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How do you wrap up 9 months of travel??

Us at Lunch
Us at Lunch in Ollantaytambo

In less than 2 weeks time, we return to our homeland after 9 months of travel in South America. I have been reflecting on this and thinking of how I can distill this amazing time into one blog post and its really not easy. Just scroll down and go back to each month since December 2009 and you will see that we have seen and done and experienced so much.

It has been an amazing privilege to have been able to do this at this time in our lives….to coin a cliché, it has been life changing and I really mean that. South America has been an amazing place to explore, we have travelled through Argentina, Chile, Peru and were fortunate enough to go to Antarctica for 11 days. These experiences have shaped our thinking, moulded our ideas and brought us to the cliff edge of things that we never thought we would experience in our lifetime, let alone in 9 months.

We have been to one of Earths Last Edens…Antarctica. A place that truly embodies everything it is made out to be and so much more. It is almost like landing on another planet, a planet untouched by human habitation, unblemished by mans greed and materialism, a place of audible silence and silent magnificence. It is a place unlike any other I have visited and probably will remain so. To say that Antarctica is breathtaking is an understatement, to say it is majestic, does it no justice, you simply have to see it to believe it…and I believe that I will go back and see it again. The reason for this lengthy discourse is because on our way to Antarctica was one of my first crazy experiences that defined part of this trip. Our experience happened in the Drake Passage, the foreboding, treacherous stretch of sea from Ushuaia in Argentina to Antarctica. It was here, while “crossing the Drake” as it is known, that we experienced one of the most frightening experiences on this trip. On the morning of the second day we hit a gale force storm at sea that lasted for 2 and a half days. Massive 15 meter swells threatened to rupture our vessel, the sea angrily frothed and battered our ship. Fortunately it was a former Chilean navel ship and was built to cross the Drake Passage and was designed for precisely those conditions, but still, the water was a dark inky colour and ferociously smashed against the ship as if trying to expel us from the passage. There was a snowstorm at sea, a horizontal snow storm, that iced the ship up, making it look like a white phantom on the black sea. The windspeed was 100km per hour which pushed our ship around like a toy boat and made the 15 m swells even more ferocious and in my opinion more spectacular. In spite of this, we landed in Antarctica, much to the joy of 90% of the passengers who had been able to keep little food and liquid down as the ship was violently tossed to and fro for 2 and a half days, an amazing experience, one not easily forgotten.

Another memorable experience was seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Before this trip, glaciers held no particular fascination for me, in fact I never really thought much about glaciers. So we left the partly frozen town of El Calafate and drove off to the National Park of the Glaciers. When you enter the park, you can’t see the glaciers, but once you round a particular bend, you get a glimpse of the massive monolithic bulk of the glacier called Perito Moreno. It is a sight that I will never forget, it was astounding, bigger than I ever imagined and more spectacular than any photo could ever convey. Once we got to the top of the hill where visitors can walk on a boardwalk to get a closer view of the glacier, you realize that we are very small beings in comparison to the sheer size of a force of nature that is a glacier. Perito Moreno Glacier towers 75 m above the water surface, its front wall is 5 km long and the whole glacier stretches for 30 km up the mountain valley. It is basically a moving city. It seems as if the glacier itself is alive, glaciers move as a result of pressure from ice forming high up in the valley. So when you stand in front of the glacier, it creaks, crack, groans and sounds like gunshots go off occasionally and this is because this massive ice city is edging ever closer to where we were standing. Millimeter by millimeter, this glacier moves, occasionally visitors are fortunate to witness a calving, this is when a chunk of the front wall of the glacier breaks off and a magnificent display of ice hitting water is seen. It was incredible to be standing before such a gigantic natural phenomenon and to be honest, I never wanted to leave.

Just in case we were short of experiencing natures power, we had the most terrifying experience yet, in Santiago, the capital city of Chile. We were there when an 8.8 earthquake shook half of Chile, the fifth largest earthquake on earth in the past 100 years. You can read about my remembrance of the quake here, but suffice to say that it was only the second time in my life that I truly believed that I was about to die. It is a sobering thought when you are faced with imminent death, I didn’t experience the “life flashing before me” thing, all I remember is that I was praying that it would stop. It didn’t….it went on for 2 and a half minutes, it felt like half an hour. I was genuinely surprised when it did stop and we were not dead, quite a surreal feeling of relief  and then the realization that once again, our lives had been spared, but to what end?

