El Calafate, Argentina
When European explorers reached ‘the end of the world’ at Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s, they called it the ‘land of fire’ because they could see hundreds of little blazes on the coastline and believed the indigenous natives were waiting to ambush them.
In fact, the people were just minding their own business. They were living in a pretty inhospitable place with a wind-chill factor that – as the Brits say – would freeze the balls off a brass monkey, yet they went around naked. Not surprisingly, they lit a lot of fires, including inside their wooden canoes while they were out fishing.
With that in mind, it seemed rather churlish of us to complain about the cold.
Jeez though, it was freezing. But we’d made it to Tierra del Fuego and absolutely nothing was going to piss on that bonfire.
On leaving El Calafate last month (we are now back here again), our first quest had been to find somewhere to fill our propane tank. We headed to the industrial city of Rio Gallegos, where our Buenos Aires friend Gustavo is originally from. He hadn’t exactly over-sold Gallegos as an ideal holiday destination, and it felt as miserable, wet and windy as we’d expected.
But on the sunny side, we did find the gas plant and they were at least able to partially fill the tank. The van feels kind of sad without the cooker, which is also a source of heat in the evenings, so it was relief all round when we pulled away from the factory and headed south again.
Before long we were exiting the country and boarding the ferry to Tierra del Fuego, which is a series of islands split between Argentina and Chile.
Given that we were arriving about a year later than we’d originally estimated, it might sound strange to say that suddenly it all felt like it was happening in a rush! We so wanted to get there without anything going wrong, but at the same time we were aware that arriving might feel like the end of an era, and almost started to mentally drag our feet.
Meanwhile, we had two separate superstitions going on.
Jeremy had his ‘Spurs fan’ syndrome. This is something that supporters of the football club Tottenham Hotspur suffer from – as soon as they are winning they become convinced they are going to ‘throw it all away’ and behave in a far more nervous, negative and irrational way than when they are losing. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile Jeremy was thinking: “I can hardly bear the fact that we are almost there. But at least even if we break down here, we can get a tow to Ushuaia.”
I had my ‘morbid journalist’ syndrome. This derives from reading/writing too many headlines about people who are tragically cut down just as their lives have reached a high point – such as, ‘tragic newlyweds eaten by shark on honeymoon’ or ‘crash victim was travelling to meet long lost twin’. You get the idea. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile I was thinking: “I hope we get there before we die.”
So with those cheerful, unspoken, thoughts we set off from the fabulous campsite in Tolhuin to very carefully drive the final 100km to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia.
“I thought: ‘This is it. This is how we die’.”
Big days such as these can sometimes turn out to be an anti-climax, so I was genuinely surprised that as we played Jeremy’s ‘end of the world’ playlist during the drive, we both got a bit choked up. It’s a cliche, but during the trip we really haven’t focused on our so-called destination. But during many months of uncertainty when our van was broken down in Ecuador, we realised it would matter to us if the chance to reach our goal was taken away.
About 5km before the city, we both needed to pee. As we pulled over to a riverside parking area, a guy came running over to ask for our help. His jeep had become totally wedged in a muddy dip near the river, with its nose pointing upwards. We couldn’t get the van down there to pull him out, so tried a few other ways to get traction on his wheels, to no avail.
What was really needed was a lot of weight on the front – he asked us to stand on the bumper while he tried to get it moving. It seemed a bit dangerous because if the car did lurch forwards into action, we’d have nothing to hold on to but fresh air.
We climbed onto the bumper and bounced up and down while he cranked it, the tyres throwing mud about 10ft in the air.
I thought: “This is it. This is how we die. Squashed under a little jeep, in the mud, 5km north of Ushuaia. Tragic, and yet also a bit embarrassing.”
The bumper tactic was unsuccessful, but at least we were alive. He called his mate to come and drag him out, and we were out of there. Within a few minutes we turned a corner and there was Ushuaia, and we were jumping about and celebrating, which we briefly blogged about the day after we arrived.
