I first thought of going to Tierra del Fuego in, of all places, Gränna – a small town on the shores of Lake Vättern in southwestern Sweden most famous for its hard, striped candy. I was on the home stretch of a 3-week, 7,300km-long roadtrip that had brought me from Heidelberg right up to Knivskjellodden, one of the contenders for the northernmost point of continental Europe. And now, as the finish line beckoned and I relaxed with a pint of beer and some grilled trout from the nearby lake, I found myself scrolling through Google Maps and brainstorming a few potential destinations for the next trip.
The first outline of an idea was inspired, perhaps inevitably, by one of the waypoints I’d hit along the current roadtrip – Honningsvåg, current holder of the title of northernmost city in Norway. While you might understandably query the reasoning behind the quirk of Norwegian legislature that allows a settlement of 2,415 people to be classified as a city (as indeed the tourist board of nearby Hammerfest often does, claiming they’ve been unfairly robbed of their rightful marketing gimmick) there can be no doubt that, at the end of the day, it is pretty damn far north. And, having just hit that particular milestone, my scrolling now veered off to determine what were some similar extremes on the other side of the globe. A few clicks and searches later and I ended up on the Wikitravel page for Ushuaia, a city located right at the southernmost tip of Argentinian Tierra del Fuego. From that point on, the seeds were sown.
Ultimately over a year would pass before those seeds finally bore fruit – a year in which I was able to get some experience hiking in Japan and northern Sweden and thus start formulating increasingly ambitious ideas of what to attempt once down there. As I trimmed the fat from a shortlist that included the Torres del Paine and Monte FitzRoy, a late candidate suddenly emerged that was more geographically extreme and intriguingly intimidating than either of them. I still remember exactly where I was when I first read about it – reclining with a beer and Lonely Planet’s “Trekking in the Patagonian Andes” at a roadside cafe on a Heidelberg summer evening. There, in the shade of a 19th-century church, I landed on the description of the Dientes de Navarino circuit, located on a subantarctic Chilean island just off the coast of Ushuaia. “The sense of no-man’s-land is palpable – in fact, you’ll feel the last soul on earth, treading the narrow path through moors and misty passes of the southernmost trek in the world”. That would do nicely.
Predictably, there’s no easy way to get to such a farflung location. In my case, after much weighing of options and shuffling of dates (at the end of which I settled on a period late February/early March in hopes that the southern hemisphere summer would render my subantarctic surroundings at least a bit more hospitable), the route I ultimately hammered out was:
- Fly from Frankfurt to Rome.
- Fly from Rome to Buenos Aires.
- Bus from Buenos Aires Ezeiza (international airport) to Buenos Aires Jorge Newberry (domestic airport).
- Fly from Jorge Newberry to Ushuaia.
- Hop on a boat from Ushuaia to Isla Navarino
More steps meant more potential for delays and complications – something I had to deal with right from the very beginning in this case, as a security strike at Frankfurt saw me and half an international airport’s worth of stranded travellers diverted to a small handful of hotels on the outskirts of Langen. The few hasty phonecalls and emails to push the subsequent steps of the journey back by 24 hours went remarkably smoothly, and then there was nothing to do but retreat with the hordes of other strandees for the evening to the nearby Hungarian restaurant that clearly had no idea what hit it.
From that point on everything off without a hitch – from the 14-hr crossing to Buenos Aires, the brief stopover in the city itself (during which I, as an Irishman coming off the end of 4 months of Central European winter, wandered around reflecting so much sunlight that I probably could have qualified as some form of mobile Archimedean death ray), to the final 3,000km red-eye flight down the spine of the South American continent that landed me in Ushuaia on a crisp, sunny Patagonian morning. I would spend two days here getting a feel for the region and stocking up on a few final supplies before making my way across the channel to Isla Navarino.
End of the World, Beginning of Everything
A brief aside on Ushuaia. A port town in the farthest reaches of Argentine Tierra del Fuego, it is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world, and unlike Honningsvåg it has the combination of both latitude and population (just under 57,000) to back that up. Originally a missionary settlement, it saw its first real expansion following its reappropriation as an erstwhile prison colony in the early 20th century. In this role it served as a useful dual purpose of acting as a dumping ground for the most disreputable or uncomfortably revolutionary elements of polite society, and simultaneously as an outpost of “human flagpoles” that could be used to establish a statistically meaningful Argentinian presence in a region suffering chronically from conflicting claims and shifting borders. Disputes between Argentina and Chile – some waged militarily – over who owned which island, strait, or inlet would in fact persist all the way up to the 1980s.
