My Life Story (Ch 6)


My next adventure (1901-1902) was out in the west instead of the east. For many years, two Republics of South America had been quarrelling over the boundary between them. These two countries were Argentine and Chile. Between them is the gigantic system of mountain ranges known as the Andes. Now the Andes, geographically, are almost as important as the Himalayas. Some of the peaks are very high, and the enormous mass of the mountains is most impressive. But the Andes vary a good deal in confirmation and climate. There are ranges covered with snow and streaked with mighty glaciers throughout them, but in the south, where they stand between Argentine and Chile, they become much more broken up than they are in the north.

In the north there is one solid divide, or mountain backbone, from which big rivers drain’ away to the east in Argentina and to the west in Chile. In the south, in Patagonia that is to say, they’ become so much more broken that some of the big rivers of Chile running westwards to the Pacific, do not rise in the mountains at all, but start from big lakes on the Argentina side of them, and break right through the main ranges from east to west, cutting out deep gorges and channels for themselves.

Now, when the clever political chiefs of the two countries met to decide where the boundary was to run, they knew nothing about geography, and they had not examined the country, so they decided that the boundary should pass along the main range of the Andes which divided the rivers of the Argentine from those of Chile — just as it did in the north.

Of course there was no such range, for the biggest rivers ran right across the mountain system; and thus the quarrel began. One side (Chile) claimed the heads and sources of all Chilean rivers, and the other claimed the divide of the main range, wherever it was. The quarrel was fierce and bitter. Both sides spent millions over armies and ships, and each was dead certain that it was the most powerful. But a sudden and unexpected wave of good sense was wafted over the two Governments, when they decided to refer the matter for arbitration to England.

Queen Victoria was reigning then, so she appointed a tribunal of three officers to settle it. I was one of that tribunal, and I was the only one who was expert in geography. Sir John Ardagh, R.E., was another; he was an exceedingly clever man, and so tactful that he managed to keep both sides quite for the time. Lord MacNaghten, who was boss of the tribunal, was a dear old lawyer, but he knew nothing whatsoever of political geography, and slept peacefully through all our meetings.

Finally I had to go out to South America and settle it. Luckily two or three officers of the Indian Survey happened to be in England on leave at the time, so I made up a really good Survey Commission, undertaking all the political business myself. Of course I found both the Argentine and Chilean Governments most polite, most anxious to please us in every way, and I could have got anything I chose to ask for. At the same time, each side was dead determined that its view was the right one, and hinted pretty directly that I should never be able to settle anything that could be acceptable to both. In short, they were spoiling for a fight.

As there was some 1000 miles of rough unexplored mountain country in the middle of which I had to find the position of that boundary, and only a few months to find it in, it was quite clear that I must be quick about it before any actual blow was struck. Well to cut it short, we did find it. I had one or two ships of the Argentine navy for moving down the Atlantic coast, and two or three Chilean ships (splendidly manned and equipped and all ready for the fight) for the Pacific. I got the Commission party rapidly into action, and spread out all along the line with a staff of Argentine and Chilean engineers as guides and assistants. We worked with very little camp equipment, but we had excellent mules and horses and travelled through the Argentine pampas (the great plain country east of the Andes) and the Chilean forests as quickly as we could, and long before any definite military action could take place we were well into the Andes making our maps. No naval action could very well disturb us, for I had some of the best cruisers under my orders.

I found the engineers, who were bad surveyors but good fellows on the whole (the only row I had was with a German), quite ready to go for each other and start fighting on their own account, but after they had been obliged to meet each other daily at camp dinner when I was President, they very soon dropped their swagger and came to be very good friends. Of course they were really all foreigners — French, Belgians, German, Welsh, etc. (I can’t remember a Spaniard among them). But fiercely patriotic and loyal to the country they had adopted. I took good care that they never had time to quarrel. And there was always plenty of champagne. We might be without tents in the snow or without any more food than we could find in the jungle, or in the squatter’s shanties, but we always had champagne. That is the South American way of doing things! One ingenious Frenchman could make a very good imitation of champagne out of a small berry called Kalifat.

