Stranded at the end of the world

Twelve hour bus from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego – stamping out of Chile and back in to Argentina again on the way. The landscape passing through the northern half of Tierra del Fuego was quite boring, flat and barren and with the odd nodding donkey pumping oil out of the ground. It got more interesting closer to Ushuaia, the worlds southermost city, snowcapped mountains on the horizon and twisted bonsai-like lichen-covered trees – whole forests made up of trees only two-three meters high. We stayed a bit outside the center with a nice family who kept the house around 26 degrees indoors (Argentina unlike Chile is rich in gas…25-30 degrees indoors is the norm while it’s 10-15 degrees outdoors…nearly the exact opposite combination to super-airconditioned Hong Kong – people are never happy..).

Sealions in the Beagle Channel.

Sealions in the Beagle Channel.

We spent a day around town, then the next day we went out on a cruise on the Beagle Channel (the strait mapped by the ship Darwin sailed on). The boat passed big colonies of sea-lions, cormorants, Magellanic and Gentoo penguins, and a very desolate looking lighthouse. We got to about 54.9 degrees south – the “southest” we’ve been (while in Ushuaia we looked a bit at Antarctica cruises to hop down the next 1000km south, but even last-minute deals were fairly expensive). Going 55 degrees north would only get you about as far as Belfast, but going south it’s the end of the world with only a handful of hardy species surviving on land. Going as far south as UmeĆ„ in Sweden (where my brothers are studying and where I went just before starting this trip) is to the north would actually land you on the Antarctic peninsula…

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel.

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel.

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel.

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel.

The cruise dropped us at Estancia Harberton ranch, to return by land. The ranch was set up in 1886 by a reverend Thomas Bridges who worked with the indigenous Yamana and Selk’nam of the area while they were dying out from introduced illnesses, getting hunted down and shot by sheep farmers, or starving after sealers killed off all the sea lions. Thomas seems to have been bright enough to realize that picking up a new religion probably wasn’t the highest priority for this people at the moment, considering their situation – he set up a safe place for them at his estancia and tried to preserve what he could of their culture, creating the first Yamana-English dictionary and writing down nearly everything that is known about these peoples today. Some of the earlier missionaries down here had been less in tune with the place, one of the least hospitable areas in the world – one group led by an Allen Gardiner sat and starved to death on a beach convinced until the end that god would provide for them if they just had enough faith. Clothes given to the Yamana by other missionaries “to protect their modesty” only helped them catch pneumonia and die..oddly enough covering yourself in sea-lion grease and walking naked like they had been doing for 7,000 years actually works better in this cold wet place where clothes never dry. Today there is only one native Yamana speaker left – two other tribes on Tierra del Fuego (which was named the land of fire from all the camp-fires seen on the coastline by early explorers) went extinct without a trace.

Unnamed nativo grave.

Unnamed nativo grave.

The estancia is still run by descendants of the Bridges family, and a young member guided us around the house, cemetery and a corner of protected Fuegian forest. A tree he pointed out in the forest had been made to grow in an arch by the Yamana long ago, to be useful for boat-building. Trees like this can apparently be found all over the area, but they grow so slow it would never have been useful for the person actually shaping it, or even his kids or grandkids…it would take 300-400 years to be ready! Imagine actually caring that much for your very very distant descendants… While we were walking around the estancia world leaders were gathering in Copenhagen to discuss climate change, and whether we should bother to leave any scraps at all of the biosphere intact for our grandkids… They came up with nothing but that’s ok, most people were too busy wondering how many people some famous golfer had slept with to even notice… Could it be that struggling with your day-to-day survival in a harsh environment like this keeps the brain functioning better than our modern lifestyle?

Skeletons and laundry by the Acatushun museum.

Skeletons and laundry by the Acatushun museum.

After walking around the estancia we went to a very impressive marine mammal museum next-doors. There’s a very long shallow peninsula a bit further north on the Tierra del Fuego coast where whales often get stranded, and the ones that can’t be rescued usually end up here. Overflowing around the museum building there was a fantastic amount of cetacean spare-parts lying around – the skeletons of some of the biggest animals that have ever lived, lying in the grass next to the laundry hanging out to dry! The exhibition inside was well laid out, the living animals painted on the walls behind the mounted skeletons, and there was another house with a second bone-yard a bit further down by the shore. Two volunteers were sitting outside (..in the fresh air) each cleaning a dolphin skull – inside the house a big wooden box contained dozens more still waiting to be cleaned..we nearly passed out from the stench when the lid was lifted!

Flag tree.

Flag tree.

