From solitude to NASA

Santa Cruz, Argentina

Aug 2019

Patagonia. That strip of ice and prairies, sweet-and-wild-spirited like every Argentinian heart. A land of frontier and legends, watching it from the sky you’d think it was created to separate two oceans.

From the shores of Lake Argentino, when darkness fell on his estancia, a man beguiled solitude by communicating with those awake. His voice ‘travelled’ on the low frequency waves of his radio station, code LUX5E. One night he cooperated with NASA to find a satellite that had accidentally fallen close to his ranch. His name was Percival Herbert, son of Joseph Percival Masters, one of the European pioneers rewarded by the government in the early 20th century with a few thousand hectares of virgin land for their adventurous spirit and in exchange for their eternal devotion. For Joseph, this meant getting the better of intense cold and wind aboard an old steamboat named Cesar, in order to put down roots at the foot of Upsala Glacier. About one century after the Masters did, we left Puerto Banderas, too, and sailed along the northern arm of Lake Argentino. We passed close to icebergs kissed by rainbows to reach the same El Dorado: Estancia Cristina, which satisfied also our ambition of adventure and authenticity. What is left of those days between Patagonian glaciers and prairies? ‘The unconventional land par excellence – a perfect repository of hallucination, loneliness and exile’, reads the preface of our old copy of Chatwin’s masterpiece. We will remember the immediate empathy with the gauchos we followed riding our horses; we had to be not frightened by the colonies of spiteful hares and to cross rivers fearlessly among enthusiastic upstream-swimming salmons. The silent wonders of Upsala and Perito Moreno Glaciers, whose ‘crumbs’ falling into the cobalt water we could not see, though we did hear their rumbles – prolonged, muffled sounds you won’t forget. ‘Each glacier has its own character, just like men’, repeated the guide. The rainy dawn we left Estancia Nibepo Aike, after drinking a cup of strong coffee next to the still-warm fireplace, while the house silently slept on. It had been the first leg of our exploration of Los Glaciares National Park. A ranch made of small houses of cream-coloured corrugated metal sheets with green and coral-red sloping roofs. It was founded by Santiago Peso and Maria Martinic, two European migrants who had met in Rio Gallegos and soon got married. Spending some days in the ranch, the last one on Ruta Provincial 15, helped us imagine the people who had lived there and to fall for that remote pastoral Eden. When we got there, chubby bees were courting lavender bushes and Eric was serving tea and old-style scones. We learned soon that ‘Nibepo’ was the acronym for the names of the couple’s daughters – Niní, Bebé and Porota – and that ‘Aike’ means ‘place’ in Tehuelche (the local natives’ language). We used to walk or ride tall robust horses, sometimes we reached the hill’s top, and at sunset we accompanied the gaucho, who had to gather the flock from pasture.  We shared the afternoon mate with newcomers. In the evening, we had a masterly cooked asado for dinner in the cottage beyond the fence. The morning we left, we even had the chance to admire the sculptural peaks of Torres del Paine, beyond the Chilean border, from the wide windows of Eolo, while we ate the best Eggs Benedict of our lives. This was our last, wonderful refuge in the Santa Cruz province. We will certainly remember a vastness our eyes were not used to embrace, the straight solitary rutas crossing golden expanses and meadows of calafate (a native Patagonian shrub). Pastures and pastures. Herds of placid cows and horses born free under pale skies.

Words Laura Taccari, translation Alessia Andriolo.

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