I hadn’t fished for more than 200 days before arriving in Patagonia. So at first I was like a long-term prisoner being freed and dropped off in London with a bulging wallet. I cast wildly and too hard, struck at every fish as if it were a world record and was generally in such a rush that my guide, Marcelo, had to carry out a playground roster check on my tackle before we headed out every day. “Rod, reel, line, flies, sunglasses, glasses, sunshield, hat, waterproof jacket……”
But on the windiest, coldest day of the week, the shades of the prison house began to fall away and I slipped into a carefree ease that endured for the rest of my stay. “We notice it in many clients,” said Marcelo, fiddling with Spotify so we could have uninterrupted Rolling Stones on our way to fish the Cisnes (Swan) river. “They stamp about and cast too hard and miss fish and then suddenly it all settles down and they start to enjoy.”
The wind in Patagonia blows round river bends and corners, lifts the fly line one way and the leader the other; it parts your hair, blows you backwards, forward and sideways and gusts across the wilderness unhindered proclaiming: “I am the wind of the world. I own this place. I am Patagonia.” Marcelo says the Gauchos compose poetry to the wind, just as Somalis write songs for their camels and East Africa’s Maasai hymns to their cattle. We came across the odd Gaucho on horseback most days, weather-beaten men with hats and ponchos clipping across the plains on handsome horses trailing a confetti trail of dogs behind and besides them, all blown by the wind. I didn’t photograph them, out of respect for the fact that this is an age-old working tradition that is slowly dying out. They are not tourist fodder. And it felt just a little uncomfortable to be seeing them from the comfort of a 4×4 packing two comfortably dressed men with a barbecue in the back and Mick explaining how he can’t get no satisfaction on teh stereo. My notebook logs encounters on the road. Monday: One car, one gaucho, five dogs. Tuesday: Two cars, one gaucho, three dogs: Wednesday: one giant Kingfisher, five vultures, two border police on horseback….. Every time we cross the Lodge’s Puente (bridge) and Rio (river) I am confronted by space of the enormity I have not seen outside national parks in Africa and America, but with infinitely fewer people, zero tarmac and no malign animals. “No insects, no snakes, no bears. But we do have the wind,” Marcelo says.
Occasionally we went to the nearby Ranch Headquarters to piggyback their Internet; this was how I managed to tell my family I was okay. It’s where the sheep are sheared for wool or gathered for market and resembles a tiny Irish farming village. There’s a school, a church and a shop called the Pulperia after the paper currency the staff were paid in and could only use at the company store, a practice long abandoned.
Next door to the Pulperia the butcher is preparing meat for sale.
A different kind of meat emblazoned on the wall opposite for company.
I had resolved not to open emails unless utterly vital and one was, in the worst sense of the word. I learned that Esmond Bradley Martin, the leading world authority on how the illegal rhino horn and ivory trade, had been murdered in his own Nairobi home, a place where I had been many times. His death was unexplained. He was a stalwart contributor to the wildlife magazine I once edited, SWARA (www.eawildlife.org) and I was a regular dinner guest. He and his wife Chrysee, Americans both, made their lives in Kenya, she working at the state’s Animal orphanage, and he sleuthing around the world to put factual flesh on the rumour and speculation about the trade killing Africa’s pachyderms. A familiar sickness grabbed my stomach at the news. Africa can be the ultimate love affair in the joy it offers and the heartbreak it inflicts. I am alternately glad and sad about leaving Africa as a place to live. And I was in Patagonia, I told myself. Esmond and Chrysee would have wanted want to hear about my adventures around a themed and colour-coordinated dinner table at their home . An evening in their eccentric company was sheer delight. I pained for Chrysee’s grief and climbed back in the truck
We drove off to fish a new beat of the Cisness (swan) river, but it is hard to cast a fly in a howling gale; wading near the centre of the river, I struggled to land a fly in the space just under the bank where the trout hide from their few predators. It’s a matter of timing your cast for the moment the gust stops, then resorting to whatever method you can to deliver the fly. Sometimes it means casting vertically above me – the steeple cast – and others it means facing in the opposite direction to my quarry and casting out over the river to flick the back cast onto the bank. One stormy morning I manage to land only five modest fish before lunch in what looked like prime habitat. “They like the sun. If the sun comes, even if the wind blows, they will be here,” says Marcelo, hauling me up the bank.
