A Travellerspoint blog

A walk in the Park

Torres del Paine National Park


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This week’s episode saw a few friends and myself take on the mighty Torres del Paine national park, famous for being some of the most beautiful trekking on the continent. It is also famous however for having some of the most brutal and fickle weather on the continent. Still the park is on just about everyone’s agenda in Argentina/Chile and is simply unmissable for hikers.

With the four of us keen we took a day to hire some equipment and go shopping before loading up our backpacks and preparing for the long hike ahead. There are many different ways to trek in the park with the most popular being the 5-day “W” trek, the loop and the full “Q” the last two which last a bit over a week. We had decided after a calorie filled boat ride to the Antarctic to do the full circuit, planning for eight days. This left us with only one decision left, the route, amazingly this proved to be very difficult as everybody we talked too had a different way to do it and all had both their pros and their cons. Still with the deadline approaching we decided to catch the ferry over to the back and then hike through anticlockwise starting with the “W” in case anything went wrong and finishing with a supposedly light backpack over the difficult pass.

The first day saw us finally get on the bus headed for the pass, the fruition of a whole days planning, we than sat on this bus for a little over two hours as we drove to the national park. They really know how to kill your enthusiasm here but still we got off the bus keen as mustard to get into the hiking. Cue enthusiasm killer number two as we then had to wait over an hour for the ferry before we could eventually get going. Still this gave us one last chance to let it all sink in and observe the towers from a distance before we got in amongst them. It also provided the opportunity to take a few photos of our geared up group before we started.

Disembarking we got straight into it and while the weather was taking a break giving us a beautiful day to enjoy walking along the lake and up towards the towers ending our day at the base of the French valley. The valley is in a beautiful spot as we could look back over the path we had walked but also looking up into the glacier backed valley above. The campsite here was set amongst a forest that would hopefully provide some protection from the wind that can roar through the place. We setup camp pretty easily and tucked into some well deserved dinner before retiring early as the temperature plummeted once the sun dropped.

The second day saw us wake up early but with sun not up yet we decided to stay in bed for a little longer as none of us were quite ready to brave life outside our sleeping bags just yet. Once we deemed it warm enough to get ourselves ready we tucked into some breakfast and started our hike up to the French valley. We were extremely lucky as once again we had a fantastic day on our hands with sun shining down between breaks in the trees. Walking into the valley towards the glaciers was a really beautiful hike and it was especially great to have the forest keeping the wind away for a good portion of the hike. The incredible thing was despite being hidden from the glaciers and wind by the forest we couldn’t escape the incredible roar as giant chunks of snow let go creating avalanche after avalanche! The forest was lovely to walk through and the green trees served as a pleasant distraction until we emerged from the forest and into the valley of glaciers.

The glaciers towered above us dwarfing us and everything below, a nice reminder of just how incredible they can be up close. From here on in the path however got a little sketchy but we continued to hike up the view point which offered amazing 180 views of the glaciers above us and a beautiful 180 view over the lake and valley below. Really hard not to be impressed when you are so far away from civilization and nature offers you views like that. We decided to venture on a bit further climbing up a bit of a snowed over river/small glacier up onto a ridge where the view was just as spectacular but the winds were about ten times as strong! After almost being blown over we retreated back down the valley to pack up and continue our hike to the next campsite where we would spend the night.

The gentle walk of a couple of hours took us up and down annoyingly, over what was essentially a flat journey path. We did however have the luxury of walking alongside a lovely pebble beach on the lake and it was almost a requirement to sit down and enjoy the incredible day once again that we had on the lake for an hour or so. Heading off from the beach we arrived at our first paid campsite in the park. The good news was that they had hot water showers and coldish beers, the bad news was that this was probably the worst organized campsite I have seen. After paying we were essentially told to set up the tents anywhere we could find a spot, not bad as we arrived in the early afternoon, sadly other people had followed their advice and this resulted in close to the least efficient usage of the space available possible. Still we got our tents up and enjoy a shower, a warm feed and a cold beer as we sat there in shorts soaking in the lovely sunshine…..so much for the bad weather.

The next day would be our first really long day hiking, with us hoping to cross through the rest of the valley and then hike up to the lookout over the might towers. Well rested and well fed we headed off in indifferent weather, at first we all had our wet weather gear on as it was raining but this gave way to another great day. As we contemplated changing back into shorts we hit the valley and the winds, actually more specifically the winds hit us! Head winds of around 80 km/h slowed our progress especially on the short cut and made the climb up extremely difficult. Still we survived the climb to the top of the pass where a narrow 3m wide goat track takes you around the pass and up towards the viewpoint, here we had no protection and were continually being blown around making it extremely difficult. Once we arrived at the first campsite however we loaded up on lunch and walked with the protection of the forest once again to our campsite at the top. To our relief the campsite whilst free was nicely organized and less of a fight than the night before. After a long day we were eager to get a feed into us and get to bed early as tomorrow we planned to be up at 4:30am to be up at the viewpoint to see the sunrise over the towers, supposedly an incredible site.

Day four was a big wake up call for us as mother nature flicked the switch and reminded us that we were in her backyard and indeed at her mercy. We awoke bright eyed at 4:30am looking forward to seeing the sunrise, however as we poked our heads out of our tent we were greeted with not rain but snow! Yes that’s right battling our way out of our warm sleeping bags in anticipation of a beautiful sunrise we had however found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm and to top it off thick fog. A quick discussion saw us retreat to bed and have another look in a couple of hours. Two hours later there was some good news – it had almost stopped snowing but the fog was still thick and the creek water freezing cold. Still we braved breakfast and walked the half an hour up to the lookout to see what we could see. Once we got up there all that we could see was the sign that showed beautifully exactly what we should have been able to see! Still there was a lovely lake up there with nice clear glacial water and it did provide a great photo opportunity of the “here’s what you should be able to see”. We waited up there for about half an hour but since the weather showed little sign of improving we retreated to our campsite.

