Sparky Travels

May 14, 2011

Buenos Aires to Edinburgh

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Arriving at Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires on the 9th of May, I caught a taxi straight to Pax hostel and settled into the familiar surroundings. Alicia (who had been a guest at the same time as me but was now a member of staff), David and the rest of the crew were familiar and friendly faces and I instantly felt at home.

It being a Monday meant that there was only one plan for the evening, La Bomba de Tiempo, Buenos Aires’ favourite drumming ensemble. This time they had a dj as special guest and as always they rocked the place. A dozen of us from a couple of hostels headed back to Pax bar to get some drinks and around 4am I headed to bed.

2 hours later I was in hospital.

Apparently, I’d had enough fun so called it a night, made it into my top bunk and all was quiet. Suddenly I shifted about a bit and then fell out of bed hitting a table and then the floor. I lay there unconscious with blood pouring out the back of my head. One of the guys in the room fainted 3 times while trying to stem the bleeding and help me come round. David, was called up from the bar and took control and I was soon in good spirits, making jokes and generally proving to be quite lucid.

Nevertheless the ambulance was on its way, though the police were mistakenly called first, and I was whisked off to get stitches. Within an hour or two my head had been sewn up, a couple of prescriptions written and I was pointed in the direction of the taxi rank to find my way home. When I got there I’d been moved to a bottom bunk, probably for the best!DSC03767

Most of the rest of my time in BA was spent recovering and taking it easy. The antibiotics I’d been prescribed meant I couldn’t drink alcohol which was probably a good thing, but no fun seeing everyone else heading out. I was a lot more active on my last day in town when I went shopping for presents and had a last Argentinean steak lunch.

In the evening I packed my bag for the last time EVER and got a few hours sleep before my 7:40am shuttle bus to the airport. Air Europa to Madrid, a couple of hour wait and then the connecting flight to Gatwick all went without a hitch and soon I’d entered the UK again. It was 9am and my flight to Edinburgh was at 5pm so the day was spent hanging around the airport sampling some home delights: beans on toast, irn-bru and a newspaper.

At 6:30pm I arrived back in Scotland to finish my travels, ending where I began, with my mum at the airport.

May 8, 2011

Puerto Iguazu

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Around 8pm on the 7th of May I returned to Argentina. Instead of a bus I had taken a taxi from Brazil. It was a nice way to cross the border, a personalised experience which took very little time though it was ten times the cost of a bus across ($2 vs $20). The taxi dropped me off at Marco Polo hostel, right beside the bus station in the small border town of Puerto Iguazu. The hostel was pretty quiet so I went into town - where a biker convention was just winding down - and grabbed some dinner.

The next day, after breakfast, I crossed the road and caught a bus to the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls.

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While Brazil gives you an overall view of the falls, Argentina gets in about the guts and has some spectacular views of its own. A small tourist train takes you between the main points but it was infuriatingly slow, infrequent and crowded. Unfortunately to get most of the walking circuits you had to catch the train at some point.

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In contrast to the limited options in Brazil, there were many options of walks to do here so I had to put some planning in to get to as much as possible. First I walked the Superior Circuit which leads along the top of the semi-circular wall of waterfalls.

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Next was a long wooden walkway which crossed the Rio Iguazu at the top of the falls, ending in a platform which looked down into the Devil’s Throat. On the train back from there a nice Argentinean couple shared their maté ( an argentinian obsession, hot herbal tea sucked through a straw and shared between friends) with me as we trundled along.

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Next, I traversed the Inferior Circuit which gets its name from it being lower down than Superior Circuit rather than being ‘worse’’. I’d hoped to have time to take the shuttle across to Isla San Martin but that would be pushing it a bit time wise. This circuit passed close to a number of pretty falls and gave a perfect view of the main body of Iguazu.

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My camera battery died just as I finished this Circuit which was not too bad since it was almost time to go. I walked back to the entrance rather than take the train and then caught a bus back into town.

A few hours later I boarded a bus for my first and last South American destination, Buenos Aires. Iguazu was a great final ‘sight’ for my trip and I’m happy that I got to see it from Brazil and Argentina. I can’t believe that there is a more impressive and beautiful collection of waterfalls anywhere in the world.

