Tierra del Fuego: We take a bus east along the coast from Ushuaia to the Tierra del Fuego national park. Threatening clouds and the chilly air have discouraged other hikers and the expansive ends of the earth are all ours.
We walk through autumnal forest of Antarctic beech and I recall that the last time I saw this tree was on my birthday a month ago in an ancient temperate rainforest in northern New South Wales, Australia. Once upon a time, Patagonia was joined in one great landmass to an ice-free Antarctica and Australia. The Antarctic beech grew across Gondwana – now ice covers the White Continent and eucalypts reign across the Red.
The ground is soft and spongy, a carpet of moss and lichens in stunning, eye-popping colours: reds, corals, pinks, greens, aquas, oranges, yellows. And between the cushions of moss run rivulets and streams, green and black and turquoise lakes, still as a glass and just as reflective. A thickly coated red fox (‘zorro colorado’) sits unmoving under a bush that perfectly matches his colouring, until with the nonchalance of a dog, he strolls away. Splashing in the bay reveals a family of sea lions (‘sea wolves’, they call them here), who curl into the water like dolphins. Woodpeckers hammer loudly in the trees.
These waterways were the travelling routes of the nomadic Yamana people, who lived in bark canoes, using their simple boats for everything from fishing to sleeping in. The first Europeans to meet them, described long straight torsos, long arms and short, buckled legs – perhaps from so much time spent scrunched up in a small canoe. Few Europeans made any effort to understand the Yamana or saw them as anything other than inferior beings. Darwin even went so far as to theorise that the Yamana might be a missing link in human evolution from more primitive ancestors. A rather hideous blot on his otherwise humane copybook.
At the end of the 19th century, a missionary, Thomas Bridges, compiled an English-Yamana language dictionary, and seems to have been genuinely interested in the Yamana culture. His dictionary misses a great deal of the Yamana language complexity, in particular some of the metaphorical concepts, apparently, but Bridges went a long way further in terms of indigenous-invader diplomacy than others.
This was all a backdrop to his main evangelical work, of course, and in Christianising the natives, Bridges and his like also insisted on clothing the hitherto naked tribes. It was the wearing of filthy, damp, slow-to-dry cloth, sleeping in dirty, unsanitary and over-crowded housing that was responsible in reducing Yamana numbers from several thousands in 1888 to just 125 by the turn of the century. Measles, smallpox and pneumonia were this biggest killers. The last full-blooded Yamana died in 1999.
The waterways the Yamana plied for thousands of years are now seriously threatened by another invader: the Canadian beaver. Some 60 years after a Canadian governor introduced 50 of the North American rodents into Patagonia, in an attempt to start a fur trade here, their numbers have now swelled to more than 50,000. Cute in Canada; a catastrophic menace here, where they have felled hundreds of miles of virgin forest and ruined pristine ecosystems with their dams. They have no natural predators here and the trees have none of the Canadian trees’ defences, such as nasty tasting sap or the ability to regrow from the trunk. The government has tried poison and dam-blasting. There is a 10 peso price on a beaver’s head.
We see evidence of their destruction everywhere, we see abandoned and active lodges, and the lakes they manufacture. We don’t see any beavers though, unsurprisingly because they’re nocturnal.
We cross ancient peat bogs and come across a lake that is a peat-bog in gestation. A happy example of carbon being secured – for how long? – out of the atmosphere.
As the skies chuck freezing rain over us, we hurry soddenly back to Ushuaia and take refuge in the prison museum, which has an exhibition on Antarctic exploration. This mostly focuses on people like clever, efficient Amundsen, and the very lovely but flawed Scott, it also has a section sponsored by Total on the potential for oil drilling in the region. It’s a worrying reminder that in 2041 the international treaty that protects the environment of Antarctic expires.