PATAGONIA: A journey to the end of the World

PATAGONIA: A journey to the end of the World

Author: Anonym/Monday, June 24, 2013/Categories: News, Viaggi

“Winter was coming inexorably to Puerto San. Juliàn. Days became shorter and shorter until daylight lasted for no longer than a quarter of an hour. Among the many sufferings and privations the discontent was slowly rising. While the horizon was about to see a new mutiny, Magellan and all the men of his ships saw something that erased everything from their minds: a wisp of smoke was rising from the distant mainland. Perhaps they were not as alone as they thought.” (translator’s note: the original English version was unavailable and hence the above is a translation from the Italian).
This is what Laurence Bergreen wrote in his book “Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.” As Magellan himself noted: “One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head,” and furthermore, he “marvelled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky.” The Europeans were astonished because “he was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.”
Ferdinand Magellan named those natives, the Patagons, from the word Patagón (big feet), who in turn gave their name to the entire geographic region: Patagonia (“Land of Big Feet”), a name that remains to this day.
Centuries after this date, (1520), the ancient population of giant natives no longer exists, but the strength of the myth embodied by this distant South American land remains unchanged and continues to attract travellers from across the globe.
Patagonia is a geographical region of over 900,000 square km, stretching across parts of Chile and Argentina, from the mouth of the Rio Negro it continues down to the Straits of Magellan.
It predominantly comprises steppes and deserts; however, its landscape is much varied as it also includes rain forests, savannahs of palms, mountains, and a great deal more.
Just outside the towns and tourist centres, where life is not much different from that of Europe, there is total solitude, where the only thing ever-present is the icy wind, some- times violently strong, that constantly blows through the arid lowlands of Patagonia.
The land is a hostile and dangerous environment for men and it hosts different kinds of animals such as guanacos, foxes, pumas, and numerous migratory birds, such as the flamingo.
Along the Atlantic Coast, in the northern part of the region, there is the Valdés Peninsula. It has no fresh water and is almost completely uninhabited. Notwithstanding its monotonous landscape and the absence of vegetation, it represents a magic place from which to sight sea creatures such as Magellanic penguins, southern right whales, orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and elephant seals.
The peninsula’s greatest draw-card is undoubtedly the southern right whale. It is easily distinguishable from other Baleen whales by the callosities on its head. Every year, from June to December, this mammal offers an exceptional show when, before heading to the Antarctic, it approaches the coast to reproduce and raise its offspring.
The southern right whale is noted for its peaceful, docile, and curious demur, and it often approaches observer boats, entertaining all on board with its uproarious acrobatics.
If fortune smiles, another legendary character may appear: Moby Dick. Even though smaller than its fictionalised namesake, a real white whale actually exists. This animal is a particularly rare albino whale.
This condition is a genetic defect that causes the complete absence of pigmentation in the body; which makes the white whale, unfortunately, more sensitive to cold weather and thus less predisposed to survival.
Some kilometres south of the peninsula there is another natural reserve, Punta Tombo, where more than a million Magellanic penguins live in a colony.
“These geese are black, and have their feathers all over the body of the same size and shape, and they do not fly, and live upon fish; and they were so fat that they did not pluck them, but skinned them.” That is how Anthonio Pigafetta, assistant and journal keeper on the Magellan’s expedition, described in his “Report on the First Voyage Around the World” this strange sea bird, that is capable of swimming but incapable of flying.
These creatures arrive from Brazil between August and September; first come the male penguins to secure the same nest of the previous year, then, some weeks later, the females arrive to lay their eggs. They will stay there until March, and both parents incubate the eggs, always two in number, for 40 days. Highly skilful swimmers, penguins seem awkward on land. When they walk they always look like they are about to fall over, which simultaneously makes them very funny and adorable.
Contrary to what might be expected, the economic crisis turned out to be positive for these sea animals. In the past, Magellanic penguins used to arrive in Argentina in July, but unemployment and decreasing manpower in the fishing industry and the subsequent abundance of fish (the main food in their diet) caused the animals to change their natural life cycle and stay instead in Brazil. On the other side of the coin, oil pollution from tankers constitutes a major threat to these sea creatures.
Travelling southwards, the emblem of Patagonia makes its appearance: its numerous glaciers, which are among the biggest in the hemisphere.
These imposing mountain-like formations, blue in colour and almost surreal, seem to be alive: they groan, they squeak, and they inexorably and invisibly move ever downward. With the high temperatures of summer, blocks of ice suddenly detach themselves from the glacier’s imposing walls and fall into the sea, creating a noise that is similar to the discharge of a cannon.

Notwithstanding their almost eternal existence, icebergs have a distinct life cycle: under the action of the cold they are formed from high snows, then they begin to move, due to the effect of gravity, towards the sea, and they end their journey, and hence their existence, by melting into the water. It is not by chance that the lagoon in the Torres del Paine National Park, near Puerto Natales, is called Cementerio de los Tèmpanos, where impetuous oceanic currents drag these gigantic slabs of ice.
The numerous glaciers in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and in the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina are celebrated tourist attractions.
Another must-see place is Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago including the southern most city on the continent: Ushuaia, the capital city. This small town with houses made of metal plates is far from beautiful but is diabolically fascinating. Surrounded by snow-clad mountains, it abuts the Beagle Channel, which in turn is dotted with islets that host a variety of sea creatures.
Further south, the last inhabited island be- fore the Antarctic is Cape Horn. The so-called “ships cemetery” is famous for its harsh climatic conditions. Little bigger than a rock, this piece of land is the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean, the South Atlantic Ocean, and the Antarctic Sea. These three giants meet violently as if they were fighting for territory, and they create terrorizing waves that are equalled, in height, only by tsunamis. The lighthouse keeper and his family are the sole inhabitants on the island. This is the place where legends merge with reality; this is the End of the World.
Recently, the problem of retreating glaciers has been reaching record levels. The mass media frighten people with news and television reports about the “end of the world,” an end caused by global warming. As giant ghost-like entities, they terrorize with images of a virtual future where the most beautiful historical places on earth, such as Venice or Rome, are covered in water.
True or not, these images are impressive, as were those of the atomic bunkers during the Cold War, another ghost of mass-terror. The Earth has always endured climatic variations. Temperatures have been rising since 1850, causing the glaciers to increasingly retreat.
It is true that some glaciers register amazing mutations, some of them grow, some others retreat, but there are also the ones that remained perfectly stable for hundreds of years. The Perito Moreno in Patagonia is one of them: it is a gigantic mass of ice that ends in Lake Argentino and that, due to its huge horizontal extension, it can reduce its height without loosing its volume. This is a scientific mystery that causes us to realise, once again, how little we know about the Earth. Probably, no one can say with any certainty what are the causes of glacier retreat, or for that matter what climate will exist in the next hundred years. But this uncertainty must not stop people from being actively involved in the mission of safeguarding the Earth, remembering that the human being is the primary creature responsible for its fragile equilibriums. Climatic changes, for whatever reason, are already occurring and without certain decisive interventions the long-term consequences could be disastrous.

Photos by Olga Gomenyuk

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