The rest of today would be a long one as we retreated down the valley and then began our journey around the less walked back of the towers. It was at this point that the mountain struck and we suffered a casualty with Chris’s feet injured and him being unable to continue. With him pulling out at lunch time we grabbed a bit of food and took the opportunity to leave some stuff with him before venturing on for another five hours to our campsite. The walk was not so bad as the day was once again lovely and winds for the most part stayed away, this was until we hit the plains where the head winds came once again. The most brutal part of the walk however was the sign that said 2km to go at which point it then took us over half an hour longer…..2km my ass! Once we got to the campsite we chatted with another couple that had a GPS, that 2km walk was actually 3.3km as the crow flies!

Once we finally arrived at our campsite we found some very welcoming guys there, along with some ridiculously strong winds. Setting up the tents here became a three man job (it was seriously windy!), with two people holding the tent down and the third pegging it in. Still atleast we had grass to sleep on tonight, a nice contrast from the rocks of the night before. Whilst cooking dinner we had to keep checking every few minutes to see if the tents were there, a few times we jumped out there to find one rooted only by a solitary peg and rolling around in the wind…….just to help you imagine the wind, this was happening with a full backpack inside!

After a difficult night’s sleep owing to the tent being blown in our face all night we awoke not exactly well rested (more like having done a few rounds with Mike Tyson) but keen to carry on none the less. Today we had decided on a smaller six hour hike to get to our next campsite rather than make a really long day of it. With the wind still blowing strong and a big hill to climb we set off. The wind provided the most challenging part of the hike once again as we were being blown backwards and side to side by the wind on the hill. Once again it was almost a relief to get to the forest and for the first time in the park the weather actually made the walk difficult to enjoy as you were focused more on the fight you were in rather than the beauty of the park.

After a mid hike lunch we arrived at our destination, a completely empty campsite set on the lake which provided us with a free coffee on entrance – not too bad at all. After a quick trip down to the lake where the wind made it both cold and uncomfortable we cooked up some dinner and prepared for the next long day.

Today was to be the big day where we would hike up to and over the pass taking in the spectacular views of the grey glacier as we did so. Once again mother nature gave us a reminder of who was in charge and we once again awoke to snow. Soldiering on despite the cold hands over breakfast we were on our way by 7am. With the snow stopped we were left to make tracks through the forest once again, stopping every now and again to marvel at how beautiful the hills looked with the tree tops covered in snow. A really pretty sight especially for three Australians that are almost completely unfamiliar with this! Then just to prove a point the wind picked up blowing the snow off the trees and into our faces, annoyingly this was just like rain if slightly less consistent. Finally we emerged from the forest, leaving us about an hour before the final campsite, before the glacier, it was at this point that we hit a blizzard with strong winds and snow blowing straight into our faces – just what we needed at the time!

Arriving at the campsite we were greeted with an area under about half a metre of snow, not exactly what we were hoping to see. We were at this point freezing and took the opportunity to jump inside a little shelter where they said they would light a fire in about an hour. Our response was simple, why not light it now? Still we cooked up some food and a pot of tea to keep us warm and they finally brought in some wood and informed us we could start a fire in the drum, sadly the wood they brought in was covered in snow – not ideal. After bagging off as much snow as we could we braved the cold to try and break up some wood and get a fire going, luckily we managed to get it going on the third attempt with some wet cardboard and had a bit of a fire going. Most of the warmth in the first 15 minutes however went to drying out the rest of the wood so we had something to burn later. Still after about 30 minutes we had what we all wanted a roaring fire that kept us and the other people that had turned up nice and dry, we did however go through what they thought was two hours of wood in an hour!
It was then that we got the news we did not want to hear, they had closed the pass as the snow was up over the markers (1.5m high markers no less) making the pass impossible to follow. With this new we were left with the choice of camping here and hoping the pass would be open the next day or returning back the way we came and missing the pass. Waiting around for four hours the snow hadn’t stopped and with the pass another 500m higher again we knew the snow would only be deeper and thicker up there. With our fate sealed by our now great white enemy we had to make the sad decision and retreat back to the campsite we had started the day at, we would not complete the pass, we would not complete the circuit. Still for three guys from Australia being stopped by a blizzard and snow is as much of an achievement as it is a heartbreak and still provides us with a unique story to tell. We arrived back at the campsite with a minimum of fuss, there was no excitement anymore it was simply a means to an end, get to the campsite tonight and try to get out the next day.
The next day we all awoke very early praying for a miracle of sunshine that would give us one last chance at the pass in the afternoon, alas once again we awoke to snow. Atleast mother nature didn’t try and raise our hopes I guess. On the road by 7am once again we set ourselves for a long day, we would try and squeeze two days of hiking into one and get out of the park today, with only about 11 hours of hiking standing in our way.

The mood was more somber than the day before but the pace was faster despite this being our seventh day owing to just wanting to finish. This saw us make great time up and over the hills despite the steepness and the duration of the climb nobody wanted to stop and rest it was one foot in front of the other stuff with little of the scenery taken in. A sad end to a lovely walk but now it was all about the end. Once we arrived at the campsite for lunch we were all tired and had sore feet but no one wanted to stop for the night we just wanted to get lunch out of the way and get back on the road with another 6 hour stretch ahead of us.

