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Penguins, seals, lots of penguins

Posted: 2015-07-13 21:45:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, 875 words (permalink)

Our first view of the land at the South Shetland Islands.
Our first view of the land at the South Shetland Islands.
When we woke up and climbed up on the deck on the sixth day after leaving Ushuaia, we saw a landscape of rock, snow and ice with a row of penguins at the nearest shore. It was the Yankee Harbor at South Shetland islands, where we had arrived late previous night when it was already dark. We were at anchor and there were almost no waves so our seasickness was quickly gone. After breakfast and a short briefing by our guides Jordi and Eduardo, the zodiacs were launched and we were ready for our first landing.

Fur seals and gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor.
Fur seals and gentoo penguins at Yankee Harbor.
As soon as we stepped on land, we were surrounded by more animals we had ever seen in any zoo — and here they were all in their natural surroundings. One of our first tasks was to learn how to deal with slightly aggressive fur seals. Here's the tactic: don't run, stop and raise your hands, try to look as big and dangerous as possible. That was enough to stop the attacks, after all the seals just wanted to guard their own space on the beach and were not otherwise interested in us. Most of the seals were calmly scratching themselves, sleeping or busy with other activities.

A gentoo penguin has just come up from a swim.
A gentoo penguin has just come up from a swim.
We enjoyed watching gentoo penguins going in and out of water, marching around and lying in the snow in various positions. It was late in the season and many had already left the colony, but there were still many adults and almost grown up chicks around. We also saw one chinstrap penguin in the middle of all the gentoos, a leopard seal and a Weddell seal. The cruel side of nature was also present: some penguins had not made it and were lying dead and frozen on the ground. Two skuas were having a feast on one of the bodies.

Two skuas having a feast on a dead penguin.
Two skuas having a feast on a dead penguin.
We came back to the ship for lunch, carefully cleaning and desinfecting our boots which was the standard procedure before and after each landing. The aim was to avoid introducing any foreign organic material in the Antarctic, and to avoid spreading diseases between different landing sites. During our lunch, the captain turned on the engines to move the ship to Fort Point, the site of our second landing of the day.

A nunatak behind the shore at Fort Point.
A nunatak behind the shore at Fort Point.
At Fort Point there were again lots of wildlife, mostly gentoo penguins and fur seals but also some chinstrap penguins and one solitary macaroni penguin. Our guides told us that Fort Point was one of the less frequented landing sites, perhaps therefore the penguins were coming even closer to us than at Yankee Harbor. As a general rule we were instructed to keep 5 meters distance to all animals, but sometimes they came closer to us. We climbed up the hill away from the shore to a "nunatak" a steep and high rock with a glacier flowing around it. From the nunatak we had a gorgeous view down to the peninsula. On one side of it, countless ice pieces were being washed to the shore, a clear indication that the water temperature was very close to the freezing point.

Hills behind a lake on the Deception Island.
Hills behind a lake on the Deception Island.
The following day we visited Deception island, which is actually the remains of a large ancient volcano. In a big eruption the main crater collapsed and sank, so the the island is like a giant horse shoe with a narrow entrance to the big sheltered bay in the middle. Some fresh snow had recently fallen on the dark volcanic ash, which made the landscape full of different patterns of black and white. During our first landing we walked around one of the side craters and admired the views. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy, on a sunny day the scenery would have been even more spectacular.

Thousands of penguins at Baily Head, Deception Island.
Thousands of penguins at Baily Head, Deception Island.
The second landing was a few kilometers walk over the rim to a point called Baily Head. On the top of the ridge we could see the shape of the island and the entrance through which we had entered the caldera. On the other side of the ridge near the sea, the snowy slopes were looking like they were dirty.
Chinstrap penguins moulting.
Chinstrap penguins moulting.
As we came closer it became apparent that the "dirt" was tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins. Many of them were moulting, renewing their fur which they do every year. We spent quite a while watching and listening to the constant chatter of the penguins before heading back the same way we came. Thanks to Jordi we had a chance to take a look at the penguins through a 600 mm lens, 960 mm film equivalent when mounted to our camera.

Before returning to the ship we still had time to visit the ruins of an old whaling station, consisting of slowly rusting big tanks which had been used to store whale oil and a group of more or less collapsed wooden houses. After that it was time for dinner and a special evening activity, which will be described in the next post.

First time on open sea

Posted: 2015-07-09 22:34:00, Categories: Travel, Chile, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 875 words (permalink)

Leaving Ushuaia in beautiful weather.
Leaving Ushuaia in beautiful weather.
We sailed out from Ushuaia in the morning of February 28th in beautiful, sunny weather. It was surprisingly windstill, especially in the morning. Later during the day a light breeze came from the west, the captain turned the engine off and we were moving quietly like sailing ships are designed to do, with just the wind pushing us forwards. We were on the Bark Europa, a hundred year old tall ship which sails to interesting destinations around the world.

