A failed Australian communist paradise caught between thick South American jungle and cleared paddocks — this was exactly where I wanted to be but hey, it was hell to get here.
I was in the tiny village of Cosme in the South American nation Paraguay.
Cosme began life as an offshoot of the community of New Australia when a rift formed between the colonists and the whole concept broke down.
I’m with Brian Wood, my guide of sorts, whose ancestors founded this very village, and I’m pressing him about pumas in the hopes he has seen one.
He has, but they are a rare sight in one of the few remaining patches of jungle in this heavily deforested country, surrounded by stretches of cleared paddocks for livestock.
Brian’s uncle, Francisco Wood, taught him how to hunt in the forest, but they were chasing partridge and fish.
These are the kinds of things you need when you live three hours from the capital, an hour of which is spent negotiating thick mud and patches of forest.
It occurs to me that there’s a certain insanity to such a trip pre-four-wheel-drive vehicles.
But that’s exactly what a few hundred bold Australians did in 1893 when they formed a socialist utopia in the heart of the South American jungle.
Led by William Lane, a journalist and self-titled “champion of the people”, the group sold up their lives and embarked on a four-month journey to escape the poverty and social unrest of Australia at that time.
Lane’s rules of no alcohol and no sleeping with the local women didn’t exactly sit well with a group of mostly single men in their 20s and the laws broke down the moment they landed in Buenos Aires in Argentina.
That was the beginning of the end for New Australia — and they hadn’t even made it to their little patch of heaven in the Paraguayan forest.
Fortunately for me I live in a time when the internet exists and, with the help of the Wood family, I have had a much easier time.
Before leaving home I contacted Roddie Wood (Brian’s dad), whose grandparents William and Lillian made that daring trip to the other side of the world.
I agonised over my pitch to see these colonies and he simply responded, “OK mate, ring me up when you arrive”, and left his phone number.
Just like that, I had become an honorary member of the family.
When I arrived in the capital city of Asuncion, in his thick part-Paraguayan accent the first thing Roddie says to me is: “G’day young Sam, how are you mate?”
In his ute we make our way through the cobbled streets of Paraguay’s capital, passing horses and carts and giant shanty towns.
When it comes time to part ways for the night Roddie asks me what my plans are for the next day — and I say “nothing”.
“Tomorrow is my grand-niece’s eighth birthday party, do you want to come?”
Hell yes I do.
The next day when the big party is winding down I start making plans with Roddie about how exactly I’m going to get out to Cosme and he volunteers his youngest son Brian.
There are maybe a dozen families in Cosme and not a shred of English to be heard. Thankfully I have Brian to translate for Francisco and myself.
We’re underneath the house, on ground level with dirt beneath our shoes. Other than the original kitchen which is still intact from the 1890s, the rest of the house is above us on stilts.
The three of us sit around an old wooden table eating a staple meal of chicken, rice, and mandioka, which looks like wood and tastes like potato.
The chicken we’re eating is their own; every house here has to be pretty much self-sufficient.
When the river rises in the wet season the village can be cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time.
But isolation is nothing new for Cosme. With no support or outreach from the Australian government of the time, you can see why there might be some hard feelings that linger to this day.
This is what Francisco tells me after lunch: that sense of abandonment is heavy. Despite that, and only visiting Australia once, he still considers the land Down Under to be his home.
Francisco grew up in this house and will likely take his last breath here. He has no intentions of leaving.
He loves the peace and quiet and assures me people out here often live into their 90s.
“Tranquillity maintains life,” he tells me. “You become old by worrying and complaining.”
Complaining is definitely not something Francisco does. When I ask him what he dislikes about living out in the middle of the forest he doesn’t really have an answer.
He tells me the threat of being stranded is just something they have to deal with.
Growing up in a small country town in Western Australia I can relate somewhat to what it feels like to be isolated.
That’s when Francisco asks me about home and I tell him whatever he wants to know.
I thought the whole point of travelling was to get away from the familiar and become immersed in something truly foreign.
Yet here I was, on the other side of the planet, talking with honorary Australians about life back home.