JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE WORLD
By Carol L. Bowman
Part Three—From Land to Sea
Torre del Paine to Punta Arenas
As our bus climbed in elevation, the Andean peaks enveloped us on all sides. The flatness and stark emptiness of the Patagonian steppes gave way to Beech tree forests of Chile’s Torre del Paine National Park. Spurred by the breath of early spring, the greens of budding bushes and leafing trees enhanced the landscape’s depth.
A climatic phenomenon introduced itself to the group. Within two short hours, we experienced all four seasons. Suited up for the current elements, a winter-like snowy wind bounced off water repellant outerwear and smacked pink cheeks peeking out from a hood’s protection. We hiked along a black gravel beach that fronted an iceberg crowded lake. Later the snow turned to a spring like drizzle, as we trudged to the top of a connected peninsula for a trillion dollar view.
Suddenly, the sun popped from behind the clouds. Arched over the lake, the prism of a rainbow reflected dreamlike colors off ice formations. The warmth of the rays proved too intense for alpine coats, mufflers and mittens. One by one, the layers peeled off, gloves tucked in pockets, hoods pushed back. It felt like a summer sweat. Moisture evaporating from the skin, along with the sting of an autumn chill forced zippers back up, completing the cycle.
The dominant image in Torre del Paine National Park, the 12 million year old Andean Horned Towers called the Paine Massif, played hide and seek. Shrouded in misty swirls of snow, the peaks exposed their sheerness, but disappeared within blinks. Each camera seemed obsessed, pointed upward in case the horns offered a quick glimpse. Would our lenses feel the excitement of a clear shot?
Despite the sound of camera clicks from different angles, the clouds prevailed and we settled for less than perfect pix. On second thought, the very fact that we stood in Patagonia before the mighty Horned Towers, a rare privilege by itself, the images captured proved priceless.
In contrast to campers fighting gale force winds in scattered lean-tos, we spent our night, inside the park, huddled under down comforters at Hotel Rio Serrano, a luxurious, Danish modern lodge. Savoring the spellbinding Andean views, wild flower meadows and glacier fed lakes, we hiked again upon rising, consumed by this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
On to Rio Verde, a working Chilean sheep and cattle estancia since the late 1800s, boasting 10,000 head of cattle, 6,000 sheep and 400 horses, for our last land-based sleep before heading to the seas.
During our overnight stay, we supped on free range lamb, scouted for ibis nests tucked among the rocks high above the inland sea’s shore and watched the annual wool gathering frenzy, as electric shears buzzed each sheep in less than two minutes. We soothed our cold bodies with plenty of warm Chilean, mulled wine. The estancia proved to be the perfect stop, grounding us before pushing the last 60 miles across Patagonia to Punta Arenas, Chile.
Considered the southern most city on the South American continent, Punta Arenas at 53 degrees latitude vies for this distinction with Ushuia, Argentina, which at 55 degrees latitude technically lies further south. Ushuia lies on the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, separated from the continent by a thin ribbon of Magellan Straits, making this land mass an island. The dispute of most southern city continues unabated between Chile and Argentina.
We boarded the 100-passenger Via Australis in Punta Arenas, for a five day expedition through the Straits of Magellan, Beagle Channel and our ultimate goal, Cape Horn. The same wonderment that dazzled Magellan on his sea route to the end of the world 500 hundred years ago waited patiently.
Only 54 passengers made this first expedition of the 2009-2010 navigable season. Our roomy cabin with picture window, perfect for glacier viewing, the open bar policy, Chilean wines flowing without limit and learning/discovery lectures offered by the naturalist team on board, provided spacious, but intimate quarters for our sea odyssey.
The daunting challenge, learning to board and disembark the unstable, motorized, rubber zodiac boats used for two landings a day, loomed. The team emphasized over and over the importance of avoiding a shocking plunge into the ice filled water. With layers of water proof protection, knee high Wellington boots and a sturdy life vest, a mandatory constant companion, I glued my eyes and ears to the safe boarding instructions. The image of Rose hanging onto an iceberg off the Titanic raced through my mind. Anxiety rose within me as our virgin zodiac landing neared.