Cape Crusaders - The wild tip of South America lures the intrepid
It is dawn in Cape Horn National Park and I am on deck as our cruise ship approaches Isla Hornos (Cape Horn Island). With the captain’s assessment of landing conditions imminent, the will-we-or-won’t-we sense of expectation weighs heavily.
“The albatross is down,” says a sailor, pointing to the shore. I follow his gaze, expecting to see a large, blackwinged bird. Nothing. In threadbare Spanish, I try to ascertain the meaning of the fallen albatross. “Es bueno or non bueno?” He regards me oddly. “Non bueno.”
Even dyed-in-the-wool skippers regard a Cape Horn landing to be a rarity; a privilege, even. To set foot on Cape Horn Island 48 hours after a section of its 7m-high monument (which, I would later learn, depicts an albatross) has been shorn off by the wind is rarer still. Its quintet of steel plates, erected in 1992, was designed to withstand winds of up to 200km/h. “Don’t think this monument falls down every month,” a guide later tells our group as the cruise ship Stella Australis nears the pruned bird and makes a successful landing. “You have witnessed something extraordinary.”
It was 400 years ago last month that two Dutch navigators happened on Cape Horn. On January 29, 1616, Jakob Le Maire and Willem Schouten rounded the most southerly of the Southern Ocean’s great capes, naming it “Hoorn” after the Dutch town of that name. Having opened up a new sailing route between the Atlantic and Pacific, the pair then sailed on with no mapped course to make land at Java.
French writer and lover of navigation Paul Guimard offered a good perspective when he observed, “Cape Horn could always have been what it really is: an area on the world map. However, men and sailing ships turned it into an odyssey.” Capricious currents, icebergs and furious winds made this hostile sea separating the southern tip of Latin America from the notorious Drake Passage a much-feared feature of the clipper trading route. An estimated 800 ships — the first was Orangjeboom in 1642 — and 10,000 crew sank to a watery grave between the 17th and early 20th centuries.
“It’s one of few places devoid of commercial traffic,” says our captain, Jaime Iturra, when we visit the bridge. “You have to cruise quite far into Alaska to find anywhere this remote.”
Even the flight south from the Chilean capital, Santiago, to the ship’s departure port of Punta Arenas proves extraordinary. Were it sold as a “scenic flight” (with prices to match), Latam, the only airline to operate this route, would make a killing. We enjoy a bird’s-eye view of one of the world’s great volcanic landscapes. Peaks at altitude rarely disappoint, but here are lakes, glaciers and snowcapped summits gleaming in the post-dawn sunshine. At cruising altitude, fissures appear, mirror-like, then volcanoes … one, two, several, then too many to number. Wisps of cloud girdle the mountains’ clefts like layers of a ballerina’s tutu.
At sea we find a stark and windswept Eden. To cruise in southern Patagonia is to experience the elements at their most extreme. Our first day, in late spring (November), is balmy and still — 7C with a wind speed of seven knots. Within minutes of disembarking, we are peeling off layers. The following morning, the “broom of God” (as the wind is known here) sends hailstones flying by my cabin window. Snow follows sun, followed by lead-pencil rain, all within a 20-minute period.
The pay-off for inclement touring conditions is huge. Swathes of the region are designated Parque Nacional, Parque Marino or Reserva Nacional. Here, fragile and barely disturbed, are the southernmost temperate forests on earth. Just above the Beagle Channel in the Alberto Agostini National Park is the Cordillera Darwin, a moun- tain range so inhospitable it wasn’t tackled in its entirety until 2011. Study a large enough map and much of the land mass here appears to have curdled and slid off into the Pacific to form a labyrinth of craggy islands. At the tip of this archipelago, supreme in its isolation, is the mythical Cabo de Hornos. Below that my map reads: “To Antarctica.”
