Before we left home we had tried to book a couple of tours with local bird guides to help us understand habitats and find birds that we might otherwise have missed. One such guided trip was to El Yeso, a national park some hours drive from Santiago. The purpose was to set eyes on a Diademed Sandpiper-plover, a near threatened species, restricted to the Andes, in bogs between the frost line and snow line between 4 and 5000m of elevation.
Andy sent out a series of emails to Chilean bird tour companies and we heard back from a couple but the cost, 300USD each for a one day excursion, was prohibitive. However, the word was out. Not so long after, Andy had a message from Ivo Tejeda, executive director of Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile—the Chilean Bird and Wildlife Observer Network, ROC. Chile’s top birders and wild life conservationists all wear multiple hats and work as freelance guides for all the bird touring companies. If Andy (former director of the British Trust for Ornithology) would commit some time to meet with Ivo and his team, they would be very glad to take us out for a day of birding at El Yeso free of charge. How could we possibly decline?!
We left Santiago in the dark, bagged a siting of a Torrent duck en route, and eventually piled out of the cramped car deep inside the national park.
Every bird we saw was a first for me, some iconic others that ought to be. Condor, Fire-eyed Diucon, Seed Snipe, Grey-hooded Sierra Finch, Andean Goose, to mention just a few.
We spent some time trudging along boggy ground but much of it was too dry and places where the Diademed Sandpiper-plover had been seen previously were void of the bird. We drove further up the valley where the road became submerged in snow and were dismayed that motor bikers were skidding around destroying hope of finding any birds let alone the prize for the day.
We retreated down the valley having all but given up until someone in the car (it might have been me) caught a movement on the side of the road. The habitat was completely right. Out we clambered and scanned the surrounds. Not far away we spotted first a bird on the nest and then its partner. Beauties!
But this is not where our wonderful relationship with ROC ended. From Santiago we travelled north first visiting the northern most Chilean town of Arica, just a few kms from the boarder with Peru. From there we travelled up onto the Altiplano and Lauca National Park, bordering Bolivia. While there, Ivo Tejeda messaged to say that ROC had a team monitoring the nest site of Markham’s Storm Petrel in the Atacama desert and would we have time to go and meet with them. We changed our plans to divert south, to the Atacama, of course we did!
For centuries it was unknown where Markham’s Storm Petrel, sea fairing birds, nested. 10 years ago this changed. How the search unfolded is told in an article by Sarah Gilman. ROC were centre stage to this wonderful story.
The birds lay their eggs in hollows under the thick salt crust of ancient lakes, 50km inland in the Atacama desert. Using a fibre optic camera and microphone we were able to see and hear inside dozens of nests. Now the nesting whereabouts has been discovered, ROC has set up a local campaign to protect their habitat and breeding success. Street lights attract the newly fledged birds, causing them to congregate in urban areas rather than heading out to sea. Education programmes on how to recognise and rescue the birds from roads, as well as changes to street lighting are beginning to have beneficial effects. Much of the nesting area is owned by the military. ROC has been working with them to raise awareness and ring fence the nest sites so that fewer tanks now plough through. Funding for the continued protection of these birds has now been provided by the power company who’s pylons and cables stretch through the landscape.
This place, a predominantly primary tropical rain forest, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, came with a recommendation from serious birders which meant it eclipsed the other reserves, Yalle and Udawellewe, where big mammals could be seen easily, with the naked eye, no binoculars or super ocular skill required. Visiting Sinharaja Forest raised eyebrows from those we met on the tourist route, ‘be ready for leeches’ they said. They were not wrong!
We arrived at the small village of Waddagala, Kalawana in the early afternoon by air conditioned Toyota hybrid car from Ella, a journey that took us on a tour of petrol stations amongst much more. There are big fuel shortages here in Sri Lanka. Our driver pitched us out of his relatively smart car saying he would go no further. The road ahead looked reasonable to me but he was adamant, this was the end of the road for him. We paid and agreed to write him a review on Trip Advisor despite his taking constant phone calls on numerous phones en route. ‘It’s really no problem here he laughed, I can pay the police and keep my licence’.
