Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. "Beagle" round the world, under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N.
CHAPTER VI. — BAHIA BLANCA TO BUENOS AYRES
BAHIA BLANCA TO BUENOS AYRES
Set out for Buenos Ayres—Rio Sauce—Sierra Ventana—Third Posta—Driving horses—Bolas—Partridges and Foxes—Features of the Country—Long—legged lover—Teru—tero—Hail—storm—Natural Enclosures in the Sierra apalguen—Flesh of Puma—Meat Diet—Guardia del Monte—Effects of Cattle on the Vegetation—Cardoon—Buenos Ayres—Corral where Cattle are slaughtered.
September 8.— I hired a Gaucho to accompany me on my ride to Buenos Ayres, though with some difficulty, as the father of one man was afraid to let him go, and another who seemed willing, was described to me as so fearful that I was afraid to take him, for I was told that even if he saw an ostrich at a distance, he would mistake it for an Indian, and would fly like the wind away. The distance to Buenos Ayres is about four hundred miles, and nearly the whole way through an uninhabited country. We started early in the morning; ascending a few page 77 hundred feet from the basin of green turf on which Bahia Blanca stands, we entered on a wide desolate plain. It consists of a crumbling argillaceo—calcareous rock, which, from the dry nature of the climate, supports only scattered tufts of withered grass, without a single bush or tree to break the monotonous uniformity. The weather was fine, but the atmosphere remarkably hazy; I thought the appearance foreboded a gale, but the Gauchos said it was owing to the plain, at some great distance in the interior, being on fire. After a long gallop, having changed horses twice, we reached the Rio Sauce: it is a deep, rapid, little stream, not above twenty—five feet wide. The second posta on the road to Buenos Ayres stands on its banks, a little above there is a ford for horses, where the water does not reach to the horses' belly; but from that point, in its course to the sea, it is quite impassable, and hence makes a most useful barrier against the Indians.
Insignificant as this stream is, the Jesuit Falconer, whose information is generally so very correct, figures it as a considerable river, rising at the foot of the Cordillera. With respect to its source, I do not doubt that this is the case; for the Gauchos assured me, that in the middle of the dry summer this stream, at the same time with the Colorado, has periodical floods, which can only originate in the snow melting on the Andes. It is extremely improbable that a stream so small as the Sauce then was should traverse the entire width of the continent; and indeed, if it were the residue of a large river, its waters, as in other ascertained cases, would be saline. During the winter we must look to the springs round the Sierra Ventana as the source of its pure and limpid stream. I suspect the plains of Patagonia, like those of Australia, are traversed by many watercourses, which only perform their proper parts at certain periods. Probably this is the case with the water which flows into the head of Port Desire, and likewise with the Rio Chupat, on the banks of which masses of highly cellular scoriae were found by the officers employed in the survey.
The dew, which in the early part of the night wetted the saddle—cloths under which we slept, was in the morning frozen. The plain, though appearing horizontal, had insensibly sloped up to a height of between 800 and 900 feet above the sea. In the morning (9th of September) the guide told me to ascend the nearest ridge, which he thought would lead me to the four peaks that crown the summit. The climbing up such rough rocks was very fatiguing; the sides were so indented, that what was gained in one five minutes was often lost in the next. At last, when I reached the ridge, my disappointment was extreme in finding a precipitous valley as deep as the plain, which cut the chain traversely in two, and separated me from the four points. This valley is very narrow, but flat—bottomed, and it forms a fine horse—pass for the Indians, as it connects the plains on the northern and southern sides of the range. Having descended, and while crossing it, I saw two horses grazing: I immediately hid myself in the long grass, and began to reconnoitre; but as I could see no signs of Indians I proceeded cautiously on my second ascent. It was late in the day, and this part of the mountain, like the other, was steep and rugged. I was on the top of the second peak by two o'clock, but got there with extreme difficulty; every twenty yards I had the cramp in the upper part of both thighs, so that I was afraid I should not have been able to have got down again. It was also necessary to return by another road, as it was out of the question to pass over the saddle—back. I was therefore obliged to give up the two higher peaks. Their altitude was but little greater, and every purpose of geology had been answered; so that the attempt was not worth the hazard of any further exertion. I presume the cause of the cramp was the great change in the kind of muscular action, from that of hard riding to that of still harder climbing. It is a lesson worth remembering, as in some cases it might cause much difficulty. page 79
I have already said the mountain is composed of white quartz rock, and with it a little glossy clay—slate is associated. At the height of a few hundred feet above the plain, patches of conglomerate adhered in several places to the solid rock. They resembled in hardness, and in the nature of the cement, the masses which may be seen daily forming on some coasts. I do not doubt these pebbles were in a similar manner aggregated, at a period when the great calcareous formation was depositing beneath the surrounding sea. We may believe that the jagged and battered forms of the hard quartz yet show the effects of the waves of an open ocean.
