Dark green forests and the high mountains of Cordillera Darwin with its snowy peaks dominates the shores of this area, with peaks attaining heights over 2000 meter high above the forested areas as we sail by the Beagle Channel at the end of the day.
Later on, with the start of the new day, we reached the end of the Beagle NW arm, the place where its SW and NW channels join together in a single passage. Near to this place lays Caleta Olla at our Port Side, a magnificent anchorage, very close to Ventisquero or Glacier Holanda, providing good shelter. A known safe port even used by Captain FitzRoy during his first expedition to the area in 1830. And where yet another anecdote of his trip took place: on May 8th he wrote ”We reached the place where the two channels commence, and stopped for the night on a small island. Soon after dark, one of the boat’s crew was startled by two large eyes staring at him, out of a thick bush, and he ran to his companions, saying he had seen the devil! A hearty laugh at his expense was followed by a shot at the bush, which brought to the ground a magnificent horned owl”. Towering high above our heads, the high glaciated peaks of Mount Frances, Lous de Savoya and most eminently, Mount Darwin. The latter having such a famous name because down at its foot along the shoreline, Darwin himself did something that made up for the highest consideration of Captain FitzRoy: While surveying the area in their sloops, the party beached them ashore to cook a meal, and while doing so the entire front of the nearby Italy glacier calved producing large rolling waves. With scarcely any time for Darwin and a couple more men to pull them up higher in the beach out of the crashing waves reach. That heroic deed made for the Captain to name the most striking landscape feature in the surroundings after Darwin. Since then one of the most beautiful and challenging peaks in the whole southern Patagonia bears his name.
Daybreak found us while motoring on calm waters and with the city of Ushuaia already visible at the horizon on our Port side, just under the characteristic pointy tip of Mount Olivia peak. Ushuaia, a blooming redoubt of civilisation lost in the immensity of the unpopulated channels and impressive fjords of Southern Patagonia.
We have sailed on a unique portion of untouched temperate forests, freshwater and glaciated systems that remain in this remote Southern South America archipelago. This ecological region characterised by the so called “Channel Forests” known as the evergreen rainforest, extends along the extensive range of latitudes between 49º and 56º S and has been identified as one of the world’s 37 most pristine wilderness areas. This recognition is based on its remoteness, on its singular ecological balance and for having one of the lowest population density in the world.
A huge wilderness area where still human footprints are almost nowhere to be found. Ushuaia remains as an exception together with the much smaller Puerto Willams. But behind us to the West we left already a mosaic of glaciers, mountains, tundra, forests, streams and channels where there is no infrastructure or any kind of permanent colonisation of the territory during the last two centuries.
Way before that, the first humans to set foot in the southernmost area of the Americas, living out of its scarce resources is thought that arrived to the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn Archipelago about 7500 years ago. The inhabitants of those coasts were seagoing hunter-gatherer communities focuses especially on developing skills to take advantage of the marine resources. They are known as the Yaghan people. Despite being the lords of those waters for thousands of years, we will have to wait until 1624 to have a first description of them, by
Jacques L´Hermite. He was a Dutch merchant, explorer and admiral who in 1623 was commissioned with a fleet of eleven ships with the mission of sailing around the world, starting from Amsterdam and visiting first South America, hunting Spanish ships loaded with gold and silver leaving Peru. By the beginning of 1624 the fleet passed Cape Horn and all the neighbouring islands, exploring and charting some of them. Other famous contacts with the Yaghans date from the expeditions sent by the British Admiralty between 1829 and 1832, which included Robert FitRoy and Charles Darwin.
Since then, their numbers have been dwindling steadily, from the first estimated census on 1855 counting up to 3000 individuals to the nowadays less than one hundred with probably none pureblooded individuals, all living in the neighbourhood of villa Ukika in Puerto Williams.
Introduced diseases by European colonisers and adventurous gold miners, ruthless land usurpers hunting the natives down and the efforts of christian missioners to “civilise” them were the culprits of the decay on their numbers and the destruction of their ancestral culture. Similar fate endured all the other ethnic groups that from immemorial times lived in the whole of Southern Patagonia. The Haush and Selk’nam in Tierra del Fuego, the also seagoing culture of the Kaweskar in the Straits of Magellan and further North along the Chilean Fjords, and the Aonikenk in the nowadays Argentinean lands north of Magellan Straits.
Today’s adventures ashore were about to bring us through the main areas where the Yaghans lived, down at the coasts of Navarino Island and its forested valleys. And there we went, after dropping anchor about midday in front Puerto Willams and had a good lunch.
Having left Ushuaia behind a few hours ago, we clearly realise the different character of Puerto Willaims. Navarino Island gets much less attention from tourists and visitors, remaining as the hidden pearl of Southern Patagonia. This drawback in its development was noted in 2001 when Puerto Navarino was appointed as a place habilitated to receive and clear international touristic vessels, like ours. In that way a sort of potential access door for tourists was open. But not many things or infrastructure changed during all those years, luckily for many, unluckily for some who wish a higher development. Sure between them, the many Navy personnel that actually founded the town in 1953 and now, being up to 1000, are half of the population of the settlement,
As we got ashore on the relatively new fishing pier, we were welcomed by a couple of the nice street dogs that roam around town, while already two vans waited for us to bring up the mountain the ones interested on walk one of the very few hiking tracks in the island. Just a few decided to spent the afternoon leisurely walking and exploring around the little town.
