Journey to the end of the world

DAVID S. POTTS
Last updated 05:00 11/09/2013
Patagonia Landscape
Photos.com

UTTERMOST REALM: The desolate, wild and thinly populated Patagonia region in Chile's deep south.

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The desolate, wild and thinly populated Patagonia region in Chile's deep south has been called, among other things, the "uttermost realm" and "the end of the world".

At the tip of South America, the region fronts the Antarctic and boasts a scattering of islands, deep fiords, continental ice caps and glacier-dented mountains.

Its windswept, almost treeless pampas once attracted pioneers, missionaries and fortune-seekers from nations including Britain, Croatia, France, Spain and Italy.

Wool production became the industry as European sheep farmers took advantage of the grassy lowlands but tourism is now Patagonia's money-spinner, with an increasing number of visitors including both backpackers and cruisers.

We've landed in Punta Arenas, a windswept former penitentiary that boomed as a stop off for ships rounding Cape Horn before declining with the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal.

A city of 120,000, Punta Arenas sprawls up a gentle slope from the Strait of Magellan and is a good base from which to explore the region. And we want to go somewhere we can imagine what it would be like to farm this country.

Yvonne and Rodolfo Concha's grandparents left France in 1922, at the tail end of the "big migration", and established an estancia, or sheep station, on 3000 hectares of undulating land.

Estancia Olga Teresa is an hour and a half by road north of Punta Arenas in the Rio Verde commune, which covers 13,000 sq km but is populated by just 270 farmers, their families and workers.

It's a working property but the couple and their son Rodriguez also host tourists from October to March each year.

By local standards, the property is medium-sized. It carries 3000 Corriedale sheep of a strain imported from New Zealand and 500 head of Poll Hereford beef cattle.

Chileans often have a passion for horses and the Conchas also have 50 of a breed developed from Spanish Arabians.

It's a memorable spot: an outline of the snow-capped Andes mountains is just visible on the horizon, while flocks of rhea, an emu-like flightless bird, graze the pampas.

A family of llama-like guanacos does the same and a pair of beautiful yellow and brown southern-crested carra carra birds pose in a tree.

The Conchas have lived on the estancia for 46 years, raising a family. They meet us at their neat, red-roofed home that stands behind lenga trees permanently bent under the westerly winds.

 It's February and the tail end of summer but the temperature today will reach a maximum of just 15C.

Yvonne Concha leads us to a paddock where, eager to show us the work of the Chilean sheepdog, is the head shepherd.

Chileans originally imported their border collies from Scotland and they still do 80 per cent of the shepherd's work with the sheep. Dogs are trained over three years and will work for just one handler. 

Pups are eagerly sought but no money changes hands: there's simply bartering between breeder and farmer.

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Rodriguez Concha, who manages the property, wears the traditional, flamboyant costume of the huasos, or Chilean cowboy: black hat with flat brim, woollen poncho, leather leggings and spurs.

He is dressed to demonstrate the art of Chilean horsemanship, or rodeo, which is a lot more like formal dressage than its western namesake.

The rodeo is second only to football in popularity in Chile, with thousands of spectators and champion horses worth as much as half a million dollars.

Contestants compete in a crescent-shaped arena, a medialuna, like the one Rodriguez uses to train his horses. The animals, says Yvonne, have an instinct for the intricate movements involved.

Rodriguez uses his hands and blunt spurs to guide the horse through an exacting routine. He works with a steer, his horse nudging it around the arena in a wonderful display of control.

Now on to the shed, where a shearer has lined up a Corriedale ewe for a demonstration familiar to all the Australians and New Zealanders in our group. The cold wind whistles through and we can't help feeling sorry for the newly shorn ewe.

We are then treated to a lunch of potatoes and barbecued lamb, the latter spreadeagled over a wood fire in traditional fashion.

Dessert is a custard, the recipe for which, says Yvonne, has been in her French family for a century. The national drink of pisco sour - a tasty mix of a brandy wine, lemon, sugar and egg white - is also on the menu but what would a Chilean meal be without some of its famous wine?

IF YOU GO

STAYING THERE: Staying in Punta Arenas at the four-star Hotel Cabo de Hornos (from US$135 ($168) per room, per night) or Hotel Dreams de Estrecho Dream (from US$189 ($236) per room, per night). You can book through tripadvisor.com.

PLAYING THERE: Estancia Olga Teresa is a 1.5hr drive out of Punta Arenas. For more information about Estancia Olga Teresa, email olgateresaterra.cl.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

- AAP

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