Fraser Island is a considerably sized sand Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Some say it is the biggest sand island in the world (and some find meaning and significance in hierarchising anything and eveything).
I set off for my six-day, 90 Kms, hiking adventure on Fraser Island from mid-winter Melbourne. Queensland is warm all year round, which is disastrous for human perspicacity but is ripe for hiking. Hiking on Fraser island is best in the winter as 1) there are fewer tourists, 2) the snakes are asleep, and 3) your brain doesn’t boil in the heat (it is a mild 24 degrees Celsius). I flew into Brisbane, then hopped on a small aircraft with two propellers to go to Hervey Bay.
Hervey Bay is geographically bright, but culturally grey. A go-to climate-fantasy for captive Modernists escaping from Modernity by creating an even worse version. I checked into my Air BB in a laconic ‘Queenslander’ (a type of wooden house on stilts), then went for a walk along the boulevard of mistaken dreams. I had dinner in an obese fish-and-chip shop, a pint of Guinness in a grim gambling den masquerading as a sports-bar, then walked back to the ‘Queenslander’ for a laconic night’s sleep.
At the crack of dawn, I was on the ferry to Kingfisher Bay, a quick 40-minute ride across to the Island. The ferry master discussed the European history of the island through a tedious frontier narrative; the stuffed dingo toys for sale at the bar were a lot more intrepid.
As soon as I disembarked, I started walking, eager to escape from the 4-wheel drives full of families with babies inviting to be devoured by the dingos. It is illegal to feed the dingos on Fraser Island, there is a $10,000 fine, however it isn’t illegal for the dingos to eat the babies as dingos aren’t legal persons under Australian law.
Day 1: The first day I walked from Kingfisher Bay to Lake McKenzie. This was easy walk along wide, sandy paths through scrubby bushland. There is a beautiful wooden pier on the way, and thankfully, I didn’t meet any other people. I really wanted to do this walk by myself, to experience solitude and refection, to read in the evening, and listen to the birds. Admittedly I was feeling a bit dark before I left, but the life in the Fraser Island rainforests buoyed a starved Modern soul.
Lake McKenzie is special; a large fresh-water lake in the middle of the forest. I pitched my tent in the well-equipped camp site surrounded by a hysterical dingo fence, then went for a swim in the beautiful lake. In the evening I watched Netflix on my phone (pre-downloaded) and listed to ABC Radio. It was pitch-black dark by about 5.30PM, so luckily I bought an excellent re-charge battery for long, lonely evenings in the tent.
Day 2: From Lake McKenzie to the utilitarian named ‘Central Station’ was an easy stroll. I stopped and had lunch at the deep Basin Lake, fringed by reeds and home to frogs and freshwater turtles. I walked through the rainforest with towering trees, banksia woodlands, melaleuca wetlands, and eucalyptus. Just before Central Station, there is a spectacular sandy creek traversed by the meandering wooden walking trail. The walkers camp was in the middle of a rain forests that rained. I set up camp, hydrated my dinner, and settled in for the night.
Day 3: From Central Station to Lake Wabby was a very long way, and I welcomed the physical challenge as the past could of days had been pedestrian. I walked through the vast rainforest with mammoth trees, and I still hadn’t met anyone on the path, which suited me fine. I set up near Lake Wabby, then walked to the lookout. Lake Wabby is beneath a giant ‘sand blow’; the sand island fights the trees, attempting to reclaim the island.
Day 4: Lake Wabby to the Valley of the Giants was again a very long day, but I wasn’t weary. It is amazing what you can achieve when you are a little bit scared. I walked through the central high dunes, cloaked with open eucalypt forests and woodlands. Most of the day was through the cool, dense rainforest with a cacophony of birds, and the odd ray of sunlight shining through the canopy.
The Valley of the Giants walking camp was deserted like all the other places I had camped; just me and my post-apocalyptic fantasies. The camp is within a forest of giant satinay and tallowwood trees. I set up camp, and walked about, too scared to stop in case the existentialist catch me.
