I’d been hitching all morning and at last there seemed to be some traffic. A couple of trucks had blasted their horns affectionately or apologetically. Some rough-looking locals had grinned half-wittedly through the wound-down windows of their ancient Ford Falcons. Flash folk in four-wheel drives going in the wrong direction had stared suspiciously at me through their fake Aviators.
I was in Argentina – the drivers reminded me that much. But I was in its great nowhere land, Patagonia, a huge triangle of scrubby plains, arid rock-walled canyons and sluggish, meandering rivers which takes up almost all the southern tip of South America before rising into the Andes or falling into the Atlantic. It wasn’t my first time down here, but it was my first visit with time to spare. I was here for a month or more and was looking for something – or, perhaps more accurately, some lovely nothing.
Finally, a small flatbed came past and slowed to let me on. There was a wind-tanned man at the wheel, sucking on a mate straw, and a boy next to him who moved up to make space for me. ‘Como andas?’ I said. ‘Bien,’ said the driver, ‘we’re off to Esperanza, picking up some sheep.’ At this he laughed out loud and the boy grinned. The driver explained that it was not illegal to pick up sheep on the roadside as that meant they’d strayed from their fields and were now free for the taking. It sounded like rustling to me. I took the mate gourd, sipped, and off we went.
At Esperanza I got out. ‘Esperanza’ means ‘hope’. But for me it was a moment of mild despair and a turning point. For, on seeing a coach heading in the direction I was aiming for – the famous Perito Moreno glacier in the southern Patagonian Andes – I clocked that all the people on board were old, middle-class, boring and bored-looking. I could handle that but I was dismayed to see that they were also all wielding video cameras. They were classic sightseers, capturing everything, putting it all in a box – a coffin of memories.
I didn’t get past the first step of the coach. I opted to bolt and not go to the landmark that was to have been the climax of my long trip south from Buenos Aires. Instead, after 2,000 miles of slow trains, stinky buses and hassle-some hitching, I decided to go for a walk.
I did something I’d thought of doing many times. I bought a few bottles of water, some overpriced, underfresh fruit and a bar of chocolate, checked I had a spare tetrapak of cheap tinto and a can of soup, and headed off inland.
When Bruce Chatwin visited Patagonia in the mid-1970s he was considering writing a major work, ‘The Nomadic Alternative’. He gave up and instead scribbled down a random miscellany of myths, anecdotes and nicked stories that was later expertly edited and published as ‘In Patagonia’. The travelogue is great, but it’s a pity Chatwin never got round to his book about walking – we are in need of celebrations of movement over arrival, of process over photogenic product. ‘In Patagonia’, ironically, elides the actual travel in an – admittedly successful – attempt at self-mythologising. Boyish wonder Bruce just appears in places, like a spirit.
In any case, far more committed nomads had walked across these plains centuries before. The Aonikenk – often called Tehuelche – were plains Indians who walked tall over the steppe, constructing guanaco-hide tents wherever they decided to make a home. They left no writings, no ruins, no settlements, no trace, hardly; their enigma is intact.
I thought about these lost nomads as I pitched my tent under a sky of fire-raining stars that first night. The nineteenth-century writer WH Hudson once tried to get inside their heads by looking through the eye sockets of a skull he chanced upon while travelling along the Río Negro valley in northern Patagonia. Later he penned the memorable lines ‘If I should have a reader… who has felt the canker of consumption which threatens to darken his vision prematurely – to such a one I would say, TRY PATAGONIA.’ He was referring to the physical ailment, but everything he wrote had a mystical nuance too.
From the 1870s on, Argentina perpetrated genocidal campaigns to wipe out the native tribes. All I could reflect on as I lay down was the impossibility of breaching the gap in understanding. What they saw in the steppe and what we see are unfathomably different worlds.
In the morning I studied the details of my environment: long, spiky coirón grass, strange dome-shaped llareta bushes, prickly calafate berry bushes. A lone, forlorn lamb foraged amid the scrub. Further away was a herd of native guanaco, the local camelid, perfectly adapted to living in the near-desert. A large, noble-looking male sat atop a mound, leader of the pack and sentinel.
I walked on, east, through land that undulated only by the tiniest of degrees. In some stretches I was surrounded by nothing but a sort of ugly yellow soil: Patagonia is no Sahara; its desert is imperfect and scruffy. Paul Theroux observed that you had to learn to look at the tiny and the mighty here – there was no middle ground, no inbetween landscape. I wished the old folk with the video cameras could be there to film the repellent nada.
With all my wine drunk, my water down to a syringeful and my fruit gone, I made it to a main road and hitched a ride in a truck freighting cheap wine that had to make a delivery at the coastal town of San Julián. When Magellan made landfall here in 1520, his diarist, Antonio Pigafetta, described the Tehuelche they met as ‘Patagones’, probably an allusion to a dog-headed monster in a chivalric bestseller of the time. Patagonia was thus baptised in honour of these mysterious nomads, just as the conquest that would annihilate them was beginning.
Before heading back north, I took a public bus over to the glacier. I had travelled too far to miss one of Argentina’s natural wonders. On a cold, grey day, early in the morning, there were no coach passengers or 4WD fly-by-nighters. From a wooden platform I looked down at a great wall of blue ice. It was, it has to be said, remarkable, wondrous, beyond human spoiling. And yet an Argentinian flag – frayed and wind-tattered – flew across the horizon. It was banal. How could you connect nationhood – history, governments, cities – with this raw tongue of unearthly ice?
Patagonia is a treasure trove for paleontologists, geologists, archaeologists, historians. But it is also, potentially, a spiritual space – a nothing to test the wits, a natural wasteland to challenge the postcard-sized brain and a dreamscape for the modern would-be nomad. If it lacks the obvious layers of religious life that you find in other sacred spaces, maybe it’s all the better for that. One man’s creed is another man’s mental clutter. And you can always roast a lamb if you get lost.
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