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Beyond the ends of the earth

Puerto Williams, Chile

sunny 26 °C

If you had the world's most southerly town in your grasp - you wouldn't turn down the offer either would you? Puerto Williams is the capital of Antartica Province and on the island of Navarino (part of the Cape Horn Archipeligo). It's only 53 years old, it celebrated a birthday while I was there, which gives you a clue about how remote and untouched this environment is.

It is primarily a naval port and I didn't expect to find anything there apart from military huts and few shops. But, it was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 2006 by UNESCO and is one of the 37 most pristine places in the world. Which means it has 70% of the original vegetation (whatever that means). And, it is home to the Yaghan Indians who made their way down from the Bering Straits over thousands of years and have lived in the vicinity for at least 7,000. They were rehoused by the government to a rather shabby modern village on the outskirts in the 1960s, there are only 70 people surviving.

I quickly discover that Puerto Williams: has a humid and mild micro climate which promotes the forests and rare flora and fauna; is a bit windy as the air is funneled between the Navarino and Darwin mountains over the Beagle Channel; and has a UV Index of 7 which the sign outside the town hall reminds you is High. There's no tourist infrastructure, (except support for yachts who leave from the port to round the Horn), so I decide to hire a mountain bike and go for a ride to take advantage.

I had absolutely perfect riding weather but due to some inaccurate advice by a random woman I came across on a gravel road, I took a wrong turning and ended up the Cerro Banderas. Once this had sunk in I decided there was nothing for it other than to climb to the mirador through pristine forest and crystal clean air to see the Darwin mountains in their full glory. So now I was still facing a round trip of 30km on gravel track but I had already done 12 and climbed above the tree line...

But the scenery was stunning and all I felt was euphoria. The track ran along side The Beagle Channel and I passed small inlets with a hut and a fishing boat, peat bogs, beaver dams and romantic steppes. Up and down fueled only by home-made cheese rolls - Wallace would be proud. Eventually I reached Punta Guerrico one of the temporary camps of the Yaghan. They spent their year traveling up and down the idyllic surrounding of the Beagle Channel eating fish, dolphins and shellfish for millennium. I could see the indentation in the turfed ground left by living in the same hut for centuries but I couldn't find the shell middens. They had a taboo and nobody was allowed to destroy a shell either by breaking it, putting it in the fire or throwing it back to the sea. So, over the years shell middens had accumulated - but where were they?

I literally tripped over them as I was admiring the Yaghans' views of the snow-capped Darwin mountains. Behind the hut indentations were undulating turf hills and closer inspection revealed they were the middens: tons and tons of shells of all descriptions. Here I was touching history, touching the shells that ancient hands had caught and opened. I suspect it is like Chesil beach, although there are lots of pebbles if everyone took one home there would be none left. However, I put a shell in my bag to keep in touch.

Buoyed by the discovery but running short of cheese rolls, the thought of the ride back still seemed very challenging. You'll remember the wind. Well, it was behind me on the way there which means one thing for the return. It was 5pm and I had been on the go since 9am - passing the disused machine battery and visiting the University of Magellan's flora and fauna reserve. I knew I had 5 hours until the sun went down, never the less it was 11km so I resolved that if a car should happen to pass me I would fake an accident to get a lift. I was in the middle of nowhere, there is only Puerto Williams round there so the chances of a passing vehicle at that time of night were remote. After a few kms I heard the roar of an engine through the trees, was this the equivalent of a mirage in the desert? I didn't have to undertake any subterfuge. As soon as the guys in the lorry saw me looking back at them in the middle of a hill they stopped and silently put my bike on the back on top of the wood they were delivering. Angels, I tell you. I arrived back at Captain's Ben's house knackered but feeling very alive with extraordinarily clean lungs!

Posted by AlisonLeahy 06:05 Archived in Chile

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