Day 5: After deep sleep, I made some strong coffee, then walked through inspiring stands of brush box, satinay trees and never-ended cool rainforest of piccabeen palms, and kauri pines. Lake Garawonga was a handsome lake, big, bold and fresh, like Lake McKenzie. I set up camp but was starting to feel a bit Kurtz, the horror, the horror. I could smell the soul-eating Modernists close by, ready to take me back into their prison.
Day 6: The last days’ walk was the easiest of the hike, and I was in the village of “Happy Valley” (which was neither), by noon. I found the local bar, bought some deep-fried, salty fat chips and beer, and waited for my 2.45PM ‘taxi’ back to Kingfisher Bay to catch the ferry. The taxi (a 4-weel drive) cost me a reluctant $160 but was worth the expense. It took about an hour to drive back to Kingfisher with a number of embarrassing piss-stops. The driver told me stories of nubile attracted dingos and that there were only 200 on the island (there must be at least eight warning signs for every dingo).
I arrived back at Hervey Bay at dusk and rested before my flight back to Melbourne the next day. A great winter hike and Queensland has a whole series of ‘great walks’ similar to this. I am looking forward to discovering the others.
Uluru is a massive rock in Central Australia. Some say it is
the biggest rock in the world; some say many things. I was a bit sceptical to
see Uluru at first as it reeked of ‘’ínstrumental tourism’’, a place defined by
the outcome rather than the journey (in teaching we call this “constructive
So, I started the ‘’unaligned’’ journey in Fitz-Roy (the illegitimate centre of Australia), rented a car in Coburg, strapped in my wonderful co-pilot Paul Sebastian Garate Peralta from Cuenca in Ecuador, and set off for The Rock. I had done some superficial research before I left, so I knew it was a very long way, and that it was hot, but both these things are comfortably intangible until you actually live them.
Day one: Port Fairy
The first day we drove along the coast to Port Fairy, a bucolic,
old village a few hours from Melbourne. We didn’t want to overdo it on the
first drive; to ease our way into the dawn-to-dusk driving essential in the
never-ending Outback. The Victorian
coast along the Great Ocean Road is gorgeous; long white beaches, sandstone
cliffs, and roads languidly winding through the forest. The problem is that the
Great Ocean Road attracts many ‘’urban modernists’’ that find anything other
than straight-lines confusing; 60 KMH becomes 20 KMH, break lights gleam
through corners, and turn-out bays for slow-drivers are ignored in favour of a robotic
industrial rigidity that holds everyone back.
Thus, a 300 KM journey took most of the day, and we didn’t arrive in Port Fairy until early in the evening. We pitched a tent in a well-serviced caravan park (caravan parks n Australia are usually pretty high standard with lush grass and free bar-b-ques) and took-off to the local pub for beers and pool.
Day two: Adelaide.
We perhaps drank a little too much on the first night, and I had a restless sleep, so I was tired, grumpy, and thus worried about how well-equipped I was for a full day driving. Still, after a bucket of espresso and some breakfast, I felt a lot better, and the stretch of road from Port Fairy to Adelaide was again gob-smacking with a lot less timorous urban modernists attempting to drive so we covered a lot more kilometres.
The highlights of the day were the township of Robe, and Coorong National Park, a thin strip of coastline with untouched beaches and an abundance of sea-life including Pelicans and giant fibreglass lobsters. We stayed in an Air BB this evening, in a rambling, dilapidated house in a no-where suburb of Adelaide and had a good nights sleep, but I was a little nervous about the long drive ahead to Coober Pedy, the start of the Australian Outback.
Day Three: Coober Pedy
From Adelaide to Coober Pedy is a very long way and fortuitously our eccentric Air BB host gave us a large flask of black coffee, which was effortlessly drunk by the first stop in Port Germein. The road out of Adelaide hugging St Vincent and the Spencer Gulf is pretty grim, a sort of battle between provisional Australian modernity and arid desert flatland. Still, Port Germain had a dignified sense of decline, and the longest pier I have ever seen. And it was beginning to get hot, very hot, a harbinger of the apocalyptic Christmas heat-wave we were driving into.
