Description of Rio Santa Cruz Expedition
in Narrative… & Diary

April & May, 1834

Robert FitzRoy & Charles Darwin

Footnotes in Narrative by FitzRoy, in Diary by Richard Darwin Keynes (Diary editor). Footnotes [in brackets] by web site editor. From time to time, FitzRoy and Darwin describe the same incident, but do not agree on the date. Frequent use of dashes in Darwin's Diary are as seen in the printed edition.

See also Google Earth image of Rio Santa Cruz.

Hand symbol on chart points to “Indian Pass,” which is presumably the point where Benjamin Franklin Bourne crossed the river, as described in his The Captive in Patagonia.

Narrative of Voyages …Diary
Robert FitzRoyCharles Darwin
April 17th

An examination, or rather a partial exploring, of the River Santa Cruz had been long meditated. During the former voyage of the Beagle, Captain Stokes had ascended the rapid current as far as a heavy boat could be taken; but his account served only to stimulate our curiosity, and decided my following his example.

Three light boats were prepared (whale-boats strengthened): as much provision as they could stow with safety was put into them, and a party of officers and men selected. Lieut. Sulivan, having to take charge of the ship during our absence, could not go; neither could Mr. Steward, or Mr. King, who were required to attend to duties on board; but Mr. Darwin, Mr. Chaffers, Mr. Stokes, Mr. Bynoe, Mr. Mellersh, Mr. Martens, and eighteen seamen and marines prepared to accompany me.

[No entry today.]

April 18th

Early on the 18th we left the Beagle, and with a favouring wind and flood tide sailed up the estuary, into which the river flows. This wide and turbid estuary receives a torrent which rushes throught a confined opening into the ocean, during seven hours, and is opposed and driven back by the flood tide during about five hours of the twelve. On each side of both the estuary and river lie extensive plains or arid desert land: these plains are not, however, on the same level; for, on the northern bank the land is very little raised above the level of high spring tides; while, on the southern side of the river, high, perpendicular cliffs form a striking contrast: but after ascending these heights, by any of the ravines which intersect them, one finds a dead level expanse, similar in every respect to that on the northern shore. In the horizon, another ‘steppe,’ or parallel plain, at a higher elevation, is seen; which, at a distance, appears like a range of hills of equal height.

Excepting in the porphyry districts, all the eastern coasts of Patagonia, and the little of the interior which I have seen, seemed to me to be a similar succession of horizontal ranges of level land varying in height, intersected here and there by ravines and water-courses. There are, certainly, hills in many places which appear when one is passing at sea, or in the distance, conical, or at all events peaked; but even those hills are but the gable ends, as it were, of narrow horizontal ridges of land, higher than the surrounding country.

The cliffs on the south side of the river have a whitish appearance; and are similar to those on the outer coast, which were said by Sir John Narborough to resemble the coast of Kent. Their upper outline, when seen from a distance, is quite horizontal. Brownish yellow is the prevailing colour, lighter or darker, as the sun shines more, or becomes obscured. Here and there, in hollow places and ravines, a few shrubby bushes are seen. But over the wide desolation of the stony barren waste not a tree…not even a solitary ‘ombu’*…can be discerned. Scattered herds of ever wary guanacoes, startled at man's approach, neighing, stamping, and tossing their elegant heads; a few ostriches striding along in the distant horizon, and here and there a solitary condor soaring in the sky, are the only objects which attract the eye. Certainly, upon looking closely, some withered shrubs and a yellow kind of herbage may be discerned; and, in walking, thorns and prickles assure one painfully that the plain is not actually a desert: but I am quite sure that the general impression upon the mind is that of utter hopelesss sterility. Is it not remarkable that water-worn shingle stones, and diluvial accumulations, compose the greater portion of these plains? On how vast a scale, and of what duration mush have been the action of those waters which smoothed the shingle stones now buried in the deserts of Patagonia.

* A kind of elder, growing here and there in Patagonia and the Pampas. See page 93 [not included here].

Fresh water is seldom found in these wastes; salinas† are numerous. The climate is delightful to the bodily sensations; but for production of earth, it is almost as bad as any, except that of the Arabian, or African deserts. Rain is seldom known during three quarters of the year; and even in the three winter months, when it may be expected, but little falls excepting on rare occasions, when it comes down heavily for two or three days in succession. Sea winds sometimes bring small misty rain for a few hours, at any time of year, but not enough to do good to vegetable productions. The only animals which abound are guanacoes, and they care little for fresh water, for they have often been seen drinking at the salinas. The puma probably quenches its thirst in their blood; of other animals, supposed to require much liquid, there are none in these regions.

† Salt depositions or incrustations.

The climate is healthy and pleasant; generally a bright, sunny day is succeeded by a cloudless and extremely clear night. In summer the heat is scorching, but not sultry; and in winter, through the weather is sometimes searchingly cold, especially during southerly winds, the air is always elastic and wholesome. Changes of wind are sudden, and cause rapid, though not very great, variations of temperature. Sometimes the sky is slightly or partially overcast, occasionally clouded heavily; but on most days there is bright sunshine, and a fresh or strong westerly wind.

The confluence of a continental torrent of fresh water, with great tides of the ocean, which here rise forty feet perpendicularly, has embarrassed the mouth of the Santa Cruz with a number of banks. They are all composed of shingle and mud, and alter their forms and positions when affected by river floods, or by the heavy seas caused by southeast gales.

Into the entrance of the Santa Cruz, the flood time sets about four knots an hour; one may say, from two to five knots, according to the time of tide, and the narrower or broader part of the opening; and outwards, the water rushes at least six knots on an average in mid-channel. Ther eare places in which at times, when acted upon by wind or unusual floods, it runs with a velocity of not less than seven or eight knots an hour—perhaps even more; but near either shore, and in bights between projecting points, of course the strength of the outward as well as inward current is very inferior.

