Archive for October, 2008

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October 31

October 31, 2008

We stood at the front of the ship, hanging our noses out over the railing in the dim dawn light. What presented itself before us looked like a wall of islands, stacked side to side across the narrow channel, and the intense wind was buffeting us from the right, enough to notice a bit of a lean to the steering. As we got closer, small gaps started to appear in the landmass and by the captain’s twisting of the ship, first left and then right, we found ourselves in a seemingly impossibly tight channel between two small but towering islands. We felt we could just lean over and touch the trees. The White Narrows were the last navigational feat awaiting the ship before its docking at Puerto Natales, the narrowest point forcing the twenty metre wide, ninety metre long ship through an eighty metre wide gap.

The time between the navigation of the Narrows and the 7.30am breakfast found us back in bed, but it was a quick and inefficient snooze. The mood on deck at breakfast was almost as excited as the atmosphere at boarding, everyone saying goodbye, swapping email adresses and keen to get back into a proper bed on dry land. It was almost midday by the time we could disembark, however, as the wind was so strong and the port so shallow that there was a danger of the ship being blown into the land should we try to approach. As we stepped off the elevator with our packs on our backs, it took all our might to stay upright and on the jetty.

Puerto Natales is a little town with wide streets lined with old wooden houses, and we got a good introductory walk through the place as we were guided to the hostel by the owner. We checked in to Yagan House hostel, a lovely spacious place near to the centre, and bunked in the dorm with Sydney, who we’d shared some drunken moments with on the ship. The weather was horrible, but we took advantage of the short breaks in the rain to nip outside and complete our shopping list for Torres del Paine, as we’ve rather foolhardily decided to give it a shot despite the dire weather conditions.

The afternoon was otherwise frittered away at reading, knitting, organising photos and the like. Earlyevening arrived, and with it troupes of bemasked children, each carrying a pumpkin or a cauldron in hope of being on the receiving end of the largess of the local inhabitants. Tom and I whipped up a beef stirfry for dinner, which Sydney shared, and we had a couple of drinks in the hostel before heading out to the local pub, it being both Friday night and Halloween. We each knocked back two deadly pisco sours and accompanied them with increasingly enthusiastic conversation, before braving the cold to run back to the hostel and to bed.

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October 30

October 30, 2008

Having messed about on the notebook late into the evening, confined to the privacy of my cabin-bunk behind little drawn curtains (more Clojure), I dreaded the early onset of the Dick Tracy watch alarm this morning. It had been set extra early, in fact, to wake us for the moment the Puerto Edenwould navigate the “English Narrows”, a perilous one hundred and fifty metre wide strait somewhere in the middle reaches of the Canales Patagonicos.

The alarm arrived and I stirred slowly from torpor, dragging the nearest clothes on in the dark, letting Max get ahead of me, grumpy and tired. A hallucinatory progress to the upper levels followed. All night revellers had transformed the dining hall into a Bohemian sprawl of empty bottles and ashtrays, and a handful of them were still there, drunkenly carolling “One” and “Redemption Song” accompanied by a Spanish troubadour: emancipate yourselves/from mental slavery segueing into did I ask too much?/more than a lot/you gave me nothing/now it’s all I got.

Outside, on the topmost prow deck, a freezing fusillade of droplets of rain pelted each of my sensory organs. Nothing much was visible from the rails, just dim cliffs and promontories looming in the fog and gloom of dawn, and I was driven downstairs again for scarf, necksock, gloves, beanie and raincoat, emerging once more swathed in alpaca, sheep, polypropylene, acrylic and quasi-Goretex, but still tired, cold and thus far unimpressed by the view.

As the sun climbed, colours began to warm the previously featureless black and grey of the silhouettes around us, dark greens flecked with yellow, brown and red, rocky outcrops covered in hardy vegetation. We were chugging forward alongside steeply banked bodies of land, which converged to a closest point a few hundred metres ahead. At the meeting point, the wind stiffened and the ship banked sharply but confidently, carving an arc through the soft centre of dully reflective water, of which the surface was all of a sudden pocked and erratic, scored by the presence of submarine obstructions.

