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!
Let me say up front, this is a long post, if you don’t have half an hour, then just scroll through the images interspersed in this post. Click on the images to see them bigger, the images in here are only a sampling of what I took, I will put them up on Flickr as I finish editing them, So, get a cup of coffee and Enjoy!
It has been said that only superlatives can describe Antarctica. It is the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent on the planet. It is also the most actively growing and receding continent on the whole planet as its size changes with each season depending on how much ice is formed. It is also the most inhospitable continent on the planet as the coldest temperature has been recorded here at -89.2 degrees celcius, but can average – 70 in the winter. The katabatic winds can reach up to 200km per hour in winter.
So, overall it is a very extreme place, but in summer it is hospitable enough to visit and so on the 8th February 2010 Francis and I left Ushuaia on the ship called the Antarctic Dream and entered the journey of a lifetime.
Antarctica is also known as the White Continent, but that seems to be a bit of a misnomer, I would say that it really is the blue continent. The sea water is the most deep blue in some places and aquamarine almost turquoise colour in others. The glaciers and icebergs have a blue glow to them and the snow in some places reflects blue, so for me Antarctica is really blue. My images reflect this, a lot of the photos I took were longish exposures, so the colours are more saturated and deeper and you will see the blues, and the magentas too….its a beautifully rugged place, this is Antarctica.
Day 1 – Ushuaia – Drake Passage
Drake Passage is one of the roughest seas in all the world. It is really a dangerous stretch of ocean and is the only way in a ship to get to Antarctica. In fact, many sailors say that the Drake Passage is a rite of passage for any would be Antarctic expeditioneers. With that in mind, we set off into the unknown seas of the Southern Ocean. It was all very calm as we set sail, drifting peacefully down the Beagle Channel, sipping on red wine and watching the sun set as we enjoyed our dinner. Our waiter told us that from 11pm that evening the ship might begin to “move” as we enter the dreaded Drake passage. The Drake Passage is named after Sir Francis Drake who entered this part of the Southern Ocean in 1578. It is a notorious passage of water, it can be incredibly calm or unbelievably rough and unpredictable. As a result a lot of sailors say that when you cross the dreaded Drake you either get the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake” On the first night we were beginning to feel the start of what would become some of the most vicious seas of the whole season of 2010.
Day 2 – Drake Passage
On any Antarctic expedition, a ship has to cross the Drake passage to get into the South Shetland Islands and then onto the Antarctic Peninsula. The crossing usually takes 1 and a half to 2 days. We entered our second day and half the passengers arrived for breakfast. The sea looked dark and very choppy, low clouds obscured our view and we could see no further than about 200 meters. The wind was howling and this was to get worse. By lunchtime the ship was moving at only 3 – 5 knots (approx 6 – 10 km/h) and we were seeing swells of about 8 – 10m some up to 15m. It got darker and darker and by dinner time we were in a full scale open sea gale force storm which the Captain rated at a Force 10 storm on the Beaufort scale. The Beaufort scale was created by Sir Francis Beaufort to give a reference to the levels of conditions at sea. At Force 0 the sea conditions are almost perfectly flat and there is no wind. At Force 12 (the highest level on the scale) the ship is experiencing Hurricane like conditions and is in great danger. We had reached Force 10, the description of Force 10, according to the scale is as follows:
Windspeed: 89 – 102 km per hour
Wave Height: 9 – 12 m
Description at sea: Very high waves with overhanging crests. Large patches of foam from wave crests give the sea a white appearance. Considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact. Large amounts of airborne spray reduce visibility.
Description on land: Trees are broken off or uprooted, saplings bent and deformed. Poorly attached asphalt shingles and shingles in poor condition peel off roofs.
Our Captain said that most ships would have turned back, but our ship was designed specifically for the Drake Passage and had a double hulled system which allows it to be more stable than most other ships in the hostile conditions that the Drake throws at sailors. In spite of this, it was REALLY rough. By lunch on the second day, less than a third of the passengers managed to make it to the dining room and Francis was VERY sick. Most passengers could not even get out of bed. I was fine, never felt sick at all and ate 3 meals a day in the dining room, with about 10 – 12 other passengers out of the 67 on board. At this stage, we were in the middle of the storm and there was concern that it might get worse before it got better. We all went to bed that night feeling a little concerned and we were told that we might in the Drake for an additional day as a result of the big seas.
