LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 95
Pags.: 76 - 83
By: Julia Coprara
Photos: Alejandro Peral
ISLAND OF THE STATES
A jagged remote outcrop forgotten even by seamen. Getting there is fascinating and not difficult. We traveled there on the Ushuaia, to explore the length of its northern coastline.
It used to be a hideaway for bandits, inspired chroniclers and storytellers, and was a beacon to innumerable navigators in rough South Atlantic seas.
The Dutchmen Jacob Le Maire and Cornelius Schooutten discovered it on Christmas Day 1615; it is a tiny island to the east of the great island mass of Tierra del Fuego. Almost four centuries later, its strange, jagged topography, fauna, woods and peat bogs are still objects of interest for researchers and scientists.
Now they will also be available to tourists. We were lucky enough to take part in a cruise organized for the biologists of the Southern Center of Scientific Research (under the leadership of Adrian Schiavini), of the Natural Patagonia Foundation and of the CONICET, plus a small group of travel agents.
The sea trip took five days, including the return crossing from Ushuaia to De los Estados Island and along the northern coast of the island from Franklin Bay to San Juan de Salvamento. The southern part of the island, with its steep and jagged rock walls, makes landings almost impossible.
The objectives were group-specific, and therefore well differentiated. Some of us set out to record animal sightings, others to study "metal, sediment and fuel contamination on the island " (sic), and we simply proposed to live the experience in order to tell about it later.
We left Ushuaia port on Wednesday between 5 and 6 p.m. The ship has a total length of 85 meters and takes up to 74 passengers; in our case, we were 45, so we successively "took possession" of the bridge, the deck, the reading room, the dining room, the cabins, and even of a welcome pub, according to the time of day and circumstances.
We crossed the Beagle Channel and headed eastward into the open sea; we all inevitably felt a certain amount of regret at our country's having lost ground in the struggle for sovereignty in this area...
Some time after setting sail we had meetings to discuss topics of safety on board and on land excursions, the itinerary we would follow and the exact places we would visit - which were clearly explained by Dr. Schiavini. Before we knew it, we had arrived in the Southern Argentine Sea, that surrounds the southern part of Tierra del Fuego. At nine p.m. we were already hungry enough for dinner. There was good food and animated conversation; it was everybody's first trip to that outpost of our country's, so our bubbling expectations drew out the after-dinner chat.
At around four o'clock in the morning, the ship began jumping around like an egg-beater; my photo camera that I had left on my night table, flew off it like a feather and the chair I had left my clothes on fell over, and alone and scared in my cabin, I looked through the porthole at the furious choppy seas.
We were going through the Le Maire Straits I had heard so much about; they separate De los Estados Island from Mitre Peninsula (the eastern tip of Tierra del Fuego), they are 24 km wide, and this is the exact spot where the sea current drives straight into the relentless wind. Although I had been warned about this battering, I admit the thought crossed my mind "how did I get myself into this mess". However, it was over sooner than I feared. I took a few "quells", relaxed and understood that I would have to get used to the tossing and pitching.
The first landing
This took place in Franklin Bay; but only the scientists who would have to stay there working for three days left the ship. Their task was to fit satellite radio collars on fifteen specimens of yellow-crested penguins. We bade them farewell until our return, and at around midday we got to Crossley Bay. We anchored there and set out for the coast on the Zodiacs. As we had been told, we dressed in parkas, rubber boots and balaclavas, and were careful to record our departure.
We reached the beach where Comandante Luis Piedrabuena planted the national flag in 1862, where there are still remains of the base that was built, a small farm and the progeny of the goats and red deer that for some obscure reason were brought here by the National Parks Board. A Patagonian caracara, very common in these parts, flew overhead, enabling us to see that it was much better feathered than its northern kin.
We saw a large amount of enormous seaweed called Lessonia, that was rooted to the seabed by a bonelike "stalk", creating a real underwater forest. This was explained to me by one of the scientist, a marine botanist. Then we visited the archaeological site where Anne Chapman excavated in the eighties; this French-American ethnographer is well-known for having documented the life of Lola Kiepja, the last Ona Indian living in these parts.
