“well you’ll still need a tray.”
“No, I will not need a tray. I do not need a tray to kill you. I can kill you without a tray, with the power of the Force – which is strong within me – even though I could kill you with a tray if I so wished. For I would hack at your neck with the thin bit until the blood flowed across the canteen floor…”
“No, no, no the food is hot you’ll need a tray.”
“Oh, oh I see the food is hot, I did not realize..”
I tried to explain to Ennio why I was laughing like an idiot as I cooked dinner in the wind outside my tent… penne al’arrabbiata… every time I make it I think of Eddie Izzards Death Star Canteen sketch, and particularly the inspired piece of Lego animation to go with it <link here>.
We were camped on a handy patch of gravel by a stream some 70km north of Puerto Natales on the dirt road that goes to Torres del Paine. A fabulously scenic bit of riding, albeit a hilly one, we had decided to camp just south of the park boundary in the interests of avoiding the crowds and high park camping fees.. and having an easier day :-)
The morning dawned grey and cold, just a couple of degrees above freezing but by the time we were on the road after a lazy breakfast the sun was breaking through. It took a while to cover the 20km to the park entrance simply because of the stunning views along the way.
I was uncertain about visiting the park itself… it is expensive, US$30 to get in and once there, with wild camping forbidden, the camping fees for spots accessible by bike are high too… It is also very busy with some 250,000 visitors between December and March. It is “the place” to go down here. In Puerto Natales people always ask, not “have you been hiking?” but rather “have you done The Trek?” referrring to the standard 5 or 6 day walk, “the W”, along the central massif. If the answer is “no” then the assumption is automatically that you must be going to do The Trek…. *
The road to the park is brilliant ripio, but once across the boundary it deteriorates markedly… a little disappointing to find that for all the millions of dollars in visitor fees it appears to have been many years since a grader passed this way… corrugations 6 inches deep, potholes and rocks that make riding a frustrating experience… the views are nice though :-)
The park itself then. I have mixed feelings… like a rich chocolate cake that tastes amazing but so heavy it leaves one with a stomach ache… I like my wilderness raw and empty, Torres del Paine on the other hand is stunning but to a large degree feels like a place for people that prefer their wilderness gently softened on a US$1000/night plate. Indeed you can pay this much to stay in one of the hotels that dot the park…. I looked at the website for one, in describing itself it uses words that appeal to folk with too much spare wedge like “organic” and “in sympathy with the environment“.. all that for a pile of 20yr old concrete blocks with some gas tanks at the back built before such terms had been invented by the tourism industry….
Being a cheapskate of course I camped… one has no choice but to use one of the organised campgrounds. Some of the more remote grounds for trekkers are free but if you want path access for a bike you have to pay… I stopped at one having been told to expect to pay around US$8 which I figured was fair enough. I filled out the forms and the lady says to me “that’ll be 10,000 pesos” (US$20). I choked and said “I’m not paying that.. I’ll cycle to this other one.. 37km away“. “Oh she says that is 10,000 too“. When I said I’d been told that camping was 4000 pesos she said “oh, last years price...” so with inflation like that next year will be 25,000… In the end she said “OK, because you are on a bike I can let you stay for 8000 pesos“. With not much choice I paid up and stomped off to find a gold-plated patch of grass on which to put my tent :-)
I did have a nice view from my tent and the weather that afternoon was stunning.. for a bit until the cloud came down. I had also said farewell to Ennio and Dina, with lots of time on their hands they were heading off for a few days trekking. Great company on and off the bike I shall miss them but I have little doubt we will meet again in Europe.
I spent a pleasant evening in the company of Jorge, a cyclist from further north in Chile. He had stopped by the campsite shop, where I was charged 1000 pesos for a few bread rolls the size of golf balls, to buy beer. Lordy knows what he paid for them but they went down very well while sitting on the lakeside looking at the mountains. I gave him my spare can of sardines for dinner…. and some fresh herbs brought from the garden back in Pto Natales.
My plan the following morning was to ride up to the north end of the park and hike up to the base of the towers. The weather had other ideas. It lashed it down all night and I packed my tent in an icy cold mix of sleet and rain. With the cloud right down I explored just 20km north, the dusty road of the previous day having turned to gloopy mud, before having an “ahfuckit” moment and turning around to head back south and the marvellous riding outside the park.
