Follow centuries of intrepid travellers to wild and woolly Patagonia in southern Chile, and discover a land ripe for new adventures
Words AMANDA CANNING
Photographs JONATHAN GREGSON
For a distant sliver of land tucked at the bottom of the world, Patagonia attracts an awful lot of attention. Over the years, a veritable who’s who of explorers, eccentrics and vagabonds have appeared on the horizon and made for shore, just as the colossal continent of South America seems to run out of steam and droop towards Antarctica.
First came the global circumnavigators. In the 16th century, Magellan and Drake passed this way, the former returning to Europe with tales of giant men notable for their taste in singing, dancing and nudity. Then came the scientists. Captain Fitzroy, on his boat the HMS Beagle, sailed this way on an exploratory voyage before returning to the region with one Charles Darwin on board. Hot on their heels were the dinosaur-hunters, among them the German Hermann Eberhard, who came across a real giant in a cave – the remains of the extinct mylodon, or giant ground sloth. Outlaws then high-tailed it down here in a bid to escape the long arm of American law: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid briefly toyed with the idea of reformed lives after their stint as Chilean cattle ranchers. And, finally, came the dreamers: Bruce Chatwin and his travelogue, In Patagonia, the book that led countless other wanderers to pack up their bags and hit the road south.
Among that roll-call of adventurers is one now largely forgotten in her homeland: Lady Florence Dixie. Scotswoman, war correspondent, president of the British Ladies Football Club, Dixie headed to the southern tip of Patagonia in 1878 for that best of reasons: because her peers very much thought she shouldn’t. “Precisely because it was an outlandish place and so far away, I chose it,” she wrote in her memoirs, Across Patagonia. For six months, she crisscrossed between Argentina and Chile on her horse, galloping across plains and trotting up mountains, camping in the wild, fleeing fires and alleged cannibals, and discovering whole swathes of the region unknown to outsiders. She was celebrated locally as the first European tourist in Patagonia, and returned to Scotland with a considerable amount of fame. (She also returned with a jaguar, which she named Affums and kept as a pet on her country estate.)
Oh, everyone here knows about Florence,” says trekking guide Gonzalo Koo, pausing to lean on his walking poles. “As the first tourist here, she is like the Virgin Mary in Patagonia.” We have spent the morning meandering through beech forests in Chile’s Última Esperanza (‘Last Hope’) province, skirting the cave where Eberhard found his giant sloth, and clambering up towards mountain peaks shining with fresh snow. Austral parakeets and Chilean flicker birds have been constantly annoyed by our presence, flailing up from their nests in screeches of irritation as we pass.
After a couple of hours, we emerge from the foothills and onto a broad plateau. “Maybe Florence wasn’t here on this exact spot,” says Gonzalo, “but she would have passed through this valley.” He gestures at the landscape 900 metres beneath us. Autumn is newly arrived in the southern hemisphere, and Patagonia looks on fire, the grasslands glowing russet and the forests flaming red and amber. The rivers tracing the valley floor are so far below us they look like single strands of cotton. It is the land of a fantasy, through which the heroine must traverse to claim her prize.
A movement catches Gonzalo’s eye, and we have our own prize for the day’s efforts: condors. Far below, a pair glides along the glittering tongue of Lago Sofia as it slinks towards the Andes. More appear, wheeling in from the left, swooping up from the right. “It’s like a highway of wind here,” says Gonzalo, lying on the rocks and peering over the plateau edge. “They’re looking for a thermal so they can get back to their nests.”
As we turn to hike down the mountain, we’re distracted by a noise behind us: the wump-wump-wump of a condor on a flight path that takes it just metres over our heads. I feel, as Florence described on her first condor encounter, “the air shook as it went, and almost touching me with the tip of its mighty wing” – a moment that inspired such reverent awe in her party that Florence’s husband promptly pulled out a rifle and shot it out of the sky. For an instant, the condor looks straight down at me, and I look straight up at it, and then we’re both on our way.