Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
38Trip End Jul 19, 2007
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I visited Isla Navarino which is actually further south the the well marketed "southernmost city in the world" Ushuaia in Argentina and did a trek to the southernmost lake in the world. Snow fell hard, it was windy, it was wet, it was freezing cold. Then the day I left, it was beautifully sunny - quelle surprise! But I did manage to celebrate being at my southernmost point on the continent exactly a year after I landed on the continent at my northernmost point in Venezuela.
In the words of Janice of Friends fame: Oh.. my.. God!". Torres del Paine was a walk in the park compared to trekking on Isla Navarino!
I had wanted to head over here originally for New Year's Eve but we all know by now that I usually end up enjoying places too much and fall behind schedule too often! As it turns out, this wasn't a bad thing as I ended up going with two people I had met while doing the Torres circuit - Claudia (the one with the 50/20 vision for spotting cairns and markers) and Omer (the one with snow ploughs for legs).
After a whole week of rest and relaxation I boarded the DAP propeller plane in Punta Arenas with seventeen kilos of luggage. The allowance is only ten kilos so I had all my lines prepared and had got the eyelid fluttering down to a tee. I was sorely disappointed not to have used a single line though as the lady at the check-in just waved my bag through without batting her eyelids! I figured this must be why they charge tourists more, especially on the way to the island.
The plane ride reminded me of one of my first flights between the UK and Ireland. It was a propeller plane and the turbulence was nasty. I wondered what would happen if the elastic band they used for take off suddenly snapped??? I arrived safe and sound but almost died of shock when I saw a familiar face waiting on the tarmac to greet me at the airport. I hadn't been greeted at an airport since I last flew home from the UK to Ireland way back in October 2005! Omer had left two days before me and did all the groundwork for the walk we had planned. As it turns out, our plans had metamorphosed from doing just the southernmost trekking circuit to visiting the southernmost lake in the world to go fishing for the tastiest southernmost trout in the world. We also decided we were going to start the next day. This would be a nice surprise for Claudia who was arriving on the boat from Punta Arenas early next morning.
Claudia arrived at the hostel in the morning and after some waiting around we finally managed to sort out the necessary gear for the trek and set off at about three in the afternoon. We became four when Dude, no wait, Woof, no wait, Pooch decided to join us. The poor dog must have had an identity crisis as we kept calling him by any one of the three names.
This trek is somewhat less frequented than the Torres del Paine one and so the markers aren't quite as reliable. This we realised on our very first day when we managed to lose the trail towards the end of the day. I was confident though that we would have no problems being spotted if we had to be rescued as I had just bought a new pair of bright orange boots. All I had to do was stand on my head and wave my feet around and any helicopter within a five mile radius couldn't possibly miss them! By nine at night we decided it was time to pitch the tents and chose a site beside an ex-beaver lake for the night.
Sometimes life's subtleties can just pass you by and this happened on our first night when it snowed. We thought nothing of it as we packed up in the morning and headed off for the lake thinking of the tasty trout we would have for dinner that evening. Finding the start proved a bit difficult, but we looked to see which way Woof wanted to head and followed him as he seemed to know where he was going.
The walk was a mix of everything you can imagine and can be compared very well with an assault course! These pesky beavers have gnawed away so many trees that we were either clambering over, under or traversing one with soggy bog below waiting to catch anyone unlucky enough to slip and fall. By the end of the day when we finally arrived to our final destination we had become professional bog walkers! (Ed: The beavers were introduced to the island originally for their pelt but have since become a pest causing widespread destruction all over the island).
Walking on bog proved to be just as difficult and tiring as walking on fresh snow or soft sand so imagine my delight when I saw a cabaña standing there with a stove and indoor bed waiting there for me?!! Not only that, but it was free. And the people who had been there before us kindly left us some firewood to start the next fire. I suppose I should be grateful to the beavers for making wood collection relatively easy. All that was missing was the magic porridge pot and I could have stayed here forever!
I do remember saying in Venezuela that normally I wouldn't go fishing. I also remember saying in both Venezuela and Peru that I wouldn't go trekking again if I had to carry everything myself. It seems, yet again, that I haven't been listening to myself. I had to have a change from the all-too-familiar "what shall we have for dinner tonight then, rice or pasta?" and there were no hunks in mud huts here to carry my fifteen kilos for me so I just had to do the job myself, again.
