Searching for Kangaroos in Tierra del Fuego

Yes you read it right, searching for kangaroos in the far south of South America. That is crazy of course. But if you think about perhaps not as crazy as all that. The marsupials on Earth today are found in Australia and South America (with one species in North America that colonised from South America, and some introductions in New Zealand). The southern tip of South America is not very well explored and maybe some hitherto undiscovered marsupials could be living there. I think that it is now believed that Australia’s marsupials actually originated in South America and colonised via Antarctica when it was rather more clement than it is today. So crazy but not super crazy!

Anyhow, it was 1991 and I was dating Mary who was a researcher at the BBC Natural History Unit working for a guy called Mike Andrews. Mike had made his name making ‘Flight of the Condor’ a documentary series about South America its scenery, wildlife, and people. Apparently someone wrote to him claiming that they had evidence of miniature kangaroos on Isla Navarino, which is in the far south of Chile. Mike was sceptical of course but offered Mary a subsidy to a holiday if she would go to Isla Navarino and check this claim out. And so we did.

Map of the world showing the current distribution of marsupials.

Getting to the bottom of South America in the early 1990s was not simple, first of all it was a long way and we had to fly to Buenos Aires, then to Santiago, and then to Punta Arenas. Secondly Pinochet had only left the Presidency in 1990, and political parties had only existed since 1987, it was very much a country in political transition. Anyway, we arrived in Punta Arenas trying to combine a holiday with this strange working assignment. Punta Arenas is a small town on the Magellan Straits, and is cold and windy pretty much all year. There’s a saying in the town that they do not collect their trash because the wind simply exports it to Argentina. To make sure that we met our obligations to Mike we booked ourselves onto a small aircraft that made runs down to Isla Navarino every few days. We more or less had to fly because we did not have visas for Argentina, and so could not go down to Ushuaia and cross from there. This plane was used like a local bus service, we all loaded on board and people dragged on live chickens and goats and other shopping that they could not get on the island (presumably that amounted to more or less anything that could not be grown or made locally). And it was a bumpy ride, the plane took maybe 20 or so people, and had to traverse the whole of Tierra del Fuego to get from Punta Arenas which is still on the main South American landmass and Puerto Williams on the southern shore of the Beagle Channel.

A view of Tierra del Fuego from a light aircraft in 1991. The blue tint of this picture is due to the fact that I was fixated on using Fujichrome film in those days.

Th upshot of this was that the small plane was bounced around by turbulence continuously. And before long the inevitable was happening. People were throwing up, vomit was sloshing from side to side along the floor of the aircraft and chickens were flapping about and some of the more industrious were pecking at particles of food in the vomit. The whole airplane reeked of that acrid stench of sick and you had to raise your feet every few minutes as the tide flowed from side-to-side. We landed after a couple of hours at the small airfield at Puerto Williams – the rather grandly named Guardiamarina Zañartu Airport. An unusual feature of this airport is that no matter how you approach the runway you come at it over the sea as the runway is built out into the channel at both ends. The plane also has to finish its deceleration before the end of the runway, which is also (inevitably) projecting into the sea. As we made our final approach you could see the wrecked remains of an aircraft hat had failed to stop in time and had skidded off the end of the runway into the Beagle Channel.

The Capital of the Antarctica Province

The letter than Mike Andrews had received had been sent by the curator of the museum in Puerto Williams, Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum. We walked out of the airport into the town to the museum. The curator was very welcoming and we explained our quest. He was quite new in his role and explained that the previous incumbent had apparently gone quite insane and had become convinced that small kangaroo-like marsupials did live on Isla Navarino. He had even gone so far as to build a set with some of the creatures on it, but these were ones that he had actually fabricated himself (although he claimed they were genuine). The curator was terribly apologetic and was very sorry that we had so wasted our time on this journey but there was no such thing (outside the mind of the old curator) as miniature kangaroos on Isla Navarino. So that was the end of our search, a complete blank. All we left with was the name of the old curator who now had a taxidermy shop in Puerto Arenas.

