Friday, 25 February 2011

Serendipity Times Ten

If your'e not into rock gardening then please pass by.  If you are, then you might understand how it took us over four hours to cycle just four kilometres. We’d come to Lago Alumine more by chance than by good management; it would be on our way north and the road, from the map, looked like it might be quiet, there appeared to be some opportunities for regular resupplies of water and food.  The guidebook indicated that there were some Araucaria woods in the area.  It looked like a direction to head in.

The Araucaria is the Pehueña for the Mapuche, the Chilean Pine for some, and the Monkey Puzzle for others.  A tree that appears as a singular sorry specimen in a semi-detached suburban setting. Isolated, lonesome, centre-staged on the front lawn, outgrowing the planter, outgrowing the home.  It’s only in an arboretum that they start to exhibit their grandeur; yet still it looks stage managed, an exhibit in an exhibition. A trophy tree to complement the stuffed stag’s head in the grand hall.  They never seem natural, at peace with their adopted, translocated environment.  Dioeciously gendered, these solitary misanthropes are sexually frustrated, chaste, celibate.

The “few woods” of the guidebook transpired into over three days of arboreal splendour.  It’s never fair to compare one locality to an other, the”this looks like….”  Each place is unique, comparisons are unjust.  However if you know and admire the remnants of Caledonian pine forest of the southern Cairngorms, you will recognise this countryside.  Substitute a granny pine for an Araucaria, an understorey of heather for the temperate bamboo and you have the Valle Pehueña.  It’s no real surprise as the geology and the climatology are similar; free draining, slightly acidic volcanic soils, the extra elevation compensating for the warmer latitude. A whole age range of trees are present, from the gawky juviniles, that in a northern garden centre require a remorgage, to the young adults with the classic profile of the arched window, to the ancients, the patriarchs and matriarchs who were already well established when Willy the Norman was writing his Domesday Book.  They’ve shed their lower branches, forming a candelabra, an inverted umbrella, exposing a trunk of elephantine legs a skin of deep wrinkles that snag swatches of lichen on the wet weather side.

As we climbed up the valley, away from Alumine and found our first puzzled monkey, of course we had to stop and admire this single specimen standing alone in a forest of Southern Beech.  Photographed for evidence and prosperity, we might not get to see many more: such is the suggestive power of a guidebook. We round the next corner and there’s a few more, spread out over a tumble of broken rocks, a crystal green river running in the valley bottom.  Then more and more.  We both burn off pixels at every turn.  It’s not difficult to accept a polytheistic concept, where a spirit inhabits rocks, rivers and these grand trees.  Each individual looks and feels like it’s growing in it’s accepted place, in it’s given space.

Not wanting to give up too quickly on these trees, we decide to head off up some side roads, ending up in Lago Alumine and the municipal campground.  A setting that has tempted us to stay for an extra day.  In theory it’s a rest day, so we headed off for a short, unencumbered cycle.  Armed with the tourist office’s information, a glosst piece of paper that comes with little indication of distances or heights, no scale.  More drawing than map.  However it does indicate a road - it could be a track - disappearing off the side of the page, heading for the “ski parque”. It goes uphill, or at least we make that basic assuption based on the idea that snow sports need elevated spaces.  The roadside storyboard map is of little assistance.  Actually it’s downright inaccurate.  More story than map.

We head off in the general direction indicated, negotiate our way through the border customs and immigration post despite the fact that we don’t intend to enter Chile.  The drawing - it lost any credence for the superior title of map some time ago - seems emphatic about the ski area being on the Argentine side.  It’s that Ordnance Survey conditioning again, that instinctive belief that all maps are accurate.  They don’t lie, they can’t lie.  Unusually, on this occasion there is a roadside sign to indicate the correct gravel road, and we head off up into the hills.  Unusual, as even major roads can happily bifurcate or merge with out the help or hindrance of roadside sign.  We’ve met cars, or at least their drivers who have been forty kilometres along an unintended or plain wrong route.

With a degree of confidence - surely the signage can’t be wrong? - we pass through commercial conventional pines, planted in ranks, blocked in regiments.  Trunks brashed, cropped clean like squaddies, all one age, recruited in the same year.  Then passing into another biosphere of Southern Beech, the Nothofagus, and then the Araucarias.  Unlike their near cousins, these pines march to a different order, preferring a more archaic, looser command structure.  Stoics, patient, unperturbed by the upstarts lower down the hill.  The road carries on climbing and so do we, and cresting the hilltop, we find an open plateau.  The ancient’s woods have given way to small pockets of pines in sheltered gullies, leaving space for a rising tableland of volcanic scoria and ash, dotted with what at first we took to be tussock grass.  It’s only when we stop to inspect that we find a few low growing, mat forming plants.  Hebe rikensis in three forms, and a saxifrage.  We move on, stopping moments later for a single bright pink flower- a wild tulip, then a sisirynchium (spelling?).  I’d gone to one side of the road, the navigator to the other, we both call over “I’ve got a new one here”.  The list grows, many are familiar, even if the names won’t come to mind, a mimulus in a damp area, then a wild yellow tulip.  Higher still and the selection changes, the geraniums, the asteraeceas. All the myriad relations of the dandelion family: the composites, or as one naturalist named them, “hawk’s weirds” Chrysanthemums, calceolarias, “over here I’ve got another three new ones”, Berberis, possibly a pernettya and “another one of them”.  We didn’t start a count, but there must be in excess of fifty different species of flowering alpine plants.  Every single on would be a delight and a treasure in a stone trough or a small, well constructed rock garden.  Anemone, sedums, pasque flower.

All this in a ‘esqui parque’ that wouldn’t threaten a Kitzbuhel or any Austrian ’dorf, with it’s truncated ’T’ bar and basic button tow, but would be brilliant on Nordics, in a plaster of deep snow, ski-ing through these monkey puzzled pines.  It’s an area that might have been plastered over by a wash of designations, of acronyms, by a protection of restrictions.  The preservation comes from a blanket of snow and an alternative, much hyped attraction.  All the vehicles that pass - there’s quite a few - have only one intention: to drive up to the highest point, up to a crater lake of an extinct volcano.  Observe, turn around and drive back down again.  Which poses the question: is indifference and disinterest the best protection for wild areas?  Probably not, but it does seem to work in this instance.

On subsequent days, we’ve been to similar elevations, in similar conditions and found some of our specimens, but never the spread or diversity of plants up on that plateau. A highlight, a chance, serendipitous encounter; a grand ‘day off’.