After lunch we had a brief rise in spirits as we headed off travelling at a good pace just hoping to get through the plains, take the short cut and catch the bus but this dissipated within an hour or so. For the first time the weather helped us a bit with the wind behind us, still blowing us side by side on the path, not perfect but better that it hitting us square in the face. We moved through the plains easily and took the shortcut at which point we were greeted with more wind and some of the most boring scenery you would want to see. After a day of retracing our steps we were looking forward to seeing some new scenery however all we did was skirt around the valley taking in wide open plains and dead trees, not exactly inspiring to walk through or take your mind off just getting to the end. Still we walked without daring to take a long break, as we knew it would be impossible to get going again. Today was the only day that we were allowed to complain because everybody was suffering and we atleast all suffered together. We eventually saw a building off in the very far distance and cursed; it was about an hour further than we thought it would be but thankfully the trail took us a different way towards a building that took a while to spot but was a good half hour closer than the other. Finally we arrived at the bus stop, beaten on points comfortably by the park and the weather a man down but atleast we survived the full 12 rounds. A cooked meal other than pasta and a few beers would be in our future. The park is beautiful, the trekking amazing and the weather brutal – the park well and truly lived up to its reputation.

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Posted by rhinoc 13:12 Archived in Chile Tagged mountains snow hiking national_park wind torres_del_paine Comments (0)

The Seventh and Final Continent

Antartica


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Day 1-2

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually no it was just the best of times but writing this did feel like writing a novel. I apologise about the length of the blog but hopefully you find it as entertaining to read as I found it to do and write.

The next day was a mixture of impatience and excitement as we were finally off to Antarctica but we would have to wait until 4pm however to board the boat and then a further two more hours before we would leave the port. The waiting time before the boat did give us time to stock up on some thermal socks however after talking with a girl who had recently returned about how warm we would be in two pairs of socks, her answer of being cold in six pairs had us rethinking our policy if only to err on the side of caution. <After trip verdict: The verdict two pairs of thermal socks was overkill, but one pair and a normal pair perfect>. The time spent at port then served as a good opportunity to get settled into our cabin and meet some of the people we would be sharing the next one and a half weeks with.

Dauntingly every speaker in our welcome/introductory speeches mentioned the Drake Passage, discussing at length its ability at turning strong stomachs weak and making weak stomachs sing. As we took off from port we were all excited about the adventure in front of us but weary and slightly nervous about the path to get there. The Drake Passage takes about two days to cross and saw us take in a variety of different content specific lectures that gave us but a taste (or should that be a tease) of what was to come. Luckily we had great weather going through the passage keeping the swells under control allowing me to enjoy the excellent food on offer between viewing and taking photos of the sea birds that were curiously following our journey.

Day 3
After two long days, and I mean long days with sunlight running about 20 hours here of looking at ocean, a few birds and waiting for sunsets (about 10pm!) we finally saw the end of the Drake passage. Much like animals at the end of winter, passengers came out of hibernation from the decks below and we started to see people that we didn’t even know were on the boat! With the passage passed we still had a bit under a day’s travel to get to our first stop, needing to pass through the so called mini Drake Passage…….they forgot to mention this in the lectures. Still luck was still with us and with more ideal weather we arrived early, well early enough to see the realization of a couple of days of anticipation in the form of a landing at Barrientos island. The meaning of the islands name has long since been lost however this doesn’t stop it from being a great nesting ground for two types of penguins, the obviously named Chin Strap Penguin and the Gentoo Penguin distinguishable by its bright orange beak.

Finally making it onto land was amazing and despite the expectation, no sea legs were evident and we were left to roam (within reason) on the island that they had set up their rookeries on. Amazingly once on shore we were feeling surprisingly warm thanks to the near 10 degree day we had and the fact that we had all rugged up to the max in anticipation. <For future landings I found that thermal shirt and jacket was more than enough and left my fleece behind>. The penguins here are quite curious as they are yet to experience humans as a predator and are more than willing to break the 5m rule and have a bit of a gawk at the odd two legged creatures with flashing gadgets. I guess in some ways we are just as interesting for them to see as they are for us! Right at the moment we are on cusp of breeding season so they are busy scavenging or stealing rocks (whichever works) to build their nests in preparation. Combined with this there is the opportunity to see them in their mating ritual and for some of the more advanced ones the opportunity to see breeding. It was really amazing to walk amongst them and whilst they are extremely photogenic it is hard for your first impression not to be the smell that they leave behind. It was a tad on the ripe side so to speak! All in all it was a great first landing and gave us a good taste of what was to follow.

Day 4

Today was our first full day of activities and we were in luck as weather wise yet another incredible day greeted us, we started with a zodiac cruise amongst the ice sculptures to see some of the amazing shapes that have been carved out. Our zodiacs were little rubber motorized dingys that were transformed into ice breakers, or atleast ice pushers as we set out amongst the ice, dodging the bigger blocks but going straight over the smaller ones. There really is just ice everywhere here, it might sound obvious as we were in Antarctica but it’s really quite something to see first hand.

The cruise took us up and around one of the famous shipwrecks down here, “the Governon” a Norwegian whaling boat that succumbed to the mighty ocean during the first world war. This giant ship has long since lost its man-made abilities and these days is merely part of the environment with icebergs growing in and around it and plenty of sea birds taking advantage of its high points to build their nests. The wonderful thing here is that the water is just so ridiculously clear here and we could see right through the surface to the decks that had been sunk. This also allows you to see exactly what is underneath the iceberg you are cruising amongst and the sight is simply spectacular.
Looking up on to the continent we could see some amazing glaciers that completely filled in the valley amongst the mountain ranges and were completely dominant but for the odd avalanche that broke up the pristine coverage. Every now and again you could hear a massive crack as a giant piece of ice let go and took off down the hill. The environment here is so raw and untouched that it is really is just a perfect reminder of how beautiful nature can be when left to its own devices.

