The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 35 of 164

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, 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 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.

64. History of the Abipones, vol. ii, p. 6.

September 16th.—To the seventh posta at the foot of the Sierra Tapalguen. The country was quite level, with a coarse herbage and a soft peaty soil. The hovel was here remarkably neat, the posts and rafters being made of about a dozen dry thistle-stalks bound together with thongs of hide; and by the support of these Ionic-like columns, the roof and sides were thatched with reeds. We were here told a fact, which I would not have credited, if I had not had partly ocular proof of it; namely, that, during the previous night, hail as large as small apples, and extremely hard, had fallen with such violence as to kill the greater number of the wild animals. One of the men had already found thirteen deer (Cervus campestris) lying dead, and I saw their fresh hides; another of the party, a few minutes after my arrival, brought in seven more. Now I well know, that one man without dogs could hardly have killed seven deer in a week. The men believed they had seen about fifteen dead ostriches (part of one of which we had for dinner); and they said that several were running about evidently blind in one eye. Numbers of smaller birds, as ducks, hawks, and partridges, were killed. I saw one of the latter with a black mark on its back, as if it had been struck with a paving-stone. A fence of thistle-stalks round the hovel was nearly broken down, and my informer, putting his head out to see what was the matter, received a severe cut, and now wore a bandage. The storm was said to have been of limited extent: we certainly saw from our last night’s bivouac a dense cloud and lightning in this direction. It is marvellous how such strong animals as deer could thus have been killed; but I have no doubt, from the evidence I have given, that the story is not in the least exaggerated. I am glad, however, to have its credibility supported by the Jesuit Dobrizhoffer,64 who, speaking of a country much to the northward, says, hail fell of an enormous size and killed vast numbers of cattle: the Indians hence called the place Lalegraicavalca, meaning “the little white things.” Dr. Malcolmson, also, informs me that he witnessed in 1831 in India a hail-storm, which killed numbers of large birds and much injured the cattle. These hail-stones were flat, and one was ten inches in circumference, and another weighed two ounces. They ploughed up a gravel-walk like musket-balls, and passed through glass-windows, making round holes, but not cracking them.

65. Falconer’s Patagonia, p. 70.

Having finished our dinner of hail-stricken meat, we crossed the Sierra Tapalguen; a low range of hills, a few hundred feet in height, which commences at Cape Corrientes. The rock in this part is pure quartz; farther eastward I understand it is granitic. The hills are of a remarkable form; they consist of flat patches of table-land, surrounded by low perpendicular cliffs, like the outliers of a sedimentary deposit. The hill which I ascended was very small, not above a couple of hundred yards in diameter; but I saw others larger. One which goes by the name of the “Corral,” is said to be two or three miles in diameter, and encompassed by perpendicular cliffs between thirty and forty feet high, excepting at one spot, where the entrance lies. Falconer65 gives a curious account of the Indians driving troops of wild horses into it, and then by guarding the entrance keeping them secure. I have never heard of any other instance of table-land in a formation of quartz, and which, in the hill I examined, had neither cleavage nor stratification. I was told that the rock of the “Corral” was white, and would strike fire.

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.

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