Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A taste of life as a penguin - going for a dip in the Antarctic sea

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and after barely exploring the top layer of what Antarctica had to offer, it was time to head back to Ushuaia. We'd seen incredible wildlife, stepped foot on the continent twice and visited numerous islands surrounding, seen icebergs many times bigger than our ship and alternated between freezing our fingers off and basking in the warm summer sun. We'd partied late into the night with the crew, whizzed through the waves on zodiacs, and climbed steep hills in the most uncomfortable boots possible. My heart had sang watching whales playing next to the ship, and I'd felt completely at peace staring out for miles, the dramatic landscape and it's unexpected variety of colours truely captivating.

Naturally there was still time for a little adventure though, and our final landing before hitting the Drake passage once more was on Half Moon island. After a couple of hours exploring the land, watching young seals flopping towards to the sea for a swim, saying a final farewell to penguins and admiring the dramatic sweep of the coastline, it was time to experience a taste of life as an Antarctic animal.

The wind gusting around us, F and I gingerly removed one layer after the other, scattering our clothes in a pile on the pebbly beach. Down to the final layer, we grabbed each other's hand, and dashed into the water before we had the chance (good sense?!) to chicken out. The instant my feet hit the icy waves they began to numb. We walked out to waist depth, then quickly submerged ourselves fully, splashing water all over, before hastily rushing back. My feet were throbbing, but the rest of my body, after the initial shock, was fine. Clambering back over the pebbles (top tip: wear socks or water shoes - painful feet plus hard, tumbling rocks are not a good combination...) we sat, the air suddenly seeming much warmer, until our hearts calmed down and we could dry off. The water had been 1 degree celsius at the most, possibly colder.

After it was all done and dusted, we were glad we'd gone for it. The excitement of dashing into the water, in a place not many people have the opportunity to visit, with new friends (and penguins staring on) was wonderful, and I'd do it all again right now. It was bloody cold though...

Monday, 30 January 2012

"There's whales everywhere!" - The perfect Antarctic Christmas present

Within just a day of arriving at the Antarctic Peninsula, we’d glimpsed our first sightings of whales in the distance, the unmistakable tails of humpbacks breaching gracefully in the distance. Frantically attempting to take photos, we were all too aware of the infrequency and unreliability of sightings. When we were alerted to a Minke the following day, following the boat at a cautious distance before swimming off, we thought ourselves very lucky. Until Christmas day, that was.

After a lovely landing in the morning following a festive meal the evening before, we were out on deck, amazed to be spending a truly white Christmas in such an incredible place. Suddenly, the shout went out that there were Minkes playing around the boat. We dashed over, and were greeted by a group of whales, swimming and playing directly below us. They dove in and out of the water, breaking the surface before flipping over and crashing down, then repeating it all over again. Merely metres away, we watched, mesmerised, as they put on a show. The water was so clear that we watched them gliding under the surface, then angle upwards before emerging, heads high, to breathe. I was freezing cold, my bare hands turning from white, to blue, to a burning red, but I couldn’t tear myself away for a second. They played for a long time before eventually drifting past, leaving us full of adrenalin, hearts racing, and hoping for a couple of good photos to show for the experience.

After an afternoon zodiac cruise even more Minkes came out to play, and sitting down to dinner, we were reflecting on our fantastic Christmas when the voice of one of our expedition leaders erupted over the tannoy.

“There’s whales everywhere!”.

Barely a moment passed and we were out of our seats, scrambling for the door, food abandoned. We reached the deck (F very kindly making a detour for some coats – and gloves – along with the camera) to find the descending sun casting a brilliant orange ‘sunset’ across the water and surrounding land, and, within the pool of light, humpback whales, very close to the boat.

They swam in and out of the orange-bathed water, not fast and playful like the minkes, but slow and graceful, their tails fanning in the air, water cascading down, before softly sliding back below. At one point, a whale swam up to the boat, directly underneath where I was standing, its head gently emerging for air. After the recognisable ‘pfff’ of the blowhole, it swam down and away, but not before I’d seen the barnacles clinging to its back as I stared down in awe. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. We stayed out there for the longest time, reluctant to go back inside, peering through the glowing water for ripples and tails. Only once the whales had swam further away did we finally leave, amazed by the whole day and the best possible Christmas present.