Learning how the ropes are connected to the sails.
Learning how the ropes are connected to the sails.
Almost right away after departure started the first training sessions, to make us voyage crew instead of just passengers. One of our duties was to take turns at the lookout on the front deck, watching the sea in front and reporting small boats, icebergs or any other obstacles the ship might risk hitting. We learned how to steer the ship to a compass direction given by the captain and how to handle ropes when setting up or taking down sails. We even put on harnesses and climbed up to the mast, learning where to attach the safety line when working up there.

Dolphins came to greet us in the evening.
Dolphins came to greet us in the evening.
During the whole day and afternoon we stayed in the Beagle Channel, a relatively narrow passage leading out from Ushuaia to the Atlantic. Mostly we saw cliffs and mountains but there were also the town of Puerto Williams and a few smaller settlements on the south side. Many different birds, mainly albatrosses and petrels, were flying around the ship and in the evening a group of dolphins came to greet us. It was a pleasure to watch them dive under the ship and jump in the air on both sides very close to us.

Steering the ship - or helming in sailing slang.
Steering the ship - or helming in sailing slang.
Little by little the canal became wider, at the mouth of it were a few islands and then we were out in the open sea. It was the beginning of the Drake Passage between the southern tip of Chile and South Shetland islands, which are located a couple of hundred kilometers north of the Antarctic mainland. For Sandra and me it was the first time on a real ocean passage, with no land to see for several days.

Sailing in moderate wind.
Sailing in moderate wind.
The wind was relatively light but there was a continuous flow of relatively large waves, or swell as it is called, coming from the west. The waves were not sharp so they didn't strongly hit the sides or splash any water overboard, but made the ship rock back and forth, and roll from side to side. The wind itself came from a different direction, which made the movements seemingly random. There was no easy way of seeing in which direction and how deep the ship will bow at any given time, even when being outside and watching the waves. Inside it was of course still worse and within a few hours we both felt the first signs of seasickness.

Our beds on the Bark Europa.
Our beds on the Bark Europa.
During the following three days we struggled with being seasick, trying to still take part in the activities as much as we could. We took medication which helped a bit, but more important was to pay attention on what to do and not to do. Easiest was to lay in bed, as there the body doesn't try to be in control of the movements. Second best was to be outside and look at the waves or the horizon, and to sit in the deckhouse with large windows was mostly okay. Worst was to read a book or to do anything else which required looking down. The most difficult activities which we couldn't avoid were getting dressed in the cabin and using the bathroom. Nevertheless, we survived and even managed to attend to almost all the interesting lectures about wildlife and practical exercises about handling the sails, led by the permanent crew of the ship.

Practising climbing up the mast.
Practising climbing up the mast.
On the second and third day the wind picked up in speed and turned so that it was coming from more or less the same direction than the swell. It was still relatively light for the infamous Drake passage but a strong good wind for sailing. The waves became higher and water was running from side to side over the main deck. That was normal and nothing to fear about, the ship was taking the waves beautifully and felt secure. And although it was at times more tilted sideways than on the first day, the movements were more predictable. In short, it was behaving like a good sailing ship should. We still had an uneasy feeling in our stomachs but were slowly getting used to it.

On the fourth day of crossing the Drake passage the wind first turned to come from the south and later calmed down. The crew took down the sails with the help of us, the voyage crew (that's how the paying guests are called on Bark Europa) and the captain started the engine first time since Beagle Canal, if not counting the man overboard drill on the previous day. Not long afterwards we saw the first iceberg, a huge block of ice rising to a height of about 100 meters above the surface, and nobody knows how deep below it. Only a few miles further south were the first rocks belonging to the South Shetland islands, our first destination.

Sailing finished, but still on the road

Posted: 2015-05-22 01:51:00, Categories: Travel, 170 words (permalink)

Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on Bark Europa. Antarctica and South Georgia were wonderful and we survived the sailing too. :-) It was a fascinating experience to cross an ocean in the old fashioned way, on a tall ship powered by the winds. We arrived in Cape Town in April as planned and spent a bit over a week there and in the surroundings. Then we flew back home but only shortly, as we decided to extend the trip by spending a few weeks in England. This post we're writing in Kendal right next to the Lake District, where we plan to go hiking for the next few days.

Unfortunately we struggled quite a lot with seasickness on the ship and therefore couldn't work much on blog articles or photos during the sailing. We will still be writing about our long journey here, but it'll happen a bit later than originally planned. Meanwhile, you can scroll back to March and April in the Bark Europa Logbook and read the articles posted during the time we were on the ship.

