Cold Wind In The Land Of Fire

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Travel

Travel by Eric Lamb

Eric Lamb
Eric Lamb

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, ARGENTINA: In my last article, I wrote about the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia, and how it had become a magnet for adventurous travelers from all walks of life (including a 68 year-old Canadian who did walk, literally, from Quebec City to Ushuaia). Then there were the cyclists  (with and without engines), trekkers, cruise ship passengers to Antarctica, and just about anyone else who wanted to boast that they’d been to the end of the world.

Map
Map

But there’s also a very different side to Tierra del Fuego. Drive north on National Route 3 for about 30 minutes, turn off the main road, and you might easily imagine that you’ve landed on another planet.

Estancia Harberton and the Beagle channel
Estancia Harberton and the Beagle channel

What’s significant here is what you don’t* see: almost no traffic, few people, and even fewer human settlements. Instead, there are breathtaking snow-capped mountains, endless fields of wild flowers, and trees bent by ceaseless winds into the most bizarre shapes imaginable. And you’re completely surrounded by silence. Or, at least, that’s the first impression. Everything here is subtle: the wind, chirping of birds, the gurgling of brooks. A sudden movement catches your eye: a herd of wild lamas jumping over the roadside fence. And then you spot the sheep. Thousands upon thousands of them, as far as the eye can see. From overhead, the raucous cries of vultures weaving and bobbing through the skies as they search for  a carcass to feed upon. Or, more often than not, to fight over.

Rural landscape, Tierra del Fuego
Rural landscape, Tierra del Fuego

This time, I was exploring Tierra del Fuego’s vast network of  back roads (all of them dirt or gravel)in a rental car. But not just any rental car. A Chevrolet, yes, but made in Argentina, sturdy enough to traverse shallow streams, rickety wooden bridges, and potholes in areas so desolate that, if something went wrong, it was unlikely that you’d find anyone around to help. At least, not right away. There isn’t  even cell phone coverage. True, there are some scattered ranches, but the distance between them can be up to fifty miles or more. Which is why the rental agency, when I told them where I was going, strongly recommended that I bring along a warm sleeping bag and enough water and basic provisions for at least two days? (As things turned out, good advice).

Siegfriedo Humboldt, a German third generation gaucho. Rural Tierra del Fuego.
Siegfriedo Humboldt, a German third generation gaucho. Rural Tierra del Fuego.

I spent my first night at Estancia Harberton, a former sheep ranch on the banks of the Beagle channel which was declared a National Historic Site by the Argentine government in 1991. Now a hostel and marine biology museum visited by hundreds each year, it was the first permanent European settlement in Tierra del Fuego.

The back roads of Tierra del Fuego
The back roads of Tierra del Fuego

And Estancia Harberton certainly has a fascinating history. Sometime around the year 1842, a half-starved boy toddler was found wandering aimlessly near an English village in rural Devon. Despite all efforts, none of his family members could be traced and it was eventually assumed that they had succumbed to some fatal disease like bubonic plague-not unusual in those times. The boy was adopted by an Anglican missionary, who named him Thomas Bridges, due to the fact that he had been found on a bridge. The missionary later made his way to the Falkland Islands, where young Thomas managed to learn the indigenous Yaghan language, a unique feat which was to serve him well when he finally became an Anglican priest himself and moved to Tierra del Fuego. There, he eventually established Estancia Harberton, naming it after his wife’s birthplace, a small village in Devon. No roads connected Harberton to the outside world until the late 1970s, which meant that almost everything -including building materials in one direction and sheep and cattle in the other-had to be carried by boat through the often treacherous waters of the Beagle channel. Today, the estancia is still owned and operated by fourth generation descendants of the original family.

Beagle channel, Chile in the distance
Beagle channel, Chile in the distance

My next stop was Lago Fagnano, a vast and stunningly beautiful lake famous for its sea-run brown trout, some of which have tipped the scales at an astonishing 20 pounds. Fly fishermen from all over the world make the pilgrimage to this amazing body of water, especially during the Austral summer, although the lake itself remains largely unknown except to the most adventurous.
Conveniently, there are a number of rustic log cabins in the vicinity which offer basic accommodation. But not much else. As for restaurants, forget it; there aren’t any. Whatever you catch will be your dinner.

The following morning, I decided to continue in a more westerly direction which, I hoped, would bring me closer to the mountains and a change of scenery. I wasn’t disappointed. As elevation increased, clusters of trees gradually replaced the vast open pastures, until, in places, it was almost like driving through a tunnel. Some of these trees, I remembered reading, are so hardy that many were once shipped to the Faroe Islands, a barren storm-tossed archipelago between Scotland and Iceland, where they were successfully transplanted.

But now I noticed that the weather was changing. Where there had been clear skies only an hour before, ominous dark clouds were now massing over the mountain ridges ahead. The wind had also changed direction to southwesterly and, almost before I knew it, was up to gale force. Suddenly, I realized that the primitive dirt road I’d been following would soon become an impasse of mud once the rain started, especially along the hills. Here, roadside barriers simply didn’t exist; if you started skidding sideways, and with a steep drop only a few feet away, there was only one thing to do-jump out. I made my decision: turn around and drive as fast as I could back to Route 3, which was paved, but almost 70 miles away.

Amazingly, I made it back before the storm became so violent that even tractor trailers were pulling off to the side on Route 3. I decided to do the same. It would be a long night, I realized. But at least I had a sleeping bag and something to eat.

Sour grapes This notice at Ushuaia harbor states that mooring is not allowed for English pirate ships
Sour grapes This notice at Ushuaia harbor states that mooring is not allowed for English pirate ships

The next day, after the winds and rain had subsided, I followed the main road north for about a hundred and twenty miles, bypassing Rio Grande, the only major city in Tierra del Fuego other than Ushuaia. Finally, I arrived at the Chilean border, only to be told that the Chevy’s insurance coverage didn’t include any country other than Argentina. So this was, literally, the end of the road for me. I was difficult to hide my disappointment; after all that rough and ready travel over the last few days, I’d really been looking forward to spending a few nights in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Punta Arenas, on the Chilean side, where I knew I could get a great meal and a comfortable bed. But this was not to be. Paperwork, paperwork. And invariably, hidden just below the surface, politics.

Then again, I realized, such bureaucratic impediments shouldn’t have come as any surprise-not if you’re familiar with the region’s often turbulent history. No matter what the diplomats may say, the truth is that , even today, there’s little love lost between Chile and Argentina. In fact, the two countries almost went to war in 1978 over territorial disputes, chiefly concerning the remote islands of Picton, Lennox, and Nueva. Conflict was only averted when both sides agreed to last-minute mediation by the late Pope, John Paul II. The final boundaries included a parallel of longitude, running rigidly from north to south, which meant that any Argentinian wishing to drive from Tierra del Fuego to the rest of Argentina would be obliged to pass through Chile en route-in fact, through this very same border crossing. Nor did it help that Chile’s former dictator at the time, General Augusto Pinochet, allegedly provided radar reports of movements of Argentine military forces directly to British intelligence during the Falklands war-which, as a result, led to life-long friendship between Pinochet and Argentina’s nemesis, Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps a telling legacy of that period is the fact that, more than thirty years later, and despite vociferous protests from Argentina, LAN Chilean airlines still operates a scheduled weekly flight from Valparaiso to the Falkland Islands.

But things are changing. Perhaps slowly, but surely. For the visitor who’s looking for the ultimate in off-beat travel, these remote but stunningly beautiful regions-in both countries, and despite such minor problems-are well worth the effort in getting there.

Just don’t forget your sleeping bag. And a jerry can (or two) of petrol. You never know.