Day 3 and 4 – Drake Passage – South Shetland Islands, Yankee Harbour
That night it seems that we passed out of the edge of the storm and moved into calmer seas. Our Captain apparently only got 3 hours of sleep that night. It got pretty rough just before I went to bed, there was a snowstorm at sea and the snow was being blown horizontally as a result of the high winds. The crew were excellent and the Captain and his men were making sure that everything was under control, even though they had no control over the conditions. We must have exited the storm at some early hour in the morning because when we went upstairs for breakfast, the scene was slightly different, visibility was much better, the sea was calmer, but not totally calm and for the first time we saw land, what a welcome sight that was. We entered the majestic beauty of Antarctica almost secretly, it kind of felt like we had entered a land that had been kept hidden until the moment we saw it. It was amazing, the Icebergs rose up out of the sea like some frozen megaliths of some mythical land that had never been seen by human eyes. The shapes were other worldly and felt almost alien, it felt as if we had come out of hyperspace and landed on another planet. The silence was palpable and the air was crisp and fresh. The sea was flat and calm and by lunch time the dining room was pretty much full of passengers, some of which had not been seen for 3 days. There was an air of excitement at lunch as we were going to be doing our first landing in Yankee Harbour that afternoon. This meant that we had to be briefed on how to embark and disembark on the zodiac boats that would be used to ferry us from the ship to the shore and back. This done, we then donned our weatherproof jackets, weatherproof pants and gumboots and were ready to set foot on terra firma for the first time in 3 days…
We got onto the zodiac and within a matter of minutes we set foot onto the island. This harbour was used by sealers in the 1820’s and we could see that there were hundreds of gentoo penguins and some pretty sizeable fur seals, elephant seals and one or two crabeater seals. It was amazing, the sights and sounds and smells of Antarctica were amazing. One thing that you can never get from seeing a video or photos of Antarctica is the scale of everything. It is a vast place, high mountains, massive stretches of water, huge imposing icebergs and intense wildlife. Wildlife that makes an amazing cacophony of noises, the gentoo penguins recognize their mates by their call, so they tend to make a lot of noise, calling for their mates all the time. Then there is the penguin rookery, a rookery is a breeding ground. On this particular landing there were hundreds of breeding penguins with young chicks. Then the penguins breed they make a colony and as you can imagine the smell of penguin guano and regurgitated krill to feed youngsters makes for an overwhelming smell that simply intoxicates your senses. Factor into that some pretty large fur seals, elephant seals and other land animals like Skua’s, (a bird that scavenges) and you have a sensory overload and a smell that lingers in your nostrils for hours to come. I took a photo of a slightly aggressive fur seal and at 10m upwind from him, I could smell his breath, it was not pretty. The interesting thing is that these are smells that I have never really smelled before and initially they were overwhelming but after a while, they became an integral part of what made Antarctica so special. We were on land for about an hour and then returned to the ship. We left Yankee harbour and entered the Bransfield Strait, the next day we would set foot on the Antarctic continent for the first time.
Day 5 – Cuverville Island and Neko Harbour
We crossed the Bransfield Strait overnight and woke up to an incredible day in Antarctica. It was sunny and warm (Relatively speaking) and we had 2 landings planned for that day, the first was on Cuverville Island. Cuverville is home to some 4000 breeding pairs of penguins and it is one of the biggest penguin colonies in all of Antarctica. It was amazing to be surrounded by so many penguins. Penguins are not naturally scared of humans as there are no real predators in Antarctica on land that prey on the penguins, least of all humans. The IAATO regulations state that people are not allowed to go closer than 5 meters to the penguins, but if they come closer, then that is ok. The penguins are very comical and very curious, so in no time at all, you can be surrounded by penguins with them waddling around you. They are constantly moving and often little fights break out, the chicks can run really fast and are incredibly noisy when they are hungry. Cuverville was an amazing experience, to be surrounded by so many penguins and the Antarctic wildlife. Next we were off to Neko Harbour. Neko harbour, in my opinion was one of the most scenic parts of this trip. It was a huge glacier in a shielded bay with a beautiful snowy hill on the one side. We hiked up the hillside and looked across the bay of Neko harbour, it was spectacular and at that time, the light was perfect, some warm soft light through the low clouds, I managed to capture some really great images from that hilltop. It was quite a climb up to the top of the hill and our guide Rodrigo said that we could take the shortcut down if we wanted to, a bum slide down the hill, of course I took that option and to my surprise so did Francis. It took all of 2 minutes to get down and we really picked up some speed over the steep side of the hill. Neko harbour was also a significant landing because it was officially part of the Antarctic continent and we could say we had actually stepped onto Antarctica, a very special moment indeed. As we got down to the bay, the ships catering crew had brought champagne onto the beach and were keeping it cool on a large chunk of ice and we celebrated our landing on Antarctica with a glass of Chilean bubbly, a truly unforgettable day. Before the zodiacs took us back to the ship, we did a Zodiac tour of the surrounding glacial bays and icebergs, something that I will never forget….8 Glaciers within a few kilometers of one another and mountains that defy scale and size.
Day 5 – Lemaire Channel and Petermann Island
We were woken up early on day 5 to witness the passage through the Lemaire Channel. The Lemaire Channel is one of the most spectacular channels in Antarctica and is often called the “Kodak Channel” or “Fuji Channel” because it is so photographed. What a majestic sight it was, there was some low cloud cover, but the breaks in the clouds meant that the sun was hitting just some parts of the mountains of the channel giving the snow and the ice a glowing quality. It was incredibly still on that morning, not even a breath of air, so the photographic opportunities were great and I got a few great shots of the Channel. Our Captain, Ernesto Barria, was also a keen photographer and he would maneuver the ship into a good position for photographs, for which I was massively grateful. He would also be out on the decks catching some images with us and I have to say passing through that channel was an amazing experience.
