At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile. We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.
The Mylodon is an giant ground sloth that inhabited Patagonia up until about ten thousand years ago. They were very large animals – weighing in at around two hundred kilograms and standing three meters tall in their socks, and little bony plates (osteoderms) lodged inside their skin. Not many other animals would have tangled with a mylodon. They were tough customers, and it says something about how very tough the humans of these cold, windy parts were that they managed to take all of them out. One by one.
The Cueva del Milodon is a very large cave, where almost a hundred and twenty years ago, in 1895, the German explorer Hermann Eberhard dug up a cache of Mylodon bones and petrified Mylodon scat. Five minutes later, the place was overrun by looters and treasure hunters, but one hundred and twenty years later, archeologists still haunt the place, digging fitfully in corners, trying to convince visitors that the potholes and debris piles are just how the prehistoric human inhabitants left it.
When I first visited the cave nine years ago, Dad and had I considered the extinction a significant blow for interior design. I mean, really... Streaky mud floors, creeping damp, salt damage….
The cave doesn’t need the Mylodon – its two hundred meters of depth are staggeringly impressive all on their own. But a week of wind makes you punchy. It drives you to desperation, and when you snap, you break out in chintz. Dad and I considered something in an oversize floral print. Maybe a tiki bar in the back, to justify a few prehistoric flaming torches. And oh, the potential for hi-fi! At the back of the cave, where the wall curves up against the scree slope, the echoes get really big.
Dr Tabubil and and I halloo’d the reverberate fjord. “Tabubilgirl -erl –erl is a hottie -hottie -ottie!)”
Dad looked at us and looked at us and said dryly how pleased he was to see how far the level of human culture had risen since humans moved into the place.
Back then there wasn’t much there: a car park, marked roughly with logs, and a gravel path up the hill to the mouth of the cave –
Today the Cueva del Milodon has a café, a visitors centre, a ranger station, and an elevated walkway to take you all the way to the cave while walking six careful inches above the pampas grass. On a natural promontory in the mouth of the cave there is a life-size milodon done up in fiberglass and a plexiglass box holding a mummified scrap of genuine milodon skin, with genuine milodon fur on it –
We duly marveled and went down into the cave. It’s still hugely impressive – two hundred yawning meters of dark brown echoes and poetry of the gaping cavernous sort. Today, though, you can’t get near the echo wall. A gravel path circles through the cave, with chain-link ropes on each side and everywhere, signs explaining that only a fraction of the cave floor has been dug up and priceless artifacts lie centimeters beneath the virgin surface in every single direction, so kindly, gently, courteously please stay on the path. The signs urged, begged, pleaded and even tried for stern nursery tones, but it was patently obvious to even the most credulous viewer that nothing further from virgin earth had existed this cave at any time in geological history –
The floor of the cave looked like a major European city center during the blitzes of world war two, after the rescue crews had been through the place and added a layer of shafts and ladder holes to the chaos.
Chileans don’t much like being told where they can – or cannot - walk, and to my discretely outsize pleasure, every square meter of the cave floor that wasn’t actually vertical had recently accumulated a brand new layer of archeological interest – the overlapping footprints of hundreds and hundreds of sneakers and hiking boots. All together, they made a rather fetching pattern of interlocking divots and caterpillar prints, vaguely reminiscent of a carpet in a low-rent casino in Las Vegas. It would have gone great with the tiki bar and torches.
I took a step toward the echo wall, but Sarah blocked my leap across the chain-link rope.
“You have to think about examples, Tabubilgirl.” She said, and looked meaningfully at little Laurie hanging about behind me, round about the level of my knees.
“Yep.” Miles nodded sadly. “You’re a role model now. You want him learning bad habits? Do what the sign says except when you don’t because that doesn’t count, forget you ever saw it? Really, Tabubilgirl?”
I looked eloquently at the carpet of footprints, and mouthed a rude word over Laurie’s head.
“He’s two feet tall.” Sarah said. “He notices people, not the background stuff. You just spent two days playing patty-cake and spot-the-birds-on-poles with him in the backseat of a car. He thinks you’re the best thing to hit the earth since that first time he heard us singing baa baa black sheep. He’s tracking everything you do like those great big eagles on poles track sick sheep! Do you really want this for your legacy? What comes next? Running in the street?”
Well fine, then. Nine years since I was here last, and now, no echoes. I loitered moodily, sulking and kicking gravel about with my feet and taking bad photographs of the inside of the cave with no flash lighting until Laurie and his dismal parents had cleared a debris pile halfway to the entrance, and then I grabbed Mr Tabubil’s hand, nipped over the chain-link rope, and made a run for the wall.
“I don’t get this” Mr Tabubil panted as we climbed and slipped our way up the scree slope.“The cave echoes. That’s what caves do. But the echo isn’t any different over here-“
“HERE!!!” the cave rang. “HEREHereherehere Here!”
“Oh.” Mr Tabubil said, very softly, and the cave whispered back to him. I laughed, and the cave laughed. I tittered and the sound ran back and forth across the roof, chiming like stone bells.
Mr Tabubil growled a low “Ho Ha Ho.” Rumbles of sound around the walls of the cave, shivering through the rock. We laughed at each other and the cave laughed back – high, low, happy, gleeful, heated, cruel – until the air rocked and trembled and little Laurie in the mouth of the cave was crying in fear.
“Are you happy now?” An exasperated shout came from the cave entrance.
“Appy!” The cave called back. “Ow? Now?”
“For Pete’s sake.” The voice said, disgusted. “You’ll be running on roads next. Right in front of him.”
Holding tightly to each other, Mr Tabubil and I slithered down the scree back to the path, grinning like loons. I could walk on the paths for another eight or nine years now. I was filled up.