19-26/11/14 - Uttermost Part of the Earth

Tommy Goodall, LF, Natalie Goodall, MF and Abby Goodall - Estancia Harberton

Well, we arrived at the right airport at the right time, saving money by sharing a taxi with our new friend Carmen from Madrid.  She's a real traveller and has been to almost every country you could name - except, of course, Papua New Guinea.  Sadly, the wonderful weather we had enjoyed throughout our stay in BA came to a dramatic end with violent thunder and rainstorms, so our flight was delayed by a couple of hours, but that was not a problem and about three hours after take off we were descending through what appeared to be the mountains of Mordor, towards Ushuaia. A short, but steeply uphill taxi drive later we were checking in to a rather delightful, if slightly quirky hotel set high above the bay.  It's largely constructed from timber and full of nooks, crannies and dark corners where sensors turn lights on just a fraction too late for you to see the unexpected stairs!  The owner is a psychotherapist and we haven't made up our minds whether that's a good thing or not!  But it is very relaxed and welcoming, complete with dog and cat (though we haven't seen much of her) and the kind of place where you can set your stuff out in the spacious public areas and write up your blog for as long as you like.

Ushuaia is a functional port, receiving much freight and serving the very busy tourist business in Antarctic cruises (that's where Carmen was going) and is a base for the Argentine Navy. It's not a beautiful town, though the setting, nestling in a cradle of snow-capped mountains, is stunning.  But the centre is buzzing with restaurants and shops - some more touristy than others.  Many of the restaurants serve the familiar Big Meat, but there is also some delicious fish on offer as well as pasta and chicken.  All in all, we have eaten very well here.  We had a quick explore on our first afternoon, when we went to confirm our booking on the next day's boat to Harberton.  As we went into the tour office we were greeted with the dreaded words "There is a problem with the boat tomorrow" and our hearts sank.  However, it turned out to be not our problem, but the tour company's and quickly solved as they handed us over to another company's boat.  In fact, next morning, at the appointed hour, we found ourselves on a very comfortable catamaran heading out into the bay and on our way to achieving the target we set ourselves all those years ago, when we learned that there was another Harberton, at the other end of the world.

There is a danger, when you look forward to something so long, that the actuality may turn out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Not the case here!  I had a good feeling about things when the weather dawned clear, bright and calm for our voyage down the Beagle Channel.  My worst nightmare had been rough weather - many of you know that I am a dreadful sailor!  But it was glorious.  We enjoyed viewings of seals, sea-lions, cormorants and penguins along the way, then made a sharp turn to port into the inlet - and there it was - Estancia Harberton, Tierra del Fuego.  As we stepped ashore, we were ushered into two groups, according to our language, and our guide asked each person where they were from.  I said "We are from England, from the village of Harberton" and everyone clapped!  From then on, we got royal treatment, from all of the staff and from the family, who are the direct descendants of Mary Varder, of Harberton, Devon, and Thomas Bridges, the first Anglican missionary to settle in Ushuaia and later at the Estancia, the land having been given to him by the Argentine Government.  That was in 1886 and the sheep and cattle farm they developed ceased to be a working farm in 1996 when a severe winter wiped out 80% of the stock.  Since then, the Goodall family (the name changed in the last generation, through marriage), have developed the tourist business and now host tours nearly every day, to see the historic estancia and to visit the penguin colonies on one of the islands they own.  There is very pleasant accommodation in a restored shepherd's hut, where we stayed, but most people just go for the day.

If you want more details of the history of Harberton, it's going to be included in the Estancia section of the Harberton village website, but here I'll just tell you about our experience.  On the first afternoon, our guide, Juani, took us for a walk around the farm, showing us the main house, the oldest, central section of which was prefabricated in our home village and shipped out, and which is still lived in by Tommy and Natalie Goodall.  Tommy is the great-grandson of Thomas Bridges.  We then saw the old sawmill (timber being super-abundant and super-important in the area), the sheep-shearing shed, boatsheds and the fine kitchen garden, still being actively worked after one hundred years.  Then Juani took us uphill to the little cemetery, which contains the graves of several members of the farm community, including native Yahgan indians, and, very poignantly, the wife of Will, Thomas Bridges' third son, who died in childbirth and broke his heart.  He is buried next to her.

