Sitting at a table at the historic fortress of Vysehrad overlooking Prague last June and looking into the dark eyes of Vassiliki Stathopoulou, one of Europe’s foremost veterinary gastro-enterologists and daughter of a Greek business man, I realised that resistance was futile……
Six months later, just 36 hours after my return from Latin America, I was standing on the tarmac of Dubai International Airport at the Persian Golf – a place that had so completely not been on my personal list of places to visit and yet, here I was enjoying comfortable dry 25C at 7 o’clock in the morning at the end of November.
Vassiliki truly was a women on a mission and this one was no trivial undertaking: bringing the first International Companion Animal and – of course – Equine Veterinary Conference to the Middle East.
Achieving this as a foreigner and as a women was even more impressive and I was very happy lending my support as a speaker at this inaugural event, especially as I had been asked to give a presentation on one of my favourite subjects: Professional Collegiality and the Global Veterinary Family.
This wasn’t too difficult as my mind was still full of so many fond memories of the times I had spent with many – for me – previously unknown collegues in South America over the past few weeks. In many cases their trust and their hospitality had been very humbling.
As it turned out, Dubai and the 1st Middle Eastern and African Veterinary Conference would not be any different.
Once adjusting to the futuristic skyline and to the splendour of some of the buildings,
I found myself again in the company of colleagues from all over the world meeting one another regardless of their religion, their nationality or their political orientation, unified just by the desire to learn and to become better in the work we are doing. The only difference here was that the delegates from Lima which mainly came from the Americas were now replaced by a genuine mixture of Europeans, Africans, Asians and by colleagues from the Middle East.
The people might have been different but the engagement with new technology like artifical patients to practice venipuncture procedures at the exhibition or their interaction with the speakers was not only the same but possible even more intense, considering that it was the first time that something like this had found its way to the Middle East.
The Emirates are certainly not short of funds (especially at the moment with sky high global oil prices), but good resources do not necessarily translate into good skills and certainly not into ethics.
As much as I admire the fast progress this part of the world has made in so many fields over the last two decades, one can not overlook that the human factor and the enjoyment of life with an element of reasonable restraint mighty at times appear forgotten. Excusions into the desert these days are no longer done on camel back but in Paris-Dakar style with highly powered, tyre pressure reduced SUVs…..
Even more encouraging than, that issues like responsible breeding, lifelong learning and collegiality were here addressed as part of the scientific programme right from the start.
As with all new ideas, it is not important that the first step is big, but it has to go into the right direction.
Sitting one evening during my stay in the desert at night and sharing a traditional meal with new friends from yet another corner of the world, I felt very grateful for having been part of this new project and I hope that Vassiliki’s vision will see many happy returns…..
It doesn’t happen very often in these days of conveyor belt serving multinational coffee chains that people are happy to queue in front of a cafe and wait for the best part of an hour before claiming their seat.
This however is not an uncommon sight at 825 Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires where coffee (and art and literature) lovers from all over the world want to walk in the foot steps of Albert Einstein and Frederico Garcia Lorca to enjoy the hospitality at Cafe Tortoni.
This Argentinian cultural institution is a manifestation of the close link the city has to Paris and to Mediterranian Europe. Established by a French immigrant in the middle of the 19th century, inspired by a similar cafe on the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris, the establishment became fast a magnet for writers, artists and tango dancers in the Argentinian capital.
Following a entertaining chat with two British travellers in the queue who – as it turned out – lived not more than 10 miles away from my house in Surrey, I was finally guided to my table in this timeless temple of Art Noveau, of busy waiters, of continental pastries and artisan coffee.
Just a few days ago I had finished reading Paul Theroux’s “Old Patagonian Express” and the account of his time in Buenos Aires when he was enjoying the cafes and restaurants of the city with Jorge Luis Borges as his tour guide.
As Borges was apparently a very frequent visitor here – as indicated by a wax model (of not quite Madame Tussauds’ standard) in a corner of the cafe – I was wondering if they might have ended up at one of these tables as well ?…..
If so, they must have made an odd couple with the blind spiritual leader of a whole nation guiding one of the world’s most famous – yet surprisingly negative – travelwriter through the best restaurants in town while jousting constantly with their extensive knowledge of but differing opinions on central figures of world literature.
While the main hall of Cafe Tortoni was exclusively frequented by foreign tourists (like myself….), the side rooms and the basement continue to be the setting for readings, intellectual gatherings and both jazz and tango events.
No such things today though, so that I am left just with my imaginations while enjoying the grande surroundings, one of my final coffees in Argentina and a somewhat average Tiramisu which I recall to be much better on the other side of the big pond…..
In front of me, on a blue table top, I am looking at a syringe, three vials of local anaesthetic and the skull of a dog……
Sucking gently through a silver bombilla on his maté, Juan Jose Krauss, the man who introduced veterinary dentistry to Argentina and in fact to many other countries in Latin America as well, is giving me a private lesson on facial nerve blocks.
The final stop of my journey through South America had brought me to Buenos Aires, where I had to grasp the opportunity to pay the great man a visit at his small and intimate clinic which he shares with Guille Manigot – another big name in Latin American veterinary medicine – who sees dermatology referral cases in the room next door. Both Guille and Juan Jose have shared their knowledge with countless veterinary students and colleagues for decades and they have contributed to global treatment guidelines which have transformed the way companion animal care is provided today around the world.
The day had started with me getting lost on my morning run through the large nature reserve which is separating the centre of Argentina’s capital and the Rio Plata. Not only was the park more sizeable than I thought, I was also distracted by several encounters with a creature that I had seen a few times in my own practice – the Argentinian Tegu.
These more than half a meter long lizzards live happily in their burrows in close proximity to the busy town centre and they considered me a real nuisance disrupting their sun bathing sessions which are usually held in the middle of the jungle path.
The subtropical park, the wildlife, the huge city just a stone throw away and this all near a busy shipping lane – it all reminded me of the nature reserve near the Marina Sands Complex in Singapore where the Rio Plata was replaced by the Strait of Malacca.
Just in time and with burning muscles I had arrived back at my hotel near the Peace Palace which very fittingly was located next to the National Museum of Arms.
