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Published: February 28th 2019
Lunes cerrado/closed Mondays! What the ….? We had just driven 250km on dirt roads in our little rentacar to find that the only king penguin colony outside of the Antarctic was closed on Mondays and it was Monday! Jane was turning crimson and I started to laugh (which probably didn’t help). The place was deserted. There was no one to plead with. We had arrived at the end of Bahia Inutil/Useless Bay (sic) a great gash in the Western side of Terra del Fuego.
What tempered our frustration was the picturesque surroundings and the blue sky sliced by waves of high cloud. In the distance the snow-capped mountains of the Darwin range were visible behind the closer peaks of Dawson island. The Magellan Straits, apparently up to a kilometre deep at this point, spread out before us. It was not a wasted journey. As we had driven down the North shore passing remote ‘estancias’ and rickety fishing hovels we had seen many plumes from exhaling whales out in the bay. In one isolated lake we found a flock of Chilean flamingos poking around in the shallow mud. Other birds, from gulls to geese, lined the shore and back
near Porvenir we passed a flock of the local black necked swans majestically paddling on an inland lake at a safe distance from munching bullocks.
We returned to Porvenir, the sleepy ‘capital’ of Chilean Terra del Fuego as the rain set it. This prompted a quick visit to the local museum which displayed remains from the indigenous inheritance (quickly wiped out by smallpox and measles and sadistic colonists) and the local history of gold mining in the early 20th
century and the Croatian immigrants who had influenced the town’s development. From a conversation in the restaurant that evening with a sophisticated Chilean lady from further north it was clear they regarded these ‘southerners’ as unsophisticated at best.
The two hour ferry ride back across the Straits that evening was beautifully calm in marked contract to our previous crossing. As we manoeuvred out of the harbour a Commerson dolphin came out to intercept us, jumping high out of the sea so we could clearly see its black and white markings. The previous day we had come back to Terra del Fuego on the short ferry across the Primera Angestora/First Narrows. This was a major obstacle for early sailors because
they had to beat against the prevailing wind and tide as well as avoiding treacherous shoals. It was blowing a gale. The cars at the front of the ferry got covered in spray as it crashed through the waves. The Magellanic penguins in the water beside us did not seem to notice the waves and the wind at all. After all this was a normal day!
To be fair this wind blown ferry ride was the easy bit. The Chileans are redeveloping the route South to Porvenir to promote tourism on their side of the island and the drive involved two hours of chicanes around wheel bending pot holes or sledging down loose stone tracks parallel to the pristine new cement road.
We had started in Punta Arenas the major town in Southern Chile. It does not have the cruise ships like Ushuaia and hence has a more genuine feel. The town has a key role to play in managing the Magellan Straits which are 99% in Chile and the population are not just reliant on the tourist dollar. On our first day there we had picked up a rentacar because public transport away from the main hubs
is almost non-existence. That afternoon we had headed south to Capo Santa Ana the first settlement in the area in 1826. The ex-British Navy officer who picked this spot to settle for his Chilean paymasters choose well in terms of the views over the Straits and disastrously from a living perspective because the nearest water source was several miles away. It quickly gained the name Cape Famine. To add to the atmosphere of the place the shore on the drive down had been littered with eroded boat hulks and fishing villages. There was an excellent museum which demonstrated the evolution of the geography of the region and the role of the great expeditions by Magellan and Fitzroy (+Darwin).
The next day we headed North to the Pali Aike National Park. This is a classic National Park in this part of the world in that you have to drive for 30km on gravel roads just to reach the entrance of the Park. We were the second set of visitors that day and were probably one of ten in total. The walk into the centre of one the extinct volcanoes meant it was certainly worth the effort. You were surrounded by rusty basalt cliffs the rocks underfoot ready to shred your skin with any false move. As we had come to expect the dry wind was blowing like a tornado.
In the vast open spaces around the volcanoes guanacos and rhea were abundant. Guanacos are one of the most elegant creatures I have seen. They just seemed well proportioned in every respect and leap effortlessly over the estancias’ 5 ft fencing when ever they want to get to the other side.
We then headed back to civilisation and the ferry to Terra del Fuego to continue our journey. It meant we had done a circuit and seen both sides of the Magellan Straits. If we ever get back here we will remember to make a Tuesday!
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