We join our hosts, the other Marcelo, and Victoria, his wife, who have ridden out to join our lunchtime barbecue. We spread ourselves in the protection of a small copse of trees while Bernardo, the head wrangler, helped by my guide, barbecues succulent chicken pieces served with a quinoa salad. The after-lunch coffee is dark, almost thick, and blends perfectly with chunks of home-baked cookies. We talk of our children and of our pasts and what our futures might hold. But I feel completely at ease just watching the river roll by and hearing the horses chomp through the grass around us. It’s not just the fishing that renders this a magical place. I feel strangely at home, so far away from mine.
Bushes around us and all over the plains sprout what resemble blueberries. They are not though. They are an indigenous fruit called Califate and have a lot of pips. They are good to eat, as are the wild strawberries we come across on the banks. It is said that if you eat Califate you will return to Patagonia. I am already in the habit of eating a lot of them.
On one occasion, my guide needs to drive the car further upstream after lunch to await me while we finish, so I am left alone on the river for the first time. The sun has reappeared, the wind has dropped, and I slip into an easy rhythm of casting and catching, wading a few more steps and casting and catching some more. It is an anglers’ truism to say that we always fish best when the guide isn’t looking. I don’t know how else to describe that afternoon. For the first time most of my casts landed where intended, in the few inches of water right up against the bank. And they yielded good-sized, hard-fighting brown trout of varying shades of their creator’s pallet. In a dark and overhung stretch of the river the fish’s backs were a mottled green disguise to match the trees; on open stretches their livery resembled pebbles. None surrendered without a good fight and all were returned unharmed, melting back into the river with a flash of the tail.
For the first time I stopped fishing for a while and found a nice spot on the bank to savour the day, with a few Califate and water from my drinking bottle. This is how Marcelo, to his surprise, found me after he had left the car and walked down the river to find me. “Is something wrong? You are sitting down?” We laughed together at my reclaimed ease and then fished the rest of the afternoon together, like the friends we had become. He would identify a stretch and the one above it and then we would leapfrog each other up the river. It was a joyful afternoon. Every time I looked upstream Marcelo had hooked a fish and I hope he had the same snapshot watching me downstream.
Not all the fish yielded themselves to the Black Barbie or any other dry fly. We found, by dint of trying, that the fish would take an American fly called the Girdle Bug. Its name derives from the fact that its “legs” are made from tiny strips of rubber that were once culled from women’s girdles. Modern fly-tying materials have long since found alternatives to female underwear and the fly is fished below the surface, either drifting under its own weight downstream ,or given a little bit of “life” by a twitch of the rod. It was the sort of fly my father would have disapproved of. If you ever asked him what he caught his fish on, he would say, “Oh, just a little nymph.” Which doesn’t explain the enormous green bugs I found in his tackle box after he died, but he wasn’t around to defend them. All fishermen, as the American writer John Gierach reminds us, are liars. A pleasant American couple recounted the angler’s tendency to over or under-state the truth over dinner with our host. The husband, Bob, told how the male of a fiercely competitive couple hooked a fine fish from a boat in front of his wife. “It was 22 inches, when he caught it, 24 inches by the time we got back to the car, and 26 inches by the time he got to the dinner table.” Another tale is told of “the amazing shrinking trout.” In this competitive duo, the husband downsized his catch so as not to offend his wife. I am not systematically counting, weighing or measuring my catch. In the guest book there are people writing how many hundreds they caught. But for me the joy is in the fishing as much as the catching. As I head off, weary but content, to the comfort of my bed, I realise that I have not consumed a single item of news for many days apart from the shock of Esmond’s murder. The word Trump has not come up at the dinner table. No-one has mentioned North Korea or Syria or Israel-Palestine. It’s as if my inner compass has lost its way and is pointing continually towards the vast emptiness outside my window. I am feeling carefree at ease and familiar with a new place on the map.
I check out the night sky before turning in. The only constellation I can recognise is the one that hangs over the lodge, Orion. This is one of the few constellations I can name because I was taught about Orion’s Belt, the “three sisters” as a schoolboy in West Sussex, England. From out of my cerebral filing system comes, unbidden, Orion’s CV. He was the son of Poseidon, the sea god, who gave him the power to walk on water and was a hunter who wielded a giant bronze club. More I cannot remember as I head to my room to dream of giant bronze trout tail-walking the water.