March 19, 2011

Salta

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I arrived in Salta on the 16th of March and plodded along with Patti and Dec to their hostel which was one I’d also seen good reviews for, but it had no space for me. Instead I walked 10 metres round the corner and checked into Exxes hostel. It was pretty basic but I couldn’t fault it. After a shower and quick internet check the three of us went for wee stroll round town. Salta is the first place so far that has some kind of South American vibe like I expected. Argentina, great as it has been, has always felt like a forgotten country in Europe rather than on another continent. We had an early dinner in the main square accompanied by Champions League football and Salta beer and then got caught by the rain on the way back to the hostel.

I got up early on the next day and took the Teleferico up to the viewpoint over Salta. It was sunny and the view was ok, but nothing stunning. Back towards town I walked past San Bernardo Convent, the oldest building in Salta and Iglesia San Francisco, all very pretty.

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After empanadas in a local cafe I visited the MAAM,Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña. The main exhibition is of the sacrificed Inca children “Llullaillaco Children” found mummified at the summit of Mount Llullaillaco. Only one of the children is on display at any one time and I got to see Lightning Girl which was eerily well preserved. She was so named because at some time after burial the body was struck by lightning, resulting in scarring and burning of some of the clothes. Along with the bodies were statues of animals and offerings for the afterlife.

That afternoon I finally got my hair cut - something I’d been planning to do for about 5000km, covering almost the length of Argentina – and celebrated with beer and tapas. The tapas portion was absolutely huge with a meat board, butter beans, frankfurters, tart aubergines, bread, cheese and olives. I spent the evening catching up on my blog. 

On the 18th I got up and bought a bus ticket to Bolivia for midnight. After that I strolled round town with a Dutch girl and we lunched in the market. The pizzas, coke and humidas (sticky corn dough wrapped in banana leaf) came to less than £3 per person and were very satisfying.

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Salta is a bustling, rough and ready town with a nice main square and I could have stayed longer if I wasn’t so eager to get to Bolivia. After dinner and drinks with some Dutch and Americans I boarded my midnight bus to the Argentinean border town of La Quiaca. Also on the bus were Dec and Patti which was a nice surprise.

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March 15, 2011

Mendoza

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After the usual 20-something hours on a bus, I arrived in Mendoza in central Argentina early in the morning. I had met Mike (USA) and Meg (Canada) while waiting for the bus and shared a taxi with them to International Hostel, an HI hostel halfway between the bus station and the city centre. We had to wait to check in (our beds were unoccupied but we had to wait till 12pm anyway) so left our bags and walked into town. Mendoza was severely damaged by an earthquake a century ago and has been rebuilt with wide avenues and a number of parks. At Parque San Martin , there was an international beach volleyball competition going on so we sat and watched that for a while before ambling around in the sun.

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In the evening I met Kristy (from Antarctic cruise) and her friend (who’d just returned from Rothera Station, Antarctica) for a few drinks and nibbles before heading back to the hostel to have an early night. Unfortunately the hostel has a large bar and I joined everybody there playing pool and chatting till early in the morning.

Along with the large - understaffed – bar and decent sized common area the hostel also had a pool. Unfortunately, as with everything else in the place, it was grimy, run-down and neglected. It was also very small (think ‘large jacuzzi’) and I never saw a single person using it. The hostel could have been great if a little bit of money was spent but it felt like it was being left to fall apart.

Due to the previous night’s exertions I didn’t achieve as much as expected on the 14th. I did book a bus ticket out of Mendoza for the next day and attended a ‘Pool Party’ in the evening. It was a pool party in name only, since the pool was only marginally larger than the one in our hostel.

