Julius Beerbohm
Wanderings in Patagonia; Or, Life Among the Ostrich-Hunters

Wanderings in Patagonia; Or, Life Among the Ostrich-Hunters
Julius Beerbohm

Julius Beerbohm

Wanderings in Patagonia; Or, Life Among the Ostrich-Hunters

CHAPTER I

In the month of August, 1877, I found myself on board ship, bound from Buenos Ayres for the coast of Patagonia, in company with a party of engineers, who were going to survey that portion of the country which lies between Port Desire and Santa Cruz.

After leaving the River Plate we encountered adverse winds and heavy weather, which kept us tossing about for three weeks, without making any material progress on our course. At last we got a fair wind, however, which soon brought us close to our destination, the port of St. Julian (lat. 49° 20′ S.); and one morning, together with my five o'clock coffee, the cabin-boy brought me the welcome news that land was in sight. I jumped out of bed and ran on deck, careless of the hail and rain which were falling in blinding showers, and of the wind which blew off the land, far colder and sharper than we had hitherto experienced. On looking to leeward, I could at first see nothing but a thick bank of clouds; but presently the horizon got clearer, and I descried a dark, lowering line of coast, of fierce and inhospitable aspect, rising abruptly from the sea to a considerable height.

I had not long to examine it, for a sudden shift of the wind shrouded the whole coast in mist, and it did not become visible again till the afternoon, when the weather cleared up, and the sun shone out brightly. The wind, however, slowly increased in violence; by the time St. Julian came in sight we were plunging along under reefed topsails, and the captain began to think that we should have to stand off the port till the force of the storm had abated – a prospect which threw us all into dismay, as we had already been looking forward with vivid expectations to the pleasure of stretching our legs on terra firma the next morning – a luxury which those who have made a long sea voyage can fully appreciate.

While the captain was yet doubtful what course to take, the matter was summarily decided by the weather itself. The wind, which had hitherto been blowing from the north-east, shifted to the south-east, and redoubled its fury; and rather than run the risk of standing off the port for the night, under a lee shore and with a strong current setting in to the land, the captain elected to face the lesser danger, and enter the port.

The necessary orders were accordingly given; a man was sent aloft to look out for banks or rocks, and all preparations were made for any emergency. An anxious time ensued for all on board, as we steered slowly in under the northern headland of St. Julian, menaced on either side by steep and rugged cliffs, falling vertically down to the water's edge; the sea dashing at their base with an angry roar, and hurling the white spray almost to their very summits. The gale howled through the rigging, and a thousand sea-birds, startled at such an unusual apparition, circled round the ship, white and silent, seeming to eye us with an unpleasant curiosity.

Suddenly we heard a shout, "Breakers ahead!" and everyone turned pale and looked anxiously forward. Right in front of us, and forming a belt across the entrance of the port, stretched a line of breakers, boiling and foaming like a cauldron; while to the left a long ledge of black, jagged rocks pierced through the waters, promising certain destruction, should we drift upon them. For a moment the captain was irresolute; but it was too late to go back; in any attempt to put the ship round we should have gone on the rocks, and there was, therefore, no alternative but to continue our course and dash through the breakers, leaving the rest to fate. On we went, with beating hearts and strained nerves, as the threatening roar of the foaming rollers became louder and louder. In another second we were in their midst, and everyone held his breath in suspense. Suddenly there was a shock; the ship quivered, and I was thrown violently on my face. By the time I got to my feet again, all danger was over. We had crossed the harbour bar, and were now sailing slowly up the bay, in comparatively smooth water, and congratulating ourselves on our escape from what had looked a most serious peril. The wind, too, had lulled, and by the time we let go the anchor all was still and calm. The sun was just setting; one by one the gulls, albatrosses, and other sea-birds, which had hitherto been continuously sweeping round the ship, disappeared; and not a sound was heard from either side of the broad bay.

On arriving in port, after a long sea voyage, the sudden change of scene and associations, the bustle and the noise of commercial activity – the steamers, lighters, and other small craft, plying from shore to shore; the ships moored alongside the wharves, taking in or discharging cargo, the busy hum arising from the distant town, the sight of new faces, and the sound of strange voices – all combine to excite and bewilder one, contrasting forcibly with the dull, quiet, and drowsy sameness of the life one has just been leading during several weeks of dreary navigation.

