Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1934

Patagonian Oasis

Even amid the wind-swept desolation of the southern
Argentine a haven may occasionally be found.



THERE are three Patagonias. One, and it is incomparably the largest, is a wilderness of ubiquitous pebbles, black lava flows, sterile volcanic ash, sparse thorn bushes, and eternal wind. It is a caricature of a country, a setting for antique melodrama, and in the words of the melodramas “it ain’t fit fer man ’r beast.”


The Chubat Valley is a main artery of the traffic, and much of the wool from the cordillera passes over this route to Trelaw or on to the coast.
The second is so unlike this that it seems a misnomer to call it Patagonia at all. The narrow ridges of the cordillera, the glaciers of the southern Andes, and the wooded coast region of South Chile historically belong to Patagonia, too, but they are so unlike the pampa and meseta region in appearance, climate, and spirit that it is misleading to include them under the same name.

The third Patagonia is a saving grace in the midst of the first. Even in the wind-swept grimness of pampas, if there is soil and water, verdure may appear, and a welcome haven from the rigors of one of the most unattractive of the earth’s corners may arise. Unfortunately the requisites of soil and water are very rare, and the green land forms such a small part of the Patagonian landscape that it is no more than a few scattered oases.

Look at a map of extreme southern South America. It will not be accurate, for even now there are large areas which have not been adequately explored or correctly mapped, but it will show the main features. In extreme northwestern Patagonia two streams, the Neuquén and the Limay, rise in the Andes; one flows southeastward and the other northeastward, and they meet at the little settlement called Neuquén. The resulting river, the Río Negro, flows on through the meseta region, barren even in this milder latitude, and into the sea near historic Carmen de Patagones, most southern town of Buenos Aires Province. The narrow valley of this river is the most northern Patagonian oasis.

For about three hundred miles south of the Río Negro there is no water except in occasional wells or desert springs. Then comes the Río Chubut, which also owes its continuous but


A ferry across the Río Negro
fluctuating flow to headwaters in the distant mountains. Its middle course is near latitude 44° South (Portland, Maine, is nearly in latitude 44° North). The next permanent river, the Deseado, is nearly two hundred miles farther south at its nearest point, but between the two are the large lakes Musters and Colhué-Haupí, whose waters are also being utilized for the gradual development of a small oasis.

The region between the Río Negro and the Río Deseado is the most sterile and unpleasant part of Patagonia, a strong superlative, and the Chubut River flows nearly through the middle of this. Here in America it is hard to visualize what this means to the country and to travelers in that distant land. I sit here looking out at green grass, leafy trees, busy streets, tall buildings, and it is an effort to recall the thrilling joy, the real rapture, that I have felt at seeing a muddy stream, a few poplars, and a rather forlorn little frontier town.

The first time I saw the Chubut Valley. my party and I had been wandering and working in central Patagonia for seven months. Work done, we turned northward with relief, but so deadened by the wind, harsh living conditions, hard work, and a repugnant environment that we could not really visualize anything else or believe that release was near. From Comodoro Rivadavia, the largest town of Patagonia but a desolate, treeless, corrugated iron place, we traveled for three days. Constant mishaps delayed us, but we were used to them.


An Unbelievable Valley

On the third day, toward sunset, we were driving across the nearly flat and wholly drab pampa beneath flame-colored, wind shredded clouds. In the last hundred miles we had passed just one house, a small square box of mud and tin. Everywhere else were pebbles and thorn bushes, with only an occasional guanaco or hare to give life to this monotonous and desert plain.

Unexpectedly we came to a jumping-off place, sudden cliffs and steep slopes down to a flat-bottomed valley. Straight ahead in the valley was a spot that represented the Territorial Capital, Rawson, and somewhat nearer, to the left, was a more distinct cluster of houses beneath two tall radio towers, the town of Trelew, metropolis of the oasis. We went down into the valley, and life became a strange dream. We seemed to be driving along a country lane, between rows of green trees, and over rustic bridges across placid canals and streams. We seemed to pass farm houses and green fields and to see cows wandering homeward to be milked, escorted by white and blonde children. Surely it could not be real!



Sheep raising is one of Patagonia’s principal industries and, consequently, wool one of its major exports.

Since that memorable moment, I have spent some time in the valley, in most of its various small settlements, and have traveled along the better part of the river course, from Trelew to Paso de los Indies. I have learned that even the valley has its barren and truly Patagonian stretches and that the best of it is not the paradise it seemed on first sight, but the exhilaration of that first shock will always make it stand out in memory.

