Thursday, October 19, 2006
In Darwin's surfprints
Great day today: the British Library put the whole of Charles Darwin’s monumental works (except the Galapagos diaries, which were stolen) on-line for the first time. It was his trip in the Beagle that started the whole thing. I’d always wanted to follow that voyage but there were a couple of problems: first, he took five years to do it, and secondly he had a Royal Navy ten-gun, three-masted brig at his disposal.
With only a two-week holiday, and no brig, we decided to follow only the bits that Darwin travelled more than once: around Cape Horn from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Valparaiso in Chile, via the Falkland Islands and the Chilean fjords. Being brigless, we had to travel by passenger liner. I took Darwin’s diaries along for company.
The delight of the diaries is that they can be enjoyed as tales of adventure: he was engulfed in a locust swarm in the Cordillera mountains, dodged hail-stones ‘as large as small apples’ in Bahia Blanca, was caught in an earthquake in Valdivia in Chile, and threatened by man-eating Indians on Tierra del Fuego. Oh, and the odd revolution.
On Christmas Eve, like Darwin, we anchored off the Falklands. Even at the height of summer, it’s a bleak, windy place. This is not its only resemblance to England: it has pubs selling fish and chips, red telephone boxes and streets with names like Margaret Thatcher Drive. Darwin called them ‘these miserable islands’ and couldn't understand why their ownership should have been so bitterly contested in the past. That’s funny, neither could we.
That evening, just as the Beagle had done 170 years earlier, we headed west towards Cape Horn, which we reached the next day - Christmas Day. Still living the Darwin dream, we leaned into chilling wind and rain, the Atlantic on our right and the Pacific on our left, and photographed the hostile southern tip of the American continent.
The journey around the Horn took us three hours. The Beagle pitched and rolled – and was still in the same place 19 days later. From there it took the Beagle 25 more days to reach Chile’s southernmost island, Tierra del Fuego. We docked in the capital, Ushuaia, that evening, in time for Christmas dinner.
The highlight of this whole trip was to be to sail in the wake of the Beagle through the fjords, including the Beagle Channel itself . It lived up to its promise. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, on whose lower slopes are deep ravines filled with glaciers that form sheer cliffs at the water’s edge. As the mist cleared from the surface of the water we could watch the continuing process of dispersion. A loud crack would be followed by a huge lump of ice breaking away from the cliff, creating a mini-tidal wave as it plunged into the water, where it would float away to join convoys of turquoise-coloured icebergs surrounding the ship. ‘It is scarcely possible to imagine,’ wrote Darwin on January 29, 1833, ‘any thing more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers.’
Darwin called Santiago’s scenery ‘a never-failing source of pleasure’, but awoke next day to find someone had stolen his mule. Another unscheduled parallel with his trip was that I was mugged. I had a cold, and had walked into a little park to find somewhere to dispose of my used tissues. As we stepped into the darkness, someone pushed me violently to the ground and a hand went into my jeans pocket. Darwin’s ghost must have been watching over us - I got up to see the bloke running away, clutching a handful of soiled toilet tissues.
The theft did not colour our impressions of Santiago any more than did Darwin’s. ‘Never did I more deeply enjoy an equal space of time’, he wrote. We’re with you there, Charlie.
Only one regret – that we couldn’t have stayed longer in Valparaiso. Any city whose football team is called Everton must be worth a closer look.