We arrived in Coober Pedy early in the evening to witness the sun-set over the hotch-potch Opal mining town with the ant hill landscape beyond. Like many hotels and houses in Coober Pedy, our accommodation for the evening was under the ground to escape the Martian heat. Our motel keeper was straight out of Wolf Creek (a reference lost on my Ecuadorian companion). We had to wander around a few dark mine shafts before we found our room, which was literally a hole in the ground. But still, we had a wonderful nights sleep, and I would recommend sleeping in holes to anyone.
Day four: Uluru (Xmas Day)
This was the toughest day of driving as it was the longest distance across the somnambulant plains of the Australian Outback. The highlight of the day was nothing, thousands of kilometres of nothing, the happiest place on earth as there is no need to compare yourself to anyone else (except that Wolf Creek bloke in Coober Pedy, he was a bit scary).
We stopped at a rustic, deserted truck stop for Xmas dinner of ham and salad wrap and a bottle of red. It was apocalyptically hot, around 42 degrees Celsius, but this didn’t seem to matter as our first Outback Xmas was pretty special, a long way from Santa Claus.
We arrived at the Uluru resort early in the evening, pitched a tent, and drove the twenty kilometres to The Rock. Seeing Uluru for the first time is dreamlike; most world icons are pretty banal once packaged by consumers, but not Uluru, there is awe-room for the instrumental tourists as well as everyone else. We got as close as we could and had a picnic of supermarket roast chicken and red wine and met a cute young couple from France and Ireland and watched The Rock change colour at sunset (from bright orange to ochre to brown).
Day five: Uluru
This day was a rest day, at least in terms of driving. We had found ourselves in the middle of an extreme temperature heat-wave in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Thus we were up at 6AM as the temperature was in the 40s Celsius by 11AM (and the park rangers close many of the walking tracks because of the heat). We did the four-hour walk around the rock which was pretty special as there are lots of informative signs about the importance of certain aspects of The Rock to various aboriginal peoples. I particularly liked the way in which climbing The Rock hasn’t been completely banned by the Aboriginal owners, even though it would be easily achieved. It is left to the individual to decide; thus it becomes a reflective choice and ‘virtue ethic’ which is a much more powerful learning experience than merely banning Modernity.
Day six: The Olgas
The Olgas are another weird rock formation close to Uluru. Today was hotter than hell, so we were up early morning to do the Valléy of the Winds walk (or the Valley of heat with no wind walk). I liked the Olgas even more than Uluru, there were fewer people, it was more scruffy, and the few tourists that were there mysteriously knew where to stop on the track; their leash only stretches so far I suppose. We sauntered past them and did the complete Olga circuit with my broken hiking shoe flapping, aggressive blow-flies buzzing, and the big-heat sucking at my body. It was one of the best short walks I have ever done.
In the afternoon when the Venus temperature reached 462 Degrees Celcius, we went to a unimaginative
bar called The Outback and drank beer, played pool and chess, and sat in front
of a giant fan that didn’t help in the slightest.
Day seven: King’s Canyon
The drive to King’s Canyon from Uluru is a long one, about four hours of arid, shrubby land. The Outback is not really a desert, it is dry and scorching, but there are many forests and shrubs and waterholes for animals to quench their thirst. The moving sand-dune type of desert in South America and Africa is quite rare in Australia, with most of the vast interior of Australia covered in sparsely wooded and grassed planes.
We pitched our tent at the King’s Canyon campground that was
virtually deserted; the Outback is too hot for most people this time of
year. We spent the afternoon in the one
and only pub for about 500 KMS and escaped the heat with chess, pool and beer
into the early evening. During the night some Dingos decided to have a
howling-match, metres from our tent (and I wondered if Dingos only take
Day eight: King’s Canyon
Today we woke at the crack of dawn and made our way to King’s Canyon. The circuit walk was challenging in the heat, but spectacular; the track has an initial steep climb and then meanders its way around the canyon edge with rich ochre outcrops of rocks and desperate plants clinging for their life. When it rains, waterfalls cascade into the gorge, which seemed hard to believe in the height of Summer. Deep in the gorge is a long, dissident waterhole that attracts all sorts of in-the-know bird-life whose calls echo on the steep walls of the canyon.
