To the ends of the earth: Tierra del Fuego, Chile

The voyage to Cape Horn, the southern tip of Chile, isn’t as risky as in Darwin’s day, but the sub-polar wonders and ghosts of natives make a potent cocktail

5 mins

It wasn’t looking too good for Cape Horn. It was around 4am and the ship had been pitching violently for hours in the South Atlantic. The sky was by turns black and star-filled, then overcast and grisly. Horizontal rain and sleet battered the starboard – where my cabin was. Or was it squalls of spray cast upwards off the heaving waves? I couldn’t tell. As the Via Australis sailed all points for the southern cross, I resigned myself to not setting foot on the fabled cape at the foot of South America.

I’d come to Tierra del Fuego to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, to pay a quiet tribute to Darwin and his captain, Robert FitzRoy, and to see some extreme austral landscapes.

I knew Patagonia – indeed, I’d written a book about the region. But Tierra del Fuego was an enigma. It’s easy enough to fly to Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile – the two Fuegian ‘capitals’ – and I’d been to both cities on earlier trips. The interior, though, is rarely visited and the shattered, exposed coast of the islands can only really be seen from the deck of a ship. The Via Australis, a Chilean-owned, 120-berth cruise vessel, was my passage to the coasts, capes and wild seas of the far south.

I had begun the voyage in Punta Arenas, just across the strait from Chilean Tierra del Fuego; there I visited the small Palacio Braun-Menéndez museum, accompanied by local guide Matías Ballarini, who talked me through exhibits. In the pre-conquest period, the islands and fjords of southern Tierra del Fuego were the dominion of the Yamana people. One room in the museum is hung with tableaux of young women, clad in guanaco-hide bikinis, diving to collect molluscs from the seabed. Right up until the early 20th century, the Yamana travelled and hunted using canoes, ate raw shellfish and dwelled in rudimentary huts along the coast.

The last of the New World 

Tierra del Fuego, lacking in silver and gold, and too cold for conquistadors from Spain, was the last corner of the New World to be colonised. But the Yamana and other tribes were eventually forced out by a seemingly benign fluffy animal.

“In 1848 a British merchant introduced sheep from the Falkland Islands,” explained Matías. “It’s been the main economy ever since, and as the Indians saw no reason not to kill the flocks for food, the white settlers rounded them up – the Indians that is – and forced them into reservations.”

After lunch Matías drove me to the surprisingly grand cemetery. The names on the graves – many of them Yugoslav, Italian, Jewish and British – tell Punta Arenas’ story as a maritime hub (made obsolete when the Panama Canal opened in 1914) and a melting pot of cultures.

Then it was time to board. Matías waved me off with the promise that my ship would pass through remote, glacier-walled Seno Almirantazgo (Admiralty Sound), unique in harbouring species otherwise only found in Antarctica – including Weddell seals, leopard seals and albatross.

As we pushed away from the port, the sky was turning black. I walked up three flights of stairs to the small observation deck. A single, Turneresque blast of sunlight was visible on the horizon, but as the swell rose and the cloud cover thickened, the sunlight dwindled and the night came.


It was time for king crab and Chilean merlot

We woke with the snow-capped peaks of Alberto de Agostini National Park to starboard and, beyond that, a mountain range named after Charles Darwin, who visited the region several times in the 1820s during the Beagle voyage.

De Agostini, a mountain-climbing cleric from Italy who settled in Tierra del Fuego in 1910, was the first man to summit many of the local peaks and, as a member of the Salesian order, he’d campaigned to protect the native tribes. In his book Thirty Years on Tierra del Fuego, which I’d taken to read in my cosy cabin, he wrote: ‘It is an indisputable truth that Tierra del Fuego possesses such grandiose and imposing landscapes a and panoramas that it has nothing to envy Switzerland or the Alps; its numerous fjords equal, or even surpass, the pristine fjords of Norway and, in as much as its gelid climate permits, it can be counted as one of the most picturesque regions on earth.’

After lunch we made our first stop, at Ainsworth Bay, an amphitheatre of mountains wrapped around the centrepiece of the Marinelli Glacier. The sky was a bright blue, clear dome decorated only by two wispy, lenticular clouds that started as round smudges but, as the afternoon wore on, slowly lengthened out to become long cigars. The wall of the immense glacier was visible some distance away, but large bergs prevented us from getting very close.

