Wednesday 26 September 2012

Have you seen my latest film?

...I don't think it's going to win any Oscars - the acting's wooden and the main character is dry and gnarly...

It's a short interview with me, filmed at the Eden Project by GFI Media. They wanted me to talk about landscape restoration, particularly about the long trip I did through North and South America last year to explore spectacular landscape restoration projects. You may remember that the whole think was very kindly funded by the UK's Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Anyway, if you're interested, here it is!

Monday 18 June 2012

City of Good Air

I feel a sense of combined satisfaction, elation and sadness as the plane takes-off from Ushuaia’s over-sized airport on the first leg on my way back to a northern hemisphere winter, after two months’ journeying metaphorically and literally now turning my back on the sun.

El Fin del Mundo becomes submerged beneath a tide of dense, low cloud swallowing the dramatic black peaks I’ve come to recognize. Cloud dogs the flight all the way along the coast to Buenos Aires, save a small, transparent patch that allows a brief view of the distinctive geography of the whale-watching mecca of the Peninsula Valdes.
Departing Ushuaia - El Fin del Mundo

A slight climate shock follows as I arrive in the city’s warm, humid world of palm trees and other exotica. I’ve swapped a sub-Antarctic fractal landscape of mountains and tortuous coastlines for the regimented, angular urbanity of Buenos Aires.

I have only three more nights before my journey ends and I leave for home, family and Christmas. My immediate priorities, in order, are a hot bath, a grand dinner and a long sleep.

Afterwards, and as Christmas is just around the corner, I’m minded to stock up on appropriately Latino presents for the family, so set off on a walk. My hotel is only five minutes’ walk from the Casa Rosada (the Pink House) – a splendid pink building that is the seat of the government and houses the President’s offices outside which, in the Plaza de Mayo, temporary raked seating is being dismantled after the inauguration (or, re-inauguration) of the new President – Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The Plaza is dominated not only by the Pink House, but also by a huge flag of Argentina flapping gracefully behind a towering Christmas tree incongruously backed by palms.

Casa Rosada
Argentine Christmas

I like exploring so I saunter along the streets of central Buenos Aires for two days just to see what is around the next corner and in a vain attempt to find a book on Patagonian geology – you would think such an important part of the psyche of Argentine-Chilean culture and economy – oil, gas, coal, dinosaurs, volcanoes, earthquakes, glaciers – would be straight-forward. Alas, I tried eight good bookshops – no such book exists (if you know differently, please point me in the right direction!).

Negotiating one corner I tangentially join a political street protest – Argentine-style, with rhythmic drums and pan-pipes – the protestors sporting white and blue clothing. Paranoid I remember the internet travel advice to avoid political protests in case they turn ugly, so I dodge through the column half-expecting to be clobbered by a tear gas canister before being baton-charged or turned inside-out by a water cannon. I make it through, unscathed and relieved. From the street-side I pick-up one of the leaflets being distributed by the throng; it explains that they are the Sanitary Workers Association of Argentina. President Kirchner, just give them what they ask for – the alternatives are just too horrendous to contemplate!

Christmas is coming, and shop-window scenes of reindeers in snow and red-faced Santas complete with boots and hats, don’t chime with the high-twenties heat, while in the centre of the pedestrianized street, in the shade of young trees, street vendors display their wares –fine hand-crafter artefacts sit awkwardly alongside bizarre, head-banging cuddly toys. I don’t stop for fear of eliciting hard-to-escape and potentially expensive interest! Desperately trying not to catch the eye of the Captain Jack Sparrow mime artist atop a crudely painted treasure chest, I almost topple the nine-foot Santa on stilts looming over me. I slip into a bookshop on the pretence of searching for geology books – and watch only his legs pass by the shop window. I rest my over-heating brain.

Venturing out again, now in a more relaxed frame of mind, I decide on a mission to acquire family Christmas presents and enter the Galerias Pacifico Shopping Centre. Under its Sistine Chapel-esque ceiling I come face-to-face with a four-storey, conical Christmas tree quivering as waves of lurid colour pass over it with a real-life Santa in his grotto at its foot.