Things became very impressive. The murk cleared out and white stripes of snow and ice could be seen at the tops of the cliffs. The rain eased. We took our photographs, and then I went below, and back to sleep.

When we woke again at half past nine, Max, still far more energetic than I, raced upstairs to try to catch the tail end of breakfast. I was resigned to having missed it, but once I arrived (half an hour or more later, I suspect) in the mess hall, the awesome kitchen staff gave me two ham-and-cheese rolls on the sly, and a fistful of instant coffee sachets. I planned to waltz around the corner to Max and floor her with my largesse, but found her sitting over a similar stash that she’d claimed on my behalf. So we both had plenty to eat in the end.

A rather superb documentary on migrating birds screened shortly after we’d finished eating, and I sat there enthralled for nearly an hour. I’ve surprised myself with my enthusiasm for bird life in the last few weeks, and after seeing all manner of bizarre gulls, cormorants, albatrosses and terns circling the boat over the past couple of days I’m getting very excited about that side of the Antarctic voyage. This documentary had a lot of beautiful sequences, and finally convinced me that the goose is a world-class athlete.

Max and I have been reading a battered copy of Ruth Park’s Poor Man’s Orange, first published in 1950. It’s an enjoyable novel about the plight of the working class in Surry Hills post-WWII, packed with Dickensian caricatures to which it condescends slightly. So I attacked that for an hour or two in the common lounge.

The view of the channels up on deck, the few times we braved the weather, was excellent. We were in real fjord country, constantly close to land on both sides, under heavy winds. I can’t imagine how ships of the line used to manage this sort of territory under sail, especially given the poor accuracy of the old charts we’ve seen.

Lunch seemed somehow to segue rapidly into dinner, and after sharing a beer and a drop of wine with Sydney, a Californian avocado-grower that we’ve gotten to know a little, we retired to bed at some shamefully early hour – perhaps nine o’clock. As we left the area, Liam the Irishman, a former regional manager of Aldi now studying for a psychology degree through the Open University, bought up the last of the bar’s stock of Casillero del Diablo cabernet sauvignon in one lot.

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October 29

October 29, 2008

Breakfast had been prolonged this morning in answer to the disorganised hubbub of yesterday, which meant we got an extended night’s sleep. Added to the early night and sedative effects of the motion sickness tablets, we both arose well rested and exuberant. The weather, however, was not entirely cooperative, and a steady light rain made going up to the deck a bad idea, so we spent an hour or so lounging in the common areas in the morning, catching a very bad documentary on the Patagonian ice fields, which followed a boring helicopter expedition and was narrated by a dry Englishman.

The common areas were distinctly deserted today due to our entering the oceanic area, and all those people who thought they were too tough for seasickness medication either curled up foetally in bed or bore the bad weather for fresh air on deck. The open ocean, sailing through Anna Pink Bay, was scheduled to last about seven hours, followed by a five hour crossing of the infamous Golfo de Penas, named after the Spanish explorer who found the place and renamed later as the English couldn’t be bothered trying to record the tilde over the “n”. All in all, it was bound to be a petty rough day.

After lunch, we invited ourselves into a card game being played by Liam, a red-headed Irishman, and Matthia, a young Italian guy. The card circle grew as the afternoon wore on, and we broke out the wine and cheese a bit past two. We’d soon played Mushack and Hearts with Terry, an older American, and Sydney, an avocado farmer from California, and the circle grew again to include a handful of the rowdier types from last night and the game turned to Shithead, one of those random trick game types with impossible numbers of rules meant to catch out the drunk. The ship was doing some impressive nose-dives and sideways rolls by this point, and it was all we could do to stop things falling off the table. As the weather cleared a little, we took occasional breaks to stand up on the top deck of the ship and watch the beast plough through the waves like a theme park ride.

Dinner was entirely necessary by the time it arrived, and a few of the more sturdy passengers who had been struck by seasickness resurfaced to try and settle their tummies on the spaghetti bolognaise. Things degenerated quite quickly after that, marked in particular by the mushing up of jelly to mix with some donated vodka, which made a delicious if slightly disturbing slurry. Tom and I hung in there for another round of cards, but, having already drunk our two bottles of wine over the last eight hours, jumped at the opportunity to watch the nightly film when it came on. The film, Machuca, was a very intelligent Spanish drama following the fate of the inhabitants of a private school in Santiago in the seventies when the recently elected socialist government allowed the local indigenous children to attend, and ended in a horrible scene after the takeover of the military junta.

