Monkey Puzzle

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

My parents house in Scotland is in a little village called Monreith. And what do you think, might possibly be the connection between Monreith and the Lake District (also known as La Araucania) in Chile?

Well, the connection I make is the Monkey Puzzle tree or the Araucaria tree. In Monreith estate, just a mile or two from my parents house is the only Monkey Puzzle wood in Scotland (or could even be Europe). It was planted in the 19th Century by the naturalist, historian, author, and local MP Herbert Maxwell, who was an avid collector of exotic plants and trees (and grandfather of Gavin Maxwell, of otter fame).

I have stood in the wood on many occasions and marvelled at the tall green trees with their strange angular branches comprised of stiff overlapping leaves that look like exotic bushy animals tails. On childhood walks I often attempted to whack my brothers over the back with the prickly branches. The wood was small and sparse, planted on a little hill, overlooking the Fell of Barhullion and I still have pleasant memories and a fondness for it. So in visiting Chili, I wanted to see for myself the wild Araucaria trees in their local habitat.

We arrive in the town of Villaricca on the shores of a beautiful lake dominated by volcano Villarrica. Having heard reports of poor weather, we decide to abandon our idea of camping on the lakeshore and instead we stay in Torre Suisse, a hostel run by a couple of Swiss expats, Claudia and Beat. We take a double room on the third floor of the large wooden house for 6,500 Pesos each per night (about GBP6.50). The only problem is that the sloping roof is so low in the attic room that I bump my head on the rafters. But other than that the hostel is close to perfection with its friendly owners, tasty breakfasts (including fresh rasperies, muesli, and homemade yoghurt/bread/jam), well equiped kitchen, and spacious common areas.

The next day it is indeed threatening to rain, and Rachel has a bit of a cold, so our decision to stay in the comforts of the hostel seems a good one. I am itching to explore. I hire a mountain bike for the afternoon from Claudia (5000 Pesos or GBP5.00) and take a little tour around some of the local villages near Villarrica. Rachel rests up with a book in bed and takes it easy.

I cycle out of town on a paved road and then turn off on a dirt road that goes out to 'the middle of nowhere'. I see small green fields with fat brown hereford cross cattle in them and farmers driving their 40 year old Fordson tractors around. I pass a single teacher school where the kids of all ages are outside playing sports. Across the road is a small catholic church made of wood with a tin roof. Further down the road I come across a tiny baptist chapel, which has wooden walls painted light blue; it must have a capacity of 20 at a squeeze. People here seem to be very religious.

Every house I pass has long piles of the local firewood stacked neatly outside. Wood is very important for heating homes and some of the local varieties burn very hot. For example Canelu has so much resin in it that if it is burned on its own the stove will glow red hot, and therefore it has to be mixed with other woods. Its also amazing to look in electrical goods stores (equivalent of Dixons in the UK) because usually the whole central part of the store is dedicated to wood burning stoves. Some of the houses we've been in practically have one in every room.

After about 20km on the bike and about halfway around the circuit it starts to rain heavily. I pull the bike into a bus shelter to see if its a shower and the rain will die down. No such luck - I put on my coat and start cycling in the rain. My lower half is soon soaked and, since the bike has no mudguards, I get completely covered in mud off the dirt road. Back at the hostel, Rachel says I look like I've been rolling around in the dirt.

An English couple that we meet in the hostel, John and Alex, are hiring a car the next day and we agree to share the cost with them to go visit Huerquehue National Park, apparently one of the best places to see the Araucaria trees. We are joined by a fifth person, Katherine, also Swiss, which brings the cost of hiring the car down to 5000 Pesos (or GBP5.00) each for the day. Having the car we also decide to visit the hot springs at Los Pozones which sound like an ideal place to relax those muscles after hiking in the woods.

Our first stop in the day is to book up a guided climb to the top of Volcano Villarrica, with a local agency Mountain Adventure Life in Pucon, recommended by Katherine. They ask us to return between 8pm and 10pm that night to try on all our climbing gear that we will need the next day. We drive further out of Pucon towards the park, Alex providing directions as best she can from the fairly primitive maps available in Chile.

