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Published: January 17th 2008
Ushuaia boasts an incredible location between the Beagle Channel and jagged glacial peaks and is the southernmost city in the world as well as the gateway to Antarctica. Between 1884 and 1947, argentina incarcerated many of its notorious criminals and political prisoners here and on nearby islands but its prisons are now converted into museums. As soon as we arrived, three of us (Russell, Sylvia - the intrepid Canadian couple on the trip, and myself) went tramping through the town visiting travel agencies to see if there were any last minute trips to Antarctica. As opportunists who would probably never get as close to the furthermost continent as we were at present, we were looking for last minute deals to secure a berth for US$4000 instead of the usual US$8000. However, due to the busy festive season and the sad fact that one of the expedition ships plying the route to Antarctica had hit an iceberg and sank several months ago, there were no free places available. Having been convinced that the earliest possible option was leaving on the 8th January which would have been a 10 day trip missing a lot of the truck schedule including Buenos Aires,
we researched some walking options around the Tierra del Fuego National Park by visiting the well stocked and informative tourist information centre.
The next day a few of us decided to hike to Glacier Martial to enjoy views of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. We took a taxi to the chairlift and walked 1.5 hours to reach the glacier alongside ski runs and glacial streams with overhanging ice. The glacier itself was somewhat of a disappointment having seen others in Patagonia - in fact it was more like a snow field but several of us decided to try and walk up it despite lack of equipment (crampons, poles etc.). We made some headway but as we climbed the weather deteriorated and the light rain turned to snow so we decided to beat a retreat by sliding on waterproofs and boot skiing! Given the relatively short hike to the glacier, we decided to trek all the way back to town along what was supposedly a well used path with yellow markers. Well, we started off well (following bright yellow stones) but then hit a bog where all the signs had either sunk or been removed. We all tried various routes,
no one willing to retrace our steps and 2 hours later, we were well and truly lost in thick forest. It was then our bush craft skills that came to the fore - deciding to head downhill, to wade through streams, follow fences and pursue small paths that eventually petered out. Then another hour or so and we managed to cross the path we should have been following where it appeared that every other tree was marked with yellow. It was hilarious and a good story to recount to the others back at the hostel.
The following morning we took the énd of the world train´into the Tierra del Fuego national park which covers 63,000 hectares although only 2000 of which is open to the public in the south. The train was made in the UK and runs along a narrow gauge track which former prisoners helped to build and which was subsequently used to transport logs but by the prisoners, back into town. It was a pleasant if slow ride (50 mins to do a few kms) and we stopped to take photos at a waterfall en route. We had earmarked several trails and the first was a
circular 2 hour hike through native forests of evergreen, coihue, canelo and decidous lengo! (aren´t you impressed?). We then linked up with a beautiful trail along the Senda Costera (6.5km) which meandered along the bay past small coves, streams and woods to finally emerge at a camping ground on Lake Roca where we took a taxi bus back to Ushuaia. Then to the supermarket before it closed at 6.00pm on New Years Eve.
This was New Years Eve and the truck had planned a BBQ as the hostel buzzed with all the international travellers celebrating their respective New Years with one count down after another. We finally reached New Year in local Argentinian time and with various hugs and kisses, the majority of the group departed to a local night club. I decided to try and get some sleep but with various snoring companions and then the party revellers returning at different times during the early hours, I needn´t have bothered. One member of our group even woke up to find himself in another bed in another dorm. Whilst most people spent the day recovering from the night before, I walked around the town with Georg (from Denmark) and
then enjoyed a cheese fondue with Russell, Sylvia, David and Cat from the truck. It was a good choice for New Years Day as David, Cat and myself then set off for a boat trip up the Beagle Channel to see sea lions (Isla de los Lobos), cormorants (Isla de los Pajaros) and a famous lighthouse (Faro les Eclaireurs), the construction of which dramatically reduced shipping accidents off Cape Horn. The trip also afforded a good view of Ushuaia surrounded as it is by snow capped peaks. The back to the hostel for more packing before another early start heading northwards to Puerto Madryn. This involved two long days on the truck which unfortunately developed some mechanical problems necessitating some downtime. We had two free camps, one in Rio Gallegos (I only saw the supermarket and the campsite) and another at a windy outpost called Fitz Roy. We finally arrived in Puerto Madryn on January 4th - a place most known as a jumping off point to the wildlife sanctuary of Peninsular Valdez where you can see various sea lions, sea elephants, penguins and at certain times of the year (but not January), whales frequent these waters.
the first day in Puerto Madryn catching up on life in general, blog writing etc. whilst others did a tour of the Peninsular. Most shops close for a siesta from 1-5pm so the afternoon was spent on the beach (in shade) before celebrating the birthday of a fellow traveller at camp that evening.
Four of us then decided to hire a car to drive to Punta Tomba which is continental South America´s largest penguin nesting ground with a colony of over 1/2 million megellanic penguins. Although it took us over 3 hours to do 180kms (due to the poor state of the dirt roads) the experience was well worth it. In January the penguin chicks start to moult and take their first steps into the sea and we saw plenty of chicks peeping out of their burrows alongside the path. Most of the nesting area is fenced off but we saw plenty of adults coming back and forth from the sea as we walked over wooden bridges and they were close enough to touch. Then back on the road towards Dolavon, Welsh for river meadow, in order to discover more about the Welsh heritage in Patagonia. Back in 1863,
a group of frustrated Welsh nationalists decided to emigrate to Patagonia and were granted land in the Rio Chubut Valley. The first 153 arrivals were plagued with disillusion and misfortune as the Patagonian desert bore little resemblance to their verdant homeland. However, having installed suitable irrigation systems increasing their harvests the land was able to support more immigrants who founded the towns of Trelew, Puerto Madryn and Gaiman among others. Arriving in Dolovan, described as an authentic Welsh agricultural town we were expecting to see something Welsh but apart from some wooden water wheels lining the canals and the 1930 Molino Harinero with its old flour milling machinery, there was not much to see. Flour had been the main industry in the valley until the 1940´s when the Government started subsidising wheat farming in the north. We then decided to drive on to Gaiman (meaning stoney or arrow point) with its historic houses and tea houses. We managed to locate an authentic Welsh tea house replete with flags, Welsh pottery and enjoyed soda bread, scones and at least five different cakes. Soaking up the atmosphere, I started to get a greater appreciation for our own English cream teas and why
tourists will pay exorbitant prices for these. On our way out of town, we happened to pass Parque el Desafio, a masterpiece park of junk created by an eccentric 80 year old called Joaquin Alonso. We had to stop and explore his soda can flowers, bottle bottom bulbs and walkways of cable and piping leading to various recycled contraptions with explanations cleverly mocking today´s values. The park gained world record status in 1998 as the largest recycled park and although Joaquin died last year, his daughter was around to show us round. It was an unexpected but interesting find as we drove back to Puerto Madryn to deliver the car, catch up on emails and get back to camp to celebrate yet another truck mate´s birthday.
Next day, a late start to buy camping supplies and drive 6-7 hours to Viedma (960 kms from BA). We did´t see much of the town (apart from the municipal campsite) but one special event is apparently held in late January. This is a week long kayak race (Regato del Rio Negro) which begins in Neuquen and ends in Viedma after 500 kms. The another long truck day to Azul for another night´s
camping, our last stop before BA. This happened to be close to a running track and having avoided exercise for so long, I donned my running shoes and managed all of 10 laps before having to rest. Three months of truck life have not helped me to stay in shape. I enjoyed a good night´s sleep before our final ride into BA.
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