Thursday, 31 December 2009

End of the world, beginning of everything.

“Otra mas, otra mas!” The Brazilian boys want me to play another song on my guitar.
“Cual cancion quieren?” I ask them in my broken Spanish what they want me to play, it’s close enough to Portuguese that they can understand.
“Bob Marley!” they shout. I oblige them with Redemption Song and they sing along happily. They know all the words, even if they don’t know what they mean. I’m glad for that, I really don’t like singing solo (I haven’t had enough to drink for that just yet.)
It’s New Year’s Eve 2009/2010 and we are in Ushuaia, Argentina - the southernmost city in the world. 10pm and the sun is still up. I am sitting amongst a group of Italians, French, Argentinians and Brazilians. I am the only Kiwi and the only native English speaker (the only one who will be singing Auld Lang Syne in a couple of hours). Some of the others can speak a little English, but not much. However with my limited Spanish, and their limited English we are able to get most points across.
But to be honest, the conversation is not so important to me. I am happy just being in the company of my new-found friends, laughing, drinking, eating, playing guitar and singing along. In fact I couldn’t be happier. Sometimes the language barrier seems unimportant, just sharing a beer and a smile is enough. We all have something in common after all, although it’s hard to pin down exactly what that something is.
It’s not everybody who thinks to bring in the new year in a small city in Tierra del Fuego, an island at the very southern tip of the South American continent. Something has drawn us all here for this moment. A sense of adventure, a compulsion to get away from the norm, to find somewhere special, a place where what you’re wearing or where you’re from is not as important as who you are. And here in Ushuaia, in the back yard of this hostel, we have found this place.
I was a little worried I might be spending New Year’s Eve like I spent Christmas Eve, alone. But no, in this hostel I was instantly accepted, invited to dinner by the gay French couple, offered a beer by the Italian couple and a shot of tequila from the Brazilian boys. Then when I produced my guitar from my room, there was a round of applause and a string of requests. This is a genuine and uncomplicated friendship, one which supersedes any language or cultural barriers that may lie between us.
Something that has become apparent to me on this short trip into the deep south is that no matter how beautiful the places I visit may be, how awe-inspiring the mountains or big the glaciers, what really makes or breaks the overall experience is the people I meet and the moments I share with them. There are some aspects of travelling solo which I really love, I enjoy relying on myself, going it alone on hikes or sitting by myself on top of a mountain, with not another soul in sight, soaking up the view and having time to think about everything, or nothing at all. However there has been times when I wish I had somebody beside me, somebody to share these experiences with, somebody to turn to and share a look of understanding, knowing that you will always have this moment in your lives, and that it can never be taken away.

As beautiful as the connection I have with all these people here is, it just can't compare with the relationship I have with my friends back home. If I were in New Zealand I would be spending New Years with them, camping in Queenstown or Nelson or at a music festival in the middle of nowhere. These are the  people I grew up with, they know me and I know them, we have been through a lot therefore the relationship runs a lot deeper. I'm reminded of this when I look at the three friends from Brazil, they have known each other for years and it is obvious in the way in which they act with each other. There's no fake politeness or niceties, but there is a love and mutual respect, and it's obvious they really care for each other (in a tough, manly kind of way). I try to imagine how cool it would be to have all my friends here with me right now.

My Brazilian bros want another song. The beer brewer from Buenos Aires passes me a cold, freshly opened Quilmes and smiles. “Salud.” I say taking a swig and putting the beer at my feet. I strum the opening chords to “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.
Having said that, if I had been travelling with a friend or friends, maybe I never would have met any of the wonderful people I did along the way - Danny the slightly crazy Israeli guy I hitch-hiked with, the friendly Belgian couple I shared lunch with next to a river who then directed me to an amazing camp site under Mt Fitzroy, or these people I sit with now (to name but a few).  These characters are the real treasures that I will cherish and remember for the rest of my life. After all, if I returned in thirty years the landscape would be more or less the same, but to meet somebody at that particular place, at that particular time and to share a moment with them, no matter how brief, that is part of the magic of travelling, and of life.

