Sheep are the movers and shakers in Patagonia. Indigenous tribes and gauchos have been massacred to make space for them; beautiful wild mammals such as guanacos and pumas have been enclosed to free up the grasses; and you can even link Britain's claim on the Falklands to sheep quarantining in the 19th century.
Behind that quiet, fluffy exterior lurks a lot of history and culture. After the breakneck, in-your-face, hedonistic overdose that is Buenos Aires (a natural stopover for anyone en route to Patagonia), the province of Santa Cruz, situated at the very bottom of the South American continent, is a mental and physical detox.
But before heading for the absolute outdoors of an estancia (ranch), I spent a weekend in Rio Gallegos, one-time hub of sheep farming and, with about 75,000 residents, still the only seriously populated town around here. It's a functional though friendly kind of place, with a few old wooden homes among the mid 20th-century concrete and corrugated iron and prim, proud lawns planted in the tough Patagonian soil.
Saturday sees all the estancieros (ranch owners), farmhands and petrol workers on Avenida Roca shopping, eating "fancy'' food such as pizzas and hamburgers and, after a week or more out on the steppe, relishing the hustle and bustle.
In one of the oldest wooden houses is the Museo de los Pioneros, where the Anglo-Argentine curator, Pamela Mackenzie, showed me old photos and antique furniture and told me how her grandfather had arrived in the 1890s with a wad of pound notes and a few suitcases.
He got hold of some land during a visit to Punta Arenas, the then affluent Chilean port city about 160 miles south-west of Rio Gallegos, and prospered thanks to the roaring wool trade between Argentina and Europe. "He used to say that you could walk from here to the Falklands on a footpath of dead sheep," she told me, "because many animals died on board while they were in the ship's hold and they were just thrown overboard. They remained in the ship's wake, floating there for hours."
Pamela, a member of the Mackenzie-Halliday clan that dominates this corner of Patagonia, is part of the old estancia class, which imported Merino, Corriedale, Romney Marsh and other British and Australian breeds a century back and, for a while, made good money out of fine fleeces.
The history of the sheepfarming pioneers, like so much in Patagonia, can be told as romantic myth. But Pam, now a townie, was not nostalgic for estancia life at all. "Coming back from my boarding school in Buenos Aires every summer holiday to work on the ranch was no fun," she said. "My father was strict and, on our first ranch, up the coast at Puerto Santa Cruz, life was hard and we were very isolated."
The town's most important annual gathering, the fiesta del cordero (lamb festival), was taking place the following day at the local stockyards. As ever, it blew a tree-flattening gale, with the added joys of occasional rain squalls and icy blasts from, presumably, Antarctica - all this in early summer. No wonder, then, at the smiles - mine included - prompted by the scene of 30 or so lambs secured on wooden posts sizzling and spitting round a vast log fire.
It's unfair, I know, but until you've had Patagonian lamb, you've not eaten lamb at all. Here it is succulent and crisp, somehow still a bit grassy, and whether eaten off the rib or as a great tender shank - forget tidy, diminutive English chops - is dangerously moreish.
After gorging on what I swear must have been a whole lamb, I sat back and watched the folklore show of handkerchief-waving couples in the classic Argentine get-up of country dresses, billowing pantaloons and big white shirts. The meal had cost eight pesos - all of £1.60.
Sated, I hit the open road, down a classic Patagonian highway, Ruta 40, to La Anita. It is one of several renowned estancias in southern Patagonia. It had stirred my curiosity because of the 1974 film La Patagonia Rebelde, in which anarchistic cowboys clash with brandy-swigging landowners over working conditions during the boom wool years of the 1920s.
La Anita was at the very centre of that drama and the surrounding lands were used in the film. The estancia, which is still owned by the same family - the Brauns - lords it over territory made up of Andean foothills and fertile valleys between the town of El Calafate and the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, a Unesco World Heritage Site and trekkers' dreamscape.
It's far lusher here than out on the plains or at Gallegos and, as well as smaller Patagonian bird species (tree creepers, woodpeckers and lapwings abound) and the familiar, flightless Patagonian emu (Darwin's rhea ), there are guanacos, native foxes, Chilean flamingos and, most common of all, plumbeous ibises that trumpet as they fly overhead.
At dawn, I checked out the shearing, performed by muscular migrant workers using ancient clippers. After lunch, I went on "lonely" walks up the hills with the house dog, and later ate dinner with my fellow guests. But the only sure way to get a feel for an estancia and its slow rhythms is on horseback.
Alta Vista's guide, Don Reyes, took me and a family of four from South Carolina to a small lagoon, where we could spy the walls of ancient ice between two mountains and where, as we rode out on to a bluff, a giant condor came into view. A string of glacial lakes lay down below, pools of blue and turquoise milk against the grey moraines.
Reyes then took us past another lagoon to climb a volcano, where the horses were tied up while we ate packed lunches in the daisy-filled meadows. It sounds more Heidi than Butch Cassidy - but that's Patagonia: you're facing off blustery winds and fearsome mountains one minute, ambling through lush dells and sun-kissed lakeside beaches the next.
In the evening, we had a barbecue - lamb again - in the outdoor lodge and afterwards I collapsed in bed reading Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, which so successfully conjures something of the stark beauty and other-worldliness of the region. Against this inhospitable vastness, the estancias provide a refuge and a cosy, domestic nucleus.
After a whole day riding or, as I did on my last day, visiting the wondrous Uspala, Onelli and Spegazzini glaciers by boat, I went back to Alta Vista; coming back is coming home.
Alta Vista is a grand, glamorous kind of ranch - there were bankers and a Nobel-prizewinning economist staying there - so, for contrast, I drove up to La Anita's smaller, more rustic neighbour, Estancia Nibepo Aike. It was even cosier, warm and sepia-toned, with heavy wooden furniture, small corners in which to read and cooking pots bubbling on stoves that are never allowed to go out.
If most of the old estancia houses look English, the hospitality is Argentine - a friendly mixture of Italian, Spanish, Yugoslav, Welsh, and other blood lines.
There's order and good housekeeping, but hearty hugs and time to kill: Don Reyes, a Chilote migrant, told me his life story (another potential book); the maid woke me up with hot tea for early starts; the concierge and jack-of-all trades was my drinking partner; and the chef took me out clubbing in Calafate (admittedly only a two-club town but great fun anyway).
The wool story continues to unravel. Luciano Benetton has bought up a vast tract of quality wool-rearing land a couple of hours' south of Rio Gallegos. Santa Cruz is once again exporting lamb meat to Buenos Aires, and to Europe (though not to my supermarket).
And estancias have become the holiday homes of choice for urban cowboys such as Sylvester Stallone and Ted Turner. Hardly the frontiersmen of the 19th century, but at least they keep themselves to themselves and allow the rest of us - travellers, shepherds, gauchos and daydreaming drifters - to roam the steppes in search of a frontier of our own, or the subtler pleasures of empty spaces.
Source: by Chris Moss - Telegraph.