A Day in Patagonia

Collecting remains of prehistoric animals in southernmost South America

For lunch in the field the members of the party sought caves and crevices for shelter from the eternal wind. On the left is Justino Hernandez, one of the assistants. The man on the right is drinking maté.
Photo: AMNH

Ha salido el solcito, señor doctor! “The sun is up!” cries Baliña outside my tent.

“Let it go back again!” I reply. It is our daily joke.

I roll sleepily out of my fur blanket, made of young guanaco skins sewed together with ostrich sinews, shiveringly pull on some clothes and a pair of canvas slippers with soles of coiled rope (alpargatas), and go outside. It is a typical Patagonian summer morning, the cold wind just getting up to its full fury after a temporary lull before dawn, the red sun creeping over the far rim of Cañadón Vaca.

The third base camp of the Scarritt Patagonian Expedition has an unusually good location for this forlorn part of the world. It is in a little hollow in the side of a great valley, or cañadón. To windward is a clump of thorn bushes, taller than a man and as high as any native vegetation for hundreds of miles in any direction, and to leeward is a spring of clear but slightly alkaline water. Baliña, the cook, has cleaned out the spring, and the discovery of prehistoric Indian implements in it showed that this has long been a favored camp site. Baliña has also amused himself by making a series of ponds along the thin trickle of water, in the few yards before it seeps into the ground and disappears. He says that the main spring is for us, the first pool for small birds and mammals, the next for ostriches (rheas), and the last for guanacos—for water must be shared by all living creatures in this almost waterless land. The guanacos are very punctilious in using their proper pool, possibly because it is the farthest from our tents, but the other creatures are not, to Baliña ’s mock annoyance. A suggestion that he put up signs for them is not well received, for Baliña and the beasts are about on par in ability to read and write.

This camp site is so much appreciated that it has recently been used by a band of Chilean robbers. Finding pickings too thin on their own side of the Cordillera, they crossed the mountains and wandered into Argentine Patagonia, finally settling down here, where they eked out a miserable existence for several months. When they could, they killed sheep from neighboring flocks, and when these were too well guarded, they caught guanacos with bolas or went hungry. The number of guanaco bones in their débris reveals the low estate to which they had fallen, for even the poorest Patagonians scorn to eat this stringy and ill-flavored meat. The neighbors did not appreciate the depredations of the Chileans on the flocks and finally reinforced an invitation to leave by appearing armed and en masse. The outcasts departed, but left a malodorous memory so that, when word got around that another party had settled at the spring, apprehensive sheep herders cautiously scouted out our camp and had to be persuaded that we are harmless and that we will even go so far as to pay cash for sheep to eat.

This morning as I come out of my tent several guanacos are drinking at their proper place. The leader, perched on a hummock near by, spies me and whinnies, setting his flock to ambling away over the cañadón rim. At the cook tent, Baliña has warm water ready for washing, a luxury which he considers very effete but on which I insist. Maté is ready and I drink it as the cook prepares breakfast.

Maté is the drink of the masses not only in Patagonia but throughout the Argentine, Uruguay, Paraguay, much of Brazil, and some adjacent regions. It is made from the leaves of a tree, Ilex Paraguayensis, a relative of the holly, which grows chiefly in Paraguay, where the most highly prized leaves are found, in Northern Argentina, and in southwestern Brazil. The leaves are gathered, heated thoroughly until dry and brittle, then ground to a convenient fineness. The drink is prepared in various ways, but the really native way is to place the ground leaves, yerba, in a gourd, then to pour in hot water. It requires no time to brew and the infusion is at once drawn out through a metal tube, the bombilla. Then more water is poured in, and the process repeated until the yerba has lost its potency, which is only after ten or fifteen infusions with good yerba, or until the user is satisfied. The latter contingency rarely arises among the natives, for they often drink maté all day long, hardly stopping to eat. Baliña, for instance, solemnly asserts that he has drunk no water for fifteen years, maté supplying all his liquid requirements.

Although it has never been successfully popularized outside of its native area, maté is used by literally millions of people every day and ranks with tea or coffee as one of the leading non-alcoholic beverages of the world. Its taste is distinctive, but remotely suggests that of tea, and it contains a stimulant, mattein, which is similar in properties to thein or caffein. Unlike tea or coffee it is also very mildly cathartic and it seems to be a valuable supplementary element in diet, for many people in South America never have vegetables, living on nothing but meat and maté, yet remain in perfect health. Having perforce to adopt the heavily carnivorous regimen of Patagonia, we also adopted maté drinking. The bitter taste is not pleasant at first, but becomes very agreeable with practice. Many Europeans in South America, particularly those who have an abiding fear of “going native” scorn the drink, and those affected South Americans who attempt to appear “Europeanized” also profess to dislike it, but it is dear to the heart of the people and its preparation and sale is one of the major industries of the region. Its detractors insist that its popularity is chiefly due to the fact that a native drinking maté feels no necessity to work of think.

I drink maté, then, while Baliña cooks and entertains me. He is an inexhaustible source of information, most of which is wholly incorrect. This morning he is in fine form, telling a long and rambling tale of a bandit hunt in this region. According to him, the desperate bandits eluded local posses, the army, the navy, and the air force, until they were finally captured by Baliña, single-handed, and brought to town begging for mercy.

Williams has joined us, and we breakfast on “beefs of mutton,” for “beef” or “bife” is not a particular kind of meat but a way of cooking it. Breakfast over, the cook does up a lunch of cold mutton (reserving another cut of mutton for dinner), and we get into our truck and drive off.

We jolt through the cañadón and a few miles from camp pass our nearest neighbors, members of a Boer colony that migrated from South Africa to Patagonia some years ago, to their intense regret. We are on a footing of aloof acquaintance rather than of friendship, as the old couple speak only a few words of English and Spanish, and the youngsters, although fairly fluent in Spanish, are distrustful and shy. They are not used to the company of other human beings. Most of the Boers here dislike the English (which was their principal reason for leaving South Africa after the Boer war) and despise their Latin neighbors. They cannot be classed as a friendly group in general, although some individuals were very gracious to us.

A specimen from the Oficina del Diablo in the laboratory of the American Museum in New York, a year after its collection in Patagonia, being prepared for study and exhibition by Carl Sorensen. These are the complete skull and jaws of Thomashuxleya, one of the largest animals of its very remote epoch, hitherto known only from fragments.
Photo: AMNH

Beyond the corrugated-iron hovel of this poverty-stricken family, the trail winds steeply up the side of the cañadón to come out on the Pampa Pelada, the Peeled Pampa, so called because even in this desolately barren land it is famous for its lack of vegetation. As we travel over its perfectly flat surface, we startle numerous little bands of guanacos. We chase one guanaco with the car and find that his greatest running speed is about thirty-five miles per hour. He cannot keep up that rate for long, and a good horse can always run a guanaco down unless the latter can get away into broken country where his excellent climbing ability permits him to escape easily.

We soon come to the point on the cañadón rim above our present place of work, and as we fill our canteens from the truck ’s water tank and sling on our knapsacks, Williams and I engage in our daily debate over the scenery. Perhaps most of mankind could be divided into desert-people and water-people. Desert-people love vast, solitary expanses, the bright hues of desert rocks, and the delicate purples of distant mountains. They feel at home in fantastic, sportive landscapes, boldly lunar, carved from pale ash and black lava and contorted red or orange sandstone. There is something sympathetic to them in limitless space, in keen, clear air, in boldly savage and barren country. To water-people all this is abominable. They want a more fertile environment, one at the same time less expansive, less brutal, and more varied and dynamic: the seashore, placid lakes, and cool, tree-shaded streams.

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