It is the End of the World

I am going to have to start this post with a teeny, tiny confession – I am the Queen of procrastination and the winner of the gold medal for laziness. I excel at doing absolutely nothing for long periods of time and I never cease to amaze myself at the huge amounts of nothing that I am capable of doing. At the beginning of summer, I wrote out a long list of everything that I was going to accomplish this summer – see, I know how useless I am at getting anything done, so I thought that if I wrote out a list of things to do, I might actually do some of them. Well, that has not worked out so well. I checked it yesterday, and I don’t think that I can cross anything off the list. I have not de-matted the cat yet (I gave up on that one for health reasons. The mats seem to remove themselves after a while anyway), I have not put up the curtains in the living room yet (I did try, but apparently no one sells long, white wooden curtain rails anymore). I have not bought new bookcases so that I can reorganise all my books into subject area and then alphabetically by author, yet.  I have not volunteered at the local SPCA to walk the dogs yet (again, I did try, but you have to be officially orientated before you can volunteer and their next orientation is not until August the 8th, the day I leave go on holiday). I have not taken a course in macro photography yet or how to use Photoshop yet. I have not written my book on my trip to South America yet. I could go on and on, which would enable me to avoid doing the other thing that I have not done yet and that is finish writing my blogs about my trip to South America. You see, it has been nearly a year since we left, seven months since we returned and I seem to be stuck at the End of the World.

Ushuaia, the world’s southern most city. It sits on the edge of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, dipping its colourful toes into the waters of the Beagle Channel. From here, you can catch a cruise ship to the South Pole, take a plane trip over the glacial fields of Southern Patagonia, eat more meat than you have ever dreamt of or spend your time perusing the tackiest souvenirs that you have ever laid eyes on. Now, I did not do any of those (OK, so I did pop into one souvenir shop just so that I could marvel at all the rubbish that was available and wonder who on earth actually ever buys any of it – I can only assume that a lot of people like to buy a lot of gag gifts for friends or that many people have numerous relatives that they really don’t like). My time at the End of the World was spent walking along the beach, cruising the Beagle Channel and hunting down penguins to shoot, with my camera, of course. Now, I know that you all want to see the penguins, but you are just going to have to wait. I know, I know, I promised penguins, but how else I am going to keep you coming back to read my blog if I don’t have anything to entice you back with?

The cruise of the Beagle Channel was a feast for the eyes, ears and nose. For the eyes, there were views of Ushuaia and the mountains crowding around the city, pushing it ever closer towards the waters edge. As we motored away from the city, the southern beech trees, stunted and deformed by the ever-present winds, blanketed the coastline, their muted greens and greys contrasting sharply with the bright orange and yellow lichens that encrusted the rocks tumbling down into the sea. The wind whipped around our heads sending hair flying into our eyes (well, mine anyway – Joe’s is all a bit too short and lacking to be windswept and tousled by the wind).  The air was cold and fresh with a slight salty tang and I was loving every lungful until the feast for the nose hit me. Phoar, what on earth........????? The smell was just horrendous. Think of a trip to a local fish market, late in the day, after the fish have been sitting out in the sun. Take that fish, whirr it up in a blender, leave it in a bucket for a couple more days and then drop into a pit of sewage. And there you have it, the smell that walloped me in the nose as we rounded a headland and drew close to a series of small rocky islands in the middle of the Beagle Channel. Before sight or sound came the smell of the sea lions.

As the boat drew closer, you started to hear the barking and honking of these blubbery bags of fermenting fish and then finally, as the island drew closer, you got your first sight of the malodorous creatures. And once you finally did lay eyes on them, you could not help but forgive them for their stinky emanations – well, how would you smell if all you ever got to eat was fish, fish or fish? OK, so many of them were also a bit cantankerous, with a lot of arguments about who was going to sleep on which bit of rock or who was going to be on top of the slumbering pile of pinnipeds. There was much showing of teeth and blowing of foul breath right into the face of an argumentative relative but when quiet descended on the sea lion colony, in those peaceful moments, you could fall in love with their puppy dog faces and their serene, peaceful smiles.

The lovable sea lions were not the only ones contributing to the stench wafting around these rocky islands. There were also all the seabirds that made their home here. And what do sea birds like to eat.........oh yes, more fish, fish or fish. Many of the islands were covered in colonies of imperial shags (don’t even think about making a joke about that) or king cormorants (I never could tell the difference) and dolphin gulls. There was much screeching and wailing overlaying the honking and the barking of the sea lions. A delight for the eyes, but a bit harsh on the ears and the nose!

The following day, we went for a much more serene and less odiferous walk along the beach. For a moment, I could almost convince myself that I was back home, strolling along a beach in Beautiful British Columbia. The pristine shoreline was surrounded by snow capped peaks and along the edge of the beach the trees struggled for a foothold on the rocky headlands and slopes leading down to the beach. The air really was fresh here and all was quiet, peaceful and tranquil.

It was only when I looked more closely at the trees that I realised just how far from home I had come. Instead of the coniferous trees of northern latitudes, these shores were covered in southern beech trees clothed in tiny, green leaves rather than grey-green needles. However, just as with the conifers exposed to the storms of the west coast of British Columbia, these trees showed the effects of the harsh conditions of Southern Patagonia. Some looked as though they had been flattened and sculpted by the wind, while others were gnarled and misshapen, twisted and broken by wind and snow. You could see that their whole lives have been spent battling the elements and you have to admire their tenacity and ability to survive through everything that nature throws their way. Another oddity that set these trees apart from the shoreline forests of B.C. was the occurrence of the oranges growing on their branches. Oranges!?! How could you possibly have oranges growing in such a cold climate I hear you all cry? Well, obviously they are not actually oranges, but at first glance that is what they look like. After a little investigation and a couple of dissections later, Joe and I decided that they were a fungus. Further research revealed that they are in fact Cyttaria darwinii, more commonly known as Darwin’s fungus or Indian bread. This parasitic fungus grows on the southern beech trees in huge numbers. Some trees looked as though they had been decorated for some special orange festival and appeared to be more fungus than tree. Apparently, they are edible and, according to Mr. Darwin, they have a mucilaginous, slightly sweet taste. They did not look very appetising to me and so I cannot tell you whether this is true or not.

Our stroll along the beach finally brought us to the end of the road – literally. We had reached the end of La Ruta Nacional No. 3, the end of the Pan American Highway. This road runs all the way from northern Alaska down through the Americas to end here, nearly 25,000km later. Unfortunately, you can’t actually drive all the way from northern point to southern tip due to the missing link of the 87km Darien Gap, an area of swampland that separates Panama and Columbia that is impassable by land vehicle. While we were taking photos of the sign, a group of tourists came up and one, in a very loud voice asked “Why does it tell us how far it is to Alaska? Why not New York or Boston?” I suspect that she may have overheard my muffled laughter and my barely disguised guffaws of derision. Well, really!

So there you have it. We have reached The End of the World. For much of the time that I spent here, the song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M. rattled around in my head in a very annoying fashion. I also spent an inordinate amount of time loving everything about that part of the world, the mountains, the water, the flora and the fauna. I even found the perfect spot to build my house, with perfect views from every window. Even Wallace found a perfect little spot with a perfectly wonderful view...........


P.S. Some of the more astute readers may have noticed a slight anomaly between the length that I gave for the Pan American Highway and that given on the sign. I have no idea why the numbers are so different, but I got my figure from Wikipedia, so I must be right, yes?
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