Our arrival in Patagonia has been intense. From the stress of Ally nearly missing the flight to the guy who checked in our overloaded bags for free, the beginning of this trip has been non-stop. It was my first New Year in the air, but also the first time I’ve seen Hogmany in twice.
Our captain welcomed us to the first 2014 somewhere above France and we celebrated not by raucous cheering, singing, snogging or dancing, but with a gentle group clap. And an hour or so later, somewhere over the Atlantic, our re-entry to the year was re-announced, but this time people were too hunkered down before TV screens to respond, the reality of thirteen cramped hours of restless sleep in dry, recycled, fart-filtered air having quelled our reason to cheer.
We made an unlikely connection in Buenas Aires thanks to the quiet roads of a hung over, post fiesta city, then another three hours took us south to Patagonia. Seriously, this place is a very long way from Sheffield. And from the moment the plane began it’s descent, it became clear we were entering a land unlike anything I’d seen before. Or, rather, like lots of bits of familiar places rolled up into some crazy tapestry of a land. The bleakness of Scotland. The barrenness of Tibet. The wide open spaces and iridescent lakes of New Zealand. The mountains of the Himalayas. And the wind… well, the wind was Patagonia’s own. Unique and relentless, it’s the defining characteristic of this place. Everything speaks of it, from the east-leaning shrubs to the sandblasted buildings and eroded Ford pickups that roll the asphalt like refugees from a more impoverished time.
Finally, after thousands of miles and far too many hours on the move, we boarded the bus for the final leg of our epic to El Chalten. And for me, this was the best bit by far. With music on and Patagonia flying by the window, I entered that wonderful place of lucidity that travel – and hyper-exhaustion – can sometimes brings. With the difference between in-here and out-there somewhat diminished, I lost myself in a landscape so vast, so barren and so harsh that it transcended these and entered beauty. But it was also the land of the stumpy: the small hard flowers, the stout prickly bushes – everything holding itself close to the ground against the wind. And above, shredded into graceful, lenticular torpedoes, that vast sky of battered clouds.
And if this weren’t enough, the final approach to El Chalten superseded all that had gone before. The tarmac stretched off arrow straight through the desert, a great finger pointing, saying: here, look at this, look at these mountains, look at these towers of granite and snow, you tiny mortals; look at these withering portents from the very core of the earth. And so look is exactly what we did – every phone on the bus, every camera – all unwaveringly pointed out the front window, focused beyond the indifferent driver and the cracked windscreen, all pixelating Cerro Fitroy and Cerro Torre, all capturing them for a time that wasn’t Now.
Bed was like a shock to the system. Stillness after so much motion. And if it hadn’t been for the news that the following day was the last of a brief weather window – the first in two weeks – I would have enjoyed it much more. But as it was, we were facing the situation I’d feared: that after travelling the length of the entire bloody planet, wracked with the deep exhaustion of long distance travel, suffering jetlag and the remnants of a cold, we’d have to get up early and march up a sodding big mountain. And that’s exactly what happened next…