There was to be no carrying of backpacks this day as we were staying at the cabaña again that night. The whole day would consist of a late rise followed by a spot of fishing, a bit of lunch, some more fishing and then din dins. Woof got bored of sitting around and attached himself to two others that were leaving that day. On the whole trek, we only saw three people which really does make it "off the beaten trek".
We had a five star dinner that night, baked trout au garlic with potato au mash. No rice or pasta this night as the Fish God was on our side and gave us three fat trout to keep us happy. Initially it looked like we might have a bit of a problem cooking the fish but after hunting around the cabaña, while pondering the well known question "how do you fit a circle into a square?", we came across some tin foil. Omer came up with the answer to the circle/square dilemma in the form of "bang bang, wahla" and the formerly circular pan was now square and fitted inside the stove!
With it being a nice day, we decided to stay another day at the cabaña. The Fish God seemed to be in a bit of a playful mood and while it seemed I was on the point of catching a fish, instead of it coming out, I fell in! Boots 'n' all! Even my brand new, bright orange boots didn't hold up to the plunge and quickly became wet. I hoped the Weather God's unusually pleasant mood would hold out until they dried!
Then along came chance number two. This time I was better prepared but the Fish God obviously decided we had reached our quota and could have no more and right in front of me Mr Trout took a leap and jump back into the water, laughing. So close, yet so far. All I could think was "what if" and dedicate this to him:
If you're lucky enough to catch a fish
Then pull him in real hasty
Coz I let my one slip away
And he sure did look real tasty
Unfortunately our time at the cabaña had to come to an end and we had to head off again. It was a difficult start to the day as we had a steep one thousand metre climb after trudging through bog for an hour.
It seems Omer had heard of my quest to find a hunk in a mud hut and being the gentleman that he is, took it upon himself to fulfill the role as best he could. My new found hunk in a wud [sic] hut offered to carry most of the food up this wee incline and yet despite being quite a few kilos heavier he still managed to get to the top before both Claudia and I!
The Weather God must have been jealous though as his mood had turned again and it started to snow. We reached our first pass from where we were supposed to see Cape Horn but with the wind blowing a gale and the white out from the snow there wasn't much chance of this happening.
The worst was yet to come. We had somehow managed to lose our way and could see no more cairns or signs on the rocks. Rather than continue on blindly we thought it best to head back to the last marker and put up the tent until the snow cleared, at least a bit. It took us longer to put the tent up than it would to boil an egg in a frozen lake! You really have to ask if the people who come up with the tent designs have ever tried them out.
We somehow managed to get the tent up and waited for the snow storm to abate by which time I figured I am a bit like litmus paper, when it's hot my face goes red and when it's cold my hands go blue. My hands had completely lost all feeling by now and it took about ten minutes for them to come back to life. Eventually the storm calmed down for a while and after changing into drier clothes we did a reconnaisance mission to find the route. It would seem the sign had fallen and someone had put it back on the wrong way. So having found the route, we decided to press on as it was exposed with no shelter and nothing but rock where we had pitched our emergency tent. Some hours later, we found a sheltered spot by a large beaver lake and decided that would be our home for the night.
Realising that his subtle hints were going unheard, the Weather God decided to spit it out. Literally. In the form of more snow. In fact, he dumped over one foot of snow overnight! It was still snowing in the morning and continued to do so all day. The tents were completely covered so much so that you could hardly see them. It didn't look like it was going to stop so we we really had no choice but to head on and see if we could find somewhere further on that may not have been hit by the snow. By now, "It's the end of the world as we know it" by REM had become my Joe Simpson "Brown Girl in the Ring" song (you have to have read the book "Touching the Void" or seen the film to get the context but suffice to say it was when his mind wasn't 100% after having a very hard time trying to get out of a crevasse).
How foolish to think there would be an oasis of snowfree sunshine somewhere nearby! When we arrived at the spot where we had planned to camp, after crossing three passes and crawling along knife edge precipices with precarious rocks covered by fresh waist high snow, we decided we had had enough. We took up the "3 for 1" offer and did three days in one to get back to Puerto Williams via the lower route in the hope that the snow might eventually disappear. By nine that night we had arrived back at the hostel where we handed all our wet clothes over for washing and put our boots in front of the stove to dry.
