Episode 4: The tree at the end of the world

A harrowing journey is all in a day's work for a Nat Geo Explorer trying to find the world’s southernmost tree. But what happens when a self-proclaimed "normal human being" tags along?

Photograph by Ian Teh

A harrowing journey is all in a day's work for a Nat Geo Explorer trying to find the world’s southernmost tree. But what happens when a self-proclaimed "normal human being" tags along?


CRAIG WELCH (WRITER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC): A lot of people who work at National Geographic are cool, you know?

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Craig Welch is a writer for Nat Geo.

WELCH: I mean, they're big-time adventurers, and they’re kind of swashbuckling, and I'm anything but that. I'm like, you know, I'm afraid of everything. I'm experienced in very little. And I feel like I'm a pretty good representation of a normal human being.

BRIGGS: Trust me, Craig is pretty cool too. He covers the environment, and his job has taken him to all seven continents. But last year one assignment pushed him to the limit. Craig set off for one of the most remote places on Earth: Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of South America.

WELCH: It has some of the roughest winds in the world. The seas are swirling all the time. You know, on Cape Horn there is a monument to the thousands of sailors who have died trying to get around Cape Horn. And we were about to go there on a small wooden boat captained by a guy who'd never been there before. And, you know, I try to trust people because, you know, this is their world and I'm entering into it. But I'm also in my head screaming, Really? Do I really think this is a good idea?

BRIGGS: He wasn’t entirely sure, and he knew that boat ride was just the beginning. Once he arrived, he’d face hurricane-force winds with only what he could carry on his back. It’d be brutal. But Craig was following a group of scientists determined to find this one particular thing.

WELCH: What we were looking for was something that nobody had seen before. Nobody’d ever identified. And that if we could find it, we would be able to say we are staring at the world's southernmost tree.

BRIGGS: The world’s southernmost tree: not an easy thing to find.

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs and this is Overheard at National Geographic: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: braving treacherous seas, brutal weather, and extreme camping for the sake of one single tree. That’s all in a day’s work for a Nat Geo explorer. But what happens when a self-proclaimed normal human being tags along? We’ll have more after the break.

If you want to get Craig’s attention, say you have an assignment that’s gonna hurt.

WELCH: I knew based on where we were heading that this would be a somewhat miserable trip. And it's always been one of my mottos that misery makes for great copy. So the more pain and anguish I'm in, the better the story's likely to be.

BRIGGS: If that’s how we’re judging it, then this was going to be a pretty great story. To find the place he was headed, open a map of South America. Trace your finger all the way down to the bottom. There are a bunch of little islands, and on the island farthest south is Cape Horn.

WELCH: First of all, you don't just get to go to Cape Horn. You have to figure out how to get anywhere near Cape Horn. And that itself is tricky.

BRIGGS: First, he had to get to southern Chile. That’s the easy part. Then Craig had to earn his sea legs on a 32-hour ferry ride. It brought him to a tiny town called Puerto Williams. He was almost there. Sort of. One more leg to go.

WELCH: And that was going to be another ten or twelve hours by boat. But those—that trip from Puerto Williams to Cape Horn was going to take us on some of the roughest seas in the world, on a small wooden boat by a captain who had never actually been in those waters before.

BRIGGS: The waters around Cape Horn are notoriously savage. They’re a sailor’s nightmare. But Craig says it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

WELCH: I mean, we're going by rocky outcrops, and there's glaciers everywhere, sort of dumping into the sea from the mountains. And along the way, we're seeing dolphins coming up and sort of leading the boat’s head. We're going by a bunch of rockhopper penguins.

BRIGGS: Craig says it was beautiful.

WELCH: We got to a point where we could see Cape Horn through the mist. And it, you know, just comes out of nowhere. And it's just an amazing place. And you see this giant black, dark, rocky headwall. And it's starting to rain, and the wind is picking up. And, you know, it's very—it's very exciting and intimidating and nerve-racking all at the same time. But, you know, now the real adventure has begun.

BRIGGS: Craig was about to find out that Cape Horn is full of surprises. Luckily, a real pro was leading the way.

BRIAN BUMA (ECOLOGIST): I've always been most comfortable in the woods, off trail, in the middle of nowhere.

BRIGGS: Brian Buma is an ecologist at the University of Colorado-Denver who studies how forests change. He’s also a Nat Geo explorer, and the ringleader behind this expedition. Brian says it started with a simple question. As you go toward the South Pole, there’s a point where trees stop growing. But where?

BUMA: You know, you dive into the literature, and like, well, we don't even know where the southernmost forests are, really. I mean, no one even knows where these things necessarily are. And so that became the nexus of the idea. Like, it's 2019 and we don't know where the southernmost trees in the world are? Like why—how is that possible? So let's go find it!

BRIGGS: Brian pored over scientific journals and accounts from other expeditions—even back to Francis Drake and Charles Darwin—until he could confidently narrow it down to one place: Cape Horn. But to actually confirm that’s where the southernmost tree is, he’d have to go there. Nat Geo’s Craig Welch says that worked fine for Brian.

WELCH: Brian is a—he's a bit of an adventure hound. He's one of those people who just can't stand being strapped to a desk. And so he's managed to carve out a life for himself where he spends a lot of time in the woods and in the wilderness.

BRIGGS: So for Brian, or maybe more broadly for science, why is it important to find out where the southernmost tree is?

WELCH: Well, I mean, to be honest, it is not that it's important. You know, it's part of who we are as humans. You know, we're always looking for, you know, where's the deepest spot in the ocean? What's the tallest mountain?

BRIGGS: And there actually is scientific value in knowing where the southernmost tree is.

WELCH: It's a marker for us so that we can track how things are changing, because the natural world is changing all the time. And it's changing especially quickly now because of climate change, and it's changing especially quickly at the poles. And it's changing really quickly at the edge of ecosystems. Brian being Brian, he wanted to go find the actual single southernmost tree. Not just the forest, but the single southernmost specimen. And so to him, that had the roots of just a great adventure. And at the same time, it offered a chance to educate people about these edges and how the globe is changing.

BRIGGS: Ecologist Brian Buma wanted to bring along as many brains with him as possible, because there’s a lot to explore on Cape Horn besides trees. So he rounded up a crew.

BUMA: It was a really solid team of Chilean scientists. There was botanists. We had an archaeologist. We had some camp managers extraordinaire, bird ecologists—we basically had a lot of people with a lot of experience doing research in remote areas.

BRIGGS: It sounds almost like, you know, like Ocean's Eleven, like a heist movie. You got your team together, you've got the target.

BUMA: Thankfully that. Thankfully Ocean's Eleven and not Gilligan's Island.

BRIGGS: Well, maybe there was some Gilligan’s Island too. As the boat pulled up to Cape Horn, the sky got darker. Nat Geo’s Craig Welch and the rest of the team hauled supplies for a 10-day camping trip up a set of rickety wooden steps leading to a lighthouse.

WELCH: We’re carrying the gear up the steps. It's starting to rain and the wind is picking up, and we get all this stuff to the top. And then we realized that we now have to hike up and over a ridge, about four miles, to get to the place where we're going to basically set up a base camp. And our team, of course, is—they’re a bunch of adventurers. So this was—seemed like it would not be that big a deal. But once we start moving, we realize that hiking and traveling on Cape Horn is not going to be like any place any of us have ever been.

BRIGGS: So I was going to ask you if, you know, once you got off the boat, if things sort of got easier. But it doesn't sound like it did.

WELCH: Nothing got easier.

BRIGGS: Yeah, not even walking. Craig and a photographer named Ian stuck close together, just in case.

WELCH: Imagine a world where instead of grass, you're hiking on the tops of trees. And they're not trees. They're just shrubs. But the shrubs are so thick that you can't tell they're shrubs. And so you're walking across these things. And literally every third step, you plunge through to your thigh. I actually stepped through so fully, I went all the way to my shoulders. And I'm carrying this heavy pack, and I'm sort of laying flat on my back, looking up at the sky. And I'm on this sort of spongy, shrubby thing, and I can't get up. I mean, I feel like I was a turtle and somebody had flipped me over and then set me on top of a bush. And eventually I just started screaming. And eventually Ian heard me, and came back around and pulled me out. I feel ridiculous saying that I got trapped on a bush, but I got trapped on a bush. It's true.

BRIGGS: Walking on top of shrubs was only one of their problems. There was also the weather.

WELCH: We set up camp, and it starts getting windy. And the navy eventually would tell us that at some point the wind gusts got up to 75 or 80 miles an hour. And one of the tents got shredded. And so we ended up having to squeeze more people into fewer tents. And so Brian and Ian and I all ended up sleeping, for the next 10 days, in a two-man tent with all of our gear. And, you know, we're wet and we're cold and we're miserable, and we're working all day and we're tired. We also smell really bad. So I don’t want to—I had a great time now that it's over. But there were some times in the middle of it where I just wanted a hot shower and a beer.