And long before the expanding New World powers ever set eyes on this remote and windswept part of the globe it was inhabited by the indigenous Yaghan – a seafaring, shamanistic people who carved out a hunter-gatherer existence along the coastlines and islands. Encountered by Charles Darwin on his voyage through the region on the Beagle, and later chronicled anthropologically by Lucas Bridges in his 1948 book “Uttermost Part of the Earth”, the story of the Yaghan is that of the vast majority of pre-Colombian peoples as the colonial nations expanded – forced into missions and reservations, they were ravaged by introduced sicknesses to which they had no immunity and their way of life rapidly disappeared. Today they exist in drastically reduced numbers, scattered and diluted throughout the wider population.
While a former Patagonian prison colony might initially conjure up images of remarkable grimness, modern Ushuaia actually has a surprising amount of life and purpose to it. It does undeniably have that somewhat functional and weathered look so common to settlements in cold and remote locations, but its role as the no. 1 departure point for cruises to Antarctica means it draws a significantly larger tourist presence than other places at similar latitudes. And given the steep cost of even the most basic Antarctic cruise (roughly €10,000 for a shared cabin, last I checked), these tourists are collectively well-heeled enough to bring a steady flow of money to the town and ensure a market for the 4-star hotels, gourmet Patagonian lamb restaurants, and Gore-Tex outlet that make up the main shopping thoroughfare.
I, being slightly rougher of heel, instead went for more humble accommodation along one of the backstreets – a small, family-run establishment called Hotel Mustapic. The name didn’t seem entirely local, and as I filled in the check-in form at the reception desk I noticed that the letterhead was a combination of their family crest and a familiar-looking chequerboard flag. So as I handed over the form I asked the man behind the desk (presumably the father of the family) if he was Croatian. His face immediately lit up and he beamed that, yes, his forefathers had come over in the early 20th century and his family had been here ever since. This was when I started realising just how diverse the heritage of the region was, and subsequently I would encounter – either in person, in museum exhibits, or on shop fronts – local surnames from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and half the other countries in Europe. Señor Mustapic’s pride in his ancestral homeland was evident, although at that point I hadn’t yet been to Croatia so my small-talk on the matter was limited to asking him if he had ever heard of Mirko Crocop. Without missing a beat, he stated matter-of-factly that they were cousins. Whether they were more “seventh cousins thrice removed on my great-grandmother’s side” or whether it was just some friendly leg-pulling with a passing traveller I never did find out, but regardless Casa del Crocop became my base of operations as I wandered around Ushuaia’s museums (including a tiny Natural History museum that proved beyond all doubt that early explorers could not draw animals for shit), had my first experience of dulce de leche for breakfast, and stocked up on the last few supplies I needed before the final leg over to Isla Navarino.
Let Loose the Dogs of War
Although it is possible to charter a private flight from Ushuaia to Navarino, the more convenient and (comparatively) cheaper option is a zodiac boat that covers the open and often turbulent stretch of the Beagle Channel in about 25 minutes. Not included in those 25 minutes is the time it takes to clear passport control before departure (Isla Navarino belongs to Chile, making this boat the most rickety vehicle I ever crossed an international border on until that bicycle that brought me to Belarus), and most definitely not the hour-plus it took me and my six co-passengers to pass a customs inspection once we touched down on the other side. They are particularly strict on the type of foodstuffs you can bring into the country, and, reading through the list of forbidden items, I thought I might have to give up a lot of the supplies like muesli (seeds) and powdered milk (dairy) I’d brought for eating out on the trail. In the end, the only offending item in the group was the salami confiscated from the somewhat crestfallen Swiss guy, leading me to suspect that the two conspicuously plump dogs lounging outside the customs office might have exerted an undue influence on this particular application of Chilean biosecurity policy.
Once we were considered ecologically acceptable enough to enter, the owner of the zodiac boat, Fernando – who bore a striking resemblance to a smaller Marcelo Garcia, incidentally – passed us over to his local counterpart with whom we drove the remaining 52km along a gravel road to Puerto Williams, the only village on the island. Here was a place that truly felt like the last faint echo of human society as it fades at the edge of the world – a rugged and windswept settlement of just under 3,000 people, where wild horses roam the streets and round-the-world sailors touch down for one final night on dry land before launching themselves off to round Cape Horn or towards the towering walls of Antarctic ice waiting somewhere off over the vast horizon. The preserved bow of the Yelcho, the ship used by Ernest Shackleton to rescue the stranded members of his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from Elephant Island in 1916, rests in the carpark behind the village’s one tiny bank, adding to the sense that this was a place right out at the end of the end. Nothing beyond here but sea and white and cold.
