Christmas at the end of the world


The city at the end of the world, the restaurant at the end of the world, the post office at the end, the sign post that says “The End of the World” at the end of the world. Ushuaia figured out the importance of marketing in the mid 1980’s. In the hundred and fifty years of ‘settlement history’ prior to that it squeezed a great deal in.

Following the typical British colonist template of turn up, suffer, starve, bring religion, kill all (and in this case, actually ALL) the indigenous people, farm, fail, and argue over protecting rights with Argentina and Chile. Argentina meanwhile built penal facility, incentivised settlement (badly – via tax breaks to industry),witnessed the collapse industrial operations at end of tax incentives, found tourism, and is now clawing out of an economic hole via ‘Gateway to Antarctica’, cruise ship services and being the one-way-in, one-way-out’ end of the world destination for the pan-america Alaska to Ushuaia travellers.

Sheep farms in El Calafate

The early days of exploration fascinate me. Magellan’s global circumnavigation found the channel to the north, and Fitzroy came through the most southerly navigable route before Cape Horn and its notorious seas. Aboard his boat, the Beagle of course, a certain young naturalist, was on his way to a certain set of islands, where he would study a certain set of finches. Shackleton stocked the Endurance on his trip South here, indeed much of Antarctic exploration has had some connection with this town. Naturally then, I was excited just to be here.

Getting there, for us,  was two days of heavy truckin’. A flat out, cruise controlled blast at 120kph for hours from Calafate down, down, down south. The open steppe, wide skies, brown, tan, and scrub rolled by in a seemingly unrelenting void. Featureless scrub horizon to horizon with just a narrow thread of asphalt glimmering in the heat shimmer ahead of us.

Border disputes over the past hundred years means we spent several hours going desk to desk, collecting passport stamps to cross, ultimately, the same border twice. Other than these border posts the only sign of population was white and red painted estancias, farm buildings dotted amidst thousands of square kilometres of low grade cattle and sheep grasslands.

El Calafate
Andy’s favourite type of photo

From these plains rose a wall of mountain. The Andes continue their unbroken 7000km run right down to the tip of the continent. A final sinuous hour and we drop into industrial, windswept concrete of this port city.

And that is where we found the ‘end of the world’ barbershop / hotel / cake store etc. We were here for Christmas and decided to spend a week in one place, after the constant road miles. A with that a ‘Christmas treat’ of a hotel with an actual bed, and actual showers. Not a hostel, this place had a restaurant with a bay view, turn down service and minibar. The night before we’d spent it by overflowing municipal toilets surrounded by broken beer bottles and used condoms. This town has a broad range of clientele.

In the middle of getting some normal life (date night at the cinema, lunch at lunch time, and such conventionalities) we also took a boat trip down the beagle channel to ogle at penguins. Ignoring the coffee and beer served at the bar, the heated 360 glass cabin and the other tourists in turtle necks and chinos, it was JUST like the original arduous journey into the unknown that Fitzroy pioneered. I was very happy to be living a little bit of a long held fantasy.  Feeling I was in the footsteps (boat wake?) of Fitzroy, Shackleton, Slocum, and spying an emperor penguin (a personal first) up from Antarctica was a highlight.  The return journey was into an on coming weather front. The wheeling albatross and brown skua catching the last light sparking blazing contrast against a bruised and boiling sky.

Christmas calls from the lounge of the hotel were made, king crab dinners eaten, a stroll by the bay to look at the wrecked ship and a dinner cooked above the bay in the 38 seconds of non howling wind or rain.

But, as always, time moved and it was time to move, so we had a van reset day (tidy, clean, laundry, etc) and rolled out. We had a couple of thousand of kilometres to cover before NYE’s with friends on Peninsular Valdes, a UNESCO site famed for its sea life.

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