Earth, Wind, Water & Fire

[Why backups are great: while searching for something else on an old hard drive, I discovered a folder of feature writing I’d forgotten about. Come travel with me down memory lane.]

Squeezed inbetween a vast ocean and the longest mountain range on earth, Chile is over 4 000km long and never more than 175km wide. Two thirds of the way down, that long thin sliver seems to crumble, first into an area of enormous lakes, then a convoluted puzzle-scape of archipelago and deeply fjorded coastline, before freezing over into a continental icecap. Somewhere between the chocolate box landscape of the Lake District and the sepulchral wastes of the south, you’ll find a chaotic jumble of mountain, forest, fog, sunshine and river. It’s an elemental place where even the people themselves seem part earth, part fire.

The bonfire is enormous. A great big pyre of dead trees. And next to it a crucifix is pegged obliquely into the cold earth. Only this one has a double axis with a lamb splayed over it. Fat spits; the fire flares.
A group of strikingly dissimilar people presses in closer as one starts tinkering with a guitar. A bottle of pisco does the rounds, followed by significant numbers of other containers being dispatched of their contents. Beyond the crackling, the strumming and the laughter, the air carries the music of water, of a clear river making the swishing sounds rivers do along pebbly shores.
The guitar player is Pablo, our resident Latin Lover. A regular Don Juan, he has an ink-black goatee to frame his mouth and a bandanna headband to highlight his rather beautiful blue eyes. While Don Pablo’s demeanour hints at fire, he’s all fluid. A resident of Santiago most recently, he can do both the country bumpkin thing as well as play the city slicker. He translates into Spanish for us, he entertains, he flirts, he knows everybody. And he knows all your old radio favourites. Just hum a few lines and he plays the tune. The man is smooth, way smooth.
A vague, dreamy character wanders into the circle from nowhere, quietly pulling a little tinny banjo-like instrument out of the bag on his back. When he begins to play, we notice him properly for the first time. The man is talented, extremely talented. And a bit loco, it seems. He’s actually a city slicker himself, a New Yorker. Though you’d never say it. He mumbles and bumbles along, though you never quite rid yourself of the impression that there’s a brilliant intellect within. His banjo-playing certainly seems to indicate this. The undercover Yank plays folk numbers, penned by himself, which the locals seem to have long appropriated as their own. They sing along enthusiastically.
Then there’s another Pablo. A younger, shyer one than our Latin Lover, though not immune to a bit of flirting of his own. He’s an agricultural student making money on the side by acting as guide for us on our just-completed horse ride through the countryside. More hospitable, attentive and thoughtful, they do not come. Along for the ride, and now sitting grinning next to Little Pablo, is a crinkly, gap-toothed old man and his young son – the latter two operating as one synergistic unit, riding the same horse with great galloping laughter, the youngster communicating on behalf of his dad, who seems to have some sort of speech defect. Or maybe he does just mutter. He too might just be a little loco, with oodles of backwoods wisdom thrown in for good measure. That and an extraordinary ability to delicately pick at his teeth with an enormous knife that has just ripped through sheepskin as if through melting fat.
These guys are the archetypal huaso, the Chilean equivalent of the Argentine gaucho (and one and the same thing, I’m sure, as we’re within spitting distance of the border). Horse riding with them has given us a taste of their lifestyle. And I can recommend it.
We saddled up at the main intersection of little Futaleufu town, tied all our gear to the wood-and-leather saddles, and headed for the hills. Out along the Rio Espolon, up a dry and dusty path, over the koppie and into the great green yonder. Into a dream.
For here there were forests, the bark thick with long-haired lichen; wide green meadows over which we galloped; twisty paths through storybook farmland over which we trotted while shooing off other horses and nonchalant cows. There were steep rocky paths on cliff edges, pebbly beaches next to vast turquoise eddies, quaint country lanes amongst orchards…
And all the along those huasos clucked over our welfare. Just stop for half a minute to adjust your wooden clog stirrup, and they’d be wanting to change this for you, do that. At night, when two of us scuttled down to the water’s edge to stare up at the stars, they emerged with blazing tree trunks to set their trademark bonfire right at our feet. The entire beach was suddenly lit up as if by daylight, my brand new sleeping bag quickly had a hole burnt into it, and I discovered how hard it is to fall asleep while you’re grinning.
