The magnificent cordillera of the Andes had been our near-constant companion for the previous three weeks on our journey south from Northern Chile.
Now, descending through the clouds to Ushuaia, we had our final view of the amazing snow-dredged, tissue-paper-crumpled peaks which were, a few miles on, about to hurl themselves into the ocean at Cape Horn.
Between the tree-covered mountains lay deep, wide glaciated valleys, home to glinting rivers, glaciers, dark peat bogs and the long, thin, shining Lake Fagnano - and then, below - the Beagle Channel! The sky was unusually clear and we had the most amazing views as we banked over Ushuaia. Charles Darwin, born 200 years ago this year, would have been amazed at our bird’s-eye view, not least because, on 17 December 1832 at the age of 22, he arrived for the first time at the eastern end of the channel on board H.M.S Beagle, in thick fog and a gale-force, off-shore wind.
I have to admit to feeling a little cheated at not seeing at least some of the island through a curtain of rain, whipped up by one of the infamous "sou’-westerlies"! But it was amazing just to be there - the mountains rising steeply from the water’s edge on both sides with distant views of snow-covered peaks and glaciers to the west. Large albatrosses, cormorants, gulls, terns, petrels and other seabirds wheeled around the boat or dived into the dark oily-green water, while the sealions basked on their rocky island like oversized slugs. The distant view of Ushuaia - low buildings on the shoreline, huddling from the wind beneath a circle of dark mountains - had a desolate beauty that conveyed some idea of the isolation that the first white settlers must have felt when they arrived 150 years ago. Ushuaia still has the feeling of a frontier settlement; it faces out onto the channel and to the Chilean Navarino Island on the opposite side - and then onto Cape Horn and the Antarctic beyond. There may be naval vessels, container ships and Antarctic tourist boats in the small port, but the feeling of being 'at the end of the earth' is still strong.
For anyone who likes open space and being alone, and who is the least bit interested in geology and flora and fauna, southern Tierra del Fuego is the ideal spot. The slopes of the Andes are covered by magnificent southern beech forests which continue east along the northern edge of the Beagle Channel to the point where the high peaks begin to peter out and where the land becomes less rugged. It was here, 40 miles from Ushuaia, that the Bridges family built their home, Harberton Ranch, in 1887.
The story of this extraordinary English family was told 60 years later by Lucas Bridge in his book ‘Uttermost Part of the Earth’. This account of three generations of a family who had lived with the Yaghan indians since the 1850s made it impossible for me to leave Tierra del Fuego without going to Harberton. The two-hour drive to Harberton was breathtaking: mile after mile of dappled forest punctuated by massive outcrops, clearings where shrubs and early spring flowers grew, small rivers dammed to enormous size by beavers, glimpses of red fox and guanacos - and the odd wandering cow. The forest eventually gave out but the gravel road charged on beside the Beagle Channel, up and down over coarse grassland, strewn with boulders, streams, stunted shrubs and the iconic ‘flag trees’, a species of beech whose branches have been forced by the constant gale-force winds to grow at 90° to its trunk.
The road came to an end at Estancia Harberton and there, at the water’s edge were the red corrugated-roofed, white washed buildings of Lucas Bridges’ childhood, shipped complete from England - an early example of the flat pack. Nearby, on a gentle slope running down to the shoreline, stood the family house whose garden could have come straight from the Devon countryside. The shearing shed, workshops, boat house, stores and the accommodation for the Yaghan workers, together with a cemetery and small arboretum, were all still there, just as described. The whole experience - like the weather - had been magical.
I had waited much more than half a lifetime to make this journey, all because a young and inspirational geography teacher had passed on her enthusiasm for this strange-sounding island at 'the end of the world' to the 11-year old me. And now I was here, it was everything that even a child's imagination could have hoped for.
Journey Latin America client Judith Harding.