In such a bight, almost under some high cliffs on the southern shore, the Beagle was moored, and it is easy to conceive the different view presented in this situation, with forty feet change in the level of the water. At high water, a noble river, unimpeded, moves quietly, or is scarcely in motion: at other times, a rushing torrent struggles amongst numerous banks, whose dark colour and dismal appearance add to the effect of the turbid yellow water, and naked-looking, black, muddy shores.

The boats sailed on between some of the banks, with a fresh southerly wind, disturbing every where immense flights of sea birds. Now and then a monstrous sealion lifted his unwieldy bulk a few inches from the stony bank, lazily looked around, and with a snort and a growl, threw his huge shapelessness, by a floundering waddle, towards the water.

As far as Weddell's Bluff* we sailed merrily; but there took to the oars, because the river makes a sudden turn, or rather, the river Santa Cruz (properly so called), enters the estuary of the same name from the southwest, as far as can be seen from Weddell's Bluff:—but a little beyond where the eye reaches, it takes a westerly direction. Another river, the Chico of Viedma, also enters the estuary at this place from the northwest. Here, a little above the Bluff, the water was fresh on the surface, and sometimes it is quite fresh, even into the estuary; but in filling casks, or dipping anything into the stream for fresh water, it is advisable not to dip deep, or to let the hose (if one is used), go many inches below the surface, since it often happens that the upper water is quite fresh, while that underneath is salt. This occurs, more or less, in all rivers which empty themselves into the sea: the fresh water, specifically lighter, is always uppermost.

* Named after the enterprising southern navigator.

Wind failing us entirely, we pulled to the southwest. On our left, high cliffs continued, and at their base a wide shingle beach offered tempting landing places, with many spots extremely well adapted for laying a vessel ashore, to be repaired or cleaned; on our right, a low shore extended, rising gradually, however, in the northwest,† to cliffs like those near Keel Point.

† On the south side of the northwest arm of the Santa Cruz.

The flowing tide favoured us until five, when we landed on the north shore, at a spot where the rise and fall of the tide had diminished to four feet. Here the river was six hundred and forty yards in breadth, running down at the rate of about six knots during a part of the ebb, and from two to four knots an hour during the greater part of the flood tide. It was perfectly fresh to the bottom, and in mid-channel about three fathoms deep; but this depth extended very little way across, the deep channel being extremely narrow, but more than twenty yards in width.

The distinct difference between the opposite banks of the river had been diminishing, until at this spot* both sides were much alike. We had left the cliffs and salt water, and had fairly entered the fresh-water river. Instead of having a wide extent of dismal-looking banks and dark-coloured muddy shores, we were at the side of a rapid stream, unvarying in width, on whose banks shrubs and grass agreeably relieved our eyes from muddy shingle covered with hosts of crabs.

* The northern bight, or cove, a few miles north-eastward of Islet Reach.

In the morning three whale-boats started under the command of the Captain to explore as far as time would allow the Santa Cruz river: During the last voyage, Capt. Stokes proceeded 30 miles, but his provisions failing, he was obliged to return. — Excepting, what was then found, even the existence of this large river was hardly known: We carried three weeks provisions & our party consisted of 25 souls; we were all well armed & could defy a host of Indians. With a strong flood tide & a fine day we made a good run, soon drank some of the fresh water, & at night were nearly above the tidal influence. The river here assumed a size & appearance, which, even at the highest point we ultimately reached, was scarcely diminished. It is generally from three to four hundred yards broard [sic], & in the centre about seventeen feet deep; & perhaps its most remarkable feature is the constant rapidity of the current, which in its whole course runs at the rate of from four to six knots an hour. The wter is of a fine blue color with a slight milky tinge, but is not so transparent as would be expected; it flows over a bed of pebbles, such as forms the beach & surrounding plain.— The valley is in a very direct line to the westward, in which the river has a winding course, but it varies from five to 10 miles in width, being bounded by perfectly horizontal plains of 3 to 500 feet elevation.

April 19th

Our first night passed well, for there were plenty of bushes to supply us with fire-wood. Early next morning, some of the party went upon the nearest hills to look for guanacoes, when they saw that although the surface of the country appeared to an observer near the river to be irregular and hilly, upon ascending the heights it became apparent that the stream ran in a large valley; that the general character of the country was similar to what I have already described, and that those which had appeared to be hills were the terminating sides of extensive plains, whose level was about three hundred feet abot the river. Near the fresh water, shrubs, bushes, and grass were not scarce; but every where on the higher ground a sterile, stony waste met the eye. Mr. Stokes† and I went on the heights, to obtain a vew of the river; and for a considerable distance we could trace its windings, but were sorry to see a great number of small islands, thickly covered with brushwood, which seemed likely to impede our progress is obliged to track‡ the boats.

† It was his office to make a map of the country we passed through.

‡ Pull, or tow them along by a rope.

The southerly wind blew keenly over the high land, and the surface of the ground was frozen hard; but the air was healthily fresh and bracing. Where, indeed, could it be purer than on these dry hills? At first setting out we tried the oars, but very soon found them unable to contend with the strength of the stream; so landing all our party, except two in each boat, we made the boats fast to one another, at a few yards apart, in a line ahead: and then taking the end of a coil of whale-line ashore, half our party fixed themselves to it by laniards of broad canvas straps, which passed across their breasts and over one shoulder, and walked together steadily along the river's bank. The bight of the line was passed round a stout mast, stepped in the headmost boat and attended by the two men, who veered away or shortened in the line as the varying width of the stream, or frequent impediments rendered necessary. In this manner, one-half of our party relieving the other about once an hour†, every one willingly taking his turn at the track rope,* we made steady progress against the stream of the river, which rather increased in rapidity as we ascended, until its usual velocity was between six and seven knots an hour. While among the islands which I mentioned tracking was difficult and tedious, many were the thorny bushes through which one half of the party on the rope dragged their companions. Once in motion no mercy was shewn: if the leading man could pass, all the rest were bound to follow. Many were the duckings, and not trifling the wear and tear of clothes, shoes and skin. At intervals stoppages were made for refreshment and observations.