We waited an hour or so, Andy busied himself birding and I wondered up the road, squatted down, bared my bum and peed for England. Eventually we were picked up in a battered old Landrover. It must have been at least 50 years old. The driver was a young man, Anoushka, grandson of Martin, the famous bird enthusiast and conservation guru. Anoushka’s wife and their young son occupied the front and we perched with our packs in the back. Soon it became apparent that this was going to be a painful drive, bumping and crashing and sweeping past thick vegetation. The switch backs were too tight, so each bend required a three point turn, large boulders had to be negotiated and at times quite sheer drops, of the kind where you close your eyes and wait for safer ground. I don’t know why I worried myself in our truck in Chile. This was many times worse! Occasionally Anoushka would answer his phone, other times he would stick his head out of the window and point out a bird, invariably flown before we had time to get eyes on it.
It had taken 4.5 hours to drive from Ella to Waddagala, a distance of 152km. The final 2.7km took us best part of an hour. It would have been faster and more comfortable to walk! We arrived and were greeted by Martin’s 4 daughters and his wife. And now we came face to face with the great man himself, in a photograph. He looked a cross between Nelson Mandela and David Attenborough. Sadly, he died in 2021, aged 82, of a stroke. This man had won all kinds of National and international awards which were displayed around the simple room. He is celebrated for establishing forest, bird and education programmes, training generations of guides and forest specialists.
Later that evening, I noticed a leech on the floor of our bathroom. ‘What should I do with it’ I asked Andy. He came in to inspect the little thing and picked it up with some loo roll. It squished as he did so, bright red blood oozing out of it onto the paper. MY blood as it transpired, the critter had made a meal of me and I had not even noticed. The lesson? Never pee in a tropical rain forest!
Spot the bird
Birding from the veranda gave us a great introduction to the treasures of the forest and also a sense of how difficult it was going to be. Sinharaja is home to 24 of the 27 endemic birds of Sri Lanka, before arriving we had seen just 4. With only one day to play with, we had no time to lose.
Martin’s family feed the birds from the veranda making sightings of other birds much easier. Sri Lankan Blue Magpie, Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill (both endems), Black Bulbul and Yellow Browed Bulbul all appeared to enjoy banana and cooked red rice.
On the other hand Sri Lankan Spur Fowl, a severely endangered endemic, won’t come to the veranda, but can be persuaded into the open a little further away especially if uncooked red rice grain is on the menu!
Before heading into the national park we were given a pair of leech socks. These look like Christmas stockings except you put them on over your socks before pulling on your walking boots. The idea is that leeches cannot get under your trouser leg and crawl up your body to find the most juicy and tender places to feast on. I’m not sure they’ll ever hit the cat walk, but for sure they are essential kit in the rain forest, especially during and after rain, which of course is most of the time. You have to remember it is hot and humid in this part of the world, so being buttoned to the neck, hatted, double socked and trouser legged, meant you dripped with sweat. It was a very thirsty endeavour.
Sinharaja is the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rain forest. More than 60% of the trees at are endemic. In addition to the birds, the reserve is also home to 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals and butterfly’s, insects, reptiles and rare amphibians. Through the seriously dense thicket, light occasionally filtering down. Under the canopy it was cooler than in the open. We moved very slowly, listening to the sound of the forest, treading softly, watching our foot steps. I almost trod on a Green Pit Viper, a massive thing, that slithered off into the undergrowth leaving me quivering. We soon learned that birds come screaming through the forest in mixed feeding flocks. The number of flocks you see is the measure of the success of your birding expedition because it takes a number of fly by’s to get good views of all the species in the flock. You have to be ready, quick on the binoculars, they don’t hang around for long. The flocks tend to be led by Drongos and include Orange-billed Babbler, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Dark-fronted Barbet, Blacked-capped Bulbul, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon and Red-faced Malkoha. Great names and some great lookers. Note to self: add links to images when I get home.
Unlike the birds, foliage was easier to capture. And as my eyes adjusted to the dappled light, other critters came into focus.
