The wind had blown a gale all night, and I had been hourly expecting that the tumbling, storm-vexed old steamer, in which I had taken passage to the Rio Negro, would turn over once for all and settle down beneath that tremendous tumult of waters. For the groaning sound of its straining timbers, and the engine throbbing like an overtasked human heart, had made the ship seem a living thing to me; and it was tired of the struggle, and under the tumult was peace. But at about three o’clock in the morning the wind began to moderate, and, taking off coat and boots, I threw myself into my bunk for a little sleep.
Ours, it must be said, was a very curious boat, reported ancient and much damaged; long and narrow in shape, like a Viking’s ship, with the passengers’ cabins ranged like a row of small wooden cottages on the deck: it was as ugly to look at as it was said to be unsafe to voyage in. To make matters worse our captain, a man over eighty years old, was lying in his cabin sick unto death, for, as a fact, he died not many days after our mishap; our one mate was asleep, leaving only the men to navigate the steamer on that perilous coast, and in the darkest hour of a tempestuous night.
I was just dropping into a doze when a succession of bumps, accompanied by strange grating and grinding noises, and shuddering motions of the ship, caused me to start up again and rush to the cabin door. The night was still black and starless, with wind and rain, but for acres round us the sea was whiter than milk. I did not step out; close to me, half-way between my cabin door and the bulwarks, where our only boat was fastened, three of the sailors were standing together talking in low tones. “We are lost,” I heard one say; and another answer, “Ay, lost for ever!” Just then the mate, roused from sleep, came running to them. “Good God, what have you done with the steamer!” he exclaimed sharply; then, dropping his voice, he added, “Lower the boat — quick!”
I crept out and stood, unseen by them in the obscurity, within five feet of the group. Not a thought of the dastardly character of the act they were about to engage in — for it was their intention to save themselves and leave us to our fate — entered my mind at the time. My only thought was that at the last moment, when they would be unable to prevent it except by knocking me senseless, I would spring with them into the boat and save myself, or else perish with them in that awful white surf. But one other person, more experienced than myself, and whose courage took another and better form, was also near and listening. He was the first engineer — a young Englishman from Newcastle-on-Tyne. Seeing the men making for the boat, he slipped out of the engine-room, revolver in hand, and secretly followed them; and when the mate gave that order, he stepped forward with the weapon raised, and said in a quiet but determined voice that he would shoot the first man who should attempt to obey it. The men slunk away and disappeared in the gloom. In a few moments more the passengers began streaming out on to the deck in a great state of alarm; last of all the old captain, white and hollow-eyed from his death-bed, appeared like a ghost among us. He had not been long standing there, with arms folded on his chest, issuing no word of command, and paying no attention to the agitated questions addressed to him by the passengers, when, by some lucky chance, the steamer got off the rocks and plunged on for a space through the seething, milky surf; then, very suddenly, passed out of it into black and comparatively calm water. For ten or twelve minutes she sped rapidly and smoothly on; then it was said that she had ceased to move, that we were stuck fast in the sand of the shore, although no shore was visible in the intense darkness, and to me it seemed that we were still moving swiftly on.
There was no longer any wind, and through the now fast-breaking clouds ahead of us appeared the first welcome signs of dawn. By degrees the darkness grew less intense; only just ahead of us there still remained something black and unchangeable — a portion, as it were, of that pitchy gloom that a short time before had made sea and air appear one and indistinguishable; but as the light increased it changed not, and at last it was seen to be a range of low hills or dunes of sand scarcely a stone’s throw from the ship’s bows. It was true enough that we were stuck fast in the sand; and although this was a safer bed for the steamer than the jagged rocks, the position was still a perilous one, and I at once determined to land. Three other passengers resolved to bear me company; and as the tide had now gone out, and the water at the bows was barely waist deep, we were lowered by means of ropes into the sea, and quickly waded to the shore.
We were not long in scrambling up the dunes to get a sight of the country beyond. At last, Patagonia! How often had I pictured in imagination, wishing with an intense longing to visit this solitary wilderness, resting far off in its primitive and desolate peace, untouched by man, remote from civilisation! There it lay full in sight before me — the unmarred desert that wakes strange feelings in us; the ancient habitation of giants, whose foot-prints seen on the sea-shore amazed Magellan and his men, and won for it the name of Patagonia. There too, far away in the interior, was the place called Trapalanda, and the spirit-guarded lake, on whose margin rose the battlements of that mysterious city, which many have sought and none have found.
