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Scratching the surface in Patagonia

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The southern half of Argentina and Chile is known as Patagonia and it is vast, relatively empty, and – particularly where the vertiginous spine of the Andes protrudes – naturally spectacular. Most visitors to the region come for the pristine landscapes and unparalleled natural beauty but if you scratch the surface you’ll discover that rugged, inhospitable Patagonia is home to more than a few strange stories.

For there to be stories, you need people and the people you get in Patagonia are more interesting than most. Many of them have the added intrigue of a settler past. Perhaps the most well-known Patagonian settlers are the Welsh. Towns with names like Trelew, Dolavon, Gaiman and Trelew feature traditional Welsh tea houses and regular Eisteddfods. There’s a great 2010 film simply called Patagonia which explores this community and its identity crisis adroitly. But the Welsh are just one of many immigrant groups struggling to make a go of it in Patagonia - there are other stories to be found here...

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Picture: Jorge Gobbi

The windswept province of Chubut on the Atlantic coast, for example, has the largest ‘boer’ population outside of South Africa. These Afrikaners fled their native land after defeat at the hands of the British. Afrikaans is still spoken by the older generation, but these days the biggest hint of their heritage lies in the surnames: you'll find loads of van der Merwes, Van Wyks and Bothas abound… The surnames, and the biltong they make from dried guanaco meat.

There are Germans too who plant lupins and cherry trees in the valley of Rio Pico in their attempt to remember the fatherland. But perhaps Patagonia’s most notable immigrants are the sheep which transformed it – for a few decades at least – into a place where money could be made. The further South you go, the more difficult it becomes to survive in Patagonia - even if you're a sheep. These days the austere plateaus near Rio Gallegos, well south of the forty-fifth parallel, are populated by flamingos, petrified forests and toothless sheep: the pasturage down here is so abrasive that the poor creatures are rendered smooth-gummed and worthless before they are even five years old.

In spite of their settler roots, in the 21st century the people of Patagonia are first and foremost ‘Patagonian’. The contemporary Argentine film director Carlos Sorin has built a career on these people’s stories and his films Bombón: El Perro and Historias Minimas are two of my favourite South American films: slow, stately and layered, just like the landscapes that inspire them. Sorin is a native of Buenos Aires, but he seems to me to have a soul which is decidedly Patagonian.

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Picture: Brett Frk

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a timeless classic of travel-writing, and a must-read for anyone who’s planning to visit the region. Many will credit Chatwin himself with transforming the genre of travel writing, but I’d give most of the credit to the winds of Patagonia which eroded Chatwin’s characters and prose into minimalist perfection. Another delightful book well worth reading is Gerald Durrell’s The Whispering Land, in which he details the highs and lows of a wildlife collection trip to Puerto Madryn. Durrell may be best known for his youthful evocations of a splendid childhood on Corfu, but his Patagonia book is – to my mind – far more substantive.

In spite of all these great achievements, I have no doubt that the greatest work of art ever to come out of Patagonia is that quintessential 20th century fable, The Little Prince. Its author Antoine de Saint Exupery served as an air doctor in Patagonia in the 1920s and Isla de los Pajaros near Puerto Madryn inspired the most memorable image in his book – the hat which the Little Prince imagines to be a boa constrictor which has eaten an elephant. Admittedly this isn’t the most conventional literary influence you’ll ever read of, but then neither The Little Prince or Patagonia itself have much time for the conventional.

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Picture: Antoine de Saint Exupery

When you visit Patagonia, of course you must do all the touristy things. You must look at, and photograph, the glaciers, and the fjords, and the snowmelt lakes and the marauding orcas. But I urge you to do more than this. I urge you to drive the backroads and feel the wind in your bones; to rub the gritty soil between your fingers and imagine yourself farming that land. Who knows what it might inspire...

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