The film ended at midnight, and our card-playing buddies were intent on staying up until the 5.30am navigation of the English Narrows, one of the more speccie parts of the trip, but we opted instead for our five hours sleep, feeling a bit old as a result, but perhaps also a bit more sane.

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October 28

October 28, 2008

Enter the demimonde of the multiple-day sea voyage.

After a comfortable, but insufficient night’s sleep – before I drifted off I distinctly recall seeing three o’clock wind around on my wristwatch – we roused ourselves just in time for the Puerto Eden‘s communal breakfast. The ship is a conversion from a freight-ship, and cannot quite accommodate all the tourists at once in its mess-hall, so everyone milled about for seats before collecting trays laden with cornflakes, fresh fruit, bread rolls, eggs, ham and cheese.

We began to run across people we’d met recently in Valparaiso, Chiloe and Puerto Montt and politely renewed our acquaintances, as well as striking up standard “so you’re a tourist as well?” conversations with people from Australia, Germany and France. The travelling group has mixed demographics, with a lot of people around our own age or younger, but also a lot of old couples weighed down with expensive adventure gear.

After breakfast, a lengthy briefing was issued by the crew’s “guides” (in France, they’d be animateurs) regarding the route, the guidelines for behaviour, and the potential hazards ahead. They made particular reference to the times we’d be in rough seas, fixing in our minds the need to take motion-sickness tablets at some point during the day.

The view from the ship was unastonishing for the bulk of the daylight hours, as we were passing through the wider channel south of Puerto Montt and the shore was distant. The sun came out and shone down for the better part of the afternoon, though, and we went up to the top deck to enjoy it for long periods.

In the middle afternoon, as we approached the western exit of the first channel, where Chile’s outer boundary meets the eastern Pacific, the guides screened the bizarre (90s?) film adaptation of Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits in the common area, starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder and Antonio Banderas among others. The cast weren’t able to redeem a botched effort, unfortunately – and several of them were very inappropriate for the putative ages of their characters. Couple that with some very oddly realised violence and sex … it was all a bit confused.

At around six o’clock I began to feel queasy and went downstairs to bed, as we entered the Pacific. This turned out to be a bad idea, as cooped in my small cabin bed, which is about six inches too short for me, with the boat beginning to pitch slowly backward and forward on the swell, I felt worse still. I took an Aventris and came back upstairs, and began to feel better after an hour or so. Nevertheless at our late-ish 8:30 dinner, I left my chicken and rice practically untouched and knocked back a couple of dry, white bread rolls instead.

Of course, the tablet didn’t come without a cost, and made me very drowsy. Max had also had one, and we weren’t able to keep our eyes open past the opening scenes of the evening film, a Chilean comedy about Chilean and Argentinian soldiers in Patagonia. We retired to bed, where we found both our older cabin-mates lying restless in bed looking a bit green. In the morning, the Golfo de Penas would be on its way and promised even rougher seas.

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October 27

October 27, 2008

The whole hostel was up early in eager anticipation of the ferry this morning, it seems everyone was there to catch it. We lagged a bit behind the others as they were all rudely ousted for breakfast at eight, whereas we’d opted to forego it due to the astronomical pricing scheme at Casa Rocco. This ended up being to our benefit, though, as we were heading out the door just as the first disappointed, better-organised people came back to tell us the news that the ferry was delayed. We went down a bit before ten and were told that the ship wouldn’t arrive until 9pm, and there was the possibility of a midnight boarding.

In this way, we found ourselves with an extra day spare. We decided to take our chances at the hostel and check out rather than possibly waste a night’s accommodation, and had a flit through ideas of where to go, settling on the lakeside retreat town of Frutillar. Not long later we were on one of the little buses that ply the more local routes, and heading towards Lago Llanquihue to the north of town.

