5000 Mile Project: A chance meeting with the ‘Earth People’ of Patagonia

Katharine and David Lowrie
500 miles 300x225 5000 Mile Project: A chance meeting with the Earth People of Patagonia

Konomi and Paul in front of the Turf House they made

Patagonia is a fabled land of staggering proportions, pristine beauty and hidden treasures. A landscape which haunts your childhood dreams, where fairies and magicians creep.

Since the first day of the London Olympics, my husband David and I have been winding through its forests and endless pampas on a running expedition from the southern-most tip of South America to the Caribbean Sea;, “Running for the continent’s wild lands and wildlife”.

Recently we met with some most unusual Patagonians. They are new to these parts, but then so are all of modern-day Patagonian’s inhabitants, with the majority settling in this inaccessible region of Chile during the later part of the 20th century. A passing pair of cyclists divulged their presence. A stroke of luck, as we would not have found them otherwise. Unlike your average Patagonian resident, or homo sapien full stop, no road lead to their doorway, no car lurked under the eaves. In fact nothing was all together as it should be.

We squeezed through a wire fence, following cattle trails, climbing past tall flowing shrubs buzzing with fire-coloured bees. Finally in the adjacent field we spotted the peak of a roof cresting the hill. Crossing back through a fence we entered the ‘earth kingdom’ of Paul Coleman and Konomi Kikuchi, ‘Earth Walkers’, who have walked incredible distances, spreading a message of environmental stewardship.

They found their slice of hillside three years ago and ever since have been sculpting it by hand. In place of wood or corrugated iron, the preferred building materials of Patagonia, they chose earth. Slowly their “Hobbit Hole” grew from the hilltop as they filled sack after sack with a mix of volcanic earth dug from their plot. The network of holes and gulleys created for their house are now filled with greenhouses, a composting loo and pools to water their organic vegetables and the hundreds of native trees and shrubs which are sprouting from the hillside.

We stowed our bags by a cherry tree, under a camping canopy erected for passing visitors and followed the maze of paths they had created to the front door. The fragrance of herbs and incense wafted through the warm air of their home. Caramel-coloured Hessian rugs carpeted the walls. It was very simple, very beautiful, but most striking was the warmth. The thick earth walls provide the perfect insulation against the notorious howling Patagonian weather, while in the summer, they create a pool of shade; similar to the centuries old, thick cob cottage walls, in which I grew up in Devon.

Local people were at first weary of their new neighbours and their odd house. ‘People couldn’t understand us when we first moved to the valley’, Paul explained, ‘Who were these gringos walking for miles backwards and forwards from the village, with heavy rucksacks full of provisions through driving rain or biting cold? Where was their car? Are they so very poor that they must build from earth?’

Konomi laughed, ‘They said we were too thin, that they would not survive the first Patagonian winter. But we kept walking; heaving the supplies we needed up the hill on our backs. Slowly, step-by-step, our house grew and we shaped the permaculture gardens of our hillside. Now, three years on, we are still alive!’

We gazed out over the mountains and chalky-green river, with long grass framing the view from their turf walls, sipping green tea. We had planned to stay for an hour, before running on another 13 miles to finish the day’s 20 mile quota. But as the hours swept past in a haze of extraordinary stories, this was soon forgotten. Paul pulled out his, ‘Earth Walking’ book. He perched like a wizard by the fire, his long grey plait falling over his shoulder, the soft light of the fire flickering across his animated face. It was no ordinary book, it was gigantic, nearly two feet tall! ‘This is the book of fairy tales. Through this I show people the beauty of the natural world I walk through’.

A mix of tales, newspaper clippings, thoughts, photos and illustrations filled its pages. Here he communicated with the people he met whilst walking the planet; sharing his story and inviting them to add their own thoughts. ‘It was important that it was large; whilst walking through Serbia during the conflict it was my bullet-proof protection! Soldiers stopped me. I thought they were going to kill me. Then, whilst searching my belongings, they discovered the book. Something happened. A kind of reverence crept over their faces. They forgot about persecuting me.’

Paul, British by birth, first became entranced by the living world when travelling through Iceland. He began an incredible journey walking thousands of miles around the world for the environment, planting over 10 million native trees in the countries he crossed. He walked through Northern and Central America towards the first Rio Summit. He walked around the UK, through Europe and South Africa. Since 1990, he has walked over 46,500 km, through 39 nations, becoming well known across the world as the ‘Earth Walker’.

Then in 2005 he travelled to Japan, presenting on his earth philosophy in Tokyo. Friends told Konomi that the, ‘Man who plants trees’ was to give a lecture. She thought it was the French author, Jean Gioni, of the enchanting fable of the same title. Instead she found Paul and two months later they were married! We listened as Konomi told her story. She was intensely peaceful to be near. Her delicate frame held impeccably straight. Her long jet black hair, flecked with an occasional silver strand, tied neatly into a pony-tail.

She grew up 100km north of Tokyo, with a childhood full of nature, collecting mushrooms from the forests. She migrated to the city working long stressful hours and finally after a series of sorrowful events, decided to take a year off, living on her savings. Two months later she met Paul and the natural roots of her childhood were ignited by this kindred soul.

In 2007, they set out on their first walk together from Hong Kong to Beijing, over 3000 km. Konomi smiled, ‘I was in agony, everything hurt; it was so very painful. I had never walked. Yes, short distances to the shops, but not this. Yet it was also rejuvenating and enormously peaceful’.

The walk revealed horrifying environmental destruction: forests destroyed, rubbish rotting in huge heaps by homes, fish floating on the surface of rivers, while the only wild animals they saw were rats. Finally, upon the sight of rivers bubbling red from the blood of piglets they later found discarded and bloated up stream, they both decided to become vegetarians. ‘The destruction was incredible. Birds were literally dropping dead out of the sky. People were dying from the intense contamination and pollution.’

We were aware of China’s environmental record, but hearing their stories first-hand was shocking; especially when considering the contents of an average Western household; one realizes who is helping to fuel the cheap exports and environmental holocaust.

Konomi showed us her books. She has already written twelve and is currently writing another about their new sustainable Patagonian home. Her slender fingers traced the exquisite lines of Japanese script. Through their words and actions, Paul and Konomi share their gentle environmental ways with millions of people. They have chosen to live in Patagonia because it is a last stronghold for wild places and wildlife; the reasons we are running.

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