Paul Ashford Harris

Travels with Baz

It seemed like a good idea at the Balmoral Baths cafe on a warm sunny Sydney morning; Glenn, Barrie and I would do a walk in Patagonia. Why not? After arguing for half an hour about whether Patagonia is actually a country (it’s not) we set ourselves various tasks to see how we might achieve this plan. The short version is that we ended up in November 2009 converging form different directions on Patagonia. I had a full day’s drive from Punta Arenas, to meet the others at the starting point for our trek, a small hotel in the middle of nowhere (Pehoe). I was disconcerted to realise I had been less than punctilious in my preparation when I was asked by the driver whether we would be doing the long trek, the Outer Circle, or the usual short one, the “W”. The “W” I replied uncertainly .He checked my ticket. No, turned out it was the Outer Circle. How had I made that mistake?  Perhaps it would have been a good idea to do some proper training.

On arrival I made for the bar to find Glenn and Baz, drink in hand, already leaning on the mantelpiece in front of the fire. We toasted actually making it to Patagonia, the start of our adventure, plus the arrival of my first Grandchild, Hugo, born in Invercargill NZ, nearly as close to the Antarctic as we were.

The next morning we set off in a minibus for the end of the lake at Acampa de Laguna Azul where our trek would begin. On the way we passed pastures full of Guanacos (Lamas) grazing peacefully and looking to us like they might be extremely tasty. We checked the guide book. Protected species apparently although no one was going to convince us the locals didn’t indulge in Guanaco Stew whenever they felt like it.

We were introduced to our guide, a belligerent Chilean with build and charm of a rugby prop. He looked us up and down and appeared underwhelmed at being stuck with three sixty plus males for two weeks. First he inspected our gear. My shoes made him deeply suspicious but luckily they were the same brand as his so he let them pass, but Glenn’s Reeboks didn’t impress him one bit, rightly as it subsequently turned out. He stared at Baz then shook his head sadly.

We had a cook, and pack horses to carry the gear including the camping equipment and were then joined by a portly local photographer named Manuel, who was clearly even less fit than us. Our Guide set out at a determinedly antisocial pace. After half an hour the photographer was lagging. There was nothing for it but to wait for the pack horses and put him on board. The only problem was he didn’t ride, a technicality shrugged off by the guide. We had about twenty km to cover and fortunately the Guide began to realise that these ancient relics actually could keep up and managed the odd informative comment about our spectacular surroundings, and even a few wintry attempts at humour.

We began to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery and the cool sunny weather, just right for walking. At our camp sight the tents were assembled. Baz, Glenn and I would share two tents between the three of us so naturally we decided we would rotate the single tent. Our photographer friend had finally arrived in near dark and had to be lifted off the saddle, his backside wracked by pain and his legs stuck in that akimbo position beloved of early cowboy movies.

In didn’t take long to discover that Baz was a gold medal snorer; even more disconcerting, he liked to ramble amiably, and fortunately more or less incoherently, to himself in the wee small hours. When we recounted his conversations back to him he was never sure whether we were having him on or not but Glenn and I could only speculate over what dreadful traumas Baz must have experienced as a youth and what on earth was “one, two, three, seven” about? A night in the single tent was a life saver.

After a few days of trekking through the low mountains and lakes we were getting used to the exercise, and enjoying the magnificent scenery rather like the Canterbury Plains in NZ with the mountains towering behind except that the vertical sided of the Torres del Paine, glowing deep red in the afternoon sun, are uniquely Patagonian.

We began to wonder why we saw no other hikers but discovered that the season was only just beginning and more to the point we would have to cross a river which was only possible on horseback, at which point Glenn announced cheerily that he had never actually ridden a horse. Baz and I immediately claimed to be old hands. This looked like it would hold out the promise of some fun so, having crossed, I stationed myself ready for an action shot of Glenn doing a half pike into the Rio Paine. Sadly he somehow stayed in his saddle.

On the fourth day we reached the bottom of the John Gardner pass. The horses had to leave us here as they would not be able to make it over the pass which the Guide airily explained had no recognizable track since it was covered by snow. The horses departed taking the distressed photographer with them. We last saw him gingerly being hoisted aboard, his legs seemingly still in the same wishbone position they had been in since the first day. He winced a mournful goodbye and was gone. Fortunately we didn’t need him, Glenn being a professional photographer, which luckily relieved Baz and I from any need for snapping  those darling little shots with half a head missing. We became used to long pauses as Glenn, seemingly bent on one knee in prayer, took angled shots of some exquisite mountain flower, or expansive shots of the mountain peaks disappearing in a final blaze of sunlight.