Juan Jose had very kindly collected me from there and following a brief sight seeing journey through the center of Buenos Aires, we had ended up in his clinic, discussing injection techniques and the benefits of different local anaesthetics while my host was enjoying his herbal infusion.
In commercial terms veterinary medicine in Argentinia continues to be very poorly funded with – according to Juan Jose – a consultation at the local vet costing not more that 10 $ even in the capital.
Both Juan Jose and Guille have managed though to find their niche, living reasonably comfortable just from their knowledge and their person skills with a decent work – life balance, without the need for a lot of staff or equipment, leaving in the surgery fridge enough space for a few bottles of excellent Argentinian Cava to be able to celebrate from time to time a treatment success in style.
With a lot of thought given these days to complex ideas on how to reduce stress and anxiety levels in a progressively corporate working environment, we might overlook how with much simpler means this can be achieved as well.
It was easy to see that the little clinic of my friends in Buenos Aires is a business with a soul where local pets will find excellent treatment and care, but I wondered if anyone in this beautiful city would be able to carry on with Guille and Juan Jose’s work in the same way.
When saying goodbye I considered myself again lucky for having had a further opportunity to visit a magical veterinary location at the other end of the world……
Oh the wind, the relentless wind of El Chalten!…..
If I talk about wind, then I mean the sort of wind like you haven’t witnessed it before: constant, gusting, merciless, unforgiving wind that knocks you off your feet, wind that after a while becomes irritating. Wind that can make a fairly undemanding hike in the Andes a dangerous undertaking.
El Chalten is a small village in the Southern Andes, circa 200 miles North from Puerto Natales.
To get there I first had to cross the border into Argentina where – I have to admit – the very public and frequent reminders that “The Malvinas are Argentinian!” made me for the first time slightly uncomfortable travelling with a British passport.
About 100 miles behind the border I reached the regional center of El Calafate, which is located on the shores of the huge Lago Argentino which is supplied year round by the ice and melt waters of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in the West.
Changing buses here, I took the epic “Ruta 40” further North, towards the equally large and cold Lago Viedma, before turning West towards the mountains. For this journey I was lucky to get a front seat on the upper level of a double decker coach, which was providing me with a perfect panoramic view.
In this arid landscape virtualy devoid of any but the hardiest vegetation , with hardly any human settlements and just the cadavers of some unfortunate guanacos in the fence alongside the straight, endless road telling a tale of an most unpleasant death, my heart went out to the first brave people who tried to cross this land on foot or on horse back.
Sitting on my front row lounge seat sheltered from the elements like the pilot of a low flying plane, I felt a bit like a fraud enjoying the unforgiving countryside around we with the snowcapped mountains on the horizon.
It was just before sunset when I arrived in El Chalten and I had to fight my way against the wind along the highstreet towards my next residence – an individually designed and lovingly constructed tiny house which was condensing a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a double bed – all of comfortable size – on not more than 8 sqm. Possibly a bit tight for a family but perfect for me. Despite its lightweight construction I was also pleasantly surprised how little it appeared to be affected by the constant storm outside…..
Why is ElChalten such a windy place?
If you take a look at the map, you appreciate that the whole of Patagonia is wedged between the cold current on the Pacific side and the warmer current on the Atlantic side. The further South you go, the more likely it is that these temperature differences will result in strong wind and in storms. Cap Horn has been and still is feared because of this by seafarers from around the world.
To add to this El Chalten is located right next to a giant freezer – the Glacier National Park – which features one of the largest continental areas covered by a thick layer of ice outside Antarctica. Just imagine a slightly opened fridge door in the heat of the summer and the draft the temperature difference will create.
Further more El Chalten is located at the end of a long valley with a nearly perfect North-South orientation with any wind been funneled through the small gap between the mountains towards Lago Viedma in the South.
With this exposed position, El Chalten is not only one of the windiest places but also one of the coldest places in Argentina. While during my stay the temperatures hardly reached double figures, Buenos Aires was enjoying more enjoyable 25 C…..
So why then travelling to this cold and windy place ?……
The answer was given the next day when I set out after breakfast hiking West towards the mountains to another unforgettable sight in the Patagonian Andes: the Laguna Torres – an icy lake littered with floats and small ice bergs from the decaying edge of the vast ice field at the other end of the lake.
I don’t know what it is, but the sight of millenia old lumps of glacial ice in the water never ceases to fascinate me and as it appeared also several dozens of fellow hikers……
This trip was followed the next day with a long hike to the main highlight of the region – the Argentinian answer to the Torres del Paine : the towering peaks of Mt Fitzroy.
Named after the captain of HMS Beagle who had travelled up the Santa Cruz River in 1834, the sheer beauty of this mountain is attracting every year thousands of hikers from all corners of the world.
I was extremely lucky that once again the weather was outstanding (which is not very often the case…..) allowing a perfect view of the whole mountain, which is the gate keeper of the huge glaciers towards the Pacific side of South America.
As beautiful as the view was at the foothills of this giant, as brutal was the wind up here, forcing every visitor behind even the smallest rock for shelter and making any extended stay all but impossible. Standing here (or trying to…..) I was not surprised to learn at it took until 1952 (just a year before the climbing of Mt Everest) before a fearless team of French climbers had manage to summit this iconic mountain.
At sun set, exhausted, but with another wonderful memory in my luggage I stumbled back into my tiny house, now satisfied and ready to continue with my journey further North.
Returning from my hiking trip in the Torres del Paine National Park, I am once again strolling pass the World’s End Bar in Puerto Natales and notice that the dog with the suspected ruptured cruciate ligament hasn’t made a lot of progress.
Spending most of the day lying in front of the Bar and checking who is passing by is now his main occupation, but when getting up, he is still displaying an obvious limp and running is out of the question.
I had noticed in Puerto Natales a considerable number of – mainly long haired (because of the weather in the winter) – homeless or semi-homeless dogs. I make this distinction, as there appeared to be a grey zone with dogs which didn’t seem to have a specific owner, but which remained just in one street and which benefited from comfortable dog houses or other means of shelter that had been arranged by animal lovers in the local community.