Coming out of my shell and making friends with complete strangers is not something that comes easily to me. It usually takes time for me to gain the trust of somebody before forging a friendship. Often I prefer to keep to myself and not to draw any attention my way. Although I hate to admit it, I guess you could say I am quite a shy person. But unless I want to spend all my time travelling by myself I have to learn to spark a conversation, be less guarded and more open with the people I meet. As great as it would be to have one of my best mates here travelling with me, I know that it is good for me to work on this part of my personality.

So, as this decade draws to a close, so too does this leg of my journey.  I will take these memories and musings with me, pack my bag and head to North Mexico to carry out my next trail building contract. It’s a new year with a whole world of new experiences in store, new people to meet, new environments to explore and many new adventures to be had.  Cheers 2009, it’s been emotional, now, 2010 – let’s see what you’ve got for me shall we?
                                                                Feliz Ano Nuevo!

Friday, 25 December 2009


It's Christmas eve 2009, my first Christmas spent overseas. I sit alone in my dormitory room in El Chalten, Argentina. The hostel I am staying in is called Rancho Grande (Big Ranch), number one on the list in the Lonely Planet guide book. It’s the kind of place I would later learn to avoid – complete with everything a backpacker needs, but lacking the sense of homeliness you find in smaller, less popular places. I am  listening to Paul Simon‘s album Graceland on my ipod, trying to drown out the noise of the horrible christmas party taking place down stairs - cheesy pop music, artificial smiles and forced conversations - you call this Christmas? Bah Humbug! I turn up the volume.
I close my eyes and let the music transport me back in time, over the Pacific. I am a kid again sitting in the back seat of our rattly red ford cortina, my two older bothers are on either side of me. Dad is driving, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, his curly black hair brushes the roof of the car. Mum sits beside him gazing out the window, no doubt conjuring some poem or other in her mind. We are driving the windy road which cuts through the Dunstan Gorge headed for Queenstown to spend Christmas with Dad‘s side of the family. Steve tries telling me the land on the other side of the lake is Australia, but I‘m too old to fall for that, Mike daws cartoon pictures in his breath on the window. Graceland is playing through the tape deck, the African inspired rhythms coupled with the sun baked brown land around us make it easy for me to imagine we are on safari in the heart of Africa. Even at a young age I longed for adventures in foreign lands.
And now, almost 20 years later, here I am - 10,000 miles away from my family, alone on Christmas Eve. I feel the novelty of adventure wearing thin. What am I doing here? I could have flown home for Christmas, the company would have paid, but no – I decided to go off by myself on some crazy solo Patagonian adventure, and to what end? Self discovery? Stories? Sadism? Right now the reasons seem unclear.
I check the time, 8 oclock, that would make it mid-christmas-day in New Zealand, I should ring Mum and Dad soon but I almost can’t bear to do it. I can imagine the scene at Granny and Grandad’s house - the sweet smell of the Christmas tree mixing with the rich aromas from the roast lamb and pork in the oven, there‘s new potatoes and snowball turnips bubbling on the stove. A burst of laughter from my aunties helping Grandad in the kitchen, my younger cousins with cherry stained fingers play with their new presents, the men sip beer and watch the cricket on the telly, the older cousins are outside in the sun kicking a rugby ball around, stomachs grumbling in anticipation for Christmas dinner. That is where I long to be, lazing in the comfort and shade of my family tree, surrounded by familiarity, predictability and people who love me without question, that is what Christmas is to me.

