Cape Horn is part of every child’s historic imaginings, an adventure peopled by the great explorers: Magellan, Darwin, Drake and more. A mountainous rock at the world’s end, Cape Horn is Earth’s last spit of land beyond which the two great oceans, Atlantic and Pacific, clash in a maelstrom of surging seas, towering waves, fierce wind, ice and snow. The ‘furious fifties’, as the winds of the 50th parallel southern latitudes are called (Cape Horn is at 55° 58′ 47″ S), are legendary, and—squeezed by the Andes and the Antarctic Peninsula—they give rise to equally fearsome waves. In the days of sail, thousands of seamen perished attempting to round Cape Horn before the Panama Canal offered safe passage.
At the time this meant trade—cargoes of spices and grain, and whaling. Now it means recreation—yachtsmen still test their skills and endurance by sailing round the Horn, hoping to join the ranks of Cape Horners, whose successful voyage entitles them to hoist a leg on the table at dinner and wear a gold earring.
The earliest explorers’ memories remain indelibly on the charts: Beagle Channel, the Strait of Magellan, Darwin Mountain Range, Murray Channel, and Wulaia Bay where Charles Darwin landed in 1833 during his voyage on HMS Beagle. This is a landscape of wide skies filled with racing clouds, blinding snowstorms, sea ice fogs—and, in summer, brilliant blue skies and sunshine. Pristine fjords reveal vast ice mountains, creaking glaciers that flow like ice rivers into the sea, snow-capped volcanoes, lush primeval forests and seas rich with life—dolphins, elephant seals, penguins and humpback whales among them. Overhead, the soaring albatross rides the air-currents, reminders that these massive, black-browed birds were thought to wing the souls of drowned sailors to the heavens.
Here lies magic and mystery—the ‘deep white stillness’ of Nature, unspoiled, in one of the last remaining wilderness regions. To take a voyage here is to see a landscape unchanged by Time. This would be the experience of a lifetime: but not on any terms. Large cruise ships go round the Horn, filled with a thousand or more passengers—too many to give any chance of the ‘white stillness’ experience, and too large a vessel to risk sailing close to the notorious rocks of the Horn. But if one is neither Sir Francis Chichester nor Sir Robin Knox-Johnstone, and unlikely to sail there alone, how can it best be experienced?
The answer lies with the small ship voyages of a company named Australis, specialists in organizing safe, escorted passage through this untamed region, five star luxury and yet close enough to Nature to feel the wilderness at first hand. Not only will you sail to Cape Horn but land there, taking in the profound nature of the place and its poignant place in maritime history, before visiting the chapel and monument to the Cape Horn sailors. You may meet the lighhouse keeper and his wife—this is surely the loneliest job on the planet. Get the timing right, and for a brief, blissful moment, you might find yourself the southernmost human being on the American continent. Darwin was here before you, writing of Cape Horn in 1832, ‘The Captain determined to run into Wigwam Cove. This is a snug little harbour, not far from Cape Horn; and here, at Christmas-eve, we anchored in smooth water.’
Ah yes, smooth water. Do not think, for a moment, that you will rough it: Australis sail in the region’s summer, October to April, when the seas calm and often the sun shines. Instead of a heaving ship’s bunk in a rolling hull you will relax in a private suite full of creature comforts and, through the large picture window, see the majestic ice-mountain scenery glide by, night and day. No hard tack and ship’s biscuits in the galley—breakfast, lunch and dinner are waitress-served at white-clothed tables in the window-lined dining room, served with excellent Chilean wines. You might find yourself toasting your most recent adventure with Champagne or a fresh pisco sour cocktail—local brandy, lime juice, egg white and bitters, shaken by the bartender on board.
Do not think, either, that these life-enhancing experiences begin and end at Cape Horn. The Cruceros Australis ships, Via Australis and Mare Australis, cruise along the Patagonia coastline between Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile, to explore the southernmost and wildest region of the world, giving a knowledgeable running commentary as you travel. How to get there? It’s not difficult. Simply take a 13-hour flight from the UK to Buenos Aires, stay a night or two to enjoy the sophistication of this ‘Paris of the Americas’, then take a quick flight to Ushuaia to board ship for a four-night cruise to Punta Arenas by way of Murray Channel, Nassau Bay, Wulaia Bay, the Beagle Channel, Garibaldi Fjord, Cockburn Channel, Chico and De Agostini Sound, in the heart of the Darwin Mountain Range. Afterwards, you can return by way of Buenos Aires, or stay in a lakeside mountain retreat to fish, walk, or relax in a highly recommended five-star country hotel.