I managed to get to bed relatively early so that I would be ready for our Wine-Bike tour the next day. The same couldn’t be said for Mike, Jen (USA) and Charlotte (Dutch) who had to be roused by the still drunk Meg. Meg was having a game go at leading this motley crew towards the starting point for the tour but I doubt they’d have made it without me nudging them in the right direction. After an hour on a public bus to the village of Lujan we found the Wine-Bike company and though we were a bit late he got reservations for us at three wineries. The five of us rode off on our reasonably sound bikes along bike-paths and on dirt roads to the first winery: Achaval Ferrer. This small boutique company make small quantities of high quality wines mainly for the international market. The guide showed us around the ‘factory’ and the process of making wine before the all important tasting session. They gave us tastes of a fair number of wines, with the assuredly expensive Finca Bella Vista Malbec being the best of the bunch.DSC01875DSC01881

With everyone in a merrier frame of mind, we hopped on our bikes and wheeled to our next stop: the large and impressive Norton winery. Instead of an old man on the gate as at Achaval Ferrer, there were security guards who kept us waiting while they walkie-talkie’d for confirmation of our reservation. Our Swiss guide was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic as she led us down to the vinyard and through the various stages of the wine production. It was interesting comparing the scale of production here with that of the previous winery. The number of wines produced and the quantity are staggering. A nice touch they have is that every Thursday, the locals can come to the back door with jugs and fill them with wine (table wine). Apparently whole families from grandparents down to toddlers will arrive each week armed with a jug each.

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We were running out of time and lost Meg and Jen to a puncture but Mike, Charlotte and I raced to get to our last reservation at Bonfanti.This was a very small family owned winery and our guide was one of the brothers who ran it with their father. We were short on time so went straight to the tasting where he told us all about proper tasting techniques (better late than never) and really conveyed his love of wine to us. I’m glad we did the tour at Lujan instead of the popular Maipu area as it felt more special not seeing another bike-tourist and having smaller, personal tours of quality wineries.

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Feeling like wine connoisseurs, we returned our bikes and returned to the hostel. I immediately went to the bus station where I caught the 8pm bus to Salta, along with Dec and Patti, an Irish couple I’d met in the hostel. Apart from the wine tours, Mendoza itself was pretty uninspiring for a tourist but seems like it’d be a nice place to live.

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March 12, 2011

Bariloche

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We arrived in Bariloche at 1:30am on the 7th of March and Angus, Hattie, Nick and I crammed into a taxi which dropped us off at our respective hostels. I got up in the morning and strolled down the street into town to see what Bariloche was all about. My timing was good as there was a mini Mardi Gras parade going on through town.DSC01788 DSC01789

After a steak lunch sandwich dinner for lunch I met Nick for beers before we headed back to our hostel for a free dinner. The hostels me and Nick are staying in (Hostel Inn & Marco Polo) both offer free dinners which is something I’ve never encountered before. Combined with the usual free breakfast, you don’t need to spend much money on food while there. An added benefit of Hostel Inn is the view from the terrace…

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The next day I met Nick on my way to Cerro Campanario, while he was leaving for Mendoza. I got a bus out to Cerro Campanario which was easy enough due to the area’s ingenious system where each location’s kilometre distance from Bariloche is used as the address. Just after kilometre 17 I got off the bus and took the chairlift up to the top. Apparently this place is listed as one of the 10 best views in the world by National Geographic (I’m sceptical about this ‘fact’) and it was certainly breathtaking.DSC01803

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After pasta with kippers and watching some champions league football with the guys and girls in the hostel, I met Matt and Joanne, friends from Pax hostel in BA. We went next door to a mediocre ‘Moving: travellers bar’ for drinkypoos and had a great old time.DSC01840 DSC01844 DSC01848

The next day was pretty miserable weather so other than lunch at a local fast food place called Morfy’s it was a day of chores.

I woke up early on the 10th and met Matt and Jo in time for us to be picked up for a day of rafting. The minibus took about 2 hours to get to our destination, most of which was along the famous R40 route which was beautiful (I’d missed this section on the bus in to Bariloche because it was night-time).

