Sailing notes on the Strait of Magellan,
between Chile and Argentina, between history and maritime adventures,
between unspoilt nature and urban settlements at the most southerly point of the world
Here in Punta Arenas – at the harbour – the customs formalities amount to very little, the cruise ship destine for the end of the world welcomes us warmly and slips along the icy waters of the Strait. It is the twilight, the sun behind the clouds baths the contours in a golden light and then sinks fast into the water; a yellow, intense light spreads and the oily black sea turns dark blue-green. This is the way our voyage to the wide world begins. The route to Cape Horn, a cruise to an unknown landscape around the Tierra del Fuego that is shared between Chile and Argentina. The last frontier, rich with contrasts and with wild nature – glacier, forests, fjords, and lagoons – all combined with a fascinating history. Nobody seems to notice the passage from civilization to the southern ice flows, the passengers chat to each other in a carefree way, quickly wrapped up in new friendships; but outside the southern night is already swallowing up the ship.
We are arriving in the Strait of Magellan, with its halo of mystery between adventure and legend. It is mid-December and at these latitudes, day almost touches night. As soon as the shadows begin to spread, the dawn lights up everything with its opal filter. In the welcoming belly of the cruise ship, the groups of biologists demonstrate the safety procedures for the expeditions: excursions on terraferma with fast rubber dinghies.
We meet astern early in the morning, wearing anoraks, glasses and life jacket. The temperature is almost mild, eight degrees. We land on the beach of the bay of Ainsworth, and the first contact is moving, with short downpours of ice bullets alternating with a brilliant sun rays. Everything is chargedup with an extraordinary vital energy. The Marinelli glacier, withdrawing, has provided life with more space, thus plants and animals have developed amazing strategies of survival and reclaim the land. Berries and colorful flowers are born from the moss, puppies of elephant seals, if one may use this expression – given that they weigh 150 kilos – doze while waiting for their fur to change which will allow them to dive into the icy waters.
The sensory perception of the surrounding environment changes, our senses acquire a new balance, the silence is broken only by the wind. The light is bright, intense and blinding. The biting air is odourless. In this place, there is a purity difficult to describe. A primeval land where nature has always beaten man and everything has remained intact. Going back to the cruise ship is like a warm breath of humanity. The circumstances and a good Chilean glass of wine contributes to social interaction. The Chilean biologist Vittorio Cuvertino is an expert in moss and lichens. He has an irrepressible passion for his work and the Tierra del Fuego, and following a romantic disappointment, has had to leave Italy, where he studied, in order to return and live here for good.
His enthusiasm is contagious: I listen fascinated to him for over two hours while he explained the survival techniques of plants and animals.
The heroic deed of the penguins
The dinghy leaves the ship again, and we sail fast towards the Tuckers islands. A huge colony of rowdy cormorants inhabit one of the small islands, the endless traffic of taking off and landing suggest a large airport hub reserved only for them. The penguins, on the other hand, are curious; they do not fear man since the Agreements on the preservation of fauna and flora of the Antarctic protects them from the hunters. Every year, they gather here, because soon the breeding period will begin. They observe us, and they move around us relaxed with their funny gait, as if we were part of the environment in which they live and they struggle. Yes, because these likeable creatures have a life at the limits of heroism. They mate in the coldest place of the world, they take turns to breed their chicks, turning the tide about conventions on gender roles; when the father takes on the breeding role, the mother looks for food, but they are forced to fast one hundred days and more. Their only egg or chick often becomes food for skuas and other seabirds; they swim in a sea full of predators among seals, killer whales and elephant seals. All pitiless laws of the Antarctic to which the penguins answer with commendable spirit of abnegation. Meanwhile the captain of the ship has set a new course, and we navigate in the narrow Beagle Channel. I meet him near the bridge, the door is open, and everyone can visit. The pilots navigate the Channel between the shallows and imposing glaciers in slow motion, the front little by little breaks, enormous pieces of ice fall into the water. Jaime Barrientos, the captain for over twenty years, recounts his seven months at sea, and his five months at home with his family in Valparaiso; not bad, he admits. He is fascinated by the history of the expeditions, following the timeline between 1500 and 1800, and in daily close contact with nature. He shows me the glaciers all around: “Here is what you see from the window of my office”, he comments satisfied. During the night, we arrive in Cape Horn; at dawn, everything is ready for disembarkation. 55.97° South – 67.27° West: they are the coordinates of this place feared by sailors throughout history. Magical also from a symbolic point of view: a small promontory separating the two greater oceans of the Earth, where the Pacific meets the Atlantic, and ferocious battle ensues.
The lighthouse keeper: pride and loneliness
While the rubber dinghies are lowered into the sea, Patricio Martinez, the head of expedition, starts telling a story. “An old sailors’ legend has it that just here the devil has remained imprisoned by tons of chains linked to the bottom of the sea. And when he desperately tries to free himself, he triggers terrible storms”. This morning instead the sea is calm, and the disembarkation almost a cakewalk. The lighthouse keeper is waiting for us, a naval officer of the Chilean navy: Carlos Bustos live here together with the family, the only inhabitants on the island. The lighthouse is a government station around which the keeper’s living quarters and a graceful wooden chapel have been built. During the summer, he remains in contact with the rest of the world thanks to tourism, but during the endless winters, when the sea demands seclusion, the only human contact is the helicopter pilot that comes every two months bringing him supplies. Why all this sacrifice, when the majority of the lighthouses by now are radio controlled? “The lighthouse has a great and important function for navigation in this area”, he tells me. “In the event of a breakdown it must be immediately repaired. The life of many people depends on me”, he concludes not hiding a trace of pride.
In the city of endless sunsets
The navigation ends in Ushuaia, the southernmost town of the planet. The line of departure for all Antarctic expeditions, the city is characterized by a particularly mild climate for these latitudes, with an average winter temperature of one degree. In the port there hundreds of sailing boat masts; they catch sight of the snow-capped summits of the glacier from the chain of the Matrial mountains, tucked away in primordial nature. It is the city of the sunsets that never end, of oblique light, of boundless prairies and of violent winds. It was born like a penal colony and the first human settlement was the prison built by the same inmates; then, in the 50s, it closed and the Argentine government began a city development plan. Carlo Borsari, a charismatic businessman from Emilia Romagna, won the contract and started the history of the Italian arrival at the end of the world. Today they make up approximately forty percent of the population. Ushuaia is living a happy moment of expansion and since 2007 it also hosts the “Bienal del fin del mundo”. Installations of contemporary art make unexpected space in this extreme territory. Maybe because for days on end there is nothing and nobody to see, maybe because of its colourful houses, and the streets overlooking the sea, but this small town has the warmth of a revival: in this moment one ends up again with what one is normally used to, and suddenly everything seems to be again a basic necessity. The stores, the bars, people, the cars become an extraordinary attraction when returning from travelling to the ends of the world. We stop for breakfast in the beautiful Ramos Generales, an old warehouse-blacksmith shop turned into a bar, restaurant and boutique. The perfect break before dropping into the office where the passport will receive the last stamp: that of the end of the world.