A truck rattled past whipping up a fresh blizzard of powder-fine volcanic ash and dust. It added to the drifts that had accumulated in my hair, ears and the corners of my eyes, re-styling me as a Dickensian chimney sweep. It was late afternoon and we had been cycling back and forth along the same stretch of road between the Chilean border town of Icalma and the small hamlet of Laguna Gualletué for 5 hours. It wasn’t for the love of the rugged washboard road surface, the 34oC heat or the vista of dry cow pastures. One of Sam’s bags had bumped and jumped unnoticed off the back of his bike and we were determined to find it, it had in it his sleeping bag, wet weather gear and our most expensive piece of kit – a drone. Not for the first time that week I cursed the Monkey Puzzle trees and wondered if the forest had placed some malevolent enchantment on us. In the 24 hours preceding the bag loss we had broken a chain, our saucepans had mysteriously vanished overnight, and we had suffered a major chili sauce explosion.
I first heard about the Araucaria, or Monkey Puzzle forests of Southern Chile whilst flicking through my new favorite magazine, the Patagon Journal, during a two-day rain siege. I don’t know what it is about these living fossils that so completely captivates my imagination and dissolves me of any reason, but I was instantly obsessed, I had to see them.
Studying the map revealed that a diversion to the forest would involve an additional 400km of cycling and a double traverse of the Andes, I pushed aside the lactic acid reality, convinced Sam it was an excellent idea, and we set ourselves to excitedly planning the new route.
I had seen a monkey puzzle tree in the UK, in my grandmothers garden. When I was a child their playful name and unruly stack of umbrella limbs had enchanted me, but that enchantment quickly lead to disappointment when it became clear they were entirely impossible to climb. In fact, unknown to me it was for this very reason they have such a ridiculous name in English. Sometime in the mid-1800’s Sir William Molesworth had purchased a specimen of Araucaria to spice up his Cornish garden. On showing off his prickly purchase to friends at a dinner party one particularly smart arsed barrister noted that it would puzzle a monkey to climb it… I guess it stuck.
After two days of searching for the bag we had to give up and push on with the journey. Just as we again reached the start of the grove of monkey puzzles where we had first noticed the missing bag, the storm clouds which had been gathering in ominous soot grey mountains began to empty their reservoirs. With Sam’s raincoat and sleeping bag still AWOL we reluctantly agreed to thumb a lift to the nearest town to regroup. After 20 minutes or so a car appeared and the kind Mapuche family within stopped to scoop us up. So it was from the bouncing back of their red Chevy that we got our first taste of the magic of monkey puzzle forest in its natural home.
It had been amazing winding down through the treelined pass but it hadn’t quite cut the mustard for me. I wanted to cycle through the araucarias, walk below them, and like the famous naturalist John Muir, I dreamed of sleeping beneath them. Re-examining the map we spotted another green patch amid the sprawl of agricultural fields and plantations with a little emoji of a monkey puzzle tree. After chatting with someone in town Sam grimly confirmed that it would be an additional 100km off-road including a climb to 1200m. I’m not sure what came over me – I had monkey puzzle madness… “lets do it” I said gleefuly.
The following day after finding Sam a $10 sleeping bag and a stylish fisherman’s poncho we found ourselves sweating and swearing our way up the track through monotonous bands of non-native species – Eucalyptus from Australia, and the Monterey pine from the central California coast. Monkey Puzzles it turns out like very high rocky ground so it was evening by the time we reached the top of the road, and discovered the trees were a further 3km walk up a steep track. We wouldn’t make it up the path and back before the sunset and in a final last laugh from those tricksy trees we had to head down 10km down the other side of the hill to camp in the National Park Campsite. I went to sleep muttering like a madman about monkey puzzles and Muir who, inspired by the travels of Alexander von Humboldt had set out alone in 1911 to see the very forest we were now in. If he had made it on foot at the ripe old age of 73, then surely we could.
Fortunately for us the following morning we bumped into a park ranger who offered to give us a lift back up to the start of the footpath. On the ride we spoke to him about the many threats facing the trees. Deforestation began not long after the Araucaria was first described by a Spanish explorer in the 1600’s and ramped up with Chile’s industrialisation in the 1800’s. Due to its perfectly straight trunk, the tree was ideal for ship masts and was also variously and depressingly used for paper pulp and railway sleepers. Fortunately, the tree is now protected with National Monument Status in Chile making it illegal to fell the tree.
But there are other threats that are much harder to protect the monkey puzzle from. Species introduced by Europeans including red deer, wild boar, sheep, goats, hare and rabbits all find it’s gargantuan seed pods irresistible, driving an ancient balance between the tree and native mice and bird species out of whack. In a further assault, climate change has seen the region become increasingly hotter and drier leading to a higher frequency of forest fires, the scars of the most recent inferno were all too evident on the hillside.
After centuries of harassment, the remaining trees cover an area only a quarter of the size of London.
We stowed our bikes in the rangers hut and set off on the walk to Lago Verde, emerging an hour later into the Jurassic past. The ancient trees, with their reptilian bark coated in a shaggy mane of old man’s beard, ringed the emerald lake as if emerging from a primordial soup. The sight stunned us into an unusual quiet and we spent a blissful hour gazing at imaginary pterodactyls as they swooped across the lake surface whilst on the distant bank a herd of diplodocuses dipped their long necks in the green water. The silence was shattered by the sound of an enormous angry hornet and we turned to see a stout man, remote control in hand. Maybe it was a good thing we had lost our drone… they’re a flipping menace.
We left the lake and began the walk back to our bikes, I felt at peace yet elated to have finally seen the trees that had consumed me for the last few weeks. I remembered what John Muir had noted after his visit to these same forests… “A glorious and novel sight beyond all I had hoped for yet I had so long dreamed of it, it seemed familiar”. I couldn’t have expressed it better myself.