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nomadom — condition of the nomad, as in freedom


Stories, pictures, bits and bobs relating to a trip to Chile in November/December 1998

From the sublime

the adventurous

Cerro Castillo National Park

to the gangrenous...yum...

You'll find an informal account of my travels here

Random quote of the trip:
"In the end, we will conserve that which we love. We will love that which we understand. And we will understand that which we are taught."
Baba Dioum

I spent three weeks with the British youth development charity Raleigh International who have been running expeditions to Chile for the last ten years. Their mission rubric "People, Projects, Purpose" could easily be changed to "Plebs, Porridge and Personality Disorders..."

Yes, that is a boat in the bottom right corner...

Watercolour sunset on the Laguna San Rafael

These photos were all taken in the Laguna San Rafael National Park in the Aisen region, central Chilean Patagonia. The large glacier forms part of the northern Patagonian Ice Sheet and resembles a giant Mr Whippy machine sliding inexorably down from snowy peaks two thousand metres above.
Giant house-size pieces of ice continuously calve from the glacier's phalanx of cobalt blue ice. Groans and roars echo around the lagoon, like Old Man Time stretching his weary limbs.

Fireside chats

Raleigh International have been engaged in a biodiversity survey of the national park over the last two years. They were trapping a rare and endangered wild cat called the Kodkod this year. The cat resembles my neighbour's in size and ferocity.
The young volunteers spend three weeks in the lagoon working in shifts to track the cat's movements. They established their base in the burnt-out hulk of an old hotel built in the '80s. Welcome to the Hotel Patagonia.

After the Laguna, I spent a week trekking in the Cerro Castillo National Park, learning how to use ice-axes, crampons and how to slide very fast down a mountainside -- and stop.
The scenery in the park is stunning. At the base camp, mountains rise on three sides, their sharp incisor peaks biting into the lapis sky. Liquid, magic-potion clouds melt and re-form at incredible speed above, while Magellan woodpeckers tock-tock-away the days deep in the forests of southern beech.

Trite quote of the trip:
When God created the world, he had a handful of everything left -- mountains, deserts, lakes, glaciers -- and he put it all in his pocket. But there was a hole in this pocket, and as God walked across Heaven, it all trickled out, and the long trail it made on Earth was Chile.

The Independent on Sunday (Travel section) published an article "Adventure with a capital R" about Raleigh as an alternative means of travel on 21st March. Text here. A feature article about Raleigh appeared in BBCWildlife magazine in their July 1999 issue, scan here.

Random Raleigh quotes:
Q: Which luxury item do you wish you had brought with you on expedition?
A: A woman.
Q: What's been your favourite meal?
A: I haven't had one. The food has been disgusting!
Q: What are you going to do when you get back to England?
A: Sort my head out and get used to being back in the UK and civilisation.
(thanks Tam!)

Bruce Chatwin refers to writers as 'cut-purses', raiding other people's experiences. That makes me the Artful Dodger.

Mario Miranda Soussi 
Dom's dodgy translation
Esta es la Patagonia de la Tierra y el Agua infinita
espedazada en un torrente de amor, navegando un
solo rio henchido de milagro. Es todo el viento soplando
en el corazon, un transparente jinete del Universo
cabresteando sobre la cruz del sur. Patagonia como
un caballo ciego galopando en la noche de las inmensas
moles. Todos las nubes arremetiendo furiosas en el
pantano del cielo. Una tropilla verde piafando hasta la
tusa en los rios del delirio. Esta es la nieve inmensa
repartida como el pan en la mesa de Dios y el sol
azul. Este es el Sur de la gloriosa tempestad, un
remolino puro sobre las islas Huichas, predio final del
hielo y de la flor herida colgando del abismo con sus
alas de sangre. Esta es la piedra antigua y el paramo
inicial del ultimo huemul tierno y salvaje.
This is Patagonia of infinite Land and Water
riven by a torrent of love, navigating a
single miracle-swollen river. It is all the love
whispering in one's heart, a transparent Universal rider
careering over the Southern Cross. Patagonia like
a blind horse galoping through the dead weights
of night. Every cloud spurred on furious in the
marsh of the sky. A green bird singing to the last
in the rivers of delirium. This is the immense snow
shared out like the bread on God's table and the sun
crying alight above the solitude of the same blue forest.
This is the South of the glorious storm, a
pure whirlwind above the Huicha isles, the last estate of
ice and of the wounded flower clinging to the abyss with
its bloodied wings. This is the age-old rock and the first
bleak plateau of the last tender and wild huemul.