I was wilting so we sat down for a drink and a rest and Wasantha, our fabulous Government funded guide took off to scout. A couple, so obviously from the UK, approached us on their way out of the park. ‘Have you seen anything?’ he asked. ‘Loads’ I replied. ‘Oh’, said she, ‘we must have been on the wrong path then’. More likely looking in wrong direction, I thought! She had a pair of tiny binoculars around her neck. Not good for much in this forest. ‘We are not naturists’, she continued, not realising her malapropism. We wanted to visit a National Park and this was the nearest’. They were on a day trip from Galle, a torturous 150km away! They went on their way, clearly disappointed.
My camera battery died. Just as I was phaffing around trying to find another, a young lad came along the path carrying a tripod and filming kit. Give us a minute, he said with no introduction, I might have a spare you can have. His name is Don Weersirie, half Sri Lankan, brought up in Bedford. In lock down he made a film called Wild Bedfordshire and he was currently gathering footage on snakes, for a new film, Wild Sri Lanka, ‘to give something back’ he said. Having not met any Brits since the train to Ella (a story still to be told), it was quite a coincidence to encounter two sets especially since Sinharaja barely features on the tourist map.
Wasantha returned, a little out of breath. He beckoned us to follow. By now all I wanted was to get home. ‘How far?’ I asked, ‘2-300m’ came the reply, ‘and then we will stop’. What he failed to mention was that this 2-300m was off piste, a dive into the undergrowth, over roots, pushing through branches taking care not to hold on to the barbed ones to steady your step, twisting and weaving, crossing a stream, almost over the boot, dripping with sweat. Eventually Wasantha instructed us to move slowly and quietly down a steep, slithery incline. He pointed. Initially, it was not apparent what he was showing us. But as our breath slowed, it became clear. There in front of us, huddled together were a pair of sleepy Sri Lankan Frogmouths. They look part Owl and part Nightjar. He is Grey and white and she, a deep cinnamon colour. She watched us. He kipped. What a pair! With some difficulty and with Wasantha’s help, I got some passable shots.
Forty hours on and we were on the road again. We joined the Japanese birders their guide Upul and their translator, Sunat, in the ancient jeep to get down to the village. Sunat was on his second only birding tour having been a cultural guide for more than 10 years. We had enjoyed their company. Now we would start the final episode of our journey. In the short time we visited Sinharaja Forest Reserve we clocked 20 out of 27 of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds.
I’ve just watched Don’s film Wild Bedfordshire (https://youtu.be/LCgGRmPbNso). A very nice reminder of the country we are returning to after 4 months of travel, tomorrow, Feb 6 2023.
The night was disturbed by the mass of kids camping right next door. A change to noise of wind and rain that is for sure. We listened to their whoops and gaggle for some hours and we might have provided some entertainment in return, had they watched our tent after dark, lit up with our solar lamp. But we shall never know!
The food at Paine Grande was far from the best and breakfast, like the evening meal, was pretty ghastly. We sat with an older American couple, members of The Appalachian Mountain Walking Club, who were part of a guided group on the ‘W’. We were in no hurry, this being a short walking day. Our Russian friends waved through the window on their way to the boat, their circle was complete, and they were heading out. We stopped for a farewell photo, before we pulled on our waterproofs and set off into the cold morning towards Camp Frances.
We soon found ourselves stuck behind a long line of kids. ‘Chico’s, podemos pasar?’, got their attention and they move aside. I wish my Spanish extended beyond such three word sentences, mostly assisted by google translate. Babble got me off the bottom rung, but come our next major excursion I will do better and attend a language school.
We passed through another large area of dead trees. Apparently these were lost to a fire a few years ago. Further along we passed the track which goes up Valle del Frances, our route for the following day. Our ‘rest’ day. The main valley opened out and we began to get spectacular views across the azure coloured Lago Nordenskjold. I wondered how this lake got its name, as I struggled along. I tried to keep up with Kris and Ona who were deep in conversation, if I could listen in, I might be able to distract myself from the pain in my growling stomach.
