The Bruce Chatwin trail in Patag­o­nia

How to ex­plore Patag­o­nia in the style of the feted writer

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - CHRIS MOSS

WHEN I first vis­ited Patag­o­nia in 1991, Bruce Chatwin’s

In Patag­o­nia was a bi­ble among back­pack­ers to South Amer­ica. Peo­ple quoted it as if re­call­ing their own im­pres­sions, and took its sto­ries as his­tor­i­cal fact de­spite the book’s lyri­cism. The au­thor’s poor Span­ish was over­looked, as was the book’s po­lit­i­cal back­drop: the dark days of state-spon­sored ter­ror­ism fol­low­ing the death of Juan Peron. Blond boy-won­der Bruce was the only guide worth hav­ing.

Chatwin ar­rived in Patag­o­nia for the first time in De­cem­ber 1974. The re­sult­ing book, pub­lished in 1977, launched his ca­reer and rein­vig­o­rated late 20th-cen­tury travel writ­ing. In di­vulging Patag­o­nia’s myths it placed the re­gion on ev­ery­one’s imag­i­na­tive map. But the au­thor was also adept at self-mythol­o­gis­ing and chose to give lit­tle ac­count of his ac­tual trav­els — the roads he used and the trans­port that got him around dur­ing his four-month so­journ. Chatwin sim­ply ap­pears in places, rather like a ge­nie. This gives the book its brisk pace but con­founds any sense of time or space, a cu­ri­ous ef­fect given the vast­ness of Patag­o­nia. For those plan­ning a visit, Bruce Chatwin’s book has a pe­riod qual­ity but re­mains ex­cel­lent com­pany for long bus jour­neys. Be­low, I have com­pressed his 97 chap­ters into five travel-friendly sec­tions, high­light­ing some land­marks and of­fer­ing tips on get­ting around the places where Chatwin un­earthed Patag­o­nia’s leg­ends and found his voice.

OF WALES AND WHALES

The book: Af­ter stopovers in Buenos Aires and La Plata, Chatwin’s Patag­o­nian nar­ra­tive proper be­gins in the re­gion set­tled by the Welsh. “Their lead­ers had combed the earth for a stretch of open coun­try un­con­tam­i­nated by English­men,” he wrote. “They chose Patag­o­nia for its ab­so­lute re­mote­ness and foul cli­mate.” Af­ter stand­ing on the beach at Puerto Madryn, where the 153 set­tlers made land­fall in 1865, he spent Christ­mas Eve in Gaiman, where he en­joyed an asado (bar­be­cue) be­fore trav­el­ling west — just as the colonists did — to visit Trev­elin and the green val­leys of the An­des.

The trip: The coast is most popular th­ese days as a point of de­par­ture for see­ing south­ern right whales and ele­phant seals — the Valdes penin­sula is the best spot — and a huge colony of Mag­el­lanic pen­guins at Punta Tombo. In­land, Trelew is named af­ter found­ing fa­ther Lewis Jones. Its Museo Pa­le­on­to­logico Egidio Feruglio is prob­a­bly the best di­nosaur-themed mu­seum in Ar­gentina, with fos­sils from the Ar­genti­nosaurus (one of the big­gest her­bi­vores found), Gi­gan­tosaurus (one of the big­gest car­ni­vores) and a 2.5m-long fe­mur found 218km west of the town in May last year. No name has been given to the new sauro­pod but, with an es­ti­mated weight of 77 tonnes, it is the big­gest di­nosaur find yet.

Gaiman, a would-be Welsh cul­tural cap­i­tal, re­tains a few pi­o­neer homes and chapels, as well as tea shops where women in frilly aprons serve fruit­cake. You may even catch some Span­ish-ac­cented Cym­raeg if there’s a fes­ti­val. The jour­ney west re­mains a per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to the Patag­o­nian steppe, arid and harsh, and fur­ther de­ser­ti­fied by all those Welsh sheep. Trev­elin is a quaint town­ship with an ex­cel­lent mu­seum of Welsh para­pher­na­lia. Latin Amer­ica and Antarc­tic spe­cial­ist Chimu Ad­ven­tures has a range of itin­er­ar­ies in Patag­o­nia. More: 1300 211 805; chimuad­ven­tures.com.

AN­DEAN COW­BOYS

The book: Chatwin’s favourite for­eign cow­boys lived in the foothills of the An­des: “[Butch Cas­sidy] must have felt at home here, the coun­try round Cho­lila is iden­ti­cal to parts of his home state, Utah — a coun­try of clean air and open spa­ces; of black mesas and blue moun­tains; a coun­try of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, strip­ping men to the raw.” From here, Chatwin trav­elled south, first on the Old Patag­o­nian Ex­press rail­way to Esquel (“ostriches bounded off the track as we passed”) and then by road.

The trip: As well as weekly 20km “her­itage” rides from Esquel to Nahuel Pan, the steam-pow­ered Tro­chita (the Old Patag­o­nian Ex­press) makes the oc­ca­sional char­tered run to In­ge­niero Ja­cobacci, 400km away. Book through the Rail­way Tour­ing Com­pany. More: rail­way­tour­ing.net.

Butch and Sun­dance’s small­hold­ing is marked by a wood cabin that looks too new to be the real thing, but the land­scape has a Wild West feel. It’s a short drive or bus ride to Los Alerces Na­tional Park, where tem­per­ate rain­forests of beeches and huge Patag­o­nian cy­presses bor­der beau­ti­ful lakes. Trails in­clude the popular Puelo Val­ley route to Chile, which can be done on foot or horse­back. Ride World Wide has eight-day rides for small groups through the Puelo Val­ley. More: ride­world­wide.com.

LONELY LAKE­LAND

The book: Trav­el­ling south by road to Cen­tral Patag­o­nia, Chatwin vis­ited the dusty fron­tier towns of Rio Pico (“a bit like the Urals”) and Bajo Cara­coles, the re­mark­able pet­ri­fied for­est near Sarmiento (“the trunks of ex­tinct monkey-puzzles were bro­ken clean as if in a sawmill”) and sev­eral of Patag­o­nia’s lone­lier lakes: Lago Col­hue Huapi, Posadas, Ghio. Along the way, he met set­tlers from far and wide, in­clud­ing Bo­ers, Lithua­ni­ans, Ger­mans, Le­van­tines, Spa­niards, Sale­sian priests and Scot­tish farm­ers.

A story he keeps com­ing back to is the leg­end of a Patag­o­nian El Do­rado, and be­side one of the tiny lakes on

Mount Fitzroy in Patag­o­nia, top; pi­o­neer travel writer Bruce Chatwin, above

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