Argentina: The tip of fear and wonder

By Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng emerges from being lost and alone into the spectacular scenery of the Nahuel Huapi National Park in Patagonia.

Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina.
Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina.

Sweat, dirt and tree sap cover every pore as I smash my way through the dense wall of shrubbery in search of a track.

Daylight is fading in this remote part of the Argentinian Andes. I am lost. Alone. Covered in pollen and who knows what else from close encounters with unforgiving flora. Then, as if on cue, mosquitoes attack.

I should have bought a detailed topographical map. Instead I stare at the free, cereal-box version from the visitors' centre in Bariloche, a resort town in the middle of Patagonia.

It looks like a game of join the dots. Eventually I choose a direction, soak up all the hope I can muster, and charge through the impenetrable forest. For three hours I battle, metre by fabulous metre. And then, a clearing appears. I run towards it and find merciful salvation. The track!

I drop my heavy pack, strip, and dive into a small stream. Cleansing, cool waters breathe new life into my tired body.

When I emerge, I go to put up my tent ... my tent ... where are my tent poles?

My backpack was crammed so tightly that stuffing them inside could have put excessive pressure on them. So I'd strapped them to the outside. And as I'd waded through the wood, the forest had swallowed them. Idiot!

Retracing steps is a prospect overflowing with repugnancy. Instead I stack rocks, balance sticks, and hang my tent fly over the top.

Summer in the Nahuel Huapi National Park is usually swarming with hikers on well-trodden paths through the mountains.

But after a week of crowds, I longed for remote wilderness.

The ice-covered Mt Tronador.
The ice-covered Mt Tronador.

The hardest route is a traverse from Colonia Suiza, a small community founded by the Swiss to the edge of Lago Fria (Cold Lake) — three mountain passes with 3000m of ascending and descending, more than 70km in all, from the heart of the Andes to the edge of the Chilean border.

The first day follows a popular track to Laguna Negra (Black Lake), where a lodge with cooked meals and beer awaits those with fat wallets.

But on the second day, the track shrinks to slightly wider than a bicycle tyre, splitting off over a pass.

The scenery is spectacular, passing a number of lakes and beech forests — not unlike the South Island's West Coast. Granite plateaus and spires rise steeply and full of menace, and the terrain is dotted with clear, colourful lakes of different hues of blue.

It is curious how complete solitude can be so refreshing one minute, and so alarming the next.

I was on a faint path, hugging a granite face, but lost it completely when it ducked into the forest. I forged on, thinking it would reappear. It didn't.

Soon I was elbow-deep in pollen, waving wildly to keep protruding flora out of my face, and longing for a machete. Chancing upon the clearing triggered a flood of relief — until it was time to set up camp.

My campsites for the next four nights depend on the availability of tree stumps, and the ease with which I can put my tent over said stump.

Nahuel Huapi National Park.
Nahuel Huapi National Park.

The next day I climb to the snow line and over the second major pass. The ice-covered Mt Tronador (3470m), meaning Thunderer, radiates in the distance.

Perfect solitude for three days. It isn't until I hit the pristine waters of Lake Ilon that I come across another person.

The track eventually emerges at the base of Mt Tronador, where it joins the Cloudy Pass hike to the glacial, milky-turquiose waters of Lago Fria.

From there, I plan to take a boat through the fiords back to Bariloche.

But the price is rather disagreeable, so I about-face and start on the 25km hike to the rural roadside.

After all, I have enough food to last me another night or two. And an abundance of wild camping sites - as long as I can find a suitable stump.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Latam Airlines operates seven non-stop flights each week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Punta Arenas, the gateway to Patagonia. For more information call Latam reservations on 0800 700 647, or visit your local travel agent.

Guided hikes are available for this Andean traverse for about $1500 per person, depending on group size.

- NZ Herald

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