I was, on the whole, disappointed with this ascent. Even the view was insignificant;—a plain like the sea, but without its beautiful colour and defined outline. The scene, however, was novel, and a little danger, like salt to meat, gave it a relish. That the danger was very little was certain, for my two companions made a good fire—a thing which is never done when it is suspected that Indians are near. I reached the place of our bivouac by sunset, and drinking much maté, and smoking several cigaritos, soon made up my bed for the night. The wind was very strong and cold, but I never slept more comfortably.
September 10th.— In the morning, having fairly scudded before the gale, we arrived by the middle of the day at the Sauce posta. On the road we saw great numbers of deer, and near the mountain a guanaco. The plain, which abuts against the Sierra, is traversed by some curious gulleys, of which one was about twenty feet wide, and at least thirty deep; we were obliged in consequence to make a considerable circuit before we could find a pass. We stayed the night at the posta, the conversation, as was generally the case, being about the Indians. The Sierra Ventana was formerly a great place of resort; and three or four years ago there was much fighting there. My guide had been present when many Indians were killed: the women escaped to the top of the ridge, and fought most desperately with great stones; many thus saving themselves.
September 11th.—Proceeded to the third posta in company with the lieutenant who commanded it. The distance is called fifteen leagues; but it is only guess—work, and is generally overstated. The road was uninteresting, over a dry grassy plain; and on our left hand at a greater or less distance there were some low hills; a continuation of which we crossed close to the posta. Before our arrival we met a large herd of cattle and horses, guarded by fifteen soldiers; but we were told many had been lost. It is very difficult to drive animals across the plains; for if in the night a puma, or even a fox, approaches, nothing can prevent the horses dispersing in every direction; and a storm will have the same effect. A short time since, an officer left Buenos Ayres with five hundred horses, and when he arrived at the army he had under twenty.
September 12 and 13rd.—I stayed at this posta two days, waiting for a troop of soldiers, which General Rosas had the kindness to send to inform me would shortly travel to Buenos Ayres; and he advised me to take the opportunity of the escort. In the morning we rode to some neighbouring hills to view the country, and to examine the geology. After dinner the soldiers divided themselves into two parties for a trial of skill with the bolas. Two spears were stuck in the ground twenty—five yards apart, but they were struck and entangled only once in four or five times. The balls can be thrown fifty or sixty yards, but with little certainty. This, however, does not apply to a man on horseback; for when the speed of the horse is added to the force of the arm, it is said that they can be whirled with effect to the distance of eighty yards. As a proof of their force, I may mention, that at the Falkland Islands, when the Spaniards murdered some of their own countrymen and all the Englishmen, a young friendly Spaniard was running away, when a great tall man, by name Luciano, came at full gallop after him, shouting to him to stop, and saying that he only wanted to speak to him. Just as the Spaniard was on the point of reaching the boat, Luciano threw the balls: they struck him on the legs with such a jerk, as to throw him down and to render him for some time insensible. The man, after Luciano had had his talk, was allowed to escape. He told us that his legs were marked by great weals, where the thong had wound round, as if he had been flogged with a whip. In the middle of the day two men arrived, who brought a parcel from the next posta to be forwarded to the general: so that besides these two, our party consisted this evening of my guide and self, the lieutenant, and his four soldiers. The latter were strange beings; the first a fine young negro; the second half Indian and negro; and the two others nondescripts; namely, an old Chilian miner, the colour of mahogany, and another partly a mulatto; but two such mongrels, with such detestable expressions, I never saw before. At night, when they were sitting round the fire, and playing at cards, I retired to view such a Salvator Rosa scene. They were seated under a low cliff, so that I could look down upon them; around the party were lying dogs, arms, remnants of deer and ostriches; and their long spears were stuck in the turf. Farther in the dark background their horses were tied up, ready for any sudden danger. If the stillness of the desolate plain was broken by one of the dogs barking, a soldier, leaving the fire, would place his head close to the ground, and thus page 81 slowly scan the horizon. Even if the noisy teru—tero uttered its scream, there would be a pause in the conversation, and every head, for a moment, a little inclined.