It was really a most delightful time, although the way was often exceedingly rough, and so was the weather. Harold was with me, and he did a great deal towards keeping the miscellaneous party happy and united. He only came to grief once, when he was pitched over his horse’s head and damaged his knee.

There were the huge snow-bound cliffs and ridges of the big central ranges, and below them were the broken spurs and foothills covered with forests of the Patagonian beech. This tree takes on most brilliant colours in the autumn (which in Patagonia is English springtime) and there were masses of mountain sides blazing in scarlet and purple, softened by the blue haze of distance and often enclosing the most lovely lakes — more lovely even than the Swiss and Italian lakes, on account of the snow-capped volcanic peaks and the brilliant colours of the surrounding hills, which were reflected in the still waters.

The flat plains on the east of the Andes (Argentine Patagonia) were what they called Pampas, mostly gravel with bush and grass growing freely in clumps all over it, and making it exceedingly difficult to ride through. This is the sort of country that teems with splendid grass “ranches”, or big grazing farms, when cattle are brought into it.

The cattle not only stamp it down and consolidate it into uniform grass fields, but they get rid of the tuku-tuku, which is a creature about the size of a very large rat (smaller than a rabbit) without a tail, which burrows freely into the pampas, often making an underground system of galleries extending over acres of country. On the surface there is nothing to be seen but flat green grass, and you would think a spread of this tuku-tuku ground would give a splendid opportunity for a free gallop; but the result would be disaster! The surface gives way at ‘once, and in you plunge up to your ears, and have to be hauled or dug out.

The same sort of treachery prevails in the bottoms of the rivers, which are mostly shallow enough to ford if you could be sure of a sound bottom. In fact they are as dangerous as quicksands. The way of getting about the pampas is peculiar. Of course everyone rides, and a small mob of free unridden horses is driven in front, with the baggage mules. The mules also include half their number unloaded and they all follow a leader (generally a pony) with a bell round its neck. Nothing will stop a mule from following. Like the hill ponies in Kashmir, if the leader plunges into a hole or into deep water, they all follow suit instead of taking warning.

The men of the party who round up the mules and horses (and who often have to ride far and fast to collect them each morning) are called gauchos in the Argentine and arrieros in Chile. They are practically half-castes bred by centuries of intermixture between Indians and Spaniards. The pure Indian is a very fine human specimen generally — tall, athletic, a splendid horseman and hunter, and inured to great hardships. He (like the gaucho) can live on next to nothing at all, and, as a rule, never gets anything but meat to eat. The meat is what he gets either by hunting or killing off the extra horses when quite young

Horses run wild in Patagonia, and it is a fine sight to see them range up like cavalry, snorting at the intruder, there really is not much sport to talk about. Often as one. rides along, an ostrich (i.e. the Rhea) starts up in front, and splatters away with its long legs in front at a better pace than most horses can follow. The natives get them by running them down with dogs or by using a curious weapon called the boleador, which is nothing but two or three smooth stones at the end of a string. If this is thrown properly, the strings wind themselves round the legs of the ostrich and bring it down. The same thing is used to catch horses sometimes, and Indians use it to strangle their enemies. The best weapon is the lasso. What can be done with a lasso must be seen to be believed. I have seen the hind legs of a kicking mule lassoed!

The quanaco (or huanaco) is common all over Patagonia, but he is not a sporting animal. Almost as tame as a sheep (quite as tame in Chile, where the sheep run wild), he isn’t worth shooting except for food. The huanaco is a long legged, long necked beast like the llama of Peru or the camel of anywhere else. The Vicuna is a small species of huanaco. There are certain small creatures to be found, like the skunk for instance. He is very pretty to look at, and the way he will sit up and beg for his life when he can’t get away is quite pathetic- but the smell of him! There is no living animal that stinks like the skunk! It is his defensive weapon. There is a small armadillo also, which is good to eat, and there are a few deer and wild cattle in the hill forests, and there is, of course, the puma, a big species of dun-coloured leopard, most destructive to sheep, but nothing like as dangerous or as fierce as the Indian leopards. On the whole Argentine sport is poor, except for the wild fowl, snipe and partridges, amongst which I had some very good shooting.

