Many explorers with a lust for adventure came before us. Magellan, Darwin and Shackleton were all searching for Terra Incognita, the unknown lands. Instead they found Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, in the southernmost part of Argentina.
Photography & text: Frits MeystThe man in the pilot seat looks over his shoulder to give the safety briefing to his passengers. “Welcome on board of DAP airlines to Ushuaia. The emergency exits are in the back, do not smoke and switch your phone to flight mode. Today will be a bumpy ride and you will hear all sorts of alarms go off. Do not be alarmed, it warns us of terrain, ice in the engine and stalling.” With this encouraging message I check the emergency exit and can’t help noticing that the release looks exactly like a 1950’s VW van doorknob. Outside the window, a moderate storm rages just below aviation minimums. The engines roar and the Twin Otter moves into the wind, gets lifted up by an invisible hand and immediately dropped again. My neighbour lets out a muffled cry and grabs my arm. She is not into flying and as the Andes mountains get higher, the turbulence increases. Every once in a while the bottom falls out from underneath us, but I have faith in the pilots who are experienced Antarctic flyers. After one hour we drop out off the clouds and below me I see the weather beaten waves of the Beagle Channel. The pilot fights with the controls in movements I have never seen before and gently lands the plane between two snow showers. “Welcome in Ushuaia!” he exclaims “This flight terminates here and so does the American continent.”
Southernmost city on Earth
The Argentinian border agent looks off guard, when 15 passengers suddenly appear out off the blue at his booth, but he happily stamps our passports, and soon I am the proud owner of an ‘end of the world’ stamp. After picking up the luggage in a pitch black arrivals hall, (does anyone know we are here?), we find life outside the terminal. “I am so happy you are here” exclaims Ana, our guide, “We didn’t think you would make it”.
Originally named by early British missionaries using the native Yamana name for the area, Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentine Province of Tierra del Fuego and commonly coined as the southernmost city on Earth. With a rapidly growing population of about 64.000 people, Ushuaia is a flourishing duty free port with a fishing industry particularly famous for its king crab. Nowadays Ushuaia is the jump off point for Antarctic expeditions and also a major stop for the cruise ships. In high season, the main street is crawling with tourists, but today all is quiet in this frontier town. We pass the whale shaped Casino and Ana laughs: “The architect was inspired by nature, but actually there are no whales in the Beagle Channel”
It started as a wet and cold winter day, but as the ship progresses in the Beagle Channel, I can see the sun struggle through the snow flurries over the jagged mountains of the Andes range that form the backdrop of today’s trip.
The Beagle Channel was named after Robert Fitzroy’s ship, whose second voyage here brought along a solitary paying passenger, a young man who would revolutionize the way we view the world – Charles Darwin. The Channel was also defined as the southern border between Chile and Argentina during the 1881 boundary treaty. However, the treaty did not solve the problem of three uninhabited islands (Picton, Lenox and Nueva) at the eastern mouth of the channel, and for many years the trio was claimed by both countries. The chief contention was whether Chile would project sovereignty claims and exclusive economic zones out into the South Atlantic from these islands. The dispute brought the two nations to the brink of war and was only resolved after intervention by the Pope in 1984.
Looking right I see Puerto Williams on Navarino Island on the Chilean side, which can be called the southernmost ‘town’ on Earth. To the left we pass the hamlet of Estancia Harberton, situated in a little cove with the snow topped Andes as a backdrop. A beautiful place to stay and that is also what Thomas Bridges must have thought when he arrived to bring Christianity to the Yamana and Selknam indigenous people. He founded one of the first sheep farms in Tierra del Fuego, which are still run by his descendants.
It was the Yamana fires that gave name to Tierra del Fuego. The Yamana people were highly mobile and in their bark canoes they travelled the channels and waterways, hunting with harpoons for Marine mammals as well as fish and shellfish. Despite the extreme weather they went through life mostly naked, so it was vital that where ever they went, a fire travelled with them, hence the name ‘Land of Fire’. When encountering the Yamana, Charles Darwin wrote in his diary: “these people going about naked and barefoot on the snow.”
The ship passes a rock occupied with Yamana food. Lazily basking, burping and barking in the sun, a group of sea lions roll around on their own blubber, the very fat that the Yamana would use to rub onto their skin to protect themselves from the elements. Patiently they pose for our pictures and when we sail on, life continues as if nothing has happened.
