Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 5 ARGENTINA — USHUAIA TO PENINSULA VALDES

Ushuaia

In order to visit the Southernmost point of Argentina and visit the romantically titled Tierra del Fuego, we stayed in Ushuaia. To get there we had to stopover at Rio Gallegos, an uninspiring city and then cross the border into Chile and then back to Argentina so we got loads of stamps.

We befriended a Dutch journalist along the who had been covering the Beijing Olympics so she came with us to stay at our hostel which was pretty big and full of different nationalities.

I say this because a big event happened when we were in this hostel. The Europeans, Canadians and Americans alike gathered around the TV to see the results of the US presidential election on the 4th November 2008.

It was the night that the White house turned Black and we were all rooting for him.

Barack Obama became president and the world seemed to be a better place for those 8 years, he was clean as a whistle, he cried about gun crime, he was endlessly passionate and he and Michelle remain good humans. No small thing to be.

Bush was out of power which was necessary. It really united us that we finally had a worthy leader of the USA and we felt that it signalled a change in the world. Things seem infinitely more complex now. I will never forget that day, a stark contrast to the way I felt whilst at work the day the current president was elected.

After that life-changing event, it was time for Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America which means ‘the land of fire’ and oft-referenced in works of literature. I can tell you its very cold, and the fire is purely metaphorical.

It is beautiful and I understand why it is romanticised so much, but it didn’t feel as remote as you would imagine. Along with the Dutch woman we went on a walk through Tierra del Fuego to visit the Southernmost post office of the world. We both got these hideous green stamps of penguins in our passport of which I was ashamed of until my passport thankfully got renewed.

Unexpectedly, Tierra del Fuego has beavers after they were imported for fur farms and then went wild. Beavers chewed through optic fibres and the town of Tolhuin was left without internet and phone reception so they really enamoured themselves here. Their presence is messing with the fragile ecosystem so there are plans to cull them.

The beavers in question are Canadian beavers and I have to say that I love beavers and I’m really pleased they’ve been reintroduced to the UK. Eurasian beavers have been officially introduced to Scotland, unofficially to England and there are plans to release them in Wales as well.

The reason that they are so incredible and important to the landscape is that they are ecosystem engineers. They create vital wetland habitat and reduce flood risks in rivers by slowing down the water. They also help to manage woodlands by cutting down trees and allowing different plants to thrive. The beaver is actually a national symbol in Canada.

I do understand that they bring chaos to places they’re not meant to be, similar to possums that were introduced to Australia for the fur trade and then took over. Clearly, no one predicted the animal rights movement and its environmental impact.

Tierra del Fuego has an interesting history. In 1870 the South American Missionary Society (read: British) decided to ‘save’ the Yahgan tribe who braved the brassic weather conditions wearing very little clothing. 

As a nomadic people, they believed that the oils of the skin would protect them as they didn’t have anywhere to put dry clothing and animal skins would just get wet. Darwin was of the opinion that they were ‘the lowest form of humanity on Earth’. One missionary was fascinated by them and made a dictionary of their language.

Several of the tribespeople were kidnapped, including a teenage boy who was nicknamed ‘Jimmy Button’. In England, they were treated like museum exhibits that needed to be ‘educated’. Sadly one of them died and the public strongly disagreed with their treatment.

In the 19th Century, there were around 3,000 Yahgan people, they died because of disease brought by colonisers, their food being hunted by colonisers and being kidnapped by colonisers. We decimated their lives because of our own ignorance. Nowadays, there is only one remaining survivor of the tribe who can speak their language left.

Back in Ushuaia, we visited some of the Irish pubs, of course, not that any of those were the Southernmost pubs in the world, what with Antartica existing and being inhabited by scientists and researchers who let’s face it, probably need a drink. I would need a strong drink if I could see the ice melting around me.

The supreme talent that is filmmaker Werner Herzog made a film called ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ about the McMurdo station in Antarctica and the different people that live there and I really recommend it. But then I recommend most of his documentaries.

On the second day, we tried to climb up a hill to see an iceberg but we got lost in a wood and it started snowing. Once we escaped the wood the skiers started climbing up, which we took as a sign to go back down. When it snows in Argentina, it really snows.

The iceberg we were looking for was the Martial glacier although it was described in the guidebook as an ‘ice cube’ compared with the Perito Moreno glacier so perhaps we weren’t missing out too much.

It was in Ushuaia that I really felt that I was falling deeply in love with Argentina. I wrote a load of postcards to my friends and family declaring how incredible it was, it wasn’t just me either, Steph felt exactly the same way about it.

Peninsula Valdes

We travelled up the east coast of Argentina to visit Puerto Madryn, an uninspiring seaside city which is the gateway to the Peninsula Valdes reserve. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site which covers 400km of coastline ranging from cliffs, bays, lagoons and mudflats.

A lot of breeding goes on all these coasts with the Southern sea lion, Southern elephant seal and the Southern right back whale all mating and calving no further away than the shadows of the cliffs.

We took a boat out to see the whales and we were amazed to see several. We even saw a Moby Dick-esque white whale which was amusing to me, as I was in a coarse acting playing as the back end of the Moby Dick whale.

