Published: January 2004

Land of the Living Wind

By Simon Worrall
Photographs by Peter Essick
A descendant of the Mapuche—literally "people of the land," one of Patagonia's indigenous groups—Eduardo Paillacán sings in his native language as a steam train brings tourists into Nahuel Pan, Argentina. "It's a song that expresses the Mapuche view of the changing seasons," he says. Keeping the timeless beat of Andean music, the words celebrate a shrub, charcao, that flowers only in good years: Quimey tripantü, quimey tripantü / quimey mapu, quimey campo / rayen charcao, rayen charcao / calufisha, fei troquifiñ. (Good year, good year / good land, good fields / the charcao blooms, the charcao blooms / it looks like the beautiful fleece of a sheep.)

The wind chased me everywhere I went in Patagonia. It clogged my sinuses and sent the Jeep slithering across the gravel roads as though on ice. Birds flew backward. Trees grew horizontally. The wind was a living thing. It could be violent, punching holes in glass windows or sending spirals of dust rising above the flat, dry steppe like miniature tornadoes. On a plateau above the Santa Cruz River Valley I got out of the Jeep to take a photograph, and a blast of wind wrenched the door out of my hand, bending it backward with such violence that it sheared off the two welded brackets holding the door to the chassis. At other times the wind had a feather touch. At a ranch near the Valdés Peninsula, on the Atlantic coast, I watched as the wind caressed a piece of paper, moving it about on the ground in a circle like a magnet moving a ball bearing. In Puerto Deseado I lay awake all night listening as the wind turned my hotel into a riotous orchestra. Doors rattled like snare drums. A gap under the corrugated roof wailed like a flute. The ventilation grill in the bathroom emitted a steady drone like a bagpipe. All night the wind played its wild fugue, dropping to pianissimo lulls, then rising to frenetic crescendos.

Until recently this vast, sparsely populated region in the far south of South America was a byword for remoteness—finis terrae, the uttermost ends of the Earth. Never a country or a state but rather a loosely defined region shared by two countries, Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is generally defined today as everything south of the Río Colorado and the eastern portion of the Río Bío-Bío. But there's no overarching sense of Patagonian identity, and everyone I met had a different idea of the place. "Patagonia," said one sheep rancher in northern Tierra del Fuego, brandishing a sizzling lamb chop in the air, "is everywhere you can taste this!"

Because of its remoteness and inaccessibility, Patagonia has always been, like Timbuktu or Shangri-la, a place of myths and legends. Bruce Chatwin, the British explorer-writer, thought he had found the origins of the unicorn myth in a cave painting in southwestern Patagonia. (It was actually a rare species of Patagonian deer, known as a huemul.) Now new myths are being born: To much of the world Patagonia is a clothing company, not a place. For adventurers it's the planet's "edge" destination—nature in its wildest form. For corporations it represents a storehouse of natural resources—oil, gas, gold, and fish. As globalization pulls more and more of the world into its magnetic orbit, and communications overcome distance, Patagonia is moving from the mythical margins toward the center of 21st-century reality.

All this is feeding new regional pride, and in my travels I often heard the phrase NYC—nacido y criado, which means "born and raised" Patagonian. The election in May 2003 of Néstor Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz Province, as Argentina's president—its first from Patagonia—has further boosted the region's growing self-confidence.

Of all the changes blowing through Patagonia, though, none has had greater impact than the shifts in ownership and use of the land brought about by the collapse of the huge sheep farms, or estancias, of the Argentine tableland. Stretching nearly 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) from the Río Colorado in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south, this immense arid wilderness—the steppe—is the heart of Patagonia. Its culture and economy were built on the sheep's back. But since the 1970s falling wool prices and desertification caused by overgrazing have brought the industry to its knees. Hundreds of estancias have gone out of business, while others have been sold to wealthy foreigners. Nearly one-sixth of Argentine Patagonia now belongs to 350 foreign owners, many of them Americans.

We used to have 12,000 sheep, 90 horses, and a few cows for milking," said Joan "Petty" Nauta in her ringing Scottish accent as we sat drinking tea in the kitchen of Estancia Telken near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province. Twice as big as New York State, with a population of only 200,000, Santa Cruz is the historical epicenter of the Patagonian sheep industry. "Now we have less than 3,000."

Set in the lee of a line of hills rising toward the Andes, Telken is, like all estancias in Patagonia, an oasis of green in a biscuit-colored wilderness. It had taken me two days of bouncing and sliding along potholed gravel roads to reach Perito Moreno from Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast. For hours as I chased the horizon across the empty expanses, I saw no cars or buildings—just an ocean of grass and mata negra bushes, a dome of blue sky, and the occasional grubby sheep. Sometimes a gaucho on horseback would appear, with a pack of yapping sheepdogs at his heels: a lone figure in an infinity of space. The landscape reminded me of the Australian outback. But instead of kangaroos, there were herds of guanacos, shy, llama-like animals found throughout Patagonia. At my approach they would bolt away, hooves flying, their marmalade and white fur shining in the sunlight. Gas stations were often hundreds of miles apart, and I marveled at the skill of the pump attendants, who managed to get the very last drop into the tank, withdrawing the nozzle a fraction of an inch at a time until the little metal flap at the top of the tank's stem snapped shut.

Now as I sat talking with Petty, it felt good to be out of those great spaces for a while. The kitchen is the nucleus of a Patagonian estancia, where people gather to eat and relax—and get out of the wind, which even in summer can chill you to the bone. So Telken's ornate iron stove is kept going all day. By the door was the estancia's only link with the outside world, a VHF radio. From the garage came the toc-toc-toc of a diesel generator, the heartbeat of Patagonia, which provides electricity for part of the day.

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