My son Lewis swears he never said it as we drove to the airport in 1990s Cyprus to return him and his sister to their home in England. But I distinctly heard him tell himself: “It’s not over until the last minute.” It had been a super, sunny break, and they were leaving while I continued as a journalist in the Middle East. I felt for him. The holiday event was, indeed, at an end but the underlying love that enriched it would continue, and there was the next reunion to plot and plan. I do not think I convinced him.
And it was a sentence on my mind as the last days of my trip to Patagonia came around. Had I really spent 11 days doing nothing but fishing, eating and sleeping? It was a blustery, moody sort of day, appropriately enough. The morning routine of coffee on the patio, preparing my bag, breakfast with whoever was around and then an idle hour before departure in Marcelo’s truck for another new water in the 360,000 acres of wilderness. Always the promise of surprise above and below the water.
I went through the motions almost automatically. It’s surprising how easily you can slip into a routine when every day is an adventure, book-ended by food in good company. I made a conscious decision to stop thinking about “last” anything, and just see it as another couple of days in paradise, which Estancia de Los Rios had been for me. Other guests had come and gone but I had been there throughout and felt settled, at home even, and home is a state of mind as much as it is a geographical point.
I’d heard talk of a spring creek called Turbina, which no-one had fished for a while, and we headed off to explore it. On the penultimate day I noticed that Marcelo had packed a machete. When we arrived at the water off a bumpy side road I could see why. It was a narrow stretch overhung with pendulous trees knitted as tight as chainmail over pools and runs and riffles. The sight took me straight back to the Gatamayu river in Kenya, where I had learned the basics of fly fishing as a student of a toothless fish scout called James. He taught me how to get my fly in the water despite the under- and over-growth, and I needed all of that skill on Turbina.
Marcelo bounded ahead with a machete, clearing places where I could stand to deliver my fly to the water using the bow and arrow technique, which looks like it sounds. I was quite giddy with excitement. Here was a water I knew how to fish, and I did, dropping both dry and wet flies in likely spots beside tree stumps and the tresses of wavering weeds. I worked it carefully, standing well back from the bank, and saw three fish in separate spots come and take a look at my fly with disdainful flicks of their tails. Not interested.
More than two hours elapsed before I reached the inlet where the water rose and Turbina ended and I hadn’t touched a single fish. But it was exhilarating, all the same. I think that Marcelo hacking away at the greenery may well have disturbed the fish but knew that I would have more luck next time. I really didn’t mind. It had tested me and I had not been found wanting. Only the fish had, and they had their reasons that no well-delivered fly could undo.
Next time. I couldn’t help wondering when that might be but tried not to let tomorrow cast any shadow over today. There is a beautiful plant I had in my garden in Nairobi and which is just starting in my Hargeisa compound. It is called Jana, Leo, Kesho in Swahili, which means Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. It’s a plant I always find comforting because of the way its beauty is of today but also of the past and the future, cloistering the enigma of time into pretty blossoms that grow wild and enrich daily life. In the afternoon we fished a stretch of the Cisnes which was a little less sheltered from the growing wind, and the fish were plentiful and cooperative. I settled into the rhythm Marcelo had taught me; cast, retrieve, cast again if necessary and then take a few steps upriver. The fish in this upland stretch were paler than those in more overshadowed stretches, their design more appropriate to concealment over stones than under branches. I’ve no idea how many of them I caught, but they were many.
That evening, the dinner was my favourite Chilean Fish and Chips supper – a delicate piece of native sea fish battered and served with a fried egg and chips. The background music was Stan Getz and the talk was of homes and houses and places. I found myself thinking about my little home in Ireland. When I was young the first LP I bought was Getz and Gilberto, featuring that now over-worked song The Girl from Ipanema. But it was another piece from that album that spoke to my young heart, and my old heart now, and it was Corcovado, the song about the mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro.
Quiet nights of quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar
floating on the silence that surrounds us
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams
And the window looking on the mountains and the sea, oh how lovely…
It had always been the notion of “windows looking on the mountains and the sea” that had resonated with me. Much later, when I was still in deep shock about the mob killing of three of my staff in Mogadishu, Somalia, I was hypnotised by a therapist; he wanted to help me come to terms with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which bedevilled my spirits when I moved to Ireland shortly afterwards in 1993. He was a gentle and sensitive man and he wanted me to find some peace and to free myself of the guilt I felt at being alive while my young colleagues were dead. One day, weary of trying to make me cry under hypnosis to lend some physical action to my feelings of remorse, he, instead, put me under and asked me to imagine a place where I could feel at peace. And in that trance I imagined a small cottage by the sea, with a fireplace and a view over the ocean and a headland. He counselled me to keep the image in my mind and in my heart and to act on it if I ever saw such a place. On a rare weekend off from the bloodshed in Belfast and politicking in Ireland, I drove to West Cork for the first time because I had heard of a little river called the Argideen and a picturesque village called Timoleague. Both were as they had been described, scenic, uplifting, special. I parked by a bridge over the river where it meets the sea and saw an otter cruising downstream on its back and eating a crab that it held on its belly while it ate small pieces. And then it swam upstream, caught another crab and repeated the process, unphased by me, completely anchored in the moment and the crab. And obviously very happy. It made me smile.
