Travelling to the end of the world
Jun 09, 2017 11:57AM

Fire up a sense of adventure on an expedition cruise through the Fjords of Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego, writes Katie McGonagle.

Stare as hard as you like at the horizon, there’s nothing there. No far-off land mass or shadowy outline of an island in the distance, just grey sky merging into grey sea, distinguishable only by the occasional flash of white foam as waves crash over unseen rocks hiding just below the surface. It’s windswept and drizzly, with the dawn chill still lingering in the air and the only movement coming from a bird arcing high overhead before turning back towards land.

Welcome to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, with nothing but mile after mile of cold, churning ocean between here and the icy shores of Antarctica.

Feared and revered in equal measure by the pioneering sailors who chanced their luck along the notorious Drake Passage – until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 made the journey shorter and less hazardous – it’s now the preserve of adventurous types, for whom going to the literal end of the earth is the holy grail.

If standing at the edge of this rocky promontory staring at the vast expanse ahead – the very last vestige of civilisation before the wilds of ice and ocean take over – doesn’t fire up an unquenchable thirst for adventure, then nothing will.

Of course, ‘civilisation’ might be putting it a bit strongly. Turning back towards Isla Hornos itself, there’s an albatross-shaped monument to those lost in the treacherous sea below, a long wooden walkway stretching back to the jetty, and a tiny lighthouse manned by a sailor from the Chilean navy – along with his wife and eight-year-old son – and that’s it. They get supplies once a week, by boat, and the option to go back to the mainland once their year-long stint on this weather-beaten isle is up.

Even the Zodiac boats from Stella Australis – the Chilean-owned expedition cruise ship that navigates the glacier-cut fjords of Tierra del Fuego – can only land here 60% of the time. If it’s too choppy, disembarkation becomes too tricky, and guests must make do with waking up to the still-impressive sight of Cape Horn instead.

When the sea is calm enough to land, it still requires a Herculean effort to get everyone on and off. Two unlucky crew get to don wetsuits and stand in the chilly waters, guiding each inflatable in to moor at the tiny jetty.

Only as he gave me his hand to help me off the boat did I recognise Manuel the barman, who had been pouring us stiff Calafate sours until the wee hours, and must surely have managed even less sleep than we had.

ANIMAL MAGIC

As inspirational as Cape Horn proved to be, my main draw for setting off on this four-day adventure through the fjords of Patagonia – sailing from Punta Arenas in southern Chile to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, in Argentina – was to see penguins in their natural habitat. And I didn’t have to wait long.

We’d barely been on board 24 hours– just enough time to make friends over dinner, work out which deck the bar was on, and enjoy a quick briefing on what we were about to see – before hopping onto Zodiacs to explore Tuckers Islets.

Skimming fast at first, with rays of sunshine bouncing off the sparkling waves and plenty of sea spray in the air, we slowed down as the beach came into view, dotted with specks of black and white.

The dots were moving (or was that us, shifting about on the waves?), then we drew closer and the black and white dots revealed themselves to be a colony of penguins, who make their home on the rocky beach of this tiny islet.

Magellanic penguins are only about 2ft 4in tall (far shorter than the Emperor penguin, which stands at 3ft 9in) with two black bands around their neck enhancing their waiter-in-a-tuxedo appearance.

With an ungainly waddle, they tottered in twos and threes from the top of the beach to the shore and back again, until one hopped into the water and proved why they really are the birds of the sea. The transformation from awkward and unsteady on land to a smooth, soaring motion underwater was quite spectacular.

As well as more than 4,000 penguins, Tuckers Islets are home to king cormorants, oystercatchers, Chilean skuas, eagles and even condors. Though we were more entranced by the pair of dolphins that raced our Zodiac back to the ship, dipping in and out of view but never falling short of our speedy pace.

ICING ON THE CAKE

It would be hard to find an area as photogenicas Patagonia – all soaring mountain peaks and wide, open grasslands – but the scenery is just as stunning once you get off the mainland and into the glacier-carved fjords of Tierra del Fuego.

First comes Pia Glacier, where the Australis team offers three excursions depending on how fit passengers are feeling: they can stroll along flat ground to a viewing point, walk a little uphill to get a better view, or take on a more strenuous hike – including a bit of scrabbling up rocks towards the end, so not one for clients with mobility issues – to see this massive ice sheet in all its panoramic glory.

No matter which they choose, they’ll still get the full effect of approaching this glacier from the water, navigating the Zodiac through seas littered with huge chunks of ice that have calved off and been cast adrift, stubbornly refusing to melt in the near-freezing waters.

The ship goes on to follow the route once taken by Charles Darwin, then a thrashing young twentysomething who hadn’t yet hit upon his theory of natural selection, navigating the Beagle Channel to Glacier Alley.

This impressive stretch boasts glaciers that flow down from the Darwin Mountain Ranges, and in a somewhat uncomfortable reminder of European colonialism – and its devastating effects on the native populations – the ship passes glaciers named after Holland, Italy, Germany and France. But even if the names don’t resonate, the jaw-dropping sight of these mighty walls of ice certainly will. If there isn’t too much of a chill in the air, get out on deck to appreciate their sheer scale.

As a fitting accompaniment to the natural beauty of this area, the final Australis excursion sheds a light on its human history by dropping anchor at Wulaia Bay, originally the site of one of the region’s largest settlements of Yámana people, and another stopping point for HMS Beagle.

These hardy nomads lived off the sea, navigating between islands by canoe, and despite the sometimes-freezing temperatures at this southerly latitude, wore little to no clothing. Just one native speaker of the Yámana language remains; she turns 90 this year.

Behind the bay’s sweeping scenery lies the tale of Jemmy Button, one of four young Yámana people taken from their home in 1830 and brought to England on board HMS Beagle in an attempt to ‘civilise’ them. Forced to conform to Victorian society – even meeting the king, and becoming something of a celebrity – Button was taken back to Tierra del Fuego a year later, resumed his old way of life and flat-out refused an offer to sail back to England.

Looking out across Wulaia Bay, who could blame him for wanting to come home? The raw beauty of this region – rugged and staggeringly beautiful by turn – is a formidable reminder of the power of nature. And I’d go to the ends of the earth to go back

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