Copyright
Charles Darwin.

The Voyage of the Beagle online

. (page 12 of 51)
Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 12 of 51)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


thought we should have been obliged to have passed the night
without any. At last we discovered some by looking close to the
mountain, for at the distance even of a few hundred yards, the
streamlets were buried and entirely lost in the friable calcareous
stone and loose detritus. I do not think Nature ever made a more
solitary, desolate pile of rock; - it well deserves its name of
Hurtado, or separated. The mountain is steep, extremely rugged, and
broken, and so entirely destitute of trees, and even bushes, that
we actually could not make a skewer to stretch out our meat over
the fire of thistle-stalks. (6/1. I call these thistle-stalks for
the want of a more correct name. I believe it is a species of
Eryngium.) The strange aspect of this mountain is contrasted by the
sea-like plain, which not only abuts against its steep sides, but
likewise separates the parallel ranges. The uniformity of the
colouring gives an extreme quietness to the view; - the whitish grey
of the quartz rock, and the light brown of the withered grass of
the plain, being unrelieved by any brighter tint. From custom one
expects to see in the neighbourhood of a lofty and bold mountain a
broken country strewed over with huge fragments. Here Nature shows
that the last movement before the bed of the sea is changed into
dry land may sometimes be one of tranquillity. Under these
circumstances I was curious to observe how far from the parent rock
any pebbles could be found. On the shores of Bahia Blanca, and near
the settlement, there were some of quartz, which certainly must
have come from this source: the distance is forty-five miles.

The dew, which in the early part of the night wetted the
saddle-cloths under which we slept, was in the morning frozen. The
plain, though appearing horizontal, had insensibly sloped up to a
height of between 800 and 900 feet above the sea. In the morning
(9th of September) the guide told me to ascend the nearest ridge,
which he thought would lead me to the four peaks that crown the
summit. The climbing up such rough rocks was very fatiguing; the
sides were so indented, that what was gained in one five minutes
was often lost in the next. At last, when I reached the ridge, my
disappointment was extreme in finding a precipitous valley as deep
as the plain, which cut the chain traversely in two, and separated
me from the four points. This valley is very narrow, but
flat-bottomed, and it forms a fine horse-pass for the Indians, as
it connects the plains on the northern and southern sides of the
range. Having descended, and while crossing it, I saw two horses
grazing: I immediately hid myself in the long grass, and began to
reconnoitre; but as I could see no signs of Indians I proceeded
cautiously on my second ascent. It was late in the day, and this
part of the mountain, like the other, was steep and rugged. I was
on the top of the second peak by two o'clock, but got there with
extreme difficulty; every twenty yards I had the cramp in the upper
part of both thighs, so that I was afraid I should not have been
able to have got down again. It was also necessary to return by
another road, as it was out of the question to pass over the
saddle-back. I was therefore obliged to give up the two higher
peaks. Their altitude was but little greater, and every purpose of
geology had been answered; so that the attempt was not worth the
hazard of any further exertion. I presume the cause of the cramp
was the great change in the kind of muscular action, from that of
hard riding to that of still harder climbing. It is a lesson worth
remembering, as in some cases it might cause much difficulty.

I have already said the mountain is composed of white quartz rock,
and with it a little glossy clay-slate is associated. At the height
of a few hundred feet above the plain, patches of conglomerate
adhered in several places to the solid rock. They resembled in
hardness, and in the nature of the cement, the masses which may be
seen daily forming on some coasts. I do not doubt these pebbles
were in a similar manner aggregated, at a period when the great
calcareous formation was depositing beneath the surrounding sea. We
may believe that the jagged and battered forms of the hard quartz
yet show the effects of the waves of an open ocean.

I was, on the whole, disappointed with this ascent. Even the view
was insignificant; - a plain like the sea, but without its beautiful
colour and defined outline. The scene, however, was novel, and a
little danger, like salt to meat, gave it a relish. That the danger
was very little was certain, for my two companions made a good
fire - a thing which is never done when it is suspected that Indians
are near. I reached the place of our bivouac by sunset, and
drinking much mat,, and smoking several cigaritos, soon made up my
bed for the night. The wind was very strong and cold, but I never
slept more comfortably.

SEPTEMBER 10, 1833.