We moved on from Chile to Peru and in many ways Peru has been the highlight of our trip. We have loved it here and it really is an amazing place to visit. The Inca ruins and the pre Columbian civilizations remain a mystery. Machu Picchu is a site that still confounds most experts with its architecture, water systems and positioning, but Machu Picchu is only one of many such sites, some still to be discovered, Inca sites. There is a new site that has been opened up in the past few years called Choquequirao. This site, it is said, is bigger than Machu Picchu and in many cases even more spectacular if that were possible…having visited Machu Picchu, that statement amazes me and excites me.

So as we come to an end of nine months, it is impossible to summarise what we have seen, felt, done and experienced on this continent known simply as South America. We have learnt to speak a new language, even though we are not proficient, we can be understood, we have eaten unusual foods, sometimes we have not been sure what it is, but it tasted good, other times we have known what it is and it has been great (delicacies like Cuy, or guinea pig, and Anticucho, cow heart, cooked on a skewer, to name but a few)

Of course the best thing that has happened is that we have met amazing people on this trip, from university professors to cab drivers, you name them, we have met them. People from diverse backgrounds like a polish woman who escaped from Poland and sought refuge in Canada, Russian Jews who fled from Communism and rebuilt their lives in the USA, A Dutch man and his family who live in the Carribbean and are involved in helping the government of Bonaire integrate into the Dutch system. We have met Australians, New Zealanders, Orientals, Asians, Russians, Europeans from just about every country in Europe, Americans and of course Canadians. We have been astounded at how many new friends we have made and how many of them we are sure we will see again.

So at the penultimate leg of this incredible journey, we know we have managed to capture many images photographically, we have tasted new flavours physically, we have felt the violent shakes of an earthquake under our feet, but more than all of that, we have grown richer in this time. We have memories that will last as long as the rest of our lives.

We have seen things that in many cases seem unbelievable, but only when you emerge on the other side do you look back and see just what has happened. It has been an honour and a privilege, “once in a lifetime” cannot encapsulate the true meaning. Either way, we are greatly blessed to have done this and that the next leg of our journey will begin again shortly… we hope that you will travel with us again!

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Our ship has come in…

Francis and I took a walk down to the harbour today, we heard from our travel agent that our expedition ship, the “Antarctic Dream” would be arriving this morning and would be in the harbour. It was VERY exciting to see the “Antarctic Dream” docked there, she is not a very big ship, but that is part of the reason that the companies use these ships, for their smaller size and maneuverability. It was quite an amazing feeling to see her there. We also bumped into an Australian guy walking back from the harbour, he had just got off the “Antarctic Dream” and said that it was an absolutely amazing trip. He didn’t want to give us to much detail as he said he didnt want to spoil it for us, but he said that it will be a trip we will never forget.

So, we board the ship at 4pm tomorrow afternoon (8th Feb) and will return on the 18th Feb in the morning sometime, weather permitting. We wont have any internet access while on the ship, so technically we will be “off the radar” for 11 days. We are so excited, we really cant wait and we know it will be a huge adventure, naturally posts and pics will go up when we return….

See you on the other side!

Ushuaia – Antarctica’s waiting room

Ushuaia has been our home for the last few days. We have had to stay longer than expected because of our trip to Antarctica. In the process we have been really just relaxing and as a result, both Francis and I have been a bit sick with a cough and a sore throat, basically a head cold. The weather here hasn’t been helping much either, in the morning, you can go out and it will be sunny and warmish (Ushuaia never really gets very warm, it is a sub polar climate…) and within 20 minutes, the clouds descend over the mountains and it will be drizzling a fine icy rain. When the clouds lift, you notice that there is more snow on the mountains and then the wind blows off the snowy mountains into the city, can be a bit nippy then…Having said all that, Ushuaia is set in a beautiful setting. The city is down on the harbour and once you go three streets up you begin to climb some steep stairs as the mountains are literally just out of town, they are huge and beautiful and can be seen from anywhere in the city. So, this has been our home for the past few days and will be until the 8th Feb (only 4 days away) when we leave for the White Continent.