After a short ride in the cars, we were dropped at the start of the path that climbs up to Cerro Robalo, over 600m above the sea level and offering magnificent views over the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego and the northern lower slopes of Navarino Island and Puerto Williams itself.
The trodden path shows a good representation of the island habitats, starting with a short crossing over the typical Evergreen sub-polar rain-forests of the Magellanic Region, where the system is dominated by the endemic beech, Nothofagus betuloides ocoigüe de Magallanes, together with other species like canelo (Drymis winteri) y leña dura (Maytenus magellanica). They all mostly grow along low areas of channels and fjords and are very abundant on lichens and mosses, with a complex physiognomy and ecological relations amongst them. One of the most eye-catching ones is the parasitic “Cytaria darwinii”, round orange fungus living on the branches and trunks of the trees, spread all over, and also called “indian bread”, suitable for human consumption but pretty much tasteless.
Starting our way uphill we went deeper into the woods dominated by the deciduous beech Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio), growing over well drained terrains and one of the preferred trees for the endemic Magellanic woodpecker. Lengas grow with straight trunks, in comparison with the Ñirre (Nothofagus antarctica) forests found on swampy areas and near the alpine habitat, high up in the mountains, where the trees grow just up to 10 meters in height.
By now we all enjoyed the different woods and trees, the warm weather and the great views, not aware yet of the surprise way down the mountain that our guide Jordi had in mind for the most adventurous of the group. But first, almost all the group reached the heights over the tree line, after a short while reaching the large Chilean flag that gives name to the mountain (Cerro Bandera translated in English means Flag Hill). Following the naked ridge that led us further inland, some of us had fantastic views over the Dientes de Navarino, the main mountain range of the Island.
Things were about to get interesting on our way down. Instead of taking the same clear and well trampled path, our guide decided to give the ones that were up to it, a real Patagonian hiking experience, taking a straight way down to the valley where to meet a different path to bring us back to the car park where we started.
We have to realise that the remoteness of all this area has helped to keep it not overcrowded by tourism, meaning so that not many roads or mountain paths have been habilitated. Taking a detour or making different hikes here always mean to cross different wild terrain. Orientation in such a relative small island is not an issue, but crossing the thick woods between two known points is another very different thing. Nevertheless, despite our curses and fights with the branches, maze of fallen trees, wet and slippery trunks and steep slopes, it was amazing just being able to stop for a moment and realise that we were actually walking over pristine and never touched by humans forests at the so called end of the world. An exhilarating experience for some, an unpleasant episode for others, and a challenge for all.
At the bottom of the slopes and following the valley under our feet, the Robalo River is followed by a path, that we take to go back to civilisation. Along this way, the damaged caused by Beavers is evident, with damps, flooded terrains and dead trees all around. Despite being so isolated, and with relatively low human impact, the Cape Horn Archipelago Region has not escaped to one of the main causes of the loose on biodiversity nowadays: the introduction of alien-invasive species. During the last decades Navarino Island has suffered the impact of at least 5 of those, being the most notorious ones the Mink (Mustela vison) and the Beaver (Castor canadiensis) which was introduced in the 1950’s, and its population nowadays exploded exponentially.
Our transports were waiting for us since a while ago, as the new way down took about 45 minutes longer than expected, ready to bring us back on board for dinner and departure.
The few people who chose to stay in town sure could enjoy a couple of its highlights. The town hosts an interesting Museum about the native people and the nature of the island. Next to it lays the “Stirling House” with its interesting history. It was built as an Anglican Mission in 1906 in Rio Douglas (in the Western coast of Navarino Island), but finally closed and abandoned in 1917. Recently the “Stirling House” was brought to Puerto Williams and restored, as it was rotting away and collapsing in its original location.
Also the bow of the “Yelcho” is exposed in town, a boat with an interesting history as well, related with the Polar Explorer Shackleton: After being trapped in the Weddell Sea ice, losing his ship “Endurance”, and finally reaching Elephant Island, where the expedition members made camp while himself with five more expeditionaries crossed the Drake Passage and Scotia Sea in the “James Caird”, a small boat, to reach South Georgia Island on May 20th 1916. Then Shackleton attempted to return to Elephant Island to rescue the others. First they went south
with the Norwegian ship Southern Sky, from South Georgia. But there was too much ice, the ship could not reach the island, and had to return. Then they tried to get there with the Uruguayan vessel Pesca Nr 1, from the Falklands, but failed again. A third attempt was made with the Emma, being towed by the Chilean vessel the Yelcho most of the way, from Punta Arenas. But they failed for the third time. There was too much ice, and winter was upon them. The Discovery was being sent from England, but would certainly arrive much too late. So Shackleton asked one last time to borrow the Yelcho, but had to promise not to touch ice, as the ship was not ice strengthen. A foolish and hopeless enterprise, so it seemed. But on their arrival at Elephant Island, the wind turned and parted the ice momentarily. They could get ashore, and very quickly they had everybody safely on board.
Coming back to the pick up jetty to go back on board, passed again through the fishermen area, where we could see the small boats they use to fish the most appreciated resource here, the king crab or “Centolla”. But also other specie like the Ostión (Chlamys patagonica), merluza (Merluccius australis), and some seaweed species like the luga roja (Gigartina skottsbergii).
From there, a short zodiac ride was left to bring us on board, just in time for dinner, followed by heaving anchor straight afterwards, under a beautiful rainbow across the Beagle Channel. Tough tired as we were after today’s adventurous hike, we are all eager for tomorrow’s chance to set foot at Cape Horn Island, where we plan to be just at breakfast time.