We were on our way to Petermann Island, the Southernmost point of our expedition at 65 degrees south, we were only 1 degree away from the Antarctic Circle, which we would not cross in this expedition.
Petermann Island is a very dramatic cove just after Lemaire Channel. Petermann Island is the Southernmost breeding ground for the Gentoo penguins and the start of the breeding grounds for Adelie Penguins. Petermann was a great stop and we spent time sitting on the rocks just observing and listening to Antarctica. After this landing we were back on the ship and off to dock at Port Lockroy, a British Antarctic outpost.
Day 6 – Port Lockroy and Dallmann Bay
In the morning we visited Port Lockroy, which is a museum and has a post office. It is a historic site and is in a magnificent setting in a protected natural harbour. We spent some time on the island that it is on and visited the museum and the island which is home to breeding Gentoo penguins. The museum is part of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage trust and it was really amazing to visit there and speak to the people who work and live on the island for 4 months of the year. In each year, there are only between 6 and nine people working on the island and their function is to be tour guides and to manage the souvenir shop. Port Lockroy was great to visit and it is one of the most visited places in Antarctica. We visited on 14th February, Valentines day and we posted a postcard to one another from there, neither of us know what we wrote on each others card, so it will remain a surprise until we get back to South Africa.
That afternoon we entered Dallmann bay, a passage that is surrounded by high mountains on other side and is littered with small icebergs and brash ice in the actual bay. It is incredibly still and exceptionally pretty. During our trip through, it was very calm and silent, the only interruption on that day was a pod of about 10 Orca’s and a humpback whale and her calf. We watched these amazing creatures for about 20 minutes and it really was something special. Hearing them come up and blast air through their breath holes and see them dive deep, go under the ship and surface on the other side. They are majestic graceful creatures, it seems as if they are in slow motion, but in a heartbeat, they can disappear from sight and they are gone, not to be seen again.
As we left Dallman Bay there was a sense of sadness, the peace and tranquility of the bay seemed to emphasise this feeling, we were now officially on our way back to Ushuaia, but had one more stop to make before we went back through the Dreaded Drake again.
Day 7 – Deception Island – Drake Passage
We woke up to a completely different scene to what we had become accustomed to in Antarctica. Normally at breakfast we would be marveling at the sheer cliffs and snow capped mountains but this morning, we were looking at the black beaches of a volcanic crater and were entering into the crater itself on Deception Island. Deception Island is effectively the remains of an active volcano, which last erupted in 1969. The surrounding area is incredibly stark and the island is in a crescent shape and there is one entrance into it called Neptunes Bellows. The interesting thing here is that this is one of the few places in Antarctica that you can actually swim. The reason is that the volcanic activity heats the water up a bit, not much above freezing though, but you can sit in the water as it bubbles away under you and get quite hot at times. Then, once you are brave enough, you stand up and run headlong into the freezing waters, certainly gets the blood flowing, but I did it. When we landed on the island, it had begun to snow, so there it was, about 20 of us, stripping down to our costumes, in snow, jumping into Antarctic waters and then trying to find the “hot springs” to warm up really quickly after our polar dunk, pretty crazy stuff.
The walk around the island was interesting too, it used be a whaling station used by the Norwegians and as a result of whaling becoming illegal, the station has no fallen to rack and ruin. There are some old huts and houses on the island as well as all the equipment used for storing whale blubber and for processing the whale remains. It looked kind of eerie, as one of the other passengers commented, it would make a great photo for a Pink Floyd album cover and it really would. The landscape was effectively black and white and grey, the sand was black volcanic rock, the snow was white and the huts that have become grey from the weather.
After this, our captain turned the stern of our ship through Nelson Strait and we headed out towards the Drake Passage and ultimately Ushuaia
Day 8/9 – Drake Passage
Everyone’s worst nightmare had not come true and so we were really happy to see the Drake passage was, for now the Drake Lake. The feeling on board the ship was really upbeat and everyone was at breakfast and feeling in high spirits. According to the Captain, we had entered the Drake Passage under two weather systems which were causing a depression and he expected that we wouldn’t have any big seas this time. He was right, it was a very calm passage compared to our initial crossing and everyone was very grateful.
Day 10 – Cape Horn
As a result of the good conditions in the Drake, we exited the passage earlier than expected and our Captain decided to take us around Cape Horn, the Southernmost tip of South America and the site of many many shipwrecks. Cape Horn is also known for its torrential storms but on this day it was calm and sunny, a really apt ending to an amazing time. We spent the evening anchored in the Beagle Channel, awaiting our Harbour Pilot to take us into Ushuaia, he arrived at about 2am and guided the ship into dock by about 07:30. We had our last breakfast on board and then said some sad goodbyes to some newly made friends, people that we may never see again, but with whom we had shared a once in a lifetime experience.
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.
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.
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!!
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.