We arrived at our destination on the banks of the Rio Manso and tucked into a breakfast of pastries. Our group was mainly Argentinians, except for a solitary American girl (Andriana) who joined the three of us to make an English speaking gang.IMG_0210  

We donned our wetsuits, grabbed our oars and headed into our rafts. There were 14 or so of us so we had 7 tourists and 1 guide in each of the 2 rafts. After a quick safety briefing and practice we headed into our first of 11 rapids. The Rio Manso is a class III/IV river and it quickly became fast and hair raising as we were thrown about. IMG_0432IMG_0376 (Large)

The guides were great fun and initiated a war of the rafts where each was battling to throw the others into the water and steal their paddles. It was great fun to have our turn sitting at the front and it is certainly a good activity for team building. We were also learning a fair number of swear words from our Argentinean shipmates and got a chance to float down a quick (but safe) part of the river on our backs. IMG_0391

It was all over far too quickly even though it had been almost two hours in the water. We clambered out of our rafts and walked up a wee hill to a signpost marking the boundary of Argentina and Chile.

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Our lunch was a mass of barbequed meat and accompaniments which was to much even for our enlarged appetites, then it was back to Bariloche by minibus. It was a superb day and a great way to head through some beautiful scenery.

That evening Jo, Matt, Andriana and me all met up for drinks and ended up trawling the bars till 5am.

I woke up late on the morning of the 11th feeling fine so went and grabbed the gang from their hostels. We had breakfast in a coffee shop while we waited for Cello Vieja to open. Only a kilometre or so from my hostel, it is a chairlift that takes you up above town and then you can toboggan down to the bottom. It was some good silly fun but a bit of a rip-off since they only let you do it once.

A late goodbye lunch at Morfy’s was followed by a well deserved rest before dinner.

On the 12th I headed to the bus station after saying goodbye to Matt and Jo and boarded a bus to Mendoza.

March 6, 2011

Patagonia II - El Chalten

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Arriving in El Chalten on the 2nd of March, we picked up a map of the ‘town’ (winter population:600, summer population:1800) with 60 hostels and plumped for the closest cheap one: Ahonikenk Hostel. Its a bit of a dive but the 4 bed dorm is presentable and at 45 pesos its a damn sight cheaper than the 70 pesos it cost in BA and Ushuaia.

With the wind howling through the town we decided to delay our hiking pursuits in favour of drinking pursuits in the form of the local pub/microbrewery which also served superb empanadas. It was followed by dinner at the adjoining restaurant to our hostel, also called Ahonikenk. Unlike it’s accommodation wing, the restaurant was not a dive and the food was hardy fare. With a renewed love of stews, I plumped for a filling lamb one while Nick had a steak the size of a fat man’s foot all helped down with a penguin of wine. The house wine in Argentina is often served in a white porcelain jug shaped like a penguin, don’t ask me why?!

The next day I bought my bus ticket out of town, buses only leave on odd days to Bariloche so the next available bus is the evening of the 5th. While Nick sorted his onward plans I went for a lunchtime stroll up to a couple of viewpoints: Los Condores and Los Aquilas. Los Condores gave a good view of El Chalten while Los Aquilas was further away and gave a mediocre view of Lagos Viedma but a good view of the weirdly pyramid shaped peak to the South-West.

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The afternoon was spent drinking beer in the windy yet sunny street and listening to the music emanating from our hostel. Somehow we’d booked ourselves into a musician’s paradise, with the vast majority of our fellow backpackers having instruments and entertaining us and the town with their strummings. We shared  stomach filling barbeque selection at the renowned local restaurant Como Vaca  before hitting the hay. El Chalten is a really charming wee place, relatively spread out with funky buildings dotting the small valley. It’s the kind of a place you could see yourself spending a summer fixing old cars and lawnmowers if you were into that kind of thing.

The next day the wind had died down and there was not a cloud in the sky so I rented some hiking boots to protect my Onitsuka Tiger trainers and my feet. We hiked up to the Mirador (viewpoint) and then onwards to Poincenot campsite. DSC01739DSC01718

The walk was through some pretty green valleys and along hillsides covered in brush with little bridges over little burns. After 3 hours of walking we reached another waypoint called Rio Blanco. from there we rose 400 metres in an hour of clambering up steep, eroded soil. The view of Mt. Fitzroy and the Laguna de los Tres were worth every step though.