I have a rest on a park bench in the dappled shade of the feathery-leaved trees of the Plaza San Martin. I reflect on Buenos Aires: this city is certainly Latino, but its architecture expresses 1940’s Chicago with a Parisian twist and garnish of palm trees and parakeets. After some minutes I detect a light drizzle, but there are no clouds to be seen. Then, from an appropriate angle, I discern sap micro-droplets drifting down from the tree tops, presumably having passed first through an aphid or two!
Plaza San Martin

Rested, I head for the city water-front via the Torre de los Ingleses (the Tower of the English), so called because it was completed in 1916 by Buenos Aires’ English residents as a gift to Argentina to celebrate the country’s 1810 revolution, and symbolises friendship and the broad European influence of the city. After the Falklands War, the tower was renamed the Monument Tower and the square in which it sits was renamed the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina (Argentine Air Force Square) from the Plaza Británica (British Square).
Torre de los Ingleses/ Monument Tower

The estuary of the River de la Plata demarks the north-east border of Buenos Aires and Argentina. On the water-front I pass navy ships and square-rigged sailing ships and the buildings that administered immigration into the country from the Old World. There’s a ferry port to transport travellers to the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo – tempting, but now no time! The main warehouse district and docks are a combination of modern, high shiny buildings shimmering in the setting sun, opposite the dock-side, red-brick warehouses restored to fine eateries, pedestrian ways and the dinosaur-skeletons of spruced up old dockside cranes. Here, inadvertently, I have stepped into the restoration of an urban landscape where the geology is man-made and the ecology present by kind invitation. The restoration drivers seem to be cultural – tangibly based on preserving a sense of place and offering new opportunities for residents and visitors for recreation, hospitality-related jobs and residential areas, attracting people to stay in a place with the original purpose of high volume transit.

On the waterfront

On the dockside

It’s evening on the final night of my Chasing the Sun adventure. I climb the stairs to the roof of my downtown hotel. It’s not a classic sunset, but the modern water-front architecture weaves the mellow light into a synergy of nature and artifice, the moment made special by the brief illumination of a humming bird on a pot plant, here, six floors up in the urban jungle.

Downtown BA and my last sunset

My food obsession and the occasion determine an almost ritualistic, final slap-up meal in the excellent restaurant-cum-wine cellar of my hotel. I settle for the quintessential tastes of Argentina – an asado (roast lamb) accompanied by a bottle of rich, velvety Malbec. I am served by a fine waiter in a white apron and a black tie with the hair, facial structure and moustache of Borat.

As I sign-off on my journey all the elements seem to fit as I contemplate the extraordinary experiences and challenges of the last two months. I don’t think I am now the same person that set out on this journey; I feel inspired and, armed with new knowledge and motivation, am ready to try my best to “make a difference” – but I am also ready for home and my beautiful family – just in time for Christmas.

Over the last few months I have tried to share some of my travel experiences through this blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading it and, in some way, being a part of it. This blog is primarily concerned with the travel element of my journey. The landscape restoration projects that I visited and the related key learnings and conclusions from my journey are described in a separate report entitled, “Exploring World Class Landscape Restoration”. This will be available to download on my next blog posting in the near future. In the meantime, if you would like me to send you a pdf of the reduced image version of the report, please contact me at

Finally, I am currently writing a book of the whole experience that includes more of the fascinating stories of the people I met and the places I visited, combined with the story of the journey, threaded through with the uplifting examples of people working hard to improve their world. Let me if you want a copy – it should be available in a year to 18 months.

In the meantime: Cheers!

Friday 23 March 2012

El Fin del Mundo...

…is what they call this place at the tip of South America. Its main settlement, Ushuaia, is proclaimed as the southern-most city in the world – a (very long) stone’s throw from Antarctica. It’s also the furthest from home on my Churchill Travelling Fellowship travels, before the long trek home in a few days’ time.

Perched on steepening hillsides that emerge from the Beagle Channel to cloud-piercing Tolkien-esque peaks, the town is expanding rapidly. It does feel like the last frontier – like it and I shouldn’t really be here. I wonder how it looked when Darwin himself sailed up the Channel in the Beagle in 1835.

