Drop anchor: a launch takes travellers ashore

Cape Horn has claimed countless lives over the centuries, but the beauty of this furthest tip of South America still captivates, says Chris Leadbeater

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel cold. The morning is chill, miserly, and the wind is drawing spray off the waves, holding it in wet hands and flinging it into faces. I am half asleep too – wrenched from my bed at an hour when the sun has not yet left his.

I also feel a sense of distance, and of awe.

The former stems from the knowledge that I am far from home, unhitched at the extreme edge of a continent. The latter comes mingled with disbelief. As it should. Awe and disbelief are the appropriate responses to standing on Cape Horn.

The southern tip of South America is several things: a rocky heap tinged with myths and legends; a sodden junction where the Pacific and Atlantic meet; a nautical graveyard that has cast a shadow on the map since it was espied by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Hoces in 1525. “Rounding the Horn” would be adopted as a way of sailing from Europe to the Far East, but the risks inherent in the route were many. The Cape’s hard teeth mark the top of the Drake Passage, the sea corridor that ebbs 500 miles to Antarctica – an enclave of icebergs and stormy evil that has claimed countless wrecks.

This dead zone bears the name of Francis Drake – the great English mariner who was blown into its grip in 1578. He reputedly pulled to land at Cape Horn, and described it as “the southernmost place on Earth”. In terms of the inhabited world, he was right – perched at a latitude of 55°S, it protrudes far further south than Cape Agulhas, the lowest point of Africa (which sits at just 34°S). But he might just as easily have said: “Here be dragons.”

All of this flashes through my mind as the sun finally levers itself above the Atlantic and blinks at a February day. It emits a queasy light – but this is enough to reveal a little more of the Cape: patches of thick green grass; a monument – two slabs of iron, cut so that the space between them forms the outline of an albatross in flight; a squat lighthouse where a Chilean naval officer grimaces through a role that is rotated on a yearly basis – while his patient wife sells souvenirs to tourists from her front room. I buy a T-shirt and a postcard. She offers me a thin smile that seems to say: “I know why I’m here. But what about you?”

The answer is hidden in a bay below the cliffs. Contrary to perception, Cape Horn is an island, the last hurrah for the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, whose broken shards make up the foot of South America. As such, it is only really accessible by boat. In my case, this is the Stella Australis. This little vessel of 100 cabins is the flagship of Cruceros Australis, a company that offers cruises through these scattered slivers of Chilean and Argentinian sovereignty, past vast glaciers and islets awash with birdlife, to this continental full stop.

My voyage begins three days earlier – although by the time I reach my port of departure, I have already crossed half the planet. Huddled 1,362 miles and a four-hour flight south of Santiago, the Chilean outpost of Punta Arenas is nowhere near the beaten track. But it shows itself as a pocket of prettiness, the red, blue and yellow paint on its houses – an act of bright rebellion against winter gloom – gleaming in the Southern Hemisphere summer.

The jollity is deceptive. For this is expedition territory, serious and unflinching. The hints are there on the main Plaza de Armas, where the headquarters of the Instituto Antartico Chileno dreams of the South Pole and a statue of Ferdinand Magellan surveys the town in a proprietorial manner. A mile away, a museum model of the Nao Victoria – the craft that brought the Portuguese navigator to these uncharted lands in 1520 – adorns the waterside.

Magellan would not see Portugal again, but he made his mark here. Punta Arenas lies on his key discovery, the Strait of Magellan – a navigable inland alternative to the Drake Passage that links the two oceans in winding fashion, cleaving mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego, and giving access to the latter’s tight cluster of islands as it goes.

The strait shimmers as I board the Stella Australis. A sturdy yet elegant lady in blue and white, she is moored amid the flat warehouses of the docks, ready for another foray into the wilderness. We slip away as the sun descends. Within an hour, the signal on my mobile phone flickers and dies. Away to the west, Cape Froward – the southern tip of mainland South America – skulks invisible in the twilight, as we turn east in search of adventure.

In the morning, we find it, Stella Australis gliding through Almirantazgo Sound and dropping anchor in Ainsworth Bay. The skyline is filled with the craggy contours of Isla Grande (as its title suggests, the largest island of Tierra del Fuego) and the icy bulk of the Marinelli Glacier. This pale behemoth is inching back up its mountain, Napoleonic in its retreat – but its size still seems formidable as the boat disgorges beneath its frosted frown.

