january 2015

Since childhood I had studied maps showing the southern tip of South America fracturing into a tail of jagged islands and wondered what the fabled Cape Horn was really like. I was about to find out.

Early in the morning our cruise ship, the Stella Australis, anchored just north of Isla Hornos, the barren island flanked by steep cliffs at the very end of that tail. Jaime Iturra, the captain, deemed the conditions suitable for landing so inflatable zodiacs deposited us on the boulder-strewn shore of a sheltered bay. We climbed several flights of steep wooden steps and were hit by the high winds gusting across the boggy moorland on top. The sun shone, but it was bitterly cold.

A wooden walkway led across the moor to a southern headland. It was crowned by a large monument in the form of a steel square with the shape of an albatross cut out of it. A plaque proclaimed: “I am the albatross who awaits you at the end of the world. I am the forgotten soul of the dead seamen who sailed across Cape Horn”. But half the monument had sheered off in 120mph winds three nights earlier. Instead of the albatross, a great black condor with a seven-foot wingspan circled overhead.

Below the headland great breakers crashed against a last rocky outcrop. Beyond that, a vast expanse of blue-grey water stretched away for 600 uninterrupted miles to Antarctica. We stared in awe at this elemental battleground where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans collide, and where at least 800 ships have been wrecked since the 16th century by Cape Horn's mighty waves, treacherous currents and infamous tempests. This really was the uttermost end of the earth. We were 690 miles further south than New Zealand's Stewart Island, and 1,490 below Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

Dark clouds advanced from the south west. Soon sheets of hail and snow were sweeping across Isla Hornos, evoking Charles Darwin's description of this “notorious promontory...its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such extreme violence that the captain decided to run into Wigwam Cove.”

Elsewhere on this bleak island there is a tiny wooden chapel, and a monument to Robert Fitzroy, captain of The Beagle in which Darwin explored this area in the early 1830s. The sole inhabitants are Andres Valenzuela, a Chilean naval officer who has volunteered to run the island's lighthouse for a year, his wife, young son and poodle. They raise money for charity by selling mugs and key rings to visitors, but there are few of those. There are no ferries or day trips to Cape Horn, no human settlements within 80 miles. Other than by private boat, the only way to reach it is on the Stella Australis or her sister ship, the Via Australis, which run cruises from September to April through the great, empty archipelago north of Isla Hornos that is Tierra del Fuego.

Darwin would have been amazed by the 100-cabin, 4,000-tonne Stella Australis. His voyage on the tiny Beagle was one of constant peril and hardship. Ours was a contradiction - an adventure without any risks or discomfort. The 140 European, American and Australian passengers embarked at Punta Arenas, a former penal colony that is Chile's southernmost city, and enjoyed a life of cosseted luxury until we disembarked in the Argentinian port of Ushuaia three days, four nights and 700 miles later.

Our cabins were spacious, light and comfortable. We were looked after by a charming Chilean crew. We ate three huge meals a day, but then the fresh seafood, fine Patagonian beef and lamb, and excellent Chilean wines were irresistible. The bar was free, so we drank unlimited pisco sours, champagne and cocktails. And as we did so, we admired the spectacular and pristine scenery of one of the world's last true wildernesses unspooling outside ship's floor-to-ceiling windows.

Darwin described Tierra del Fuego as “one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe”. He failed to mention how beautiful it was. We sailed down channels flanked by forested, snow-capped, cloud-wreathed mountains - our ship a mere speck at their base. We glided silently through 'Glacier Alley' where spectacular turquoise glaciers tumble down from the 8000-foot Darwin mountains. We threaded our way past hump-backed islands with trees stunted and twisted by the prevailing winds.

We enjoyed the cleanest air, the clearest light, and constantly changing weather. Mountains abruptly vanished behind great walls of mist. A landscape of vivid blues, greens and whites turned a dozen shades of grey as the sun was obscured by rain or sleet. Our progress was mostly serene, but during the second night the Stella Australis was buffeted by the Pacific as she briefly left the shelter of the islands. We were woken by pitching and rolling, by cupboard doors banging and, in my case, a glass of water spilling on to my bed.

Thereafter we followed Darwin's route along the Beagle Channel, past islands and inlets named for his ship mates, and observed how little had changed in the 180 years since he was here. Only the naked, half-starved savages in their bark canoes had disappeared. Nobody lives here now. Until we reached Isla Hornos on Day Three we saw not one other vessel, and scarcely a trace of humanity. We had no radio or television signals, no mobile telephone service or internet. We were cut off from the outside world, cocooned in our bubble of luxury.

We were not entirely passive. Sometimes we ventured on to the decks for bracing blasts of fresh air. Once or twice a day, resplendent in florescent orange life jackets and brightly-coloured outdoor gear, we went ashore in the zodiacs.

We climbed a hill overlooking the magnificent Pia glacier and heard that huge tongue of ice crack and growl as it inched imperceptibly down a mountain valley. At Wulaia Bay we saw the sunken earthen circles where the indigenous Yaghan people had lived for 10,000 years until driven out by European settlers in the late 19th century, and the mounds of discarded shells from the shellfish that they ate. We nosed up to beaches stiff with waddling Magellanic penguins, king cormorants sitting on smelly seaweed nests, and the odd predatory skua searching for unguarded eggs.

We saw no whales, but we did see a couple of elephant seals basking on a rare spit of flat land, dolphins playfully pursuing a zodiac, and two inquisitive sea lions swimming alongside the ship. Below the clear waters large red king crabs scuttled across the sea bed. Our expeditions were hardly arduous, but we were nonetheless rewarded with hot chocolate and whisky before returning to the mother ship.

It was a memorable cruise. The scenery was breathtaking, and I finally got to see Cape Horn, but I was not sorry to reach Ushuaia. Three days days of pampering and orchestrated group activities were enough. Any longer and my ability to fend for myself, to take decisions or act independently, would have atrophied like a penguin's wings.