All these dog appeared to be reasonably well fed and socialised and most of them seemed to belong to a local group of dogs. One of these “street gangs” appeared to have taken residence in front of the “Wild” Cafe which featured not only their resident canine who was the proud owner of his personal spot inside the building near the bar
but also this group of dogs which were sleeping both underneath or on the chairs infront of the establishment. There wasn’t a better place I thought for a veterinarian to have a coffee….
The usual comings and goings in the street didn’t interest the gang too much, but that changed at once with any event that differed from the regular passing of just cars or pedestrians.
This included motorcyles, cars with faulty exhausts and tuned engines or the appearance of a dog that didn’t belong to their patch, including dogs inside passing cars. From a state of near comatous sleep the whole pack would immediately jump into action to investigate, challenge and then ideally chase off whatever had dared to disturbe the peace in their neighbourhood.
Thankfully this paroxysms involve just barking and some chasing – I never witnessed a physical attack. Even with passing dogs this often meant that the dog in question was challenged, investigated and – if the other dog was reasonably confident and didn’t try to intimidate the pack – finally allowed to pass or to retreat.
However, within seconds the street could be full with half a dozen of dogs and it was just a matter of time that this would go wrong…..
A fair number of the dogs showed some forms of gait abnormalities with some dogs virtually running on three legs all the time. Most of these injuries were surely caused by an encounter with a passing car.
Again it was time to visit a local colleague……
Just a few blocks away I had noticed a green bungalow that turned out to be one of the local veterinary practices and as before I turned up unannounced…….
Following a short wait in the busy reception area, I was greeted by the friendly face of Maria Jesus Garrido Bauerle who spoke an excellent English which made the conversation so much easier.
Maria had set up this small practice just a few years ago in the house of her mother and she was running it with three other colleagues.
Without any hesitation I was given a tour of the place and a few minutes later I found myself in the operating theatre helping to sedate a feline patient with a cat bite abscess – here in Patagonia as well a very common injury.
While the cat was falling asleep, Maria talked about her difficulties to obtain some basic medication and of their often prohibitive cost. For the sedation of the cat we had used a combination of Xylazin and Ketamin – something that came out of fashion over thirty years ago in the UK , but something that still continues to be popular in some veterinary practices in Continental Europe as well. Dexmedetomidine, a much better choice, which can be reversed with Atipam, was a drug Maria and her colleagues were aware of, but according to Maria the sourcing was a real challenge.
Here I was…being directly confronted with some of the global problems of my profession which I had debated with my colleagues in Lima just a couple of weeks ago: stray dogs and the access to basic veterinary medication. Yet these had never been problems of any great concern in my own practice (stray dogs were nearly always collected by their owners within a matter of hours and supply shortages of veterinary medication were rarely an issue. If so, these were in most cases limited to newly launched medicines that had turned out to be much better than anything else that had been used so far). Despite the fact that Chile isn’t a third world country and Puerto Natales didn’t seem to be the poorest place in Patagonia, my colleagues were struggling with these issues on a daily basis.
The price for a standard consultation in Maria’s practice was circa 20 $, but none of her patients was insured and spending money on pets wasn’t very high on the agenda of the people here. This was apparently even worse on the countryside.
Unfortunately it had some serious consequences:
In an economy traditionally based on sheep farming and with dogs that were not regularly vaccinated and treated against parasites, Eccinococcosis, an infection with a special kind of tape worm, is a huge problem. The parasite can affect humans, especially children. As an intermediate host for the parasite, infected people develop cysts in the liver, the lungs or even in the brain or occasionally in the eyes with severe and debilitating symptoms and occasionally with a fatal outcome. In some parts of South America according to the WHO the prevalence level is as high as 5-10% in humans and up to 95% in slaughtered animals….
Maria and her colleagues are going to great length to inform pet owners about this, but encouraging regular preventative treatment and good hygiene remains an uphill struggle.
Somewhat better is the situation with rabies, another serious zoonotic disease. Although not completely unheard of, according to Maria they haven’t seen a case for many years now.
Maria’s resources were limited though and when I arrived at the practice, another dog was driven off with a splinted leg as it was fractured but an operation for this condition was only possible in Punta Arenas which was over a 2 hour’s drive away.
I saw some similarities with the working conditions I had found at the other side of the world in the polar regions of Sweden and Norway where pet owners had to decide between many hours of travelling or surgery performed under not ideal conditions because of a lack of equipment or skill (or both) or even the hard choice to have a dog or a cat put to sleep as no feasable alternatives could be provided.
Despite not having an anaesthetic machine, X-Ray or ultrasound facilities, Maria and her team remained upbeat and provided the best service possible under these circumstances.
Once again I could witness what difference the internet had made to my colleagues in these remote parts of the world: continuing education of very good quality was provided in the form of online lectures and the local colleagues – despite living hundreds of kilometers apart from another – were helping each other at least with much appreciated advice. If this was not enough to help a patient, vets were reaching out to specialists at the nearly thirty vet schools in Chile or at clinics in the metropolitan areas of Latin America or in Spain.
This was unfortunately of only limited use for the street dogs of Puerto Natales: without owners or well funded charities in this remote corner of the world, treatment – if any – was confined to some short term pain relief courtesy of the local veterinary practices or – in the worst cases – just euthanasia.
Torres del Paine, an enigmatic national park in Patagonia was one of the reason’s why I finally decided to step away from my clinic in Virginia Water and to organise my life in a very different way.
If you want to go hiking in these mountains you will need to put aside at least 3 weeks, to acclimatize yourself and then to really enjoy the experience without a constant rush. This is more or less impossible if you have a veterinary practice in my part of the world, especially if the set up is more small scale with a strong personal relationship to your clients and to their pets.
Well, this was in the past and after dropping off everything I am unlikely to use with Bill at the Erratic Rock, I am finally sitting in an overland bus driving down an empty road through arid farmland when the magnificient mountain range of the national park suddenly appears on my left side.
The road then takes a left turn and is heading straight for the mountains and the bus finally comes to a stop at a somewhat deserted road crossing called “Laguna Amarga” where you normally register with the park authorities.
Black flags on the side of the road and boarded up doors and windows at the park office buildings indicate though that there is trouble here and that the park rangers have gone on strike – something that had been rumoured about in Puerto Natales.