Here is the first indication that this is no conventional cruise. True, some of the facets of a normal seaborne break are in place – my cabin is spaciously comfy; the bar in the lounge serves potent pisco sours with all-inclusive zeal; meals are eaten at set times in a shared dining room. But when the boat decants its passengers into the fleet of speedy inflatables that will ferry us to empty beaches and remote coves, everybody lines up to disembark. There are no stragglers, no suntan-chasing refuseniks. All are here to absorb the majesty of a wonderland that relatively few are ever privileged to visit.

We stroll out en masse for a walk through wooded glades and soft meadows, our guides pausing to tackle topics from moss growth to the edible nature of local chaura berries (a semi-sour cranberry, it transpires). Throughout, two condors wheel overhead, like fighter jets in formation. Wildlife will be a regular feature of the cruise. As we float south-east, we halt at Tuckers Islets, a clutch of sedimentary nuggets that act as bird colonies. The smell is vile, thanks to the cormorants who make guano nests in the holes and craters – but the stench is offset by the Magellanic penguins who live on the shingle. They watch us without concern, so comical in their faltering footsteps, so graceful when they dip into the shallows and swim.

As dusk falls, the Stella Australis spins west – and at some point in the night, enters the Pacific. I know this, because the surge wakes me, the little boat at the mercy of the deep.

Morning shows what has happened. The vessel has performed a U-turn, darting into the abyss, then arcing back into the mouth of the Beagle Channel – the second of the Tierra del Fuego passages that meanders between the oceans. But this – named after the boat that carried Charles Darwin to this faraway land in 1833 – is a thinner prospect than the Strait of Magellan. Walls of rock rear on each side, daunting in scale. A tiny ship passes in the opposite direction. It is the first human presence we have seen since Punta Arenas.

It was not always thus. During a talk where every seat is taken, voyage leader Mauricio Alvarez explains that, two centuries ago, southern Tierra del Fuego was the home of the indigenous Yaghan, who thrived in this harsh landscape. Then came European settlement, disease, persecution. During the 1860s and 1870s, an entire people effectively vanished.

This sorrowful slice of history makes the Pio Fjord – a cul-de-sac off the Beagle Channel – seem even more deserted. Silence smothers it, but for the crack and creak that emanates from its resident kraken. The Pio XI Glacier is a 40-mile resistance warrior, a giant that continues to grow, in defiance of a warming planet. Its final flank plunges 50 yards into the fjord, the ice within a pulsing, almost angry, turquoise. As I stare into the eyes of the beast, chunks fall from its face, the noise as they split off like the explosion of fireworks.

Nor is this a lone soldier. Back on the Beagle Channel, we creep through “Glacier Alley”, where five distinct rivers of ice dangle their fingers. As we peer out from the shelter of the ship, snowflakes hit the windows. If this is summer here, one should fear the winter.

By now, we are approaching Cape Horn. Alvarez warns that our chances of making land are about 50/50 – and that a dawn start, when the water should be calmest, is required.

We awake to find the Cape in silhouette on the starboard side, and the Atlantic in placid mood. The inflatables go about their work, dropping us on to a shallow curve of boulders where steep wooden steps lead up on to the Southern Hemisphere’s rain-soaked Avalon.

But the oceanic truce does not hold. After an hour on the Cape, we are hurried back to ship. For the wind is lifting, the sky clouding. By the time we are on board, Neptune’s two best gladiators are grappling. As we escape into the refuge of Nassau Bay – fleeing north towards the border and our ultimate destination, the Argentinian port of Ushuaia – the Stella Australis quakes, pitches and rolls. Lunch, for once, is rather undersubscribed.

And I am glad. For to come to so fabled a location and not witness the wrath of the gods would be cheating. At the end of the world, it is only right to feel out of your element.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

You can no longer fly direct to Chile, but TAM (tam.com .br) has started flights from Rio (served from Heathrow) to Santiago. LAN (0800 977 6100; lan.com), flies from Madrid to Santiago, and onwards to Punta Arenas. Flying to Ushuaia means changing in Buenos Aires. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) operates the only non-stop Heathrow to BA link – but options include Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) from Heathrow via Madrid and Air Europa (0871 4230717; aireuropa.com) from Gatwick via Madrid.

Cruising there

Cruceros Australis (00 34 93 497 0484; australis.com) has three- and four-night cruises between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia from US$944pp (£588), full board, based on two sharing a cabin. Prices for four-night sailing in March start at US$1,573pp (£981). Flights excluded.

More information

chile.travel; argentina.travel