But none of these accustomed sights and sounds gladdened our hearts in the desert harbour where we had just safely come to anchor, after our stormy passage. The silence of death reigned everywhere, and its mysterious effect, joined to the wild character of the surrounding country, whose bold, bare hills were now looming gigantic and black in the gathering dusk, impressed me with a vague sense of awe and wonder.

And not out of harmony with the gloomy spirit of solitude which broods over St. Julian, are the tragic memories connected with the three famous nautical expeditions which have visited its inhospitable shores.

We were anchored between two islands – Justice and Execution Islands. These names were given to them by Sir Francis Drake, who visited St. Julian in 1578. On the former he caused one of his party, a Master Doughty, to be put to death for alleged insubordination. Sir Francis found a gibbet already erected on one of these islands, which had been left there by Magellan, who passed the winter of 1520 at St. Julian, and who, during his stay, had also to quell a formidable mutiny which broke out amongst his little fleet; and which, but for his timely energy, foresight, and courage, might have ended fatally for him. The ringleaders were executed. In more modern times, another fatality occurred during the expedition of the Adventure and Beagle, 1832. A Lieutenant Sholl, a young officer of much promise, died there, and was buried on a point overlooking the bay which now bears his name. The spot is marked by a small cairn, bearing an inscription recording the date, etc.

As I looked over the bay, for all the change that has happened there since, either in the rugged outlines of its shores or in the spirit of silence and desolation that hangs over them, it seemed that it might have been but yesterday that Magellan dropped anchor there, with his quaint, high-pooped craft:

'The first who ever burst into that silent sea.'

Peering into the darkness till a mist rose into my eyes, I gradually fell into a half-dreaming, half-waking state, and presently I seemed to behold some strangely rigged vessels lying close to me in the bay. Magellan's own ships! There was the tall, spare figure of the intrepid commander himself, standing on the poop of the largest vessel, dressed in a brown leather jerkin, the cross-hilted sword at his side; and I could plainly mark the expression of dauntless enterprise on his weather-worn brow, and the determined gleam of his sharp grey eyes, whose glance now wandered over the far shore and now rested reverentially on the high cross fixed on the poop. I could see the quaintly-costumed sailors busy at work on deck, repairing rigging, mending boats, or making sails, talking and shouting the while in a strange tongue. Hardy, noble figures these men, who, in the frailest of craft, braved a thousand dangers in the wildest countries, and fearlessly carried the symbol of their religion to lands which mariners of today with all the advantages of modern instruments and superior vessels, approach with the utmost mistrust and dread. Soon a bell rang, and all was silence; the men left their work and gathered round the commander, who, I thought, seemed to be addressing them. And then floating over the waters came the sound of the 'Ave Maria!' weirdly sweet and plaintive.

But at this juncture somebody shook me, and I woke up, to find it was all a dream, and to remember that Magellan had been dead and buried for centuries, and that I, a son of the nineteenth century, had come to that spot, not to plant the true Cross, but to find what the country was capable of – and that, finally, it was time for supper.

CHAPTER II

The next morning we were up betimes. The weather was fine, and, as there was no wind, not too cold, though the taller hills were covered with snow, and the thermometer stood considerably below zero. Plenty of sea-birds were flying round the ship, or disporting themselves in the water, heedless of our presence; but on shore there were no signs of animal life stirring anywhere. Preparations were made for getting the horses on shore as quickly as possible, as their long confinement was beginning to tell injuriously upon them. In the meantime a boat was lowered, and, taking our guns, a few of us started off for the shore, to find some suitable spot to land the horses, and to have a general look round.

