06 December 2012

Bolivia: Uyuni and the Salar

[See Bolivia: La Paz to Uyuni for the preceding post.]
The ruins of other moments
At 6:30 I rise, sneak quietly out of the dorm and head to the lounge to write. Sunlight cuts through the silence, reflects from the varnished wooden table, bounces around in the cold, brightens black ink on cream paper, enhances the quiet. A woman walks into the room. "Buen dia," I say, and she smiles, says "Buen dia," and carries on into the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast. The owner arrives, we exchange greetings, and he goes to the kitchen and talks with the woman. I return to my writing and the room continues to brighten.

Outside, the sky, pale blue and brilliant, hints at bitter cold.
Davide [L] and Filippo wait for José 
outside the Quechua Connection office 
in Uyuni.
Breakfast turns out to be café con leche and a couple of good bread rolls — not the cotton wool sort provided by the Loki in La Paz — with peach(?) jam as a welcome change from the ubiquitous and overly sweet strawberry.

After breakfast, Davide, Filippo and I visit several tour agencies and listen to sales pitches until the pattern becomes clear: in short, we need more people to fill a jeep. Some of the agencies already have indications from other people that they might sign up, but the catch seems to be that none of the prospective clients will commit until they know they'll have a full group and can be on their way immediately. Rather like us — everyone in a hurry. I'm glad I'm with Filippo and Davide because three of us make up half a jeep-load; on my own, who knows how long I'd have to wait. On the other hand, I seem to be more content than most people to hang around doing nothing in particular (which is different from nothing at all, but the difference can be elusive).

Finally, we sign up for a four-day tour with Quechua Connection, with Vincent, Jean-Baptiste and Eugenie, all from France, making up the necessary six people for the tour. We attend to a few things in town, I book a night at the hostel for my return — only Vincent will be coming back to Uyuni with me; the others will leave us on the final day to transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile — then we meet as scheduled at 11 a.m. at the office.

José still hasn’t arrived. We go into the vacant office to shelter from the sun and wait and wonder whether we’ve made a mistake signing up with Quechua, but the doubt proves unwarranted, right from the moment José finally arrives and begins loading quickly and efficiently and we warm to his good humour.  We squeeze into the Landcruiser and just ten minutes later  stop on the outskirts of Uyuni at the train cemetery. This turns out also to be a plastic bag cemetery and a graffiti park. Some of the tagging’s thoughtful — “Stop mass consumption!”, “Think!”, “Stop using oil!” — but much is the usual mindless scrawl of names, dates and the like, and one piece in particular is acutely embarrassing: a couple of names with “New Zealand” in enormous letters on the boiler of one of the engines. Other jeeploads of people cruise around, photographing; many photograph each other striking poses on top of rusting engines, peering out through old latticed iron; a few wander alone like me, prowling for pictures. In the glaring midday sun the contrast between light and shadow is extreme, and I photograph without hope — hope, which seems to have fled this place of endings and despair.

Filippo looks out over the Ojos de Salar. The ground seemed
solid and I heard no reports of tourists disappearing into
the subterranean lake.
We stop next at the salt factory, where José rises further in my estimation when I see he’s taken the trouble to peel the tomatoes and cucumber which we eat with quinoa and a tasty lamb chop and follow with an apple and lollies. During the coming days we realise we’ve made, whether by chance or not, an excellent choice of guide, not least because of the meals he produces. One evening we hear another group chatting in less-than-complimentary terms about their food, yet shortly afterwards, José brings our dinner: succulent, tasty, roast chicken. In the Landcruiser the next day I ask him how long he’s been guiding on the Salar. Now, as I write, I’ve forgotten his reply and at the time failed to write it down, but one thing I do remember — he began on these tours, he said, as a cook.