The perfect day? Well, the only possible downside I can think of is that we’d missed dessert…

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Snow, icebergs and more penguins: the beauty of Antarctica

It would be a complete understatement to say that Antarctica blew me away. It was everything and nothing like I expected, and the days flew by. As soon as we entered the Antarctic Peninsula, the seas calmed, and the beauty of the region began to exert itself. Huge icebergs drifted past, ranging in colour from white to deep, clear blues. Land rose high around us, and wildlife swam below us. Even the weather was on our side – clear blue skies greeted many of our landings, and although the wind was biting, we were warmed by the bright sun.

Two landings a day meant we visited many of the islands within the peninsula, and were able to step foot on the mainland twice, one occasion forever memorable by a very steep climb up a hill followed by a fast toboggan on our bums back down again! I hadn’t come with too many expectations, all too aware that our itinerary was entirely dependent on the weather and ice conditions, and had resisted reading too many accounts of similar trips. Landings were a real surprise – rather than the strolls along the beaches and hopeful viewings of wildlife I’d expected, we regularly had three or more hours to explore, and almost always the option to climb steeply up through the snow to view points. This was at times challenging – the combination of heavy wellie boots with little foot and ankle movement, the deep untouched snow and the warming sun all made for slow going (and regular falls of inches through the soft snow as a result of heavy steps), but worth every second. Views stretched far and wide, and many penguin rookeries hid up high.

Each landing site was different from the last, and with the freedom we were given by the expedition crew, we were able to choose (on advice) which direction to go and how physical we wanted our visits to be. Along with penguins and seals, there were abandoned huts and boats, incredibly striking and colossal whale skeletons, nesting birds circling above and the occasional echo of cracking ice walls. We sat for huge stretches of time, sitting in awe of the scale and beauty.

There were penguins everywhere, and we were able to add Adelies to our wildlife list. Seals slept on land and icebergs, Weddell and Crabeater the most populous. They lay in the sun, scratching themselves incessantly whilst eyeing us up, before falling back asleep. We even heard ‘singing’ as our expedition leader described it – the high-pitched noises the seals make when asleep. Huge and lumbering when on land, it just took water to turn them into graceful, lithe beings – just like the penguins. One of the oft-quoted highlights of a trip to Antarctica is the opportunity to send postcards with that very unique stamp, so of course we took advantage on a stop to Port Lockroy – the British post, now a staffed museum and post office. A fascinating place, it was hugely enjoyable seeing the reconstructed living quarters of the past before stocking up the shop. The rookery nestled within the raised foundations, literally inches when the pathway, revealed hungry chicks kept warm by their parents, and eggs waiting to hatch.

Although I knew I’d love the wildlife and the chance to explore one of the most untouched places on Earth, I hadn’t anticipated just how much I’d be captivated by the icebergs. On a few occasions we were taken out on zodiac cruises, whole bodies wrapped up against the wind, creeping closer to the huge blue giants. The absence of trapped air resulted in hues ranging from pale milky blue to turquoise and electric blues, the small parts breaking the surface only a limited glimpse of their scale, which we were able to see floating directly over their vast roots. Stalactites of ice hung underneath overhangs, dripping fresh water and shimmering. We travelled under natural arches carved by the sun, saw honeycombed walls alongside ultra-smooth surfaces, and manoeuvred past bobbing smaller chunks. Seals rested on flatter bergs, and we watched jellyfish swim past beside us. It was truly amazing.

Back on board the ship, there were always hot drinks and snacks at the ready upon our return, and after stripping off our many layers with relief, huge lunches and dinners served by the incredible staff aboard. But even in the evenings, after already full and fascinating days, the excitement certainly hadn’t ended, and some other wildlife came out to say hello…

Friday, 27 January 2012

Ushuaia and the beginning of an Antarctic adventure

After a great time exploring Buenos Aires, it was time to move on. We’d be back soon for a further few days, but for the moment we had a plane to catch to the tip of Argentina, the city dubbed ‘Fin del Mundo’ (the end of the world)…Ushuaia. For as lovely as Buenos Aires was, it was actually designed to serve as a stopover for the main event – an Antarctic cruise!

