When the plane descended through the clouds and the jagged snow peaked mountains, green valleys, lakes and sea inlets came into view it was obvious Patagonia was going to be special. Mile upon mile of rugged untouched landscapes on display before us, providing a first hand meaning to the word 'wilderness'.
At the foot of Argentina, Ushuaia prides itself on being the southernmost city in the world. With only Antarctica to the south it labels itself as 'Fin de la Munde' or finish/end of the world. Located on the Beagle Channel, the city acts as a gateway to both the Antarctic and exploration of the southern most land of the planet. For us it is as far south as we would have ever expected to go, although it has now wet our appetites for a future Antarctic adventure one day...
The city is a ski resort in the winter months and as such has the feel of an Alpine town. Even in summer, forested mountains with snow capped peaks on one side, the icy waters of Beagle channel on the other. Bars, cafes and souvenir shops line the main street all offering a homely, chalet type feel and an escape from the bitter wind. Not content with the normal token one, the city at the end of the world even offers a choice of 2 Irish Bars!
Best explored by car, the surrounding area offers spectacular scenery, set against the mountain backdrop. Tierra del Fuego national park is abundant in jaw dropping landscapes, with grassy moor land hugging the banks of the crystal clear lakes and rivers. Left as an untouched wilderness, bare dead trees litter the forests offering a spooky skeleton effect foreground to many views. The same trees provide a perfect dam building material for the large number of beavers that have made the river banks their home. Every turn of the bumpy gravel road within the park offers a different and totally unique photographic view.
Once again, we had chosen the perfect day for our first experience of Patagonia and the previous weeks rain had given way to clear skies and regular glimpses of the warming sun. Towards the end of the Patagonian summer the temperature reached around 12 degrees in the day and 5 at night. A substantial drop from the 25 degree plus temperatures we had become accustomed to, but in many ways welcome breaths of the cooler, but fresher mountain air.
Our hostel overlooked the Beagle Channel and upon entering the room we were immediately drawn to the breathtaking balcony views, with not so much as a customary glance to even see if the room contained a bed. With the sun rising across the bay, despite the tiredness that currently appears set in, the 6am wake up was an absolute pleasure and as a first view of the day, as good as we have ever seen.
After a morning in the Tierra Del Fuego National park to the East, we drove to the tiny estancia (farm) and port of Habberton, 50miles west of the city on the Beagle Channel. A scenic drive in itself but for the purpose of a short boat trip into the channel to visit the tiny Isla Martillo. Landing on the island's shore it wasn't difficult to see why it is referred to as Penguin Island!
Pira tours are the only company that are able to take tours to the island as they are ecologists and ensure the Pinguinera (Penguin colony) is not disturbed. Only 20 people are allowed to visit at a time and you are informed that you must stick together as a group, move slowly and not go within 6 ft of the Penguins. I'm sure in Asia they would have managed to build a Starbucks and a souvenir shop on the island but not here, visiting this remote unspoiled island is a joy in itself! Miles from civilisation, interestingly there is still mobile phone reception!
The first thing that greets you is the smell, which in honesty isn't as strong as I expected and is soon forgotten, as you stare in bewilderment at the sheer number of penguins waddling about along the shoreline. There are no signs of towels but the penguins somehow have reserved a spot on the gravelly sand, resembling Brighton beach on the first hot day of an English summer.
There are two species of Penguin on the island, the black and white Magellanic and slightly larger Gentoo Penguins who at least sport some colour, with orange beaks and feet. There were also many rather disheveled looking inhabitants, malting clumps of dirty brown fur. It turns out these Penguins have no waterproofing to their fur for the 5 day malt and are therefore unable to swim and feed. The older Penguins must instead bulk up in preparation for the 50% loss in weight that occurs over the 5 days. I'm actually surprised given their closeness, they aren't looked after by their fellow islanders with the odd fish or two!
The penguin's day basically involves waddling about, staring out to sea, swimming, feeding on fish or belly flopping on to the beach to sleep. The ones we encountered were even too lazy to move when we approached. It is amazing that they can be bothered to find their friends and partners when they return from the water on an island of black and white dots- surely no easy task!
The island is littered with holes that have been created for nesting. The males dig the nest which they hope will survive until the following year. Each year they return to the same nest and if it has been destroyed or caved in, valuable time is lost in digging a new one. This time has a knock on effect to the youngsters chances of survival. Normally the females lay just two eggs per year. The harsh realities of life within the animal kingdom and survival are ever present with birds of Prey, 'Skua's' circling and generally hanging around in search of eggs. The island is home to many varieties of birds of prey but only turkey vultures and Kara kara's soared on the thermals above us on this occasion.
Wandering about this most remote island in Patagonia, amongst these fascinating creatures existing in their natural habitat, was another unreal experience on our already excitement overloaded trip. Patagonia has already delivered some of the most spectacular wilderness scenery we could ever have hoped for and with more forays into the wilderness planned further north, the next few weeks promises to live up to all expectations...and so much more....