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It's sometimes the way on holidays that small accidents produce the most memorable and pleasurable experiences. A late start to a trek in the rugged Patagonian wilderness means my hiking group is well behind schedule and late afternoon is fast turning into a very cold night. With our objective, a snug refugio mountain lodge still two hours away, it might be time to consider grumbling if the evening and scenery were not so undeniably glorious.
Towering granite and sedimentary stone peaks on either side of the trail catch the setting sun and slowly change colour from orange to red and pink. A half moon rises, turning the snow on the ground an eerie, luminous blue, and the surrounding lenga trees cast long and beautiful shadows. Meanwhile, the contracting ice in a nearby frozen lagoon is making otherworldly sonar-like "pings" and overhead the Southern Cross and two pointers are reminders that like Australia, Chile is in the southern hemisphere.
Sure enough, there in the craters on the moon is a pair of ears and a rabbit-like head most of us have never noticed before. Patagonia is far off most people's radar. It is a rugged frontier region at the bottom of the South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. Chilean Patagonia is cut off from the rest of the nation by a massive ice field and locals consider themselves a different breed from their northern countrymen, hardier and with a greater pioneer spirit.
The main industries are sheep and beef, and Spanish-speaking herdsmen can be seen on horseback by the side of the road moving stock to remote, windswept estaciones ranches.
The same remoteness and a largely untouched wilderness of mountains, glaciers and lakes attracts international visitors to the area. The problem for lovers of solitude is that word is spreading. In summer, the small Chilean town of Puerto Natales becomes a thriving hub for polar-clad tourists, mainly from North America and Europe, keen for a taste of nature. Numbers of Australians in the region, which Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan helped map, are slowly increasing due to increased flights to South America in recent years.