A short pull brought us in sight of a little cove, with a strip of sandy beach leading up to the mainland, which fell steeply down on all sides, so as to form a kind of natural corral, where the horses would be quite safe and conveniently sheltered from the wind. There we accordingly landed, roughly waking the echoes, which had doubtless been comfortably sleeping for many a long day, with a loud hurrah, as we jumped on shore and climbed up the bluff which shut in the cove. There the first object which met our sight was the little cairn, already mentioned, commemorative of Lieutenant Sholl. It was standing, probably, just as it had been left by the hands which reared it, as the Indians seldom, if ever, come so near to the port. The letters of the inscription were still tolerably visible, for the stones suffer little from the action of the atmosphere, and gather but few mosses or lichens in that dry climate, where, during nine months of the year, hardly any rain falls, and where all vegetation is stunted and scanty.

The view we obtained from our present standpoint was very limited, the horizon being bounded by a chain of conically shaped hills, flattened at the top, and generally similar in outline and height. The country which they enclosed appeared to consist of a series of irregular plains, broken up by glens, or 'cañons,' as they are aptly called in Spanish, with here and there an isolated hill and an occasional plain of short extent. There were plenty of bushes of a thorny species scattered everywhere, and in the glens the grass seemed to flourish in tolerable luxuriance, though on the higher-lying land it was less plentiful, the ground there being covered with pebbles of porphyry, worn round and smooth by the action of water at some remote period.

After our long cooping-up on board, we were not equal to any prolonged exertion, and soon got tired of climbing up the steep hills and escarpments, especially as there was no employment for our guns, either in the shape of beast or fowl. We therefore went back to our boat, to get at which, as the tide had already fallen considerably, we had to wade knee-deep through a long tract of black, slimy mud. As there is a tide-range at St. Julian of from thirty to forty feet, the ebb and flood tides rush in and out with great rapidity, and we often had great difficulty in pulling back to the ship, even with four oars, when the wind and tide happened to be against us.

The rest of that day was employed in getting the horses on shore, a task which was successfully accomplished before the tide commenced to rise again, so that they had comparatively little distance to swim to the cove. The poor animals seemed as glad as we had been to find themselves on land once more, and testified their satisfaction by neighing and frisking about with great vigour. In the evening we made a short excursion to Justice Island, close alongside of which we were anchored. Whilst exploring it we startled a large covey of shag, numbering quite a thousand, which, to judge by the accumulation of guano, appeared to roost there habitually. They did not fly up immediately at our approach, but waddled clumsily down to the beach, holding their bodies quite erect, and flapping their wings in a ludicrous manner. The sailors killed several with sticks, and subsequently cooked and ate them, notwithstanding the strong fishy taste of the flesh.

Early the next morning, together with two of my companions, I started on an expedition towards the interior, with a view to discover what kind of country lay beyond the range of hills which bordered the horizon. We took some provisions with us, as we did not expect to be home till the evening, thinking it prudent not to rely on our guns for our dinner, after the experience of the previous day of the absolute absence of game; indeed, we left them behind us, as being rather irksome on horseback.

Mounting the three freshest horses we could find amongst our stock, we struck off at an inspiriting gallop. We had not gone far, however, before it came to an abrupt ending. The plain over which we were riding suddenly terminated, descending into a deep ravine, which seemed to wind from the hills down to the port. The descent was rather steep, but we got down somehow; and then our horses had a hard climb up the opposite side, rendered still more arduous by the loose nature of the pebbly soil, which afforded no reliable hold, giving way under their feet. On reaching the top, we found ourselves on another plain, intersected a little further on by a ravine similar to the one we had just crossed and so we continued, now scrambling up and down these cañons, now leisurely trotting over short plains, whose level surfaces gave our horses time to get breath and to prepare for tackling the next ravine, until gradually we got nearer to the hills, beyond which we hoped to meet some more pleasant variety of landscape.

Presently we came to a very broad cañon, on the surface of which we observed some irregularities, which, on inspection, proved to be the remains of some human habitation. Portions of wall, about three feet high, were still standing, and here and there lay several pieces of timber; but, excepting a millstone, half embedded in the soil, there were no other vestiges of those who had once attempted to create a homestead in this lone spot.

