Monday, 18 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 10 - 9

This section started with a long dirt road walk which would have been much nicer without the camping problem in populated areas. Everything was fenced in or a house nearby so that I was very happy when I found this little spot beside the dirt road. But when I was just falling asleep I heard shooting in the distance - and unfortunately the shots came closer and closer. Around midnight a truck with a group of rowdy hunters passed my campsite. What should I do? If I stayed quiet they might mistake my tent for an animal and shoot me. If I made myself apparent I would have to explain to a group of drunk guys what I was doing here in the middle of the night. I didn't know what was more dangerous ... I stayed quiet and the truck passed - only to come back at 3 am! But as I am still able to write this you will have guessed that luckily nothing happened to. But I was a bit sleep deprived the next day which started with a long ascent up to another volcanic plateau. And of course it was hot and of course there was not much water ....

I thought that I could cross the 20 kilometer plateau easily with 3,5 litres of water but I was wrong. There was no trail marking whatsoever and I got lost frequently. No big deal in this open landscape but it was time and water consuming ... The landscape reminded me a lot of Jurassic Park and I sort of expected a dinosaur to come around the corner any time.

It soon became very clear that I would not be able to cross the plateau and descend the same day. Luckily Jan shows a detour to a water source on top of the plateau so I decided to camp there and call it a day. But when I arrived at the water source it turned out to be a stinking shallow cow pond. The idea of having to drink this disgusting water mobilized my last energy and I decided to walk a bit further to a real lake. It took my almost 45 minutes to hike this distance of less than 1 kilometer because it was a horrible bushwhack down a steep slope. I was getting nervous now because the light was fading. If I wasn't able to camp at the lake shore I would not be able to get back in the dark ...

The lake was pristine and only few adventurous cows had ever ventured here. The beach was very small but just big enough to accommodate my tent. In fact, it turned out to be the nicest campsite of the whole GPT. It was too dark to swim in the evening but when I woke up next morning a took a very refreshing bath screaming with joy! I don't carry a towel but I dried immediately in the morning sun. I had a very late start that morning because I was so hard to leave this wonderful campsite ...
After a very steep descent I finally arrived in the valley were I came across several puestos and horse riders.


Argentinian GPT hiker Martin
And then I saw a hiker with an ultralight backpack. This must be a GPT hiker! It turned out to be Martin, a teacher from Argentina who was hiking with an even lighter backpack than me. We sat down immediately and chatted. We chatted so long that I didn't make much sense to continue hiking that day and we decided to camp together. It took quite a while to find water and a decent camp spot but then we had a nice potluck dinner, an interesting discussion about the GPT and South America and of course a lot of gear talk. Martin's base weight was an incredible 1,5 kilograms lighter than mine! And South America is not really famous for ultralight hikers ...

View of Trappa Trappa
 Next day brought me to the small Pehuenche village of Trappa Trappa. Thanks to Martin I found a little shop that was even open on Sundays and bought some more food and ice cream. As usual I was behind schedule ...

There was another long ascent and descent and then the landscape changed dramatically. There was less and less vegetation until it finally disappeared completely. I had my lunch break at an eerie place, presumably an abandoned army barracks. Windows and doors of this huge building were open but not a single soul was to be seen. Huge ventilators made an eerie sound but were probably just part of desinfecting the place from Hanta virus. Soon I would find out what had happened here ...


Stone memorial for the soldiers
I continued on a dirt which looked like being on mars. Nothing but grey volcano ashes and no shelter whatsoever. I started to worry about camping here. I had enough water for the night but if a strong wind came up I would spent a very uncomfortable night in my tent. There were few cars on that road but strangely enough each driver would stop and offer me water. I asked one of them when this desert ends and vegetation starts again. When I was told that this scenery continues for 30 kilometers I realised that it was probably better to hitchhike a bit ... A young Chilean couple picked me up immediately. Soon we passed several little stone memorials with a Chilean flag. I asked them what they meant and was told a very sad story. In May 2005 a company of conscripts were sent out from the barracks where I had just had my lunch break on a training march - despite a very bad weather forecast. Five hours into their march the ill equipped mostly teenage soldier where hit by severe snow storm. The lost orientation in a white out - and 47 soldiers died along the road. Each stone monument marked one of the places were a corpse had been found later. This so called tragedy of Antuco was the biggest modern military desaster in Chilean history. Although now in summer I would not have encountered a snow storm I was all of a sudden very happy to be in a car ....