It was not, however, the fascination of old legends that drew me, nor the desire of the desert, for not until I had seen it, and had tasted its flavour, then, and on many subsequent occasions, did I know how much its solitude and desolation would be to me, what strange knowledge it would teach, and how enduring its effect would be on my spirit. Not these things, but the passion of the ornithologist took me. Many of the winged wanderers with which I had been familiar from childhood in La Plata were visitors, occasional or regular, from this grey wilderness of thorns. In some cases they were passengers, seen only when they stopped to rest their wings, or heard far off “wailing their way from cloud to cloud,” impelled by that mysterious thought-baffling faculty, so unlike all other phenomena in its manifestations as to give it among natural things something of the supernatural. Some of these wanderers, more especially such as possess only a partial or limited migration, I hoped to meet again in Patagonia, singing their summer songs, and breeding in their summer haunts. It was also my hope to find some new species, some bird as beautiful, let us say, as the wryneck or wheatear, and as old on the earth, but which had never been named and never ever seen by any appreciative human eye. I do not know how it is with other ornithologists at the time when their enthusiasm is greatest; of myself I can say that my dreams by night were often of some new bird, vividly seen; and such dreams were always beautiful to me, and a grief to wake from; yet the dream-bird often as not appeared in a modest grey colouring, or plain brown, or some other equally sober tint.
From the summit of the sandy ridge we saw before us an undulating plain, bounded only by the horizon, carpeted with short grass, seared by the summer suns, and sparsely dotted over with a few sombre-leafed bushes. It was a desert that had been a desert always, and for that very reason sweet beyond all scenes to look upon, its ancient quiet broken only by the occasional call or twitter of some small bird, while the morning air I inhaled was made delicious with a faint familiar perfume. Casting my eyes down I perceived, growing in the sand at my feet, an evening primrose plant, with at least a score of open blossoms on its low wide-spreading branches; and this, my favourite flower, both in gardens and growing wild, was the sweet perfumer of all the wilderness! Its subtle fragrance, first and last, has been much to me, and has followed me from the New World to the Old, to serve sometimes as a kind of second more faithful memory, and to set my brains working on a pretty problem, to which I shall devote a chapter at the end of this book.
Our survey concluded, we set out in the direction of the Rio Negro. Before quitting the steamer the captain had spoken a few words to us. Looking at us as though he saw us not, he said that the ship had gone ashore somewhere north of the Rio Negro, about thirty miles he thought, and that we should doubtless find some herdsmen’s huts on our way thither. No need then to burden ourselves with food and drink! At first we kept close to the dunes that bordered the seashore, wading through a luxuriant growth of wild liquorice — a pretty plant about eighteen inches high, with deep green feathery foliage crowned with spikes of pale blue flowers. Some of the roots which we pulled up from the loose sandy soil were over nine feet in length. All the apothecaries in the world might have laid in a few years’ supply of the drug from the plants we saw on that morning.
To my mind there is nothing in life so delightful as that feeling of relief, of escape, and absolute freedom which one experiences in a vast solitude, where man has perhaps never been, and has, at any rate, left no trace of his existence. It was strong and exhilarating in me on that morning; and I was therefore by no means elated when we descried, some distance ahead, the low walls of half a dozen mud cabins. My fellow-travellers were, however, delighted at the discovery, and we hastened on, thinking that we were nearer to the settlement than we had supposed. But we found the huts uninhabited, the doors broken down, the wells choked up and overgrown with wild liquorice plants.
We learnt subsequently that a few venturesome herdsmen had made their home in this remote spot with their families, and that about a year before our visit the Indians had swept down on them and destroyed the young settlement. Very soon we turned our backs on the ruined hovels, my companions loudly expressing their disappointment, while I felt secretly glad that we were yet to drink a little more deeply of the cup of wild nature.
