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Crossing the Paith
Crossing the Paith (West to East) – Days 1 and 2
After lunch on our first day, we leave Esquel, heading northwards on Argentina’s infamous Route 40, the road which follows the border between Argentina and Chile for more than 5,000 kilometres. After 60 kilometres or so, we say goodbye to asphalt and start to climb over the first set of mountains which block our way to the River Chubut, the lifeline of the Welsh. For the first time, we will see what “The Paith” is like – windswept land with no trees stretching almost infinitely to the North, East and South.
We will experience the spooky “Magic Mountain”, where our 4x4 tumbles backwards up a steep hill and follow the long road to the village of Gualjaina, where native peoples have lived since well before the Welsh arrived. We settle into our comfortable hotel in the middle of nowhere, with a well-stocked library, an even better stocked bar, a gym and a heated swimming pool! It even has its own vineyard, planted in 2017 as part of the wine route of Chubut. Once it gets dark, we walk into town, where we will be met by an old friend of Jeremys who has driven out from Esquel to open a typical Argentina Gaucho restaurant for us and cook us a wonderful meal. His visitors book has more comments in Welsh than just about all the other languages therein put together! After dinner, we move a little way out of town and lie down on the soft ground next to the dusty road. After a few minutes of getting used to the lack of any light pollution, and no passing traffic, we can open our eyes to the wonder of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere – the Milky Way gleaming like a bejewelled cape.
The next morning, an early start to our longest day. Except for the last 50 kilometres, we spend all day off road, following the river Chubut away from the Andes. From Gualjaina to Los Altares, our next stop, it is only 200 miles, but the 200 miles are of canyons, volcanoes, petrified forests and wild animals. Officially, our trip today will be in the desert. But this is not a desert like the Sahara or the Gobi. It is only called a desert because it conforms to the definition of having less than 200 mm of rainfall per annum. Before the Andes started to form, this region was home to what are today classified as mega volcanoes. One in particular, some 30 kilometres in diameter, exploded with such force (around 30 million years ago) that it left behind a scene of utter devastation. Subsequently, the region suffered from another dramatic upheaval with the uplifting of the Andes mountain range and the development of even more volcanoes. The result today, with all the energy from the volcanoes expended, is an area that is a cross between Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and the moon. It looks as it has looked for eons - tortured lava flows, petrified forests, deep canyons and virtually uninhabited. Except by Patagonian species which have adapted to make this fearsome place their home: among them, the giant Magellanic Horned Owl, the peregrine falcon, the puma and, rarest of all, the chinchillon, better known as the Patagonian Killer Bunny. Today, we will explore this area, inch our way into its canyons, picnic by its rivers, admire ancient Indian art, explore secluded caves and search for the petrified remains of ancient forests. And, if we are very lucky, we may glimpse the chinchillon. We know where it lives!
En route, we pass through the tiny village of Cerro Condor, where some local children will show us some dinosaur skeletons and give us a tour of the village school. We will picnic at a suitable spot en route. Once we reach the asphalt, we follow the River Chubut for a further 50 kilometres through dramatic countryside until we reach Los Altares (Yr Allorau), where we spend the night in a comfortable hotel in the middle of nowhere! In the evening, a memorable meal in the village, the only place to eat for 200 kilometres in any direction!
Crossing the Paith (West to East) – Day 3
Today we complete our journey across the Paith and will follow the Chubut River for only 100 kilometres. On the way through the desert to the next town, Las Plumas (Dôl y Plu, in Welsh), we will stop at many of the places where the Welsh pioneers stopped during the migrations in the late 19th century. Much of the route shadows the track used by the settlers when undertaking the arduous 600 km (400 mile) crossing of the desert. Their wagon trains had to deal with flood, famine and marauding Indians and one had to be made of the sternest stuff to survive the perilous crossing. At one point on the journey, near a location now known as Rocky Trip, the terrain forced the settlers to leave the relative safety of the banks of the river and climb on to a plateau before they were able to rejoin the river some kilometres later. The only place of descent was so steep that they had to hitch horses and oxen to the backs of the wagons to prevent gravity from propelling them and their belongings into the rocky canyons below.
Standing on the plateau today, the view is exactly as it had been for the settlers more than a hundred years ago. Images of scattered remnants of bottles, wagon wheels, cheap tin trays and a lonely cross marking a long-forgotten grave summon up those basic emotions which all the Welsh possess, as well as a deep admiration for the way these brave people overcame such hardship. Those hardy souls would definitely appreciate a minute’s silence or a quiet rendering of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in their honour. If we have time, we can trek a short distance and see some impressive petroglyphs – rock carvings of all shapes and designs made eons ago which baffle the anthropologists.
Climbing up to the desert from Dôl y Plu, we turn off for Dyffryn y Merthyron (sometimes called Dyffryn William or Kilkein), the remote site where three Welsh gold prospectors were murdered by Indians of Cacique Foyel's tribe in 1884, the first time that there had been any incidents between the Welsh and the indigenous people of the region, the Tehuelches. We see the site of the famous jump of John Daniel Evans’ horse, Malacara, and hear the detail of the flight of these young and frightened Welsh boys all the way from Gualjaina to this lonely place where they met their grisly fate.
Seventy kilometres nearer the coast, we turn off the main road again to see the Ameghino dam, an enormous undertaking completed in 1963 which finally put paid to the River Chubut’s regular habit of flooding Y Wladfa and destroying crops, schools, chapels and personal property and papers. Then, another 50 kilometres of featureless desert until we finally reach Y Wladfa, where we leave the main road and follow the fields to Tir Halen, from where we pass the next 30 kilometres to Dolavon and on to Gaiman marvelling at the irrigation system installed by the first settlers and still in use today.