If there’s a male of any species that doesn’t deserve a harem, it’s the southern elephant seal. When he’s not burping and farting, he’s probably copulating. As he galumphs grub-like back to his bed of excrement and dead skin after a session, during which he might well have crushed a couple of his offspring, his bulbous nose is wont to snort as if the whole world’s mucus is hardening into a vast Patagonia-sized bogey.
I was stood about 10 metres away from this big fella, deep in the heart of Chilean Tierra del Fuego. It’s a myth-laden ‘fire land’ tucked at the bottom of the western hemisphere where the weather comes from Antarctica and where, for the most part, European man has not yet bothered to settle and conquer.
Is this the sort of wildlife you travel 20 hours by plane and two days by ship to see? Well, yes, because this elephant seal family – while pretty marvellous to observe in any case – had set up home in the beautiful bay of Bahía Ainsworth, a short distance from the stupendous Marinelli glacier. When we’d finished gawping at the male – more than two metres in length and about two tonnes in weight – and his wives and two newborn cubs, which were mewling as only kids know how, we feasted our eyes on pristine snow-capped peaks, grottos of icicles, virgin forests of nothofagus beech, lichen-speckled rocks and fox tracks winding through the snow. In the distance the glacier shone blue-green under a cloudless sky; the southern spring was arriving, and in some style.
I say ‘we’, but don’t get any notions of 1,000-plus cruise passengers crowding out the nature and snapping away in disharmony. We’d sailed into the Chilean fjords aboard a small, handsome liner called the Via Australis, which has just 64 cabins. About 70-75 per cent were occupied, and with three main languages spoken – English, German, Spanish – we were easy to divvy up into relatively quiet groups. We each set off on two-hour treks through the snow, learning about the intricacies of survival in the sub-polar regions.
Our Chilean guide, who sounded like Sly Stallone in Rocky, talked us through the idiocies of species introduction. ‘You gotta see how stoopid man can be,’ he said. ‘First he brings in beavers, man, cos Tierra del Fuego, well, it looks like Canada, you see. Then he brings weasels to kill the beavers. Then foxes to kill the weasels. And it all goes out of control. Then he says, “Hey, time for poison!”’ He punched the air as he dissed our clumsy interventions in the fragile austral ecosystems. We wrapped up the walk with a glass of scotch on the (last ice age) rocks; well, it was a cruise, after all.
Back on the ship, there was so much to do. I decided to download hundreds of photographs I’d taken, mainly of lenticular clouds spreading across the sky. I then feasted on a huge lunch of king crab and fresh pasta. Then it was time to read and attend lectures – for some people – or for a siesta.
We were woken up on arrival at Tucker Island, where we had a Zodiac boat cruise to see Magellanic penguins, imperial and rock cormorants, kelp geese, sea lions, dolphin gulls and flightless steamer ducks (‘he’s so stoopid, man, he thinks he can fly – but he can’t!’). Around our bobbing boat were petrels skimming the waves and, for a brief moment, a school of dolphins joined us and showed off with pirouettes and surf-slamming breaching leaps.
That night we had a rough one: huge seas at the western entrance of the Strait of Magellan (the Pacific end) made for serious rocking and rolling, and all of this under a clear, starry sky. I dreamed fitfully half the time, and spent the rest of the night wondering about the hundreds of sailors who’d come this way in cutters and schooners and even smaller boats (Robert FitzRoy, captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, had sounded the Fuegian channels in rowing boats), many of whom had perished far from home.
The Via Australis cruise is bookended by two great ports: Punta Arenas in Chile, and Ushuaia in Argentina. You can choose which one you see first, as the ship and its two sister vessels sail in both directions. I started off in Punta Arenas, where I made a point of seeing the cemetery, where many mariners are buried. Some gravestones were in English: William Baybut, who ‘died at sea… aged 37 years’; ‘In loving memory of Thomas Dickrobb’; ‘William Cair, died at Laguna Blanca… aged 34 years’. Punta Arenas might have been a bustling town and a major shipping hub before 1914 – when the opening of the Panama Canal made it redundant – but Baybut, Dickrobb, Cair and all the others had died far from home.
