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Lady Florence Dixie and the wild horses of Torres del Paine

Lady Florence Dixie is regarded as the first tourist to Torres del Paine, and her account Across Patagonia, published in 1880, is still a beloved classic of Patagonia travel writing. It is interesting not just for the lyrical quality of her prose, but also for the historical insights that can be gained from the book. When Lady Dixie travelled to Patagonia, there was no tourist infrastructure whatsoever. No airport, no roads, no refugios. The modern-day traveller who wants to relive Patagonia as it was a century ago can do no better than experiencing it through Lady Dixie’s words.

Enemy and Protectress

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Lady Dixie’s relationship with the local fauna is particularly interesting, though at the same time troubling from our modern perspective. She was part enemy and part protectress. She and her group hunted constantly out of both necessity and pleasure. Guanacos and ñandús provided the meat they needed throughout their expedition. The rarer animals, such as the huemul and the puma, were seen as opportunities to demonstrate one’s hunting skills, their carcasses being prized possessions back home. Although Lady Dixie was enthusiastic about hunting, in her reflective moments she revealed her reservations. After killing a huemul, she “was haunted by a sad remorse for the loss of that innocent and trusting life”, and called man the “destroyer” of nature. At another point, she tried to protect a baby guanaco from her own aggressive hunting dogs, and was greatly saddened when the guanaco eventually died from the wounds. 

Wild Horse Surprise

She also narrated at length an intriguing incident involving the wild horses, or the baguales, of Torres del Paine. One evening, a herd of wild horses appeared down the valley where her group was camped. Lady Dixie’s own horses were disturbed by the arrival of their wild cousins, becoming very restless. Suddenly, a stallion broke out from the wild herd and galloped at full speed towards Dixie’s horses. It seemed that the stallion was trying to force the tame horses to join the wild herd. The stakes were high, as the horses were the travellers’ only means of transport and they were hundreds of kilometres away from Punta Arenas.

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Saddling up Lady Dixie's tame horses

The wild horse was so fast that it proved impossible for the group of travellers to stop it. At this critical juncture, the leader of the tame horses, a big stallion, rushed out to confront the wild horse, and a fight between them ensued, which Lady Dixie described vividly: “the two animals, after pawing the air for a second or two, dashed at one another, and engaged in a fierce combat, carried on chiefly through their teeth, though occasionally they would rise on their hind legs and fight with their fore feet.” The wild stallion, however, had the upper hand, as it was superior in size. The tame stallion retreated briefly, but soon came back for a second round, for losing the fight would mean losing its wives.

The fight allowed Lady Dixie and company to reach their main campsite in time and get ammunition for their rifles. The wild stallion was victorious again, but as it galloped forth to claim the prize, the rifle shots scared it off and it “fled in dismay”. Thus Lady Dixie was spared the terrible circumstance of being stranded in the wilderness 300 miles from civilization.

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Lady Dixie and company may have been the first Europeans to see Laguna Azul

Despite this fearful incident, the power and beauty of the wild horses were not lost on Lady Dixie. Her description of a subsequent encounter with a pack of wild horses overflows with admiration for these creatures: “they disappeared like lightning over the brow of a deep ravine, to emerge again… scampering like goats up its opposite side, which rose almost perpendicular to a height of six or seven hundred feet… leaving us wondering and amazing at their marvellous agility.”

Lady Dixie's Legacy

One lesson that can be learnt from reading Lady Dixie’s account is how much our attitudes have changed towards the natural world since her time. Whereas for Lady Dixie, the prospect of wild hunting was among the principal attractions of Patagonia, we are now much more aware of the need to conserve wildlife, recognising that as travellers we should minimise our impact on the local fauna as much as possible.

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Explore Torres del Paine on horseback like Lady Dixie did

Appreciation, observation and understanding are now the main paradigm of our interaction with wild animals. At EcoCamp, visitors can experience wildlife encounters like those had by Lady Dixie, whilst adhering to the new ideals of modern ecotourism. For Patagonia beginners, the fauna trail on our Wildlife Safari is packed with guanacos and ñandús. You’ll need to be lucky to spot the puma, but joining our Puma Tracking Adventure will give you a much better chance of seeing the elusive animal. Or roam Torres del Paine Dixie-style on our Horseback Riding Extension, and meet the wild horses that so terrified Lady Dixie on the new Wild Horse Tracking Extension, where you will have the chance to observe their agility and grace, and even help collect data for scientific research.

Inspired by Lady Dixie's adventure? Let us know which Patagonian wildlife encounter you dream of having by leaving a comment below!

Look out for our next article In the Footsteps of Lady Florence Dixie, where we'll learn more about the baguales in an interview with two modern-day Lady Dixies on their Wild Horse Tracking adventure, and our inteview with Victor, an expert on baguales, for a scientific perspective!