Sara Wheeler: Patagonia: Born to Rewild

In Chacabuco Valley a flock of upland geese rose in unison and hovered over the steppe like washing flapping on a line, and the Andes behind rippled in morning mist. A solitary condor described circles in the sky. It was the end of the world, almost: the place where mountains sink into water.

Chilean Patagonia is still an awfully big adventure. The land splinters, obliging ferries to take over from the road. Sandwiched between the Pacific and the Andes, smaller and less well-known than its Argentinian counterpart, the region starts about two-thirds of the way down the world’s thinnest country. I drove for five hours one day without seeing another car or passing a place to buy fuel. The ratio of people to square kilometre is 1:1. In the UK, it’s 274; in the US, 36.

The name comes from patagon, which means “big foot’’ in the language of 16th-century sailors who first encountered a native Tehuelche. The mariners marvelled at how tall the hunter was—which is mystifying, as other indigenous groups then were short. The canoeing Yaghan who lived off shellfish harvested from the fjords that striate Chilean Patagonia had a monosyllabic verb that meant “to unexpectedly come across something hard when eating something soft’’—like a pearl in an oyster. The tribes were the real pioneers, and the grasses of the steppe sing a threnody to those vanished men and women.

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