All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys. And I like to think that our brains have an information system giving us our orders for the road, and that here lie the mainsprings of our restlessness. At an early stage man found he could spill out all this information in one go, by tampering with the chemistry of the brain. He could fly off on an illusory journey or an imaginary ascent. Consequently settlers naively identified God with the vine, hashish or a hallucinatory mushroom, but the true wanderers rarely fall prey to this illusion. Drugs are vehicles for people wo have forgotten how to walk.

Actual journeys are more effective, economic and instructive than faked ones. We should tread the steps of Hesiod up Mount Helicon and hear the Muses. They are certain to appear if we listen carefully. We should follow the Taoist sages, Han Shan up Cold Mountain in his little hut, watching the seasons go by, or the great Li Po -- "You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts were idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of men."

Bruce Chatwin, from an essay, The Nomadic Alternative, in The Anatomy of Restlessness.
The Osorno volcano near Puerto Varas, in the Chilean Lake District

After Raleigh, I ventured north up the Carretera Austral to Chaiten, a twelve hour bus ride stuffed with glaciers, snow-capped peaks, lakes and too many stops. From there I took another bus and entered the realm of Pumalin Park. Pumalin is the park-dream of West Coast millionaire Doug Tompkins. Over the last decade, he has bought up a thousand square miles of Patagonian wilderness at a cost of around $15 million. His land harbours some of the last remaining temperate rainforest -- cold, wet jungle -- in the world.

At Caleta Gonzalo, he has established a tourist complex replete with restaurant, campsite, lodges, trails and arts and crafts shops.

View across Renihue Fjord
View from cabana
Cabana interior
Detail of bed base
Low tide in the fjord All the cabañas are beautifully finished. Walls painted matt blues, greens and ivories combine with wholemeal-coloured bedspreads. Attention to detail is acute. Note the animals carvings processing two by two along the bed bases.
Swingbridge on one of the trails
Information panel on the Alerce Trail

Four trails have been cut into the surrounding forest. Swingbridges ford milky turquoise rivers while didactic information panels tell you about the forest's natural history.

Although the scenery is stunning, the welcome warm and the food excellent, it rains menageries most of the time...

An article about the park is at the excellent Planeta site, and also on Sustainable A version was published in the June issue of New Law Journal in the UK, and another appeared in Venezuela's English-language newspaper, The Daily Journal, in July 2000. Global Adventure magazine published another version of the article in 2002.

Diary Extracts -- bus from Chaiten to Futaleufu:
Old man with his hand on his guitar's neck, Popeye Doyle hat perched on his head. Pencil thin moustache above a mouth whose lower lip he chewed remorselessly. Three stooges in the back. One on left's face was thinner at the brow than it was at the jaw, with deep inset eyes which were crossed. Man in middle glared at me with sunken, sullow cheeks and sad eyes. One on right was podgy, cheeks pink above his moustache. The indent between his mouth and chin was so deep it was dark. He slept most of the journey. Another man boarded. I don't think he was drunk, but he had the air and gait of someone who spends most of their time stupefied. He kept showing me the photo of this young woman, and rubbing it between his fingers like a talisman. Wonder how long it will last.

When he was at school at the height of the Cold War, Chatwin and his friends formed an Emigration Committee. They poured over maps and atlases for the safest place to be in the event of a nuclear holocaust. They finally pointed their no doubt ink-stained fingers at the "quaint tail of the South American continent".

