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Journey to the Ends of the Earth

Patagonia is a palimpsest — a world hidden beneath another world, says Peter Kennedy. In the land of dragons' pawprints and majestic glaciers, loneliness is a privilege well-earned

Journey to the Ends of the Earth

Damn you Bruce Chatwin, whose hauntingly beautiful book On Patagonia has burned so vividly in my imagination even some 35 years after I first read it. Damn you Paul Theroux, for writing The Old Patagonian Express. And damn you Fabrizio D'Angelo, whose pictures of the lakes and mountains around his property made me more determined to visit this massive, sparsely populated landscape of pampas, mountains, lakes and deserted beaches.
Patagonia is a palimpsest, a picture concealed beneath another picture, a world hidden beneath another world. There is a feeling of remoteness that you just don't find in other countries and continents. Even in the vast wildernesses of either the Gobi or Taklamakan Desert, the enormous populations of Asia are still within easy reach. In Patagonia, not so: “Patagonia is the furthest place to which man walked from his origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination something like the moon, but in my opinion more powerful.” Thus did Bruce Chatwin describe this stark and beautiful hinterland.
It is said that Magellan and his explorers derived the name in 1520 from the huge footprints or patas (paws) that they saw in the sand. This was the age of “Here be dragons” and these “footprints” no doubt awed the early explorers. The locals then became known as Patagones.
We began our journey in Bariloche, the swanky ski resort and an alleged refuge of a handful of Nazi fugitives. We did not linger. After picking up a four-wheel-drive, we headed south on the only main tarmac road running down the Andes called Ruta 40. Dipped headlights are compulsory, as we were warned by the car hire company and the Gendarmeria Nacional when we were stopped at a road block. Traffic on Ruta 40 is few and far between, though the odd lumbering truck or bus has to be circumvented, which can prove a treacherous proposition on such windy roads. It is a spectacular drive alongside deep crystalline lakes, and towering mountains, many still snow-capped in mid-summer.
Patagonia is not a precise region on the map. It is a vast, vague territory that encompasses 900,000sq km of Argentina and Chile. It is an immense empty space, the area of Europe, with 1.74 million people mostly in the towns. This short article takes in just a fragment: From El Bolson to Cholila in Chubut province and Tierra Del Fuego.
Estancia Las Mercedes is a 2,000-hectare property owned by the Spadone family, who very kindly loaned us their magnificent house sitting on the edge of a lake (theirs) near a place called Epuyen. This was our Forward Operating Base in deference to my son Jon and his friend Bret, both Cavalry officers in the US Army, who formed the rest of our group. From there we struck out into the surrounding mountains, where the steep terrain and shifting topsoil was grist to my young companions, though a bit of a struggle for me!
There had been a major fire about 10 years ago and the fallen trees and secondary growth, not to mention the scree, rocks and thorns, made the hiking extremely difficult. Our constant companions were two cattle dogs, who seemed to run almost all the time and would disappear sporadically to follow the scent of the local wildlife — mostly hares we were told by Ruben, the caretaker of the property. There are also pumas in the hills, though rarely seen, which are known to kill young cattle.
There is a magnificent waterfall on the property and I can safely say that I have not been to many properties with such features. Needless to say, it was tempting to bathe under it, despite the iciness of the water. And, needless to say, we had a volunteer — well done, Bret! Swimming in Patagonia's lakes is not for the faint-hearted, most are quite cold, with a few exceptions. The lake on which we stayed was frigid.
Do not expect culinary sophistication in Patagonia. Lamb and beef is plentiful, good and cheap, and the lake trout is also delicious. Further South along Ruta 40 is a small hamlet called Cholila, which leads to another magnificent lake. This was Gourmet Central and the beautiful home of Fabrizio and Paola D'Angelo, located on the edge of Mosquito Lake. There, we celebrated New Year's Eve, cooked a whole roast lamb over an open fire, quaffed copious quantities of Malbec and contemplated the magnificent views. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out near Cholila and their cabin survives to this day.
From Epuyen, we flew another 1,400km to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, a wild and isolated speck at the edge of the Antarctic Ocean, hemmed in by mountains on one side and the Beagle Channel on the other. Founded as a penal colony, it is the place where strangers from many lands come to experience the loneliness, climb the mountains, brave the notoriously fickle climate and gather till the wee hours at the Dubliner, an Irish pub and the last outpost at the end of the world.
A frenetic, garrulous, drunken group of nationalities cavort at this ale-soaked garrison, from US naval aviators to Brazilian honeymooners with the usual sprinkling of Aussies, Brits and Kiwis, many of them hardened climbers attempting to ascend to the summit of the many dangerous peaks in the vicinity. There is one very good Italian restaurant in Ushuaia called Taupe, with excellent views over the Beagle Channel. Eating there was a well-deserved reward after an arduous hike. (A word on the weather: Temperatures can go from 30 to 5 degree Celsius in a day.)
We took a hike up into the Martial glacier, through the wilderness of Tierra Del Fuego. The lower elevations are very marshy, but our guide was unerring in leading us through. Before long, we were engulfed in a wild, desolate country with jagged snow-covered peaks glowering down on the watery terrain below. It is the isolation and remoteness, the indifference with which these peaks glare down on the tiny mortals struggling through the tangled, mud-drenched marshes, which give this landscape its place in our imaginations.
The cobalt-blue lakes and fantastically contorted trees, which strive in vain to remain erect against the cruel, almost katabatic winds, make this an uncompromising yet magnificent landscape. We hiked in a group, which included a Brazilian couple, who, judging from their almost comically inappropriate outfits, had evidently never been on a hike or knew what one was. The poor guy flaked out about halfway up, but the young woman, despite her sartorial handicap, persevered and reached the summit.
Of course, Patagonia is a much tamer place since Bruce Chatwin wrote about it some 40 years ago. The era of cruise ships has arrived, though only the smaller and more upmarket sort dock in Ushuaia. At the entrance to the port is a large sign which reads “Prohibido el amarre de los buques piratas Ingleses” (roughly translated into “English pirate vessels are prohibited from mooring here”).
Ushuaia is the provincial capital of Las Malvinas, or the Falklands Islands as they are more familiarly known as in the UK. Our visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of the war, but despite the many signs reading: “Las Malvinas son nuestras” (The Malvinas are ours) and seemingly half the airports in Argentina being called Las Malvinas, the issue did not seem to excite much passion among Argentinians.
The Beagle Channel cuts off Ushuaia from Cape Horn, which lies to the south of Navarin and Hoste Island, two largely uninhabited islands owned by Chile. The waters are crystal clear, an aquamarine blue, and home to wild birds, penguins and seals. These shores were once home to several Indian tribes, the last descendant of whom died in Chile two years ago — she was in her nineties. Now, only mounds remain, which are comprised of the shells and bones of the fish and animals they ate. Seeing them as the only remnant of a culture that had existed for many hundreds of years, and one that had an extraordinary link with the natural environment, was poignant, especially given how they are now utterly extinct. Nevertheless, on a sunny day, hiking around this shoreline was a wonderful and exhilarating experience.
Patagonia, with its history of eccentric characters, austere and dramatic terrain, variable climates, lakes, mountains and pampas is a place you have to visit, and visit soon. Sadly, the Patagonia of Bruce Chatwin has largely disappeared. It has become a tamer place but still retains that primal, almost alien quality, which gives it its charm.
But this quality is under threat. Even “the end of the world” is not immune to the encroachment of globalisation. With each passing year, the number of visitors increases, endangering the emptiness which lends this land its unique appeal.
Visit now, before that wonderful emptiness, like the native tribes that once made this place their home, disappears.