We arrived at Frances before checking in time, so took the steep track down to the hut and sat inside to eat our lunch. It was a hive of activity, bread was being baked and packed lunches for the following day were being prepared. The weather cleared so we ambled back along the route to a lookout over the lake. It was just about warm enough to sit out and enjoy the view.
Before supper, we showered in the best campsite showers on the track. The design of the block was terrific made from wood and corrugated plastic. The experience might not have been so great had it still been snowing of course. The evening meal in the tiny hut, was also very good, on par with Camp Seron.
Today we managed to get onto the Tasmania Ferry by the skin of our teeth. We were the last passengers to board. The doors were held, we carried all our clobber, by passed scanning, hasty security questions – no, we don’t have any fresh food nor weapons nor scuba diving equipment.
This next phase of our journey started yesterday. A lazy morning, a bit of stretching with Paula, who comes from these parts (@yoginimelbourne), a dip in the pool, laundry followed by lunch.
Then a fabulous bush walk in the Blue Mountains to Red Hands Cave which is buried deep in a wonderful narrow valley, along a near dried up creek in thick eucalyptus forest. Towards the top of the gully was a massive rock, hollowed by water over millennia and at some stage in the distant past, decorated with painted and stencilled hand prints, ancient Indigenous Australian art. These prints have been created in a similar way to those at Cueva de los Manos, in Argentina. These were described by Mary Beard in the recent BBC art history documentary, Civilisations. What a shame we did see them too! In the TV programme, Mary suggests that the hands could represent a greeting. A wave, from earlier inhabitants of this land, to Nicky, a recent settler, and to Andy and I, travellers, circling the world.
We got back to the car, hot and dripping, we had a few minutes to down a cold drink before we bade farewell and Nicky returned to her new Winmalee home for a zoom meeting on media strategy for the new Urban Transformations Research Centre she has set up at the Western Sydney University.
We caught the train back to Sydney where we had a generous hour before the night train to Melbourne. We walked all the way down platform 1 to car A, 1st class. I’ve never been in 1st class before. I’m not sure it quite met my expectations. We had a small cabin, which felt submarine-like, old, with heavy grey metal fittings, worn blue upholstery, pleated curtains, and strip lighting. However, between each grim little pod was a tiny cubicle containing an antiquated yet cleverly designed, drop down loo and basin, and, god bless Australia, A SHOWER! Shampoo, tooth brush/paste and fluffy white towels all provided! It was so good to pull off our boots and get washed after the wonderful but fearsomely hot walk earlier in the day.
Jessie, our host on the train, came to pull down the bunks and make up beds. Heavy-duty, crisp white sheets, slightly dubious duvet, pillows made of rocks and a plastic mattress. A mainly comfortable night was had, clean, if a bit sweaty!
The following morning we learned of the delay, first 30 min, then 45 and finally 50 minutes. We were going to miss the carefully planned connecting train but there was a later one so we were not overly concerned. We gazed out at the unfamiliar landscape. In his special and after 10 years together, all too familiar way, Andy commented that this was perfect habitat for Kangaroos. Seconds later, there they were, a family of three Eastern Greys, mum, pa and a little joey, bouncing by!
On the next train we tried to book a cab to take us from the station to the ferry terminal. With that sorted, we relaxed. The trouble started when we arrived at North Geelong station. There were car parks on either side of the train tracks. Which side would the cab come to? It took us some time to realise that the cab had failed to materialise. Andy got back on the phone, and another car was dispatched, but by now we were right up against time.
As we arrived at the port it was clear that cars and freight were still being loaded. However, when I walked into the foot passenger entrance, the person at the front desk told me that check in had closed. ‘But but but’…I stuttered in disbelief, ‘we have come all the way from England (via Chile, Argentina, New Zealand) and we booked this ferry months ago, cars are still being loaded, surely there is something you can do?’ The security man behind the counter ominously rose to his feet as Andy came to my side, having paid the cab driver. ‘I’m sorry you are too late’ said the receptionist, ‘I can book you onto the night sailing if you like? Your ticket has been cancelled.’