There was one unexpectedly nostalgic aspect of this last outpost of civilisation though. Right in the middle of the village, I came across a small public square called Plaza Bernardo O’Higgins. Which is not an unusual placename in a Chilean context at all, since Bernardo O’Higgins (1778 – 1842) was a crucially important figure in national history who led the country to freedom from Spanish rule in the War of Independence. As such there are no shortage of streets, buildings, and even a national park that bears his name. This particular occurence caught me completely by surprise though, and all of a sudden I realised just how far away in both time and space I was from the last place I’d passed something with the O’Higgins name on it. For Bernardo’s father, Ambrosio, had been born in the same county in Ireland in which I’d grown up, and as a child I used to frequently walk past a monument commemorating this historical link. At that point “Chile” had probably seemed more like an abstract concept than a country; a word carved in stone rather than an actual place I’d visit someday. And yet here I was. That entirely unassuming public square, then – a popular grazing point for the herds of colts that occasionally trotted down from the hills – became a strangely meaningful reminder of my roots in a place so far away and different that it felt like another lifetime.
The ultimate goal, of course, was to go even further.
Howling at the Moors
The Dientes de Navarino circuit is a 53.5km trail that leads into the desolate valleys and wind-riven passes of the island’s interior and around the base of the eponymous mountain range (the “teeth of Navarino”) before returning north to the coast and then back to Puerto Williams. It was created – in the sense of the trail being scouted and charted – by an Australian climber and writer called Clem Lindenmayer who would subsequently die in a mountaineering accident in China. Lindenmayer was the original author of the Lonely Planet guide “Trekking in the Patagonian Andes” that inspired me to come here, and in the later edition I owned a colleague paid tribute to him as a man of immensely adventurous spirit, wry wit, and indomitable walking pace. Almost immediately after setting out on the trail I could attest to that spirit myself. Quite simply put – the Dientes de Navarino circuit is unforgiving. It is nature in the purest sense, all rock and mud and mountains and snow that blinds and branches that bite. It cloaks itself in mist and floods itself with shifting lakes and attempts to block the way with walls of cutting scree and precarious vegetation that flow and slide as you climb.
There are no refugios or fixed shelters, so you bring a tent and food and you get yourself through it – through streams that provide a merciful source of drinking water after a hard uphill scramble, through nights so silent you can hear the beavers swimming in nearby lakes, and through mountain passes guarded by winds that bellow and batter like angry gods. And every step of the way it is beautiful and peaceful and I have never felt so utterly remote and far out in the world. As I wrote this I originally considered describing the feeling of being out on the trail as “dreamlike”, but quickly dismissed that and scribbled it out as it is simply not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact – senses are heightened and physical awareness is sharpened to a razor’s edge as you immerse yourself deeper and deeper into a landscape where your immediate tasks are very simple and ancient; find your way, keep moving, take shelter, stay safe. Your vision burns through dense layers of fog and leaps to distant peaks to find the next stone cairn that will guide you onward, your ears search for the distant churn of running water, you are acutely aware of your shoulders aching from climbing with a heavy pack and your feet throbbing from marching over rocks in mud-filled boots. Two days later, when I cut my way down through the last stretch of tangled lenga forest and made my way back to Puerto Williams, it was actually somewhat overwhelming to be confronted with the voices and lights and soft surfaces of civilisation. Even if civilisation in this case was just a small Patagonian fishing village on the edge of the world.
Once back in town I had a few days to recover and reacclimatise to the different pace of the streets and walls (in fact, one day more than expected due to the boat back to Ushuaia being overbooked), and took the opportunity to explore the area in a way I hadn’t been able to previously since I was too preoccupied with preparing for the hike. In the surprisingly modern Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum (the only source of public wi-fi on the island), I learned more about the history and culture of the Yaghan and met Puerto Williams’ friendliest cat. In the yacht club that consisted entirely of an old German merchant ship listing in the harbour, I perused the flags left behind by sailors past and drank a beer brewed on Robinson Crusoe Island. At an unmanned shop in the centre of town, I hired a bike (the process amounting to nothing more than me leaving a note saying “Took bike. Back in a few hours. Will pay then.”), then cycled out of town and swam in the Beagle Channel.
Of all the people I met either in passing or otherwise over those few days – the American ex-navy man looking to head onwards to Antarctica, the young German woman who worked as a gaucho further north on the Pampas, the jovial Yaghan owner of the seaside hostel – special note should go to Carina, who seemingly single-handedly ran the tiny tourist information office (more of a shack) on the island. I stuck my head in with the intention of getting a quick recommendation for where to cycle that day, only to be greeted by a unassuming, quiet, yet deeply curious individual who insisted I sat down and introduce myself in more detail. Initially I took her for a local, but as the introductions progressed it emerged that she was actually Estonian. She was one of the few people, however, for whom “citizen of the world” would be an entirely justified description, as for almost a decade at that point she had been constantly on the road, wending a relaxed yet unstoppably ambitious path that had carried her across Eurasia (including a brief soujourn living in the small town in northern Hokkaido I’d been to the previous year) and on to the Americas.
