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Expert review: Stella Australis

Call it greed, or efficiency. Five days before my once-in-a-lifetime voyage to Antarctica, I’m embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise around Cape Horn, both connecting in Ushuaia, Argentina.

When flying across the globe to the furthest tip of South America, it makes sense to inject some convenience into the experience.

But, of course, the real lure is the opportunity to sail to the ‘end of the world’. Evoking vague memories of high school history lessons, Cape Horn marks the northern boundary of the Drake Passage, one of the world’s most treacherous stretches of sea. The site of more than 800 shipwrecks and 10,000 deaths, it is known as the sailors’ graveyard.

Before the construction of the Panama Canal 100 years ago, rounding the Horn was an important shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, enabling trade around the world. Today, it remains an icon of extreme sailing – the yachtie’s equivalent of climbing Everest.

Most passengers on Stella Australis have come to fulfil this dream, but in a safer, comfortable, all-inclusive kind of way. A mix of Europeans, Americans and Australians, we board in Punta Arenas, the southernmost city of Chile’s Patagonia region, and enjoy a pisco sour while the ship navigates the Strait of Magellan. End-goal aside, the scenery of this archipelago, Tierra del Fuego, ranks among the world’s most striking.

In the morning we arrive at Ainsworth Bay to view the Marinelli Glacier and snow-capped Darwin Mountain Range reflected in the water. Small groups are led by several guides around the subpolar forest, where we inspect unusual flora, watch beavers at work in a dam, and cross paths with a curious fox.

On the landing beach, waiting to warm us up, is the ship’s bartender serving hot chocolate (with an optional shot of whisky). Clasping the cups for warmth, we wonder how the native Yamana people, who used to live naked and barefoot, survived on such chilly spring days, let alone throughout winter.

By afternoon, heavy rain rolls in as we cruise around Tuckers Islet on Zodiacs, but it’s worth the discomfort to see a colony
of Magellanic penguins. After dinner one of the expedition leaders gives a presentation about wildlife and glaciology, which is followed by a documentary screening, then karaoke in the
top-deck bar.

The next day we hike to a lookout, and for half an hour the group sits in silence absorbing the dazzling sight of the massive, meringue-like Pia Glacier. Back on board, the ice spectacular continues as we glide through the magnificent Glacier Alley,
in the Beagle Channel, a hundred cameras clicking. It’s an early night for most because tomorrow is the big day.

Waking full of anticipation to attempt Cape Horn, we are thrilled when the captain gives the go-ahead at 9am. Conditions are near perfect with moderate winds and barely a ripple on the ocean. The adventure soon begins at Hornos Island, where crew members in wetsuits have to stand in the freezing water to assist with a tricky disembarkation.

The windblown landscape is lush, but without any trees, and the darkening sky provides sufficient gloominess as we trek uphill to the rocky promontory. At the summit is an impressive monument – a sculpted silhouette of an albatross – that pays tribute to the sailors who have died in these dangerous waters. Despite the sombre scene, the passengers can’t help but smile and pose for photos, proving they made it.

Nearby is a Chilean naval station with a lighthouse, a chapel and a home, where a family lives alone on the island. The naval officer comes out for a chat until black clouds intrude, threatening a storm. The Cape turns delightfully ominous as the stragglers scuttle back to the ship.

Completing the journey, Stella Australis makes its way around the craggy coast, bound for Ushuaia. The crew serves ‘hot grog’, the traditional mariners’ drink of rum, water, lemon juice and sugar. Everyone is grinning, faces flushed from the wind and the buzz of the Horn. Out on deck, feeling triumphant, we raise a toast to those before us who weren’t so lucky.

This review appeared in Cruise Passenger 51 and was written in 2013.

Port Authority of New South Wales