Over the next few days we took walks around the property, admiring Tommy's first airstrip, which must have been as challenging as anything we saw in PNG, and were taken to the next inlet where Lucas, the second son, who wrote the wonderful book "Uttermost Part of the Earth", built a small hut to live in while he looked after the family's cattle.  We had a great trip to Martillo Island to view the colony of 6000 plus pairs of Magellans, hanging out and posing for pictures on the beach, or sitting on their eggs in burrows, and the much smaller colony of Gentous, nesting on uncomfortable -looking piles of rocks, and one lonely King penguin who had drifted off-course and seemed to be having a bit of a sleep before planning how to get back to his mates.

Another point of interest is Natalie's museum, which houses a splendid collection of marine creatures' bones.  Natalie is a highly respected research scientist in this field, although she started out as a botanist, and the museum is an important centre for research, taking on several students each year.  We met some of them putting together an intricate jigsaw of whale bones.  It put my 1000 piece puzzles into perspective!  The museum itself is beautifully laid out, with many of the completed skeletons suspended in front of life-sized paintings on the wall - a really excellent display.

All of this would have made the trip worthwhile, but the real joy was in getting to know Tommy, Natalie, their daughter Abby and her husband Ricky, and all the staff.  We were invited to eat with the family each day, so there was plenty of time for conversation, which ranged across subjects from family stories, Tommy's flying exploits, education, Argentine politics and the Scottish referendum!  And more.  All of the staff found time to chat, and even to initiate us into the mysteries of mate - which is basically herbal tea, and which we have decided is an acquired taste.  We thought it tasted like grass.  Not in a good way.

We spent exactly three days in Harberton, which seemed like the perfect time.  We had seen everything and the next step would have been a more challenging hike retracing some of Lucas' footsteps as he forged a trail through the mountains to the north coast, alongside his native friends from the Yahgan and Ona tribes.  Perhaps not our cup of tea.  So we returned to Ushuaia on a tour bus on Sunday and have spent the time since exploring the sights.  We have discovered that the climb from the waterfront to our hotel is only a little further and steeper than the climb from the pub to our house in Harberton, so quite manageable. Mind you, the conditions underfoot put Buenos Aires in the shade!  As well as the familiar potholes and obstructions, here you have to contend with the gradient, which is covered by a series of ramps and steps, or a very hazardous combination of both.  It really is quite perilous, and considering that neither of us is the most graceful or sure-footed person on earth, it is quite remarkable that we have survived unscathed thus far! 

We went to the Maritime and Prison Museum yesterday which was interesting - especially as the old prison bears a distinct similarity to Martin's recent place of work, built on the model of wings radiating from a central hall. Today we took a tour to the Tierra del Fuego national park, which was a bit of a cattle-herding job, but the scenery was spectacular enough.  The real reason Martin wanted to go was because it included a ride on The Train at the End of the World.  This railway was built at the the turn of the 19th/20th centuries by the inmates of the aforementioned prison and then used for them to harvest and transport back to town timber and stone from the forest.  Apparently the conditions were very harsh and it was certainly a bleak environment, especially in winter, when the average temperature is 1 degree C and probably usually much lower, particularly in the wind.  The original locomotive is now in the museum and the engines used now were built in Britain in 1995.  The ride was somewhere between the Dart Valley and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railways!  Still, it was a train, and you know Martin and trains!  In the national park, we found ourselves standing at the very end of the Pan-American highway, with a sign telling us it was 17000 and something kilometres to Flagstaff, Alaska.  Maybe one day....

The weather has continued to be kind to us, with a cold wind getting up just as we left Harberton, and rain beginning just now as we prepare to leave Ushuaia for El Calafate tomorrow. Our receptionist in BA, when he was warning us about the predicted storms, said "You take the good times with you!"  So far, that has certainly been true.  Long may it last.

Beagle Channel - en route Ushuaia to Puerto Harberton

General view - Estancia Harberton

Main house, Estancia Harberton. Prefabricated 1886/7 in Harberton, UK

Magellan penguin colony - Isla Martillo, Beagle Channel

This is my best profile - Gentoo penguin, Isla Martillo

Goodbye to Juani - estancia Harberton

The Fat Controller - Tren del Fin del Mundo, Tierra del Fuego National Park