On a recent 4-wheel-drive trip in the East Kimberley, it struck me that there were some common themes there and in Patagonia. Bear with me.
Our whole outback adventure was inspired by my husband’s dream to see the Bungle Bungles. We hurtled down the lovely smooth Great Northern Highway to the Purnululu National Park turn off where we saw a sign for Mabel Downs Station. Continuing on the corrugated road to our accommodation at snail’s pace, at every turn we were rewarded by the spectacular sight of the beehive-shaped rock formations striated in red and dark grey, rising from the spinifex grasslands. Over the next few days we explored magnificent gorges, enjoyed the shade of ancient palms, walked along dry creek beds and stopped at lookouts, always within this magical remote landscape. Finally, we took a helicopter fight (flown by what seemed like a 12 year-old girl) and really appreciated the scale and unmatched beauty of Purnululu.
We learnt something of the history of the area. In 1895, Joseph Bridge decided to leave his home in Normanton, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, to set up in the Kimberley – a very primitive and dangerous area where the pastoral industry was just opening up. His daughter, Mabel, at age 10, was already a gifted stockman and it was left to her to drive her mother and siblings in a covered horse-drawn wagon on the epic 1,300 mile, year-long journey across the top end. When Joseph bought his land near Turkey Creek, he named the station after his brave little daughter.
Bridge, other local pastoralists and their descendants continued to graze cattle in the area of these extraordinary geological formations, their origins dating back 360 million years. Who knows what they thought of it? It was not until 1983 that a film crew “discovered” the Bungle Bungles from a helicopter while they were filming a documentary. The geological and indigenous cultural significance of the region was immediately recognised and it became a much loved but still remote tourist destination. It was granted World Heritage status in 2003.
So what about Patagonia?
In February 2018 we held a conference in Patagonia. We spent 3 days in the lunar landscape of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. We trekked through jagged, rust-coloured ravines; viewed vast white saltpans and were awed by volcano-topped horizons. Harsh, unique, otherworldly, the Atacama Desert is so remote it makes the Bungle Bungles feel like Pitt Street.
Four fantastic days in Torres del Paine, National Park southern Chile, followed. Our days brimmed with conference, hikes, 4WD excursions and even horse riding beneath rugged peaks veiled in clouds. Rounding a peak we would find a glacier stretching to the horizon, then tumbling into an electric-blue lake. Or, we’d walk through a lush forest and the thicket would open to a vista of endless steppes, a herd of guanaco grazing nonchalantly.
Then we moved on to Argentinian Patagonia and Los Glaciares National Park. One day, we boarded a modern catamaran and motored on Lake Argentino, the water a gorgeous milky turquoise colour. We were dwarfed by rugged snow-capped granite peaks, the landscape modelled by massive, ongoing glaciation. Nature, once again, on full display. We made our way along the Upsala glacier valley, weaving our way around icebergs of bizarre shapes and every shade of white and blue. We then zoomed off to Estancia Cristina where we learnt of its history.
In 1900, Joseph Masters, an Englishman, travelled to South America, settling in Rio Gallegos, in search of a promising future. He and his wife had two children: Percival Herbert and Elinor Cristina. The Masters set off to some new territories that they had heard of, to the west, close to a large lake known as Lake Argentino. The journey took several years as they tried to settle down in different places without success. Eventually, Joseph refurbished an old steam boat and was able to traverse Lake Argentino, landing at the end of its northern arm and establishing Estancia Cristina. Whether the ranch was named for his daughter or the waterway is unknown. After years of sacrifices and deprivation, the Masters succeeded, surrounded by glaciers, snowy peaks and lakes of great natural beauty. Again – who knows what they thought about this extraordinary landscape? In 1937, Los Glaciares National Park was gazetted and in 1981 declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Back at the ranch, we enjoyed a hearty lamb lunch, washed down with a delightful Argentinian Malbec. Invigorated, we trekked across the rugged moraine to be rewarded by a panorama of icefields carved between snow-capped peaks, the gorgeous turquoise lake below. Our day ended with the sun setting on this magnificent tableau.
I cannot help wondering if those pioneers, whether in the Kimberley or in Patagonia, who were just seeking a place to raise their families and make a living, were able to appreciate the exceptional beauty of where they ended up. How lucky we are that these special places been preserved, that we can access them relatively easily and can immerse ourselves in their splendour.
Margot Cunich is a GP in Sydney and Director/Academic Co-ordinator of Unconventional Conventions, which will be running a conference in Patagonia 18 February – 3 March 2017. www.uncon-conv.com