On the other side of the Andes, in Chile (which is only a strip of country between the mountains and the Pacific), it was easier to get at the big rivers by exploring them from their mouths in boats, than to push through the thick bamboo jungle to them from the hills. To do this, we had first of all to voyage in the Chilean cruisers from Valparaiso down the coast southwards and then push in with small boats where the rivers met the sea. This was a most delightful method of exploration.

I shall never forget my start from Valparaiso for the south. I had interviewed the President (Sr. Riesco) and most of the Ministers of State. One of the latter (the Secretary of State for War) frankly informed me that I should never effect an agreement. Chile wanted to fight, and was quite confident that its navy was the best in the world for its size. Perhaps it was, but a boundary in the Andes could hardly be settled by the fleet.

They gave a ball in my honour at Valparaiso, after a very extensive banquet. I was pretty well tired out before I got to the ball, but when there, I was quietly informed by an Englishman present who was in the confidence of the President, that I was on no account to leave until he had given me a note from ‘him. I stayed’ on until I was utterly bored and stupid with tiredness. Perhaps President Riesco thought I was enjoying myself so much that it would be a pity to let me start too soon! Anyhow, at long last that note was secretly conveyed to my pocket by this English agent, and I gave the signal to move.

It was an enchanting night. The sea was as flat as a millpond and the bright moon made a golden way across it. The lights of the many ships about flashed and broke on the water as we were rapidly conveyed to the cruiser that was to be our home for a month or two. I turned into my bunk without even reading the President’s note, and when I woke up we were well out on the Pacific, where we had many a rough and tumble day’s voyaging. I soon learnt how very unpacific the Pacific can be. I still have that historic note of President Riesco’s. It was confidential, of course, but I knew when I read it that in the end our work would pan out all right.

The coast of Southern Chile (Chilean Patagonia) is broken up into an archipelago of islands as far south as the Straits of Magellan, and the voyaging in and out amongst these beautiful islets was very lovely. The seaway between them was often exceedingly narrow and dangerous, whilst the forest-covered islands on either side of the narrow straits sloped so steeply into deep water that it was possible to push the ship’s bows right up to the overhanging trees. In the extreme South, beyond the Magellan Straits, South America is full of narrow passages and sea waterways. We went through many of them, and made acquaintances with the Indian tribes of Tierra del Fuego. These people live in their canoes and oil their skins instead of wearing clothes. It is bitterly cold down there, but the sleet and snow that is continually falling just melts off their backs and they don’t feel it. But as soon and as often as they are able to get clothes, they wear them fast enough, and as they seldom take them off and never dry them, they get diseases of the lungs which carry them off in hundreds. It is clothes rather than bad whiskey that is killing them. Some of the smaller tribes have died out and disappeared since I met them.

The narrow seas intersecting the island of Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire, so called by the Spanish explorers because the Indians light fires in their boats and keep them always blazing) are so narrow — some of them — that the gunboat I was in was hardly as far from shore as one could throw a stone.

Beautiful cascades of ice-cold water sprouted from the cliffs on either side, and every now and then a huge glacier thrust out an icy nose into the sea. It was summer time (January) and the flowers were lovely. I went round Cape Horn (the extreme southern point of South America) in a gunboat, bit this is very seldom done, as the sea is always rough. The huge rollers sent the gunboat swinging from side to side most unpleasantly.

