On the Trail of Bruce Chatwin In Patagonia

On the Trail of Bruce Chatwin In Patagonia

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By Stephen Keeling
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The Polish woman grins as the car ferry to Tierra del Fuego crashes over the Magellan Strait. The bus groans and moves very slightly forward, grazing the truck in front of us. I grip my chair. She waves a book at me. “Have you read our excellent Podróże Marzeń guide to Chile?” She smiles again as the bus rolls back. The bus driver is outside and stubs out his cigarette. He shakes his head at the sailors trying to secure our vehicle. I tell her that I can’t read Polish.

“You are writer, no?” She points at my note pad. Yes, I say. Rough Guides? She stares at me. “Like Podróże Marzeń?” Yes, I suppose so. “You want a copy? I have a photocopy on my Samsung”. No thank you, I say. “Is the bus supposed to be moving?” She shrugs, then points to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. “This is your book?” No, I say. This is by an author who is now dead. “You know Bruce Chatwin?” She shakes her head. “He likes Patagonia?” Sort of. “Ah, yes, it is so very beautiful”. She looks sad. “But tomorrow our group goes to Easter Island, for the big heads.”

Thirty-five years ago, the publication of In Patagonia made Bruce Chatwin famous overnight – in the English-speaking world at least. In 1975 there were few tourists in southern Chile and Argentina. Chatwin finds Patagonia a place of “vicious” sunsets in “red and purple”. It has towns of “shabby concrete buildings, tin bungalows, tin warehouses and wind-flattened gardens”, a place littered with the insane, criminals and British eccentrics, leftovers from the sheep-farming boom of the early 1900s. In Patagonia was a magical book – ‘a wonder voyage’ – about a remote and mystical land. I knew the place must have changed – I just had no idea how much.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Chatwin finds Ushuaia, the world’s most southernmost city, especially dispiriting, full of “blue-faced inhabitants [who] glared at strangers unkindly”. Today this town is perhaps the most transformed of any he visited, a booming tourist depot serving European and American cruises and adventure travellers by the Airbus load – the main drag heaves with shops, Irish pubs, cool cafés and North Face outlets. English is spoken everywhere.

The old prison was a barracks when Chatwin arrived, ‘blank grey walls, pierced by the narrowest slits’, with a brothel next door. He came looking for evidence of the failed anarchist Simón Radowitzky, imprisoned here in 1911. There are no more brothels (at least, none as obvious), and the navy now shares the old prison with the stylish Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia, making the building seem far less foreboding – it’s a fabulous labyrinth of exhibits on modern art, the ‘Malvinas War’ and history of Antarctic exploration. Chatwin would be pleased to see that Simón is also remembered, though the brutal ill-treatment he received is not – displays emphasize that Radowitzky was an anarchist and murderer. Yet the museum is not wholly unsympathetic to the prisoners’ plight. One cellblock has been left as it was; cold, dimly lit and very cramped.

Today Ushuaia lives for tourism, not “canning crabs”. Chatwin remarks on the damage done by imported beavers to the ecology of Tierra de Fuego – today there are tours to go see them. He walks all the way to the Estancia Harberton, where Clarita Goodall (granddaughter of original missionary Thomas Bridges) makes him breakfast. Today tour buses grind over to the spiffy estancia in under an hour for guided tours, penguins and the estate museum. The place is still owned by Clarita’s son, Thomas Goodall, but it’s no longer a working farm. Tourists get to eat soup and cookies at the Mánacatush Tea Room.

Punta Arenas

Chatwin’s Punta Arenas, at the bottom end of Chile, is a sad place: a sort of British enclave in decline meets Spanish city recovering from Marxist dictatorship. Today it is booming from tourism and a bonanza in natural resources. Locals in suits rush around the plaza for lunch meetings while bemused tourists seem dressed for the South Pole (it’s not that cold). The British sheep farming magnates of the 1890s – already an echo in Chatwin’s book – are long gone.

When Chatwin arrived the local dignitaries were commemorating José Menéndez, sheep-farm millionaire, with a memorial in Plaza de Armas: his bronze head is still there, and still “as bald as a bomb”. Chatwin describes the palazzos around the plaza as “mostly officers’ clubs”, though there is now only one club, and most have become banks, hotels or restaurants. The hotel where he stayed – the Residencial Ritz – is now abandoned near the docks, a shabby building up for sale.

Chatwin seems to find the Salesian Fathers museum even more depressing, but this, too, has been completely transformed. The glass showcase of an Italian priest and otter skin is no more, and I couldn’t locate the two “sad copy-books” he mentions. Today the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello is far more politically correct and an enlightening introduction to the region and its native inhabitants.

Yet there is still a tiny British presence here. The British Club and one time consul closed in 1981 – it’s now all part of the Bank of Chile and off limits, but St James Church and the British School next door are still very much in business. And Charley Millward’s Neo-Gothic fantasy house is around the corner, just as Chatwin describes it: “iron gate painted green, with crossed Ms twined about with Pre-Raphaelite lilies”. It’s now the offices of the local newspaper, Diario El Pingüino.

Puerto Natales and the Mylodon Cave

When Chatwin arrived in Puerto Natales, 240km north of Punta Arenas, the “roofs of the houses were scabby with rust and clattered in the wind. Rowan trees grew in the gardens…most were choked with docks and cow parsley”. Still an outwardly shabby place, the neglected, end-of-the-world feel has disappeared entirely; hostels overflow with backpackers on every corner. You can order a decent latte, cheeseburgers, bottles of quality Chilean red and cheap mojitos. Polish and Korean tour groups shuffle up and down the streets.

The main reason Chatwin visits Natales is for the Mylodon Cave, a short drive north of town. Chatwin’s fascination with Patagonia – and indeed the hinge on which the whole book pivots – had its roots in a scrap of mylodon (giant sloth) skin that Milward, his grandmother’s cousin, had sent back to England.

Of all the places in the book, this was the one I was most eager to see. Chatwin describes a raw, untouched cavern with a simple shrine to the Virgin at its mouth. Inside he sees the remains of petrified “sloth turds”. After rooting around in an old dynamite hole he actually finds another piece of ancient skin, preserved by the dryness. True or not (and Chatwin often made things up), I was intrigued.

When I visited there was a bit of a traffic jam. Several tour buses had arrived at the same time, mostly Germans and Koreans along with a pack of American hikers and a convoy of Chilean and Argentine families in dusty SUVs. The cave is accessed by clearly marked trails from a small visitor centre – there’s even a gift shop and decent restaurant across the road. The gaping cave mouth itself hasn’t changed in millennia, but now a life-size model of a mylodon on its hind legs graces the entrance. Informative displays tell the story of the now extinct giant. The small shrine, turds and any traces of skin have long gone, along with any romance the place once had.

But the buses soon moved on. As I strolled outside the cave I looked back across the icy plains towards the vast snow-capped massif of the Torres del Paine. Chatwin’s half real, half fantasy book was never meant to be a travel guide in any case. And even though Patagonia has changed, of course, its landscapes remain – vast, desolate and witheringly beautiful.

Stephen Keeling is a contributor to the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.