This is where the tragedy of Antuco happened

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 11

When I was getting ready to leave Lonquimay after one night in a hotel I encountered two other GPT hikers in the supermarket. Big surprise for both parties and of course we both delayed our departure and chatted quite a while. Although this Swiss couple with hiking my direction I would not meet them again because they were behind me - and I was now taking a huge detour! On the upcoming trail section there had been a big landslide last year and every hiker had complained how dangerous it was to get around it. And I had realised that in order to enjoy this difficult trail I wanted to avoid any risks if possible. And as there existed a detour around this section I decided to take it!

Problem was that nobody had ever hiked the entire length of this long detour before! It involved a lot of road walking - and two bridges which I could not confirm 100% on google earth. This was going to be an adventure ... The section started with a long road walk and first impressions of the volcano Lonquimay. When I turned onto the paved road accessing the National Reserve I was surprised by the amount of tourist traffic. My plan was to continue hiking on that road that would soon turn into dirt. But when I arrived at the entrance of the reserve a very friendly female ranger more or less talked me into taking an even longer hike into the reserve ... In hindsight I can't believe I took that risk because I had no gpx track of this route, there was no official map of it - there only was a small one page color photocopy of google earth. But the ranger praised this route so much and swore that her colleagues had only recently blazed it that changed my mind and embarked on this 45 km route through the reserve. According to the ranger it would take 4 days ....

To my delight the trail marking was indeed fantastic! I had never seen anything similar before. There were wooden posts and painted blazes on rocks the entire way. The views were outright spectacular and not too much snow was left. I even found a great water source that was not marked on my "map". But instead of camping there I made the mistake of continuing. My "map" called the next kilometers the "labyrinth" and I was soon to find out why. I had to traverse a huge lava field and the trail zig-zagged through sharp lava outcrops. It was very strenous hiking but the waymarking was excellent! I was reluctant to camp in this lava field because it was so high up and completely exposed and pressed on until almost sunset. Despite my fears the night was completely calm with no wind and it was not as cold as expected. The view in the morning was incredibly: I was camped between two snow covered volcanoes under a completely blue sky!


Trail marking continued to be great and a water source appeared just in time. Soon I was descending below tree line again. On a steep slope a whole herd of cows was walking in front of me because the trail was so narrow that they could not let me pass ...
It took me only two days to hike this traverse and I did not see a single soul during that time. In hindsight this was one of the most beautiful sections of the GPT - although it is not even the main route! Finally I had found the perfect mix of great landscape, good trail and trail marking. I sent an email to the ranger to de-register and embarked on the upcoming long road walk to rejoin the main GPT route.


The road walk turned out to be much nicer than expected. It was pure dirt and hardly any traffic - expect this French cyclist. He was not making a lot more kilometers cycling than I was hiking! Coming from where I was going to he assured me that the two bridges really existed - a great relief for me! He also told me that there was tunnel! Tunnel? I could not believe that but sure enough the next day I had to walk through a 400 meter long tunnel. There was no pavement and lots of horse droppings inside because there were more riders than drivers using it ... Of course there was no lighting either ....

I camped close to the dirt road and was convinced that it was so bad that cars did not use it any more. In the morning I learnt that I was completely wrong: not only a car, but a small bus fought its way up the mountain ...
I even passed an abandoned orchard full of cherry trees. I enjoyed the unexpected vitamins a lot ...
The second bridge was a narrow metal construction over a deep river gorge with plenty of horse droppings on it. I cannot understand how the cowboys manage to drive cattle over such a bridge where even I felt uncomfortable looking down. There was a well stocked minimarket on the other side where I had a very long lunch break before finally joining the main GPT route again. I had made a detour of over 100 kilometers but I have enjoyed it a lot. In hindsight this has been one of my favourite stretches of the entire GPT! Even the road walk has been pleasant ...

