Land of Fire

In late October, 1520, Ferdinand Magellan and his fleet of three round hulled carracks and a caravel, having already quelled a mutiny and wrecked a fifth ship, pulled west around Cape Virgines and into the Straight of Magellan. They sailed into a new ocean, which earned its name on that unusually calm day, after thirty-four days. The fourth ship deserting back to Spain, three remaining ships set out across this unknown ocean. They would not see land for 98 days – that is, those who would ever see land again. That was pure adventure. They were space-traveler, floating blindly and under-supplied into the mystery.

A rich history of explorers, adventurers, and pioneers, from Magellan to Darwin to Thomas Bridges to Ernest Shackelton to Bruce Chatwin, has constructed an alluring traveler’s mythology, attracting a few ‘hardy adventurers’, like us, from around the world to these parts. But, half a millennium later, we catch a two hour ferry across the Straight of Magellan to a sparsely populated island : Tierra del Fuego. Land of Fire. What follows are photos from our southward journey at land’s end. But, before travelling across the Stait of Magellan, we sailed to a small island in the strait to meet some of the locals…

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Magellenic Penguins.

About 6000 of them - a small fraction of the colony at its peak in January and February. Most have already head out to sea.

About 6000 of them – a small fraction of the colony at its peak in January and February. Most have already head out to sea.

They all pair up for life.

Life is simple on the island: find a partner (for life), build a home, and have a scatoparty on the porch.

Many of the loiterers are still shedding their baby-down. But I guess mama's feeding them well, cause you can't distinguish them from their parents by size alone.

Many of the loiterers are still shedding their baby-down. But I guess mama’s feeding them well, cause you can’t distinguish them from their parents by size alone.

They don't seem too bothered by our presence. Seems nothing can distract them from squawking, or social grooming, or harassing each other.

They don’t seem too bothered by our presence. Seems nothing can distract them from squawking, or social grooming, or harassing each other.

Here you can see a penguin that has assumed the 'loaf' position. It is a penguin loaf.

Here you can see a penguin that has assumed the ‘loaf’ position. It is a penguin loaf.

Across the Strait of Magellan, we arrive in the sleepy town of Porvenir – The Future. Thirty kilometers out of town, we find an unlocked beach-side fisherman’s shack and bed down on makeshift bunks. Finding shelter from the unforgiving wind in abandoned buildings would be a pattern that kept us out of our tent all but one night in Tierra del Feugo. In the morning, we were blown east along the side of Bahia Inutil, named for it uselessness for harbouring boats, by 60km/h winds. At the back of the bay, we hopped a couple more fences and found another gorgeous beach-side track.

Crushed-shell, cycling bliss often lies just over a couple of fences.

Crushed-shell, cycling bliss often lies just over a couple of fences.

Which then took us, once again, onto the tidal flats.

A whole lot of space.

And a whole lot of space.

We cruised along the beach at the back of Bahia Inutil. This beach was a little more challenging on Panthea's normal sized tires than the last. A sudden dismount while fording this river left her with wet feet.

This beach was a little more challenging on Panthea’s normal sized tires than the last. A sudden dismount while fording this river left her with wet feet.

Soon enough, we found ourselves at another penguin colony. This time there were about 50 King Penguins, which have fashionable golden throats, and stand up to 1m tall.  Not wanting to leave public property, on the beach, I watched from a distance while visitors who had shelled out $15 to visit the colony, which sits on private property, stood across a small river from the penguins. One of the land owners noticed me watching the penguins from afar and went berserk, waving frantically, dancing and gyrating about. Somewhat perturbed from the psychotic behaviour we witnessed, we regrettably opted to give the paid penguin viewing a miss, and I have no photos.

The next morning Cass Gilbert caught up to us. He'd been riding his fat bike, complete with 4" wide tires, a week or so ahead of us for much of our trip,. All sorts of people had asked me if I knew him, when they noticed my over-sized tires.

The next morning Cass Gilbert caught up to us. He’d been riding his fat bike, complete with 4″ wide tires, a week or so ahead of us for much of our trip. We’d been hearing about him for months, whenever northbound cyclists noticed my over-sized tires.

One of many crumbling abandoned buildings on Tierra del Fuego.

One of many crumbling abandoned buildings on Tierra del Fuego.

That evening we were caught up by four more cyclists: Stephan (seen here) and Magali from Switzerland, and Jas and Therese, who we'd first met months before, and had ridden with several times.

That evening the three of us were caught up by four more cyclists: Stephan (seen here) and Magali from Switzerland, and Jas and Therese, who we’d first met months before, and had ridden with several times. We found accommodation in a particularly luxurious abandoned ranch house, each couple to their own bedroom. Based on the newspapers we found inside, the last time workers were lodged in this building was in the 1930s.

The next day it rained.

The next day it rained.

And Panthea got very muddy.

And Panthea got muddy.

The southernmost land border between Chile and Argentina is 4x4 only. But river crossings keep cars away and make for great cycling.

The southernmost land border between Chile and Argentina is considered 4×4 only because of this. But river crossings keep cars away and make for great cycling.

