I spend the past week doing the Menindee Lakes and Darling River run in the New South Wales Outback. It was my first serious Outback sojourn on the moto, but it wasn’t that serious, there are many other significant tracks to explore in Australia, but that would take another whole level of preparation, including expensive mods on the moto (and proper Outback tyres!)
The good thing about exploring NSW Outback currently is that it is relatively cool, there is lots of water about, and the Menindee Lakes are full, as are the rivers and wetlands. This is because of La Nina, the ‘big rain’ that comes after long dry periods. And with the big rain, come the birds and the wildlife and Outback becomes almost hospitable.
I stayed in Menindee for one night, camped on a beach next to one of the magnificent lakes. The best thing about Outback towns is the proud, worldly pub, such an important institution, and this is where I learned about the best roads to take and the best towns to visit.
I decided to do the Darling River Run, a 1000 KMS Outback road that follows the Darling River to Bourke and beyond. Outback roads have a volatile personality and can change at any time, lurching from calm to belligerent, from serene to egocentric. The road itself is an A-B type of road, and there is also no intersection with the river, only at the towns, which I found disappointing. Still, at ‘towns’ like Tilpa (one of the most isolated places I have ever been), there is a friendly Outback pub and plenty of places to camp on the river, as there are in other towns like Louth and Wilkania.
I think the thing I liked best about this trip was ‘nothing’, the vast panes of nothingness and solitude, which is unique in an epoch when it is difficult to be alone.
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
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 is 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
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.
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 Portugual 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.
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 Dostoyevskys 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.
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
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 Valparaso 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 Valparaso is protected by a UNESCO World Heritage overlay, so what some call progress isn’t so destructive).
I stayed in Valparaso 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…
The trip from Uyuni in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile was one of the more adventurous segments of the whole journey as the road was rough and unpaved, through remote Andean towns, past smoking volcanoes and over desolate, barren and lonely landscapes.
This would be the last ride on the moto as after five months, five countries and twelve thousand grueling Andean kilometers, riding over, around, and through one of the world’s great mountain ranges, it was time to move on to something different. Every day on a moto is a very special day; it is the love of life, not the love of fear.
San Pedro de Atacama was dull compared to Bolivia, modern, packaged, and processed full of sartorially challenged hedonists on vacation from some backwater of Modernity rather than dignified Andean ladies with short, waddling legs and in cool, timeless hats. The Bolivian desert is far more beautiful than the Chilean Atacama and Antofagasta regions, but if you haven’t been to Bolivia, you will never know the difference (and the desert doesn’t care).
From San Pedro de Atacama I went to Antofagasta, Caldera, and La Serena. Antofagasta is a down-beat mining town on the coast, Caldera is a dystopian-vacation-fantasy of shack-ridden emptiness. La Serena is somewhere in between, lubricated by Pisco Sour, a nice beach and vibrant public spaces (it is actually a large, sophisticated city).
And when it rains in the Atacama desert, “a hundred flowers blossom” bringing Maoists from all over the world to see the phenomenon. A good spot to see them is around La Serena, Caldera, Copiapo, or Vallenar in the southern Atacama.
I am now in ValparaÃso, a very special coastal city in the middle of Chile and quite close to Santiago (I will blog about ValparaÃso next). Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina, my final destination, is now only two thousand Andean kilometers away!