We stop briefly at the Ojos de Salar, the Eyes of the Salar, upwellings where bitterly cold water bubbles through small holes in the salt, reminding us we’re driving on a crust of salt over a liquid lake, then carry on to the original salt hotel, now a museum — and a circus, with a good dozen jeeps parked outside and tourists everywhere doing the “crazy photo” thing. Because the almost featureless plain and sky provides little visual perspective, a person fifty metres away viewed with one eye closed or through a camera lens appears indistinguishable from a mouse-sized person close by; hold your hand out, palm up and get someone to frame the photo so your hand’s level with your distant friend’s feet, and the photo will look as if you’re holding your miniature friend on your hand. Everyone’s doing it, but, perhaps because of that, I feel an aversion to trying to produce a photograph identical to the countless others framed here over the years.

Instead, I wander off and photograph the photographers and the jeeps, thinking of something a friend once told me, years ago.
    “Awareness of awareness is not the awareness,” she’d said.
This can be as much a curse as a route to deeper understanding: being conscious of being happy can sometimes ruin the happiness, and analysis often seems opposed to spontaneous delight. Not always, but the danger exists, and I wonder whether now, walking away from the crazy photographers and the rows of jeeps, and a couple of days ago as I grumped inwardly about the Loki, I might have lost the ability to lose myself and simply take delight in what’s happening now.

A room (for display only) in the salt hotel. The yellow light
results from the colour of the skylight in the hallway.
But I turn and face away from the crowds and look out towards the apparent emptiness of the vast white plain. On the shimmering horizon, faint shapes of low mountains tremble as if insecure in their own existence. This is why I came to the salar.

After a desultory inspection of the interior of the repurposed hotel where a few parties of tourists eat lunch, we drive to our accommodation at Coqueza, stopping occasionally for photographs. José collects everyone’s cameras to record a group “crazy photo”, but for some unfathomable reason and despite several attempts he can’t work mine — or at least he manages only a couple of motion-blurred, overexposed shots of his feet and someone almost unidentifiable (later, after extracting what little information could be recovered from the blown-out image, I recognise someone I think might be Vincent). I don’t mind; I’m far less interested in having a crazy photo of my own than I am in photographing the crazy photographers, and if I did want a copy, I should be able to get one from Davide or Filipo. Besides, the camera’s refusal to cooperate seems to vindicate my curmudgeonly attitude — a theory proved beyond doubt later when I photograph Filipo photographing Davide; now that the camera no longer has to cooperate to photograph what its owner doesn’t want, it works perfectly.

Crazy photographers
Before dinner we have a couple of hours of free time. I wander to the shore, a muddy strip of land between the close-cropped, rucked-up pasture and the immense plain of the salar. Flamingoes step and feed in shallow ponds; a couple of species of shorebirds and some kind of flycatcher forage for invertebrates; an Andean lapwing, an Andean gull, and a pair of stilts fly past. On the salt flats near the village a Landcruiser pursues a fleeing vicuña, and I wonder what the passengers think: are they enjoying the thrill of the chase, the possibility of a closer look, or are they mortified by their guide’s harrassing of the animal?

I lend my binoculars to an elderly French woman and later to Jean-Baptiste and Eugenie so they can see the flamingoes better. The reaction in each case: “Oh!”

On the way back to the hostel, a movement on the bank of a tiny stream catches my eye. At first, it looks like a large beetle, but when I look closer, I see it’s a tiny, charcoal-grey, almost black frog. Another, even smaller, half-swims, half-crawls upstream through the silty water and algae. How can these tiny ectotherms survive here? At night here at almost 3700 m the temperature sometimes drops to minus nine degrees Celsius[1] and although during the day the frogs’ dark colour presumably helps them absorb the sun’s warmth, surely they risk being frozen at night? Do they burrow below the level of the frost, or do they have the ability to let their bodies cool below zero without freezing? Can they, like some other animals in similarly extreme environments, freeze then thaw without dying? Some frogs can indeed freeze, albeit only partially[2,3,4] and perhaps these little frogs can also manage this remarkable feat, which seems less like survival and more like a miraculous resurrection. This ability of life to survive in places apparently unsurvivable — its resilience and sheer tenacity — constantly astonishes and delights me.

