CAPE HORN – December 2009

Competition at the End of the World

The good Argentine town of Ushuaia is commonly accepted to be the southern-most city in the world. However, we have learned that this honour is very much in dispute.

The people of Punta Arenas say they live in the `city’ closest to Antarctica. Their argument is that Ushuaia is far too insignificant to be a classified as a `city’. Moreover, Punta Arenas is Chilean whereas Ushuaia is Argentine so it stands to reason – so say the Punta Arenians – that the former is the superior domicile.

The national pride argument, however, falls flat when Puerto Williams enters the debate. This settlement lies on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel and – as we understand it – is several degrees further south than Ushuaia and well south of Punta Arenas. Until recent times, Puerto Williams was no more than a hamlet at best. However, it has grown in size and is now challenging Ushuaia population-wise.

Clearly, the honour of being the most southerly city in the world is a matter of profound importance and national pride.

Our suggestion, however, is that both Chile and Argentina concentrate on their football. The World Cup is fast approaching and the likes of Brazil, Spain and Germany care more about goals than geography and more about late winners than latitude.

An Angel’s View of Ushuaia

 Veendam steamed from Punta Arenas over night – following the Magellan Strait and branching out into the Beagle Channel – and arrived at Ushuaia just after 1pm on 27 December.

By this stage, the snow capped mountains had marched forward and were no longer content to languish in the background. Now they dominated the landscape.

As we only had half a day in Ushuaia we had to plan our activities in advance. Huckleberry B had, therefore, thoughtfully planned well ahead and organised for a scenic flight over the town.

The plane was small and the wind currents which streamed through the mountains were strong, resulting in us being buffeted around to an alarming degree. The first ten minutes of our flight were somewhat terrifying (if terror may be measured in such degrees). However, once accustomed to the vagaries of our flight path, we unclenched our hands, relaxed the small muscles in our faces and started to look about and enjoy the extraordinary view.

Our flight took us in close proximity to the highest peak in the mountain range which overlooks Ushuaia – Terra Mayor – and proceeded along an extended valley which ran between the peaks. Below us we could see the waters of Lago Fagnano. To each side stood mountain tops, capped with snow which was so white that it looked as though somebody had applied dabs of paint to a canvass of black rock. Occasionally, we spotted a small lake which had gathered in the hollow between the mountain peaks. One such lake boasted such altitude that it had frozen over.

As our plane negotiated a graceful arc to the right, we flew through a small shower of rain and hail. However, our panoramic view allowed us to see in advance that the shower would be brief and would not impede our journey. We could see through the storm cloud to the clear sky beyond.

Our flight concluded with a run along the Beagle Channel, over the point where Veendam was docked and back to the narrow runaway adjacent to the town.

Our bout of altitude anxiety aside, the flight was simply fabulous.

The Horn

I can still remember aspects of what I was taught in Junior School about the great explorers; Vasco Da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope; Magellan circumnavigating the globe; Sir Francis Drake discovering a passage between the southern most tip of South America and the (yet to be discovered) Antarctic Continent.

Somehow these stories captured the imagination; brave men setting out to sea, knowing neither where they were going nor whether they would ever return to the safe harbour of their home port.

And so it was that B and I awoke on 28 December with a sense of adventure in our hearts. On this morning, Veendam was to navigate the infamous seas around Cape Horn.

To our surprise – and somewhat to our relief  – the waters were remarkably calm. The weather can change quickly in this region, however, our rounding of the Horn was blessed with little in the way of wind and a very manageable swell. The ship barely rocked at all. Indeed, our Captain announced that he had never seen the Horn so peaceful.

I said above that we were only somewhat relieved to find calm seas around Cape Horn. Whilst the placid conditions ensured both a safe rounding of the Horn and a secure passage to Antarctica, it did lessen our sense of adventure somewhat. It would have been more fun to report that we braved an enormous swell – with waves crashing against the side of our vessel – but, sadly, that was not the case.

Rounding Cape Horn, nevertheless, remained an epic experience. Thankfully, nobody was asking me to set the main sail or man the crows nest. We didn’t even have to pull on a rope or engage in any other such nautical task.

One’s mind drifted naturally to those who were less fortunate than ourselves. Courageous men who battled fierce winds in vessels infinitely less equipped than ours and whose reward for their outrageous daring was to perish in the freezing waters. We also spared a thought for a brave young Australian girl who, as I write these words, sits in a small yacht to our west as she attempts to sail around the world alone.

As Veendam hovered about 500 metres off Cape Horn – the Pacific Ocean on our left and the Atlantic Ocean on our right – our spirits soared. It was one of those experiences I am unlikely to ever forget.


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