I could see our names on the no show list in front of her. ‘No no, we need to get on THIS ferry. Please can you see if something can be done to help us’. Reluctantly, she lifted her phone, ‘I’ve got a couple at the desk, their train from Sydney was delayed, they had trouble finding a cab, I’ve told them check in is closed and our policy on late arrivals, but they are pleading with me. You are the manager, it is your call’.
A few anxious minutes later, the manager came to the desk. He agreed to let us on and also waived the fee to reinstate our tickets. Just at that moment, there was commotion at the sliding door behind us, a women was distraught that the gate to the car departure area was shut, she too was late. We kept our heads down. Boarding passes were thrust into my hand, we clambered aboard.
Chatting to a man on board, I mentioned how lucky we felt to have made it to the ferry. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘so you are the reason we were delayed! I’ve used this service over 30 times in the past couple of years and never has it been late’. Had the boat been on time, we probably would not have been on it.
How wonderful it was to wake up in a warm dry bunk bed and be able to fall out of it, rather than having to hunt for yesterday’s underwear stuffed into a makeshift pillow, push damp clothes into a sleeping bag to warm for a few minutes before dressing horizontally, pulling on boots, then finally, crashing out on all fours through a dripping tent door, getting sodden in the process, before arriving at a fully upright position in whatever wind and weather the morning had brought!
It was also wonderful to have been able to shower inside, in a room with radiators, and space, and hooks to hang things on, not worrying about dropping precious dry clothes onto an icy cold muddy floor.
Before taking off we dropped our packs in a locker room and walked back up the way to grab some photos in the relatively better weather. On returning to the refugio, we discovered that we were not the only ones to have dropped bags that morning. We spent best part of the next hour excavating our 4 packs and then carefully returning the hundreds of others to the very small room. Shortly after we had finished a very angry woman started hurling the bags out again. We watched her for a while, and then took off.
The path followed the valley down, rising and falling to cross streams, eventually climbing to a fantastic mirador where a number of people had stopped on a rocky promontory. A massive gust of wind, set them flying for hats, gloves, hiking poles. A pack cover filled like a balloon, ripped off a backpack and disappeared over the glacial lake. Our plan to stop here for lunch was soon revised. We finally escaped the wind when we came down into a deep, tree-lined ravine. Lunch was cheese and tortillas, not my favourite, but I was beginning to feel unwell.
At every refuge there is an elaborate check-in procedure. Not only must you produce your booking information and National Park Pass, you must also hand over your passport and PDI, a flimsy piece of paper which you receive when you enter the country. These latter two items are then copied, who knows what for. After this, if you are dining in, you are asked if you have any dietary requirements. We got quite good at saying ‘Andy y Ona son vegetarianos, Kris come de todo, Miranda come de todo pero no puede comer nada con huevos’. The previous evening I asked a member of staff three times to confirm the meal was egg free. Three times I was told it was. It wasn’t. For the next two days I suffered the consequences, although I did very much enjoy the offending vanilla desert at the time.
Even though it was me with the cramps, it was Andy who took the fall and came crashing down backpack and all, on a fair weather dry day. He just put one foot wrong. Fortunately, he was soon upright again and little damage was done. But good it happened on this day and not the previous
Paine Grande is the largest of the camps. It sits between Lago Grey and lago Pehoe and has a boat connection to Refugio Pudeto, where there is a road. As a result it gets many visitors. The best bit about it, is the view, but otherwise it was the least favoured of all our stopping places. That evening soon after we moved in, a mass of kids arrived. They kept us up most of the night. I don’t think anyone realises that you can hear everything through a tent wall. That’s everything! I was envious that these kids from Santiago, were able to have such an exciting school trip. I remember a day trip to Boulogne when I was at school, most of it spent on a coach. That’s about as exotic as it got!
This was a short walking day, only 9.3 miles (15km) but it took us 9 hours and 20 minutes. We moved at a rate of less than 1 mile per hour. The conditions were that bad.
