In 1865, the first Welsh settlers arrived by boat on a beach in Eastern Patagonia, and faced a long, gruelling journey on foot across the wilderness to reach their final destination – the Chubut Valley, where they would eventually establish a Welsh community. To mark the 150th anniversary, a group of Patagonians walked in the footsteps of their forefathers on the Patagonian steppe. One of the organisers of the trek, Nadine Laporte, a descendent of Michael D. Jones and Lewis Jones, shares her experiences:
The name ‘Camwy ar Droed’ (Chubut on foot) was suggested at the end of 2014 thanks to the creativity of Iwan Madog, a Welsh language teacher that has spent several years teaching in the Chubut valley and the Andes region of Welsh Patagonia. But the idea of walking south, from New Bay (now Port Madryn), on the Eastern coast of Patagonia, to the Chubut river had begun to take shape a few years before that. Three or four years earlier a group of local people had been thinking of ways to celebrate the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh in Chubut. Readers will probably know that the proposals were varied: some quite modest, others more noticeable perhaps, but all of the events that were organised tried to maintain respect for this incredible adventure achieved by our forefathers.
When speaking of the Welsh in Chubut, we remember the arrival of the Mimosa, railway construction, the building of the canals and ‘pioneering’ in general, but rarely do we think about the little things; trivial things to the people who now live in Patagonia, but at that point in time they were as immense as their decision to leave their homes, families and friends and migrate to the middle of a desert land at the other side of the world.
Those of us who prompted the idea of walking from New Bay to the Chubut river thought about how the 70 km journey can be done in less than an hour's drive - which in these modern times may seem a short distance - but in 1865 it was a grueling journey. The group of people that disembarked from the Mimosa after two months at sea had yet to reach the river, without really knowing how, and totally unaware of what dangers lay ahead. Knowing that we faced no such dangers, it was much easier for us to embark on this venture.
Besides thinking about the route that we would follow, we had to ensure that we could withstand a three days walk of approximately 25km each day. To do this, some of us began to meet up 2 or 3 times a week to walk, increasing the length every time. This training lead us to discover places that we had not previously visited, and it also made us look at familiar places that we had passed a hundred times before from a different viewpoint.
Autumn is beautiful in Patagonia as well as being the season that’s less likely to be windy. That's why we chose the 17 -19 April 2015 for our journey and we decided that we would walk south, from the caves at Punta Cuevas (Port Madryn) to where once stood the chapel of Tair Helygen (near to Rawson). Coincidentally, April 19th was the date that the Welsh had, in the middle of the countryside at Plas Hedd farm, their first close contact with the Tehuelche natives that were visiting the area.
A couple of months before the chosen date, we began to publicise our adventure, and early on we saw that our small group of hikers had grown almost into a crowd; 19 people agreed to meet in Punta Cuevas at 8 am on April 17th. Thanks to the valuable cooperation of the Chubut regional sport’s department, we knew that we didn’t need to worry about meals nor overnight camping, our only task would be to walk.
Everything was organised. Our last training session was held during the weekend before our walk; then we would relax so that we would be full of energy, ready to go on the following Friday morning... but on Thursday morning it began to rain, and continued raining all day and all night, and it was still raining a little on Friday morning... we knew that parts of our track would by now be impossible to walk, our camping sites would be lakes! After three months of not seeing a drop of rain, the deluge arrived on the day before our hike.
Those who had given us advice during the weeks prior to our journey agreed that conditions were not satisfactory for us to set up the overnight camping sites as planned; they were also concerned that the support vehicles might not reach us. Together, we decided to start the walk from Punta Cuevas and carry on as far south as we could, sheltering overnight in our own homes, then meeting again on the next two mornings in pre-established points and keep on walking until we reached Tair Helygen.
Even though the journey we completed was far from our original plan, there are moments that will remain with me forever: the poignant silence of the desert, the vastness of space, the colour of the sky after the rain, the excitement of family and friends that were waiting for us at Tair Helygen.
Our initial aim was to remember our ancestors’ modest feats. While we could not achieve the whole route that we had intended, each step that we took was in memory of the past, and our desire to honour those men and women who made the journey on foot for the first time during the winter of 1865.
Photo: Daniel Hughes