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Following the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – A Patagonian Adventure!

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After a very long stint in Buenos Aires (everyone I have ever known has gotten stuck there for weeks and weeks beyond their intended stay – might have something to do with the Argentinian Men, the electric atmosphere of the city, the incredible nightlife and….well, the Argentinian Men…) I decided it was high time that I head south and see what all the fuss was about.

The vast and hostile terrain that makes up Patagonia, the southernmost point in both Argentina and Chile is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights there is on this earth. Snow-capped peaks, vast mountain lakes, glaciers, fjords, not to mention the wildlife – penguins, whales, sea lions,…and did I mention the penguins!? They are so cute – like miniature black and white people with funny stumpy legs!!

In order to get a sense of the scale of the place – it takes 50 hours to get from Buenos Aires to the tip in Ushuaia by bus (luxury bus that is) – Immense!…I cheated, however and flew down to Punta Arenas on the Chilean side (in my defense… it was only just the end of winter, and many said it was the only way of getting there at all! Turns out wasn’t, but this made me feel slightly less guilty at the time).

Punta Arenas was a rather depressing little town – very grey, crumbling and weather beaten…perhaps what you’d expect from such a harsh climate. Puerto Natales (my actual destination) was the same. From a tourism perspective, it is simply a jump off point for Torres del Paine National Park and the ferry ride back up to Puerto Mont through the Chilean Fjords (a stunning trip, so I’m told). I was on my own at this point in my travels, and there was absolutely no one else around –well, apart from 3 incredibly brave German girls – only 13 years old – that were on the adventure trip of a lifetime in their school holiday exchange break. They adopted me as a ‘big sister’, and we decided to go off trekking in the Torres Del Paine national park for a couple of days. It was spectacular – despite our 8 hour trek yielding nothing but fog-ridden views and knee deep snow. Occasionally, I would drop back from the girls and take it all in – space, as far as the eye could see (which was a long way when the fog cleared intermittently!), beauty, nature at its most powerful, and there I was – practically at the end of the world!

I soon left Puerto Natales and made my way back into Argentina, anxious to see the Perito Moreno glacier. The nearest town, El Calafate was far more bustling and welcoming and the hostel (run by friends of friends back in Buenos Aires) was a home from home (the Argentine people are among the kindest I have met in my life – generous, hospitable and above all fun!).

I didn’t have much time to spare, so I organised an ice trekking trip for the very next day – a little expensive but something I had always wanted to do! It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life! There I was, trekking on a real life glacier, crampons and all! My little group followed the guide in single file as he took us on a walk up and around the glacier, explaining as we went about how they worked, the dangers, etc. I have never seen ice so blue, so pure, so white – and looking out from the top of the monstrous slab of ice that was moving, living, breathing: I felt like I was in another world.

Perito Merino Patagonia

I did a bit more trekking in El Chalten National Park and then, deciding to forgo Ushuaia (another 18 hours south-west), headed north to see the whales and the penguins in Peninsula Valdes, Puerto Madryn and the lakes and ski resorts of Bariloche.

I had never before been so close to such incredible animals – my little boat was entirely surrounded by whales as far as the eye could see – almost close enough to touch! When we got back to shore, I wanted to go out again and again! Instead, however, I headed over to a different part of the peninsula to see the penguins, sea lions and elephant seals – fascinating! I just sat and watched for hours until it was time to go home.

My final stop in Patagonia (for now, at least…) was Bariloche in the lake region. Probably the least ‘alternative’ stop of all – it reminded my of a Swiss alpine village with chocolate shops aplenty, beautiful mountain lakes and even a ski resort a short distance from the town. It was, in a word, idyllic; it was extremely hard to tear myself away from the ease and comfort of it all (I even indulged in a little spa activity while I was there!)

Patagonia is a nature lover’s paradise – its raw beauty is undeniable, and this, coupled with the simplicity of life within the boundaries of the region soothes the soul (without wanting to sound too cliché or cheesy). I felt refreshed, alive, and invigorated after my stint there and would recommend it to anyone travelling in the South America region. I myself have vowed to go back one day to the very tip of the world – Ushuaia – to experience the Ferry trip and perhaps even hop on a cruise to Antarctica.

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The Mountain, Borneo

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I will start my series of blog entries with one of the most memorable (and exhausting) trips I made whilst on my journey around the world – that was to Sabah, Borneo to climb the famous Mount Kinabalu.

