When we finally had our passports returned we found they had an entrance stamp for Chile but no exit. I guess we stopped just sufficiently long enough to get signed in so that we could then enter Argentina without having come directly from the Falklands. That made us laugh. Technically we had been in Chile. We had travelled down the narrow channel that was the Magellan Strait, with Chile on both sides of us, but we had still never set foot on Chile soil. What a joke all this nationalistic silliness is.
Through the night we picked our way through the intricate passages around the islands and through into the Pacific Ocean. Pacific means calm but I cannot say we noticed any great difference. The weather was a little unsettled.
It was still dark when we ducked back in to the fjord that led to Argentinian Tierra Del Feugo and Ushuaia, the town that claimed to be the ‘end of the world’.
I was out at the bow as the sky lightened. It was raining and so there was no sunrise. The mountains, the finale of the Andes were shrouded in cloud. Ushuaia looked like what it was – a frontier town. The houses looked like shacks that had been gaily painted. This was the gateway to the Antarctic and it looked it. That was the only reason the place existed. This was mid-summer. The air was frigid. The mountains were still capped with snow. It was hardly the most hospitable of places to live. But the town had a great beauty about it as it nestled into this flat expaqnse at the foot of those great mountains with its own bay.
We nosed into the jetty and headed off into town. We walked around in the drizzle staring in the windows at shops which all seemed to specialise in T-shirts and rain-proofs. There were craft materials that were supposed to be representing the wild-life and art of the Tierra Del Fuego indigenous Indians. In reality they were tourist tat. There was only one of the Indians surviving and she was eighty seven years old and probably wanted to divorce herself with all association to any of that stuff.
It would probably have been a lot more cheery in the sun but the drizzle was a bit dispiriting. We looked into museums and found some great photographic exhibitions, old original shacks and a bust of Eva Peron. Then we ducked into a café to dry off, warm up and drink a delicious hot chocolate.
In the afternoon we headed off to the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. It was staggering. There were small rivers and streams wending through meadows and woodland under the backdrop of these huge, cloud shrouded, snow-capped mountains. Magical.
We walked round a lake and enjoyed the moss and lichen trunks. The rocks were all coated in patterns of colour.
There were black necked swans, swallows and pretty birds in the shrubs. Two turkey vultures were perched in the trees. A wading bird stalked fish and there were ducks and geese on the islands in the lake. Despite the drizzling rain it was stunning.
Our guide told us the story of the past, how the Spanish, Portuguese and British boats had arrived to find the whole area alive with native Indians. They estimate there were 500,000 living in the region, They hunted the numerous sea-lions whose high energy fat caused a rise in metabolism that enabled the Indians to lived naked in the cold temperatures. The Europeans slaughtered the wild-life, They did not spare the breeding grounds and took the eggs, young and pregnant without differentiation. Those ships needed fresh meat and took hundreds of tons of meat on board. The populations of wild geese, sea-lions, ducks, and seals were decimated. The Indians starved. The missionaries moved in to exploit this. They gave out food but insisted the Indians wore clothes. The clothes became damp and the Indians died of pneumonia. The Europeans brought flu, measles, chicken pox and smallpox as free gifts. I only hope that someone thinks to say sorry to that last old indian lady before she dies. They’d lived there for thousands of years and within a couple of hundred years after that first wooden ship took refuge in that bay they were destroyed. It’s the European curse.
Back on board we looked out in the late afternoon light. The clouds had risen so that the mountains were clear and Ushuaia looked beautiful as if sat in that bay. The lights were coming on but I would have preferred to have seen the thousands of camp-fires that those first Europeans saw when they moored in that bay, the camp-fires that gave it the name – the land of fire. All those camp-fires have gone. This is now the town that is the gateway to the Antarctic – the gateway to the oil and minerals. The resources to plunder were different but the intent was the same – profit before all else without a thought for the future. I wondered how long Ushuaia was going to look so picturesque.
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