Sunday, 27 February 2011

Roadkill Diamonds

Somewhere on a parallel universe my alter ego offered his better half the opportunity to visit the baubles counter of the local jewellery store. Personally I thought I had offered it in this, my universe, but I’ve been advised otherwise. This dislocation of ideas my explain my initial confusion between two close running rivers. The Rio Diamante, which on closer inspection turned out to actually be the Rio Actuel. It was the latter that offered up the solution to the ’rocks on fingers’ conundrum.

On the strenuous advice of other cyclists, we’ve made a slight detour from the direct run between Malargue and San Rafael, going to El Niuel and dropping down into the Cañon de Atuel. We’ve opted to forgo an asphalted road for a session on ripio, so are hopping that the effort will be worth while. On some occasions these grit road have required so much concentration that it’s been difficult to take in anything of our surroundings. Our guide book was some what less than overenthusiastic: ‘the locals call it their Grand Canyon’, and ’it has four dams, but still worthwhile’. The same author had also described El Niuel as ’podunk’. Not the world’s happiest chocolate button. The latter had given the impression of a ’three Gorges’, vast areas of flooded and swamped canyon lands, geological treasures lost to our insatiable thirst for electrical power. His first description had suggested a corniche road that stays up on the surface, offering the occasional glimpse down into a hole. The Arizonian version is ‘Grand’, as in massive, but it’s near impossible to gain any comprehension of depth, short of climbing down inside, there’s little to offer any intimation of scale. So we head off the main highway to find out for ourselves if there is a difference.

The indifferent, unflattering ‘Podunk’ would describe a rather large proportion of rural towns, so I assume our author got out the wrong side of the bed that morning.

Cañon de Atuel is different. The road was created for the hydroelectric system, so it runs down in the bottom of the gorge, following faithfully the flow of the river, cutting under high crumbling cliffs, even hacking through them on one occasion. It’s like a giant’s pudding bowl, into which a recipe of ingredients have been poured, then only partially mixed, before being baked solid, then dropped and broken open after removal from the devil’s oven. A mix of colours, and textures, a jumble of metamorphosed volcanic rocks. Chalk whites, through ash greys to rust reds and oxidised greens. Moulded , putty and shattered striations, hard basalt columns and sandwiches of aeons. In places you can imagine mummy giant telling baby giant to get out from under her apron, away from her feet, and go and play with the rock plasticene. Ay first the giantlet was creative, forming a series of stylised figures, grey monks in spiralled, pointed cowls, setting them out in files and ranks, placed in their choir stalls. He then progressed to a more Gaudiesque phase, creating looser more free formed, abstract structures. You feel that if you let your imagination wander, you can see the occasional thumb or fist print. Ending his putty production days with a more adolescent, more pubescent, more phallic structure. Mother didn’t approve, gave him a clip around the ear. Which is how the pudding came to be dropped.

The first three, of the four dams turn out to be low key affairs, the captured lakes are narrow ribbons of water that act as mirrors for the cracked and broken faces of the surrounding cliffs. Quiet oases of green, weeping willows and fruiting peppers, the tall tasselled plumes of pampa grasses covered in the activity of wild bees. The only discordance being the pylon line that climbs out of the deep gullies. Yet water seems like an alien element in this environment. Volcan, the master mason, the creative builder. Agua, the master sculptor, the ephemeral, transient visitor, who on the seasonally, fleeting visits, has over an aeon, carved back down, slicing through a mish-mash of geological time.

The final dam, forces the road out of the cañon and back up onto the plateau, back up with the palo verde thorn and the bright, hot, concentrated noon day glare. It’s here as I’m tracking the last hair pin bend that I notice something different under my pedal. Stopping isn’t difficult, preventing a roll back down the hill is the problem, that and getting going again. I hope what I thought I saw will be worth the effort. I walk back, there in the middle of the road is a cracked open ‘thunder egg’, a geode of white crystals. My solution for the jewellery counter, non encounter.

A bit further on, a roadside stall holder is selling agates and other geological curiosities, so I could have purchased my solution. However there is something neat about the chance encounter, the discovered road kill diamond. Just like the chanced, serendipitous find of this cañon road.