Patagón means Big Foot. It is a name given by the Spanish, and not by the indigenous Indians. We seem to call every aboriginee in the Americas an Indian, as long as he does not live on the poles (then it is either an Eskimo or a penguin). If you ask me, perhaps, I tend to see Tierra del Fuego as the foot, with the toes, and the continent as a big fat leg.

Before we got there though, we had to make a big jump from the bottom up, from Anvers Island. The information panels on the ship showed us arriving at Cape Horn by Tuesday morning at eight. In my humble opinion that had to hogwash. To cover the 500 miles in eighteen hours we lacked engine power and extra propellers, not counting adverse conditions. In the Facebook and iPad era, thinking is no longer in fashion, such that, apart from the sloppiness of the cruise management, some were standing on the bow at seven thirty to get a good shot of Cape Hoorn, unfortunately still twelve hours away … Pretty soon we don’t need to have an April Fool’s Day anymore: we will celebrate it every day!

After all the rough seas in Antarctica, the Drake Passage was, if not a pleasant reprieve, a bit less punishing; but just a bit. The captain suggested that we were lucky: in his experience the conditions were “pretty good”. The sun was definitely shining and the horizon existed, visibly so. The clemency of the ocean was relative though, for the waves were about seven feet but the swell from the Pacific – the furious fifties – was estimated to be upwards of sixteen feet. Arithmetic – here I go again! – teaches us that the maximum waves will be twenty four feet, or more. And they were! Actually, every so often, spread anywhere between thirty and ninety seconds apart, we were hit by a “big long wave”: it pummels and lifts the ship from portside bow such that it shudders across its full length. Seaman’s legs were called for if you wanted to move about. We made it to Cape Horn by 1900hrs and, contrary to its usual garments – fog and rain – it was basking in the fading sunshine! Just splendid.

Ushuaia woke up under an open sky. And we were presented a picture postcard panorama with all the required ingredients. Less than an hour after docking, I was on my way to the Lumberjack Trail, an old logging route through the wilderness, in a 4×4. I can affirm that the all-terrain vehicle was an absolute necessity; never before have I been in a situation where all the features of a sturdy jeep have been tested as thoroughly as in this “raid”. In Tierra del Fuego, that is what you need to have, if you want to sight beavers and red foxes … and to gain access to the crisp beauty of the highest alps and valleys.

Our guide made this tour an indelible success, thanks to his in-depth knowledge of nature, his passionate talking, his excellent English and his remarkable driving skills. One of the interesting stories that he told us, concerns the beavers, which are not indigenous to the island. About fifty years ago, English fur dealers started breading Canadian beavers in captivity. However, because of the climate, these animals “adapted”, and the thickness of their hives decreased by more than half. Uneconomical, the business was abandoned and the beavers … set free. Initially they were kept in check by the red foxes, but these got almost hunted to extinction (also for hives). The beaver community flourished!

To stop their expansion – their dams caused a lot of damage to the trees of the primary forests (predominantly “lenga”, local beech species). Therefore it was decided to import “grey foxes” from Southern Patagonia. The decision had been taken hastily and produced unintended effects. First, the biggest beavers had become too strong for the grey foxes, who are supposed to be natural beaver predators, to kill. Secondly, and overlooked but critically important, the grey foxes are plain dwellers. They did not at all like the mountainous terrain of the Southern tip! As a consequence, they “shut their shop and moved”, almost immediately, towards the North side, where they attacked the sheep in the many farms! The last episode, for now, is that the government pays beaver trappers 25 pesos (US$ 6) per tail, which is apparently too little to attract enough “bounty hunters” to tackle this serious problem, while the forests suffer more with each passing day.

The “talk of Ushuaia” concerned not beavers though, but rather octopus. I should say the “Octopus”. Indeed, this gorgeous deep-blue yacht was moored in the harbor, opposite from the Prinsendam. Our guide told us that it belonged to Paul Allen, adding, you know, “the Paul Allen from Microsoft”. It is still supposed to sail for Antarctica one of these days, or weeks, they say. Apparently, two weeks ago, Paul Allen and Cameron Diaz had landed (with a private plane) at the international airport, about ten kilometers out of town. While I have not seen any traffic jams anywhere around Ushuaia, a helicopter – part of the yacht’s regular operations – was readied to take off from the Octopus’ helipad, situated on the stern. Seconds after lift-off, in very strong winds, the helicopter stalled, crashed into the water, and sank. The pilot was saved and the machine was hoisted out of the water by a big crane the day afterwards. Paul & Cameron got on board by means of another helicopter, which had hastily been chartered. How they passed their time afterwards had not been communicated … to the locals.

