When the Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Kashmir, he famously said, “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” I can say the same for Torres Del Paine National Park. Words cannot describe the majesty and beauty of Patagonia. It’s vivid colors and tranquility are hard to forget.
The tour bus picked us up at seven-thirty from Hotel Costaustralis. The drive to Torres Del Paine was pretty much straight. The sky was slightly overcast, and our guide was hopeful that it would clear up by the time we reach the first scenic location.
Torres Del Paine is one of the largest and most visited National Park in Chile. Most of the adventure-seeking tourists come here to trek. They do the famous W circuit (named on the shape of the trek), prefer to camp or stay in one of the resorts within the park.
As we drove for about ten minutes, the tour guide pointed to a rare occurrence. A couple of cowboys on horseback armed with shepherd dogs were taking their herds for grazing. “This is a rare occurrence,” the guide commented, “There aren’t many cattle stations left in Patagonia.”
About forty minutes later, we were asked to look on the left and wait for the most breathtaking view. A crystal blue lake against the snow-capped peaks appeared out of nowhere. A collective sigh was followed by camera clicks. We stepped out to view the Sarmiento Lake and were greeted by the Patagonian winds.
Sarmiento Lake is 90 square kilometers and is the biggest lake in the sanctuary. Unlike other lakes in the park owe their origin the glaciers this is formed from rain, which gives it a deep blue color. But what was more interesting was its white shores. Its shores are marked by extensive “Thrombolites,” live calcium carbonate structures lined by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), which began to form with the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. They are, in a way, living fossils. They grow at a rate of less than 1 millimeter per year.
Another remarkable thing (visible in the lake picture) are three distinctive granite peaks known as The Towers of Paine. They are about 3000 meters high peaks deeply eroded by glaciers. In her book published in 1880, Lady Florence Dixie gave named these three towers as Cleopatra’s Needles.
We were soon surrounded by Guanacos, camel-like animals native to South America, closely related to the llama. Its name comes from the Quechua word huanaco and is pronounced as wanaku. Young guanacos are called chulengos. These are placid animals. Though they were in their wild habitat, we were allowed to take photos with them, provided we didn’t go too close and leave them alone.
Our next stop was a waterfall. To get to it, we walked for twenty minutes through millions of years old rocks, experiencing the true force of the Patagonian wind. It was literally flying us off our feet. It blows with such a ferocity that it can, in Chatwin’s expression – ‘strip the man raw.’ A legend is that it actually made Antoine de Saint-Exupery‘s plane fly backward.
We made frequent stops before lunch to see flora and fauna and spot the puma. The Patagonia land is lined by the basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers. Despite its harsh climate, Patagonian soil is very fertile. We came across several well-rounded bushes with stunning flowers. Another notable flora is the shunted trees that covered a lot of areas. Looking like bonsai, they grow extremely slowly and reach maturity only after approximately 200 years.
We didn’t spot any puma though our guide said he had seen them five or six times. There is also a rare deer called Huemul. Birdlife is abundant, with over 115 species recorded, including the Andean condor with its wingspan of up to 3.2 meters, although we didn’t see any.
Wild winds mean there is a big risk of fires, and Patagonia has experienced quite a few in the past few years. In 2011, two fires in February and another in December, both started by tourists’ neglect, have resulted in more than 16,000 hectares of the Torres del Paine being destroyed, resulting in permanent environmental damage.
After lunch, we went to another lake, Lake Grey, which had stunning turquoise ice masses floating through it. The lake is formed by the Grey Glacier.
After tasting some ice, we packed in the tour bus towards the last stop of the day. Before I tell you about that, I have a story to share, which Bruce Chatwin wrote in the open chapter of his book In Patagonia.
In my grandmother’s dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet, and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only , but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse reddish hair. It was stuck to a card with a rusty pin. On the cars was some writing in faded black ink, but I was too young then to read.”
‘What is that?’
‘A piece of a brontosaurus.’
“My mother knew the names of two prehistoric animals, the brontosaurus and the mammoth. She knew it was not a mammoth. Mammoths came from Siberia.”
The brontosaurus, I learned, was an animal that had drowned in the Flood, being too big for Noah to ship aboard the Ark. I pictured a shaggy lumbering creature with claws and fangs and a malicious green light in its eyes. Sometimes the brontosaurus would crash through the bedroom wall and wake me from my sleep.
This particular brontosaurus had lived in Patagonia, a country in South America, at the far end of the world. Thousands of years before, it had fallen into a glacier, in perfect condition at the bottom. Here my grandmother’s cousin Charley Milward the Sailor found it.
Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin. My grandmother said I should have it one day, perhaps. And when she died I said: Now I can have that piece of brontosaurus but my mother said: “Oh, that thing! I’m afraid we threw it away.”
Bruce Chatwin was ridiculed in the school by his teacher for telling the story because brontosauruses are reptiles. It was not until later he found out that the skin belonged to a mylodon or Giant Sloth, and his uncle Charley Milward didn’t find the whole skeleton but some skin and bones preserved by the cold dryness and salt, in a cave in The Cave of Hope, in Chilean Patagonia. But this story itched a deep desire in Chatwin’s heart to visit Patagonia. He visited Patagonia and wrote several books on it, which introduced Patagonia to the rest of the world.
They now have a life-size statue of Sloth outside the cave. The remains that Bruce Chatwin’s great-uncle, Charley Milward, found are proudly displayed in the British Museum.