What a life of misery these men appear to us to lead! They were at least ten leagues from the Sauce posta, and since the murder committed by the Indians, twenty from another. The Indians are supposed to have made their attack in the middle of the night; for very early in the morning after the murder, they were luckily seen approaching this posta. The whole party here, however, escaped, together with the troop of horses; each one taking a line for himself, and driving with him as many animals as he was able to manage.
The little hovel, built of thistle—stalks, in which they slept, neither kept out the wind nor rain; indeed in the latter case the only effect the roof had, was to condense it into larger drops. They had nothing to eat excepting what they could catch, such as ostriches, deer, armadilloes, etc., and their only fuel was the dry stalks of a small plant, somewhat resembling an aloe. The sole luxury which these men enjoyed was smoking the little paper cigars, and sucking maté. I used to think that the carrion vultures, man's constant attendants on these dreary plains, while seated on the little neighbouring cliffs, seemed by their very patience to say, "Ah! when the Indians come we shall have a feast."
In the morning we all sallied forth to hunt, and although we had not much success, there were some animated chases. Soon after starting the party separated, and so arranged their plans, that at a certain time of the day (in guessing which they show much skill) they should all meet from different points of the compass on a plain piece of ground, and thus drive together the wild animals. One day I went out hunting at Bahia Blanca, but the men there merely rode in a crescent, each being about a quarter of a mile apart from the other. A fine male ostrich being turned by the headmost riders, tried to escape on one side. The Gauchos pursued at a reckless pace, twisting their horses about with the most admirable command, and each man whirling the balls round his head. At length the foremost threw them, revolving through the air: in an instant the ostrich rolled over and over, its legs fairly lashed together by the thong.
September 14th.—As the soldiers belonging to the next posta meant to return, and we should together make a party of five, and all armed, page 82 I determined not to wait for the expected troops. My host, the lieutenant, pressed me much to stop. As he had been very obliging—not only providing me with food, but lending me his private horses—I wanted to make him some remuneration. I asked my guide whether I might do so, but he told me certainly not; that the only answer I should receive probably would be, "We have meat for the dogs in our country, and therefore do not grudge it to a Christian." It must not be supposed that the rank of lieutenant in such an army would at all prevent the acceptance of payment: it was only the high sense of hospitality, which every traveller is bound to acknowledge as nearly universal throughout these provinces. After galloping some leagues, we came to a low swampy country, which extends for nearly eighty miles northward, as far as the Sierra Tapalguen. In some parts there were fine damp plains, covered with grass, while others had a soft, black, and peaty soil. There were also many extensive but shallow lakes, and large beds of reeds. The country on the whole resembled the better parts of the Cambridgeshire fens. At night we had some difficulty in finding, amidst the swamps, a dry place for our bivouac.
