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Day 2: Across the Desert to Gualjaina

From Gaiman to Las Chapas

Jeremy had us out of bed and eating breakfast at the unheard of hour of 7.15, promising that we would have a spectacular day if we left early enough to enjoy it all. He was right. It was the longest day of our tour and probably the most memorable.

Our plan was to cross the whole country, a distance of some 400 miles, following the route of the first Welsh explorers to set sight on the Andes. If things went according to plan, we, too, would see the Andes before the day was out.

You have to see the first 100 miles of our journey to appreciate it. We were in a vast and featureless desert, or steppe, with no trees, few hills and no towns or villages. We saw the odd ostrich and wild deer, but, apart from those, nothing. Virtually no traffic. No people. Nothing.

After 70 miles, we left the road to have a look at the Ameghino dam. This huge undertaking, completed in the early 60's at the cost of over 75 souls, has had the greatest impact on the lives of the Welsh in the Valley. The River Chubut is normally a quiet meandering waterway with no white water between the Andes and the sea. Nowadays, you could have a great holiday floating in a canoe down its entire length. However, the level and ferocity of the flow of the water is subject to the vagaries of the Patagonian weather, as well as the quantity of melt water coming from the snows and glaciers in the Andes.

The Welsh knew just how unpredictable the river could be. In 1865, their very first year, it flooded and took away all the crops they had so laboriously planted. In the next twenty years, much of the Valley was inundated a further 8 times. In the flood of 1899, over half the village of Gaiman stood under water; the town of Rawson was almost totally destroyed; over one hundred houses, 8 chapels, 3 post offices and 5 schools were lost (together with all their important written records); the life-giving canals were wrecked, as were any hopes of a harvest that year. Even the previous year's harvest, neatly stacked and ready for sale or consumption, was washed out to sea. Similarly disastrous floods occurred in 1901,1927 and 1945. The river which gave life and hope to the Welsh settlers took it away in an instant.

With the completion of the dam in 1963, the people of the Valley finally had the confidence that the crops in which they had invested a year's work would not be threatened nor destroyed by these unpredictable floods. Jeremy has a set of video interviews of local people recorded by the BBC (in Welsh) in the Chubut Valley in 1962, and the preoccupation of all of them was the changed way of life which would arrive with the imminent completion of the construction of the dam.

Today, the dam was like a vast duck pond. The huge wall held back a giant turquoise lake surrounded on all sides by red sandstone cliffs. Well worth the short diversion!

Las Chapas to Paso de Indios

We carried on buzzing through the desert, following the skeleton of the Welsh railway line, abandoned in 1960 and originally intended to connect the Welsh settlements of the Atlantic and the Andes, and later to provide an outlet for their products to countries in and around the Pacific. Two hundred kilometres from the coast, Jeremy stopped the car. We walked around a corner and before us and, it seemed, miles below us, a wild red landscape. We had reached the Chubut River Valley. The river, always flanked by green vegetation, snaked off into the misty distance. The valley, perhaps 2 or 3 miles wide at this point, was an oasis compared to the desert of the previous few hours. As we descended to the floor of the valley and to the village of Las Plumas (Dôl y Plu in Welsh, The Feathers in English), we passed a sign marking an "Historical Site" 15 kilometres off the road to our right. It was here in a place now called The Valley of the Martyrs (and then called Dyffryn William) that, in 1884, 4 Welshmen who had been panning for gold near to the Andes, having been chased for days by Indians, were attacked in their camp. Three of them were killed and one, John Daniel Evans, coaxed his young horse, Malacara (Ugly Face in English) to jump into a gully, where the Indian horses refused to follow. Evans made good his escape and, in the following year, safely led the expedition of Fontana's Riflemen (more of this later) which discovered Cwm Hyfryd (The Beautiful Valley) in the Andes, which later became Trevelin. He subsequently became one of the key characters in the wheat business when he built the first mill in The Town of The Mill!

At Las Plumas, we crossed the River Chubut and then followed it for almost 100 miles. In places, the valley is so narrow that you almost have to breathe in as you pass through. In others, the far side is just a shape in the heat haze. It was along this riverside that the Welsh wagons passed, laden with tallboys, harmoniums, china dogs, saucepans and all the other treasured possessions which would be so necessary in building a new life in an unknown land. It wasn't easy going (it still isn't!), with canyons and floods and marauding Indians to worry about. Indeed, on the second day of the 1885 expedition, the leader was attacked by a mountain lion (or puma) and, if it hadn't been for his thick cloak, he would have been catfood! Every bend in the river, every large clump of trees, every massive rockfall, every strange rock formation, every narrow canyon – they all seem to have Welsh stories to be told about them and they all had Welsh names!

After we passed Jack Lewis's grave, buried, with his dog, on the roadside outside the entrance to his ranch, we passed by Burnt House, Little Palermo, Rocky Ravines, Broken Car, Carbon  Ravine, Ox Head, Rocky Trip, The Half Moon, Cock Beak's Mountain, The Altars, Noah's Arc, Vivaldi's Chapel, eventually arriving at Indian's Crossing (Paso de Indios) a couple of hours and one lunch/petrol stop later. The scenery was magnificent. Around every corner, there was a new vista. Huge walls of red rock, flat tables of rock shaped like altars by the Patagonian wind, contorted lava flows and, every now and then, a farmhouse on the river's edge with sheep busying themselves in the shadows.

