Day 19 Chile
A disgustingly early frontier crossing this morning on a bus which sits on the Argentine border for about an hour and a half, while our driver has our passports for the worrying duration. Given that it's the border, you'd think they'd spend a bit more on their roads - the couple of miles journey over nomansland between Argentina and Chile is a bone-rattling concussion-giver.
Chile is a much more professional affair. And the roads are better. Another hour driving towards Torres del Paine is excitingly animal-filled. Llamas and Ostriches all get yelped at and extensively photographed from the side of the road.
Driving into Torres del Paine national park is a bit like entering Jurassic Park - there's excited children leaning out of the windows at the view (this is us) with the air of menace from the wildlife. ("If you see a puma, look them in the eye, try and make yourself look larger than it"). Our bus goes via the Eco Camp and I notice many a compost toilet.
We're staying in the Las Torres hotel - slapped at the end of the W trail in the National Park. After chucking down bags, we take a short walk into the sunset and survey the mountains and lakes which surround us on all sides. It's astonishingly pretty. Back at the hotel, I have an unfortunate ballcock incident with our toilet (noone wants to be that guy) fortunately it's fixed by maintenance without anyone losing too much face. It's a nice hotel (and, it turns out, the only place for about 50km where you can buy food and drink which isn't specifically high-protein), even if Ruth bemoans the lack of dressing gowns, her mark of quality when travelling. However with their captive audience, the (stellar) meal they pressgang us into having at their restaurant is winceingly expensive, which takes some complicated new maths on behalf of the Chilean peso. Was that beer really £9?
Day 20 Mirador Las Torres
Our stay here has been, as with most of the other guests, so that we may use it as a base for some of the world's most jaw-dropping trails. We are out walking by 9am but it's still not early enough to beat the crowds. With great international renown of course, comes great tourism. However, while Ruth and I can not aspire to great feats of athleticism or indeed the Olympian physiques which are widespread here (me especially: the passport pouch I've been wearing around my torso for the last three weeks has, at times, nearly been reclaimed by the tyre already there), we are both excellent at walking up hills. Within an hour or so, up the first real climb of the day, we are pretty much walking alone on a crisp, cloudy morning. The Mirador we are heading for is the final day for most of the people who walk the W trail - a 60km odd trek around the Paine Massif - the towering centrepiece of the National Park.
3 hours later, the clouds are skulking low which means the summits in the Massif are out of sight. However, the turquoise pool encircling them and the chipper Andean fox padding around make it more than worthwhile. Ruth and I lark about with the camera. A young chap in a Cardiff FC shirt and his Ohio girlfriend inexplicably recognise us as Brits (the sunburn) and we swap photographer roles for each other, before chatting Brexit/Trump which couldn't be more out of place up this stunning mountain. I ask them both how they're coping with speaking Spanish hoping for a misery-loves-company anecdote, but the girl from Ohio turns out to be studying Spanish at university. "...And let me tell you, the Chileans speak horrible Spanish..." she says.
I think, wait until you've heard mine.
After some energy-giving dulce de leche snacks (thank you Argentina) we head down again, meeting with some satisfaction, everyone we overtook coming up. Get back to the hotel 7 hours after we left, and have a revitalising shower. Pretty footsore, which at least numbs the pain of the £9 beer, we survey our map in the bar, and see how much of the W trail we can do from where we are. The couple we met at the Mirador managed it in 3 days. Decide to have an easy day tomorrow, and then smash it up to Campo Britannico and back the following day. This looks to be a 11 hour walk according to our map, so we opt for an early night, anaesthetising ourselves with a pizza leaden with cheese.
Day 21 Guanaco graveyard
We had the oppurtunity to do some horse-riding while here, to sate Ruth's new urge to try it out. However, while writing postcards outside last night, we saw a gaucho trying, presumably, to tame a high spirited horse before getting bucked clean off it to land on his face several feet away. This quelled Ruth's urges as quickly as they began. Instead we opt for a light walk. But have some bus trouble getting to it. There's supposed to be a free shuttle from the hotel to the park entrance where we had hoped to do a gentle trail in the sunshine. We have to rely on the free one, rather than the numerous and regular tarriffed ones because there is nowhere to get cash out in this horrendous paradise, and the buses don't take cards.
Needless to say, we miss the free one so we have to walk along 6 miles of scalding asphalt to begin our light walk for the day. Fortunately 3 miles in, muttering like Yosemite Sam, a good Samaritan picks us up and drops us off at the park entrance. I try to call him a king among men in Spanish, but doubtless don't.
We set off on the trek along a fairly gentle hilly plain to Lago Sarmiento, another unbelievably blue body of water at the south east of the park. Compared to the many gradients of yesterday it is a pleasant stroll, even in the oppressive heat. Idle guanacos (like a llama but with less impressive facial hair), of which there are many, disinterestedly watch us go past.
