Posted by: Rob Viens | September 10, 2013

The Road North

The Road North

Whoopee! At long last Darwin was back in the saddle and heading north on an overland journey to Buenos Aires. Over the next few weeks he would scale peaks, smoke with the gauchos, and skirt around the ongoing “Indian War”.  But for today, he was just happy to be on the road:

“Having at last obtained a Vacciano & passport for government horses from General Rosas, I started for Buenos Ayres. — The distance is about 400 miles. — The weather was favourable, but remarkably hazy; I thought it the forerunner of a gale, but the Gauchos tell me it is the smoke from the camp at some great distance being on fire. — To the first Posta 4 leagues, the plain without any bushes but varied by vallies. — The 2nd Posta is on the R Sauce, a deep, rapid little river, not above 25 feet wide. It is quite impassable here & the whole distance to the sea, & forms by this means a useful barrier against the Indians.

Where the road crosses it, about a league further up, the water does not reach to the horses belly. The Jesuit Falkner, whose information, drawn from the Indians, is generally so very correct; in his map, makes it a great river arising in the Andes. — I think he is right. — for the soldiers say, that in the middle of summer, there are floods, at the same time with the Colorado; if so it is clear there must be a channel for the snow water, although it is probably dry during the greater part of the year. — The valley of the Sauce, appears very fertile, it is about a mile wide, there are large tracts of a wild Turnip much resembling the Europæan, they are good to eat but rather acrid.” (Sept 8)

Mmm…nothing says nature like wild turnips.  I once ate canned beets while camped out on the Bering Glacier in Alaska.  I suppose I can sort of make a connection there…

On a more scientific note, I’m not exactly sure what Darwin was eating. The traditional turnip originated in Europe or Asia, and there are wild turnips that can be found in North America, but nothing comes up regarding Argentina.  So I suspect it was either (1) a similar species or (2) turnips that were brought from the Old World for cultivation. Given that he calls them “wild turnips”, I’d suspect the former, but am not sure what they would be.  Please feel free to comment if you know the answer.

Brassica rapa – the root of which forms the “traditional” turnip – a member of the mustard family (from Wikipedia Commons)

turnip flower

As he traveled, Darwin was following a chain of small military “posts” laid out along the route – each one manned by a few (at most) of General Rosa’s soldiers. But first he had to stop at the Sierra de la Ventana to do a little exploring. I covered these mountains last month back when Darwin described them in the distance (see On the Road and “Souzed in Black Mire”). At last he was finally there, so he had a little more to say about them up close:

“I arrived here in the afternoon, & getting fresh horses & a guide started for the Sierra de la Ventana. — The distance was about 6 leagues, & the ride interesting, as the mountain began to show its true form. — I do not think Nature ever made a more solitary desolate looking mountain; it well deserves the name of Hurtado or separated. — its height, calculated by angular measurement from the ship, is between 3 & 4000 feet. — it is very steep, rough & broken. — It is so completely destitute of all trees, that we were unable to find even a stick to stretch out the meat for roasting, our fire being made of dry thistle stalks. — The strangeness of its appearance chiefly is caused by its abrupt rise from the sea-like plain, which not only comes up to the foot of the mountain, but separates the parallel ridges or chains. — The uniformity of the colouring gives extreme quietness to the view. — The whitish-grey of the quartz rock & the light brown colour of the withered grass of the plain is unbroken by the brighter tints of a single bush. — When we arrived at the foot of the main chain, we had much difficulty in finding water; & were afraid we should pass the night without any; it seems that all the streamlets, after flowing a few hundred yards in the plain bury themselves; at last we found some, it was then growing dark & we bivouacced for the night. —

The night was very clear & cold, the dew, which in the early part wetted the yergas of the Recado, was in the morning ice. — The water in the kettle was also a solid block. — The place where we slept could not I think have been more than 700 feet above level of the sea, so that I suppose the neighbourhead of the mountain caused this unusual degree of cold. — The highest part of the Sierra is composed of four peaks in a gradually lowering order. — The two highest of these can alone be seen from Bahia Blanca. — To this part a ridge or saddle back appears to join. — our halting place was at the foot of this.” (Sept 8)

The town of Sierra de la Ventana (located about 40 miles north of Bahia Blanca and near the mountains of the same name (from Google Maps):

Now that he was finally in the mountains, it was time to think about “bagging a peak”… more on that tomorrow … (RJV)


  1. I thought he might mean Pachyrhizus erosus (Mexican yam/ turnip). never ate it, and I doubt it’s bitter. Wikipedia says it’s “sweet and starchy”. So he probably means something else.

    • Good idea – I had not really thought about other tubers. Over here they sell the Mexican yam as jicama. I agree it is not really particularly spicy – its sort of like the flavor of a carrot – maybe a little more “wet” and slightly more “bland”. But I bet you are on the right track that it is another type of tuber. Thanks!

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