† [For an hour and a half, according to Darwin.]

* Mr. Stokes alone being excepted, as his duty required continual attention.

Three chronometers were carried in the boats, with other necessary insruments: among them two mountain barometers, with which Mr. Darwin and myself wished to measure the height of the river above the level of the sea, and the heights of the neighbouring ranges of hills above the level of the river. This afternoon we picked up a boat-hook upon the south bank of the river, which was immediately recognized to be one which had been left by accident sticking in a mud bank, by the party who accompanied Captain Stokes in his excursion up this river in the year 1827.

It was very cold at our bivouac this night, being a sharp frost: and while observing the moon's meridian altitude, dew was deposited so fast upon the roof of the artificial horizon, and froze so quickly as it fell, that I could hardly make the observation. My sextant was injured a little by the frost, for not having been used before in very cold weather, the brass contracted so much as to injure the silvering at the back of the index glass, and slightly change the index error.

In so strong a current it was of course quite impossible either to pull or sail so that the three boats were fastened astern of each other, two hands left in each, & the rest all on shore to track, [we brought with us collars all ready fitted to a whale line].* — As the general arrangements were very good for facilitating the work, I will describe them; the party which included every one, was divided into two spells, (at first into three) & each of these pulled alternately for an hour & a half.† — The officers of each boat lived with, eat the same food, & slept in the same tent with their crew; so that each boat was quite independent of the others; After sunset, the first level place where there were any bushes was shosen for our nights lodging. The boats-crew took it in turns to be cook; immediately the boat was hauled up, the cook made his fire, two others of the men pitched the tent, the coxswain handed the things out of the boat, & the rest, carried them up to the tents & collected fire wood. — By this means in half an hour, every thing was ready for the night. A watch of two men & an officer was always kept, whose duty it was to look after the boats, keep up the fires & look out for Indians; each in the party had his one hour every night.

* The words in brackets have been marked for deletion in pencil.

† [About once an hour, according to FitzRoy.]

During this day we tracked but a short distance, for there are in this part many islands, which are covered with thorny bushes, & the channels between them are shallow, these two causes hindered us much.

April 20th

In the morning it was so cold that our usual ablutions were shunned, and all were anxious to have the first spell at the rope in order to warm themselves, though few had slept many minutes, and many had hard work the previous day. The thermometer was at 22° Fahr.—nothing,—§ indeed warm weather to Polar voyagers, but to us, accustomed to temperate climates, it appeared a severe degree of cold.

§ The “nothing—” may be an accidental insertion.

20th. As we were going along the bank of the river, which to our great benefit was becoming more accessible and clearer of bushes, we saw some dark coloured animals crossing the stream at a distance, but no one could guress what they were until the foremost of them reached the shore, and rising upon his stilt-like legs, showed himself to be an ostrich. Six or severn of these birds were swimming across: till then I had no idea that so long-legged a bird, not web-footed, would, of its own accord, take to the water and cross a rapid stream: this, however, was a certain proof to the contrary, for nothing had disturbed them that we could discern. As far as we could tell, at so great a distance, they seemed to be of the kind which the Spanish-Patagonians call ’Avestruz-petis.’ They were, however, far too wild to be approached with a gun. We saw smoke at a distance and anticipated meeting Indians, in the course of our next day's journed. The country around continued similar to that already described: but island no longer impeded our progress, though some high cliffy banks gave us trouble. At the next place where we passed a night, Mr. Darwin tried to catch fish with a casting net, but without success; so strong a stream being much against successful fishing. A very sharp frost again this night. The net and other things, which has occupied but little room in the boat, were frozen so hard as to become unmanageable and very difficult to stow.

We passed the islands & set to work; our regular days work, although it was hard enough, carried us, on an average, only ten miles, in a straight line, & perhaps 15 or 20 as we were obliged to go. — A large smoke was seen at some distance, & a skeleton & other signs of horses; by which we knew that Indians were in the country. Beyond the place, where we slept was completely terra incognita, for there Capt. Stokes turned back. —in the course of the day an old boat-hook was picked up (with the Kings mark). One of the boats crew, who had been up the river on the former voyage, remembered that it was then lost. So that the boat-hook after lying 6 or 7 years in Patagonia, returned to its proper home, the Beagle.— Both this & the last night was a severe frost & some of the party felt the cold.

April 21st

We proceeded as usual, dragging the boats up the stream (or rather torrent, for it never ran less than six knots, and in many places more) at the rate of about two miles an hour: and as we were approaching near to the smoke, we chose our position for the night, rather more cautiously then usual, upon a little peninsula.

In the morning, tracks of a party of horses & the long speak or Chusa which trails on the ground, were found; they were so fresh that it was generally thought they must have reconnoitred us during the night. — Shortly afterwards we came to a place where there were fresh footsteps of men, dogs, children & horses at the edge of the river & beneath the water; on the other side of the river there were also recent tracks & the remains of a fire: it is very clear that this is the place where the Indians cross, it much be both a difficult & dangerous passage. The Spaniard who lives with the Gregory Bay indians told me that they crossed in the manner which the Gauchos call “a pilota”; that is the corners of a hide are tide up & thus a sort of canoe is made which generally is pulled over by catching hold of the horses tail. — After a mile or two beyond this there were for many days no signs of men or horses. — We saw however fresh smoke of the party whom we left behind, from which I think they never saw us, but that we accidentally passed within a day or two's march of each other. — The Spaniard told me he believed there were no, or very few Indians at S. Cruz; perhaps they are the same small tribe which occassionally frequent Port Desire, & whose lame horse was seen up the river. — A guanaco was found dead under water, but in a shallow place; the meat was quite fresh: upon skinning its head, a bruise was found, we imagine that the Indians must have struck it with their balls & that going to the water to drink, it died. — Whatever its end might have been, after a few doubtful looks it was voted by the greater number better than salt meat, & was soon cut up & in the evening eat.

