Four centuries after it was first discovered, the wild tip of South America
still lures travellers. Teresa Machan makes a rare landing
It was dawn in Cape Horn National Park and I was on deck as our cruise ship approached the Isla Hornos (Cape Horn Island). With the captain’s assessment of landing conditions imminent, the “will we, won’t we…” sense of expectation weighed heavy.
“The albatross is down,” said a sailor, pointing to the shore. I followed his gaze, expecting to see a large, black-winged bird. Nothing.
“Even dyed-in-the-wool skippers regard a Cape Horn landing to be a rarity; a privilege even”
In threadbare Spanish, I tried to ascertain the meaning of the fallen albatross. “Es bueno or non bueno?” He regarded 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 23ft-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 125mph. “Don’t think this monument falls down every month,” said a guide later, as our group from the Stella Australis cruise ship neared the pruned bird and made a successful landing. “You have witnessed something extraordinary.”
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The albatross monument at Cape Horn Photo: ALAMY
It was 400 years ago this 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.
On January 29 1616, Jakob Le Maire and Willem Schouten rounded the most southerly of the Southern Ocean’s great capes Photo: GETTY
Writer Paul Guimard offers a good perspective when he writes “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 the Orangje-Boom 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,” said our captain, Jaime Iturra, during a visit to the bridge. “You have to cruise quite far into Alaska to find anywhere this remote.”
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Even the flight south from the Chilean capital, Santiago, to the ship’s departure port of Punta Arenas proved extraordinary. Were it sold as a “scenic flight” (with prices to match), Latam – the only airline to operate this route – would make a killing. As it was, for little more than the price of a Ryanair hop, we enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of one of the world’s great volcanic landscapes. Peaks at altitude rarely disappoint, but here were lakes, glaciers and snow-capped summits gleaming in the post-dawn sunshine. At cruising altitude fissures appeared, mirror-like, then volcanoes: one, two, several… too many to number. Wisps of cloud girdled the mountains’ clefts like a layer of a ballerina’s tutu.
At sea we found 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), was balmy and still – 7C with a wind speed of seven knots. Within minutes of disembarking, we were peeling off layers. The following morning, the “broom of God” (as the wind is known here) sent hailstones flying up by my cabin window. Snow followed 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 mountain 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 curdled archipelago, supreme in its isolation, is the mythical Cabo de Hornos. Below that my map read: “a Antártida” – to Antarctica.
“We appeared to have dropped anchor in a pop-up Christmas card”
Just before dawn on the first day of the cruise, Capt Iturra steered the ship through Almirantazgo Sound, putting in at Ainsworth Bay. Our arrival coincided with a rare morning of sunshine that made the water sparkle and dance. “I drew back the curtains and gasped,” is how one passenger put it. We appeared to have dropped anchor in a pop-up Christmas card. Sea met the tongue of the Marinelli glacier, fed in turn by the snowy peaks of the Darwin range. Magellanic penguins would come later, along with sightings of albatrosses, cormorants, blubbery elephant seals and ashy-headed geese. Best of all, though, was a walk through a subpolar Magellanic forest, adorned with lakes and lagoons, streams and waterfalls.
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After a beach landing by Zodiac dinghy, we set off in search of a giant beaver dam. Under the forest’s broad canopy, I felt like Frodo landed in Mordor. Vines fell like curtains to the peaty soil. Trees dripped with old man’s beard. Branches sprouted balls of false mistletoe and the gobstopper-like Darwin’s fungus. Calafate berries lit up the forest like Chinese lanterns. Underfoot, the earth bounced. “I’ve just remembered,” said Patricio, our guide, an hour into our walk. “The mattress!” We about-turned into a wooded glade where, grown-ups all, we pogoed up and down on a bed of moss like Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout.
Blubbery elephant seals
Every step on the battered peat bog brought another – never dull – observation from Patricio. In a rare science-meets-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 were talks about glaciology, films depicting the endeavours of explorers and recommendations for a reading list featuring no fewer than 25 books.
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With only 140 passengers on board (and 64 Chilean crew), faces soon became familiar. Over the three days I met Austrian, Spanish, Brazilian, Indian, Swiss, Peruvian, American and Chilean travellers – just a few of the 16 nationalities on board. After dinner – healthy food served à la carte – guides mingled with passengers in the Darwin Bar, bonding over pisco sours or chilled beers from the self-service fridge. I was regretting the pisco sours by day three, as I hauled myself up the side of a near-vertical glacial moraine. This was the most strenuous of the three excursion options to Pia Glacier, on the north-west arm of the Beagle Channel. Halfway up, I grabbed a feeble branch that gave way and began a tummy slide south. A fellow passenger, climbing with a limp and the aid of a stick, caught my hand. The final ascent involved a scramble up car-sized boulders where we perched to take in the view and listen to the shotgun cracks of calving glaciers echoing around the valley.
A late-afternoon cruise down Capt Iturra’s personal favourite, Glacier Alley, marked the beginning of our final challenge: Cape Horn.
Passengers set out from Stella Australis to explore a glacier
Our final stop, before Australis sailed to Ushuaia overnight, would be Wulaia Bay, where Darwin went ashore in January 1833 during his voyage on board the HMS Beagle. Patricio led us on a hike through more enchanted forest, pointing out lengas, coigües, canelos and ferns. But I was drawn to the tiny museum in the bay’s former radio station and the story of four native Fuegeans 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.
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As with previous excursions, Cape Horn would involve a wet landing by Zodiac. Two wetsuit-clad crew members manoeuvred our inflatable boat on to rocks, from where a flight of 154 wooden steps scaled the 1,395ft-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. Current lighthouse incumbent Matias – who shares one of the loneliest addresses on earth with his wife, son and dog – showed us the damage to the small house attached to the lighthouse. Daylight shone through cracks between the top of the wall and the roof, and as a precautionary measure Matias had anchored the roof to the ground using ropes. More startling still was the news that his brother lived in Tottenham and supported Spurs.
As we headed back to Stella Australis for breakfast, I glanced at my watch. It was 8.37am – and I had been to the end of the world.
Fights with LAN (lan.com) and Tam Airlines (tam.com.br) start at £1,025 per person return, including taxes.
Between them, Australis’s two ships operate five routes, one way or round trip from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia – or vice versa. Cruises operate between September and April, with special whale-watching departures in season (0034 93 497 0484; australis.com). A four-night cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia in Argentina on the Stella Australis costs from $1,440/£970 per person.
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