Frutillar is a dual city, arranged to optimise the relaxed country feel without sacrificing services. Frutillar Alto, where the commercial districts are housed, is two kilometres to the west and up the hill from Frutillar Bajo, a collection of German colonial houses on the lakefront and scattered up a hillside. We were dropped right at the shore of the lake, and opposite a convenient tourist information map, which we read eagerly to locate the University of Chile Experimental Reserve, where we intended to have a bushwalk.

The reserve was located at the top of the hill, and on our way up we kept ourselves entertained by thoughts of building funky little three-storey writer’s garrets on the various hillside lots for sale. When we arrived at the entrance to the forest we were met by a man in coveralls who was obviously engaged in some important, greasy sort of task and waved us through without bothering to collect the entrance fee, pointing out that we should obey the directive signs as the trails weren’t yet cleared from the winter. Then we were off.

The trail was a short one but the forest was a lovely, densely treed area with little wooden signs indicating the Latin names of certain species. The most impressive trees were two ancient laurels, planted in 1305 and 1495, though the latter had been hollowed out on one side and was leaning at a precarious angle over the path below, not inspiring the greatest confidence in its remaining lifespan. We got to the end of the trail and were pointed in the direction either of the nursery and exit, or the plantations. We weren’t quite ready to call it quits, so we chose the plantations, though took a short, steep wooden staircase up an embankment and thus ended up deep in the woods instead.

It was now obvious what the coveralled man meant about the paths not having yet been checked. This trail was quite overgrown and crossed a number of tiny muddy streams, but we decided to persevere with it for a little adventure, and found ourselves ducking under, over and around a number of fallen trees that tried to blck our path. We eventually emerged on the wrong side of a “DO NOT ENTER” sign up near the old laurels, were slightly embarassed at our unintentional trespass, then headed back down the hill and out of the reserve.

Since we were in a quaint lake-side resort, we thought the best thng to do then was a stroll across the waterfront towards a nice lunch. The lake was quite large, at one time connected to the inlet to the south of Puerto Montt, I’d guess, and the opposite shore was guarded by a majestic, snow-drenched volano, Volcan Osorno, which was all but camoflagued against the clouds and blue water. We spent some time dawdling under a pagoda at the end of a lovingly carved wooden pier, watched by a group of schoolkids on what looked like an art excursion, before reading the tempting sounding menus at the restaraunts lining the road, all of which were kitschily German-themed in honour of the early German settlements in the area. We decided on one set back from the lake a little, and indulged in a brilliant meal supervised by a stand-offish older male waiter, who had obviously decided we weren’t quite up to the standard of his establishment. We didn’t let him put us off, however, and throughly enjoyed our food- pea and ham soup then stir-fried salmon and potato in a citrus vinaigrette for me and a Greek-style salad followed by rice and chicken in a delicious bitter orange sauce for Tom, topped off with a crème caramel and coffee each for desert.

Having quite topped out our indulgence levels for the day, we had a quick browse of the local artesanias and hopped back on the bus to Puerto Montt via a collectivo to Frutillar Alto. Back in town, we shopped for supplies- wine and cheese for the boat and a cheap pair of sneakers each as a back-up in case our boots get wet on our Torres de Paine trek, which we hear is most likely, especially since they’re both developing leaks where the stiching has pulled away from the lining.

At about seven we’d had enough of wandering, so went back to the ferry terminal, where we spent the next five hours lounging in the old bus seats; reading, knitting and waiting to board. A buzz of excitement swept over the room as the boarding announcement started, and everyone applauded. We were then let through in groups, and walked through the working dock to the large, gaping mouth of the cargo (and only) entrance to the boat, painted bright orange and glowing under the floodlights. Tom and I got briefly separated as he hung back to take a photo, and without warning the ground I was walking on started to raise as an invisible elevator, just a flat platform that looked like the rest of the deck. The elevator brought me and a bunch of other tourists to the boarding level past big crates full of teenage cows that had just come from Puerto Natales, and I certainly felt a measure of cattle-like treatment myself, being herded with the rest by the people in orange vests.