It was great to bump into our friends Rike and Martin that night, who helped us mark the moment with a few Cape Horn beers and some Patagonian lamb. Within a few days we were also making new drinking buddies of Rebecca and Bruce, of Yellow Van Days – Brits who shipped a T4 van like ours from the UK and are at the beginning of their journey.
Being a Brit in Argentina has caused no issues for us but there is, to say the least, a difficult relationship between our two countries. The Malvinas/Falklands dispute with Britain is a significant part of life all over Argentina, but it’s particularly noticeable in Tierra del Fuego – which considers itself to be part of the same region as the Malvinas.
There are signs, monuments and references to the 1982 war with the UK all over the place. One notice at the dock quotes a local law banning “English pirates” who are there to plunder Argentina’s natural resources. It’s an ever-present topic for debate here, and it’s something we want to blog on later in more detail.
From Ushuaia we spent a couple of days wandering in Tierra del Fuego national park, where some of the colours and landscapes – not to mention the wild weather – are reminiscent of Scotland.
It’s in the park that the road actually ends for real, at Bahia Lapataia, about 20km south of Ushuaia. After that, you’re just staring across the Beagle Channel, towards the more remote islands of the archipelago and the Antarctic.
After a few days it was time to turn north. North! A new chapter was beginning, and it got off to a damn good start. We headed straight back into the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, towards one of the biggest wildlife ‘must sees’ on our list – a relatively new King penguin colony south of Porvenir.
It doesn’t open til 11am but, like keen little penguin nerds, we slept outside the gate the night before, alongside another two campers. At 8am the next day, the park guard knocked on our door and asked if we’d like to go in before opening – a film crew was there and they wanted some foreign tourists wandering around in the background. We were out of the van like a shot.
To spend more than two hours watching the penguins reflected in the water under a blue sky, with hardly another soul around, felt like a massive privilege.
These chaps are amazing. Being royalty and all that, they’re not so silly and clumsy as the proletariat penguins, with their daft antics and lack of balance. Oh no, they do a lot of dignified standing around, looking like they feel rather important.
As if the day wasn’t quite going well enough, in the late morning a little furry head appeared on the bank about 100 metres away. It looked like an otter at first, then someone pointed out it was a tiny baby sea lion.
We couldn’t believe our luck when the wee guy then plopped into the water and started making a beeline for where we were standing.
We all held our breaths. Did he realise we were there? Yes, he clearly did – not only that, but he put on a show for a good 20 minutes, posing this way and that, even doing a back-bend at one point and looking at us upside down with his big milky round eyes.
The park guard explained that he was three weeks old, and spent all day alone while his mother was out hunting for food. Perhaps he was just lonely?! Exhausted from his performance, he flaked out on the bank and took a nap at our feet.
We were tickled pink as we drove off towards Porvenir. Not only had we seen amazing wildlife, but it was the first properly summery day we’d had in ages and we were basking in it.
As we approached Bahia Chilota, we were hoping to see some more dolphins. Just as we turned into the bay, a whole group of Peale’s dolphins started somersaulting and racing along in the water in front of us, their white bellies glistening in the sun. Let me say again, we couldn’t believe it.
We decided to drive out to a lighthouse just beyond the town, and there found the most incredible free-camping spot overlooking the bay.
The dolphins continued to put on a show, especially when a ferry passed and they went nuts with excitement, leaping in front of the bow and always seeming to just miss a collision by inches.
For the first time in ages, we ate dinner outside, the sun still warming our necks well after 9pm. We knew it was going to be a cracking sunset – all we had to do was try to stay awake til then! One of the many joys of this part of the world – as in the north of Britain – are the sunsets that come as late as 11pm.
It truly was a perfect day, the blazing skies providing an ideal end to our trip to the land of fire.
Things we now know to be true: Perseverance pays off.
MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW. CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE SLIDESHOW:-