Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

85. Mount Tronador 3 (Bariloche, Argentina)

With my days in Bariloche numbered, there's still a lot of things around here I haven't done and want to do - a decent overnight trek/hike/tramp being one of them. The first problem I had was choosing which trek to do, as Bariloche and nearby El Bolson have an abundance of treks and refugios (huts) to stay in. I decided that above all, I wanted to see glaciers and snow, so I decided that I wanted to hike up Mount Tronador to Refugio Otto Meiling. Mark, my American friend was game to join me, and to our surprise my girlfriend Ruth signed up to join us.

The first step was the 8:30am minibus out of Bariloche - I preferred to pay $50 pesos for the round trip than risk breaking something else on my van. On the way we stopped to pay our entrance fee to the national park, and Ruth and I got in for free - since we're Bariloche residents. As a foreigner Mark had to pay $12 pesos. Finally, being a "local" had a payoff!

Tronador Trek - 02 - Sign (Large)
The advisory sign for the trek

By 11am we'd arrived at Pampa Linda, and after filling out our trekking registration form with national parks to let them know our plans, we set off at 11:30am. Destination: Refugio Otto Meiling at 2050m, an 18km trek with an ascent of 1100m. 4 to 6 hours trekking time. We'd spend the night in the refugio and descend back to Pampa Linda the next day, catching the bus back to Bariloche at 5pm.

The first hour was cake - all flat. Then we crossed over the Río Castaño Overo (Peachy-Brown River) across a fallen log, and the "fun" started - an unrelenting 2.5 hour ascent, zig-zagging through the forest. The start was nice, through giant Alerce and Coihue trees, and it was cool catching glimpses of the glaciers above us through the trees on the way up, and seeing how the trees got smaller and smaller as we climbed. But what made the climb a living hell was the tábano, a local version of the horse-fly.

Tronador Trek - 43 - Tabano (Large)
A tábano (horse-fly)

Big, slow and tough, they chased us the entire ascent, 10 or 20 per person at a time, nipping at us to draw blood to drink. I'd known that they were drawn to both dark colours and carbon dioxide, and since we were puffing the entire time on the ascent they were having a frenzy. Ruth, with her black hair and black duffle bag was copping it worse that any of us, so she covered up with a light-coloured sarong, resembling a Muslim on the hajj in the process.

Tronador Trek - 11 - Ruth covered (Large)
Ruth on the pilgrimage

The tábanos would usually stay off any moving part, so whilst we walked they kept off arms and legs, but would usually settle on my hair where they'd try to bury down and nip at my scalp. To keep them off I'd be constantly waving my arms like a madman as we walked. Whenever we'd stop to take a photo they'd be all over me as I aimed the camera, making even taking a photo more difficult.

Tronador Trek - 18 - Matt tabanos (Large)

Now, you couldn't just swat them away and expect that to work, because they're so tough that a swat doesn't phase them. The only defense was to clap at them or splat them against your skin, then they'd fall to the ground and you'd have to stomp on them. If you didn't stomp they'd wake up and come at you again. A guide had told me his record on a rafting trip was killing 18 tábanos in a day. Well that day I swat-stomped 120 of the bastards! Lord of the Flies!

Ruth's shoulders were starting to get a bit raw as her bag wasn't a backpack but just a duffle bag, so the narrow straps were cutting into her shoulders. So I carried her bag for most of the ascent as well as my own. But fortunately we weren't travelling too heavily, just a change of clothes and lots of cold pizza for food, as well as water and a sleeping bag.

Finally we made it to the top of the ridge, where we stopped for a cold pizza lunch. Mark had already gone on ahead of us with his stove so a much desired maté we had to go without. From there it was another hour through bushes and tábanos, making it to above the tree line. At this point we saw a couple of Andean condors swooping around looking for food. I don't know what they eat since they're scavengers, but I guess they have some food source. We still didn't know how much further to go to the refugio, but every time we'd summit a hill it would be a false summit and the refugio still wasn't to be seen. The tábanos were still following us, and I wondered if they were the same ones that had followed us from the bushes. I stopped to kill the 10 or so around me, only to quickly be set upon by another group. Evidently being above the tree line didn't make a difference, they still lived here amongst the rocks.

Finally we made it to the snowline, and finally the tábanos dropped off. The last kilometre or so took us an hour, as by now we were spent - my thighs and shoulders more than anything. I'd done hardly any trekking this summer and for Ruth it was her first ever trek, so she was getting thrown in the deep end.

Tronador Trek - 23 - Matt glacier (Large)
Above the trees and alongside the glacier

At last, after six hours of trekking, we made it to the refugio. Mark was already there, dozing in the sun. He'd arrived about an hour before us. We fired up the maté, had some cold pizza and wound down. Ruth wasn't happy one bit - the refugio didn't have beds, just 40 or so mattresses on the upper-level floor, and it didn't have any showers either, not even icy cold ones. So we'd arrived covered in dust and sweat and had to lie on a no doubt already sweaty and dusty mattress - and pay $25 pesos each for the privilege of "sleeping together like dogs", as she put it. I was frankly too tired to care and by 8pm I'd lain down to rest my aching bones and not gotten up again. So much for enjoying the amazing night sky!

