River of Desire Excerpts: Revelations at Cape Curious

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(Editors note: This is the second in a series of excerpts we will be publishing on our website from British author Simon Worrall’s book The River of Desire: A Journey of the Heart Through Patagonia. In the current issue of the magazine, we also publish the entire chapter entitled "River of Desire.")

Bruce Chatwin, the celebrated British travel writer, dismissed San Julian as “boring” when he passed through the town in 1978. What he didn’t say was that he was only there for three hours, between changing buses. Back then, most travellers, like Chatwin, at least had to pass through San Julian on Route 3. Today, many people bypass it altogether, as they fly south to more obviously spectacular sites, like Torres del Paine or Ushuaia.
 
This is a shame because, in my opinion, San Julian is one of the most interesting places in Patagonia. For a start, it is the crucible of modern Patagonian history: the place where the first Europeans died, and where the word Patagonia was first used, when Magellan’s cartographer, Antonio Pigafetta, inked it on a map. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, San Julian was the epicentre of Patagonia’s sheep-farming industry. Charles Darwin did important work here.
 
But it was a grainy, black and white photo in the corridor of my hotel that made me feel a special affection for this remote, windswept town. Standing next to a prop plane on the runway of the old airfield, in trench coat and goggles, was none other than Antoine de Ste. Exupery, the great French writer, who used to fly mail planes for La Companie General Aeropoastal Francesa; and went on to write such wonderful books as The Little Prince and Wind, Sand and Stars.
 
To fully appreciate a place a writer needs a good guide. And in Pablo ‘Poly’ Walker, fourth-generation San Julianer, amateur historian, Darwin fanatic, Pink Floyd fan and expert Pelota Paleta player, I found the perfect one …

- Simon Worrall     

 

 
 Revelations at Cape Curious
 
We pulled up at a rusting, wrought iron fence by the side of the road. Inside it was a metal cross with rocks piled around its base. A cliff dropped precipitously to the sea.  “It’s the grave of Leo Scholl,” said Poly, clambering out of the jeep.  “The doctor on board The Beagle, during Fitzroy’s first voyage down the coast of Patagonia, before Darwin joined the ship. Scholl died in San Julian in 1828, possibly of syphilis.” A gust of wind nearly blew us off the cliff.  “People ask me why I show people graves like this,” said Poly, shouting to make himself heard, as the wind whined and whipped around us. “They think it’s macabre. But for me these graves are a trademark of San Julian. Our great value is our history and our history is absolutely terrible. The first ten white people who died in Argentina died here and usually in a terrible way: they were beheaded or hung, stabbed or starved. But that is our history. Patagonia was a very hard place for the first people who came here.”
 
A blast of wind sent pebbles skittering across the ground.  “This is nothing,” said Poly, leaning forward into the wind, like a ski jumper.  “In San Julian people start counting the speed of the wind from fifty kilometers an hour. That’s zero. For us, a concerning wind is about 200 kilometers per hour.”
 
A concerning wind! What a perfect description, I thought, as we entered a protected hollow at the northern tip of the bay that runs down to San Julian. In the lee of the hollow stood the remains of a meat-processing plant. It was a huge structure covering several acres. In 1912, when it was built by an Anglo-American company called The Swift Cold Storage Company, it employed three hundred people and could process thousands of sheep carcasses per week. It had had its own harbour and accommodation for the workers. Today, it stood open to the winds, another symbol of San Julian’s decline. The walls had collapsed, the corrugated iron walls were rusted, a meat hook, hanging at the end of chain, swung in the wind like a pendulum.
 
As we drove on, Poly reflected on the changing definitions of Patagonia.
 
“There’s a debate going on about what Patagonia actually is,” he said, as a bar of sunlight beamed down onto the sea.  “I for one believe that Patagonia is not essentially about mountains, that the Cordillera is not part of Patagonia. Patagonia is essentially the steppe and the Atlantic coast. I think the inclusion of mountains and glaciers of the Andes is just a marketing device.”  He shrugged his shoulders.  “But, ultimately, Patagonia is more an idea, than a place.”
 
In English, Cabo Curioso means Cape Curious. It’s a blustery headland fringed by white gypsum cliffs like the ones we had seen at Las Lolas, only bigger. On a long, shingle beach we watched as a tubby boy in old-fashioned, black swimming trunks ran towards the sea and leapt into the surf with a yell. The wind was from the South today, from Antarctica, and two other children stood shivering under towels. In less than thirty seconds, the tubby boy was back beside them, his teeth chattering from his brief immersion in the sea.
 
Behind us, banks of pebbles stretched inland across the steppe, like stone dunes. Poly pointed. “They go all the way to the Cordillera,” he explained.  “If you dig down anywhere in the steppe you find these pebbles. Only ten centimeters of soil cover them.”
 
It was these shingle beds that so impressed Darwin when he visited San Julian, in 1834. In this description from The Voyage of The Beagle, written many years after the event, we can still feel his excitement: “If this great bed of pebbles, without including the mud necessarily derived from their attrition, was piled into a mound, it would form a great mountain chain! When we consider that all these pebbles, countless as the grains of sand in the desert, have been derived from the slow-falling of masses of rock on the old coast-lines and banks of rivers; and that these fragments have been dashed into smaller pieces, and that each of them has since been slowly rolled, rounded, and far transported, the mind is stupefied in thinking over the long, absolutely necessary, lapse of years.”
 
We walked on towards the cliffs. At the top was a layer of white gypsum laid down thirty million years ago. Below it were older layers of sedimentary rock. The walls of the cliff were the color of dirty sand and they were studded with even more fossils than we had discovered at Las Lolas: layer upon layer of shells, mollusks and giant oysters, protruding from the rock like dinner plates.
 
These same oyster shells triggered in Darwin’s mind the idea of the extinction of species, which became the foundation of his world-transforming theory of evolution.  “Differently from Europe,” continues Darwin,  “ where the tertiary formations appear to have accumulated in bays, here along hundreds of miles of coast we have one great deposit, including many tertiary shells, all apparently extinct. The most common shell is a massive gigantic oyster, sometimes even a foot in diameter.”
 
Some of the giant oyster shells Darwin described had fallen from the cliff and were being pulled back into the sea, seventy million years after it had retreated. Veins of crystallized salt, the dried out remains of ancient salt lakes left behind by the same, ancient sea, zigzagged across the cliff face, like threads of glass:
 
I traced my finger along one of these veins of salt, dizzy with the immense lapse of time between then and now. As I did so, a scarab beetle, blown by a gust of wind off the top of the cliff two hundred feet above me, landed at my feet and began to crawl along the base of the cliff, rocking from side to side as it negotiated the uneven gravel and stones, a journey as daunting for the beetle as the one we had just made across the steppe.
 
Past and present, the living and the dead, animate and inanimate, existed here cheek-by-jowl, as though seventy million years of the earth’s history had been telescoped together. As the sea sucked in and out of the rocks, I stared up at the cliff, its layers of geological memory open like a book in front of me. As I stood there, the memory of a summer day I had spent years trying to forget came flooding back ……
 

 

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