‘The hunt for a strange animal in a remote land’: looking for Chatwin’s Patagonia

March 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

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It went with me all the way to Ushuaia, squeezed into a corner of my rucksack. The bookish bit of my brain wouldn’t let me go without it.

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is renowned as a Bible for travellers heading to the southern reaches of the South American continent. As a piece of ‘travel writing’, it has a near unequalled reputation.

Why the inverted commas above? The simple answer is that this is no straightforward description of places visited. The space of Chatwin’s Patagonia is not that of the geographical region in 1975 (still less in 2012). As the critic Nicholas Shakespeare puts it, ‘[Chatwin’s] structure was that of a journey constantly, interrupted, zigzagging among texts and through time’. In Patagonia‘s 97 tiny chapters recount not only the author’s wanderings, but also those of Butch Cassidy, ill-fated seafarer Charley Milward, anarchist Simón Radowitzky and the mad French ‘King of Patagonia’.

So any traveller heading south from Buenos Aires clutching a paperback, hoping to find ‘Chatwin’s Patagonia’, is bound to be disappointed. It doesn’t, and never has existed, beyond the page. It is a literary space.

And yet seeking out similarities is irresistible. Irresistible and, in 2012, rather frustrating. Patagonia is still the huge expanse of Argentina and Chile lying south of the Río Colorado. That much has not changed since the seventies. But it is rare to ‘travel’ here as Chatwin did, hopping on and off lorries, walking for days, relying on the kindness of others. Possible, no doubt, but rare. There is an established tourist circuit, which I roughly followed from north to south, shadowing the Andes (it was a holiday, after all).

So from the start, I knew I would not see the Atlantic coast, the old Welsh colonies of Gaimán and Trelew or the industrial towns of Río Gallegos and Puerto San Julián. In fact, most of what I saw finds no mention in Chatwin’s book: the beautiful lakes around Bariloche, the stunning Fitz Roy mountain range, the Perito Moreno glacier.

There are two main reasons for this: firstly, Chatwin was clearly more interested in people and stories than in natural wonders. And secondly, there was no notion of Patagonian tourism back then, no infrastructure to support that sort of ‘adventure travel’ – trekking, climbing, wildlife-watching.

In spite of that, there were moments when I felt closer to the Patagonia Chatwin experienced. Almost all of these occurred in two places: in the vast expanse of plains between Bariloche and El Chaltén, and in Tierra del Fuego.

Heading south from Bariloche by road, you find yourself on the ‘Ruta 40’, the highway which runs almost the entire length of Argentina, paralleling the Andes. About half of the distance I covered to get to El Chaltén was on gravel, though work is clearly well underway to pave these sections. For now, though, travel is slow, and it takes nearly 24 hours to cover the 1,400 kilometres between Bariloche and El Chaltén.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say there is nothing on the way but immense expanses of grassland and constant shadow of mountains on the western horizon. That, and herds of guanaco (like wild llamas) and flocks of ñandú (something like rhea). In two days of travel the bus passed, I think, seven villages. 

One of them, Bajo Caracoles, Chatwin passed through as well, calling it ‘a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere’. It is still the same, a few houses clustered around a petrol station, and to the south there is nothing for four hours.

The journey was, I will admit, quite dull. There is not much to see or do in this barren vastness. Even the land seems to shrink, at sunset, before the coloured dome of the sky, uncovered here as in few other places. I thought of Nicholas Shakespeare’s phrase in his introduction to Chatwin’s work:

In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometimes fatally.

This is one part of the Earth where humans are of little importance, still. On the second day I saw a skeleton of a sheep by the roadside, intact and clean. No human hand had interfered in that process.

My most direct contact with Chatwin’s path was also perhaps the best example of how much things have changed. Having reached Ushuaia, the city on the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego (which Chatwin left ‘as if from an unwanted tomb’), I went to visit the nearby Estancia Harberton.

This former sheep farm, named after a village in Devon, was founded by the Englishman Thomas Bridges, another of Chatwin’s ‘characters’ and the first non-native inhabitant of Tierra del Fuego. Chatwin passed through because he wanted to walk the track from Harberton to Viamonte, another estancia further to the north.

The track is described in a book called Uttermost Part of the Earth by Thomas Bridges’ son, Lucas, which describes his childhood on Tierra del Fuego. So Chatwin, too, was on a literary pilgrimage.

But where he found a quiet English farmhouse, I found a museum-like tourist attraction, complete with bilingual guides. I caught a glimpse of Thomas Goodall, son of Clarita, whom Chatwin met. He has no farm left to run, though: 3 months of snow in 1996 wiped out most of Harberton’s sheep and cows.

Expanding tourism and infrastructure makes it hard at times to relate to Chatwin’s journey, which he described as as much ‘a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on…restlessness and exile’ as a trip to Patagonia in 1975. The unusual people and stories which populate his landscape are harder to find now, amongst the growing crowds.

Yet there are some constants, some towns still more or less forgotten for now.  There is the natural world, unchanged: the barren scrubland, the fearsome winds, the condors and armadillos and ñandú. There is, above all, the knowledge that you are so far south, so far from ‘normal’ human spheres. Chatwin places emphasis on the thought that Patagonia is farthest humans walked to from their origins, and it is the thought that counts. It is in thought, set loose in the emptiness, that his ‘strange animal’, his Patagonia, exists. 

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