Saturday, 19 January 2008

Around South America – Patagonia

So why then, and this is not only my particular case, does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain… but it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination. That’s what Charles Darwin had to say about Patagonia and I wouldn’t want to dispute his theories. I certainly shouldn’t try to elaborate on them either but I’ll try in this case. For his theory On The Origin of Species, Darwin spent five years travelling the world on board the Beagle, a ship that had the pleasant task of charting the South American coastline, including the Galapagos Islands. I spent a few days travelling there and back on a bus and a few hours driving around, so you’ll forgive the lack of depth in this article. I’m not sure I needed much more time though, there isn’t a lot there.

Excluding the Andes and Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia consists of almost a million square kilometres of flat, treeless landscape, broken only by the rivers that work their way from the mountains in the west. The steppes are covered in scrub with waist-high bushes giving each other a little breathing space. There are genuine tumbleweeds too, I saw my first one rolling across the road in front of me. Normally these bushes are used to show that every body has left a one-horse town. In Patagonia, there aren’t any towns.

At least not many for tumbleweeds to roll through, blown by a constant wind that has nothing to break it down, no trees, no houses, no hills and no valleys. The wind is free to blow where and when it chooses for hundreds of miles in every direction. If I’m making it sound like the Siberian wastelands or the Mongolian Steppes, that’s probably because they sound very similar. So why the romanticised view of Patagonia? There are other featureless landscapes that inspire fear as much as respect – the blinding polar ice-sheets; the burning Australian deserts; the emptiness of the Botswana salt-flats; and the claustrophobia of the open seas. It is hard to find life in such places, and being there is a constant reminder of mortality. Patagonia doesn’t have that fear factor attached to it. An English sailor shipwrecked in 19th Century Tierra del Fuego walked across Patagonia to Buenos Aires. It took him five years, but he managed it. Perhaps the clear, cloudless skies and the vivid colours of a thousand Patagonian dawns and a thousand Patagonian sunsets kept his spirits up as he dream of returning home.

Is it the knowledge that survival is a possibility that allows you to relax as you stare at the distant horizon? With nothing to distract it, your mind is free to drift away into a dreamland. The chance to dream while awake is rare and therefore precious, it allows you to collect your thoughts and expand on them without interruption. Patagonian Dream Therapy. In my case, it allowed me to stare at the horizon for hours, wondering at the appeal of the area to Darwin, to me and to many more. Perhaps Patagonia only appeals to the dreamers of the world, but isn’t everyone a dreamer?

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