April 22nd

We had not avanced a mile this morning, when fresh tracks of Indians, on horseback, trailing their long lances, aroused our utmost vigilance. We thought they had been reconnoitring out party, at day-light, and perhaps such was the case. The smoke of their fires was seen behind the nearest range of low hills, on our side of the river, being then on the north bank, but the boats had been tracking on either side, as better ground for walking was found. Proceeding on, a dead animal was found in the water, which proved to be a guanaco; how it came by its death did not appear, as it showed no external wound, but some of our party, hungrier or less squeamish than the rest, immediately proposed dividing and eating it; and hunger carried the day: the dead animal was hauled on shore, cut to pieces, and distributed. The guanaco steaks were much relished by all except two or three, who could not conquer their antipathy to supposed carrion. Our meal was eaten close to the place where we thought a tribe of Indians was encamped: and, in consequence, our arms were kept in readiness, and a careful watch set. Afterwards cautiously proceeding, we arrived at the spot whence the smoke had issued, but saw no human beings: though marks of very recent fire, and numerous tracks of feet upon a soft muddy place at the side of the river, showed that a party of Indians had lately crossed over, and a smoke rising at some distance on the southern shore, pointed out where they were gone. At this spot there was about an acre of good pasture land, by the water side: and the breadth of the river itself was something less then usual, reasons which had induced the natives to select it as a crossing place.* To pass a river runing at the rate of six or seven miles an hour, and about two hundred yards in width, can be no easy task to women and children. But as we saw many prints of very small feet on the muddy bank, both women and children must have crossed at this place with the men. How did they get over? There is no wood, neither are there rushes with which they might make balsas.† Perhaps some of the women and children were put into rough, coracle-like boats, made of hides,‡ and towed across by the horses, holding by whose tails the men swam and perhaps many of the women. This method of holding by the tail, while swimming, is said to be better than resting a hand upon the horse's neck and holding by the mane. None of the Indians sit upon their horses while swimming.

* Marked ‘Indian Pass’ on the plan.

† Floats or rafts.

‡ “Me envió tres indios nadadores, provisto de cueros y palos para formar una pelota.” (Diario de Viedma, p. 58.)

This day we passed two places which we considered rapids, the stream of the river ran so violently, and we had so much difficulty in passing, even with all hands upon the rope. Besides the strength of the stream we had to contend against high cliffs, over whose upper edges it was difficult to convey the two-line: yet we made good about twelve miles in the day. the night of the 22d was not so cold as the preceding, but we always found the nights wintry though the days were warm, so much so, indeed, that we were often annoyed by the heat of the sun. So winding was the course of the river that we certainly walked double the distance which was advanced in a direct line: yet very little of interest, as a pictureque subject, had been seen; for no country excepting a desert could wear a more triste and unvarying appearance.

Immense accumulations of shingle, rounded stones, imbedded, as before mentioned, in diluvial deposition, form the level plain, or valley, through which the river pursues its very winding course. The width of this vale varies from one mile to five miles, and the level of shingle plain is from three hundred to one thousand feet below that of the adjacent higher, but still horizontal ranges—whose broken-down ends, or sides, form the boundaries of the valley through which the river flows. Those of the higher ranges look like hills when one is in the valley, and it is not until after ascending to their summits that their real nature is seen; when, instead of being inclined to consider those heeights as hills, one becomes disposed to think the valley of the river a vast excavation, cut down below the level of the neighboring country. But on theheight, or in the valley, all is an unprofitable waste. Scarcely, indeed, could we find bushes enough, even near the river, to make our nightly fires, after the third day's journey. The wiry, half-withered grass upon which the guanacoes feed is so scanty, that they are obliged ton wander over much ground in search of their food. Those few stunted bushy trees which are found here and there, near the river, are a kind of thorn trees, the wood of which is extremely hard and durable.* The night of the 22d we passed by the side of a little cove, which sheltered the boats from the strength of the stream: and, as all hands were tired, we rested during the morning of the following day.

* A guanaco was shot this day by the running fire of several guns. He was soon cut up and stowed in the boats.

The country remains the same, & terribly uninteresting. The great similarity in productions in a very striking feature in all Patagonia, the level plains of arid shingle support the same stunted & dwarf plants; in the valleys the same thorn-bearing bushes grow, & everywhere we see the same birds & insects. Ostriches are not uncommon, but wild in the extreme. The Guanaco, however, is in his proper district, the country swarms with them; there were many herds of 50 to 100, & I saw one, with, I should think 500. — The Puma or Lion & the Condor follow & prey upon these animals; The footsteps of the former might almost everywhere be seen on the banks of the river. The remains of several Guanaco with their necks dislocated & bones broken & gnawed, showed how they met their deaths. Even the very banks of the river & of the clear little streamlets which enter it, are scarcely enlivened by a brighter tint of green. The curse of sterility is on the land. — The very waters, running over the bed of pebbles, are stocked with no fish: Hence there are no water-fowl, with the exception of some few geese & ducks.

April 23rd

After noon we went on, and at dark stopped on the south shore. Scarcity of fuel and a cold night, made it necessary to take good care of the wood when cut. There may be honour among thieves, but there was little to be found druing a cold night among our party, for the fire of those who happened to be on watch was sure to blaze cheerily, at the expense of the sleepers. A little incident occurred here very unimportant certainly to those unconcerned, yet of much consequence to us: we left our stock of salt behind, and a spade, which latter was much wanted for earthing up the sides of our tents, to keep out the cold wind.

Rested till noon, to clean arms, mend clothes & shoes, the latters already began to show symptoms of hard work.

