It’s amazing how similar two different journeys can be.
Two routes, four hours each and some of the most untouched and beautiful natural wonders waiting at the end of both of these dead-end routes. Once you’re on the road, there’s not much civilisation for you to stop at, but beyond the condensing window there’s a landscape that’s frozen in time, blanketed by mountain frost and vibrating with possibilities.
The journey across New Zealand’s South Island from Queenstown to Milford Sound is remarkably like the journey I took two years ago from Punta Arenas to the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile. Both journeys require you to head south before heading back north, stopping in a small town that feels more like western Wales than it does the Southern Hemisphere. Even the names down in these places often have Welsh origins.
Your route is entirely weather dependent, so you must plan. Dress warm, pack snacks. Give yourself extra time. If you plan on doing the driving, you’d better get yourself some snow chains on your tyres and be prepared to concentrate on the winding, often slippery roads for mile after mile. I suggest you enlist a passenger to be chief sightseer while you keep your eyes on the road. You’re probably already exhausted having flown in the day before, but you’re invigorated, waking up long before the sun (not so hard to do at these latitudes), filling up on too typical a continental breakfast and grabbing your day’s essentials.
From Punta Arenas up to Puerto Natales, the road is punctuated by grey grassy verges and distant backs of slumbering mountains barely visible through the darkness and the pre-dawn fog. It doesn’t get light until well into a third of the journey, but you don’t mind: it stops the stars from being veiled.
The journey from Puerto Natales into the national park itself is quite different. It’s a tangle of mostly flat, winding routes that seem to double back on themselves, hills that have been tipped onto their sides by tectonic forces millions of years ago. It’s trees fossilised by cold and wind, their bark split like aging bones.
Where in Chile, the sleeping spines of the hills run like silver waterfalls to the ground, from Queenstown into Milford Sound, there really are waterfalls everywhere, dropping down from the tops of hills hidden by cloud: you can be forgiven for thinking the waterfalls drop straight from the sky. The overall mood of this landscape is typically grey, but there are hints of a much brighter palette if only the sun would emerge. Ochre grasses, blue-grey mountains, and of course, that most deep of greens that you only see in the world’s untouched corners.
Impressions of waterfalls and landscapes
Whichever route you take, don’t believe your GPS when it says you’ll be there in under four hours. That doesn’t include chatty drivers or photo opportunities. You’ll want to stop – a lot – not only to stretch your legs but to take it all in. Caves, chasms, valleys, ice and snow, winding tunnels, distant peaks so close you won’t believe you’ve still got two hours left of the journey. Take it all in, because the next time you see them again, you’ll be on your way back home.
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