The colony, on the site of which we were now standing, was founded in 1780 by Antonio Viedma, under commission from the Viceroy of the River Plate Provinces, and was abandoned in 1784, in accordance with a royal order, chiefly on account of the sterility of the soil, which rendered agriculture impossible. The colonists also suffered severely from scurvy, and were further troubled by the Indians, whose hostility they seem to have incurred. The Spaniards, whatever grave faults they may have committed in the administration of their South American possessions, developed great energy and spared no expense in their endeavours to colonise Patagonia, and numerous expeditions were despatched from Buenos Ayres with this object. Settlements were established at Port Desire and other spots on the coast, all of which, sooner or later, came to share the fate of the colony of St. Julian.

And indeed it is not to be wondered at. Unless some very cheap manure be discovered, by means of which sand may be profitably fertilised, or unless some new source of riches at present hidden be discovered there, it is much to be apprehended that Southern Patagonia is destined to remain almost entirely unpopulated and uncultivated till the end of time. In the cañons, where there is a little alluvial soil, some scanty crops might be harvested, or a patch of potatoes might be cultivated; but the spring and summer months are so dry, that even these limited attempts at husbandry might not always be attended with favourable results. Sheep might be reared in the valley of the Santa Cruz River, though not in great numbers, as the pasturage there is rather limited, and the grass itself is coarse and long, and not particularly adapted for sheep, for which it is preferable that it should be short and fine.

The coast is extremely rich in fish, however, and a dried-fish trade might, perhaps, be successfully carried on with the Brazils, where a good market exists for this article, which forms the staple diet of the poorer classes in that country. An attempt to start an industry of this kind was made by a Frenchman, M. E. Rouquand, who established himself, in 1872, at Santa Cruz, with all the machinery, boats, etc., necessary for such an undertaking, under a concession granted to him by the Argentine Government. He built several houses and sheds there, the materials for which were conveyed at great expense from Buenos Ayres; and when everything was ready, and he was about to go practically to work, a Chilian man-of-war steamed into Santa Cruz one day and signified to him that he was trespassing on Chilian territory, and would be required to leave immediately. Chili, it appears, claims jurisdiction over Patagonia as far as Santa Cruz River, and could therefore not permit anyone to attempt to benefit that country whose authorisation to do so came from the Argentine Government. The latter country does not admit Chili's claims to possession over the territory in question, but contented itself in this case with a diplomatic protest against the act of violence committed in defiance of the Argentine flag, under whose protection M. Rouquand had laid out his capital and his energies. In the meantime, M. Rouquand is of course ruined, as neither Government has granted him any compensation for the losses he has sustained by his arbitrary ejection. After such an example, and as the settlement of the territory dispute seems to have been indefinitely shelved by the easy-going countries concerned, it is easy to understand why no one has hitherto been found disposed to risk his time and capital in an endeavour to establish any industry on the Patagonian coast.

Turning our backs on the 'Glen of the Spaniards,' as it is still called in Indian traditional nomenclature, we again continued our journey towards the hills, which were in reality much further than they had appeared at first sight, being, by the rather roundabout road by which we had come, about fifteen miles from the port. Another hour's ride brought us to their base, and as the keen morning air had made us all rather hungry, before going any further we dismounted, and having made a good fire with the branches of some of the thorny bushes which abounded everywhere, and which proved an excellent combustible, we discussed a hearty breakfast of cold meat and biscuit.

After a short rest we remounted and rode slowly up a glen which led between the hills, craning our necks expectantly as we climbed the escarpment which bounded its further end, from the top of which we should have a good view of the surrounding country. We emerged on the summit, and behold, there was nothing but an immense plain, stretching away in dreary uniformity to the far horizon. The scene was not a cheerful one. Down in the cañons the grass is long and green, and clumps of underwood, growing at intervals, lend a pleasant variety to the landscape. But on the plains, which often extend uninterruptedly for thirty or forty miles, all is different, and nothing more dull and dreary can be imagined than the view presented by these immense tracts of land, where, by reason of the sterility of the soil and the fierce winds which sweep continuously over them, no vegetation can possibly flourish. The soil is sandy and covered with stones, with here and there an isolated tuft of grass, withered and grey, whilst a peculiar gloom is further added to the melancholy of the scene by the sombre, melancholy hue of a straggling, stunted bush, the jume, which grows there in considerable quantities – in its blackness and ugliness, the fit offspring of such an uncongenial soil.

