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Cruising the Fjords of Tierra del Fuego

Stepping onto an expedition ship that is bound for one of the most remote regions of planet Earth is a thrilling experience. We watched the twinkling lights of Punta Arenas gradually fade in the distance as we began crossing the Strait of Magellan, the gateway to a labyrinth of channels that define the most southern extreme of Patagonia. This felt like the stuff of epic adventure.

Flying into Punta Arenas, Chile 🇨🇱 via Santiago from Buenos Aires is an exciting flight. We flew over the world’s longest mountain range, the Andes, marvelling at the snow-covered peaks after a rather warm few days in Argentina 🇦🇷.

We boarded the Mare Australis for a 4 night/3 day expedition cruise 🚢 to Ushuaia in Argentina. Along with our fellow 80 or so passengers, we looked forward to the next few days exploring the most spectacular parts of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. This was our very first cruise and we were impressed with the spacious cabins, and the large windows for taking in the dramatic scenery.

We had some free time to explore the ship before the Captain’s introduction, and were impressed with the lovely lounges where we could enjoy drinks or coffee and snacks, along with stunning views all around. 

On the first night we were served cocktails and delicious canapés in the lounge while the Captain’s introduced everyone to his officers, crew and expedition team. We were also given a run through all the safety instructions. Then it was time for dinner, a wonderful 4-course sit down affair complete with superb Argentinean and Chilean wines. We got to know our dining companions, a lovely Greek family, while our ship slipped through the Whiteside Canal between Darwin Island and Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.

Waking up on the first morning was really exciting. By dawn the ship was sailing up Admiralty Sound (Seno Almirantazgo), a spectacular offshoot of the Strait of Magellan that stretches nearly halfway across Tierra del Fuego. The snowcapped peaks of Karukinka Natural Park stretch along the north side of the sound, while the south shore is defined by the deep fjords and broad bays of Alberto de Agostini National Park. It was then off to the dining room for a hearty breakfast before heading to the main lounge for instructions. We changed into our outdoor gear. It was the first expedition of the summer season and the air was still chilly (approximately 5 degrees). Somehow it didn’t matter that it was cold because the sun was shining and we had the right clothing. We wore waterproof pants over our jeans and plenty of thermal layers together with gloves and beanies. We were nice and toasty and raring to go!

Our first disembarkation of the trip was to be in Ainsworth Bay, the site of the Marinelli Glacier which comes from the Darwin Range Ice Fields.

We were split into small groups each of which was allocated a Zodiac craft, and an expedition guide to talk us through the location, the wildlife and plant life of the area.  The feeling of remoteness was fantastic, with nothing but beautiful, uninterrupted views! Bobbing around in the Zodiac, keeping an eye out for birds and wildlife whilst breathing in the freshest of fresh air, really makes you realise how far removed you are from the rest of the world… it was perfect. 

The guides were impressively knowledgeable and they answered all our questions, no matter how obscure. We walked along the edge of a stream, peat bog and beaver habitat to a waterfall-and-moss-covered rock face tucked deep inside a pristine sub-polar forest. We loved the gorgeous early spring colours and our day was made when we spotted a red fox! We really enjoyed exploring and learning all about the beautiful area.

Before getting back on the zodiacs it was time for a glass of whiskey, served with a roughly hacked chunk of glacial ice (as you do).

Once back on board, lunch was a buffet affair with lots of delicious choice, along with some excellent South American wines to wash it down. We made some new friends over a glass or two of wine, Rankin and Sandy who were a Texan yachtie couple taking a holiday from their sailboat to do the cruise. It struck us as amusing that a sailor’s idea of a complete break was someone else doing the sailing and of course a much bigger boat!  

Later we had an opportunity to visit the bridge and engine room. It was very interesting to understand a little about how everything works. One of the benefits of being on an expedition cruise were the informative lectures and presentations; eg. the first evening’s presentation was on glaciology in Patagonia and it really helped us to understand more about the area.

Evenings on the Mare Australis were very relaxed – we would dine together and excitedly chat about the day’s events, before retreating to one of the lounges for a nightcap before bed.

During our second night, we sailed around the western end of Tierra del Fuego via the very narrow Gabriel Channel, Magdalena Channel and Cockburn Channel. After rounding the remote Brecknock Peninsula, the Australis tacked eastward and entered the Beagle Channel. By morning of day three, we approached the Pia Fjord, which was quite simply, out of this world!

Over and over again, my head was filled with lines from this poem:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

(Composed Upon Westminster Bridge,  1802
William Wordsworth)

Back on the Zodiacs, we had a chance to get up close to the glacier – the sheer size of it takes your breath away. The skipper of the Zodiac carefully navigated us through the broken ice to the shore, where we could sit and soak up panoramic views of Pia Glacier. This truly was one of the most incredible natural sights I have ever witnessed. Every now and then there is the sound of cracking and the echoes across the Valley and then the crashing sound as ice breaks off and cascades into the water with a rumbling splash. We sat and watched the calving for sometime.  We then strolled through an enchanted Magellan forest of ferns and other endemic fauna to reach an amazing panoramic viewpoint overlooking the deserted bay with nothing but our Mare Australis looking ever so tiny in the water below. No one knows for certain how the hulking mass of snow and ice got its feminine moniker, but one theory says it was named for Princess Maria Pia of Savoy (1847-1911), daughter of the Italian king.