After walking on some distance we found a narrow path leading away southward from the ruined village, and, believing that it led direct to the Carmen, the old settlement on the Rio Negro, which is over twenty miles from the sea, we at once resolved to follow it. This path led us wide of the ocean. Before noon we lost sight of the low sand-hills on our right hand, and as we penetrated further into the interior the dark-leafed bushes I have mentioned were more abundant. The dense, stiff, dark-coloured foliage of these bushes give them a strange appearance on the pale sun-dried plains, as of black rocks of numberless fantastic forms scattered over the greyish-yellow ground. No large fowls were seen; small birds were, however, very abundant, gladdening the parched wilderness with their minstrelsy. Most noteworthy among the true songsters were the Patagonian mocking-bird and four or five finches, two of them new to me. Here I first made the acquaintance of a singular and very pretty bird — the red-breasted plant-cutter, a finch too, but only in appearance. It is a sedentary bird and sits conspicuously on the topmost twig, displaying its ruddy under plumage; occasionally emitting, by way of song, notes that resemble the faint bleatings of a kid, and, when disturbed, passing from bush to bush by a series of jerks, the wings producing a loud humming sound. Most numerous, and surpassing all others in interest, were the omnipresent dendrocolaptine birds, or wood-hewers, or tree-creepers as they are sometimes called — feeble flyers, in uniform sober brown plumage; restless in their habits and loquacious, with shrill and piercing, or clear resonant voices. One terrestrial species, with a sandy-brown plumage, ‘Upucerthia dumetoria’, raced along before us on the ground, in appearance a stout miniature ibis with very short legs and exaggerated beak. Every bush had its little colony of brown gleaners, small birds of the genus ‘Synallaxis’, moving restlessly about among the leaves, occasionally suspending themselves from the twigs head downwards, after the manner of tits. From the distance at intervals came the piercing cries of the cachalote (‘Homorus gutturalis’), a much larger bird, sounding like bursts of hysterical laughter. All these dendrocolaptine birds have an inordinate passion for building, and their nests are very much larger than small birds usually make. Where they are abundant the trees and bushes are sometimes laden with their enormous fabrics, so that the thought is forced on one that these busy little architects do assuredly occupy themselves with a vain unprofitable labour. It is not only the case that many a small bird builds a nest as big as a buzzard’s, only to contain half a dozen eggs the size of peas, which might very comfortably be hatched in a pill-box; but frequently, when the nest has been finished, the builder sets about demolishing it to get the materials for constructing a second nest. One very common species, ‘Anumbius acuticaudatus’, variously called in the vernacular the thorn-bird, the woodman, and the firewood-gatherer, sometimes makes three nests in the course of a year, each composed of a good armful of sticks. The woodman’s nest is, however, an insignificant structure compared with that of the obstreperous cachalote mentioned a moment ago. This bird, which is about as large as a missel thrush, selects a low thorny bush with stout wide-spreading branches, and in the centre of it builds a domed nest of sticks, perfectly spherical and four or five feet deep. The opening is at the side near the top, and leading to it there is a narrow arched gallery resting on a horizontal branch, and about fourteen inches long. So compactly made is this enormous nest that I have found it hard to break one up. I have also stood upright on the dome and stamped on it with my boots without injuring it at all. During my stay in Patagonia I found about a dozen of these palatial nests; and my opinion is that like our own houses, or, rather, our public buildings, and some ant-hills, and the vizcacha’s village burrows, and the beaver’s dam, it is made to last for ever.
The only mammal we saw was a small armadillo, ‘Dasypus minutus’; it was quite common, and early in the day, when we were still fresh and full of spirits, we amused ourselves by chasing them. We captured several, and one of my companions, an Italian, killed two and slung them over his shoulder, remarking that we could cook and eat them if we grew hungry before reaching our destination. We were not much troubled with hunger, but towards noon we began to suffer somewhat from thirst. At midday we saw before us a low level plain, covered with long coarse grass of a dull yellowish-green colour. Here we hoped to find water, and before long we descried the white gleam of a lagoon, as we imagined, but on a nearer inspection the whiteness or appearance of water turned out to be only a salt efflorescence on a barren patch of ground. On this low plain it was excessively sultry; not a bush could be found to shelter us from the sun: all was a monotonous desert of coarse yellowish grass, out of which rose, as we advanced, multitudes of mosquitoes, trumpeting a shrill derisive welcome. The glory of the morning that had so enchanted us at the outset had died out of nature, and the scene was almost hateful to look on. We were getting tired, too, but the heat and our thirst, and the intolerable ‘fi fo fum’ of the ravenous mosquitoes would not suffer us to rest.
In this desolate spot I discovered one object of interest in a singular little bird, of slender form and pale yellowish-brown colour. Perched on a stem above the grass it gave utterance at regular intervals to a clear, long, plaintive whistle, audible nearly a quarter of a mile away; and this one unmodulated note was its only song or call. When any attempt to approach it was made it would drop down into the grass, and conceal itself with a shyness very unusual in a desert place where small birds have never been persecuted by man. It might have been a wren, or tree-creeper, or reed-finch, or pipit; I could not tell, so jealously did it hide all its pretty secrets from me.
The sight of a group of sand-hills, some two or three miles to our right, tempted us to turn aside from the narrow path we had followed for upwards of six hours: from the summit of these hills we hoped to be able to discover the end of our journey. On approaching the group we found that it formed part of a range stretching south and north as far as the eye could see. Concluding that we were now close to the sea once more, we agreed that our best plan would be, after taking a refreshing bath, to follow the beach on to the mouth of the Rio Negro, where there was a pilot’s house. An hour’s walk brought us to the hill. Climbing to the top, what was our dismay at beholding not the open blue Atlantic we had so confidently expected to see, but an ocean of barren yellow sand-hills, extending away before us to where earth and heaven mingled in azure mist! I, however, had no right to repine now, as I had set out that morning desirous only of drinking from that wild cup, which is both bitter and sweet to the taste. But I was certainly the greatest sufferer that day, as I had insisted on taking my large cloth poncho, and it proved a great burden to carry; then my feet had become so swollen and painful, through wearing heavy riding boots, that I was at last compelled to pull off these impediments, and to travel barefooted on the hot sand and gravel.