Back to the boat and sailing again. Sunset found us on the bridge, gazing at the fjords - an incredible sight - and the glassy sea, as we arrived at Port Parry. We had left behind us Cape San Antonio and Port Hoppner, an old sea lion "factory". The De los Estados Island Naval Base is in Port Parry, but the wind was so strong we couldn't get in.
The End-of-the-World Lighthouse
The Ushuaia anchored before midnight off the Port of San Juan del Salvamento, where the famous lighthouse stands. And, as foreseen in the program of activities, we breakfasted almost at dawn, before landing in the port. We saw before us a steep, muddy slope, that we negotiated with the help of a rope. The usual reference was made to Jules Verne: the French writer had never been here, yet in his novel, Le Phare du Bout du Monde he described the place perfectly.
Thus we reached the pathway that was created in 1998 by the French contractors that started construction work on the new lighthouse. They designed it as a perfect copy of the original, an eight-sided wooden cabin; inside one will find testimonies from a large number of visitors, such as flags, inscriptions, coats of arms, etc. The original lighthouse, inaugurated on May 25, 1884 by an Argentine Navy expedition headed by Comodoro Augusto Lasserre, who also built a sub-prefecture and a military prison on the island, carried out its mission until in 1902 it was destroyed by the furious and relentless winds in this area.
Admittedly, its original location was far from ideal, since a clear view of the lighthouse by passing ships was impossible beyond a distance of eight kilometers due to the interposed islands. This is why it was replaced by that of Observatorio Island, and in 1904 that of Cape Virgenes was built to indicate the entry point to the Straits of Magellan. In 1997, a mission retrieved the wreckage of the original lighthouse, as described in LUGARES (N° 28) by the late Adrian Gimenez Hutton.
The remains of the old prison and cemetery in Port Cook were intriguing. Walking among the remains of piles driven into the beach, we got to the graveyard full of crosses where it is said that the victims of innumerable shipwrecks lie buried.
In 1898, after a visit to the island, journalist Roberto J. Payro wrote in Australia Argentina: "De los Estados Island seems specially designed to be a top security prison and fortress. It is impossible to conceive of escaping the prison to wander on the island". However, the initiative had a tragic ending when in 1902 the decision was made to transfer the prison to Tierra del Fuego; during the operation, the prisoners mutinied, killing their wardens and escaping in three boats. Most of them were recaptured a year later.
The last few hours
From Port Cook and over a narrow isthmus we crossed over to the southern side of the island. We emerged on Vancouver Bay, the location of another of Comandante Piedra Buena's houses that was used as a haven for shipwrecked sailors. A forest of sour cherry trees covers the steep slopes. We crossed a raised beach that divides the shorelines, and were able to appreciate the difference between them. We toured a peat bog valley, sinking into the vegetation with every footstep we took.
There was seaweed everywhere, the cachiyuyos and the so-called pardas, giant leathery ramifications that prompted us to play again as though we were children.
In the evening we returned to our floating home. It had been a perfect day, and we celebrated it in proper style: good food and wine, and a party at Chunchungo, the on-board pub, which we had named during the trip after the local sea otter.
Before dawn, the Ushuaia set course for Observatorio Island, thus called because of the installation there of a meteorology observatory in 1902. It forms part of the archipelago christened as the New Year Islands by Captain Cook, the famous British explorer, when he visited them. We saw the lighthouse, but couldn't reach the island because weather conditions weren't right. So, while the scientist went looking for their specimens, we went on a ride in semi-rigid rubber rafts and found an enormous colony of Imperial Cormorants.
By sunset, we had already returned to Franklin Bay to "rescue" the contingent of scholars we had left there the first day. That night, as it was our last on the ship, there was plenty of action in Chunchungo; a truco (local card game) championship, darts, ping pong, the crowning of the Queen of the Trip, champagne and dancing, to the furious, vibrating rhythm of the Le Maire Straits crossing.