Why this adventurer followed Darwin’s footsteps up a threatened Argentinian river

At the end of November 2014, Leon McCarron and Tom Allen set off for Patagonia to follow the Santa Cruz river across Argentina. Inspired by the story of the first European crew to explore the area in 1834—which included on its roster a very young and altogether impressionable Charles Darwin—Leon, Tom and their friend Jose used the expedition’s old diaries to retrace Darwin’s exploratory journey upriver and his attempts to find the source that feeds the Santa Cruz.

We recently caught up with Leon and asked him about the reasons behind this new voyage, what his expedition discovered about the environment en route, and why they might possibly be the last explorers ever to venture up the Santa Cruz.

Hi Leon. First please tell us, what was the aim of your expedition?

I wanted to follow the Rio Santa Cruz across Argentina from the sea to the source. We would be following in the footsteps of the early explorers—Charles Darwin and Captain FitzRoy—while charting the contemporary issues surrounding the future of the river.

Why this specific part of the world?

I’ve always wanted to visit—that’s one of the simplest reasons! I love wild areas, and remote places—deserts especially have always fascinated me. Since I was young two places seemed to be more ‘wild’ and remote than anywhere else—Mongolia, and Patagonia. I walked across 250 miles of the Gobi desert in 2011, so a journey to Patagonia was overdue.

Tell us a bit more about the river’s connection with Charles Darwin?

In 1834 the HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy, was surveying the coastline of South America, around the area of the Santa Cruz. On board was a young ‘gentleman’s companion’— a role designed as dinner conversation for the captain—called Charles Darwin. He was 25 at this point; 23 when they set sail. This was essentially his gap year. On the journey that followed along the Santa Cruz—FitzRoy set off upstream to try and discover the source—Darwin left detailed diaries which show the whirring of cogs in his mind. In particular, it’s fascinating to read his ruminations on fossils. The reader gets the impression that for the first time he is thinking that perhaps the worlds is not now as it always was. This, I believe, is one of the first written examples of his thought processes that led so famously to his great writings that changed the way we now view life on earth.

What were your first impressions of the environment?

It was harsh; sparse; barren. But beautiful within that—a wild, empty steppe land from afar, but up close one noticed the various shrubs and bushes (like the calafate bush) that survived the climate, and the considerable amount of fauna on show. Through the centre of all of this was a ribbon of glacial blue water, winding its way from the Andes to the ocean.

What, if any, wildlife did you chance upon out there?

The most common sightings were of guanacos, which roam the plains in relatively large numbers. We also saw rheas-grey, speedy ostrich-like birds—wild and semi-wild horses, foxes and enormous condors which dominated the skyline. Darwin loved these birds, which can have a wingspan of over 6ft. In keeping with explorers of his era, he showed his appreciation by shooting one down so he could study it…

What were the greatest challenges of your expedition?

We were a team of three with five horses, and keeping everyone happy was quite a chore at times! The conditions were tough on the horses, and we had to ration food wisely—water was always available if we stuck to the river, but finding good quality grazing for the horses was a challenge.

Please tell us about the damming projects along the river?

The Rio Santa Cruz is the last large free-flowing glacial river in Argentine Patagonia. There are plans for two enormous hydroelectric dams to be built. Together they will costs $5bn, and are being funded by China—the largest Chinese investment in Latin America to date. Since the change in government, the dams are no longer certain, although the first instalment of money is already with the contractors, and we saw signs of work having begun. Our friends in the region report that more movements are happening as we speak.

Tom and Leon on horseback. Photo courtesy of Leon McCarron
Tom and Leon on horseback. Photo courtesy of Leon McCarron

There are two sides to the argument, as would be expected. The government claim it will provide much-needed power to the national grid, will provide jobs and create industry in the sparse Santa Cruz region. The opposition counter that the power generated is inefficient—especially if it is transported thousands of miles away to the big cities in the north—that the jobs will be temporary and will likely not be given to local workers and that the dams will destroy the ecosystem of the river.

They contest that the river will be raised to the same level as Lago Argentina, the source of the river, which could affect the iconic Perito Moreno glacier. Most of all, they’re frustrated at the lack of transparency over the issue. For over a year there was no Environmental Impact Assessment—which is required by law—and when it was finally provided in late 2015, it was not made publicly available.

Why is it important that rivers like the Rio Santa Cruz be preserved?

To my mind, we need to protect the wild parts of our world. In the battle of nature versus progress we, as humans, too often side with ‘progress’—surrounding ourselves in a new, comfortable, industrial way of living. If we continue to do this, it’s been proven that we will destroy our planet. At some point we need to be accountable and recognise our role as stewards for the environments that sustain our life. The Rio Santa Cruz seemed to me to be an example of the problem that society is facing, in microcosm.

What, in your view, would be the best solution for maintaining this environment in the way nature has created it?

That’s a huge question! I think it begins with personal responsibility. The easiest thing that each of us can do right now is change the way we live—first in small increments, then in larger ways. If we begin like this, it’s a good start. The change makers at policy level needs to begin prioritising environmental issues, and countries like China and India—with their vast populations—will be key to this.

Massive hypothetical here, but what do you think Charles Darwin would have thought about your sea to source expedition in his footsteps, and perhaps about the reasons behind its undertaking?

I would like to think he’d have enjoyed the concept. He’d probably have been disappointed at our lack of intellect! What I’d really love to know is what Darwin and FitzRoy made of the dams. They were all for ‘progress’, but in 1834 that meant something very different. I suspect they too would have yearned for the protection of the Rio Santa Cruz that they worked so hard to open up. It’s worth mentioning here that they never made it—they turned back just a few hours from the source—exhausted, and demoralised, and having no idea how close they were. So perhaps Darwin would also have been a little jealous that we made it, which is an amusing thought!

Is there anything else you’d like to say or add?

Cheers Jamie!