To the end of the earth

A wild and windy ad­ven­ture around the south­ern reaches of Cape Horn

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - MARTIN FLETCHER

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

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