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 12

I was now hiking in Pehuenche country
My timing for the my rest day was perfect! Like the weather forecast had predicted temperatures dropped and it started to rain as soon as I reached Temuco where I stayed two days to wait out the weather. Then I was itching to leave again because there is not really much to do in Chilean cities except hanging out in the mall and eat. There was supposed to be no more rain but the night temperature was predicted to be well below freezing.

When I arrived back in Liucara I passed a guesthouse and hesitated briefly - but no, I wanted to sleep out again. I started to regret that decision when it started to snow one hour before sunset with no protected campsite in sight. Everything was fenced in and/or crowded with cows. Eventually I was lucky! There was a small cluster of trees where cows had already created flat spots for camping. I removed the cowshit and squeezed my tent in between two trees. Although it really froze that night I was so well protected in my cosy little spot that I slept pretty well - and warm!

When I started hiking next morning it finally dawned on me that all the precipitation that had fallen lately was now lying on top of the mountains as snow - and I had to go over three high passes the next days ... Pass number one was relatively easy with very little snow and brought me to this wonderful Laguna. I nearly missed the turn up to it because the trail went through a "puesto" guarded by several dogs. Luckily the owner came to my rescue and even accompanied me up to the lake. "I have not seen anyone for days and am quite bored", he told me and was more than happy about our little chat. I continued and had a hard time deciding where to camp later - too many good options close to a river!

Before I could tackle the second pass of this section I had to pass another puesto where several people were busy preparing breakfast. This was Maximiliano Lagos and his eight year old daughter plus an entire family with kids visiting them. Maximiliano's daughter was hand-feeding this little goat that had been abandoned by its mother. She was so enthusiastic about her pet that she put it onto my lap - it seemed to like it and this photo became my favourite photo of the entire trip!

We chatted for at least an hour before I finally ascended up to the second pass which was completely covered in heavy watery snow. Although technically not difficult this was very demanding and my shoes and socks were soon soaking wet. The descent was even worse and on top of all that I got lost and had to bushwhack through impenetrable macchia. It was so bad that I started crying - and turned back. Shortcuts don't work here on the GPT!

View from the second pass - everything is still covered in snow

When I saw the third pass in the distance it was even more covered in snow and a lot steeper than the two before. Being on my own I did not want to take any risk and decided to leave the main route and walk into the little town of Lonquimay. There was even an alternate route going there. It was great to be able to hike at a fast pace again on dirt roads with no traffic. When I reached more populated areas I was worried about camping but found a wonderful spot right next to a river. I even had cell phone reception and could make a reservation for the hotel in Lonquimay. But on the GPT nothing works out as planned ...



Ferry without ferryman
My map showed a river crossing shortly before Lonquimay and I had even checked on Google Maps and Earth to see if there is a bridge. But what I had thought to be a bridge turned out to be a ferry - with no ferryman in sight. Of course there was no schedule either. Neighbours told me that the ferry man lives far away and only comes twice per day to operate the ferry - from 8 -10 in the morning and from 4 - 6 in the afternoon. But they were not so sure if he also comes on Saturdays ... It was now noon and if I waited till 4 pm with no ferry man showing up I was stuck here. After a lot of deliberation I decided to play it safe. I walked 8 km back, turned onto the main road and took the bus into Lonquimay. Just a normal day on the GPT ...

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 16 - 13 Villarica Traverse

Next GPT section was the Villarica Traverse, another popular hike on a volcanic plateau. It started with a long, but easy ascent and when I had nearly reached the top, I sat down next to a water source and had lunch. While I was eating some weird sound came closer and closer. And then I realised with great honor that what I had thought of as chain saw noise from logging activities was in fact a group of motor cyclists! A whole group of them emerged out the forest and try to climb up to the top - although this was a national park! This last bit of ascent was so steep that they could hardly manage and I was faster on foot. I hiked as fast as I could to escape the noise and exhaust fumes but I could still here them driving up and down the slopes for hours.

When I finally got out of hearing range I started to love this trail section. For the first time in Chile I saw trail markers, the going was relatively easy, no more snow fields - and an incredibly spectacular landscape where I was all alone from now on. When I finally descended and arrived at the park boundaries a sign said explicitly that motor cycles are not allowed in the park ....
Unfortunately cows did not care about park boundaries either and therefore I had some very curious early morning visitors. I left the park on New Year's Eve and made a mistake: instead of taking the last nice campsite in the mountains I decided to hike on because it seemed to early to camp ...