In the morning, having fairly scudded before the gale, we arrived
by the middle of the day at the Sauce posta. On the road we saw
great numbers of deer, and near the mountain a guanaco. The plain,
which abuts against the Sierra, is traversed by some curious
gulleys, of which one was about twenty feet wide, and at least
thirty deep; we were obliged in consequence to make a considerable
circuit before we could find a pass. We stayed the night at the
posta, the conversation, as was generally the case, being about the
Indians. The Sierra Ventana was formerly a great place of resort;
and three or four years ago there was much fighting there. My guide
had been present when many Indians were killed: the women escaped
to the top of the ridge, and fought most desperately with great
stones; many thus saving themselves.

SEPTEMBER 11, 1833.

Proceeded to the third posta in company with the lieutenant who
commanded it. The distance is called fifteen leagues; but it is
only guess-work, and is generally overstated. The road was
uninteresting, over a dry grassy plain; and on our left hand at a
greater or less distance there were some low hills; a continuation
of which we crossed close to the posta. Before our arrival we met a
large herd of cattle and horses, guarded by fifteen soldiers; but
we were told many had been lost. It is very difficult to drive
animals across the plains; for if in the night a puma, or even a
fox, approaches, nothing can prevent the horses dispersing in every
direction; and a storm will have the same effect. A short time
since, an officer left Buenos Ayres with five hundred horses, and
when he arrived at the army he had under twenty.

Soon afterwards we perceived by the cloud of dust, that a party of
horsemen were coming towards us; when far distant my companions
knew them to be Indians, by their long hair streaming behind their
backs. The Indians generally have a fillet round their heads, but
never any covering; and their black hair blowing across their
swarthy faces, heightens to an uncommon degree the wildness of
their appearance. They turned out to be a party of Bernantio's
friendly tribe, going to a salina for salt. The Indians eat much
salt, their children sucking it like sugar. This habit is very
different from that of the Spanish Gauchos, who, leading the same
kind of life, eat scarcely any: according to Mungo Park, it is
people who live on vegetable food who have an unconquerable desire
for salt. (6/2. "Travels in Africa" page 233.) The Indians gave us
good-humoured nods as they passed at full gallop, driving before
them a troop of horses, and followed by a train of lanky dogs.

SEPTEMBER 12 AND 13, 1833.

I stayed at this posta two days, waiting for a troop of soldiers,
which General Rosas had the kindness to send to inform me would
shortly travel to Buenos Ayres; and he advised me to take the
opportunity of the escort. In the morning we rode to some
neighbouring hills to view the country, and to examine the geology.
After dinner the soldiers divided themselves into two parties for a
trial of skill with the bolas. Two spears were stuck in the ground
twenty-five yards apart, but they were struck and entangled only
once in four or five times. The balls can be thrown fifty or sixty
yards, but with little certainty. This, however, does not apply to
a man on horseback; for when the speed of the horse is added to the
force of the arm, it is said that they can be whirled with effect
to the distance of eighty yards. As a proof of their force, I may
mention, that at the Falkland Islands, when the Spaniards murdered
some of their own countrymen and all the Englishmen, a young
friendly Spaniard was running away, when a great tall man, by name
Luciano, came at full gallop after him, shouting to him to stop,
and saying that he only wanted to speak to him. Just as the
Spaniard was on the point of reaching the boat, Luciano threw the
balls: they struck him on the legs with such a jerk, as to throw
him down and to render him for some time insensible. The man, after
Luciano had had his talk, was allowed to escape. He told us that
his legs were marked by great weals, where the thong had wound
round, as if he had been flogged with a whip. In the middle of the
day two men arrived, who brought a parcel from the next posta to be
forwarded to the general: so that besides these two, our party
consisted this evening of my guide and self, the lieutenant, and
his four soldiers. The latter were strange beings; the first a fine
young negro; the second half Indian and negro; and the two others
nondescripts; namely, an old Chilian miner, the colour of mahogany,
and another partly a mulatto; but two such mongrels, with such
detestable expressions, I never saw before. At night, when they
were sitting round the fire, and playing at cards, I retired to
view such a Salvator Rosa scene. They were seated under a low
cliff, so that I could look down upon them; around the party were
lying dogs, arms, remnants of deer and ostriches; and their long
spears were stuck in the turf. Farther in the dark background their
horses were tied up, ready for any sudden danger. If the stillness
of the desolate plain was broken by one of the dogs barking, a
soldier, leaving the fire, would place his head close to the
ground, and thus slowly scan the horizon. Even if the noisy
teru-tero uttered its scream, there would be a pause in the
conversation, and every head, for a moment, a little inclined.

