Hit the Road: March with the penguins

Hit the Road: March with the penguins
Weather conditions permitting on Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet, visitors can climb the 160-plus steps to the 22-foot-high monument. Designed by a Chilean artist and made of steel plates that are supposed to withstand 200-mph winds, the monument was blown down in December 2014. The artwork depicting an albatross memorializes the hundreds of sailors who have died in the turbulent waters below. Photos by Jerry Ondash

Here in the Strait of Magellan, at the bottom of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet, it’s all about the weather.

The captain and crew of the Ventus Australis have said repeatedly that if weather conditions aren’t right — and much of the time they aren’t –—we won’t be boarding Zodiac rafts to get an up-close look at some of the 4,000 Magellanic penguins who call Tucker Islets home.

But good fortune is with us; winds and waves are conducive to landing at the penguins’ doorstep and the loveable birds don’t disappoint.

Named after explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first saw and described them in 1519, these Magellanic penguins enjoy life on Tucker Islets, small rocky outcroppings in the Strait of Magellan. A visit with these much-loved birds is part of the 17-day Patagonian Frontiers Tour offered by Odysseys Unlimited.

They waddle and toddle and do their penguin things despite the rafts loaded with bundled-up humans observing them. It’s mid-March and time for teenaged birds to fly the coop – or more accurately, leave the colony. We can identify teen birds because their black-colored bands are not yet distinct. And as far as I can tell, much like their human counterparts, they aren’t going anywhere. 

Today is the second day of our five-day cruise on the Ventus Australis, a 200-passenger expedition ship that makes repeated voyages around the end of the South American continent. The cruise is part of the Odysseys Unlimited 17-day Patagonian Frontiers Tour that starts in Santiago and ends in Buenos Aires. In between, in addition to the cruise, the tour takes visitors to several national parks in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.   

I admit it; I’m pretty excited to be in this part of the world, only 600 miles from Antarctica.

We’ve heard tales from others who’ve taken this cruise through the mess of waterways, islands and fjords between Puntas Arenas and Ushuaia. While the scenery is spectacular, weather conditions are unpredictable and can be treacherous in this stretch of water discovered by Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal, and explored further by Sir Francis Drake of Britain in the 1500s. Charles Darwin sailed this way in the 1830s. 

“Don’t ask the captain what the weather forecast is,” one crew member told us. “They never predict more than two hours out.”

So far we’ve been lucky. We’ve had only one rocky night, some strong winds on land, and snow flurries early this morning. On this fourth day of the cruise, we hold our collective breath. Finally, our landing at Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) is a go.

After the Zodiacs arrive on the beach, it is our job to climb the 160-plus steps to the top of this giant, treeless rock. After emerging from the protection of the thickly vegetated cliffs (it rains here between 50 inches and 80 inches annually), an icy wind blasts our layered wear. Within a few minutes, my fingers are too frozen to work my cell phone camera, so I hand it to my husband whose internal heater works much better than mine.

Before is Cape Horn’s 22-foot steel monument with its albatross silhouette. It looks like a massive Christmas tree ornament, standing solidly against the rolling dark clouds. Occasionally a beam of sunshine breaks through and provides even more drama. I can’t imagine this structure blowing over as it did in December 2014.

A photo in front of the monument is a must, then we peak into the tiny, rustic Capilla Stella Maris (Chapel Star of the Sea), a respite from the frigid wind. Then it’s time to meet the Chilean naval officer/lighthouse keeper and his wife, who home-schools their daughter in this lonely outpost. In more-than-adequate English, he explains that you have to win a lottery to get this post.

Yes, he chooses to be here.

“I like this because I can spend time with my family,” he explains. “Otherwise, I’m gone all the time on a ship.”

We step out of the lighthouse and are blasted straight-on by tiny ice pellets. My face feels as though hundreds of pins are coming at me. I’m torn between wanting to stay to experience this unusual weather and thinking we should get the heck out. The choice is made for us. Our guides are waving us on, indicating that we must hurry, because the weather is going to get even crazier. 

I guess we’ve pushed our luck as far as we should.

For information on Odysseys Unlimited tours, visit https://odysseys-unlimited.com. For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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