February 14th: Puerto Madryn
Puerto Madryn is, at first glance, an uninspiring kind of a place. It’s situated on the edge of a beautiful gulf that hosts sea-lions, whales, and dolphins, but the landscape is unrelievedly flat, dry and the coverage of tough, spiky, salt laden shrubs simply disguises the fact that this place is a desert. There is no natural fresh water source. The moisture dredged up from aquifers is brackish and salt-laden, and only enough for a subsistence level existence for any stock that feed here. By the time a sheep is six it’s teeth are so worn down from the harsh diet that it has to be destroyed.
The land, originally covered by sea, shows that influence in its sandstone base and salt ridden soil. There are numerous fossils embedded in the rocks. To compound the drought problem, when Chile’s volcanos erupt on the far side of the Andes, all the ash is swept across the mountains by the prevailing wind to fall on Puerto Madryn’s already parched soil. Of course the Andes also strip out any rain brought to land on Pacific breezes on the Chilean side of the range. By the time the winds rush down onto the Argentinian side they are hot and dry.
Enough to say that the main industry in town is aluminium smelting and you can see why my first impressions of the place were negative.
BUT. This is also the place where, a couple of years ago, the fossilised remains of the largest land creature ever identified were found. From the bones (as big as boulders) that have been discovered, researchers estimate this creature may have been in the range of 75 tonnes. I can’t get my head around those figures, so let’s just say it must have been enormous. They are hoping to find enough bones to string a skeleton together. It’s exciting stuff for palaeontology.
The trip Cavan and I took went to the Valdez peninsula – a protected area – in search of its wildlife. I’ve attached photos of the guanacos (a sort of llama which is a protected species). We also saw sea-lions; a fat armadillo who worked the tourist busses for food and several small birds.
But the highlight, and an absolute gem, was the penguin colony. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I’ve never seen anything like it. There were Magellan penguins everywhere. They estimate 300,000 breed in this area. We were able to walk amongst the colony on a carefully designated road, and the birds moved freely around us, although they obviously had right of way when they wanted to cross in front of us.
The whole experience was wrapped up by a superb meal at the local estancia or farm which covered vast acres of this barren, harsh land.
Argentina, at least in this area, is trying to produce a conservation ethos that is inclusive of native wild life, domestic farms and tourism. It’s hoped that this trilogy will work together for the benefit of each part. It’s a pragmatic approach, and I rather hope it works for them. So far it seems to be achieving its goals.