Sheep skins dry on a barbed wire fence. The Argentine side is even more barren.

Sheep skins dry on a barbed wire fence.
The Argentine side is even more barren.

The sun breaks through, after a day of rain. Cass, ever full of excitement, gets back to making digital magic.

The sun breaks through, after a day of rain. Cass, ever full of excitement, gets back to making digital magic.

Down to a trio, we rolled into Rio Grande, an industrial hub for offshore oil, looking for another night of free accommodations under a roof. After hopping another gate onto a private road (with encouragement from police at a roadblock), we arrived into the back of a gravel quarry on the outskirts of town. The small lunchroom shack was unlocked, and the neighbours weren’t bothered by us sleeping there.

In an effort to avoid the highway leaving Rio Grande, we take a detour along another beach. This time we get our tires wet in the Atlantic. But, this beach is more than Panthea's narrow tires are up for.

In an effort to avoid the highway leaving Rio Grande, we took a detour along another beach. This time we got our tires wet in the Atlantic. But, this beach was more than Panthea’s narrow tires were up for.

So we followed some cow tracks above the beach...

So we followed some cow tracks above the beach…

Back on the highway, it wasn't long before we could hop onto another unpaved detour.

Back on the highway, it wasn’t long before we could hop onto another unpaved detour.

In one day we rode to Tolhuin, where we spent two nights in the most celebrated cyclist accommodation in South America: Panaderia La Union. That’s right, we were hosted in a massive bakery, where we gorged ourselves on sweets and empanadas.

We left Tolhuin in the sunshine. Thanks to a map on the wall of the bakery, we found this gorgeous unpaved detour along Lago Fagnano. The flat, barren expanses of northern Tierra del Fuego were all but forgotten as ride back into mountains.

We left Tolhuin in the sunshine. Thanks to a map on the wall of the bakery, we found this gorgeous unpaved detour along Lago Fagnano. The flat, barren expanses of northern Tierra del Fuego were all but forgotten as we rode back into mountains…

Where the Andes make their final sweep before plunging into the frigid antarctic waters.

Where the Andes make their final sweep before plunging into the frigid antarctic waters.

For many cyclists arriving in Ushuaia is the end of a long journey. For me, it was just another cold, windswept city. It’s about as far south as we would get, despite our attempts to find passage across the Beagle Channel to Isla Navarino, Chile. But our trip was far from over.

Ushuaia, and the Martial Mountains as a backdrop.

Ushuaia, and the Martial Mountains as a backdrop.

Before heading north, by bus and plane, we set off with Cass on a three day bikepacking trip along the Beagle coastline to Estancia Harborton, some 70km away.

The route to Estancia Harberton starts with 10km of flowy singletrack.

The route to Estancia Harberton starts with 10km of flowy trail…

Through woods, and open meadows overlooking the beagle cannel.

Through woods, and open meadows overlooking the Beagle Channel, named for Darwin’s ship.

After the river crossing, the trail narrowed down into a thorny bushwhack that had us mostly pushing for 4km.

After crossing a river, the trail narrowed down into a thorny bushwhack that had us mostly pushing for 4km…

Until we came out onto a beach. Then sun set just as we arrived at an estancia, where, having left the tents behind, we planned to ask for a roof to sleep under.

Until we came out onto a beach. The sun set just as we arrived at a farm, where, having left the tents behind, we planned to ask for a roof to sleep under.

The grumpy landlord wouldn't let us sleep in his barn, but at least directed us to an abandoned supply shed another 4km down a tractor track.

The grumpy landlord wouldn’t let us sleep in his barn, but at least directed us to an abandoned supply shed another 4km down a tractor track, through the night.

The next morning we continued along this glorious tractor track, with barely a soul in sight.

The next morning we continued along this glorious tractor track, with barely a soul in sight…

Past a shipwreck...

And past a shipwreck.

Eventually the track morphed into a proper road.

Eventually the track morphed into a proper road.

Some Harberton locals pointed us to a quiet cabin in the woods for our second night out. Its wood stove kept us toasty.

Some Harberton locals pointed us to a quiet cabin in the woods for our second night out. Its wood stove kept us toasty.

On our third morning we took a tour of Estancia Harberton, the island's first settlement. Found whale bones adorn the garden.

On our third morning we took a tour of Estancia Harberton, the island’s first settlement. Beachcombed whale bones adorn the garden.

The Bridges' family boat, built as a whaling boat in the late 1800s.

The Bridges’ family boat, built as a whaling boat in the late 1800s.

From Harberton, we rode 30km back to the highway we’d been on several days before where we hitched a lift back into Ushuaia. A day later we began a long motorized journey back to Puerto Montt, just a few hundred kilometers from where we’d started months before, to continue our journey north.

We’ve recently made an Off Route Facebook page, where we’ll be posting more frequent updates of where we are and what we’re up to, as well as lots of extra photos. You can “like” our page if you’d like to follow the adventure more closely.

3 thoughts on “Land of Fire

  1. Pingback: Land of Fire – Off Route | interpedalers

  2. Pingback: Ushuaia | Steeling Away

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