Just before dawn on the first day of the cruise, Captain Iturra steers the ship through Almirantazgo Sound, putting in at Ainsworth Bay. Our arrival coincides with a rare morning of sunshine that makes the water sparkle and dance. “I drew back the curtains and gasped,” is how one passenger puts it. We appear to have dropped anchor in a pop-up Christmas card. Sea meets the tongue of the Marinelli glacier, fed in turn by the snowy peaks of the Darwin range. Magellanic penguins will come later, along with sightings of albatrosses, cormorants, blubbery elephant seals and ashy-headed geese. Best of all, though, will be a walk through a subpolar Magellanic forest, adorned with lakes and lagoons, streams and waterfalls.
After a beach landing by Zodiac dinghy, we set off in search of a giant beaver dam. Under the forest’s broad canopy, I feel like Frodo landed in Mordor. Vines fall like curtains to the peaty soil. Trees drip with old man’s beard. Branches sprout balls of false mistletoe and the gobstopper-like Darwin’s fungus. Calafate berries light up the forest like Chinese lanterns. Underfoot, the earth bounces. “I’ve just remembered,” says Patricio, our guide, an hour into our walk. “The mattress!” We about-turn into a wooded glade where, grown-ups all, we pogo up and down on a bed of moss.
Every step on the battered peat bog brings another (never dull) observation from Patricio. In a rare sciencemeets-enterprise partnership, the Stella Australis team gathers scientific data, monitors native flora and fauna and keeps a register of rubbish that washes ashore. On board there are talks about glaciology, films depicting the endeavours of explorers and recommendations for a reading list featuring no fewer than 25 books.
With only 140 passengers on board (and 64 Chilean crew), faces soon became familiar. Over three days I meet Austrian, Spanish, Brazilian, Indian, Swiss, Peruvian, American and Chilean travellers — just a few of the 16 nationalities here. After dinner (healthy food served a la carte) guides mingle with passengers in the Darwin Bar, bonding over pisco sours or chilled beers from the selfservice fridge. I am regretting the pisco sours by day three, as I haul myself up the side of a near-vertical glacial moraine. This is the most strenuous of the three excursion options to Pia Glacier, on the northwest arm of the Beagle Channel. Halfway up, I grab a feeble branch that gives way and begin a tummy slide south. A fellow passenger, climbing with a limp and the aid of a stick, catches my hand. The final ascent involves a scramble up carsized boulders where we perch to take in the view and listen to the shotgun cracks of calving glaciers echoing around the valley.
A late-afternoon cruise down Captain Iturra’s favourite, Glacier Alley, marks the beginning of that final challenge — Cape Horn. Our final stop, before Australis sails to Ushuaia overnight, is Wulaia Bay, where Darwin went ashore in January 1833 during his voyage on board HMS Beagle. Patricio leads a hike through more enchanted forest, pointing out lengas, coigues, canelos and ferns. But I am drawn to the tiny museum in the bay’s former radio station and the story of four native Fuegians who were kidnapped, taken to England and “born again” as the preposterously named York Minster, Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and Boat Memory. Proof, if it were needed, that fact is generally stranger than fiction.
As with previous excursions, Cape Horn involves a wet landing by Zodiac. Two wetsuit-clad crew members manoeuvre our inflatable boat on to rocks, from where a flight of 154 wooden steps scales the 425m-high promontory. There is nothing at Cape Horn besides a small chapel (for those end-of-the-world confessions), the albatross monument and a lighthouse manned by a Chilean naval officer; last year there were 400 applicants for the job. Lighthouse incumbent Matias — who shares one of the loneliest addresses on earth with his wife, son and dog — shows us the damage to the small house attached to the lighthouse. Daylight shines through cracks between the top of the wall and the roof and, as a precautionary measure, Matias has anchored the roof to the ground using ropes. As we head back to Stella Australis for breakfast, I glance at my watch. It is 8.37am and I have been to the end of the world.
Australis’s two ships operate five routes, one-way or roundtrip, between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. Cruises operate between September and April, with special whale-watching departures in season.