Our Lips Are Sealed

IS it possible to be a fish out of water while actually in water?

It would certainly appear so, given my flailing around off the Argentinian coast in a wetsuit, flippers and snorkel.

Graceful was not exactly the word to describe my time in the water, unlike the local inhabitants we had come to see.

To walking with lions, being charged in a bar by an elephant, a cheetah eating my flip-flop and being knocked over by a gorilla, you can add another thrilling personal wildlife experience – snorkelling with sea lions.

If, by snorkelling, you mean floating about with very little control over which way you were moving or even which way up you were.

That would be me, not the sea lions. They are rather more agile in the water. It is closer-run thing on dry land.

Festive season comes early to Spongebob

Being in the water, let alone so close to such remarkable creatures, would have been pretty much unthinkable in the deep south of Argentina at Ushuaia, even with the help of a couple of wet suits.

But the weather improved as the miles rattled up on the long journey north, the warm clothes we have been wrapped up in for the past few weeks gradually disappearing to see out the rest of the trip in the depths of our locker as shorts, T-shorts and flip-flops again took over as the truck uniform.

Not that we could discard them immediately as we began the journey north in a truck newly festooned with Christmas decorations.

Our departure from the world’s most southerly city coincided with an abrupt end to the remarkably friendly weather we were served up in Patagonia.

It was cold at times – particularly one or two evenings under canvas – with the odd downpour, but none of the horror tales of gales and four seasons in one day we had been served up in the build-up to the southern leg our South American odyssey.

Early stages of the queue for the ferry

Right up until we left Ushuaia.

By the time we reached the day’s first intended border crossing – there is no way back to mainland Argentina via road without heading in and out of Chile – the wind was howling but with little sign of the problems it was about to create.

For the final time we went through the Chilean custom of unloading, scanning and reloading our bags – including those belong to the people missing in Antarctica, Buenos Aires and wherever else they might be across the continent, which at least provided plenty of room on board through several long drive days – and headed for the day’s other major hurdle.

Crossing a narrow strait of water had been fairly straightforward on the way down, but that wind was about to make the return journey a whole lot more troublesome.

By the time we arrived at the Bahia Azul ferry crossing at 2.30pm, a line of traffic was forming and the ferries could be seen anchored offshore, going nowhere as conditions had been judged too rough just half an hour earlier.

And so we waited. And waited. All the time watching the clock with the day’s second border crossing – about an hour’s drive away – due to close at 10pm.

At which point, we were watching cars being loaded on to the first ferry to dock when conditions were judged good enough to sail again.

Nearly back home

The intervening eight hours had seen us do… well, not a lot really. There was not a lot we could do, bar sit it out and occasionally brave the gale to visit the nearby cafe to use the facilities and search in vain for hot food.

We did convince them to reheat our big pot of chicken soup which we scoffed down on the truck as hope rose of our vigil finally coming to an end.

When it did, it was still not plain sailing – the 20-minute crossing taking twice as long as we looked out on the ferry and the surrounding waves from some very strange angles.

With the border closed until morning, we had little choice other than to park up amid the trucks waiting to cross and set up our own refugee camp for the night, bar those who opted for the safety of a night on the truck.

Yes, the hats are still fixed to the netting above. Doubt we noticed after a few glasses of red

Our early-morning border crossing was smooth enough, although our mood was not eased by a sign declaring it would be open 24 hours just two days later.

A quick stop for cook group shopping and we were heading north again, eating up the largely featureless miles as the temperature began to rise.

It was mainly long trousers and hoodies for our bush camp on a rocky beach, but by the time we rolled into the Welsh village of Gaiman for tea, cakes, ice cream and reliving my years on the western side of the Severn Bridge, we were into what would be described as a glorious summer day back in Wales.

And it was distinctly beach weather as we hit Puerto Madryn – where the first Welsh settlers arrived, on the cliff by our campsite in 1865 – which was pretty handy, considering we were at a beach and signing up to take the offshore plunge.

Which was how a group of us were up bright and early – very early for those of us on cook group duty – to splash around with the pups of a seal lion colony.

Bush camp on the shore

Having never snorkelled properly, nor worn flippers before, perhaps my less than graceful performance was to be expected.

Who knew it could be that difficult to keep your feet underwater?

But my struggles aside, it was a truly magical 45 minutes or so as the curious pups swam and played around us, letting us stroke them as they nibbled at our flippers and wetsuits.

And when they opted for dry land, we were able to bob (or thrash around in my case) just off the beach where the giant bull kept rivals and youngsters in check and the colony went about its morning routine.

Which largely consisted of lying around, occasionally making the odd strange grunt.

A lot like a long drive day on the truck.

  • Next time: When overland trips collide, sweating it out in Buenos Aires and a little bit of politics. Just in case you hadn’t had enough.
It was long, it was flat. You start seeing things
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Ever South

The view from our campsite in Torres del Paine National Park – the bird hopped into view just before the camera clicked. Pretty much standard view in this part of the world

CHANGES in direction are taking many years, endless arguments and, quite possibly, another unclear election result back home.

But for the inhabitants of our big yellow truck, our whole journey takes an abrupt about face when we climb aboard in the morning.

Long road ahead

After 11 weeks heading south from Quito we can go no further and day 80 will see us roll back out of Ushuaia and north on the long road back through Patagonia.

We will do it with the truck festooned in Christmas decorations (met with a variety of responses from delight to, well, mine) but shorn of a large chunk of its passengers.

