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Walking up the Valley (or should I say, being blown up the Valley!) towards Torres del Paine

I can’t believe it’s been two years since I have written on my blog – how disgraceful! I don’t want you to think I haven’t been walking in all that time, as in between life-as-usual, I have actually done some really wonderful walks – I celebrated my 50th on the Larapinta Trail – unbelievable!; did a multi-day walk on the Ridgeway in the UK; have done some lovely walks around Victoria, including some of the Goldfields Track (my next aim!); walked the Portuguese coastal camino with my daughter, and have just been lucky enough to return from Patagonia – a decades-long dream to walk the Torres del Paine.  And importantly, finally, at the end of last year, my 4th guidebook, Best Walks of the Great Ocean Road, hit the bookshelves. So I clearly owe you a bit of catch-up – let’s see how I do! – and hopefully hear about some of your walks, too.

Patagonia – the southernmost areas of Chile and Argentina – was my first venture to South America, and it won’t be my last. What an incredible 4 weeks, and so easy – bus transportation is fast and comfortable, food is good and plentiful though it helps to like copious quantities of red meat,  people helpful and the walking is spectacular!

First stop: Torres del Paine’s ‘The W Walk’

IMG_3568The 106km ‘W Walk’ around the Torres del Paine massif in Chile has been on my bucket list since I first saw a photo of those incredible spires 20 years ago. And it did not disappoint at all.  A long flight from Melbourne to Santiago, then to Punta Arenas and then a bus to quaint Puerto Natales and yet another bus into the NP was rewarded with a magnificent refugio-to-refugio walk in pretty amazing weather (we were very lucky!). We did the walk independently (very easily) using a local Chilean travel agent to book the refugios and connecting transport, which was very easy and saved us huge wadges of cash. W mapThe refugios are clean – have rooms with multiple bunk beds (If you prebook you can get the lower ones – some are pretty vertiginous!), hot communal showers and can be pre-booked with linen so you don’t have to carry heavy packs, and full board – evening meals are hearty 2 courses and will line your stomachs – and lunchpacks consist of (huge) slabs of bread with meat and cheese and a muesli bar and fruit. For those with more stamina and who are seriously pack-fit, there are excellent camping grounds beside all the refugios.

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Leaning into the wind (already!) as we leave the first refugio

The walk itself is not technical, only reaches altitudes of around 1200m, and the trails are relatively clear except for a bit of rock scrambling up on the final stage to the Towers, but fitness definitely helps – we scaled 1100 flights of stairs in the 6 days, according to our pedometers.  Daily distances are not too long, unless you do some of the optional climbs to some of the bigger lookouts at Los Cuernos (worth it!) – usually around the 16km mark. But one factor you have to take into consideration is the wind. I haven’t experienced anything like it – you hear the gusts coming before they hit you – it sounds a bit like a dozen diesel locomotives at full pace – and you know to ‘brace’ (seriously, as they reach up to 120km an hour.  The lighter weights of us (not me!) were bowled over a couple of times, and one of our 9kg backpacks was tumbled along by the wind like it was a cotton ball. It’s impressive and very wild!

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View back to Los Cuernos (‘the horns’) on the Torres del Paine W walk

We took the option of the boat out from Refugio Grey, rather than retrace our steps, and that was a good call. It takes you up to the face of teh wave-like Grey Glacier and past its various icebergs, and rewards you with a legendary Pisco Sour made with glacial ice as a nice end0-of-walk celebration. We also opted to stay a couple of nights in Refugio Grey at the end so we could do a day walk further up the pass, across some mighty suspension bridges (leave your fear of heights at home!) and clamber down to the iceberg-filled Grey Lake. This walk is seriously very, very beautiful.  Seriously one of the best walks, and most varied, that I have ever done. It did not disappoint one iota. If you ever get the opportunity, grab it with everything you’ve got and go for it.

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Grey Lake icebergs

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Magellanic Orchids – just wow!

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Grey Glacier, from the track beyond Grey Lodge

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Kata Tjuta Sunset (c) JP Mundy

Perhaps the most spectacular walking in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is at Kata Tjuta – just 90 km from Uluru through spectacular red dune country. Sitting on the landscape like a group of huddled sisters, it’s no wonder Kata Tjuta translates as ‘Many Heads’.  The rock here is very different to the coarse sandstone of Uluru – it’s a munched up conglomerate which once formed part of the sea bed – yes, the land in the centre of Australia was once covered in ocean. The mind boggles!  Large boulders are spewed out from the rock at irregular intervals, looking much like glacial moraine spattered over the land. Here there is the opportunity to wander between the towering walls of the impressive Walpa Gorge, to again find permanent waterholes carved into the base of the rock. But perhaps my favourite walk of this whole weekend was the Full Circuit walk which climbs for 8km up and through the aptly named Valley of the Winds, then descends treacherously down through a gap in the rocks to walk out around the dry back country, with huge domes of red on either side of you.  In the late afternoon it was nothing short of magical. The walk is closed off at the first lookout point (Karu Lookout) when temperatures are forecast to reach 36C, so winter is the perfect time to pull on your books and head for the Red Centre.

Kata Tjuta backcountry on the Full Circuit Walk

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