Rounding Cape Horn

Posted by Graham Howe on 30 April 2012

We visited the South Shetland Islands on the way to (and back from) Antarctica and back. The South Shetlands are a sort of gateway to the Antarctic – and Port Foster was a base for all the early sealers, explorers and whalers. Passing through a narrow passage named Neptune’s Bellows (once called Hell’s Gates), we landed at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island set in the sunken caldera of an old, active volcano – only one of three similar islands in the world, including Santorini in the faraway Aegean.

All the rusty old whale blubber tanks and sagging wooden huts are there – and the beach is littered with old whale bones. Whaler’s Bay is a sad place, a shrine to the tens of thousands of whales massacred by the old whalers – whaling on industrial scale which only stopped as recently as 1964. Whales are such beautiful creatures. All ships are under orders to leave the area immediately if the volcano erupts (the last time was in 1970) – “ideally with the passengers onboard!” We climbed to the top of Neptune’s Window on the slopes of the volcano. You can swim in the thermal waters!

We also landed at Hannah Point on Livingstone Island in the South Shetlands – where we saw the only rock star macaroni penguin (easily spotted with its wild red and orange tassels over the eyebrows) in a huge colony of adelie penguins – as well as southern elephant seals – known as sea elephants – which are ginormous and weigh up to 3,5 tons! (The females are lighter at 1000 kgs!).They were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century. These giant seals with their big protruding proboscis (trunk like nose) are very comical to watch up-close, chilling out on the beach, play-fighting and using fins to cover their moulting skins with sand like sun cream!

Our expedition cruise ended with a surprise outing. The crossing back on the Drake Passage was apparently the smoothest in living memory – and the winds easterly in an area renowned for its fierce south-westerlies. So the Captain announced at a special party that he’d take L’Austral on an unscheduled outing around the legendary Cape Horn! Accompanied by the giant petrels and wandering albatrosses – the stuff of mariner’s legends with a wingspan of 3,5m – we rounded the Horn.

We also landed at the lighthouse nearby – and had our passports stamped with the legend Cabo de Hornos in Chile so we can prove it! There is a small wooden chapel there called Stella Marie – Star of the Sea – and an amazing giant abstract sculpture of the albatross in steel – as well as a monument to the old mariners who braved the Horn and to Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy who captained the Beagle when Darwin wason board on his legendary expedition. I met the lighthouse keeper who has one of the loneliest jobs in the world – and wants us to send him emails over winter!

When we weren’t ashore, I interviewed the captain, the expedition leader, naturalists, the executive chef and the head butler! Xavier Medicin the butler who looks after the passengers in the suites on the top sixth reminded me of a penguin in his black and white tails! He works for the International Butler Academy and lives in Pacific Heights where he trains butlers for Hollywood stars and celebrities!

L’Austral is a very green ship so recycling of refuse is a serious business – especially all the wine bottles on a French liner! All the house wines of excellent quality are included in the fare as well as all excursions which means there are no hidden costs. Nicolas Dubreuil, the expedition leader is a veteran of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions – and has led cruises here for seven years. He’s a real ambassador for the Antarctic. The naturalists are from all around the world from France and Costa Rica to Germany and very enthusiastic and knowledgeable – with a thirst for adventure.

Company Ponant offers regular luxury cruises around the world on their mega-yachts – as well as expeditions to the Baffin Sea, Hudson Bay, Iceland and Greenland. We did the regular ten-day Antarctic cruise but they also offer a 14-day cruise which visits the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, the island called the Serengeti of the south which is a cradle of polar wildlife with 400 000 king penguins, albatrosses and many other species. The Lonely Planet Guide to the Antarctic is essential reading – and you can buy it in Antarctica at Port Lockroy – plus a large-scale map to the area.

The Ponant cruise line provides a polar dress code for the Antarctic landings. You can hire the knee-length waterproof wellies which get delivered to your cabin door – but we bought our own for future expeditions! Shopping for polar gear in a heat wave in mid-summer in Cape Town was a challenge – but we found most of what we needed at Cape Union Mart – thermal long johns, waterproof ski pants and gloves, mufflers and fleeces which filled our suitcases! The liner gives everyone a special red expedition parka which you get to keep as a souvenir or for the Cape winter!

On board its snug, cosy and warm with an informal dress code even at the captain’s gala dinner. Although it is summer in the Antarctic from Nov – Feb the wind chill factor keeps temperatures fairly low in the boat and on shore though rarely below freezing point. You learn to jump into freezing water from the zodiacs and only get your wellies get wet! Dressing up in all your gear twice daily for landings is a ritual.

Visiting the Antarctic is like falling off the planet. Going back to Buenos Aires en route home was a shock – returning to a crowded landscape of people, traffic, high-rises and urban noise. Antarctica is one of the most amazing destinations I’ll visit in my lifetime. The last great wilderness. Where next? I’ve added the Arctic, Galapagos and Greenland to the top of my bucket list! I hope I get to use my new wellies soon.


For expedition itineraries of L’Austral and Compagnie du Ponant around the world, contact their agents in South Africa: Development Promotions – tel 011 442 0822 or see

For a quick and easy way to book a memorable cruise anywhere in the world, visit Getaway Cruises

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