It felt like we had stumbled onto the set of a Western movie as we tracked along the dead straight stretches of highway dividing the rift valleys between El Chalten and El Calafate.
These were prairie lands, bone dry apart from the tussocks of grass and weed that clung on grimly in the windblown gravel. And the colour had drained from the landscape too, as if turned it on its side and righted it at the last minute - grey brown, drab olive green and a pale, pale blue sky. And it was a big sky, a dome from horizon to horizon with strange clouds that looked ominously like flying saucers. And on the ground nothing, no living creatures to be seen, no livestock, no farms, just a big empty space. The wild angular strata of the soaring rift valley walls was the only evidence of momentum and life in the landscape, until we approached El Calafate where lonely estancias ringed by poplars appeared.
From a distance El Calafate looked like another dry and dusty outpost with tin shacks and gravel tracks, but hidden in a tiny valley licking at Lago Argentina lay a lush, neat, clean tourist town. Restaurants, ice creameries, fashion shops, bars, "super kiosks", souvenir shops and travel companies lined the manicured main street. The town buzzed with tourists and travellers alike. We found lodging in a quirky Swiss Cabaña hostel; assigned our own A-frame "chalet" on paper, more akin to a doll's house in reality. With two bunks "downstairs" and a mattress in the loft and an all in one toilet/basin/shower closet, it was close quarters...
But after the relative hardships of the past week trekking and rough travel, we enjoyed joining the tourist scene and the eye candy of the place. Adam resumed his "bird watching" and we enjoyed a bucket of ice cream as we sat and watched the passing parade.
We were up early the next morning and embedded into tour group detention as we travelled to Glacier Moreno. A big chunk of ice, it measures 30 kms long x 5 kms wide with an average thickness of almost 200 metres...and it is only one of a few glaciers NOT in retreat - part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world.
Crowded onto the back of a motor launch we approached slowly under clear skies on pea soup lake. It was only as the minutes ticked by and we continued to approach that we realised the massive scale of the glacier. Reaching 80 metes above water level in places, the exposed vertical face was actually multi-faceted, tightly packed towers of ice in the last stages of their journey down the mountain.
And it was moving "fast" - pressing ahead at a rate of about 2 metres a day, butting up against the lake shore, creaking and groaning as it crawled along, with the occasional thunderous crack, like a gun shot as tension was release suddenly somewhere in the ice sheet.
And today we were trekking onto the surface...aided by our Argentine mountain climbing guides who all seemed to share the same DNA: tall, angular, lean and muscular, they danced across the ice like Nureyev doing the Nutcracker. Crampons affixed, we were far more tentative and the glacier surface, up close, was more like tiny shards of shattered glass. Onwards we crunched in a small group over hill and down dale, up steep ice faces with steps cut just-in-time by our guides, who swung their ice axes like jack hammers. In places we could see the pebbles frozen in time being carried along and then deep fissures and water holes that glowed an eerie azure blue from within. It was enchanting and with bright sunshine and no wind a perfectly serene place. Wind carved ice walls hung like giant murals above us, the smooth swirls cast into sparkling relief by the noon-day sun. We finished our trek with a cheesy scotch on the rocks - literally, with glacier ice and spent the afternoon viewing the glacier from the tourist centre above the bow before dozing all the way back to El Calafate.
More prime beef and beer for dinner and we were beat. Cheered on from the bleachers, Adam ALMOST connected with a local girl...it was exciting but we retired, together and alone to our doll's house...