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Sunday 23rd May - Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers
By Claire
Sunday, 23rd May 2004 21:02

I met Legolas the elf at breakfast. Delicate features, fine blond hair flowing, he talked about the 'raw, natural power' of the Torres del Paine national park, and how the emotional intensity of nature's beauty moved him. Although he could be slightly forgiven, having spent five days on his own in a tent in the wilderness, he was an Englishman, and it was breakfast. There are rules, you know.

We took a taxi to the harbour because it was cold and dark, and we settled onto the boat. It would hold about sixty people but there were only about twenty in all. It sailed along the fjord, past mountains and sunrises and pretty purple and yellow clouds and every now and then the crew would come up to us and tell us what we were going to see or answer our questions. We'd go up on the deck for a few seconds, take some pictures and marvel at the scenery and then go back down to the warmth again. We passed cormorant colonies without cormorants and sealion colonies without sealions, and lots of waterfalls.

At about midday, after four hours of delightfully smooth sailing, we reached the Balmaceda glacier, a huge chuck of spiky blue ice on the side of a mountain. We took a few photos and then headed for the next glacier, round the corner. There was a short walk along a gravelled path, and the glacier loomed out of the hills at us. We were surrounded by water covered by a thin skin of ice that shook and trembled in the wind, and everywhere were large blue icebergs. One of the crew gave a long talk in Spanish about how almost all the glaciers on the planet were shrinking, and then afterwards patiently reiterated to me in English and answered all my questions about the salt water and the plants (he let me eat some berries that weren't quite ripe) and the wildlife, and told me that the icebergs themselves only live for a few months before they melt, which is quite sad. There were condors flying overhead, which has made my South American trip complete, and the ice was cracking and squeaking and breathing all around us. Every now and then a chunk of ice would fall off the top of the glacier in a cloud of snow, and a few seconds later the sound of thunder would echo through the valley. The wind picked up, the condors soared, the ice became restless and impatient, the water seethed and bubbled.

It looked a bit like the thing they do in France, when they pour armagnac or vodka over lemon sorbet, which is a tenuous description but it fits. It seemed that you could scoop the icebergs with a teaspoon, and the water looked slushy and thick and very clear.

Back on the boat they gave us pisco, a local brandy, with ice, and one of the crew members came up to us with a textbook and explained a bit more about the salinity of the water, as he knew I was interested, but he explained it to the French guy from the hostel because he spoke Spanish and I guessed the rest. He also made a point of telling me when we were passing the sealion colony, having promised on the way out that he'd stop the boat if there were any. There weren't, and he seemed quite apologetic that they had all found somewhere warmer to spend the winter.

We'll be back in Puerto Natales by 4.30, so we can upload some pictures and text and then have something to eat. I also have another four finished films to get developed, but according to my watch it's Sunday so I'm not sure if they'll be open.

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