TIERRA DEL FUEGO
Happily bogged down and all at sea exploring Argentina’s icy tip
Brian Berkman goes trekking in the southernmost city on the globe, Argentina’s Ushuai
Getting bogged down, stuck in the mud, beavering away and being sure-footed may all be shoptalk clichés, but they are very real adjectives for trekking in the southernmost city on the globe, Argentina’s Ushuaia.
The Tierra del Fuego archipelago that incorporates Cape Horn, the most southerly land mass before reaching the Antarctic, is perhaps most famous for the kidnapped Fuegians who were paraded in front of Queen Victoria as a curiosity after being "civilised" by the British. When they were returned to the islands, they were dispatched with a missionary.
Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, the ship that carried the Fuegians home, and observing what transpired helped to galvanise his theories published in On the Origin of Species. To think Tierra del Fuego is to think wildest man.
Ushuaia, once just a navy outpost and penal colony, tends to be the point from which naturalists and adventurers explore the Tierra del Fuego national park.
Travelling in South America comes with challenges most elegantly described by Holland America Lines’ Destination Guide, Wallis Hutton, with the word "maybe".
Will the ship arrive on time? Will customs officials be on duty? Will any local shops be open? The answer to these and many other questions is a resounding "maybe", which is why we decided to book a Holland America Lines excursion rather than make our own plans.
South African Airways and TAAG fly into São Paulo from Johannesburg and Latam will take you to Buenos Aires to meet the ship.
While a package comes at a greater cost, the saving — especially if the ship is significantly delayed by local authorities, as it was in the preceding port — is manifold. The requisite rescheduling happens behind the scenes.
Fellow travellers who decided to make their own arrangements were found making costly ship-to-shore calls and using the exorbitant onboard internet access to try to salvage their arrangements.
To the northeast of Ushuaia is the Tierra Mayor Valley. Bogs are created by millennia-long organic matter that is trapped by glaciers and heavy winter snow to form an alive and deceptively unsolid surface.
To the eye, the green and rust-coloured plains seem stable enough. But put a foot wrong, and you will be in knee-deep.
Tony, our guide for the two-and-a-half-hour hike through the bogs and into the lenga forest suggested we use the knee-high Wellington boots on offer. Take it from me: wear your own shoes at their peril.
The 23 in our group seemed mostly people in their 60s and beyond, which surprised me given that the excursion was described as strenuous. Turns out there are many folks in their 70s who are much fitter than I am.
Bogs are different from mud in that they first give the illusion of being fairly firm, like damp beach sand, just near the water’s edge. The confidence of being on semi-solid land was short-lived as our booted feet sank into the bog as if being called to by sirens from the deep. Stepping out not only required a concerted push, but also made a sound not unlike a stifled fart.
Around us, the high peaks of the Andes were blanketed in snow. Even in late December, the high temperatures hovered at around a brisk 10ºC. We were lucky, as the common winds were not prevalent and, except for about 20 minutes, our hike was free from rain, which is typically plentiful.
The forests look as lush and verdant as Knysna forests and our guides helpfully knotted ropes to trees at some of the trickier inclines to help our ascent. And, continuing their trend of helpfulness, Tony and two other guides lent a hand at a steep descent and at river crossings.
I wistfully imagined myself as a local Fuegian so in tune with the environment that I would know just by looking where it was safe to step.
In the Alvear Mountains, we visited the two waterfalls before heading back to the log cabin with its wood-fired stove and generous invitation to strongly brewed coffee, tea and maté, a steeped tea in the gaucho tradition. Cheese rolls and a locally baked apple cake were also offered.
As a passenger on any cruise ship knows, wall-to-wall food comes as standard. With their Culinary Council of land-based restaurateurs, Holland America Lines have a special focus on the quality and variety of their cuisine.
On our ship, MS Zaandam, New York’s famous Le Cirque restaurant was operating a pop-up Le Cirque in the ship’s Pinnacle Grill. The on-board $50 Le Cirque menu would cost many times that on land.
Opting to have most meals in the elegant Rotterdam dining room rather than the Lido buffet marketplace-style eatery makes for a more relaxing experience. I found the staff on board better and more warm than land-based staff.
By the end of our 14-day South American cruise, which began in Buenos Aires and ended in Chile’s Valparaiso port, we had great affection for all the staff with whom we interacted, from dining stewards to cabin attendants.
Adding great value to the thrill of navigating Cape Horn, were stops at Port Stanley in The Falklands to see the windswept British enclave the Argentinians tried to wrestle back unsuccessfully in 1982; the crumbling grandeur of Uruguay’s Montevideo and the most sensational braaied meat feast in the La Chacra del Puerto (R300 for more than you can eat); and Punta Arenas’s famous statue of Magellan, its buffed brass foot burnished by the constant posing for a photo in front of it and touching his foot as a promise to return.
Holland America’s description of the route as scenic cruising is a gross understatement. With each day that passes, the scenery becomes ever grander — from the vast El Brujo glacier in Asia Fjord, which is another glacier spilling from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field to the snow-covered mountains in the fjords so close we might be able to reach out to touch them — there is always something spectacular to see.
Even when out on the open sea, the ship was escorted by albatross and other seabirds at the ready to feast on the krill churned up in the wake.
The danger is not getting bogged down, stuck in the mud or being seduced by the sirens of the deep.
The real danger is from a cuisine so plentiful and in such high quality that serious over-indulgence cannot be undone by endless laps around the promenade deck or hours in the sauna.
It would seem Darwin was right after all — our nature is to return to our wilder selves at the earliest opportunity.