Thursday Feb 10, 2011

We’d thought about it, dreamed about it, read books about it, and tried to imagine it. And, last night, as darkness was falling on the wild Southern Ocean, we DID it: we sailed around Cape Horn! But it wasn’t quite what we’d expected …

Firstly, the wild Southern Ocean (feared for its 150 kph winds and 30 metre swells) was relatively calm, I kid you not! We’d had a lovely day sailing from the Falklands – a stiff breeze, and a bit of chop, but that’s about all. And as we rounded Cape San Diego (at the bottom right-hand tip of the Argentine mainland), with land and islands galore off our starboard side, the sea got even flatter!

An anticlimax? Yeah, for the heartier members of our group it was …

But then a funny thing happened. As more and more islands appeared (see map), we and our fellow passengers crowded into the Crow’s Nest Lounge and out on the open decks – determined not to miss the momentous event. By now, the legendary Southern Ocean wind was howling down the length of the ship, but when the word finally spread: “There it is! Cape Horn! Over there!” … 1000 cameras started clicking. Couples clutched each other at the rail, wind-buffeted group-shots were set up, and congratulations were enjoyed all round.

However, there was one small problem. The lumpy black rock we thought was Cape Horn, WASN’T! It turned out we were still half-an-hour away. And, by the time that half hour was up, it had got too dark for useful photos and a rainy-mist had set in. So most of us retreated to the warmer innards of the ship … still not quite sure which of the lurking grey shapes out there was the real Cape Horn!

Great mariners we’d make – right?

Anyway, we DID it … and we’ve got a certificate from the ship to prove it!

This morning, while we were eating breakfast, the Veendam docked in Ushuaia – gateway to Tierra del Fuego (‘land of fire and ice’), and the southern-most city in the world! There’s a frontier feel about this Argentine outpost. It’s about as close as the civilised world gets to Antarctica (only 1000 km away to the south), and it’s set in an almost whimsical wilderness of rugged mountains, forests festooned with lichen, glacial peaks and shimmering lakes.

We started the day with a coach-ride through the beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park – sampling breathtaking scenery, and spotting birds, beaver-dams and a big red fox (hunting rabbits). Then we piled onto the top deck of a large catamaran, for an introduction to the Beagle Channel that took us up-close to black-&-white cormorants, snorting sealions, and countless other seabirds.

The sky was blue, the sun was burning, and we Kiwis were busy peeling off extra layers of clothing by the time was got back to Ushuaia-at-its-best. But, less than two hours after casting off and leaving Ushuaia behind, we were deep in the Beagle Channel, all rugged up in our winter woollies as we cruised through the spectacular ‘Avenue of Glaciers’ – freezing ice and snow all around us.

Hard to believe we packed all this into 24 hours … but we did! It’s just part of South America’s magic.

TOMORROW: We’re spending the day in Punta Arenas (Patagonia) and dropping in on another penguin colony. So watch this space …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our Mad Midlife group, just click on ‘COMMENTS’ (or ‘NO COMMENTS’) beside the title for the day’s blog, and type away! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want a better look at our map and photos, just click on them and they’ll enlarge –  magic!