An Englishman in Patagonia

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PATAGONIA, at the southernmost tip of South America, is one of the remotest parts of the inhabited world. It was named in 1520 when Magellan, taking shelter in a bay, saw a gigantic native on the shore. Noticing the man’s prodigious feet, he cried “Ha, Patagón!”, which may roughly be translated as “Wow, Bigfeet!” Such was Patagonia’s evil reputation that it provided the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. “Patagonia?” screamed Lady Florence Dixie’s friends when she announced her expedition with Lord Queensberry in 1879. “Who would ever think of going to such a place? Why, you will be eaten up by cannibals!”

Today Patagonia is divided between Chile and Argentina, but it’s still a land of lonely plains, craggy peaks and wild weather. Someone once said that Patagonia without wind would be like Hell without the Devil.

When John Pilkington, one of Britain’s greatest tellers of travellers’ tales, spent eight months journeying through this extraordinary region, he found that being a Patagonian is more a matter of how you feel than where you live. Patagonians are resolute dreamers – immigrants who’ve thrown their fate to the wind. They hate towns with their petty jealousies and rivalries. Given an opportunity, they will always go for the unknown.

Picking his way through Patagonia’s half a million square miles, John unearthed stories of explorers and pioneers, of rustlers and outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and of earlier travellers such as Charles Darwin and Bruce Chatwin. Still more revealing are his own encounters: for instance with Welsh villagers singing hymns round the harmonium; refugees from Nazi Germany; Scottish evangelists awaiting Armageddon; hippie exiles; prosperous young supporters of Chilean ex-president Pinochet; and an Argentine lynch-mob who have him in mind as their victim! He examines what it is that attracts people to such a desolate land – both as settlers and as travellers – and reflects, too, on the ethics of travel writing.

Part of the proceeds from this book go to the charity Practical Action, which helps people in the developing world to work themselves out of poverty and so become less dependent on others.

An Englishman in Patagonia by John Pilkington: 223pp + 8pp colour plates; first published 1991 by Century; reprinted 1999 and 2004; reprinted with revisions 2008; price £16.95 plus postage.

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