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 But I had reported from South America in the mid-1970s, and I wanted to revise my outdated memories of Argentina.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.
Instead we slept like rocks, with very little rolling, and at dawn there it was, just off the starboard bow: Cape Horn, near latitude 56 degrees south and longitude 67 degrees west. Bits of pink and blue in the clouds heralded our miracle -- clearing skies and mere breezes, with wavelets too small to mention. Jubilant, we bundled up in our life jackets like orange penguins and were loaded into the Zodiacs to be shuttled to the rocky shore. Hurry, hurry, the crew said, while the weather holds. It wasn't yet 8 a.m.
From the beach, we climbed 130 wooden steps to the edge of the cliff and then raced along a rickety boardwalk over the scrub grass to the Cape Horn Memorial at the top of the island. At last! Located on the most psychologically important spot, 1,300 feet above the surf, this rusting sculpture of dubious beauty was erected by the Chilean Brotherhood of the Captains of Cape Horn in 1992 to honor those lost in these waters. Willem Schouten, who first sailed around the point on Jan. 29, 1616, named the little island after his birthplace, the Dutch town of Hoorn. A granite marker displays a treacly poem by Chilean poet Sara Vial: "I am the albatross who awaits you at the end of the world. I am the forgotten soul of the dead seamen . . ."
The nearby lighthouse was closed for repairs, and construction materials littered the barren tundra. We photographed each other looking toward Antarctica. We dawdled on the compass engraved in concrete. We congratulated ourselves for getting here. Then we trooped back to the ship for breakfast. Was that all? No, the best was yet to come.
After checking the forecast, the captain announced that ours was the one in every seven trips that has really good weather luck -- we would round the Horn and head up its western side! We lined the rails to watch. And there, making the trip with us, was a sailboat. My husband sighed with envy, but consoled himself: "The weather's so good they're probably almost disappointed," he said. I, however, was not.
We feared an anticlimax after that, but we had much yet to learn. That afternoon we disembarked at Wulaia Bay just south of Ushuaia, where the Bridges family hunted the area's six types of seal and sea lion, and hiked past old Yahgan Indian encampments that Darwin had visited, up to a high slope with a stunning view over the Beagle Channel. The guides invoked a minute of silence; the only sound was the very distant generator humming on the ship, a speck far below. We felt very intrepid until that evening, when we watched an after-dinner movie about the legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton and the 1914-16 Antarctic voyage of the Endurance.
The next day, we motored slowly though the Avenue of the Glaciers, five glowing blue-white claws groping down from the Darwin Cordillera mountain range, all breathtaking. At the huge Pia Glacier, we had another muddy, slippery climb to high vantage points on an adjacent island, shouting over rushing waterfalls. Was the summer melting heavier than usual? The guides shrugged as they poured us whiskey or soda on chips of glacier ice. "I hope not," one said.
We got even closer the next day in the Cockburn Channel, on the western edge of Tierra del Fuego. Shivering in the Zodiacs, we maneuvered slowly through ice floes the size of refrigerators toward the face of the Piloto and Nena glaciers.
Fifty yards away, the guide cut the outboard and the dozen of us fell silent. Only the rain pattered. Suddenly the glacier made a sound that resembled a rifle shot, then a car wreck. Nothing moved. A few nearby cormorants called and flapped, and then, with a hissing crash, a house-size ledge of ice sheared off from the glacier's face and plunged into the sea. A one-foot wave rolled toward us. "Hang on," the guide said, without urgency, and we bobbed gently. Then came a mournful moan, a high creak, distant thunder and another cascade of ice. Just as suddenly, the rain stopped, the sun appeared and the glacier changed to brilliant turquoise.
The thing about glaciers, once you get close enough, is not their awesome size or their otherworldly colors, or even the mini weather systems they hurl down around you. The thing about glaciers is their song. Like ice cubes in a household crusher magnified a zillion times, they groan and shriek from the pressures of squeezing themselves through rocky canyons toward the sea. We stayed in the boat an hour until, numb with cold, we turned reluctantly back to the ship.
* * *
We wanted to hear that song again. The next day we walked a long, stony beach to the looming hulk of the Aguila Glacier, perhaps the trip's most spectacular in its size and colors -- gray and white and every shade of blue. We tried to reach a huge ice cave melted out on one side, but had to halt at moraine-like sandbars and ponds at the glacier's base. Alas, we could hear only running water: Global warming has ended this ice river's tortured writhing through the mountains, and it is mostly silent in its slow retreat.
Our cruise concluded with a visit to Magdalena Island in the Straits of Magellan, sunny and brown and fragrant with 120,000 braying Magellanic penguins. Smaller than the Emperor penguin stars of the "March of the Penguins" documentary, these were just as busy digging nesting holes and lining them with bits of grass. They were fearless, as curious about us as we were about them. One braved the roped-off trail to peck at my boots, hoping for lunch.
With regret, we disembarked at Punta Arenas, a small Chilean city of lovely Victorian buildings left over from the burgeoning steamer trade that brought riches at the turn of the century, only to vanish when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. We raised a final toast to Tierra del Fuego, our mission accomplished. Then, like Magellan, we headed back north.
Joanne Omang last wrote for Travel about ranches in Argentina.