I've 'done my time' in Antarctica and now I've been 'released' into the real world. You hear lots of stories about struggling to re-integrate into real life after wintering in the peaceful existence of an Antarctic base. For the moment I'm on holiday in Chile, and it's been a pretty easy transition. The wide open spaces and welcoming people of Patagonia make it a good place to reflect on the last 18 months. But I'll reserve my judgement until I've been home for a month or two.
It was an emotional departure from Rothera on the last flight of the season, leaving behind my home of over a year and being split from the fantastic group of friends I've made. The remainder of my wintering team, apart from the three opting for a second winter, will travel back home together to the Falkland Islands on the Ernest Shackleton. As the only winterer on the flight, I was given the privilege of sitting up front in the jump seat as we landed in the strange new, green, world of Punta Arenas, Chile.
I was suddenly aware of all the small things I hadn't experienced for over a year. The good, the bad and the plain ugly.
Freedom to choose - menus, accommodation, where, when and how to travel, what to do and when to do it. Unfortunately choices require you to take responsibility for your own actions and generally require payment of some sort.
The ubiquitous mobile phone with its annoying ring tones and loud conversations interrupting my peaceful meal or distracting me from enjoying the large Patagonian vistas.
Advertising and global media accost you, starting the moment you arrive at the airport. Those subliminal messages that emanate from the billboards, TV's and magazines telling you to spend, spend, spend, become very obvious and offensive after living without them for a year.
I traveled to Puerto Natales with the idea of getting away from the busy city of Puerto Arenas and getting some time in the world renowned Torres Del Paine national park. When I arrived the wind was blowing strongly, as it often does in these parts and heavy rain came down in the evening. The following day dejected hikers arrived from the park after packing in their ideas of completing the 5 day 'W hike'. As I wasn't really geared up for walking in inclement weather I decided to head for the park on a day hike. Fortunately I chose the best day possible to do it. I was rewarded with blue skies and stunning close up views of the Torres.
The park as a whole was not quite what I had envisaged and if I'd spent a lot of money getting there from Europe I'd be a little disappointed. Unfortunately for those hoping to travel to somewhere remote for some wilderness experience it's a huge honeypot for the masses of backpackers who hike around these small group of mountains along the same trail. There are much quieter 5 day hikes closer to home in Scotland/Norway/Alps/Pyrenees with more varied landscape and scenery.
Ironically it appeared less busy in Puerto Natales, the town that all the backpackers pass through on their way to the park. I spent a glorious calm day walking along the shoreline of the town past the beaches and the piers, taking photos, watching the wildlife and taking in the views with only the odd tourist (without backpack), local and dog walker in sight.