Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Update from Ushuaia: the Uttermost of the Uttermost

Lucas Bridges, the son of Anglican missionaries via the Falkland Islands, was one of the earliest European settlers in Argentine Tierra del Fuego and he titled his memoirs The Uttermost Part of the Earth. In fact, as I began writing this Tuesday morning, the Chilean cruise ship Stella Australis was anchored off the north side of Cape Horn - arguably, the uttermost of the uttermost.

Tierra del Fuego is not a single island but rather an archipelago divided, unequally, between Argentina and Chile. Most of Argentine Tierra del Fuego consists of its sector of the Isla Grande, the big island. In fact, it’s South America’s biggest single island, and the port of Ushuaia (population about 65,000) dwarfs any settlement on the Chilean side (where Porvenir has only about 8,000 inhabitants).

Isla Hornos, though, is the stuff of legend, a verdant but rugged rock where the Chilean navy keeps a lighthouse and countless shipwrecked sailors died trying to “round the Horn.” In fact, this was the third time I’ve been to Cape Horn; the first time, with the Stella’s sister ship Via Australis in 2006, the seas were so calm that the captain circled Isla Hornos - giving us all the opportunity to say we had rounded the Horn. The second time, in 2009, the seas were choppier but we still managed to go ashore, landing in the rocky cove and climbing some 160 steps to the windswept plateau. There, a boardwalk leads to a flat metal sculpture that silhouettes an albatross memorializing victims of the numerous shipwrecks here.

Most of the Stella’s 200-plus passengers eagerly awaited the opportunity to land here - one retired English couple chose the cruise, despite the dent it put in the budget of their round-the-world adventure, specifically because it meant the chance to go ashore at Cape Horn. The most concerned, perhaps, were the four-person crew from the PBS series TravelScope (pictured below), filming a program in which the landing at Hornos and exploration of the island would be a highlight.

Producer Julie Rosendo told me they had two scripts - Plan A with a landing on Hornos and Plan B without. As we approached the island, the seas were choppy, visibility was limited, and a steady rain fell. Fortunately, the seas were calmer in the lee of the island, the rain relented, and the skies lifted to provide reasonably good visibility - not nearly so good as my previous visits, however.

In fact, I was one of a handful who chose not to go ashore, partly because I had writing to catch up on but also because I thought, under the conditions, I could not get photos any better than those taken on previous trips. In addition, I will make my fourth visit to Cape Horn very soon - tomorrow morning, in fact, as the Stella begins her return itinerary to Punta Arenas this evening. I will hope for better weather yet.

Unlike me (at least in this instance), most Australis passengers do only one leg of the trip, but the return to Punta Arenas is not exactly a reverse itinerary. It makes some stops - the Isla Magdalena penguin colony in the Strait of Magellan, for instance - that the Ushuaia-bound leg does not.

We were not the only vessel at Hornos. A Chilean patrol boat was there, delivering supplies to the lighthouse, and Celebrity Cruises’ massive Infinity (capacity upwards of 2,000) was also at anchor. Passengers on the latter, though, could only watch with envy from their cabins and decks - Cruceros Australis is the only operator allowed to land here. As the Infinity lumbered off toward Antarctica for another distant drive-by, the Stella’s captain chose to circle the Horn, to the delight of all aboard.

3 comments:

  1. Makes me want to go even more. I've sent any number of clients to the Uttermost of the Uttermost - some on smaller vessels like the Stella Australis, and others on the floating resorts like Celebrity Infinity. My job is to find out what the traveler actually wants for their experience. I'm sort of mind-boggled by how many people are satisfied with the "drive-by" (you put that so well, I intend to use it) - why go to the remote of the remote to just wave at it? But not everyone shares my spirit of adventure - so I find I have to introduce small bits to clients and teach them how to stretch their imaginations.

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  2. I visited Cape Horn on the Australis in 2008, with strong winds and heavy seas. Never again! And besides, there were no trees. I like the forest further north.

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  3. I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, Roger. I've been to Cape Horn four times now, and the weather has cooperated reasonably well every time. But it's not all there is on the Australis route.

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