Rather then waiting here for another bus to take me and a few other hikers into the park, I decide to shoulder my pack and to walk the final eight kilometers to get used to the suroundings, to the unusual weight on my shoulders and to approach the mountain range in my own time.
The countryside is very much like a desert with only some low growing shrubbs being able to survive. These in turn give nourishment to small groups of guanacos which then sustain the occassional puma, but I am not lucky enough to spot one.
While walking slowly towards the park gates I can feel the unfamiliar 15 kg of the pack on my back, but I decide that there is still space enough to fit you in as well and to take you with me on my journey through one of the most beautiful mountain areas on the planet……
Day 1 – Refugio Torres Central – Mirador Base Las Torres – Refugio Torres Central – Camp Seron
It is 1 o’clock in the morning and as I can’t sleep I decide to start my trip with a bit of a crazy idea:…..
The center piece of the national park is the view of the Torres del Paine from the other side of a mountain lake – the so called Mirador Base Las Torres. Every child in Chile is familiar with this view , as it features on the 1000 Peso bank note (although it is unlikely that you will spot a guanaco up there ……).
The scenery is even more spectacular at sunrise when the Torres (the towers) take on a redish glow, but that requires that you have to be there at 5:30 in the morning and my refugio and the mirador are separated by 1000 altitude meters and 4 hours of hiking. The weather at the moment is excellent and knowing how fast this could change in the mountains, I make the decision to see this place right at the beginning of my trip rather than at the end, which – as it later turned out – was a very wise move…….
I sneak out of my dormitory room, have a short solitary breakfast before putting on my head torch, shouldering a much lighter day pack and heading out into the darkness.
It feels slightly uncomfortable walking through an unfamiliar countryside (with the real possibility of passing a larger cat on the way…..) in the middle of the night, but not only am I lucky that unbeknown to me we have a nearly full moon, but soon I spot first one and then several more lights that are appearing on the hillside below me – so I am not the only crazy person here after all……
Soon Ricardo from Guatemala is catching up with me and while squezzing my Spanish to its absolute limits, we ascend together further towards the Chilean hut which is in the middle of the way to the mirador (I had failed to secure a place there for the night). After well over an hour of hiking we meet a couple from Ireland. It turns out that Ricardo and the Irish couple had shared a room at the central refugio and when greeting each other, Ricardo is responding in perfect English !…….
When asked why he didn’t say so earlier and letting me struggle along with my rudimentary Spanish, he smiles at me and says – well I thought that you enjoyed it !……
When passing the Chilean Hut some more hikers join us for the final ascend which includes some scrambling.
Then the sun starts to illuminate the sky on the horizon in the East and we finally reach the viewpoint and the lake which provides a perfect mirror image of the Torres. These near vertikal peaks are the insides of an ancient vulcano. With the darker outside slopes having weathered away over thousands of years, water, ice and wind have left only a mold of the chimneys behind producing this unforgettable scenery which is attracting every year thousands of hikers from all over the world.
It pays to bring along some warm clothes, because just when you think that you have seen this beautiful sight and consider to return to the more temperated valley below, the first rays of direct sun light start illuminating the peaks and just for a couple of minutes make them glow in a bright red colour which makes the whole spectacle completely over whelming.
When finally descending down to the main hut again, we meet a lot of hikers asking us about the view at the mirador and while telling them that it is well worth the effort, I can’t supress the thought of Plato’s parable of the tree and the people in the cave and I think that whatever they will see, will only be a poor reflection of to the view we had earlier today….
After seven hours and twenty kilometers of hiking I am back at the cabin where I reward myself with a break and even with an obligatory Pisco Sour with my fellow hikers, before then shouldering the full pack and making my way to the Seron campsite – my second scheduled stop, 13 km further North….
To explain this, here a brief summary of the rules for hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park:
The Park can only be entered from the beginning of November until the end of April or May. If you want to stay in the park you need to book your accommodation (well) in advance and you have the option between the “W” and the “O” route.
The “W” route, covering only the Southern side of the park is more developed with staffed refugios along the way. You can choose freely in which direction you want to go between the cabins.
The “O” route – which is including all the stops of the “W” – is making an over 100 km long circle around the whole mountain range and hike is not only more demanding, but some nights have to be spend on remote campsites and you are only allowed to walk in an anti-clockwise direction. You need to pre-book all your stops in advance and you need to reach the camps before sunset.
Having not planned my nocturnal outing to the Mirador when I plotted my trip, I have no choice but to cover the first leg of the “O” route in the remaining hours of the day, to reach the campsite before sunset.
Thankfully the remaining way is well signposted and not too demanding, but- I have to admit – following the experience of the earlier hours at the Torres, I find the countryside somewhat underwhelming as the rolling fields and park like landscape reminds me very much of the South of England or of some areas I had seen in Wales or in Herefordshire!….
After walking along some farm tracks, passing over fields and walking along a slow running river which resembles very much the Thames in Oxfordshire, I finally reach the campsite and with that a much needed cold beer and a warm meal.
Day 2 Camp Seron – Camp Dickson
On then next morning the sky is grey and there is a light drizzle of rain.
I decide to stay in the tent and enjoy my book as there is now no internet connection. Some fellow hikers appear to be habitual early risers and they have left the camp at the crack of dawn. I can’t quite understand this – if there is anything to be gained by being out early, I am all for it. Today however, the second half of the day is supposed to be better so that it is in fact an advantage to be out late and to ideally wait until it has dried up somewhat.
As a result of this line of thought, I am the last person out of the camp today……
This again is not a problem, as it means that I can let the scenery work on me without any distraction.
While starting my hike I realise that these 30 or so people who shared the campsite with me last night, will be my family for the next week, as we all have to circle the mountain range in the same direction.
As with this trip both hiking and staying in a tent is involved, I am sure that I will be in good company as I always find that this is filtering out a lot of people that I am struggling to communicate with.
Furthermore, I catch myself trying to guess (actually pretty well) the nationality of fellow hikers by certain steretypes:
There is the group of young guys, downing some – at $10 the can pretty expensive – beers and conversing very loud about all the equipment they bought and quoting all sorts of stats on altitude and distances (in feet and miles) – sure enough US Americans…..I also notice some big packs and I am wondering how this might work out over the next few days…..