Day nine: Alice Springs
The next day we went to Alice Springs. There was a shorter route to Alice Springs from King’s Canyon, but like many roads in the Northern Territory, it required a 4 Wheel Drive vehicle and our city car may have fallen into a pothole and disappeared. So six hours later we arrived in Alice Springs, to a cute 1970s caravan in the desert about 14 KMS outside of the Alice. The caravan was a welcome reprieve from camping for the past 5 nights (thanks Air BB). In the evening we explored Alice Springs which is an ugly Modern town wrestling with the environment (it is no Palm Springs). Still, it has some pretty good supermarkets and air-conditioned malls where most of the population congregate to escape the heat. We purchased some steak and beer and went back to the caravan and settled in for the evening.
Day ten: Alice Springs (New Year’s Eve)
Today was one of the few days on the trip that didn’t involve driving (or so we thought). Our Air BB host had suggested a water hole for swimming, the fabulous Ellery Creek Big Hole, which ended up being 80 KMs away (a short distance in these parts). The drive to the hole and swimming in it took most of the day, which didn’t seem to matter as the hole was worth the drive and a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat.
In the evening (N.Y.E.) we went to the nasty Lasseters
Casino (only because I had seen it in the movie, Priscilla Queen of the
Desert), and then a cheesy Western Style bar, which was the only two options in
town it seemed. But as we were staying
14 KMS outside of town, we didn’t drink much alcohol, and instead got some
takeaway beer and went back to the caravan which seemed the sensible thing to
do given the hostile appearance of the local constabulary.
Day eleven: Coober Pedy (again)
The drive back home seemed daunting, and for the first two days, we were covering the same territory. But 10 KMS effortlessly turned into 100, and 100 turned into 1000, and before we knew it, we were in the same underground room in the same motel. The same Wolf Creek bloke greeted us, and in the evening, we explored the Mad Max town relishing in the post-apocalyptic future.
Day twelve: Laura
The road from Coober Pedy to somewhere else is tough; it is
flat, dull, with few distractions except for moments of lucid self-reflection (and
But if there was one thing that made the long-drive home worth it, it was the pleasant town of Laura in South Australia. It has a grand, broad, and laconic main street straddled by shops in various degrees of decline. We stayed in a stately old stone house with tastefully decorated rooms (and air-conditioning). We bought a bottle of wine from the local pub, some fish from the supermarket, and cooked up a feast. This was the first genuinely comfortable place we had stayed in the whole journey (again, thanks Air BB).
Day thirteen: Dimboola
The drive from Laura to Dimboola was a leisurely one, the B-roads along the Clare Valley are winding and uneven, passing through many towns with slow speed limits (and places to buy coffee and cakes). It took most of the day to get to an A road and back into Victoria.
We arrived into Dimboola in the Wimmera region of Victoria early evening and pitched a tent under a tree and a noisy flock of cockatoos near the Wimmera River. We then sauntered to the legendary Victoria Hotel. This vast expanse of Victorian splendor has an overly friendly front bar and a dining room in the rear along with a warren of rooms bursting with Victorian bling. It has a huge veranda overlooking the town claiming its place as the most essential institution for miles around.
We had a shepherds pie with chips and salad and a beer or
two or three before we made it back to the cockatoos.
Day fourteen: Fitzroy
The last three or four hours back to Fitzroy were tough as I was tired and the driving had lost its adventure. It was an A to B sort of a drive, instrumentalism again wasting my time. We arrived back home to Fitzroy (the centre of Australia) in mid-afternoon.
Overall, it was a great introductory adventure to the Outback, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes litres of coffee, and I am looking forward to driving the Oonadatta Track or Birdsville tracks one day soon.
The transition back into Melbournian and Australian life after a long hiatus is a particularly exciting time. It is a time of ‘renovation’ with renewed acumen, of putting new-found perspectives and confidences to the fore and weaving new paths through Modern life that all-too-often celebrates and rewards the regularity and predictability of well-managed lives versus the synthesis and judgment of well-lived ones. Perspectives are not given, they are earned, and genuine travel is never a diversion from a centre, but a movement towards a core.
