In the morning three whale-boats started under the command of the Captain to explore as far as time would allow the Santa Cruz river: During the last voyage, Capt. Stokes proceeded 30 miles, but his provisions failing, he was obliged to return. Excepting, what was then found, even the existence of this large river was hardly known. We carried three weeks provisions & our party consisted of 25 souls; we were all well armed & could defy a host of Indians. With a strong flood tide & a fine day we made a good run, soon drank some of the fresh water, and at night were nearly above the tidal influence. The river here assumed a size & appearance, which, even at the highest point we ultimately reached, was scarcely diminished. It is generally from three to four hundred yards broad, & in the centre about seventeen feet deep; & perhaps its most remarkable feature is the constant rapidity of the current, which in its whole course runs at the rate of from four to six knots an hour. The water is of a fine blue colour with a slight milky tinge, but is not so transparent as would be expected; it flows over a bed of pebbles, such as forms the beach & surrounding plain. The valley is in a very direct line to the westward, in which the river has a winding course, but it varies from five to 10 miles in width, being bounded by perfectly horizontal plains of 3 to 500 feet elevation.
Excepting in the porphyry districts, all the eastern coasts of Patagonia, and the little of the interior which I have seen, seemed to me to be a similar succession of horizontal ranges of level land varying in height, intersected here and there by ravines and water-courses. There are, certainly, hills in many places which appear when one is passing at sea, or in the distance, conical, or at all events peaked; but even those hills are but the gable ends, as it were, of narrow horizontal ridges of land, higher than the surrounding country.
The cliffs on the south side of the river have a whitish appearance; and are similar to those on the outer coast, which were said by Sir John Narborough to resemble the coast of Kent. Their upper outline, when seen from a distance, is quite horizontal. Brownish yellow is the prevailing colour, lighter or darker, as the sun shines more, or becomes obscured. Here and there, in hollow places and ravines, a few shrubby bushes are seen. But over the wide desolation of the stony barren waste not a tree—not even a solitary 'ombu'—can be discerned. Scattered herds of ever-wary guanacoes, startled at man's approach, neighing, stamping, and tossing their elegant heads; a few ostriches striding along in the distant horizon, and here and there a solitary condor soaring in the sky, are the only objects which attract the eye. Certainly, upon looking closely, some withered shrubs and a yellow kind of herbage may be discerned; and, in walking, thorns and prickles assure one painfully that the plain is not actually a desert: but I am quite sure that the general impression upon the mind is that of utter hopeless sterility. Is it not remarkable that water-worn shingle stones, and diluvial accumulations, compose the greater portion of these plains? On how vast a scale, and of what duration must have been the action of those waters which smoothed the shingle stones now buried in the deserts of Patagonia.
Fresh water is seldom found in these wastes; salinas are numerous. The climate is delightful to the bodily sensations; but for productions of the earth, it is almost as bad as any, except that of the Arabian, or African deserts. Rain is seldom known during three quarters of the year; and even in the three winter months, when it may be expected, but little falls excepting on rare occasions, when it comes down heavily for two or three days in succession. Sea winds sometimes bring small misty rain for a few hours, at any time of year, but not enough to do good to vegetable productions. The only animals which abound are guanacoes, and they care little for fresh water, for they have often been seen drinking at the salinas. The puma probably quenches its thirst in their blood; of other animals, supposed to require much liquid, there are none in these regions.
The climate is healthy and pleasant; generally a bright, sunny day is succeeded by a cloudless and extremely clear night. In summer the heat is scorching, but not sultry; and in winter, though the weather is sometimes searchingly cold, especially during southerly winds, the air is always elastic and wholesome. Changes of wind are sudden, and cause rapid, though not very great, variations of temperature. Sometimes the sky is slightly or partially overcast, occasionally clouded heavily; but on most days there is bright sunshine, and a fresh or strong westerly wind.
The confluence of a continental torrent of fresh water, with great tides of the ocean, which here rise forty feet perpendicularly, has embarrassed the mouth of the Santa Cruz with a number of banks. They are all composed of shingle and mud, and alter their forms and positions when affected by river-floods, or by the heavy seas caused by south-east gales.
Into the entrance of the Santa Cruz, the flood-tide sets about four knots an hour; one may say, from two to five knots, according to the time of tide, and the narrower or broader part of the opening; and outwards, the water rushes at least six knots on an average in mid-channel. There are places in which at times, when acted upon by wind or unusual floods, it runs with a velocity of not less than seven or eight knots an hour—perhaps even more; but near either shore, and in bights between projecting points, of course the strength of the outward as well as inward current is very inferior.
In such a bight, almost under some high cliffs on the southern shore, the Beagle was moored, and it is easy to conceive the different views presented in this situation, with forty feet change in the level of the water. At high water, a noble river, unimpeded, moves quietly, or is scarcely in motion: at other times, a rushing torrent struggles amongst numerous banks, whose dark colour and dismal appearance add to the effect of the turbid yellow water, and naked-looking, black, muddy shores.
The boats sailed on between some of the banks, with a fresh southerly wind, disturbing every where immense flights of sea-birds. Now and then a monstrous sea-lion lifted his unwieldy bulk a few inches from the stony bank, lazily looked around, and with a snort and a growl, threw his huge shapelessness, by a floundering waddle, towards the nearest water.
As far as Weddell's Bluff we sailed merrily; but there took to the oars, because the river makes a sudden turn, or rather, the river Santa Cruz (properly so called), enters the estuary of the same name from the south-west, as far as can be seen from Weddell's Bluff:—but a little beyond where the eye reaches, it takes a westerly direction. Another river, the Chico of Viedma, also enters the estuary at this place from the north-west. Here, a little above the Bluff, the water was fresh on the surface, and sometimes it is quite fresh, even into the estuary; but in filling casks, or dipping any thing into the stream for fresh water, it is advisable not to dip deep, or to let the hose (if one is used), go many inches below the surface, since it often happens that the upper water is quite fresh, while that underneath is salt. This occurs, more or less, in all rivers which empty themselves into the sea: the fresh water, specifically lighter, is always uppermost.
Wind failing us entirely, we pulled to the south-west. On our left, high cliffs still continued, and at their base a wide shingle beach offered tempting landing-places, with many spots extremely well adapted for laying a vessel ashore, to be repaired or cleaned; on our right, a low shore extended, rising gradually, however, in the north-west, to cliffs like those near Keel Point.
The flowing tide favoured us until about five, when we landed on the north shore, at a spot where the rise and fall of the tide had diminished to four feet. Here the river was six hundred and forty yards in breadth, running down at the rate of about six knots during a part of the ebb, and from two to four knots an hour during the greater part of the flood-tide. It was perfectly fresh to the bottom, and in mid-channel about three fathoms deep; but this depth extended very little way across, the deep channel being extremely narrow, not more than twenty yards in width.
The distinct difference between the opposite banks of the river had been diminishing, until at this spot both sides were much alike. We had left the cliffs and salt water, and had fairly entered the fresh-water river. Instead of having a wide extent of dismal-looking banks and dark-coloured muddy shores, we were at the side of a rapid stream, unvarying in width, on whose banks shrubs and grass agreeably relieved our eyes from muddy shingle covered with hosts of crabs.