Rounding Cape Horn: The World’s Wickedest Waters

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Seals basking on the rocks of Cape Horn
Seals basking on the rocks of Cape Horn. Photos by Kent St. John.

Cape Horn, at the Very Bottom of Chile

By Kent E St John
I am the albatross that awaits you
At the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
Who passed Cape Horn
From all the oceans of the world.
But they did not die
In the furious waves.
Today they sail on my wings
Toward eternity,
In the last crack
Of the Antarctic winds.

With my mind fueled by poems by many, including this one by Sara Vial, I packed for an adventure cruise to the turbulent waters of Cape Horn. Magellan, Drake and Darwin are just some of the many to “Round the Horn.”

Many others sleep at the bottom of some of the world’s wickedest waters. The tradition was that a sailor who passed the Horn was allowed to wear a gold hoop earring in the left ear, the ear facing the Cape while sailing east. Such a feat also allowed one to get a tattoo of a fully rigged ship. My trip on the Mare Australis was blissfully peaceful and comfortable.

Just as wild as stormy seas are the incredibly rugged and beautiful islands and peninsulas we passed while cruising through the Straits of Magellan. Glaciers and mountains were a continual glorious backdrop. With the cruise lasting four nights, I also added some time to check out one of the wildest places on earth, Patagonia.

Wide Open Cape Horn

The wind pushed the clouds double-time providing endless panoramas, one side of the car rolling hills, the other vistas of snow-capped peaks. Occasionally a truckload of sheep reminds me I need to watch the road.

Even today it is the huge ranching stations that dominate the list of reasons for living so far from everything. That said, however, the endless places to get lost are a draw to the fast-growing number of outdoor adventurer junkies.

A rancher in Patagonia
A rancher in Patagonia.

Three hours after leaving the airport in Punta Arenas I arrived at my base of Puerto Natales, a funky town that pulses with a New Age vibe.

Prissy the town isn’t, lively it is, and ranchers, fisherman, and hikers fill the streets, a brotherhood of those in love with nature.

The place is a wonderful scruffy outpost with a scene of ‘work hard play hard.’ Early morning wake-ups combined with late nights of beers and music, a civilization unto itself.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Though my French guide and I were miles away from the Torres del Paine National Park, the three sheer granite towers stand like a beacon. Since 1978 the park has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere site as diverse as it is challenging. The options match the diversity, trekking, climbing, or horse pack trips can be arranged.

A guanaco mother with her calf
A guanaco mother with her calf.

As we approached the main gate, there are three, herds of guanacos to greet us. The llama-like creatures are a fantastic reminder that I am far south and on a spur of the Andes. In order to take advantage of my short time available, Bernard and I crossed much of the park by car with various short hikes.

The change of scenery was astounding, and I found more to see than I thought possible. Note to self, a must-return perhaps for one of the trekking trails that can take nine days. The park demands attention.

[See Mark Campbell’s story: Torres del Paine National Park: Glacier Watching and Spectacular Scenery]

Shipping out

Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park.

After a few days of exploring terra firma, it was time to head to Punta Arenas, one of Chile’s major ports and the terminus for the Australis Cruise Line. Far out in the harbor was a massive cruise ship and I could feel the disappointment rise in my stomach — it looked so huge.

Fortunately, I found out it wasn’t mine; it was a Princess Ship, my Mare Australis sat right on the pier proving immediately that it could go where no huge cruiser could, a key to my journey.

Onboarding the Mare I met my bag aboard in a spacious cabin with a queen bed and stowed my gear, before heading to the bar area for some musical entertainment and to meet my fellow travelers.

The huge lounge and meeting space on the top deck was packed and folkloric dancers were giving us a sendoff. The engines started soon and the Mare was off.

Landing a zodiac boat on Penguin Beach
Landing a zodiac boat on Penguin Beach

Life Aboard

As the lights of Punta Arenas faded the dinner call was made, the dining room a very pleasant space on the lower decks.

Seating is set from the first dinner so make your choice count. Meals aboard the Mare were amazingly good — think prime South American beef filets or Chilean sea bass.

Every morning during the breakfast buffet a voice comes on the speakers, the deep Hispanic baritone of Francisco Cardenas Marusic. “Today my friends the penguins await our arrival. We cannot disappoint them.”

The women onboard swoon and gather on the rear deck fast, in time to board the Zodiacs. Twice daily we explore by zodiac then on foot, the hearty lunch in between a necessity.

While waiting for the zodiacs to pick us up and transport us back to the Mare, every time a little booth is set up serving hot chocolate or some Johnny Walker. Darwin’s men would roll over in their graves with jealousy!

Meeting penguins on the beach
Meeting penguins on the beach.

After lectures outlining the next day’s adventures the cocktail lounge/lecture space becomes a social hour, stories of the day grow larger with each top-shelf order. A massive meal with linens and three courses is served and devoured; explorers live through their stomachs, I learn.

An après dinner glass of fine red wine usually ends up with me on the outside top decks as the ghostly mountains pass by — perfect!

A new day a new adventure

“Ladies and gentlemen, today we play on glaciers,” comes from the speakers in my cabin. It is smooth talking Francisco calling his troops into action. Soon the thunderous crack of ice breaking off of Pia Glacier fills the air, ice blue chunks float by.

The Mare Australis near the Pia Glacier
The Mare Australis near the Pia Glacier

We have bonded as passengers and cheers rise as if nature is putting on a show just for us. As if on cue a huge elephant seal smiles at us, the master of ceremonies: “Right this way ladies and gentlemen!”

The Johnny in my glass now has glacier pieces as rocks; no bar anywhere offers that. That afternoon we sail down Glacier Ally; all we need to see can be seen from onboard the Mare.

The various glaciers we pass are named for countries that have sent teams to explore them. As we pass Italia, Germany, Netherlands, and France, photographers dart side to side. A national drink is served for each glacier.

The Highlight

The next morning we are due at the Horn, the bonanza. The landing will be rougher than others and that is only if weather permits, Francisco advises us to pull out all unused prayers. I consider the fantastic crab cocktail served at dinner a good omen. I am right.

Sea lions on Cape Horn in Chile.
Sleeping sea lions.

Early the next morning I am climbing multiple narrow stairs to the windswept island that faces the Atlantic and Pacific crashing into each other. Except for a small lighthouse and some naval buildings, there are open spaces.

This is the time I separate from my group and wonder alone with my thoughts. I think of the hundreds of ships that have ended on the bottom, of all that has been written about this desolate piece of land. Mostly I think about how lucky I am to be here.

This not just page 833 of 1000 Places to See Before you Die. This is the culmination of a truly rewarding spiritual journey.

Further Information:

The Mare Australis was just the right size and offered amazing sites to see. By the time we reached Ushuaia, Argentina almost to a man we passengers wished to remain. The food, service and overall experience was wonderful.

The Australis season in Cape Horn is the opposite of North America, but even in December layers should be worn to stay warm. One of the best trips in fifteen years of travel writing.

I flew Lan Chile down to and throughout my journey, a delight. Six different legs and all on time with great service. I have flown them several times and have always been satisfied, this trip was no different.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine was a match made in heaven with my cruising experience. Wide-open and magnificent, a testimony to Mother Nature and her beauty.

Hiking, horseback riding, or even driving through will make you feel as if you are in an episode of National Geographic.