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In the footsteps of Darwin

  • Written by  Tom Allen
  • Published in Explorers
The Atlantic coast of Patagonia, just south of the estuary of the Santa Cruz river The Atlantic coast of Patagonia, just south of the estuary of the Santa Cruz river Tom Allen
08 Jun
When novice horse rider Tom Allen attempted to follow Charles Darwin's route to explore the length of the Santa Cruz river in Patagonia, he discovered that the immediate future of this near-pristine wilderness is far from certain

I spun round to see Aiken break into a gallop. Something had spooked him and he was in no mood to take orders, as the morning’s tensions had shown. Suddenly Petiso and Viejo, normally the two most level-headed equine members of our party, bolted after Aiken across the plateau. Leon grabbed one of our two remaining steeds by the tether and I followed on foot. But it was too late. Aiken became increasingly irritated by his load until he succeeded in bucking himself free of the entire mess of ropes and straps. The whole ensemble crashed to the ground. Pannier bags tore apart, pieces of tripod and solar panel bounced across the earth, and our belongings littered the ground in a cloud of dust. Aiken was in disgrace.

Leon and I had realised at the outset of our venture that our team was composed of not three but eight distinct personalities. Two foreigners, one gaucho and five horses shared every waking moment on a quest to follow the Santa Cruz river across Patagonia from its Atlantic mouth to its source in Lago Argentino.

shipComparing the location of Maartens' engraving ‘the Beagle laid ashore’ with its current incarnation - not much has changed (Image: Tom Allen)

While I had joined the expedition as a filmmaker, Leon McCarron had a different reason for being in the province of Santa Cruz. Fascinated by explorers of yore, he had learned that Charles Darwin had been a member of the second voyage of HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy. After laying the vessel ashore for keel repairs at Punta Quilla (Keel Point) in 1834, Fitzroy decided to locate the source of the Santa Cruz river. Darwin – along with about two dozen crew members – accompanied him. To some degree, this was unfinished business: a few years earlier, the captain of the Beagle on her first voyage, Pringle Stokes, had explored the river as far as Isla Pavón (Pavon Island) which lies about 50 kilometres upstream.

Our 385-kilometre journey to the source of the Santa Cruz began at the same place as Fitzroy’s landing. On his return from the Beagle expedition, Fitzroy had commissioned an engraving based on a sketch made at this spot by the ship’s artist-in-residence, Conrad Martens. Standing with a facsimile of the engraving in hand, we gazed along the deserted shingle beach and its distinctive white cliffs, noting how little had changed between Martens’ representation and the sight before us, save for the construction of a small oil depot and the absence of a large wooden ship.

Following the coastline on horseback, we soon reached the port of Santa Cruz. A solitary road headed inland, cutting off the corner of the estuary. We elected to follow the coast to the mouth of the river and then follow the riverbank upstream, just as Fitzroy’s party would have done.

IMG 5084-REPMaking camp in the lee of Calafate bushes (Image: Tom Allen)

It had been several years since Leon had ridden a horse. Having grown up in a family of horse owners, reconnecting with the equestrian world was a significant part of his reason for coming here. And where better to re-establish that link than in the land of the gaucho, where the horse remains a cornerstone of everyday life?

I had mounted a horse precisely once in my life before boarding the plane to Argentina. All of the necessary riding equipment, or tack, seemed unfathomable to me at the outset of our journey. Saddling and loading took a considerable amount of time. So did untangling masses of rope, leather, strapping and sheepskins in order that it could all be carefully arranged to ensure the comfort of both the horse and myself. However, by the end of the second day I was in agony. My hard leather saddle conspired with the horse’s violent rocking to tip the pain level beyond anything I had previously experienced.

By contrast, José Argento was no stranger to horses. A couple of years earlier, he had completed a 3,000-kilometre horseback journey along the length of Argentina. We could not have hoped for a better horseman on our team. The owner of three of our five horses, José took the lead with our animals, calming their irritations and coaxing them to function as a team. He also ensured that our mounts enjoyed adequate grazing and watering. On one occasion, José re-shoed a hoof with minimal tools.

riverFollowing the river inland from the ocean (Image: Tom Allen)

Yet even José met with insurmountable challenges. After leaving the moderating influence of the Atlantic, the infamous Patagonian wind made its presence felt. Visibility across the plains fell from infinity to just a few hundred metres as dust clouded the sky. Communication became almost impossible and I discovered that in a 65 km/h wind, relieving oneself turns into a comedy moment. At least navigation remained simple: keep the river in sight and follow it west towards the Andes.