Instead we set off on a nature trail. The first stop, soon after landing, was on a pebble beach where a harem of elephant seals had set up home. The big male was grunting and moaning, spitting and burping, and a couple of newborn pups were apparently copying him. For now, all they could muster was a high-pitched squeal. The females, who lack the short trunk that makes the machos so unattractive, rolled their doe eyes, shifting position to avoid being crushed by the big man as he galumphed around.


In the corner of one eye I spotted a condor wheeling overhead, then another, and another. There were six or seven riding on the thermals above a craggy mountain range, on the lookout for carrion. The ship’s nature guide, Silvestro, extemporised on the love life and hunting techniques of elephant seals, contrasting their hapless dry-land movements with their grace underwater. But I was distracted by the condors; it was one of those moments when being guided was less enjoyable than just looking all around.


We set off into a forest of southern beech trees


As well as species I knew from Patagonia, there was Nothofagus antarctica – though it’s Antarctic in name only: there are no trees on Antarctica, even on the 2% that is not covered in ice. Matías’s promises did, however, come true when we came upon sub-polar lichens and mosses. We also saw false mistletoe, devil’s strawberry and michay, a flowering plant that has mythic associations: if you see one it means one day you will revisit the region.

The trail continued through woodland, at one stage meeting up with a squiggle of pawprints that marked the recent path of a fox. It might have been a native (endangered) Fuegian red fox or a grey South American fox, but could equally have been a European imposter. Tierra del Fuego has been the testing ground for a number of exotic species, including weasels, salmon, rabbits and beavers – which we later saw – introduced by someone from North America merely because the landscape resembles parts of Canada.

Snow-covered for almost half of the year, southern Tierra del Fuego is home to a considerable diversity of tree, plant and flower species. Just as the Inuits have many words for snow, the Yamana had 17 words for green; what it might lack in terms of king penguins and big bergs – for that you have to sail over 1,000km to the south – Tierra del Fuego makes up for in lushness and leafiness.

Not far from Ainsworth Bay is Tucker Island, where we were restricted to a short Zodiac cruise – the ecosystem of this tiny islet is too fragile to allow landings – but here we managed to spot flightless steamer ducks, kelp geese and Magellanic penguins on the beach, as well as imperial and rock cormorants perched high up on the steep cliff walls. There was a huge sea lion hiding in the tussock grass, and dolphin gulls and petrels flapping around the dinghy. I also spotted a few black-browed albatross, making good Matías’s promises about a secret Antarctica. Just as we began to turn to head back to the ship, a pod of dolphins appeared from nowhere, dancing on the surf.

The second morning began with an announcement on the ship’s tannoy: “We’ve just left Desolation Bay and are sailing into the north-west branch of the Beagle Channel.” It was a poetic sort of ‘good morning’ but I’d been fairly desolated by the night we’d just had: rough seas, waltzer-like motions, slapping waves on my porthole.


We’d been on open seas for five hours or so...


The ship making a huge curve around a headland that jutted out into the (not very) Pacific. I’d risen a few times to see what the weather was doing; it was often murky but I could make out the beams sent out by lighthouses posted like sentinels along the western reaches of the Strait of Magellan. Little wonder I slept fitfully and dreamt of FitzRoy, Yamana swimmers and shipwrecks.

Our reward for unquiet slumbers was a lazy day on board and a feast of glaciers. We passed the España Glacier while still at lunch, but the buffet of antipasti was too delicious to abandon. Next was the Pia Glacier, the visual highlight of the trip. Here we disembarked onto a moraine and sat down quietly to watch slabs of ice calving off the main 30m-plus-high wall. We were then taken for a spin around the bay, and I caught sight of the frozen peak of Cerro Darwin, at 2,488m the highest of the many mountains in Tierra del Fuego.

We cruised eastward along the Beagle Channel’s Avenue of the Glaciers, the Fuegian equivalent of the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica. French navigator Louis-Ferdinand Martial named the glaciers during an expedition in 1882-3. First came a hanging glacier, named after Martial’s bark-rigged steamship, the Romanche, then a series of dramatic glaciers named after European nations.

Everyone stood on deck to gawp at the blue walls of ice. The ship’s chef made the experience even more memorable by serving canapés themed according to the nationality of the ice we were watching. Thus we ate sausages, brie, pizza and Edam cheese while observing Alemania, Francia, Italia and Holanda glaciers. Or not – for it was turning gloomy again and clouds sometimes obscured the view. But far from spoiling the experience, the weather made our location feel even more extreme, and the curtains of sleet and flag-tearing winds added drama to the scenery.

