South America: Chile's Torres del Paine National Park

"I can't do this." The thought crossed my mind only half an hour after leaving the town of Puerto Natales and the end of the paved road. It wasn't just that the road workers had apparently used ball bearings in place of gravel so the motorcycle was skittering all over the road. There was also the wind blowing at about 70 km/h and gusting up to 100 km/h and required constant effort to resist toppling over.

The municipal limits had been the end of any sign of human habitation. Each rise brought endless vistas of more treeless, windswept plains. "Welcome to Patagonia," Lynn declared behind me: "this really is the end of the earth." A few kilometres further, an extra lurch revealed that my rear tyre was flat. Motorcycles don't carry spares and the only traffic we'd seen had been the tail end of the morning buses carrying tourists to the national park so we looked set to have a lot of time to watch the two large condors feasting on a sheep carcass nearby. It was a merino that had probably died of shock to discover the bleak conditions that Chileans regard as suitable for sheep grazing.

While looking for my tool kit I found that BMW supplies emergency puncture repair kits for their motorcycles. Glue, a plug and three tiny cannisters of compressed air had the tyre inflated and us back on the road in minutes while the condors, disturbed by our activity, circled high overhead.

The wind continued unabated until we felt it to be an actively malevolent force. We had a permanent 15 degree list to the left. However, one final crest revealed our goal and once we had seen the snow-capped peaks of stark, fang-like peaks glistening in the sun there was no turning back.

Torres del Paine is perhaps the most spectacular mountain massif on earth. Grey granite heaved up against a black conglomerate rock layer had subsequently been deeply carved by ice and wind and rain. Tussock plains end abruptly at the boundary of this freestanding world of sheer spires, hanging glaciers, turquoise lakes, masses of flowers and mysterious beech forests. It assails all the senses with the roar of the wind, the smell of the flowers and earth, the feel of volcanic rock beneath your feet, and everywhere the grandeur of sharp-edged mountains.

Each of the three sides of the massif have remarkable features. To the northwest lies Grey Glacier, that flows off the Patagonian icecap and is five kilometres wide where it tumbles into a lake littered with large and small ice floes. The south western side features the forest-lined gem-like Lake Pehoe with the Cuernos del Paine at one end. I found the Cuernos (or horns) to be much more rugged and grand than the more symetrical Torres (towers) to the northeast. But perhaps that's just because we camped down one end of the lake and did a terrible job of cooking as the play of passing cloud and the setting sun distracted us from outdoor domesticity with a command performance reflected in the lake.

Torres del Paine National Park lies at the bottom of Chile, much further south than New Zealand and nearly on the same latitude as Australia's Macquarie Island. The nearest airport is at Punta Arenas, the city that vies with Argentina's Ushuaia as the southernmost in the world. For all but the most dedicated masochist it's strictly a summer destination. Arriving in springtime isn't advisable, either - this is when the wind is strongest. Even in summer, winds of 100 km/h are the norm and a ranger informed me that 150 km/h gusts are regularly recorded. In November, ropes are installed on the streets of Punta Arenas so residents can haul themselves across in the face of prevailing northwesterlies.

The park has some luxurious (and expensive) accommodation, some comfortable, clean and dry backpacker "refugios" for about $20 per person in bunk rooms, and a few gloriously scenic camping areas complete with showers and toilets. There are a few short boat trips on the lakes and some scenic lookouts along the roads but to experience most of the park one has to walk. The mark of "conquering" Torres del Paine is to complete the five day El Circuito around its perimeter. However, the scenic highlights are probably best explored over a series of one day walks on well marked trails.

Within the 1630 square kilometres of national park stand 15 peaks above 2000 metres. The highest is Cerro Paine Grande at 3248 metres. Condors, the world's largest flying birds with wingspans over three metres, are frequently observed circling the peaks. However, the real suprise is around the lowland lakes where one sees bright pink flamingoes, birds more commonly associated with Africa than South America. It would be hard to visit without spotting rheas, those large flightless birds that look like undersized emus. Literature tells us that guacanos, smaller relative of the llama, are an endangered species but visitors to the park are likely to conclude that's because the herds are too stupid to move off the roads when confronted by traffic.

Three walks neatly encapsulate most of the park's special features. The three hour trek between Lake Pehoe campground and the tongue of the Grey glacier is part of El Circuito. It leads through dense forests decked with Spanish moss, past tiny glacial lakes and onto a ridge overlooking the lake and glacier. The main challenge of this walk is dealing with the wind once you're on the exposed northern slope.

A more arduous walk is to the high valley at the base of Cerro Paine Grande. After about five and a half hours you are standing in a grand bowl surrounded by sheer rocky spires towering high above and majestic glaciers wherever you look. The obligatory walk to take the photographs seen on every poster and postcard in Puerto Natales is from the Hosteria Las Torres to the lake at the foot of the Torres themselves. It's about four hours of solid uphill walking so if you want to capture the Torres at dawn you must camp up here.

After several days of walking and camping we had seen a lot of the park and knew our tent could withstand extreme conditions. But we were running out of food and the weather looked set to change. As we left storm clouds rolled in and covered the entire massif as if a curtain had closed. It was a fitting note of finality for an area that has a very strong sense of the dramatic.

Facts

Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Santiago every Friday and Lan Chile provides daily onward flights to Punta Arenas from where there are frequent bus departures to Punta Arenas. Call Air New Zealand on 132 476 for details.

For information on individual travel in Chile, which has a well developed travel network, call the South American Travel Centre on (03) 9642-5353 or fax (03) 9642-5454.

If you wish to see Torres del Paine on an organised tour call World Expeditions on 9264 3366 or Peregrine Adventures on 9290-2770.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd