The harbour consists of a fine piece of water half surrounded by low rounded mountains of clay-slate, which are covered to the water's edge by one dense gloomy forest. A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how widely different it was from any thing I had ever beheld.
This is how the Tierra del Fuego appeared to the twenty-three-year-old Charles Darwin when HMS Beagle, the brig captained by Robert Fitzroy, anchored in the waters of Beagle Channel on December 17, 1832. This channel is a strait which cuts the tip of South America from east to west, south of the Strait of Magellan and north of Cape Horn. Thirty-eight years later, in a bay of the channel, relatively sheltered from the winds, the Reverend Bridge founded an Anglican mission which then became the town of Ushuaia. At 53 degrees 9 minutes south, Ushuaia is the world's most southerly town: apart from a few scientific bases in Antarctica, there is nothing between Ushuaia and the South Pole.
With the exception of tourism and unsuccessful attempts by a few industrial groups (Grundig and Philco), whose factories are periodically occupied by the workers, fishing is the most dynamic activity of the channel, both in the ocean and locally. Its core is the fishing and processing of the king crab (Lithoides antarticus), a lean and agile crustacean which weighs about 300-400 grams and has three pairs of legs developed for crawling. It is mainly fished between January and March by means of orange-painted boats, 8-10 meters long, which drop huge fish traps on the bed of Beagle Channel. Sometimes small groups of Fuegians can be seen walking along the shore looking for king crabs left behind by the low tide. Such finds provide good income locally.
During a journey to these faraway lands, in the hope of finding traces of Darwin or Chatwin, I ate king crab many times, though two occasions in particular I shall never forget.
I bought my first king crab on a beach not far from the Chilean-Argentinian border from an old fisherman from Chilo (a Chilean island), a hawker - I'm not sure how long he had been there or was staying. He was holding a wicker basket covered with a cloth that contained freshly boiled king crabs just ready for eating. Seven dollars for two. Simply sitting on the stones, watching the sea in that secluded bay, we picked out the delicate, sweet threads of crab meat from the shells with our fingers, breathing in the smell of cold sea. That delicious snack was soon gone, and we looked around for the strange old man from Chilo to ask for another portion, but he was nowhere to be seen. The only memory of his presence was the empty shell in my hands and the taste of crab on my mustache.
The second unforgettable encounter with king crab occurred at the end of a day that had been constantly darkened by thick clouds. That cold and windy night drove my partner and myself to Tolkeyenn, a prestigious though quiet restaurant in Ushuaia. Suddenly the wind from the coast of Chile drove away the grayness and the light of the sunset broke into the restaurant. Locals, English and Italian tourists were astonished by this breathtaking scene. I was enthralled by the eyes of my table-companion, lit by the rays of the southern sun. We were enjoying a fresh Santa Ana white wine and were waiting for a simply boiled king crab, served with lemon and Spanish oil. The hybrid combination of the pulp of this southern crustacean and Mediterranean dressing, the sour taste of lemon, the silky softness of the oil, was an interesting gastronomic experience. Knives and forks instead of bare hands to extract the smallest morsels of crab meat; linen napkins for cleaning fingers and mouths; cool white wine to wash it all down: etiquette and the taste of king crab proved to be a sensual experience.
We walked back beneath the bold glitter of unknown constellations presided over by the bizarre Southern Cross, that oblique heavenly symbol for sailors and lovers.