Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Well, that was a big one, a really big one. We're home safely, tired but exhilarated. It's hard to know where to start as my usual fairly concrete linear approach to travel reports just won't work this time. When I think about it all, my head feels like one of those lotto machine things, full of coloured spinning balls, and unable to decide how to sensibly get them out. I'll abandon time as a framework and give a brief outline of it all, then work out how to get into some nitty gritty later.

We flew to Buenos Aires (and back) direct, a long leg that sweeps down across New Zealand, way south almost touching Antarctica before scooping up over the snow capped Andes, up over the big brown expanse of Patagonia, and finally to the east coast. It was my first time in South America. Buenos Aires everyone seems to have heard is very fab and the place to go. It doesn't disappoint.

From Buenos Aires we flew to Iguazu, to the falls, the cataracts, in the jungle, malaria and yellow fever maybe, very hot and very humid, monkeys and tst tst tst tst tst jungle noises, just like in the movies. The falls themselves are overwhelming. There had been heavy rains and the river was flowing at about 2.5 times the usual, and then they released water from one of the Brazilian dams up river. It was incredible not only because of the scale of the falls, but the immediacy of the access. You are there - the engineering is staggering: you are on them, in them, under them. You are wet, drenched, dripping, the waters roaring and never ending. There was one spot where people took their clothes off and stood, transfixed, arms uplifted in some embrace or worship, a spot which affected me more than any other physical natural experience ever has.

Then from the very top of Argentina to the very bottom, to Ushuaia the busy port for getting to the Antarctic Peninsular, the Falklands and South Georgia. It's a wild town, evolving from a prison settlement last century, then military base, and now into a tourist hub. It reminded me a little of Queenstown in New Zealand in its geography, snow capped mountains all around, sitting by the water, in this case the Beagle Channel.

For 12 days we were on a small St Petersburg based Russian crewed expedition ship with 50 passengers, (including some ABC Catalyst, more later) and an impressive expedition team, leader, naturalist, geologist, doctor. We survived crossing Drake Passage, albatross and petrels following the churning water, swooping, gliding, skies dark and light rain, the sea a dark slate green black. There was great excitement over the first iceberg sighting (with full access to the bridge 24 hrs, and the radar) and as it appeared on the horizon glowing like some phantom through the mist, everything grey except for this shape, this monster of a different light, it made the hairs stand on end.

*clicking on all these trip pics should enlarge them*

The Antarctica we saw, after stopping at the South Shetland Islands, was the Weddell Sea on the east of the Antarctic Peninsular (the tail of the Andes, the tail of the inverted Q shape of the Antarctic continent) and then down the west of the Peninsular. There were lectures, films, books, people who knew, 2 Zodiac excursions a day, to shore as well as zodiac trips through iceberg wonderlands and glaciers and animal colonies you've tried to imagine but couldn't.

It was like going to space, to an alien, other world. From our mother ship, with much ritual you would dress, special gear, waterproofs, boots sterilised and cleaned before and after each trip to each other place. Nothing disturbed, nothing moved, nothing transmitted, nothing removed.

Each excursion was like a moon walk, then back to the mother ship, and on we went, icebergs gliding past, like asteroids, endlessly, on and on. It is exquisitely beautiful, awesome, huge. To state the obvious, nothing decays. It's frozen, snap frozen, nothing changes. You are going back, years, decades, centuries, thousands, millions of years. It is the driest continent and only the sahara had less precipitation. That it is snow and icebound is only because what falls there stays there, a long long time. If all the snow and ice were to melt the contient would rise up by 1 Km! That's how much, that's how long.

Finally, we sailed back up an unusually smooth Drake and, making very good time, headed west to the Chilean Islands of Diego Ramirez (very like South Georgia), a first for this boat, and then sailed east to 'round the Horn', where 10,000 sailors have perished. We slid past in blessed weather as the late afternoon sun came out on the craggy cliffs. I remembered my parents rounding the horn many years ago sailing to Europe that way, up to Montevideo, Rio and Lisbon, and never thought it would ever be me.

Enough for now. I'll probably try to do a day by day thing, if possible, or maybe an animal by animal thing, or maybe just some pics from time to time. I might try to get an Antarctic pic of the day running - they will outlive this blog, and me, that's how many. Like this: (and they're m & m - mine and mines alone.)

But I'm glad to be back. It's Millie's birthday today, she's three, and the old dog is as wonderful and loving as ever.

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