I was now hiking on dirt roads which was easy and fast - but camping was difficult! First I was accompanied by a young Chilean guy on a bike. Then I treated myself to an ice cream in the small town of Currarehue. And then I could not find a campsite ... The terrain was either too steep or fenced in or both. It was already getting dark when I eventually found a suitable place near the road - and then the owner caught me. Luckily she was a very nice older lady and when I explained my problem she allowed me to camp on her property. I was very much relieved because I did not want to ask at people's houses that night. But New Year's Eve does not seem to be such a big deal here. There was a firework down in village but close to my campsite it was a quiet night after that.

Next day the road walk more or less continued with hardly any traffic. Someone had even parked his horse near the road. This time I had more luck with camping. Right before sunset I found a wonderful hidden spot close to the river.
More road walking followed althoug "road" might not be the best term for the trail I was following through the National Reserve of Sollipulli. There were no bridges for the few vehicules I saw. The river crossing were very easy but I still got wet feet.
To spice things up a little bit there was a long section of bushbashing the next day. Although the trail was terribly overgrown and I was down to 2 km/h a horse rider most have been through here recently.


More road walking to the town of Icalma where I could buy more food and had problems again with finding a campsite in this populated area. But the morning bath in the Laguna Icalma was great!!!



This long stretch ended with an abrupt change of scenery. So far I had been fighting my way through Valdivian rainforest or bamboo junge - and now I was hiking in near desert conditions. The land was so dry and dusty that there wasn't even any cattle on this plateau. I reached the border town of Liucara on a Sunday afternoon worrying about the bus schedule back to civilisation. But my timing was perfect: I could change into me cleanest clothes in a public toilet, have lunch in a restaurant and then boarded the bus to Temuco. I really deserved two rest days now after this long stretch on the GPT.


Monday, 4 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 18 - 17

After a rest day in Futrono the GPT had another challenge waiting for me: I had to cross the private nature reserve of Huilo-Huilo. There are several private reserves of that kind in Chile with luxury accomodation and outdoor activities for sale. Huilo-Huilo is one of the biggest and acces to it is pretty unclear. The GPT follows an old road through the reserve that should have right of way but several former GPT hikers had been caught there and escorted out for various reasons. As there is no good alternate route around it I decided to hike this 4 km stretch of dirt road late on a Sunday evening hoping that no ranger would be on duty then.

My strategy worked out fine! There was no locked fence or "Entry prohibited"-signs, only signs saying "Hunting forbidden" because in this reserve Huemel, the world's smallest deer is raised. I encountered no one on the road, in fact no one at all the entire day. When I reached my turn-off from the road I sat down an an old log and sighed with relief. I was still in the reserve but the trail was so faint and overgrown here that I was very unlikely to meet a ranger here.

Inside Huilo-Huilo Reserve
Just as I wanted to get up and look for a campsite I heard a shot in the near distance - then another one. My heart nearly stopped. Who was shooting around on a Sunday evening in a nature reserve with "No hunting" signs everywhere? I started to worry seriously about poachers. What would the hunters do if they detected me? Or maybe mistake me for an animal? Unfortunately the trail was now traversing a huge clearing where I would be an easy target ... It was very late already and I decided to play safe. I disappeared into the thick forest out of sight from the trail and set up my tent. Strangely enough I felt very safe here and slept very well. I did not see or anything else from the hunter neither in the evening nor in the next morning ....

This part of the reserve was formerly used by settlers and I passed some old wooden huts and plenty of meadows before the trail went up into the mountains. Although this is called a nature reserve there was plenty of logging going on - and therefore plenty of very steep old and new logging roads. Tree cover was so thick that my GPS didn't get an accurate position - and before I knew it, I was off route. I made the classic rookie mistake of continuing upwards in the hope of somehow reconnecting to the route - and had to turn back eventually. As this happened twice I lost almost two hours and did not even get close to my anticipated camp site. This was Christmas eve and I set up my tent being very frustrated ...