Exploring aimlessly the grid-pattern streets of the town, the population is a combination of locals and tourists, of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. The vast majority of Antarctic tourists embarks/ disembarks at Ushuaia, hence the enormous boats docked incongruously in the port. Unusually for my two-month journey, there are even some British people! The town’s buildings are a mixture of the old and the new. The old are generally one or two story buildings of corrugated metal or wood, often painted bright colours, with a preponderance of northern European architectural styles. The town centre’s newer buildings are typical of everywhere else you’ve ever been. A hint of wackiness reminds me I am still in Latin America as a splendidly decorated London double-decker bus turns the corner and rather gruesome graffiti converts bare walls into political messages I don’t understand. Dominating the western end of the water front is a powerful monument to Las Malvinas/ the Falkland Islands, with its own political message, back-dropped by yet another hideous casino.

Las Malvinas monument

The impressive Museo Penitenciario is the local museum housed in the old prison building, which was built as an isolated jail for Argentina’s 19th century undesirables. The prisoners’ old cells exhibit the natural history of the area and its fascinating – and not-that-distant – human history and its reliance on the sea, Antarctic exploration and of course, Las Malvinas/ the Falklands. Life-size prison guard replicas watch menacingly over the traipsing tourists. The star of the experience is really the eerie, empty, unrestored prison wing as cold, grey and damp, as it was when the last prisoner left.

I figure I need some exercise after weeks of sitting in every imaginable mode of transport, so leave Ushuaia behind and head into the mountains on foot towards the Cerro Martial glacier. The multi-hairpin road takes the edge off the gradient, but I probably expend as much energy anyway over the greater distance. I walk, again, through re-growing, once-flattened forests although parts of it are being squeezed tighter to the snow-line as the town moves inexorably uphill. I take a cable car part of the way up – purely for the view you understand – and scramble the rest of the way over snow-melt streams and steep banks of glacial moraines. I then climb on all fours, over ice and rock, to get to the very edge of the glacial stub, in a stupendous amphitheatre of geology. The Cerro Martial glacier has receded rapidly over the last century and is now hardly worthy of the name, its icy remnants gripping the precipitous rocky bed at the head of its now over-sized U-shaped home. Supersonic clouds zip over the peaks behind me blown by a wind that I can’t feel as I eat my empanada lunch seated on a rock in the sun. The view down the valley, over Ushuaia and for tens of miles along the Beagle Channel to the west and the mountains of the very tip of South America to the south, is spectacular. Occasionally thicker clouds turn the landscape monochrome and the thermometer drops by several degrees. I have a long and more challenging walk back due to my old rugby knee injury, but take the time to stock up with calories at the best cake house in South America – the Casa de Te.

U-shaped to Ushuaia then east along the Beagle


Departing Ushuaia for a day on the Beagle
The next day I venture out on a boat trip 85km westwards along the Beagle Channel to Estancia Harberton, which was established by descendants of Thomas Bridges who came to the area in the 19th century to protect the indigenous peoples from exploitation. It’s a full day’s sea travel, with two full days of weather, which changes markedly from benign but grey to squally showers and fierce winds. Our boat traces the invisible, wet frontier between Chile and Argentina, halting at various sites: the Faros les Eclaireurs lighthouse, southern sea lions/ fur seals, and, excitingly a colony of (mainly) Magellanic penguins. Our boat is deliberately beached so that intrepid tourists can snap photos like the Galapagos tourists I observed a few weeks ago – only with more insulation! OK penguins are cute, but to me the even more extraordinary site was the island where they hang out. The Isla Gable is about 8km east to west and almost crosses the entire channel. It is formed by the terminal moraine dumped at the snout of the stupendous glacier that gouged out the 105km long, 5km wide, 200m deep Channel (a terminal moraine marks the limit of glacier’s advance, where the rate of melting equals the rate of advance resulting in the rocky debris being deposited in the same spot, building up a ridge of rocky waste). A few miles beyond this is the wild South Atlantic Ocean and the direct route to Antarctica.

