x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Patagonia: to the ends of the earth

Cover Minty Clinch braves icebergs and glaciers to explore Argentina's southern tip ... its bleak plains stripped bare by the wind.

Photographs courtesy of Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel
Photographs courtesy of Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

"No wind," said Anna, struck by an unnatural calm she had not encountered so far in her two months in the area. She was collecting me off a daily flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, the gateway to Argentina's share of the Patagonian ice fields. Thanks to Torres del Paine National Park, which pioneered ice tourism in these parts, Chile's glaciers are better-known, but visitor overload during a season that lasts only from October to April has created a welcome upsurge for Argentina. This is a bonus for president Cristina Fernandez and her husband, a couple whose interest in developing local hotels is so well-documented that Anna, who works for Adventura Andina in El Calafate, was surprised not to see their official jet parked beside the runway.

Argentina's half of southern Patagonia is a land apart from the rest of the country, its bleak plains stripped bare by the wind. Don't expect the fertile green pampas that surround Buenos Aires. South-eastern Patagonia has very little plant or animal life, the stretches of shingle interrupted only by brackish lakes. Closer to the Andes, however, the vegetation is more luxuriant, with forests of conifers and southern beech. At higher altitudes, the plentiful rainfall in the western Andes combines with low sea surface temperatures on the Chilean Pacific coast to create the largest icefields in the southern hemisphere outside Antarctica.

When the area was colonised in the 19th century the most enthusiastic settlers came from Wales, so it is not surprising that some of the terrain has a distinctly Celtic feel. Inevitably, it became sheep country, with flocks numbering in the thousands providing a harsh living for farming families who still speak Welsh as well as Spanish. On many of the long light summer days scudding clouds indicate an imminent change of weather, but when the sun comes out it illuminates the rockscapes, touching the crags with gold and coral and green and turning the lakes a vibrant sapphire blue.

Accessing big ice in the Parque Nacional los Glaciares, created in 1937 and honoured by Unesco in 1981, means touching base in El Calafate on the shores of Lake Argentino. The frontier town has an end-of-the-earth feel, its low buildings hugging the land against fierce weather. The 21st century is represented by the Hotel Esplendor, a conspicuous high-rise prison from the outside, an oasis of quirky luxury within. Its muted brown and grey decor, touched with splashes of turquoise, majors on good wood, stone and slate. The huge atrium, dominated by side-by-side fireplaces and a four-metre-long sofa, has antler chandeliers, cowhide chairs and sheepskin stools.

Downtown is a short main street, its rows of shops selling hiking boots, wet-weather gear and pizza, interrupted by an incongruously glitzy casino. There's a club as well, one that stayed open through the night of the 133rd annual baptismal celebrations for Lake Argentino in early February. That's about as wild as El Calafate gets. Entry-level tourism starts with the Perito Moreno glacier 80km to the west. The spectacular white cliffs, accessed by massed boats and hikers on crampons, are the regional honeypot but this is a mere hors d'oeuvre for the real Patagonia where nature is at its most raw. In search of it, I headed north to Estancia Cristina on the edge of the Upsala Glacier, named after the Swedish university that sponsored the first glaciological study in the region in 1908.

Back in 1900, when Joseph Percival Masters and his wife, Jessie, landed in Rio Gallegos to seek their future, this was a land of missionaries and bandits. So what exactly did a young English couple from Lymington, he with a neat moustache and a bow tie, she a serene beauty, expect to find in such a remote and hostile place? Surely not 22,000 hectares of forest, lakes and grazing surrounded by some of the most spectacular ice cliffs in the world. And all of it theirs.

Not that it was a quick fix. Fourteen years passed before the Masters hugged up the North Channel of Lake Argentino to claim their territory near the Chilean border. By then, they had two pre-teen children, Percival Herbert and Elinor Cristina, a steam boat called Cesar which Joseph had re-built himself, and a few head of cattle. Initially they pitched their tents beside the lake, but over the decades they built up their estancia, naming it for their daughter and accumulating 27,000 sheep, 50 horses, and cows for milking and breeding the prime beef without which no Argentinian table is complete.