The plain we were now standing on was no exception to the general rule, and we found but little inducement to remain immersed in a long contemplation of its charms; so, turning our horses' heads, we followed the course of the hill range, which trended in a semicircle towards the port. After having ridden for some distance, the plain terminated, and we descended into a broken country again, marked with the usual peculiarities of glen and plateau. We presently came in sight of a large lake, which we thought might contain fresh water, but on coming closer we found that the shores were covered with salt crystals, and that the soil in the vicinity was impregnated with salt too. The lake measured about two leagues long, by a league and a half broad at the widest part, but the water was very shallow everywhere. We could see a herd of guanacos standing in the centre, and the water did not reach to above their knees. I have frequently observed these animals standing in the salt lakes which abound everywhere in Patagonia, but whether they actually go to drink I am not prepared to say, though it is hard to account in any other way for their presence there. We looked with some curiosity at these guanacos, as they were the first animals we had met with as yet on the mainland, but they were too far off for us to be able to observe them with accuracy. I shall describe the species at another opportunity.

In the meantime it was getting late, and our horses, which had been severely tried by the nature of the ground we had gone over that day, were beginning to show signs of fatigue. My horse, in particular, was completely done up, and it was with great difficulty that I managed to keep up with my companions.

At sunset we were still a long way from the ship. Dusk came on apace; the hills around us first grew indistinct and hazy, and then gradually settled down into a dark, solid mass, blackly defined upon the lighter background of the sky, over which the stars were now glittering in the frosty air. It was getting cold, too, and I began heartily to wish myself on board, especially as every moment it became more apparent that my horse was in imminent peril of collapsing altogether.

Still he stumbled on, occasionally shying wildly at the glimmering whiteness of some heap of bleached guanaco bones, or startled at the fanciful shapes assumed by the bushes in the deepening shadows of night.

Presently, as I was riding up a rather steep escarpment, my horse's saddle-girths slipped back, the saddle rolled over, and I fell with a heavy thud to the ground. The moment he felt relieved of my weight, and before I could jump up and seize the reins, the horse turned round and leisurely trotted back to a glen we had just left, where there was some fine grass, which had evidently taken his fancy in passing. I ran after him as fast as I could, but he gently, though firmly, refused to be caught, pausing now and then, whenever he had distanced me, to snatch a few mouthfuls of grass, and then starting off again as soon as I came near to him. This kind of thing went on for a long time, and when I had at last caught him, and had picked up the various saddle-belongings, I was completely done up. Not more so, however, than the horse, for when I remounted him he refused to budge an inch, and at the first touch of the whip, quietly lay down. I was now in a pleasant plight. I shouted, in the hope that my companions would hear me, but no answer came. They had evidently not noticed my mishap, and had continued their route, thinking I was coming up behind.

Reluctantly I had to make up my mind to stop where I was till the morning, though the prospect was anything but cheerful. I was too tired to go on on foot, and no persuasion would induce my horse to stir. I was very hungry, and, unfortunately, one of my companions carried what remained of the meat and biscuit; and though it was extremely cold, I had no other coverings for the night but my saddle-cloths, having neglected to bring my fur robes with me. Luckily, I had a box of matches; and having broken off a sufficient quantity of dry branches from the bushes, I soon managed to have a good fire burning, whose warm glow afforded me no little comfort. As a substitute for supper, though it was not a satisfactory equivalent, I smoked a pipe, and then, wrapping myself up as well as I could in the saddle-cloths, I lay down by the fire and tried to go to sleep. This I could not accomplish; for although I fell into a half-doze at first, as soon as the fire got low, the cold thoroughly woke me again, and I had to set off and look for a fresh supply of firewood – by no means a plentiful article. I soon made the fire burn up again; but, do what I would, I could not get to sleep, and finally had to abandon the attempt as hopeless.

