Jan 17 2023

Don’t miss the boat!

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.

Red Hands Cave
Nicky on the Red Hand Caves bush walk
First class ‘twinette’ on the Sydney to Melbourne night train
Out there be Kangaroos!
Entering the Bass Strait

December 5 2022

Day 5, Refugio Grey to Campamento Paine Grande

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!

Bag locker at Refugio Grey
Our path is in there, somewhere
A valley full of dead trees. They burnt in a fire some years back. Recovery is slow but sure
A quick pic before we had to retreat from the Patagonian wind!
Paine Grande
The campsite with a view

December 3rd 2022

Day 3, Camp Dickson to Los Perros

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!

Seedsnipeless bog
Glacier Los Perros
Yay the sun came out for our selfie!

December 2nd 2022

Day 2 Camp Seron to Camp Dickson

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.

Leaving camp Seron along the upper Valley Encantado
Ponds along the Rio Paine
An American Kestrel hovering over a reed bed, black necked swans, upland geese other and usual suspects in the valley.
A lovely winding board walk to cross bog at the the head of the Paine valley
Looking down on Camp Dickson in the peninsula at the centre of the picture, Embothrium Coccineum, long petalled red flowers in the foreground and new snow on the mountains behind.
The following morning, a little patch of blue sky but more snowfall visible above the camp
Kris on lago Dickson

December 1st 2022

Torres del Paine National Park hiking trails, refuges and campsites. The ‘O’ circuit is labelled in red, the ‘W’ in yellow

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.

Working out what not to take!
The Torres from the bus
Valley Encantado with two mujeres encantadores!
A bright yellow tent at camp Seron to have some fun in!
A cold night, I slept in all my warm clothes but look, clean knickers!

May 2021, Outer Hebrides

With restrictions easing and in need of a change of scene, we looked at destinations where both our interests could be satisfied – birds for him and hills for me. Of course over the years these interests have melded and while I am far from an accomplished birder and he sometimes prefers to sit (in a northerly gale sea-watching), it is not generally hard for us reach agreement. The Uists became our favoured choice, we found a place to stay and booked the ferry crossing. Neither were trouble free. We travelled North stopping for lunch at Low Newton-by-sea and then overnight with friends in Edinburgh. The next leg of our journey took us to a hill side off the river Dee and from there, because of a change in the CalMac time table (a regular feature of their service) we left a day early for Oban and the spectacular 7 hour sea crossing to Lochboisdale. Our return was similarly stepwise, stopping for a lovely lunch with friends in Doune and then overnight with other friends in Edinburgh. We had not realised quite how much we had missed the proximity of others.  Being able to scan someone else’s bookshelf, stand at another’s kitchen counter, sit and chat in a different living room or garden, is transformational!

Staoinebrig

The view of Beinn Mhòr from our rented house at Staoinebrig, S. Uist. The garden went all the way to the water and included a rusty old beat up car complete with what looked like bullet holes!

An evening stroll from the house, to the accompaniment of at least two Corncrakes! They make a distinctive noise, like drawing a stick over a hard comb, twice in succession. We made way for a ginger haired shepherd, his flock and sheep dogs. The crofts, cars and other debris in the back ground are typical of the island.

Bornais

Our local beach, at the Bornais end, was teeming with waders: sanderling; turnstones; and dunlin. Along with the rusting cars, old fridges and abandoned farm equipment, there were other equally powerful remnants of the island’s habitants, including the washed up remains of a whale. A fine resting place if ever there was one!

Berneray

We did a wonderful walk around the island of Berneray, black skies in sharp contrast with the white sand beaches. On the north eastern corner lies a cemetery. Marked only by stones, are the graves of commonwealth soldiers. I have not been able to find out why these burials happened here or who lies beneath. Would families members know, were they told? Unrecognised people in the ground of a foreign land for which, willingly or otherwise, they had given their lives. For these poor souls, while incredibly beautiful, this probably cannot be considered a fine resting place.

Beinn Mhòr

From our house we could see Beinn Mhòr, the highest peak on the outer Hebrides. We waited for the best weather to climb her. It was touch and go. There are no foot paths. It would be very easy to get lost in cloud, the mountainside can disappear in seconds. The route to the top follows an arrete which caused an attack of vertigo in one of us!

Looking down towards Loch Aineort from the Beinn Mhòr arrete. The clouds hiding the sheer drop on the eastern side of the mountain.

Vallay

On the north west side of N. Uist lies the island of Vallay, which is accessible in fair weather at low tide. The island is awash with wild flowers. Its western side has spectacular beaches perfect for a picnic and swim! But the interior is disappointing, filled as it is with cattle and all the paraphernalia that comes with farming – barbed and electric fences, plastic silage bags and unnatural ‘improved’ grassland where Machair should be, a rare and delicate grass growing on shell sand. At least the farming is not as intensive as it could be, but no doubt it impacts on wildlife and habitat. Facing the main land on the south coast lies the ruin of a large house once lived in by textile factory owner Erskine Beveridge. We spent some time trying to see the Corncrakes we could hear rasping close by. On crossing a barbed fence at a broken down style, I got a whopping electric shock that hurled me to the ground. The wire was not marked as live. Walking in the Outer Hebrides is clearly not encouraged, live wires, broken styles, no footpaths. Perhaps this keeps the place free of too many tourists. We saw no other people on this day.

Oyster catcher nest amidst the Highland cattle dung
A quick brew using a useful spare tyre as a wind shield for the camp cooker.

Loch Aineort

Loch Aineort lies in a spectacular valley at the foot of Beinn Mhòr, just the other side of the ‘main road’ from where we were staying. We had been alerted to it by a birder we met on the beach at Berneray. At the end of the road, the land owner has planted a garden which has matured over the years and, unusually, has an array of welcoming footpaths! We returned to this place a number of times, firstly to spot otters and subsequently to walk and to sit, brew up and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

One wet afternoon we stopped on the road side, threatening clouds meant we did not wander too far from the car. We dropped down on the beach at Stinky Bay on Benbecula, and sat for some time watching waders at very close range, they appeared totally undisturbed by our presence.

Turnstone
Landing sanderling

Eriskay

On our last day, under a blanket of thick cloud, we drove south and over the bridge to Eriskay. We stopped for lunch at Am Politician, wishing that ours could do better. After an excellent meal of hand caught scallops for one and battered monk fish for the other, we set off walking around the bay. It began to warm and clear. Eriskay has a very different feel to S. Uist. It appears almost touristy, with upmarket accommodation, some remarkable and others a disgrace!

We spotted something that looked a bit like a foot path but of course turned out not to be, and then followed our noses through bog and bush to the high point of the island. Views from the top of the shallow waters between the islands were sublime.

The village shop did not have any Magnums, so clearly Eriskay is not that touristy after-all!