Ushuaia Harbour

Two nights ago the clouds lifted for a few hours and Ushuaia revealed her true beauty, so I quickly put on my camera backpack and went out and caught some of the last light of the evening. It was fun and I had a photography buddy with me. We met a Canadian couple in El Calafate called Paul and Sandra and they were coming down to Ushuaia too, so we got here before them and we booked some place in the hostel we were staying for them. Paul is a keen photographer and shoots weddings in Canada and was very keen to get some shots too. So, the light looked good and Paul and I went out and captured some of it.

From the boardwalk

The images you see in this post are the ones done on that evening, the big ship you see in the harbour is a cruise ship, the ship we will be going to Antarctica on will be smaller than that and we are going on an expedition trip. The cruise ships go down to Antarctica too, but they generally don’t to landings i.e. they don’t take the passengers onto the actual continent. Expedition ships do anything up to 3 landings a day and because they are smaller, they can fit into tighter spaces than the big cruise ships. So we are off soon, the countdown is on!!

Harbour Scene
Creative shot of the sunset at the end of the world!

We did it! We are off to Antarctica…

Ok, we took the plunge and booked our tickets today to Antarctica. We are booked to leave Ushuaia and head for Antarctica on the 8th Feb 2010 and will visit the White Continent for 11 days. We got a really good deal (relatively speaking, its very expensive to go to Antarctica) and decided to take it. So, we are in Ushuaia for the next 11 days and then we are off to Antarctica for 11 days. We are really excited and nervous at the same time. The first real extreme condition we will face is Drake Passage, which is one of the most treacherous sea passages in the world, the swells can be very rough and it takes 2 and a half days to get through. If the weather is good in Antarctica, we will be doing 2 to 3 landings in a day, that means we get off the ship and go exploring on zodiacs (rubber ducks) and go onto the actual land and visit penguin rookeries, walk on the ice packed land and look at sea lions etc. So, we are really excited and are looking forward to the adventure….The image below is an image off our expedition company’s website of the actual ship we will be on, to see more about them, click here.

Land of the Ice Giants

Panoramic of Perito Moreno

El Calafate is home to the National Park of the glaciers. Located just 80km out of El Calafate, this park is home to 47 glaciers, but only  3 of them are accessible, either by boat or land. The most famous of these glaciers is the Perito Moreno glacier. We were driven up there by bus and went into the park. When we arrived, it was raining, so we couldn’t get onto the mountainside to see the glacier, but when we did, we could not believe our eyes. This may sound contrived, but the sight of that glacier was the most amazing and spectacular natural phenomenon I have ever seen.

Full length of Perito Moreno
Perito Moreno - HDR shot
Francis as we enter the walkway to Perito Moreno
Big Blue

The Perito Moreno glacier is 30 km long and in total is 250km square of ice and rock. The front face of the glacier is 5km long and on average it is 74m tall (above the water) To say that it is majestic is a gross understatement, this glacier is nothing short of breathtaking. Firstly, when you stand in front of it, you realise that it is not static, it groans and creaks, sometimes it sounds like rolling thunder as it heaves forward. The glacier is constantly moving, but it is not noticeable, but you can hear it. Every now and then you hear a loud crack, similar to a gunshot, as it moves…occasionally pieces of ice from the front wall will fall off, this is called calving. Calving happens on a regular basis, but it is totally unpredictable, so you will be looking in one direction and hear shouts from the other direction, you swing around quickly and will see only the last pieces as they fall into the water below. It is spectacular to see it, there is a sharp crack, a deep rumble and then a roar as a piece of ice, the size of a few small houses, comes crashing into the water. I managed to catch one calving, you can see the pic with the 3 shots of it happening.We spent a few hours just looking at the glacier and it was mesmerizing, it was as if you couldn’t stop looking.

Perito Moreno Calving

The next day we went on a boat trip to see Glacier Spegazzini and Glacier Upsala and then to see Perito Moreno, from the water level. This too was completely amazing. We came up close to an iceberg in Lake Argentino, there are plenty of them floating around, and lots of amazing sights to see.

Up close with an Iceberg in Lake Argentino
Francis view the iceberg
Up close to the Blue Giant
The Blue Giant, from a distance...

Glaciers Spegazzini’s front wall is over 100m tall above the water, but not as wide as Perito Moreno, but still impressive. We could not get close to the front wall of Upsala Glacier. In recent time, because of the increasing temperatures, Upsala is calving much more often and when it calves, the whole front wall comes off. This is now happening once ever 20 days or so, therefore the bay in front of it is packed with icebergs and pieces of ice. This debris is 3km long, so the closest we could get to Upsala was 3km away.