Early, the day started early. All hikers had been told they had to be off by 7:00. It had been a cold night with snow. Our tent was was pitched in a slight dip, straight on the ground rather than on a platform. We rented mattresses to keep us from near death or worst still, drowning.
It was one of those nights when you were not going to escape the desperation to pee. All the tents were huddled together under trees, so peeing just outside the tent was not really an option. The loo in the shelter was too far away with trip hazards aplenty from tree roots to tent guys, not to mention the snow and mud, so what to do? In the end I chose my blue cup! It became my wee blue cup after that!
We left the camp at 6:00. Most others in our cohort had left before us, but there were one or two stragglers. The path was treacherous from the get go. Steep, muddy, riddled with streams, slippery tangled tree roots, snow, blustery winds which smashed into you on the scree slopes between the relative protection of the trees. Once above the tree line it was a matter of turning your back to the wind, legs wide and firmly planting your hiking poles, 4 points of contact with the ground, until the gust passed.
Once into the vast expanse of the upper valley, we decided to move forward in tight convoy, stopping together for each white out. The snow got deep, the foot prints of those ahead, soon vanished. The path was marked by red poles and it became very important to catch site of the next before leaving the last. None of us had expected conditions quite like this.
I had to stop to put on an extra layer, so we all had to stop. In the lee of a boulder I got my back pack off, opened it, pulled out my hooded top, handed it to Andy. It flapped in the wind and quickly got snow covered. I shut my bag, took off my anorak, handed that to Andy. Quickly I put the top on, zipped it up, grabbed my anorak, got that on and got the pack on my back. I found myself apologising to the others for the stop. There was no talk of turning back. On we moved. Heads down. Later a quick stop to drink and eat handfuls of nuts and dried fruit. We reached the pass, stopped briefly for photos and gingerly started down.
The snow rendered the landscape uniform, our feet disappeared under it, sometimes knee deep, this was dangerous, potential bone crushing, ankle twisting, knee dislocating territory. What if….?? There was no protection here, no way to shelter an injured person and keep warm while waiting for rescue. Both Ona and Kris had Satellite emergency devices but quite how a rescue would be initiated or executed and how long it would take were unknown. We kept going. I felt I could trust my body and hoped the others could trust theirs.
My thin gloves froze solid. I wondered what frostbite might feel like and how many fingers I could afford to lose. My hands could no longer grip my hiking poles. I forced another stop. We huddled together against the wind like emperor penguins, Kris produced another pair of gloves, Ona some hand warmers. It was a battle to get the cellophane wrappers off the warmers then and activate the heat giving chemicals. With help, I forced my numb hands into the dry gloves, stuffed the warmer sachets inside, and then somehow got my frozen gloves over the top. The relief from the biting cold was near instant.
Dwarf trees started to emerge, we were soon back in forest, it was a little warmer but not enough to rest for long. The path became crazy steep, giant boulders, massive roots, muddy, slippery and in places exposed. Andy was not happy, vertigo messing with his mind. We worried about the other walkers. The Russian American girls were wearing shoes, not boots. How would they manage in these conditions? We were aware of a few people who were walking solo. Where were they now?
We began to get views of the massive Glacier Grey, a welcome distraction. Sometime after, and rather dazed, we arrived at the Paso Shelter. There, we found around 10 walkers standing at a high bench brewing hot drinks. We were greeted with cheers! These people had worried about us just as we had worried about them. They, on account of our age (we were definitely the oldest on the trail), and we on account of their youth!
Next on the list of distractions, but not welcomed by Andy, was a series of long and bouncy suspension bridges, slung across dramatic deep ravines. This really is the stuff of nightmares for someone who suffers vertigo. He decided to be the first to cross, not wait for any discussion or pep talk, but just to get it over with as fast as he could, and he did! From one bridge, it was possible to see straight up the sheer rock wall of the Torres, but this was not a good place to stop and take a photo.
