Tag Archives: Tierra del Fuego

In Search of Adventure

In describing a prosperous future, George Orwell theorised that “the inhabitants of Utopia would create artificial dangers in order to exercise their courage, and do dumb-bell exercises to harden muscles that they would never be obliged to use” (The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937).

He is a clever man to make such an accurate prediction almost 100 years prior to the advent of 24 hour gyms and adventure sports. But I haven't pulled this passage out to rail against the Segway or the prominence of lifestyle diseases in our health statistics. I quote this because I feel that it has gotten harder and harder to have an adventure in the true sense of the word.

I will share a recent experience to help explain why I feel this way. We recently travelled to Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. The name and its place at the bottom of the world has long inspired my imagination. And it is a wonderful part of the world, an awe inspiring place. But it has become a tourist trap. To get anywhere costs you a peso, and all the tour companies are doing the same thing. Here it truly is hard to get off the beaten track.

Don't get me wrong, we had a good time and I love the area. But a part of me was disappointed. I am not the first person to point at some remote part of the map and say “I want to go here.” But even in Ushuaia, the world's southern most city, with all its ships, this is too difficult.

I am probably coming across as ungrateful, as it is remarkable that we can reach Ushuaia. To be fair, modern travel has made it much easier to explore the world. But paradoxically, it has made it harder to discover.

This is not a unique sentiment and in fact it was expressed well before my time. “The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote this in The Lost World, 1912. A brilliant line.

So what does it mean to have an adventure in this day and age? Can we still find genuine risk in a world of tours and tourist traps? Has Lonely Planet covered all the bases or are there still secrets to experience? Is there still a place for the man with a bull whip and a fedora?

I guess I will know the answer by the end of this trip.

In fact, I have a few ideas on how to make it happen. Firstly, I think it takes time. While modern travel has made it so much easier to get from home to the heights of the Andes, in that rush 'to get there' one can pass over the places that many are missing. But to find these places one needs to slow down and take the time to learn 'the lay of the land', if you get my meaning.

Which brings me to my second point. I should get to know the locals. They know their region as well as I know mine. They know the interesting places worth exploring, and the dangers. And while a tour company might not be willing to take us to that hidden destination, the guy at the pub might.

Finally, we can't escape the fact that having an adventure can also require a lot of money. For example, a customised trip in the Pantanal costs around USD250 to 350 per day. So I think it is important to determine which adventures require a serious financial commitment, and how passionate we are about making that trip. Because not all adventures need to be expensive, some are just a cheeky hitch hike down the road…




Wildlife at the End of the World

Most people head to Ushuaia as a point of departure for expeditions to Antarctica, and the city itself is not particularly exciting. However, the surrounding mountains and amazing array of wildlife are a stunning attraction in themselves.


We spent four days looking around Ushuaia, and went on a couple of tours to get amongst the wildlife. The 'Pinatur' took us on an hour and a half bus ride out to Harberton Estancia (an old ranch) where we took a boat to an island with a colony of gentoo and magellan penguins. There was just one lonely king penguin, lost on his way to Antarctica, as well as many other sea birds and birds of prey.

Penguin colony

The tour was fantastic, and allowed us to get up close and personal with the penguins. The majority of penguins on the island were Magellan penguins, which were so cute!

Magellan penguins

The gentoo penguins were also quite striking, and the king penguin was beautiful!

Gentoo penguins

Lonely King Penguin

We also spent one afternoon sailing down the Beagle Channel with 'Tres Marias' to check out colonies of sea lions, terns and cormorants, and to go for a short trek on “H” island, which had stunning views over the channel and surrounding mountains.

Sea lion colony

Colonies of terns and cormorants, with a view from H island

We also spent a day wandering around the Tierra del Fuego National Park, where we went to the end if the road (Ruta 3), as far south as roads go on Earth! The park was beautiful, and we found a grey fox just hanging around at the back of a cafe.

Mark spotted this kingfisher as well. What a handsome little guy!

Kingfisher, grey fox, and the end of the road at Tierra del Fuego National Park


People of the Land of Fire

Tierra del Fuego was named after the first European explorers sailed around the southern tip of the Americas in 1520. The Spanish Captain Magellan saw the many fires of the indigenous people burning in the distance, and labelled it “the land of fire”.

For 7,000 years, the Yamana and Selknam people inhabited Southern Patagonia. Upon arrival of Europeans in the late 1800s, there were an estimated 3,000 indigenous people living in Tierra del Fuego. By 1910 there were just 100, and today there are none. The story is all too common amongst indigenous people around the world, whose culture and population was destroyed by colonisation.

Fuegans (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

When Charles Darwin first observed the indigenous people, he described an old man who “had a fillet of white feathers tied around his head, which partly confined his black, coarse and entangled hair. His face was crossed by two broad, traverse bars; one, painted bright red, reached from ear to ear and included the upper lip. The other, white like chalk extended above, and parallel to the first, so that even his eyelids were thus coloured. The other two men were ornamented by streaks of black powder, made of charcoal. The party altogether resembled devils which came on stage in plays like Der Freischutz.”

Painted men (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

Indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

Europeans were surprised to find the indigenous people mostly naked, despite constantly freezing temperatures. They wore some animal skins, but it wasn't until missionaries came that they really covered up. It is interesting to note that these people had developed a second metabolism and their body temperatures were 38.2 degrees Celsius, which would be a fever by our standards. Charles Darwin noted that when some 'Fuegians' joined him at a fire they were sweating when the fire barely warmed the Europeans! Despite this, fire was still key to their survival. They had fires burning with them wherever they went, including inside their wooden canoes.

Selknam tribe (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

We went to a couple of museums to find out more about the indigenous cultures. The Museo del Fin del Mundo, in Ushuaia, was quite interesting, and the information centre at the Tierra del Fuego National Park also told a good story about the local people.

Missionaries in action. (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

Those interested in learning more should read excepts from Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, particularly Chapter X, which provides both amusing and disturbing observations of the native people.


Tierra del Fuego

Map of Tierra del Fuego dating from the 1700s.

Exactly 180 years ago Charles Darwin sailed into the Beagle Channel, which is now the border between the southern shores of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and Chile’s Isla de Navarro. He was travelling with Captain Fitz Roy and his journals were to be published as The Voyage of the Beagle.

The landscape here is dramatic and inspiring. The names of the water ways alone tell a story; you will find the Bay of Desolation, the Passage of Adventure and Broken Bay in the Land of Fire.

The impression of adventure is strong. We thought a fun way to convey this would be to match passages from The Voyage of the Beagle with photos we have taken during our four days in and around Ushuaia, the world’s southern most city. So, here we go.

“Tierra del Fuego may be described as a mountainous land, partly submerged in the sea, so that deep inlets and bays occupy the place where valleys should exist. The mountain sides, except on the exposed western coast, are covered from the water’s edge upwards by one great forest.”

“…to the south we had a scene of savage magnificence, well becoming Tierra del Fuego. There was a degree of mysterious grandeur in mountain behind mountain, with the deep intervening valleys, all covered by one thick, dusky mass of forest.”

“The atmosphere…where gale succeeds gale, with rain, hail and sleet, seems blacker than anywhere else.”

“In the Strait of Magellan, looking due southward from Port Famine, the distant channels between the mountains appeared from their gloominess to lead beyond the confines of the world.”

“A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how widely different it was from anything I had ever beheld.”