What a life of misery these men appear to us to lead! They were at
least ten leagues from the Sauce posta, and since the murder
committed by the Indians, twenty from another. The Indians are
supposed to have made their attack in the middle of the night; for
very early in the morning after the murder, they were luckily seen
approaching this posta. The whole party here, however, escaped,
together with the troop of horses; each one taking a line for
himself, and driving with him as many animals as he was able to
manage.

The little hovel, built of thistle-stalks, in which they slept,
neither kept out the wind nor rain; indeed in the latter case the
only effect the roof had, was to condense it into larger drops.
They had nothing to eat excepting what they could catch, such as
ostriches, deer, armadilloes, etc., and their only fuel was the dry
stalks of a small plant, somewhat resembling an aloe. The sole
luxury which these men enjoyed was smoking the little paper cigars,
and sucking mat,. I used to think that the carrion vultures, man's
constant attendants on these dreary plains, while seated on the
little neighbouring cliffs, seemed by their very patience to say,
"Ah! when the Indians come we shall have a feast."

(PLATE 25. MAT√Й POTS AND BAMBILLIO.)

In the morning we all sallied forth to hunt, and although we had
not much success, there were some animated chases. Soon after
starting the party separated, and so arranged their plans, that at
a certain time of the day (in guessing which they show much skill)
they should all meet from different points of the compass on a
plain piece of ground, and thus drive together the wild animals.
One day I went out hunting at Bahia Blanca, but the men there
merely rode in a crescent, each being about a quarter of a mile
apart from the other. A fine male ostrich being turned by the
headmost riders, tried to escape on one side. The Gauchos pursued
at a reckless pace, twisting their horses about with the most
admirable command, and each man whirling the balls round his head.
At length the foremost threw them, revolving through the air: in an
instant the ostrich rolled over and over, its legs fairly lashed
together by the thong.

The plains abound with three kinds of partridge, two of which are
as large as hen pheasants. (6/3. Two species of Tinamus and
Eudromia elegans of A. d'Orbigny, which can only be called a
partridge with regard to its habits.) Their destroyer, a small and
pretty fox, was also singularly numerous; in the course of the day
we could not have seen less than forty or fifty. They were
generally near their earths, but the dogs killed one. When we
returned to the posta, we found two of the party returned who had
been hunting by themselves. They had killed a puma, and had found
an ostrich's nest with twenty-seven eggs in it. Each of these is
said to equal in weight eleven hens' eggs; so that we obtained from
this one nest as much food as 297 hens' eggs would have given.

SEPTEMBER 14, 1833.

As the soldiers belonging to the next posta meant to return, and we
should together make a party of five, and all armed, I determined
not to wait for the expected troops. My host, the lieutenant,
pressed me much to stop. As he had been very obliging - not only
providing me with food, but lending me his private horses - I wanted
to make him some remuneration. I asked my guide whether I might do
so, but he told me certainly not; that the only answer I should
receive probably would be, "We have meat for the dogs in our
country, and therefore do not grudge it to a Christian." It must
not be supposed that the rank of lieutenant in such an army would
at all prevent the acceptance of payment: it was only the high
sense of hospitality, which every traveller is bound to acknowledge
as nearly universal throughout these provinces. After galloping
some leagues, we came to a low swampy country, which extends for
nearly eighty miles northward, as far as the Sierra Tapalguen. In
some parts there were fine damp plains, covered with grass, while
others had a soft, black, and peaty soil. There were also many
extensive but shallow lakes, and large beds of reeds. The country
on the whole resembled the better parts of the Cambridgeshire fens.
At night we had some difficulty in finding, amidst the swamps, a
dry place for our bivouac.

SEPTEMBER 15, 1833.