The night seemed interminable. Occasionally I would get up, and walk to and fro to pass away the time quicker, but the cold soon drove me back to the fire. I confess I should have liked some companion to enliven my weary vigil. All alone in the wild desert, surrounded by the dark night, I felt quite an uncanny feeling come over me as I listened to the strange whisperings which seemed to creep through the grass and hover in the air, as the wind rose and swept down the narrow glen where I was camping. The more I listened the more these noises seemed to multiply, till at last there was quite a Babel of confused sounds and vague murmurings. Now and then I would start to my feet, fancying I heard voices close to me, or something would rustle mysteriously past, and a sound as of faint laughter would seem to ring from out the depths of the darkness around me. For a time I was kept in quite a state of nervous agitation; but it gradually wore off, and soon I became stolidly indifferent to everything except the fire, to replenish which from time to time I had to make an excursion in search of wood.

The hours went slowly by, as I sat watching the stars creeping over the heavens, longing wearily for daybreak. At last, worn out with fatigue, I fell into a troubled slumber, and when I opened my eyes again the sky was already grey with dawn. My fire had gone out, and my limbs were stiff with cold. On a bush near where I was lying four carranchos, a kind of hawk, were perched, eyeing me with a complacent, watchful look, as if they expected shortly to make a meal of me. Feeling quite uncomfortable under their unholy gaze, I flung a stone at them; but they merely flew up a little, circled once or twice round me, and then lighted again on another bush, as much as to say, 'Never mind; we can wait.' They abound in the pampas, and assemble in great numbers whenever a puma slays a guanaco, as the former often contents itself with merely sucking the blood of its victim, leaving the rest to these birds and the vultures, who soon pick the bones clean.

I rekindled the fire, and after I had warmed my stiffened fingers, I saddled the horse, which I had tethered to a bush during the night, and rode off towards the port. I arrived at the cove after about an hour's sharp riding, and found that my companions had also been obliged to pass the night in the open air, as their horses had eventually succumbed, under the fatigue consequent on their hard day's work.

CHAPTER III

During the next few weeks we were busy examining the country in the vicinity of St. Julian, without finding anything of special interest to reward our pains. Near the salt lake alluded to in the last chapter we discovered some extensive deposits of phosphate of lime, but as they are very far from the port, they must be considered to have practically no commercial value. Perhaps, however, when all the guanos and nitrates of more accessible regions have been exhausted, the phosphates of Patagonia may be utilised for manuring purposes, but in the interests of agriculture it is to be hoped that that day is as yet far distant.

St. Julian is a far superior harbour to either Chubut or Port Desire, but there is a dearth of fresh water in its vicinity during the months from October to June, which is of course a great drawback, and neutralises its other advantages. Indeed, the whole country is but sparsely watered. South of the Rio Negro, which must be considered as the dividing line between Patagonia and the Argentine Provinces, there are only small rivers, the Chubut, the Desire, and the Santa Cruz. Coy Inlet and Gallegos rivers during nine months of the year are unimportant streams, and the former at certain periods frequently dries up altogether.

The river Chubut has never been followed to its source by any trustworthy traveller, but Dr. Moreno, an Argentine explorer, from personal observations and from information obtained from the natives, is inclined to place its source as taken from a lake, called Coluguapé by the Indians, which lies somewhere between lat. 44° to 45° S., and long. 68° to 69° W., Greenwich. Thence it flows in a north-north-easterly direction till within about sixty miles from its mouth, and then, having received near this point the waters of several small streams from the Cordilleras, it flows from west to east, and finally empties itself into the Atlantic in lat. 42° 20′ S. The depth of the river at forty miles from its mouth varies from five to eight feet, according to the time of the year. Its current is not so rapid as that of most Patagonian rivers, but its extremely tortuous course makes it difficult to navigate. Its estuary forms a tolerably safe harbour for craft of light draught.

The Welsh Colony at Chubut, which numbers at present about 700 souls, was founded by the Argentine Government in 1865. It is not, and never has been, in a flourishing state; but this is due not so much to the unfertility of the Chubut valley as to the fact that most of the people sent out from Wales by the Government agent to form the proposed agricultural colony were miners, who of course knew nothing about farming matters. For a great many years the colonists were supported entirely by the Government, and on several occasions when accidents had happened to the vessels which were bringing stores for them from Buenos Ayres, they were saved from starvation by the Indians, who supplied them with guanaco and ostrich meat. At present the prospects of the colony are rather more hopeful: about 15,000 bushels of wheat were harvested last year; but even now the colony is not self-supporting, and costs the Argentine Government large sums annually for provisions and other assistance afforded the colonists.

