OPINION Chris Moss

NWR Issue 107

Postcard from Nowhere

It begins with a flight. The single-prop putters along the short runway and, too soon, it seems, is aloft. We clear the poplars and immediately the river is in view. It is milky green, rimmed by trees, slender, meandering wildly and occasionally splitting into narrow bands that thread their way around sandy islets. On either side sprawls the steppe, almost flat, mean in its palate of hues: dun brown, reddish, dirty cream. A cloud, invisible from this small window, scuds high above us and momentarily blackens the earth. In the far distance, the haze takes over, and the horizon is curved.

The least of all this is the houses: mere cabins, dotted along the banks, hiding behind their walls of exotic trees, shipped in from Europe and Australia, a frail barrier against the wind and the baking sun.

The Chubut river is not a salient sight on a trip to so-called Welsh Patagonia. You have to make an effort to get to know it. In Trelew you are unaware of it – cities so often shun their rivers – and even the villages seem to have turned their backs on it.

From up here I can see it is a thin and lonely river. A sluggish river, moving through a thirsty land. As a life-source it can nourish only those who fix themselves along its banks.

Yet, of course, without the river, there was no settlement, no food, no survival. It was for this unprepossessing watercourse that those who landed on the Mimosa in 1865 walked so far – having sailed to the wrong place, one of many mistakes and lies in those early days.

Later I paddle along the Chubut. I hide among the shading trees and find that, while the land is level in northern Patagonia, and the river is nothing like the torrents on the Chilean side – where water must dash from the Andes to the ocean in no time at all – it still disguises deep currents and treacherous eddies.

Finally, I stand on a low hill and gaze at the Chubut. It makes me think of another river, the Río Negro – to the north. A key moment in WH Hudson’s Idle Days in Patagonia is when the author, stumbling upon a Tehuelche burial mound, picks up a bleached skull. The empty holes of the eye sockets lead Hudson to wonder how the Negro might have appeared to a nomadic native, born and raised in Patagonia...

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