Further down the Beagle all hell breaks loose. The captain spots a plume of water and changes course to meet this incredible creature. All hens on deck are anxiously watching for the next fountain and that can last up to 20 minutes. Looking into the distance we are totally caught off guard when suddenly a large Humpback whale announces his presence right next to the ship. Three times he catches his breath before diving into the deep again. Arching his back, I can see his spines before the massive tail lifts out of the water and slides under in a well choreographed manoeuvre. Awesome! Well Ana… No whales in the Beagle Channel, huh?
The sun really breaks through when we reach Gable Island. Greeted at the jetty by the 4 soldiers that protect Argentina’s sovereignty, we start an uphill hike towards a weathered refuge. As we come closer, the fresh winter air brings along traces of delicious food. The views over the islands and channels are stunning and soon I have a full cup of Malbec in one hand and the camera in the other. After a bean stew for lunch and a few more wine, it takes a lot of coaxing by Ana to get the group moving.
All over Tierra del Fuego one can find traces of settlements and it is no different here. Once upon a time the refuge belonged to a thriving estancia, sheep farm, but now the farm is nothing more than derelict and overgrown memory of the past. A faint hiking trail runs through the high yellow grass past gnarly trees that have grown sideways in the dominant wind direction. The forest thickens into a mix of dense bush that would be imprenetable if it wasn’t for the old trail. A condor soars overhead looking for a cadaver as we hike through the bush that abruptly ends on the edge of a cliff with splendid views over the Beagle Channel. I can see why Darwin was thrilled by the wildness of this strange land.
Today has one more highlight in store for us. We can clearly hear the cacophony of multiple party-whistles, just before getting hit by a wall of utter stench. The gut wrenching essence of fermenting fish, that I know only too well from Antarctica. We have arrived at the Gentoo Penguin colony. I go ashore breathing through a shawl until I am upwind, and that is also when I find one of the most beautiful shots of the day. It’s late in the afternoon and behind the penguins, the sun has turned the sky over the mountains into salmon pink. A photographer’s dream to close an already very successful day.
Fin del Mundo, To the end of the world and back.
Fuegan weather can be as unpredictable as a teenager’s temper, with sometimes all seasons appearing in one day. Even so it was a big surprise, even for the guides, to wake up in a total white out. The snow is knee deep as we set off in the Landrovers on a 4×4 offroad adventure at Lago Fagnano. First we take Highway 3 south over the mountains. Hwy 3 is the last stretch of the Pan-American highway that stretches all the way from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Oncoming semi trucks slither and slide cautiously over the hairpin turns until they finally grind to a hold. Our little convoy slaloms between the spun-out vehicles and leaves the beaten track onto a forestry road, where the snow is coming up to the axles. Just when I think this is a great drive, the guide turns off the road. “This is where the adventure really starts” he exclaims before driving straight into a deep mud bath. The gear grinds and the engine growls, but after one hour we manage to reach a most spectacular viewpoint over Lake Fagnano. I am in awe with both nature and the driving skills of our guide. I would have found this drive impossible even on a dry and sunny day, but he managed to get by in one of the thickest blizzards I have ever seen. Thick fat snowflakes reduce the visibility to about 10 meters and we can’t leave the forest before having a ferocious snowball fight. A black eye here and a bloody nose there, but everyone is elated when we pile back into the vehicles and get out of harms way before the snow starts blocking our exit.
Being on an adventure trip it wouldn’t look good just following the busses to the end of the Pan-american highway so as soon as we enter Tierra del Fuego National Park we change into dry suits, done life jackets and jump into inflatable rafts that the operators refer to as canoes. During an hour long paddle over the Lapataia River we let the current take us past flocks of geese, cormorants and caracara’s. Just when I think life is easy, the meandering river takes a turn for the worse and an ice cold invisible sub polar hand pushes us right back into the rocks. It’s clear: mother nature is not going to make it easy for us to reach the edge of the continent. What follows is a hard paddle to the end of the world. Soaking wet with sweat we celebrate at the compulsory photo stop. We have reached Fin del Mundo and with it the end of an adventure that took us through some of the most awe inspiring land I have ever experienced.
Your Adventure Starts Here!
Ushuaia is the Adventure capital of Tierra del Fuego. Most operators in Ushuaia offer a similar package of activities. 4ever.travel did the following adventures, go check them out!
Canal Fun Exploring the Beagle channel and hike Gable Island
Tierra Excursiones 4×4 offroading Through the Andean Mountains
Ushuaia Outdoors Canoeing in Tierra del Fuego National Park