© 2004-2017

Patagonia Bookshelf

Ostrich Tales — an Anthology
Observations of Darwin's rhea in southern Patagonia

"Wanderings in Patagonia, or Life among the Ostrich-Hunters",
Julius Beerbohm, London 1881
Beerbohm was one of a group hired in 1877 by the Argentine government to study the natural resources of north-east Santa Cruz Territory. His work completed, Beerbohm decided to expedite his return to Buenos Aires by travelling overland from the Bay of San Julián to Punta Arenas, where there was a frequent steamer service. He chose as his guides a group of four "gauchos", who made a living by hunting ostriches for their feathers. This abbreviated excerpt describes his colourful travelling companions.

[emphasis added]

The Patagonian ostrich is much smaller than his African cousin, and the feathers are not nearly so valuable, the price usually paid for them at Sandy Point [ Punta Arenas, Ed.] being from $1 to $2 per lb. The trade of the ostrich-hunter is not, therefore, very lucrative; but his wants, on the other hand, are very modest. Besides, he follows his profession more from a love of the wild pampa life, with its freedom from irksome restraint and awkward social obligations, than from any desire to amass wealth; more from a necessity to satisfy his vagabond instincts, than from any impulse derived from some definite aim in life. His hunting-ground extends as far as he chooses to gallop. His stock-in-trade consists of ten or twelve hardy horses, five or six dogs of a mongrel greyhound species, a lasso, a pair of bolas, a knife, a revolver, and a long steel; besides, of course, all the necessary accoutrements for his horse, which, together with the indispensable capa, form his bed at night.

[...] With no other impedimenta than the above-mentioned, the ostrich-hunter roams at will over the vast pampas. At night-time he makes himself at home under shelter of some thick bush, which, if such be his caprice, may become his headquarters for weeks, and even months, especially if the game in the vicinity be abundant. His movements are altogether uncertain, and by no means regulated by any reference to time, to the course of which he is sublimely indifferent. The chase supplies all his wants. With the hide of the guanaco he makes his lasso, reins, bolas, and even shoes; whilst its flesh, varied by that of the ostrich, forms his staple article of diet. When he has collected a sufficient quantity of feathers, he pays a flying visit to Sandy Point, sells them, and with the produce lays in a new stock of tobacco and mate, renews his wardrobe, i.e., say a shirt, a poncho, a jacket, and a chiripa; and if there still remains anything over, he may buy another horse, or some dog which may have taken his fancy.

For the rest, he is a careless, easy-going vagabond, always cheerful, whatever plight he maybe in, and submitting with calm philosophy to any of the many hardships the inclemency of the climate may entail upon him. There are, however, few Ostrich-hunters pur sang in Southern Patagonia, though up near the Rio Negro they are more numerous; but those one does meet with are all distinguished by the characteristics I have described.

I will now attempt a sketch of my four companions, beginning with the most striking among them, Isidoro, who is several times mentioned in Captain Musters' interesting book, 'At Home with the Patagonians.' He was an Argentine Gaucho, with a dash of Indian blood in his veins, who had come down to Patagonia many years ago from the Rio Negro. He was a slender, well-built man, with a pleasant, swarthy face, of a warm, earth-brown complexion, set in by a profusion of long black hair, which he carefully groomed every morning with a comb, whose teeth, being old, were decayed and few and far between, kept for the purpose in the recesses of a rather greasy cap. Broad and shaggy eyebrows, meeting over a bold Roman nose and shading a pair of bright, restless eyes, habitually veiled by half-closed lids and the longest of lashes; slightly high cheek-bones, full thick lips, and a shaggy beard and moustache, completed the tout ensemble of his really striking face, the general expression of which was one of intelligence and good humour.

His dress, which combined materials of Indian as well as European manufacture, was not unpicturesque, and consisted of a woollen shirt and a 'chiripa' a covering for the lower limbs something like a kilt, secured by a strap at the waist, into which were stuck the inevitable hunting-knife, revolver, pipe, and tobacco-pouch while his feet were encased in potro boots, tied at the knees with Indian-worked garters; and over all hung the long capa.

[...] We will pass on to Garcia, who, in appearance at least, formed a striking contrast to Isidore. His yellow beard, brown hair, and blue eyes seemed to betoken a Saxon rather than a Spanish descent. However, be that as it may, he was a true Gaucho, and but slightly inferior to Isidoro in horsemanship and general address as a hunter. He had formerly been a soldier on the Argentine frontiers, and in that capacity had had many a fight with the Indians, thrilling accounts of which he would often favour us with over the evening's fire. Subsequently he had worked as 'tropero' (cattle-driver) on the Rio Negro, a profession which in due course he had relinquished in order to become an ostrich-hunter. Having lived more amongst civilised people, his manners were less abrupt than Isidoro's, and he was rather more talkative and genial than the latter.

Next comes Guillaume, who was by birth a Frenchman, and who had originally been a blacksmith; but some chance having wafted him to Patagonia, he had taken a fancy to the country and remained there, and was now fast becoming naturalised. He was an active, intelligent fellow, and equal to any amount of hard work. One of his most striking features was his enormous appetite, the amount he could devour at one meal being simply astounding. It is on record amongst his companions that he demolished a whole side of a young guanaco at a sitting. But notwithstanding this extraordinary faculty for eating, he was as thin as could be, and always had a hungry, half-starved look.

His very antithesis was Maximo, the last of the group, who in size and corpulence might have competed with the most Herculean Patagonian Indian. He was an Austrian, age twenty, I think, and had formerly been a sailor, but having been wrecked on the syren shores of Patagonia, like Guillaume, he had been unable to withstand its subtle attractions, and having embraced the profession of ostrich-hunting, with the natural aptness of sailors, he had soon mastered the mysteries of his craft, and was already an adept in the use of lasso and bolas. His strength was such as his burly dimensions warranted, and lie would often surprise us by the ease with which he would tear up firmly-seated roots, and stout underwood for firing purposes. He was, moreover, as I was surprised to find, an accomplished linguist, and spoke Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English with tolerable fluency, though I think he could neither read nor write. His appetite, like Guillaume's, was Homeric, the two being a host in themselves.

[end of extract]