16 Feb 2018

Following in Darwin's wake

Post by Helaine Becker

For those of us who get all fluttery when we hear the words "Voyage of the Beagle," have I got a post for you!

I recently had the splendid opportunity to travel to the "End of the World" Punte Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina.  Both feature significantly in the history of Charles Darwin's famed journey of discovery.

Ushuaia bills itself as the sourthernmost city in the world. It is also the departure point for boat trips in the Beagle Channel, which was indeed named for that Beagle.

Here's what Darwin himself had to say about the Beagle Channel:

"As we proceeded along the Beagle Channel, the scenery assumed a peculiar and very magnificent character[…] The mountains were here about three thousand feet high, and terminated in sharp and jagged points. They rose in one unbroken sweep from the water’s edge, and were covered to the height of fourteen or fifteen hundred feet by the dusky-coloured forest."

The channel is just as stunning today, as well as alive with sea lions, cormorants, albatross and penguins (the subject of a future post).

But the real thrill for Darwin fans was at Punte Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile. It lies on the Magellan Strait, through which Magellan travelled on his 'revolutionary' voyage around the world, and which, yes, the Beagle travelled. 

Here's what Darwin had to say in The Voyage of the Beagle:

"June 1st.—We anchored in the fine bay of Port Famine. It was now the beginning of winter, and I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only seen indistinctly through a drizzling hazy atmosphere. We were, however, lucky in getting two fine days. On one of these, Mount Sarmiento, a distant mountain 6800 feet high, presented a very noble spectacle. I was frequently surprised, in the scenery of Tierra del Fuego, at the little apparent elevation of mountains really lofty. I suspect it is owing to a cause which would not at first be imagined, namely, that the whole mass, from the summit to the water's edge, is generally in full view. "

Where the Beagle anchored in the Magellan Strait.

Darwin then went on to describe  what he saw in the extremes of Patagonia:

"When the Beagle was here in the month of February, I started one morning at four o'clock to ascend Mount Tarn, which is 2600 feet high, and is the most elevated point in this immediate district. We went in a boat to the foot of the mountain (but unluckily not to the best part), and then began our ascent. The forest commences at the line of high-water mark, and during the first two hours I gave over all hopes of reaching the summit. So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out. In the deep ravines, the death-like scene of desolation exceeded all description; outside it was blowing a gale, but in these hollows, not even a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the tallest trees. So gloomy, cold, and wet was every part, that not even the fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish. In the valleys it was scarcely possible to crawl along, they were so completely barricaded by great mouldering trunks, which had fallen down in every direction. When passing over these natural bridges, one's course was often arrested by sinking knee deep into the rotten wood; at other times, when attempting to lean against a firm tree, one was startled by finding a mass of decayed matter ready to fall at the slightest touch. 

We at last found ourselves among the stunted trees, and then soon reached the bare ridge, which conducted us to the summit. Here was a view characteristic of Tierra del Fuego; irregular chains of hills, mottled with patches of snow, deep yellowish-green valleys, and arms of the sea intersecting the land in many directions. The strong wind was piercingly cold, and the atmosphere rather hazy, so that we did not stay long on the top of the mountain. Our descent was not quite so laborious as our ascent; for the weight of the body forced a passage, and all the slips and falls were in the right direction.

I have already mentioned the sombre and dull character of the evergreen forests, in which two or three species of trees grow, to the exclusion of all others. Above the forest land, there are many dwarf alpine plants, which all spring from the mass of peat, and help to compose it: these plants are very remarkable from their close alliance with the species growing on the mountains of Europe, though so many thousand miles distant. The central part of Tierra del Fuego, where the clay-slate formation occurs, is most favourable to the growth of trees; on the outer coast the poorer granitic soil, and a situation more exposed to the violent winds, do not allow of their attaining any great size. Near Port Famine I have seen more large trees than anywhere else: I measured a Winter's Bark which was four feet six inches in girth, and several of the beech were as much as thirteen feet. Captain King also mentions a beech which was seven feet in diameter seventeen feet above the roots."

The Fort at which everyone died, giving the name to "Port Famine" visible in the background.
The terrain Darwin described is exactly the same today, including the "globular bright-yellow fungus, which grows in vast numbers on the beech-trees. When young it is elastic and turgid, with a smooth surface; but when mature, it shrinks, becomes tougher, and has its entire surface deeply pitted or honey-combed.In Tierra del Fuego the fungus in its tough and mature state is collected in large quantities by the women and children, and is eaten uncooked. It has a mucilaginous, slightly sweet taste, with a faint smell like that of a mushroom. With the exception of a few berries, chiefly of a dwarf arbutus, the natives eat no vegetable food besides this fungus."

The fungus was very much in evidence during our trip, and just as it was in Darwin's day, is eaten by the locals. I was told that it is called "Indian bread" and when sliced thin, is a grand addition to a salad. The berries, known as Califate, were also ubiquitous. Today they are eaten like blueberries or saskatoon berries, and are used to make an exceptional delicious version of a Pisco Sour. A town in Argentina is even named after them.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the adventure was visiting the reconstructed Beagle that is one of the main features of another Punte Arenas museum.

Detailed life size reconstruction of the HMS Beagle
You can easily imagine yourself doing exactly what Charles Darwin did for those long, long months, including visiting the toilet!

I really loved the discovery that the HMS Beagle had a figurehead that was an actual carved Beagle. The photos below shows the figurehead, one from the reconstruction, the other from a smaller model.

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