The End of the World! Tierra Del Fuego & Ushuaia

Well we have now reached the bottom or should I say the start of our trip! Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world, sited on the shores of the Beagle Channel. To get here, we left Torres Del Paine and drove south to Punta Arenas. Just outside Puerto Natales we stopped the car at a ‘Difunta Correa’ (see the January log for the story behind these shrines) to take some photographs and Mags wanted to leave a bottle of water – the traditional offering for safe conduct on the road. There must have been several thousand plastic water bottles around the shrine – it was quite a fantastic and strange sight. Even stranger then, when we returned to the car to find the clock & the trip meter both reset to zero! The trip meter was showing around 450km since the last petrol fill and the clock had been set to the correct time. To change these you have to deliberately push in the trip meter reset – not something easily done by accident, as you have to put your hand through the steering wheel. Resetting the clock is even harder as you have to twist & hold the reset button to advance the hours & minutes. We still cannot explain how this happened. I checked the battery connections just to be sure they weren’t loose but everything was OK.

At Punto Arenas, we spent a day catching up on Website updates & e-mail from home, adjusting to the cooler climate and then set off to Tierra Del Fuego. We stopped en-route to visit the Penguin colony at Otway Sound where there are around 10,000 Magellan Penguins just finishing their breeding season. They are amazing little animals – they burrow nests in the grassland quite a distance from the sea (up to 750 metres away) where they lay their eggs and raise their young. The parents pair for life and return to the same burrow each year for breeding. They make trips out to sea for food for the chicks, walking on their stubby little legs down to the sea in gangs with all their mates. They looked like little nuns in wetsuits carrying a bag of spuds in each hand as they waddled down to the beach and all of us watching them wore smiles of amusement at their comedy performances. The whole area resembled a battlefield, with dugouts (the burrows), communication trenches (they always take the same routes to & from the sea wearing lots of little pathways everywhere) and assembly areas, where they could muster and plan their next raid out to sea. The noise was quite incredible – Magellan penguins bray like donkeys and it was another class comedy act watching them bob up and down on their feet to pump up pressure in their lungs ready for the next call. Then they slowly release the air with a sound like the pick-up wail of a demented bagpipe drone, slowly turning it from something slightly tuneful to a full-blown donkey bray. Magnify this by several thousand penguins and you can create quite a din!

We crossed the Magellan Straits in around 15 minutes on a small open deck ferry (similar to the one at Portaferry back home in N.Ireland) to enter Tierra Del Fuego – The Land of Fire and the island at the end of the world. Early explorers named it from the masses of smoke they observed rising from native Yamana Indian campfires. The locals too proved to be unfriendly and there were several deaths arising from the early contacts between European sailors & the Yamana, who were thought to be cannibals. Coupled with the dangerous navigation of the rock / island strewn stormy waters, the area gained a fearsome reputation amongst seafarers. The coasts are littered with shipwrecks and the few survivors who escaped told tales that only enhanced the areas reputation. For many years it became an area to be avoided and ships stayed well out to sea rounding Cape Horn.

As to our arrival, almost immediately we were dumped off our nice paved road onto a nasty bit of Ripio leading us on into this barren god-forsaken piece of land. For our first day we were beginning to wonder why we’d come here. It is a depressing place with nothing to please the eye. There are low rolling yellow/brown grasslands that merge with a horrid leaden sky to drain the soul & spirit. The sky yielded big splots of rain on our windscreen, rain that never came to anything – not wet enough to drive with your wipers on – just big splodges that blurred the view and depressed the scene even more. And the land is still on fire – literally, although they are no longer Yamana campfires. There are gas wells spotted across the landscape burning off massive exhaust flames, adding to the impression that we really have come to the end of the world, temporally as well as physically. It would make an excellent prison if the punishment to be meted included some sort of sensory deprivation (actually Ushuaia started life as a penal colony). As to wildlife we did spot one or 2 Guanacos, but here the sub-species all have sooty, blackened faces and all were sorry looking specimens.

We crossed from the Chilean side into Argentinean territory and things picked up a little when we were granted paved roads once more. It was getting too late to make Ushuaia, so we decided to stop for the night at Rio Grande, a fairly large city on the coast. Rio Grande is another oil/gas industry town with a bit of sheep farming thrown in and, according to our Lonely Planet Guide, it has tried to brighten up its image by claiming itself to be ‘the Garden City of Patagonia’. ‘Garden Cities’ are a bit like Greenland – so called to entice settlers to come & live there, when there isn’t really much attraction to the place. True there were lovely little flower beds up & down the streets, filled with Marigolds and other blooms, but the effect was lost against the backdrop of derelict and crumbling buildings – battered no doubt by the wicked looking steel grey South Atlantic. Still we did find a nice warm and friendly hotel to end our first day of travel here. For our evenings entertainment we sat in a restaurant eating Patagonian Lamb and watching an escaped guard dog dragging a huge chain up & down the street. He didn’t look like much of a guard dog – a big lollopy mongrel with his tongue hanging out and looking totally confused and bewildered at his newfound freedom. We spent the rest of the evening contemplating if this really is all there is to the end of the world? If so it deserves better – something to please the eye once again and a more fitting statement to mark the termination of the South American landmass.

Next morning we left Rio Grande, or we tried to and promptly got lost. We stopped to ask a parked up Police Patrol & they smiled & led us through the town to set us on the right road. On the way out we passed a huge statue of a Trout! Apparently another of Rio Grande’s saving graces is that it is surrounded by some of the best trout rivers in the world. We drove across some of these on our way south and they started to break the dismal landscape up and make it more interesting. The ground started to rise and we saw forests of trees up ahead but there was something wrong with them. As we got closer, we realised that the trees are dying – slowly being killed of by a grey-green lichen that hung suspended from dead branches like wispy battle flags after a particularly horrible slaughter. It was Hammer House of Horror stuff! – you know the trees that surround Dracula’s castle or the haunted house? All we needed was a bed of mist and a driverless coach with black horses snorting flames to complete the scene. We drove for miles through this eerily impressive landscape and then spotted the welcome sight of a few mountains up ahead. For the last 25 – 30 miles of the road to Ushuaia, we were back on Ripio, but good well-graded stuff. The mountains developed into an awesome snow-capped range barring our path and we were soon up into them along the shores of Lake Fagnano, our spirits lifted by this welcoming sight. It got better & better, with the road clinging to the side of a huge cliff face with breathtaking drops off to the other side as we crept higher & higher through the gap in the mountains that allowed us over the range. It was cold and the landscape was wreathed in dense Valkyrian clouds splotting our windscreen once again – we could even hear the hammers of the gods at work somewhere up in the gloom. This turned out to be roadworks, as an improved & paved road was being installed from Ushuaia, which provided a smooth gentle ending to our crossing. We glided down the last few kilometres to the deep blue waters of the Beagle Channel and into the lap of the Martial Mountains where we found our ultimate destination nestled along the coast – Ushuaia – City at the End of the World!

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