Friends Isabella and Rosa chat in lilting Spanish, as they sit on their canvas chairs knitting thick woollen caps from handspun yarn. Their market stall is on the town square in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city and the heart of the country’s massive sheep framing industry. These raw woollen caps are so enchanting we buy two, hoping to keep glacial winds at bay as we cruise down the coast of Chile.
Punta Arenas has enchanting attractions for visitors. You can marvel at a massive bronze of Ferdinand Magellan, who was first to circumnavigate the globe and then rub the foot of one of his trusty Indians for good luck. Or head up quite a few flights of stairs to the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint for panoramic shots over the city of 100 000 souls. You could also leave a padlock on the railing as a love token, just like in Paris.
Watched over by a red banded lighthouse, most were hiding in their nests to shelter from the freezing wind, others were using the strong wind to speed up moulting. But really, Punta Arenas is important because it’s the only city on the iconic Strait of Magellan. This 570km long waterway separates mainland South America from the islands of Tierra del Fuego or Land of Fire. The Strait was also a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific before the Panama Canal was built.
Today we’re not taking shortcuts or looking for coal, but are back aboard the streamlined, ultra luxurious Crystal Serenity cruising down the Strait of Magellan en route to the tip of South America: Ushuaia. To get there we enter another renowned waterway: the Beagle Channel, named for the boat Charles Darwin travelled on when in this neighbourhood. Forested mountains stand with their feet in cold Pacific waters and the scenery is moody and misty. There is no sign of civilization at all as we make our way slowly and silently down the Beagle Channel. On our port side are the aptly named Darwin Mountains, and we are out on deck admiring the wild and unspoiled landscape and breathing chilly Chile air.
We notice the ship slowing down and we head onto our private balcony. Then the captain pivots the cruise ship and we literally gasp, a frozen natural theatre appears before us. Vast in height and width with an intense spectrum of blues and rushing waterfalls is the Romanche glacier. We stare open-mouthed and in awe. It is pure frozen magnificence, a natural ice sculpture par excellence. Before long we pass the Alamania glacier and then Francia, all on the port side.
Number four for the afternoon is Italia glacier in topaz blue. The sea at her feet is two-toned where the mineral-rich glacier melt has flowed into the sea and the two waters don’t mix. It’s simply beautiful and breathtaking and beyond fair description. We spend the rest of the afternoon sipping hot chocolate and reliving our first glacier encounter, all the time edging closer to Ushuaia in Argentina.
We awake next morning to the world’s southernmost town dowsed in sunshine. The snow-tipped Andes rise behind, and the magnificent Tierra del Fuego National Park lies further inland. While Magellan was exploring the area in 1520, he was fascinated by the smoke and fires on the land which were kept burning by the Yaghan and Ona Indians. So it was named the Land of Fire or Tierra del Fuego in Spanish, and today it’s synonymous with a vast swathe of extreme natural beauty that traverses the southern reaches of Chile and Argentina.
When we enter Tierra del Fuego National Park, it starts to drizzle and our guide smiles knowingly and says: “Here we have sunny moments, not days. So the dress code at latitude is layers.” We pass through a beech tree forest adorned with old man’s beard moss and lichen, indicating clean air. Then we see large upland geese and black swans on the lakes and are tickled by the roughly built beaver dams created by the 15 000 strong population in the park.
That evening we depart Ushuaia with its brightly coloured buildings and Outback atmosphere. From the ‘end of the world’ city, we are back in the silky smooth Beagle Channel passing the ‘end of the world’ lighthouse in banded red and white. It’s dead calm as the sun sets on the Channel and we sail through the night to Cape Horn, the departure point to Antarctica – 1200km across the treacherous Drake Passage.
At about 8am we awake to Carbo de Hornos, the dreaded Cape Horn which has storms so violent and seas so rough it swallows ships like snacks. Today, however, the rugged Cape is a swathed of calm blue sea, dusted in sunshine and looking magnificent. It’s freezing outside, but we want to be as close as possible to this feared landmark so we shiver and shake and snap photos in quick succession.
High up on the headland of Cape Horn we see the abstract albatross sculpture dedicated to all the sailors who have lost their lives rounding this Cape. The inscription is by Chilean poet Sara Vial: “I, the albatross that awaits at the end of the world… I am the forgotten soul of sailors lost, rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world. But die they did not in the fierce waves, for today towards eternity, in my wings they soar, in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds.” It’s a sobering reminder of the violent temper tantrums Cape Horn dishes out. It’s rarely calm here, yet we have perfect calm as the Antarctic pilot guides our ship past the very last lighthouse in the world, and out into open ocean. The next time we see land will be 1 200km away in Antarctica. To get there, we need to traverse the schitzophrenic Drake Passage, named after epic explorer Francis Drake.
The Drake, as it’s known, is open ocean that’s known for extreme weather, and waves that are sheer walls of water. This is a part of the globe where no land mass interrupts and tempers swirling ocean currents, so this part of the Southern Ocean can get wild. Crossing The Drake is said to be either a ‘shake’ or a ‘lake’. It may be dead calm like the Mediterranean in high summer, or you may find yourself in the perfect storm. The weather forecast for us is good; we have a tiny window of calm.
Sailing further into the Southern Ocean, all our seasickness pills are lined up on the dresser of our luxury penthouse suite. It will take two days and two nights to cross The Drake, and we are well prepared for a rough ride. We head to dinner in the Crystal Dining Room and enjoy sumptuous fare; we sleep peacefully and enjoy breakfast just as we have for the past 13 days on board. For lunch we are at Tastes enjoying global cuisine, and for dinner on the second day we book at Silk Road for delectable Nobu cuisine. It’s hard to believe we are crossing the notorious, tempestuous Drake Passage, yet nothing much has changed on board. The fine, calm weather is holding and we’re going all the way to Antarctica sailing smooth. It is a ‘Drake lake’ crossing for us and all the seasickness pills are going home untouched. The weather gods are thanked profusely and all aboard are awarded certificates for safely crossing the notorious Drake Passage.
We feel instantly invincible, like old sea dogs able to take on the deepest oceans and furthest flung places. The reality is that cruise ships heading to Antarctica also only do these crossings during a certain good weather window in the year. Plus, if the weather does turn rough, it may be a less comfortable cruise, but the ships are superbly equipped to handle very extreme conditions and the captains doing these crossings are highly skilled and experienced – so there is never any concern for safety. Maybe we were lucky and maybe it was the usual weather for the season, as we sailed smoothly all the way. Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, Cape Horn and Drake Passage – check.
For more information on cruising these iconic waterways contact 011 327 0327 or see www.cruises.co.za
Story by Keri Harvey. Photos by Haley Abrahams