South of Chubut lies Port Desire, formed by the estuary of the river, or rather stream, of that name. The Desire does not rise in spring and summer, like Gallegos and the other Patagonian rivers, to any great extent – a circumstance which makes it probable that it does not take its source in the Cordilleras, but rather from a chain of hills, which, according to Dr. Moreno, traverses the centre of Patagonia, running south-southwest from the Sierra de San Antonio, near the Gulf of San Matias. The Spaniards formed a colony at Port Desire, which, after having existed for a few years, was officially abandoned in 1807. The remains of a fort and some houses are still standing near the port, as well as some apple and cherry trees, with which the climate of Patagonia seems to agree very well.

I pass over the incidents of the rest of my sojourn at St. Julian, as having no relevancy to the object of this work. Suffice it to say that by the little Government schooner which makes two or three voyages annually from Buenos Ayres to the Rio Negro and Santa Cruz, and which on this occasion put into St. Julian to bring us our correspondence, I received some letters, conveying important news, which made my speedy return to Buenos Ayres imperative. About the same time a party of ostrich-hunters, attracted by the smoke of our fires, came to St. Julian from Santa Cruz, partly out of curiosity to see the unusual visitors, and partly to trade for biscuits and tobacco. They did not stop long; and as they were going back to Santa Cruz, and from there to Sandy Point in the Straits of Magellan, where I should be able to take a steamer for Buenos Ayres, I embraced this favourable opportunity, and packing up a few things, started off with my new acquaintances.

We had not gone far, however, when it commenced to rain; and there being no particular object in getting wet, we halted for the day, and took shelter under our tent, hoping that by the next morning it would be fine again. In this hope we were disappointed; it rained incessantly for about four days, during which we of course remained where we were, and very tired I soon got of it. The ground was as damp as could be, and so loosened by the moisture that the stakes of our tent gradually gave, and the slack canvas being no longer water-tight, little pools of water gathered round the furs and saddle-cloths which served us in lieu of bedding, permeating them with a general dampness, which made our nightly slumbers rather uncomfortable. The daytime we passed cowering round the fire, with some covering thrown over our backs to keep off the rain, the front part of the body requiring no extra covering, for as fast as it was wetted it dried by the fire, which for this purpose was allowed to assume formidable dimensions. Under such unfavourable circumstances, conversation rather flagged, as may be imagined, being limited to occasional prophecies and conjectures as to when the weather might be expected to change for the better. But in revenge, the tobacco-pipe and the maté-pot went round the circle without any intermission, and during the days of forced inaction consequent on the rain, we consumed startling quantities of those two almost indispensable commodities of pampa life.

Yerba-maté is a kind of tea in great repute throughout South America, especially amongst the country people, who drink it at all their meals, and whenever they have nothing particular to do, which is very often. It is the leaf of a shrub (Ilex Paraguanensis) extensively cultivated in Paraguay and the Brazils, constituting, in fact, the chief article of commerce of the former country. The powdered leaf is steeped in boiling water, and imbibed through a thin pipe (bombilla), perforated with holes, so as to prevent the fine herb from being sucked up with the fluid. It has a bitter, aromatic flavour, and though usually taken with sugar, many find it equally palatable without the latter adjunct. Its restorative powers are marvellous, and frequently, when thoroughly exhausted after a hard day's ride, I have taken a cup or two of maté, and found myself immediately revived and invigorated. It is decidedly a better stimulant than either tea or coffee, and as it does not seem to lose its flavour by exposure to the air and damp as quickly as those articles do, it is naturally preferred by those whose profession forces them to take these qualities into account in the selection of their victuals. Maté, as I have already said, is indispensable to the hunter in Patagonia. For months it is often the only addition he can make to his otherwise exclusively meat diet. In fact he is never without it, except when in the saddest plight, and for its sake he would forego any other luxury, such as sugar, biscuit, or rice.