Tierra del Fuego – the place where the whole world stopped British travel author Sara Wheeler visits the isolated archipelago at the southernmost tip of South America

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago that drips off the tail of South America. Separated from the Chilean and Argentinean mainland by the waters of the Magellan Strait, the largest island is itself divided between the two republics by a vertical line drawn with a ruler. This is the bottom of the world, a region where the curve on the globe turns steeply inwards.

Before I turned 30, several decades ago, I found myself down there, marooned at Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino, the southernmost permanent settlement in the world. I was at the end of a six-month journey through Chile. I was writing my second book, and I had learnt Spanish on the way down the thin country. It had been a great time. My heart was fresh. So were my legs, as I had just recovered from a bout of scabies picked up in a boarding house in Puerto Natales. I had got to Tierra del Fuego. It was Land’s End: the place where the whole world stopped.

A white man first sighted land there in 152O. He was the Portuguese-born navigator Ferdinand Magellan, standing on the deck of ‘Victoria’, and he named what he saw ‘Smokeland’, after the spires rising from the natives’ fires. When he got home his patron, Charles V of Spain, announced that he wished the place to be called instead Fireland, on the basis that there was no smoke with- out fire. Navarino is Chilean now, and Williams its only village.

It is a harsh and frigid place, squeezed in between three oceans; the Atlantic shoulders in from the east, the Pacific from the west and the Southern Ocean from below. The westerlies in particular come freighted with rain and snow. Even in summer, the temperature averages just 11 degrees Celsius without windchill – and it is windy all the time in Tierra del Fuego.

It was a place where nothing ever happened. The low houses with their corrugated iron roofs were separated by dirt tracks carved with puddles, and when you walked away from them they slunk back into the purple mist. My billet was a guest-house, though whether any other guest had ever appeared there was a matter for conjecture. One day, to pass the time, I hitched a ride in a lorry that was to deliver wood to a police station at the western tip of the island. The driver had called at the guesthouse on his way out to deliver some sausages. We clunked through miles of deciduous southern beech forest, the silvery trunks swaddled in pale primrose lichen and twisted into alphabet configurations by the prevailing south-westerlies. A band of white mineral deposits circled every pool, and their metallic whiff percolated the unheated cab.

The station consisted of a hut in a clearing that sloped down to the water’s edge, and a small jetty. It was an odd place for a police station, but Navarino lies directly below Argentinean territory, separated from it by a 12-mile strait.

As the two countries existed in a permanently tensile state, the Chileans kept a keen eye out lest a marauding naval force were to surge over to claim the bounty of Navarino for Argentina. Three unarmed policemen served the station, and it was difficult to see what they would do under those circumstances; but nobody worried too much about the detail down there.

The memory of the Falklands conflict was fresh, and any enemy of the Argies was a friend to Chile. At the end of the afternoon, as I was about to leave with the lorry, which had by now disgorged its firewood, the head policeman asked me if I’d care to stay for a while. My diary for that day notes, “Magritte clouds, beaver wigwams in the sphagnum bogs. No toothbrush. Must stay. What will I read?”

In the early morning, when the cleaver-peaks of the Darwin Cordillera turned baby pink, we took the horses to patrol the bays of the Beagle Channel to the southwest. The animals stamped the tussock grass, steam dissolving off their coats into the chilly morning air, and lumpy steamer ducks careered over the rocks, redundant wings flapping. We strolled about, and the policemen showed me where grass had grown over mounds of shells and ash left by Yahgan indigenous peoples who used to paddle their beech-bark canoes from bay to bay, diving for shellfish and hunting seal. Then in the peaty light of early evening we rode towards the mountains called the Navarino Teeth in the heart of the island – a gleaming, uneven row of lower canines. Polar winds hurried across the ocean at that hour, and winter gusted in from the south.

This was 25 years ago. When I think of it, costive at a desk behind the rain-splattered windows of home, staring into the haloes of London streetlights, I see the ghostly outlines of beech-bark canoes paddling eagerly from Wulaia to Douglas Bay. And I look back not just at a landscape I loved deeply. Shipwrecked now in another life, here where the curve on the globe is barely perceptible, I can just make out too the hopes and dreams of a young woman I once knew, down there in Tierra del Fuego.

Words: Sara Wheeler
Photography: Indrik Myneur/Creative Commons

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