Once our platform had clanked to a halt, we all found our cabins- Tom’s and mine on the bottom-most floor, a narrow room with four low bunks, a set of lock-boxes and a porthole. Tom showed up a few minutes later and we both met our cabinmates- Laurence and Jean-Francois, an elderly couple from France. The deck had a particularly school camp feeling to it as everyone did some exploring and hung around in corridors, conducting excited conversations while waiting for their bags to arrive. The bags showed up at about two, and though some intrepid souls were indulging in a few drinks, Tom and I decided instead on the sleep, and crawled into our bunks, both actually nodding off about three, which made it a very long and very exciting day.

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October 26

October 26, 2008

A place like Chiloe makes it easy to understand nature worship. In particular, the personification of the weather, which is fickle and vacillating here. The few days we’ve spent camping have already seen us fall into a pattern of making mock “deals” with the sky-god, as Max did last night when she declared:

“Alright Sky, I expect you to remain clear until eleven o’clock in the morning when the bus comes to collect us from the national park. After that you can do what you want with the rest of the day.”

At that point we’d had a day thoroughly marred by rain, not even having been able to leave our tent until about two o’clock in the afternoon, though after that things had cleared up nicely. At least that hadn’t been our only day in Parque Nacional Chiloe – in the afternoon yesterday I ran across some Germans at the ranger’s office who’d had the bad luck to come down for a day trip and attempt the beach trail during a period of constant rain and wind. A forlorn bunch they were, beaten back to the park entrance by the weather.

This morning, the Sky-God kept its promise to us and we woke to a partly cloudy sky with no hint of rain in it as far as the eye could see. We would, it seemed, have ample time to dry and take down our tent, and we would not have to suffer the indignity of dashing about desperately, from shelter to shelter in the rain.

There was a professional vibration to the morning as we competently set about dismantling the campsite. Instant oats in warm milk were consumed once more; dishes were washed in the outside basins at the toilet blocks; self-inflating mattresses sat upon; flysheets draped across tall bushes to dry; and sleeping bags and tents stuffed and rolled back into their bags. We fed the dog who’d attended us all through the previous evening some warm milk, which he appreciated. I’m fairly sure he hadn’t eaten in a while, even though it’s clear that he is, or was, somebody’s pet. He was terribly keen to play fetch, even with damp, muddy rocks on which he threatened to cut his lips in his enthusiasm, so we had to restrain ourselves with him a bit.

Everything was eaten, cleaned, sorted, sectioned and re-packed by about half past ten, and we arrived with our backpacks at the gateway entrance to the park with five minutes to spare before the Interlagos Expreso back to Castro was due to arrive. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, as the bus arrived five minutes early, and it didn’t seem as if it would’ve stopped to wait.

The Sky-God was as good as its word, and not a drop of rain fell before we mounted the bus, and even more astoundingly, at about five minutes to eleven it did begin to rain, and continued to do so, gently, until we arrived in Castro an hour or so later, passing up Calle San Martin, still very familiar from our stay a few days ago. It was only a whirlwind stop, a brisk five hundred metre walk between the two bus terminals. Castro, like every town we’d passed through, was alive with hundreds of locals in the municipal centre for the local government elections. It was reassuring to know that the intensity of political advertising we’ve seen about the place was actually in aid of a polling day – it would’ve been disturbing otherwise.

We were both suddenly possessed of an awesome hunger, and bought two completos — hotdogs with chopped tomato and mayonnaise — and two empanadas de carne before jumping aboard the Cruz del Sur 12:15 service to Puerto Montt, feeling a twinge of guilt only after having consumed them at speed.

It was a rather nondescript bus ride at first. Two men behind us conversed loudly and enthusiastically for the hour or so between Castro and Ancud, mostly on the topic of the election, but also on something involving “hundreds of mysterious disappearances”, which I thought might have been to do with Pinochet, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to their droning dialogue. Max, meanwhile, had plugged her headphones resolutely into her ears and dropped off to sleep.

On the vehicle ferry between Chiloe and the mainland, the sun was right out again, and we hopped off the bus for a hot chocolate at the ferry coffee shop. From the gunwhales of the vessel, we had an exciting view of several sealions sloping easily up and down through the mirror-like calm waters of the channel, as well as pelicans, cormorants, and several types of gull. I am really enthused about the local wildlife, and I think this place would be a bird-watcher’s paradise (the “robber hawk” was the first thing I saw when I unzipped the tent-flap this morning, again – stalking about the grass only a couple of metres away). I imagine that as we get further south, and still further on the Antarctic journey that’s coming up, we’re going to see even more amazing stuff.

