Sunday, March 18, 2012

Catching up - Patagonia

Sometimes I blog myself into a corner. I did that a couple of weeks ago, blogging from Argentina, when I promised to write more about Patagonia the following day. Due to bad Internet connections, among other things, I never got to that second post, and as a result, I haven't been blogging at all.

So let me finish Patagonia. Did I mention that it rained a lot? We were on a deserted stretch of coastline, an hour's drive on dirt roads from the highway, 90 kilometers from the nearest town. In fact, we were pretty much rained in. By the day after our arrival, Land Rovers were finding the muddy road nearly impassable, and we never did get to visit a petrified forest an hour's drive away. Instead we made drives to places a little farther south along the coast to hike along different rocky formations. The whole are is volcanic, and the rock piles itself in formations of different shapes and colors. Some parts look like sloppy brickwork, while others look like little abandoned gnome villages with small, empty caves. Long peninsulas and marshy inlets complicate the coastline.

The weather was bad, considering that this was the equivalent of our August. Temperatures hovered in the fifties, and the wind blew when the rain wasn't falling. Still, on one sunny day we went boating, and we saw sea lions, penguins, cormorants, three species of tern, and the giant Arctic petrel, along with herons and cranes. Another day we crossed at low tide along solid ground to an island where Magellanic penguins nest. Under every bush, penguin parents had hollowed out a depression where a gawky teenager now lives. These are slacker penguins who travel up the coast in cold weather and never brave the Antarctic seas. Groups of males came strutting single file up the rocks, calling for their mates.

Another day Sabrina and I went riding with the grandson of the seaweed villages founder, Matthias. ("He's the one that looks like a lion," one of the staff told me, and he does, with a lovely uncombed leonine locks and beard.) The Criollo horses, nurtured and bred over a couple of centuries from the original Spanish stock, were sturdy and incredibly docile. Their most common color is somewhere between gray and tan, in the region called dun. The horses labored through mud well above their ankles as we crossed what should be arid land, and when we finally broke free, we rode above the marsh and galloped along the beach. We stopped at one mound of shells left by long-ago indigenous foragers, and Matthias found a spherical stone about the size of a tennis ball, with a groove worn in it. This was a bolo ball, meant for throwing on a cord to tangle the legs of game, like guanacos and rheas.

And yes, we saw guanaco, which are the wild cousins of llamas; we even ate guanaco stew one night. And we saw rheas, the flightless birds of South America, about one-third or one-half the size of ostriches. I also saw my first armadillos, as well as the carcasses of numerous pilot whales who threw themselves on the beach three years ago. I saw lots of sheep, a skunk, European hares, and on the last day the rare and misnamed Patagonian hare, or mara.

The mara is a big animal, 18 to 30 pounds, with relatively short, yet rabbit-like ears, and it moves with a long-legged hop, like a hare, but actually it's a large rodent. We saw a pair of them fifty yards from the road as we drove back from our last hike along the rocks. That was our good-bye to Patagonia, except for the guanacos we saw just before the highway on our return drive to the airport at Comodoro Rivadavia.

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