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
― George Moore, The Brook Kerith
I started this journey just over one year ago and in a pragmatic sense, all worked out fine. I returned with the same small backpack that I left with and apart from an expensive mobile phone snatched in Kolkata, and a much-loved Kindle carelessly dropped from my motorcycle in Colombia, I survived for the entire year with the same stuff (see: ‘How to pack for a ‘minimalist’ one year journey). The important lesson here is travel as lightly as possible, with high-quality gear, as travel is one of many contexts where more is not value (just like Café Lattes!).
To be invisible, paint yourself with the direct shade of zero. Leave nothing to chance, by taking nothing with you wherever you go.
― Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not FOR SALE
I visited thirteen countries in twelve months and pretty much followed the loosely sketched route that I originally fashioned (but I never considered that the majority of the time would be spent on a tiny 125 cc motorcycle!). (see: my Itinerary on Google docs). Itineraries are mostly subjective, and unless you understand yourself (and your inner android), you have little chance of discovering the world around you with your own eyes. For instance, people from ‘lots of geography, no culture’ sort of mindsets tend to fly vast distances in airplanes while missing all the good bits in-between. It’s like picking up a book by Dostoyevsky, reading the title, taking a selfie with the book, and then claiming an insight into 19th Century Russian literature. Travel is as much about unlearning as it is about learning and it is not always about where you go, but what you take with you (or do not take with you) that counts.
A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from
― Lin Yutang
On the meta-scale, I constructed my itinerary around old paths and new, meaning that the first four months of the journey I visited seven countries that I had visited before and the last eight months I visited six new countries. I have not fully reflected upon what this meant in practice, but re-visiting a country during key junctures of your life is tremendously rewarding on a number of levels. It reminds you that not only do countries change over time, but perspectives change. Countries are largely ‘imagined communities’ and if you do not understand your community and how it and you travel through space and time, you have little chance understanding how others do.
Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
In terms of visiting a country for the first time, this is perplexing as like a child you have to wade clumsily through all the bad bits before you get to the good bits (and South America has a lot of bad bits!) Countries are inductive, not reductive, meaning that you need to go to them and move through them to discover how they embrace or resist the world (in a holistic sense, not just via lazy symbols like the Sydney Opera House or the London Eye or trophy skyscrapers in the Middle East). And whilst you are doing this, perhaps you will not only learn something about that particular country but un-learn something about your ‘inner android’ in the process
I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses. ― Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
One year is an incredibly long time to travel, much longer than I assumed at the beginning of the journey. This is because while doing equivalent things, year-in-year-out, years may seem flavourless and similar and of the same long stretch of highway. It is like traveling across the Australian Nullarbor desert, looking out the window at a landscape that does not appear to change. A hundred kilometres looks like the past one hundred and each new day looks like the previous day.
But a year of traveling is like no other as each and every day is full of challenges, such as finding food and shelter, discovering interesting things to do, building common ground with strangers and continually improving the skills and motivations required to enter into geographical and cultural contexts bigger than oneself. Concerning ‘un-learning’, one year is just about right as one never actually un-learns until about eight months into a journey. This is the time that the imagined communities that we inhabit (with their android views of ‘the other’) are well and truly behind us, and then we can finally discover the world with fresh eyes and a clear intellect.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
― Marcel Proust
I learnt much about scale and distance during the past year as I did not use many airplanes which have become to travel what McDonald’s has become to food! I love walking and at a conservative estimate, I must have walked over two-thousand kilometres in the past year. This includes walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, about 200 KMS, the Camino Portugués in Portugal/Spain, about 240 Kilometres, and the W Trek in Chilean Patagonia, about 80 KMS. Plus there were other, shorter one or multi-days treks in, for instance, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina and days upon days of rambling over the cracked and uneven pavements of major South American, European and Asian cities and towns.