Glacier Spegazinni - full front wall

By far, the trip to the glaciers was the highlight of our trip so far, these Ice Giants are something quite spectacular and no photo can do them justice, to see, hear and almost feel them is what makes a visit to them so worthwhile…a once in a lifetime experience.

Chacra Millalen – Organic farm

Sunset at Millalen

So, let me be honest, the idea of working on an organic farm for 2 weeks wasnt necessarily high on my list. There were a few things that concerned me, one was, the lack of meat on the menu for that time. Other than that, I wasnt overly concerned. By the end of our time there, it was really quite special to have spent so much time in such a beautiful place. Yes it was a farm, a working organic farm, and we learned so much. Our day basically went as follows:

07:30 – Wake up

08:00 Breakfast – consisting of homemade bread, Jam, Oatmeal and Te Negro (Black tea)

09:00 Work assignments handed out and that could range from weeding the beds in the veggie garden (a large veggie garden) to picking raspberries, cleaning certain areas, making adobe bricks etc etc

09:10 – 13:00 Work!

13:00 Lunch – always a hot cooked meal which could comprise of lentils, potatoe bake, veggie stew, millet casserole and so on, sometime with rice and other accompaniments

14:00 – 16:00 – Siesta time, literally

16:00 – 20:00 Work

20:30 – Dinner time

230:00 Bed Time

Raspberry pickings
Peas picked by Francis

Pickings for the last half hour

We were only working half day on the farm, so generally after lunch we had time off, so we relaxed, read our books, typed up blogs, edited photos etc.

The farm, as I said, is a working farm and so it generates income off the produce. A lot of the fruit is made into jams or preserves and sold in the local town up the road called El Bolson. The nearest town is El Hoyo, but it really is very small, so not much of a market there. Most of the tourists end up in El Bolson and that is where a lot of the produce is sold. The veggies and fruit really is very good and very fresh and of course all natural, so no chemicals or pesticides have been used in growing the produce.

We were on the farm with about 10 other volunteers, 5 of them were from the USA andthe rest were from France. This made for many interesting chats as the French group could not speak much English apart from one of the girls, Lena, who was actually very fluent, more fluent than she let us know. Then the USA group, all girls, were mostly out of college and travelling for the next few months before they returned to the US.

We had a lot of fun and laughter, two of the French guys were highly talented musicians, Nico was a really good guitarist, so good that he could listen to a song one or two times and begin to pluck it out on a guitar. Antoine made music with just about anything, he turned pots into drums, PVC pipes into Didgeridoos and he had a mouth organ which he played with great aplomb. It was really amazing to be sitting around after dinner listening to an informal jam session that they would strike up…

The scenery at Chacra Millalen really stole the show. The farm is surrounded by beautiful rugged peaks that seem to push up effortlessly from the valley. In the distance are snow capped mountains and just beyond that the border with Chile. The valley is green and lush and is home to a lot of cherry, raspberry and strawberry farming, so it really is a great place to have a farm. Also, there are plenty of horses in the area, we would be walking down the country road and two horses, by themselves, would amble by along the road…really rural, but very very pretty.

Chacra Millalen Snowfall
Chacra Millalen Snowfall
Mountain at Millalen

The owners of the farm we also such lovely people, Fabio (who didnt speak any English unfortunately) had a lovely open and smily face and was always joking and making people laugh, Josephine who is fluent in English, Swiss, German, French and Spanish is always in control of what is happening in her garden. Every afternoon, she would walk through the garden with her clipoard and make notes of what needs to be done next.

Overall we had a great time at the farm, and learnt a lot about how things get done on an organic farm, a good experience and as always, great new friendships were made..

The cooking team of that evening
My sweetie in her gum boots
Hmmm, nice gum boots

Some images from Chacra Millalen

We had a really good time at Chacra Millalen. The setting was absolutely beautiful, we were surrounded on three sides by some amazing mountains each of which was 2km high or taller. On our first night there, snow fell on the mountains overnight, so here are some of the images I captured on the days after that.

Chacra Millalen Snowfall
Chacra Millalen Snowfall
Mountain at Millalen
Sunset at Millalen