Friday, April 27, 2007

Ascent to the bottom of Lanin

Lanin is a dormant 3500 metre volcano that can only be climbed by the very brave, experienced or rich. Its a two day ascent and the rangers check that you have the oodles of essential expensive knick-knacks before you start. For us mortals, a hike to the base of Lanin is the closest you get to all out ice-picks-raised-above-your-head-on-top-of-the-world glory. We prised ourselves from toasty sleeping bags in the cold, cold dark one morning to go and meet the sleeping beast.

Waiting for our bus at the terminal, we were treated to a display of 'how to start the bus when it's incredibly cold' Argentinian style. The first method, jumper leads, was familiar to us, as was the third (and successful) method of four men push it backwards through he carpark and clutch starting it. The second method was the one that really caught our attention. It involved dipping a large stick in petrol, lighting the stick and then holding said stick underneath the engine, I assume to warm up the various bits and pieces that get stubborn below freezing. I've never seen such a large flame next to fuel lines and oil filters, but for some reason, there was no explosion.

Lanin through the fog

Our bus, freed of its jump starting duties, was now available to take us on the surreal two hour ride into the Lanin National Park. The thick frost that had settled on the low bushes, combined with the thick fog that obscured all but the scenery very close to our bus, sucked all colour from the landscape. It felt as if we were driving through an unfinished painting, with parts of the background missing and the colour yet to be filled in. Inside the park, the clouds that were sitting, literally, on top of the lake had a voluminous quality that you can't see when they're a couple of kilometres up in the air. They actually looked like some sort of mistake, like they should splash into the lake as soon as someone realises they stuffed up and hung them too low.

Strange signs mark the start of the path...

We found the start of the walk and set off. We were previously advised by the Parques Nacional officer that the walk would take 4 hours up and 4 hours back. The bus had dropped us off about an hour late, and that had cut our window of walking time down to 7 hours. A race against time was now being run. The walk was beautiful, for the most part we followed and criss-crossed a stream fed by the melting snow of Lanin. The trail took us through some spectacular orange forest and across crunchy brown ice-mud. The uphill part kicked in with a vengeance, right at the end of the hike. Angie was feeling the effects of gravity more severely than I, and I pushed ahead up the steep, enclosed path. I saw a minor avalanche on the opposite side of the canyon on my way up, and was thankful that this side of the valley seemed more stable.

The uphill was intense, I was cursing whoever it was that decided the path should climb like this. The trees got shorter, and the soon snow started to appear on the ground. Not long after that, the trees stopped completely, the ground was white and I was standing at the bottom of a 3500 metre beast. Never have I walked uphill for so long and with such effort to reach the bottom of something. I ran around in the snow, taking photos and enjoying the novelty of sinking shin deep into the ground wherever I trod. Angie then appeared over the downhill crest and got a first real taste of proper snow. We'd managed to get up there in about three hours, so we had some time to spare before descent. Lunch was avocado and bread with peanuts and biscuits, all washed down with melted snow.

The top/bottom

The downward clamber was mercifully easier, and we made it down with an hour to spare. The only incident along the way involved a steep slope, and exposed tree root and the small of Angie's back. When all three combined, the result was a a very sore and newly cautious Angie, now sporting a big purple bruise...

That's the peak of Lanin behind us, about 2 km up.

Most important discovery of the day: A steaming pile of fresh kittens in the stables next to the rangers hut.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

San Junin de los Andes

This is fish town

Next stop was San Junin de los Andes. If San Martin was comatose, life support for Junin had been unplugged and the priest was on his way. There was not a trace of the wood-and-stone architecture that we had grown accustomed to, and there were but one tourist attraction in the whole dirt road town. A perfect place to chill out and take a break from the rigours of full-time travel (I know, I know- but this lifestyle does get stressful, honest). We checked into our hotel, note the lack of the letter 's', and enjoyed the privilege of a double bed for the first time since we landed on this big ol' hunk o dirt. The bed was fantastic, but a distinct bore-water smell emanated from the bathroom, the sneaky kind of odour that lingers silently in the background, and as soon as you stop moving, WHOOSH! Its violating your nostrils and you have to do something, anything, just to distract your senses from the assault. For a while you can convince yourself that 'It's not so bad, just a little earthy' but eventually you must get out of there.

Big cross

And get out of there we did, to the one tourist attraction within 60km of the town centre. Via Christi is a sculpture park that illustrates the life of Christ and intertwines that story with the story of the geographic, physical and spiritual conquest of the indigenous Mapuche people. The imagery is graphic and doesn't hold back when it comes to highlighting the way the Spanish really got in there and stamped all over the locals. The chunky, larger than life-size sculpture is admirable in its humility, especially when looking at it from an Australian perspective, where we have our own paralleling story but exist in an official state of denial...