Then there were trains, taxis, jeeps, buses and boats, but most importantly, there was an enduring Yamaha 125 cc motorcycle that hauled my ass twelve thousand kilometres for five unhurried months down the spine of the Andes from Santa Marta in Colombia to someplace near Santiago in Chile. Again, this may not seem like a long way in raw numbers, but remember this was through deserts and snow and over five thousand metre mountain passes, through the relentless winding valleys of Peru, the sweaty and sketchy Amazon, and on the isolated unsealed roads of Bolivia. I think one of the greatest takeaways I got from the journey is that the environmental world is as equally spectacular as the cultural one as it challenges, extends and motivates an individual in a similar, enduring way.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
― Gustave Flaubert
Traveling and reading go hand-in-hand and I read twenty-seven major books over the past year (download .pdf reading list). This may not seem like a lot, but books like Dostoyevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov took a slow reader like me eighty hours, or two weeks, to read! I am attracted to travelers that are well-read, and I think it is one of the best aspects of traveling (and indeed, it gave me something to do during long, lonely nights in dingy hotel rooms). Before I left, I asked many of my friends to suggest a favourite book to read and asked fellow travelers along the way as well. Many of the books I read had little to do with South America, such as Crime and Punishment, but then again had everything to do with a universal human condition.
Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.
― Anna Quindlen
The durability of my health was a surprise as I was lot healthier traveling for one year than I usually am during an average ‘industrial’ year (few colds and flues etc.). Plus I was in some pretty toxic and unhealthy environments where it was not always easy to find the healthy eating option. If it were not for inexpensive Menu del Dia for lunch (set menu), ubiquitous in South America, I would have returned emaciated and scraggy. I put good health down to exercise, regularly washing my hands, drinking lots of water, sunscreen and hat, but perhaps more importantly, my body’s adjustment to survival and the next fresh, physical challenge (I think you call this being alive!).
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. – Anonymous
Analogue guide books such as Lonely Planet are a component of the tired, stodgy and inflexible institutionalised aspect of ‘independent’ travel that should either innovate or die. I have much to say about traveling as a ‘digital humanist’, about how to sensibly apply digital communication tools to enhance twenty-first-century travel. But this deserves its own article that I will write at another date.
Consequently, I took approximately two-thousand photos during the year, wrote hundreds of pages in a digital journal, blogged weekly, and read dozens of e-Books coupled with numerous audiobooks (see photos on Flickr) A small four-hundred dollar tablet helped to sustain me throughout a very long and lonely year, and I am not sure what I would have done without it. Travels with Herodotus became travels with Samsung!
Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs, Susan Sontag
After one year of traveling, it was good to arrive at Mount Fitz Roy, the final destination of this thirteen nation adventure. A year is a long time to travel and those that tell you that the years get shorter as you get older, possibly need to get out of the house more often (i.e., it is a cliché dressing itself up as wisdom). It was good to have a final destination in mind, Mount Fitz Roy (as arbitrary as this was), as it kept something special for the end (and Mount Fitz Roy didn’t disappoint). Long term travel is all about sustainability and individuals have different strategies for sustaining themselves over long periods (and mine involved a hell of a lot of reading and writing and stopping in excellent places for extended periods of time, although I did get a lot grumpier as time passed, which is perhaps not so bad). Arguably those that cannot sustain themselves through Dostoyevsky, the Brothers Karamazov or visualise, plan and implement a large project over time, don’t make good long-term travelers thus, sadly, much of the world will remain inaccessible to them.
As a humanist, I travel at the speed of narratives, some many hundreds of years old, but many people travel at the rate of a text message or the rate of shallow reductive, hierarchical metrics (‘best little town in the world mate’), thus never leave the goldfish bowl which is the Modern airplane (and again the world has not got smaller people have got more miniature and banality is quite innovative in devising new transport and dissemination methods). Hyper Modernity (or excessive industrialisation) is just a period of history like any other and just like an episode of Delhi belly, it will pass and then a hundred flowers will blossom (well, hopefully before all the Patagonian glaciers melt or a hundred flowers will drown). And after you travel independently to fifty or more countries (and some many times), your perspective of the world changes in that cultural uniqueness and cultural interconnectedness becomes much clearer. When a young American backpacker says “Hi I’m Curtis from America” I think to myself, “How do you know?”