Then there are three other guys – chatting the whole time, but communicating more quietly, joking and smiling a lot. There is more lightness in their conduct – may be Mediterranian I think and then find out that Paolo, Victor and Breno are actually from Brazil!
There is a couple with a very neat and tidy tent (nicely set up, no loose items visible outside the tent), but they are not as much connecting with the rest of the group – so not much guessing were the Germans (in fact a lovely couple of a fireman and a nurse) are living….
A friendly lady had greeted me when I had entered the camp site. She and her friends look well equipped with high end outdoor gear but are carrying and cooking their own meals – Canadians.
I overhear another couple and can’t quite place them yet: English or Irish – good gear, equal sized packs and a big camera ……
…and so on, and so on…..
With these thoughts I am starting the first few kilometers through the “English countryside” when the trail begins to climb, the drizzle stops and the scenery changes completely:
Reaching the top of the hill, I am surounded by round, low growing shrubbs that look as if someone has groomed them into this shape. One side of them is covered with hundreds of beautiful, but very small, red flowers. I can not recall having ever seen such a plant.
Then, turning around a corner, a huge turkis coloured lake appears in the valley below and while I stop and admire the view, I notice two huge birds circling above the nearby mountain top, completely without moving their wings – a pair of condors !
Here it is, the complete beauty of Patagonia !……
I sit down and congratulate myself that I stayed behind and that I left late. I take out my thermos flask and a snack and realise that there is no better place in the world – at least at the moment – to take your time and to have a break. This is what hiking and travelling in general is all about….
There is no-one but myself to decide when to walk and when to rest and again it is taking me a while before I am getting up to continue with todays hike, but there are so many beautiful views, so many flowers that are new to me and different bird songs to listen to, that my progress remains very slow.
Quite frankly – I don’t worry and I don’t care ! The whole distance between the camps is just below 20 kms on a well signposted path, there is not much of an elevation, the weather is getting better all the time and as it is now November, the days are very long on the Southern Hemisphere.
Despite the fact that there is an open countryside with a lot of lush green grass, I have no longer seen any guanacos, although I spotted a lot of them alongside the road leading up to the park. When I come across the first puma dropping right on the path, which appeares to be very fresh, I realize that this might probably be because of the denser vegetation, which gives a predator far more coverage……
Although I am secretly hoping to spot one of these elusive cats, I also have to admit that I wouldn’t like to stand suddenly right infront of one….Considering this I decide – similar to the hiking among bears in the mountains in British Colombia three summers ago – that on balance I will be happy if I won’t see one after all.
Finally there is just a small ridge to climb and then it is laying just in front of me….one of the most amazing camp sites I have ever seen….situated on a small outcrop of land , surounded on three sides by the turkis waters of the Dickson lake and cradled between snow capped mountains it just looks unreal.
Adding to it, the campsite features a central building with a large veranda and ignoring the fact that they had run out of beer, the bar remains well stocked with Chilean red wine.
So – if you haven’t meet your fellow hikers last night, you will certainly do so today….
While enjoying a glass of Merlot, it turns out that the British/Irish couple are both anaesthetists from the UK and Ireland working at a large hospital in Dublin. I also make the aquaintance of a bearded man, build like a tree and – sure enough – the only Norwegian I had noticed in the guest book. Vegar – I have to compliment his parents on this excellent choice of name as it reminds me of one of Norway’s great cross country skiing legends… – was born on the South tip of the equally stunning Lofoten Islands, but he choosed to make a living as a professional photographer in California (@vegarabelsnes).
When we, at the end of the evening, stagger to out tents, being somewhat drunken by the beautiful scenery and even more so by the fermented fruits of the Chilean soil, a new family has established itself and from now on we are hiking not among strangers but among friends.
Day 3 Camp Dickson to Camp Los Perros
It is a short and fairly easy hike today and with that there is another excuse for a slow start in the morning. I am still enjoying the scenery which offers a view of the Northern aspect of the Torres del Paine which was complemented last night by a clear view of the Southern Cross which was dominating the sky right above the summits.
I am resting next to my tent in the grass enjoying Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler”. Not a natural choice of a novel for me, but it was the thinnest volume of interest for me at a book exchange in Punta Arenas.
Once back on the trail, the view is again changing completely and yesterday’s open plains are replaced by a dense forest with a lot of fallen trees and full of various birdsongs, but with very limited sightings of animals at all. The only exception are the red and black Magellanic woodpeckers, with some of them appearing not being fazed by humans at all.
A lonely gaucho with a couple of pack horses is crossing my pass, but otherwise this part of the hike remains unspectacular.
Finally I am reaching the edge of the forest and have to climb a steep hill with loose rocks of all sizes and with very little vegetation. Reaching the top I realize that it is the end moraine of the Los Perros Glacier which is now visible on the other side of an icy lake.
From here it is not far to the next Camp, which very fittingly carries the name of nearby glacier : The Dogs Camp….
The place is miserable and cold – what a difference to the last night. The tents are pitched on some wet soil underneath some trees which provide not much shelter from the gusty wind that is coming from the mountain path ahead. There are just a couple of unheated rooms where you can prepare some food and no alcoholic drinks are on offer. Following a simple meal of lentil soup and water I am – like everyone else – retiring to my tent, preparing myself for an uncomfortable night….
Day 4 Camp Los Perros – Refugio Grey
A truly miserable night !…..After informing myself how Russian aristocrates blew their fortunes in the 19th century in imaginary German spa towns, I had struggled to get properly warm and reasonably comfortable in my tent despite (or because of ?….) the fact that I had put on every piece of clothing I could find in my bag pack. I had rolled around on my thin isolation mat like a large sausage with five or six layers of skin and was looking forward to the first day light and – according to the guide books – to the most demanding hike of the whole trip…
Leaving the camp the trail leads uphill all the way to an exposed ridge which an all maps comes with a health warning for strong winds. Aready the first hour is physically challenging as a lot of fallen trees are blocking the way – it is just the beginning of the hiking season and just 2 weeks ago this part of the park had been covered with a deep layer of snow. I have to take off my backpack to pass it over or underneath large tree trunks or the path as disappeared completely which requires a de-tour. Eventually I am passing the tree line and with all but the hardiest shrubbs now disappearing I find myself surounded by just rocks and glaciers. I then come across the first snowfields and I start wondering if it was a wise decision having left my crampons behind…..
