Magellan Strait

A fairground in Punta Arenas by the Magellan Strait. A ship pass through on an unusually calm day.

Morning – ready for a 14-hοur trip by bus to Ushuaia crossing the Magellan Strait to Tierra del Fuego and into Argentina. I sat next to three girls – to my surprise they were Swiss and from Bern – like Beatrice on Easter Island: as far as I am concerned, Chile is full of Swiss girls from Bern trekking around. I hit it off with Francesca and somehow the hours passed away nicely.

On the way, we saw an abandoned estancia (farm). During Allende’s land reform, the workers destroyed it in scenes, I am told, analogous to the French Revolution. The place has an eerie aspect – a ghost town, but a modern one, from the early seventies. Allende was actually a deputy from Punta Arenas – which is the most left wing part of the country.

We crossed the Magellan Strait by ferry at its narrowest in Punta Delgada and reached Tierra del Fuego in thirty minutes. The top part is flat like Patagonia and looks miserable. The bottom half is mountainous, glaciated and beautiful. That’s where we were heading.There were fires around the island, but they were not lit by the native Indians, a fact that gave the island its name; no, these belonged to modern oil refineries.

The customs post in the border town of San Sebastian is just an Argentinean army barracks, so the immigration was military style. The officer announced our names loudly and one-by-one we presented ourselves to passport control. I was last after the Swiss girls. One young and eager customs soldier found in their bag what he thought was a lot of small funny packages. He took one apart while the rest of us were watching fascinated: he was searching through the girls’ tampons and it was obvious he had never seen one before. Eventually one of the girls whispered ‘Son solo para mujeres, estos’ and put him out of his misery, but boy – did he turn red! Maybe as a punishment he did not give her three months’ visa – just the one.

The Argentinean customs were also not keen on my British passport – the Falklands are the next island group east – or my expensive camera. They took down the number, asked me if I was intending to sell it (huh?) and held me back for a while, but when I talked to them in Spanish, somehow the ice broke and everything ended up fine. It’s amazing what a few sentences in the local language can do.

The trip from the border to Ushuaia is magnificent. The woods were all southern birch, which I but remember seeing in South Australia and New Zealand as well. Since it also exists in South Africa the link was made by the geologists: this was the evidence that the continents were joined once.  The southern birch plays the role of the conifer forests in the Northern hemisphere. They cover everything.