With that unexpected touristic “encore” – Octopus is a pearl; it permanently sports also a helicopter and a mini submarine (visible in the back of the helipad) – we set sail for the continent, through the Beagle Channel, and past the Cordillera Darwin. The weather gods were protecting us, and Mother Nature complied by dishing up exquisite panoramas, filled with granite peaks, steely glaciers, waterfalls, forest, peat moss, little inlets and fjords … Darwin and Fitz Roy must have marveled, for hundred and sixty years ago, it undoubtedly must have more brilliant still. Our cruise-by was commented by an expert, so that I was busy for four hours, running in and out of my cabin, taking many pictures, all part of the “Oooh” and ”Woow” and “Geee” species, or genus, as the case may be. I need not explain that it was breath taking, both literally and figuratively.

The Patagonian adventure was supposed to get an extension on the mainland, in Punta Arenas. That would be the start of our ten day visit to the most extreme “length-over-width” country on earth. The early encounter, at seven in the morning, was sobering. Compared to Ushuaia this port city was not a pretty sight. We could have guessed, because, apart from the southern part of “Fireland”, all of Patagonia is essential flat, and arid.

Punta Arenas was surrounded by a few gently rolling hills, the highest reaching 600m or 2000ft. In front of the hills the Straits of Magellan measures fifteen miles wide, and beyond these hills flatness reigns supreme. Rather than visiting penguin colonies, sheep farms, old colonial forts or once-booming haciendas, I had decided, uncharacteristically, to go for a walk – from the top of the highest hill, through the primary “lenga” forest to the foot of … the chairlift! And what a chairlift it was. Last time I saw a similar contraption was in 1973, in a little alpine village in Switzerland – when skiing was just a pass-time, not a business.

The chairlift did not instill a lot of confidence, not even after one of the machinists demonstrated that one (at least) had survived a ride to the top. In the end, the greatest challenge was the wind. Wind is ubiquitous in these areas, and it is a very particular flow: it smells and tastes metallic, it seemingly cuts its way through clothes, as well. On the other hand, it carries with it an intense and fresh purity. I guess that the best way to describe it is to christen it as a “platinum wind”, very cool and crisp, yet very noble.

The walk was wonderful, primarily because, as is the case with many facets of nature down here, it is unique. I have never walked through a forest like it. The tortured beech trees are showing their different wounds – bent, cut or sliced, by cold, rain and wind. The open roof – i.e. the absence of a canopy, and the varied undergrowth, give it all an inviting, sun-lit atmosphere.. “Deedeleedee”, indigenous blueberries and mushberries (fungi actually, but staple food for the aboriginal Indians) were ripe and inviting to be picked. All in all, another feast for the senses.

To conclude, and since Punta Arenas itself has little else that is worthwhile to mention, I ought to report our encounter with an old, and abandoned coal mine. Indeed, as we were descending a slippery, somewhat steep and circuitous path in the forest, we ended up at a hole, filled to the brim with black water. The ventilation duct – for that is what we had stumbled onto – was squared off: four sturdy round poles at the corners, and twee lateral planks, about 4 inches wide, one at chest height, and the other a couple of feet above the ground.

If the guide would not have told us what was in front of us – a waterlogged pit of fifty meters (one hundred and sixty feet) deep, we would not have had a clue (the old mine entrance was further down the path). No information board, warning or danger sign, nothing, apart from the silent wooden enclosure. Perhaps it shows that these places are still “wilderness”, places where you venture at your own risk. What made it all the more remarkable to me was that, on my daily extract of the New York Times, the headline read: A Life’s Value May Depend on Agency”. The article went on to explain how different agencies “calculate” the value of a human life. In 2008 that value averaged about five million dollars and today the number has increased to almost eight million, and mounting. In the South of Chili they obviously are not thinking off the same sheet. Maybe they do not think about it at all. A philosopher would wonder why.

Prinsendam, Day 44 – Thursday Feb 17th, 2011

Coming up: two days of cruising through the fjords. Will the Weather Gods continue loving us?