I? U? USA? HA! (You try and get a better anagram, then, smartarse)
Journey to the End of the World
The JTTEOTW started at a bleary-eyed 6 am as we stocked up for a 12-hour bus journey out of Punta Arenas. Pretty soon, we were once again shuggling around on roads that had not yet made the acquaintance of tarmac. The brief ferry crossing across the Magellan Strait on to Tierra del Fuego was accompanied by a solitary Austral dolphin. Other than that, the tedium was broken only by the minefield at the Chilean/Argentine border.
Land of Fire
In the North, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is scrubby pampas, scattered with tree cemetreries - centuries of felled and twisted southern beech, with those left standing draped in gossamer green lichen lace, reaching their strangulated branches to the sky. Further south, the scrub bows down before the Fuegan Andes, as we climbed Paso Garibaldi, high above Lago Fagnano, with the road dropping away alarmingly below us.
Tierra del Fuego gets its name from the shoreline campfires of the Yamana (pronouned 'Shamana') people, one of the island´s indigenous inhabitants, as seen from the decks of Magellan´s ships. One story has it that all that Magellan saw was smoke rising above the hillsides and named the land Tierra del Humo but Charles V said there could be no smoke without fire and had the name changed.
Southernmost City in the World
Ushuaia was founded in 1869 with a pre-fabricated mission house established by the Rev. W H Stirling. Despite its reverent start, the whole town is a creationist´s nightmare with the Beagle Channel, Cordillero Darwin, and numerous street names linked to the man whose theory challenges the beliefs of the town's founder.
The town huddles beneath a crescent of black & white mountains overlooking the Channel, across which Hoste Island and the Murray Narrows lead down to the Horn Archipelago, with Cape Horn at its treacherous tip. By the way, the Cape gets its name, not from its hornlike-shape, nor from its Spanish name of Cabo Hornos, meaning "Cape Oven", but from the home town, Hoorn, of the Dutch fleet which first rounded it in 1619.
The austerity of the town´s location virtually demanded its use as a penal colony. The use of prisoners to develop, and help populate, the colony, ensured that Argentina staked a strategic claim to important trade routes and a portion of Antarctica. The Museos del Maritimo y Presidio, housed in the old prison, chart the history of Ushuaia, making imaginative use of the old cells and corridors. Where now the name "Tierra del Fuego" inspires end-of-the-world touristic flights of fancy, it was once a byword for hard labour, isolation and the futility of escape, in the mould of Devil´s Island.
The town now really milks its geographical location, with the Tren del Fin del Mundo, the Faro del Fin del Mundo, the Presidio del Fin del Mundo, etc. That said, it is kind of fun to join in -
"I watched the sunrise...at the end of the world!"
"I sailed amongst sealions... at the end of the world!"
"I watched a huge meteor fall from the sky... at the end of the...Aaaaaaaaaargh!"
OK, maybe not.
The biggest show in town nowadays is the regular cruises to "The Ice". Antarctica is 2 days sail across the notorious Drake´s passage (insert cheap smutty gag here). It is however, significantly more than 2 days´ salary away, despite the heavy discounts offered for last minute departures. Arse.
Don´t Mention The War! I Did Once, But I think I Got Away With It.
Malvinas. Malvinas. Malvinas. Ingles Piratas!
People around here are particularly proprietorial of the Falklands (as we can now call it from a safe distance), what with this being the closest point in Argentina to the islands. With the 25th anniversary of the war being remembered in 2007, many cars sported "Malvinas Argentinas" across the blue and white stripes. There is even a street called Malvinas Argentinas, and the islands are routinely referred to as being Argentinian, even on official maps, with the UK only "claiming" or "administrating" them. The views of the Falkland residents are not so prominently advertised. The barbarism of the English is quite a common theme - the musuem also refers to Francis Drake as "that notorious pirate".
We Are Sailing
To get a better view of the Beagle Channel, we hopped on a yacht, skippered by Luka (he lives on the 2nd floor, you know). We visited the Isla de Los Lobos (Para bailar la bamba, Para bailar la bamba. Se necesita una poca de gracia) on which scores of sealions flollopped - giant hunks of blubber, barking like backwards playing records. In contrast to the monogamous penguins, dominant male sealions routinely establish harems of between 5 and 12 sea-beeatches.
Our destination was Isla H, named for its shape of two islands isthmused only by a shallow shingle bank. Enroute to Argentina's southernmost island, black browed albatrosses wheeled overhead (cue Fleetwood Mac tune - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSZHT2XvoLM). The island lies roughly halfway between the Atlantic and the Pacific and is home to dinner suited colonies of cormorants, feeding clamorous chicks reaching their entire heads down the throats of their parents. Their lack of table manners can be excused when you consider that their nests are built from layer upon layer of guano and grass, built up by the parents returning to the island each year to breed. A layer of one of the nests has been carbon-dated as being over 500 years old. Quite the ancestral pile!