On this boat trip we also had the opportunity to see some remarkable wildlife including both Arctic and Antarctic terns. The arctic terns whilst not commonly seen here do make their way down from the Arctic for summer making the longest migration of any recorded sea bird. We also managed to see some Crab-eater and Weddell seals close up that just happened to be lazing on the icebergs and strangely enough have faces like a dog and cat respectively! This was our first look at the seals and they are quite strange and shy little creatures that were very cautious of our presence and nowhere near as friendly as the penguins. We also had our first look at penguins playing in the water diving in and around the boat, diving out of the water while they took a breath and generally being entertaining. The prize for the strangest thing we saw today though would have to go to the dead jellyfish that whilst floating looked liked something extremely questionable in the water!

With everyone tired after our first excursion we retreated back to the boat for lunch and a light nap, only to be woken up by an announcement of killer whales (Orcas) off the side of the boat. As the boat turned around we rushed out there to see these giant creatures in their natural habitat and we were greeted with a huge surprise. What initially seemed like one or two grew into a pod of between 10 and 20 whales that wwere simply majestic to watch. Our onboard wildlife expert remarked that this was the most that she had ever seen at one time and indeed on one trip. Always nice when you get a “never seen that before” moment and given this was the first full day, we raised our expectations. These enormous creatures were happy to indulge us and came right up close to the boat to provide a good chance for a photo shoot before heading off into their vast ocean once again. I was really lucky this time and managed to get some good video footage of the whales as came out of the water little more than 15m away. After about 10 minutes of whale chasey we turned the boat back towards our destination, but happy with our half hour detour.

That afternoon saw storms build up around us promising an interesting excursion but in what is a strange but tremendous effect they receded as we entered paradise bay, aptly named for it was both very calm and beautiful. This place was littered once again with Crab-eater and Weddell seals as well as the ever present cormorant nests. The penguins here are Once again the glaciers here are remarkable and simply indescribable with the amazing amount of white snow and ice just awesome. In fact the whole place here and Antarctica in general is extremely photogenic. To finish off the afternoon we stopped off at an old research station and this was the moment we had all been waiting for, we would finally set foot on Antarctica. With our first steps here you can tell you are somewhere special and everyone was ecstatic to finally be here, it had been worth every penny. The research station has long since been abandoned with the penguins well and truly in control now. We must have spent about half an hour merely watching the funny little creatures playing around, sliding around on their bellies and flirting with each other. It’s really nice to see the penguins sliding around so much because if they don’t they appear quite dirty and certainly less photogenic. It’s really amazing to see how unphased they are about our presence and simply carry on about their daily duties whatever they may be. Illustrating this perfectly is the fact that if you lie or even kneel down and wait they will walk right up to you just to try and figure you out, providing the perfect opportunity for a photo of a cute inquisitive penguin.

Fittingly to conclude our first visit to the continent we climbed to a high point to take some photos, evidence that we had indeed been there, if for significance only as it looked very similar to the other islands we had landed on. We then finished off our excursion with a snowball fight amongst about 20 of us that had the staff ultimately confused, concerned and then ultimately involved! Returning to our boat we were greeted with the first snow of the voyage as well, a beautiful sight but something tells me that the weather can’t stay perfect forever.

Day 5

Today we were off to visit the southernmost point of our journey, Vernadsky, a Ukrainian scientific base that had been purchased off the English for a solid pound during the 90’s. The English had decided it was cheaper to sell it to them than it was to dismantle the place! To get there though we had a bit of an adventure passing through the narrowest point of our trip a 500m wide passage where we had to hug the wall on one side where it was 300m deep, really both amazing and daunting to be that close to the ice wall.

We finally got a taste of how harsh the weather on this continent can be with our route blocked off by persistent sea ice (that has simply refused to melt since winter) and as a result our landing was delayed by about an hour and a half as we navigated to the opposite side of the island. This method of approach is unfavourable as it left ourselves open to the viscous breezes coming off the Drake, however luck was once again with us and these breezes were thankfully non-existent today. With the winds absent we were finally able to make our landing much to our relief.

It was really interesting to see how the guys lived here and they were also very excited to have us there as we were the first new people they had seen since there supply ship left them eight months ago. The guys here have a weird but great sense of humour with the walls covered in palm trees, an in case of emergency window with bread inside, a general anesthetic sign in the medical room with a hammer under it, signposts to every major city with their distances and the “V” in Vernadsky made by the peace symbol. They have set their laboratory up and are the first country to really start to study the effects and activity of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. The highlight of this trip however for many people was the opportunity to taste some home made Ukrainian vodka that was available and I managed to get a great before, during and after of swainy’s first swig of the moonshine! The vodka was actually slightly smoother than we all expected and three shots formed part of a solid breakfast for the day.

The afternoon excursion was out to Petersan island to check out our third and probably final type of penguin, the Adelie penguin. Here amongst the ever present gentoo penguins they were here as well as some very lost chin strap penguins in the middle of a gentoo colony. The penguins here did what they do best, entertain you very well and we must have spent about 15 minutes watching one cheeky little guy leave his nest on a long trail to steal from another nest only to return and then repeat. Really quite amusing watching him sneak up the hill and then run back down it with his crown jewel a pebble for the nest that his female was left to guard. I also got a great video of two young penguins trying to make a baby but with their inexperience choosing a sloped location. Now to do this requires the male to stand on top of the female, as you can imagine this requires a fair amount of balance. Moments into the act he fell off which was funny in itself but he then proceeded to trip over his own feet pushing her further down the hill. It was fair to say that this killed the moment and she made a hasty exit only for him to spend the next few minutes chasing after her with no luck.

We then attempted to make some tracks for the penguins up to the highpoint to give them a head start on their penguin highways. Here we trekked up to a point where you could see both sides of the island as well as a rather impressive glacier formation. Here there also happened to be a four foot ledge that gave us the opportunity to do some great photos jumping into the snow below.