 

Bus back to Ushuaia with a couple more stops packed in along the way – twisted “flag-trees” on an exposed hill, bent over by the constant westerlies – another stop by a beaver dam (a Canadian species introduced for a failed fur-trade business, now busy eating its way through the slow-growing native forests) – and finally a stop by a husky-farm (wrong season for dog-sledding though with no snow around). One of the dogs there was a half-wolf breed, and the owner had taken part in the Alaskan Iditarod race.

 

We had planned to spend only a couple days in Ushuaia and the Tierra del Fuego national park, but it was getting quite close to Christmas and when we went to check about buses everything out from Tierra del Fuego was fully booked for well over a week. The bus north to Buenos Aires would have been about 52 hours long, and we weren’t particularly looking forward to it, but now there wasn’t actually any bus at all that could get us up there before the 25th. Flights were sold out also – except for one on Christmas Eve, landing at midnight, so we booked this for lack of other options (it was actually about the same price as the bus too).

In the Terra del Fuego national park.

In the Terra del Fuego national park.

Decided to make our Tierra del Fuego national park trip an overnight one now that we had the time – who doesn’t want to go camping at the end of the world? The park begins an hour west of town, where the road ends and we got an “end-of-the-world” stamp in our passport from a crazy pirate captain (seriously, he had the jolly roger hoisted!) who immediately gave us a couple bottles of stout upon learning that there were Irish among us! The trek from there followed the shore mostly, passing old Yamana settlements and making a dip in towards the mossy forests every now and then. In a few spots fallen trees were lying in big piles, tossed around like matches – they must get some serious storms here during the winter… (Cape Horn isn’t far off). In some areas many half-fallen trees were leaning on eachother, moving in the wind and we could hear loud creaking sounds from every direction around us – the singing forests of Tierra del Fuego!

Indian bread in Terra del Fuego national park.

Indian bread in Terra del Fuego national park.

The forest was full of an orange parasitic fungus growing on the trees, called Indian bread (edible apparently, though we didn’t risk it) and small white orchids growing by the thousand through the thick moss. It started raining a bit just as we got to the campsite – they didn’t have enough tents to rent us it turned out, but they did have sleeping-bags and there was a cabin that we could stay in (tents would probably have been very cold and soggy anyway…the campsite was partly flooded). We lit a cozy fire in the cabin stove, and drank our pirate stout! In the morning we woke from a huge bird of prey banging on our window (..I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the stout) – the whole campsite was actually full of birds of prey, as well as some dare-devil rabbits who must have liked living on the edge.

Loosing the path..

Loosing the path..

After breakfast we started another trail along the lake shore – a bit overgrown and hard to follow but not to worry – I found a great shortcut (see photo). A side-trail up a 970m mountain called Cerro Guanaco had a sign saying it was closed off but we started it anyway to see how far we could get. Patching up a broken bridge across a stream on the way with a few more dead tree-stumps, we managed to get as far as the snow-line 600m up. Big views towards the lakes below and the Beagle Channel far away before we turned around to trek back down.

Mossy Fuegian forest.

Mossy Fuegian forest.

We still had a few days to spend in Ushuaia before the flight out – used them to visit another couple museums to learn more about the Yamana and early Antarctic explorers. A display on the local fauna in one of the museums was sponsored by the Total oil company, which apparently without any irony lamented the 90% loss in some penguin species due to rising sea temperatures… The maritime museum was housed in the old prison – Tierra del Fuego (being a fairly miserable place to live during the winter) has of course been used as a penal colony. The prisoners among other things had to work hard in the snow to build a pointless little railroad that is now only used as a slower alternative for tourists to get the national park. One prisoner, featured as a life-size replica in his old cell, was a young psycho-killer with huge ears – learned men of the day were convinced that “his wickedness lies in his ears” so they were operated on. Surprisingly it didn’t work – he was still wicked, and legend has it the ears even grew back overnight! His prison mates eventually beat him to death when they got fed up with his “wickedness”.

Anne crossing a stream.

Anne crossing a stream.

During the day on Christmas Eve, before catching the evening flight, we climbed up the mountains behind Ushuaia to see a small glacier. We got up to 750 meters altitude (cheating a little with a cable-car that gave us 200m in the middle) and it was really quite miserable up there. Snow, strong winds nearly pushing us off the trail and freezing cold – and this is practically midsummer here… How on earth did the naked canoe-nomads survive this place in the winter? At the Harberton estancia they mentioned a recent winter of 3 meter snow that had killed most of their sheep. We thawed on the way down from the mountain, the forest of the lower slopes giving us a bit more shelter.

The views when we flew out from Ushuaia were fantastic, still bright at half past nine in the evening. We spotted the Beagle Channel and Magellan Strait during the first few minutes in the air.

Leaving Ushuaia.

Leaving Ushuaia.

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