tourism just starting to take off. One of the first people to see the potential was Pedro Ibanez, a 58-year-old multimillionaire, who has farming and wine interests among his business. Mr Ibanez is obsessed with travel, keen on exploring remote places. He gained permission in 1989 to build an eco-friendly lodge in the most sensational part of the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, facing the Cuernos, or Horns, 2,600m-high towers of windswept granite. His concept was to create a place that offered decent food, wine and comfortable rooms at the end of a day's trekking, opening up these remote areas to people not prepared to sleep in huts or dormitories with shared bathrooms and cooking. It's hiking for those of us too middle class or too old to backpack. And why not?

He followed up his explora hotel in Patagonia with another in the north, on the outskirts of San Pedro in the Atacama desert. In both places the philosophy is the same. There are at least 10 highly trained guides in each hotel, and every night before dinner you discuss possibilities for the next day: riding, climbing, hiking, Jeep trips or bike rides, depending on your capabilities and the weather. You are shown maps for each excursion over drinks (all meals, trips and wine are included) and then it's up to you. It sounded a great idea, especially as I hate walking with more than a couple of people, and I always want to do the most difficult things possible.

After a ghastly early start, leaving the hotel at 6.15am, my flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas took four hours, with a stop en route. I was greeted by clear blue skies and not a breath of wind, then spent a dreary five hours in a minibus with other explora guests, heading north through a tundra-like landscape to the Torres del Paine National Park. At dusk we reached the park itself. I was thrilled to arrive at the hotel, a white, barn-like structure overlooking That View, beside a beautiful lake. I'd had quite enough of travelling; God knows how Lady Dixey coped on horseback with only one servant to put up her tent, but after a hot shower and a couple of glasses of excellent cabernet sauvignon I'd calmed down. My cosy, wood-panelled room had a strange glass porthole that allowed you to lie in the bath and look at the view. It also meant your travelling companion could lie in bed and watch you on the loo, so the blind was immediately drawn chez Street-Porter. Max, the head guide, suggested hiking to the base of the Torres del Paine towers the next day (about seven hours there and back), and I fell asleep dreaming of Jules Verne landscapes and wild llamas. Call me crazy, but I swear I heard it snowing in the night.

Next day I awoke to six inches of snow, and heavy rain, making the planned high-level trip impossible. Instead, we decided to hike to Laguna Verde, another seven-hour trek. Luckily Max would be carrying our packed lunch. After a short trip in the van we set off, painstakingly plodding uphill through thick snow. It was extremely foggy, and I had to put my feet in Max's footprints if I didn't want the snow to go over the tops of my boots. I stuck a giant nylon poncho right over my jacket and rucksack, making me look like a female Quasimodo – but then we were hardly going to be spotted by any fashion police out here.

The rain stopped and visibility improved as we passed a series of small lakes and entered a forest of beech trees which had turned a beautiful red in the autumn. Now we crossed black, exposed rock and more small lakes, straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. I expected Harrison Ford to round the corner at any moment.

After four hours' walking we were rewarded with the sight of Laguna Verde, which was the most stunning turquoise colour. A couple of small estancias were the only sign of human habitation; Max told me the four gauchos who lived up here in the winter months ate one cow a fortnight, with potatoes, making trips for supplies once a fortnight by snowmobile. By the lake we huddled against a burnt-out tree to shelter from the wind while we ate cheese, tuna and ham sandwiches (no guanaco) with sachets of hot sauce and cups of tea. The clouds were still hanging over the looming Torres on our return journey as we trekked up a sheltered valley and on to a high ridge at Mirador Toro for a spectacular view across the end of Lago del Toro, yellow in the setting sun. I lay on the ground, using a small alpine bush as a pillow, and drank in the view as a condor flew high overhead.

Next day I overslept, and rushed down to the jetty at 8.30am for a trip across Lake Pehoe and a hike up to the base of Grey Glacier. Susie, our German guide, set a cracking pace, and it was heavy going on a muddy path that was more like a stream in places. We contoured along the side of Lago del Grey, with the ice field shimmering in the distance. It was sunny and clear, and the lake's surface was covered in tiny icebergs. Over us towered the Paine Mountain range, capped with snow, pure white, jagged, crystalline peaks. After about four hours we sat on a bluff at the end of the lake and ate a massive picnic. A flat-bottomed dinghy chugged towards us, and I slithered down to clamber aboard and join the steamer which took us through large, fantastically shaped icebergs right up to the Grey Glacier itself, an awesome sight in deep turquoise. A chilling wind blew straight off it as we cruised back down the lake and walked across the beach to catch a van ride back to the hotel.

