Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia
01.01.2012 - 14.01.2012 -3 °C
10th January 2011
It's 10pm, and I've been on a bus for seventeen hours already. I'm driving along a wide open road with nothing around except baron planes on either side, as far as the eye can see. The only thing I´ve passed is a scattered handful of bleak looking towns, none of them where you would want to end up. It appears that the road to the end of the world feels just like that. The supposedly mesmerising Route 40, which brought me from Bariloche to El Calafate before here, was anything but mesmerising. Baron, wild and soulless, the windy planes rolled by almost hypnotically for thirty long hours.
Eventually, after days on the road, the landscape slowly turns to dramatic mountains. It's 10pm and still not dark. As the light begins to fade, the bus weaves its way through a steep mountain pass. An eerie mist sets in and transforms the dramatic landscape into something almost mythical: it is like a film set. This is the end of the world, and I feel as though I've reached it.
The bus pulls into Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world and the gateway to Antarctica. Ushuaia sits on the Beagle Channel surrounded by snow capped mountains. It is dark when I arrive and extremely cold. I´ve made the cardinal sin of arriving in Ushuaia without any accommodation and, therefore, spend the next two hours walking around trying to find somewhere. When I do, I check in and bed down for the night.
The next day I go to see the penguins (affectionately named penguinos in Spanish). As the boat approaches Martilla island, the penguins can be seen everywhere. We remain silent and cut the engine. Several birds take to the water as the boat glides onto the shore. One-by-one we all climb ashore.
Two types of penguin can be found on the island. The first is the Magallanic penguin, which migrates to warmer waters during the winter. The second is the Gentoo penguin, which stays on the island all year round and can also be found in Antarctica. At the moment, there's an unusual guest to steal the show: an Antartic King Penguin, almost twice as tall as the others, and approximately 1000 kms away from home. He is not camera shy and takes centre stage as the group photograph him. According to the guide, he only recognises the Gentoo penguins: the Magallanic penguins are not inhabitants of Antarctica therefore, the King Penguin does not recognise them.
The group stands watching him for a while. He walks closer and without warning stretches out his neck, opens his beak and lets out a serious of loud, sharp squarks. He listens for a response, but there isn't one. He tries again, arching his back, stretching out his wings, and craning his neck. I feel sorry for the poor guy. He huddles close to another penguin for warmth. She is presumably female but is only half his size. Apparently he will find his way home eventually.
At the breeding nests, it is delightful to see little balls of grey fluff huddling up and tripping over one another. Protective mothers watch their young and guard the entrance to the nests where young lay sleeping. They move their head from side to side as they use both eyes to fathom out who you are. There are plenty of nests around, so it must be a rich breeding ground.
The following day I take a boat out in to the Beagle channel. The channel separates Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia and opens out into the Drake passage, beyond which lies Antarctica. As well as the wildlife, the main attraction of the boat trip is Les Eclaireurs - the lighthouse at the end of the world. Standing on top of a small island, is the cone shaped, red and white lighthouse, set against a backdrop of stunning snow capped mountains. It is impressive to see and feels an achievement to make it here.
Back on shore, I find the sign that denotes Ushuaia as the end of the world. I take the customary photo and head back to my hostel. Tomorrow I begin the journey from here to Mexico and eventually home.