And thanks for sticking with me over the past twelve months while I blogged a weekly travelogue. I have never done this before, and only a few short years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. The last couple of months have been the most lonely and challenging but also the most rewarding regarding “leaving behind and renewal” (in the great Camino de Santiago pilgrim tradition). The highs and lows tend to get much more intense the longer you travel, and this is natural because Modern life tends to over-regulate what it is to be human. And the high of seeing Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina, of walking the four hours from El Chalten, was emotional and intense but didn’t feel like closing a narrative, but opening up a whole new one.
I’ll write a couple of more reflective posts after I return to Australia on Christmas day, but I’m not trying to sell the world to you as the world largely isn’t for sale, at least, the best bits aren’t (like Mount Fitz Roy). To be a truly independent traveler one must first know what controls and influences their thinking and one don’t have to go far to reach the outer limits of an Australian education!
For instance, in Patagonia there are hundreds of glaciers yet many of thousands of people only go to the glacier Perito Moreno in Argentina simply because it is easy (but expensive) to get to and dare I say (perhaps ungenerously), is famous in emergent “global trash” narratives (it is actually only a small piece of a much larger ice sheet or the tip of the iceberg so to speak). A little bit of effort would take the independent traveler deeper into Glacier National Park to see some other glaciers or even Grey Glacier in Chile. I simply looked up some of the millions of photos of Perito Moreno on the Internet and didn’t go as my presence would possible help to make the thing melt anyhow (Australians like Americans and Germans are the world’s filthiest, dirty, polluting people unlike the Bolivians and Bengalis whose teeth may need work but whose greater impact is small).
Anyhow, thanks for sticking with me over the past few months. Blogging an old-fashioned travelogue has been technically challenging in some of the bizarro places that I have been but also rewarding in that it forced me to engage with the location more thoroughly to try and make sense of it. And I have met some fantastic people along the way who have had some fresh, interesting, and innovative ways to see the world in a century where travel is rapidly becoming dull and commonplace.
Chile has a magnificent four thousand kilometers long coastline (and is less than two hundred kilometers wide in places), but similar to the other uber-urbanised countries of Canada and Australia, most of the population is crammed into either one or two vacuum-cleaned dormitory cities with itsy-bitsy people trying to stuff the whole world (and all their hard earnings) into their itsy-bitsy houses. The big, bad and colourful world just won’t fit so perhaps Chileans should relinquish part of their enormous coast back to Bolivia if they lack the political courage to put it to creative use. This is one of the world’s most geographically unique countries but just like the geography of Chile, us Moderns are so very, very narrow.
The metropolis of Santiago is only half way along the Chilean coastline, so I folded up my flaneurial legs and flew Economy on a one-trick pony the remaining two thousand kilometers to Punta Arenas, a town almost at the very bottom of South America (I have now traveled sixteen thousand kilometers from the Caribbean Coast at the very top of the continent). From Punta Arenas, I bused it to the barren, wind-swept town of Puerto Natales where I rented some zip-challenged camping gear, packed some yucky Modernist food, and set off on a four-day trek in nearby Torres del Paine, one of the great jaw-dropping National Parks of this forever-giving continent.
I did the famous “W” Trek in four days. It is called the W Trek simply because the route is in the shape of a W. It is about eighty kilometers long, is an easy to medium physical challenge and is well serviced by hostels and hotels, food facilities and hot showers. I did the route from West to East walking to Torres del Paine on the first day and Grey Glacier on the last day. It is possible to leave your heavy bags at the campsite during the morning of each day and walk to the three highlights of the trek, Torres del Paine, Frances Valley, and Grey Glacier and then return to your camp in the evening. On the last day at the end of the trek, there is an (expensive) one-hour ferry ride across a choppy fjord to connect to a ratty old bus that takes another two dusty hours to get back to Puerto Natales. The trek takes three to five days, and there is also a longer circuit trek that takes about nine days.
