I’VE ALWAYS FANCIED MYSELF AN ADVENTURER. As a kid I used to dream of conquering icy peaks, braving stormy seas, hacking my way through murky jungles. But something has always held me back. At heart, I’m a scaredy-cat. I have no desire to die or get hurt, and I hate feeling dirty, tired, sore or even puffed. I can cope with risky, so long as it’s not-really-risky. I prefer adventures that come with soft beds and hot showers. And I get grumpy if I can’t find a café.
I suppose you’d say I’m a wannabe-explorer. Which is why, when the chance came to sail around Cape Horn – in safety and with loads of creature-comforts – I jumped at it!
The bottom-end of South America is one of the last truly wild frontiers – offering vast ocean landscapes, unspoiled beauty, smoking volcanos, shimmering lakes, plunging waterfalls, misty isles, oozing rainforests, exotic birds, astonishing wildlife and mysterious ruins (like Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas).
Our adventure kicked off in Chile – a spindly country, jammed down the lower left-hand-side of this continent, between the Andes and the Pacific. Much of Chile’s long coastline is a clutter of islands, spreading southwards like a giant’s jigsaw puzzle – and the only way to explore its tangle of canals, sounds, straits and fjords is by boat. So, once we’d shaken off jetlag in Santiago (Chile’s capital), we hitched a ride to nearby Valparaiso and sneaked aboard a Very Nice Cruise Ship.
It’s all a bit of a blur now, but life quickly fell into a happy rhythm – cruising by night, sightseeing by day, and going ashore at achingly beautiful Chilean puertos (ports-of-call): Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas, Puerto Chacabuco – all watched over by the looming Andes.
At some point we found ourselves cruising the narrow, rock-studded Strait of Magellan – a famous 560km passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. (Note: Magellan’s Strait is anything-but straight; it’s a foggy, twisty-turny, easy-to-get-lost-in labyrinth; so don’t attempt this in your rubber-dinghy!)
On arrival at the one-time garrison town of Punta Arenas (poon-ta uh-RAY-nus), we hopped into a small bus and shook-rattled-and-rolled past vast sheep farms (spotting an occasional gaucho, cowboy, on his horse) to a lip-smacking lamb barbeque. Then we shook-rattled-and-rolled some more to a windswept bay where we bade a cheerful “Hola!” (hello) to our first penguins: plump, well-fed Magellans, who, as far as I could tell, were pleased to see us.
Then, a couple of mornings later, we woke to teetering cliffs, crunching frozen rivers, and bobbing icebergs – so spectacularly close we could almost touch them! We were in Chile’s famous Glacier Alley … and I soon lost count of the glaciers spilling over from the massive ice-sheet that lay hidden above us in the clouds, and emptying out into the freezing green waters below.
We docked early afternoon at the Argentinian frontier-town of Ushuaia (the closest most wannabe explorers get to Antarctica), and piled onto the top deck of a catamaran for another eyeful of Tierra del Fuego’s wilderness and wildlife: this time sea-lions, cormorants and seals sunbathing on wet rocks.
Finally, on the last night, came the highlight I’d thought about, dreamed about, and read books about. As darkness was falling on the wild Southern Ocean, we DID it: we sailed around notorious Cape Horn!
But it wasn’t quite what I’d expected …
Firstly, the wild Southern Ocean (hated and feared by seamen of old, whose fragile clippers faced smashing winds and terrifying seas) was relatively calm, I kid you not! We’d had a great day sailing from Ushuaia – a stiff breeze, and a few whitecaps, but that’s about all. And, as we took aim on the bottom-most tip of South America’s archipelago, the sea got even flatter!
An anticlimax? Yeah, for heartier sailors like me, it was …
But then a funny thing happened. As the islands drew closer, we joined the crowd out on open decks – eager to enjoy the big event. By now, the legendary Southern Ocean wind was howling down the length of the ship, but when the word finally spread: “There it is! Cape Horn! Over there!” … 1000 cameras started clicking. Couples clung to each other at the rail, and hair-blown cheering echoed from bow to stern.
However, there was one small problem. The lumpy battered rock we thought was Isla Hornos (Cape Horn) WASN’T! Apparently we were still half-an-hour away. And, by the time that half hour was up, it had got too dark and rainy for photos. Reluctantly, we retreated to a warm dining room for our five-course evening meal … still not quite sure which of the hazy grey shapes out there was the real Cape Horn!
History-making mariners? No, not quite. But please note: we DID it! We rounded the Horn! And I’ve got a certificate from the ship to prove it …