To the Land of Fire, Tierra del Fuego

As a child, I can remember hearing about a place called Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire. This conjured up images of erupting volcanoes spitting fire with pools of bubbling mud and boiling lava. The fiery landscape was enshrouded by swirling banks of steam rising from hot springs and simmering pools of water. Now there was a place that I wanted to see and I immediately added it to my list of Places To Go When I Grow Up. Of course, when you are a child, you never really think that you are going to grow up and you never believe that one day you might actually visit these far flung places scattered around the globe in mystical countries that perhaps only exist in your imagination. Let’s face it, at that point in my childhood, the furthest that I had ever travelled was to various damp and soggy corners of the British Isles. Not quite the exotic flights of fancy that my mind took when I heard about places such as Tierra del Fuego.

Much to the chagrin of my childhood mind, it turns out that the Land of Fire was not named for its flaming volcanoes belching out fire and smoke after all. The name was coined by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. As he approached this cold and desolate land, he saw many fires burning. These were the fires of the native Fuegians, used, not to ward off the invading Portuguese, but to ward off the damp, chill air of the southern tip of South America. These people lived off the land and the ocean, existing on a diet of mainly guanaco or fish. So now, in my mind’s eye, I am imagining a land of small fires in front of huts made of wood and animals skins. There are meat and fish roasting over these fires and small nut-brown children with black unruly hair are running around in scraps of animal hide while their parents sit around whittling new arrows and spears to use to catch their next meal. I am, of course, a couple of centuries too late to witness such a scene since the number of native Fuegians has dwindled to nothing following European settlement in the area. So, instead of volcanoes or fires, I am greeted by waving grass and flocks of woolly sheep, contently munching on the tough grass that grows in this harsh, unforgiving environment. The ever present wind swirls through the grass and whips up whitecaps on the surrounding sea. I get the feeling that the sun’s appearance here is erratic and short-lived and is always a very welcome sight.

In order to reach La Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego, one first has to cross the Strait of Magellan. On our way to the crossing, we passed through an old ghost town that had been abandoned many years before. Everything was eerily quiet, overgrown, rundown and ramshackled. I tried to imagine a bustling little community, but my imagination let me down. It just seemed like a sad, dejected place, waiting for someone to come back to love it and restore it. Waiting for the shouts of children, bursts of laughter and the chatter of many voices to bring it back to life. The roses still flowered valiantly amongst the weeds and the apple trees blossomed in the vain hope that someone would be there to harvest their fruits in the autumn.

As if to reinforce the lost hope of the deserted village, the long narrow strip of beach that ran along its edge was the last resting place of several wrecked ships. These vessels were slowly disintegrating and decaying. Their hulls were being stripped of their iron skins and their bones were bared to the skies above. The rust orange skeletons were mocked by the hard blue sky as the wind whistled and wailed through the ribs of the once proud vessels. The human hands that had crafted these vessels and built the village were doing nothing to stop their gradual decline, deterioration and ultimate loss.

And so we reached the Strait of Magellan and, once again, my imagination has led me astray. I am beginning to think that I really should do a bit more research about the places that I am going to visit, shouldn’t I? Still, that might spoil some of the surprises that await me on my travels. The famous Magellan Straits, those dangerous waters, full of rough and tumble waves that toss ships from crest to crest and send many to their doom, either sinking into the green and murky depths to spend the rest of their lives as host to a myriad of sea dwelling creatures or ending up washed ashore to suffer the fate of beached ships exposed to the elements. A wild and dangerous stretch of water that has claimed the lives of many an adventurer struggling to find safe passage from one ocean to another. I can imagine slimy creatures from the depths rearing up out of the foaming maelstrom, wrapping their arms around the bow of a vessel, holding on with suckers the size of dinner plates and hauling the ship down into the cold, deep water, never to be seen again, all hands lost. Oh dear, perhaps I should take my Gravol so at least I won’t be heaving my guts up as I am dragged to my watery grave by a polypodous mollusc.

