Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

PATAGONIA conjures the past

Land of vivid contrasts, wildlife

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Most travellers flocking to Patagonia do so with a copy of In Patagonia, one of the travel classics written on the region.

They follow the tracks of Bruce Chatwin and have converted backcountry towns into major tourist destinations. The Patagonia Chatwin described now only exists in a few places, a little off the beaten track, but the region is still just as vaguely described as in the '70s.

According to Chatwin: "Patagonia is not a precise region on a map. It is a vast, vague territory that encompasses 900,000 square kilometres of Southern Argentina and Chile."

I'm not sure from where my desire to reach Patagonia and the land of Tierra del Fuego stemmed; perhaps Darwin's descriptions of the Yamana people in Voyage of the Beagle, the charting of Port Desire by the privateer Thomas Cavendish, or perhaps because to me it still was a region scarcely advanced from its early maps showing blue unicorns, red centaurs, elephants bearing condors and giants.

I left Canada with a camera, tent, some clothes, a Spanish dictionary and of course a travel book (which I never used). With the exception of long flights, delays and full body scans, my adventure really began when I arrived at the border of northern Patagonia in Chile. I had no itinerary beyond a return ticket for 10 weeks hence and a strong desire to go south, as far south as possible in Patagonia.

There is no continuous road through Chilean Patagonia as the ocean is too close to the peaks of the mountains. The route south is on foot, horseback, or sea, until you reach some of the few travelled roads of the region.

The weekly ferry service requires four days to travel the thousand-odd kilometres of channels and fiords. The landscape is eerily similar to coastal British Columbia yet the Lenga forests and soaring condors reminded me I was far from home. The waters were dominated by seabirds; albatross with up to four-metre wingspans followed the boat for most of the journey, but there were no whales to see due to overharvesting during the zealous whaling years.

After two days of continuous travel, we had reached the waters along the Patagonian ice shelf and were privileged to see a glacier, one of the largest in the region. The thunderous sounds of ice creaking, crackling and calving truly sends shivers down the spine.

The neck-straining voyage ends in the southern town of Puerto Natales, home of Gortex-clad travellers readying to hike, trek and climb through southern Patagonia. The ferry through the Patagonian fiords had only whetted my appetite, and 52 degrees south was only the launching point for me to explore the southernmost parts of the world -- Fin del Mundo as all the postcards so proudly proclaim.

I elected to continue my journey by ferry, exploring the strait of Magellan, the Darwin Cordilla and of course the Beagle Channel. The second ferry was just as hard on the neck and as painfully spectacular as the first, if not more so.

I arrived in the town of Puerto Williams, one of the most amazing places of the trip up to then. A view of Cape Horn, from 55 degrees south, three days on a trail, was a spectacular sight, as were the mountains of Isla Grande Tierra del Fuego from my hostel dorm room.

The contrast between the mountains and rainforests of Chilean Patagonia and the dry, barren landscape of Argentine Patagonia is extreme. The landscape is flat, dominated by yellow tussock grass and small green bushes. The gauchos on horseback mind the sheep on endless ranches, while the guanacos and ostrich-like rhea wander wild across the steppe.

Yet, it is the features on the edge of the Patagonian steppe that attract recognition in this region. The advancing Perito Moreno glacier is one of the most famous aspects of Argentine Patagonia, and is awe-inspiring, whether viewed from land, sea, or from the glacier itself. The toothy spires outside the town of El Chalten are remarkable reminders of the way the southern Patagonian ice field has shaped the landscape.

The most famous, Cerro FitzRoy, or simply Mount FitzRoy, is a spectacular sight, when it's not a torrential downpour with winds that will blow down a poorly constructed tent.

The frontier town of El Chalten caters to hikers, trekkers and extreme climbers. Cerro Torre, another peak in the region, is one of the top five technical climbs in the world.

The gruelling 13-kilometre trek to the outlook of Laguna de los Tres is worth every step, as once on top, the turquoise blue lake, glaciers, and sheer vertical drop of FitzRoy truly takes the breath away.

Countless hours across the desolate Patagonian steppe is the contrasting rich dark blue ocean, where creatures of old seaman legends still live. From Tierra del Fuego, to the northern border of Patagonia, there are large colonies of penguins, one of the most ancient members of the bird family.

Black and white Magellanic penguins dominate the scene, but on a small island 21 km south of what was once Port Desire, the punked-out rockhopper penguins truly take precedence. Their yellow tufts, red eyes and pink scaly feet remind me that dinosaurs still live on earth in strange forms.

Surrounding the penguin colony are South American sea lions, the Spanish name translating to sea wolves. The enormous, aggressive males calling and fighting over females is an impressive sight.

The larger southern elephant seals, weighing more than a tonne, with their elephant-like trunks and a roar like a lion, sparked terror in the hearts of superstitious sailors.

These sailors, however, must have chuckled a little after seeing white chicken-like birds walking around these creatures without much trouble.

My real goal in coastal Patagonia was to see orcas, which have developed a most remarkable hunting strategy -- beaching themselves with incoming waves to eat sea lion pups on the beaches. Where humans failed to survive in this dry peninsula, orcas succeeded by using innovative techniques to survive. After a couple of hours of sea-watching in perfect conditions, I didn't so much as see a dorsal fin crest through the water, nothing but ocean and orca bait. I had to remind myself that while I may not have seen orcas, I did see an array of other amazing wildlife.

As spectacular as the mountains and coastline were in Argentina, I fell in love with the desolation of the Patagonian Steppe.

People have survived here for thousands of years; negative impressions of human hands up to 9,000 years old dot the river valleys, canyons and caves in the region. The southern hemisphere constellations fill the sky at night and the colour palette of sunrise and sunset are more incredible than any artist's rendition or digital photograph can illustrate.

Even after exploring Patagonia for close to three months, it will still be that region that in my mind is scarcely advanced from its early maps, showing those blue unicorns, red centaurs, elephants bearing condors and giants.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2011 D1

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