It was out of season so there was no fishing and instead I enjoyed driving around in the squally weather, surprising myself with the view that would emerge from the top of a lane or at the end of a forest track. One day, motoring up a lane from the sea, I spotted a tiny cream-coloured cottage overgrown with fuchsia and strangled by weeds, with holes where there should have been slates on the roof, and a chipped chimney stack. It was called Burren Lodge, and it was for sale. I bought it not long afterwards, a shell of a place but one that had the finest view of an estuary I had seen along the coast. Even empty and smelling of damp, dust and pigeon droppings in the fireplace, it had a wraparound feeling of welcome. It is now my home, wherever I am.
So while Stan Getz played, Astrud Gilberto sang, and guests’ glasses clinked, I reconnected with Burren Lodge and knew with certainty that I had found my Corcovado. In the uncertain period of imminent departure and abrupt change from paradisiacal to perfunctory, I had found the link between Jana, Leo and Kesho, the thread of continuity.
My last day seemed to stretch out, whereas others had compressed time. In the morning Marcelo and I fished the Cisnes together, leapfrogging each other and quietly catching brassy browns on the dry fly and the girdle bug. We had our last cast together and then drove all the way to the nearest town for Marcelo to pick up some beer for Bernardo. The town was a small grid of wooden houses with a playground, a church, some small shops and municipal buildings and a sign to welcome visitors.
“The stretch where we are going can be complicated,” said Marcelo. I had become used to the fact that “complicated” could mean a lot of things from tricky to bloody difficult and was ready for anything when we camped beside the river near a bridge leading into town and feasted on barbecued meat and sausages and those irresistible bread rolls. Marcelo explained that the fish did not come readily to the fly here, unlike most other stretches. It was also, he said, where Coho salmon were fished for after an epic run upstream from the sea, 120 miles away. Sure enough, I found a discarded package that had once contained a Silver Toby lure, a universal pattern used to fish for salmon. The water looked tempting and the river broad enough that it was difficult to fish both sides standing in the centre. Marcelo went downstream. I headed up. And caught absolutely nothing by the time he came upstream and found me. So we walked together to another likely spot where the river had dug a deep pool against a cliff. Here there were some violent tugs by biggish fish, but only two small ones came to the net. It was getting to four o’clock in the afternoon and Marcelo went off to drive the car further upstream for our final take-out.
I was left looking upstream at a broad and beautiful stretch of water with overhanging trees on both sides, if only the fish would cooperate. I’d been fishing for two weeks now and was alone with the river and the elements. At some level everything Marcelo had imparted fused into a steady pattern of move and cast. Nor was I worried about the time or being late anywhere. It wasn’t over until the last minute. What prompted the fish to come out I will never know, but they did. It started with the occasional one snatching at my fly close to the bank. Then the snatches became more regular. The fish were all good ten inchers and more, and darker than upstream and a lot more practised in the art of getting off the hook. Perhaps they had seen a lot of fishermen from the nearby town. I didn’t really have time to think about it because they were coming to hand two out of every five casts and getting bigger the further up the river I waded.
Marcelo arrived and together we waded upstream again, taking fish after fish. They were amongst the best quality I had taken in the river, real streamlined fighters. .Everything clicked, my casting, the dry fly and nymphs. Marcelo was into fish too, and we swapped sides and leapfrogged to share the fun, as we had learned to do. We came together where the river narrowed and I let him fish while I watched, admiring the crisp certainty of his work. There was still about half a kilometre of river to wade before we regained the car, and we worked It together. There came a moment, I don’t know from where, when I decided to let the last fish be just that. And it came two casts later, with Marcelo bow-waving through the water to capture it on net and camera. Call it quitting while you are ahead, learning the lessons boxers refuse to or just plain being happy, but I wanted to draw a five-weight line under the adventure and mark it with a fish I would remember. And so it was. It had street-fighting skills on a Stealth fighter body and leopard’s black spots. The moment it knew it had been hooked, not fed, it zipped off downstream in a blur determined to put to the test who was the stronger, the captive or the captor. I won, but I was never certain until Marcelo slid the net beneath it. I held it, half a pound and more of muscle and determination, glistening in the pale afternoon sun. It disappeared like a ghost when I put it back in the water. Marcelo and I shook hands for that day and for all the others and hiked back to the car, my legs tired, my smile locked, my spirits high.
That Friday night was the traditional barbecue. I was late getting there because I was late getting back and doing my final “Rio Rio,” “Puente, Puente” to order coffee on arrival. I watched the stars rise over the lodge accompanied only by the young Caracara, who remained unconvinced that hunting was the way to feed. Instead it mewed pitifully, awaiting a treat. I decided not to interfere in its education. Bread cooked in the ashes, lamb cooked on a crucifix-like sword in front of crackling logs, salads dressed in rich oil and vinegars, weightless deserts and good company mesmerised by the barbecue magician, Bernardo and Christian, the cook. There was a couple from Switzerland who had been married for two years but seemed so in love you would have thought them on honeymoon. They had both tangled with substantial fish, the lady for the first time. I left fairly early to pack and to reflect on my luck. Being lucky isn’t enough. You have to know you are lucky and be grateful, and I was.
The next morning was the regular routine but played at double speed to ensure that I got my connecting flight to Santiago. There were farewells and cards exchanged and promises to return. I know I will. Then a last drive over the little bridge. Puente, Puente, Rio Rio, but only 26 hours of travel awaiting me. It was all over, but it wasn’t and will never be. The diary might have said The End but the heart said otherwise. The memory of February 11 in Patagonia illuminates me in March in Somaliland and will stay with me wherever, and for ever.
It’s what I should have told Lewis all those years ago and do now. Happiness can outshine the darkest days and light the way to other rich days ahead. Jana, Leo and Kesho.