A less publicised aspect of Salar de Uyuni tourism: some of the
vehicles outside the salt hotel while we visited.
What also delights me is the peace and tranquility of this place. Sitting by the edge of the salar, I can hear almost nothing except the occasional croak-honk of the flamingoes, the high-pitched, rapid calls of shorebirds, the far-off sounds of kids playing football. Every sound enhances the silence, and even the presence of other visitors wandering around slowly and quietly, as if similarly affected, can’t disturb the wonderful feeling of relative solitude.

Towards sunset we drive a short way onto the salar to watch and photograph the sun going down, the shadows lengthening, the colours changing. In the distance, white clouds cap the faint shapes of mountains on the far side of the salar; the clouds gradually turn pink and orange then fade into the violet-grey dusk. Someone during these first days on the salar says something about the purity of the place.

The word might not be perfectly apt, but I know what he means.

We stayed at Coqueza on the first night, watched over by Volcán Tunupa (in the background) and free range llamas.

Notes: 1. Salar de Uyuni. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved 2 December 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni#Flora_and_fauna
2. Can frogs survive being frozen? (2012). Retrieved 2 December 2012, from
3. Costanzo, J. P. (2012). Extreme cold hardiness in ectotherms. Nature Education Knowledge, 3(10), 3. Retrieved from
4. Bazin, Y., Wharton, D. A., & Bishop, P. J. (2007). Cold tolerance and overwintering of an introduced New Zealand frog, the brown tree frog (Litoria ewingii). Cryo Letters, 28(5), 347–358.