This delay had completely screwed up my schedule, so the next day I was flying down the trail (luckily downhill) to Lago Pirihueico in order to get the ferry. I arrived just five minutes late - the ferry had just left ... The times given on the internet had been wrong, but the good news was that there was a later ferry. Unfortunately it arrived well after sunset on the other side of the lake which made finding a campsite difficult. This was a popular holiday spot and I wanted to get away from drunk teenagers and/or park rangers ... When I set up my tent it was almost midnight and I only discovered next morning that I was camped at a beautiful beach. Of course I took a bath!

The rest of this section was (luckily) rather uneventful and brought me to the spa town of Liquine where there are literally hundreds of hot springs. Every hotel had its own spa and I collapsed into the first one. Timing was perfect as I had to kill some hours before the departure of my bus back into civilisation. It was heavenly to wash off all the dirt and relax in the hot water after a demanding trail section.

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 19: Pueyehue Traverse

Now that I had realised how difficult the GPT can be I was wondering how I would fare on the next section, the traverse of the volcanic plateau of the Pueyehue. Marcus and Jennifer had already hiked it and told me to expect spectacular scenery but also lots of snow. The weather forecast was predicting rain and therefore I wanted to minimize my hiking time on difficult terrain. I decided to hike on an alternate route on dirt roads up to the plateau. When I asked to bus driver to let me out there all passengers asked me to stay on. "There is no hiking trail there", they told me - and I should have listened to them. Instead I got out and started walking on this dirt road that was completely fenced in.

Volcan Pueyehue
Signs said "private property", but dozens of cars where passing me and no one stopped me. It was already 8 pm when I reached a security check point after 4 km of hiking. The guard smiled at me - and told me that there is no way whatsoever to get in here. This was the property of a former president and it is completely off limits. "We saw you right from the beginning but let you continue because we thought you might be a guest of the ex-president", the guard told me - and sent me back 4 km. Because everything was fenced in I could not camp. And when I reached the road I could not find a camp site either although it was now getting dark ...

Very frustrated I hiked on on the deserted paved road until I finally reached the entrance to the National Park and its campground at 11 pm. The very friendly owner was completely surprised by my late appearance and let me even stay in the dormitory where I was the only guest. He informed me that other hikers had already done the traverse and showed me a campsite with water on the map. This information was very useful as there is hardly any water up on the plateau - except the snow. Next day was supposed to be warm and sunny - and then rain was expected. I had to hurry to get up and down from the plateau before the bad weather set in.

Getting up onto the plateau was easy and the weather was fine but hiking on steep slopes and in snow and volcanic ashes was very strenous. Luckily I could follow the footprints of other hikers. Very exhausted I finally reached the campsite "Rio de Lava", right where a little stream comes out of a lava field. It was a wonderful and surreal place. From my tent I could see the volcano and the desert like volcanic landscape where the stream and the vegetation along it looked like a ribbon. And the water was ice cold! I took a bath before going to sleep and worried about the next day.



Next morning started with sunshine but I could already see the clouds building up. Unfortunately the route became even more challenging now. There was no trail or trail marking - only steep ups and downs and lava fields. I was just going around one when it happened: With one leg I broke deep into the snow. Although my other leg stayed outside I did not sprain or break anything and I could slowly wiggle myself out of this snow trap. But unfortunately my shoe was still stuck between some rocks. And just in that moment it started to rain ... I lay down flat on my belly onto the snow in order to reach my shoe. But as much as I pulled - I could not get it out.

Fog was rising and getting thicker and thicker as I tried frantically to dig out my shoe. My hand started freezing and I had to use my pot to shovel the snow out. But the shoe was stuck. I nearly started to cry although the situation must have looked rather comical. Eventually I could get a good hold on it and was able to pull it out. Relieved and with shaking hands I put it on again and hurried on. I passed several steaming geothermal areas where I was rather scared to walk on hot - and soft ground. It smelled of sulphur and my glasses fogged up which made navigation even more difficult. But finally - and much later than expected - I reached the descent and treeline! I could have kissed those trees ....

Next day was spent hiking in populated areas which meant restricted camping options. And of course I made the mistake of not taking a wonderful campsite because it seemed too early in the day. I ended up hiking till sunset until I reached another one which seemed perfect. Flat, hidden from the road by bushes and on an old grassy meadow. I wondered where all the holes in the ground came from ... and learnt in the  morning that pigs had dug them. Not wild pigs, but domestic pigs who came to visit me in the morning. Luckily they were not too interested in my tent ...

