Jul 22, 2016
By DAVID Higgins
Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.
I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.
On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.
Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.
Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.
The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.
I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.
It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.
As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.
At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.
As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.
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About the Author
A conservation worker and keen traveler. I have a passion for wildlife and wilderness, with a special love of islands.