The first thing I remember of Patagonia is the shock of the mountains as I descended through the clouds. Charcoal black with streaks of white snow; they were so dramatic, so huge, I felt like they were within arm’s reach.
Landing on a runway lined with yellowed shrubs and wildflowers, I knew I’d arrived some place special. As I walked out of the airport, the air in the southernmost city in the world held me tight, and cut into my lungs.
Later that day, after arriving at an extraordinary pine green hotel perched on the hill above Ushuaia and checking in, I walked out the backdoor into a landscape utterly unknown to me. Deep purple mountains, dusted with red earth, towered overhead. The subantarctic forests were unlike any woods I’d ever walked through. The land was intense and weathered, and I felt an overwhelming sense of respect for it.
Patagonia is a land that endures. In that way, my Patagonia gear was just married with the landscapes. On this first day, the sun was shining and I got away with a thin T-shirt, sports leggings and my favourite Patagonia beanie.
I spent the next week and a half at the end of the earth as an artist-in-residence with Chimu Adventures. I shared my 10 Reasons You Must Go To Antarctica Before You Die with Benny’s Boardroom here.
Arriving back in South America, I checked into a doll-like, cherry pink house at the edge of town. I spent the next day getting to know the city. I walked the main street, lined with ski and souvenir shops, ate Argentinean pastries, and then stepped off the cracked pavement and wandered down dirt roads and alleyways.
Ushuaia is a patchwork of bright colours and dull greys, knitted together with wildflowers. On my walk, I met a local couple my age that invited me to a BBQ later that night. They picked me up at 9 pm, and in a garage, we drank malbec, played ping-pong, exhaled clouds in the cold night and in true Argentinean fashion, ate a dinner of lamb (slow-cooked for six hours over charcoal) at 2 am.
Walking home, my breath was hot in the moonlight. I was warm with a full belly, my Patagonia thermals, base layers, jacket and, of course, my Patagonia beanie. Believe it or not, I walked home this icy Thursday night in the middle of a Patagonian summer.
My new friends told me that the temperatures in Ushuaia vary only slightly throughout the year. And I felt there was something in the consistency and evenness of the climate that spoke volumes about Patagonia gear and its reliability.
Chimu Adventures hooked me up with a local tourism operator running day trips in the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The company’s focus is adventure, but what I appreciated most during my two daytrips with them were the guides’ enthusiasm for South Patagonian culture and landscape and their unity. The team is like one big family. They hang out and have fun together, and the friendly vibe resonates.
When I travel alone, I usually end up hitchhiking and walking trails solo (which, by the way, you can do quite easily from Ushuaia). But it was cool to explore Tierra del Fuego with other travellers and a guide who was keen to impart so much knowledge.
Plus, with a guide, I was treated to lunches of barbequed Argentinean meats, delicious malbec, fresh bread and tasty cheeses. I finished both daytrips so full I didn’t need dinner.
My first daytrip was a 4x4 tour of the island’s lakes. Driving north out of the city, I learnt that we were driving on the Pan American highway - a road that starts in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and stretches 30,000km through 14 countries, ending in Ushuaia, Argentina. The distance seemed unfathomable - it blew my mind, and I felt I was truly at the bottom of the world.
Turning off the main road, we bounced along dirt tracks and along grey-pebbled beaches. At one point, our guide veered to the right and drove at pace into the freezing cold lake, waves of water spraying up against the windows, while blasting ACDC. I laughed and sang along with him. Soon after, we ate lunch in a cabin in the woods. The earth was carpeted in orange leaves, with thick dark roots protruding through the mess.
On the way back to Ushuaia, sitting in the front seat, I noticed the rivers, or rather the grooves where rivers once flowed freely. My guide taught me about the Europeans who changed the face of Patagonia in the 19th century, how they altered the landscape. Then he told me how the Argentineans brought beavers down for their fur when fighting against the British, and then released the beavers when the climate made their fur shorter and coarse.
Building dams, the rivers ran low, water drained from the riverbanks, and now the valleys are a graveyard of bleached tree trunks, and yellowed soil. The demise of river systems in Patagonia is a sad history, and the Argentinean government is now spending 40 million dollars on efforts to eradicate the beavers.
It was a sharp reminder of why we need to prioritise ethical consumerism. And why we need to support companies that have the foresight to consider all the environmental and humanitarian costs of business, as well as the vision to minimise environmental impact and honour fair trade. Thankfully for us, ethical consumerism is the founding concept on which Patagonia is built.
My second adventure was a canoe paddle and a hike in the national park.
It was here, paddling on an emerald green lake that I learnt about the Yamanas – the area’s first people. They were nomadic and occupied the lands surrounding the Beagle Channel for 10,000 years until the Europeans arrived with diseases and opposing attitudes, and wiped them out in less than twenty years.
