Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Waterfalls, volcanoes and horses: The dramatic scenery of the Snaefellnes Peninsula

After the buzz of scuba diving at Silfra, and a mad dash afterwards to see Gulfoss waterfall and the famous geyser that followed it before the dark set in, we were ready for a slightly slower pace. Hiring a car, we loaded up and set up for one of Iceland's literary claims to fame - the Snaefellnes Peninsula, home to the Snaefellsjokull volcano, immortalised in Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'. Being a huge fan of the author, we were keen to catch a glimpse, although the weather was not on our side and the peak were completely shrouded in mist (in fact, when we first arrived, it was so foggy we hadn't realised the volcano was basically right beside us...).

However, even the weather couldn't dampen our spirits when we began discovering the beauty of this seemingly desolate part of the country. If anything, it actually made it more beautiful and dramatic. Driving a complete loop around the Peninsula, we stopped off whenever anything looked vaguely interesting (resulting in many stops...), the car quickly halting whenever either of us shouted 'that looks exciting/odd/cool' or 'more Icelandic horses!'. It was a very good job we were the only traffic on the road.

The craggy coastline of Snaefellnes is wonderfully rugged - steep cliffs revealing sheer drops; fascinating 'black sand' beaches tucked away; trails leading inwards under the shadow of hills and the great volcano - you could easily spend days getting lost. Waterfalls gushed thick and fast, the recent rain spells adding to their energy. We stopped off at one beach - tiny smooth stones, dark and shiny, giving the coastline its dramatic black colour, and watched the waves crashing with huge force into the already-eroded rock arches and pillars and sweeping halfway up the beach towards us. Remnants of Iceland's history were dotted around, including the 'Fisherman Stones' found on the beach - a nearby sign informing us that these huge mounds of differing sizes were a test of strength for the sailors. Naturally, I only just managed the rock aptly named 'weakling', with F succeeding with the next stage up, but utterly failing beyond.

Being low season, combined with the poor weather, we were alone for most of the day, looking out to sea on deserted beaches and struggling up hills against the increasing wind. We clambered over rocks and across fields to reach waterfalls, not wanting to miss anything.

After unsuccessfully seeking dinner (tip: there are very few, if any, restaurants open outside of the biggest towns during the winter. Small supermarkets don't have much either - it's more sensible to stock up beforehand), we spent a comfortable night in our lovely guesthouse before heading north the following morning. The weather continued to deteriorate, and although we passed stunning landscape, fast-flowing streams and more horses, the wind soon had us ducking back into the car. By the late afternoon the rain had set in, and after a soggy walk back from yet another gorgeous waterfall, we called it quits and spent a lovely evening cooking and watching the rain collect on the sill.

The downpours had benefits - the colours were drawn out of the landscape and glowed, the remaining ice had almost melted away from the roads making for better driving, and we didn't see another soul. However, there was one big problem for us - with rain, came clouds. Obviously. With clouds, came an overcast sky. Obviously. With an overcast sky, came... well, actually, it was what didn't come that was more important to us by now.

And so began the great hunt for the Northern Lights...

Monday, 20 February 2012

Becoming a human bridge between continental plates at Silfra

I have to confess, I knew I was going to fall for Iceland before I'd even stepped foot off the plane. A mild climate, diverse natural environments, countless opportunities for adventure, a continuing belief in elves...what's not to love? Couple that with the country's reputation for being one of the friendliest and most welcoming, and we were definitely onto a winner.

Although I'd been wowed by summer photos of emerald green hills, deep azure lakes and the steaming milky Blue Lagoon contrasting against a bright sky, we chose to visit during winter for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, there were a couple of activities/events we were keen on that only run during the colder months. The famous Northern Lights are most common during the November to March period, and with 2012 supposedly being one of the best years for viewings, we were determined to try our luck. We'd also heard about a tour through the ice caves created by glacial movement, which become too unstable once melting begins to occur. Secondly, there was the issue of budget. Iceland is an incredibly expensive destination to visit (especially compared to our usual budget!), and we hoped that going during the off-season would help cushion the cost a little.

After deciding on the optimal time to go, the biggest difficulty was choosing what to do and where to go. With only a week, we had to plan our time carefully and make tough decisions - especially when considering the sheer range of options. One activity, however, was set in stone from the very beginning...

Months earlier, when Iceland began to seriously creep onto our radar, I read an article in a magazine about scuba diving at Silfra, just outside of Reykjavik. Although diving in water barely above zero degrees Celsius doesn't usually get me excited, there is something very special about Silfra. The lake is positioned where two continental plates - the American and Eurasian - meet, a rift stretching out and down in waters with some of the best visibility in the world. At certain places, the two jagged outcrops of rock are close enough that a person can stretch out their arms and become a human bridge between the plates. The possibility of joining continents together suddenly makes freezing cold water as appealing as a warm coral reef, and singularly confirmed the land of elves as our next destination.