The highlights:

If the Pia Glacier was the photogenic highlight of the voyage, Cape Horn was the historic one. Another wild night on the open sea east of the Woolaston Islands left me groggy as I watched the sun rising over a low promontory on the south-eastern side of Cape Island. The wind, which had peaked at 180km/h during the night, was still blowing ferociously and the ship was awash with rumours that we wouldn’t be able to make landfall.

But the morning’s wind blew providentially. First, it cleared the sky of all the greyness. Then it dropped to a bracing 80km/h – a mere breeze in Tierra del Fuego. White horses thundered in the sea all around us but the captain gave the tour leaders the OK to winch down the Zodiacs and take us ashore.

It was a bracing, rollercoaster boat ride into a cove where we mounted a steep, rickety staircase to make our way to the clifftop. With most of the passengers peeling off southward towards an albatross-shaped monument, I took a left to make my way to a lonely lighthouse and chapel. Here I chatted with a Chilean woman and her child who, along with her husband, the lighthouse keeper, live here.

“Do you like it here?” I asked her. Not very original, of course, but I was genuinely curious.

"It’s great,” she said, without a hint of irony. “We want for nothing and we’ve really grown used to it.”

The expression ‘glorious isolation’ is overused, but here she seemed to possess it. There were, though, a couple of neighbours: mine-clearing technicians working on a patch of anti-personnel mines laid here by the Chileans in 1978 when there was a standoff with Argentina over the possession of the Picton, Lennox and Nueva Islands off Tierra del Fuego.

The lighthouse was draped with flags and mementoes left by visitors – still only a few thousand each year – but it was the view that stirred me. You could see raging waters, deep-green slopes, huge weather fronts moving around the mythic end of the world and, to the right – that is, to the south – a forlorn looking bluff: Cape Horn. I descended the lighthouse’s staircases and took the wooden pathway to the albatross monument. A hailstorm, driven by a powerful southerly, pricked my face like needles. Then, for a moment, the wind dropped and a blast of sun broke through; the sea in the bays around the monument was bright turquoise, topped by white, foamy waves that came fast, one after the other.


Extraordinarily beautiful, wonderfully lonely

The world keeps ending when you’re in southern South America. Some say Ushuaia, the Argentinian port where our cruise was to terminate, is the ‘end of the world’. For sailors the Cape was the extent of their safe, known sphere – until Antarctica was mapped. For many settlers, the cemetery at Punta Arenas was the final stop.

But my cruise ended in a small inlet that had poignant significance. I’d read about Wulaia Bay, on Navarino Island, a few years ago while writing about Patagonia, but had never had the opportunity to visit it. It was to be our final landing – taking place one calm, grey afternoon – after which we’d spend a third night on the ship before disembarking at Ushuaia.

After the drama of Cape Horn, the weather was mellow here, and the landscape gentle and easy on the eye. But the mood was sombre, too, for this was an abandoned village, a failed project. Huge buzzards squatted on the ruins of an old house. This had been the place where Jemmy Button lived.

On his landmark second voyage, Robert FitzRoy abducted four Fuegian natives to take them back to London to be educated. When he returned with three of them some years later they reverted to their former way of life. Jemmy was one of the natives. He had been taught to eat with a knife and fork, mastered English and even met the king and queen; but when he arrived home, he took off his civilised clothes and again became a Fuegian native.

Nonetheless, Wulaia was chosen as the location for a Christian mission in 1833. Isolated and exposed to the vagaries of the climate – and warring Yamanas – it was doomed to fail. But over the years missionaries came and went, bringing with them the European diseases that would help wipe out the Fuegian natives. Eventually the mission moved on to Ushuaia, and Wulaia was left to nature. It’s a ghostly place; as we climbed a hill behind the ruined house a shroud of mist descended.

Tierra del Fuego, like Antarctica, is rich in human as well as natural narratives. But it seemed fitting to end my own story where settlers had failed to conquer the environment and to overcome their own limitations. The planet has fewer and fewer places that feel genuinely off the map and out of this world; Wulaia, which had once appeared in church bulletins in Britain, was reverting to form again.

The author sailed with Cruceros Australis.

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