Local wildlife

One night in the stink hole hotel was enough, and we checked out the next day. Our new home in Junin was a beautiful hostel at the backend of town, across the road from a shallow watercourse, perfect for fly fishing. Apparently this town is the Trout Capital- of what I'm not sure (Argentina? South America? The World?)- all the road signs are in the shape of fish here, and our hostel is plastered with photos of the owner holding fish in his hands and a fly rod in his teeth (Angie says this is so you don't think that he just picked them up out of the river with his bare hands). So trout seemed to be the main reason this place was there, the other reason is that it is the gateway to Lanin National Park and Volcan Lanin, which of you remember back to the Pucon post, is right on the border of Chile and within sight of Volcan Villarica.

San Junin trout hangout

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Quick update as we move north...

The little falls before Inacayal Falls

Slowly progressing north... we spent two days in Villa de Angostura. We backtracked along the road we came into Bariloche on originally, and ended up in a kind of mini Bariloche- all the same kinds of restaurants and shops, just on a smaller scale. It turned out to be a fairly lazy couple of days in Angostura. We walked one day to Mirador Belvedere and saw some impressive cloud formations hanging over the mountains by the lake, and then cut through the forest to Inacayal Falls, a fifty metre cascada of icy clear water. The next day we walked to a neighbouring village to see if we could hire a boat and get out on the lake. Being a Sunday, everything was shut, and the utilitarian paddleboats tied up on the beach weren't actually in service- just there to look pretty in their own way apparently.

Next stop is San Martin de los Andes, a nearly comatose little hamlet shielding itself from the elements in a small valley. Once again, the imported Swiss aesthetic of stone and lacquered wood dominates the architecture- how many places can there be like this? Apparently the bus ride was pleasant; winding and bumping through lakeside roads for a few hours, but due to an early morning jaunt back to Bariloche to pick up some international mail (vegemite), I slept through most of it. The HI Hostel we stayed at had the air of some kind of YMCA school camp/ boarding school. On arrival we were shown to our separate dorm rooms (one for boys, one for girls thank-you) and informed of the strictly held kitchen hours which ensured we ate at a reasonable hour. No mid afternoon snacks here kids. The 'Your mother doesn't live here, clean up after yourself!' signs plastered on the fridge in multiple languages drove home the point that we were lucky to have kitchen privileges at all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Walking up a mountain...

Warning: Lots of words ahead, feel free just to look at the pictures.

The weather came back the day after our mountain exploration, but the day after that it seemed to be holding off- just. With our friend Pablo (from London) we decided to walk to a refugio in the mountains (on a scale from cave to Hilton, a refugio is one step up from a hut). Over ten kilometres we climbed 700 metres, and taking it easy meant we took around four and a half hours to get to the top. We set out just after lunch and entered a chameleon landscape that morphed into something new every five minutes. It began as a red dirt wasteland, with heavily sculpted canals muscling their way through the earth. Those soon gave way to an eerie stonescape, populated by the skeletal forms of thousands of dead trees and dominated by a looming, dark, jagged hill. A stream of grey rocks, frozen mid-flow, ran from the top of the hill down through the white and sliver trees. The monochromatic setting was broken up in places by green shrubs that enclosed the trunks, leaving only the spindly branches to reach out, giving the impression that they were trying frantically to escape the new plantlife. The whole scene had a post-apocalyptic air; it felt like we were standing in the middle of the remnants of a disaster.

As we walked on, the environment opened up and we had lake views across to the mountains we had climbed a couple of days before. The yellow scrub stayed low and sparse, but the largest of the twisted trunks remained spread out. The track began to climb slightly, and wet rocks covered in fuzzy green moss stood guard along the track. We rounded a corner and in the distance, through more of those distorted torsos and beyond the mountains we were traversing, giant, vertical columns of rock stood straight up into the grey sky. Orcs were expected to pounce at any moment.

Swords at the ready

A little further on, the scenery became much more Zen, as we entered a bamboo forest, the kind normally frequented by panda bears and water wheels. This environment soon intermingled with a kind of Japanese garden plant theme, complete with precarious wooden bridges and gentle waterfalls. Plenty of babbling brooks too. Much less intimidating. It was also at this point that we saw two of the four animals that we came across during the whole two days. A pair of the punk rockers of the avian universe, woodpeckers, banged their mohawked heads up and down some trees about 5 metres above our heads. (if you're wondering what the other two animals we saw were, one was a sparrow, and the other was the refugio kitty, Tormenta, which is Spanish for storm).

Pretty soon the trees got all European on us, and a carpet of brown leaves covered the bare forest floor. This was Robin Hood's turf, and Little John would not have looked out of place on any of the tree trunk bridges that spanned the increasing number of rapids. The log cabin built into the side of a huge stone and enormous wooden cross really drove home the olde-English vibe.