Getting back we decided to take advantage of the great weather and jumped straight on a zodiac cruise around the icebergs which started off well with us spotting some minke whales. Minke’s are however much shier than their killer whale cousins and quickly retreated to deeper water despite our best efforts to watch them. We then headed off to where one of the groups had spotted a rarely seen leopard seal basking on an iceberg. Once we reached it however we found that there was another one there playing in the water as well. This was really quite cool but only served to whet our appetite for what was to follow as our boat driver spotted something off in the distance bobbing on the water. It turned out to be yet another leopard seal that would occupy the remainder of our boat trip as he and another that decided to join him put on a remarkable show for us. They must have spent about 20 minutes swimming and stalking the boat, swimming right up close to the edge before diving underneath it and turning so that you could so clearly see the spots on its body. They then proceeded to dive into the water and bob back out showing their faces and crocodile along with nothing but their nostrils and their eyes out of the water trying to figure out what to do about the boat. It was amazing to have one of the great killers of the ocean less than three feet away from us and hard to describe just how majestic it looked as it played alongside the boat. Between us we got some amazing video of what is surely one of the highlights of the trip thus far and we were extremely grateful to our boat driver!

The incredible thing is that a few of us have remarked on how each day at the moment seems to be getting better and better. Today however set the standard very high for the next couple of days! Though I still hold out hope of getting a food chain shot, something eating something else, which may perhaps top today’s seal show.

Day 6

The excursion this morning was an adventure out to a British scientific base, well sort of anyway. The base has long since been abandoned by people and is currently being successfully squatted by a local penguin colony. The 1500 or so penguins have certainly made a home out of the place and seem a little confused and curious about us as we “invaded” their home. Here more than anywhere else they seem to have no concept of how close to get and they will come almost close enough o shake your hand and greet you! Still they here not only to observe but to also entertain and they did so as they returned to their daily activities. Some of the more entertaining moment included some great games of chasey going on and the penguins using our tracks as a bit of a slip and slide!

The other residents here are the volunteers who are tasked with turning the base into a museum showing the early way of life for the continental science pioneers. For this season the base is completely female which is something a little different down here but also great to see. It also possibly explains the presence of a Chilean navy ship off the port! The girls however were loving it and had taken the opportunity to join them for an asado the night before as a break from their usual meals based largely on canned goods. The first job the girls had when they arrived was to find the base – literally as the snowy winter had well and truly left its mark. They spent almost a week digging out the old headquarters and the path to shore allowing the boats to come in – hard work indeed and not exactly what they were expecting I think. They appeared to have settled in well though and had come to terms with their penguin co-tennants but were having slightly more difficulty with their petrel housemates who continually knock on the roof at night.

With the volunteers taking up residence in new facilities the original base is being very much left in the way it was found. This included a kitchen full of various types of canned goods and sleeping quarters that could only be described as basic. The girls here got a surprise the day before as they started stripping back the paint they found some artwork that the guys had done that was really quite well done. The base was interesting to walk around however it was slightly disappointing to see a very typical gift shop that offered really nothing original merely the same stuff found everywhere, along with british prices. Atleast the profits from the shop go towards supporting the restoration of the base

The afternoon saw our good luck finally come to an end with our landing cancelled due to the bay being completely iced in. To counteract this we took a zodiac cruise down “iceberg alley” apparently one of the most scenic locations here for ice formations. Everyone was pretty happy with the substitution as so far the zodiac cruises had been a real goldmine for seeing the animals in their natural environment.
This cruise was no different with close up views of the incredible (I know I use this world a lot but it really just needs to be said that often!) ice structures covered in sunshine. Structures that have long sing since fallen off the glaciers and relied on the elements to carve them into whatever they wish. Really pretty and interesting to see what nature can come up with when man is essentially removed from the equation. The views of the icebergs were broken up with sightings of the snow petrels, birds that are rare to see and can only be seen at this time of the year.

The trip then descended into a bit of chaos as one guide launched a snowball at our boat, it was then on for young and old! One boat, nicknamed “the swiss” tried their best to stay out of it but didn’t do as well as they hoped. We then took the opportunity to rearm and stock up having a huge arsenal of snow at our disposal, we then went hunting, it was at this point the rest of the boats ran away – Victory!
Having got the snowball fight out of the way we continued with the ridiculous theme and three of us decided to lift a rather large piece of ice onto our ship. I’d like to explain why we did this, and to top it off it almost ended in an unscheduled swim but still it was there and had to be done. So we did it. We did get some strange looks as returned to the boat with the giant piece on board. The happy news for us was that we were able to load the ice onto the boat and that became the bar ice for the next couple of days!

Before getting onto the boat however we had one last surprise, another quick detour to spend a few minutes checking out a pod of orcas that just happened to be swimming by. I know I say it a lot but its simply amazing to see these creatures in their natural habitat and to be so close given the incredible expanse of sea that is around us.

Day 7

Today was the day that we had all been waiting for, well to be honest everyday was the day we had been waiting for but this day was special again. Today we would visit the aptly named Deception island, an island formed by the active volcano within the ocean that is also one of the safest bays in the region. The volcano is still mildly active resulting in geothermal heating and therefore nice warm sand to walk on to counteract the relatively cold feel of the winds coming off the many glaciers present. This island would give us the opportunity to go swimming in Antartica, one opportunity that is simply too good to pass up!

Getting into the bay was a bit of a challenge however with the ship once again having to ride the ice wall as the large channel was blocked by huge rocks under the ocean. The bay here is incredibly picturesque, however it was slightly difficult to see with thanks to the rain and the clouds that were hanging around persistently. Whilst this was horrible weather for photos it was however perfect weather for our upcoming swim as the rain and clouds kept the wind away, and this is what promised to be the biggest issue we faced, well that and the near zero water temperature.