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More worrying for me than ascent was the resultant descent given my left knee’s propensity to slacken under such pressures. It held up very well which means I should give it a good thrashing playing football soon. My skin on the other hand didn’t hold up so well. The unexpected blue skies and me forgetting my sunscreen hidden deep in the bottom of my backpack back at the hostel was a recipe for disaster! I ended up with bright red face, arms and especially my neck.

We awoke on the 5th of March to another beautiful day, but I didn’t fancy risking further sunburn with another 8 hour trek so while Nick went off on another hike I ate empanadas and checked live Saturday football updates while fighting with the awful internet connection to book a hostel in Bariloche.

Once the sun’s rays had waned slightly I covered up and did the short hour walk to the waterfall called Chorillo del Salto. It wasn’t the most interesting walk, mainly along gravel roads but the views from below and above the waterfall were nice enough. DSC01769

I met our dorm-mates, Hattie and Angus (another Edinburghian) at the falls and chatted to them while discovering that we were all booked on the same bus to Bariloche that evening. After dinner at La Cervezaria we steeled ourselves for another long bus journey, this time 28 hours to Bariloche, leaving at 10pm.DSC01782

All day on the 6th was spent on the bus travelling along Route 40, a rural road mainly made up of gravel necessitating the bus driving at under 30mph for large periods.

March 2, 2011

Patagonia I – Ushuaia and El Calafate

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Back in Ushuaia on the 25th of February, I tried to book into Freestyle hostel, the biggest in town, but it was full. Instead, Kratos and I checked into Yakush hostel on the main street. We’d arranged to meet in town for lunch with some of the remaining passengers and some of the expedition staff. In between that and dinner I reacquainted myself with the world via the internet. The only news we’d had since we’d been away was that of the devastating Christchurch earthquake which had many people worrying for friends and family there. A dwindling group of us ate dinner at a Chilean restaurant and then spent the evening relaxing in the (initially) un-swaying comfort of the Dublin Bar. Astrid, Trevor and I attempted a trip to a club but we were the pretty much the only people in town who decided to turn up so that was sacked off pretty quickly.

The next day I managed to move into Freestyle hostel, the main advantage of which, apart from being in the same hostel as Trevor and Nick, was the comfy common room on the top floor, with pool table. I began to plan my next step, which wasn’t difficult since North is the only way to go, El Calafate is the natural next stop while staying in Argentina so I booked a bus for there, leaving on Monday morning. Nick, Trevor and I made a home-cooked pasta dinner which was a nice change from cruise and restaurant food and went up to the strangely deserted common room. We amused ourselves with a couple of beers, Jenga and Monopoly. I’m proud to say that I was the overwhelming Monopoly champion, an interesting game given it was all in Spanish.

I woke up on Sunday 27th with a number of bites on my body but shrugged them off and the three of us caught a bus 18km out of town to Laguna Esmerelda. It was a nice warm day and the hike up to the Lake was pleasant exercise.

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After another home-made dinner we tried the common room again. This time it was busier with table-tennis games and some atmosphere which I added to by providing the music.

After going to bed at 1am on Monday morning with a bus at 5am I didn’t expect much sleep. I ended up with even less than I’d bargained for when I was awoken after a 1/2hour of kip being bitten all over. It seems that my previous bites and the new ones were due to bed bugs. I showered, complained to the receptionist and sat up for a few hours messing about on my computer and trying not to itch.

At 5am, me and Nick hopped on the bus North to Rio Gallegos while Trevor waited for his flight to Buenos Aires. As I’d experienced on the way down to Ushuaia, the trip up was broken by border and customs crossings. The ferry during our shuttle through Chilean soil was a bit of a wildlife safari with penguins, black and white dolphins (Commerson’s dolphins), jellyfish and shags sighted. From Rio Gallegos we had a short bus to El Calafate. The obligatory few hours of stopover was punctuated by games of cards and huge sandwiches. At 1am in the morning we arrived at El Calafate and took the short walk to the Hostel Buenos Aires, close to the bus station.