They were expecting us at Hospedaje Rocco back at the western end of Puerto Montt, and had kept a room aside. It is a funny place, with a slightly obsessive-compulsive host who micro-manages her guests in the kitchen and at the front door – and yet despite this attention to detail they don’t, for example, have a key to our room. They also charge like wounded bulls for all the optional extras – breakfast is expensive, laundry very expensive, internet access very expensive, and so forth. Still, it’s a friendly joint.

There wasn’t much of what had turned into a beautiful, blue-skied day left by the time we’d settled in – we were left with enough time to make a trip to the supermarket for a pre-prepared chicken and gnocchi dinner to heat up back at the hostel, to have a cup of tea, and to walk to the local internet cafe to reacquaint ourselves with the world at large. An interesting factoid about Chile: the sale of alcohol is prohibited on polling days. I wonder how that would go down in Australia. After all of that, it was more or less game over for today.

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October 25

October 25, 2008

What began as a miserable day turned out quite salvageable by the end. We woke about eight to the pouring rain and wind, and instead of our usual warm oats for breakfast were forced to huddle inside the tent with a packet of biscuits. And so it was all the way through until two o’clock. There were a few breaks in the weather, enough to nip out and check the flysheet, grab food supplies from our hanging bag and whatnot, but most of the morning was spent cowering inside fairly anxiously, hoping our tent would make it. Which it did, incidentally, with flying colours.

At about two the rain had eased, and our minds’ eyes fixed firmly on the makeshift restaurant we’d spied in town the day before. It didn’t take much encouragement to get us on our way, and we had soon crossed the bridge, a random grizzly old canine companion in tow. The dog stayed outside while we knocked on the door and walked in to a warm, fiery living room filled with local people. We found a seat in front of the television and watched the end of Cast Away while we ate, thoroughly enjoying the warmth and liveliness after a cold, solitary morning. The menu for the day was cazuela de vacuno y empanada de marisco. I passed on the seafood empanada, but the lamb stew was the perfect meal for the day- a big lump of lamb, potatoes, semola and what I would hazard a guess at being seaweed in a thick stewy sauce. I washed it down with una copa de vino tinto and Tom with cafe negro. Our doggie accompaniment had disappeared by the time we’d finished, but we got a big break of sunshine as we left. Unfortunately, by the time we’d arrived back at the campsite it had once again turned to a depressing drizzle, and an hour more of tent hiding was necessary.

At four, the sky cleared miraculously and sent beams of sunlight crashing down upon us. We took it as a sign that we could hold the weather in good faith and Tom built “the best fire in history”, as building fires seems to discourage the rain in these parts. Our earlier plans to spend the morning walking and get an early night had been so thoroughly shot through by now that we decided to reverse them, and Tom went off to gather a box of wine to see us through the night while I was charged with the task of tending to the fire. Shortly after Tom returned, a hyperactive becollared young dog turned up and tried to convince us to play fetch with rocks, spiky plants and other inappropriate things. He had so obviously been cared for recently that we wondered if he had gotten lost, and as the night wore on and he still didn’t go home we could only think that he must have.

Just as the sun was setting, we decided to go on our walk after all, so packed the camera and torch into our pockets and set off in search of Sendero Tepual, an easy 1km walk on boardwalks throught the forest, bringing along a cup of wine each for the company. We had our wine on the grandly named Mirador del Sur, which was actually just a wooden platform with a reasonable view across the trees, before finding the beginning of the trail. It was lots of fun strolling down the curving, bright white boardwalks and reading the informative signs in Spanish and oddly translated English, taking comfort in the knowledge that the problems with tense we have in Spanish are reciprocated by Spanish-speakers in English. We stopped to take a few too many “artistic” photos, so by the time we’d finished it was pitch black and we had to pick our way back by torchlight.

Our dog was still around when we got back, so we made him up a spot by the fire and sat about, having a good chat and finishing the wine. The stars came out in hordes in only the second clear night sky we’d had on the island, and it ended up being quite late by the time we climbed into our sleeping bags and called it a day.