Further up on the path I am catching up with the American kids – one of them is in trouble: a big guy but with just too much gear and clearly not used to the mountains. While walking with him for a while it turns out that this is his first hiking trip and I have to agree with him that he feels that he was thrown into the water at the deep end.
Although the headwind is now brutal, the temperature is just around freezing and the highest point of the mountain path is just a few hundred meters ahead of us. Once this has been passed, an incredible view is waiting for us: the Southern Patagonian Ice Field !
With a width of over 6 kilometers you are struggling to see the other side of this massive glacier. The Northern part is disappearing into the horizont and far away to the South, held back as by a door stop by a massive nunatak, its ragged edge is calving into another turkis coloured lake with a number of picturesque icebergs floating in the freezing water further away.
The watershed of the John Gardner Pass is not an inviting place to stay and we are descending as fast as possible to a large plateau below where more of our group are gathering for photos. The Brazilians are clearly not enjoying themselves: they are huddling close together and are cold despite numerous layers of clothing. It just isn’t their natural habitat and I hate telling them that this is by no means really cold……
The snowfields are turning from being a slippery challenge on the upphill section into a convenient way to glide down the mountain on the other side of the pass and the altitude meters are tumbling fast.
With this the temperature is rising and it is difficult to decide when to put layers of clothing off or on again.
Now the path is leading for many kilometers along the mountain side all the way South with the glacier like a river made of waves of ice always on the right side below us.
From time to time seasonal rivers are blocking the path and some have to be crossed with the help of huge suspension bridges which are not made for the fainthearded….
After nearly 10 hours of solid hiking Refugio Grey is reached and with that a warm (bunk) bed, a three couse meal and a well stocked bar to celebrate today’s achievement.
Day 5 Refugio Grey – Refugio Grande Paine
The weather is noticably improving and after spending some time looking at the icebergs on the nearby lake there is just a gentle stroll further South ahead of me.
As we are now on the South side of the park which is well severed with large “refugios”, there is suddenly a larger mix of fellow hikers on the trail.
Without the need for a tent, a thick sleeping bag or cooking utensils most of the people I meet are getting by with just day packs and in many cases trainers are the preferred footwear.
The whole day I am enjoying stunning views of the lake below me on my right and of the snow covered – over 3000 m high – Cerro Paine Grande to my left. With the glacier now disappearing to the North, I am arriving in good time at Refugio Paine Grande on the shores of Lake Pehoe.
In the evening our group of “O” round hikers is garthering for the last time as some of us are planning to continue their journey with the boat the next day.
Day 6 Refugio Paine Grande – Look Out Britanico – Camp Frances
Another unforgetable hiking experience is wait for us today.
I am leaving the refugio together with Gill and Ben – the doctors from Dublin – and we are walking around the Southern face of Cerro Paine Grande in shorts and T-shirts. There is a cloudless blue sky above us, the sun is shining the whole day and the views are just breathtaking.
At Refugio Italiano (which is borded up because of the ongoing park ranger strike) we are leaving our heavy packs behind and head up North again along the Rio Frances. Half way up the valley we are reaching the view point of the French Glacier and witness one of the most dramatic sceneries you will ever come across in the mountains:
Facing the East side of Paine Grande we can see the whole side of the mountain moving and decaying in front of our eyes ! ……..
A mountaineer’s absolute nightmare, every few minutes an avalanche is breaking off from the overhanding edge of the glacier which is now exposed to the sun. The tons of ice, tumbling down the mountain face, then hit the porous rock below causing at times massive landslides which resulting in clouds of dust which are the drifting over the nearby forest. I have never seen such an active mountain face and we are well advised not to get closer to this scene of pure carnage.
It is taking us a while to continue our track further up the valley to the probably less spectacular (but safer…) British view point . Here we are surounded by a ring of ragged mountain tops which – I find – show a strong resemblance to weathered peaks in the Italian Dolomites.
This detour has been well worth the effort and just before sunset we are reaching the French Campsite near Lake Nordenskjöld.
Day 7 Camp Frances – Refugio Cuernos
It has again been a pretty bad night for me…… Having overlooked to reserve a camping spot for myself for this camp, I had to take what was left, which was a sloping spot next to a little stream.
Once again the night was fairly cold and I had been fighting gravity the whole time which resulted in very little sleep. Thankfully the sun is shinning again the today and the world around us warms up pretty fast so that it is again possible to hike just in shirts and shorts.
What is worrying though are the news we receive from fellow hikers about the rangers’ strike: Apparently they have now blocked the access to the Torres and have taken down a bridge on the trail. At the Mastodon Cave (another site run by the park authorities) they have even started to block the road so that the site is now completely closed.
Although some hikers report that so far it is easy to walk around the barriers on the way up to the Torres, it dawns on me how wise my decision had been to cover this central section of my trip right on the first day……
Unaffected by the unfavourable news it turns out to be a beautiful day with a short hike along the South face of the Cuernos (the Horns) – a pair of mountain peaks that appear as if they have been separated right in the middle with a giant knife.
We walk along the shores of Lake Nordenskjöld and both the temperature as well as the scenery is very similar to that of a warm summer’s day at Largo di Garda.
As there is absolutely no rush today I settle with my new Irish friends on the beach and we enjoy the scenery and (for not very long periods) the clear but ice-cold water of the lake.
Gill isn’t feeling too well today and she appreciates the break, but both she and Ben have to continue on the trail for a few more hours to reach the Chilean hut to be as close as possible to see the Torres the next morning. For me the goal for the day is just the local hut by the lake and once I have said goodbye to them I return once again to the beach where I spend the rest of the day.
Day 8 Refugio Cuernos – Refugio Torres Central
This is the final day of my trip in the national park and after a briliant night at the refugio, I have replaced the Irish anaethetists with a Canadian obstetrician who had fallen out with her group of friends during the trip (something I witnessed a few times on this trip and it confirms my belief that it is often best to travel on your own….).
