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Patagonia: 40 years after Bruce Chatwin

Her eyes widen when I mention his name. “He’s a terrible man. A freeloader. Quite offensive. I tried to read it once — and it made me so mad I had to put it away.” I’m sitting with Natalie Goodall, a US biologist who studied at Kent State, before moving to Estancia Harberton in the ’60s.

Patagonia: 40 years after Bruce Chatwin
Estancia Harberton, Patagonia. Image: Laura Holt

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Estancia Harberton was the first settlement on the Argentinian side of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in 1886 and the farm has been home to the Bridges family for five generations since.

The man in question is Bruce Chatwin. Forty years ago, the then Sunday Times journalist made off with $3,500 in expenses — provided by the newspaper for research on the Guggenheim family in New York — deciding instead to pursue a story further south. Notifying the editor of his intentions, he arrived in the remote, southernmost swathe of South America in December, to begin a four-month journey that would result in his famous book.

The engaging, episodic account is, as Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare notes, controversial — especially in Patagonia. Many of the people who provided Chatwin with accommodation during his South American odyssey were dismayed to later read his partly fictionalised narrative — feeling their hospitality had been taken advantage of. It’s something Chatwin himself tacitly acknowledged, when, ahead of In Patagonia’s publication in the US he tried to avoid it being promoted as a travel book, knowing that it was far more nuanced than a straight-down-the-line, non-fiction travel book.

Four of the 93 chapters are dedicated to Chatwin’s time at Estancia Harberton. He writes that in the early ’70s, when there was no road to the farm, he made the 35-mile journey by foot, along the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Today, even by car, it’s a long, bumpy approach. This is formidable landscape, where big black mountains bear down on you from all angles and road signs display distances in three figures.

The exterior of the farm still looks largely as Chatwin described: ‘corrugated iron, painted white, with green windows and a soft red roof’. Outside, the ‘flowers of an English garden’ glow with the brilliance he noted, but the sheep fences have become less important now that Harberton’s primary industry is tourism

Inside the farmstead, framed artifacts and photos hint at the history hidden within. In the living room there are stone arrowheads and feather headdresses from the native Ona and Yaghan tribes that once roamed these lands. On the stairs, black-and-white photos depict Thomas Bridges, the English missionary and first owner of Harberton, trussed up in the full Victorian clobber of his home country.

Thomas was an orphan who was brought from England to the Falklands and then Patagonia in the late 19th century. He made his name by ministering to the Yahgan and created a dictionary of around 30,000 words, to help study and interpret their language. His son, Lucas Bridges, also made a significant contribution to the region, by publishing The Uttermost Part of the Earth in 1948. It detailed the early days of his family’s life at Harberton and their relationship with the Yaghan and the Ona tribes.

With such prodigious history, it’s easy to see why the Bridges and Natalie Goodall — who married Tommy Goodall, the great-grandson of Thomas – might feel irked by the oversimplification of their lives.

However, walking around the farm’s on-site museum at the end of my visit – filled with the bones of whales, dolphins and porpoises that Natalie and Tommy salvaged from the beaches of Tierra del Fuego over the years to use for research — it strikes me that perhaps Chatwin and the Bridges are not so dissimilar.

After all, it was the English journalist’s search for remnants of ‘a strange animal in a remote land’ — the mylodon, a prehistoric, giant sloth-like creature that lived 10,000 years ago — that originally sparked his fascination with Patagonia. A fascination that, were Chatwin alive today, they both might share.