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Bob in South America. Part 4 – The Magellan Straits & Beagle Channel
So I’d graced the lakes with my presence and learned that the Chilean miners trapped underground in the north were going to be getting out early. Job done, so it was time to take on the highlight of my trip. World peace would have to wait for another day.
I have wanted to sail through the Magellan Straits and the Beagle Channel since I was a little boy. I used to love tracing maps from the family atlas, a giant Times Atlas of the World, noting cities of importance and learning the spellings of exotic places around the world. And the bottom of South America was always one of the most difficult parts to trace due to all the inlets, islands, waterways and fjords, finished off by Cape Horn, the southernmost place in the Americas. It was only later in life that I realised the historical significance of the waters and the entire Tierra del Fuego region.
To begin my trip I flew a further two hours south from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. It’s not exactly the place I would recommend for a holiday, but it is the gateway to the South, whether you are sailing out or maybe heading into the Torres del Paine national park. We flew over it and it is certainly somewhere I want to come back to and explore on a trekking holiday to the mountains and glaciers. So it was a little unfortunate that I had seven hours to kill in the town before embarking. Shops were very limited, the three museums closed, and a quick walk around the centre took around thirty minutes maximum.
Praise the lord that on checking in early to offload my bags for the ship, the staff discovered an anomaly with my Chilean entry documentation. So it was off to the customs house with a staff member for me, followed by an hour at the police station where they ummed and ahhed about how to forge the documentation so I could leave the country. It turns out that in Santiago I had been handed back the wrong piece of paper, clearly an administrative error, but one that was clearly going to pollute the smooth operation of the system. After some heated discussions between the staff, a stern looking man in a suit began typing out a form. All the time I’m chatting away to the young girl who was looking after me from the cruise ship and telling her how to travel about Europe for a song on a railcard and low cost flights. Eventually with the form completed and a thundering stamp placed on the document I was free to go and spend the rest of the afternoon looking for something to do.
I spent those hours wandering around a graveyard, the Cemeterio Municipal, like none other I have ever seen. Immense mausoleums with European names form the many peoples that have settled here to make money from wool and other industries in the last 150 years. Fascinating. If you ever find yourself here, then visit if only to recognise names from home, the early pioneers to the end of the world.
After a couple of false starts involving trips on ships taking me to Antarctica, I had settled on a booking with Cruceros Australis, sailing from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia. This was going to be the only departure that would fit the timings I had available to my overall trip. As this is a fairly specialist trip you won’t find it on cruise websites. To book you need to either contact the company direct, they have offices in Chile or Argentina, or you can book via a UK travel agent such as our partners Cruise 118, who arrange the departure with companies such as Travel 2, a trade only specialist. You can read more about Cruceros Australis here.
To the ship, the M/V Australis. A small, high standard ship carrying around 100 passengers on the four night trip and no pretensions at all about being a cruise operation. Forget the casino, kid’s clubs, plunge pools and nightly west end shows. This is far more low key. On board is all inclusive with no need to pay for anything unless you want to buy books or clothing suitable for the many excursions ashore. The cabins are very comfortable and spacious and the entertainment runs to slide shows about the area and it’s flora and fauna on an overhead projector.
I had noticed one night there was bingo on the cruise notes followed by a fashion show! What fun if it involves crossing off penguins, seals and gulls on your bingo card followed by a parade of waterproof outfits and wellingtons. We will have to contain the anticipation for now. The public areas are furnished in comfortable and muted tones and it feels cosy and welcoming, something the crew want to instil, a family atmosphere.
We sailed at 8pm into the choppy waters, followed by dinner and an early night for me. I don’t want to miss a thing and sunrise at 5:59 AM in Ainsworth Bay is my first priority tonight. So to bed in my cabin. Good night.
The next morning…
Well, what an amazing start to the day, waking early as the first light starts to reveal forest covered slopes leading into the water topped by snow capped peaks and mist and cloud formations wrapping themselves over the mountains. The waters are calm and silvery and not a person or boat in sight. The feeling of being so remote is overwhelming, yet the comfort of the ship is like a protective cocoon. It’s an adventure but in a very safe environment.