The city offers you its other key narratives in an easy one-day visit. The rise of the Menéndez-Braun sheep farming dynasty in the early 20th century. The genocide of the Fuegian tribes – the Selknam, the Haush, the Kaweshkar, the Aonikenk. Guess who killed them? Yep, those sheep farmers. They were helped by military men and priests, who came south to civilise the natives; they gave them Jesus, as well as chicken pox and other fatal diseases. The Museo Regional Braun- Menéndez at Magallanes 949 (the Chileans don’t see the irony of naming everything in honour of Indian-slaughtering plutocrats) packs in all of these strands of history and is the ultimate must-see museum.
The rest of your time should be spent strolling – enjoy moving your legs as you won’t do much of that once on the ship. At dusk I hung out in ’70s-style bars and watched the tiny world go by. Punta Arenas is now a sleepy, faded city, full of romance and nostalgia and blizzards, even in spring. It’s the perfect preamble for a voyage into the wilder reaches of Tierra del Fuego.
Four days in to the cruise – and the last full day at sea – we made our own little bit of history. Despite another night of bouncing around on five-metre-high waves and a morning of high winds (they peaked at 185km/h), we were able – and only just – to get into the Zodiacs and ride to Horn Island and its famous cape. I’d seen this forlorn lump of rock once before, returning from Antarctica, but then the weather had been murky and the seas too rough even to allow the (far larger) ship to draw close up. So it was thrilling to bounce along on a dinghy into a protected cove and set foot on this hallowed extremity. After climbing up a steep staircase on the south-east shore I made the short hike to a lonely chapel and lighthouse and then across to an albatross-stencilled memorial to the sailors, the latter affording a magnificent view of the cape itself.
Much of the joy of a cruise is not about the stops, but about the sailing. I’m not one for onboard lectures or chatting sessions around the bar, and I loved the comforts of a cabin with a view of beauty, bleak or otherwise. Like all great travel experiences, it was about the going more than the getting there. But the cape was a sense of arrival, of completion, and as so many visitors only get to see the lump of rock from afar it was a privilege to tread terra firma at the mythic ‘end of the world’.
I didn’t get much time to explore Ushuaia, but I’d been there twice before. It’s a funny little town, but a great post-cruise pit stop for a breakfast of decent coffee and sweet croissants. It also has good museums – the Museo del Fin del Mundo (Avenida Maipú 175) is the one-stop shop for a quick lesson in how Argentina colonised its southern territories, and the Museo del Presidio (corner of Yaganes and Gobernador Paz), as well as displaying all manner of random items (firefighting gear, modern art, Indian canoes), gives you some sense of what prison life must have been like for the miserable gits who got to ‘settle’ this place a century ago. Rarely have five days of travel been so packed and diverse. Punta Arenas was a taste of Chile, Ushuaia a taste of Argentina, the landscape on Tucker Island reminded me very much of the Falklands – tufts of tussock grass, few trees, pebble beaches, and utterly unspoilt – and Ainsworth Bay might have been a suburb of Antarctica.
If you can’t make it down south to the ice continent, the Via Australis cruise into deepest Tierra del Fuego is a serious alternative. You get the visual delights, your carbon footprint is (relatively) limited and you experience the raging southern swells. Owned and staffed by Chileans, the ship generates local employment and serves local food. It also keeps a region alive in a human sense. Without the cruises, this remote island would be sleepy and forgotten and, I dare say, at risk of being exploited by eco-blasé developers, miners and lumber merchants. The sheep farmers and beavers have already done some damage, but Tierra del Fuego remains one of the planet’s last great wildernesses, and the best way to explore it, and not harm it, is definitely by sea. Patagonia: A Cultural History by Chris Moss is published by Signal
Need to know
Emirates and its partners fly from Dubai to Punta Arenas, with connections in Frankfurt, Sao Paulo and Santiago de Chile. Return from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires on LAN, then Buenos Aires to Dubai on Emirates.
It’s a long trip… (www.emirates.com, www.lan.com).
Cruceros Australis offers three- and four-day cruises in Patagonia from US$1,200 (Dhs4,400) per person, which run from October to April.