Friday 4 February

Puerto Natales lakeside

We have the morning free in Puerto Natales while the cook buys food for the expedition. (It is not permitted to carry any fresh food between Argentina and Chile.) Walk down to the harbour, where a ferry is loading. Behind the bay are distant snow-capped peaks and glaciers. There’s a cool wind blowing but the sun, when it appears between the clouds, is very strong. A group of bored dogs follow us as we walk along the edge of the bay to the outskirts of the town.

We reconvene at noon outside the Lady Florence and drive a few blocks to the restaurant where Luqui has made a reservation. I order the steak, medium rare. The hunk that arrives is almost as big as the plate and at least an inch thick. Inside it is almost raw, so I send it back for a bit more cooking. It is quite delicious but I’m seriously steaked out and can’t manage more than half of it.

Guanacos

Heading for the Torres del Paine National Park, we are soon back on dirt tracks. It is only a few hours to the park though, and we catch our first glimpse of the cuernos (horns), partially obscured by cloud, across Lago Sarmiento de Gamboa.

A short distance further on, we come upon a herd of guanacos peacefully grazing by the side of the road. We stop the bus and cautiously get out to take a closer look. The dominant male, standing watch on a small hill keeps a wary eye on us but the rest of them are almost completely unconcerned. While we are watching them, Luqui points out a condor circling high above. I missed out on seeing any in Peru or Venezuela, so I’m very excited by this my first sighting.

(magnify) Grey fox

At the park entrance we stop while Luqui obtains our permits. There are three grey foxes playing just a short distance from the lodge. One of them poses beautifully to have its photograph taken. They are wild animals, but are presumably quite used to humans around this area.

We continue towards the camp site, rattling around corners and up and down sharp gradients. The bus struggles on the steeper parts and as we get slower and slower it becomes clear that we are not going to make it up this particular one. Then, more alarmingly, the bus starts to roll backwards. The driver pulls up sharply on the handbrake and when that doesn't halt our motion, revs the engine generating a cloud of blue acrid smoke from the clutch. The bus shudders to a halt and Luqui orders us all off while the driver reverses back down the hill to take a run at it. This time (and with less weight aboard) he manages to coax the bus to the crown of the hill and we nervously step back on.

(magnify) Waterfall into Lago Pehoe

Just before the camp site, we stop for a short walk up to the Sendero Mirado Cuernos viewpoint, which will give us our first close view of the horns. The broad footpath takes us first past a raging waterfall where Lago Nordenskjöld empties through a small channel into Lago Pehoe. As we continue along a much narrower path, Cuerno Principal is right in front of us, thrusting majestically skywards. More than ten million years ago, magma forced its way up, lifting high a plateau of sedimentary rock. Glacial erosion did its thing over the succeeding millennia carving deep gulleys. The result is the granite peak topped with a thick cap of dark sedimentary rock that we see today.

(magnify) Cuernos del Paine

Our path descends to the edge of Lago Nordenskjöld. The wind is blowing strongly and whipping up plumes of spray on the water’s surface, which dance around and occasionally form whirling vortices. Don gets very excited by a twisted and bleached tree. ‘Foreground to die for’ he exclaims happily.

At the camp site, Luqui is taking no chances with the tents. Although the wind has calmed, the tents are pitched underneath permanent shelters and he insists that all of the guy ropes are tied down securely.

There is a lot of building work going on at the camp site. A new toilet block has been constructed at our end of the camp site, but unfortunately it is not open yet so we have to use the grotty one up the hill. Theo, our cook, is brewing up tea and coffee. Dinner will be at about 9 pm.