Hiking was relatively fast now as I was on dirt roads now descending to beautiful Lake Maihue where I ran into more camping trouble. The lake was a popular holiday spot and everything was fenced in. I had already given up hope when I found the perfect spot right next to the lake. I took a bath and watched the sunset and reconciled myself with the GPT ...



Sunday, 3 March 2019

Greater Patagonian Trail GPT 20

When I set out from Cochamo the weather forecast was bad - lots of rain was predicted for the night. I therefore decided to walk just half a day in stay overnight in the last B&B before the National Park. This turned out to be a great idea as it was bucketing down at night while I was the only guest in a lovely wooden hostel run by an amazing young couple. When I finally left their place and civilization it was still raining - and I was pretty soon soaking wet from outside and inside.

The GPT leads you first to the campground at La Junta, a very popular place for Chilean backpackers and even that early in the season plenty of hikers were on their way. The trail was deeply cut into ground and felt more like a tunnel than a trail! I was going to see that phenomen very often on the Southern GPT where it is mostly caused by horses. Sometimes they have even created a washboard pattern on the ground! The trail to La Junta had been difficult enough - very much braided and slippery. But after that it got a lot worse ....


Because very few people hike on the trail was no much less developped - and not maintained that early in the season. Tree cover was so dense that my PLB could not get signal for hours and my GPS went amok - it was dozens of meters off in some places. This was especially problematic when the trail faded away and/or was blocked by a blown down tree. I then landed immediately in bamboo jungle where you would have needed a machete to make any progress! You could not see the trail when it was only five meters away because the undergrowth was so thick. I climbed over, under and around trees, fought my way through bamboo and had wet muddy feet all the time. Because snow in the mountains was still melting the river crossings were deep and swift - and ice cold!

There was no one else around and my PLB was only working erratically. What if I sprained an ankle or broke a leg? How could I get help? Would someone find me? I started to get seriously worried and was extra cautious on the trail.

When I finally emerged onto a huge meadow near a settler's home after 2,5 days of Valdivian rain forest I could have kissed the ground. Although the few settlers here live without cellphone signal and electricity it felt like being back in civilisation. The settlers had cut down the huge trees that were still lying around, had burnt the undergrowth and now this was a big meadow with sheep, goats and cows. For a short bit a was back to hiking at 4 km/h ...  After not seeing anyone for two days I was surprised to run into a huge group of teenagers, accompanied be several adults and men on horses. They were going to where I just came from. But I had been struggling so much to get through that jungle - how would these kids fare?
 
Some of the settlers sell food to hikers or offer camping on their property. I decided to take advantage of that and ended in this kitchen eating self made bread, butter and beef stew. The owner, an older lady explained to me how she cooks on this wood stove with no refrigoration and the next shop a journey of 1,5 days on horseback away ... She also told me not to worry about the kids I had met. This school class had camped on their property the night before and were taking a rest day now while the men on horseback accompanying them where riding on to clear the trail for them. Bottom line: I had hiked this section just a couple of days too early. Had I come AFTER this trail maintenance I would not have suffered as much ...

Now that more and more settlers were living along the trail I had hoped that hiking would get easier - but it didn't ... There were some bridges but they were either broken from the last winter or they were rickety suspension bridges. No wonder - most people here travel on horseback and horses don't need bridges to cross a river ... By the way: I walked across the bridge in the photo with no problem!

One night I had just found a wonderful campsite on an abandoned meadow which unfortunately turned out not to be abandoned at all. When I had just set up me tent and started to cook three very curious cows turned up and decided to investigate my campsite. I managed to chase them away but they returned at 3 am ... After this rather sleepless night I decided to leave this section now earlier than planned. I was now flipping back up north anyways, so it didn't matter how far south I was hiking. And honestly, after this rather turbulent first three sections of the GPT I was ready for a real rest day in civilisation.

I knew that there were only very few buses per day on the dirt road going to Puerto Varas and I had no clue about the bus schedule. Therefore I got up very early in the morning, hiked out to the dirt road - and only half on hour later the bus picked me up. Perfect timing!