Even today Estancia Cristina, a small guest ranch for overnighters with a long day tripper's arm for hikers and sightseers, can only be reached by boat. Every morning, a coach circles El Calafate's 70 hotels and guest houses to round up the day's passengers for the two-hour ride in a sleek motor vessel from Puerto Bandero to the Estancia. En route we stopped at the mouth of the Upsala channel to see the rogue icebergs that bar the way.

Photography completed, we turned into the parallel waterway to Cristina. Nowadays there are several buildings well-seperated and set back from the shore in a valley ringed by snowcapped mountains, but the absolute remoteness is still intimidating. In lashing rain, a handful of increasingly reluctant hikers were driven off in a 4x4 to inspect the glacier before starting their 15km trek, a predominantly downhill journey that takes around five hours, while the sightseers headed for the safety of the bar as quickly as they could.

We lucky three who'd chosen the overnight option were escorted to the Octagon for coffee, cakes and registration, followed by a three-hour lunch. Closed to day trippers, the wooden building has a tower with a library and a display of the Masters' upper-crust memorabilia from between the wars. By way of taming the wilderness, the family used floral jugs, ewers and bottles with silver tops for their toilette, served spirits out of cut glass decanters and travelled with leather vanity cases and hat boxes that look as if they were bought in Paris. The shearing shed, once the centre of operations for several highly pressured weeks a year, now showcases their more homely possessions, gardening equipment, agricultural implements, kitchen utensils and Agatha Christie paperbacks.

In the late 20th century, Herbert's formidable wife, Janet Macdonald Masters, held Cristina together, tending a large garden and painting bad pictures in her spare time. She was joined on many occasions by mountaineers, most of them Italian, who claimed Cerro Norte, 2,730m, and other local peaks from the 1960s onwards. "I hope I don't have to take anyone into the house," she wrote in her diary in 1986, two years after her husband's death, but when they landed on her with all their stores and baggage, she gave them a true pioneer's welcome. As Patagonian sheep farming dwindled in the run-up to the millennium, she started hosting paying guests, sowing the seeds of the business enterprise that has developed since her death in 1997.

Nowadays Cristina sleeps up to 24 in three houses, each with a communal sitting room and four double suites, warmly furnished in deep pink and gold. By the time the boat left at 5pm, the low sun was slanting over the mountains and silence descended, making it easy to believe we were lords of the emptiness we surveyed. With no pollution for hundreds of miles, the stars were startlingly clear in the night sky, readily identifiable by anyone who can tell the Southern Cross from Orion's Belt.

In the morning, I strolled over to the stables to meet Augustin, Cristina's resident gaucho, for an all-day ride, with picnic lunch, to the best vantage point for the glacier. Augustin is in charge of 45 horses that spend most of their time grazing and running free on the valley floor. Paulo, a stout cob deprived of his all-day breakfast, waited resentfully for me to get on. Later, as we tackled the vertiginous slopes, he belied both his girth and his disposition, heaving himself up willingly and picking his way nimbly through the rocks.

Condors, buzzards and kestrels hovered overhead, watching us and the rich spectrum of smaller birds that make ornithologists reach for their guide books. We forded rivers and circled lakes full of trout - fishing is available, but only to those with their own rods - and examined marine fossils dating back thousands of years. And then we were there, perched above the Upsala Glacier in all its majesty. Some 60km in length and covering 900 sq km, it is the longest slice of ice in South America. At the sharp end, where it meets Lake Argentino, it is joined by two smaller glaciers, Cono and Bertacchi, creating three huge crevasse-crumpled waves stretching towards distant horizons. As Pedro hauled himself up the final incline, the rain stopped, allowing a watery sun to glitter on 60-metre cliffs above the lake. Depending where the rays struck, the water turned from grey and indigo to turquoise and deepest cobalt blue. Totally amazing? You'd better believe it. travel@thenational.ae