AI wasn't quite prepared for the beauty of long-legged Chile. Standing atop a peak of the massif at Torres del Paine National Park, located deep-south around Chile's ankle, I could see an impossibly turquoise glacial lake dramatically contrasting with a royal-blue rainwater lake next to it. The sky was crammed with peaks, some puffy with snow, others rubble- laden. Prickly "mother-inlaw's cushion" shrubs cluster together on the slopes; lime-green bundles huddling together against the lashing wind. Down below, the niere trees were having bad hair lives; one tree was so bent, it looked as though it had doubled-up with laughter looking at the others.
What made the landscape so special was its animation. The clouds shifted rapidly, spectral mists appeared and went, sprays skimmed off the lakes and the light did theatrical tricks. It was as though I was watching a movie. And the director of all this action was the wind.
The night before, Rafaello, a guide at the Explora lodge, had said in his orientation talk, "Beware, there is thievery here. The wind will thieve your hats and gloves if you don't watch out. It will even thieve from your pockets".I'd smiled then, but trekking along steep slopes, I had to cling on to branches and rocks in gusty moments when cameras were afloat, and notebooks, pens, scarves and snack bars made off into the sylvan surroundings. The wind here is so strong it un-pegs tents. It does the work of wild elephants in India and Africa, breaking trees, destroying forests in its wake. It pushes glaciers onto the nearby farms of unsuspecting gauchos.
Every evening at the lodge, I would choose between the different excursions available for the next morning. The first day, our group walked through forests up to the Grey Glacier. Back packers passed us by, toting all their camping gear. "Out here in Chile, nothing will bite you, sting you or kill you," said our guide, assuming the handful of pumas will continue to remain elusive. There are no mosquitoes, spiders or bugs. The campers sleep under the stars, without a hint of Deet in their luggage. At the edge of the forest, we got into a boat that sailed right up to the wall of the glacier. It was ethereally beautiful. Blinding white snow arches stood against each other with a soft blue glow on the inside. The crew handed out glasses of pisco-sour, the local tipple, to elevate the moment. We coasted past the entire font, and then turned around on Lake Grey to head back, amidst small icebergs that had "calved" recently. A condor swooped overhead, its massive wingspan casting an impressive shadow on the cliffs below.
On the second day, we did an arduous but exhilarating trek up to French Glacier, stopping to fill our bottles with water from the dozens of rivulets that criss-crossed our path. Every few minutes the scenery would change as we walked past craggy hills, placid lakes and bushes laden with red foxberries. Scaling boulders, we climbed to a spot right next to the glacier where the sound of avalanches drowned out our conversation and harried our picnic to an early close.
The walk back on a narrow horse-trail was so beautiful, laden with wild flowers and outlandish "firebushes" covered with Chinese lanterns, that we ignored our aching muscles and opted for the long way home.
Guanacos, Rheas and Foxes
While some of the more intrepid folks went on to scale the vertiginous slopes of Torres del Paine (the towers of Paine), my final excursion was through the grasslands of the reserve, a photo safari amidst sprawling meadows and hills where landscape vied with the wildlife for attention. Herds of guanacos roamed the hills; a sentry always kept a lookout for pumas. They nibbled, squabbled and jostled for position. Ostrich-like rheas fluttered about and we chanced upon a den of foxes.
I wondered if these animals ever sat still and watched the clouds, if they were moved by the theatrics of the winds in their outrageously beautiful surroundings.