Tuesday 22 March 2016

Estrecho de Magallanes

I alluded to the quixotic history of the Magellan Strait in my last posting, and having anchored in Bahia Mansa off Paso del Hambre and spent some time ashore it is starting to really come alive.

This short stretch of coast contains several ruined pioneer settlements dating back to the 16th century. Until the mid 19th century this resulted in tragic consequences due to the inhospitable conditions and distance from any meaningful supply lines (Paso del Hambre translates as Port Famine) . The establishment of an independent Chile in 1818, followed by the introduction of steam driven ships, transformed the straits into an important trade route. It was only in 1849 that the settlement of Punta Arenas was founded, which today is the largest town in Patagonia.

My principle objective in going ashore was to visit the isolated grave of Captain Pringle Stokes, who was commander of HMS Beagle until he shot himself in the head due to the “effects of the anxieties and hardship incurred while surveying the western shores of Tierra del Fuego” (according to the inscription on the grave). This act of suicide precipitated the promotion of Robert Fitzroy to captain the Beagle and the subsequent appointment of Charles Darwin (all accurately disclosed in the historical novel This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson).

So with my head down into the breeze I struck out to find the cemetery. It felt good to be stretching the legs after several days of being cooped up aboard. Within this extremely desolate area there was a large, modern building on the ridge above the anchorage which had me wondering what this could possibly be. As I was pondering this I passed a four-wheel drive vehicle (all non-metalled roads in these parts) pulled over to the side of the road, and the guy behind the wheel beckoned me over.

“Where are you going?”

I was a bit taken back by the directness of the question, but the face seemed friendly enough. I explained I was headed for the cemetery of the English captain, making the link to the Beagle and Darwin to try and persuade him that I wasn’t completely bonkers. Just when I thought I’d totally lost him he piped up with the name “Harry Thompson”.

The conversation then transferred into English and Randy explained that the shiny building I had seen was in fact a new visitor centre that he had been project managing for the last 6 years. It was an even bigger stroke of luck when he pointed out I was actually on the wrong road to the cemetery and that he would give me a lift.

“Are you sure I’m not interrupting you?”

“Well sort of, but I need a break anyway”.

Apparently he had been monitoring an area where people often come to barbeque (it was Sunday afternoon) as he was concerned about fires starting in the vicinity of his precious development.

It turned out that the project was more or less unique in the whole of Chile, a privately funded “Strait of Magellan Park”, backed by a local businessman, along with banks and the various tiers of government. Randy said that such a scheme would have been beyond the resources of the Chilean National Park body.

By the time he dropped me off at the cemetery he invited me and the rest of the Sea Wolf crew up to the visitor centre on Tuesday.

“Till Tuesday then”.   

So come Tuesday the four of us arrived at the visitor centre which was deserted to the point where it was slightly embarrassing how many people were working there. Like someone showing you where to park in an empty car park.

Randy generously waived the entrance fee for us, and gave some interesting insights into the history of the project and what it was hoping to achieve. He saw the visitor centre as a means to open discussion on what this stretch of coast means to Chileans, and particularly those living more locally. His perception was that historically the narrative has been dominated by the European settlers, and it was only really in his generation that this view has been questioned, with more recognition given to the indigenous tribes that lived here for thousands of years before the white man began charting the Americas.

The visitor centre wasn’t completely finished, but I was disappointed in what I saw. Whilst no expert on the area I had read enough elsewhere to find the displays lacking in the depth I was looking for. But maybe that was the point, simply to spark an interest and open dialogue about a very unique place.  

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