March 28, 2009 GMT
Ushuaia, Fin del Mundo

We cross the Straits of Magellan in a long 20 minutes and bounce ashore onto dry land. Dry land, what an understatement - there is more moisture in popcorn. Dry, flat and arid in the north, Tierra del Fuego, more than twice the size of Vancouver Island, has mountains, sub-antarctic forests of beech and low ground cover in the extreme south. Our little Samsung TVcumCAR rattles over the gravel road as we head south to Rio Grande, Argentina (ownership of the island is divided between Chile and Argentina).

IMG_1080 Tierra del Fuego norte.12.JPG

For roadside company, we have small herds of guanacos to wave at as we pass, and nandus, half size ostriches. Neither can be domesticated so they run free over the landscape. Foxes show their faces occasionally. The most notable birds are the black condors circling overhead. Also there are small gaggles of geese here and there, but dressed in mottled grey, and looking a little lost. Unrestricted, the wind blows here too with relentless abandon. Neither feather nor fur seems to notice.

IMG_5049 guanaco.12.JPG

In Rio Grande we stay the Yawar Hospedaje, the best bargain mini-hotel yet for $50 Cdn. Not only new and fully equipped but we are the only guests. We stay two nights.
IMG_1088 Yawar Hospedje.12.JPG

Heading south, we hit pavement all the way to Ushuaia. Thatīs new. Less than 3 years ago it was still ripio (gravel). Garibaldi Pass marks the divide where, to the south, old forests live in the mountain valleys. The old beech trees have pale green moss hanging from the branches like silk scarves. Two adventure bikers pass by on BMW Dakars heading north. Itīs spitting rain and canīt be more than 11 C. I pretend not to notice but inside I feel my ego twinge a little.

IMG_5029 Garibaldi Pass.12.JPG

Ushuaia, another hour later, has the air of a frontier town that has found ecotourism and saved itself from a slow death. Cruise ships depart for Antarctic tours here. Even Charles Darwin stopped here with his ship the Beagle in 1832.

For the last minute adventurer shoppers, stores sell everything from nuts to Nikon lenses. A Banff with a maritime flavour, it even has ski hills nearby. Because of the maritime influence, the temperatures here hover, on average, from zero in winter to +10 C in summer. Even though in sunshine the air has a chill, a salty damp feel even, the town itself has a vibrancy that ensures the middle aged adventure tourist, many wearing Tilley and Ex Oficio clothes better suited to African safaris, will not grow cold or unentertained. Because of the eclectic energy, pleasantly surprising to both of us, Joyce feels the locals chose to live here. I think itīs a former harpoon whaler meets hippy enterpreneur meets ecotourism goldmine kind of thing. We think Dave Clark would like it here. But not one damn guitar strap for sale.

IMG_5030 Ushuaia msc.12.JPG

IMG_1098 Main Street Ushuaia.12.JPG

After paying 100 pesos ($33 Cdn) at the gate, we enter Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego, a park of scenic little lakes, 30 ft beech trees, long fiords and stands of long green grass. We arrive at Lapataia in the early afternoon. Itīs a place, not a town, a place where the road ends. If driving south in South America, one can go no further south than here. It is, in that regard, el Fin del Mondo, the end of the world. OK, so itīs a little theatrical, and untrue, but a charming thought nevertheless. Joyce and I pose by the sign for the obligatory photo, then do a wee walkabout to study the peaceful but hardy flora and fauna. There is a virgin cleanness to the place, a faint scent of green life evident, but carried in the air with a rawness that is familiar. Like camping near the Columbia Icefield in September.

IMG_1091 Lapataia.12.JPG

On our return trip to the Yawar Hospedaje, "base camp" for Samsung adventurers like ourselves, we discuss the pros and cons of riding Ruta 40 on our motorcycles. Over the next three days we waffle back and forth. Ego vs logic, health vs climate, the classic struggle continues.

Last on our Gringo Trail list is El Calafate, gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier. We drive two days north across windswept and empty Patagonia, lonely estancias scattered every couple hundred kilometers apart. It is big country - and did I mention utterly vast and empty?

El Calafate is an Argentinian Canmore. Backpackers, adventure bikers, seniors on luxury bus tours, cripples with sciatica, weīre all here. Wood carved signs, highlights painted in bright primary colors, swing overhead the crowded sidewalks, bushy and bright green pine trees shade the main boulevard.

IMG_1126 Lago.12 Argentino.JPG

The Perito Moreno glacier flows into Lago Argentino, apparently one of the few glaciers left still advancing. It enters the water at sixty meters high and 5 km wide, truly an impressive sight. At the viewpoint, visiters can look 11 km up the valley to its origins off the main glacial mantle. Sharp cracks like rifle shots signal another slab calving off and plunging into the ice blue waters below.

IMG_1135 P y Perito Moreno.12 Glacier.JPG

On our one-day drive south back to Puerto Natales, we hash out the Ruta Cuarenta option again. I even do a risk analysis on it - likelihood and consequences. Jayson Nelson would be proud. The score comes up with the odds against us. Damn, sometimes I hate logic and science.

IMG_5071 empty Patagonia.12.JPG

We spot a strange object on a fence post. It is our friend zorro but looking a little parched. We wonder if the landowners put up the desicated carcass as a warning to zorroīs relatives. Perhaps they donīt like foxes here anymore than they do at home.

IMG_5072 Ruta 40 zorro.12.JPG

By the time we arrive back in our adopted home of Puerto Natales, we have nearly made up our mind. But then the next day we take another "battery charging" run north. Black clouds, rain slanting in the wind, stalk us from the nearby mountains. Temp mid-day 9 C. All clothes on and after an hour itīs clear Iīm getting cold soaked. Itīs a wonderful spirit-charging experience for us to be on Katie and the Bumblebee again but the signs are obvious, even to my stubborn ego. We book the Navimag ferry for northern climes and start packing for the sailing Monday, March 30. Regretfully, Ruta Cuarenta and the Carretera Austral will have to wait for another time.

Posted by Murray Castle at March 28, 2009 11:04 PM GMT

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