The sheer extent of Carina’s adventurous spirit was embodied for me in the circumstances under which she had ended up on Isla Navarino. Handing me a small, hardback travel journal (one of many, stuffed with notes and photographs and postcards in several alphabets, that lined the shelves in the shack), she pointed out the personalised cover she had made for it using a page from an old atlas. This page, torn out at random and then folded and sellotaped with equally carefree abandon, meant that the new cover of the journal was now a map, focusing completely by chance on one particular island – Isla Navarino. And that was all she needed to decide on her next destination. Making her way further south week by week – at that point not even knowing whether the island was inhabited or not – she eventually reached the end of the world, crossed the water, and found her island. She’d been there ever since, learning Spanish, roaming the forests, and guiding the few people who likewise ended up on the cover of her journal. I was the first Irish person she’d met there.
At time of writing this (March 2017) it’s been over 3 years since I was in Puerto Williams, and given her endless inquisitiveness and peripatetic energy I doubt that Carina is still there today. Wherever she is though, I am entirely certain she’s put many more fulfilling miles behind her as she continues to experience the small stories and open skies of the world in a way that few others do.
Filial Fin del Mundo
Once you get to this latitude everything around you is almost guaranteed to be the “southernmost” something. The research stations in Antarctica usually triumph in that regard when it comes to basic human ameneties, but for anything more specialised or commerical Ushuaia and/or Puerto Williams often step up to claim the title. Some businesses are clearly aware of the marketing opportunity and advertise accordingly, whereas others are far more blasé about their coordinates on a map – as a result, at one point it took a stint on Google to discover that I had, in fact, just had lunch in the southernmost Irish pub in the world (which, in a scathing blow to my theory that all Irish pubs abroad have to be called The Dubliner, bore the highly irregular name of simply “Dublin Pub”). Ensconced in a landscape full of such antipodean venerables, how could I reasonably pass up the oportunity to train at the southernmost BJJ academy in the world?
Puerto Williams might be able to lay claim to the world’s southernmost Mormon church, but all this Brazilian frivolity involving rolling around on mats was clearly far too outlandish an activity for them to entertain. So my grappling-related ambitions had to wait until a boat freed up and I made my way back across the channel to Ushuaia – a transition which, despite having only spent just over a week in Puerto Williams, still resulted in some minor culture shock (“Holy shit, two-storey buildings!”). Googling “BJJ Ushuaia” brought up precisely one result, so it was easy to decide the winner in that regard. A brief and heavily Google-Translate-assisted conversation with the head coach later and I had both a location and training times, although given the lack of any obvious signage on many buildings the former was harder to find than I would have expected within such a relatively small city centre. I eventually found them tucked away in what could only be described as the attic of a local sports club, grabbed a spare gi, and then hit the mats. Although we communicated almost entirely via the medium of shrimps, upas, and arm triangles, the little bits and pieces I could gather led me to understand that their setup was this – the classes were run by the head coach, Adrian, a blue belt and guitarist in a grindcore band who regularly made the trip up to Buenos Aires to drink from the source at Gracie Humaita and then return to Ushuaia with a new bag of tricks to teach. Through this 3000km lifeline and the immense dedication and passion of those who traversed it on a regular basis, BJJ had come to Tierra del Fuego.
In terms of style they were still very much raw and chaotic, in that classic white belt way in which energy and enthusiasm have not yet been matched by control and patience. We’ve all been there, of course, and usually after a few weeks or months of rolling with and observing the more experienced grapplers on the mats, the realisation kicks in (and/or is gradually imposed by a few stern applications of knee to sternum) and we learn to pace ourselves a bit more. In this case, that higher-belt presence was missing and thus every round was a hurricane of limbs and life-or-death collar chokes and kamikaze tackles, albeit all from a jovial, highly welcoming group of people who all clearly loved what they were doing. I had cut both my heels while scrambling up hills over on Isla Navarino, so for my part I just focused on being a good guest by trying if at all possible to not track bloody footprints all over their mats.
In my remaining time at the end of the world, I managed to temporarily lose my passport, catch far too much of the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans thanks to its bizarrely regular rotation on Argentinian television, and complete a breakfast order with the help of Roberto Duran. My days and nights pushing over the mountain passes and through the fog of the Dientes had been undeniably the most meaningful and defining aspect of the journey, but leaving some sweat on the southernmost mats in the world was an undeniably satisfying way to draw the curtain on the endeavour. And if some researcher in McMurdo happens to roll out a tatami at some point in the years to come, well – that’s as good a reason as any for round two.
– Dedicated to Clem Lindenmayer (1960-2007)