Another travelling day. We leave Calafate at nine and head north towards Fitz Roy. It isn’t long before the towering Mount Fitz Roy is visible on the horizon and I wonder why the journey should take four hours.
Presently we turn off onto a bumpy dirt road and the rate of progress slows considerably. I also begin to realise that Fitz Roy is rather further away than it first appeared. Work is in progress to tarmac this section of road, which makes it even worse for us as we are directed along a narrow temporary road that runs alongside the main carriageway.
We are travelling through dry desert and there is not much sign of life other than occasional patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs. We cross the wide Santa Cruz river, through which Lago Argentino drains into the South Atlantic, on a large concrete bridge just near to a large U-bend in the river.
About 100 km later we stop at a roadside café La Leona, also the name of the river that the road has reached and is about to cross. There is not another building to be seen for miles around. The wall behind the bar is papered with old newspapers and the rest of the walls are decorated with many photographs, newspaper cuttings, and maps. A wooden shelf behind the bar supports a row of tall earthenware bottles and some rather dusty looking crockery. On the bar counter there are some rather tempting cakes.
Luqui introduces us to a game involving a brass ring hung on a string from the ceiling. The object is to swing the ring so that it is caught by a hook attached to the wall. Following Luqui’s demonstration, the rest of us show either remarkable ineptitude or beginner’s luck. For his pièce-de-résistance, Luqui attempts the difficult double swing and succeeds on his third attempt.
Continuing on, Lago Viedma comes into view on our left, and behind it the mountains that border the vast ice-fields. The 2 km wide snout of the Viedma glacier is clearly visible across the water.
As Mount Fitz Roy looms ever closer, increasingly dominating the landscape, we make another stop for photographs. Some gauchos (ranchers) are approaching on horseback, bringing in a large herd of sheep.
We get to Chalton in time for lunch. Luqui has booked ahead and they are waiting for us. A delicious aroma wafts across as they bring in lamb in a rich dark and fruity sauce. It really is extremely good – I wonder if I accidently booked the gastronomic tour of Patagonia rather than a trekking holiday?
We have an hour to explore this dusty frontier town. It does seem to be in the middle of nowhere. Hills rise up on all sides except for the plain we drove in upon to the south-east. The town is quite new, built to service the trekking industry, and none of the roads are sealed. There is an untidy jumble of overhead cables.
From Chalton it is a short bus ride up a dirt road and then right down a small track into our campsite, Estancia Maria Alicia. Fitz Roy Expeditions have exclusive use of this campsite so we are the only ones here. The kitchen and dining tents are already up. Lawrence and I choose ourselves a suitable pitch in between the trees and erect our tent.
The shower and toilet block is an extraordinary building that looks like something straight out of a fairy tale. Constructed from richly coloured varnished logs, it has a kind of idiosyncratic asymmetry to it. Inside, wooden chandeliers hang from coarse ropes. Designer clothes hooks are provided, semi-shaped pieces of twisted wood. Even the cubicle doors are fashioned with quirky curved lines following the natural grain of the wood. And the showers are even hot.
There is still plenty of time before dinner, so I take a walk with David down the road outside the campsite. He used to be a UK managing director in a large insurance company, and before that served as their director of European operations in Germany. Having made his fortune, he is now enjoying a well-deserved by the sound of it early retirement.
It seems that Theo was not properly briefed on our gourmet lunch, and has prepared quite a feast for us this evening. It is a shame that we cannot begin to do it justice, but the cheese and quince dessert, traditionally Argentinian, is an interesting and delicious novelty. The mosquitos are a menace but we’re starting to jell together well as a group and the conversation flows freely.