April 24th

I noticed more than usual a curious effect of the river water being so much warmer than the air over it.† At daybreak, and until sunrise, the river was smoking, quite as if it were boiling. This day we passed some earthy cliffs between two and three hundred feet in height, and where they came in our way it was extremely difficult to manage the boats and tow-lines; but by veering out at those times a great length of rope, our object was accomplished without any disaster. Near these cliffs the valley of the river begins to contract and become more irregular, and the sides or breaking down of the higher ranges become more abrupt and are nearer to the river. In most places we found a cliffy side opposite to a low projecting point of shingle, but in some spots that we passed both sides were high, and we had no choice on which to take the tow-line. The difference, also, between the level of the higher ranges and that of the river, was observed to be much increased.

Like the old navigators approaching an unknown land, we examined & watched for the most trivial signs of a change; the drifted trunk of a tree, a boulder of primitive rock were hailed with joy, as if we had seen a forest growing on the stony ridges of the Andes.— But the most promising, & which eventually turned out true sign, was the tops of a heavy bank of clouds which constantly remained in nearly the same place.— These at first were taken for mountains themselves, instead of the clouds condensed by their icy summits. A Guanaco was shot, which much rejoiced those who could not compel their stomachs to relish Carrion.

April 25th

On this day our best shots succeeded in killing two guanacoes, but they died out of our reach, and probably became food for pumas, instead of man. The order of our march was usually one or two riflemen in advance, as scouts—Mr. Darwin, and occasionally Mr. Stokes, or Mr. Bynoe, upon the heights—a party walking along the banks, near the boats, ready to relieve or assist in tracking, and the eight or ten men who were dragging the three boats along at the rate of about two miles an hour over the ground, though full eight knots through the water. Difficult places to pass—delays caused by embarking and disembarking frequently to change banks, and avoid impediments—the necessary observations, rest, and meals, occupied so much time that we did not average more than tweleve miles in one day: and even that small distance was not accomplished without making both shoulders and feet sore.

This day I found, for the first time, some interesting work; the plains are here capped by a field of Lava, which at some remote period when these plains formed the bottom of an ocean, was poured forth from the Andes.* This field of Lava is on a grand scale; further up the river it is more than 300 feet thick, & the distance from its source is great.— The most Southern Volcanic rocks in the Andes hitherto known are many hundred miles to the North, not far from the island of Chiloe.— The Lava caused many small springs,† the valleys here were greener & I recognized many plants of Tierra del Fuego.— The Guanaco was in his element amongst the rugged low precipices. It is curious how in many cases the scenery is totally dependent on the geology; some of the valleys so precisely resembled those at St. Jago, that if I could have added the warmth of a Tropical day I should have looked about me to recognize old-frequented spots.‡

* Note in margin: ‘Action of current. Origin of Valley’.

† Note in margin: ‘Cause of springs’.

‡ See pencil drawing by Conrad Martens labelled ‘Valley with a small stream running into Santa Cruz River, the hills crowned with Volcanic Rock, the most southern yet discovered. April 26’ (CM No. 173, Beagle Record p. 200), and watercolour developed from it (CM No. 174, Beagle Record, p. 205). FitzRoy wrote of it: ‘The glen above … breeding place of lions.’ [See FitzRoy April 26 entry for complete text.] When the scene was engraved by T. Landseer as ‘Basalt Glen—River Santa Cruz’ in Narrative, the lions were duly added. [actually, one lion (puma) and three prey resembling deer.]

April 26th

In the distance some very level topped, dark looking cliffs, were seen at the summits of elevated ranges, which Mr. Darwin thought must have a capping or coasting of lava. Of course we were very anxious to verify a fact so curious, and at noon were quite satisfied that it was so, having approached to the foot of a height thus capped, whose fragments had in falling not only scattered themselves over the adjacent plain, but into the bed of the river, in such a manner as to make the passage exceedingly dangerous; because large angular masses, in some places showing above the stream in others hidden beneath, but so near the surface that the water eddied and swelled over them, menaced destruction to the boats as they were with difficulty dragged through the eddying rapid; sometimes the rope caught under or around one of those masses, and caused much trouble. Near the spot where we stopped at noon there is a glen, quite different in character from any place we had passed.* Indeed, upon entering the lava district, or that part of the country over which lava formerly flowed, there was no longer a Patagonian aspect around. Steep precipices, narrow, winding vallies, abundance of huge angular fragments of lave, a more rapid and narrower river, and plains of solid lava overlying the whole surface of the country, make this district even worse in its appearance than the eastern coast of Patagonia. Excepting in an occasional ravine nothing grows. Horses could not travel far, the ground being like rough iron; and water, excepting that of the river and its tributary in Basalt Glen, is very scarce.

* ‘Basalt Glen.’

The glen above mentioned is a wild looking ravine, bounded by black lava cliffs. A stream of excellent water winds through it amongst the long grass, and a kind of jungle at the bottom. Lions or rather pumas shelter in it, as the recently torn remains of guanacoes showed us. Condors inhabit the basaltic cliffs. Near the river some imperfect columns of basalt give to a remarkable height, the semblance of an old castle. Altogether it is a scene of wile loneliness quite fit to be the breeding place of lions.†

† “Leonum arida nutrix.’

No signs of human visitors were discovered: indeed, the nature of the country must almost prevent horsemen from traversing these regions, there is so little food and such bad ground: only in glens or ravines such as this can any grass or bushes be found. Guanacoes absolutely swarm upon the heights, a consequence probably of their being undisturbed. They spread over the face of the high country like immense flocks of sheep.

During a long walk this evening Mr. Stokes and I were repeatedly disappointed by the mirage over an extensive stony plain, between two bends of the river. We were tired and very thirsty, and went from one apparent piece of water to another, only to be tantalized and to increase still more our dilemma.

[No entry today. Previous entry dated “25th & 26th.”]
[In the final footnote in the April 25th entry above, it is unclear what Martens' “the most southern yet discovered” phrase signifies. In context, it would seem to refer to the “Volcanic Rock,” but it probably refers to the “small stream.”]