Ah yes, the oul' comfortable bed again. I couldn't bear to think what another night up in the mountains would have been like as down in Puerto Williams it was non-stop rain all night. After talking to some people it would seem this was the heaviest summer snowfall they had seen in the last twenty years!
Claudia was heading on to Ushuaia to try the mountains on that side of the Beagle Channel while Omer and I decided we would try our luck to see if we could change our return flight to an earlier date. I wasn't hopeful as the earliest I got when booking it was in three days time. But life is full of surprises and they had two spots for the next day so we quickly snapped them up.
Despite the damp weather this day was a day for celebration. It was exactly a year since I arrived on the continent. And what could be more poignant? On the eighteenth of January 2006 I had arrived at my northernmost point of South America and exactly a year later I was at my southernmost point (well, almost)? So Claudia and I celebrated with some wine...
And surprise surprise, the next day was absolutely stunning! Once, I would think nothing of it, twice I would think it coincidence, but three times??? Twice on my trek around Torres del Paine the weather was stunning after imbibing lots of wine and here it happened again. I have finally learnt. Next time the weather is rotten, get that carton of Gato Negro out and offer it up to the gods!
Finally it was time to leave and head back to the real world. I get the feeling that Isla Navarino is my home away from home for not only did I have someone greet me when I arrived there but someone also waved me off. Claudia's boat wasn't leaving until later that day so she came to the airport to say goodbye and waved us off.
Dead toe report
My big toe died when doing the John Garner pass in Torres del Paine and it is still decidely dead and still doesn't feel a thing. Just in case you were enquiring after the health of my toe...
Things I learnt
Puerto Williams was known as Puerto Luisa until 1956 when renamed in recognition of Juan Williams who captured the Magellan Strait and territories in Chile's favour in 1843. Southernmost part of the world, most people have some relation with the navy. There are Yamaná descendents also.
The "peculiar" geography and rich fauna (both land and marine) of southern Patagonia encouraged the settlement of four ethnic groups with different languages and different geographic areas.
Nomads and hunters of great stature. Legend has it that Patagonia got it's name from the large footprint of these people.
They settled along the eastern flanks of the Andes and riverbanks following grazing pastures of the native fauna as far north as Bariloche. They learnt to domesticate the horse (which had been introduced by the Spanish) in the 18th century. With the new form of transport they expanded down to the coast of the Atlantic along the rivers.
They were Guanaco and Ñandu hunters and traded their skin and feathers with the first colonists along the coast. The first westerner to live among them was George Ch Musters who left Punta Arenas in 1869 and arrived at Bariloche accompanied by various tribesmen and headsmen. The big incentives offered to business people started in 1900 in the Argentinian prairie affected their freedom to roam and the loss of nomadism and sickness due to contact with the Europeans along with a change of culture brought about the end of this culture.
These were land hunters who lived on the prairies of Tierra del Fuego. Their ancestors arrived on the island at the end of the last ice age (10,000 years ago) when it was still connected to the continent by the First and Second Strait.
Their customs were similar to the Aónikenk but adapted for the harsher climate. They traded with the Yamaná (inhabitants along the Beagle Channel) in the area of Ushuaia. This culture suffered a tragic and violent end.
They were hostile to any advances in their territory and resisted any moves organized from Punta Arenas. They became victims to land occupation and were cruelly persecuted by hunts organized by professional assassins who were paid for every pair of ears they brought back.
By 1920, only 276 Selk'nam were still living.
These were marine nomads who travelled by canoe and lived along the Beagle Channel as far south as Cape Horn and Isla Clarence on the western end of the Strait. There was occasional contact the the Kawéskar.
In 1876, Anglican missionaries arrived in Ushuaia and later moved to the Chilean territory of Isla Navarino who for the next seventy years worked to conserve and convert the group. Their demise can be blamed on plagues, venereal diseases and alcohol, all introduced by the seal and whale hunters and later by the gold rush in 1893.
They were a group of marine nomads who travelled by canoe and inhabited the islands and channels between the Gulf of Sorrows to the north and the Strait in the south. They lived by hunting wolves, seals and marine life.
They lived in an area of extreme weather where the average rainfall was around 4000mm per annum, winds were of hurricane force and the water, being of glacial origin, was freezing cold.
Today there are some living descendents still living in Puerto Eden. Their demise, almost complete, can also be attributed to the illnesses and alcohol introduced by the seal and whale hunters who arrived to the archipelago around the middle of the twentieth century.