An Englishman In Patagonia

Some 33 years before an Englishman zig-zagged his way south from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, and north again into Chile, in search of a cave from where his great uncle Charley Milward sent to England a scrap of reddish skin from the remains of a prehistoric Mylodon. His name was Bruce Chatwin, and the book that he wrote about the journey, ‘In Patagonia‘, became a classic.

I read it with some interest, because I’ve been to a lot of the places that Chatwin visited.

Chatwin’s book reads like a travelogue, yet in reality is a mixture of fact and fiction, and the author referred to it as a novel. There’s a lot of meticulously researched history in the book, which goes much further than just simple observations of what the author saw.

Chatwin had a great talent for talking to people, and a knack of uncovering interesting and rather odd stories in unlikely and out of the way places. His anecdotes are populated by an eccentric cast of characters. He explored some of the places where these things happened, often finding people that knew the characters in the stories, providing a link from past events to the present.

This historic parade includes characters such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Charles Darwin, Jeremy Button, and of course his great uncle Charley Milward.

A scene from Punta Arenas, Chile, one of the towns that Chatwin passed through

I like to imagine Chatwin as a slightly scruffy and eccentric Englishman, with a camera, a notebook, a sleeping bag and a few possessions in a small backpack. Dirty from the road, and not bothered about sleeping rough out in the open or on a straw mattress in a barn, and willing to walk for miles to follow up a story or meet someone interesting.

Chatwin’s novel has a deep air of sadness. The cast of his book typically are European emigrants that made their way to South America decades before, and cling to their traditions and way of life, wistfully asking about life in the old country. There’s a deep sense of melancholy, wasted lives and lost opportunities.

He contrasts this with stories of the regions’ indigenous people, subjugated by European colonisation and often living in abject poverty.

The towns in the region have changed a lot since Chatwin’s visit. This is the Ushuaia of his novel:

‘The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly. The men worked in a crab-cannery or in the navy yards, kept busy by a niggling cold war with Chile. The last house before the barracks was a brothel.’

How times have changed. Ushuaia is still a small but growing town, catering for tourists that come during summer to see Tierra del Fuego National Park or for boat trips to nearby Antarctica (only 1100 kilometres away). It’s a welcoming, friendly place despite the eternally cold climate.

Now, from a photographer’s point of view, Patagonia is an amazing destination. Tierra del Fuego National Park for example, close to Ushuaia, is stunningly beautiful. I certainly intend to return one day and explore more of this wild and lonely region.

Perhaps the most stunning scenery in these parts is the mountains near Torres del Paine National Park. Photographer Bruce Percy has travelled there many times. He has stunning photos and a very interesting blog, which I recommend you read.

To sum up, ‘In Patagonia’ is a captivating blend of travelogue, personal fiction and history, written in a laconic style that faithfully expresses the oddness of Patagonia’s vast and often bleak landscapes, and even odder people and history. Recommended.