After checking, double-checking and triple-checking the flight (no way we were getting bumped or missing this one!) a few hours later we were on the plane, descending through spiky snow-capped mountains and over clear blue water into Ushuaia. Growth has mirrored the demand for Patagonian/Antarctic exploration, and the town is packed with outdoor pursuit shops, hostels and English-language food menus. We chose to stay in a B&B (the best choice after talking to others on our ship), waking up to a gorgeous breakfast before killing time in town waiting for our embarkation.

Naturally, and although the paperwork clearly listed 4pm as our time to arrive at the port, F and I were there at 2.30 (not that that’s ever ever happened before…) – not something I’d recommend as they really do open the doors at exactly 4pm and there is no-where to get a drink or sit comfortably. Finally the clock ticked over, and we were let loose like a group of excited school children.

After a lot of research we’d gone with the smallest boat that fit into our tight time frame, an 84-passenger ship promising landings twice a day (weather permitting of course) for every person on board, plus zodiac cruises. Surrendering our passports, we were lead to our room, to find that booking almost a year in advance had some advantages – we’d been upgraded to a fantastically-sized room with a private bathroom and large window. Unpacking was followed by champagne, snacks and an introduction to our crew, before the soon-to-be familiar sound of the creaking anchor. After months of anticipation, our voyage began.

The dreaded Drake Passage, the stretch of open water between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula notorious for bad weather, was relatively calm on the outward journey, and after a couple of days killing time and bird spotting, we sighted brown and white in the distance and prepared for our first landing on Cuverville Island. The promise of penguins encouraged speedy dressing, pulling layers upon layers on, all topped off by a fetching bright blue life jacket and wellie boots. We excitedly clambered into the zodiacs, and were off, crystal clear water rushing beneath us as we crossed the short distance between the boat and land. The penguins seemed to have anticipated our arrival, and were curiously peering out from the beach, waddling in and out of the water.

Gentoo and Chinstraps were our first penguin spottings, rookeries all around, and even some tiny newborn chicks hungry for food. Keeping our distance wasn’t always an option, as our new friends fearlessly wandered over, nibbling boots and seemingly enjoying the attention.

After snapping hundreds of photos (no exaggeration…), our expedition leaders led us through the snow and ice up to the top of a hill, the muddy and snowy mound giving way to a breathtaking view over the other side of the island, eroded rocks carved to high peaks with elephant seals basking nearby. We descended as a fight broke out, the heavy, huge animals aggressively warning others away, mouths wide and tails thrashing down. Penguins darted in and out of the water around them, keeping a sensible distance, and the seals flipped sand and mud over their bodies and clambered around and on top of each other. All too soon it was time to head back to the boat. The hours had flown by, and as a first landing it was certainly memorable.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Steak, tango and vibrance in Buenos Aires

If I had to choose one word to describe Buenos Aires, it would be vibrant. It's neighbourhoods are diverse, spanning a full spectrum from incredibly wealthy to obviously struggling, from the bright green of parks to the primary colours of houses. Some areas echo with noise, whilst others exude a quiet calm. It's all undeniably Spanish (with that South American twist of course), and all very vibrant. And I loved it.

As someone who generally sees cities as dropping off points for exploration, used to rest and recuperate before diving into smaller towns and rural settings, I was beginning to worry that the five days I'd given us there would be a little too much 'buffering' time. In reality, I could have remained for many more.
We'd arrived with very little knowledge of the city, or plans, and were happy to combine wandering around the many neighbourhoods with advice from our friendly hostel. We navigated the subway and bus system - the former a mix of modern facilities alongside gutted stations, paint peeling from bare walls, murals on tiles adding colour and interest. The buses were slightly more tricky, the complex one-way road system confusing us on multiple occasions; kind passers-by and fellow passengers pointing expressively to the right side of the road or nudging us when we were nearing our stop.

