It turns out that scrambling out of a bouncing Zodiac and climbing 160 sodden, wooden stairs are the easiest challenges of the day. At the crest of the cliff, the trail stretches across the grassy, rolling hilltop of the southernmost inhabited island on the planet. The boardwalk straddles the backbone of the narrow land mass that separates the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The trail leads to a large, metal monument that commemorates the 10,000+ sailors who died attempting to cross the treacherous waters around Cape Horn.
On a good day, the walk across Horn Island to the 15-foot-tall monument takes about 10 minutes. But this is not a good day, and I gather that so close to Antarctica, few are, even in December, mid-summer in the southern hemisphere. Two laminated metal triangles form a bisected square with the silhouette of a soaring albatross cut through the middle. Taking a photo of the monument is an obligatory ritual for visitors who cross the turbulent sea to reach the “end of the world.”
Once we’re in the open, a 70-mph wind shotguns rain into us like an artillery attack. I hold my fleece cap on with one hand and grasp the railing with the other. I bend into the blinding wind and shuffle ahead, then stagger backwards trying to keep my balance. The railing ends leaving me exposed to the assault. The next gust throws me off the boardwalk into the grass. My cap slips and a rain drop shoots into my ear, momentarily deafening me.
I finally reach the iconic monument. The hurricane-force gale strips away the plastic bag protecting my camera. Holding the camera steady is impossible. This is good practice for taking photos while standing in a rollercoaster.
“A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me, how widely different it was from anything I had ever beheld.” Charles Darwin
Coincidently, we arrive at Cape Horn almost 181 years to the day after Charles Darwin spent Christmas Eve trying to land on the island. He wrote, “…we saw on our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form—veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens, and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us with such extreme violence…” They gave up and anchored at a nearby island.
The 3- or four-night, Cruceros Australis Patagonia cruises follow much of the HMS Beagle’s route through the channels and glacial-cut fjords of Tierra del Fuego. In Darwin’s two years at the southern tip of the continent, he saw his first aborigines, collected plants and animals from the harshest landscapes he’d ever experienced, and began to realize his ordered concept of the cosmos was sorely inadequate.
Our cruise passes through the stunning landscapes of the Darwin Range with the entire route within the vast Alberto de Agostini National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve. We beach on an island with thousands of penguins, hike alongside a calving glacier, explore a sub-Antarctic evergreen forest with Andean condors soaring overhead, and cruise past five majestic glaciers in Glacier Alley.
Besides dramatic landscapes, anyone who visits Tierra del Fuego experiences the extreme weather that shaped the plants and animals, mountains and glaciers, and Darwin’s evolving concepts. Starting with a perfect morning, we explore the unique Magellan Forest at Ainsworth Bay. In 100 years, the glacier here receded nine miles toward the mouth of the bay. Along the more recently exposed shoreline, only lichens and grasses grow. Farther inland, with more time to develop, prostrate bushes sprawl over the rocks, red berries cover dwarf heath bushes, and clusters of crimson flowers give the firebush its common name. Deeper into the forest, mature false birch trees take 150 years to reach 30 feet in height.
That afternoon the fickle weather slams us with driving rain as we boat around Tuckers Islet to see a breeding colony of Magellan Penguins. The two-foot tall birds stand stoically on the beach and around their nesting burrows, preen their feathers, and bounce on the waves while feeding with no concern about our presence. Compared to the flocks of skuas, a gull-like egg-and-chick predator waiting for an easy meal, our presence is absolutely benign.
While we’re at Cape Horn, the weather never clears. Leading to the monument, a stumbling line of fellow shipmates still wearing orange life vests stretches along the walkway like an undulating ribbon. At the far end of the island, a small chapel and a lighthouse offer the only respite from the gale.
I battle the windy gauntlet to the one-room, rough-cut timber chapel and step inside. I find six pews and an alter table with plastic flowers. A smiling photo of Pope John Paul II greets me and offers a tranquil reprieve from the howling torrent. Inside the nearby lighthouse, I discover real smiles from the couple that operates the beacon and radio station for the Chilean navy. Hemmed in by tumultuous seas, they stay at their post for one year, marooned from civilization as we know it. I shiver at the thought, then remember that this unforgiving landscape is where Charles Darwin began to formulate his theory of survival of the fittest. You might say that his complacent world view came to an end here, at the end of the world.
If You Go
Borello Travel offers weekly Cape Horn cruses through Cruceros Australis. Prices through April, 2014, start at $1,400 (3 nights) and $1,700 (4 nights) depending on season. Connections are made through American Airlines.
Travel writer George Oxford Miller wrote the best-selling app Guide to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, and Williams.