Correction to This Article
A Sept. 24 Travel article incorrectly sad that Ferdinand Magellan may have been the first non-European to see Tierra del Fuego. Magellan was Portuguese.

The Uttermost Part of the Earth

(By Joanne Omang)
By Joanne Omang
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 24, 2006

I married a man with a sailboat and two shelves of books on sailing, adrenaline-charged tales of howling storms and ice-crusted rigging. Many involved Cape Horn at the tip of South America, the world's southernmost point of land before Antarctica, where legendary western gales and 50-foot waves crash ashore 200 days a year. More than 800 ships have gone down there in the past four centuries, but for some insane reason, David wanted to round Cape Horn, as Magellan did.

This did not sound like my idea of fun. No one ever writes about their calm and sunny voyages, and those are the only kind I want. But I had reported from South America in the mid-1970s, and I wanted to revise my outdated memories of Argentina. "Let's go and see what the weather's like," David said.

We settled on a three-week January visit -- midsummer in the Southern Hemisphere -- including a five-day foray to the Horn on a small, modern Chilean cruiser. It wasn't a square-rigger, but it would have to do if we were going to go together. With fair winds, we would see Cape Horn from its relatively protected eastern side, and with extra luck we might get to set foot on the island itself. Actually rounding the Horn? The cruise line's map showed a dash back up the eastern flank to the safety of the Beagle Channel. That, too, would have to do.

Weather records showed temperatures in the low 40s and high 30s and three to six inches of rain per month as normal for summer in Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago of about 74,000 square miles of mountainous islands at the continent's tip. We bought thermal underwear.

Cold rain greeted our arrival in Ushuaia, the capital of southern Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, where we were to pick up our little cruiser. E. Lucas Bridges, a son of the earliest settlers, called the place "The Uttermost Part of the Earth" in his fabulous 1947 book of that name, but this was just our jumping-off point. Cinder-block houses and gable-roofed buildings of corrugated metal marched up the green-gray mountain flanks to vanish in the mist above the sheltered harbor. At my first visit in 1977, a century after Bridges's father, Thomas, and other missionaries founded the place, it was still a gritty setting for about 2,000 hardy souls who would have been right at home on "Survivor." Tourists were so rare that my souvenir coasters all spelled the town's name wrong.

But tourists today love uttermost places -- mountain peaks, river sources, ocean canyons, Tierra del Fuego. The population of Ushuaia has risen to 60,000 and the tourist count to more than 154,000 last year. The Queen Mary II's 2,600 passengers had all but swamped the town the day before we arrived, and three smaller cruise ships were resting at the international terminal.

Everything in town is within walking distance, and since the rain had stopped briefly we set off on foot to Ushuaia's only non-park attraction: a dank and deliciously creepy former prison, now a museum. Argentine prisoners-for-life built it themselves starting in 1902, when the government abandoned an attempt to use them as colonists. Dioramas in the cells and old sepia photos illustrate prisoners' hard lives and the 12-mile railway they built. It still runs, but the resurgent icy rain deterred us from taking it to see the red foxes and hares at Tierra del Fuego National Park or the llama-like guanacos on Bird Island and Wolf Island.

Magellan may have been the first non-European to see this area, in 1532, but it was later sailors who named it Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), after all the beach bonfires of the native Yahgan and Ona Indians. Warning signals, scholars say, but I think the locals were just trying to keep warm. Charles Darwin, on his famous visit in 1832, called the Indians "miserable, degraded savages," a charge that outraged Lucas Bridges. He tells how his father, in a futile 1887 attempt to save the Yahgan from extinction, set up a sheep and cattle ranch to employ them in the wilderness about 50 miles east of Ushuaia. He named it Harberton. We wanted to pay homage, so the next day we rented a car to go there, a two-hour trip on a muddy dirt road.

Thomas Bridges's great-grandson, Thomas Goodall, still runs the farm, which now herds small groups of tourists as well as livestock. We walked in the rain through the lush vegetable garden and around the prefabricated house and boat shed, imported from London, trying to imagine life here before the road came in 1988.

* * *

Trays of pisco sours and a tango show welcomed us aboard the Via Australis, one of two sister ships that make four- or five-day runs between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas in Chile from October to May every year. With only 136 passengers to take care of, the predominantly Chilean 46-member crew seemed everywhere: They lectured us on the local history and flora and fauna, helped us into high Wellington mud boots, handed us in and out of the 20-foot rubber Zodiac boats for daily excursions, piloted the boats, waited on us in the ship's open bar and dining area, and led us in small groups around the islands and glaciers that we had come to see.

Captain Oscar Sheward said in his greeting that our overnight run to Cape Horn could be "interesting," given the wet weather. So after a steak dinner with excellent Chilean wine, David and I secured our gear in the ample storage space in our sleek modern cabin and put on scopolamine patches to protect against mal de mer . If any mer was going to be mal, this was it. We prepared for rock-and-roll.

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