Rose very early in the morning, and shortly after passed the posta
where the Indians had murdered the five soldiers. The officer had
eighteen chuzo wounds in his body. By the middle of the day, after
a hard gallop, we reached the fifth posta: on account of some
difficulty in procuring horses we stayed there the night. As this
point was the most exposed on the whole line, twenty-one soldiers
were stationed here; at sunset they returned from hunting, bringing
with them seven deer, three ostriches, and many armadilloes and
partridges. When riding through the country, it is a common
practice to set fire to the plain; and hence at night, as on this
occasion, the horizon was illuminated in several places by
brilliant conflagrations. This is done partly for the sake of
puzzling any stray Indians, but chiefly for improving the pasture.
In grassy plains unoccupied by the larger ruminating quadrupeds, it
seems necessary to remove the superfluous vegetation by fire, so as
to render the new year's growth serviceable.

The rancho at this place did not boast even of a roof, but merely
consisted of a ring of thistle-stalks, to break the force of the
wind. It was situated on the borders of an extensive but shallow
lake, swarming with wild fowl, among which the black-necked swan
was conspicuous.

The kind of plover which appears as if mounted on stilts
(Himantopus nigricollis), is here common in flocks of considerable
size. It has been wrongfully accused of inelegance; when wading
about in shallow water, which is its favourite resort, its gait is
far from awkward. These birds in a flock utter a noise, that
singularly resembles the cry of a pack of small dogs in full chase:
waking in the night, I have more than once been for a moment
startled at the distant sound. The teru-tero (Vanellus cayanus) is
another bird which often disturbs the stillness of the night. In
appearance and habits it resembles in many respects our peewits;
its wings, however, are armed with sharp spurs, like those on the
legs of the common cock. As our peewit takes its name from the
sound of its voice, so does the teru-tero. While riding over the
grassy plains, one is constantly pursued by these birds, which
appear to hate mankind, and I am sure deserve to be hated for their
never-ceasing, unvaried, harsh screams. To the sportsman they are
most annoying, by telling every other bird and animal of his
approach: to the traveller in the country they may possibly, as
Molina says, do good, by warning him of the midnight robber. During
the breeding season, they attempt, like our peewits, by feigning to
be wounded, to draw away from their nests dogs and other enemies.
The eggs of this bird are esteemed a great delicacy.

SEPTEMBER 16, 1833.

To the seventh posta at the foot of the Sierra Tapalguen. The
country was quite level, with a coarse herbage and a soft peaty
soil. The hovel was here remarkably neat, the posts and rafters
being made of about a dozen dry thistle-stalks bound together with
thongs of hide; and by the support of these Ionic-like columns, the
roof and sides were thatched with reeds. We were here told a fact,
which I would not have credited, if I had not had partly ocular
proof of it; namely, that, during the previous night, hail as large
as small apples, and extremely hard, had fallen with such violence
as to kill the greater number of the wild animals. One of the men
had already found thirteen deer (Cervus campestris) lying dead, and
I saw their FRESH hides; another of the party, a few minutes after
my arrival, brought in seven more. Now I well know, that one man
without dogs could hardly have killed seven deer in a week. The men
believed they had seen about fifteen dead ostriches (part of one of
which we had for dinner); and they said that several were running
about evidently blind in one eye. Numbers of smaller birds, as
ducks, hawks, and partridges, were killed. I saw one of the latter
with a black mark on its back, as if it had been struck with a
paving-stone. A fence of thistle-stalks round the hovel was nearly
broken down, and my informer, putting his head out to see what was
the matter, received a severe cut, and now wore a bandage. The
storm was said to have been of limited extent: we certainly saw
from our last night's bivouac a dense cloud and lightning in this
direction. It is marvellous how such strong animals as deer could
thus have been killed; but I have no doubt, from the evidence I
have given, that the story is not in the least exaggerated. I am
glad, however, to have its credibility supported by the Jesuit
Dobrizhoffen, who, speaking of a country much to the northward,
says, hail fell of an enormous size and killed vast numbers of
cattle (6/4. "History of the Abipones" volume 2 page 6.): the
Indians hence called the place Lalegraicavalca, meaning "the little
white things." Dr. Malcolmson, also, informs me that he witnessed
in 1831 in India a hail-storm, which killed numbers of large birds
and much injured the cattle. These hail-stones were flat, and one
was ten inches in circumference, and another weighed two ounces.
They ploughed up a gravel-walk like musket-balls, and passed
through glass-windows, making round holes, but not cracking them.

