Tracing the footsteps of the legendary explorer and travel writer with Werner Herzog.
Bruce Chatwin’s story is one of obsession, a lifelong commitment to wandering the globe.He spent his life manifesting adventure in unmapped landscapes seeing the world in an entirely new light. From the mountains of Patagonia to ancient Aboriginal lands, this iconic English travel writer found comfort in a nomadic life seeking answers to human restlessness, and what he saw as a fundamental question of human existence.
One of Chatwin’s unique talents was his ability to transport the reader, infusing them with an entirely new perspective in which to view the world. Anything but predictable, Chatwin’s writing was full of beautiful descriptions and intriguing tales compiled from a compelling combination of research and first-hand experience. Never without a little black notebook, he would be constantly recording a collage of histories, sketches, myths and memories that would inform and inspire his work.
Chatwin’s first book ‘In Patagonia’ is an account of his travels to a remote corner of South America in search of a strange beast and the fascinating people he encountered along the way. It begins with Chatwin as a child in Birmingham, England looking at a piece of “brontosaurus skin”. This fragment of brown-reddish animal hide, kept in his grandmothers ‘cabinet of curiosities, was sent by her cousin Charley Milward, a seaman who settled in Patagonia. The hide, not of a brontosaurus, but rather a mylodon – a prehistoric sloth that went extinct 10,000 years ago, held enormous value for Chatwin. It was a symbol of possibility. One of extraordinary adventure in another world, ‘Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin‘. But by the time he was an adult, the skin had been lost. His journey to Patagonia was a quest to find his own piece of mylodon hide, by travelling to the cave in Tierra Del Fuego where it was initially found.
Today, over forty years since the publication of this groundbreaking travelogue, the journeys of this legendary explorer continue to inspire. ‘The Nomadic Alternative’ is a new film by Chatwin’s dear friend and collaborator, the acclaimed director Werner Herzog. Herzog traces the footsteps of Chatwin to discover how his passion for the nomadic life shaped his art and personality. Carrying the rucksack Chatwin gave him on his deathbed he ventures from Patagonia, to the Welsh borders, where Chatwin wrote perhaps his most remarkable novel On The Black Hill and to Australia, where Chatwin and Herzog met, each drawn by the power of the country’s ancient myths. Along the way, Herzog uncovers tales of dreamers, forgotten tribes and world wanderers creating a portrait of one of the 20th centuries most vivid and elusive writers. “A writer like no other,” says Herzog “He would craft mythical tales into voyages of the mind.”
Herzog remembers their first meeting fondly, ‘He immediately started to tell stories, and when he stopped for breath, I tried to fit mine in. That went on non-stop for almost 48 hours.’ Australia was the backdrop of Chatwin’s most radical book ‘The Songlines’ – a crystallisation of his lifelong quest to understand what it means to be human. Fascinated by the concept of aboriginal songlines, ancient routes across the Australian continent that are passed down through generations by songs known only to initiated elders. These rituals are legacies and it is said that the songlines should not be seen, or heard, or sung by those not initiated into specific sacred knowledge.
For Chatwin, the songlines served as further evidence that humans evolved as a migratory, nomadic species. Everything he had experienced in his travels convinced him that humans are meant to travel. “Natural selection has designed for us a career of seasonal journeys on foot, and the act of journeying contributes towards a sense of physical and mental wellbeing.” Chatwin’s roving imagination sought to create a philosophy of humanity out of his travels. In this film, Herzog marvels at his friend’s restless spirit – not just to travel to the extremes but to ask questions about who we are, how we give meaning to our lives. And the lessons to be learnt from our earliest nomadic instincts.