Days 8-9 Sun 12th-Mon 13th Jan 2014
Well, we made it to Esquel. It wasn’t a good start. Just a few minutes from Gaiman, we were stopped by one of the many road checkpoints that the Argentine police seems to love. The two policemen on duty spoke very little English, and we had trouble understanding why they found it so amusing to watch us ruffle through paperwork after paperwork just to prove that we were driving a car that we had the abililty and the legal right to drive. They also found hilarious my frantic attempts to hurriedly rush a giant flying ant-like creature out of the car. I suppose that in today’s jaded, cynical society, it’s actually rather nice to find people so clearly enjoying their jobs.
We drove across the undulating paith into blinding white light and heat, staying on tar for most of the first part of the journey, except for a short detour to see the sparkling blue waters of the Florentine Ameghino Dam. Once back on the tar, it seemed to get more blindingly white and certainly hotter the nearer we reached Las Plumas. Upon fuelling at a petrol station, as an opening conversational gambit, the attendant offered an obvious ‘¿Hace mucho calor, no?’ (‘It’s very hot, right?’). ’34 centigrados?’ I offered as a guess. ‘No, 40 centigrados’ was the response. I was too hot to respond again.
We stayed on the tar to Los Altares where we shored up for the night in a roadside hotel behind the petrol station (there isn’t any choice in Los Altares). The place was run by the Automóvil Club Argentino and probably looked pretty good in the early 70s. Like all 40 somethings (ahem), it is clean enough but looking a bit jaded now.
On Monday, we got up at 6.15 am to undertake what our contact in Esquel advised us would be a three hour drive to Cerro Condor. After 50 km of lovely, smooth tar, the road is formed largely in rough gravel on the margins of the middle Chubut valley, and is similar to the route taken by early pioneering parties (many Welsh among them) who started to push westwards from the lower Chubut valley in the late 1800s. We made the drive in an hour and a half, with stops. My driving reputation clearly had not preceded me. Rather than being early, however, it turned out that we actually arrived at Cerro Condor 22.5 hours late, having been expected a day earlier for a pre-arranged guided tour to see some ancient petrified tree trunks. No importa … the people in this tiny, remote place were not busy and happily took for us for a walk across an alluvial fan, up a canon and up a dry waterfall to eroding outcrop. Here, mineralised ancient tree trunks up to half a metre in diameter and a metre long were littering a steep slope.
The rest of the day was spent bouncing along rough gravel roads while we sweated and dust gradually covered every part of the car, exterior and interior. We did stop frequently to gawp and take photos of the scenery, including some short detours off the main route by car or by foot. Geomorphological wonders abound here …. the vivid blue ribbon of the Río Chubut and its vivid green riparian fringe that wind lazily between slightly less vividly green floodplains with their desiccated oxbow lakes. Steep, rocky cliffs that vary in texture from rough to smooth and in colour from white to yellow to red, even including dashes of blue and black for variation. Ancient volcanoes whose skeletal remains (plugs, dykes and sills) have been bared by erosion. And so little of it is documented in scientific or popular literature.
Once back on the tar, we were stopped by another police road checkpoint just outside Esquel, making a rather nice symmetry to the journey. I also pondered just how it can be that a landscape can be both known and unknown. The pioneering parties helped to ensure that this landscape become ‘known’ geographically, both to developing Argentine society and the wider world, metaphorically paving the way for other colonials to move west and for later topographic and geological map makers to do their work. But the landscape remains largely ‘unknown’ geomorphologically, with many questions about the processes, timing and rates of landforms and landscape change yet to even be outlined, let alone investigated. But that’s not for this project and must remain for another day.