After a late touch-down in Reykjavik, we grabbed as much sleep as possible before meeting with our dive operator the following morning for the short drive. Having never dry-suit dived before, we were a little apprehensive, but were reassured that the horror stories (including flipping upside down and not being able to right oneself), "didn't happen as often as you might think". On arrival at the lake, we stripped down and made an awkward dance of getting into our dry suits, assembling our gear with very restricted movement, and hearing some key 'do's and don'ts' before heading down to the water's edge.

Things got a lot easier once we were bobbing in the cold, sipping the gorgeously pure water and astounded by the visibility. Despite my fears and natural clumsiness, I didn't flip over, and after the initial adjustment period getting used to the drysuit operations, we were off. The rift stretched far out in front of us, crystal clear, rock walls either side and littering the floor. The water glowed, a brilliant deep blue in the distance, and the current helped guide us gently forward. We stopped for a photo reaching out between the two plates, before moving on to explore deeper and further.

Although idyllic, we were also concentrating hard on keeping the correct buoyancy - the combination of the fresh water and dry suit a challenge to get used to, and a couple of times we misjudged our needs and drifted a little far up and down, but on the whole it was easier than I'd expected and by the end we were both feeling more confident. The hour we were submerged whizzed by, and before we knew it we were up and out, dragging ourselves and the 30kg of equipment back to the van.

Of course, the disadvantage of coming during the winter months was that getting changed again at the end was a chilly experience, only slightly warmed by the hot chocolate provided, as we fought to take off the equipment and dry suit as quickly as possible and sink back into our warm clothes. The dive had been one of best I've been on, and was an incredible experience I would definitely recommend at any time of the year. The colours, jutting rocks, clear water and the peacefulness of being deep down in the space between continental plates is unique to Silfra, and was a real highlight of our trip.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Antarctica: Do's and Don'ts!

Antarctica was an incredible adventure that still hasn't completely sunk in. A true wilderness, its raw beauty and stunning wildlife was captivating and full of surprises. Here's some tips I picked up along the way...

- Research really carefully when choosing a boat and cruise operator. The laws governing the human presence on Antarctica dictate that no more than 100 people can be on shore per landing (including crew), so our 84 passengers, plus expedition leaders meant that the whole ship could land at the same time, without having to take turns. Everyone had the opportunity to land or zodiac cruise twice a day, and could spend the full amount of time (over three hours at times) exploring the environment and spotting wildlife. Our ship never felt crowded, and with so few people, there was ample time to talk to everyone and create a great, friendly atmosphere.

- Bring the right clothing for the environment. My packing and preparing for the Antarctic post offers advice based on what we found most useful, and cruise operators also send out guides. Remember to bring a good pair of sunglasses - the sun is strong and intense!

- Grab every opportunity offered with both hands. Every landing is unique, each zodiac cruise offering the possibility of new spottings, and every moment on deck different in this continuously changing, diverse environment. Don't worry about missing things though - announcements are made over the tanoy system, and word spreads fast if there's something interesting to see. Take plenty of camera memory, but also allow time to just 'be' there, watching and marvelling at the sheer beauty of the place.

- Read up a little on the wildlife either before leaving, or on the Drake Passage outward journey. Although the Antarctic has it's fair share of life, there's a limited number of common encounters, and being able to identify animals and birds really made the sightings more enjoyable and helped understand their behaviour and personalities.

- Have a list of 'must sees'. Although penguins are pretty much guaranteed (there's so many of them they are difficult to miss!), other wildlife come and go as they please and comparing your experience to that of other people's is a waste of time. Go with an open mind, and see what happens! Setting expectations a little lower means that everything will be a wonderful bonus.

- Expect the trip to be cheap! Cruises are upwards of $5000 (for 11 days - the 'classic' option), and although you can pick up something a bit cheaper in Ushuaia, you need to be flexible and won't be able to pick your ship. Ushuaia isn't exactly a bargain either, and flights from Buenos Aires are infrequent and pricey as a result. Although on-board expenses are generally covered (excluding drinks on many cruises) and there are very few souvenirs to buy, it still all adds up and is a considerable expense. However, there are ways to spread out the cost. We booked almost a year in advance, paying a deposit upfront. The following month, after monitoring flights, we booked those. The next few months, we paid off the cruise bit by bit, and set money aside for accommodation, which helped us keep on top of things.

- Turn down the opportunity to take a dip in the water. Yes, it's freezing, and yes, the thought of removing all those layers will make you wonder if it's worth it. But I know I would have regretted it had I not taken the plunge (quite literally...!).