What at first appeared to be white rocks glinting in the sunshine actually turn out to be bones, stripped bare and baked white. The place is a guanaco graveyard. Rib cages and skulls litter our pleasant trail path, while condors circle overhead like we're in a hackneyed Western. "Do you think this is where the Pumas are?" Ruth asks nervously, looking around. I chuckle that of course they wouldn't be out in the day time, whilst discreetly putting a heavy rock into my pocket and practising my "looking large" pose.
The rest of the trip is incident-free aside from Ruth losing her headband buff halfway through. We sit down with a picturesque view of the lake and eat some more dulce de leche snacks. The puma rock has added needless weight to my gear today in the 33° heat, so I am sweating disgustingly.
We walk back and see a trio of walkers coming the other way. We stop to chat, largely because one of them is wearing Ruth's headband. After some very English awkwardness from the Chilean man wearing it, who apologises profusely, we return back to our bus stop. I gratefully drop my Puma rock, and after pretty much throwing ourselves in the path of every vehicle which goes past, manage to get a lift back to the hotel.
Have another in the 'glorious shower' series. Despite not walking as long or as far as we did yesterday, the filth which sluices into the plughole today is considerably more plentiful.
Prepare for our marathon walk to Campo Britannico tomorrow by having a Pisco Sour (significantly more palatable than neat Pisco) and a 'Patagonian' burger, which fittingly contains yet more guanaco.
Day 22 Campo Britannico
So we are up at 6 to get this done. We estimate we have 11 hours of walking and 25 miles to cover up pretty gradient-tastic terrain. We throw breakfast down in minutes, I suit up with my least foul-smelling socks out of our now-hazardous wash pile, and we set off. It is another scorcher today so it's good to be off early, less good that we didn't let breakfast go down a bit (all those fermenting prunes and nuts do not lend comfort to our pace). However we make good time; photos are taken on the move, Ruth's nosebleeds (apparently from the heat) are dealt with with tissue-stuffing efficiency.
We walk the first two hours totally alone before we start to meet a trickle of walkers coming the other way. Evidently noone walks this trail clockwise. As we begin to near the first of three camps, Cuernos, we begin to go down some awful descents. Awful because we know we'll have to climb the bloody things coming back.
By the time we reach Campo Italiano having rounded a pretty glacial valley at 11:30am, it becomes clear that our map had something of a crucial omission on it. Namely the two hours between here and the last camp. We had hoped to nearly be at Britannico by now but according to the in camp signs still have two and half hours to go.
We stop for lunch and have a good argument. "We can definitely do it. My legs are still good, how are yours"
"Fine now, but 2.5 hours up is 5 hours back, and then another 5 hours back to the hotel." Ruth sulks, pragmatically half empty.
"Nah, we can definitely do it" comes my intelligent rebuttal, "Plus we've just had a kilogram of dulce de leche, so think of that sugary energy we're going to have in a minute".
So we continue to Britannico but 45 minutes in, after some fairly punishing scrambling, Ruth is even less convinced. "Every step we take is one more we have to do back, on top of the 5 hours we have to do anyway."
My legs are beginning to smart now, so heroically making it seem like this is Ruth's call, we agree to turn back at the wall of the stunning Gray glacier with two enormous peaks shrouding the view ahead. We will have to return for you Britannico, you hard-to-reach bastard.
2 hours later, up a baking, arduous ascent with Cuernos still an hour away, I am so grateful we turned back. We are refilling our water bottles at every stream such is the heat. With my calves burning and an achilles tendon pinging like a bow string at every step, we collapse onto at pebble shoreline looking out at a turquoise glacier lake.
I haven't really dwelled on the views today, but they are about as good as I've ever seen. Water as blue as heavily photoshopped adverts for the Caribbean, framed by mountains which keep going up no matter how far back you tilt your head.
And now imagine this idyllic scene ruined by two British tourists trying to dip their feet in the glacial lake but unable to walk barefoot on stone because of the tattered state they're in.
"We're like Galapagos turtles hauling ourselves back to sea" gasps Ruth, sat down and pulling herself to the water with her hands. "I would say" as I perform the same manoeuvre, "that we're more like a dog who's swallowed dental floss and is wiping their arse along the ground to try and remove it".
When we finally make it to water, it is beyond rejuvenating. I feel like I could run back to Britannico. Because I'm not a buffoon, I don't. We lace up and continue. It takes about 20 minutes for the effects to wear off. The return journey from here is a sombre affair. We say more to passing hikers than we do to each other ("hola"). Streams are traversed without care.
We get back at 6pm, 11 hours after leaving. We both shower AND bath, such is our condition. We sit in the bar afterwards having life-giving margarita (the true drink of the pro-hiker) totting up our miles. Combined with the distance walked up to the Mirador and back the other day, we've pretty much walked the total distance of the W trail. So we've basically walked the whole trail. And this is what we shall tell everyone.