Lost in Patagonia

Five years ago today, I embarked upon an adventure.

It wasn't until my bus dropped me off at a bend in the road in the middle of Patagonia, and I was the only one to get off, that I realised this wasn't exactly a tourism hotspot.

Now I really had left Gringoland, that tourist-friendly urban face of South America. This was the real Patagonia: a land of soaring peaks and glacial gorges, raging rivers and impenetrable forests, howling storms, desolate plains and lustrous lakes. The uttermost end of the Earth.

I began walking, past the last artefacts of human habitation - the odd ramshackle hut and rusting farm machinery. My only living companions the seemingly feral groups of cattle that weaved their way between the beech trees. Before long I'd reached a river crossing, where pleasant gurgles mingled with the ominous buzz of mosquitoes. Sudden stabbing pains indicated an involuntary blood donation to the local ecosystem, despite layers of repellent that made me smell like an incident in a chemical factory.

By late afternoon I reached the campsite, or rather I reached a sign with a picture of tent and the word 'Campo'. But no tents. Maybe my fellow campers were just behind me? So I occupied a desirable riverfront location and
waited for company. None came. I crawled into my sleeping bag wondering: is this trail closed? Or have I got lost?

Doubts grew the next morning when I awoke to the sound of hooves. I opened my tent to find a gaucho (cowboy) outside, mounted on a gigantic brown horse.
He looked agitated. Hespokeveryquickly. In Spanish. I think.
I smiled dumbly, "Lo siento, yo no comprendo."
He wore the exasperated familiar to parents of small children everywhere and repeated his question a bit louder. But he might as well have been explaining how differential gearboxes work. I was baffled. And slightly concerned that what he might actually be saying is: 'Get off my land'.

Tension rose. I noticed the pistol on his hip. Suddenly, a breakthrough! A word I recognise; he's looking for his cows! And I point him towards the nearby creek. He beams happily and canters off to find his charges. Leaving me to wonder why locating cows was never discussed in any of my S
panish classes.

I packed up and hit
the trail again. This time the direction was up. Several hours and an ice-choked pass later, I was sitting on a precipitous ridge beneath the titanic basalt turrets that give Cerro Castillo - 'Castle Mountain', its name. From my rocky throne I surveyed the glacier and the raging river far below. My own private Patagonia. Population of my kingdom: 1.

That night I camped beneath the mountain's formidable walls. It was colder here, more exposed, with only wind-stunted trees for shelter. By dusk the skies were battleship grey and the wind was gusting, but I easily fell asleep inside my sleeping bag's warm cocoon.

At midnight, my cosy tent became a haunted house. I awoke in absolute primeval blackness, a shrieking wind battering my flimsy walls as the tent-poles creaked and groaned. And then the rain came. I finally fell asleep and dreamt of a galleon in a storm.

By dawn, it was obvious the tent was one strong gust away from catastrophic structural failure. So much for a lie-in. I packed hurriedly, made myself weatherproof and quickly dismantled the tent before the weather did it for me. I had breakfast hiding amongst stunted bushes. The glamour of adventure tourism.

My way out involved a treacherous climb over boulders slick with rain, high above a mesmerisingly beautiful turquoise laguna. The final icy pass was so slippery it resembled walking up a bobsleigh run.

At the top I drank in the view, on the other side I looked down a precipitous scree slope.
It was very steep. It reminded me of That Slope, the one I recklessly mountain biked down in New Zealand. The one where I learnt that when crashing, it's always best to try to steer into something soft.

I consulted my guidebook, hoping to find mention of a secret shortcut or a magic doorway to a taverna with an open fire, but it was unequivocal: descend the scree to a bare rocky ridge. No mean feat, the gale-force wind and loose scree underfoot conspired to make me wobble like a jelly in an earthquake. And it was a long way to tumble.

Despite being wind-blasted by rain, hail and grit, and several heart-stopping slips, I reached the ridge, where a new problem became apparent. Out here, there wasn't much to distinguish path from wilderness, and I was relying on the presence of cairns. Unfortunately, the cairns were becoming ever more tumbledown, until now they had become indistinguishable from random trailside rubble. My trail had petered out and my only map looked like it had been hand-drawn from the space shuttle through
binoculars.

Lost in the sheeting rain, with team morale dipping, I crouched behind a boulder for an emergency chocolate break. Despite the water dribbling off my nose, I was soon laughing at the ridiculousness of my situation.
What's that?
The chocolate must have granted me superpowers; beyond - I saw footsteps in the mud, heading down the valley. I decided to follow.

The footsteps led down to the treeline, and into a dead end. There, the footsteps became random and erratic. I recognised this pattern: it's called being lost. I looked around nervously, half-expecting to find skeletons of long-lost backpackers.

Good sign: no bodies; if they got out - so could I. Now too tired to climb back up the valley, my rudimentary map did 'suggest' that somewhere in the spooky misty forest ahead lay a path back to civilization. So be it.

The subsequent log clambering, stream wading, mud squelching and bush-bashing were exhilaratingly terrifying. Each footstep was taking me deeper into the wild, either I found this path, or I was really, really lost.

What was I doing here?

When I finally stumbled across that lonely trail 20 minutes later, I'd found my answer.
I was writing a new scene in the screenplay of my life.
I threw off my pack and celebrated ecstatically.
Make sure your life makes a great movie.

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