The four of us set out for the pass in light rain and sleet. We followed the Guide as closely as we could, treading in his imprints in the snow, and trying not to slip on the greasy boulders and unstable scree, whilst the rain soaked through our gear and into our boots. Towards half way to the saddle, as we slid gingerly over the boulders the guide decided we needed a lecture. He told us in no uncertain terms, “Don’t have a fall. If you do getting you out will be a nightmare. No helicopter can reach here and it will take days for mountain guides to get in and stretcher you out.” He made it pretty clear that as far as he was concerned he would personally be happy to leave us there. Not more than five minutes later, as Glenn and I followed Baz, he did an involuntary sideways shuffle and then pitched upside down over a boulder head first down the slope. Glenn and I froze in horror. Baz was spread eagled down the mountainside surrounded by walking poles, back pack and various other items which he always seemed to bring along with him. Fortunately he raised his head, grinned guiltily and scrambled up trying to shrug it off just as the Guide turned to survey what could have turned into a major disaster.  The three of us rapidly dismissed the incident as some sort of bizarre Australian prank and resumed our climb. We arrived at the top just as the sky cleared and were rewarded by the sight of the whole of the Grey Glacier spread out almost vertically below us, stretching away in the distance to its source, to the mountains on its far side, and in the direction we were to take, down to the sapphire colours of Lake Grey. We thanked God for our walking poles as we clambered vertically down passed by one or two small groups making their way slowly up on a day walk from the refugio, which was our destination and camp site. We only just beat the darkness but found a good campsite and a modern refugio with an excellent bar. I downed a quick beer whilst Glenn and Baz argued over the virtues of Chilean versus Argentinian reds, a subject which they knew suspiciously much about.

The next day the path took us on a spectacular walk high up along the edge of the Lake. Prior walkers had built little rock piles beside the path, adding to them one by one for good luck as they passed, as if they were in the Himalayas. These the guide declared unChilean (like unAustralian with attitude). Our guide was feeling particularly vicious that morning so took it out on these tiny “chortens”, kicking them to pieces and sending rocks tumbling hundreds of feet down the cliff side.

The refugios we stayed in for the second part of the Trek were great. A small sitting and dining area, a bar and bunk accommodation shared with the rest of the hikers, until they found out about Baz’s snoring. We were surrounded by young backpackers to whom we must have resembled escapees from the Sunset Twilight home and we were frequently questioned as if we were somehow lost in the mountains or had escaped from our minders. At least they didn’t offer us their chairs. Over our Argentinian red, followed by our Chilean red, or the other way round we conversed about all manner of things; why was Australia in Afghanistan, the merits of goats cheese ( what in God’s name were we talking about cheese for?), the virtues of our hiking gear, the Balmoral mob, the fucking stock market, antiques, films(I hated “No Country for Old Men” and Glenn loved it), Glenn’s crap shoes, Baz’s Irish heritage, our kids, our partners (and how Baz and I were scared of ours and Glenn thought we were pathetic), Indian food, Asian food, French food , Italian Food, Aussie food and on and on. The only thing that stopped us was the arrival of some lithe young hiker with legs up to her naval who would come and sit at the communal table.  Baz,in mid sentence, would lose interest in in our dissection of the Cohen Brothers and slide over in her direction. Glenn and I would be pretending to talk whilst we listened to Baz’s tales of daring do which he happily made up as he went along. He would eventually be dexterously out manoeuvered and find himself back with us. Sticking his jaw out and leering he would announce, displaying his lack of grip on reality, and to derision from Glenn and I, that he suspected these beauteous young creatures secretly fancied him.

We of course knew where his real interest lay when he proceeded to tell us every detail of his search with Sarah for a suitable ring, and how thrilled they were when one was located, and how happy he was for her when she slipped it on her finger.

Baz’s other favourite topic of conversation was his friend “the Welsh Git.” Baz had travelled all over Europe with this mythical ex tobacco company executive who of course had an everlasting supply of cigarettes. Baz was appalled by his stroppy nature and his exceptional meanness. The Git, so Baz said, would only pay in pounds calculated under his personal exchange rate, and insisted he should be paid for the left over marmalade and other food that remained in their apartment when he departed. Meals were a tortuous calculation over whether the Git had eaten as much as Baz, and who had drunk the most wine. Baz naturally. Well he probably had. It all sounded horrific, but Baz was already planning some new jaunt. We never found out what his real name was and neither of us had ever met him. Was this another of Baz’s nightmares?

The trek continued alongside the lakes and rivers and below the steep sides of the mountains where the wind blew, a cool sun shone and the quiet was frequently pierced by the sound of small avalanches launching themselves down the valleys. Coming across a small lake protected by firs and the hills around we were encouraged by the site of two strapping Scandinavian girls disporting themselves in the Lake like extras from The Sound of Music. Baz was all for joining them but we persuaded him that if we wanted a swim in the nick we should head for the other end of the Lake since the site of us in the nude would likely be a deeply distressing experience for any young woman.    The water was not much worse than Balmoral in winter eg bloody cold.

