Saturday, 19 December 2015

Patagonian explorations. Fin del Mundo...

Perito Moreno panorama, courtesy of google photos!
[One of the benefits of living in a very remote place, like the Falkland Islands, is that we have to pass through, or over, some very interesting landscapes.  Occasionally, we get the chance to linger.....]

Patagonia is the southern "cone" of South America, with Chile on the west of the Andes, and Argentina on the east (although it gets a bit complicated around Tierra del Fuego!).
Perito Moreno
 In October, we interrupted our return to the Falklands to see more of southern Patagonia,  We stayed in Puerto Natales, Chile, about 100 miles north of Punta Arenas, our gateway to the Falklands.  Near Puerto Natales is the amazing Torres del Paine National Park.

 Over the border in Argentina, about 5 hours drive away, there is more stunning scenery around El Calafate.  The Perito Moreno glacier is famous for its frequent calving, which seemed to happen about every 15 minutes while we were there.
Ice recently calved from Perito Moreno glacier.
 It's hard to give a sense of scale, but the front of the glacier is about 2 miles wide. The huge "Ka-Booms" as the ice separates from the glacier and crashes into the lake were startling. However, given the time it took the sound to travel, it was not immediately obvious where it had come from!  Hence the lack of action photos!
Seno Ultimo Esperenza, Sound of Last Hope!
 Meanwhile, back in Chile, we did a relaxing boat trip up the Seno Ultimo Esperenza, which was so-called as the sailors had exhausted all hope of finding a way through the maze of fiords and islands to the Pacific Ocean.   This was one of the last areas of the world to be "found" by Europeans.
Serrano Glacier, Torres del Paine.
The trip included two glaciers, and for the Serrano Glacier, we could walk around the glacial lake and gaze at the hundreds of iceberg bobbing about.  Very different from the Perito Moreno experience - no coach parties!

Torres del Paine
 The Torres del Paine National Park is huge, and we took a whistlestop tour to remind ourselves of its highlights.  It didn't disappoint. (We had previously spent a week in it in 2013 - see my blogs for April 2013 for more information on the park).
Lago Grey icebergs, Torres del Paine
 The beach (above) at Lago Grey (Grey Lake in English!) was formed by a huge glacier retreating.  But icebergs still float the 12 miles down the lake from its existing snout, which is part of the enormous Patagonian Icecap, which straddles almost the entire width of Chile.
Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales
 The small town of Puerto Natales has a frontier feel, cut off from the rest of Chile by the Patagonian Icecap to the north.   The road north goes through Argentina, and buses take about 30 hours to the next city.  The ferry north takes 4 days! We headed south for 3 hours to Punta Arenas, where we boarded the Stella Australis, Southern Star, to explore the Beagle Channel.
Stella Australis in a sheltered fiord
 This ship sails between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia (on Tierra del Fuego)  in the summer, calling at Cape Horn, weather permitting!  Captain Fitzroy, of the Beagle, and Charles Darwin, spent three years charting the waters here before moving on to the Galapagos!  It's a very unspoiled region, although whoever introduced beavers about 60 years ago, is probably regretting it now! With no predators, the original 14 have multiplied to over 100,000!
Landing at Cape Horn
 We were very lucky with the weather and managed to get ashore on Cape Horn Island without getting too wet.  The landscape was similar to the Falklands, with most of the same plants underfoot.
Cape Horn lighthouse
 Nowadays, a Chilean Navy officer and his family man the weather station.  A very lonely existence, except when the odd yacht or the Australis calls in.  A very moving place, when one considers the hundreds of  shipwrecks around it.
Cape Horn on a calm day.
 But the short cruise also educated us a lot about the indigenous people of the region, of whom there were 5 separate groups.  Some were seafarers and fishermen; some hunter-gatherers; some nomads.   It is thought, by some academics, that the seafarers arrived from Polynesia, and the nomads from North America - less than 10,000 years ago.
Wulaia Bay - in the 19th century, missionaries brought Fuegans from here to the Falklands, and the UK.
Some communities kept fires constantly burning in their canoes to keep warm. And when Spanish sailors reported back to their King that it was a land of smoke, he replied, "there is no smoke without fire, so it is the Land of Fire - Tierra del Fuego!"

Sadly, most indigenous people were wiped out after coming into contact with Europeans and their exotic diseases.  In the mid-19th century, missionaries from the UK established a mission station on Keppel Island in the Falklands, and brought over some Fuegans to try and "improve" the lot of the indigenous people. Different times.

Ushuaia, above, is the main city of Tierra del Fuego, and the embarkation point for most Antarctic cruises.  You might notice the Andes rising up to the north and east, yet this is Argentina - it should be on the other side of the mountains!  The border area around the Beagle Channel has been hotly disputed in the past.  It was only relatively recently resolved by Papal intervention....
Crossing the Magellan Straits, to mainland South America.
After leaving Ushuaia, our ship would return by a different route to Punta Arenas, arriving around the same time that our weekly flight to the Falklands departed!  So, we had to leave the ship in Ushuaia, and get a bus north, in order to catch that flight. Once over the Andes, we travelled across the pampas for 12 hours on a bus that had seen better days.  After 3 hours, we discovered the toilet door had no handle and couldn't be opened!  The highlight of the journey was the short crossing of the Straits of Magellan.  Named after the sailor who discovered them and opened up the New World, saving the dangerous trip around Cape Horn. They were suitable choppy.
Black-neck swans at Puerto Natales

After a brief refreshment (Cerveza Austral) in the Shackleton Bar in Punta Arenas, all too soon our Patagonian adventure was over.

At the Punta Arenas airport, we mingled with scores of passengers heading for Stanley to board their ship, the Akademik Vavilov - more of which in 2016!  They were sailing for South Georgia, where they were going to film a re-creation of Shackleton's famous walk across the island in 1916.  Camera teams were accompanying them.  Our enthusiasm about the project waned slightly when we realised that all their ski-ing and filming equipment would mean no room on the plane for fresh fruit and vegetables for the Falklands!  And so it proved! Back to Earth.

Fin del Mundo - The End of the World!


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