The Great Gig in the Sky

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Now I know that it must seem a bit of a bizarre title – but I am struggling on the song lyrics front with this entry and I am including it because it imparts some very important advice in terms of travelling long distance which will of course go in the book. I will explain a little later.

So off we headed (still with Helen) off back into Argentina to visit the Parque Nacional Los Glaciaires which has some of the best scenery in Patagonia. We had a 6 hour bus journey across the middle of nowhere from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, including crossing the border from Chile to Argentina. We had big plans for some hard core sleeping but this was scuppered by the presence of the four very loud and extremely irritating Brazilians who were sat in front of us and for the first 2 hours drove us mad. Helen and I even considered throwing cheesy puffs at them (but they are a food stuff – somewhat artificial I know – so why would we waste food on them). Even the American's were botherered and had a look of 'for goodness sake – just shut the **** up’. They made a bus load of year 7’s coming back from the Tower of London seem quiet. In the words of Scotty  ‘It was just very poor form’.

The vast Parque Nacional Los Glaciaires is Argentina’s greatest single tract of wilderness. The park owes it’s pristine conditions to its geography, as it straddles the Hielo Sur (Southern Icefield) – the largest ice cap outside of the polar regions. El Calafate is the largest town in the area and is named after the Calafate berry (apparently if you eat the Calafate berry you will return to Patagonia).  We expected that there would be plenty to do in and around the town however, it is just one huge toursist mecca with lots of travel agencies offering tours to places miles away. You realise this in this part of South America that anything you book is always at least an hours bus ride away.

The first destination on our selection of tours was the Perito Merino Glacier. The Perito Moreno glacier, located 78 km (48 miles) from El Calafate, was named after the explorer Francisco Moreno (not sure about the Perito bit), a pioneer who studied the region in the 19th century and played a major role in defending the territory of Argentina in the conflict surrounding the international border dispute with Chile (see they don’t just pick fights with us).

The Perito Merino glacier is 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high. At its deepest part, the glacier has a depth of approximately 700 m (2,296 feet).

What makes it incredible is that it is moving up to 2m a day. However is losing it mass by the same rate so it actually stays the same size i.e. it’s in balance or equilibrium(even in a world of global warming). It is one of only three glaciers in Patagonia that are not retreating (getting smaller in size). and one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Icefield, a landform shared with Chile that contains the world's third-largest reserves of fresh water.

Periodically the glacier advances over the L-shaped "Lago Argentino" ("Argentine Lake " – biggest lake in Argentina) and joins onto the Magellan peninsula forming a natural dam which separates the two halves of the lake when it reaches the opposite shore. With no escape route, the water-level on the Brazo Rico side of the lake can rise by up to 30 meters (98 feet) above the level of the main lake. The enormous pressure produced by this mass of waters finally breaks the ice barrier holding it back, in a spectacular rupture event. This dam/rupture cycle is not regular and it naturally recurs at any frequency between once a year to less than once a decade. The last rupture was in 2008 and the glacier has now once again (from December 2011) it had reached the shore !!!

Now I’ve been pretty lucky to see quite a few glaciers in my time but this has to be the most impressive. Usually they are pretty inaccessible but this one is at a low altitude and is viewable from a series of boardwalks. So we wandered around the boardwalks for a couple of hours seeing the glacier close up, a little further away, watching bits of ice fall off etc. The most amazing thing is the noise (when you can actually hear it above the din of irritating tourists who can’t shut up) as it is constantly moving and ice is breaking off it’s like there is constant gunfire from within and then all of sudden there is a loud cracking noise and a bit more falls off (and lots of oohs and ahhs from the tourists on the balconies).

So upon arrival in El Calafate we realised that although was full of trekking shops there wasn’t any trekking to be done and to actually get into the mountains we would have to head 3 hours north to El Chalten. So we booked to do an overnight trip there (I booked for 2 nights as was also going to go ice trekking).

So El Chalten is a small mountain village, 220km north of El Calafate located on the riverside of Río de las Vueltas, within the Los Glaciares National Park (section Reserva Nacional Zona Viedma). It is known as the de facto mountaineering capital of Patagonia as it is at the base of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains, both popular for climbing and trekking. The village was built in 1985 to help secure the disputed border with Chile (still on-going).

On arrival I was quite excited by the town, it has a real frontier feel about it. It’s full on funky arty restuarants (in keeping with my funky, artyness), lots of new hostels and lots of trekking shops. We checked into the hostel and we were in 6 bed rooms (en suite), all seemed fine. Helen on the other hand was less excited – Helen doesn’t do hostels and certainly not ones where she needs to share with other people and there are bunk beds !!  So Helen promptly walked out, straight back to the bus company and booked an earlier bus back for the following day.  We did though manage a bit of a trek to the Salto del Chorrillo, which is a lovely cascade 15m high in some woods. Then we found the pub. There is a lovely little micro brewery called the Cerveza Artesanal, and they (apparently) make beer as it used to be made, using only the best ingredients and excellent Andean water. They do not filter the beer and this allows the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals to remain (i.e. healthy). They have two traditional beers, a dark, turbid bock and a blond pilsner. They also do a mean chocolate brownie. I am not normally a chocolate brownie fan but this was amazing. So we e=only intended to pop in for a taste and ended up staying 3 hours !!