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor

18 September 2012

Bolivia: La Paz to Uyuni

No, the blog hasn't died. I’ve been stuck on this post for a long time, and have finally decided that whatever its faults, it needs to be out there. So, here it is, with the remaining half (approximately) of the account—the rest of Bolivia and on through Argentina into Patagonia and back up through Chile—still to come.
The bus to Oruro smells like an old kitchen overdue for degreasing. Two crucifixes taped to the windscreen’s sunshade clash with the Playboy logo on the door. The bus heaves itself out of the station shortly after 9:30 a.m., but an hour later we’re still creeping through the traffic-blocked streets of El Alto and touting for more passengers. Stall owners stand behind piles of carrots, onions, potatoes, clothing, electronic items and almost anything else imaginable, but the most striking are the enormous pyramids of eggs. Perhaps they’re more stable than they appear, but what would happen if some passerby dislodged an egg from near the base? The consequences don’t bear imagining.
Eventually we make it out of the city. I can’t say I’m unhappy to leave La Paz, although it does have charms, particularly the vibrancy of the after-dark street markets — that Blade Runner feel once more — but the central city must be even more polluted than Quito, the stinking diesel exhausts confined by tall buildings and narrow streets. Character, yes; charming, no. Nor am I sad to leave the Loki. While the staff was great, the bathrooms excellent and the beds comfortable, this hostel chain seems to market itself as the kind of place that appeals to people with whom I feel little in common — smokers, partiers, young people trying to out-cool each other, trying to score each other — where everyone’s “stoked” and “like” replaces half the punctuation in every conversation. I did chat briefly with some likeable travellers, but the Loki made me reevaluate my thoughts about authenticity — of all the places I’ve been on this journey, the Loki strikes me as the least “authentic”.
But how do we distinguish authenticity from our own preferences, our own likes and dislikes? Perhaps the Loki represents one facet of the authentic backpacker lifestyle, and whether I like it or not is beside the point. Having gone from appreciating authenticity to finding it everywhere and in everything, then, thanks to the Loki, becoming less convinced that everything can be considered authentic, I find myself confused. I can conclude only that, to be meaningful, the word “authentic” must always be qualified, that one must always say what one means when using it; thus, the Loki might deliver an authentic experience of party-hostels, but has nothing of substance in common with South American ways of life outside the tourist trail.
As we leave El Alto the bus picks up speed. Windows rattle and won’t close. We pass through a stark, hard landscape — small, drab adobe buildings; the glare of high altitude light; low, gnawed vegetation; littered roadsides; small figures shepherding llamas and sheep. The tops of barren mountains peek above the puna’s distant horizon. In one direction dust devils swirl like manifestations of the difficulty of living in such a place; in the other, mirage dissolves the world. How often have I travelled through this kind of country, these grey and brown dusty deserts scabbed with broken rock and studded with small, tough, thorny plants? Most of the world seems like this, and I can recall the feel of the damp Amazon only with an effort, while the tremendous humidity of Ghana, where the air itself seemed liquid, must surely have been a dream. The bus drives on, and I wonder how much more of the world will come to resemble what I see beyond the grimy window.
By the time we reach Oruro we’re looking forward to food, and after a short exploration and a few queries we find a restaurant. Unfortunately, we have almost no idea what the menu represents. Davide and I each end up with an enormous section of the ribcage of some medium-sized animal — mostly bone, thinly covered with semi-mummified meat — on a bed of rice with a small, probably poisonous salad and potatoes that taste like soil. Filippo does much better, with pique macho — a huge plate of boneless meat, sausage, boiled egg, tomato, and chips. He shares it with us. I manage to prise most of the meat off my section of animal, and with Filippo’s pique macho and the rice and potato, at least I’ve had enough to make up for the insubstantial breakfast at the Loki.
The shadow of the train creeps out towards the hills. Later, sunlight slides out from beneath the train, following the long shadows. We pass through a grey and brown and pale yellow world under a blue sky splattered with white thunderheads. The light softens; some of the most beautiful colours I’ve seen in a landscape emerge and, unbidden, memories arise — past hurts now seem of no importance; all is forgiven, none of the hurt matters. I think of Barry Lopez’s words: "It is in the land, I once thought, that one searches out and eventually finds what is beautiful. And an edge of this deep and rarefied beauty is the acceptance of complex paradox and the forgiveness of others."[1] Remembering these words, I realise the true extent of his insight and wish others could too. I could gaze out these windows indefinitely, perfectly happy to appreciate and think and simply wait for whatever the dusk has to offer.
But shortly before 7 p.m., before the windows darken completely, we reach Sevaruyo and the carriage lights come on, trapping us in a bubble of light. The darkness outside turns opaque and the windows turn to mirrors. With nothing else to do, I watch the video. Curiously, the film (Limitless) turns out to be loosely based on the concept of neuroenhancement, an essay topic I’d suggested a couple of semesters ago for a paper I’d tutored. I’d been surprised by the lack of interest from the students and wondered whether the ethical problems so apparent to me seemed non-issues to most of my students.
At Uyuni we find the hostel easily, settle in, then go for a beer at a smokey bar around the corner. A man accosts us, trying to sell us a tour of the Salar. We discuss it at length and Omar draws a map of the proposed route in my notebook. It resembles a wiring diagram for the Large Hadron Collider. We make no promises, saying only that we need first to see what the other operators will offer. Back at the hostel I climb into the cosiest bed I’ve encountered during this entire journey, and sleep until dawn.

1. Lopez, B. (1998). Arctic Dreams. London: Harvill. (Original work published 1986). (Epilogue, p. 410)

1, 2.The spectacular landscape surrounding the Muela del Diablo ("Devil's molar") on the outskirts of La Paz. (See another, looking from the Muela itself, here.)
3. Italians Davide and Filipo, with whom I travelled during most of my time in Bolivia.
4, 5. From the window of the train between Oruro and Uyuni. (More, larger, here, here, and here.)

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor

02 June 2012

Sketches of moments

Leonie has a new project over at Weekends Collected. Already the posts have begun to accumulate, building a collection of stories in words and photographs about "the times that are lived within the space of our arm’s reach… the places that are the source of our ‘humanness’… the foundations on which the rest of our life is built."