After a late breakfast we are setting off for the last few kilometers and once again the weather is absolutely glorious. With the sun heating up the soil fast now, the main issue is drinking water which I source – similar to the last few days – only from small streams that are coming directly from the mountain.
After just a few kilometers we are catching up with my companion’s friends (two ladies in her sixties) who are now clearly struggling. They both have caught gastro-enteritis and are basically crawling along the path. After making sure that they have enough water I am relieving them of one of their packs which I am happy to carry to the next way junction, but judging by the state they are in, we strongly suggest that they too head for the park exit and not up to the mountain again.
Thankfully the other pack is not too heavy and mine is much lighter as well as I have completely depleted the food I had taken with me on the track, so that I am still able to enjoy the hike.
Finally the central refugio and the park border is coming into sight and following an obligatory Pisco Sour at the bar to finish the track in style, I say goodbye to my Canadian companion and make my way to the nearby bus stop where a truly pityful sight is awaiting me…
More sitting and even laying on the ground than standing are nearly all of my fellow hikers from the last few days! The organised German couple, Vegar the Norwegian photographer, both of my Irish friends, the three brazilian guys – they all have been struck down with sickness and stomach pains.
None of them have made the journey up to the Torres in the morning and they are all hoping to return as soon as possible to the comfort of a hotel room and a nearby pharmacy…
Once again I had a lucky escape – not only had I seen the Torres at sun rise but I also never caught the same bug which I put down to my choice of drinking water – at the huts (where the water was sourced from the lake which was connected to the glacier) I only drank hot or – admittedly – alcoholic drinks and all the fresh water I drank I had collected from clear streams on the way.
Furthermore, when we arrive back at the road junction of Laguna Armaga, a sign is just been erected to inform everyone that until further notice the access to the Torres is now completely closed….
Following a two hour journey through a featureless semi-arid landscape that appears to sustain only the occasional flog of sheep, small groups of guanacos and from time to time a couple of nandus, I am arriving in Puerto Natales.
Located on the shores of the Ultima Esperanza Fjord with a view of the snow caped mountains at the Southern end of the Torres del Paine National Park, Puerto Natales has a far more picturesque setting than Punta Arenas and I find a certain resemblance to the landscapes in Northern Norway.
Shouldering my bag I am passing the End of the World Bar with the resident canine displaying a characteristic hindlimb lameness, which is highly suggestive of a cranial cruciate ligament rupture – not an uncommon presentation in this part of the world as I will soon find out.
Following the recommendation of a Chilean colleague who I briefly met in Lima, I am aiming for “The Erratic Rock” a well established gathering place for trekkers, mountaineers and long haul travellers.
Run by Bill, a US American from Oregon who after many years of travelling himself finally ended up here, The Erratic Rock is not aiming to provide high end hospitality but instead a home away from home for adventurous travellers who appreciate Bill’s local knowledge and the communal atmosphere which can otherwise only be found at remote mountain huts.
Sure enough, entering the building I am nearly stepping on Caspar the white, bi-colour eyed resident cat, who is not particularly cudly, but who is adding to the homely environment in the reception area.
Automatically I am taking off my boots and once my luggage has been stored in my room which I am sharing with a couple of French motorbikers, I am settling next to Caspar on one of the downstairs sofas. Bill is relieved to hear that I am a vet, as my bed is located next to a West facing window, so that the cat is likely to claim it when the sun is reaching that side of the house in the afternoon.
I soon realise that this is the perfect place for me as a base for the next couple of weeks, partially because of the extremely helpful conversations I have with Bill, partially because of the unbeatable combination of a constantly running filter coffee machine, a clean shower, a steady flow of fellow hikers arriving and leaving , a warm communal kitchen with an old aga cooker and – crucially – because of a decent internet connection.
With a warm cup of coffee in my hand , Caspar purring quietly on the sofa next to me, I am listening to the stories of Bill’s colourful life and prepare myself for an adventure that has taken many years to finally materialise……
It is Monday morning and I am walking along the windswept promenade of Punta Arenas with the Magellan Strait on my right side and Tierra del Fuego visible on the horizon. With the local head quarters of the Chilean Navy behind me, I am passing the cut out prow of the Yelcho and the life sized statue for its commander Luis Pardo Villalon, who so famously managed to rescue Ernest Shakelton’s crew just over hundred years ago.
The Yelcho was a very basic whaling ship commissioned and retrofitted by the Chilean Navy. It had no heating or even a radio for communication. Following failed rescue attempts from Australia, Uruguay and Argentina and from some Norwegian whalers based in South Georgia, Luis Prado and his crew with Ernest Shakelton on board finally managed to navigate their way through the ice flows. They reached Elephant Island on 30th August 1916 and rescued the exhausted expedition members without a single loss of life. Back in Patagonia Prado had to use a local telephone further up the coast to inform the Naval headquarter about the successful outcome of his mission.
Punta Arenas continues to be the main port of call for naval, research and sight seeing vessels to Antarctica and it is there the left arm of the commander is pointing at…..
Right opposite of the memorial, looking out to the Sea is a yellow house with the image of a bearded veterinarian painted on the wall and a couple of imaginary cats sitting on a window sill at the first floor.
This is the most Southern branch practice of Veterinaria del Estrecho (Veterinarians of the Strait) and the third most Southern veterinary practice on the Globe (the two most Southern clinics are in Ushuaia on the Argentinian and in Puerto Williams on the Chilenean part of Tierra del Fuego).
I am arriving unannounced but despite a busy schedule of consultations and neutering operations, Mario Oliva, the head vet, is happy to seeing me and I am invited to a brief tour of the practice.
As it is just a branch practice, there is only a small waiting room, a consulting room and a small operating theatre plus a few cages for the recovery of patients after their anesthesias .
The whole set up is very similar to that of branch practices in England and so is the work load here : clients request preventative neutering procedures for their pets and at the same time identification with the help of microchips (for which there is no legal requirement in Chile). Here as well clients are issued with a microchipping certificate and the chip number is recorded in a national database.
A fair amount of pet owners have their dogs and cats regularly vaccinated and I notice that the vaccine fridge on the wall is exactly the same model as was ours in Virginia Water.
A routine consultation here costs circa 18 US $ and the practice offers both inhouse examinations of blood tests and diagnostic imaging with the help of a digital radiography system.
