Postcards from the Edge

Tad Friend reports on the wild beauty and strange attraction of South America’s last frontier: Patagonia.
  1. The sea elephants lolled in postures of exhaustion, snorting occasionally to scatter the flies or scooping gravel onto their backs with a languorous flipper as clumsy as an oven mitt. A friend and I were on the rough shingle just north of Punta Delgada on the Valdés Peninsula, a sanctuary for sea elephants, sea lions, penguins, and whales. Aside from the three workers a few miles away at the charming Punta Delgada hotel, we were the only people for fifty miles.

    The peace was broken every few minutes when the bull elephant bellowed, a noise somewhere between an unmuffled V-12 engine and a radiant belch. His monstrous tongue, which he waved about proudly, was marbled like a shell steak. The females would open a liquid black eye at these foolish noises and then plummet back into slumber. Out in the inlet, friskier sea elephants plunged toward each other and rubbed heads, their tails arched behind them like women being kissed in 1930s movies. The sky was a careless blue, and we were at the edge of the world.

    Late in the day we climbed back up the cliff, scattering a family of rheas. These nincompoop birds, which are flightless and resemble ostriches, tried to sprint up the steepest part of the cliff and kept rolling back down to the beach. If you surprise one on the road, it will run in front of your car for miles, its neck questing like a periscope, never imagining a turn out of danger.

    In the five minutes it took to climb the slope, the sky blackened, the temperature plunged...

Originally published in Vogue, January 1991