We fly down to El Calafate, Argentina’s staging post for the denizens of Patagonia. Miserable ageing blonde in the seat in front of me insists on leaning her chair back onto my lap. I insist on moving, citing claustrophobia (and the potential for violence) in my defence.
Calafate is a big word down here. The black calafate berry (berberis buxifolia) is everywhere, growing on hard, spiky bushes and demonstrating that, even in the most hostile of climates, nature provides. Eat the berry and you will be sure to return, the locals say. Return or not, it is sure to stain your hands. The local cave paintings (of handprints and animal figures) were allegedly ‘painted’ (maybe as long as 10,000 years ago) with calafate berry juice.
If six months ago I had read “the” book on Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia”, a pioneering fake non-fiction first published in 1977) I might not have made it south of Buenos Aires. It tells of a permanently windswept, treeless land occupied by dour, frequently British sheep-farmers and their slightly dotty womenfolk. And indeed it is windswept, treeless and vast, scarily so. Imagine the Scottish Highlands stretching to Norway with a population whose energy requirements could be met by a handful of solar panels.
Chatwin saw Patagonia as a symbolic home of restless souls, the last place where man set foot after his emergence out of Africa. But the predominant homestead here, the estancia, was given to settlers if they “stayed”. Estancia means “stay”. I get an impression of poor people stuck in one uncomfortable place; not of Chatwin’s restless souls driven on by the romance of exile.
But Patagonia has its compensations. We agree that the Perito Moreno glacier is the most amazing natural phenomenon we have ever seen, a 150-metre wall of ice that has taken centuries to come down from its Andean fastness and nestle up against a local beauty spot. It has the menace of a disgruntled lion, rumbling uncomfortably as unimaginable forces churn up its frozen water. But it is its colour that is most memorable – at least 50 shades of blue, ranging from vivid indigo to pale turquoise.
On the other side of the border is Chile’s Torres del Paine (pronounced Pie-Nay, an old Indian word meaning “blue” – surprise, surprise). We see three cyclists wrapped like nuns in head-to-toe waterproofs, blown willy-nilly from side to side. They’re miles from anywhere on the high rocky plateau that stretches from El Calafate to the Chilean border, their worldly possessions strapped around their rear wheels. We see similarly hardy cyclists scattered across Chile’s taxing landscapes. What persuades them to undertake such uncongenial activity, I wonder.
We stay in a couple of wonderful hotels in Patagonia, their key feature being huge glass windows that give guests a sense of the vastness beyond their nespresso machines. At Eolo in Argentina, in the far distance we see a single flickering lamp from a small whitewashed cottage, unsheltered apart from a few bending poplars and weary willows. What would Emily Bronte have made of this place, I wonder?
Tierra Patagonia, our hotel in Chile, on the edge of the Torres del Paine national park, is a sensational wood-and-glass eco resort sunk into the contours, a hide for watching Patagonia’s whorling skies, whipped into Devon cream shapes and ice-cream colours by the colossal aerial conflict between Pacific and Atlantic forces. Yet, apart from the wind, there is nothing in nature to fear here. No animals to get in the way of hiking, riding or cycling. Unless you have armadillo-phobia, it’s as safe as the Brecon Beacons.
Most in evidence are the guanacos and the rheas, the mini-ostriches which, of course, I spend a great deal of time trying to photograph from behind. They have wings, the rheas, but they cannot fly. The males are left to incubate the eggs and then to look after the young. We see a group of 30 or so little ones wandering round with a single father figure. The females go elsewhere apparently. To other father figures maybe?
The guanaco are focused on the alpha males who reign over large family groups. There are separate troupes of alpha hopefuls who dash about madly and occasionally try to bite off each other’s testicles in their determination to climb the male social ladder. While they do it literally, I suppose we do it metaphorically.
We have guanaco steak one night and it is good – no wonder it is the favourite food of the puma who likes to stalk guanaco family groups right up to the omnipresent (at least round here) sheep fences. There the adults leap across to safety, but the tender babies can’t make it.
A puma, however, we don’t get to see, though others do; and the black-necked swans and the flamingos are thin on the ground. Condors still circle like so many planes stacking, their feet whitened by their strange habit of pissing on themselves. But some say even they are reduced in number. It has been very dry down here. Ferocious fires are raging a few hundred miles north. The birds have flown?