The  first morning of March we explored El Calafate during the day, which didn’t;t take long. Its essentially a long tourist boulevard with suburbs off to the side. In the afternoon we caught the 100 peso late bus to Glacier Perito Moreno, the only attraction in the area.. The late bus boat meant we’d miss most of the crowds but had to get the last boat tour on the way. The boat launched from the jetty and 30 seconds later the glacier came into view. After cruising up to icebergs in the zodiac it was a bit disappointing especially because you didn’t get very close and only saw half the glacier face. Maybe I’ve been spoiled.

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Next the bus picked us up and took us to the main lookout area. This was a large network of wooden walkways looking onto the glacier from different levels. The scene was much more impressive here due to the different perspective it gave you (i.e. higher) compared to zodiacs or other views we’d had. After a couple of cold hours the sun came out and really showed the scale of the glacier in all its glory. DSC01615DSC01612

Arriving back at El Calafate at 10pm there was just enough time for a traditional Locro stew before bed.

On Wednesday 2nd of March, 2011, after some trouble with cash machines – not enough money in my account, not enough money in the ATM, unresponsive ATMs– I managed to withdraw some cash and Nick and I boarded the 1pm bus North to El Chalten, hiking capital of Argentina. The view as we drove through the undulating yellow grasslands was beautiful as the sun shone during the 3 hour journey.

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February 25, 2011

Returning to Port

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On the evening of the 22nd we’d begun to make our way North into the Drake’s Passage. Weather reports indicated that strong winds and large swells were coming our way so we attempted to make as much headway as we could to try and beat them.

On the 23rd we were well into the Drake proper. We had some really interesting presentations about the experiences of some of the expedition team. Laurie the team leader told us about his skiing expedition from Russia to Canada via the North Pole while Rick talked about his time running dog sleds in the Antarctic and Alaska. Their stories were amazing and quite inspirational.

Our second day on the Drakes Passage was not too bad either and we had further presentations, the Captain’s farewell toast and meal followed by a 1000 picture slideshow of the best/funniest photos taken on the trip.

We ended our final evening up in the Panorama lounge for some farewell drinking. Slowly everyone sloped off to bed, all was quiet, and I realised that this spectacular trip had come to an end.

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On the 25th we were up early in the morning, left the ship and returned to the civilization of Ushuaia.

My overall impression was that I made the correct choice in terms of the ship and expedition I chose. We were lucky in terms of the weather and managed a great number of excursions. The quality and variety of food was excellent throughout, indicated by chips being available only twice. The expedition team were very well qualified, enthusiastic and great fun with some of the destinations we went to being special even for Antarctic cruises. Lastly the people were all lovely, with everyone getting on well and getting into the spirit of the things.

Truly a trip of a lifetime!

February 14, 2011

Aboard the Ocean Nova

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Today, the 12th of February, I walked along Ushuaia docks towards my floating home for the next 2 weeks and hopefully, Antarctica. After clearing the security screening (uninterested security staff nodding ‘ok’ as I walked past them) I reached the Ocean Nova. A small ship apparently, it looked pretty big to my non-maritime eyes. DSC00237

As I got there the bus pulled up with the vast majority of the 69 passengers booked on this ship. As expected on a trip that normally costs $12000 USD, the majority of the passengers were in the retiree age-group but a few young faces punctuated the mass of wrinkles and grey hair (mine excepted).

I raced on deck and chatted to some other spritely young faces who had made it up the flights of stairs: Astrid from Amsterdam, Nick from Adelaide and Trevor from Canada. My room mates for the voyage were both in the younger age group; Stephane, from France with a command of English as poor as my French and Kratos, a guy from L.A with no interest in movies.

Pretty soon the tannoy went off inviting everyone to the welcome briefing. Introductions, and H&S formalities were completed, including a trip up on deck to go through evacuation procedures, and were followed by a glass of champagne, speech by the captain and toast to the journey. Dinner was a real change from the grotty backpacker kitchens and cheap Parillas I’d been used to. White table cloths, salad bar, 4 course meals and a cheeseboard to finish, hit home the fact that this expedition was way closer to a cruise. I’d expected a free glass of wine with dinner but it turned out that all drinks had to be bought, it may even be a relatively sober trip.

