PATAGONIA THE WELSH, WHALES AND OTHER TALES!
Liverpool May 28th 1865. The Brigantine Mimosa slips her mooring lines at dawn. Seamen scamper over her rigging unfurling sails for the long voyage ahead. Barrels of fresh water and salt beef are lashed to the foredeck. On board, 153 optimistic souls from all corners of Wales, are bound by a common goal. They are off to “The promised land.”
Silver-tongued, Welsh Nationalist Michael Jones, promised rich pastures in Patagonia, (despite British surveys describing the land as “a desert that could never support human life”), where they could speak their language and practice their religion without prejudice. (He wisely chose to stay behind and never did set foot in the place!)
On July 28th, after two arduous months at sea, the ship finally drops anchor in a sheltered bay some 1700 kms south of Buenos Aires.
Peninsular Valdes, an odd protrusion of land shaped like a pirate’s top-knot, provides welcome protection from Atlantic storms.
The warm shallow water is teeming with life. Colonies of elephant seals. Magellanic and Jackass penguins. Tiny, darting, black and white Commerson’s dolphins. Massive Southern Right Whales, searching for mates.
Exhausted and subdued by a vicious storm which killed several of their chidren, the new arrivals look around in horror. Mile upon treeless mile of flat dry pampas as far as the eye can see. Small groups of wild guanacos and rheas, the size of young ostriches, scratch for sustenance among the scrub.
Worse yet, the well water is saline and unfit to drink. Misfortune and delusion plague the settlers until, with the guidance of the local Tehuelche Indians, they gradually build irrigation canals stretching from The Chubut River.
Over time, small Welsh settlements have grown into pretty pastoral towns and villages. Immaculate stone cottages with colourful panes of Victorian glass in wood-sash windows. Today, twenty thousand residents of The Chubut Valley claim Welsh roots. Welsh is taught in local schools. The annual Eisteddfod de Chubut is a big tourist draw, since it’s inauguration at Betty Huw’s farm in 1876, continuing a Welsh tradition for choral singing, poetry and druids.
On a private visit to Argentina in 1995, Lady Di drank tea in a Gaiman teahouse to wash down her strawberry tart. After all, she was The Princess of Wales! Her china cup and saucer are now enshrined under a glass case “Must be Royal Doulton my dear!”
The bus passes through lush fields of grazing ponies and giant cabbages on it’s way to Dolavon, where waterwheels creekily rotate in the central canal. Well dressed passengers, heading for chapel, gradually take up the empty seats.
Back in Trelew, I find myself at the corner of Lewis Jones Street. There is a parade. When the marching bands have strutted their stuff, local police receive awards of merit. I recognise the policewomen’s smartly brimmed navy hats - from that BBC detective series: “Inspector Morse!”
Today, I have sipped tea and cake under a wall-mounted collection of Welsh wooden-spoons in Gaiman’s Breuddwyd café. I have visited a Tea Museum and a Welsh Chapel. I resisted a teatowel depicting the Royal Wedding. I have mailed cards through the gaping mouth of a round red British mailbox.
Tomorrow I will join the other 80,000 tourists who come from around the world to view spectacular sealife off Peninsular Valdes. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
I will take the tour. I will close my eyes and try to imagine the thoughts and feelings of that discouraged little group who landed in Golfo Nuevo nearly a century and a half ago and wonder at what they have achieved today.
With the collapse of the peso by 2/3rds in 2001, Argentina is a hot destination with much to offer. Tango in Buenos Aries. Skiing in Bariloche. Wine in Mendoza. Glaciers in El Calafate. Pueblos in the Northern deserts. But hurry Bargains don’t last forever!
IF YOU GO
Copyright © 2009 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.