Monday, August 25, 2014

On The Road in Patagonia - 125 Years Later


Approach to Torres del Paine


In 1879, Lady Florence Dixie chose to travel by boat from England to explore Patagonia,  land of the Giants.  In responding to those who thought her crazy to journey to such an outlandish place so far away, she wrote that was precisely why she chose it.  Writing in her memoir, “Across Patagonia” Lady Dixie explained, “Palled for the moment with civilization and its surroundings, I wanted to escape somewhere, where I might be as far removed from them as possible.”  She recognized other countries may be “more favoured by Nature but nowhere else are you so completely alone.”

Upon arrival in the outpost of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the South American Continent, Lady Dixie, her brothers, husband and friend bought horses, food and guides as they set out for their six month journey.  Her first impression of the Pampas was disappointing – desolate, successions of bare plateaus, not a tree or shrub visible anywhere – like a landscape of some other planet.  And, the wind, oh, the “boisterous wind – the standing drawback to the otherwise agreeable climate of Patagonia.”
Two Guanacos in Patagonia

But Nature had much to offer Lady Dixie - herds of 5,000 guanacos (small members of the llama family), groups of 100 rheas or small ostriches, wild foxes, and pumas.  And, as they approached the majestic Cordilleros mountain range, geese, duck, swans, and flamingos appeared near the lakes. Wildlife was not just for viewing as they were all hunted for food with help from the dogs.   Califate berry bushes and wild cranberries provided some variety in the diet.   And the ibis made a great broth. 

They passed an Argentine gaucho, native tribes traveling and traders with their wares.  Never sure whether those approaching were friend or foe, Lady Dixie’s entourage kept guns handy.  Finally, they entered the mountains from the barren plains.  Despite the “almost painful silence”, Lady Florence knew her view of Torres del Paine (the Towers of Paine) with the snow covered mountains and glaciers was not yet shared by any other woman of her world.  Penciled sketches brought back her majestic views to England to prove her discovery and to entice others to visit. 

One hundred and twenty-five years later, I followed much of Lady Dixie’s path but in significantly more comfort.   Also starting in Punta Arenas, we traveled north by bus the first day, crossing the same Pampas, enduring equally strong wind, and awaiting the same snow covered mountains to gradually appear out of the haze.  

While the numbers of wild life were greatly reduced, we easily found guanacos and rheas as well as geese and ducks.  Sheep and cows were now numerous mixed with wild horses.  The modern world shone bright with an oil refinery and wind turbines. Plastic bags were caught in the brush like modern day tumbleweeds.   We stopped three times to pick up passengers waiting on the side of the road and at a bus station on an air force base.  And as we neared the mountains, beautiful estancias, tucked in ravines, provided green relief.      

Rheas in Patagonia
In a van on the second day of traveling, even fewer cars were on the road.  A sign warned “Watch for Flying Sand”, a rather obvious danger, I thought.  While stopped to observe our first eagle, we heard nearby Cara Cara birds squawking loudly and for good reason.  Three grey foxes were stealing their babies.  More guanacos passed by, easily jumping the fences.   And rheas seemed more numerous, possibly thanks to their being protected by law. 

In a mere 1 ½ days, we arrived at the foot of the mountain leading to the three towers of Torres del Paine, Lady Dixie’s ultimate site and one she described as “Cleopatra’s Needles”.   Our trails were more worn, filled now with visitors from around the world and we slept in beds rather than tents.  But we did share the building or contribution to rock cairns found along the trails while Lady Dixie alone carved her name in a yet unfound tree. 


Modern Day Gauchos in Patagonia
Lady Dixie is well known in the Patagonia area today.  A hotel in Puerta Natales is named in her honor and guides nod in recognition when you mention her name.  It was a relief to find the landscape intact and the wildlife visible – just as she wrote.  What hadn’t changed in those years was the vastness of the mountains, abundance of glaciers and waterfalls, stratified soil colors, scattered rain clouds, streams of clear water, and blue glacier lakes – all a geologist’s dream and a traveler’s thrill.  

Lady Dixie dedicated her amazing journal to His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, the  Prince of Wales.  I think I’ll dedicate this column to Lady Florence herself  – another adventuresome spirit of a different era.

1 comments:

tclark2410@aol.com said...

Oh, Mary....I think this is the most beautiful piece you've ever written! Now I HAVE to read the book. Love those rheas and guanacos.

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