The reality is, at least on the day that we were there, of course, quite different. The Strait of Magellan is 570 km long and 2km wide at its narrowest point. It is protected from the worst of the weather by La Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego to the south and the mainland of Chile to the north and it is the favoured route to travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, so avoiding the treacherous, unprotected seas further south. The Straits are considered to be hazardous to navigation, due to the narrowness at certain points and due to the ever changing, often inhospitable weather. However, we were merely crossing the Straits and the day we were there, the weather was probably as good as it gets this far south. The sun was shining and the water of the Straits was flat calm. The ferry was in much better condition than the boats that we had seen earlier in the day and during our twenty minute crossing we were kept entertained by the leaping, spinning and dancing acrobats of a small pod of Commerson's dolphins. These splendid little cetaceans shot through the water like little black and white missiles, exploding through the surface with a spray of water, only to disappear beneath the waves in the blink of an eye. They were incredibly fast and agile and you never knew where they were going to pop up next.

Half of La Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego belongs to Chile and the other half to Argentina, so we were soon approaching another border crossing. You never know quite what to expect at a border. Will it be a hut occupied by one lonely old man and a couple of sheep or will there be official looking men in official looking uniforms, with orderly queues, forms to fill in and guns to intimidate? Now, since I am a Canadian and a British citizen, I get to choose which passport that I use to cross a border. I figured that for this one, the Canadian passport was the way to go. All I had to do when at the border was avoid speaking as much as I could and say “eh” a lot. That should work. Not that I was particularly worried – we had been in Argentina for a couple of weeks before and no one had made any mention of the war. However, as we travelled further south, we saw more evidence of the battles that were fought and the lives that were lost. We saw maps and posters showing the Falkland Islands coloured white and blue. Old banners were still up, marking the 25th anniversary of the war for Las Islas Malvinas. I made jokes about not mentioning the war – “I did once, but I think I got away with it” -  and wondering whether we should tell them that they had lost - "Who won the bloody war anyway?". Joe was not amused and he gave me several stern looks. We then arrived in Rio Grande. This city is one of the southernmost in Argentina and it was one of the bases used to fight the Falklands war. Here, under a dark and brooding sky, we visited the war memorial. And here, I stopped, I stared out over the ocean and I thought back to my childhood.

2nd April, 1982. I was barely a teenager. Things were pretty simple for me back then. If another country invades yours, you fight back, no matter what. Of course we were going to fight back when the Argentines landed on British soil, even if that British soil was over 12,000km away. We sent aircraft carriers, submarines, jet fighters and bombers. We sent men, all that way to fight for Queen and Country, to give their lives for some isolated and desolate rocky islands in the middle of nowhere. It goes without saying that I was very naive back then and not cognisant of all of the complexities of the world. Things are not that much different now and I would find it very hard to make a decision about going to war or not. But as I stood at that monument all I could think of was the loss of life, the pain and suffering of the men who fought and their families back home. It didn’t matter where that home was or where those men had come from. It didn’t matter that “they” had invaded “us”. It didn’t matter that I was English and they were Argentines. The pain was felt just the same, the agony was no different. The sorrow and the loss were felt by all. War, no matter whether it is right or wrong, justified or not, is a terrible thing. It is brutal and it is ugly and people suffer and they die. As I stood there staring out to sea, my thoughts flew out to those who had lost their lives and to their loved ones and a silent tear fell down my face. The cold, harsh wind whipped through my hair and dried the tear from my cheek.

As I walked away, I turned to Joe and said “But really, don’t you think that someone ought to tell them that they lost!?”

I shall finish this post on a slightly lighter note and give you something to look forward to. Penguins, everyone, penguins! Yes those loveable, laughable, flappable, flightless birds are coming to a blog near you! A whole post dedicated to these gorgeous little creatures. I bet you just can’t wait can you? Here are a couple of the little fellas, just to whet your appetite.

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