A view over El Chalten. In El Chalten, Argentina we stayed at a kind of cyclists' camp. It was a small house at the edge of the town belonging to Florencia, a local woman who welcomed all touring cyclists to camp in her garden against a voluntary donation to cover electricity, gas and water costs. As it was high season, the place was packed with guests. Sharing one bathroom with more than twenty others required some patience, but it was a great place to meet other cyclists on shorter and longer tours, most travelling south but some north as well.

The new owners picking up our bicycles. Our time was slowly running out so we asked Florencia if she'd know someone who would be interested in buying our bicycles. It didn't take long before a friend of her appeared and was interested in mine. We said that we'd like to sell both at the same time, the word passed around and soon came another man who was looking for a bike for his girlfriend. We asked for a reasonable price and both bikes were sold. Next day, before the new owners came to pay and collect the bikes, we would have even had a second buyer for both. We learned that it is difficult in Argentina to get quality bikes and the prices are higher than in Europe. There was more interest than we had expected and we ended up even selling two of our panniers and one of the front bags. A big change in our trip and faster than we had thought! However, we had known that we would have to get rid of the bikes sooner or later and had bought them second hand specially for this tour. After selling them, we felt slighly sad but relieved that there was one thing less to think about.

Hitchhiking on the side of the road 40. Photo by Rafael from Brazil. Our next goal was to arrive in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina about 1000 kilometers further south mostly through the treeless pampa. In between we had to still pick up a package containing some winter clothes from Puerto Natales in Chile. It would have been possible to travel by bus, but we had still over a week of time and decided to try hitchhiking. When travelling on the Carretera Austral, we had often seen hitchhikers by the roadside and without bicycles it was now easier for us too.

The way of the thumb worked well. Every time nice people picked us up, we got to practise our Spanish and enjoyed a lot of mate tea as almost in every car the traditional cup of mate was passing around between the passengers. We made our way to Puerto Natales in one day, probably faster than it would have been by bus. There we stayed a couple of days with a CouchSurfing family before continuing forwards. To get out of Puerto Natales was a bit more difficult, but after a couple of hours waiting and walking we got a ride near Punta Arenas, where we camped by the seaside. Next day, the first car picked us up and we only had to change once for a ride directly to Ushuaia. Not only did we get there in time but had also local contacts in the city to spend some time with, perfect. Through a recommendation of another traveller we met in Puerto Natales, we also found a very friendly family from which we rented a room for our last few days in Argentina.

Ships in the port in Ushuaia. Bark Europa on the left looks tiny compared to the big cargo ships and cruiseliners. Soon after posting this, our next big adventure will begin. Tonight we will board the sailing ship Bark Europa for a 52 day sailing journey to Antarctica, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha and South Africa. During that time we won't be able to post anything in the blog nor read our emails, and naturally our mobile phones won't work either on the seas. For me, it'll be the longest time without Internet since I started using it 20 years ago. Probably hard, but I'm sure I will survive. :-) It is however possible to follow the progress of the journey via Internet on the Bark Europa homepage. The position of the ship will be regularly updated on the world map and occasionally also logbook entries will be transmitted on the site via a satellite connection. We will write next time in about two months after we've arrived in South Africa.

Road through the wilderness

Posted: 2015-02-27 19:15:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Chile, Argentina, 1258 words (permalink)

Sandra cycling on the Carretera Austral towards Villa O'Higgins. After our hiking trip in National Reserve Cerro Castillo we continued cycling south on the Carretera Austral. There were no cities or major towns any more and even villages were further and further apart from each other. Especially the last 200 km stretch from Cochrane until Villa O'Higgins was a small road through the wilderness, with few houses and plenty of moors between the mountains, rivers and forests.

Inside a marble cave near Puerto Rio Tranquilo. After Villa Cerro Castillo the pavement ended and the road headed directly west for quite a while before turning south again. The next slightly bigger settlement was Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a touristy town famous for its marble cliffs and caves. Like most visitors, we took a boat tour to see them. The boat spent more than half an hour near the rock formations and went inside several of the caves, so we were quite satisfied with the tour. The way back was like a roller coaster ride, the small boat jumping up and down the waves on the windy lake.

Our camping place next to lake General Carrera. The road followed the coast of the lake General Carrera, at times high on top of the cliffs offering marvellous views of the lake. At the bridge over the narrow passage between lake General Carrera and lake Bertrand we stopped for a break. A Chilean family was enjoying the sunny afternoon and the father started fishing using a simple reel of line, a hook and baits. Within twenty minutes he had caught three trouts, one weighing a bit less than a kilo and two smaller ones, one of which he gave to us to cook for dinner.