I've contributed a short post; please think about submitting something yourself.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

01 April 2012

Scarred for life

The first scar left the most lasting impact — the tip of your left middle finger vanished when, almost as long ago as you can remember, the car door slammed on that tiny finger. You remember nothing of the pain, nothing of the trauma; you have a few mental images — vague forms, impressions — of the car, your parents, the house, the driveway, the garden and the ash tree that was always there in front of the house, always the first thing seen beyond the big ceiling-to-floor windows and before the view over the market garden (usually a chaos of weeds, long dry grass and an occasional caterpillar-raddled cabbage). Of the trip to hospital you remember nothing, nor do you have anything but the faintest of impressions of the hospital itself, and those impressions might well have arisen from other visits, perhaps the apparently long stay when you had bronchitis or pneumonia or something similarly life-threatening at that age. Whether the illness preceded or followed the incident with the car door, you don’t remember.

You do recall coming home in the car after hospital — you were told the incident happened on your return after the operation on your hand, but you think it might have been after the illness and protracted stay — and saying nothing, refusing to speak during the entire journey, until someone (your mum probably) got out at the letter box and collected the mail and your first word since leaving the hospital was, “Bills!” An indication you were grumpy, that the world clearly conspired to wreck your life. You don’t know how old you were at the time, only that you hadn’t yet started school but could walk and talk — the latter only when you felt like talking, mind you.

Now, all these decades later, you look at the scarred, shortened fingertip with its deformed nail, and the zipper-like scar at the base of your thumb where the doctor peeled back the skin, folded your finger so the injured tip fitted into the incision, then sewed up the wound. When the skin had grown over, the doctor cut the finger free and sutured the skin on the fingertip and at the base of the thumb. This is why you have scars in both places. At least, this is what you were told, but you don't remember having had your finger sewed to your palm. The position and form of the scars agrees with this explanation, but you’ve not heard of this approach to fixing fingertips so you wonder whether your recollection, like so much memory, might be wrong.

Now, all these decades later, the scar at the base of your thumb remains as clear and pale and tough as ever. You spread your fingers to stretch the skin of your palm so you can see the scar as clearly as possible, and suddenly you’re struck by its faint resemblance to pre-European Maori rock drawings — in particular, one that featured on a New Zealand postage stamp when you were still a boy; a stamp released when you were still years away from your teens and when you still possessed the small-boy lust for possessing things like postage stamps and dead insects. The stamp collecting soon faded away, although you still have your badly-assembled album, full of mostly worthless stamps, but the insect-collecting persisted late into your teens. Later, the desire vanished; now, you feel no urge to collect the fascinating invertebrates you come across from time to time, although you sometimes photograph them (which seems a far more satisfactory way to extend and share your enjoyment).[1]
The next scar arrived when you were eleven; you tripped while running at school and ripped your right knee open on the asphalt (the only grass at your school grew in the guttering). A teacher put you in a taxi and sent you to A&E where someone stitched the wound. You don’t remember the stitching but you do remember the attractive nurse who flattered you with probably bullshit comments about how brave you were because you never flinched. You were proud of those stitches, just as you were proud of the four you added to the same knee when you tripped while running at home and sliced it open on a sharp edge of concrete. You began counting your tally of stitches, then.

Now, so many decades after the first scar, you have to think hard to remember how many times you’ve been sliced open, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, sometimes as a precaution and sometimes because you weren’t cautious enough. You no longer count sutures, though, because the doctors most often sew you up with a single stitch like the closure on a sack of rice. You wonder what stories your scars will tell to the person who lays you out on a cold table you cannot feel under bright lights you no longer see. Eventually those scars will vanish, but the breaks in your bones might tell other stories — fewer, you think, with relief — to anyone who might for god-knows-what reason retrieve them. But so much will have been lost. Who will know those healed ribs broke in a long fall; who might guess how your friends helped you down from the cliff, rowed you across the bay, flew with you to the hospital and drove you home? Given one paragraph, could you recover a book?