September 15th.—Rose very early in the morning, and shortly after passed the posta where the Indians had murdered the five soldiers. The officer had eighteen chuzo wounds in his body. By the middle of the day, after a hard gallop, we reached the fifth posta: on account of some difficulty in procuring horses we stayed there the night. As this point was the most exposed on the whole line, twenty—one soldiers were stationed here; at sunset they returned from hunting, bringing with them seven deer, three ostriches, and many armadilloes and partridges. When riding through the country, it is a common practice to set fire to the plain; and hence at night, as on this occasion, the horizon was illuminated in several places by brilliant conflagrations. This is done partly for the sake of puzzling any stray Indians, but chiefly for improving the pasture. In grassy plains unoccupied by the larger ruminating quadrupeds, it seems necessary to remove the superfluous vegetation by fire, so as to render the new year's growth serviceable.
The rancho at this place did not boast even of a roof, but merely consisted of a ring of thistle—stalks, to break the force of the wind. It was situated on the borders of an extensive but shallow lake, swarming with wild fowl, among which the black—necked swan was conspicuous.
The kind of plover which appears as if mounted on stilts (Himantopus nigricollis), is here common in flocks of considerable size. It has been wrongfully accused of inelegance; when wading about in shallow water, which is its favourite resort, its gait is far from awkward. These birds in a flock utter a noise, that singularly resembles the cry of a pack of small dogs in full chase: waking in the night, I have more than once been for a moment startled at the distant sound. The teru—tero (Vanellus cayanus) is another bird which often disturbs the stillness of the night. In appearance and habits it resembles in many respects our peewits; its wings, however, are armed with sharp spurs, like those on the legs of the common cock. As our peewit takes its name from the page 83 sound of its voice, so does the teru—tero. While riding over the grassy plains, one is constantly pursued by these birds, which appear to hate mankind, and I am sure deserve to be hated for their never—ceasing, unvaried, harsh screams. To the sportsman they are most annoying, by telling every other bird and animal of his approach: to the traveller in the country they may possibly, as Molina says, do good, by warning him of the midnight robber. During the breeding season, they attempt, like our peewits, by feigning to be wounded, to draw away from their nests dogs and other enemies. The eggs of this bird are esteemed a great delicacy.
We did not reach the posta on the Rio Tapalguen till after it was dark. At supper, from something which was said, I was suddenly struck with horror at thinking that I was eating one of the favourite dishes of the country, namely, a half formed calf, long before its proper time of birth. It turned out to be Puma; the meat is very white, and remarkably like veal in taste. Dr. Shaw was laughed at for stating that "the flesh of the lion is in great esteem, having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste, and flavour." Such certainly is the case with the Puma. The Gauchos differ in their opinion whether the Jaguar is good eating, but are unanimous in saying that cat is excellent.
September 17th.—We followed the course of the Rio Tapalguen, through a very fertile country, to the ninth posta. Tapalguen itself, or the town of Tapalguen, if it may be so called, consists of a perfectly level plain, studded over, as far as the eye can reach, with the toldos, or oven—shaped huts of the Indians. The families of the friendly Indians, who were fighting on the side of Rosas, resided here. We met and passed many young Indian women, riding by two or three together on the same horse: they, as well as many of the young men, were strikingly handsome,—their fine ruddy complexions being the picture of health. Besides the toldos, there were three ranchos; one inhabited by the Commandant, and the two others by Spaniards with small shops.
We saw in the shops many articles, such as horsecloths, belts, and garters, woven by the Indian women. The patterns were very pretty, and the colours brilliant; the workmanship of the garters was so good that an English merchant at Buenos Ayres maintained they must have been manufactured in England, till he found the tassels had been fastened by split sinew.
September 18th.—We had a very long ride this day. At the twelfth posta, which is seven leagues south of the Rio Salado, we came to the first estancia with cattle and white women. Afterwards we had to ride for many miles through a country flooded with water above our horses' knees. By crossing the stirrups, and riding Arab—like with our legs bent up, we contrived to keep tolerably dry. It was nearly dark when we arrived at the Salado; the stream was deep, and about forty yards wide; in summer, however, its bed becomes almost dry, and the little remaining water nearly as salt as that of the sea. We slept at one of the great estancias of General Rosas. It was fortified, and of such an extent, that arriving in the dark I thought it was a town and fortress. In the morning we saw immense herds of cattle, the general here having seventy—four square leagues of land. Formerly nearly three hundred men were employed about this estate, and they defied all the attacks of the Indians.
remarked, the increase in numbers of the carrion—vulture, since the introduction of the domestic animals, must have been infinitely great; and we have given reasons for believing that they have extended their southern range. No doubt many plants, besides the cardoon and fennel, are naturalised; thus the islands near the mouth of the Parana are thickly clothed with peach and orange trees, springing from seeds carried there by the waters of the river.
