Home  Blog  Travel  Party  Free software  Writings  About me  Contact

Arto's Blog

Pages: 1 2

The end of the Antarctic summer

Posted: 2015-08-03 00:41:00, Categories: Travel, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 673 words (permalink)

Nordenskjöld expedition hut on the Paulet Island.
Nordenskjöld expedition hut on the Paulet Island.
It was almost mid March and the short and busy summer season in Antarctica was coming to its end. Most of the animals had already raised their offspring and left towards warmer regions. During our last two days near the Antarctic Peninsula we could feel the autumn, both in the quietness of the nature as in the changing weather.

Lake with penguin pee on the Paulet Island. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
Lake with penguin pee on the Paulet Island. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
We landed on the small Paulet Island, still following the route of the Nordenskjöld expedition (also known as the Swedish Antarctic Expedition) 1901-1904. It was the first time in four years that the Bark Europa was able to do a landing there, having tried once every year. The snow at our landing site was coloured pink, from the guano of about a hundred thousand Adelie penguins which had nested there during the summer. Now they were almost all gone, with only a few penguins and other birds, some frozen carcasses and the smell left behind.

Antarctic autumn, Petrel Cove. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
Antarctic autumn, Petrel Cove. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
We saw the basic stone hut which had been built by the members of the Nordenskjöld expedition in 1903 after their ship sank next to the island. It was quite amazing to think how they survived the harsh winter inside that small pile of rocks almost without supplies. We climbed up the hill, which opened us a view over the shore and a small freshwater lake. The lake was already frozen and the ice was yellow in color, due to a rather large concentration of penguin pee.

Honeymoon at Petrel Cove. Photo by Micke Söderström.
Honeymoon at Petrel Cove. Photo by Micke Söderström.
From Paulet Island we motored a short distance to Petrel Cove on the Dundee Island, named after the Argentine station "Petrel". The station consisted of bright red buildings just like Esperanza we had visited a few days earlier, but it was smaller and there weren't any people around. We heard that the station had been mostly unmanned already for many years. Once in a while some research is conducted or at least craftsmen are sent to do maintenance on the buildings.

View from the coast at Brown Bluff.
View from the coast at Brown Bluff.
We walked a bit around and between the buildings and headed then for a short walk on top of the snow covered glacier next to the base. During the walk the wind started picking up and quite soon we found ourselves inside a small snow storm. We joked about being on a honeymoon in such a cold, windy and desolate place, and asked our Swedish friend Micke to take a photo of us. After that we walked back to the shore and were transported to the ship as usual in the zodiacs, zig-zagging between blocks of ice floating in the sea.

Glacier reaching to the sea at Brown Bluff.
Glacier reaching to the sea at Brown Bluff.
Early following morning we sailed west to Brown Bluff for our last landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. The snowfall had stopped, wind had calmed down, and shortly after landing even the sun came out. Yippee, finally a landing with sunshine! At Brown Bluff there were still quite a few penguins and seals around, and there were also interesting geological formations to see. A massive brown and black coloured mountain dominated the landscape, and walking closer to it revealed various volcanic features such as pillow lava rocks lying on the ground and black stones embedded inside a brown wall.

Three gentoo penguins running up to the shore.
Three gentoo penguins running up to the shore.
Right next to the volcanic rocks a glacier was reaching out to the sea. The 20-30 meter high wall of ice at the waterfront and blocks of ice scattered on the beach looked spectacular in the sunlight. We got some of our best penguin photos just before boarding the zodiacs — the sun simply made everything look shinier and friendlier.

We would have loved to stay longer, but the sunny landing at Brown Bluff was a wonderful goodbye to Antarctica. After lunch we raised the anchor and started first motoring and then sailing north-east towards South Georgia, a subantarctic island about 800 nautical miles away.

An Argentinian village on the Antarctic Peninsula

Posted: 2015-07-24 23:36:00, Categories: Travel, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 638 words (permalink)

Visiting the Argentinian base Esperanza.
Visiting the Argentinian base Esperanza.
From Deception Island our trip continued first slightly north to Livingston Island and then south towards the Antarctic mainland. There we visited the Argentinian base Esperanza, which was a small village of red houses including a school for children.

Moulting elephant seals at Hannah Point.
Moulting elephant seals at Hannah Point.
Hannah Point on the Livingston Island was our last landing on the South Shetland Islands. There, in addition to our daily dose of penguins and seabirds, we got to observe elephant seals, big, fat and cool creatures lying on the beach. They were moulting, which means renewing their skin, and during this period the seals simply lie several weeks on the shore waiting for the old skin to peel and the new one to grow. They don't move much, except throwing some sand over themselves and socializing with each other. The view, smell and sounds of a group of twenty elephant seals, each weighing up to four tons, was impressive.

Ship helm in the morning after snowfall.
Ship helm in the morning after snowfall.
From the South Shetlands we headed South-East, and after half a day and a night of sailing we arrived to the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of the Antarctic mainland. Our next destination was Esperanza, an Argentinian research and military base located at Hope Bay, close to the tip of the peninsula. The visit was organized so that we had a chance to see the base and the people at the base got a tour at the ship — both parties were excited about the opportunity.

View from Esperanza towards the sea.
View from Esperanza towards the sea.
Esperanza is one of the very few places in Antarctica which is not only occupied by scientists but whole families, who even bring their kids along. They spend generally one year at the base, including the Antarctic winter. Then almost the whole staff changes and new group of families comes for the next year. The site is led by the Argentinian military, but the atmosphere was friendly and informal, more like a village than a military base.

Inside the school, nice wall decorations.
Inside the school, nice wall decorations.
When we landed with our zodiacs at the shore, there were already many eager locals, including probably all the children living at the base, waiting for a ride to the ship. We helped them to put on life vests and board the zodiacs, and then followed our guide towards the group of about twenty red buildings. On the way we saw the remains of an old stone hut built in 1902 by the members of the Nordenskjöld expedition, nowadays inhabited by Gentoo penguins.

Sending a post card home.
Sending a post card home.
We visited the local museum, which presented the history of both the base and the Nordenskjöld expedition, and the school which was very cute and cozy. The tour ended at the village hall, a larger space used for all bigger gatherings, also functioning as a post office and a bar. We met some people living at the base, had a cup of tea and sent post cards to our relatives and friends. The communication possibilities included a mobile phone network, allowing us to surprise a few people with sms messages from Antarctica. Some even succeeded in checking emails using the wireless Internet.

Anchor watch at the wheelhouse.
Anchor watch at the wheelhouse.
We spent one night anchored at Hope Bay, and I volunteered for one of the two hour shifts of anchor watch. The tasks were to observe that the ship won't start drifting (it does happen sometimes!) and that no icebergs will be blown towards us by the wind. This time there was only a slight wind and the sea was calm, no need to wake up the captain. Outside on the deck I looked at the lights of the base and thought of how it would be to live there, whereas the inhabitants were probably watching our ship out of their windows and wondering about sailing across the ocean.

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.

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.

1 2


Creative Commons License
Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
(Unless otherwise mentioned in individual photos or other content.)