Paso de Indios (the Spanish word "paso" means a pass; but in Patagonia, it is used as a name to describe where a river can be best forded) marked the end of the paved road. Here, we turned off the main east-west route and headed north westward, still following the river.

Paso de Indios to Gualjaina

Turning back on ourselves at Paso de Indios, we left the paved road and head north-west and into the true Patagonian wilderness. We chugged along past abandoned  gold mines, off-limits secret uranium mines, ancient arrow quarries and clusters of farm workers' houses. The scenery is all cliffs, canyons, extinct volcanoes and wild rock formations. Hundreds of kilometres with few signs of "civilisation", but always the diamante belt of the river to our right, dust thrown up behind us, rocky crags to our left and an ever-changing vista in front. And what we were seeing hadn't changed since volcanic activity, continental upheavals and glacial action formed this valley eons ago.

Earlier, Jeremy had prepared a list of the "big five" animals we could hope to see during the day. Its credibility was somewhat strained by the fact that there were 15 animals on the list, not 5, that one of them was a rainbow trout and that another was a "Patagonian Killer Bunny". However,  we kept a sharp lookout and saw all but three (the puma, red fox and grey fox). We played with an armadillo next to the river, admired the amazing pinks and reds of flamingos and began to get a good idea of how important the large deer (guanaco) and ostrich (choique) were to the survival of the Welsh pioneers.

We stopped and climbed around a rock fall inside one cliff face to admire ancient Indian paintings and drove deep into the hills to pick up petrified wood, the only remnant of the rain forest which once existed in this wild place. When we reached Piedra Parada, a 200 metre high rock thrown out over 35 million years ago during an eruption of a giant (25 kilometres in diameter) volcano , our luxury picnic was waiting under its shade and bottles of refreshment chilling in the waters of the river.

After the picnic, we explored some of the canyons created by the volcanic eruption to try and attract the attention of the Patagonian Killer Bunny, the Chinchillon, which is found near a hidden cave which was once home to giant armadillos, or glyptodons. Approaching the cave, Jeremy threw in stones and shouted – to scare off any pumas which may have taken up residence, he claimed (more likely, to scare us a little bit!). In the cave, which was invisible from a few yards distant, there were plenty of animal bones, as well as signs of habitation by large birds. About the size of a Welsh chapel, the cave had similar acoustics, but there any comparison ended. We were glad to get back into the sunshine. Driving a little further up the canyon, which was only just wide enough to let our 4x4 through, Jeremy stopped, turned off the engine and gave us two stones each.  After a couple of moments of absolute silence, he started banging the stones together, explaining in a hushed voice that chinchillones are extremely inquisitive. We scanned the red cliffs looking for any sign of life and, within a couple of minutes, a weird animal appeared to have a look at us. It looked like a giant squirrel, with a huge bushy tail, but with rabbits' ears. Jonathan managed to get a good photo before the chinchillon scurried away. A few minutes later, another appeared. Jeremy told us to cover our throats, as this was the spot they went for in one of their frenzied attacks on humans! Phooey!

However, we had seen an animal which appears in very few guidebooks of the area – a real rarity.

From Piedra Parada, we continued west for a short distance and gained our first sight of the Andes Range. Not much snow, unfortunately, at this time of the year, but impressive nonetheless. From there, it was just a short hop to Gualjaina, our destination for the night and the Hosteria Mirador Huancache.

Gualjaina is a town of the local indigenous people, the Mapuches, and we were something of a curiosity. There was the one hotel, one cottage hospital, one gem shop, a few general stores, many posts to which the population tied their horses, one restaurant and plenty of tumbleweed. We arrived at about 9.00 pm (I never did get used to the ridiculously late hour when dinner is normally served in restaurants in this country) and had the place to ourselves. I am afraid we couldn't do the place justice, since we were still full from our picnic! But we manfully struggled through some more incredible Argentinean meat and were on the verge of exhaustion as we headed to bed.

But Jeremy had one more surprise up his sleeve. We drove about a mile out of town and he stopped the car, turned all his lights off and asked us to wait. It was pitch black. You couldn't see a thing. Until he opened the door, when we were presented with the most amazing sky, brilliantly white and full of stars. After a few minutes, our eyes became used to the darkness and the stars became even more impressive. Shooting stars and satellites were clearly visible, as was the most famous of the Southern Hemisphere's constellations, the Southern Cross. And the name of the brightest star in the cross? Mimosa. It was this star after which the ship which brought the first settlers was named. We felt just a little twinge of awe.

Back to Day 1                  Forward to Day 3


 

A typical road in the desert

Las Plumas, a choique (rhea) seen near the road

The Chubut Valley, Coal Canyon

Los Altares, a forgotten grave by the side of the road

Los Altares, the main road follows the River Chubut


The River Chubut (Camwy, in Welsh)

The Upper Chubut Valley, our pet armadillo

The Upper Chubut Valley, Tehuelche ancient cave paintings

The Upper Chubut Valley, dramatic scenery

The Upper Chubut Valley, Cathedral Cliffs


The Upper Chubut Valley, Piedra Parada (see if you can spot our car)

The Upper Chubut Valley, Vulture Canyon near Piedra Parada

The Upper Chubut Valley, the first sighting of the Patagonian Killer Bunny, the chinchillon

The Upper Chubut Valley, remote beauty


The Upper Chubut Valley, one of many canyons

The Upper Chubut Valley, petrified wood exposed by wind erosion

     


 
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Esquel - Chubut - Patagonia - Argentina - Email: info@welshpatagonia.com



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