The horses took the varied conditions in their stride. But as Aiken was to demonstrate with his tantrum, they disliked being saddled any longer than was strictly necessary. This situation forced us to rise early and ride for up to eight hours. As soon as we located our campsite for the evening we unsaddled the horses. Filming under this kind of time pressure was arduous and shooting was further complicated by the dust-laden wind. At least we were not hauling whaling boats upstream, as Fitzroy’s party had done.

The last thing we wanted was for our computer, backup hard drives and primary camera to be flung from a galloping Aiken. Yet half-way into the journey, and a good week’s ride from the nearest settlement, this is what happened. Losing all the footage would prove disastrous to our plan to describe the controversy upon which we’d stumbled. The evening after Aiken’s misdemeanour, I plugged our external hard drives into the laptop, gingerly turned the system on and – after breathing a sigh of relief that our recordings were intact – reconsidered the political and ecological turmoil which had come to dominate our project.

river2Exploring the location of Captain Fitzroy's last bivouac (Image: Tom Allen)

Ignoring the Santa Cruz valley’s heritage and wild natural beauty, the Argentine government, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has given the go-ahead to an ambitious dam construction project in the province. Funded by an unprecedented loan from China, two mega-dams will, if built, submerge two-thirds of the valley’s length. This, in turn, will create enormous man-made reservoirs and enable the generation of hydroelectric power that will sustainably supply around ten per cent of Argentina’s energy needs.

Work on the dams was expected to begin in February this year. Believing that construction was about to start – following what we assumed had been a legitimate assessment of the country’s energy needs and likely impacts on the natural environment – Leon and myself had set out from Punta Quilla at the tail end of 2014.

However, the voices of dissent that we heard in Buenos Aires and the provincial capital, El Calafate, suggested to us that construction might be delayed. Opponents of the dams claim that there has been no environmental impact study. They assert that the proposed benefits are, at best, questionable. And they insist that the flawed design of the dams risks impacting the hydrology of Lago Argentino. Nobody, they maintain, has paid any thought to the consequences for the numerous glaciers that feed the lake, most notably the famous Perito Moreno glacier.

horseThe wilder horses of Patagonia (Image: Tom Allen)

During our journey we witnessed a war of words, yet the valley remained deserted. How could we make sense of this controversy when there was so little tangible about it? One thing was real enough, and that was evidence of what will be lost if the Santa Cruz is dammed: flora, fauna and the one remaining channel of fresh water that runs from the Southern Patagonian Icecap to the Atlantic Ocean.

We pressed on, camping at the site of Fitzroy’s final bivouac, and then passing our nearest approximation of his expedition’s westernmost point. Fitzroy’s team had been travelling on reduced rations and they turned around less than 20 kilometres short of discovering Lago Argentino because of a lack of food.

In the period since Leon, José and myself reached the lake with our five horses, a coalition has successfully applied for a Supreme Court hearing on the grounds that beginning construction without an environmental impact assessment is a violation of Argentinean law. Opponents of the dams hope to stall construction until a new roster of politicians are at the country’s helm following this October’s general election. But many Patagonians who we spoke to are sceptical that the alleged corruption in Argentina’s political system will recede in time to save the Santa Cruz.

Tom Allen is a British adventure filmmaker and writer with no fixed abode. The film of his Santa Cruz river journey will be available later this year: www.riosantacruzfilm.com.

landscapeChilean flamingoes on the river (Image: Tom Allen)


The speed and distance achievable on a horseback trek is roughly comparable to that of trekking on foot. In Patagonia we covered between 35 and 40 kilometres per day at a rate of between five and six km/h. Whereas trekking calls for a ruthlessly minimalist approach to gear, the carrying capacity of a packhorse far exceeds that of a backpack. We were able to carry enough food for a fortnight.

