USHUAIA (Argentina), Oct 25 — From halfway up the mountain, we could see the wide expanse of the Beagle Channel. The blue waters, as crisp as a winter snap.
We could see the catamarans departing from the pier, tourists eager to photograph sea lions and penguins. They will pass the Lighthouse at the End of the World and return home with postcard memories.
Sometimes it’s the less obvious journey that we miss out on. The path not taken.
When we first began our ascent earlier that morning, entering Reserva Natural Cerro Alarkén, an Argentinian national park within the Tierra del Fuego Province, the detour seemed a foolish one. Everyone else was out at sea. That’s where the real sights were.
Or are they?
At least the path, in the beginning, is strikingly clear. While we see no one else as we trod slowly uphill, we conclude rangers must have maintained the hiking routes.
Rangers or invisible fellow hikers we have yet to spot. (Or someone, or something, else?)
With over 247 acres of native forests, the Reserva Natural Cerro Alarkén offers panoramic views of rugged mountain ranges from the scenic Mount Olivia to the imposing Five Sisters Mountain that guides our way. It’s impossible to miss: it’s the mountain with five peaks, hence its fantastical name.
As we are still at the lower altitudes, taking our time with our walk (which will become a real climb once the incline gets steeper), we soon come across a peat bog. Practically a marshland.
Peat bogs can be found in many parts of the nature reserve and contributes to the regional ecosystem.
The ground we step on is soft and easy on our soles, as it is often covered with sphagnum moss that favours the low temperatures.
Not all hikes have to be a trial. The easier the going is, the more peace of mind we’ll have to contemplate our immediate experience.
For one, it’s wonderfully quiet but for the occasional snatches of birdsong. As Rumi, the 13th-century Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic, puts it: “The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.” For the Persian poet, there is eloquence to be found in silence.
Silence can be helpful too, in uncovering some surprising companions as you hike. Don’t be alarmed to encounter some horses during your nature ramble.
They were introduced to the island by European settlers and now roam the land, making the mountains of Tierra del Fuego their home.
It hits us: rangers may have some part to play but the horses also make the paths we see, depositing “road apples” along the way. Horse manure is excellent fertiliser in the wild, and signposts too.
Besides these hoofed mammals, other — perhaps warier — animals abound. Beavers build dams, entire multi-level complexes to rival any made by man.
Sharper eyes will spot South American grey foxes scurrying around looking for small prey.
We whisper, if we need to speak at all, careful not to scare any woodland creatures off.
The Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges once advised, “Don't talk unless you can improve the silence.” How could any conversation hope to compete with the beauty that surrounds us with every step?
Thus we continue our ramble in relative silence, not because we have nothing to say but because companionship sometimes means experiencing the ineffable and the divine together.
Autumnal colours remind us it is not only fauna but flora we ought to be keeping an eye out for as we climb.
Reds, oranges and golds, a riot of colours against the cloudy greys and verdant greens of the mountainside.
The dominant trees here in the national park — and indeed, most of Tierra del Fuego — are the lenga beech, as it’s known in the Mapuche tongue.
A deciduous tree, the lenga beech is fond of snow and very low temperatures. The mountains here make a perfect home for them.
There are purple-black calafate, yellow orchids and orange-hued michay flowers. Nassauvia with its distinctive aroma, almost like a bar of dark chocolate.
Beneath the forest cover, ferns such as the Devil’s strawberry unfurl their fronds. Sinister and seductive at the same time.
Yet it’s the humble fachine, a species of daisies native to Tierra del Fuego, that draws our eyes with its simple petals of white and hearts of lemony gold.
Locals call them mata verde thanks to the luxuriant green bush it grows from. These blooms are like drops of snow, with a promise of sun and summer again when the seasons change.
Eventually we arrive at a point that’s midway up to the peak and stop to rest. We look down and we are rewarded with a stunning view of the Beagle Channel.
The catamarans leaving the pier are tiny from this height; they look like penguins heading out to the ocean to feed.
Walking in the shadow of the Five Sisters Mountain is not unlike a meditation of sorts. A walking meditation to heal the soul. In her 2005 book No Time to Lose, Pema Chödrön noted that “outer solitude is a support for inner solitude.”
Yet, as quiet as our surroundings are, as pristine and precious, it is also full of life. The horses and the foxes, the birds and the beavers. The ancient beech and the fresh fronds of ferns. The mosses and the grasses.
And though we barely speak, we can hear each other: our footsteps crunching on dead leaves and mulch alike beneath, our laboured breaths when we climb, our heartbeats when we get close, gripping each other for support.