- Expect landings to be a walk in the park. There is always the option of staying down on the beach, going for a stroll and saying hi to the penguins. But to really appreciate the magnitude and beauty of Antarctica, you need to go up, up, up. The hikes themselves aren't hugely physically demanding, but with clunky boots and thick snow to contend with, it feels worse than it is. A reasonably good level of fitness helps, but it's perfectly possible for anyone taking it at their own pace and for as far as they want to go. And it's all worth it when you get to slide back down, whizzing past the penguins before landing in an jumbled lump at the bottom.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Packing and preparing for Antarctica

Packing for an Antarctic cruise, for two people who like to travel light, really light, was a challenge. We didn't want to compromise on comfort and protection, but also did not relish carrying huge amounts of gear. In the end, we struck a pretty good balance, although there were some things I'd change upon reflection and experience. Here's some advice for making the most of space whilst being fully prepared...

- Layering really was key. The biting wind keeps temperature brisk, but the combination of uphill trekking through snow and the raw sun's rays certainly heat things up. Thermals, a t-shirt, fleece and waterproof/windproof jacket plus trousers were absolutely plenty, and I never felt cold on landings.

- Take two pairs of thermals. Washing clothes in the bathroom sink was just about the only option on our ship, and thermals really are essential every day. Best to have a second pair to hand so your fellow passengers don't move away when they see you coming...

- Constant walking when on land ensured that our feet never got too cold, but wellies are not known for their warmth so a good pair of fleece wellie socks, plus one or two thinner pairs underneath is sensible. Don't bother taking your own rubber boots - most of the ships have a huge stock (unless you are a really unusual size) which are good quality.

- One thing I wished I'd taken along, and ended up buying there, was a fleecy neck warmer. Often exposed to to the cold on zodiac cruises, my lower face and neck suffered the most the first couple of days - the neck warmer could be pulled up to cover my face and was perfect.

- If you plan on taking lots of photos, then glove liners are fantastic - I wore my heavy-duty waterproof gloves on the zodiacs and when hiking, and stripped down to the liners when taking photos for an extra layer of warmth on my fingers.

- After the first couple of landings we ditched our rucksack - it was cumbersome to carry around and we only took cameras on shore anyway. What worked better was taking a foldable dry bag, which we stored the cameras in when travelling on the zodiacs (or whilst it was snowing), then tucked away in a pocket whilst taking pictures. There's so much going on that you'll want the camera to hand at all times anyway!

- Soft, comfortable clothing, such as joggers and t-shirts, were great, both for lounging around the ship and under waterproofs on land. And speaking of waterproofs, it's worth taking decent over trousers. 'Wet' landings (going from zodiacs into water and wading a metre or so to land) are frequent, and tobogganing down snowy slopes wouldn't be quite so fun with a wet bum. On the steep hikes, we rested sitting in the deep snow, and observed penguins and seals from wet rocks, so protection from the water is essential.

- Bring lots of camera memory card storage space. In 11 days, I took over 1500 photos, and that was after deleting some...

- There's no need to take tons of clothes. With thermals always sitting directly on the skin, other clothing can be re-used and rinsed off during the trip. Better to take a few good-quality pieces than bagfuls!

- Finally, remember some entertainment. Although there's plenty to do and see on the Shetland islands and Antarctic Peninsula, there are four days of travelling there and back on open water, and although sitting and chatting with fellow passengers and lectures offered by the leaders kills a lot of time, everyone needs down time too. We took a couple of books - the Lonely Planet guide and a book on Antarctic wildlife, and also our kindles, for Antarctic and non-Antarctic related reading. For the rough seas, when I didn't even want to see a book, an MP3 player was invaluable.

Check out my re-caps of our Antarctic cruise:

A sad farewell to Antarctica
A taste of life as a penguin
The perfect Antarctic Christmas present
Snow, icebergs and more penguins: the beauty of Antarctica
Ushuaia and the beginning of an Antarctic adventure

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Argentina: Do's and Don'ts!

Argentina was a real surprise for me. Buenos Aires impressed with it's diversity and vibrancy, San Antonio was a combination of stunning colonial architecture and stunning natural landscape, and Ushuaia was a friendly, lively town. The people everywhere were kind and welcoming, and if they didn't insist on both getting up in the morning and eating dinner in the evening quite so late, I could almost imagine living there for a while. Very Spanish yet distinctly South American, it definitely merits more time than we had. Here's the do's and don'ts:


- Try to explore as many neighbourhoods of BA as possible. Each has its own character and charms, and hide small museums, parks and architecture. Finding a quiet cafe and just watching people going about their daily business can be a great way to spend a couple of hours.