April 27th

Similar country. On the banks of the river some drift wood was found; the trunks of trees of considerable size. Small trees had been found lying by the side of the river, from time to time, but none so large as these, some of which were almost two feet in diameter, and about thirty feet in length. the wood appeared to be ‘Sauci,’ of the red kind. That these trees had been drifted from a great distance was evident, because they were much water worn.

The bed of the river is rather narrower hence the stream more rapid; it generally runs nearly 6 knots an hour.—in the channel there are great blocks of lava—which together make the tracking both laborious & very dangerous.— Yesterday two holes were knocked through the sides of one of the boats, but she was got on shore & repaired, without any further damage.— I shot a condor, it measured from tip to tip of wing 8 & ½ feet;—from beak to tail 4 feet.—Thay are magnificent birds; when seated on a pinnacle over some steep precipice, sultan-like they view the plains beneath them. I believe these birds are never found excepting where there are perpendicular cliffs. Further up the river where the lava is 8 & 900 feet above the bed of the river, I found a regular breeding place; it was a fine sight to see between ten & twenty of these Condors start heavily from their resting spot & then wheel away in majestic circles.

April 28th

In passing a rapid, whose difficulties were much increased by rugged blocks of lava lying in the bed of the river, one of our boats was badly stove and barely rescued from sinking in the middle of the stream: fortunately we got her on shore and there patched her up. There was still no change in the scenery, nor any signs of inhabitants: and our work was as monotonous as heavy.

Found a tripod of wood, fastened together by hide; it had floated down the river; the first sign of the reappearance of man.

April 29th

While upon a high range of lava-capped land, Mr. Stokes and Mr. Darwin descried mountains in the west, covered with snow. At last, then, the Andes were in sight! This was inspiriting intelligence to the whole party; for small had been our daily progress, though continual and severe the labour. The river increased in rapidity, while but little diminuition had taken place in the quantity of water brought down: the breadth was rather less, certainly, but the depth in most places greater. No fish had yet been caught; indeed, only two had been seen, and those seemed to be like trout.

From the high land, we hailed with joy the snowy mountains of the Cordilleras, as they were seen occassionally peeping through their dusky envelope of Clouds.

April 30th 30th & May 1st

The snowy summits of the distant Cordillera were more distinctly seen from the heights, near the river, that rise about a thousand feet above its level, which, there, is about three hundred feet above that of the sea. Two guanacoes were shot with my rifle by H. Fuller, & who hastened to the boats for assistance. Some of our party went directly with him to bring in the animals, but condors and cara-caras† had eaten every morsel of the flesh of one; though the other was found untouched and brought to the boats. Four hours had sufficed to the cara-caras and condors for the cleaning of every bone.‡ When our party reached the spot some of those great birds were so heavily laden that they could hardly hop away from the place. The guanaco that was eaten by the birds must have been, by his size, at least fifty pounds heavier than any shot by us in Patagonia, therefore about 300 lbs. Mr. Darwin and Mr. Stokes had much amusement with these animals, upon the heights. Being so much tamer there and more numerous, whole flocks were driven by them into narrow defiles, where dozens might have been killed had ther been more people with guns, lassoes, or balls.

* My steward.

† A carrion-eating eagle.

‡ The animal thus eaten lay on high ground: the other was in a hollow.

Though the bed of the river is there so much below the level of the stratum of lava,* it still bears the appearance of having worn away its channel, by the continual action of running water. The surface of the lava may be considered as the natural level of the country, since, when upon it, a plain, which seems to the eye horizontal, extends in every direction. How wonderful must that immense volcanic action have been which spread liquid lava over the surface of such a vast tract of country. Did the lava flow from the Cordillera of the Andes, or was it thrown out from craters in the low country? Its position with respect to the subaqueous deposits, its horizontal surface and cellular texture, are reasons, among others, for thinking that it was thrown out of the earth, while these plains were covered by a depth of sea.

* From ten to twelve hundred feet.

The valley, or channel of the river, varies here from one mile, or less, to about three miles; but it looks narrower, owing to the deception caused by high land on each side. Some of the views are certainly striking, and, from their locality, interesting; I could not, however, have believed that the banks of any large fresh water river could be so destitute of wood, or verdure of any kind, or so little frequented by man, beast,* bird, or fish.

* Excepting guanacoes.

We continued to get on but slowly. The Captains servant shot two Guanaco. Before the men could arrive to carry them to the boats the Condors & some small carrion Vultures had picked even the bones of one clean & white, & this in about four hours.— The Guanaco probably weighed 170 or 180 pounds.— When the men arrived, only two Condors were there & some small Vultures within the ribs were picking the bones.

May 1st

The weather was invariably fine during the earlier part of our journey; but this day it began to change, and two or three gloomy days were succeeded by a few hours of only small rain, and by some strong wind. This night we slept at the foot of the heights whose summits were covered with snow, but the temperature was many degrees warmer than that of the first nights, when it froze sharply. There was no particular frost after the 21st of April.

[No entry today. Previous entry dated “30th & May 1st.”]

May 2nd May 2nd & 3rd

We had great difficulty with the boats on the 2d, the river being contracted in width, without any diminution of the body of water pouring down.

The river was here very tortuous, & in many parts there were great blocks of Slate & Granite, which in former periods of commotion have come from the Andes.* Both these causes sadly interfered with our progress.— We had however the satisfaction of seeing in full view the long North & South range of the Cordilleras.— They form a lofty & imposing barrier to this flat country; many of the mountains were steep & pointed cones, & these were clothed with snow.— We looked at them with regret, for it was evident we had not time to reach them. We were obliged to imagine their nature & grandeur, instead of standing as we had hoped, on one of their pinnacles & looking down on the plains below. During these two days we saw signs of horses & several little articles belonging to the Indians, such as a bunch of Ostrich feathers, part of a mantle, a pointed stick. From a thong of cows hide being found; it is certain that these Indians must come from the North.— They probably have no connection with those whose smoke we saw nearer to the Coast; but that during the Summer they travel along the foot Andes, in order to hunt in fresh country.— The Guanaco being so excessively abundant I was at first much surprised that Indians did not constantly reside on the banks of this river; the cause of their not frequenting these plains must be their stony nature (the whole country is a shingle bed) which no unshod horse could withstand.— Yet in two places, in this very central part, I found small piles of stones which I think could not have been accidentally grouped together.— They were placed on projecting points, over the highest lava cliffs; & resembled those at Port Desire, but were on a smaller scale; They would not have been sufficient to have covered more than the bondes of a man.