I passed the embarkation point for the boat that runs 30 minute trips across one of the lakes in the park. The parking lot was full for this ride that costs US$30… $1 a minute, only the space shuttle costs more :-) Honestly the businesses that have licenses to operate in the park are not just pricing services high, they really are having a laugh. In a country where many folk scrape by on minimum wage of about £200/month there is, in Puerto Natales, at least one Hummer.. that most vulgar display of wealth. Having been to the park I now suspect who it belongs to… the owner of that boat. I did a few sums while riding, making an assumption about the fraction of visitors to the park that might use that boat… and came up with a turnover for the short season of about US$2 million. I imagine his house, rather than being clad in zinc-galvanised steel, is platinum plated.
Anyway, enough of the rant, hehe. I stopped at a park office to dry my tent in the wind and make lunch on one of the picnic tables. A group of tourists from one of the luxury hotels was lined up at the roadside by their minibus pointing their cameras at the mountains. As I arrived the cameras all swivelled 180 degrees to take a photo of the grubby cyclist. Like the mountains just one more thing to take a picture of and then forgotten in anticipation of the next. The chaps running the tour were nice however and came over to say hello, there was lunch left over after their guests had departed for a walk, probably carried in sedan chairs on the shoulders of Nubian slaves to avoid muddying boots, so I was invited to join them… “but only because you are a biker.. not for anyone else“… ah, two wheels gets you everywhere :-)
One of the guys was studying tourism at the Magallanes University in Punta Arenas. Having worked my arse off to get my aero engineering degree I have often wondered what one studies for 3 years on a tourism degree… beyond the liberal application of key words such as “organic” and “in sympathy with the environment” ;-)
So I left the park after just one night. As I pedalled south past the entrance a large tour bus was discharging a bunch of visitors, all lining up to pay their entrance fee. Fifty cameras turned in my direction, fifty shutters clicked and then then all turned away again without even a wave. I am happy with being the subject of a photo… but if I’m going to be looked at by a bunch of strangers in years to come then a wave to say hello is sometimes nice out there on the lonely road.
Moving away from the park the weather brightened, as I looked back down the road to the storm-shrouded mountains the light, for a brief moment, was wonderful. I am a complete cynic sometimes but really, as a place to cycle to it is first class… especially outside the park ;-)
That night I found a perfect spot to camp. I hopped over a fence by a river, pushed my bike about 200 metres upstream towards some cliffs to find a secluded patch of grass by a little waterfall with a fine view of the dry hills to the east. As I cooked dinner a pair of condors were soaring the updrafts over a snow-dusted rocky peak behind my tent and I felt contentment once again.
The condors were there again in the morning. Just a couple of degrees above freezing and cloudy I was on the road by 8am to enjoy some peaceful riding before the tour buses started appearing.
30km north of Puerto Natales there is a cave. A few years ago the mummified remains of a Mylodon <link> were found here. The place was declared a national monument, a sign was put up, a restaurant was built and an admission fee charged. I did not feel the need to pay a fiver to look at a cave. It is a dry cave in sedimentary rock.. much like many other caves I suspect. I judged it to be of less than £5 worth of interest to me on the basis that a) I was not allowed to ride the path to the cave, and b) while I sat and ate a packet of biscuits every tourist I saw there took a photo of the sign saying “Cueva del Myloden”.. it was not an interesting sign but if worth a photo to the folk looking at the cave then the cave was probably not that riveting either :-)
Back in Puerto Natales I stopped at a rather nice vegetarian cafe for a lunch of bread, hummus and salad with a tall milkshake. As I rested my legs and looked scruffy two British couples dressed in hideously coloured Rohan trousers on the table next to mine planned their attempt on “The Trek” with a meticulous detail Montgomery would have been proud of….
*the full circuit of the Paine massif takes longer than The Trek, and is a more challenging walk, 8 or 9 days usually and involves having to make do with a little more hardship like taking water from streams, cold water and stuff.. it is not so popular with the masses.