As a cruise destination, South America is exotic in a way that other regions cannot emulate, blending the fjords of Norway with the wilderness of Alaska, the cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the vast stretches of rugged terrain in Australia, plus superb wines from the high altitudes of Chile and Argentina.
This, the planet’s fourth largest continent, covers thousands of miles. You will find no trace of cruise ship congestion—whether sailing round Cape Horn, navigating the Beagle Channel, getting up close to massive hanging glaciers and ice falls, or walking with penguins on remote Magdalena Island. Which brings us to the other highlights of the cruise: the riveting scenes of blue-white glaciers, snow-capped mountain ranges, primeval forests and flowers, wilderness and wildlife—especially the penguins, about which more later.
After Cape Horn, the Australis ship sails on to Wulaia Bay, landing there to explore a lush primeval forest and remnants of a culture which awed the young Charles Darwin—now thought to have influenced Darwin’s thinking on species as much as that of the Galapagos Islands.
In January 1833, Darwin and his crew landed on Wulaia to study the nomadic culture of the Yaghan people, as well as the flora and fauna. These people had the remarkable ability to remain naked in one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth—even diving for food, since they lived on sea lions and shellfish. They seemed not to feel the cold, even in winter.
Darwin wrote, ‘Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals.’ Today Wulaia remains a natural forested haven, filled with lenga (Antarctic beech), evergreen beech or winter´s bark forests, among other trees, plants and bushes that are part of a unique vegetation.
What Darwin saw here was one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world: an extraordinary range of habitats, climates, species and geology, which are still here for you to see on this voyage. On following days there are visits to famous glaciers, reached by the ship’s small Zodiac inflatables: Pia, in the Beagle Passage near Cape Horn; Garibaldi, a striking blue glacier at the head of the Alacalufe Fjord off the Beagle Channel in Patagonia; Piloto, another beautiful deep blue glacier, this time in Chile’s Glacier Alley. When the glaciers calve, the fjords become choked with ice, which the Zodiacs push through—giving just a hint to 21st-century travellers of how sailors must have felt when the winter sea ice closed in on their ships a century and more ago.
And then, on the last day, early in the morning, comes the landing on Magdalena Island, in the Strait of Magellan. This landing is arranged to view the immense colony of Magellan Penguins—one of Chile’s largest and most important Magellanic penguin breeding sites, containing 65,000 breeding pairs. One cannot see these comical birds without thinking of Darwin experimenting on their behaviour in the 1830s.
Darwin stood between a Magellan penguin and the sea. The undaunted bird waddled directly into the young naturalist, and pushed him aside: it is little wonder that these birds are still thriving, nearly two centuries on. Darwin wrote then, ‘This bird is commonly called the jackass penguin, from its habit . . . of throwing its head backwards and making a loud strange noise, very like the braying of an ass.’
It can be difficult for us today, with a comfortable bed, fine wines and a three-course dinner ahead of us, to savour a sense of true wilderness. But here on Magdalena Island, with our expedition to Cape Horn vivid in the memory and these curious, honking brids waddling, sliding and tripping on their way to the sea to feed, Darwin’s age of discovery seems remarkably close at hand.
: Australis is owned and operated by the Menendez family of Patagonia, whose business in the late 1800s was seal hunting and sheep farming. Today three brothers, great-grandsons of the founder, are at the helm, sailing five routes between Ushuaia, Argentina, and Punta Arenas, Chile.
Australis is one of the few cruise lines to offer the opportunity to go ashore at Cape Horn. Itineraries vary from three nights to seven (ours is the recommended four nights) and take place in summer, between October and April, the warmest period in southern Patagonia. There are also special whale watching departures and longer natural history cruises.
Our Members receive advantageous rates on Australis Cape Horn and Patagonia cruises. Flights from UK to Buenos Aires, internal flights and other transport, and accommodation in our recommended hotel in Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuegoare not included in the price, but can easily be arranged, again at advantageous Club rates.
For more details, to check cruise dates, and to book, please follow the link below or call Member Services on 020 7399 2960.
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