* Pencil note in margin: ‘Character of upper plain altered’.

May 3rd

On the 3d, we found more open country, the lava-capped heights receding gradually on each side, leaving a vale of flat, and apparently good land, from five to fifteen miles in extent. The width of the river increased; on its banks were swampy spaces, covered with herbage; and low earth cliffs, without either shingle or lava, in some places bounded the river. A little further, however, the usual arid and stony plains of Patagonia were again seen, extending from the banks of the river to ranges of hills, about fourteen hundred feet above its level, on which the horizontal lava-capping could be distinctly discerned.

In the distant west the Cordillera of the Andes stretched along the horizon. During three days, we had advanced towards those distant mountains, seeing them at times very distinctly; yet this morning our distance seemed nearly as great as on the day we first saw their snow-covered summits. A long day's work carried us beyond the flat and into the rising country, whose barren appearance I just now mentioned. We were all very tired of the monotonous scene, as well as of the labour of hauling the boats along.

[No entry today. Previous entry dated “2nd & 3rd.”]

May 4th

Our provisions having been almost exhausted, and the river as large as it was beyond the lava country, our alloted time being out, and every one weary and foot-sore, I decided upon walking overland to the westward, as far as we could go in one day, and then setting out on our return to the Beagle. I was the more inclined to this step, because the river here made a southerly bend, to follow which would have required at least a day, without making much westing, and because I thought that some of our party might walk in that time at least twice as far as they could track the boats, and then return before night. To have followed the course of the river two days longer, we should have needed all the small remaineder of our provisions, and probably without being enabled to see further than we might by one day's walk directly westward. Leaving those who were the most tired to take care of the boats, a party set out early, in light marching order. A large plain lay before us, over which shrubs, very small trees, and bushes were sparingly scattered; yet parts of this plain might be called fertile and woody, by comparison with the tracts between us and the eastern sea-coast.

At noon we halted on a rising ground, made observations for time, latitude, and bearing; rested and eat our meal; on a spot which we found to be only sixty miles* from the nearest water of the Pacific Ocean. The Cordillera of the Andes extended along the western side of our view; the weather was very clear, enabling us to discern snow-covered mountains far in the north, and also a long way southward; hence much of the range was visible, but of the river we could discern nothing. Only from the form of the land could we conclude that at the end of the southerly reach I have mentioned, the direction of the river is nearly east and west for a few miles, and that then it may turn northward, or rather come from the north along the base of the Cordillera.

[Actually, about one hundred and sixty miles distant.]

There are many reasons for inducing me to suppose that it comes not only from the north, but from a considerable distance northward. At the place were we ceased to ascend the stream, the Santa Cruz was almost as large as at the places where we passed the first and second nights near the estuary. The velocity of the current was still at least six knots an hour; though the depth remained undiminished. The temperature of the water was 45°, while that of the air was seldom so high, even in the day-time, and at night was usually below the freezing point. Trees, or rather the trunks of trees, were found lying upon the banks, whose water-worn appearance indicated that they had been carried far by the stream. The water was very free from sediment, though of a whitish blue colour, which induces me to suppose that it has been chiefly produced by melted snow, or that it has passed through lakes in which the sediment it might have brought so far was deposited. If filled from the waters of the nearer mountains only, its temperature would surely be lower, approaching that of melted snow: it would also, in all probability, bring much sediment, and would therefore be muddier, and less pure in colour.

When one considers how large an extent of country there is between the River Negro and the Strait of Magalhaens, and that through that extensive region only one river of magnitude flows, it may be difficult to account for the manner in which the drainage of the eastern side of the great Cordillera is carried off, or where the melted snow and occasional heavy rains disappear.

The Gallegos [ie, Rio Gallegos] is small,though it runs into a large estuary. The Chupat river is very small; that at Port Desire is scarcely more than a brook. At times, it is true, these smaller rivers are flooded, but their floods (added to their usual streams) seem unequal to carrying off the continual drainage of the Andes. South of the Negro only the Santa Cruz flows with a full and strong stream throughout the whole year, and my idea is that the sources of the river Santa Cruz are not far from those of the southern branch of the Negro, near the forty-fifth degree of latitude; and that it runs at the foot of the Andes, southward, through several lakes, until it turns to the eastward in the parallel of fifty degrees.

In Viedma's Diary I find that he heard from the Indians at Port San Julian (in 1782) that the river Santa Cruz flowed from a large lake near the Cordillera of the Andes, and that there was abundance of wood on its banks. In consequence of this information, he went, in November, with a party of Spaniards and Indians on horseback, to explore this lake. In his way, Viedma crossed the river Chico, which flows into the estuary of the Santa Cruz, just above Wedell Bluff. The Chico, though small at times and then fordable, was subject, the Indians said, to great floods in the spring, when the melting snows of the Cordillera over-filled a lake, far in the northwest, whence this river ran. Afterwards, Viedma crossed the river Chalia, which they told him rose in another lake near the Cordillera, was likewise subject to floods, and emptied itself into the Santa Cruz: when he passed, it was only up to the horses' knees (after searching many leagues, however, for a ford), but at his return it was deeper. This Chalia can be no other thant the stream which flows through Basalt Glen, a mere brook when we saw it in the dryest season of the year. Viedma reached the lake,* and found every thing correspond[ed] to the description; for it was deep and large, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, on which were many forests.

* Called Capar, or Viedma. MS Chart.

