“Patagonia has no official borders and doesn’t actually exist, which I think is part of its magic and mystery,” says Tuppence Stone, who’s just finished making a new three-part natural history series about the region.
“It occupies the southern tail of South America and is part-Chilean and part-Argentinian. The Chilean side is the wet side because all of the moisture that comes across the Pacific hits the Andes and is dropped. To the east of the mountain range in Argentina, it is very dry and you have the Steppe and desert country.”
How did it get its name?
“Patagonia predates both Chile and Argentina,” says Stone. “When sailors landed on the shore it’s said they saw huge footprints on the beach. The footprints belonged to the native people – they didn’t have bigger feet than you or I, but they wrapped their feet in furs and skins so the footprints they made in the sand were big. ‘Pata’ in Spanish is roughly translated as ‘foot’. It was a land of the giants.”
“Our first programme goes from the north of Patagonia following the Andes to the south, and it’s just a journey full of wonder. You first arrive in a world of exploded volcanos and these lost-world type forests that are unchanged from the age of the dinosaurs.
“In the middle of the Andes you have a world not carved by fire but by water, with gorges and massive rushing rivers, which are shaping the valleys and which are fringed by these cold rainforest areas. Then you go further south and you hit massive ice sheets from the peaks of the Andes all the way to the coast and you think that’s the end of the story. But beyond the ice there is this final frontier where the ice sheets have retreated in the last 20,000 years and a world that is almost treeless – the land of the pumas, the condors and the wild horses.”
Stone trekked for days to shoot a rare and intimate encounter with pumas, and also followed the Magellanic penguins as they made their way from coast to desert to raise their young.
“They come into the desert because otherwise their chicks’ downy feathers would get wet, chill and they would die. So poor mum and dad, who have perfectly good feathers, have to walk all this way inland and then take it in turns to walk back many miles to the coast to feed, then all the way back to the nest. A pretty serious trek for a penguin!”
The crew also captured some amazing footage of the orcas taking sea lions on the Patagonian shoreline. “For the first time we filmed the hunting with a drone to see their strategy from the air,” says Stone.
“It’s a spectacular new view of that behaviour. You see the orcas tying to teach their young how to hunt because if they get it wrong, they’ll be beached and stranded.”
What about the gauchos?
“You can drive for days and see nobody,” says Stone. “When you get up into some of the hills, you won’t see anybody. We were talking to the gauchos who work on the big ranches and they say if you fall off your horse, or have an accident, you’re going to lie there and no one is going to find you – apart from the condors.”
“You do have to have a keen sense of adventure, but it really is a magical place,” the film-maker concludes. “Patagonia is a place where the history of explorers is all around you. You can stay on the ranches, cruise through the magnificent fjords in the far south, or you can hike through the volcanos and trek the national parks. There is plenty of tourism, but you need to give yourself enough time to explore. The scenery is spectacular and the people are lovely. You just have to work harder for it.”
Patagonia: Earth’s Secret Paradise was shown on BBC2 in September 2015