LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 95
By: Gabriela Pomponio
Photos: Kiki Boccarelli
CRUISING THE TIERRA DEL FUEGO CHANNELS
From Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, along the intricate sea route linking both oceans.
This voyage in former days used to end in a shipwreck, and today is an excellent tour option on a deluxe cruise liner.
We intended to travel to the "end of the world". And the idea of navigating in the southernmost South Atlantic and reaching Cape Horn filled us with enthusiasm from the start.
For centuries this area was a nightmare for the boldest seafarers. Surrounded by choppy and turbulent seas, it became a challenge to a few brave explorers determined to discover the sea route linking the two oceans. At the time it represented the last frontier of the known world - beyond it lay the unknown.. . That was our destination.
The passage smacked somewhat of a Jules Verne novel, but instead of the old Nautilus we boarded the Mare Australis, an incredible cruise ship that does deluxe tours of the south of Tierra del Fuego.
Time to cast off
On a sunny afternoon we were in Ushuaia, ready to leave. A four day trip awaited us, through the Tierra del Fuego channels to the city of Punta Arenas.
We settled our things in the cabin and went up on deck to see how we
drew away from the coast and the city of Ushuaia got smaller and smaller. The ship is a real floating hotel, with large, pleasant rooms.
There are also saloons surrounded by picture windows from which you can enjoy the frozen landscape and have a drink at the same time.
The Mare Australis has 63 cabins and can carry 175 passengers. It has been designed for adventure. Every day, the exploration team organizes landings for different excursions. Mauricio, Victor, Rodrigo, Igor, Francisco and Nina were those responsible for guiding us along the route. There is also a program of talks before the landings to learn a little of everything there is to know: history, geography, stories about the original inhabitants, and even an introduction to the flora and fauna of the place.
From Ushuaia we sailed through the Beagle Channel. Night was falling as we arrived off Puerto Navarino; then the route led on to Nassau Bay.
We slept early, thinking of the next morning.
First light showed us the rocky face of Wollaston Island. A little further ahead appeared Horn Island. This is a promontory of dark stone, where bushes and grass can hardly grow, constantly whipped by the wind.
The sea is such a deep blue it's almost black. We imagined it when it gets angry, with winds up to 250km per hour and 6 meter-high waves.
That was how the crew of Mare Australis found it two weeks ago; and that was what must have hit the 800 boats that were shipwrecked on its shores and now lie at the bottom of the sea.
But today was incredibly calm. Wrapped up like teddy-bears, we got into the Zodiacs and after a short distance jumped onto land. The breeze was gentle and cold: a gift for walking.
We went to meet Hector Andaur, the "sea sheriff". He and his wife are the only inhabitants of the whole island. They are used to solitude, and only receive the occasional visitors from the cruise ships and sailing boats striking out to reach the Antarctic. Hector is the Chilean government representative and responsible for controlling sea traffic in these distant waters.
We went to the lighthouse and then into the little chapel.
At the other end of the island, there is a monument with the figure of an albatross - a bird which, tradition says, carries off the souls of dead sailors - and in this case it's a memorial to all the sailors who dared to cross Cape Horn. It was built by the Brotherhood of Cape Horn Captains, an ancient body made up of men who have at some time sailed these stormy waters. There is a magnificent view of the cliffs from there. In the distance you can sense where the Atlantic and the Pacific meet. We were at 55° latitude south, and only 1,000 km from the Antarctic.
We returned for breakfast and, as the weather was good, our ship had the pleasure of sailing south of the cape westwards, through Drake's Passage, a rare privilege.
Our next destination was Wulaia Bay, on the west coast of Navarino Island. The place has its own history. They say that here Captain FitzRoy, who discovered the Beagle Channel, found four indigenous people and took them to the British court with the intention of "civilizing" them.
One of them was "Jemmy Button", a Yamana who got on the English ship in exchange for a single button; amazing stories are told about him. Four years later, in 1833, FitzRoy returned them to their land and set up the first Anglican mission in Wulaia Bay. This second expedition had a special guest: Charles Darwin.
We arrived before dusk. The place deserves its name, which is Yamana for "pretty", and now, at the end of spring, it shone all green. Some say it was a holy place. Here the boys of the tribe fulfilled the initiation rites to become adults. It is curious, but the secret that was jealously transmitted from generation to generation consisted in a series of techniques for dominating women. Yes, you heard right! It seems that this was an important issue in Yamana culture that, from its beginnings, had been a matriarchy. The tradition says that, over time, the men managed to take power, and they had to maintain it at all costs.
With this odd idea in our heads, we disembarked. A few steps ahead we found a conchal, a kind of waste tip where the indigenous people threw their garbage, and today is a good reference point for locating their former dwellings.
We walked through a lenga and sour-cherry wood to a high point from which we could see the sea. We stayed there quite a while, looking at the striking geography of the coast, which seemed drawn on the water by a professional map-maker. When we got back, the people from the Mare surprised us with an improvised bar on the beach; there was hot chocolate, coffee and some spirits to counter the cold.
On board, dinner was waiting for us. Jose Gomez, the chef, tempted us with delicacies of his cooking, with an abundance of sea-foods. Later we got together to take notes about the best pisco sour and some other typical Chilean cocktails like the vaina and the pichuncho.
The first hours of the day were pure sailing. It was the ideal time to get to know the ship. On the bridge, we were received by the captain, Enrique Reiman Franken. He showed us the sophisticated apparatus controlling the ship and then explained the navigation map.
In the afternoon, after winding through the channels on the western shore of Tierra del Fuego, we reached the Chico cove where the Günther Pluschow glacier is found. The shore is covered with ice and it's impossible to disembark. From there the Mare headed off towards Piloto Glacier, and we were there in less than half an hour.
We put on sou'westers, and got down into the rubber boats to visit the fjord, boxed in by cliffs of dark rock. The water had an emerald shade and near the shore became a soup with icebergs floating here and there. We stopped in front of a cascade of glacier water. There was a deep silence. Some cormorants, sitting on their conical nests, gazed at us intruders lazily .
When we reached the foot of Piloto Glacier, it stopped raining and the mass of turquoise ice left us speechless. We were told that the color depends on the number of air-bubbles trapped in the ice. We got back as dark fell.
During the night we went on through the Magellan Straits. It was the last day aboard and we got up really early to visit Magdalena Island. Here there are huge numbers of cormorants, gulls and ibises; sometimes you can see sea lions and South American fur seals. But the king is the Magellan penguin. Sixty thousand pairs of these birds arrive every year for the mating ceremony, always with the same partner.
On the way down we found them at work, hatching and rebuilding the nest. We passed dozens of them waddling down to the sea in their neat dinner jackets. We returned. We had a few hours left in Punta Arenas and we spent them on deck to say farewell to these distant parts from the open sea.