Glacier country

Trip Start Oct 15, 2006
Trip End May 01, 2007

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

And now the most Southerly part of the trip, Ushuaia in Argentina. It was a strange relief to be back in Argentina, if only for a couple of days. To be honest, I'm not exactly enamoured with Chile - it's trying a bit too hard to be western and seems to lack the culture and fun that South America's famous for.

As for Ushuaia, it's a gorgeous little city perched on the Beagle Channel at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego. Getting here's a bit arduous - although there's an airport this is only really served by flights from Buenos Aries and at this time of the year, there are no flights from Chile, so back on the bus for a 12-hour trip. This time, unfortunately, not an overnighter with sleeper seats! This was a slightly auspicious time to be  visiting these parts - Last week was the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict and Ushuaia was very much the base of operations for the Argentinean war effort. It was also the main centre for the commemorations of the war and provided an opportunity to re-assert the Argentina in claims to Las Malvinas. Judging by the amount of flags, window and car stickers, feelings here are still running quite high about them. To be honest, not sure what the fuss is all about - we should let them have them if they care that much. There's not enough oil there for us to care about and if we want sheep, we can always claim New Zealand back!

The main attraction down here is the Tierra del Fuego national park and where Torres del Paine, disappointed, this place more than matched expectations. It's the most stunning scenery with wooded mountainsides rolling down to the sea and fjords. This is what I imagined Patagonia to be about and I wasn't wrong -it's stunning and worth the effort to get down here.

However, the main reason for coming this far south was the opportunity to get on another boat for 5 days. After the spiffing fun of our last boat trip, I was looking forward to this, the way a chocolate bunny looks forward to Easter.  I was thinking back the other day to the contrast when I travelled from Mumbai to Tokyo and the contrast between these two boat trips is more than equal to that! Whereas the feeling on the other boat was that we were an inconvenience to be tolerated by the crew, on this boat, you were looked after magnificently. Admittedly this trip was a cruise, but the ironic thing was that the cost of the two trips was nearly the same and actually run by the same company. Anyway, the point of the trip was to see much more of Patagonia than you could from land. Sailing through the Magellan and Beagle Channels, thorough the wonderfully named Glacier Alley, disembarking at various points to see unforgettable scenery, flora and fauna. First stop though, was one of those places that seems to be written large in human endeavour, Cape Horn. The most southerly point of South America, it also marks the meeting point of the three great oceans, the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Southern. It's name conjures visions of mountainous seas, howling gales (that's enough literary bollocks, ed.) etc. Over the years, it's estimated that Cape Horn has claimed 800 ships and over 10,000 lives, making it without doubt the most dangerous sea passage in the world. Fortunately, when we arrived, although there was a bit of wind, the sea was remarkably calm  and we were able to get into the Zodiac boats and land at the tiny Chilean Naval Lighthouse on the island. The station is manned by one family, man, wife and child (4 years old). The posting is for one year only and apparently it's a great privilege to be chosen - buggered if I can understand why! As for the island itself, it's what you'd expect - bleak, windswept and cold! One interesting sight on the island is the cordoned off landmines. Apparently we weren't the only people to have trouble with the Argy's in the 70's and 80's and Chile and Argentina nearly went to war twice over the area around here. There's still a bit of animosity which is probably why Chile's the only country in South America that refers to the Falklands as the Falklands, not the Malvinas.

The next couple of days of the cruise was very much orientated towards glaciers, mainly because they're so easy to see from the boat. The cruising highlight was down Glacier Alley, where 6 glaciers appear from the mountains in various sizes and states. For the global warming theorists, there's a great example of a receding glacier, but ironically next to it is a glacier that's advancing faster than it's neighbour is receding. Returning to my green theme from earlier blogs, the whole issue of glacial reduction is meant to be one of the key indicators of global warming, yet on this boat, amongst the various lectures, I've heard different theories on the reason why they're receding. To be honest, the most logical reason is that we're in the middle of two ice-age periods - the last major ice-age was 50,000 years ago and according to the research they occur every 100,000 years or so. Glaciers are formed during ice-ages, so it's logical that when we're not in one they should recede. Indeed the amount of Fjords and glacial valleys around the world proves this. The green argument is that at this moment they're actually retreating faster than they should and certainly this is true if you look at the polar ice-caps which have shrunk at an alarming rate over the past few years. But, don't believe everything you read about glaciers being the proof of global warming. They're not!

Our final stop was to see a colony of  Magallanic Penguins. Unfortunately, as we're quite late in the year the number on the island has shrunk to around 400 from a peak of about 100,000! These are pretty shrewd penguins and as they approach winter, they all get in the water and bugger off up the coast, half to the Chilean coast around the Atacama and the really clever ones up the Argentinean and Brazilian coasts to Rio de Janeiro! Still, those that were left put on a nice little show as they have their morning swim and waddle around on the beach.

Patagonia is stunning and although I didn't think I'd see anywhere as beautiful as New Zealand, this cruise has just about pipped it. Not necessarily for diversity of landscape, but certainly for scale and magnitude and sheer impact.

And that's the end of South America for me. Tomorrow I hop on a plane to Washington DC for the last leg of my trip in the USA. I've been on this continent for around 2 months and it's been a great place to be. I can fully understand why so many people fall in love with it. It's not quite as culturally diverse as Asia and I've found the people to be not quite as welcoming, but for natural beauty it's hard to top. Be it the Galapagos, the Amazon, Patagonia, and of course the Andes which so dominate the landscape, the beauty of this continent is fantastic.
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