The Hidden Histories of Patagonia

The first thing I remember of Patagonia is the shock of the mountains as I descended through the clouds. Charcoal black with streaks of white snow, they were so dramatic, so huge, I felt like they were within an arm’s reach.

Landing on a runway lined with yellowed shrubs and wildflowers, I knew I’d arrived some place special. As I walked out of the airport, the air in the southernmost city in the world held me tight, and cut into my lungs. Later that day, after arriving at the Arakur – an extraordinary pine green hotel perched on the hill above Ushuaia – and checking in with the rest of the Chimu Adventurers, I walked out the backdoor into a landscape utterly unknown to me. Deep purple mountains, dusted with red earth, towered overhead, and the subantarctic forests were unlike any woods I’d ever walked through. The land was intense and weathered, and I felt an overwhelming sense of respect for it. Patagonia is a land that endures.

I spent the next week and a half at the end of the earth, where I lived ten years in ten days. You can read about my experience of Antarctica here.

Patagonia autumn

Autumn in Patagonia

Arriving back in South America, I checked into Hotel Campanilla, a doll-like, cherry pink house at the edge of town. I spent the next day getting to know the city. I walked the main street, lined with ski and souvenir shops, ate Argentinean pastries, and then stepped off the cracked pavement and wandered down dirt roads and alleyways. Ushuaia is a patchwork of bright colours and dull greys, knitted together with wildflowers. On my walk, I met a local couple my age that invited me to a BBQ later that night.

They picked me up at 9pm, and in a garage, we drank malbec, played ping-pong, exhaled clouds in the cold night and in true Argentinean fashion, ate a dinner of lamb (slow-cooked for six hours over charcoal) at 2am. Walking home, I commented on the tall, brush-like wildflowers to one of my new friends and he told me that they were not native. In that moment, under a streetlight, I felt time peel off and fold away. And if I hadn’t been drinking malbec, I might have been able to remember now when they were introduced… What’s important though is not the year these flowers were introduced, it’s that they signposted a before and after in my understanding of Patagonia’s history. And over the coming days, I sank deeper and deeper into that history.

Chimu Adventures hooked me up with two daytrip tours while I was in Ushuaia. When I travel alone, I usually end up hitchhiking and walking trails solo, so it was cool for a change to explore Tierra del Fuego with other travellers, and guides who were keen to impart so much knowledge. (Note: I ask a lot of questions!) Plus, with these tours, I was treated to lunches of barbequed Argentinean meats, delicious malbec, fresh bread and tasty cheeses. I finished both daytrips so full I didn’t need dinner!

My first daytrip was a 4×4 tour of the island’s lakes. Driving north out of the city, I learnt that we were driving on the Pan American highway – a road that starts in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and stretches 30,000km through 14 countries, ending in Ushuaia, Argentina. The distance seemed unfathomable – it blew my mind, and I felt I was truly at the bottom of the world. Turning off the main road, we bounced along dirt tracks and along grey-pebbled beaches. At one point, our guide veered to the right and drove at pace into the freezing cold lake, waves of water spraying up against the windows, while blasting ACDC. I laughed and sang along with him. Soon after, we ate lunch in a cabin in the woods. The earth was carpeted in orange leaves, with thick dark roots protruding through the mess.

On the way back to Ushuaia, sitting in the front seat, I noticed the rivers, or rather the grooves where rivers once flowed freely. My guide taught me about the Europeans who changed the face of Patagonia in the 19th century, how they altered the landscape. Then he told me how the Argentineans brought beavers down for their fur when fighting against the British, and then released the beavers when the climate made their fur shorter and coarse.

In the wild, the beavers built dams, the rivers soon ran low, water drained from the riverbanks, and now the valleys are a graveyard of bleached tree trunks, and yellowed soil. The demise of river systems in Patagonia is a sad history, and the Argentinean government is now spending 40 million dollars on efforts to eradicate the beavers. But this history is not hard to learn. You can find all this on Google. The story of the penal colony that became Ushuaia is one well told. It’s the hidden histories, the lesser known stories that are so much more interesting, so let’s sink deeper…