Before the Europeans, the Yamanas hunted sea lions, and as we steered our canoes into a windswept Beagle Channel, I was impressed to learn that it was the women who would have paddled, while the men hunted and the children sat huddled around a fire in the hull of the canoe.
Onshore, our guide pointed to a tangle of kelp that had washed onto the beach. She talked about the air bubbles in these kelp forests that allow them to float on the surface and get sunlight, and told of the ingenuity of the Yamanas, using the kelp as nets to trap sea lions.
Wearing my Patagonia spray pants, which had just prevented me from getting wet in the canoe, I stood warm and dry, appreciating the ingenuity of Patagonia’s modern designers and thinkers!
On this day, the sky was ashen. And when it is overcast in Australia, the colours in the bush fade, so I started our hike feeling a little disheartened, expecting a wash of dull browns and greens.
Within minutes though, I realised that even on a cloudy day, South Patagonia was anything but dull. I simply couldn’t believe how much colour there was! In a dark forest, there was so much light. The ground was peppered with leaves in shades of pink, orange and yellow.
The leaves rain down with the wind from the tops of Deciduous Beech trees. The taller Evergreen Beech trees don’t lose their leaves and make for a deep green canopy. The contrast of the ground beneath me against the leafy world above me was stunning.
Along the trail, our guide pointed out Winter Bark, which can be chewed for vitamin C, or brewed to make a spicy tea. We also learnt about the native orchids, and mushrooms that when eaten at the right time, taste like peaches. The Yamanas called them "sweet sweet," although our guide admitted that with a taste palate exposed to the sugars in our modern diets, the mushroom would unlikely seem sweet to us today.
When we emerged from the forest onto a blue-pebbled beach, the colours of this remarkable landscape were even more pronounced. The beach was littered with pink stones, rounded and smoothed by the tides, and chunks of white quartz. The larger rocks were crusted with purple muscle shells or covered in orange lichen.
Our guide pointed to huge mounds at the edge of the beach and told us about the Yamanas’ dwellings. Not wearing clothes, the Yamanas built homes out of sea lion hides to keep out of the cold and changed the entrance depending on where the wind was blowing.
They piled up their scraps outside their doors, and after a few years would leave their dwellings, which would then be taken up by another nomadic Yamana family. Mounds of uneven earth rose up over time with the Yamana’s gradual piling of crushed bones, fish and muscles.
If you were to dig into these grassy hills, you’d be digging down through 8000 years of indigenous life and stories. I felt privileged to have learnt about the history hidden beneath soft grass and wildflowers.
Yamana means to be or to exist, and standing on the edge of the Beagle Chanel in 2017, I could still, very much feel their presence.
Back in the forest, I discovered the rich history of the land itself. One thing you’ll notice in the woods in South Patagonia is the amount of fallen trees piled up on the earth. I asked our guide if there’d been a storm in recent years that had damaged the forest, and she told me that I was looking at the trees that had fallen over hundreds of years ago.
Because of the cold climate, with temperatures cooler than your fridge all year round, plant matter just doesn’t break down at the same pace as it does back home. I reached down and touched one of the fallen trunks. I held my palm to the body of a tree that has barely changed in decades and felt a sense of time peeling away.
On this walk, I was wearing my Patagonia beanie, base layers and a jacket, and there was something about the way these clothes last that seemed to suit the mature landscape.
When we continued walking, our guide pointed out green, frilly leaves growing out of standing tree trunks. She said that they were lichen and that they needed water and pure air to grow. Our guide encouraged us to breathe in, and fill our lungs with some of the purest air in the world. I felt it nourish my body from the inside out.
At the end of the walk, I commented on rocks that were an impressive luminescent blue. I learnt that they were from the Jurassic period, and felt myself sink deeper into history.
On the drive home, our guide sat next to me and she told me that 10,000 years ago, South Patagonia was covered with glaciers. She pointed to grooves in the mountains and said how they were the impressions of ancient glaciers. You can read the history of the landscape in the shapes of the mountains.
I asked her how long it took for the glaciers to melt. From memory, she said they started melting 25,000 years ago, so roughly 15,000 years. She then told me that 10 glaciers have melted in the last thirty years. In hearing this startling truth, I came to understand how we're changing the face of this extraordinary landscape today. How we’re changing history, and can only hope we have time to re-write it.
And I guess it’s in moments like this one that I look to brands that actively work to reduce their environmental impact. It’s the reason I write for Benny’s Boardroom, because we stock quality products that last, products that endure, products that prioritise the future.
Suddenly, the sky opened up and it started to pour. THANKFULLY, my notebooks and camera gear were safe inside my waterproof Patagonia Black Hole Pack.
We hurried into the van and when I took a seat, one of the canoe guides handed me a wild berry he’d picked in the national park. He said there’s a saying in Patagonia that says once you eat one of these berries, you have to come back. I ate it… I guess I’ll see you sometime soon, Patagonia!