Turning our backs on the hills, we started, wearily enough, to seek the trail we had abandoned, directing our course so as to strike it three or four miles in advance of the point where we had turned aside. Escaping from the long grass we again found gravelly, undulating plains, with scattered dark-leafed bushes, and troops of little singing and trilling birds. Armadillos were also seen, but now they scuttled across our path with impunity, for we had no inclination to chase them. It was near sunset when we struck the path again; but although we had now been over twelve hours walking in the heat, without tasting food or water, we still struggled on. Only when it grew dark, and a sudden cold wind sprang up from the sea, making us feel stiff and sore, did we finally come to a halt. Wood was abundant, and we made a large fire, and the Italian roasted the two armadillos he had patiently been carrying all day. They smelt very tempting when done; but I feared that the fat luscious meat would only increase the torturing thirst I suffered, and so while the others picked the bones I solaced myself with a pipe, sitting in pensive silence by the fire. Supper done, we stretched ourselves out by the fire, with nothing but my large poncho over us, and despite the hardness of our bed and the cold wind blowing over us, we succeeded in getting some refreshing sleep.
At three o’clock in the morning we were up and on our way again, drowsy and footsore, but fortunately feeling less thirsty than on the previous day. When we had been walking half an hour there was a welcome indication of the approach of day — not in the sky, where the stars were still sparkling with midnight brilliancy, but far in advance of us a little bird broke out into a song marvellously sweet and clear. The song was repeated at short intervals, and by-and-by it was taken up by other voices, until from every bush came such soft delicious strains that I was glad of all I had gone through in my long walk, since it had enabled me to hear this exquisite melody of the desert. This early morning singer is a charming grey and white finch, the ‘Diuca minor’, very common in Patagonia, and the finest voiced of all the fringilline birds found there; and that is saying a great deal. The ‘Diucas’ were sure prophets: before long the first pale streaks of light appeared in the east, but when the light grew we looked in vain for the long-wished river. The sun rose on the same great undulating plain, with its scattered sombre bushes and carpet of sere grass — that ragged carpet showing beneath it the barren sand and gravelly soil from which it draws its scanty subsistence.
For upwards of six hours we trudged doggedly on over this desert plain, suffering much from thirst and fatigue, but not daring to give ourselves rest. At length the aspect of the country began to change: we were approaching the river settlement. The scanty grass grew scantier, and the scrubby bushes looked as if they had been browsed on; our narrow path was also crossed at all angles by cattle tracts, and grew fainter as we proceeded, and finally disappeared altogether. A herd of cattle, slowly winding their way in long trains towards the open country, was then seen. Here, too, a pretty little tree called chanar (‘Gurliaca decorticans’) began to get common, growing singly or in small groups. It was about ten to sixteen feet high, very graceful, with smooth polished green bole, and pale grey-green mimosa foliage. It bears a golden fruit as big as a cherry, with a peculiar delightful flavour, but it was not yet the season for ripe fruits, and its branches were laden only with the great nests of the industrious woodman. Though it was now the end of December and past the egg season, in my craving for a drop of moisture I began to pull down and demolish the nests — no light task, considering how large and compactly made they were. I was rewarded for my pains by finding three little pearly-white eggs, and, feeling grateful for small mercies, I quickly broke them on my parched tongue.
Half an hour later, about eleven o’clock, as we slowly dragged on, a mounted man appeared driving a small troop of horses towards the river. We hailed him, and he rode up to us, and informed us that we were only about a mile from the river, and after hearing our story he proceeded to catch horses for us to ride. Springing on to their bare backs we followed him at a swinging gallop over that last happy mile of our long journey.
We came very suddenly to the end, for on emerging from the thickets of dwarf thorn trees through which we had ridden in single file the magnificent Rio Negro lay before us. Never river seemed fairer to look upon: broader than the Thames at Westminster, and extending away on either hand until it melted and was lost in the blue horizon, its low shores clothed in all the glory of groves and fruit orchards and vineyards and fields of ripening maize. Far out in the middle of the swift blue current floated flocks of black-necked swans, their white plumage shining like foam in the sunlight; while just beneath us, scarcely a stone’s throw off, stood the thatched farmhouse of our conductor, the smoke curling up peacefully from the kitchen chimney. A grove of large old cherry trees, in which the house was embowered, added to the charm of the picture; and as we rode down to the gate we noticed the fully ripe cherries glowing like live coals amid the deep green foliage.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51