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The Road of the Rifleros and Condor Safari

On  October  14,  1885,  Governor  Fontana and  28  mounted  riflemen  ("The  Rifleros"),  the  majority  of  whom  were  Welsh,  left Rawson  on  the  Atlantic  coast  to  start  their  epic  journey.  They  were  supported  by over  250  horses  and  20  wagons.  Each  man  was  armed  with  a  Remington rifle  and 100  rounds  of  ammunition.  By  the  time  they  returned  in  February  of  the  following year,  they  had  covered  more  than  5,000  kilometres.  Today,  we  will  follow  the  last few  days  of  their  journey,  from  Nant  y  Pysgod  to  Cwm  Hyfryd.  We  travel  through sheep farms in the scratchy Andean steppe and gradually reach richer pasture. Then on  to  Estancia  Cronometro,  so  named  because  Governor  Fontana  lost  his  watch somewhere  nearby,  which  boasts  a  vast  lake,  brim  full  of  swans,  geese,  flamingos and  all  manner  of  waterfowl.  Over  the  mountain  top  and  down  towards  Estancia Esmeralda,  the  site  of  a  virtually  unknown,  and  unkempt,  Welsh  graveyard,  and  on past  the  condor  roost,  we  eventually  arrive  at  a  spot  below  Mynydd  Thomas.  This craggy  peak  was  named  after  John  Murray  Thomas,  originally  from  Pen-y-bont  ar Ogwr  and  a  passenger  on  the  Mimosa,  the  ship  carrying  the  first  Welsh  immigrants in 1865. On 24 November 1885, they camped overnight on high ground within sight of  the  Andes,  having  seen  nothing  but  scrub  desert  for  the previous  6  weeks.  It rained  overnight  and,  when  the  mists  lifted,  they  saw  a  sight  which  none  had imagined –   a   beautiful   green   valley,   surrounded   on   3   sides   by   snow-capped mountains, with rivers running in all directions and fruit wherever they looked. One of  their  number,  Richard  Jones,  said  in  astonishment  "Dyma  gwm  hyfryd!",  "What  a lovely valley", and it still enjoys this Welsh name to this day. 

Today we will follow a remote and lonely road absolutely packed with Welsh history. We pass close to the site of the murder of Llwyd ap Iwan, the son of Revd Michael D Jones,  we  will  re-enact  the  last  few  days  of  the  1885  expedition  which  discovered Cwm  Hyfryd  and  we  will  see the  site  of  the  1902  vote where  the  Welsh  community settled a border dispute with Chile. It is almost certain that we will see more condors and eagles than other cars.

It  was  in  part  due  to  the  dream  of  Michael  D  Jones,  a  preacher  from  Bala,  that  the Emigration  Society  was  formed  in  Camptonville  in  California  in  1856,  with  the objective  of  finding  a  suitable  location  for  a  permanent  Welsh settlement  outside Wales.  Although  Rev'd  Jones  did  not  accompany  the  first  settlers on  the  Mimosa  in 1865,  he  did  visit  the  colony  in  1882  and  his  two  sons,  Mihangel  and  Llwyd,  both settled  there.  Llwyd  ap  Iwan  arrived  in  Patagonia  in  1886  as  a  newly  qualified surveyor  to  work  on  the  railway  line  between  Trelew  and  Porth  Madryn.  His influence  on  the  development  of  the  Welsh  colony  was  significant,  as  an  explorer, mapmaker  and  leading  figure  in  the  commercial  activities  of  the  colony.  He  led  a number of expeditions into the unexplored hinterland of Welsh Patagonia, surveyed vast  tracts  of  land  and  produced  maps  that  are  still  admired  today  for  their  detail and accuracy.

Llwyd ap Iwan's Welsh language map of 1888 shows the route we will take  today  and  marks  an  important  location  on  same  route,  which was  used  by  the Cooperative  Society  (Cwmni  Masnachol  Camwy  in  Welsh)  as  their  main  depot  in the  region.  It  was,  and  still  is,  called  Nant  y  Pysgod.  In  1909,  two  American  bandits, William Wilson and Robert Evans, were under the impression that there was a large amount  of  money  there.  They  held  it  up  at  gunpoint  and,  in  the  kerfuffle  that followed, Llwyd ap Iwan, now the manager of the Cooperative store, was murdered.  The  reason  why  the  discovery  of  fertile  lands  in  the  Andes  region  was  so  important was that within 20 years of the arrival of the Welsh, they had run out of usable land in the narrow Lower Chubut Valley 600 kilometres to the east. In 1885, John Murray Thomas persuaded the newly appointed governor of the territory of Chubut to lead an  expedition  that  would  survey  the  territory,  look  for  new  areas  suitable  for settlement  and,  of  course,  search  for  gold. 

As  well  as  tracking  the  route  of  the  1885  explorers,  the  trail we  follow  today  also crosses  the  area  disputed  by  Chile  and  Argentina  subsequent  to  their  boundary treaty of 1881. This treaty loosely defined the border between the countries as being the Andes mountain chain but, at the time of its signing, much of the defined land on both  sides  of  the  border  was  unexplored.  As  the  territories  opened  up,  it  was  clear that  Argentina  had  settled  in  places  that,  according  to  the  Chilean  interpretation  of the  1881  treaty,  belonged  to  Chile.  The  treaty  had  been  signed  following  much bloody  conflict  between  the  two  countries  and,  anticipating  future  squabbles,  and wanting to avoid any further bloodletting, the treaty made the provision that, should the  parties  have  further  disputes,  these  would  be  referred  for  arbitration  to  the Queen of England. Tensions gradually grew to such an extent that war between the two  countries  was  looming.  Finally,  in  1901,  Britain  was  called  in  and  a  British diplomat  was  sent  down  to  settle  the  dispute.  One  of  the  areas  in  dispute  was  the Welsh  valley  where  Trevelin  now  lies. 

The  British  recommendation,  backed  by Chilean  and  Argentinean  representatives,  was  that  the  people  who  lived  in  the disputed territory should  decide under whose flag they wished to  live in the  future. Therefore,  on  30  April  1902,  a  plebiscite  was  held  in  Cwm  Hyfryd  and  the  Welsh community  settled  the  matter.  This  was  the  first  occasion  in  the  Americas  where women or indigenous people voted. On our way to the school in Cwm Hyfryd where the vote was taken, now an historical monument, we pass along the valley featured in  Marc  Evans'  film,  Patagonia. At  the  highest  point  of  our  journey  today,  we  will have the opportunity to walk for a while in this jaw-dropping scenery, enjoy a picnic and  look  for  shadows  on  the  ground  ahead  of  us –  the  best  way  of  detecting  a condor overhead.

This  is  not  just  a  journey  of  historical  discovery,  we  will  also  enjoy  real  Andean wildlife –  we  pass  a  remote  condor  cliff  roost,  we  will  see  the  giant black  chested buzzard  eagles  and  all  manner  of  other  animals  and  birds.  If we're  really  lucky,  a puma can sometimes be seen in the craggy peaks.

The Rifleros Road to Trevelin.
Gorsedd y Cwmwl, Trevelin.
A young Condor
A Patagonian bird of prey.
On the way to Trevelin on the Rifleros Road
Cwmni Marchnata Camwy employees.
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