Having finished our dinner of hail-stricken meat, we crossed the
Sierra Tapalguen; a low range of hills, a few hundred feet in
height, which commences at Cape Corrientes. The rock in this part
is pure quartz; farther eastward I understand it is granitic. The
hills are of a remarkable form; they consist of flat patches of
table-land, surrounded by low perpendicular cliffs, like the
outliers of a sedimentary deposit. The hill which I ascended was
very small, not above a couple of hundred yards in diameter; but I
saw others larger. One which goes by the name of the "Corral," is
said to be two or three miles in diameter, and encompassed by
perpendicular cliffs between thirty and forty feet high, excepting
at one spot, where the entrance lies. Falconer gives a curious
account of the Indians driving troops of wild horses into it, and
then by guarding the entrance keeping them secure. (6/5. Falconer's
"Patagonia" page 70.) I have never heard of any other instance of
table-land in a formation of quartz, and which, in the hill I
examined, had neither cleavage nor stratification. I was told that
the rock of the "Corral" was white, and would strike fire.

We did not reach the posta on the Rio Tapalguen till after it was
dark. At supper, from something which was said, I was suddenly
struck with horror at thinking that I was eating one of the
favourite dishes of the country, namely, a half formed calf, long
before its proper time of birth. It turned out to be Puma; the meat
is very white, and remarkably like veal in taste. Dr. Shaw was
laughed at for stating that "the flesh of the lion is in great
esteem, having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste,
and flavour." Such certainly is the case with the Puma. The Gauchos
differ in their opinion whether the Jaguar is good eating, but are
unanimous in saying that cat is excellent.

SEPTEMBER 17, 1833.

We followed the course of the Rio Tapalguen, through a very fertile
country, to the ninth posta. Tapalguen itself, or the town of
Tapalguen, if it may be so called, consists of a perfectly level
plain, studded over, as far as the eye can reach, with the toldos,
or oven-shaped huts of the Indians. The families of the friendly
Indians, who were fighting on the side of Rosas, resided here. We
met and passed many young Indian women, riding by two or three
together on the same horse: they, as well as many of the young men,
were strikingly handsome, - their fine ruddy complexions being the
picture of health. Besides the toldos, there were three ranchos;
one inhabited by the Commandant, and the two others by Spaniards
with small shops.

We were here able to buy some biscuit. I had now been several days
without tasting anything besides meat: I did not at all dislike
this new regimen; but I felt as if it would only have agreed with
me with hard exercise. I have heard that patients in England, when
desired to confine themselves exclusively to an animal diet, even
with the hope of life before their eyes, have hardly been able to
endure it. Yet the Gaucho in the Pampas, for months together,
touches nothing but beef. But they eat, I observe, a very large
proportion of fat, which is of a less animalised nature; and they
particularly dislike dry meat, such as that of the Agouti. Dr.
Richardson, also, has remarked, "that when people have fed for a
long time solely upon lean animal food, the desire for fat becomes
so insatiable, that they can consume a large quantity of unmixed
and even oily fat without nausea" (6/6. "Fauna Boreali-Americana"
volume 1 page 35.): this appears to me a curious physiological
fact. It is, perhaps, from their meat regimen that the Gauchos,
like other carnivorous animals, can abstain long from food. I was
told that at Tandeel some troops voluntarily pursued a party of
Indians for three days, without eating or drinking.

We saw in the shops many articles, such as horsecloths, belts, and
garters, woven by the Indian women. The patterns were very pretty,
and the colours brilliant; the workmanship of the garters was so
good that an English merchant at Buenos Ayres maintained they must
have been manufactured in England, till he found the tassels had
been fastened by split sinew.

SEPTEMBER 18, 1833.

We had a very long ride this day. At the twelfth posta, which is
seven leagues south of the Rio Salado, we came to the first
estancia with cattle and white women. Afterwards we had to ride for
many miles through a country flooded with water above our horses'
knees. By crossing the stirrups, and riding Arab-like with our legs
bent up, we contrived to keep tolerably dry. It was nearly dark
when we arrived at the Salado; the stream was deep, and about forty



Online LibraryCharles DarwinThe Voyage of the Beagle → online text (page 12 of 51)