On that first visit we stayed only two nights in Trelew, but somewhat more than two years later we were there again, and became better acquainted. This time we came in from the north, or northwest, and although we were only beginning our work instead of ending it as before, the valley was almost equally welcome. We had been traveling for three weeks, as steadily as circumstances permitted, and we had had lots of luck, all very bad: few or no fossils, which we had hoped to find, continual breakdowns, a nearly tragic slip-up in financial arrangements, illness. Such is still the common lot of the traveler in Patagonia, and we had been far off the beaten path, such “beaten paths” as there are. In one place where motor car never went before and never should again, after mishaps that exhausted our supplies, we came gently to rest with a broken crank-case in a howling wilderness of jagged lava blocks, and stayed there, foodless and waterless, until a repair was effected with some household cement and an old shirt. The Chubut Valley looked good to us then, too.


Metropolis

Trelew is wonderful only when seen in its vast setting. It looks like most Argentine country towns, but this conformity is itself a triumph and almost unique in Patagonia, The straight streets, laid out at right angles, are wide, and some of them are lined with small plane trees, not flourishing but accomplishing the miracle of survival. The avenue from the railroad station is a boulevard for two blocks, with a coarse grass plot in the center. Most of the buildings are stucco, one story high except for the national bank and the main hotel, which rise in grandeur above the flat town. There is a plaza, ragged but green in summer. There are good stores and large corrugated iron warehouses. There is a Colegio National, national high school, which enjoys a reputation as one of the best educational institutions in the country. There is a private school where instruction is in English and which struggles to keep the children of British and American settlers throughout Patagonia from forgetting their ancestral tongue. There is a three-story hotel with running cold and (for a trifling extra fee) hot water. A catalogue of the wonders of the metropolis would be endless. New York is not as remarkable in its environment as Trelew is in its.


A Patagonian Wales

Rawson, Trelew, Gaiman, and Dolavon are strange names for Argentine towns. Then there is the place, farther up the river, which the natives call Blahk Ay-zheh, and which is spelled Black Eye. And around Trelew are places with such names as Bryn Gwyn, Drafa Dulog, and Bryn Crwn. The oasis is partly inhabited, and was indeed largely created, by people of Welsh descent. About 1865 a group of Welsh people, dissatisfied with economic conditions and (it is said) nursing a hearty grudge against their neighbors and masters the English, emigrated to the Argentine and were given the Chubut Valley to live in, generosity somewhat tempered by the fact that the valley was then barren and generally considered worthless.
Desolation: 
By far the major portion of Patagonia is like this.

Desolation: By far the major portion of Patagonia is
like this.
They turned to with the idea of creating a new Wales, where language, customs, religion, and life in general were to be purely and exclusively Welsh. With pick and shovel they dug ditches and irrigated the alluvial flats of the Río Chubut with water from the river. Along the ditches and around the fields they planted poplars, now large and imposing. A railway was built from Gaiman and Trelew to the sea at Puerto Madryn. (It has now been extended up the valley to a point near Las Plumas.)

The idea of isolation and a new Wales did not work as expected; such ideas seldom do work out. There is still a distinctly Welsh atmosphere in much of the lower valley. Welsh faces are seen on every side, and the Welsh language is still spoken, but to the distress of the elders, the third and fourth generations, now appearing, tend more and more to be absorbed into the Argentine population. Spanish is the common language of the valley, and much of the best land and most profitable business is no longer in Welsh hands. The descendants of the pioneers have lost their spirit. They are not, as a class, particularly industrious or progressive, and the Welsh Colony cannot now be called flourishing. Such progress as now occurs is only in small part due to them.

The best part of the valley is the stretch of some twenty-five miles around Trelew and Gaiman, a smaller town about twelve miles from Trelew. The valley bottom here is from three to five miles wide and most of it is irrigated and fertile. There are probably at least forty thousand acres of useful land (the figure is my own guess, and I am sorry to say that I have not checked it with the official estimate). With varying degrees of comfort, this supports a population of several thousand people. The value of the oasis is clear from the fact that the same amount of land away from the river in this region would support about three families.


Oasis and Desert

The contrast is amazing. There is this narrow band of arable land, a bare hairline on the map of Patagonia, and then at its edges, with no transition, begins a howling desert. Two minutes’ walk from Trelew or Gaiman, on the northern side of the valley, is enough to pass from pleasant country scenes to a dry land of pebbles, sand, and thorns. The steep valley walls rise abruptly from the river bottom. They are in most places absolutely barren cliffs and slopes of dazzling volcanic ash, slippery clay, or glistening gypsum.

