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Patagonia: Breathtaking sights at dawn

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Pia Glacier. Photo / Jill Worrall
Pia Glacier. Photo / Jill Worrall

Rising at dawn is something I know more about in theory than in practice. Years of working til past midnight for a morning paper have turned me into a night owl. But, as the Via Australis slips through the waters of the Ballenero Channel I'm woken up by weak light illuminating the cabin.

The curtains are not pulled (there seems little point when only passing seabirds can look in) so when I kneel up on the bed and look out I'm rewarded with the sight of a vast double-peaked mountain rising up beyond the sea. The sky is almost cloudless.

It will be freezing on the top deck ... the bed is warm ... but my camera is calling. There are only two other people up on the observation deck. I'm pleased I took the time to struggle into multiple layers of clothing because it is extremely nippy.

The Ballenero Channel separates the Cordillera Darwin, which is part of the island of Tierra del Fuego, from the labyrinth of islands and fjords that form the southern extremities of South America. The Cordillera is a massive expanse of icefield, glaciers and mountain peaks, whereas on our starboard side the islands are lower, ground down by long departed rivers of ice.

Not long after the sun finally makes a welcome appearance over the islands a pod of about 15 dusky dolphins bursts from the waters beside us and surfs the bow waves. I can't help feeling a little smug; most people have missed seeing the dolphins because they are still in bed and it certainly makes up for the fact that my camera hand is now numb with cold.

Just before lunch time I'm studying the navigation charts in one of the lounges when the captain passes by. He's sailed these waters for decades, first in the merchant navy and more latterly with the Australis. He points out a small white building perched on one of the few outcrops of level ground alongside the channel. He tells me that it's a monitoring station for shipping which surprises me as up until now we've been the only vessel in sight. Despite appearances to the contrary this can be quite a busy sea route for commercial and recreational craft, and as it is also close to the border with Argentina, it's well supervised by the Chilean navy.

After lunch, as the clouds begin to pile up over the highest peaks of the Cordillera Darwin, we prepare to board the zodiacs again, this time to buzz through the ice-studded fjord that laps at the snout of the Pia Glacier, one of the largest and most active in the region.

The Zodiacs have to weave between a multitude of mini icebergs that are floating in the sea between us and the striated, smoothed outcrop of granite we are aiming for. The terminal face tumbles into the water in a confusion of sheer, icy blue walls, deep crevasses and ravines of moraine. We land among the bobbing ice, divest ourselves of our lifejackets and climb up through the Patagonian beech forest to a vantage point about 20 or 30 metres from the glacier.

The river of ice rises up above us, disappearing into the cloud that hide the cirque or ice accumulation basin just beneath the summit. Seracs, or razor sharp slivers and needles of ice form a jagged silhouette against the grey sky. As we stand there, a sharp crack echoes around us and a slab of glacier plunges into the sea. It's followed by the rumble of smaller shards of ice and moraine tumbling down through the cracks and fissures on the glacier.

There's one other vessel in the Pia Bay now - a yacht. Its four crewmembers have taken their own small boat to a tiny moraine beach right far to our right of the glacier. It's only when they alight on land that we can truly gauge the size of the glacier. They are totally dwarfed by it and I can't help feeling uneasy for them as they scramble over the rocks under what is quite obviously a very unstable terminal face. We reckon they are probably cursing their luck that after days of probably solo sailing through the fjords they arrive at one of the region's scenic highlights at the same time as the one and only cruise ship for hundreds of kilometres.

Back down at water level the crew have set up a drinks station and are handing out hot chocolate, with or without whisky. Most of the Americans seem to eschew the strong stuff, the Kiwi-Aussie-Irish and Belorusian contingent slosh it in.

When we are all back on board Australis begins the navigation of the famed Beagle Channel. The channel was named after the HMS Beagle which surveyed the Patagonian coastline between 1826 and 1830. Charles Darwin, whose name is inextricably linked with the Beagle, was not however on board during this first exploration of the channel. He joined the ship on its second voyage.

The channel is one of the three safe passages for ships around the southern extremity of South America, As this one and the Magellan Strait (where we started our journey) are relatively narrow, larger ships tend to use the Drake Passage further to the south-west.

We have now reached Glacier Alley, so called because in the space of just a few kilometres five glaciers, born in the Darwin Ice Field have carved their way down the mountains to the sea. We glide past the Romanche, Germany, France, Italy and Holland glaciers while the cruise staff work overtime delivering appropriate drinks and nibbles - there's German beer and sausages, French champagne and cheese. It feels a bit dissolute given that little more than a century ago seafarers passing this way would probably have been still reliant on ships biscuits and seal meat.

Ice meets ocean as luminous blue walls, or creeps to sea level as vast white sheets striated with rivers of dark moraine or hangs precariously above the water. Meanwhile the sun is slipping below the clouds, its rays spotlighting the dark, brooding mountains on the other side of the channel. As night falls we are briefed on what is potentially the most treacherous of our scheduled landings - if the weather permits tomorrow we will be landing on the island of Cape Horn.

Jill Worrall cruised in Patagonia with assistance from Cruceros Australis.

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