The bay started off as a very popular whaling colony and indeed still has the signs of a processing plant that existed there between the two world wars. Some of the cooler remains included dinghy boats, storage tanks and a ship hull lifter that that have been completely destroyed by the eruption during the 60’s. The plant here was abandoned once the price of whale oil dropped and the last sign of life here was the british army who put a base here during the second world war when they went down there looking for the germans. Fair to say they weren’t masters of hide and seek during that time!

We started off our adventure on the island by climbing up to neptunes window, a gentle little climb to a open spot in the rocks that provided our last opportunity to see the Antarctica peninsula on the other side. Sadly this just wasn’t to be as the overcast conditions made this impossible. Still inside the protected bay we did however have a fantastic view of the ship in the bay with the many glaciers in the background.

Finally the moment had arrived and we trekked back down to have our swim in the cold waters of Antarctica. With the island heated by the volcano the first metre or so of the water was actually quite warm but as soon as you pass a certain point the water reverts back to spanner water. The swim was nice (short but nice) and not nearly as bad as people were expecting. Once out of the water the idea was to remove as much water as you could from yourself and get some dry clothes on and get back to the boat. The crew helped us out a lot by having towels ready for us and after a few photos we were all really happy, with the possible exception of a Japanese guy that just didn’t seem to enjoy it and was literally screaming in the water. After some quick photos we returned to the boat, a shot of whiskey to warm us up and a nice warm shower.

This afternoon would be our final landing at the easily identified half moon island where the weather had really gone pear shaped, however this is probably more like normal for the continent. Whilst this was disappointing it was about time we really experienced the weather down here as it is most of the time with the wind blowing a gale and snow coming in sideways!

Here we had one final look at the gentoo and chin strap penguins as well as an unsuccessful game of where’s wally, an attempt to see some macaroni penguins that nest. These would have been our fourth different type of penguin but it was pretty difficult in the think falling snow and sleet to spot the couple of black and white things that looked slightly different to the hundreds of other black and white things here! Still it was great to see once again and with the cameras well and truly away now with regards to penguins its nice to sit back and just watch them. We did have an amusing crossroads situation that could have done with some traffic lights as we waited for them and they waited for us with both looking confused as to who should go first!

With the weather getting worse we headed back to the boat via the zodiacs that were getting tested by a few decent size waves. Despite the waves making the embarkation a little bit challenging we got onto the boat safely and said goodbye to Antarctica, atleast for this trip. With one eye on the amazing experiences that we had just had, we couldn’t help but have one eye on the Drake passage in front of us with the continually worsening weather likely to make in pretty hairy!

Day 8-9

With the journey back the only thing between us and the mainland I spent most of the next two days hibernating in the cabin. This was due mostly to the notoriously bad Drake Passage and what one crew member (who was in his 10th year no less) described as the worst conditions he had been through. With swells that reached up over 10m, the boat pitching 45 degrees and crosswinds of over 120km/h (only because this is where the gauge stopped) the 1-12 scale they use to rate the storm conditions sat at 11 for the majority of the trip back. This made meal times a partial attendance event and in a lot of cases an event on a time limit for most people including myself. Despite feeling worse for wear most of the time I only succumbed once but was largely anti social.

The storm however did give us the opportunity to stand in the bridge and see what the crew were dealing with. This was incredible watching our giant boat getting thrown around dare I say like a cork in the ocean! Still this was a great spot to watch it form and actually was the place I felt the least queasy. After completing the passage we arrived once again in calmer waters allowing everybody to come out for one last occasion. A party that lasted well into the night, somewhere around the 5am seems to be the popular number and left us struggling to get out of bed for breakfast and off the ship by 7am the next morning.

This was a truly amazing experience and the best of so many incredible things I have done travelling. This was worth the money so many times over and the ship, crew and people onboard were amazing. One of the rare opportunities that you have to see an incredible almost untouched paradise on earth, I’d like to think it won’t be my last trip there but its hard to predict these things with so many great places left to go.

Now the short and sweet paragraph of how I went about getting down there. It really is easier than you could possibly imagine as once you get to Ushuaia you have any number of travel agents that able to take you right through all your last minute options, the boats, dates and prices available. They release these prices quite early on and about a month in advance so there really isn’t much need to plan ahead unless you are restricted by dates. We waited a week in Ushuaia to do some things first but in contrast one guy arrived the day before walked out of the casino that night, into a travel agent that morning and was on a boat later that afternoon. Great story!

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Posted by rhinoc 10:23 Archived in Antarctica Tagged snow boat whales ice penguins seals antarctica orcas Comments (0)

Welcome to the end of the world

Ushuaia


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Our flight down here started hectically with the change of airport sending us to an unknown unmarked terminal that was difficult to find and nigh on impossible to navigate. With our deadline rapidly approaching we finally made our way to the front of the queue and after radio confirmation we were told that our luggage would actually get onboard the plane luckily as the woman behind us was actually lining up for the flight two hours after us! With luck on our side but time not we rushed through customs to make sure we got on the plane, sadly this resulted in us being minus a leatherman as Swainy had failed to pack it in checked luggage and they wouldn’t let him take it on, my garrote like lock however was not a problem – strange rules they have these days. Despite our urgency the Argentinean efficiency kicked in and we waited almost an hour on the runway bus to get onto the plane……so much for our urgency! Still the flight over would make up for it with the clear day providing some of the most amazing views over the Martial mountain range as we came in to land at the small little town of Ushuaia. The view was simply indescribable, since I had seen them before I asked Swainy if he could elaborate and he managed to come up “Mountains”, “Snow”, “Ice” and “Mountains” not exactly what I was hoping for but maybe he was in shock! It was simply amazing to just see layer after layer of mountains cutting this little town off from everything north (also referred to as the rest of the world!). It is one of those views that words just can’t describe and photos just don’t do justice, a common theme in this extremely photogenic part of the world. As we came in to land we were fortunate and had a rather smooth landing, not quite requiring of the round of applause that it got but each to their own. A couple of days later when the weather had turned sideways, snow and strong winds greeted us and we saw a pilot fishtailing in only to correct and dump it at the last second to land, now that probably deserved a round of applause!