Tronador Trek - 28 - Refugio Otto Meiling (Large)
Refugio Otto Meiling

The next morning I got up early to take some photos. The refugio is spectacularly located, right on the snowline between two glaciers, with mountains below and in all directions for as far as the eye can see, and within sight of the summit. Indeed, Tronador can be summited from the refugio, weather permitting. You leave the refugio at 4am with a guide, summitting at around midday, and back at the refugio that afternoon.
Ruth got up a fair bit later than everyone, as is her custom, and by 11:30am were were practically the last ones to leave the refugio for the walk back down.

Tronador Trek - 33 - Mark Ruth Matt cumbres (Large)
Mark, Ruth and me in front of Tronador's summit

Tronador Trek - 36 - Ruth glacier pano (Large)
Ruth on the glacier

We would have made it back in 3.5 hours but we took a detour to visit a lookout of the bottom of the waterfall. Then we had to hustle to get back to Pampa Linda by 4:30pm, just in time for a beer before the 5pm bus. The walk back was infinitely more pleasant, obviously since it was less strenuous going down, and Mark had hit on the idea of swinging a branch from shoulder to shoulder to keep the tábanos off his head, which worked great. How I wished we'd thought of that the day before!

Tronador Trek - 38 - Glacier rainbow (Large)
Another glacier/waterfall/rainbow shot

Tronador Trek - 45 - Waterfall (Large)
The bottom of the waterfall

So, to sum up - the views from the top were great, and I'm glad we did the trip. 40km walking in two days, most of it on an incline. Ruth, for her part, has sworn off trekking for the rest of her life - unless it's in a tábano-free zone and there's a hot shower waiting for her at the end of each day!

So, tomorrow Ruth and I bid Bariloche a permanent farewell. In the van will also be Mark, as well as Hamish and Lisa and their 2 kids. We're heading to the Atlantic coast for a week of sun and sea before heading to Buenos Aires, while Hamish and family are heading north to Mendoza for a couple of days, before flying back to NZ from there. We're gonna miss them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

84. Mount Tronador 2 (Bariloche, Argentina)

The highest and largest mountain in Patagonia's Lake District is Mount Tronador, at around 3400m. The first time I went there was in Dec 2005 with a couple of Spaniards in a hired car. The highlight of that trip was when I dared one of the guys to go iceberg-hopping Polar Bear style, and to our surprise he ignored the warning signs and did it. You can read more from that trip in this blog post.

A day trip to Mount Tronador is one of Bariloche's most popular excursions, and I'd been waiting all summer for an agency to call me to do one. The call finally came from one of the agencies towards the end of January, and I couldn't wait. The guide and I circled around town picking up the passengers from their various hotels, eventually setting off with a full load - 10 passengers in back and me and the guide up front.
Six of the passengers I already knew - the day before I'd taken them on a daytrip to the small town of El Bolsón, an hour and a half south of Bariloche. The road to Mount Tronador is the same road to El Bolson - formerly the 258 but now a part of the famous Ruta 40 which covers Argentina from North to South. The Ruta 40 (Route 40) used to bypass Bariloche and El Bolson until a couple of years ago, when Tourism Argentina started to use the road's length and reputation as a marketing tool, and it became trendy to drive the entire route. Eventually it was decided to re-route the Ruta to pass through Bariloche, since Bariloche is one of the tourism capitals of Patagonia.
We took the asphalted Ruta 40 40km south of Bariloche, then turned off for what would be 40km of bumpy, dusty gravel roads. I took it slow as I was wary of damaging the van's suspension, axles, blowing a tyre, anything, what with a full load of passengers adding extra stress to the van's weak points.

Tronador - 07 - Lago Mascardi (Large)
Lago (Lake) Mascardi looking a little turquoise

We stopped for lunch in Pampa Linda, a small village with a couple of restaurants, a national parks office, and a gendarmeria (border police).

Tronador - 02 - Tronador
Mount Tronador as seen from Pampa Linda

Also in Pampa Linda were about 50 other minivans and buses all doing day trips, and my guide Paula introduced me to some of the other guides and drivers over lunch. Many of the restaurants around here give the drivers and guides a meal, so long as some of our passengers are dining there. The other drivers joked about giving me some sort of baptism, since it was my first Tronador trip.

After lunch we carried on towards Ventisquero Negro, the Black Glacier, black because it's full of volcanic ash. The final hill before we arrived was a short but steep climb and in front of me a bus had stopped halfway up to drop down to first gear. I came up behind him and to not hit him I stepped on the brake pedal - which, had no give and went flat to the floor! What happened next happened quickly. All at once I had no brakes, the engine had stalled, and we'd started rolling backwards very quickly down the steep hill! I was pulling on the handbrake to no avail, pumping the brakes, trying to figure out how to stop the van. I put it into 2nd gear and let the clutch out, and although the engine had stalled, that action slowed and stopped the van. The passengers were obviously a little shaken and suggested getting out and walking up the hill. I started the engine and we climbed the hill, where I got out to see what had broken - sure enough, the right rear wheel was leaking brake fluid - a broken brake fluid tube. The guide said we only had another 100m to go to the black glacier, so we carried on.