So the following day I decided to do a bit of a trek and headed off for a 5 ½ hour hike up 800m that was meant to give me stunning views over Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of cloud and it only gave me limited views, and it was extremely windy. So on my return I needed some food so I headed off back to the pub for a pizza and a couple of pints.

On my final day in El Chalten I had booked to go ice trekking on the Viedma glacier. This glacier is also fed from the icefield and is feeds out onto the Viedma lake. You are transported by boat for an hour across the lake and then you land on extremely polished and striated rock that the glacier had previously eroded by the glacier. After a 25 min trek across the rock it’s onto the glacier and you have to put on crampons (after my experience with crampons on Cotapaxi I did not think this is something I would be doing again !) and have an amazing trek across the crevasses and visit ice caves. Now I had planned to make this an alcohol free day but I was thwarted in this by the guides. Near the end of the trek they cracked open two bottles of Baileys and served it over 2000 year old ice straight from the glacier. Then it was back to El Chalten and I still had 3 hours to kill before I was to get on the bus. So there was really only one place I could possibly go – yes back to the famous pub – as I still hadn’t sampled the vegetarian lasagne. 3 hours was plenty of time – or so I thought !! However, I ended up chatting to a lovely Dutch couple who were from Amsterdam and also were catching the bus. We were all so involved in discussing Heineken beer and clogs that we lost track of time and there was a bit of a sprint back to the bus station to make sure that we didn’t miss the bus.

So to explain the title – I was on the bus back from El Chalten to El Calafate.  Now whenever I seem to get onto a moving object, be a bus, train, plane, boat I always end up falling asleep in the first 20 minutes (no idea why – I must have a condition). So I am on the bus – have a front seat, next to an American girl who is asleep. Put on the old ipod with my latest tune selection, feeling a little bit cultured at the moment so have included some from the less cheesy genre. So I fall asleep with the ipod on (no idea how), and then the bus stops at  restaurant in the middle of nowhere. So playing at that time on the ipod was ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ by Pink Floyd – and it scared the living daylights out of yours truly (all that wailing going on) and then I managed to wake the American girl and scare the living daylights out her too. So basically the point of this little interlude is to suggest that when you do pick tunes for your travelling ipod – make sure they are ones that are more gentle on the ears, bit of Jason Mraz etc. Now at this point I am also sensing a few of you thinking – Liz is listening to Pink Floyd ??? and an album track off Dark Side of the Moon -  Surely not. So when I was a kid I thought that Nellie the Elephant was a Pink Floyd track (why wouldn’t you). It was when the Toy Dolls released their version in 1983 or maybe 1984.

Now as a complete aside – during my research into Nellie the Elephant (couldn’t remember it was the Toy Dolls so had a look at t'interweb) I found out that the rhythm and tempo of the song is often used to teach people the rhythm of CPR. Also apparently another song that is used is  ‘That’s the Way (aha aha) I like it.  So the next time that somebody drops a tray in a youth hostel (if you’ve seen the First Aid DVD you will know what I mean !! Lisa !!) you will know what to sing along to as you are doing CPR. Can I advise though that you do not use the Toy Dolls version as it’s rather fast in the chorus bit (you know the bit when you used the swing your arms past your ears very fast – at the school disco – then jump up and down a lot – ok just me then).

On my return I came back to find Helen had been up to mischief with her new partner in crime called Donna. The lovely and completely bonkers Donna was travelling in Argentina by herself for a few weeks and had got to the sheer desperation stage and so decided to tag along with us two. I came back to find them scoffing empanadas and drinking wine and apparently they'd nearly got themselves chucked out of the museum for attempting to stick their heads in a pretend dinosaur's mouth.

So our final day and more glaciers. We had booked to go on a boat trip called 'Total Glaciers' or as it should be called 'Total Nightmare !!' Basically about 300 people get off buses from El Calafate and then get on 3 catamarans and go and see the Upsala glacier (well you can't get anywhere near it as there are so many glaciers blocking the channel), the Spegazzini glacier and the other side of the Perito Merino. So you end up on a boat with 100 other tourists who will then proceed to irritate the hell out of you for the next 8 hours. Because once again they can't take a photo without everyone in it and in order to do this they must barge everyone else out of the way. And it was freezing and there was no proper food on board ... Not doing that again.
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