During dinner the anchor was raised and the Ocean Nova left port, heading for the dreaded Drake’s Passage.

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I took advantage of the bar for a couple of drinks and chatted to a few travelling companions before heading to bed.

Our first full day at sea was the 13th of February. We were allocated our jackets (bright yellow) and wellies and had an extensive buffet breakfast (my daily routine was to become cereal, yoghurt, fry-up, orange juice). During our trip across the passage there were a number of presentations by the expedition staff to keep those of us who were still upright amused.

I don’t have a great amount of experience aboard boats so I was kind of wary about the experience. I even bought anti-seasickness tablets in Ushuaia just in case. I took one on the evening we left port but it tasted so horrible ( earwax mixed with brie ) that I never took another one. It turned out that I have pretty good sea legs which was helped by a mild crossing of the Drake’s Passage.It is an infamous stretch of water, sustained by the circum-Antarctic currents and winds looping round the continent. It can produce the dreaded Drake’s shake (50 knot crosswinds with 15m swells) or out of nowhere calm down to become Drake’s Lake. Our crossing was probably 3 or 4 out of 10 on the severity scale.

To keep us amused during the crossing and in-between meals, the Expedition Staff gave topical presentations on their subjects of expertise. Natalie, the marine biologist gave a talk on whales while Bob the geologist gave one on the geological history of Antarctica and the areas we’ll be visiting. After lunch, Nigel the ornithologist gave a presentation on birds we are likely to see. After the presentation we spent some time watching the huge albatrosses following the ship. We also had a presentation about the zodiac landing craft we’ll be using to get from the ship to shore. All pretty obvious stuff really.

That night we climbed up on deck and braved the chill and swell to have some drinks with the Expedition Staff. As an added bonus, the Captain ( a huge Russian) even joined us for a while. I’d cracked open the bottle of Johnnie Walker which I’d purchased in Ushuaia prior to boarding which helped to keep my trips to the bar to a minimum.

The next day we were again blessed with a relatively calm Drake’s Passage with swells of less than 6 metres. Our talks this day were another one on birds, history of Antarctic exploration and icebergs. We were also inducted into the bio-decontamination procedures when leaving and returning to the ship, basically washing everything we will be wearing onshore and then cleaning our boots on embarkation and disembarkation.

Just before dinner we sighted land, the South Shetland Islands. DSC00262

Soon we were sailing past islands covered almost completely by a deep layer of ice with little rocky peaks jutting up through the smooth white hills.

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The excitement was building throughout the passengers as we reached the shelter of the islands. To celebrate Valentine’s Day the staff hosted a Valentines Day party, with fancy dress and a topical quiz. That day we spotted cape petrels, the slightly smaller cousins of the albatross and the smaller Wilsons Storm Petrel. We also caught our first, albeit brief glimpses of fin whales, an unidentified seal and some penguins swimming by.

February 12, 2011

Ushuaia

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I arrived in Ushuaia (Southernmost city in the world, apparently) at 10pm on the 10th of February and checked into the aptly named Antarctica hostel. A couple of beers later I headed to bed. The next day was spent finalising the trip to Antarctica and buying essentials (gloves, booze etc). I met Lecia for dinner at Moustachios and then the Dublin Bar, one of Ushuaia’s three Irish bars and the only place in town that seems to get busy, with some guys from the hostel. One of them was ‘Scottish’ though had been at private school in England so long that he was an archetypal toff with accent and attitude to match. At the bar I also met some familiar faces from Buenos Aires – a canadian lad and couple from Edinburgh. Small world, nice people.

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Ushuaia’s centre is a compact grid of 15 blocks wide and 5 blocks deep, leading steeply up a hill. It is pretty much set up for tourists with restaurants and outdoor shops dominating the main street. Its a safe and pleasant place, away from the main tourist area the town seems to be made up of ramshackle houses built from what looks like the remains of previous houses and sheds.

I awoke on Saturday, checked out, grabbed the last few things I needed and made my way down to the harbour to hop on my Antarctic cruise ship.

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