Luka also gave us a summary of the history of the Yamana which, as a noun, means "people", but as a verb it means a whole host of life affirming things: "to live", "to breathe", "to be happy" "to recover from sickness" and "to be sane".
The Yamana were a nomadic tribe that survived the inhospitable conditions of the Channel for centuries, hunting and fishing in canoes - until the arrival of the Europeans put a stop to their traditional way of life and ultimately drove them to extinction. Despite the low temperatures of air and sea, the Yamana did not wear clothes or build permanent shelters - and for good reason. As their diet, which required 5-7,000 calories per day to fend off cold and to keep them paddling and diving, was largely based on whelks, fish and sealions, they spent large chunks of their days in their canoes. Without Goretex, clothes were worse than redundant as soon as they inevitably got wet. Instead, they would coat themselves in up to 5cm thick layers of sealion fat for insulation, while fishing and diving in 4 degree water! At night, they made temporary shelters in the lee of rocks, with a half-ring midden piled high with the shells and bones of their catch. They dried off and kept warm by building large fires - the very ones seen by Magellan.
To his shame, Darwin drew ther wrong conclusion from the physique of the Yamana, thinking that their low stature, awkward knees, and overdeveloped upper body indicated they were the missing link. In fact, it was a natural adaptation to their long days spent kneeling in canoes.
Seeking freedom from the tyranny of bus timetables and organised trips, we hired a car for a daytrip from our guesthouse, where the landlady kept a half-blind, blonde cocker spaniel called Frodo (remarkably like Joe's).
As the Wagen lady, from who we rented a down-at-heeled VW, showed us to our machine, she was warmly greeted by a friendly 6 foot tall penguin and beaver. A shake of the head later, we sped up Ruta 3 past the spiky Mount Olivia to visit Cabo San Pablo, wracked by the vicious swells of the southern Atlantic. All was well until we hit Ruta A (A for aaaargh) in our non-4*4, non-power-steering, non-new, mas-economica, bone-shaking crate on wheels. So we gritted our teeth and knuckles and rallied off around tight bends and up and down steep, muddy slopes throwing dust, clods and debris in our wake. Fortunately, we saw only one other car (a 4*4!) in the whole 45km bounce and skid to the Cabo.
Ruta A is estancia land, and so is mostly populated by horses, cows, pigs and orange guanaco. Proving the point that these camelids can run faster than a man, one raced us along a field at 50kmph - and it was winning, at least until it came to a fence and had to do an emergency stop.
Cabo San Pablo has a steeply pebbled beach to the north and to the south it opens out to a broad bay. Bisected by rivers and strewn with well-weathered rocks, it is home to the wreck of the Desdemona looming huge and surreal, rusting red against the blue sky. Rounding her bow she seems to bear down on you across a sea of sand. Long abandoned, she stands as a monument to maritime misadventure, cause unknown - possibly someting to do with the navigation or the steering? "Well, all that's being investigated, but I'm assuming that when a ship runs into the shore it has something to do with either the navigation or the steering."
A warm, windless blue sky day saw us celebrating the feast of St Valentine by getting our legs over...Tango and Dali, a fine pair of Argentinian caballos. We set off in the late morning, following the old prisoners' railway, round Mount Susannah, led by Nahuel. His mother had contributed to the project to rebuild a Yamana bark canoe, successfully launching it into the Channel, as described in the musuem. Nahuel himself, in his late twenties, was an accomplished horseman since the age of 5 who'd gone to Europe to pursue a career as a semi-pro snowboarder, with sponsorship from a company in Berlin. He had returned to Tierra del Fuego, disillusioned with the rigidity of the competition circuit, the poor alpine snow conditions last winter, the vanity of brand acquisition amongst his peers, but mostly because he missed his horses.
Helmet-less and reins held in one hand, to leave the other free to brush aside trees, we heaved up and woa-hed down steep rocky slopes, closed in by fairytale forests along the edge of the Parque Nacionale Tierra del Fuego, finally opening out to the vast blue expanse of the Beagle Channel. Lunch was served in a clearing, where Nahuel built a fire, cooked steaks and poured Mendoza´s finest.
In the afternoon, we explored the hills above the Channel, overlooking Chilean Isla Navarino and the sugar frosted Cordillero Darwin. To make the most of the stunning panorama, we stopped for coffee and alfajores (cakes a bit like wagon wheels but filled with dulce de leche - a kind of runny fudge very popular in Argentina - instead of nougat).
On our return journey we encountered herds of horses running free, chasing us and Nahuel´s excitable black lab puppy. There's nothing like a swift gallop to get the heart going! We returned to the stables 2 hours late and, despite saddles piled high with padding, our groins, knees and hips were all contorted in pain. Waving goodbye to Nahuel, we bandied off into the sunset.