‘I, the albatross that waits for you at the end of the world…’
Thus begins the poem which is etched into the memorial plaque at Cape Horn. It continues, ‘I, the forgotten soul of the sailors lost that crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world’.
Poet Sara Vial’s words resonate in this hugely emotive place, Cape Horn, the ‘end of the world’, where over the centuries countless sailors lost their lives in the hazardous waters. For many of them, their ‘journey of a lifetime’ resulted in death. It is not surprising — the strong winds, large waves, strong currents — not to mention icebergs– have made Cape Horn notorious for being a sailors’ graveyard. It is a place that I have yearned to visit all my life… the irresistible Sirens’ Song calling me to ‘the end of the world’. After months of planning, I am on my way at last, having joined a cruise ship at the port of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to follow in the wake of Charles Darwin and sail through the Beagle Channel towards Cape Horn.
The cruise ship’s itinerary has been well planned. We are treated to a dawn visit, via rubber Zodiac boats, to Isla Magdalena, home to some 60,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins. I am overwhelmed by the din of their morning calls and screeches, and watch transfixed as these little black and white creatures waddle determinedly to the sea. The next day finds us navigating around ice floes till we come upon two glorious blue-tinted glaciers. We wait, in silence, for a chunk of ice to break off or ‘calve’ into
the freezing waters, and are rewarded with a huge splash and reverberating dynamite-like bang. Later, as we return from a visit to picturesque Waluaia Bay, our inflatable is escorted by a school of frolicking dolphins, teasing us as they leap up then disappear, the perfect marine entertainment.
During the night we continue towards the Cape, the world’s southernmost landmass, at the north edge of the Drake Passage, the strait between South America and Antarctica. Famous names such as Sir Francis Drake and Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty flood my memory – names and stories full of romance as well as tragedy.
Despite its weight, the ship is buffeted by the rough currents created by the convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I sleep fitfully, knowing that when I wake up, I shall finally be there, and my journey of a lifetime will be complete.
At 6.30am sixteen of us from the cruise ship clamber excitedly into the Zodiac to cross the choppy, grey waters to the mooring at the base of the 160-step climb to Cape Horn National Park. It is the 26th of March and 8 degrees Celsius. I am glad to be wrapped up in my thick jacket, woollen hat, scarf and gloves. The sky is overcast, the diffused sun providing no heat.
Reaching the top, I trudge along the 328 meter wooden walkway which traverses a soggy peat bog and arrive at the majestic steel sculpture, rising some 50 meters above sea level, representing an albatross in flight. It is here that I read Sara Vial’s poem…and begin to appreciate this legendary bird in its native setting. The albatross
is the emblem of the Cape Horn Captains’ International Brotherhood and this exquisite monument is their memorial to all the men of the sea from every nation who lost their lives fighting against the merciless forces of nature symbolised by Cape Horn. My respect for the explorers and sailors of the past knows no bounds. I hear their muted voices and sense their ageless souls in this mystical place.
The sun is now fully risen. The bleak hill on which the sculpture stands is transformed into a glowing red-gold. Around me are grasses, moss and lichen, and a leafy groundcover with small, white, daisy-like flowers. The skuas are flying, dipping and soaring, as I peer into the swirling waters below.
The March air is cold so I scuttle along the walkway to the shelter of a small chapel whose interior contains the basic accoutrements of the rituals of the Catholic church. Picturing a simple Mass taking place within its walls, I depart and make my way, head down against the wind, to the lonely lighthouse.
Once inside, I climb the winding steps, eager to get the view from every vantage point. I sign the ‘guest book’ so that posterity will know that I was there. My journey of a lifetime, to visit the End of the World, has been accomplished. I have seen the fabled albatross and survived to tell the tale.