Big Ice, Bigger Sandwich
26.11.2012 - 29.11.2012 23 °C
Overnight Stays: Somewhere between Puerto Madryn and Rio Gallegos; El Calafate (2 nights)
DW - Our bus-ride from Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos was our first 'Cama Suite' bus, with seats that actually reclined to a full 180 degrees. The bus itself was pretty old-school, but the novelty and comfort of a seat that actually felt like a bed was wonderful, and it was always going to be difficult to go back to a simple 'Cama' bus, but that was future Team W's problem. We slept comfortably and were fed like kings the whole journey, leaving us fresh and eager to change buses at Rio Gallegos for the final four (4) hours to El Calafate. Here we really noticed the difference in temperature and it felt like we expected Patagonia to; cold and windy, having you begging for a jacket and making you look like a ranga at the beach if you wore thongs and shorts rather than shoes and pants.
We were suitably impressed when we arrived around lunchtime into El Calafate; a town resembling a warming snow-town, not unlike Chamonix in France or Interlakin in Switzerland; charming and friendly. There's one (1) main street, filled on both sides with wooden cabin looking places, either filled on the inside with a bar, souvenir shop, or overpriced clothing store, just wonderful. We knew straight away we could've spent a lot of time here, but we also knew the clock was against us, and that any extra time spent here would have our wallet emptied quicker than that horse you just can't bet against and throw everything on it, only to have it fall on the first turn.
Our hostel was a tiny way out of town, up a dirt track, leaving a, lets say 'slightly frustrated' Loz taking ownership of any accommodation booking from hereon-in, strike one (1) Davo. All was forgotten when we got inside and were given such a warm welcome by some of the friendliest staff in South America; from the moment we walked in the door it seemed all of the staff not only remembered who we were, but also our names; very impressive with a full hostel.
We settled in then wandered back into town to find some gear for our 'Big Ice' tour the following day; gloves, beanies, and hire of boots and pants, ready. For the evening, the hostel hosted an Argentinian BBQ for any guests that wanted, most of whom obliged. For just $18 each we had all the meat, beer and wine we wanted, all of which was top-notch, some of the best we've ever consumed. It was also a great chance to meet some other guests from all over the world, and try and squeeze out a conversation despite some horrendous yet comical language barriers. Holding a three-way conversation with an Italian couple, and a French couple (and us) can be quite the task, especially when we speak English so fast. After about three (3) hours of non-stop eating and drinking we were shagged, and hit the hay, excited for the big day ahead, something we'd been looking forward to for some time. When we walked outside (it was about 11:30pm) we noticed that the sun had only just fully disappear for the day; gives you a good idea just how far south in the world we were, as far as we will ever be.
When our alarm sounded at 6:15am it was obvious the sun had been awake several hours before us, as it felt almost like mid-morning already. I think our shuttle bus must've thought the same thing, or maybe they just plain forgot us. We saw them pull up at another hostel on our street, pick up some passengers, then continue on their way, leaving us wondering. After too long our hostel kindly called the company who sent a speed demon to pick us up in no-time flat, and catch the bus at full-pelt. The looks we got as we walked up the bus isle made us feel like idiots who had slept in, but how do you explain to 50 people in God knows how many languages that the bus just forgot us? Oh well, we'll just let them judge for now.
We soon entered the National Park and got our first glimpse of the infamous Perito Merino Glacier, one (1) of the (if not the) only icebergs in the world that's still growing in size, not diminishing. It stands a a powering 60 metres out of Lake Argentina and continues another 120 metres underwater, wow. It's length is something like 30 kilometres (i think), and it's just one (1) of the most impressive things we've seen, in our entire lives. As the bus pulled up at the viewing platforms we couldn't wait to jump off the bus and get the best possie to see the famous cracking of the ice. It didn't take long and after a few small ruptures a massive chunk started to fall, followed by the clap of thunder, you'd swear you were in a storm. Then as it hit the water with brutal force a wave would tremour through the freezing water and the second clap of thunder would strike, sending shivers and feelings of utter blown-away-ness through your body; this place is freakin' incredible. For that very moment Iguazu Falls felt like Igauzu Smalls; it's so difficult to describe what I felt as this thousands of years old mass of ice broke away by the tonne, almost as arm's length; it was going to be a great day.