A white gull flies past, the black on its back and the upper surface of its wings hidden from beneath so the bird seems almost invisible against the pale, overcast sky. As the gull flies past, you see its head moving from side to side, looking, searching, ready to drop at the possibility of anything edible — the slowly inflating corpse of a road-killed possum, perhaps, or maybe a featherless chick fallen from a nest. You imagine the pale gull falling from the sky like an angel to consume the dead, and you count yourself lucky your scars healed: that you still have the chance to accumulate more, so many decades after the first.

1. You do accept the need to collect “specimens” for scientific purposes, but you’re glad you no longer need to do this.

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor

01 March 2012

The journey at night

Driving home at night you see immense clouds piled up, illuminated by a hidden moon, and you think of alien planets; you think of places humans will never go. But if through some unimaginable process you stood on one of those planets, what would you feel, standing alone, looking up at a sky like that, as far from home as any human had ever ventured, impossibly far from anyone you knew, so far from anyone at all that the rest of your species might never have existed? Terror? Panic? Probably. But perhaps you might also feel an overwhelming joy, an ecstasy you could never have imagined until now, until this moment when you stand somewhere no one has ever stood, looking at an elegiac sky no one until now has ever seen, ready to explore a world where you have almost no idea what to expect. You hope to find something alive but have no idea what form it might take, nor even whether you’ll recognise it as a living thing. If the metaphor of being torn between conflicting emotions has any truth, you have already been dismembered.

Driving home at night you see eyes shining from the long grass clogging a roadside drain. Knowing the eyes belong to a cat, you slow down; you expect the cat to crouch and wait but know cats sometimes misjudge a car’s speed and dash for the security of their own territory. You relax as the car cruises past and the eyes wink out. Further along, a tiny hedgehog wanders on the road as if following some convoluted, invisible path; the little creature stops, runs a little way, turns, trots a little further, returns to the middle of the road. You slow down and pass carefully, hoping it survives the night yet torn by the knowledge that this beautiful little animal lives here at the expense of other lives with histories here that stretch back millennia. Yet you could not run it down and save those other lives. A year ago a hedgehog ran out in front of the car as you drove home one night and you’ve never forgotten the dreadful crunch as you crushed it. You could not deliberately run down an animal no matter how righteous the rationale. One death won’t matter to the population, but it matters to the individual.

Driving home at night you cannot hear the crickets singing in the dry grasses. You cannot hear the ruru calling from the dark inside the macrocarpas, nor the rustle of the poplar leaves shimmering in the moonlight. You hear only the rush of air, the sound of tyres on tarmac, the engine humming and the intermittent rattle of something loose in the boot. You know the night wind outside will feel cool but not cold, but you know this only because you’ve switched the heater off. The car smells slightly of chlorine from the swimming gear you used this afternoon but you imagine the night will smell like cow shit and silage because right now you’re driving past a dairy shed. When you drive somewhere, what you imagine is as important as what you sense.

You could drive forever on a night like this, driving in moonlight with wild clouds, with strange things slipping through the shadows and stranger things inhabiting the edges of your imagination. Your destination no longer matters because you have already arrived; here, driving home at night you are already at home.

Photo: In the fjords of southern Chile, December 2011.

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor

03 January 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Shortly before I left for South America, I stayed with friends in Wellington and attended a screening of Werner Herzog's film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Immediately after the film I had a few hours on my own, so I jotted down some thoughts about the film. Here they are. I'll resume the South American posts shortly.

Thirty-two thousand years ago, prehistoric humans drew pictures of astonishing sophistication on the walls of the Chauvet cave in the south of France. The depictions of movement, the use of line and shading, the way the artists used the contours of the walls to emphasise the form of the animals — these and other aspects of the artwork seem impossibly advanced for humans who coexisted with Neanderthals. Yet the works can't be forgeries: calcite crystals which take thousands of years to form have grown on top of some of the drawings.