A fantastic sunrise meant that the view from my hotel window was as good as a postcard, and the snow disappeared. I spent the day climbing grassy slopes, where herds of docile guanacos grazed, up to a cave that had clear traces of paintings done by the indigenous Aeonikenk Indians, hunter nomads who left the area in 1900. They destroyed the landscape by burning it to create animal stampedes for easier hunting. This national park was created in 1959 to restore the damage done by intensive sheep farming and to protect the rich wildlife: deer, mountain puma, guanacos and ostrich. Birds range from the giant condor to pink flamingos, herons, eagles and swans. Lunch was a barbecue organised by local gauchos, tiny men wearing hand-knitted sweaters, leather chaps and fringed cowboy boots, with deep brown faces that were heavily lined. The steaks and lamb had been cooking slowly over hot ashes, and melted in the mouth. The rest of the afternoon was a pleasant stroll around Laguna Azul, the towers an imposing sight on the horizon.

Next day was a 12-hour trip back to Santiago, where we ate at Agua, a trendy restaurant full of fashionable young Chileans demolishing massive steaks and platters of seafood. A two-hour flight after another early start took me north to Calama, on a high plateau. Thankfully this van ride was less than two hours, through bleak expanses of rocky desert and the shimmering white Salt Mountain range. San Pedro, an adobe village, sits at around 8,000 feet, and the explora hotel is on the edge of town. From our single-storey rooms we looked out over small, mud-walled fields towards Bolivia and a series of snow-capped volcanoes.

The light in Atacama is extraordinary, shimmering and intense. Next morning I hiked down a river bed from the hamlet of Gaucin, jumping from rock to rock then wading through 6ft-high pampas grass (known locally as foxtails), white in the midday sun. Giant cacti lined the walls of the river canyon and mountain parakeets chattered away above us. After lunch we drove up the Catarpe Canyon to a ridge where you could see across red, rocky hills to the north. Even climbing 500 feet made me slightly breathless, but it was worth it to hike along the edge of the ridge for two hours on a relatively flat path, with superb panoramas on every side. Later, I did a lot of sock washing (the red desert dust permeated everything) and contemplated the distant volcanoes. Altitude sickness would have to be beaten, as I was determined to climb one of them.

Next day I had to start higher, and after an hour and a half in the van, we reached 4,000 metres, passing a lonely farm where a 100-year-old woman kept a herd of cattle. Machuca was a small community of thatched huts and a church, by a lake where flamingoes and ducks clustered at the edge. We followed a narrow trail dropping down the impressive Rio Grande valley, skirting the mountains. At a deserted shepherd's hut I sat on a shady verandah and another massive sandwich lunch. This hut was still in use, with an ancient wood-burning stove and a child's toy flute hanging on a nail on the wall. Next, an extremely slow slog up about 500 feet (really feeling the altitude), before thankfully dropping back down to the river and a remote village where garlic-growing was the main source of income.

A woman dressed in a straw hat tied with pink ribbons, filthy sweat pants and bright-green and pink knitwear greeted us as she walked up the road surrounded by dogs. Most women here tend cattle as well as running the home. A rusting lorry, its engine held together by wire and string, was parked by the adobe church. A man with thick silver hair and a weather-beaten face, busily re-roofing his house with bundles of green grass, assured me the lorry worked perfectly. The fresh thatch would be covered in red mud, which ferments as it dries to make a perfectly waterproof seal.

On my last day, I realised my dream, the ascent of El Toco (18,572ft). It wasn't easy. First, we took a four-wheel drive up to about 15,000 feet, passing deserted mines, abandoned farms, and the perfect cone of Licanbur (which rises to 19,357ft) before turning off the road to the frontier with Bolivia and starting our ascent. The only sign of life here was the chinchilla. It was freezing, so I wore fleeces, a hat, gloves and leggings, using Alpine poles as the slope was steep and icy in patches. After 30 minutes climbing up the scree I was sick (too bad I'd eaten raspberries for breakfast), but I'd expected this, as I've never managed to climb over 16,000 feet without throwing up, no matter how well prepared. My breathing became shallower and it took a lot of focused effort to maintain a decent pace. On the second ridge I was sick again, but the views from here made it worthwhile. The final 10 minutes to the summit were a struggle, but I lay down by the cairn and looked out over 50 miles of red desert and shimmering salt flats, across a dozen volcanoes and over to Bolivia. Bliss. The trek back down passed in a haze.

Back at the hotel I put ice on my aching head and lay in a hot bath to counter the shivering caused by extreme fatigue. A bowl of hot soup in bed, a couple of hours' snooze, and I was fully ready for a bottle of wine by 6pm. What a brilliant adventure, and not for the faint-hearted. I suppose you could opt for a stroll around a village and a bit of souvenir shopping, but that's not really my style.

The Facts

Getting there

Exsus Travel (020-7292 5050; www.exsus.com) offers an 11-night trip to Chile for £3,495 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with British Airways, internal flights with LanChile and transfers, b&b accommodation for three nights in Santiago at the Carrera Hotel, and full-board accommodation for four nights at explora en Atacama and four nights at explora en Patagonia.

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd