TIERRA DEL FUEGO - THE END OF THE WORLD - robmellors

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From the flat, wide open, desert-scape of Peninsula Valdes we flew south - about as far south as you can get on the continent of America - to the place that styles itself 'the end of the world'. Ushuaia.

This is Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. So named not because it is volcanically active but because when the Portuguese explore Ferdinand Magellan arrived here he saw the many fires of the local Yagan tribes and thought it looked like the land was on fire. Alongside Peninsula Valdes, this has been on my must see wish list for a long time (I refuse to call it a bucket list; buckets are for keeping water in and dreams are made of more than water).

Ushuaia, as the inhabitants never tire of telling you, is the southernmost city on earth. Puerto Williams on the Chilean side of the border is actually further south but Ushuaians will tell you that it's not a city just a huddle of houses. There's much rivalry between Argentina and Chile!

Ushuaia (pronounced Ushwaiya) is encircled by mountains - the end of the mighty Andean chain which starts 13,000 kilometers away in Alaska and runs like a sclerotic spine all the way through Canada and USA (the Rockies), through Central America and down through South America to here at the end of the world. The mountains close in on you here forcing you towards the wide body of water which gives Ushuaia its importatnce as a gateway to South America - the Beagle Channel. This is the water up which Darwin sailed aboard the Beagle.

Tierra del Fuego resembles a bit of a jigsaw on the map - the land looking for all the world like icebergs afloat on the sea. To the South, a mere 1,000 klms away, lies Antarctica and the South Pole. It is from here that cruises depart for that once in a lifetime voyage. Ushuaia caters largely for this trade but not exclusively for nearby lies a prime skiing area. The winter snow here is reliable and so the ski fields attract enthusiasts from all over the world, included many of the Olympic sport teams who get their traing in during what is our summer.

We rented a cozy cabin perched on a hill with great views over the port and the Beagle Channel. We had expected the weather to be at least chilly and possibly wet during our stay because this is generally Ushuaia's weather whatever the season. Consequently we had packed all sort of cold weather gear which we didn't really need in the end. During our stay the area seemed to have hit a mini heatwave with temperatures in the early teens. It was like Spring at home.

For the most part we used Ushuaia as a base to explore the Tierra del Fuego National Park. A short bus ride away were so many great hikes through mountain scenery, along the side of lakes, through trees and by rivers. We were able to see plenty of wildlife and in the evening could return to Ushuaia and eat at one of the local restaurants specialising in sea food. They have enourmous King Crabs here as well as all manner of shell fish, the excellent Sea Bass and Sea Trout. So it was a pescadian feast.

We did want to sail at least a little bit on the Beagle channel and booked ourselves on a trip to Harberton. This is an old Estancia (farm) established by an Englishman Thomas Bridges, and now owned by the 4th generation of the same family. Its 20,000 hectares border the Beagle Channel and it also owns about 20 of the small islands that are dotted about the channel. The Estancia might have lingered as just another memory of a different way of life except for penguins coming to its rescue. Back in the 1960's a group of Magellenic Penguin decided to set up home on Martillas island, just a small dot of land really and a few decades later Gentoo Penguins came to join them. Of course, we just had to go and have a look at them.

It's fair to say that we didn't quite read the tour brochure correclty as we expected a short bus ride followed by a sail on the Beagle Channel. What we got was a two hour bus ride each way followed by a ten minute motor boat ride to the Martillas. Still, the views on the way down were magnificent and we weren't disappointed with the hour we spent on the island wandering amongst the penguins which didn't at all seem put out by our presence. To top it all, there was a single King Penguin standing among the Gentoos. He was so striking and easily recognised due to his size and the bright orange colouring on his head. Apparantly it is not unsual for one or two Kings to make a stop-over on their journey, probably to the Falkland Islands or South Georgia. We were quite privilaged to see a species that doesn't normally occur here and I had to name him King Charles - he just looked like a monarch in waiting.

We had a wonderful time down at the end of the world. One day we may return do do our dream trip of The Falklands (sorry - Las Malvinas), South Georgia and Antarctica. But until then we think we had a pretty good go at exploring this fascinating area.


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