Estancia Harberton
Sailing back on our half-empty catamaran, the weather has turned considerably for the worse! I seek solitude on the deck – stung by icy sea spray driven by an Abrutat-flattening wind as a net curtain of dark grey showers are pulled across the Beagle Channel by the invisible hands of a southern gale. Streamers of sea froth whip up from a frenzied sea as wind and chop try to stymie us – to no avail – this is a good boat.

Ushuaia from the Beagle Channel

On the Channel, it dawns on me that this whole Latin American journey has not just been “Chasing the Sun”, nor even just an appreciation of James Bond (Rio de Janeiro, Everglades), but most importantly, and unwittingly, has traced the expeditions of Charles Darwin – a personal inspiration.

Back in calm waters

It’s my last evening in Patagonia after two and a half weeks and, despite the threatening clouds, I saunter outside to catch my last sunset. It’s not a classic, but stunning nevertheless as the low sunlight turns clouds into a spectrum of dark grey shades tinted faintly with purples, blues and pinks, over the wild mountains and seas of El Fin del Mundo.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

To The End of the World

It was the highlight of my mediocre Spanish to date; I had managed to negotiate my bus tickets for the two-day overland journey from El Calafate to Ushuaia and actually received what I asked for!

The parting from Lisi and Jane was unexpectedly sad. We had spent the equivalent of many days cramped in a mobile, small metal box, sharing our lives and the road trip experience of a lifetime through some of the remotest landscapes in South America – and it ended as I left the Nissan for the last time as they kindly dropped me off at El Calafate bus station. But, leaving and arriving is what travellers do and, for the moment, that is what I am. Gotta keep on keeping on!

It takes about five hours for the crowded bus to drive the (for once) tarmacked road between these two major towns of southern Argentina. The pace is frustratingly slow considering the road is good, empty and straight with a following Patagonian gale! With the Andes long since diminished over the western horizon, the landscape increases in blandness under a grey sky – I feel encapsulated in the muted greys and browns of the 1970s. The further east we travel, the flatter and more featureless the terrain becomes – an antipodean landscape of Bronte-esque bleakness. The highest visible structures are the fence-posts supporting thousands of kilometres of wire around vast estancias. Near settlements these wires fish litter from the wind leaving it fluttering wildly like a million scruffy prayer flags.

Through the bus window somewhere between El Calafate and Rio Gallegos

I overnight in the non-descript town of Río Gallegos, characterised by wind, dust and a general brownness. The entrance to the town was marked by a number of roadside caravans, all held down against the wind by thick steel cables and enormous iron pegs.

I rise early the following morning to catch the bus for a mammoth day of travelling across two international borders and the whole of Tierra del Fuego to reach the penultimate destination of my entire trip. At first glance the short distance on the map does not marry with the 12 hour time allocated for the journey by the bus company. This illusion is intensified by the fast, paved road heading south towards the Chilean border. It is when we reach the border that I realize that the international flirting with Chile at this southern tip of the continent is the main reason for the long day.

Making the border crossing into Chile takes two hours! This arbitrary line across the narrow end of the continent that separates nothing but politics means that my food supplies for the whole journey have to be either discarded or consumed immediately – they cannot be taken into Chile! So, I gorge myself on lunch and evening meal, and it’s not yet 10 in the morning, and I’ve only just finished breakfast.

Once across the border we arrive shortly at the famed Strait of Magellan – a memory straight from my early ‘80s, O-level geography text book. The landing craft-style ferry shuttles almost sideways to account for the perpendicular gale along the strait and struggle onto the landing ramp.

Strait of Magellan ferry struggling to the ramp through the Patagonian gale

From the ferry I watch a small pod of tiny, penguin-coloured (and almost penguin-sized), tiny dolphins, known as Commerson’s dolphins, twisting and porpoising around us. They are the smallest cetaceans in the world.

