From September to April, Australis Expedition Cruises‘ vessel the Stella Australis cruises between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. Stella Australis can accommodate 210. Passengers sail in comfort, treated to fine food and expert service, through the Straits of Magellan and the channels and fjords between Tierra del Fuego and the islands that cling to its southern shore. These were the waters fished by the Yámana and Kawéskar people and surveyed by Robert Fitzroy and his crew.
The cruise takes four nights from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia (three nights the opposite way). It includes a visit to Cape Horn where, sea conditions permitting, you can land to see the monuments and to sign the visitors’ book in the lighthouse, manned by a Chilean naval officer and his family. The landing follows a rigorous procedure: everyone is togged up in waterproofs and lifejackets, and is transferred from ship to Zodiac, before disembarking with the aid of crew standing in the surf. From the shore, 160 wooden steps lead up the cliff to wooden walkways. On a relatively benign day – sunny, with an icy breeze – it’s hard to imagine the tragedies of so many mariners lost, to remember the many souls that, according to legend, have become albatrosses, and to accept that this is the last piece of terra firma before Antarctica.
Other shore trips are followed by a whisky or hot chocolate. You need the sustenance, especially after a visit to Piloto and Nena glaciers in the Chico fjord. The blue ice of Piloto calves into the water, while Nena is scarred by rocky debris. All around water pours off the mountains; sleet and rain drive into your face as the Zodiac powers away.
En route from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas (the itinerary varies according to the route and the weather), there are other landings. At Wulaia Bay on Isla Navarino two walks are available, up a hill or along the shore to look for birds and flora. An information centre, in an old radio station, tells the history of the place. It was here that one of Fitzroy’s Fuegians, Jemmy Button, who was briefly a celebrity in England in the 1830s, was reportedly present at the massacre of missionaries in 1859. Another visit is to Isla Magdalena, just off Punta Arenas. Here, between November and January, 60,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins breed in burrows.
At all times the ship is accompanied by giant petrels, black-browed albatross and king cormorants. Occasionally, dolphins ride the wake. If it is too cold on deck, you can go onto the bridge and be entertained by the navigator. The bar is open until midnight; stewards and guides are on hand at any hour; and there are lectures and films, visits to the engine room and cookery lessons to fill the hours at sea. Everything runs like clockwork thanks to clear instructions for safety and fine-tuned organization: when the captain says you’ll dock at 1100, dock at 1100 you will.
For more information on these cruises, see Australis Expedition Cruises.