Today we have a 600km dash across Argentina to the Atlantic coast to pick up Daniel who has flown out for Christmas in a most convoluted route that took in Toronto, Santiago and Buenos Aires before arriving in Trelew (another Welsh outpost). After 3 hours, 5th gear returned (French car remember). The trick is to go into a Zen-like state in which the driver imagines the car in 5th gear before trying to engage it. When the driver is finally in perfect harmony with the vehicle it slides in easily.
The road is long and straight again, punctuated by the odd bunch of blue Lupins that provide colour to an otherwise drab landscape. We had not expected so much of Argentina to be desert with miles upon miles of scrub filled with wire brush bushes that grow no more than one metre high. The wind whips across the land sometimes strong enough to push the car about and the sun pushes the temperature ever up wards as we move away from the mountains.
After some time, the road meets up with the River Chubut going our way. It cuts across the desert providing a ribbon of green about 50 metres wide before the arid land reclaims the terrain. It’s certainly not a pretty drive; the only relief being an area of rock that the river helped by the elements has shaped the terrain into a kind of mini Grand Canyon that in a few million years time might provide a competitor to that world wonder.
The odd thing about driving in Argentina is the names of the towns that we pass along the way. Back in the UK, we have such wondrous names for places as Kidderminster, Moreton-in-Marsh and Little Puddlington. Here it’s most likely to be Gobernador Gregores, General Diaz or Colonel Ruiz. It feels like an odd place to say you live but, at least, all are officer-class and none under the rank of colonel.
One other aspect of Argentina that becomes apparent is that there are no indigenous people about. We see only the descendants of white Europeans. Upon enquiry, the reason is revealed: the settlers got fed up suffering constant attack by the original inhabitants who were none too amused at the sequestration of their land by foreigners. The settlers brought the conflict to a close when they drew a line from Buenos Aires in the East to Mendoza in the west and systematically wiped out every aboriginal south of that line. Those that were not killed escaped to Chile and those that lived north of the line were allowed to live on the basis that they behaved themselves. Having already copied and adopted the US constitution, they had obviously learnt from John Wayne that the only good ‘Indian’ was a dead one.
Finding any of the residences that Debbie has booked is more by luck than judgement and trying to find the posada in Gaiman was no exception. Fortunately the town is small, designed on a grid system and Lauren works out where we should be. It turns out that Welsh would be more helpful in this part of the world than Spanish since it is still spoken in the local teahouses offering Welsh cakes. In the evening we collected Daniel who had miraculously travelled half way around the world with 40kg of bags full of Christmas presents from home without having paid a penny in excess weight. Obviously, he had charmed his way past numerous check-in girls and airline police carrying vegetable products strictly banned from every country he passed through. We celebrated with a late dinner in a restaurant that advertised itself as being ‘imaginative, artistic cooking’ that was reflected in the prices rather than the culinary experience.
The following morning we set off to visit a colony of Magellanic penguins at a place called Punta Tombo on the Atlantic coast. Things did not go precisely to plan as I had failed to check the fuel situation before we set off and we had to turn back halfway through the journey because the co-driver (correctly) felt that we did not have enough petrol to cover another three hours of driving. Fuel stops can be few and far between here and even when we arrive somewhere that we feel ought to have petrol we do not find any or, surprisingly often, the pumps are dry or don’t work because the electricity is off. We have to try not to let the fuel gauge slip below half full.
So we finally arrive at Penguinland. By all accounts, 30 years ago a few of them turned up one day and decided it was a good place to mate. Why they do this is hard to imagine because the dry desert reaches down to the sea shore and does not provide the type of environment that anyone would imagine would be suitable for penguins. The more intelligent ones nest under the scrub bushes that provide the only shade from the hot sun, digging into the ground to give themselves enough room to move about. The stupid ones just dig holes deep enough to hide a complete penguin and we see them with their heads just above ground level, beaks open, trying to lose heat.
The hatching season must have taken place around a month ago as there are millions of juveniles about half to three quarter grown sheltering under the scrub waiting for parents to bring them food. These fluffy brown birds are wholly dependent upon the adults and entirely vulnerable to any predators who must have as much food as they can eat at this time of year.
We have to remain on the marked pathways around the reserve but the penguins nest right next to it allowing us to be very close to the birds and all penguins who nest between the path and the sea have to cross the trail whenever they want to eat. In places there are wooden bridges over penguin highways under which hundreds of them shelter from the sun during the hottest part of the day.
On the shoreline is concentrated the largest number as this is obviously a fine place for them to meet their mates for a chat, chew the cud and pass the time of day with an occasional dip into the ocean. Not all of them are expert at entering and exiting the sea as many get wiped out by crashing rollers that take no prisoners.
The colony is enormous now, holding upwards of half a million penguins. I suppose it must, once again, prove the Darwinian theory that creatures adapt to their environment.