Poor pic of the "highway" across Tierra del Fuego
After the short ferry ride, the bus departs on one of the most bizarre bus journeys I’ve ever been on. For a couple of hours our bus twists and bumps along what we in Cornwall would call a farm track, complete with grassy strip down the middle, through a familiar, homely land of green, rounded hills. We do not meet any other vehicles in this part of Chile, and I guess the Chileans have no interest in upgrading a road to simply let travellers travel faster through their country between the two disjointed parts of Argentina. The dust from the road and the Strait of Magellan salt encrusts the windows making photos through them, from inside the bus, impossible (hence the lack of decent photos accompanying this blog posting).

We reach the north-south Argentine border on Tierra del Fuego (another hour or so of my life never to be recovered), then finally onwards on a decent road towards Rio Grande, through which we drive. My attention is captured by the prominent monument to Las Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands), proclaiming loudly over their sovereignty.

The road, the Ruta 3, parallels the Atlantic shore for a while before turning inland. The toe-end of the Andes gradually re-emerges – as welcome and reassuring as an old friend – and the landscape becomes hillier with increasing southern beech forest. The forest, initially stunted, soon comes to dominate, although the common Patagonian footprint of man’s forest depredations is obvious from mile upon mile of discarded, silvery, wooden skeletons forming a contrasting backdrop to the regenerating greenery.

A dog-leg around the eastern end of the Lago Fagnano and a steep mountain climb takes us on the last stretch to Ushuaia. We halt briefly at the Paso Garibaldi, surrounding by darkening mountain peaks as the sun sets, before descending a twisting, forested mountain road towards the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia – over 13 hours since setting off from Rio Gallegos.

Lago Fagnano

We reach Ushuaia, the mysterious pin-prick on the world maps I have poured over all my life, and I feel a sense of quiet contentment.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Blue Fire

After 35 blog postings I am running out of superlatives and adjectives to describe the natural wonders of this journey. This posting describes one of the scenic highlights so far – so I’m going to let the pictures do the talking for me, after some brief contextual waffle.

El Calafate main street
The rapidly growing town of El Calafate sits on the south shore of the stunning Lago Argentino. The town exists almost solely to serve the tourism highlights of the Andes in this isolated corner of the country, the main attraction being the Perito MorenoGlacier, which is what this posting is about. El Calafate’s population has burgeoned over the past few years to over 8,000 as evidenced in the buildings being thrown up all over the landscape – some kind of planning enforcement could be helpful here before they destroy the goose that laid the golden egg, as I see so often back home in Cornwall. Tens of thousands of tourists manage to reach this corner of nowhere every year, apparently from all over the world, but I am struck by the lack of British people. The new town centre is pleasant enough – lots of outdoor equipment shops, tourist trinkets and good restaurants; the dominant eyesore is the casino – why are they always so hideous wherever they are built?
Hideous casino

We spend a day in the indescribably beautiful Los Glaciares National Park, visiting the Perito Moreno glacier – one of the few in this part of the world that is not shrinking. The glacier bleeds from the heart of Chile’s 16,800 sq km Southern Patagonian Ice Field to the west. After a 70km westward drive, for once on a decent road, we enter the park’s tourist hot-spot. People of every nationality, including the (very) occasional Brit, walk an engineering marvel that at first sight appears rather hideous – a steel walkway that traverses and contours around the rocky headland touched by the glacier we have come to see. It even has a lift to provide wheelchair access.

Lago Argentino viewed eastwards over glacier-scoured bedrock

Section of the impressive walkway

The Patagonia Three: Lisi, Jane and me

Funky view of shades of blue

The deeper one peers into a glowing fire, the more intense become its oranges and reds until vision and heat merge into a single experience. In the same way that a photographic negative reverses a visual experience, the deeper one peers into the cracks and fissures of a glacier – astounding blues become more saturated and spell-binding, and colder. The sensory intensity is augmented by a natural auditory backdrop of creeks, cracks and bangs as, like a giant, sluggardly animal, the glacier crawls over a hidden topography stretching, straining and, eventually, breaking. Occasionally, house-sized chunks drop from the glacier’s snout into the lake, creating waves through a crushed ice soup, and slowly melt to feed the turquoise waters of the Lago Argentino.

Goodbye Perito Moreno glacier