The wake-up call comes at 4 am. It might be 7 UK time, but it is nevertheless a rude awakening. The hotel has laid on an early breakfast for us though we must content ourselves with coffee and toast. We arrive at the domestic airport terminal in plenty of time for the 0620 flight AR2802 to Calafate.
Steve, who booked ‘land-only’, had been unable to obtain a seat on the 0620 and was due to follow us on the 0800, but somehow Laura manages to work some magic and a previously non-existant space is found.
As we prepare for take-off, the air hostesses give the mandatory safety demo. I have never seen it done with quite such a sense of lethargy, apathy, and outright contempt.
After a brief stop in Trelew where a few passengers get off and a cleaner boards to attend to the loo, we reach Calafate where we are met by Luqui (short for Luciano), our guide for the rest of the trip. He has ‘footballer’s long black hair, a broad smile and a definite outdoors look about him. He welcomes us and in excellent English introduces himself.
It is a short drive to the town centre. The main drag, a wide concreted dual carriageway divided by a line of trees, is lined with touristy shops with log facades reminiscent of a Wild West frontier town.
Since Luqui had been expecting Steve to follow on the next flight we have a few hours in hand. There is time to wander down to the lake before lunch, which is at the ‘Owl’ restaurant. A highly animated waitress with wild jet-black hair and flawless english takes my order – a ‘personal owl pizza’ (cheese, tomato and sauté meat, no owl).
It is ten to three when we finally leave El Calafate. Our route takes us initially east to join Route 40, then south, and finally west back through a gap in the Andes to the Chilian border and on to Puerto Natales. The landscape is dry and scrubby, populated by occasional groups of rheas and guanacos. Guanacos, found in many places around South America, are somewhat similar to llamas, with russet brown hair, elegant faces and large brown eyes. The females are social animals, living with their young in herds overseen by a single dominant male.
A few clouds skud across the sky. About half way through the afternoon we make a rest stop at a roadside café where a juke box bellows out loud tango music.
A few hours later the scenery has become moor-like in character. At about 7.30 pm we make a sharp right turn onto an unfinished stony track heading for the border with Chile. We pass an estancia (farm) and ten minutes later roll up at the border. It will not be long before the border closes for the night and we are the only party there. After the usual form-filling, we are once more on our way. Although we have not crossed any hills, we are now on the west side of the Andes.
It is a couple more hours of stone-flying track before we arrive at Puerto Natales. The windscreen of the bus has a large and alarming fan of cracks emenating from just below the driver. It’s now obvious why they haven’t replaced it (yet).
It is still light at half past nine as we roll up to the hotel. While we wait on the bus, Luqui goes in to check the arrangements. It seems to take a long time, and when he finally emerges it transpires that our booking has been moved to another establishment. There follows a circuituous journey up and down the grid of one-way streets of Puerto Natales until we finally locate the ‘Lady Florence Dixie’.
The town has a coastal feel about it (although it is actually located deep within a network of channels and fjords) and the buildings are low and colourful. The sky is just beginning to get a bit of orange as the sun slowly descends.
Our late dinner looks set to become a midnight feast. On my table we’ve got our main courses, but the other table is still awaiting starters and exhaustion is setting in after our twenty hour day. The restaurant has a cosy informal atmosphere with wooden walls and rafters and plastic table cloths and ketchup bottles.The grilled salmon is delicious, and again the portions are unfalteringly generous.