A bewildered tourist asks: “Where are the sheep?”
“To be honest, you’re the sheep now,” replied the guide, sheepishly.
Estancia Harberton, a smallish ranch by Argentine standards (a mere 50,000 acres, that’s all), has not really operated as a ranch since the mid-nineties, when the wool market bottomed and a horrible winter killed off much of its flock. Now it mostly earns income from the catamaran-loads of tourists who drop by on extended Beagle Channel tours or, more rarely, like me, drop by of their own accord. Hence, we are the new sheep of the farm.
But why would anyone bother to make the trek to this now non-ranch ranch? At first glance, the modest cluster of whitewashed buildings huddled on a protected bay of the Beagle Channel might seem an odd tourist destination, especially considering how difficult it is to reach it. Yes, the surrounding scenery is stunning, but so is that of most of the region. So why go to the extra effort of renting a car and driving almost two hours from Ushuaia (much of it on unsealed, deeply pitted RCj branch road) to visit this isolated place?
The estancia is the most
historic in Tierra del Fuego and perhaps in all of greater Patagonia. Its story, or more specifically the story of the people who founded and settled the ranch, is inextricably linked to the story of European and Argentine settlement of this remote world, a tale beginning in the nineteenth-century. It also has special resonance for the history of European and Argentine encounters with the Yámana and other indigenous groups from the area (the Selk’nam and Mannekenk, for example).
Estancia Harberton was the home of Reverend Thomas Bridges, originally the heard of the Anglican mission to the Yámana but who is better known for his pioneering work with understanding their culture and language. He even compiled a Yámana-English Dictionary (I bought a copy - perhaps the next language I will study?). The ranch became a refuge of sorts for the locals, where even feuds between the Yámana and Selk’nam were suspended. Bridges’ children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) grew up with these peoples and learned to speak Yámana fluently. But the efforts of the family were not enough to prevent the near extinction of the local population, as more and more white settlers came and the Yámana way of life fast disappeared.
Today the estancia is run by Tommy Goodall, a great-grandson of Bridges, making it the longest continuously occupied home in Tierra del Fuego - always in the hands of the same family. His wife, Natalie Goodall, originally from Ohio (a long way from the Midwest!), happens to be one of the most renowned marine biologists in the southern hemisphere.
Dr. Goodall recently established a marine mammal museum, Museo Acatushún, and research center on the estancia grounds. This proved an unexpected delight, one that transported me back to my childhood fascination with whales (one of my earliest dreams was to become a marine biologist myself). The museum was tiny, but the student-researcher who showed me around the exhibits and the labs made it all come alive. I even, bizarrely, enjoyed the more macabre part of the lab - the shed where specimens were stripped to the bones. (All their specimens are collected from strandings along the coasts of Tierra del Fuego.)
What could be better than a combination of local history, language, and biology, all set in a gorgeous landscape? My kind of destination! Estancia Harberton is a unique place, and I am glad I was one of
the new “sheep”.
Since I had my own wheels, a sturdy little Fiat, I decided to follow the RCj towards the Goodall’s nearest neighbor, Estancia Moat - another 45km over rough roads and scary looking wooden bridges. Must be hard to invite each other over for tea!
Although there had been little traffic on the road to Estancia Harberton, once I was on my way to Moat I was all alone. The road dipped and dived along the channel coast, occasionally running inland through dense forest. At various bends the islands of Picton, Nueva, and Lennox appeared, announcing the eastern mouth of the Beagle Channel. While relatively innocuous looking, apparently these islands were a flashpoint of tensions between Argentina and Chile in the late seventies, almost bringing the two countries to war. Now they belong to Chile.
For me, however, these lonely uninhabited islands marked the furthest I would be able to travel in this “uttermost part of the earth”.
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