Mt Fitzroy
The next morning Christmas day arrives wrapped up in a fresh blue sky. I leave the hostel early and head into the hills behind El Chalten, where the bare granite peak of Mt Fitzroy plunges into the sky, defying the horizon like a raised fist. I walk fast along the forested trails leading towards the mountain, stretching out my legs and sucking back big lungfuls of crisp mountain air. On my back I carry all the food and gear I need for three days tramping. I recall my phone conversation with Mum and Dad from the night before, I expected to feel sad after we talked, but instead I felt in a way stronger. I realised that I should be thankful that a place exists where I will always fit, with people I can always trust and the truth is, even if it is a million miles away, the connection I have with this place and these people cannot be broken.I catch another glimpse of Mt Fitzroy through a gap in the canopy, each time I do it looms a little larger.
A small bird darts across my vision snapping me back to the moment, the morning sunlight falls around me like confetti through the trees. I realise that I did receive a gift this Christmas – the real present is the here and the now, and that is what I have to focus on. I am in Patagonia, I am healthy and I have two years of amazing experiences and adventure ahead of me. I hear that I am approaching a river crossing. There’s a lot lying between me and the end of my trip, and there will be plenty of hard times like last night, and probably some which are a lot harder, but to give up early and go home would be to miss an opportunity of a life time. I reach the river bank and watch the water sliding like crystal silk over the shimmering rounded rocks. I pause for a second, and take a breath, “One step at a time.” I say to myself, and plough into the ice cold water.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Thumbing South.

Another car rushes past my outstretched thumb,
I shove my hand back into my pocket and kick a stone, sending it skittering across the road and into the bushes on the otherside. I've been trying to hitch now for four hours and that was just the fourth car I've seen. Anxiety creeps into my thoughts, will I ever leave this place? It was an unexpected visit to this beautiful village, Caleta Tortel, situated at the base of a fiord in Southern Patagonia. There are no roads within the town, rather the buildings are connected by a maze of wooden board walks. I think again about my decision to come to this tiny village, the people that live here seem to prefer boats to cars, it's little visited by tourists and not on the way to anywhere else. Not exactly the ideal place for hitch-hiking.

This is my third day hitching south from Coyhaique. I was sad to say adios to my new friends and the three senoras, but the excitement of pushing off by myself into the unknown softened the blow a little. Now I seem to have hit a road block. I want to make it to Villa O'higgins, the end of the Carratera Austral (or southern highway) which runs alongside the Patagonian Andes, from there I plan to walk across the border into El Chalten, Argentina.

I sit down on my pack and continue to watch the villagers emerge from there wooden wonderland, each carrying a length of rope. There's a sheep truck parked at the road end, full of plump little lambs. The locals arrive, poke and prod, hum and hah and then select their soon to be christmas roast. They then tie the rope around the hapless animals neck and lead it back, kicking and bleating, to their houses. I guess there's no such thing as Chrisco christmas hampers here. I strum a few comforting chords to ease my mind, and watch the cumulus accumulate over the mountains. As I watch, a rainbow slowly sprouts from the grey.

A van rumbles down the road headed towards the village. I see that it's the shuttle from Cochrane the town I stayed at the night before last. On the shuttle is an Israeli guy named Danny, we're headed in the same direction so we decide to go together. He's an IT guy in real life, 35 or so and most likely somebody I would have nothing to do with in normal circumstances. But here, a common goal forges a friendship instantly, bridging the gap beween small town New Zealander and Israeli office worker. We manage to catch the shuttle back to the main highway, and from there we decide to walk along the road. We leave the Rio Baker to carry on it's sluggish way, heavy with sediment it slithers and swirls under drooping branches, following the path of least resistance to the Pacific Ocean.

The road we follow has been cut into a steep cliff, to our right the earth shoots straight up piercing the clouds, rain dribbling down the craggy face like milk down an old mans chin, to our left the land falls away into an abyss of churning white water, rocks and fallen trees. The sound of countless litres of rushing water is so immense that we don't hear the ute approaching until it is upon us. It's a father and son headed for Villa O'higgins, with three slightly confused, unsuspecting christmas lambs on the back . We heave our packs onto the tray and jump aboard with the sheep.