The value of change is amusingly illustrated by the fact that when the citizens of fortunate Trelew take an afternoon off for a picnic, they do not as a rule go to some shady grove along the river. The favorite picnic ground is a place called “El Castillo,” “The Castle,” a round hill with castellated, in places vertical, sides, which is on the desert side of the valley margin and hence a desolate spot for an outing. This locality, incidentally, has more serious claims to fame than as a picnic site for the élite of Trelew. From its own slopes and those of the main valley wall near it have come many remains of fossil whales of the early Miocene, some twenty-five or thirty million years old.


The Oysters of Patagonia

It is one of the many anomalies of Patagonia that not only here, but still farther from the sea, still higher in elevation, and in still drier parts of the desert are found remains of whales, of penguins, and of
Giant fossil oysters 
now found on the arid margins of Chubut Valley

Giant fossil oysters now found on the arid margins of Chubut Valley
many kinds of sea shells. Over almost all of what are now the high plateaus of this region the sea once roared. It is ironic and maddening to be traveling through the hinterland, parched and hungry, with "water, water—" nowhere, or perhaps only a few tepid drops in a tin canteen to drink, and to come across the shells of oysters a foot in diameter. How one’s mouth waters! One oyster, just one, would be a succulent feast for a king. But it is no use. As Mark Twain would say, they are dead now. One could almost curse the name of Hatcher, the great American explorer, for whom these now long-defunct oyster dinners are named.

We camped near the Castillo for a time in 1933, if it can be called camping to stay in a house and be fed by an excellent Italian cook.

Our next camp in the valley was even more luxurious and will still further explain my unbridled enthusiasm for the Patagonian Oasis. We stayed across the river from Gaiman on a fruit farm run by a man nominally Argentine, since he was born in that country, but in speech, appearance, and habits more American than I. His wife is American and his children technically Argentine, although his charming small daughter has been infected at the English school in Trelew with the almost virulent exaggerated Anglicism of the expatriate English. They have a modern and pleasant house, where we reveled in real luxury and could almost imagine ourselves back home. Our host had acquired some of the old run-down orchards left by the early settlers, had incorporated himself to acquire capital, and as the company “La Araucana” was engaged in reviving and renovating the place and establishing a business in fine apples and other temperate zone fruits, many of which grow very well here in the oasis. The most difficult problem, that of reaching an adequate market, is still acute, but this exemplifies the very good best that can be done in the valley with energy and initiative.


A Railroad Without Freight

This part of the valley owes its importance not only to the development of its own resources but also to the fact that it is an important avenue of commerce and outlet to the sea. Through it passes the wool from the scattered sheep ranches of the barren interior and the richer zone of the distant cordillera. The railway, recently completed to near Las Plumas, about one hundred twenty miles (in a straight line) from Madryn; the port, has considerable influence in this, but less than it should have. In the endeavor to increase its scanty revenue, the freight charges have been made so high that many shippers find that it still pays to take the wool to Trelew or on to Madryn, on wagons in the time-honored way. The economic principles involved seem a little confused to a mere scientist when he sees a perfectly good railway apparently going to pieces for lack of trade, and enormous amounts of ideal freight for it hauled for days parallel to the tracks on primitive carts drawn by horses and mules.

This picture was taken less than a mile from the river, yet every movement of the horses raised clouds of volcanic ashes.

This picture was taken less than a mile from the river, yet every movement of the horses raised clouds of volcanic ashes.

Above Gaiman, the valley narrows and becomes less fertile and less accessible. The main wagon track to the interior and the more winding railway track climb up on to the pampa north of the valley and across the dreaded "travesía," a stretch of about seventy-five miles with no water and almost no inhabitants even now. From this more typically Patagonian desolation, the road plunges down again into the valley at Las Plumas. As if afraid to wet its feet, or in haughty scorn of the valley dwellers, the railroad stops on the heights. It is proposed some day to continue the line back to the Cordillera; and there is even a dream of linking it up with the more northern lines so that one will be able to ride on trains from Buenos Aires to Trelew. But that will be mañana.

Las Plumas is a quiet town with none of the bustle of Trelew, where I have seen as many as three automobiles in one block. Having all outdoors to build in, they have not bothered about streets and have put up the four or five buildings scattered around irregularly several hundred yards from one another. We stopped at the hotel, which tastefully combines sticks, mud, flattened tin cans, and corrugated iron in its architecture (the Chubutian Order), and as the wind howled and everything portable for several leagues to windward was rattled and banged on the tin roof, we knew that we had definitely left the oasis.