Pia Fjord and the breath-taking glaciers.

Back onboard the ship, we continue east along the Beagle Channel through an area called Glacier Alley. Living up to its name, the passage features a number of impressive tidewater glaciers flowing down from the Darwin Mountains and Darwin Ice Sheet on the north shore. Most of them named after European countries. The crew had a treat for us all. As we sailed past the five impressive glaciers named Holland, Italy, Germany, Spain and France, we were treated to entertainment, drinks and food typical to each of the countries that the glaciers were named after, which was a wonderful way to take in the scenery. Not for the first time, we felt very spoilt.

Going to sleep that night we were aware that the next day we would be reaching famous Cape Horn and that weather and sea conditions permitting, we would be allowed to go ashore. One of the Australis sister ships coming from Ushuaia, had been unable to disembark the previous day due to choppy and windy conditions. During the night we left the Beagle Channel and entered open sea heading to Cape Horn.

Part of the experience of travelling to Cape Horn is surviving the infamous “screaming sixties” – the gale force winds which batter the premonitory and are responsible for causing many passengers to experience a bout of seasickness.
These winds are a result of Cape Horn’s location at 56° south latitude. Winds below 40° south latitude can blow from west to east around the world almost completely unobstructed by land, making these westerlies stronger and more persistent than those found in the northern hemisphere. This phenomenon causes the “roaring forties”, “furious fifties” and the even fiercer “screaming sixties” with gusts known to exceed 60 mph.
Sudden, violent squalls called ‘williwaw’ winds are also common: gusts resulting from the cold, dense air from ice fields of coastal mountains in Patagonia being forced down by gravity to the sea. These winds can strike ships with little warning and are one of the reasons why it is notoriously difficult to round the horn.
Waves can also reach heights of over 100ft. (30 m) while an average of 270 days of rainfall per year, including 70 days of snow, can restrict visibility.(blogpatagonia.australis.com)

During the morning we cruised across Nassau Bay into the remote archipelago that includes Cape Horn National Park. The weather held beautifully for us and we prepared to go ashore on the famous windswept island that harbors the legendary Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos). Discovered in 1616 by a Dutch maritime expedition, and named after the town of Hoorn in West Friesland, Cape Horn is a sheer 425-meter (1,394-foot) high rocky promontory overlooking the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage. For many years it was the only navigation route between the Pacific and Atlantic, and was often referred to as the “End of the Earth.” The park was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2005. The Chilean navy maintains a permanent lighthouse on the island, staffed by a lightkeeper and his family, as well as the tiny Stella Maris Chapel and modern Cape Horn Monument.

It was peculiar to find ourselves at the southernmost point of the Americas, where extreme weather conditions have sadly caused many to perish. Geoff was torn between wanting to experience a modicum of the notorious and turbulent conditions he had read about in many sea-faring novels, but ended up being grateful that the weather conditions were in our favour. We were soon in a Zodiac, sprinting across the smooth sea to go where very few have been lucky enough to go before. The experience of being at the lighthouse on Hornos island is one that no-one can forget. It’s hard to describe the feeling of dramatic isolation when you think about where you are placed on the world map. So awesome. It rained lightly while we were there, but it didn’t worry us too much.

In the area below Cape Horn, the guides took us for a short trip to view the bird-life on the rocky cliff face. We were able to see elephant seals, cormorants and other interesting birds from the vantage point of the Zodiacs.

It was sad to leave Cape Horn, but we were so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit and more importantly, to disembark and climb the promontory to view the merging of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As we sailed away into open sea, Geoff managed to catch a picture of a dolphin, who was wishing us a safe voyage.

In the afternoon we made our way to Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world. Puerto Williams was founded in 1953 as a military settlement. It is located in Isla Navarino and is the capital city of Chile’s Antarctic province with less than 3,000 inhabitants. Its airport and the hospital are run by navy personnel and there is a military neighborhood near the commercial center with horses on the loose.  Puerto Williams is also a base for scientific research on the Antarctic and air trips to Cape Horn and the Antarctic.

We found the town to be quite charming with a great little place for coffee and an opportunity to get to know Rankin and Sandy a little better. We went for a pleasant walk around the town.

Our last night on board came too soon and we enjoyed the Captain’s dinner which was a suitably grand end to a superb day.

During the night we cruised into the Port of Ushuaia, fondly referred to as “The end of the world and the beginning of everything”.

The route that we cruised through the channels of Tierra del Fuego aboard the Mare Australis

Our first cruise and what an outstanding experience! We were so lucky with the weather conditions and also enjoyed fantastic service from the crew of the Mare Australis. We disembarked feeling sad to leave, but excited to explore Ushuaia, “Fin del Mundo”.

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