An icy passage

It took Uli and Anke two and half years to drive 72,000 kilometres along the PanAmerican highway and reach their final destination Cape Horn, via Ushuaia.

All aboard Via Australis
All aboard Via Australis

While Antarctica was their ultimate dream stop-off, it wasn’t to be — that cruise season doesn’t kick off until November and we were still in October. But an alternative way for the retired German/Namibian couple to experience the world’s most southerly destinations was on an Ushuaia round-trip on board M/N Via Australis.

Life at sea, albeit for three nights, on the 64-cabin ship is comfortable with good linen, a turndown service and a bar open for the duration. Far removed from conditions that Robert Fitzroy and Charles Darwin went through on their voyage to Argentina and Chile’s south in the 1830s, although HMS Beagle’s barrel room was also probably kept open as an incentive for the hard-working sailors.

Weathering the weather
And despite a vague rumour that spring was in the air, Mother Nature was still in whim mode. Prior to each of the four expeditions ashore, we shipmates were versed in history (the Spaniard Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in 1520); biology (Patagonia has 45 lichen species); anthropology (the Yamana people covered themselves in seal blubber in order to survive the tough terrains they called home); and weather fronts (extreme doesn’t quite cover it), preparing us for potentially dangerous trips on Zodiac inflatables.

Ahead of the end goal — the Cape Horn mission — guides assured us in no uncertain terms that if the wind was above 35 knots, we would not reach that hallowed island. A low grumble of displeasure reverberated around the Yamana Salon, swiftly followed up by nervous laughter when confronted with a 100-strong shipwrecks map. Later that night, when the white horses picked up speed where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, I awoke in a sweat wondering exactly how many wrecks might be lying in their watery grave underneath the Australis at that precise moment.

Would we or wouldn’t we make it to Tierra del Fuego’s most southern point, the Hornos island? The immediate future was in nature’s hands. First, however, other expeditions were on the agenda.

The lazy girl’s glacier guide
Leaving Ushuaia on a Friday evening, the city lights soon stopped twinkling as the Australis headed east, although not terribly far, into Chilean waters. Briefly traversing the Beagle Channel before heading into Glacier Avenue, the first port of call the next morning was Garibaldi Glacier.

Iceberg inspection
Iceberg inspection

Well, that was my lazy-girl option. The hardier, or better-equipped, shipmates with the foresight to bring wet-weather gear, tried out the Zodiacs and zipped across the eponymous fjörd to undertake a trek to a waterfall. It was about 3ºC, give or take. The wind was definitely on the nippy side and with no drying room on board, the thought of being soggy for the next three days didn’t appeal. Lazy girl stayed in the Yamana Salon with the gin-drinking grannies, taking full advantage of the 180º panorama from a leather armchair.

Gingerly, the ship made her way up the fjörd, nimbly picking a route through the sky-blue icebergs. From little chunks bobbing next to larger ones, every last berg was potentially hazardous, sending off warning signals with their crack-cracking. Zig-zagging up the glacial valley, at one point Captain Adolfo Navarro left the warmth of the bridge to brave the freezing temperatures and inspect the lethal floaters.

Gloopy hot chocolate in hand, the magnificent Garibaldi came into view, a vast ice mountain stretching back as far as the eye can see. This monster in fact comprises two glaciers, and the grey day served to enhance their ethereal blue tones.

You never forget your first whale sighting, and I won’t forget my first glacier or even the second, a stop-off to get up close and personal with Pia. This lovely lady kept punters happy by releasing mighty chunks into freezing waters with timely six-minute precision.

The return up Avenida de los Glacieres was cleverly planned to take place during the romantic sunset hours, the port side radiant while the starboard’s mountains had a decidedly moody attitude. Almost three percent of Chile’s landmass constitutes glacier, and these fallen, thickened ice bodies are enigmas, rarely touched by man.

Glacier Alley, a north-west arm extending from the Beagle Channel that forms part of the Alberto de Agostini National Park, is home to several ice monsters nestling between jagged peaks. European nations Alemania, Italia and Holanda are name-checked while Romanche and its waterfall is a tribute to the 1882 French expedition. But when the sun was out and the intense blue pales in the sunlight, I privately demanded that the clouds return.

Take it by the Hornos
Attempting to banish the thought of shipwrecks from my mind at 6am on a Sunday morning, I put on every last item of clothing, borrowed white wellies and a lifejacket. One final briefing stood between me reaching Cape Horn, probably for the first and last time in my life.

Cape Horn didn't look this tranquil on my visit...
Cape Horn didn’t look this tranquil on my visit…

That legendary headland located on the Drake Passage was just a few hundred metres from Australis, moored and rocking on the inky waves. The moment of truth arrived: we’d navigated — hell, some of us (Uli and Anke) had driven 72,000 kilometres — this far to reach one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

The wind was deemed too strong, goddam those 40 knots. A wail of disappointment reverberated around the salon. But then the promise to revise the weather came imminently; so many emotional highs and lows this early in the morning.

Then suddenly, we were bundled into Zodiacs and weaving through patches of seaweed, preparing to scale the epic Cape Horn.

The funicular lift wasn’t working. One hundred and thirty-something steps later and the winds were battering us about, rudely coming from all directions. First stop was the Wandering Albatross monument, a powerful tribute to sailors, the gusts nearly whipping my camera from my freezing hands. With both my eyes and nose releasing water, I was a vile and uncontrollable mess.

A few quick snaps, then I heaved my way up and back down the wooden steps to meet lighthouse keeper Andrés Valenzuela, who is reaching the end of a one-year stint as governor of Cape Horn. Ten dollars later and the official paperwork had been signed, confirming my presence at the very end of the end of the world.

Travel info
Via Australis’ Ushuaia round trip runs from September to May
Tel: 011 5199-6697

Buenos Aires Herald, November 23, 2014
Ph: Via Australis, SMW

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