Post Pumalin, I headed back south along the Carretera, and then west towards the Argentine border to the town of Futaleufú. Having read a short story, The Estate of Maximilian Tod, by the British author Bruce Chatwin not included in his famous travel book In Patagonia, I wanted to find the "lost" valley which is mentioned in the story. I'm not sure whether I found it.
Waiting for my bus...
I'd listened to all my tapes backwards. I'd forgotten to pack more books and was forced to re-read the ones I had over and over. One sentence in particular stung me. At the end of In Patagonia, Chatwin finds the cave where his Uncle Charley discovered the piece of prehistoric mylodon skin which spurred his trip. He scrabbles about amongst the rocks and stones until, on the verge of giving up, he finds a few strands of coarse reddish hair he recognises. He remarks in his inimitable pithy prose: 'I had accomplished the object of this ridiculous journey.'
My notebooks were full of scribbles, my books scarred with underlining and exclamation marks, my head heavy with obscure facts about nomads. I'd found the valley, done my research, taken the photo, proved my point. At that moment though, my journey felt no less ridiculous than Chatwin's.

What I did find was a beautiful lake basking in a warm microclimate where a Jolly Green Giant of a man, Anibal Vallejos, runs a campsite and lodges. He takes people on horse rides up in the mountains and fishing on the lake by his house. The account of my search for the lost valley and my research into Chatwin's writing was published in the South American Explorer magazine in the US in their Winter99 issue. More photos here.

Lago Espolon at dusk

Researching Chatwin in Esquel, Argentina:
Having walked the main street and found nothing, I waited for an old man to finish his conversation before asking "I have a bit of a strange question, but..." He had a grey flat cap, handsome features with a white moustache tinged ochre and a long grey cardigan over a shirt and tie. He seemed quite thrown by my question and rubbed his chin staring vaccously at me. When I mentioned the penguin jugs, a penny dropped and a little later he said "Well, there was a restaurant called El Penguino on the main street. It was there," he pointed to a two storey building, "but that was a while ago now." Chunk. His memory seized again. "I'm old you know," he chuckled. I'd told him I was French to avoid any nationalistic outbursts. "Au revoir," he said with a flourish, as he waved me off.
I went into the only restaurant open on the street. A grand affair with acres of darkly-stained wood. Kate Bush wafted over the clientele and a bonsai Christmas tree blinked several colours of tack. No, it wasn't El Pinguino.

'The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and teach us that we should ever be in motion.' Robert Burton (1577-1640)


Raleigh International
Pumalin Foundation:
In the US: T 1-415-771-1102 F 1-415-771-1121
In Chile: T 56-65-25-00-79 F 56-65-25-51-45
Travel Information for Pumalin Park
More on Pumalin:
Outside magazine
Carretera Austral (tour operator in Chaiten)
La Casa de Campo - Hosteria y Camping (Anibal Vallejos), Futaleufu, Palena (X): T 56-65-31-46-58
Austral Adventures
(boat trips from P Montt south): T & F 56-2-735-6224.
Al Sur Expediciones (kayaking, hiking in and around P Montt): T & F 56-65-232-300.
Aerohein (Flights from Coyhaique to LSR): T & F 56-67-232-772 or 56-67-252-177
CONAF (Chilean Forestry Service and Parks Authority): In Coyhaique 56-237-070. In Santiago 56-2-69-666-77
Chile Information Project (CHIP)
Chile Sustentable

Recommended reading:

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
Anatomy of Restlessness, Bruce Chatwin
Patagonia Revisited, BC and Paul Theroux
Travels in a Thin Country, Sara Wheeler
Luis Sepulveda, Full Circle
Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin
Of Love and Shadows, Isabel Allende
Idle Days in Patagonia, W.H. Hudson
Canto General, Pablo Neruda
Antologia Poetica, Gabriela Mistral
A Nation of Enemies
, Constable and Valenzuela
Trekking in the Patagonian Andes,
Lonely Planet
Chile Handbook, Footprint

Eco Travels in Chile

"Taking photographs is to place the head, the eye and the heart in the same line of sight." Henri Cartier-Bresson



All material on all sites (unless otherwise stated) is © 1998-2006 Dominic Hamilton
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