- Take a day trip or two out to the pampas. Barely a couple of hours from the city, the land opens wide, the skies stretch on forever and life is slower and more laid back. Truly beautiful. As an added bonus, the regional buses are luxurious and guarantee a smooth journey for a reasonable price.

- Use local transport whenever possible. The cost is minimal, and although the bus systems can be very confusing and add time to your journeys (nearly 2 hours from the centre of BA to the domestic airport, in part due to the one-way nature of the roads), the opportunity for chatting with locals, seeing more of an area and saving money that could be used for another activity far outweighs the negatives. We also found most places easily walkable and accessible for pedestrians.


- Forget that Argentina is very Spanish in culture and attitude. Late dinners, late mornings and varying shop opening times are all the norm, which can be frustrating when you want to get as much out of your days as possible, but on the flip side, it also results in good wine, the pleasure of eating a long, satisfying meal, lots of laughter and friendly faces.

- Underestimate the cost! Argentina was definitely the most expensive South American country we've visited. Granted, we stayed in cities where the prices are typically higher, but it certainly wasn't a bargain. Food and accommodation made up the majority of our expenditure, even staying in hostels/B&Bs and eating at smaller local restaurants. Museum costs, although not outrageous, add up over a series of days, and in wealthier areas, even drinks were similar prices to at home. We saved money by only using local transport or our own feet to get around, but it's worth budgeting a little more than anticipated.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A sad farewell to Antarctica, and New Year Eve in Buenos Aires

Leaving Half Moon Island, it was time to descend into the Drake Passage once more. We’d already been told that a storm was heading our way, and had even been given a pretty exact time for when we’d hit it. Our brilliant luck had finally run out, and we prepared for the return journey, securing all our belongings and making the most of the delicious food whilst we could still stomach it. The storm hit us hard. Our ship rocked and rolled, sending huge waves crashing against our window (and we were on the upper deck!) and making outside a strict no-go zone. Trying to walk around was like a comedy act – people tumbling over and grabbing railings whilst edging along corridors.

I didn’t cope with the violent movement very well at all, opting to spend one whole day in bed (along with about half the passengers) as we went through the worst. F, completely unaffected by sea sickness, visited the bridge, returning with pictures to show me what was happening up front. Sleeping was the most difficult part – even angling our mattresses with padded life jackets so we lay against the wall didn’t help much as we tossed left and right whilst attempting to grab some sleep.

Finally we came out on the other side, and spent a much more pleasant evening at the entrance of the Beagle Channel whilst waiting for a pilot to steer us in and back to the harbour. A final meal, an evening with the crew and our fellow passengers, and we were packing up once more before sadly disembarking early the following morning. The cruise was one of the most amazing adventures I’d ever been on, but the trip wasn’t quite over yet. After another couple of days in Ushuaia, jealously eyeing up anyone who looked even vaguely like they were preparing for a cruise, it was back on a plane to Buenos Aires, in time for New Year’s Eve and three more days of fun in the capital.

Unfortunately, things were not quite as smooth on our return. Our hostel (and the block surrounding it) had lost all power, and after trying to convince us that it would only be an hour or so until it returned, they eventually gave up and admitted that it could be days. Being New Year’s Eve, we knew we had little chance of finding somewhere else, so groped around in the dark changing into hot weather clothing before heading out for the evening. As usual, nothing kicked off until around 10pm, bars and restaurants deserted. On advice, we walked a mile or so to a large square, and finally spotted life – people drinking on the street, carnival dancers and their bands creating the atmosphere. After midnight and a great display of fireworks, we slowly made our way back, people in the apartments above us singing and calling greetings out of their windows, children playing in the street and even a couple, dressed only in towels, dancing in the road. Most people seemed to celebrate in their own houses, hosting parties, so the streets were relatively empty with huge bursts of colour occasionally breaking up the dark of the sky.

The following day, in typical BA fashion, was a write-off. We awoke early and managed to find ourselves a new hostel – with working power this time – noticing on the way that nothing was open. No shops, no restaurants…even McDonald's has locked the doors. We struggled to find any food all day, and didn’t even see a person on the streets until around 3pm. Luckily, in the late afternoon a local pizza restaurant opened, and we gratefully munched our way through as much food as we could manage. On our final day, we visited Palermo, a trendy neighbourhood boosting luscious parks and nice cafes. The temperature had really increased since we’d left into the mid 30s, and it was lovely to find some cooling shade and indulge in mountainous amount of ice-cream whilst watching people whizz past on rollerblades. Finally, we were back at the airport, waving goodbye to Argentina and preparing for the very long flight home.

Read about the rest of our Antarctic adventures here:

Taking a dip in the Antarctic sea
The day the whales came out to play
Wildlife and icebergs
The beginning of an Antarctic adventure