Cape Horn Caper

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Stumbling around a slushy bog at the bottom of the world may not seem a likely path to inspiration. But first impressions can be misleading.

Southernmost of the Hermite Islands at the very bottom of Chile, Cape Horn was cold (3°C), wet and deathly quiet, the only sign of life a solitary black-browed albatross, symbol of the Southern Ocean, cruising silently on a gentle breeze.

Besides an indefinable nuance of menace, there was no other suggestion this was one of the most dangerous regions on earth where more than 800 ships have gone to the bottom and 10,000 sailors have perished in tornadoes, hurricanes and terrifying waves that can rear up 20 metres.

At first glance the notorious cape had seemed deceptively unimpressive. Its treeless rolling hills sloping down to a softly rolling sea were less dramatic than the backdrop of early morning sun glinting on tall, jagged peaks where the massive Andes mountain range tapered to an end.  It was a tranquil scene seemingly in denial of a fearsome reputation.

Yet standing on these bleak black rocks, with Argentina and the Atlantic Ocean to one side, Chile and the Pacific on the other, Antarctica and the treacherous Southern Ocean below, the American colossus above and engulfed by the ghosts of ill-fated seafarers, Cape Horn isn’t the sort of place you forget in a hurry.

At first light on a cold spring morning, the luxurious Norwegian cruise ship, Nordnorge, dropped anchor in the lee of the cape after an easy 850-kilometre crossing of Drake Passage from Antarctica, reputedly the world’s most perilous waterway, when “Drake Lake” had borne barely a ripple.

Ferried by zodiac across the silky black water to a stone and kelp strewn shore, the worst perils I faced were 127 steps up a steep black cliff followed by a long sloping boardwalk that snaked the rest of the way to the summit raised above the cape’s mantle of deep, soggy peat bog. The hard bedrock underneath traps the incessant rainwater in shallow topsoil creating a permanent bog, hence the boardwalk.

But even in this remorseless climate there was an astonishing array of eye-catching vegetation including hardy rushes called juncus covering the ground, interspersed with blotches of bolax, a moss-like member of the celery and carrot families and orange-flowering barbary with edible red berries.

Scattered around the summit were a lighthouse, a Chilean Navy radio station, the modest home of the young Chilean couple who run the place, a generator shed, a small log chapel, a post office where itinerant yachties exchange mail and where visitors can dispatch postcards, two friendly dogs and a white cat.

An overly made-up young woman who said her name was Josie emerged to smile and greet me in Spanish and it occurred to me it would take an exceptional person to live at the remotest ragged tip of Tierra del Fuego where winds frequently roar through at 200kph, where it rains most days of the year and, when occasional visitors call, it’s usually by the hundreds.

I asked her through an interpreter how she coped with life at Cape Horn. “It’s OK,” she said. “Except when the wind blows and the whole house shakes.”

In the distance, across a 328-metre boardwalk, stood the stark Cape Horn Memorial for lost mariners – a sculpture by Jose Balcells of an albatross in flight made of ten metal plates each six millimetres thick and standing on a grassy hill 50 metres above their watery graveyard.

On a plaque nearby was a poignant poem by Chilean author, Sara Vial, a tribute to the men who died confronting Cape Horn’s merciless, unpredictable weather:

“I the albatross that awaits at the end of the world,

I am the forgotten soul of the sailors lost

Rounding Cape Horn from all 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.”

Reading her words, I tried to imagine the horrors they might have suffered and felt pangs of shame that I had sailed unscathed across their bones and arrived at their nemesis in such disgraceful comfort, pangs that fled shamelessly at the thought of the bottle of French burgundy ($17) with my name on it waiting aboard Nordnorge.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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