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.

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