It is hard to say which was the highpoint of my trip. But probably the most exciting part was the trip to Ushuia, the world’s southern-most town, near the tip of the South American continent, “the end of the world” (fin del mundo), as they call it around here. Just the thought that one was heading there with a bird’s-eye view of the terrain below was probably enough to send the adrenalin rushing.
Chile controls the southern tip of the continent and claims the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams. But with a population of less than 2,500, compared to Ushuaia’s 57,000, it doesn’t qualify as a city, but it is indeed about 50 km further south.
But regardless of this bragging rivalry and question of accuracy between the two neighbours, as my plane closed in over Ushuaia, making a few turns to avoid Chilean territory, an amazing sight unfolded below: mountain fastness, with snow, gullies, lakes and glaciers, all in an apparently pristine state.
Strange when you think of it: the South Asian subcontinent and the continents of Africa and South America, all taper off at their southern extremities, in the shape of the letter “V”, whereas the land mass in the north (North America, Europe and Asia) is stretched out.
This southern land is called Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), because the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was the first European to visit in 1520, named it after the many fires lit by the native Yaghan tribe, which were visible from the sea.
Founded in October of 1884, Ushuaia’s location was considered too harsh and remote for it to be anything other than a penal colony. The penal colony existed till the 1940s. The last of the native Americans in the Tierra del Fuego (Yamanas) perished more recently.
In Ushuia we took a tour of the Beagle Channel (named for Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle) on a catamaran. Navigating between Argentinian and Chilean territory, our boat passed many small islands and outcroppings. Among the wildlife on view were imperial cormorants, the black-browed albatross, the scua (a type of gull) and the steamer duck. We stopped by Seal Island, home to two species of sea lions, then at another island nearby to have a look at the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse.
Martillo Island is home to a colony of Magellanic penguins. Under 50 cm tall and 4 kg in weight, these small aquatic birds are members of a species that lives only in the far southern coastal region of South America and the Falkland Islands.
From Ushuaia, it was a short flight north to El Calafate in Argentinian Patagonia, which many consider to be the most amazing place on earth. Patagonia straddles the border between Argentina and Chile, although by far the greater part of it is on the Argentinian side.
The name Patagonia comes from the word patagón used by Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants. It is now believed that Magellan’s “Patagons” were actually the Tehuelche tribe, who tended to be somewhat taller than the Europeans of the time.
Occupying roughly half a million square miles, Patagonia has always invited wanderers and adventurers. In his book “In Patagonia” (1977), Bruce Chatwin described the region as having “an effect on the imagination something like the Moon”. “But Patagonia today,” writes Brienne Walsh in the New York Times (16 September 2011), “is a different land from the one that Chatwin explored 30 years ago. . . . If anything about Patagonia is still otherworldly, it’s the colors embedded in the landscape — teal, mauve, mahogany, jonquil, periwinkle, azure, lavender”.
Our destination was the Perito Moreno glacier, located 78 kilometres from El Calafate. Thirty kilometres in length, it is 250 sq km of ice, one of 48 glaciers fed by the ice fields located in the Andes system shared with Chile, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world (all three are in Patagonia) which is growing while the others are receding.
The terminus of the Perito Moreno Glacier is 5 kilometres wide, with an average height of 74 m above the surface of the water of Lake Argentino. It has a total ice depth of 170 metres. The large viewing platform offers one of the world’s most spectacular sights, a jagged sea of ice against the background of snow-covered peaks. Many metres deep, it is now white, now blue, and golden when the sun shines, all reflected in the clear blue waters of the lake, which stands between it and you.
Every now and then one hears an ear-splitting thunder. Its source is not in the clouds above, but in the ice formation in front. It is the sound of a massive block of ice cracking and splitting from the main body under its own weight and crashing into the water. If one is lucky enough to be looking in that direction, one can even enjoy the sight, besides the sound.
On the Chilean side is the Torres del Paine National Park, full of jagged peaks which shimmer in sunlight, rivers of ice, azure lakes, waterfalls and pristine streams.
By Razi Azmi