We started in the centre, the heart of BA. Plaza de Mayo, surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings acted as our reference point as we wandered the streets, passing through bustling clothes markets and trying (roughly!) to walk in a wide circle without getting too lost. Small museums popped up on our left and right, and although we cannot speak a word of Spanish, we eventually become too intrigued to pass another by, and found ourselves in an old prison, the cells showing life for the prisoners. We passed white churches glowing in the sunlight, and buildings on the same streets so architecturally diverse you could have a delicate balconied house, hanging flowers everywhere, next to a solid black tower, Soviet-style statues guarding the exterior.

On another day we joined what seemed like all the tourists in La Boca, the neighboured famed for its colourful buildings, bright greens, reds and pinks against the brilliant blue sky, packed with streetfront restaurants and tango performances. The advice given by all guidebooks, to stick to a few streets and avoid wandering further into the neighbourhood does emphasise the falseness of the show perhaps, along with the over-priced food, but it is a photographer's dream.

Another place for photography was Recoleta cemetery. Another landmark of BA, we spend a pleasant couple of hours quietly walking its 'streets', the opulence of the tombs staggering and well worth a visit. BA is perfectly situated for day trips, and after a few days we headed to the central bus station, and after an hour of wandering its halls (top tip: try to know which bus company you want to use before you arrive...), we were seated on a deliciously air-conditioned bus to San Antonio de Areco, a picture-pretty town in the pampas. Gorgeous colonial buildings sit in the centre of expanses of green, a gently flowing river finishing the scene. Unfortunately, the temperature was in the high 30s upon arrival, leaving me desperately looking for any shade I could get (of which there is very little), but it was a nice change from the city.

Combine all this with plenty of incredible food (including some steaks of course...), and the days rushed past. Naturally it's not all amazing. The habit of eating dinner at 10pm just isn't to our taste, and we were sometimes frustrated that nothing at all seemed to be open in the afternoon. But those complaints are very minor. Overall, BA was certainly one of the nicest South American cities I've visited, and we hadn't quite said goodbye to it yet...

Sunday, 15 January 2012

An unexpected day in Madrid

It’s three days before we are due to fly to South America for our final trip of the year, and I receive an email from Aerolineas Argentinas, informing us of a flight cancellation. As a result, instead of a mere two hours to hang around in Madrid airport before our connecting flight, we would now have 14 hours. Sigh. With no way around it, and grateful for the extra buffer days we’d planned into Buenos Aires, we decided that we would make the most of the time, and have a whistle-stop day in a city neither of us had previously visited.
In the end, it turned out to be one of the best days we’ve ever spent in any city. The weather was fresh but with clear blue skies, and after working out the incredibly simple subway system, we were on our way. With just one day, we decided to stick to the centre, and began with strolling along the streets, glancing through the Christmas market and ducking into beautiful small plazas, warmed by the winter sun, admiring the gorgeous buildings with their graceful and majestic architecture, quiet and welcoming.

Finding ourselves at the palace, situated high with a fantastic view of the city and the countryside framing it, we went in to check the entrance prices and were told that we could go in for free. Language communication between us and the seller was a little stunted, so we couldn’t quite work out why we were given a couple of tickets for no payment, but we certainly were not going to argue, and went through to one of the most spectacular palaces I’ve seen. The rooms became more and more opulent as we walked through, rich colours and stunning furniture appealing to the senses – nothing matching or particularly complimentary of course, but this really was a display of wealth and world-wide influences. The ‘chapel’ (which was the size of a full church) was the highlight – the scale combined with the sculptures around the walls took my breath away, and was definitely not what I had expected. The palace sits opposite the cathedral, a soaring white-grey building with delicate spires perfect for photos.
We eventually moved on as the sun began to set, watching the sky fade to yellow on the road beside the Victory Arch, before finding an underground station and returning to the airport. A small glimpse of Madrid, a city that had never been high on my wish list, but one which I would be happy to explore further in the future. But it was time to leave - we had places to be, and mental preparations for a very long plane journey to make…