Angie and Pablo on yet another perilous bridge

Then the climb really began. As we got higher, the plant life changed again, this time into stunted and squat shrubs. We were in the middle of a forest of bonsais, getting closer and closer the snow line. When the enormous mini-trees momentarily parted, we had the chance to look out across the valley we were climbing up the side of. What we saw was a fire-red oil-painting of tree tops firmly carpeting the bottom of the valley, and halting abruptly where the snow had now begun to sit in patches. 'HUGE' was the first word that came to mind when we found rock to raise ourselves above the leafy roof. 'Prehistoric' was another one, and the longer we stood still in awe of the whole landscape, the word 'cold' seemed more and more suitable. Then 'wet' and 'windy' came to the fore, as rain began to fall, and a gale whipped right through us.

A final, brutal, uphill trudge began. Packs very heavy now, knees getting extremely wobbly. A final dodgy crossing of rapids and the refugio came into view. The cold was momentarily forgotten when trying to take in just what we were seeing. A crown of mountains, patchy with snow, encircle a hilltop lake, and on the edge of it all sat the little stone cubic form of Refugio Frey. Then, swooooooshh- there's that word 'cold' chattering out of my lips again, plus my arms felt really strange and....tingly. Did I mention I was still in a t-shirt? I dragged my pack and myself inside the refugio and glorious electric bar heaters began the job of thawing out the blood that had frozen next to the surface of my bare arms.

1700 metres

Angie tumbled in soon after, followed by a very disheveled Pablo. Apparently the cold had infected the core of his mind, and still not quite thawed, he states he is considering pitching his tent in the arctic conditions beyond. I tell him he is mad, but he explains that he bought the tent, carried it up this mountain and there is now a principle at stake. Principle or no principle, the idea is revolting, and he soon comes around. He slightly tempted soon after when he learns there is a girl out there who has already put up her tent and will sleep out there tonight. 'If she can do it why can't I' is what I see written on his face, but common sense prevails. We eat pizza for dinner and crash early in the 18 bed dorm (no space between mattresses at all-very cosy when full I'm sure).

View from the bedroom window

See the refugio on the left-hand side? It doesn't have a phone. Sorry I couldn't call for your birthday, Dad!

Day 2

Breakfast on day 2

It is raining. It is windy. I think we are in the middle of a very thick cloud. It looks like we are inside a giant fluorescent tube. It is far less then suitable for us to be in nature. But we have to go somewhere. Rather than pushing on six hours through the sub-zero elements to the next refugio, we decide to descend the mountain and eat apple strudel in the carpark at the bottom. We layered up, and ventured out looking like waterproof marshmallows. At that point the snow started. Another milestone for Angie, as she had never been snowed on before. But it was more like we were being snowed at, as ice flakes weren't really falling, they were moving sideways trough the air at tremendous speeds, really slicing into any exposed skin or eyeballs. Next time I will take sunglasses and gloves...

The descent was much wetter, but much quicker than the climb yesterday. Powered on by the freshest water I've ever drunk (collected from the very first rapid after that mountaintop lake), it takes two and half hours to cover the ten kilometres, and the strudel at the bottom was most deserved. A short bus ride later, we back in Bariloche, where there is running hot water and no snow. I think I still may prefer it up there in the clouds though.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Heavens part- But for how long???

Free At Last...

One morning we awoke to blue skies and only the faintest fraction of the gales that have been keeping us housebound. Determined not to waste it, we ventured out into the day to climb the same mountain I had been outsmarted by a few days ago. After finding the start of the road up (a feat of suburban navigation in itself), we began the climb and found ourselves huffing and puffing topside a couple of hours later. Huffing and puffing so much that we decided to laze our way back down the mountain in one of the cable-car's cute-as-a-button red pods. With closing time fast approaching we thought we'd fit in a quick 30 minute walk to one of the very many lookout points.

This is the entrance to the look-out walks. Apparently the sign says 'Wet Paint', but I didn't see any paint at all.

Outside- No paint here either.

Trying to do the circuit backwards was not as clever as we thought and we ended up on the 90 minute course. It didn't matter in the end as the cable-car stayed open longer than we expected, and the fantastic upside of it was that Angie had her first encounter with real snow! (there were also some spectacular views-again). As an added bonus, we got to find out if food really does taste better when you're revolving, as we consumed cake and coffee in the hilltop restaurant. The results were inconclusive, but delicious.

Angie, meet Snow.