While changing horses at the Guardia several people questioned us much about the army,—I never saw anything like the enthusiasm for Rosas, and for the success of the "most just of all wars, because against barbarians." This expression, it must be confessed, is very natural, for till lately, neither man, woman, nor horse was safe from the attacks of the Indians. We had a long day's ride over the same rich green plain, abounding with various flocks, and with here and there a solitary estancia, and its one ombu tree. In the evening it rained heavily: on arriving at a post—house we were told by the owner that if we had not a regular passport we must pass on, for there were so many robbers he would trust no one. When he read, however, my passport, which began with "El Naturalista Don Carlos," his respect and civility were as unbounded as his suspicions had been before. What a naturalist might be, neither he nor his countrymen, I suspect, had any idea; but probably my title lost nothing of its value from that cause.
September 20th.—We arrived by the middle of the day at Buenos Ayres. The outskirts of the city looked quite pretty, with the agave hedges, and groves of olive, peach and willow trees, all just throwing out their fresh green leaves. I rode to the house of Mr. Lumb, an English merchant, to whose kindness and hospitality, during my stay in the country, I was greatly indebted.
The great corral, where the animals are kept for slaughter to
supply food to this beef—eating population, is one of the
spectacles best worth seeing. The strength of the horse as compared
to that of the bullock is quite astonishing: a man on horseback
having thrown his lazo round the horns of a beast, can drag it
anywhere he chooses. The animal ploughing up the ground with
outstretched legs, in vain efforts
to resist the force, generally
dashes at full speed to one side; but the horse, immediately
turning to receive the shock, stands so firmly that the bullock is
almost thrown down, and it is surprising that their necks are not
broken. The struggle is not, however, one of fair strength; the
horse's girth being matched against the bullock's extended neck. In
a similar manner a man can hold the wildest horse, if caught with
the lazo, just behind the ears. When the bullock has been dragged
to the spot where it is to be slaughtered, the matador with great
caution cuts the hamstrings. Then is given the death bellow; a
noise more expressive of fierce agony than any I know. I have often
distinguished it from a long distance, and have always known that
the struggle was then drawing to a close. The whole sight is
horrible and revolting: the ground is almost made of bones; and the
horses and riders are drenched with gore.
 I call these thistle—stalks for the want of a more correct name. I believe it is a species of Eryngium.
 "Travels in Africa" page 233.
 Two species of Tinamus and Eudromia elegans of A. d'Orbigny, which can only be called a partridge with regard to its habits.
 "History of the Abipones" volume 2 page 6.
 Falconer's "Patagonia" page 70.
 "Fauna Boreali—Americana" volume 1 page 35.
 See Mr. Atwater's "Account of the Prairies" in "Silliman's North American Journal" volume 1 page 117.
 Azara's "Voyage" volume 1 page 373.
 M. A. d'Orbigny volume 1 page 474, says that the cardoon and artichoke are both found wild. Dr. Hooker Botanical Magazine volume 40 page 2862, has described a variety of the Cynara from this part of South America under the name of inermis. He states that botanists are now generally agreed that the cardoon and the artichoke are varieties of one plant. I may add, that an intelligent farmer assured me that he had observed in a deserted garden some artichokes changing into the common cardoon. Dr. Hooker believes that Head's vivid description of the thistle of the Pampas applies to the cardoon, but this is a mistake. Captain Head referred to the plant which I have mentioned a few lines lower down under the title of giant thistle. Whether it is a true thistle, I do not know; but it is quite different from the cardoon; and more like a thistle properly so called.
 It is said to contain 60,000 inhabitants. Monte Video, the second town of importance on the banks of the Plata, has 15,000.