Some persons have doubted whether there is ever much drainage to be carried off from the eastern side of the Andes, between the parallels of forty and fifty; but if they will take the trouble to read Viedma's Diary, and some other notices to be found in the work of Don Pedro de Angelis, I think they will be convinced that there is always a considerable drainage, and that at times there are heavy floods to be carried off.

Reference to the accompanying plan will show our position when we halted, and I decided to return, not having explored, I should think, more than one-third of its course.* At that place the level of the river was found to be four hundred feet higher than that of the sea at the entrance; and as the distance is about two hundred miles,† the average descent of fall of the water must be near two feet in a mile, which, I apprehend, is unusually great. I could not, indeed, believe that the computation and data were correct, until after repeated examination.‡ Two barometers were used at the river-side, and a very good one was carefully watched on board the Beagle.§ Certainly, the rapid descent of the river, in many places, was such, that even to the eye it appeared to be running down-hill; and this remark was often made in the course of our journey.

* [FitzRoy was actually less than seven miles from the source of the river.]

† Following the course of the river.

‡ The data will be found in the Appendix.

§ At the level of the sea.

Two days before we reached our westernmost point,* many traces of old Indian encampment were seen; but excepting at that place and at the spot which we passed on the 22d, no signs of inhabitants were any where found. Scarcity of pasture, and the badness of the ground for their horses' feet, must deter Indians from remaining in this neighbourhood; but that they frequently cross the river, when travelling, is well known.

* [See Darwin's May 2 entry for more on this.]

The quantities of bones heaped together, or scattered near the river, in so many places which we passed, excited conjectures as to what had collected them. Do guanacoes approach the river to drink when they are dying? Or are they washed together by floods? Certain it is they are remarkably numerous near the banks of the river; but not so elsewhere.

I can hardly think that the guanaco is often allowed to die a natural death; for pumas are always on the alert to seize invalid stragglers from the herd. At night the guanacoes choose the clearest places for sleeping, lying down together like sheep; and in the day they avoid thickets, and all such places as might shelter their ever-watchful enemy. Condors, also, and fierce little wilde cats* help to prevent too great an increase of this beautiful, inoffensive, and useful animal.

* Though the wild cat could not injure a full-grown animal, it might destroy a young one with great ease.

Late on the 4th we returned to our tents, thoroughly tired by a daily succession of hard work, and long walks. At this bivouac we were about one hundred and forty miles, in a straight line, from the estuary of Santa Cruz, or from Wedell Bluff; and about two hundred and forty-five miles distant by the course of the river. Our station at noon on the 4th, was eight miles in a straight line farther westward, and about thirty miles from the Cordillera of the Andes.* The height of those mountains was from five to seven thousand feet above our level, by angular measurement with a theodolite.

* [Actually, about 6-½ and 80 miles, respectively.]

The Captain determined to take the boats no further; the mountain[s] were between 20 &30 miles distant & the river very serpentine.— Its apparent dimensions & depth nearly the same; its current equally strong.— The country & its productions remained equally uninteresting.— In addition to all this our provisions were running short; we had been for some days on half allowance of biscuit.— This same half allowance, although really sufficient, was very unpleasant after our hard work; & those who have not tried it will alone exclaim about the comfort of a light stomach & an easy digestion. It wss very ridiculous how invariably the conversation in the evening turned upon all sorts, qualities & kinds of food.

The Captain & a large party set off to walk a few miles to the Westward.— We crossed a desert plain which forms the head of the valley of S. Cruz, but could not see the base of the mountains.— On the North side, there is a great break in the elevated lava plain, as if of the valley of a river.— It is thought probable that the main branch of the S. Cruz bends up in that direction & perhaps drains many miles of the Eastern slope of the chain.— We tookd a farewell look at the Cordilleras which probably in this part had never been viewed by other European eyes, & then returned to the tents.— At the furthest point we were about 140 miles from the Atlantic, & 60 from the nearest inlet of the Pacific.*

* At their furthest west, the party were probably within a few miles of Lago Argentino, which connects with Lago Viedma and Lago San Martin, and which was first described by J. H. Gardiner in 1867. FitzRoy read a paper about the expedition to the Royal Geographical Society on 8 May 1837 (Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 7: 114-26).

May 5th

Early on the 5th we began the rapid descent. Sometimes the wind favoured, and we passed the land at the rate of ten knots an hour; sometimes dangerous places obliged up to turn the boat's head to the stream, pull against it, and so drop down between the rocks. Though easy, the return was far more dangerous than our ascent of the river.

Our first day's work in returning was a distance of eighty-five miles, which had cost us six days hard labour in ascending.

Before sun-rise, we began our descent. We shot down the stream with great rapidity; generally at the rate of 10 miles an hour; what a contrast to the laborious tracking.— We effected in this day what had cost us five days & a half; from passing over so much country, we as it were condensed all the birds & animals together & they appeared much more numerous.

May 6th

Next day we made good about eighty-two miles;

We again equalled five & a half days tracking: the climate is certainly very different near to the mountains; it is there much colder, more windy & cloudy.

May 7th

and on the 7th we reached the salt water. Although we made such quilck progress in returning, our halts for observations were similar to those made in going. While descending the rapid stream, so quickly and quietly, we saw many more guanacoes and ostriches than we had seen before; but our flying shots only frightened them, and time was too precious to admit of any delay. Only one fish was got, and that was a dead one, which had been left on the bank: it was similar to a trout. Not more than half a dozen live fish were seen, and none could be caught either with hooks or nets. Leaving a very small party near Wedell Bluff to look for guanacoes, I hastened on board with the boats;

Slept at the place where the water ceases to be fresh.— A tent & party was left to try to shoot some Guanaco.

May 8th

and with the ebb tide reached the Beagle before noon on the 8th.

Almost every one is discontented with this expedition; much hard work, & much time lost & scarcely any thing seen or gained.— We have however to thank our good fortune, in enjoying constant fine dry weather & blue skys. To me the cruize has been most satisfactory, from affording so excellent a section of the great modern formation of Patagonia.