Patagonia: Land of Giants

Patagonia – By Irene Butler


In 1520 Admiral Ferdinand Megellan landed on the shores of what is now known as Patagonia and immediately encountered the Tehuelche tribe. Ranging between six and six-foot-seven they appeared gigantic to the Admiral and his crew of short-statured Spaniards. Some say naming of Patagonia (an area comprising Southern Argentina and Chile) stemmed from Megellan’s particular fascination with their enormous feet. He dubbed the tribe “Patagons” derived from “pata” – Spanish for “foot”.

As adventurers moved across this land, titans of nature were discovered throughout; with penquinseven the vast emptiness was said to be in a league all its own. “Nothingness” or “colossal” with “no in-between” is the curious description given by travellers over the centuries; and all admit succumbing to a mysterious magnetism that draws them back time and time again. Our intrigue had been sparked; my partner, Rick and I were soon on a quest to seek out the giants of Patagonia.

After a few days in Buenos Aires, the energetic capital of Argentina, we headed out by bus to the gateway of Patagonia which begins 950 km to the south. The rugged coasts are graced in mega proportions with an amazing cast of sea creatures. I was soon to realize a life-long dream – to walk among the penguins. I would wager my fascination with these wondrous characters equalled a young Charles Darwin’s who scoured these same shores, after arriving on the Beagle commanded by Cpt. Robert Fitzroy in 1831. Megellanic penguins arrive after six months at sea in their nesting area at Punta Tombo; the largest of a multitude of colonies. By mid-November the eggs have hatched. Being January the chicks, now teenagers, were moulting and taking their first dip in the ocean under adult supervision. It was a peak experience to slowly manoeuvre among half a million braying, tuxedoed sea birds waddling aristocratically to and fro, some close enough to reach out and touch.

petrified forestThe mammoths of nature in Patagonia go back to Jurassic times. It was a dinosaur paradise, as evidenced by the bone-yard of skeletons and fossils found. The “ultimate” Paleontological Museum at Trelew overflows with re-assembled skeletal remains reaching up to the top of the cavernous ceiling. A glass-walled lab allowed us to watch scientists chipping and dusting the debris from recent discoveries. Further down the road, 250 km from Puerto Deseado, lays the 15,000 hectare Petrified Forest Natural Monument Park. Sections of Proaraucaria trees, some thirty-five meters in length and up to three meters in diameter, are strewn where they once reached heights of 100 meters. It was surreal to rub our hands over the bark of the same mighty conifers the dinosaurs brushed up against a hundred and fifty million years ago.

On long bus hauls, as with previous travellers, we accorded new meaning to barren expanses and windswept terrain. It became an occasion when the boundless stretches of parched grasses and low growing shrubs were broken by Nandu, an ostrich relative, sprinting away on gangly legs or by llama-like Guanacos peering up from their grazing. But even those gripped by the worst cases of ennui were dazzled by the endless streaks of gold, and amber flaunted across the unobstructed sky at sunrise and sunset.

The southern tip, Tierra del Feugo, brought an abrupt end to the flatlands. Mountains, deep green lenga forests and crystal blue lakes heralded our arrival in Ushuaia, the most southern continually populated city in the world. Passengers spill out daily here from cruise ships bound for Antarctica.

It was time to rumble in a mini-van loaded with eight other adventurers onto RN40, the infamous gravel highway extending the length of Patagonia paralleling the Andes. Thankfully the behemoths along the way more than compensated for the washboard sections where the air vents (the only source of air-conditioning) had to be shut tight and dust still seeped through invisible cracks.

El Cafate is a stop leading to the breathtaking sight of Perito Moreno Glacier; measuring moreno glacier30 km long, 4 km wide, 60-70 meters high with an additional150 meters dragging perpetually forward submerged underwater. Our eyes were riveted on the translucent pale aqua wall hoping to witness calving. And we were not disappointed; signalled by startling shot-gun-like blasts, chunks of ice the size of small cars crashed down turning the lake below into a turbulent milky froth and leaving the newly exposed sections of wall a brilliant azure. I could only imagine the magnitude of a “rupture”. Periodically the glacier advances to the point of reaching right across the L-shaped lake at its nose, thus separating the lake into two halves. The pressure differential on the sides of this dam builds until the water erodes a tunnel underneath leaving a bridge of ice on top which eventually collapses. The most recent ruptures occurred in March of 2004 and 2006.

fitzroyThe jagged peak of Mt. Fitz Roy enticed us to take a second detour off RN40 to El Chaltén where a hike promised an unsurpassed view of this almost vertical spire reaching 3,405 meters. During our four hour trek through verdant forests and up steep rocky inclines, all four seasons encased us, from searing rays in a cloudless sky to cold rain spilling from swift moving nimbostratus. Reaching the 1,260 meter vantage point, Mt. Fitz Roy loomed in Olympian splendour, a glacier on each side, one larger than Moreno. Sheltered from the fierce winds beside a royal blue lagoon at its base, all recollection of the arduous climb melted away.

In forty-nine countries previously travelled, we have never felt so completely immersed in the grandeur of nature, leaving us with a renewed awe of its powerful forces and our need to respect and protect our ecology. The giants of Patagonia are etched in our minds. Just as others who have ventured here have been affected, once back home, we were filled with an inexplicable yearning to go back. Fortunately, before leaving, we partook of the Calafate berry; as legend dictates – those who eat the succulent fruit will return.

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