Oct 15th, 2019

The Edge of Civilisation


A cruise through Tierra del Fuego

for National Geographic Traveller

Next time you feel inclined to moan about your domestic arrangements, give a thought to Chilean naval officer Andres Valenzuela Yanez. When we shake hands in his small front room at the end of the earth, I don’t know whether to offer him congratulations or sympathy. He’s spending 365 days manning a gale-blown island lighthouse on Cape Horn, the blackly notorious headland which has claimed some 800 shipwrecks over the centuries.

Where the South American map runs out of land and the Atlantic meets the Pacific in a fury of waves and wind, he lives with his wife, his 12-year-old son and their poodle, Melchior. The nearest settlement of any note is 75 miles away. “We like it very much here,” he tells me, as the oceans froth outside. “But the dog is the happiest.”

Anchoring at Cape Horn isn’t always possible, so it’s a thrill to set foot here, but I’m not sure I’d want to stay for long. Andres, incidentally, is tasked with transmitting weathercasts to the wider world every three hours, morning, noon and night, seven days a week. It’s not exactly a glamour role. But every time the Chilean navy has to recruit for the year-long Cape Horn posting, the applications flood in. “Yes,” he smiles proudly. “More than 500 families wanted to live here.”

It figures. The wild, elemental emptiness of Patagonia has always held rich appeal for some. It covers some 260,000 square miles at the continent’s southern tip, incorporating the lower extremities of both Chile and Argentina. On both sides of the border you find raw Andean beauty, a crisp chill and wizened trees leaning permanently leeward. The scrub plateaus go on forever and the mountains are sharp, as if drawn by a child. When I walk through the blustery port town of Punta Arenas, Chile’s Patagonian hub, the South America of street carnivals and football fever seems a long way away.

Traditionally the town has attracted last-chance settlers and, more recently, hikers en route to Torres del Paine National Park. I’m down here, however, to join a four-night expedition cruise through Tierra del Fuego, the tough, fjord-threaded archipelago that hangs off the bottom of the mainland. It was the last portion of the New World to be colonised, and it’s also where all three of the historic navigable routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific are found. For the map-obsessed boy in my head, it’s some prospect.

During the first evening on the ship, it transpires there are 20 nationalities represented among the 150 or so passengers. The travellers clinking pisco sours at the bar have come from as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa, France and the US. It’s an unconscious echo of the fact that for five centuries, and in somewhat less amenable on-board conditions, these same waters have drawn traders, fortune-seekers and ill-fated sailors from all corners of the globe.

We’re sailing on the smart Stella Australis, one of two vessels belonging to local cruise company Australis. It’s the sole operator licensed to navigate down here. The Chilean flag flies from the bow mast. “Welcome to Tierra del Fuego,” announces the captain on the first night, as outside a Patagonian sunset melts red behind a row of black peaks. “We will try to get you through the next four days in one piece.”

I wake early the next morning and step onto deck just before dawn. The ship is gloriously alone. We’re sailing through the inky waters of Admiralty Sound, flanked by high serrated hills. It’s possible to make out snow gullies on the slopes. Ahead of us I spy a large ship, and selfishly it shifts my whole perception of the scene for the worse – I’d thought we were unaccompanied. Then we get nearer, and the intruder vessel reveals itself to be nothing more than a humped island, woolly with trees. Peace is restored, and our isolation magnified.

Tierra del Fuego translates as Land of Fire, a reference to the native campfires seen here by early explorers. With depressing inevitability, the various indigenous groups that once lived here – most prominently the canoe-dwelling Yaghan people – are no longer to be found. European settlers in the mid-1800s brought sheep, which not unreasonably the Yaghan began to hunt. The rest of the story can be guessed at.

By 9.30am, we’ve stopped at Ainsworth Bay for our first landing. Before us are the weighty ice-mantled peaks of the Darwin Cordillera, named after Charles Darwin, a visitor to the area on research surveys with HMS Beagle. The ship was involved in controversies of its own – infamously abducting four indigenous youths back to the UK as a “social experiment” – but it’s easy to see why a naturalist would find the character of the place absorbing.

“We’re walking right now on lateral moraine,” says our guide Rudy, hurtling me back to school geography lessons. He’s leading ten of us on a shoreline nature walk. “This whole landscape was formed by glaciers. And look, some of these mosses and lichens grow only here and in Antarctica.” He encourages us to stop, stare and think a while, and for three minutes the only noise is the drip-drip of snowmelt on rock.