Baker river just before joining the Nef. Following day we arrived to the southern end of lake Bertrand, where the water was flowing out forming the beginning of the Baker river. It was one of the most beautiful rivers on our route, with clear blue water rushing down the valley. Some 15 kilometers further south was the confluence of rivers Baker and Nef, where large masses of water joined each other with great force. The water from Nef was much more brown so Baker lost its superb colour at that point.

Horseman on the alternative route near Cochrane. Before arriving to Cochrane, we took an alternative route on the other side of the Baker river. In distance it was probably even a bit shorter than the main road, but included a very steep climb of 500 meters of altitude over a pass. We had to push our bikes several times, but enjoyed the views and the quietness of the route — during the whole 30 km we saw only one car and a horseman.

Cochrane was a slightly larger town than all others in the region with a couple of thousand inhabitants and a better than average selection of groceries. We bought food for a week knowing that there wouldn't be any shops during the next 230 kilometers, and headed out to the last section towards Villa O'Higgins, the southernmost point of the Carretera Austral.

Wetland by the side of the road towards Villa O'Higgins. The first 40 kilometers after Cochrane was very bad gravel with a lot of washboard, not the most enjoyable cycling experience. There was also still a significant amount of traffic, mostly cars and minivans heading to Caleta Tortel, a village famous of its wooden walkways by the sea. We were not willing to cycle 25 km there and the same way back to see the village so we skipped it and continued directly south from the Tortel crossing.

After the crossing of Caleta Tortel the number of cars reduced dramatically and the road became nicer and nicer. Water was flowing down from the mountains on both sides of the road in numerous small streams. There were many lakes and even more wetland, making us feel like being in Swedish or Norwegian Lapland. It was the only road through wilderness with only an occasional house every 10 or 20 kilometers, which contributed to the Lapland feeling. Although even here fences often separated the privately owned lands from the public road, there were plenty of wonderful places for wild camping.

Mountain lakes seen from a viewpoint near Villa O'Higgins. We came forwards a bit faster than we had anticipated and arrived in 4,5 days to Villa O'Higgins. It was a rather pleasant village or small town, mostly living from the tourism but featuring modest family-owned guesthouses and small grocery stores instead of hotels and fancy restaurants. It was a dead end for everybody coming by a motor vehicle, which meant that most didn't bother to drive that far. There was a general sense of calmness and we heard of many people who had stayed in the village longer than they had originally planned. We spent three days resting and going for a couple of short walks, and would have probably stayed for some days more if we didn't have a certain date to be in Ushuaia, still quite a long way further south.

For cyclists and backpackers, it was possible to continue further from Villa O'Higgins and to cross the border to Argentina. Actually there were even two alternatives, a road and hike over the mountains to the east and a more well known ferry crossing plus hike towards the south. We chose the latter, mainly because it brought us much more directly towards Puerto Natales, where we had sent a package at the beginning of our trip to pick up later.

The ice wall of the glacier O'Higgins. One of the two ships crossing the lake O'Higgins offers a half day side trip until the glacier carrying the same name. Compared to the steep fare of simply getting on the other side of the lake, the glacier tour was more reasonably priced so we decided to go for the full package. The tour brought us close to the impressive wall of ice several dozen meters high, with small icebergs breaking off and floating on the lake. We had never been so close to a big glacier before and with its various shades of blue it was more colourful than other glaciers we had seen on the trip. As a small surprise a glass of whisky with glacier ice was served to all passengers. We opted for the kids' version of juice and ice, adding alcohol to our already slightly upset stomachs after the trip on the windy lake didn't feel like a good idea.

At times, it was even possible to cycle on the hiking trail instead of pushing the bikes. The majority of passengers returned on the ship to Villa O'Higgins, we and a few others stepped out on the south side of the lake, where we camped for a night before continuing. The Chilean border control was only a few hundred meters further, the actual border with Argentina 15 kilometers away. Until that point there was a narrow gravel road, followed by a 6 km hiking trail leading to the Argentinian border post at Lago Desierto. It was a scenic but pretty strenous day, as our loaded bicycles were not the ideal vehicles for a narrow trail going over roots and stones. However, we got through with lots of time and patience, as all the other cyclists taking the same route.

Lake Desierto with the famous peak of Fitz Roy in the background. Lake Desierto was a beautiful place for a rest day. It was free to camp at the northern shore and during the first evening we had a great view to the Fitz Roy mountain and other high peaks over the lake. One day later we took another expensive ferry over to the southern shore to avoid another longer stretch on a hiking trail around the lake. Then it was only a 40 km easy ride to El Chalten, a touristy town and a hub of hiking trails near and around the famous mountains and glaciers. For us, it was the ending point of our bicycle tour, and the beginning of a new chapter in our travels.

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