After an hour of just watching, waiting, begging for more chunks to fall (of which several did) we were ushered back onto the bus to start the tour, time to get on and in that big puppy. A short boat ride, right by the glacier, across Lake Argentina and we broke into smaller groups of about ten (10), then started the 'Big Ice' trek, firstly along the south side of the iceberg. We passed the 'Minitrekkers' (the most popular tour offered on the glacier; cheaper, shorter, and less adventurous) very quickly and started to feel very isolated as the glacier continued and continued, no matter how far we trekked along its' side, for at least an hour. We passed shitloads of dirt (only a year before it was covered by the glacier), a beautiful waterfall, and lots of semi-dense forest until we reached base-camp to fit our crampons and make our way to the ice. In our group we had a couple of lovely South Africans, Fred and Bron; a few Seppos, a Japanese couple, and a crazy Russian dude who took about 3,000 photos, and was always about 500 metres behind the group. We were amazing at how lax the awesome guides were; very entertaining and chilled. When we climbed a glacier in Iceland the rules were quite strict (if only they were so strict on that damn steamer where I toasted my tootsies), and you couldn't step an inch out of line without hearing about it. But here it was a different world; and despite the many dangerous and deep crevices, thirsty for human blood, the group was spread out over several hundred metres, and you felt like it was your oyster, your world to explore, amazing. After a few hours of trekking without even realising, we were somewhere in the middle of this incredible iceberg, and surrounded by nothing but beauty and danger. The ice was a gorgeous white with pokes of blue (the crevices), and surrounding the ice were snowcapped mountains; you wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world on a perfect bluebird day, which it was. I reckon when God created heaven he came here first and went, "yep, that's what it's gonna be, throw a gate up there Pete".
On the most unique and isolated picnic of our lives we sat in the middle of the ice and snacked on some horrid sweet treats, while the crazy Russian feasted on the most elaborate picnic sandwich I've seen, must've weighed several kilos in his bag; totally worth it though, bastard. That lunch, despite our poor choice of food, will remain as one (1) of the most memorable of our lives; just ten (10) people, all from completely different background and parts of the world, sharing one (1) of the greatest spectacles and moments of their lives, pretty special stuff.
The best thing about the 'Big Ice' tour was that there was no set track, and the group leader seemed to be making it up as he went. Not once did I notice walking on footprints that had been walked before, and that doubled with the freedom to walk your own pace and take as much time as you want, really made it worth the extra money to that of the Minitrek. It also gave us a chance to see things no human had ever seen before, it made us feel like explorers, ready to take on the world.
When one (1) particular spot became familiar for the leader he picked up the pace and led us to a place he knew we'd all love, especially that crazy Rusky. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the second most beautiful thing I've ever witnessed (it's obvious what the first is), the deepest, bluest, most pristine ice-cave on the planet, a remarkable sight. At that point, Bron, the South African girl said, "I think this is one of those moments in your life", and it couldn't have been said better. No camera could do this place justice, as no word will do the same. And this is the thing with travel for us; it's not about the photos and not about getting a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower (as fun as that is); it's about feeling things you never thought you could feel. I'd like to think that that ice-cave really was one (1) of those moments in my life, a moment when the world is peaking and you think it just couldn't get any better. Like I said, no words can describe that very moment, and I get shivers even thinking about it again; nature is truly a wonderful thing.
500 photos and four (4) hours later we left the ice and took the one (1) hour hike back towards the boat. There we rested and reflected, with the sun shining beautifully and the amazing glacier looking to be floating on Lake Argentina to our left. Everyone was exhausted, not only from the sun and the hiking, but from the energy spent on just taking it all in, it seems we needed a drink.
Aboard the boat we were welcomed by a tray covered with glasses of whisky, not neat but on the rocks; not ordinary rocks, but glacier ice, oh yeah. Neither Loz or I would call ourselves whiskey drinkers, but when you've just hiked for six (6) hours in the sunshine, on one (1) of the most beautiful spectacles in the world, nothing goes down better than a glass of Scotch with glacier ice, salude.
Back in El Calafate, with sunstroke hitting Loz pretty hard, we braved it to a recommenced restaurant just down the road for dinner, where they had about nine (9) lambs for public view, roasting over a fire, how could you not order that?! And we did, and that Patagonian lamb was pretty damn good, a great way to end a great day and a wonderful stay in an exceptional part of the world, in the most amazing country, our new favourite (sorry France and Mexico)! Next stop, the much hyped Bariloche, only 28 hours north on a bus, should be a walk in the park...