I hope, at this first landing, to see a colony of elephant seals. They don’t emerge, but we do encounter several beaver-gnawed tree trunks. Beavers, it transpires, are a menace to Patagonia. In the 1940s, 25 breeding pairs were introduced from North America in the misguided hope of establishing a fur trade on Tierra del Fuego. Without any natural predators the beavers thrived, and today, astonishingly, more than 50,000 are on hand to clog and dam the ecosystem.

Also here in high numbers are Magellanic Penguins. We see numerous groups of them on the low-lying Tucker Islets in the afternoon – busy, smelly little characters moulting a confetti of feathers over the rocks. Above them, skuas circle for food. I read later that when Sir Francis Drake was here in 1578, he and his men culled 3,000 penguins for meat. The results apparently gave “not the best taste, but were perfectly eatable.”

Tierra del Fuego is full of stories of seafarers. Magellanic penguins take their name from Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who revolutionised world trade when he came here in 1520 and discovered a strait that led through to the Pacific, thereby bringing Asia’s spice islands closer to Europe. Almost a century later, two navigators from the Netherlands broke similar ground when they realised that the continent ended in a wall of cliffs that could, with skill, be rounded. They named it after the Dutch city of Hoorn: hence, Cape Horn.

Together with the later discovery of a third ocean-to-ocean passage – the Beagle Channel, dedicated to Darwin’s vessel – these shipping routes took on vital importance until the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal. Things have changed. When we sail the northwest arm of the Beagle Channel the following morning, the only life astir is a fast-flying flock of king cormorants, necks outstretched. Then someone points out a pair of seals in the shallows, and five minutes later, away to starboard, a southern right whale flashes a massive tail. So the waters are still busy – just in a different way.

As the cruise continues, the untamed scenery ramps up. We reach the 750m-wide Pia Glacier, and are shuttled to shore in Zodiacs to admire it up close.  While we’re standing there feeling small, a church-sized wedge of ice is calved from its rough-hewn front wall, crashing into the milky-blue water with a noise like thunder. It’s a savage, rousing sight to witness. A moment later one of the crew hands me a hot chocolate laced with whisky – you have to wrap up warm when you’re in Tierra del Fuego, but it’s worthwhile.

We’re now at 55˚ latitude, sailing among Earth’s last belchings of land before Antarctica. I retire to my cabin just in time to see a pod of three Peale’s dolphins fizzing directly under my window, their black markings cresting the water’s surface. For a full minute, they keep perfect pace with the ship. Later, in the early evening, we sail past a succession of other glaciers, each of them huge. After a while here, you really do feel like a spectator.

In the morning we reach the natural amphitheatre of Wulaia Bay. Like Darwin more than 185 years earlier, we journey ashore. I climb to a lookout, from where the bay becomes a spread of snowy peaks and purple islands. Far below, the ship suddenly seems tiny, a slip of a thing in a watery wilderness. You enjoy the primal seclusion of a view like this in a different way when you know that the little vessel in the foreground holds roast beef and Chilean Malbec, and that in an hour it’s going to sail you away.

Having spent the full voyage in Chilean waters, we’re due to disembark for good in Ushuaia in Argentina. Before then, we have business on Cape Horn. Some 30% of Australis’ sailings have their landings here thwarted by the sea conditions, and we’re over an hour away when the waves start churning us around. On deck, as we become more exposed to the oceans, the wind becomes ferocious. A black-browed albatross wheels on the airstreams. As the cape itself becomes visible in the distance, I’m resigning myself to the fact that the dark, angular landmass may remain just that: a far-off sight.

Then without warning, the wind drops from violent to plain old gale-strength. The all-clear is given. When I climb the 160 steps to the lighthouse at the bottom of the world, drizzle-spattered and gust-battered, I’m struck by how small the island is, despite its plunging cliffs. To the south, endless ranks of white-tipped waves charge in. Andres and his family seem delighted that we’ve landed – mostly, I suspect, because it breaks their routine. On leaving I wish him well and, out of curiosity, ask him how he keeps abreast of mainland news. “Television,” he answers matter-of-factly. I’m shocked. Really? “Yes, of course,” he says. Then he grins. “Even on Cape Horn, we need football.”

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