A typical documentary might have delivered the usual 60 Minutes type of product, with straightforward interviews clear, to-the-point narration and an arguably slanted perspective. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film by Werner Herzog, and viewers should expect anything but the straightforward. Much of the film does provide extended footage of the drawings — maybe too extended for some, although I found them so beautiful and fascinating I didn't mind the repeated shots. Instead, I enjoyed the freedom to look again, to consider what I saw, to pay attention to the details — was the apparent duplication of an eye a second attempt after the first appeared out of position (and if so, why did the artist not erase the failed attempt); why do some aspects of a drawing seem roughly sketched or inaccurate when the remainder appears so lifelike, and so on.

But Herzog seems interested in more than just the wonderful drawings and more than their artists, about whom we know almost nothing other than what their art suggests. His fascination also — perhaps primarily — focuses on the most fundamental of subjects: what it means to be human. Sometimes he queries this directly, although not always literally — one of the things I love about Herzog is his ability to ask questions that require careful thought not just to answer but to understand; his questions encourage exploration far more than they demand answers.

This focus on the meaning of being human includes all the people in his film. The prehistoric artists, yes, certainly — but also the diverse experts he interviews. In the first interview, Herzog interrogates a young archaeologist about his background. Why should this young man's career have any bearing on a film ostensibly about the Chauvet cave drawings? Perhaps precisely because it makes him more human. Another example: a palaeontologist demonstrates how a simple wooden device extends the range and accuracy of a thrown spear (Australians know this as a woomera, although this isn't mentioned in the film). After the expert's unconvincing attempt, Herzog suggests prehistoric humans were probably much better at throwing spears, to which the expert agrees: I'd probably be very poor at spearing horses, he says. This dry humour makes him more human — he’s not just an expert, he’s one of us.

This humanizing humour crops up often during the film — references to Fred Astaire and Baywatch find their way in, along with Herzog’s typically acerbic commentary — and this also, I believe, exemplifies his concern with the nature of being human. As far as we know, we're the only animals with a sense of humour (many animals play, but play is not humour; the "humour" we identify in animals is our own interpretation, also known as anthropomorphisation — a word, incidentally, that should be ritually speared if an alternative existed), and to introduce humour into a potentially dry, albeit fascinating, film is to make it more human.

But perhaps I'm overanalysing, and to me the film came dangerously close to failing when some experts began extending analysis into interpretation. One of the cave's guardians explains the excellent work that enabled her to identify an individual artist and follow his work throughout the cave; however, she then begins to interpret the drawings — in glowing terms, of course, but the language sounds like that of modern art criticism, although far less convoluted. Fashions in art change; what was avant-garde in the twentieth century has become tedious now, and in Cave of Forgotten Dreams Herzog overtly makes the claim that while we are bound by time, those prehistoric artists were not: some drawings are separated by 5000 years or more, a span incomprehensible to us. An accomplishment like the art of the Chauvet cave cannot be analysed appropriately using the language of contemporary art — nor does it deserve to be so ill-treated.

In the end, my overriding response to the film was emotional rather than analytical. I couldn't help feeling close to overcome by the thought of a human being thirty thousand years ago scratching at those walls with charcoal in the light of a guttering flame; a human utterly unaware of the significance of his actions (or could it have been her actions? — Herzog never asks the question); someone with no understanding of the concept of "art", drawing on those walls simply because he felt compelled to do so. Did his companions consider him odd, a little weird, or did they hold him in awe? How is it possible we know so little about those artists yet can look on their works and be so moved?

Perhaps this is true for most, perhaps all, of us: that in the end we will be unknown, and the only clues to who we were will be our works. Who, then, might leave a legacy that moves our successors — whomever or whatever they might be — as much as that of the artists of the Chauvet cave now moves us?

1. Puerto Natales, southern Chile. What motivated this? What do the people who live and work here think of this? How long will it survive? All I know is the boat — the canvas, the cave wall — will never sail again.
2.  Abandoned bunker, Godley Head, Lyttelton harbour.
3.  Street art, Ushuaia. Do I detect the influence of Banksy?

Photos and original text © 2012 Pete McGregor