Sunday, 10 April 2016

Aboard Stella Australis: A journey to the farthest south

#expeditioncruising

Cape Horn, at the very bottom of South America, celebrates its infamy as the southernmost point in the world before Antarctica. Sailors have feared these waters for centuries, known for their treacherous wind, waves and storms that can appear at a moments notice.

Passengers land on the precipitous Cape Horn (R Eime)
Date: 6 April 2016
Vessel: MV Stella Australis
Location: 55 deg 58'S, 67 deg 17'W – Isla Hornos (Cape Horn), Chile

Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, it was the only way to traverse the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans where, according to nautical legend, the devil himself drags massive chains, grinding the huge shackles while hauling them through the deadly seas.

Today the MV Stella Australis returns to this point on its last voyage of the season in an attempt to land guests at the loneliest lighthouse, still manned by a sole Chilean naval officer, Jose Alcalde de Mar and his wife, Natalia.

The attractive young couple, on their second 12-month assignment, set up home at this impossibly isolated station just last December, but this is likely to be their last posting.

Jose and Natalia: "No more lighthouses!"
“No more lighthouses!” Natalia tells me emphatically as we chat. Jose, meanwhile, cheerfully signs certificates for the passengers.

The tiny island that houses the lighthouse resembles the humps of a partly submerged dromedary camel, with the lighthouse on one and the famous Albatross Memorial on the other, the vertical sculpture only recently replaced and reinforced after having been blown down by 200kmh gusts in a recent storm. Embellished only by low tundra grasses and gnarly scrub, the location is otherwise devoid of vegetation. There are no trees at these low latitudes.

On the island, we spend our time marching headlong through sleeting drizzle, interspersed with flurries of fresh snowflakes, along the boardwalk installed by the cruise company. Events at either end, are celebrated with 'selfies' and snaps to remember the achievement.

Passengers brave wind and sleet to hike on Cape Horn (R Eime)
The Chilean-flagged and privately owned Australis Cruises company have the exclusive right to operate expedition-style programs in the national parks that make up this remote region of Patagonia. Ferrying passengers in the reliable Zodiac rigid inflatable (RIB) tenders as used on most every ship in the world's expedition fleet, visitors enjoy shore excursions that include short hikes to the glaciers and in the forests and trails on the many islands that make up this part of the world.

Another signature excursion is ashore at Wulaia Bay, once the home of many indigenous Yamana people and first described by Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy in 1830. The Yamana are long gone, victims to the many social and biological hazards introduced by the Europeans. A small pod of resident dolphins escort us as we make our way to shore where a short but strenuous hike through the Magellanic forest of lengas, coigues, canelos and ferns is rewarded with panoramic views across Wulaia and neighbouring Nassau Bay.

View of Wulaia Bay, once home to the Yamana people (R Eime)
In between stops, Stella Australis leisurely winds its way through the many, mostly sheltered, passages and channels between the uninhabited islands, delighting us with vistas of pristine forest framed by snow-capped mountains in the distance. First navigated by Magellan in 1520, it was the East India Company who later secured exclusive rights to the passage which bore the Portuguese navigator's name.

Ushuaia in Argentina, dubbed the southernmost city in the world with 60,000 inhabitants, is the turnaround point and my embarkation port for the 3-night return voyage. The alpine-like town at the foot of the Andes is relatively quiet in early April. The last of the fleet of Antarctic cruise ships left the previous week, leaving the streets all but devoid of usual throngs of designer wear expeditioners shopping for souvenirs and awaiting their departures.

I use my time to explore the maritime museum housed in the former jail, now part of the Argentine naval base. Yes, Ushuaia was for much of its early existence a tough penal colony with conditions resembling the famous prisons in Australia like Port Arthur. After 50 years of operation, the 'presidio' was only closed as recently as 1947. Inside are displays devoted to early Antarctic explorers, pioneers, prison life and the enigmatic indigenous Yamana people, now long gone.

Yamana family, about 100 years ago.
With today's fleet of modern and hardy expedition vessels, explorers can look forward to an infinitely more comfortable experience than the many intrepid souls who endured such conditions in the fragile wooden and steam sailing ships of yore.

Facts:

Australis operates 3-, 4- and 7-night programs between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia from September until April annually. See www.australis.com for details. Bookings can be made by through South American specialist agency, Movidas [www.movidas.com.au]

South America Experts
South America Experts