I spent over an hour alone in the lounge and on deck drinking in the views before my fellow passengers began to show. A mix of generally older Americans in a tour group, a sprinkling of Chileans and other Spanish speakers, a couple of Brits and some Germans. Except for a delightful young couple on their honeymoon from near Frankfurt, none of us look like intrepid travellers. Changing into waterproofs, boots and obligatory orange life vests (not my colour) hardly improves matters, but hey you’re here so you may as well go for it. As the days went along you start to unearth the stories of people on board and the way you view and see the individuals and groups really does begin to change.
Our first stop is to weigh anchor in Ainsworth Bay nearly at the end of the Almirantazgo Sound, before climbing onto the zodiacs to take us to shore. In the distance the Marinelli glacier, fast melting as global warming and the hole in the ozone layer takes hold. Being an ignorant type, I just thought this would be a walk along the rock strewn beach and back, but turned into a fascinating discovery of the flora and fauna of the local ecosystem. Retreating glaciers, lichens and moss, trees and shrubs, cormorants, ducks and some condors high in the sky riding the air currents in the sunshine.
But all this came after realising that some of the rocks were indeed a small group of grey elephant seals, the largest of the seal family comprised of a male and his four strong harem, along with a black seal pup. They were there for the season to reproduce, having spent the winter out in Drake’s passage feeding on fish. He knew we were there, but he was far more concerned about the younger male spying on him from the water and waiting for a chance to come ashore and fight him for his lady friends. As if to demonstrate his superiority he would arch his tail up and bray, before attempting to increase the seal population further before our eyes with his chosen female of the moment. Frankly, the bad breath wafting on the breeze from the group would have stopped me in my tracks but the youngster was watching and waiting from the relative safety offshore and would no doubt make his move in the days to come. Sadly and only a few metres away lay a dead seal pup, recently born and more than likely crushed by accident by the male.
On through the low undergrowth to the woods and a beaver dam. Now beavers are trouble, having been imported to create a beaver pelt industry that had gone wrong. And being released to the wild they have created havoc to the ecosystem. Patricio guided me round the area that has been selected to give cruise goers education of the area and which is carefully managed to protect it. Fascinating, informative and something that my words really cannot do justice to. A wonderful experience ending with the surreal moment of being offered hot chocolate or a scotch on the rocks, with ice taken from a small piece of glacier floating in the waters, before boarding the boats back to the ship.
Later in the day after sailing 30 nautical miles west, we reached the Tuckers Islands. Back onto the zodiacs to see the Magellan penguins. Being early in the season we could only see the males, who return earlier than the females from their winter migration to the Atlantic or Pacific in order to prepare the nests. They return to the same nest each year, mate and produce one, two or in very rare cases three eggs. So the guys are setting about cleaning, fixing and preparing the burrows they live in ready for the ladies who are due any day. They choose specific islands that have soft and shallow ground to burrow in, spurning more densely covered homes. Unfortunately we were not to see a David Attenborough style show of penguins jumping from the water or diving off the cliffs, but just watching them cock their heads from side to side as they look around, holding their little wings off their bodies as if in preparation for some grand activity, was a privilege in itself.
Life on board is very relaxed. An open bar, great food and staff who double up as waiters and zodiac pilots. Loads of books to read, lectures on wildlife for those who want the extra detail. You just do what you want. And if that means watching the landscape go by from the picture windows of your cabin, then you choose.
And the cruise goes on. During the night we sail through the narrow Gabriel Channel out towards the Pacific before entering the western end of the Beagle Channel heading for Pia Fjord for a trip by zodiacs to the glacier. Typically, the glacier offered up a carving as we were climbing ashore. And again once we had returned to the boat, so I was unable to capture the sight on camera. However the noise of the ice crashing down into the water was amazing, like gun shots echoing around the mountainous walls of the fjord. And while we were ashore there was the constant groans and cracks from the ice as the glacier makes it’s journey down to the water.
Back abroad we re-enter the Beagle Channel at the start of what is know as Glacier Alley, a procession of ice flows on the north side of the water named after the countries that had charted and logged each one in detail. Starting with Romanche but followed by Germany, France, Italy and finally France. This gave the crew the opportunity to serve up canapés and drinks in the observation bar to reflect each country. So cheese and champagne followed sausage and beer. Pizza and wine preceding meatballs (I didn’t get it either) and more beer, Dutch this time. Italy was the easy winner of the best looking glacier, typical of the stylish Italians eh.
Another day over, except for the briefing for Cape Horn, our trip ashore the following morning. Well, weather dependant. But that may be a whole new story……