Puerto Williams (not my photograph)
Nanosmile, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

So we were on Isla Navarino and within a few hours had determined that the story was fabricated, so we had time on our hands. We decided to trek out into the hills, with the vague intention of crossing the island to the southern coast from where we thought it might be possible to see Cabo de Hornos. Today there are recognised treks (notably the Dientes de Navarino) and maps of the island, but in 1991 nothing but the vaguest sketches could be found and the idea of visitors wishing to experience the wilderness was a very peculiar one. So without much to guide us we set off into the hinterland south of Puerto Williams. Like much of Tierra del Fuego the lower areas of forest had been extensively damaged by beavers – these had been introduced to the archipelago about 50 years previously, presumably to encourage the fur trade. Almost inevitably the anticipated economic gains had not materialised but the beavers had loved it and now lived in every accessible waterway in the area. Unfortunately this meant that they had devastated large areas of forest.

A beaver dam on Isla Navarino, you can see the dead trees that surround the pond behind this dam.

On the first day of our trek the weather was good and we made steady progress up through the forest, finding our way through the thick vegetation. The main trees there were Southern Beech (Nothofagus) which at lower elevations were about 10m or so but as we climbed the height of the trees shrank until were walking through a miniature forest, so in some ways our search for small creatures had succeeded!

The higher elevation forest has a canopy less than head height.

Eventually the trees disappeared altogether and we could look into a valley, which I think is the Laguna Salto (although I am not sure it had that name then). At the head of the valley were the Dientes.

The peaks that are now called the Dientes de Navarino and the Laguna Salto, you can see round the lake that the trees are dead – again due to beavers.
Going carefully over a beaver’s dam.

We camped for the night in this valley, and explored from our camp the next day. We got quite high up onto the ridge but never reached the ridgeline. Without making excuses we were navigating using a map of the entire island that was drawn on a single piece of paper, and we were quite nervous of getting into a position where we would need rescuing. These were pre-mobile phone and GPS days of course.

This was taken from about as high as we reached on our trek, just before discretion won over valour!

A highlight for me were the Andean Condors, which seemed to be curious about us – possibly they hadn’t seen many people in these hills previously. They would swoop closer and closer to us apparently checking us out.

An Andean Condor flying close somewhere near to the Dientes.

Sadly on the third day the weather really closed in and visibility dropped to very low levels. At this point discretion seemed to be much better than valour and we decided to drop our attempt to get to the south coast and we beat a retreat to Puerto Williams.

A rather grubby picture of the north coast of Isla Navarino on a rather grey day.

We stayed with a lovely family that night, they could only communicate in Spanish, and our grasp of that language was very limited (too limited if I am honest). But everyone tried their best and we spent an evening in the warm and dry – much needed after getting drenched as we walked back over the ridge to the town. On that last day we did see some of what remained of indigenous culture, this area (along with the rest of Tierra del Fuego) was inhabited by the Yaghan, Puerto Williams is where the last native speakers of the Yaghan language reside. They were selling some crafts and I bought some bone fishing implements and a model canoe. We also retraced our steps to the museum which had an extensively display and information about the indigenous inhabitants of the island.

The collection of items that I bought from a Yaghan on Isla Navarina. A model of a Yaghan canoe, some needles used to make fishing nets and a harpoon. The tools seem to be made from bone. For scale the canoe is about 20cm long.

We were able to get on the flight back the next day and arrived, uneventfully, back in in Punta Arenas. Our curiosity though drove us to try and find out more about the mad museum curator and taxidermist. We were able to discover that he had set up shop in Punta Arenas, and practised his craft of taxidermy, unfortunately we never met him but we did find his shop. certainly the owner of the shop had the same name as the author of Mike Andrew’s letter.

What we believed to be the shop of the ex-curator of the Isla Navarino museum