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.