Dangers of the Road

We spent one night, and then were barged across the narrow but unfordably deep stream. On the other side there are two roads. One climbs out of the valley and runs over the waterless pampa for a hundred miles, more or less, to Paso de los Indios. The other stays down in the valley and follows the river. The outer track is a little longer and is feared because a breakdown on it may mean, and has meant for some luckless souls, death by starvation or thirst, but as a road it is much better. In spite of its terrors, most of the carters, all fatalists and gamblers at heart, follow it. The track along the valley is hardly less desolate, and is so rough, rock strewn, eroded, and generally nasty as to be nearly impassable at all times and often completely so, but it is shorter and it has water.


A Land of Grandeur

We were saved from any emotional conflict over this choice by the fact that fossil-bearing strata had been reported in the valley, and we had to go that way to check up on them. The report was false, and we cursed all lying geologists as we banged and groveled our way along the unspeakable wagon trail. We did not get stuck.
The lower valley of the Chubut near Trelaw seems amazingly beautiful amidst the desolation of Patagonia.

The lower valley of the Chubut near Trelaw seems amazingly beautiful amidst the desolation of Patagonia.
The capriciousness of travel is one of its chief charms and, at the same time, annoyances. How many times have we started off gaily for what promised to be a gentle joy-ride, and found ourselves at midnight deep in fetid mud, or mournfully attempting to patch up some mortal wound to our fickle mechanical beast of burden! This time we had departed sadly, hiding the quaver in our voices as we bade good-bye to the prophets of our doom, determined to die for the honor of bone-digging (if it has any honor), and everything went smoothly and we arrived at our next destination in one short day.

Furthermore, the difficulty of the track was more than amply compensated by the grandest scenery I have seen in South America, with the possible exceptions of Mount Aconcagua from the air and of the harbor at Río. If this valley were in Europe, every rock would have its legend and we would have known of its renown while still in our cradles. If it were in the United States, it would be a national park and, while they were not busy eating hot-dogs, thousands of sunburned tourists in knickers too small for them would express the nearest to rapture that their measly souls can attain by saying “Sorta pretty, ain’t it?” As they are in Patagonia, naturally no one ever heard of the Valley of Martyrs (“Valle de los Mártires”), the Valley of Hums (“Valle de las Ruinas”) and the Altars (“los Altares”). Being unknown, however, has at least the advantages that there are no tourists and that we can enjoy the smug satisfaction of believing ourselves the only people in North America who have ever seen that sight, or are very likely to see it.

Near the Chubut River in one of Patagonia’s most extraordinarily beautiful regions

Near the Chubut River in one of Patagonia’s most extraordinarily beautiful regions

There are enormous cliffs, often really vertical (it would surprise the average sight-seer to know how seldom a cliff is actually vertical), and composed of pure variegated porphyry. There are caves in which a regiment could hid. There are peaks and pillars, prows of ships, Gargantuan monuments, strange statues, all carved by wind and weather from rock which sometimes here seems "living rock" indeed. There are seeming ruins in the shadow of which the greatest structures of Egypt or of Greece would be lost. There are horizontally banded, fantastic flutings of white, yellow, blue, and red. There are the "altars," each a hundred feet high and seemingly attended by frozen priests of nearly equal stature.


The Deserted Inn

Not far from Paso de los Indios, the point where the river coming from the north turns eastward in its course to the sea, there is an inn. It was built in hopes that wool-carters would pass this way, and was tritely but accurately called Bella Vista (“Beautiful View”). The carters do not now pass this way, and the innkeeper has so little optimism that he does not bother to stay there very much. We found the place open but deserted, so moved in, uninvited, according to free Patagonian custom. A shepherd saw us from a distance and relayed the news of this miracle to the absent innkeeper, so that he arrived in time to try to take advantage of our custom to get enough money to move to some more prosperous point. The difference between an inn and a house is often reduced to the technical point that at an inn the owner feels free to charge (and often to overcharge) for accommodations.

After dooming this ambitious man to wait there for another miracle before he can afford to migrate, we went on the next day to Paso de los Indies (which makes one long for the cosmopolitanism of Las Plumas), and then left the river and its valley and plunged into the unmapped and wild heart of Chubut Territory, where, as the old mariners were wont to say, we passed divers grievous adventures.

The Chubut River near Trelaw wanders placidly among the wind-tossed poplars, but the desolate pampas are not far away.

The Chubut River near Trelaw wanders placidly among the wind-tossed poplars, but the desolate pampas are not far away.


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