Travelogues: Tierra del Fuego 1998

Round Tierra del Fuego in a folding kayak

An account of a 9-week folding kayak tour through the Beagle Channel and the Magellan Strait, round South America's stormy southern tip.


Up to three areas of low pressure pass through this region every day, and after storms on a scale of nine, you also get periods of calm, when you can dream and rest





It is drizzling lightly as our machine lands in the world's most southern town in the early evening. Frank and I are planning to start our folding kayak tour, which is to take us all the way round Tierra del Fuego, in Ushuaia. But before we can get into our boats, we discover that South America's bureaucracy is just as bad as that of our own country, and we end up spending almost 2 days in customs. Finally, as soon as our paddles, which had also been delayed for 2 days, have made their way to us from Buenos Aires, we set off with enough provisions to last us about 3 weeks. The Beagle Channel welcomes us with rather uncharacteristically sunny and calm weather, so to start with, we are stewing in our own juices in our drysuits. But just a few days later, on our way east, the sea demonstrates that there is a good reason why so many ships have been shipwrecked on the rocks, or ended up at the bottom of the sea while trying to round Cape Horn.

This old two-master has seen better days. At high tide, it is flooded by waves and at the mercy of decay. Only a few birds are nesting in the formerhold.


Cape Horn is only about 100 kilometers further south, on an offshore island. When we first left Ushuaia, we were still in the shelter of one of the last Andean foothills and the offshore islands in the south. After a few days, however, we leave this region, and the Atlantic soon prevails. The wind mostly blows north from the west, so at least we don't have to battle with strong breakers. But even offshore winds on a scale of nine shouldn't be underestimated. The rocks only offer shelter up to 100 meters into the sea. If you're carried off course here, you go on an 800-kilometer journey towards Antarctica.

The trees have adapted to the prevailing wind direction. They only grow in fairly sheltered areas. Otherwise, the vegetation consists of knee-deep grasses and shrubs.





In the Bahia Thetis, directly before Cape San Vincente, we find Pater Fagnano's old missionary station Salesiano. A few dilapidated huts and hundreds of slowly decomposing cowhides speak of better days.


As there has been a strong wind for several days, a high swell has developed at Cape San Vincente. Directly at the Cape, a long tongue of shallow water juts out into the sea and breaks the waves. In addition to that, the current is flowing against the waves, thus increasing their effect. During our rounding of the Cape, the waves, which are two-and-a-half metres high to begin with, grow to six metres. Our tiny boats are at their mercy. What makes it harder is that the waves are coming from two different directions. Paddling forward is almost impossible in this situation. Both of us are now simply trying to brace our boats against the paddle blades in the lightly breaking waves. We can only see each other during the short moments that we are both on top of the crest of a wave. One of these waves gets Frank, and capsizes his heavily laden boat. He has to get out. Together, we manage to get him back into the boat. Our attempts to pump out his boat, which is filled with water, are ruined several times by the breakers, as the spraydeck is no match for this violent onslaught. Over half an hour passes before we are able to paddle on. In the meantime, fog has settled over everything, and we discover that the current has carried us back. We're exhausted when we head for the same bay we left from in the morning, after 4 hours in the boat.

The next morning, we make a second attempt, this time under much better conditions. This time, the weather is on our side. We round the Cape without problems, and a few hours later, we come upon a pod of killer whales, which are moving south only 50 meters away from us. Two of theyounger animals make a short detour, to have a look at two strange-looking objects in the water, from which two tourists are peering fearfully into the depths. But their curiosity is quickly satisfied. They return to the other whales, and soon our pulse rates drop below 200 per minute again.


Due to lack of time, and because we're not that excited by the north of Tierra del Fuego, we take the bus from Rio Grande to Punta Arenas. We end up spending 5 days in Punta Arenas, that's how long it takes to get the necessary permits from the Chilean Armada. Punta Arenas is one of the windiest regions ever. We're camping in the garden of a guest-house, on the lee side. Yet we still lose a tent pole in a squall, and the outer tent gets badly damaged, so that serious repairs are necessary. This same squall has even uprooted big trees in the town's park. We realize that we have to wait for the right conditions to cross the Magellan Strait.

During our wait in Punta Arenas, we visit a colony of Magellan Penguins, which breed in caves. This station has been created in collaboration with Frankfurt Zoo. We had often observed these birds in the water while paddling, but never before on land.


Right now, the 2.400-meter high Monte Sarmiento is visible from Punta Arenas, even though it is about 100 kilometers away. According to the locals, the weather will now stay calm for 3 days. We use this time to cross the Magellan Strait and to get to the southern channels. As the wind has started up again, we decide against taking the south-westerly route and tackle a pass between two channels on foot instead.

The pass is only 5 kilometers wide and 500 meters high at the most. However, due to the at times dense jungle, the swamp, and our unwieldy folding kayak and bags, these 2-and-a-half days turn out to be the most exhausting days of our entire trip.





When we finally reach the Beagle Channel, we are greeted with unusual weather - sun and calm.


There are high, at times glaciated, mountains on both sides of the Beagle Channel. We are now coming across broken-off ice, and here, Frank is rehearsing an emergency, in case his boat should finally give up the ghost.





You have to be careful close to the glaciers' breakoff edges. The tidal wave caused by this breakoff almost swept away our boats, which were resting on the rocks.

We are having a truly relaxing time in the Beagle Channel, and we keep passing bays with glacial breakoffs and rocks with colonies of sea lions.





Because the weather is so calm, and the difficult conditions that our schedule allows for don't materialize, we are left with plenty of time on our hands every night, and we enjoy the pleasant sides of such a tour (i.e. baking cookies, relaxing, bird watching). Hake, sardines, mussels and sea urchins now improve our normally rather monotonous menu.



A view from above of the Beagle Channel and its sheltered bays. In the foreground is one of the rare sandy beaches.





From up here, we watch for a long time as a young condor attempts to fly for the first time with the help of the upwind



In the evening, we watch a large flock of albatrosses, which are swimming around in our bay. Upon closer observation, we realize that large shoals of sardines are moving along the shore. We quickly take off our shoes and trousers and have a go at fishing, armed with our pots and pans. The shoals grow ever denser, and we start to use our bare hands. It feels like reaching into a bucket full of fish.



In the midst of the shoals, we discover hake, which are feeding on the sardines. They are washed ashore by the light waves, and before they can get back into the water, we grab them and throw them higher up the beach. Thus, we end up with 50 sardines, 13 hake, and fairly numb fingers that night. Once in a while, Neptune is very good to us.


A few days later, we reach Ushuaia, and herewith the end point of our journey. The first snows on the mountains around the town tell us that the summer is coming to an end, and that the time has come for us to go home.