March 27, 2009 GMT

It is time to take a one-day bus tour of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Why? I`ve got a bad case of cabin fever, having been confined to quarters so long with this damn sciatica. As a kind of trial, we load the wheelchair and ourselves onto the Comapa TurBus and head off. Not surprisingly, we thoroughly enjoy the 12 hours looking out the window, walking around a bit and seeing wilderness, glaciers, real mountains and critters up close and personal once again.

IMG_1032 Torres del Paine.12.JPG

Torres del Paine contains very little vegetation taller than a hiker. At it´s leisure, El Viento blows up to 120 kms/hr. and can strike down all but the hardiest trekkers mid-stride. We strike one of the handful of days per year when El Viento decides to give it a rest. The park is calm - almost as unheard of as winning the lottery.

There are two hiking circuits, complete with well appointed refugios (staffed mountain hostels). The five day "W" circuit can be hiked with only a daypack, the wealthy can chose comfort each night with a warm bed, hot shower and 3 squares - the lunch packed to go, just like they do in the Lakes District in the UK.

For those with hormones, not money, to burn, there is the more rugged 7 - 10 day "complete circuit" around the perimeter of the park, staying each night in designated but user-friendly campsites. Only the pumas (mountain lions) and the fierce winds and/or storms can be unfriendly.

IMG_1034 P y msc Torres.12.JPG

Besides the National Geo. picture perfect mountain peaks of the three Torres (towers), further along the chain are the three Cuernos (horns); equally difficult to climb, by the way. The horns are light colored with a black top. The geological explanation we get is the sedimentary rock was there first. Then igneous rock formed when lava flowed up fault lines within the sedimentary. Weathering and glaciers left the present two-tone design. It was either that or PFM: two colors of rock and no one knows why. Geologists, like lawyers, never agree on these "which came first" kinds of things. But really, the Cuernos look cool and that´s all we tourists really care about.

IMG_1037 Cuernos.12.JPG

Poor ol´Katie and Bumblebee. Ignored for weeks in the backyard of the hotel, the battery on Katie decides to have its own enfermedad. After charging the gel battery at a local shop, we get the bikes fired up and ride ´em north of Puerto Natales for a "battery-charging" run. The open air feels glorious. Fresh, with a scent of sage and dry grass. There is little mistaking that smell of clean but bracing mountain air as the crosswind buffets our bikes. That kind of recently-frigid air that slides off glaciers and flows like invisible liquid across neighbouring grasslands. I feel it like an icecube across the back of my neck, in the gap between collar and helmet.

Later, while refueling back in town, the attendant, a jovial senora, jokes that Joyce´s bike should be called "Chicatita". Joyce agrees immediately. Bumblebee´s Latino AKA may stick: she does look like a "cute little girl".

IMG_1045. Katie Puerto Natales.12.JPG

Having successfully passed the first test, we decide to strike out further. Ushuaia beckons like the sirens calling to Ulysses in the Odyssey. The decision to rent a car for a week and do the Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego/Fin del Mondo circuit makes sense, given our options. Summer has ebbed faster than my sciatica. We either go by ignoble auto or not at all.

We rent a superb little Samsung SM3 (that´s a CAR, not a TV, and it´s built by Nissan). On the bright side, it is a peppy little five speed, has a CD player - and a heater. And as our friend Michelle Malmberg reassures in her email, "you´re still travelling on a total of four wheels and you´ll arrive with better hair".

IMG_4992 Punta Arenas.12.JPG

Three hours and two Sarah Brightman CD´s later and we´re in Punta Arenas, population 156,000. By contrast, Puerto Natales, our home for the last 3 weeks, entertains a modest 15,500 honest and friendly folk. So we are in the Big City now, muchachos! Like its shoreline, The City has the ebb and surge look of one too many economic changes in tide. Once a mandatory stop for ships transiting the Straits of Magellan on the way to Points East/West, Punta Arenas dearly felt the blow of the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The Big Ditch made a big difference to the lads with the Captain Sparrow earrings driving the square riggers and early steamers. "New York to San Fran, take yer pick, me hearties : will she be 22,500 km* by the Straits, or 9,500 km* by that new fangled Panama Canal?" (*Ed note: nautical miles have been expressed in kilometers for the benefit of the distance-conversion challenged).

OK, so since then, what with wars, the vagaries of fortune with cattle and sheep estancias, the discovery of petroleum, advance of ecotourism, ya ya ya, Punta Arenas´s fortunes have been up and down like the proverbial drawers of a ..... never mind, there could be young innocent minds like Luc Brown reading this..

We pick fifteen stones - no, make that "Carefully Select" 15 stones from the very historic Estrecho de Magallanes. Why? Ferdinand Magellan (his mom called him Fernão de Magalhães), a Portuguese sailor in service to the Spanish King, became the first European to navigate the strait in 1520, during his global circumnavigation voyage. The South American spanish call him Fernando Magallanes. Luckily no one thought, that lived anyway, to call him "Chicatita".

I digress. Nearly 500 years ago, the big M sailed through these very waters with five ships and 237 men. After three years, in 1522, the remains of one ship and 18 men arrived back in Spain - Fred wasn´t one of them, sorry to say. Sounds like my kind of odds. Anyway, the significance of all this, dear reader, is that those stones I have chosen probably were present when history sailed by. If presented to friends as a historic reminder of all that brave exploration means, then each stone represents all that is good about mankind. I´m thinking of engraving "E de M" on the face of each stone. And Michelle´s young son Lucas gets the first one.

IMG_4987 piedras Estrecho de Magallanes.12.JPG

After a quick couple of days in Sandy Point, as the Limies used to call it, we leave Punta Arenas for the ferry across Estrecho de Magallanes. El Viento blows gayly across the hood of our TV cum CAR at a popular 70 to 80 kms per hour. Hey, same speed as us. We stop along the side of the highway so I can hop out for a whiz. Bad idea. Makes me think of Roger Miller´s lyrics of "the hitchhiker´s pant legs go whooptie-whoop as the semi´s go drivin´ by". My pant legs and jacket arms flap just as crazily in the Patagonia breeze. I have to lean into the wind so Joyce can take a photo with the Straits of Magellan in the background.

IMG_5009 leaning into Patagonia wind.12.JPG

We cross the Straits of Magellan at the first narrows at the east end of the strait. The ferry, similar in size to ones on Kootenay Lake, BC, powers our three-dozen-vehicles cargo across the wind-raked Estrecho with little regard for the weather. Wave spray crashes over the 10 meter high bow. Those of us foolish enough to stand out in the elements get a wet surprise. My hotdog suddenly tastes salty. My sunglasses have streaks of agua de Magdallanes which trickles onto my jacket. To a person, we retreat to the enclosed passenger "lounge" onboard. For the next 20 minutes, to hell with history.

Posted by Murray Castle at March 27, 2009 09:20 PM GMT

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