Words and pictures by Natalie Elvy
In February 2016 my other half, Jeremy, texted me suggesting we go to Chile for winter 2016/17. He had just recovered from a serious illness and his health-scare had brought on the idea, encouraging us to re-order our priorities. We were both on temporary work contracts for winter, and enjoying working hard for our business, Frogs Rafting, in summer. We have a mortgage that needs paying. We have a little boy, Soen, who would turn three while travelling. These commitments to our ‘grown-up’ life made me hesitate and left me torn. We’ve worked hard over the past six years to feel stable in the Alps – did we really want to risk it all with a leap into the unknown? However I couldn’t say ‘no’ outright: who knew if we’d ever get the opportunity again?
Without consciously making any decision, we ‘forgot’ to re-apply for our winter jobs We started to consider the trip a ‘research & development’ opportunity for Frogs (Chile has world-class white-water), rather than a five month holiday. We managed to let our house to seasonaires for the ski season. The major worry for me was the practicality and safety of travelling in Chile with a child. Some basic research confirmed that people in Chile have children too, and so it would follow they also have activities and provisions for them. What’s more, there’re no horribly dangerous or poisonous species lying in wait for little hands exploring dark holes. Solutions found to the major obstacles, we bought return tickets so we’d be home in time for the summer rafting season.
We left France in November and headed straight to Pucon (central Chile). From here we planned to go to Patagonia on the Carretera Austral route, Pinochet’s famous ‘Road to Nowhere’. We bought a 4WD and organised a mattress in the back for us, while Soen slept on the horizontal driver’s seat – fortunately we have a child that sleeps like a brick. We had a camping stove and a chilly-bin and I have to say, it was pretty easy to begin with: smooth roads, nice weather, beautiful green farming countryside; more rural England than the outback Chile I’d imagined. Little by little we crept south. The (already steep) prices increased, the roads became gravel and it got cold. The wind was fierce and relentless. But it was amazing. Rugged, enormous, sparse, unpopulated and unforgiving – frighteningly beautiful. Imagine the beauty of New-Zealand combined with the distances of China. Living in Morzine, we’re used to beautiful mountains and gorgeous panoramas, but in Patagonia you realise how the landscape in Morzine has been doctored, tamed and controlled: electric lines, ski lifts, hiking tracks, good roads. These nods to civilisation give confidence and reassurance that you’re not alone. The further south we headed, the fewer people, petrol stations and supermarkets we saw. We became increasingly aware of how misplaced we’d been in the assumption that we’d find whatever we needed, whenever we needed it. We bought a spare tank of petrol the first chance we got, and lots of dry food (we lived exclusively on pasta and sauce). We invested in a jerry-can of water and spare cooking gas.
While the practicalities of travelling to Chile might have been straight forward, the reality of travelling to Patagonia with a child was more complex. I hadn’t anticipated the feeling of total solitude and with it, the increased sense of responsibility to someone who relies on you absolutely. My imagination (always active, and even more-so since Soen’s arrival) went into over-drive. I spent long nights listening to the howling wind and worrying variously about Soen surviving, and what kind of a selfish mother I was. Parents aren’t meant to make their off-spring suffer just so they can fulfil their own passing fancies. Aren’t our ambitions meant to be put on hold so we can help our children fulfil their own potential? This parental guilt wasn’t something that had entered my head when planning the trip. I’d never questioned my assumption that all travel, at any age, is beneficial.
In Patagonia it dawned on me that I’d never honestly considered what Soen would make of it all. Were my aspirations of mind-opening, character-building world-travel expecting a bit much of a three year old whose main pre-occupations are food, play and sleep? There are few things more guilt-inducing than a three-year-old alternately begging and screaming to play on a slide when you can’t find one anywhere, and he’s been sitting in his seat in the sun for hours on a bone-rattling, dusty, gravel road. The poor child would have been happy staying in France in a park with a slide, but we’d dragged him to one of the most unforgiving landscapes we could find just so we could explore.
Luckily (for all of us), the natural wonders of Patagonia are impressive enough to knock the socks off even a three-year-old who’s no stranger to the incredible backgrounds generated by Pixar and Dreamworks. The animals were as curious about him as he was about them. We could get close enough to guanacos (lamas) for Soen now to be able to claim to spit like one, and to be able to run like a nandu (emu). There are icy-blue glaciers you can hear moving and watch the ice cleaving into the water below. Fantastic water-falls and crystal clear rivers where you can spot trout swimming. Volcanos with steam coming out the top, lava lighting up the night sky. Marble pillars in the middle of turquoise lakes. The landscape is prehistoric and it was impossible not to look at it from Soen’s point of view after he started asking whether a tree had been knocked down by a dinosaur or burned by a dragon. Thanks to Soen, even small walks became dinosaur-safaris, packed full of excitement (occasionally tipping into terror if we got too caught up in the narrative forgetting that Soen’s only little).
Entertainment for Soen was sparce, but he embraced the little there was with gusto. Evenings were spent stone-throwing, fishing with a cork, or collecting sticks. Chat usually revolved around dinosaurs or where his fishing-rod / stick / stone might be. If we were fortunate enough to happen upon a play-park, he’d have an hour’s manic play – if we were really lucky there were other kids! Happily play-parks are all similar (bar a few poorly conceived metal slides which heat up to boiling point in the sun), and tig, hide-and-seek and ball games are universal. We planned our time so he’d be able to have a nap (ideal driving time), as well as get out of the car and have a run around before bursting with un-spent energy. We invented games (spot the truck/tractor/steam roller) to make the boring parts of drives more fun, and we had a tablet loaded with favourite films for when the going got too tough for us all!
Inevitably we got lost, had car problems, food issues and temper tantrums. While I felt guilty and responsible for all problems and any long-term negative effect they may have, the great thing about a toddler is that you know when they’re not happy. Soen would have a melt-down and we’d find out why and sort it. Seconds later, tantrum forgotten, he’d be talking about his friends at home / what he’d just seen / what he’s looking forward to (school, seeing our dog, watching Ben & Holly). He was content just to be. He was always in the present, either enjoying it or being cross about it, but not worrying about the what-ifs or if-onlys. He could move on from obstacles without holding onto any negative feelings, so he wasn’t angry, irritated or saddened for any longer than it took to right them.
Along with Soen’s perfect example of living in the present, I found that the enormity of Patagonia changed my perspective too. It dawned on me how tiny and unimportant I am in comparison to the massive, timeless landscape that’s careless of anyone’s worries or anxieties. It’s overwhelming and feels un-tameable, un-manageable. Paradoxically, I began to find that being surrounded by the huge, indifferent landscape was a relief: it brought home to me that there’s very little in life that matters as much as we think it does, and even less that we can control; we’ve just got to find a way to ‘go with the flow’ and count the blessings of now.
We returned to Pucon at the end of January and Jeremy spent February working as a kayak and rafting guide. We continued our travels north to the Atacama Desert and Bolivia, and returned home in April, excited to get back to work on the river!
Natalie and Jeremy’s company Frogs Rafting hosts a growing range of river-based activities including white water rafting, hydrospeeding and canyoning on Morzine’s River Dranse all summer long. Visit frogsrafting.com for more details.