Danny spends the trip facing forward, crouching behind the cab and leaning into the ice cold wind, so he can see what's coming. I sit facing backwards, watching the mountains slide past my periphery to shrink into the distance. It seems to me that the road we travel is growing longer behind us, as if we lay it as we go. I hope I've left nothing important behind. So, I guess this is ciau Chile, onwards and hola to Argentina where I will continue south to welcome in a new decade in the southern-most city in the world - Ushuaia.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Us against Patagonia.

A Kiwi takes flight to South America      
On a mild spring day in September 2009 I left my home town of Dunedin, New Zealand to spend 3 months in the wilds of northern Patagonia – Chile - building mountain bike trails with seven other kiwi lads. Now here, 10,000 kilometres across the Pacific ocean and with 17 hours time difference between us and our beloved country, is a typical working day at Lago La Paloma (Dove Lake).

I wake to the sound of a load of fire-wood clattering on the laundry floor across the hallway. Through the window I can see the early morning sky slowly dissolving into day. It’s clear out there for the time being but who knows how long that will last, this is Patagonia after all. I swing my feet onto the cold hardwood floor. I have to move quickly before all the good cereal and yoghurt is devoured by my hungry house mates.

I follow the smell of freshly baked bread down the hall way and into the warmth of the dining room. The breakfast table has been set by the maids the night before. That’s right, we have maids, three lovely señoras - Janette, Luce and Sandra - who, despite the language barrier, become like mothers to us all. Breakfast this morning is a bowl of corn flakes and strawberry yoghurt, chased with a super sweet glass of apple juice. After that we pack our lunch – home-made rolls filled with tuna and avocado, a few packs of biscuits to share, muesli bars and some floury apples.
Then it’s on our bikes for the one hour slog to work up, up, up towards the mountainous peaks. As we ride up the hill dark clouds clog the valley to the north, a good sign that there’s some weather on the way. But for now blue skies dominate and the lakes glassy surface reflects the mountains which crowd around it. The trail to work meanders up through old farm land, cleared years ago by fire. We pass through the shadows of giant shells of trees, bare as bone, their insides gutted by flames, they stand like memorials to the once thriving forest.

