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The Beagle Channel

Written on: Wednesday February 13th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Ushuaia, Argentina 

Author: Julie 


We boarded a catamaran this morning for a four hour cruise down the Beagle Channel with our destination being the Estancia Harberton. We left at 9 AM on a cloudy but serene day. Only a small ripple could be seen on the water as we edged out of Ushuaia?s port. The channel, 150 km long, is named after the ship HMS Beagle which was involved in two hydrographic surveys of the coasts of the southern part of South America in the early 19th century. During the first, under the overall command of the Australian Commander Phillip Parker King, the Beagle's captain Pringle Stokes committed suicide and was replaced by captain Robert FitzRoy. The second is better known as the voyage of the Beagle and is famous because captain FitzRoy took Charles Darwin along as a gentleman's companion, giving him opportunities as an amateur naturalist.

Our first stop was a small island, nothing more than a large rock in the middle of the channel, covered in lazing sea lions and penguins. We approached silently on our catamaran and spent a half hour observing them. The sea lions were mostly lying around with the occasional macho tussle between young adult males and older patriarchs. The young males were attempting to win against the older males in order to win his female harem. It was mostly a lot of barking, body posturing and on a rare occasion their large masses colliding into each other, trying to get a bite into the other. The older males always won and the younger male would slink back to his barren rock corner. The penguins on the other hand seemed to be oblivious to these going-ons and continued to waddle, sleep and dive in-out of the ocean. 

We slowly cruised past another island covered white with sea bird guano. At the turn of the century it would have been considered white gold as the phosphate would have been collected and sold as fertiliser to farmers in the area. Now, with the scientific advancements in agriculture and the abundant quantities of cow manure, these islands are left in peace as a safe haven to the birds. 

We continued to cruise down the channel, admiring the mountains that were behind us and the passing landscape to our sides. From afar, on our right, we spotted the community of Puerto Williams, on Navarino Island, located in Chile. The borders of Tierra del Fuego, separating Chile and Argentina, were not clearly finalised till mid-80s. Several small islands (Picton, Lennox and Nueva) near the eastern end were the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Chile and Argentina; by the terms of a 1984 treaty they are now part of Chile whilst Argentina has most maritime rights. 

Even though it was calm, I was a little nervous that I would get seasick once we got deeper into the channel towards the Atlantic Ocean, so I took a couple of Gravol. This turned out to be a bad idea because I spent a better part of an hour sitting in my seat fighting the drowsiness that came with this medication. At least I didn?t have an upset tummy. 

Our next stop was the Les Eclaireurs lighthouse, also known as the Lighthouse at the End of the World. It was one of the nicest lighthouses I had ever seen with its bright red and white striping standing out from the rust, yellow and orange colors of the small rock cap it was located on. It was directly in the middle of the channel and could be seen from miles away.

Four hours after setting off on our trip we arrived at Estancia Harberton. The oldest Estancia on Tierra del Fuego and the oldest house on the Argentine part of the island, it was built in 1886 on a narrow peninsula overlooking the Beagle Channel. Its founder, the missionary Thomas Bridges, was given the land by the Argentine Congress under President Roca for his work among the local indians and for his help in rescuing the victims of the numerous shipwrecks in the channel. Harberton is named after the Devonshire village where his wife Mary was born. The farmhouse was prefabricated in England by her carpenter father and then assembled on a spot chosen by the Yamana Indians as the most sheltered.

We were greeted at the dock by a tour guide working for the estancia. He explained that although it was still a working sheep and cattle ranch, it had to turn to tourism in order to help it financially. It was still owned by a member of the Bridges family and we were taken on a tour of the various buildings, the family graveyard, a small plot of forest that had been preserved since the founding of the ranch, the sheep shearing shed, the boat shed, and finally to the small garden that supplied herbs and some vegetables to the restaurant operating on-site. It had operated successfully as a ranch till the 1960s when a road was built to the ranch. This was a mixed blessing as it reduced the travel time to the city from 3 hours by boat to 30 minutes by road, but it also opened its cattle and sheep population to thieving by the local population which liked nothing better than having a free barbecue on Sundays. It went from having a considerable amount of animals to now only 300 head of sheep located on a large island further down the channel and a dozen cattle. When our tour ended, we had over an hour before our shuttle van was scheduled to come get us. We were hungry so we walked to the restaurant with large bay windows overlooking the channel. There was no much in choice and we finally settled on a Parrillada (pronounced Pa-ri-sha-da) platter to share. About 20 minutes later, a small brazier was brought to our table with a large piece of steak, chorizo sausage, chicken, blood pudding and lamb, along with a side of salad. We tried our best to eat as much as we could but there was still quite a bit of left-overs. Outside, in the long yellow grass, we glimpsed a fox slowly hunting. It?s rare to see a fox, especially so near humans and in the daylight so we took quite a few photos. We later learned there is a fox epidemic in Tierra del Fuego as they are not native to the island. They were imported to hunt the rabbits that had been imported earlier in the century but had multiplied and run rampant. Unfortunately, like the rabbit the plan backfired and the fox concentrated on hunting prey that was much easier to catch like the local mouse population. 

Our shuttle bus arrived on time at 3 PM. This was the next part of the trip and although some people were excited we were hoping we didn?t spent too much time at the next stop. Why do you ask? Because we were going to visit beaver dams in the area. Turns out, that along with the rabbits, an enterprising fellow in the late 1800s thought it would be a good idea to import 5 breeding pairs of beavers. He planned to take advantage of the high market price for beaver pelts and let them multiple. Unfortunately, like all animal import stories, this idea didn?t work out as the beavers adapted too well to their new environment and within one year their fur coats, which were so prized, changed to a more coarse hair that was no good to furriers. Not knowing what to do with them, he let them go in the wild and now they are a huge problem for the island. Huge dam complexes and unstoppable logging by the beavers have caused flooding and contaminated water all over the island. People living on the mainland are crossing their fingers that the beavers don?t figure out how to cross the Magellan straight separating them from the island of Tierra del Fuego.

Our last stop of the day, was a Husky dog farm. Like in Alaska, in the winter, there is a huge demand for dog-sledding and there are many races to be won. There were about 20 full grown dogs, most with the blue-eyes that are a trademark of pure-bred huskies, a few puppies and one very aggressive St-Bernard. When the dogs heard us arrive, they were jumping all over the place in their pen. Luckily, they were tied down as I think they would have all rushed the fence out of excitement to see us. We were allowed into the pen and to wander around the dog houses and to pet and play with all of them. They were so sweet and just wanted as much love as we could give them. No one was immune to their charms and they all received as much attention as the 13 of us could give them. A couple to get more attention would jump on top of their dog houses when a person would move on the next dog. Kevin made a bee-line for the puppies that were located in another pen. They were so cute and were in that awkward puppy stage of all feet and no coordination. If we could have, we would have brought them all home with us. It was a sunny day and quite warm so a few of them would hide in their house till someone approached them then they would come flying out, tail wagging, for the petting. Time flew by and soon we had to leave.

We returned to Ushuaia at 6 PM after a hard, bumpy gravel road trip. We were both tired out and stayed up only for a couple of hours packing for our 11 hour bus trip the next day to Punta Arenas, Chile located on the mainland across the Magellan Straight.