On Chilean Straits

Our border crossing into Chile was a strange affair. We were still on a sealed road heading towards the small Argentinean town of Rio Turbio when without warning we passed what looked like a farm track with a battered green sign that seemed to indicate a customs post. Tentatively, we set off down the rough gravel track to find that yes, this was indeed the main road to Chile. After the formalities for us and the hire car, a man in a drab olive green uniform ambled out to lower a chain across the road. A couple of miles along the dusty road a similar procedure allowed us into Chile. Eight hours after setting out we drove into Punta Arenas to find a comparatively large sprawling city with traffic lights and queues.  It was something of a culture shock after the small towns and empty roads of the last ten days. The city is an important centre of trade and commerce and sits on the edge of the Straits of Magellan; the island across the water is Tierra Del Fuego, the Land of Fire. Beyond Punta Arenas the road continues for another forty miles before petering out as it begins to round Cape Froward lying at the southernmost point of mainland America.                                                                                               In between lies Puerto Hambre, a scattering of houses, a small army post and a handful of abandoned hippy buses. Moored in the bay were a score of blue and red fishing boats; today this little community is well known for the blood red Queen crabs caught locally. But it has a darker history. Realising that to secure control of the newly discovered Straits of Magellan in 1581, Spain sent twenty-three ships and 3000 people to colonise it. Just five of the ships made it to the Atlantic entrance to the straits, known variously as Cape Virgin, the Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins or rather more mundanely, Dungeness Point. Only one ship made it to Cape Froward to establish the town they called Rey Don Felipe. Buildings were put up, land was cleared and seeds sown. When the one remaining ship later put out into the straits it was blown out to sea and unable to get back; it was the beginning of the end. Five years later the English Buccaneer Thomas Cavendish arrived to find nearly everyone dead from starvation. Only a solitary soldier, Tome Hernandez, was found alive and rescued. Cavendish erased the name Rey Don Felipe from the history books and inserted instead Port Famine or Puerto Hambre in Spanish, the legacy it bears to this day.                       Small and fairly insignificant it may be but Puerto Hambre has played host to some interesting ships over the years. Built in 1811, HMS Havannah was a well travelled ship by the time she arrived off Puerto Hambre in September 1851, having spent much of her forty years making passages between Europe, New Zealand and Australia. She spent two days at anchor in the bay adjusting her chronometers before returning to Portsmouth. It was to be her last deep sea voyage and by 1860 she had been beached as a hulk at the entrance to the River Taff in Cardiff where she served for many years as a ragged school for deprived children before being broken up in 1911 when she was a hundred years old.                                                                                                    HMS Beagle set sail from England on 22 May 1826 on her first voyage, under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes. She accompanied the much larger HMS Adventure on a hydrographical survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.  Beagle was tasked with the dangerous and tedious work of surveying the desolate waters of Tierra del Fuego. Her captain, Pringle Stokes, felt the burden of the work and grew more and more depressed. The ship anchored at Puerto Hambre in 1828 and Pringle Stokes locked himself in his cabin for the next fourteen days before shooting himself in the head. He lay mortally wounded in his cabin for twelve days before he died.                 On board the Beagle at the time was a fourteen year-old boy seaman named John Lort Stokes though he was no relation to the ship’s master.  Young John Stokes,  came from Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, and had already been in the navy for two years. He went on to serve for eighteen years aboard the Beagle, rising through the ranks until he was given his own command. Captain Pringle Stokes’ body was buried in a small graveyard at Puerto Hambre and incongruous as it was, his death was a defining moment in world history. Lieutenant William Skyring took over command of the Beagle and sailed to Rio de Janeiro to report to the Admiral of the Fleet.  In turn, the admiral appointed Flag Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy to command HMS Beagle at the tender age of 23 years.  He proved an able commander and a meticulous surveyor in completing the work of the voyage.  The Beagle returned to England for a refit before Fitzroy set sail on his epic six year voyage with the naturalist Charles Darwin on board. Darwin’s subsequent book The Origin of Species changed world thinking forever and has never been out of print since it was first published, an honour it shares only with the bible.  Bizarrely, after a highly successful career, Robert Fitzroy locked himself in his bedroom and he too committed suicide, by cutting his throat.

On from Puerto Hambre, at the end of a road that began in Anchorage Alaska, lies Fort Bulnes, the site of the original settlement before it moved to Punta Arenas. It is the place where Chile took formal possession of the Magellan Straits in 1843.  The reconstructed fort at Fort Bulnes does not do the place many favours but it is otherwise a scenic and tranquil spot. Well tranquil when we were there, I’m sure there are other stormy times when it is rather less so. We wandered around, looking out to sea and trying to see the fort as it must have been in 1843.  I was with old travelling friends Glyn and Annwen and upon sharing a little bit of banter with Glyn, Annwen retorted, “What am I doing in this place with these two lunatics?”  Then apparently answering her own question, she added thoughtfully  “I married one and brought the other one with me!”  The only other building apart from the fort, is a small wooden café and outside a solitary fellow with a makeshift table was selling woollen garments- ‘made by his mother’.  We patronised both and came away from the stall with a splendid coat and a couple of woolly hats. The café reeked of wood and smoke, unsurprisingly since the walls are made of wood and there was a large wood fire in the grate. There were faded wildlife posters on the wall and the coffee was a do-it-yourself Nescafe sachet, some boiling water, a chipped mug and powdered milk from a tin.  Somewhere in what passed for the kitchen a CD was playing; we strained our unbelieving ears to make it out.  There was no doubt- it was the Dire Straits album The Brotherhood of Man.  When we spent three weeks in a hired car in New Zealand in 2003 we had but one CD with us- the very same Dire Straits album.  And here we are in the throes of a long road trip in South America and yet again we have with us in the car just the same The Brotherhood of Man CD.  They were playing our tune.  What a splendid place!