We arrive panting and sweating to the work site and lay our trusty bikes down to rest, a cold breeze blows down from the snow covered mountains. I shiver as I feel the wind bite through my sweat drenched T shirt. I start to sharpen the chain saw. The other boys sit or lie down in the grass to rest for a moment. We talk and joke about last weekend’s visit to Coyhaique, the nearest town. Who danced with which chica, who threw up in the bath room, who almost got into a fight. We are a mixed bunch from all over New Zealand, ranging in age from 19 to 30, common in a love of mountain biking, girls and drinking beer. We have grown close over the past few weeks. Of course there’s been conflict, but being so far from the safety of home, in a foreign land lost in a foreign language, we have to be able to trust each other, to help each other out and have each other’s backs. It’s us against Patagonia.
We cool down quickly after the up-hill ride so pick up our tools and get to work. Everybody has his own spade which they sharpen and maintain themselves and God help anybody who mistakenly uses somebody else’s.  I know it sounds silly, but I’ve become quite attached to my spade, the way it fits with the callouses on my hands, the grooves and nicks like battle scars on the handle, the weight and centre of balance have all become familiar to me, so that when I pick up a different one it just feels wrong.
We work hard, and when it begins to rain, we pull out our wet weather gear and carry on without a word. I quickly get into a rhythm, clearing the vegetation, leveling the ground, removing any large rocks. It has become so I no longer need to think about it, just plug my head phones in, and swing my lovely spade. We leap frog each other, moving fast along easy terrain, until we reach a point where the land falls away below us and we need to build a retaining wall, and for that we will need some timber.
I grab the chainsaw and wander into the nearby forest. As I survey the trees I get the sense that they avert their gaze, not wanting to be the one to feel the tear of the chainsaws teeth. I find a tree, long and straight, not too fat, and with a clear path to the forest floor. I watch the tree sway in the wind for a minute, trying to gauge which way the weight leans. Sorry buddy, but you’re perfect. I check the fuel, the chain, the oil, this is definitely not a time for haste. The closest hospital is 3 hours away by bike, boat and then car. With that in the back of my mind I crank up the saw, it jumps in my hands as I squeeze the trigger. The scream of the engine rips through the curtain of silence. I move close to the tree, running my palm over the rough bark, brushing off the moss, deciding where to make the first cut.
As I cut the scarf, sawdust spurts out forming a rooster tail behind me. The rich smell of two stroke exhaust and fresh tree sap fills my nostrils. The noise reverberates throughout the valley. With the scarf finished I move to the back of the tree to make the final cut. I watch with relief as the tree starts to peel slowly away from the trunk. Then, with the most satisfying creak, the tree starts to fall. It groans and cracks, then, after a moment of silent free fall, crashes to Earth.
Later, as we sit eating lunch, gazing over the deep blue lake laid out like a mat at the feet of the brooding, snow-capped mountains, condors paint slow sweeping circles in the clouds above our heads. We decide that this weekend we will attempt to climb one of the peaks we can see on the opposing side of the valley. We trace our eyes over the forested, rocky and steep terrain, searching for the best route to the tops.
Our lunch is cut short when it begins to sleet. We trudge back to work and reluctantly pick up our tools. Soon the air temperature drops and the sleet becomes snow. It settles almost immediately on the ground. We carry on working in near silence, breathing on our hands to keep them warm. The monotony is broken when a couple of the boys spy a massive boulder perched precariously above a steep slope plunging into the lake far below. Why wouldn’t you push it off? They clamber up to the rock and, after a few strained swear words, get it to roll. We all watch mouths agape as the rock tumbles like a maniac down the mountain side, gaining momentum it obliterates everything in its path before leaping 20m into the air and smashing into the lake surface, exploding like a depth charge in a mushroom cloud of water. Yea Boy!!! We take a moment to appreciate the ripples spreading throughout the lake. It’s little distractions like this which help pass the working day.
Throughout the afternoon the wind gradually drops, the snow lessens and before we know it, sunlight is spreading like a yawn from behind the clouds. It lights up the thin layer of snow draped over the ground like a crisp, fresh bed sheet, and it begins to melt. We hang our jackets and wet gloves like scarecrows on branches to dry. As the weather brightens so too does the mood, and the rest of the afternoon passes quickly. Soon comes everybody’s favourite part of the day – the ride home.
The first thing we do after kicking off our muddy boots at the door is head to the lounge where the señoras have laid out some afternoon snacks for us. Today it’s deep fried caramel filled donuts and hot chocolate with cinnamon, who can say no to that? Sometimes I wonder if the maids are fattening us up for Christmas dinner.
After a shower the evening is spent with feet up and beer in hand, I gaze out the window down the length of Lago La Paloma, now as still as a painting. The lounge slowly fills with the smell of salmon being cooked in the kitchen. I watch as the sky once again darkens into night, the full moon’s pale face rising over the jagged ridgeline, her reflection sliding slowly across the water’s surface. How’s the serenity.
Then comes the call for dinner - “Chicos!” – and the spell is broken. There’s a mad dash for the dinner table. Tonight we have fried salmon steaks, boiled potatoes and fresh tomato salad, followed up with a bowl of marzipan flavoured semolina pudding. Delicioso.
With plates empty and bellies full we waddle back to the lounge to play cards and watch a mountain biking movie. After another cervesa my eyelids grow heavy so I say buenas noches and head to bed.
I lay in bed, waiting for my body heat to warm up the duvet, and I think about how blessed I am to be here. Patagonia – for me the word has always conjured feelings of mystery, adventure and wonder, even before I knew where in the world it was. And now, by some odd twist of fate, I have the opportunity to explore this awe-inspiring wilderness. With a flutter of excitement in my chest I think about the possibilities waiting for me over the next two years. After this contract I have three more doing the same thing in the deserts of Northern Mexico, the rolling country side of Portugal, and the jungle of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain.  How will they compare to this place? How could they? I roll over and try to sleep, I guess time will tell.