“When shall we turn back?” “Once we get there.” We gave up eventually having got nowhere. Walking across the Patagonian steppe, you never get anywhere, the distances are so vast, the landscape features few and far between.
Looking towards Puerto Natales from Estancia Eberhard
Over to the east, an overhang in the rock looked like a cave. There was something familiar about it, could it be where the Mylodon listai (prehistoric ground sloth) was found? I remembered that Bruce Chatwin, in his book ‘In Patagonia’ recounted visiting an estancia (ranch). Here he asked for directions to the cave where his great uncle had dug up bits of Mylodon. The rancher had lent him a horse and guided him there. The name of the ranch was Eberhard.
Hermann Eberhard settled at Puerto Consuelo in 1893. He had rowed all the way up the Canales in a desperate bid to find a patch of land suitable to farm. His previous visit to the Falklands had been fruitless. In 1895 he visited the cave at the edge of his land and found a large piece of unidentified animal skin. Eventually it was described as a long extinct Mylodon listai but it was so well preserved that some people thought that it hadn’t been long dead.
Our host at Puerto Consuelo is Rüdi Eberhard, Hermann’s great grandson, who speaks perfect German and Chilean and kindly gave us free range over his land.
The next day we set off across the fields. Ahead of us a Patagonian fox trotted for cover. We crossed a dried up stream, symptomatic of the severe drought that is affecting the region. Usually at this time of year, snow covers the lowland, releasing moisture into the soil as it melts. A horse track led more or less in the direction we wanted so we wandered along it through low bushes and ‘bonsai’ southern beech (Nothofagus antarctica) draped in lichen. We reached a fence and followed it down to a marshy pond. The cave wasn’t far now, up an escarpment on the other side of a shallow valley, but barring our way was a swathe of impenetrable woodland. We followed a rocky shoulder hoping it would lead to a break in the canopy but it just took us further away. We dropped down a steep embankment and headed straight for the trees. It was a swamp. The dark trunks entwined, forcing us to crawl through mud. We struggled across ditches as spiny bushes clawed at our clothes. Ahead, something strange, like a blanket draped over a body, as we approached a cloud of black birds took to the wing. A dead cow, all the flesh had gone but the skin still stretched over the skeleton.
The ground started to steepen, we had made it through.
Mylodon listai in its cave
The excellent state of preservation of the mylodon skin was remarkable given that the cave isn’t situated above the permanent snow line and that despite the current drought, the climate is far from arid. This may explain why people, at the end of the 19th century, believed that there could still be Mylodontidae roaming Patagonia.
For more information about the Mylodon, please see our diary post ‘Punta Arenas’ (May 2016).
Back at Puerto Consuelo we met our neighbours. Reina, Clint and Duke (the smallest dog I have ever seen), heading slowly south on ‘Karma’ and spent a fun few hours swapping notes. Ali and Jürg invited us over to their catamaran ’Sposmoker’ (‘Fun Maker’ in Friesen) for coffee. They have been based in Puerto Consuelo for the past seven years. Jürg is from Lucerne in Switzerland and Ali from Germany.
The Puerto Consuelo flotilla (Caramor is the smallest on the far right of the photo)