I have long held a fascination with Borneo – the faraway island, where my mother was born and where most of my family spent their youth – so it was with both excitement and expectation that I first set foot in Kota Kinabalu. ‘The Mountain’, as it’s known by the locals, is legend in my family. It once defeated my stubborn, ‘happy grump’ of a grand-father who, despite building roads through jungles, and surviving the infamous Bridge of the River Kwai concentration camp, failed to reach the summit… “ Bugger this”, he said, but half way to the top – “I’m going back down for a corpse reviver”, (one of the many cocktails he has invented in his life time. Other favourites include the ‘grave robber’ and the ‘brain crippler’).

How could I, an asthma-ridden, stodge-eating, city girl ever hope to achieve it? Still, I was determined to succeed, and that was enough for me…

Mount Kinabalu towers over everything surrounding it and watches protectively over KK city. It is an impressive sight, and it is little wonder that the locals believe it to have supernatural powers. Visiting the mountain and the lush, tropical national park at its base is a simple task to organise, or so I thought…”tour operator? – pah! Who needs one?” Boy, did I regret that decision!

In a pathetic bid to save a few measly pennies (literally, in Malaysia),I opted to make my own way, via local bus, to the national park. I also snubbed the plush hotels inside the compound for a miserable little ‘pension’ with an ant infested kitchen and ‘colourful’ bed sheets that attempted to mask the years they had spent on the rickety bunks, unwashed, unchanged and crawling with God knows what! It was a miracle that I arrived unscathed…and even more of a miracle that I was alive the next morning to tell the tale…

Once inside the park, I had to arrange my pass, a guide, my accommodation and countless other things before I was able to set off…I was already exhausted, and I hadn’t even started walking yet!

Then, suddenly, I was off….off to conquer the mountain, to race to the top…

Well, that dream was short lived. For ‘race’ I did not: the first day of the trek consists of 4 hours of pure uphill climbing. Not long, some might say, but it is possibly the steepest 4 hour climb I have ever undertaken – harder than the entire Machu Picchu trail put together! That, coupled with the suppressive tropical heat and the increasing altitude makes it, at times, unbearable. However, the trail was beautifully kept, with regular scenic resting stops and plenty of people to chat with along the way. We all encouraged one another up the relentless mountainside to our resting place , close to the top.

Secretly, I enjoyed every minute of it.

In the end, I made surprisingly good time and spent the late afternoon settling into my room, attempting to shower in the icy cold before meeting up with some fellow trekkers. Before long, we were firm friends and watched the stunning sunset together over a couple of beers, a game of cards and a steaming bowl of noodle soup.

I had barely closed my eyes (I had a snorer in my room, who could be heard the length of the corridor…), when I was rudely awoken with a 1 am call to get out of bed and up the mountain in order to see the sunrise. It was exhilarating; there we were on a steep granite slope in the pitch black, able only to see by torch light (now who’s glad they had a head torch!), as we clutched onto ropes to keep us from slipping off the side. Surprisingly, I found the climb much easier in the dark: unable to see the gradient of the incline, I seemed much more willing to push on (unlike the day before!) and made it to the top with my new found friends in record time.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

The cold was biting – we used anything that we could find to keep warm: towels as hats, socks as gloves…a sight to behold! And then we sat…waiting, and waiting…and waiting, until, very slowly, bit by bit, the sun started to creep up above the horizon, illuminating our surroundings and setting the sky on fire! The sight was breathtaking, spectacular; absolutely spellbinding. Never had I seen such a unique setting…the jagged hostile nature of the granite rocks surrounding us contrasted with the lush tropical forest in the valley below – making it one of the most striking views I had ever seen. I felt alive to be there, standing as if on the top of the world.

Veiw from Mount Kinabalu

After we had had our fix of marvellous views, we tore ourselves away and began the descent: nothing could have prepared me for the pain that ensued. Walking purely downhill for 8 hours is the most excruciating task…so much so that my legs actually refused to work for the last hour, and I had to walk on my tip toes just to make it down. It was as if my limbs had become independent of my body and flapped around with a will of their own! Still, after a long and painful day, I arrived safely at the bottom with a feeling of satisfaction and elation.

There it stood: the mountain, as tall and majestic as ever…but this time I saw it differently. I had conquered it, I had stood upon its summit, and I would cherish the experience always.

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