BRIGGS: Where does this trip rank on your personal misery scale?

WELCH: I've been in Antarctica. I've been to the Arctic several times. And I would say that none of those trips have been quite as difficult as this one. And we were really just on day one.

BRIGGS: But there were some bright spots. As the team started exploring the island, ecologist Brian Buma made a friend: Steve.

BUMA: Steve is a really friendly penguin who clearly is comfortable on a rock.

BRIGGS: The team was hiking across a beach when they saw a penguin standing there, still as a statue. Brian thought a rock was pinning the penguin’s feet, so he moved it to set the penguin free. But the penguin didn’t budge.

BUMA: But then we come back the next day, and he's still there. And we come back the next day, and he's still there. And then he's still there. And so every time we went by, the penguin was just sitting there. And he eventually stood up, and just sat, sort of in this little—under this little underhang so he was a little bit out of the weather, and just stared at us every time we went by. And he saw us enough that he just sort of looked at us and didn't appear afraid or anything. And we named him Steve.

BRIGGS: He’s meditating.

BUMA: He's just meditating, yeah. His eyes half closed against the wind, just staring out over the ocean. He had found his inner peace on land instead of in the waves.

BRIGGS: While Brian was making friends, some of the other scientists on the team were on their own quests. Like Flavia Morello. She’s an archaeologist at Universidad de Magallanes in Chile.

FLAVIA MORELLO (ARCHAEOLOGIST): We were very frustrated because we had been over a week, and we hadn't seen any archaeological record. Nothing.

BRIGGS: Indigenous people have lived on nearby islands for thousands of years. But nobody had ever found traces of people on Cape Horn. Flavia and her assistant, Miguel Troncoso, walked around the island. Every 20 yards, they bored a small hole and took a soil sample.

MORELLO: And we did that for like eight, nine days. I was losing my hopes after the 9th day.

BRIGGS: That’s when help arrived. Not from people. From penguins. As penguins scoot across the mud, they carve out little trenches, like roads.

MORELLO: We started exploring the penguin paths. And Miguel got there first, and he said, Look, there's something strange here.

BRIGGS: Something strange that didn’t come from Mother Nature. There were bits of broken shells smushed into the mud—lots of them.

MORELLO: When you got near, you started seeing some bones—bird bones, seal bones, that were within the shells. A really compact layer where you had earth above and under it.

BRIGGS: Those bones and shells? They were trash. From people. People who had eaten birds and shellfish right at this spot, a long time ago. As Flavia dug, she also uncovered a small harpoon and a pile of ashes. It could only mean one thing: she was digging up a campsite. And it would’ve been hard to find on her own.

MORELLO: I mean, all this wasn't bigger than a circle of three meters diameter. But the penguin paths had eroded it. So it was very funny—so the penguins did the work.

BRIGGS: Tests show the campsite is only a few hundred years old. And Flavia is positive Cape Horn contains more evidence of indigenous people. Her small site, poking out of the muck, is just the beginning.

MORELLO: It's not a pretty thing to see, actually, or even to get your hands into. But it's really great! So I was happy. My happy, muddy archaeological site.

BRIGGS: So, one discovery in the books. But Brian Buma was still looking for the southernmost tree. He says the trees on Cape Horn, they might not match the picture in your head.

BUMA: If you're going down there looking for some statuesque, you know, monster of a tree, you're gonna be pretty disappointed. There's a reason it's an edge, right. It's a harsh place to be a tree.

BRIGGS: In some parts of the island, Nat Geo’s Craig Welch says forests look like something out of Lord of the Rings.

WELCH: The trees are all gnarled and turned and twisted and just weird. But that is only on the part of the island where there is a protection from wind. Other parts of the island, the trees are growing literally straight sideways out of the ground.

BRIGGS: Picture a tree trunk that goes straight up for about a foot, then takes a hard turn and grows horizontally for half the length of a school bus. There’s a little tuft of leaves at the end, but it’s laying on the ground. This is what they were looking for. A strange, sideways tree. There had to be one farther south than any of the others.

WELCH: They found a bunch of possibilities. But then they had to, you know, basically do GPS coordinates for each of them and figure out whether or not this was actually the southernmost tree. And eventually they found one that they were pretty sure was it.

