Chile, a country of 756,000 square kilometres, boasts a modest population of about 17 million people. The United Kingdom is less than a third of the size at 243,500 square kilometres, but plays home to over 64 million inhabitants. There is a lot of space in Chile, relative to the number of people. We, however, are a very crowded island.
What impresses most about Chile is its dramatic and varied landscapes, and the sheer scale of these wild places. In the north of the country the Atacama Desert dominates, largely uninhabited but for a few mining towns; it took me three long days of riding to traverse it. In the central, more temperate sector of the country the lands are fertile; it is here that you find most of the country’s population. And then heading still further south, we find Patagonia – for many, the jewel in South America’s wilderness crown.
Arriving from Europe, it was the vastness of the continent and its expansive horizons that initially struck me. The Argentine part of Patagonia is largely pampa and a motoquero can routinely ride for over a hundred kilometres without coming across a single building, never mind a village or town. The vistas stretch for miles in all directions. There were moments when this vastness, opening up in front of me as I turned a corner, literally stopped me in my tracks as I tried to take it all in.
Here in the United Kingdom we live at the other end of the spectrum. The countryside in many parts is beautiful, but it can only be found in pockets. And it feels that nowhere is beyond the reach and influence of human presence. Take the Peak District National Park, for example; even when standing on the barren summit of Kinderscout, the most remote point in the park, you can’t forget that just over one horizon sits Manchester to the west, and over the other Sheffield, and to the north Leeds – with nearly two million souls amongst them. It may feel like you’re alone, but zoom out a little and you’ll realise you’re not. In fair weather, these metropolises open their doors and the Peak District is flooded with visitors to climb, hike, cycle or simply take some much-needed air.
I have travelled widely throughout most of the United Kingdom, including to the more remote areas favoured by the military for training purposes, but it took me until this summer to discover that Britain also has a jewel in its wilderness crown. Heading north from the cosy bosom of southern England, the landscapes progressively become more barren – ‘grittier’ is a word that describes them well for me. Fields of crops give way to grazing lands for sheep and cattle. The weather cools. Abreast Manchester and Sheffield the land starts to gently rise into the Pennine Hills.
Further north the urban swathe of Glasgow, Edinburgh and their surrounding towns is the last area of major population. It is also the gateway to the Scottish Highlands. Continuing onwards from here, a visitor starts to sense wilderness amongst the majestic peaks, glens and lochs, but still humanity runs thick – mostly tourists. The beautiful Isle of Skye draws visitors up the Great Glen and then westwards. We followed this route, through a rain-soaked Glen Coe and along the shores of Loch Duich to the thirteenth century Eileen Donan Castle, where coaches were lined up in the car park disgorging their loads, hungry for a photo of this magnificent scene.
Turning off the main road to Skye at this juncture, the mood finally shifted. Crossing high ground and then skirting sea lochs and coastline, the route meanders north. With mountains behind us and to our east, and the Atlantic ocean to our west, that omnipresent ‘hum’ of humanity which seems to pervade everywhere in this small island of ours started to gradually quieten. The further we went, the narrower the roads, the smaller the villages and the more expansive and lonely the landscapes became. Looking north, distant mountain peaks rose from horizons underscored with rugged coastlines and empty rolling plains. For the first time on British soil, I felt small among the landscape around me – and almost alone.
Driving south across the Argentine Patagonian pampa to Tierra Del Fuego and the southernmost tip of the continent amplifies the sense of journeying. There is a very specific destination, and it sits at the end of the road, literally but also metaphorically. The further you travel south, the further behind you ‘everywhere else’ increasingly feels. Heading northwards along Scotland’s west coast possesses a similar quality. As we neared Durness on the north coast, we had ridden over 850 miles, progressively leaving behind first our home, then bit-by-bit the great cities of England and Scotland, the familiarity, people, development, and with it all the worries and distractions of the world we routinely inhabit. Here, I felt I was privileged to step into a different world, a hidden corner liberated and shielded from all the societal clutter we have constructed around us ‘down south’.
As we drove the narrow coastal road south of Lochinver, very rarely getting out of second gear and stopping every few hundred metres to soak up the surroundings, I found myself comparing this incredibly beautiful wilderness with Patagonia. Wary of getting carried away with the moment and perhaps being influenced by a touch of nostalgia, I checked myself and took a mental step backwards to be sure I wasn’t exaggerating. And no, I wasn’t. It may not be as spectacular as Patagonia, with its glaciers, ice-caps and turquoise rivers, but its essence is the same – a place where nature is master and humans are guests. It is indeed a very special place.