If the findings require further investigation or more detailed interpretation, the practice is seeking on-line support from veterinary specialists in larger Latin American cities like Santiago or Buenos Aires or even from Spain or Portugal.
Saying goodbye to Mario and his friendly team, my journey continues further North to a far less clinical and more adventurous setting …..
It was finally time to change from T-Shirts and beach wear to a business suit.
The main purpose of my visit to Lima and to Peru was the annual World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Congress where I had been ask to moderate some sessions of the scientific programme and to say a few words at the closing ceremony as the event is moving to Lisbon next year.
It is such a great feeling standing at the entrance door of the Lima Conference centre and finally – after 2 years of cancelled events and just online meetings to share once again the building with my friends and colleagues from all over the world!
Bizarrely one of the first people I meet is my “boss” Vigdis Børset Raedergård whom I had the great pleasure to working with in Tromsø in the summer. I will never cease to be impressed by the marvels of the internet and of inter-continental travelling by jet-engine powered aircrafts…..
It gives you an idea how brilliant and important these occasional physical meetings with colleagues are and why this can not be entirely replaced by online meetings.
Many of the people I meet I haven’t shaken hands with or hugged for 2 long years and yet we have continued to work together on new and on ongoing projects like the Global Principles of Veterinary Collegiality (which has now been translated into more than 20 different languages !) or on the Online Veterinary Conference in aid of Ukraine.
And there is no veterinary conference in the world where you meet and can interact with so many colleagues from virtually all over the Globe as here at the WSAVA Congress.
While I enjoy updating my knowledge of the treatment of Addison’s Disease and the management of unstable diabetic patients at the fabulous lectures of Adriana Lopes Quintana from Maldonado
at the estuary of the Rio Plata in Uruguay or refreshing my approach to the examination of orthopaedic patients with the help of Aussie gone American Ian Holsworth from Ventura near LA in California, it is more the meetings, conversations and new introductions between these sessions that have the greatest value for me.
I encounter a lot of veterinary students who are active in their own countries with IVSA, the International Veterinary Student Association. They have been flown in by the organising committee to help with the event and I realize that many of these new colleagues will form and lead our profession in the years to come.
At another meeting with my Spanish/Portuguese speaking colleagues I am made aware of the ongoing close relationship these countries both in Europe and in Latin America have with another and that this might at times be of greater importance to them than the Portuguese and Spanish connection with other European countries. We have to remember that the UK’s relationship to the Commonwealth compared with the relationship to the EU has a similar character.
All of these wonderful meetings with my colleagues are – as we are in Peru – made even better with excellent food and the obligatory Pisco Sours which just taste so much better in their native home….
I finally make good use of my new aquaintances by getting a wealth of new information and more importantly more contacts for the next stops of my journey of South America.
And while – following five memorable days in Lima – my business suit and my ball room shoes are flying back to Europe with a Croatian colleague, I am heading in a completely new direction, where these items of clothing are unlikely to be of much use……
I am closing the gate of Lima 18, the small and intimate hotel I am staying at in Miraflores, carefully and set out for a short morning run.
The hotel is very conveninently situated next to the ruins of the pre-Incan pyramid of Pucilana, which is surounded not only by a high fence but also by one of the few dedicated cycling lanes in Peru’s capital. I never encounter a single cyclist but at 7 AM the only people I can see are other runners and a steady strean of dog walkers with a nice selection of different dog breeds.
There are no Huskies or Jämthunds in sight and also larger guard dogs don’t seem to feature here. Very similar to European cities mainly smaller breeds dominate the scenery, including – of course – a fair amount of French Bulldogs. I spot a few Labradors and Golden Doodles and – as expected – some Peruvian Viringos or Hairless Dogs of different sizes.
All dogs that I meet are in a well kept condition and it is not difficult to find dogs that are fifteen years or even older. This – at least to some degree – speaks in favour of the veterinary care my Peruvian colleagues are providing ……
Outing myself as a vet I find it easy to start a conversation with the owners and what strikes me is that everyone is more than happy to have their picture taken together with their pets. I wonder how this would have worked in a park in the South East of England…..
Following my morning rounds around the semi-akropolis of Lima (if the site would have been just a bit more elevated….) and an obligatory cup of coffee (served in Lima as a double espresso together with hot water to make it an Americano to your own liking), I am taking the time to visit another very special pet-related place in Miraflores – the Kennedy Park or also commonly referred to as the “Cat Park”.
Surounded by some of Lima’s busiest roads and next to well frequented bars and restaurants, this park is the open air home to well over a hundred cats who live here in an apparently very peaceful co-existance with their fellow felines and their human cohabitants. Cats are seen as a vital part of the calming and enjoyable atmosphere of this island of grass and trees in an urban jungle.
Park benches are shared between sleeping cats and newspaper reading pensioners, public monuments are supplemented by miniture mountain lions and market stalls are conveniently used by feline residents as a perch to find out what else is going on in this busy place.
All the cats in the park look well nourished and at several sites dry cat food is provided. Some cats show signs of recent neutering or of other veterinary procedures which is made possible by the work of a well organised group of friends of the cat park, who are not only providing the feline residents with all the care they need, but who also raise funds to keep this remarkable place going.
At night the park gates are closed (to humans) to give the cats some rest and a mobile cat caravan is offering some shelter from the lights and from the noise of the city.
This open air cat hotel is a striking example for the importance of the human-animal bond and for the social and mental benefits it provides. As pet ownership in flats is often not tolerated by landlords and building societies or as someone’s lifestyle is just not allowing the responsible ownership of a pet, then public spaces where pets and humans can interact on a mutual and voluntary basis might in fact be a good solution for an urban society of the future. Lima’s cat park is setting at least an interesting example .
Returning to the title of this chapter and to my previous question :
Yes, it appears that the life of dogs and of cats can be pretty good in this South American capital city, but the situation described in the upmarket surroundings of Miraflores should not distract from the huge problem of not cared for street dogs and ferral cats in Peru and in all of Latin America. This – as in many parts of Europe – is an ongoing matter of concern for my colleagues here and without the necessary public support and funding it continues to be a huge animal welfare issue.