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 mans prodigious
feet, he cried Ha, Patagón!, which
may roughly be translated as Wow, Bigfeet! Such was
Patagonias evil reputation that it provided the inspiration
for Conan Doyles The Lost World. Patagonia?
screamed Lady Florence Dixies 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
Today Patagonia is divided between Chile and Argentina, but its
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 Britains 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 whove thrown their
fate to the wind. They hate towns with their petty jealousies
and rivalries. Given an opportunity, they will always go for
Picking his way through Patagonias 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