We recently returned from an eight-week odyssey to South America – it was one of those ‘bucket list’ things that had been gestating for quite a while. Once the ‘retired’ flag went up, we were off. It’s a sign of satisfaction putting that ‘R’ word in occupation on immigration forms! Concentrating mainly on the west coast, we travelled from Cusco/Machu Picchu as far south as Cape Horn – and this is where the exquisite little plants come in to the story.
There wasn’t a dud day in the entire trip travelling gradually south through Peru and Bolivia and zig-zagging our way down between Chile and Argentina. Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego were personal highlights and we had several weeks of mountains, glaciers, fjords etc.
The three main areas in the south that we visited were the Torres del Paine National Park, El Calafate and a 4 night cruise through the Magellan Straits and Beagle Channel on the small Expedition Cruise ship Stella Australis.
In the Torres del Paine we stayed in the Eco Camp that afforded magnificent views of the stunning peaks of the Paine massif. We did several walking and mini van trips throughout the park and came across some beautiful plants surviving in the harshest of conditions and also the tragic bush fires that have ravaged parts of the park in recent years through visitors lighting camp fires against all warnings to not do so. The weather was wild at times with incredibly strong winds and the odd flurry of snow! But there was also heaps of sunshine as well.
• The Fire Bush is a low mounding plant to 40 cm or so and for a two-week period each year it becomes smothered in orange/scarlet blooms that the native Guanacos love. The local name is Mata Guanaco and is botanically Anartrophyllum strigulepetalum.
• The delicate little Sea Pink, Armeria maritima and locally known as Siempre Viva was growing on a lakeshore amongst rocks and facing fierce winds. We all know it as Thrift and being a tough little plant.
• On many of our walks we came across mounds of the Herba de la Cuncuna – Phacelia secunda that was thriving amongst grasses and rocky outcrops.
• A feature of these southern latitudes are the Nothofagus Antarctica forests with slightly differing species growing according to whether they are way down south in Tierra del Fuego or in the slightly more temperate areas of Patagonia. Pretty trees – deciduous Nothofagus antarctica, tall deciduous Nothofagus pumilio and evergreen Nothofagus betuloides. Being early spring, the foliage was a delightful crisp yellow green. Many trees had Lichen and False Mistletoe – Misodendrum punctulatum growing on them and we were assured these are not tree-life threatening.
• In the El Calafate Park we took trips to glaciers and saw equally stunning scenery. Another type of Fire Bush was in full bloom. This time it was Notro or Embothrium coccineum. The hillsides were literally on fire with the colour that stood out well against the blue/white of the Perito Merino Glacier.
• The pretty little Native Anemone – Anemone multifida was everywhere, only growing to about 15 cm high and thus escaping the fiercest of the winds. The soft creamy flowers with a tinge of green were delightful and seemed so delicate in such a harsh environment.
• Down in the Deep South, and once we were on the Stella Australis, we took several zodiac trips ashore to pristine, desolate and ‘completely to ourselves’ places in the Magellan archipelago. The expert guides that we had really made the excursions very special.
• Amongst the plants were bushes of the Parrilla – Wild Currant (Ribes magellanicum).
• A really interesting fungi was the Pan de Indio or Indian/Darwin’s Bread (Cyttara darwinii) that was growing in clusters on Nothofagus trees. It is a parasitic golf ball-like fungus that harbours a form of yeast – hence the name as it was a source of food to the indigenous Fuegians many decades ago.
The cherry on the top for me was the landing on Cape Horn – a very special moment with such maritime history in and around those often treacherous waters. I cannot recommend highly enough the Crusceros Australis company for an unforgettable few days in sub-Antarctic waters. And to see Condors flying incredibly low over our zodiacs when we were on an excursion around the Tucker Islets was memorable. Awesome creatures with a 3m-wing span and it seemed as they were doing special ‘fly bys’ for us! If you have a chance, get yourselves down to the tip if this fascinating continent. You won’t regret it!