The final day of the Trek took us up to the centre of the national park, the Torres Del Paine itself, three vertical rocks stretching straight up from a small glacier above a couple of lakes. The rock faces were perpetually festooned with insane rock climbers. On this occasion we were told a nasty row had broken out over the Italians, who had sneakily used the English climber’s equipment to beat them to the top, the rock climbing equivalent of cheating at Bridge. We sat on the top of a rocky viewing outcrop for a while watching the climbers and enjoying the spectacular view, and then set out down. Since this would be a round trip walk our Guide fulfilled his guiding obligations by giving us a map and telling us he would see us later. The track was actually no problem but it was long, it was steep and our gear was starting to fall apart. Glenn’s Reeboks were stuck together with gaffer tape, my walking pole was jammed halfway, extended at a 15% angle,(Chinese junk) and most of Baz’s gear was as tattered as he was. Progress down was slow and getting slower and not helped by the bloody back packers skipping past as we stood to one side.

The next morning we were on the bus to Punta Arenas, on the Magellan Straits, the windiest place on earth so they said. It had ropes on poles along the street to hang on to, a great idea for Wellington NZ. We were all for a boat trip on the Straits but no go; blowing too hard. We went to the penguin colony instead. Very smelly.  A couple of nights in this fun little town and off on the thirteen hour bus trip to Ushuia, fortunately broken in the middle by the ferry trip across the narrowest neck of the Straits of Magellan,  where we were entertained by the tiny native porpoises around the boat. Ushuia was much like Punta Arenas but having been a penal colony the gaol, now a museum, was well worth a visit full of interesting relics of gratuitous brutality and chilling accounts of endless tragedies incomprehensible to our twenty first century experiences. The last night Baz announced he had found the best restaurant in town and marched us down some back streets to an unremarkable café with a menu much like the rest except it had Patagonian Tooth fish. We reminded Baz that catching them is illegal and the Australian navy spends half its time chasing these pirate fisherman out of the Antarctic but, what the hell, when in Ushuia etc. It tasted much like any other fish so it was hard to see why the Argentinians made such a fuss was about them.

The next morning we headed for Ushuia airport for the flight to Buenos Aires. Our travel agent had warned us about Aerolineas. “Worse than Air Kazakhstan” she said so we got there early. Baz being Baz had saved on his ticket by buying it from some Eastender bother boy in London. “Very cheap boys” he assured us. Of course it was not an E-ticket so he needed the hard copy. It was no surprise to us when Baz got to the front of the check in queue and then couldn’t find his ticket. He tried bluster but the airline clerk just stared impassively back and said “no ticket, no fly.” Baz decided it must be in the hotel after muttering imprecations about Glenn or I hiding it. We denied all knowledge so off he went back to the hotel which was fortunately close by. He was soon back without his ticket and proceeded to empty his various bags (he had about six) all over the departure hall floor muttering “shit, shit” to himself. No luck. Glenn, who never loses anything, had to suggest that next time Baz bring one bag like the rest of us. That went down well. Things were looking particularly grim, not helped by a bunch of smirking Aussie Antarctic travellers stepping all over him, when a charming lady from Aerolineas arrived and patiently calmed Baz down. “Don’t worry Sir, we will get you on board” she cooed. Baz of course could not resist this angel and having called us “fuckwits” for suggesting one more luggage search he meekly succumbed to her suggestion that this might be worth another try and, mirabile dictu, there was the ticket nestling inside his security bag, bag number six from memory.

We quickly cleared customs and Baz decided perhaps he owed us a beer. “Two actually” said Glenn.  Baz headed for the bar. “And another” demanded Glenn “for not telling Sarah.” He had regained his composure by the time we arrived at our hotel in Buenos Aires where I as gracefully as possible declined to share a room with the two of them. We loved Buenos Aires, its gentle air of nineteenth century elegance now sadly decrepit; wide boulevards, fine old buildings, great parks, the delightful cemetery, and more good food, plus The Tango of course on every second street corner. I left early for Sydney, leaving Baz and Glenn in the hotel together. On the plane I picked up the latest Economist which had a an article about “ Buenos Aires, Gay capital of South America” and amused myself by emailing it to Glenn and Baz, then lay back happily contemplating the comments of the hotel guests as Baz and Glenn occupied the small hotel kitchen and bickered  over how to make a tossed salad and of course which cheeses would be best.

We miss Baz like mad; endlessly entertaining to travel with, the guts to try anything, and irrepressible with the cheeky smirk and that lovely sly sense of humour. Glenn and I have never been back to the Baths café; it just holds too many memories.

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