Ushuaia Patagonia

Ushuaia nestled in the mountains

My second adventure was a canoe paddle and hike in the national park. And it was here, paddling on an emerald green lake that I learnt about the Yamanas – the area’s first people. They were nomadic, and occupied the lands surrounding the Beagle Channel for 10,000 years until Europeans arrived with disease and opposing attitudes, and wiped out them out in less than twenty-years. Before Europeans, the Yamanas hunted sea lions, and as we steered our canoes into a wind-swept Beagle Channel, I was impressed to learn that it was the women who would have paddled, while the men hunted and the children sat huddled around a fire in the hull of the canoe. Onshore, our guide pointed to a tangle of kelp that had washed onto the beach. She talked about the air bubbles in these kelp forests that allow them to float on the surface and get sunlight, and told of the ingenuity of the Yamanas, using the kelp as nets to trap sea lions. The Yamanas also ate sea bugs, king crabs and kelp salad, and all this talk of seafood had me work up an appetite. Thankfully, lunch was served half an hour later, and we enjoyed Argentinean lamb and malbec in a tent.

On this day, the sky was ashen, and when it is overcast in Australia, the colours in the bush fade, so I started our hike feeling a little disheartened, expecting a wash of dull browns and greens. Within minutes through, I realised that even on a cloudy day, South Patagonia was anything but dull. I simply couldn’t believe how much colour there was! In a dark forest, there was so much light. The ground was peppered with leaves in shades of pink, orange and yellow. The leaves rain down with the wind from the tops of Deciduous Beech trees. The taller Evergreen Beech trees don’t lose their leaves and make for a deep green canopy.

The contrast of the ground beneath me against the leafy world above me was stunning. Along the trail, our guide pointed out Winter Bark, which can be chewed for vitamin C, or brewed to make a spicy tea. We also learnt about the native orchids, and mushrooms that when eaten at the right time, taste like peaches. The Yamanas called them ‘sweet sweet’, although our guide admitted that with a taste palate exposed to the sugars in our modern diets, the mushroom would unlikely seem sweet to us today.

When we emerged from the forest onto a blue-pebbled beach, the colours of this remarkable landscape were even more pronounced. The beach was littered with pink stones, rounded and smoothed by the tides, and chunks of white quartz. The larger rocks were crusted with purple muscle shells, or covered in orange lichen. Our guide pointed to huge mounds at the edge of the beach and told us about the Yamanas’s dwellings. Not wearing clothes, the Yamanas built homes out of sea lion hides to keep out of the cold and changed the entrance depending on where the wind was blowing. They piled up their scraps outside their doors, and after a few years, would leave their dwellings, which would then be taken up by another nomadic Yamana family.

Mounds of uneven earth rose up over time with the Yamana’s gradual piling of crushed bones, fish and muscles. If you were to dig into these grassy hills, you’d be digging down through 8000 years of indigenous life and stories. I felt privileged to have learnt about the history hidden beneath soft grass and wildflowers. Yamana means to be, or to exist, and standing on the edge of the Beagle Chanel in 2017, I could still, very much feel their presence.

Sea Lion Patagonia

Patagonian Sea Lion

Back in the forest, I discovered the rich history of the land itself. One thing you’ll notice in the woods in South Patagonia is the amount of fallen trees piled up on the earth. I asked our guide if there’d been a storm in recent years that had damaged the forest, and she told me that I was looking at trees that had fallen over hundreds of years ago. Because of the cold climate, with temperatures cooler than your fridge all year round, plant matter just doesn’t break down at the same pace as what it does back home. I reached down and touched one of the fallen trunks. I held my palm to the body of a tree that has barely changed in decades and felt again that sense of time peeling away. When we continued walking, our guide pointed out green, frilly leaves growing out of standing tree trunks. She said that they were lichen, and that they needed water and pure air to grow. Our guide encouraged us to breathe in, and fill our lungs with some of the purest air in the world. I felt it nourish my body from the inside out.

At the end of the walk, I commented on rocks that were an impressive luminescent blue. I learnt that they were from the Jurassic period, and felt myself sink deeper into history. On the drive home, our guide sat next to me and she told me that 10,000 years ago, South Patagonia was covered with glaciers. She pointed to grooves in the mountains and said how they were the impressions of ancient glaciers. You can read the history of the landscape in the shapes of the mountains. I asked her how long it took for the glaciers to melt. From memory, she said they started melting 25,000 years ago, so roughly 15,000 years. She then told me that 10 glaciers have melted in the last thirty years… In hearing this startling truth, I came to understand how we’re changing the face of Patagonia today… How we’re changing history, and can only hope we have time to re-write it.

Before I got out of the bus, one of the canoe guides handed me a wild berry he’d picked in the national park. He said there’s a saying in Patagonia that says once you eat one of these berries, you have to come back. I ate it… See you sometime soon, Patagonia!

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