Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Torres del Paine: Into the Park

At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.

The National Park of Torres del Paine begins a hundred kilometers north of Puerto Natales, but the park is a large one, and the towers themselves are another hundred kilometers further north.  If you want to go see them in one day, you have to start very early indeed.
            We left our hotel before the sun was up and drove out into a thick  white fog.  Little Laurie in his car seat passed the time counting ‘birds on poles.” Nothing was moving in that fog.  Even the birds were grounded.
          These weren’t dainty meadowlarks or plover. Talons like garden forks were sunk into fence posts on both sides of the road and above them, hawks and eagles the size of combine harvesters loomed damp and indistinct, waiting for the fog to lift.
We drove slow, peering into the swirling fog, watching out for headlights of other cars and gauging bends.  Watching so close, you see things in the mist – swirling shapes that come out of the fog and go back into it before you know if you’re seeing truly or seeing ghosts –
          Ahead of us, the white began to boil. We hesitated, braked, in case the boil was real - and sudden as a camera shutter coming down, the fog turned and we were driving through sheep.  Masses of sheep. hundreds of sheep. As sea of shaggy white backs, huasos (cowboys) on horseback, little islands in their sheepskin trousers and flat, wide-brimmed hats bobbing among them like little floating islands.  A dozen working dogs slunk low against the grey grass, tag-teaming strays that tried to bolt out of the herd into the fog, growling and nipping, chivvying them back into the pressed mass. The huasos slapped their reins and whistled to the dogs and jinked their horses left, right, and left again – and the whole boiling, seething mass flowed around us like a river in a flood, carried swiftly down upon a current of snapping dog and jinking horse -

Twenty kilometers further up the road, we met cattle. They came at us in snatches of shifting brown bodies, bellowing and steaming all around us in the murk. Mindful of another bull we’d met, on different road down near Lago Ranco, we pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
          A huaso on his horse loomed up out of the white. He wore a patch across his right eye, and in his frilled sheepskin trousers and flat hat he looked a proper pirate.  He grinned down at us from his horse and raised his hand, and like the parting of the waters, a narrow slot opened up between the churning animals. We edged forward. A dog barked –one sharp crack – and a great big brown body lurched. We shot forward and were through.
          Behind us the one-eyed cowboy gave a whoop and waved his hat – and we were gone – they were gone, swallowed up again by the white.

So late in the year, many people don’t see much more of the park than this.  Even in high summer you might come for a week and see no more than ghosts of foothills, thinly, through the shifting mist.
             But for whatever reason – perhaps our one-eye’d huaso had called it up - it was our day.  As we cleared the grazing country and started up into the foothills of the park the fog lifted, and there they were: the Torres del Paine –
          As if the road were a geological divide, a massif rose up- crowned with hanging glaciers and shattered rock fingers -  a slab of mountain like the bottom of the world turned on its end and reaching up into the sky-

We were back to improbable poetry again.  How else could anybody sensible describe this place?  When a white fog rises one expects- the narrative demands - something windswept and barren, a sere and alien beauty – if beauty at all.
          Not this
          We had come out of the fog into the middle of a moonscape - domed hummocks and puddle lakes that meandered out to eternity with no horizon and no base level.  There was no perspective– just up and down and round, vivid in primary yellow and primrose and green.

We drove for hours over the rolling ground, the towers on our right drifting in and out of clouds.  Here at the top of the world, roads snaked and switch-backed, throwing themselves from one side to the other of pocket-handkerchief-sized valleys with their bellies full of water, little lakes, overgrown, in tones of emerald, chartreuse, gold and burgundy and olive, sweeping out from the centre, and then emerald again, where the water met the autumn grass at the edge of the next rise –

And over that next rise, we’d teeter on the lip of a hanging valley: three hundred meters straight down to a long lake the color of blue glacier ice, and on the other side of that, that wall again–no trees, no bushes, no grass, no green, just a fist punching up through the roof of the world –

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