Strangely for a place that is so isolated and supposedly has some of the harshest weather in inhabitated land the weather that greeted us was mild. For the most of our first weekend we were donned in little more than shorts and a shirt as 15 lovely degrees waited for us both days. Turns out the weekend was just the interview process and once we were “committed” we experienced the reality with 30+ km winds cutting a hole through us (this is the real cold part and when it comes it comes) and the town finally succumbing to rain before we were ultimately snowed into our hostel at night. You can say that in Melbourne you can see four seasons in a day but this was simply something else and Swainy and I were both in agreement afterwards, to hell with the weather forecasts and what you see now offers very little indication of what might follow. Perfect for planning!

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After experiencing this we decided the next day to take a boat trip out into the beagle channel and see some of the abundant wildlife that is on display here (and in some cases only here on earth). Once again we were thwarted by the weather with the port closed due to dangerously high winds, disappointed we decided to console ourselves by climbing the nearby glacier – seems logical doesn’t it! The climb up to the glacier was a really interesting experiencing a walk through the poorer area of town before starting our ascent up the ski run towards the glacier. Once again there was a noticeable difference between being in the trees and being out of them as when the wind came it ripped through us forcing us to layer up with our gortex jackets.The climb wasn’t particularly in difficult but was steady and as we reached the bottom of the glacier the noise that the wind made was simply incredible and we were well and truly rugged up at this stage. Still we couldn’t resist the opportunity to make snow corpses and throw some snowballs. Once we got our juvenile fun out the way we sat back and enjoyed the spectacular view that we had with the glacier completely on one side and bay unfolding in front of us on the other….a truly amazing site. With the climb complete we headed back down to the city to have the local delicacy king crab, as this is supposedly the best place in the world to have it.

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Dinner did not disappoint at all with the crab for four people weighing in at about 1.7 kilograms and it was simply incredible and easily the biggest crab that I have ever seen. The legs themselves were around about an inch thick and full of plenty of meat! With the four of us well and truly satisfied we headed off back to the hostel to once again attempt the boat trip the next morning.

The next day we awoke to find perfect weather for our boat trip out into the beagle channel, with the sun in full volume, the wind still and the sea taking on a mirror like appearance. Our first stop on the boat trip translates to the island of sea lions and true to its name the place was full of sea lions. It was great to see these mammals in their natural habitat being playful with each other but also weary of our presence. We were lucky in that we booked a really small boat that only held 26 people allowing us plenty of room on the viewing decks in stark contrast to the other ships which were incredibly over crowded! The next stop saw us head to the island with the lighthouse, one of the icons of Ushuaia and a symbol of exactly where you are. Directly behind that was an island that had been covered in cormorants or atleast it seemed that way and it is amazing to see just how many birds can fit into the one space without much in the way of bickering. The really cool thing was to watch the way the birds landed diving in at a hundred miles an hour only to hover and descend vertically like a helicopter into their place. The other cool thing was watching them take off as they seemed to skim across the water for a few metres flapping their wings furiously to try and get off the ground. Last but not least we arrived at bridges island (strangely lacking in bridges!) where we got off and went hiking along the island offering up some lovely views of the city across the bay with the mountains in the background. For an organized trip this was a really great trip and well worth the money especially doing it with the smaller boat.

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The following day we once again woke up to plenty of sunshine so we headed off to the national park that Ushuaia is famous for “Tierra del Fuego”. This translates to land of fire such was the vision that was presented to the early settlers by the native Yagan people who were known for constant fires and their nomadic life. The national park is really lovely to walk through and full of mountains, lakes and forrest trees. The remarkable thing is here you can see first-hand the damage that the introduced beavers have caused even if the furry little creatures have long since migrated elsewhere. These industrious little creatures build giant dams that act like tremendous filtration systems that completely stop the water system and also water life. It is an incredible bit of engineering but the effects that they leave behind are difficult to argue with, water systems completely devoid of life, trees dying through lack of nutrients and generally an environmental pocket that will take ages to recover. In fact in Canada I believe that they actually destroy the beaver dams after they are deserted. Sadly in Tierra del Fuego they remain even though the beavers have long since headed further south to Puerto Williams where apparently some 40000 beavers have taken over the island. Amongst the beaver dams there are some beautiful mountains and some great hikes through the forrest along the coast. Another highlight here is the southernmost post office where you can receive a passport stamp of “the end of the world”. Here we also met a big rugby fan and after discussing the pumas with him for a few minutes he produced a couple of small Jameson bottles for us to share, capping off a great day.

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The next day was the big one where we finally committed and paid for our trip down to the final frontier, my seventh continent and a place that nearly everyone wants to go, Antartica. This was a complicated process for us as dealing with the payment issue in Argentina is not really as straight forward as it should have been but none the less we worked it out. Next on the list was too beef up our wardrobes a bit to include some thermal gloves and socks just in case it gets a little cold down in Antarctica. With our tickets in hand we headed down to the duty free store to pick up some supplies for the trip.