I was supposed to hilariously blunder about the stage trying to find a way out but I did actually get lost on stage as I couldn’t see out of the costume and had to be guided offstage by another actor. I got a decent round of applause so it was all the worth it.

During our boat trip, we got to see the Southern right back whales up close with their young and playing with the Black and White Commerson’s dolphins that reside in the shallow waters on the Southern coast. They are known for swimming upside down to increase their visibility when searching for prey. I very much enjoyed seeing these interactions that I’d only previously seen on film. Those two species really have a good time together.

If you’ve ever seen a wildlife documentary where orcas throw themselves onto the beach to catch seal pups then this is one of the places where it all happens. I actually met a couple who drove along the coast and saw this happen on a secluded beach. Lucky bastards.

If you’ve ever watched the likes of Blue Planet or the Life of Mammals then you will know that orcas are notorious for inventing clever and violent schemes to attack their prey and would happily take down a whale calf during migration.

In contrast, many whales possess an intelligence and demeanour that they share with dolphins where they actually seek out human contact or work in partnership with people which is fascinating and something which I find quite inspiring. From the accounts of divers and scientists who spend long studying these animals, the Southern right back whale gets rave reviews in that they are friendly creatures and a joy to be around.

As I am a big fan of such wildlife documentary films I would like to share some interesting behaviour of these intriguing aquatic species.

In the town of Laguna in Brazil, the local fishermen and bottlenose dolphins have developed a business partnership whereby they work together to help each other catch fish and the main beneficiaries of this collaboration are the human beings. Presumably this interaction developed from the fishermen and dolphins spending long periods of time on the coast together to the extent that they learned each other behaviours.

As the fisherman have very poor visibility in the murky water they are very much reliant on the dolphins to herd the fish towards them. The dolphins then signal to the fishermen to cast their nets by slapping their heads and tails against the water.

This breaks up the shoal so they can be easier for them to catch but as dolphins are so adept at catching fish anyway that it is interesting to know what they get out of the arrangement. Is it because they enjoy the collaboration and gain some sort of satisfaction from it? My theory is that on some level they do gain from it.

The Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a summer home for grey whales and in this area, they actively seek out tourist boats and allow tourists to hug and kiss them. However, they are critically endangered in Asian waters due to vast quantities of dolphin and whale meat being so sought after that dolphins are rounded up into a lagoon and stabbed to death until the water turns red.

This raises the question of whether it is wise to continue these fledgling relationships with intelligent marine mammals when they travel around the world to areas of sea where they will be harpooned rather than hugged, not to mention the damage a boat propeller can cause.

This is definitely not the case in Vietnam where whales are sacred animals, they are endowed with the title of ‘Ngai’, a term also used on Emperors and Kings as well as other highly respected human beings. Dead whales are dragged to shore and nearly 3,000 people will attend a last rites service before the whale is buried in a huge coffin.

They later built a tomb to honour the creature at the final burial site. Vietnamese fishermen believe that whales bring luck and safety whether they are dead or alive, this is because according to folk stories whales have saved the lives of fishermen in peril out at sea.

Now, I understand that people hunt whales and that this is a part of culture and tradition for different nationalities. However, I do believe limits are very important and the needless and reckless depletion of species will only cause harm to us if it continues.

Not least because the loss of any species is a loss to us whichever way you look at it. If we allow ourselves as intelligent and resourceful human beings to pollute the earth and exist in a way that causes a sustained reduction in our natural resources then we have certainly failed as a species.

Another potential benefit of whales that I absolutely couldn’t resist and I promise I will move on after this (until the chapter on pink river dolphins) is whale poo. It was discovered a few years ago that this excrement is acts as a fantastic ocean fertiliser and as this is good for plants it serves to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The dung has actually become a vital part of marine ecosystems as krill eat iron rich algae and whales eat the krill and via their waste products they reintroduce iron into surface waters. Now, how good is that? Apparently this research came about from a pub chat between Antarctic scientists in Tasmania which is far more stimulating than anything I’ve ever heard in a bar.

This theory was explored and proven in a recent Channel 4 documentary called Jimmy and the Whale Whisperer where the affable pair of scientists collected dung samples from sperm whales that live in the Caribbean off the coast of Dominica. They proved that the poo was indeed a magnificent fertiliser for algae and that the whales preferred to feast on squid that lived in the murky ocean depths.

This means that as they defecate in the surface waters and redistribute the nutrients that would be lost to the bottom of the ocean. This means that the whale is the oceanic equivalent of the earthworm when you put it in the tank and it mixes the layers of soil together to make richer soil, the whale makes a richer ocean. For the circle of life to complete, it needs to move its bowels.

One last disturbing fact about these whales is due to their penchant for squid they cannot distinguish between these boneless creatures and plastic bags. When dead whales undergo a scientific post mortem they are pulling enough bags out of their stomachs to make a small tent.

I’m unsure if the pollution is more disturbing or the fact that we have created a form of plastic that won’t be broken down even by the stomach acid of a large whale.

It certainly makes a compelling argument as to why we should preserve our habitats so that our food can survive and that we can continue to live on a population of fish that is untainted by our lax approach to waste disposal.

We left Puerto Madryn and headed North. So it wasn’t quite time to visit Buenos Aires just yet, first of all, we needed to see one of South America’s incredible natural wonders…Iguazu Falls.

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