After many months in the Andes exploring Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, Santiago seemed a bit too much like home. A beautiful place to live but you wouldn’t want to travel there! It is a combination of American and socialist utilitarian modernism (same-same) that is almost impossible to distinguish from any other prosperous new-world city (at least on the meta, built-environment scale). Progress came at a great cultural cost to Santiago and its biggest crime against humanity is that it lacks imagination (although a night out on Pio Nono in Barrio Bella Vista lubricates the imagination).
But dig deep within the shopping malls, concrete and glass, the perfectly manicured parks full of consumers taking a five minute break between purchases, one might find a lonely Llama standing in line at Starbucks or riding the escalator to the menswear section, or searching for a parking spot for his Korean SUV, or drinking an iridescent energy drink. The Llama dreams of the mountains and valleys of Chile, of the ridiculously long coast, the hidden beaches and the fjords, of the time she danced in the Plaza del Ames and climbed the mighty valleys of the Andes.
The Llama, a flaneur, relentlessly walks the barren streets of Santiago, looking for a South America buried beneath the Guns, Germs, and Steel of progress, beneath the piles and piles of rubble the Llama searches for the remnants of a Chile long discarded.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up a house in The Heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and get to remain hidden from the world, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is the prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family.
From a Llama in Santiago
(or from C Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, 1863)
I recall an interview a few years ago with a well-known architect from the suburb of Fitzroy in Melbourne, Australia on a radio station in Venice, Italy from the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Fitzroy is where I started this journey, and soon it will end at Fitz Roy Mountain in Argentina). In certain circles, this particular architect isn’t held in high esteem and is often referred to as the ‘Butcher of Fitzroy’ because of his ugly, incongruous, modern apartment buildings (perhaps Melbourne should slap World Heritage status on its inner-city as many forward-thinking Bolivian, Peruvian, Chilean and Ecuadorian cities have done).
I was curious to hear what someone with the esteemious title of the Butcher of Fitzroy would have to say about Melbourne and Australia from Venice in Italy, one of the birthplaces of Modern Western civilisation. The Butcher was struggling with the questions from the interviewer and didn’t seem to understand the geographical context of the interview, namely Venice, a city perhaps a little too remote and strange to him to be worthy of referencing (and in need of a good renovation!). The Butcher somehow came to the subject of graffiti as Melbourne had an active graffiti scene about a decade ago which got hijacked by the City’s promoters and thus became part of narrow global-trash-narratives. Thus, the Butcher repeated the hackneyed statement that “Melbourne is the graffiti capital of the world!”.
This cringe-worthy statement grated out of my little radio in my room in Melbourne from Venice, perhaps the most elegant city in Europe (and ‘graffiti’ is an Italian word describing a practice invented in Italy, or, at least, ancient Rome). And graffiti isn’t a State so how can it have a capital? And it seems incongruous for graffiti, an autonomous and rebellious art form usually in opposition to the State to be conflated with political cities that are central to its institutional control. What a Bogan I thought to myself (a Bogan is an unsophisticated Australian prevent in all classes of society, not unique to Australia but common in many countries where economic development and cultural development are often at odds with one another such as Qatar, the Bogan capital of the world). Even if graffiti had a capital, how could it possibly be Melbourne, a comfortable and complacent city; a capital of Banality perhaps but certainly not graffiti.
In Valparaíso I reflected upon the Butcher of Fitzroy whilst wandering the steep streets with walls and houses covered with spectacular, confronting and uplifting street-art. The Butcher had obviously never been here and even if he had, he possibly wouldn’t have noticed it (and Valparaíso is protected by a UNESCO World Heritage overlay, so what some call progress isn’t so destructive).
I stayed in Valparaíso for two weeks, walking, eating, drinking, reading and thinking. As a port city, it reminded me of Fassbinder’s Querelle, a noir vibe with dodgy bars with lonely seamen. It is surrounded by forty-two hills, each hill forming a neighbourhood with dozens of funiculars carting women with their shopping and backpackers with their peculiar perspectives to the top. The funiculars are old and rickety and each quite different to one another, with at least one going under the ground.
I am now in Santiago, a large, modern developed city that looks like any other large, modern developed city. In fact half the Chilean population lives here, but more on that next…