Tronador - 03 - Black Glaciar (Large)
The black glacier and its black icebergs

Tronador - 04 - Black Glacier pano (Large)
Panoramic shot of the the black glacier

Once there I took the wheel off and with the help of the other drivers and some borrowed tools we bent the steel brake tube over and hammered it closed. I remarked that the brakes breaking on me was my baptism, and the other drivers who weren't helping stood around cracking jokes about the gringo's first trip. The repair worked, and we were able to continue the trip - another 5 km or so to a glacier-melt waterfall, before turning around and heading back the same way towards Bariloche. It took an eternity to return via the 40km of gravel, but finally, with a round of applause from the passengers, we rejoined the Ruta 40 and asphalt.

Tronador - 06 - Waterfall (Large)
The glacier-melt waterfall. Not worth the 45min trek

After that I decided the roads were too tough to do any more gravel trips - which meant no more Tronador and no more Siete Lagos, which helped me decide to give up on my tourism venture here.

Update: I forgot to mention that my van breaking down was by no means an unusual occurrence. The other drivers told me that something breaking on a Tronador trip is quite common.

Up next: one last visit to Mount Tronador

Thursday, February 01, 2007

83. Summer in Bariloche (Bariloche, Argentina)

It's been about six weeks since my last post - so what have I been up to? The weather here has been great most of the time, so we've spent a few days at the Bariloche's beaches. Most of the beaches are covered in pebbles, and the water is absolutely freezing, but it's still nice to soak up some rays and sprint in and out of the water.

Around Bariloche - 16 - Playa Serena
First day at the beach on a small and empty Playa Serena

Around Bariloche - 17 - Playa Bonita
The nicer and bigger Playa Bonita

Christmas and New Year were both spent in similar fashion, with a gringo asado with Hamish & Lisa and other friends in the Kiwi House. Pozzy, a very good friend of mine from BA came down and spent New Year with us. Like most Argentines, he's very close to his family and he missed them a lot, as New Year is a family occasion here just like Christmas. In NZ our New Year's Eve is centred around the countdown to midnight. Here the tradition is to toast with your family at midnight with Champagne or sidra (cider) from champagne bottles, and pass the night visiting your friends' and extended family's houses and toasting with them. Partying comes later.

Año Nuevo 07 - 03 - Pozzy Mark
Pozzy and Mark on New Year's. Pozzy ain't short, Mark's 6'6"!

As far as my work goes, it's been up and down. I had a good run of work just before Christmas, taking people fly-fishing, some rafting, a trip to Mount Tronador, but then come early January it had all dried up.

Pesca - 05 - Willy Mario

Rafting - 02 -
Rafting on the Lago Stefen

I later tried hooking up some work by putting flyers up in hostels but it was tougher than I expected to get a big enough group of people together to make it worth my while. I did make a couple of trips - one though the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Route) with a bunch of backpackers. Unlike any other tour in town, we stopped for an amazing swim in Lago Espejo (Mirror Lake), which had sand and was much warmer than any of the Bariloche lakes, and later did a bit of bridge-jumping. It was a great day, and I had as much fun as they did. But the tough, rutted, corrogated-iron like dirt roads took their toll on the van and whatever profit I made got spent on subsequent repairs.

Siete Lagos - 01 - Van lake
Lunch stop and a swim in Lago Espejo

Siete Lagos - 07 - Shaun jump
Shaun bridge jumping

So I was once again waiting for the phone to ring through agencies. As it is, I'm working 3 days a week or so but usually only with airport transfers. I'm making just enough to survive, but I have to remember that now is the high season, and come March that work will dry up. The norm is to make enough now in the high season to get me through the leaner months, and that I'm not doing. I've spoken to other drivers who've come here from out of town and they told me they had a hard time entering the market as well - which is fair enough. It's all about local contacts (as it is anywhere) and I don't want to scrape by another year or two to get going. So I'm done. I've come to the decision to sell the van and move on to something else - most likely back to NZ with my girlfriend and getting back into the computer industry. I do like living here, but I'm sick of the struggle. Strangely, my van is worth more now than it was when I bought it, even though it should have depreciated a year. I guess because of the high inflation here.

So this year should be interesting, since I'm gonna have to support my girlfriend in NZ while she learns English well enough to get a job. I kind of doubt she'll adjust to NZ, seeing as she didn't adjust to Bariloche, but she wants to give it a try and we're hopeful things will work out. And fortunately Argentines can get a working holiday visa for NZ.

To my readers out there, this isn't my last post, I'll keep on blogging.