To the end of the earth
A wild and windy adventure around the southern reaches of Cape Horn
SINCE childhood I have studied maps showing the southern tip of South America fracturing into a tail of jagged islands and wondered what the fabled Cape Horn is really like. I am about to find out.
Early in the morning our cruise ship Stella Australis anchors just north of Isla Hornos, the barren island flanked by steep cliffs at the very end of that tail.
Jaime Iturra, the captain, deems the conditions suitable for landing so inflatable Zodiac boats deposit us on the boulder-strewn shore of a sheltered bay. We climb several flights of steep wooden steps and are hit by high winds gusting across the boggy moorland on top. The sun shines but it’s bitterly cold.
A wooden walkway leads across the moor to a southern headland crowned by a large monument in the form of a steel square with the cut-out shape of an albatross. A plaque proclaims: “I am the albatross who awaits you at the end of the world. I am the forgotten soul of the dead seamen who sailed across Cape Horn.” But half the monument has sheered off in 193km/h winds three nights earlier. Instead of the albatross, a great black condor with a 2m wingspan circles overhead.
Below the headland great breakers crash against a last rocky outcrop. Beyond, a vast expanse of blue-grey water stretches for almost 1000 uninterrupted kilometres to Antarctica. We stare in awe at this elemental battleground where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans collide, and where at least 800 ships have been wrecked since the 16th century by Cape Horn’s mighty waves, treacherous currents and infamous tempests. This really is the uttermost end of the earth. We are 1100km further south than New Zealand’s Stewart Island and 2400km below Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
Dark clouds advance from the southwest. Soon sheets of hail and snow are sweeping across Isla Hornos, evoking Charles Darwin’s description of this “notorious promontory ... its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such extreme violence that the captain decided to run into Wigwam Cove.”
Elsewhere on this bleak island is a tiny wooden chapel, and a monument to Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, on which Darwin explored this area in the early 1830s. The sole inhabitants are Andres Valenzuela, a Chilean naval officer who has volunteered to run the island’s lighthouse for a year, his wife, young son and their poodle. They raise money for charity by selling mugs and key rings to visitors, but there are few tourists.
There are no ferries or day trips to Cape Horn, no human settlements within almost 130km. Other than by private boat, the only way to reach it is to cruise on Stella Australis or its sister ship, Via Australis, which operate from September to April through Tierra del Fuego, the great, empty archipelago north of Isla Hornos.
Darwin would have been amazed by the 100-cabin, 4000-tonne Stella Australis. His voyage on the tiny Beagle was one of constant peril and hardship.
Ours is a contradiction — an adventure without any risks or discomfort. The 140 European, US and Australian passengers have embarked at Punta Arenas, a former penal colony that is Chile’s southernmost city, and we enjoy cosseted luxury before disembarkation in the Argentinian port of Ushuaia three days, four nights and about 1100km later.
Our cabins are spacious, light and comfortable and we’re looked after by a charming Chilean crew. We eat three huge meals a day; the fresh seafood, fine Patagonian beef and lamb, and excellent Chilean wines are irre- sistible. Beverages are included in the fare so we drink unlimited pisco sours, champagne and cocktails. And as we do so, we admire the spectacular and pristine scenery of one of the world’s last true wildernesses unspooling outside the ship’s floor-to-ceiling windows.
Darwin described Tierra del Fuego as “one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe”. He failed to mention its beauty.
We sail down channels flanked by forested, snowcapped and cloud-wreathed mountains, our ship a mere speck at their base. We glide silently through so-called Glacier Alley where spectacular turquoise glaciers tumble down from the 2400m high Darwin Mountain Range. We thread our way past humpbacked islands with trees stunted and twisted by the prevailing winds.
We enjoy the cleanest air, the clearest light, and constantly changing weather. A landscape of vivid blues, greens and whites turns a dozen shades of grey as the sun is obscured by rain or sleet. Our progress is mostly serene, but during the second night Stella Australis is buffeted by the Pacific as it briefly leaves the shelter of the islands.
We are woken by pitching and rolling, by cupboard doors banging and, in my case, a glass of water spilling on to my bed.
Thereafter we follow Darwin’s route along the Beagle Channel, past islands and inlets named for his shipmates, and observe how little has changed in the 180 years since he was here. Only the “naked, half-starved savages in their bark canoes” have disappeared.
Nobody lives here now. Until we reached Isla Hornos on the third day we see no other vessel, and scarcely a trace of humanity. We have no radio or television signals, no mobile telephone service or Wi-Fi. We are cut off from the outside world, cocooned in our bubble of luxury but things are not entirely passive.
Our expeditions are hardly arduous, but we are nonetheless rewarded with hot chocolate and whisky
Sometimes we venture on to the decks for bracing blasts of fresh air. Once or twice a day, resplendent in florescent orange life jackets and brightly-coloured outdoor gear, we venture ashore by Zodiacs.
We climb a hill overlooking the magnificent Pia glacier and hear that huge tongue of ice crack and growl as it inches imperceptibly down a mountain valley.
At Wulaia Bay we see the sunken earthen circles where the indigenous Yaghan people have lived for 10,000 years until driven out by European settlers in the late 19th century, and the mounds of discarded shells from the shellfish they ate. We nose up to beaches stiff with waddling Magellanic penguins, king cormorants sitting on smelly seaweed nests, and the odd predatory skua searching for unguarded eggs.
We see no whales, but we do spot a couple of elephant seals basking on a rare spit of flat land, dolphins playfully pursuing a Zodiac, and two inquisitive sealions swimming alongside our ship. Waters are so clear we can see large red king crabs scuttle across the sea bed. Our expeditions are hardly arduous, but we are nonetheless rewarded with hot chocolate and whisky before returning to the mother ship.
The scenery is breathtaking and, finally, I have seen Cape Horn, but I am not sorry to reach Ushuaia. Three days of pampering and orchestrated group activities have been enough. Any longer and my ability to fend for myself, to take decisions or act independently would have atrophied like a penguin’s wings.
Stella Australis near the Pia Glacier, Tierra del Fuego, top; a boardwalk path leading to a view of Cape Horn, middle; and the albatross monument, above