We had an excursion in an Argentine cruiser to Christmas Island, off the southern coast of South America. It was where the Argentine Government had set up an observatory; it might have been the island home of all the walruses and seals in these Southern seas. There were thousands of them, and when we landed in a small boat from the ship, their great round heads and goggle eyes bobbing up from the sea in such countless numbers suggested that they would certainly upset the boat. After visiting the Observatory, we returned to the shore, where these great slimy creatures, with their gleaming white tusks, were lying sprawling about. Harold thought it would be useful to take a photograph of the biggest of them. he approached cautiously and levelled his Kodak. But the great animal did not care about being photographed, or having his picture in the Daily Mail, so he just gave a snort or two and made for Harold at a most surprising pace. There was nothing for it but to belt up the cliff side, which Harold did with great rapidity. It was not the only time that his Kodak took him into danger. He got too near a bull on de Hoz’s farm when we were back in the Buenos Aires district, and was promptly seized and carried out of danger by some of the gauchos. That bull had killed the last man who went to look at him.

That trip to the extreme South of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego was most interesting. We visited the Mission Stations and the sheep farms and rode out to the enchanted cave, where the skin and bones of extinct animals were dug out. So fresh was the skin of a mylodon (a gigantic sloth) that professors in England insisted that there must still be creatures like that living in the forests of South America. I was quite sure there were none of them, or we should have seen their tracks in the forests near the great lakes. But these professors were equally sure that there must be so they fitted out a hunting expedition, which was led by Hesketh Prichard (who was a well-known cricketer in Hampshire and a very well-known writer of thrilling stories), but he found no sign of them and a lot of money was spent for nothing. It was difficult to account for the way in which skins etc. were preserved, in this case for centuries.

It isn’t as if the climate were dry like Egypt. It is a very wild and wet climate, like the extreme north of Scotland, and the terrific winds, which blew across from the Pacific, were our chief trouble in making the maps. The force of these winds was such that I have seen water blown solid from the surface of the lakes. It was impossible to face that wind. At last, however, we got all the maps made out and settled where that boundary was to run. Some of my party were nearly drowned in embarking from the coast, but beyond that, nothing happened to prevent a successful return to Buenos Aires and then to England.

They made a lot of fuss over us in Buenos Aires. The picture papers were full of us, and we were feted and treated like princes. Such was the end of the first year’s work. The boundary was accepted by King Edward as the final award, and thus two countries, Argentina and Chile, had no longer anything to fight about. But they represented that, as I alone knew exactly where that boundary was to run, I must go out again and set up the markstones and pillars. So I had another six months of it, during which time I saw a good deal more of the Southern Andes. I stayed with farmers and squatters and had a lively experience.

The chief trouble was leaving the Andes late in the season. In May, which is the worst winter month in South America, I had to cross the continent from the Andes to the Atlantic. The snow was deep, and it was often bitterly cold, but though we lost things in the snow, and sometimes lost our way in the blinding snowstorms, no one came to grief and the boundary was satisfactorily marked out from end to end.

Since then the two Governments have set up a gigantic figure of Christ blessing both countries from the top of the chief path across the Andes, between Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and Santiago, the capital of Chile.

If you ever go to those very remote regions, you may also find a flourishing town in the Argentine Patagonia called Holdich, and you may also see in one sweet and extensive Argentine valley (the 16th October Valley) a huge boulder (relic of some, prehistoric glacier) standing alone in the midst of fields of cultivation and the scattered villages of the Welsh colony, and on this boulder is inscribed in big letters just the one word Holdich. I am very proud of that monument.

The town is not far from Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast, and is on the exact site where we first met the field telegraph and sat down in the snow to telegraph home that the work was done. We were so cut off from civilization, while working in the Andes that the Argentine Government thought it wise to run out a telegraph line as quickly as possible right across the Pampas to the mountainous region in Patagonia. But they chose the wrong time. Heavy snow was encountered directly the engineers left the coast, and the line had not really been pushed out further than a day’s march from the Atlantic when we came suddenly upon it. Naturally the Engineers were intensely surprised ‘to see us, and we had a warm welcome in their camp. A great deal of champagne was drunk when the news of our safe arrival reached the Government at Buenos Aires. It meant peace between the two great Republics of Argentina and Chile, and this peace has been a lasting one. It lasts still. For this I was made a Knight Commander of the order of Saint Michael and Saint George.

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