BRIGGS: After one last check with a GPS and two compasses, they were positive. Ecologist Brian Buma and his team had found it. The tree that was farther south than any other on Cape Horn. And that means the southernmost tree in the whole world.

Brian’s quest was over. He did it.

BUMA: There's this great sense of like, wow. You know? Like I intentionally sat down on the south side of it, and you just look and you’re like, every tree on earth is north of me. There's nothing behind me as far as trees go. You know, it's Antarctica. That's it. This is the edge. This is it. I mean, it was a really cool feeling. I really, really enjoyed it.

WELCH: Nat Geo’s Craig Welch was there too. And he was also taking in the moment, in his own way.

WELCH: It's literally just a gray piece of tree. The shrubs are higher than the highest part of the tree. And I am sitting here looking at this and thinking, Oh my God, I've just found the southernmost tree in the world. Well, let me rephrase that—I've been with scientists who just found the southernmost tree in the world, and you can't even tell it's a tree.

BRIGGS: Sometimes the pot of gold just isn’t as shiny as you picture it.

WELCH: You know, you want it to be this gigantic lone Joshua tree in the middle of nowhere that is starkly beautiful and, you know, you can set up cool lights and photograph it at sunset. And, you know, that's not the way real science works.

BRIGGS: It's just a humble little tree.

WELCH: Well, it is not even a humble little tree. It's like a humble little shrubby suggestion of a tree.

BRIGGS: But that humble little tree is exactly what ecologist Brian Buma was looking for. He collected data to learn more about it. And he’s going to monitor how Cape Horn’s forests adapt to their changing environment. But Brian also wants to share the other details, like the crazy hiking and the penguins.

BUMA: I've found that to be a really powerful part of this. Just getting people to think about science as a fun enterprise that can be really rewarding, not just in a big, cosmic sense but also in a personal, “I had a good time doing this!" sense. Because I think that's okay, and I think people forget that.

BRIGGS: Besides finding the tree, Nat Geo’s Craig Welch says the team of scientists catalogued all kinds of valuable information about Cape Horn. Everything from plants to insects to birds.

WELCH: Over the course of the 10 days that we were there, you know, these scientists probably learned, you know, half again as much about Cape Horn as was known over the course of a century of work before then.

BRIGGS: Craig says seeing all those explorers working alongside each other—it reminded him of some kind of Victorian science expedition.

WELCH: To actually go and like look back at, you know, journals that Darwin wrote and journals that that, you know, other adventurers wrote, you know, a century ago, and realize that we are actually putting this marker on, and saying we have found where this boundary is. That was—it was cool. I mean, it made me feel in the very tiniest, tiniest, tiniest way like I was a part of natural history.

BRIGGS: After a week and a half, the team packed up their gear and loaded back onto that small wooden boat.

WELCH: And the boat takes us back to Puerto Williams. And in Puerto Williams, you know, we all took showers and then we went out. And there is one pizza place in town, and we went out and each of us ordered entire large pizzas and a couple of beers for ourselves. And it was very satisfying.

BRIGGS: And it seemed like that was it. Time for the credits to roll and the adventurers to get some much needed rest. But there was one last hiccup. The flight that would whisk them away? It wasn’t scheduled to arrive for a few more days. They weren’t gonna make it home to their own beds just yet.

WELCH: Brian being Brian decided that we should do a 42-kilometer trek to kill some time between then and when we left. So we actually spent two days hiking in the Dientes Mountains while we waited for a plane that would take us back to Punta Arenas and the first step home.

BRIGGS: Sounds like a great way to end the trip.

WELCH: It was a great way to end the trip.

BRIGGS: That’s the thing about adventures. The end of one means the next is just around the corner.

More after the break.

BRIGGS: I love Craig’s saying, “misery makes great copy.” Now that you’ve heard about the misery, you’re gonna want to check out the story. It includes some gorgeous pictures of Cape Horn. There’s a link in the show notes.

Also, go on another adventure with ecologist Brian Buma. With a bunch of old photos, a metal detector, and bear mace, he set off to find nine tiny squares of land scattered around a national park in Alaska.

And for subscribers, follow Craig Welch to Antarctica to see what he calls “The Big Meltdown.” Nat Geo photographers captured amazing close-ups of seals, beautiful, bizarre chunks of ice, and, of course, penguins. That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Brian Gutierrez, and Laura Sim. Our editor is Ibby Caputo. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See ya next time.