Had we needed to travel further, or carry more equipment, we would simply have used more packhorses. Letting the beast take the burden frees up the rider to engage with other aspects of the expedition.

Swathes of the Patagonian plains that we crossed were plagued with thorny undergrowth, and rockfalls often blocked the riverbank hindering progress. Horses proved ideal for this kind of tough environment though. From the comfort of our mounts, we were able to navigate thickets and traverse valley sides to avoid obstacles. The animals took all of this activity in their stride.

Travelling with pack animals does require the rider to make some compromises. For example, a horse requires regular maintenance. This has as much to do with being sensitive to the horse’s moods as it is about finding suitable sources of water and grazing.

The overall cost and complexity of a horseback expedition can be further increased by the fact that horses sometimes need their own transport and accommodation.Nevertheless, travelling on horseback across Patagonia – and forming a bond with the animals during the journey – was an immensely rewarding experience.


Aside from the actual horses and tack, travelling in the saddle on any expedition allows for a greater amount of kit than usual. For Tom Allen this included suitably warm sleeping gear, clothing that could withstand the harshest winds, backups for vital cooking stoves and even a touch of luxury in the form of a private, yet lightweight, tent...


1. Solo tent

MSR Hubba NX

£330/1.3 kilograms

Packhorses increased the amount of kit so we opted for a bit of privacy at the end of each day by packing three solo tents. The Hubba’s freestanding design makes it ideal for pitching on mixed terrain. Its multiple guyline attachments perform well in Patagonia’s notoriously windy climate

2. Sleeping bag

Mountain Equipment Xero 300

£330/1.3 kilograms

The Xero provided sufficient insulation for me on the chilliest of Patagonian nights. Although it packs down to a small size, it boasts features – such as an insulated neck collar – not normally found on bags this light.

3. Camping mat

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite

£120/350 grams

Therm-a-Rest’s lightest air mattress packs down to the size of a water bottle. I used mine with a groundsheet to protect it from thorns and sharp stones.

4. Trousers

Railriders VersaTac-Mid Pant

$110/737 grams

Railriders’ rugged VersaTac line is ideal for keeping thorns and the elements at bay. These trousers are made from a strong 187 gram canvas weave nylon, and boast a reinforced seat and knees. Best when paired with chaps or riding boots

5. Base layer

BAM Bamboo Zip Neck

£45/265 grams

For mixed weather conditions, clothing made from bamboo scores highly. Warm, wicking and extremely comfortable, BAM’s performance base layer stretches to fit body shape and movement.

6. Jacket

Railriders WeatherTop

$130/793 grams

This versatile outer layer features a host of ventilation options to regulate your temperature. A kangaroo pouch on the front holds snacks and helps to rewarm chilly hands. Cordura elbows resist wear and tear and the zippered belly pouch doubles as a stuff sack for the WeatherTop when it is not being worn.

7. Multifuel stove

MSR Whisperlite Universal

£125/549 grams

MSR’s stoves are stalwarts on the expedition scene. When our pump plunger snapped after being disgorged by the horse, we found that the plunger from our backup stove (a MSR Dragonfly) was able to serve as a stand-in.

8. Mobile power

PowerTraveller PowerGorilla

£160/700 grams

The PowerGorilla was critical for charging a range of netbooks, camera batteries and GPS devices. It is compatible with a huge variety of devices and holds a generous 21,000mAh charge

9. Solar charger

PowerTraveller SolarGorilla

£145/700 grams

Designed as a charging solution for the PowerGorilla in the absence of mains power, the SolarGorilla also outputs a 5V DC current for USB-chargeable devices. We found that the panel worked best when left stationary in direct sunlight. As you might imagine, its performance dipped somewhat after being thrown off a horse at 45 km/h.

10. Pocket tool

Leatherman Wave

£110/249 grams

Leatherman’s most popular model can be found on many expedition kit lists. The Wave’s wire cutters were particularly useful when it came to helping five horses cross a series of redundant fences – a relic from the golden age of Patagonian sheep ranches – that still divide up the plains.

This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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