Soon we are on the dirt road leading into the park and the weather is holding out to be reasonable: cloudy but not raining. We pay our 4000 Peso (about GBP4.00) entrance fee to Parque Nacional Huerquehue and park up in an empty car park. Despite paying our entry fee, there is no map available and we are glad that we found one in the hostel. We plan to walk up to a high valley above the 1000 metre contour line where the Monkey Puzzle trees start, following a circuit round some lakes before returning back down the same path back to the car.

The first bit of the walk is alongside the lake in the valley and isn't so interesting. It is surprising that it is so commercial here with restaurants, hostels, and cabanas all available. On the other hand, there's no one around, so these must be locals who just cash in on the busy January and February tourist season. We realise we could probably have driven in another 2km and avoided this section.

Soon the path starts a long ascent into deep green forest which contains beautiful tall Nothofagus or Beech trees. Here the trunks are tall, straight, and fat which would I guess make them a loggers dream. The undergrown is dominated by heavy growth of verdant green bamboo - but a different species to that found in China. On the distant higher slopes I can see the vegetation changes with the start of the startlingly different looking Araucaria trees.

After a couple of hours the path suddenly levels off and we see our first monkey puzzle trees up close. They look like a primitive form of life since the branches don't conform to the typical patterns of deciduous and evergreen we are used to. The trunks are perfectly straight, devoid of major branches except for a few individuals, and have most of the leaves originate in a thick canopy at the top. More like the pattern for a coconut tree than anything else I can think of. The bark on a few of the larger trees is tesselated into large chunks that make it look like a reptile skin. Rachel looks at the chunks in the bark and decides it looks at though perfectly cut stone blocks are built into a round pillar to form the trunk.

Further on we stop beside a lake for lunch, eating it fairly quickly because its cold without the sun above 1000m. Across the lake we see the trees become increasingly dominant on the higher slopes. On the hilltops around us there is a light dusting of unmelted snow from the previous day's precipitation.

We enjoy the rest of the days hike through the tress stopping to take pictures more often than necessary because it all seems so exotic and strange. I also spot a brown coloured hummingbird breifly as it hovers nearby a plant that has leaves like holly and flowers like a fuschia.

Our hike takes us a bit longer than expected, but we are all back at the car after about 7 hours and covering 18km or so. We drive for another 45 minutes through another valley, close to the Argentine border, to get to Los Pozones, an area of hot springs where we can bathe in the outdoors. The lake district is an area of intense geothermal activity, and there are many natural 'Termas' or thermal pools which have been exploited by the locals. Unfortunately many of then are covered in and resemble swimming pools, but Los Pozones has managed to keep an outdoor-feel to it with no covered in areas, nor tiles, nor cement. We arrive at dusk and pay out 3,500 Peso (GBP3.50) entrance fee and walk down the steep path to the pools beside the river.

The major pools have a wooden changing room at one end, with a rickety staircase going into the clear warm water. The periphery of the pools are boulders and rocks covered in plants and vegetation - so it does feel very natural. The water in the pools varies from very warm to cool, and Rachel and I soon find a pool that is easy to relax in. We sit on large rocks up to our necks in tepid water gazing at the dark clouds rushing across the black night sky.

After a couple of hours lazing around in the therapeutic waters, we dry off and jump back into the car heading to Pucon to try out our climbing gear for the next days activity - volcano climbing.

The pilgrimage to see Araucaria trees leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction inside. I'm amazed they grow in Scotland at all, because they are at sea-level and not in their natural cold high-altitude environment. Also, they seem wilder and more mature in Chile, with the deeply textured bark making the trees look as old as time. I guess thats because they grow to nearly 2000 years old in Chile and the wood in Monreith is than 200 years old. I'd love to wait around another thousand years or so to see if the ones in Scotland turn out the same way.
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