I lie in a cheap tent, battered by wind and rain. Water and condensation run down the inner lining of the single sheet shelter. My partner lies beside me. We are the furthest south either of has ever has or are ever likely to be. We have arrived here after two days of trekking through snow and mountain passes. It is likely that below us, towards the Antarctic Pole, there are less than 2000 other people. It is a good bet that there are no other people below us on this island, Isla Navarino. It is also strange to think that if we drew a line round the world at this latitude, it would not intersect another piece of land until it came round to this, most southerly part of South America.
Since landing in Cartagena, Colombia, in early August we have seen many of the mountains and ranges in the Andes: the beginning the longest range in the world in El Cocuy National Park, Colombia; the high, high mountains of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru and the desert dry peak of Volcan Licancabur, Bolivia. We have trekked, with heavy bags and bland food, to view these natural wonders, but nothing has measured up to the desolate, wind swept, frost strangled peaks of the Tolkeinesk named Teeth of Navarino. Though relatively small when compared to their northerly sisters they are awe inspiring none the less. Much of their appeal come from the lack of people. Less than 10 days before we abandoned a walk round the world famous Towers of Pain because the park was overrun with tourists and purpose built hotels. The isolation here is a boon and it fills our hearts with joy.
This leg of our voyage began four days ago with a speed boat ride across the Beagle Channel. At extreme cost for this part of the world, we had just paid out $125 each for a forty minute journey. The twin engined Zodiac had bounced across the Patagonian waters, the pilot wrapped in goggles and goretex against the elements, taking it all in the face, while we and 8 other tourists huddled below the thin plastic roof. The crossing was exhilarating. I love the speed of fast boats and they are, for me, a real taste of the adventure of travel. From the Argentine side of the Channel, Isla Navarino looks like the borders of Mordor: black, jagged teeth reach up to the sky, snow peaked, while dark, brooding storm clouds hover seemingly barely metres above.
Ushuaia is supposed to the end of the world, but compared to Isla Navarino and its only town, Puerto Williams, it felt like New York. Puerto Williams, our starting point, is a town built on the Chilean Navy. Cows roam its central square and all the houses are reminiscent of New England: squat, wooden clap board houses, heated by wood burning stove, designed to survive harsh winters and freezing temperatures.
Travelling on the cheap we opted for free accommodation and headed for the local campsite. It was a muddy affair, with no facilities. The only building, a wooden hut, had been vandalised by the local youth, who clearly used the site for smoking, drinking and the other trappings of adolescence. We set up our low quality tent, with all its additions to strengthen it against the harsh environments, then cooked our dinner in the windowless hut, attempting to clear out all the broken glass beforehand.
The first day took us up into the mountains, through the Lenga forest. At a brash flag, marking this contested island as Chilean, the views across the Beagle Channel of Tierra del Fuego were immense. The city of Ushuaia huddled for protection against the slopes of the Martial Mountains. The water of the channel was deep grey, reflecting the angry bruise of a sky. The dark was only punctuated by a white slash of snow on the mountains. We followed a ridge south, crossing scree and edging slowly, carefully, across snow slopes. The line of trees below us eventually broke and we slid on our bums, giddy like children, down the snow to a frozen lake below. We could find shelter for camp that evening and spent a restless night beneath the thin plastic. Wind snapped our tent to fro, bending the poles to near breaking point, beofre allowing them to bounce back, shaking condensation onto us.
The following day we made two passes, heading inexorably southwards. We skirted beaver ponds and waded through thigh deep snow. Due to a miscalculation on my part we ate all our breakfast foods for the subsequent days. That evening we struck camp on a flat plain, with views to the south of the island and the Antarctic ocean. A white glow could be seen on the southern horizon. The possibility that this was light reflected was exciting and tantalising. That night, as the wind whipped the tent we pondered the possibility of there being no-one further south.
We spend the next morning waiting for our equipment to dry from the previous night's soaking. Once on the move the day proves uneventful. We walk along the banks of large lakes, the surrounding lenga forest devastated by the introduced beaver. Their ponds become an increasing nuisance, difficult to circumnavigate, but easy to soak the feet in. As the the afternoon draws to a close and the shadows lengthen we make a search for camp. Once again sheltered spots are hard to find and we are faced with a decision: camp once more, exposed to the elements or ford a river and spend the night sheltered by trees on the slopes of the Montes Lindenmeyer. The choice is clear: we ford the river (i fall over and my bag is so heavy I find it hard to get to my feet).
It is the right choice. We spend a very comfortable and cosy night under the protection of bark, wood and leaves. The next morning we relax in the shining sun as out tent airs. This day brings the most incredible views. After a couple of false starts we find our path and ascend Paso Virginia, the highest point on the trek. At the pass we are rewarded with views north west across the Beagle Channel towards the Cordillera Darwin. The sky is a deep blue, turning almost to black at the apex, high above our heads. At this relatively low altitude the mountains seem dwarfed by the, clear, cloudless heavens above. The view is contrasted, white on blue with a dark, ragged line of rocky peaks between. Paso Virginia is wide and at times the snow on the plain ends in sky, the horizon marked by a definite line.
When we reach the highest point of the pass and look north Laguna los Guanacos in spread out below, sitting in a deep valley, with the eastern portion of the Beagle Channel beyond. We are reaching the end of our walk, only one more night in the mountains and we now steadily descend. The only remaining barrier between us and our hike's conclusion is dense lenga forest. When we finally reach the road back to Puerto Williams, it is with a great sense of accomplishment and freedom. We managed to hitch a ride with a Navy officer and his family and once our famished bellies are filled, return to the deserted camp site, having come full circle round the bottom of South America