14-20 November 2013. From Puerto Natales we took a bus south to Punta Arenas, the most southerly town on the mainland of South America. From what we’d read it seemed that Punta Arenas is an industrial town and shipping port with not a lot to recommend it, so we allowed only one day there to break the long trip from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia. We thought we might do a boat trip to an island where we could see some Magellanic penguins, but also knew we’d be able to see them when we got to Ushuaia.
I was surprised to see a huge poster of King penguins behind the reception desk of our hotel. I wondered why it would be there since I understood that King penguins can only be found in the Antarctic. It was totally unexpected. I pointed at it and said ‘I want to see them!’ We had no idea if that was even possible. I was surprised again by the response of the receptionist. She calmly told us where to go to book a tour. At the same time we booked a half-day trip to see Magellanic penguins for that same afternoon.
We barely saw Punta Arenas. I hardly even remember Punta Arenas. What I remember is a lot of penguins, and long long drives through the empty grasslands of Patagonia.
Getting to see King penguins was a completely unexpected opportunity and we were both very excited. Apparently there are only three colonies outside Antarctica: one on the Falkland Islands, one on the State Islands just to the east of Tierra Del Fuego, and the one we visited on the Chilean (western) side of Tierra Del Fuego. Just getting to Tierra Del Fuego felt like a major achievement for me. It is a large island off the south coast of South America, though by no means the only island in the area. I’d done a four-month overland adventure tour of South America in 1978 and we’d all decided we really wanted to get to Tierra Del Fuego – only to be able to say we’d been there. I think. I can’t remember any other reason for the enthusiasm. I do remember I knew nothing about it and just went along with what the group wanted. Anyway when we finally got to Punta Arenas the wind was so bad all the ferries were shut down and we never did make it across. My strongest memory is of the effort and hilarity of us all trying to erect our tents in gale-force winds.
Back to 2013. Finally on the ferry to Tierra Del Fuego.
A quick glimpse of Porvenir, the largest town on the Chilean side of Tierra Del Fuego – I wish we’d had time to explore a bit.
On the way to the penguins I saw pink flamingos and shouted from the back of the van: stop! Please stop! Please stop! So we stopped and I got my first opportunity to really watch and photograph pink flamingos from a relatively close distance, all the while with the guide calling out ‘lady’, ‘lady’ as if I was going to start abusing them or something, as I stealthily crept closer and closer. When I’d finished and returned to the van he told me that if you get too close to birds they’ll fly away. Really? He was a controlling pain, but I imagine he’s had his share of recalcitrant tourists. The flamingos were fabulous. I was completely captivated. Just look at those bright red tail feathers!
When we got to the entrance to the penguin colony there were a couple of foxes hanging around. They were not tame, but neither were they afraid of us.
And then, after walking a short distance across a field there they were! King penguins! Sixty-four of them on that day’s count. We were very lucky to see so many. They come and go about their penguin business. Some days there may be as few as fifteen. This colony suddenly arrived four years ago. Nobody knows why, however it is only a short distance beyond their normal breeding area.
For the next hour or so we crawled around on the grass being as inconspicuous and still as possible, getting as close as we could, watching and photographing. They were just across a small river (or inlet from the sea) and we watched them climbing in and out of the water, communicating with each other, and grooming.
At one point one of them crossed the water and walked right by us.
The one in this next photo with his head high in the air is ‘singing’. Many of them did it, and quite frequently. You know that whirring noise a car makes when you’re trying to start it on a really cold morning, or the battery is dying? Like that only much higher pitched. Truly unique. I’ve never heard anything like it.
The entire day, except for a ten minute break to photograph flamingos, consisted of an hour or so driving to the ferry, two hours on the ferry, another two hours driving to the penguins, an hour or so with the penguins, followed by a three hour drive all the way across the almost featureless Chilean half of Tierra Del Fuego, a one hour wait to get on a ferry, a twenty minute ferry ride back to the mainland, and a two hour drive back to Punta Arenas. All that driving for only about an hour with the penguins because of the ferry schedules. It was the only way to do it. Was it worth it? A resounding Yes. Every moment. And every penny.
Not only did I make it to Tierra Del Fuego, this time I got there twice. From Punta Arenas we re-entered Argentina travelling by bus to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world, situated on the southern coast of Tierra Del Fuego and surrounded by mountains. Dwarfed by mountains.
We went to the National Park twice, exploring once by foot, and once by train – El Tren del Fin del Mundo,
Don’s photo – he loves trains.
We spent another day devoted to penguins. This time it was Gentoo penguins, and the more common Magellanic penguins. We were able to walk among them, see them swimming, playing on the beach, and in their nests. They are very social birds, constantly communicating with each other and grooming each other. Our guide pointed out young ones that would have been born earlier this year but I could hardly tell the difference. The Magellanic penguins nest in burrows.
We saw them here at Otway near Punta Arenas
and here on Magdelena Island near Ushuaia.
The Gentoo penguins are surprisingly different. They use mounds of pebbles and shells as nests. I watched as one of them walked purposefully to where there were some pebbles, pick one up in his beak, and carry it back to add to the nest.
In amongst the Gentoo penguins: an unexpected lone King penguin. Our guide said they roam when parenting duties are over.
A whole beachfull of Magellanic penguins
Our final excursion was a cruise along the Beagle Channel, that narrow strip of water between Tierra Del Fuego and the islands to the south of it. We went slowly along the channel on a grey day, past infrequent lonely farms, the occasional wreck, a lighthouse, more penguins, and small rock islands thick with sea birds and sea lions.
Photography was hilarious. The longer we were out the worse the weather got, the wilder the wind got, the rain came, the boat groaned and lurched, the light diminished, the camera shuddered in the shrieking wind, and the lens got covered in sea fret.
By the time we landed back in Ushuaia the storm had passed and we were greeted by sunset and partly blue skies. It had snowed there while we were gone. Ushuaia, surrounded by mountains, at the end of the world.
Wild unpredictable Patagonia weather. Three seasons in one day. It’s rarely summer. A day here and there maybe, like the day we had in El Chalten and hiked to see Mount Fitz Roy, and the day in Puerto Natales when we went to Torres Del Paine. In Ushuaia the average daily low in winter is zero degrees. The average daily high in “summer” is ten (50F). It was snowing again the morning we left.
We’d had our fill. We loved every minute of our time in this rare raw wild brazen and beautiful part of the world, but was time to warm our bones. So we flew to Mendoza, where it was over thirty every day, and thawed out.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.