Further on we began to encounter groups of walkers, coming up the valley, towards us, day trippers from Refugio Grey. We were muddy, wet, heavily laden, slow moving. They were clean, fresh, being steered by guides. The ‘O’ can only be followed in an anti-clockwise direction to enable walkers to cross the John Gardiner pass in the early morning when the wind, apparently, possibly, sometimes, occasionally, might be somewhat less, than later in the day. Most people follow the ‘W’, or parts of it, routes that avoid the John Gardiner altogether, and for good reason.
The weather was variable but the the temperature was on a downward spiral. Los Perros, is the highest and most remote campsite on the ‘O’ circuit. We had been told that a pit toilet and cold shower would be provide but no meals. A tent would be available, but we would need to put it up and collapse it before we left. We had been led to believe that this camp was very basic with not even a shelter to cook in.
After Los Perros comes the John Gardiner Pass, famous for its extreme wind blowing straight off Chile’s vast southern ice sheet. An early departure from the camp is essential as the wind gets even more fierce later in the day.
With all this in mind we set off, braced for a cold damp night and a pre dawn departure the following morning. It was not a huge distance from Dickson to Los Perros and we did not want to arrive too early, only to sit out in the cold, so we set off late and took our time. It was a lovely path through thick forest.
Soon after we left the camp two horses came up the path behind us. On one was a Gaucho, a beret on his head, on the other, you guessed, a freezer! Why on earth would anyone transport a freezer up this path unless they were taking it to the Los Perros Camp? And if this were the case, surely there had to be power up there, and potentially a shelter with lights! Perhaps the camp would be more hospitable than we anticipated.
We had odd moments of sunshine and great views of the Catedral and Cota peaks. A fabulous bog, but too small for a seed snipe according to Andy. There were a number of bridges in varying states of disrepair and we stopped by one for lunch. Soon after, we heard the characteristic tok tok noise of a Magellanic Carpentario, a large woodpecker, the males are dressed up with a bright red head and yellow eye, the females with black head topped with a tuft of feathers, red around the beak and also, an intense yellow eye. Andy picked up a couple of sticks and started to beat out the double rhythm on a tree trunk. Soon, not one, but three birds were in the trees around us, inquisitive things that they are.
We continued up, into a section of dead forest, the trunks silver and smooth. We scrambled beside a stream and then onto the ridge of a terminal moraine. In front of us, the Los Perros Glacier, literally pouring down the mountainside. In the distance, off to our right, we The got our first site of the John Gardiner Pass, which at that moment looked rather innocuous. Not long after we arrived at the camp. Yes it was cold and damp, snowing in fact, a gentle but constant fall. But, the tents were pitched, walkers were congregating in the large communal kitchen, camp cookers were ablaze on the benches, warming everyone through and weary walkers were spinning yarns of their days exploits!
A damp start to the day, clouds low with drizzle. We packed up, breakfasted in the refuge, collected lunch bags, and set off in waterproofs. The walkers soon spread out along the narrow path following the silent river. Rising up a steep rock outcrop where we experienced two or three massive gusts of wind, we cross into the valley of the Rio Paine, with views of the lago by the same name. Ahead the weather looked bleak. Leaving the lago behind, the valley broadened out, with lovely reed beds and pools. We passed three British lads, Sam, Thomas, and Kyle from Birmingham bringing up the rear. Sam was lying across the path with his head in a small stream. We stopped for lunch and they leapfrogged ahead of us again. The path entered beech forest and we climbed to a mirador overlooking largo Dickson and the camp immediately below.
That evening we found ourselves sitting with Connie and Melissa, mother and daughter. They were German but living and working on a sheep farm, close to La Junta just off the Careterra Austral. They had inherited the farm from a great uncle and decided to make a go of it. Melissa, the youngest child was at University in Europe but was back for the Christmas holiday.
