Posted by: Rob Viens | January 3, 2014

Wishing for Fresh Water in Port Desire

From the 28th to 30th of December, Darwin, along with Edward Chaffers and several crewmen, journeyed upstream into the estuary of the Deseado River, where he correctly surmised that it flowed all the way from the Andes. Chaffers was the ship’s master – you can find a little more about him and his role in the post John Clements Wickham – Tortoise Herder. Meanwhile here is what Darwin had to say about the survey expedition:

“The Yawl, under the command of Mr Chaffers with three days provisions, was sent to survey the head of the creek. — In the morning we searched for some watering places mentioned in an old Chart of the Spaniards.— We found one creek, at the head of which there was a small rill of brackish water. — Here the tide compelled us to stay some hours. — I, in the interval, walked several miles into the interior. The plain, as is universally the case, is formed of sandy chalk, & gravel; from the softness of these materials it is worn & cut up by very many vallies. — There is not a tree, &, excepting the Guanaco, who stands on some hill top a watchful sentinel over his herd, scarcely an animal or a bird. — All is stillness & desolation. One reflects how many centuries it has thus been & how many more it will thus remain.— Yet in this scence without one bright object, there is a high pleasure, which I can neither explain or comprehend. — In the evening, we sailed a few miles further & then pitched the tents for the night.” (Dec 28)

Bivouac at the head of Port Desire inlet – an engraving from FitzRoy’s Narratives (by S. Bull after a sketch by Conrad Martens – from Dec 29?)

Bivouac at the head of Port Desire inlet

“By the middle of the day the Yawl could not get any higher, from the shoalness of the water & the number of mud-banks. — One of the party happening to taste the water found it only brackish. — Mr Chaffers, directly after dinner started in the dingy, & after proceeding two or three miles found himself in a small fresh water river. — Small as it is, it appears to me probable, that it flows from the Cordilleras, the water is muddy as if flooded, & this is the time of year for the snow freshes of the Colorado, Sauce &c. — Mr Chaffers saw in a little valley a lame horse, with his back marked by the saddle; so that the Indians must have left him there or were then in the neighbourhead. The views here were very fine & rude; the red porphyry rock rises from the water in perpendicular cliffs, or forms spires & pinacles in its very course. — Excepting in this respect the country is the same. — At night we were all well pleased at our discovery of the little river; which, however, was no discovery as a Sealer had said some years ago that he had been up it.” (Dec 29)

I love the imagery of the centuries of “stillness & desolation” and the unexplainable “high pleasure” that Darwin feels in visiting the barren landscape.

On the 30th it was back to the ship:

“We got under weigh at four oclock & reached Guanaco Island by midday. —as the weather was cold & wet, I determined to walk to the ship. — It turned out to be a very long one, from the number of inlets & creeks: The geology well repaid me for my trouble, & I found likewise a small pool of quite fresh water.” (Dec 30)

Guanacoe Island, Port Desire (by Conrad Martens)

Guanacoe Island by Conrad Martens

Although a good harbor, Port Desire is still a relatively small town of about 15,000 with an economy centered on the fishing industry.  Interestingly one of the few things that shows up on the Google map (below) is a touring service named after Darwin.  I know I’ve said it before, but what would Darwin have thought of that?

A close up image of Port Desire and the estuary from Google Maps.

Zoom into the map to see details – notice there is not a tree in sight.(RJV)


  1. Rob, we have been there on 01/20/2014. We did the journey to the exact point of Fitz Roy`s and Darwin bivouac place. It took us only a few hours this time :).
    We use Darwin Expeditions services and was great.
    I found your post looking for Conrad´s picture from Darwin´s bivouac, do you have it?
    If want I can send you some pictures of what it looks like now.

    • Hi Pablo – Thanks for the offer – I’d love to see a picture, and if it is OK with you it would be great to post it to the site for others to see (with credit, of course). I’ve never been there, so it would interesting to see what it looks like today. I thin it i pretty great how Darwin’s journey 180 years ago, is still connecting people around the world today! – Rob

      • No problem, do you have a public email address to share so I can email it? I also got the picture we were shown there, is a different work from the one you show. An aquarelle, probably from the same source as your second picture.
        By the way the place looks almost exactly as it was 180 years ago. 20 Mpix pictures has a little more details than aquarelle.

  2. Sorry, I thought there was a different picture, but it seems that the bivouac picture you posted is the only one.

  3. I’ve visited Puerto Deseado many times, and I will vouch that Darwin Expediciones is a very professional operation. It’s especially worth visiting offshore Isla Pingüino, with a large population of rockhopper penguins.

    Deseado also has some classic architecture, including a massive train station that’s now a museum. The line never got farther than the city of Las Heras, about 280 km to the northwest.

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