Wood panelled revolving restaurant, red bubble dome cable-car, and now this on the wall at the exit. Can you tell this was all built in the 60's? (the real cable-cars had wires to run along)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Angry at Everything- Lago Nahuel Haupi

Angie and Dave VS Bariloche, round 2

Back in Bariloche, a different looking Bariloche to a week ago. The weather had closed right in and the rain clouds were sitting heavy just above the lake. We checked into the hostel, ate at a VEGETARIAN restaurant. Then the weather really closed in...

Colder than it looks...

...For almost a week wind slammed Bariloche, producing surfable waves on Lago Nahuel Haupi. If I hadn't left my surfing gear in Santiago to pick up later, I might have some photos of me riding choppy little waves with snowy mountains far in the background. Back in the hostel, when the wind whipped around the windows and walls, it really sounded like the roof was about to be lifted off into the night. Visions of tiles launching, clouds rushing past my face and angie being picked up and swirled away in the gale filled my sleepy mind as I was woken every few hours each night. Eventually it all became too much for the roof, and wet patches started to appear on the floor in the bedroom. The brutal weather basically ruled out any outdoor activity, Angie fell ill for a few days and was confined to bed, I ventured out one day to climb a mountain, but the gods sent me straight back inside after moving the mountain (or i got lost) and then drenching me by horizontal rain so it would appear that I had been lying face down in ten centimetres of water. Movies filled most of the days, and on one outing to the chocolate supermarket, Angie got trapped inside a cubicle and, wait for it, had to crawl out underneath the door- disinfectant!! STAT! Apart from that, not much to report, but the lake did throw up some nasty looking photo opportunities, and snow has begun to appear on the mountains where last week laid sunshine.

A rare moment of calm on Lago Nahuel Haupi, this view is from our bedroom window.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

El Bolson


El Bolson is framed by two spines of mountains running parallel to each other and straddling the town. Hostel Patagonica is a building in the swiss/german wood'n'stone style that makes up a good portion of the architecture in this part of the world. The hostel is set on a piece of green farmland about a kilometre form the town 'centre'. Chilling out and browsing the local markets took up most of the day, and the next few days after that, although we did manage to visit Lago Puelo one day (and suffered our first encounter with Argentina's 'tourist prices'- double what the locals pay). Lago Puelo is a big patch of icy cold agua, surrounded by faded purple and green mountains. The day we went it was being whipped up by frosty winds coming straight off the top of the snow capped mountains (snow capped, snow capped... someone please send me another way to describe snow capped mountains).

View from the hostel

Angie, never afraid to put herself at risk for the shot

On another day, we went walking up the mountains to have look at the place from on high. The views were stunning- there's not really any way I can do them justice in words or pictures, but take a look at the shots anyway... The river you can see squirms its way through the valley down into Lago Puelo. On the walk home we stopped in a little stone and timber cafe, El Resguardo, about 3 km from the main town and got some coffee and pizza and beautiful hot waffles with hot raspberry sauce.. The Heart of Saturday Night by Tom Waits wandered out of the speakers and I thought of Phil. Hi Phil! El Bolson is your kind of place! Get over sometime....

Come here for afternoon tea

Friday, April 6, 2007

Don't beleive the Janitor- Bariloche

These are for steep hills only

Matt left us this morning, and he shall forever be a black spot on poor Alli's trip. To much macho Americanism can get old quick. Allie got a hot tip from a senile old woman she met about a cable car up a mountain and a leisurely walk back down it. So far all the old duck's sugestions seem to have been completely backwards, but today it turned out that the cable car was there, and we floated pleasantly up to the mountaintop to see some spectacular views over the lake and surrounding areas. The stroll back down was where the fun began. They only put cable cars on very steep hills, so I'm not sure why we believed the random janitor who said we could take an easy shortcut back down. Steep? Steep?

Inland ice cold Whitsundays

No, no, very easy he said... Very easy turned out to be a 4.5 km run(the incline was so severe it was impossible to walk) through a narrow, rocky, tree infested 'path'. Such was the strain on Angie's toes from smashing into the front of her shoes, she was forced to walk backwards for the rest of the day. A quick stop in at the chocolate and ice cream shop followed. These are two things the Argentinians seem to take extremely seriously. The store was at least twice the size of any of the supermarkets in town, and the crowds were thick, full of anxious faces with eyes locked onto the cool cabinets like they were filled with some sort of magic. Turns out they were full of magic, and only $20 a kilo!

After battling that scene, a frantic cab ride followed. All three of us trying to explain to the cab driver that we needed to stop at the hostel, snatch up our bags and then get to the bus terminal to catch the coach to El Bolson, leaving in around 15 minutes. Too close, but we made it. It seems the trick is to bribe the taxi driver with a lolly and they don't cars how fast you force them to go. Two hours on a bus through the dark Argentinean countryside, and we landed in a small country town, found the hostel, washed out the dust from the dirty descent of the mountain and crashed into bed.