A note for walkers
It turns out that the refuges bake their own bread, sell burgers and pizzas, all manner of snacks, provide shampoo in the showers, and for the most part loo roll! Some even had sun cream freely available. It would have been good to have known all this up front and saved us carrying additional weight on our backs. We carried kilos of nuts and dried fruit, chocolate, snacks for the route, essential when the going gets tough. We had opted to eat evening meals and breakfasts in all refuges where possible (7 out of 8, no meals are available at Camp Peros) and buy 4 packed lunches (sold for an eye watering 30USD, and carry 5 of our own (tortillas and cheese, tomatoes, avocado, apple while they lasted, supplemented with reconstituted freeze dried ‘salads’. However, we could have easily prepared a sandwich or two from the very generous refuge breakfasts or even have bought pizza which at 10 USD were much better value, and carried that for lunch.
It arrived, the much anticipated date, the day we were starting the epic ‘O’ circuit of the Torres del Paine. The name says it all, (learning to pronounce it was another matter). In the months leading to our departure from home, we upped our exercise, he rowing and me running, and we added a weekly ‘personal training’ session to be sure to be able to complete this mountain circumnavigation injury free. Never have I been so glad to have given so much time to lifting, squatting, lunging, pushing and pulling. But the preparation fully paid off.
There was chaos at the entry to the Torres del Paine National Park. Hikers and day trippers poured off coaches from Puerto Natales. For all the complexity in the booking system, there was little information on what to do, where to go, how much to pay, what to expect.
At the Welcome centre, whilst Andy left a message for Gerado, who was due to deliver our repaired camper, left behind at El Calafate, (Argentina) I went in search of the water bottle that had got lost in the scramble for the bus. Fortunately, I found it on a counter along with someone else’s box of small pink pills. I asked around the groups gathered outside if anyone might have dropped their medication. “Probably birth control’ said a young women with dreads and piercings. ‘ Ah yes’ I responded, ‘not critical then’. ‘No’, she agreed, ‘but this sure is a cool place to conceive’!
We set off, not quite sure of the route but soon found the way. After a few steps Andy informed us, in true tour leader style, that the ‘zonas de recouperaciones’ were for habitat recovery, not ours.
The route to camp Seron was gentle, a lovely path through forest, along the bank of the aptly named Rio Ecantado. We were warmly greeted at the camp. There were only 12 walkers dining in that evening, the others were cooking in a shelter outside. On our table were two women, in front of them a bottle of wine which they immediately offered to share with us. They were Russians, living in America, with no desire to return. Thirty somethings, mothers, married to Russians met in the US. They were fresh, beautifully poised and turned out. One was in clothes that coordinated head to toe, pinks purples, mauves. They were on their 5th day of the circuit, having started at Paine Grande. That day they had walked two stages, starting from camp Chileno at 3:00 in the morning, hiking up to the Torres for sunrise, then all the way down to the Central Sector and on to Camp Seron. A mammoth hike. You must be totally exhausted’ I exclaimed. Think Villanelle, from Killing Eve, ‘ I feel totally rested’ the coordinated one replied. She took a long slow breath, her eyes closed for a second or two. ‘I have no worries. Children (three, under 7) are with father.’
The evening meal was excellent, each plate carefully constructed – a tower of gratin potato, roasted veg, crowned with a fillet of chicken finished with a crispy ‘leaf’ of Parmesan.
I am selling my baby grand with proceeds going to The Red Hen Project a charity that supports vulnerable children.
The piano was made by the East German company, August Forster, between 1929 and 1937. It has the dimensions 126cm long x 152cm wide x 99cm high. It has been housed for the last few years by the family of a diploma student. It has been well looked after, but since the student left for University 18 months ago, it has not been tuned.
‘Having grown up playing mostly on an upright piano, I had only really experienced playing on a grand during lessons and at concerts. This was a totally different experience! Being able to play Miranda’s piano whilst working towards first my Grade 8 and later when beginning to prepare for my diploma was incredibly helpful; not only did I become more confident and creative playing on a larger piano, but the novelty factor of having a grand piano in my back room and being able to play it whenever I chose never quite wore off! I’ve really enjoyed having Miranda’s piano. It has made me fall in love even more deeply with the piano and I am so sad to be parting with it. I owe a lot of gratitude to this piano which went a long way towards helping me improve my playing and building my confidence as a pianist. Whoever buys this piano will cherish as I have’.