In the morning, their dog having consumed our rations, the huasos offered us boiled eggs for breakfast, collected from a local farmer and cooked in an old tin on yet another bonfire. I think that if the pig that had been snuffling around all night had made an appearance, Huaso Senior would have whipped out his monstrous knife and offered us bacon as well.
A usually-impatient bunch of adventure seekers, we’d found ourselves quite happy to sit there with smug grins on our faces, trying to inhale the beauty with the woodsmoke.
In every direction, peaks rose vertically, so sheer that faces above the forested slopes were bare. Scree-filled gullies hinted at glaciers that had only recently melted. Fire upon fire had left the entire landscape littered with dried and scarred tree trunks – we learned later that lightening-ignited fires had burned in the area continuously for over two years.
Patagonian Chile is all element: earth and wind, water and fire that inflames the adventurous soul. It struck me as a very new place, fresh and full of upheaval, volcanic action, glacial rips and tears, with water pouring out from every slope and gully. The climate is no less temperamental. We would wake in the morning to dark clouds and seething mists. It was often grey and drizzly, cold and unpleasant. But give it a little while and the sun would begin to consume the clouds, devour the shadows, and the water pouring from the forests would be turquoise, indigo, bubblegum and Listermint – in no particular order – as the light played on it.
Paddling on the river was a dream, the water both so unnaturally blue and simultaneously clear you’d think your raft was going to ground, only to find the rocks half a metre under.
On another day, I climbed a frozen volcano. There that same turquoise mesmerised. I would look deep into the blue crevasses of the icefield, before gingerly stepping across them. Further up, as we clung to the slope with crampons and ice axes, I could measure the 60- then 70-degree gradient against the azure blue skyline’s contrast with the purest white slope. At the summit, there was every blue. Only blue. A thousand Andean peaks were stacked in intensifying shades of it. The dozen lakes in every direction reflected it. The sky glowed with it. My thesaurus has the words for it; I don’t.
These days there are roads to most places you might want to visit in that wild blue yonder. The Lake District has long been a tourist centre, but now you can hitch easily, toys in tow, all the way down south to Tierra del Fuego. As we did when we said goodbye to our guides. We left them at the side of the road, where they set the horses free to head on home, while we took the obligatory skinnydip in the nearest stream, before intercepting the first truck that came by. It had no choice in picking us up. You don’t if you drive in Chile.
From Peurto Montt, the Carretera Austral or ‘Southern Highway’ stretches over 1 000km south through the wettest, greenest and wildest part of Chile. Begun in 1976 by General Pinochet, who was determined to strengthen the state’s control of the region, the Carretera Austral has brought modernity to the region: now many of the huasos you’ll meet wear baseball caps instead of those distinctive black felt hats, and the wine comes in cartons rather than wicker-covered glass, but it does mean that travelling is a breeze. Only go now, before the rest of the world does.

With the bonfire finally subdued, the musical instruments put away and the huasos hunkered down under a sheepskin, I lay my bivvy bag out on the sodden grass to stare up at the stars of my last night in Patagonia. Don Juan slinks out of the shadows with his sleeping bag, mentioning meaningfully that it isn’t all that warm. I am, and snuggle down without a grunt of sympathy. Eventually the huasos’ stinky mutt slurps DJ’s face just once too often, and he departs for the nearest hut, leaving me to the advances of the frequently-farting dog, which spends the remainder of the night alternating between licking the remainder of the crucified sheep, and sneaking up to stick his greasy snout down the back of my neck. He’s impervious to my verbal abuse, being a Spanish-speaking dog. And the guitar player is no longer here to translate.

Travels in a thin country by Sara Wheeler (Abacus Travel); Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (Vintage Classics).

Coffee comes without milk. Asking for even the smallest drop of leche will almost double the price.
Don’t drive too close to the edge of the roads; they give way for no reason at all. We saw five vehicles in about that many days that had done so.
Plan now to catch the Fiesta de San Pedro (29 June) when fishermen decorate their boats and take the image of their patron saint out to sea – often at night with candles and flares burning – to pray for protection and good catches.

First published in ‘Out There’ magazine, South Africa. 

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