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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.