Day 5 |
Mar 01, 2009

Puerto Natales

By Andrew Marshall

Co-ordinates: 51 43’ 8” S, 72° 30’ 7” W

Air Temperature: 9º C

Sea Temperature: 10°C

Pressure: 1008 hPa

Wind: SW 4 mph

We awoke this morning to a vibrant, deep red sunrise piercing through a heavy grey cloud layer, which would prove to be a harbinger for our experiences later in the day. However, we were all full of anticipation as we boarded the buses and headed off for Torres del Paine National Park.

The first wildlife we encountered was the street dogs of Puerto Natales; some leapt up to make friends with the blue- and red-jacketed humans. As we proceeded along the shore, black-necked swans swam gracefully with their 'ugly ducklings' following close behind. Looking out over the pampas, we saw fields full of sheep and Hereford cattle as we ascended into the more fertile lands of the ancient glacial moraines.

The clouds continued to break, and patches of blue sky continued to give us hope that we had appeased the weather gods with our prayers the night before. The sun was casting light and shadow in a dynamic duet over the mountains beyond. We continued our transit along a road lined with swathes of white 'baby's breath' wildflowers and crimson shrubs set in autumn colors.

As we climbed higher, the grassy landscape of the steppe was now broken with Nothofagus species that included nirre and lenga. We then spotted a number of chimango caracara and Southern crested caracara standing on the roadside, and feeding on a hare roadkill. We then waved to an arrieró (Chilean shepard) working with dogs decended from Australian kelpies. In the distance, we spotted flamingoes and swans in melt pools in the pampas.

The sun then fully broke over the high-sided valley wall with great intensity, instantly diminishing the lingering dark clouds and enabling the blue sky to dominate. We pulled in to Cerro Castillo for a brief comfort stop, but the huge variety of souvenirs meant that the only way we could be coaxed back onto the bus was with the comforting words “we will return”!

The journey continued to reveal the vastness of the pampas, which was filled with shades of browns, greens, yellows and greys, with the striking steel grey and blues of the surrounding mountains highlighted by a smattering of stark white snow.

Upon reaching the border of the park, excellent views of the grey fox, another Southern crested caracara, condors, guanacos and lesser rhea came into view. We were fascinated to learn that the adult male rhea not only collects the eggs of several different females, but sits on the nest and remains the primary caregiver to the chicks until fledged. Soon thereafter, we sighted a black-chested buzzard eagle, more Chimango caracaras and a group of swirling condors.

Passing by Lake Sarmiento, we saw the first views of the Massif. Although the mountain was still largely shrouded in cloud-cover, we all remained hopeful and optimistic and that it would lift. We were also becoming experts at hopping in-and-out of the bus at high speed, but it was absolutely necessary as the subsequent site of guanacos became ever-closer and more intriguing.

Next, we saw a majestic adult condor circling and soaring in the sky as if conducting a 'flight training school' for a group of young birds, soon to become the menacing masters of the park as they perfected their upward climbs and somewhat harrowing descents.

We then circled Lake Nordensköld, named after the Swedish explorer of Antarctic fame who ventured through this area in the 1920s. Our excitement surged as we observed the cloud-cover swirling and lifting. The sun heated the land, and the resulting thermals displaced the last remaining clouds. We were now witness to the mountains in all of their glory.

Leaving the lake, we hiked to the rapids that had captured a rainbow in the tumbling, turbulent cascade leading to a waterfall that dropped sharply into the hidden lake below. Several more bird sightings were made, including the harrier, speckled teal, Austral blackbird, white-winged coot, upland geese, and the Chilean flamingo.

After crossing a wooden walkway, we dined at an island restaurant that was built out over the waters of Lake Pehoe, and offered spectacular views of the Torres del Paine mountains across the opposite shore. The atmosphere was triumphant, and we celebrated with a Pisco sour; a local aperitif made from grapes and eggwhites. This may have facilitated the restful nap that most of us enjoyed on the coach during the drive back to port.

As this wonderful day came to a close, we celebrated with a glass of bubbly upon being welcomed back on board the Prince Albert II.