With pelting sideways rain and morning mist hanging low over the grey gritty beach and red moss-covered bog behind, it feels like a particularly grim day in the Scottish Highlands rather than summer in South America. Scudding clouds obscure the Marinelli Glacier in the distance as my hardy, waterproof-clad group tramp single file along a stream through the squelching mud before arriving, suddenly, in a fairytale-like beech forest. A waterfall gushes down a sheer rock face covered in glistening apple green lichen and we stop for a moment in silence, to look up and take it in. This is Patagonia, where the weather – and the mesmerising landscapes – can change in a heartbeat.
The night before, the 200-passenger Stella Australis had set sail from Punta Arenas, crossing the Strait of Magellan, which was discovered 500 years ago by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he was searching for a sea route to the Spice Islands. The strait not only links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it also separates mainland Chile from the islands of Tierra del Fuego – some of which are explored on this back-to-nature four-day cruise around the fjords (the company has another identical ship, Ventus Australis, and offers the route in reverse, with different calling points). One factor that sets Australis apart is its agreement with CEQUA (Centre of Quaternary Studies Fuego-Patagonia and Antarctica) – during voyages, the ships gather environmental data, such as water temperature, and in return scientists share the results with the crew.
We visit the Tucker Islets, where more than 4,000 Magellanic penguins return each year to nest and give birth. From Zodiacs on the water, it’s easy to spot the fluffy juveniles. Afterwards, as we make our way to the ship, we pass cormorants perched on cliff ledges, a colony of noisily barking sea lions lolling on the rocks and a handful of playful dolphins that follow the Zodiacs, darting under the stern before leaping in the air again and again.
The next day is all about glaciers, kicking off with a stop in the Pia Fjord. As always with Australis, there are several excursion options of varying physical difficulty, but in this instance, all offer the same mind-bending view of the jagged 50-metre tall ice wall that forms the main Pia Glacier. Chunks of ice float in the green glassy water below, framed by beech forests, blue skies and snow-dusted peaks. Somewhere in the distance the glacier calves and the sound echoes like gunfire.
Back on board, the ship continues along the Glacier Alley stretch of the Beagle Channel, where a series of tidewater glaciers flow down from the Darwin Mountains on the north side. There’s a party-like atmosphere among the passengers (a mostly European bunch; the majority are on the cruise as part of a longer trip to the continent). Some stay inside sipping champagne while others stand on deck, gawping at the epic, cinematic scenery. Partly it’s to do with having had such a fantastic day, but it’s also the anticipation for what lies ahead: the chance to land on legendary Cape Horn, the final island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at what is virtually the end of the world.
However, the next day it isn’t to be. Although Australis achieves landing eight out of ten times, the Drake Passage lives up to its notorious reputation for rough seas. The captain waits as long as possible to see if the wind and swell will subside, but the only ones benefitting from the whipping gusts are the birds – black-browed albatross, rock cormorants – soaring high then swooping low to skim the white caps of the water. Instead, we pass the morning with interesting talks on glaciers and indigenous tribes.
To reach the final stop, we navigate the narrow Murray Channel between Navarino and Hoste islands, then drop anchor at Wulaia Bay, once home to one of the region’s largest Yámana aboriginal settlement. Their story is told through the displays in the museum and on a hike through the forest to a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the bay. I might not have physically stepped foot on Cape Horn but this final pause, looking down on mountains and tranquil waters, and yellow grasses that appear golden in the afternoon sun, sums up what feels like a privileged journey through this utterly remote, pristine part of the world.
Australis offers four-night cruises from September to April, from £1,320 per person; australis.com