The fence seemed interminable, snaking over the hills and the crests in its relentless pursue of something I could not see. Every time I glanced outside the bus windows, it was there, in one form or another; wooden posts, weather beaten metal poles, twisted wires. The immense plains of Patagonia, as endless as they were, seemed to be prisoners in their own kingdom.
We travel to escape, to feel a change, and to face and overcome our fears. But I suppose, the most ancient reason for travelling is simply to see what awaits one at the end of the road. And the world is, in a sense, the longest road one can set foot on. And so it comes as no surprise that the wanderers amongst us have always wondered what lays at the ends of the world. But the concept of the End of The World, I suppose, is and has always been a product of mankind’s imagination. And that imagination, that belief that I might just find out what the world’s end was really like, was what drove me toward Patagonia.
In my mind, Patagonia conjured images of a land where the winds ruled without mercy. I had imagined a land where humans were not welcome, but merely tolerated. A land whose wild elements only the brave could face. But my first impressions of Patagonia, the crowded towns, bustling tourist trails and the endless fences, were as far from that image as the distant horizons of its plains seemed to be from wherever you stood. There was no battle taking place here; humans had come, stayed and conquered the land.
Bariloche, a resort town in Argentina, was a jewel set alongside the Lago Nahuel Huap lake and the foothills of the Andes. The lake was more gray when we were there than blue. It had great hostels, good food and clean streets. Yet I never felt at home there. I couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t Patagonia. Not that it lacked in dazzling sceneries. A short bus ride away from the city centre, the Cerro Otto offers panoramic views of the Gordon Guyin Manzano mountain range. We opted to hike to the top instead of using the cable car, and were rewarded by a vivid landscape of burnt green forested islands and streaking lakes. Still, I could not shake the feeling that something was amiss. After a few days, we headed south to El Bolson. The next day, we set off along a route laid parallel to a deep brown valley, up to a rock which was said to resemble a human face. It didn’t. The valley, the rocks, the forest, they were all fine and graceful, but not truly wild. Perhaps true Patagonia laid further south still.
Thomas, one of the Swiss brothers I was travelling with, shook me out of my stupor, yelling; ‘Dude! Check out the road!’
Reluctantly, I took my eyes off the book I was reading, and glanced in the direction he was pointing. The book would have to wait. All around us laid a vast vista painted in the yellow-brown of grass and the hazy blue of far away waters. Flamboyant clouds flattened themselves across the sky, so low they gave the impression that the earth did indeed join up with the sky at the ends of the visible world. The road extended, straight as an arrow, as far as the eye could see. It seemed to end in the bowels of the great Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains which stood, like Sphinx, in the horizon blocking our path. Small flocks of chiques -a medium sized flightless bird- and guanacos took flight at the sight of the bus. We both got up, walked down the isle and sat on the steps next to the driver. The driver threw us a knowing side-ways smile, but didn’t say anything. Perhaps he knew that Patagonia had us in its grips now.
Trek to Mt Fitzroy, Argentina
The three of us were trekking toward the Laguna De Los Tres (A must-do trek leading to a natural viewpoint offering dazzling views of Mt Fitzroy and surrounding peaks). The trek is a straight forward affair with a low-medium level of difficulty; leave El Chalten (A make-shift village, known as the gateway to Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torres) early in the morning, hike for 3 hours to the Aguja Poincenot free camping ground, pitch your tent and leave your heavier gear there, and finally do the steep 1-hour climb up to the view point in early afternoon. One can return to El Chalten the next day via a number of routes.
Naively, we left the village at noon, having decided not to attempt the climb that day, and go up in time for sunrise the next day. We arrived at the camp ground in the afternoon, had a late lunch and decided to attempt the climb that day after all. The dusk was ascending fast as we made our way up. Other hikers threw us curious looks on their way down, and warned us about the rains that had been forecasted for that afternoon. I had sprained my ankle during a hike a few weeks ago, and the pain conveniently decided to return that day, fierce and unforgiving, and by afternoon, every step was sheer agony. To add insult to injury, I had amateurishly managed to fall off a swing earlier that morning and bruise my buttocks. But I had no choice but to endure the pain. Thomas and David raced ahead as I struggled on past the slippery rocks and loose moraine. The cool breeze had turned into a chilling gale by the time we made it to the top. the air was saturated with a mixture of falling snow and fog.
I was cold, my left buttock cheek was stiff and my ankle was begging me to stop. The Swedish brothers had by now disappeared into the mist, and I found myself alone, surrounded by the peaks and shrouded in an ancient silence. I sat down on a rock, and in that moment of cold solace, I thought to myself the mountains were all that were just then. No humanity, no home. there were no thoughts of Melbourne, or of the job I had left behind or what I wanted to do with my life. It was as if the entire world ceased to exist for a few moments. The mountain had squeezed my world into a condensed ball of the present; the cold, the pain and the beauty, with no room for the past or the future.
To Torres del Paine, Chile
By the time we reached Puerto Natales in Chilean Patagonia, and with my ankle showing no signs of improvement, I was resigned to the fact that I could not do any of the multiple-days treks. We stayed at Erratic Rock, one of the most popular hostels in town, famous for their free afternoon briefings on the popular treks in the Torres Del Paine national park.
I sat in one of those briefings, surrounded by two dozen eager hikers, thinking that I would give anything to be able to do even the comparatively straight-forward W-trek. The faces around me were mostly scruffy, their clothes worn out and stained. They were the faces and clothes of people who travelled not only to get away, and to get closer. I thought this must be what the base camp at Everest felt like; there was chattering about the best routes to take, what to pack, and how difficult the hike was. All around me little alliances were formed, plans were made and modified and dates were set.
The next morning, I said goodbye to Thomas and David at the bus terminal. They were taking the bus to the Torres del Paine national park office, where they would purchase their entry tickets into the park and begin their 8-day hike.
Insider Tip: There are 3 main trail circuits in Torres; The W (4-5 days) is the most popular. If you are after a less trodden path, consider The O (8-days) or Q (9-days). Hikers can either carry their own camping gear and provisions, or opt for full-room and board at the refugios (well-stocked trail huts).
On the way back, I passed a few other climbers, hauling their backpacks with a determined look on their faces. And then they were all gone, and I returned to my empty hostel. I returned to the hostel feeling alone yet strangely elated. It felt like I was the only one left behind at the base camp of a mighty mountain, watching the rest of my team head up into the far emptiness which I would never get to experience first-hand, wanting them to succeed where I had failed.
The next day, a friend of mine and I did a one-day hike to Torres del Paine. We coined the term the i-circuit for it.
Insider Tip: The day trip to Mirador Las Torres (or the I-circuit) can take up to seven hours, so start early if you are not a strong hiker.
I still don’t think I did Patagonia right, the way it deserved to be done. If its main town are too touristy, too urbanised, then one must step off into its interior. Something I perhaps didn’t do enough of. But at least those two occasions showed me that Patagonia is not merely a place. It is much more than that; it is a feeling, a moment. That morning, in Puerto Natales, I saw many a young people who had been given the chance to feel what it was like to face nature, and depend on their own feet to carry them through a free, uninhabited wilderness. That afternoon, alone and surrounded by the rasping winds and the fog at Tres de Los Laguna, I knew, for a few fleeting moments, how it felt to be at the ends of the world.
I may not have done it right, but I can tell you this; Patagonia is one of the last places on earth where we can still find our very own The World’s End.