From Buenos Aires we headed south to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world (Chileans would claim Puerto Williams but Argentineans consider that to be too small to be called a town). On the flight I struck up conversation with an American who was also going on an Antarctic cruise (later in the week and on a bigger ship than us). He asked me what pants I was taking with me. For a moment I thought he was getting rather personal until I twigged that he meant trousers. I explained that I had one pair of fleece lined trousers and one pair of corduroys as a spare. The fact that I was as inexperienced as him at Antarctic travel didn’t stop him seeking my advice – perhaps I have a travelled in face! Halfway down Argentina we made an unscheduled stop at Trelew to refuel. The weather had been poor in Buenos Aires so the plane had not taken off with a full load of fuel.
Ushuaia sits at the end of the world (del fin del mundo as many signs reminded us) on the southern side of Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. The fire was not the fire of volcanoes but the fires of the original inhabitants covering the hillsides when Magellan was exploring the area. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains which are the last vestiges of the Andes. It was a short drive to our hotel, the Tolkeyen, which is delightfully sited overlooking the Bay of Golondria which leads to the Beagle channel. It is a low cabin like structure with pleasant rooms and a dining room with magnificent views over the bay. There are masses of lupins seemingly growing wild.
We lunched and then took a walk in light rain watching martins flying along the river and dolphin gulls dropping shellfish onto the rocks. This is a place to just pause and enjoy – clear air and magnificent mountains. Next morning we were up early for a trip to the National Park. In fact Liz had woken me to say that there were some big birds outside the hotel. These were caracara.
Sol was our guide and gave us a choice of staying in the minibus to visit a bay or of taking “El Tren del Fin del Mundo” – “the train at the end of the world” and meeting her at the other end. We decided to take the train so we headed for the station and bought our tickets.
The train was on a narrow gauge railway and had brightly painted small carriages. Ushuaia (and indeed Tierra Del Fuego) had been a penal colony and the railway had taken prisoners up into the hills to cut wood and provide transport back down into the town where the old prison is now a museum. Unfortunately the wood is very slow-growing so there are large areas populated by tree stumps. The taller ones had been cut in the winter, when the prisoners were standing on snow, and the shorter ones had been cut in summer. They seemed to have spent as much time putting the train back onto the tracks as cutting wood since it was frequently derailed. We stopped at Macarana station where we could walk to a viewpoint by a glacier fed waterfall or down to some reconstructed native dwellings on the riverbank. We then continued on to the end of the line where we were met by Sol and our minibus.
Our next stop was to inspect a beaver dam. We pulled over beside the road (which was little more than a dirt track even though it was the end of Route 3) and walked up a path through the trees and beside the river. The dam was six to ten feet high and an impressive structure for such small animals. Beavers were introduced to Tierra del Fuego some time ago with the thought that they would then be bred for their fur. However the fur was not good enough quality and so the experiment was abandoned. Although their fur was not adequate the beavers settled happily into Tierra del Fuego life and now have built dams on 80% of the rivers.
We continued to the end of Route 3 on the Bay of Lapataia. From here this road heads north to Buenos Aires and thence onward eventually reaching Alaska some 17,383km away.
Next stop, the Antarctic Peninsular.