Posted by rhinoc 11:56 Archived in Argentina Tagged ushuaia sea_lions tierra_del_fuego end_of_the_world Comments (0)

Another Day, Another Country

Colonia in Uruguay


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This morning saw us take a walk down to the docks to take the first ferry for the journey over to Uruguay. This saw us have the unique experience of walking through derelict building that could have easily been a building in post war Berlin such was the state of it. The waiting area here does not even have a café or set of toilets……hard to believe really. However the process went relatively smoothly and with the added touch of having the two countries immigration sitting next to each other speeding up the process. The ship however sailed with more comfort (and included a cafe and toilets onboard) than the waiting room had offered and we were soon in Uruguay, to be greeted by a building making the BA side look good!

Colonia is a popular tourist destination from BA due to it being nice and close and its reputation as a smaller quieter city that leaves the big city feel to Montevideo but has a nice historial district worth visiting. Despite the entrance to Uruguay we were enthused to be here and wandered into the heart of Colonia and its historic neighbourhood and were really amazed as the place was really quite beautiful. As with all colonial cities the streets were covered in cobblestones and the houses were simple and typified with their little Spanish balconies, this city however disinct tree lined streets that were a dominant feature. The really attractive bit is that the whole city is set into the harbor ensuring that no matter where you go in the city you are always close to the water. With this and the fact that the old town itself is very small it provides a very relaxed feel.

The first day was spent merely wandering around the lovely old neighbourhood and taking in the nicely restored old gate and the partial remains of the town wall, both simple but really nice and fit the atmosphere of the town beautifully. The city also has a few nice parks but nothing extravagant or over the top about it, this is perhaps the most surprising and enjoyablable part. After walking around we decided toweigh into the age old debate over which BBQ is better, Argentinian or Uruguayan, with the BBQ in Tigre up against the BBQ in Colonia. Overall I would have to say the BBQ here was nice but not quite of the same standard of that in Tigre and with little difference in price I would have to side with the Argentines.

The next day saw us head out to the abandoned old bull ring which was an unreal place to visit. The structure here is sadly falling apart stopping it from ever being an expensive tourist attraction, however the hole in the fence does reserve its place as a free tourist site. The bull ring is really awesome to walk inside and it’s easy to enjoy the setting here especially when you are sitting amongst the stands alone taking in the sheer size of the arena. From either the bottom of the arena or the top of the stands everything else appears so small in comparison and it is easy to imagine how incredible the atmosphere would have been at full capacity in the height of the festival. The really great thing is that you can relax and enjoy the place taking your time with very few tourists apart from the one or two that venture in as well.
With our departure time fast approaching we headed up to the lighthouse which gave great views over the harbor and back over the city (as well as being ridiculously windy). Today being nice and clear it was easy to see the islands off the shore and even possible to make out the buildings of Buenos Aires in the background.

With everything in Colonia ticked off we headed back to BA through one of the nicest terminal buildings you could wish to see. Seriously no idea what the deal was but compared to the sub standard WWII bunker that we made do with in BA this was a luxury mansion and we were actually wondering if it had duty free shops such was the quality. With no shops in sight however we were left to return to Buenos Aires and ponder our trip to Ushuaia tomorrow with the hopes of some luck coming our way and fitting in a trip to Antartica……fingers crossed!

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Posted by rhinoc 20:14 Archived in Uruguay Tagged historic uruguay colonia colonial Comments (0)

Return to South America

Buenos Aires & Tigre

Returning to Buenos Aries was nice and felt a bit like returning home, where an abundance of great steak and wine await. I arrived at an interesting time as the whole city was just about shut down in mourning because the ex-president (his wife is now the president) had passed away the day before. This made it particularly interesting to get to my hostel tkaing twice as long as usual. In fact instead of taking half an hour to walk to the hostel, today it took me half an hour to cross the plaza! This is what happens when 150,000 people turn up to parade at the parliament and pay their respects. In fact the guy is so highly thought of here that they have even cancelled the soccer games for the next two weeks, think about how rare that is!

With a three day memorial procession the city was really stagnant not really starting again until the Sunday markets, leaving everybody with a quiet and somewhat inconvenient couple of days. This however did not stop me from taking in the fantastic steak, wine and a tango shows on offer at my favourite plaza in San Telmo. The next day it was off to meet Swainy at the airport and show him around the city with the first stop being my favourite plaza for a steak, wine and tango lunch. Luckily he seemed to like the plaza too and it provided a nice welcome to the continent. After this I played tour guide showing him around the city and heading to apparently the best restaurant in San Telmo for another steak. Whilst the lunchtime steak was pretty good this was incredible with the inch thick piece of meat cooked perfectly. The nice thing is here they believe in simplicity so they use nothing but salt and fire to cook the steak. After a perfect steak and a bottle of good local wine we were both ready to call an end to the day. The next day was more walking around showing the city to Swainy and letting him recover from jet lag, we also took in the city at night which offers up a slightly different look including a ridiculously pink parliment!

The following day it was off to the Tigre delta where the cars are replaced by boats and water taxis are the only way up and down the river. The first thing that became apparent was the lack of noise with the constant traffic of BA miles away. After a brief stroll around the peaceful little town we took a short trip on one of the old timber boats to one of the bigger islands, giving us the opportunity to walk around the river and take in the interesting style of living here. The style is a lot more relaxed than they in BA with people a lot less rushed and the tourist paths going through people’s yards. The amazing thing was to see how green the town was with everything from the lawns to trees in full bloom and some of the trees even cut back to stumps to control the growth. The water here runs straight down from the rivers of the amazon and thus carries with it a lot of minerals that produces a cappuccino colour river but an incredibly fertile delta.

For dinner I introduced Swainy to the Argentinian BBQ, which consists of various cuts of meat presented on a sizzling platter. This was again top shelf and with a couple of beers complimented our location on the river beautifully. It was time to head back to BA afterwards as we had decided to take in a quiet colonial city in Uruguay tomorrow.

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Posted by rhinoc 16:35 Comments (0)

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