Five have not had enough of heading south just yet and are somewhere on boats en route to Antarctica, one has been forced back to Santiago by a passport issue while a growing number have opted to fly to Buenos Aires early to miss a series of long drive days and bush camps along the Atlantic coast with what could be some of the most inhospitable, least exciting conditions Patagonia has thrown at us.

Ice and drink is a dangerous mix

Not that anything it can serve up can wash away the lasting impression the whole region has made on us over the past couple of weeks – it is simply stunning.

It is difficult to keep coming up with superlatives for the constant stream of extraordinary scenery, so just take it as read that anywhere mentioned throughout this post is breathtaking, beautiful, dramatic, picturesque, unique, memorable and any other adjective you want to add to the list.

Often a combination of several or all of those things all at once.

And, considering what we had been warned could lie ahead, we have got away with the weather so far.

We have had the odd rainy day and a fair few clouds, while a couple of camping evenings have got a little bit chilly if you were not properly wrapped up in a sleeping bag or under a couple of blankets.

But the weather has played its part in helping us savour this remarkable part of the world, albeit wrapped up in a variety of layers – bar those strange people who seem able to wear shorts or a T-shirt in all weather.

When you left us in El Chalten, the weather was very much playing ball and it held firm as we headed around the neighbouring lake to El Calafate, enabling a group of us to dine al fresco in the pretty main street.

So deprived were we of winter conditions, we headed for an ice bar to cool down – dressed up in thick gloves and hooded winter capes for half an hour of unlimited drinks (always a dangerous thing to offer an overlander) in what was essentially a large freezer.

Calving at the Perito Moreno glacier (Video: Becky Clark)
Mother hen

It paved the way for a birthday celebration at a nearby restaurant – almost inevitably in Argentina featuring great piles of meat – and another one of those nights in a nearby bar which drifted on a fair bit later than originally expected. For a couple of us at least.

While we had been enjoying sun and ice, several of our number had done the same thing at the Perito Moreno glacier in perfect conditions.

Which was not what we got the next morning for our trip, via a couple of interesting stops at a bush – yes, seriously, got off the coach in the rain to look at a bush in the middle of nowhere – and a ranch which was supposedly notable but all we saw were the puppies which curled up, shivering, between my feet.

Up close to the ice in the rain

By the time we arrived at the glacier, the heavens had well and truly opened but it remains a mightily impressive sight, especially when it calves off large chunks of ice – even more so when we got up close under clearing skies during an hour-long boat trip.

Our relentless journey south bounced us back across the border to Chile – a common occurrence which we will do for a couple of hours tomorrow before leaving for the final time – and the town of Puerto Natales.

Selfie advice – watch out who is trying to squeeze into the picture

It is, to be polite, functional rather than pretty but serves as the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park for which pretty would be a remarkable understatement.

Shorn of four of our number – rather quicker than anticipated – who were heading off for the four-day W Trek, we tucked into takeaway pizza and steeled ourselves for three nights under canvas this far south.

Our first port of call was the same as our intrepid trekkers, to the point that we bumped into them on the trail of the Towers trek which ranged from sheer hell to people with a bad knee (the muddy, uphill early bits) to a fun stroll through Middle Earth.

The top of the Towers trek

Was regularly expecting a hobbit to pop out as we meandered our way through the forest and while most headed up the final steep section, some of us put discretion above valour – it was snowing after all – and headed back down the trail for what was still a long, rewarding trek.

Never too far from a stunning view

Even more rewarding were the views which greeted us en route and around our campsite deep in the park on the edge of Lake Pehoe which deserved the toasting they got deep into the night. Maybe too deep in some cases.

Which may have explained a slow start to the next day which largely consisted of too many cooks doing their best not to spoil a variety of dishes being cooked on an open fire to mark Thanksgiving for our American contingent.

Our final day in the park brought more walking, although for some of us it was little more than a stroll up to a waterfall and around the edge of the campsite, but even that was enough to test the superlatives.

Look, the views were amazing. Just take my word for it
Penguins at home

Especially with the local wildlife more than happy to put on a show for the cameras, right up until the gloriously clear final morning as we rolled back out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.

Reunited with our trekkers – with around 100km banked in their legs – we kept on rolling south, not without mishap as a coach opted to cut a bit too close to Spongebob (remember, big, yellow, square and hard to miss) as we were parked up waiting to board a ferry.

And overlanders at home for the night up the road from the penguins. We were warned the weather would be awful

Black and white dolphins bouncing around in the wake were enough to keep us entertained, as were the king penguins at a colony which provided an interesting backdrop (and soundtrack if you listened carefully) in the distance to our bush camp for the night.

Our final few hundred kilometres heading south took us back into Argentina and on to Ushuaia – the end of the world.

End of the road south

And we feel fine. 

It is a landmark stop, providing not only a welcome bed (and we have managed to shed five roommates to Antarctica and Buenos Aires inside 24 hours), ample opportunities to shop, eat and drink (which may have seen a couple of us locked out of the hostel and forced to sleep on the truck) but also to get lost on a relatively simple trek up to a lake.

Not to mention its significance in the trip.

In the morning we head north through possibly the longest (and most Welsh) few drive days of the trip which will begin to take on a new shape as the terrain changes, big cities return and layers of clothing are consigned back to our lockers.

But until then, we will continue to savour southern hospitality.

The lake was worth the trek – whichever way we went
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