Sunday, 19 April 2015

Travelling through Patagonia

Many prolific words have already been written about the allure of Patagonia. For hundreds of years it has drawn men and women to its barren, bold beauty. Travellers from Darwin onwards have noted how the bleakness seizes the imagination. It is a harsh place, battered by winds and snows, scorched by the sun, carved and shaped by ice and smothered in glacial deposits and volcanic debris. Oh, and its huge, seemingly endless as you sit looking through the bus window for hour after hour, day after day gazing at the same landscape of flat arid steppe with sedimentary hills and distant blue mountains topped with cloud.

Patagonia’s dimensions are not exact, it exists on maps and charts and in books but has no absolute boundaries and multiple definitions. Some say south from the Rio Negro others say from the Rio Colorado. Either way it covers over one million square kilometres, most of them taken up by a coarse grassy shrub. At higher altitudes rainfall is more abundant and there are forests of sub-antarctic beech, rich soils full of wild flowers and huge lakes fed by silt rich glacial rivers. But higher still it is just a world of rock and ice, cold, harsh and desolate.

The view from the bus window changes little over hundreds of kilometres. In the small towns, squat single storey houses with small windows and flat or tinned roofs. Only the main streets are paved, streets branching off are dirt roads. Old farm machinery and horse-drawn carts displayed on verges. Barren, wide open spaces stretching out like a film background on repeated loop, the monotony is endless. Grey soil with round grey pebbles, dotted with small grey bushes and hummocks of straw yellow grasses, which blend into a yellowy-grey dusting upon the distant hills. Occasionally a feature appears to catch your eye, often the sun-bleached bones of an ex-cow litters the dust-laden road side. Poplars often denote an abandoned farmstead, slowly crumbling back into the plains.

Despite the conditions life survives, wild guanacos, ancestor of the llama and alpaca, roam the steppe, along with hare and rabbit. These are all prey for the puma that rules the Andes, followed by the grey and red foxes. The bird life is prolific from geese, ducks and flamingos to parakeets, eagles and the enormous Andean Condor.

As stated by Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, “the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometime fatally! … Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness.”

Despite the harshness it is a truly beautiful and unspoilt place. There are dozens of national parks, reserves and wilderness areas. There are still unexplored regions, two huge icecaps, thousands of glaciers and a seemingly endless coastline of fjords, islands and inlets. I think we’ll be back for more!

The endless flat steppe plains

Only broken by rivers, lakes and the sea to the east

...and the mountains to the west