Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

27 March 2010

Antarctica: Part 2

Day 5: St Patricks Day – a treat for the Irish. Temp: 0 degrees

Our ship sails south towards the peninsula of the Antarctic continent itself. As I step out on the deck pre-dawn, I wonder how the scenery could possibly be more beautiful than what we have already seen. But it is. Breathtakingly so. 

We are slowly drifting between enormous icebergs, in some places through pack ice, through the Lemaire Channel. Humpback whales are blowing, fluking their tails, rolling around and waving their fins high in the air. 

Penguins by their hundreds are diving in and out of the water and seals are lying all over the icebergs.

The channel itself is narrow with steep rocky cliffs either side. The pink and yellow hues of sunrise make the icebergs glitter like gold. 
Every single passenger is out on deck silently watching it unfold. Can this be real?

On the other side of the channel is, Vernadsky, the Ukraine research base where we will land. We zodiac to a hut near the base, Wordie House, which was used by the expedition team led by Ernest Shackleton, the Brit who came within 97 miles of the south pole in 1907 and had to turn back. The hut still has jars of marmite and cocoa powder on its shelves. 

We enter the research base where 12 Ukrainian men have just celebrated their 400th day at the station. Many of them have pictures of young families (and porn stars) and I wonder how they cope with being away for so long, a question soon answered when we are led to the bar where they brew their own vodka. We are each given a shot. It puts hairs on my chest. We send postcards from here and I scribble one to my family. **

Back on board, Geezer realises he has left a hiking boot at the research station. Thankfully someone retrieves it and we find it dangling in the mud room. 

The weather is so perfect that the crew set up a BBQ lunch on the rear deck so we can soak up the view while sailing back through the Lemaire Channel and whale spotting.

The afternoon excursion is a zodiac cruise around the icebergs near the Lemaire Channel. Dave, one of the younger zodiac drivers, spots a humpback whale and we observe him from a distance. The other boats get bored and leave but Dave persists so we sit and wait with the engine off. 

I whisper to Deb, our neighbour on the ship, that one of the crew told me to gently tap on the bottom of the boat and curious whales will come over. Coincidence or not, our magnificent humpback surfaces less than two metres from our boat. He is so close that I see the barnacles on his back and we can smell him. He stinks of fish. He flukes his tail ever so slightly in our direction. Eventually he submerges and we all grab each other wanting to scream but we must stay silent. 

Dave makes us promise not to tell the others on the ship because technically he should have called the other boats over. Had he done that the whale wouldn’t have come so close. Even Dave says that it’s the closest he has ever been to a whale. 

Back on the ship, our little group goes mental and Geezer and I decide it’s time to crack open our bottle of Dom Perignon. Deb gladly joins us. We sip our treats and toast Mother Nature.

Day 6: Landing on the Antarctic Peninsula.  Temp: 0 degrees 

Our first excursion today is to Neko Harbour. For some passengers, the landing will be their seventh continent.  The beach is covered with thousands of penguins and as we hike up the hill behind the beach, a glacier carves off a new iceberg. We can’t spend too much time here because our afternoon excursion is further away.

Chris advises us to be out on deck when we arrive at or next destination because it is spectacular. Wilhelmina Bay was a harbour popular among whaling ships a century ago because it is notorious for large numbers of whales. As we sail into the harbour, there are 30 to 40 humpback whales swimming in the bay in pairs. 

The crew decide that instead of zodiac cruising we will stay on the ship because the view is better. And the day definitely had to go to the scenery. The water is so calm that the reflection of the mountains and glaciers is clear. Out of the all the places we visit, this is my favourite. I never want to forget this.

The captain slowly rotates the ship around and around for several hours. It doesn’t matter which way the boat faces because everywhere you look it is surreal. 

In the distance a whale is sleeping. He wakes and moves gracefully towards us and around the ship. From the top deck we can see the entire animal. He is at least 20 metres long.

Reluctantly we leave this beautiful bay surrounded by whales. It is quite possibly the most incredible place on earth. 

Day 7: Swimming at Deception Island. Temp: 1 degree and snowing hard 

Our last stop is Deception Island which is an active volcano. The crater is visible above the surface of the water and it is the only active volcano in the world a ship can sail into. The weather is pretty crap and the visibility is poor. Because of its volcanic activity, the sand on the beach is sometimes heated. But not today. The water temperature is minus 1 degree. Not a good day for swimming. 

The island has a morbid history as a whaling station and some of the equipment, such as ‘whale digesters’, remains. Ugh! I find it disgusting after seeing all these beautiful creatures.

As we are wandering around the island, we hear screams and see people jumping in the water in their underpants. Geezer and I have our togs on underneath the five layers of thermals and clothes. 

Geezer goes in first, dives under the water, screams loudly and bolts back. While absolutely pissing myself laughing, I attempt to help him get dressed but he is so cold that it is painful, which makes me laugh even harder.

Then it’s my turn. I’ve taken one layer off and I’m frozen. I get colder and colder as I strip off. I throw my Can Too cap on for good luck, bolt down the beach and throw myself under the water. I turn around to run back and realise that I’m further out than I thought – past my waist and have to wade back through the water. 

The snow hits my skin and burns because it is so cold. I run up the beach on the black sand and snow as Geezer helps me get dressed. I instantly regret having laughed at him. My brain goes a bit funny and my feet have snap frozen. All I can think is pain, pain, pain and yell. The feeling has gone in my feet and I stumble to the zodiac looking like I've been dressed by a child. It takes about an hour of warming up in a sauna and shower before I feel normal. 

Our last stop of the day is meant to be Half Moon Island but the captain is concerned about bad weather in the Drake Passage so we have to leave early. We are warned that now is the time to take seasick pills and they are closing the port holes to protect the windows from the rough seas. It must be bad!

We can feel the swell slowly rising. Dinner in the dining room is a riot. Everyone staggers around while the ship is rolling.  

Day 8:  The real Drake Passage 

Breakfast is a complete comedy. I get out of my seat and the ship lurches to one side. A waitress catches me by my arm before I go flying across the room. 

By lunchtime the waves are about eight metres - after lunch they increase to ten - and Geezer and I are mesmerised by the walls of water coming towards the ship. Anything that isn’t latched to the floor goes flying. 

Lunch is even worse. Everything is being chucked up or chucked around the room. We all wonder how the chefs have served up another amazing buffet. 

Dinner ends up being sandwiches served in our room. That night no one really sleeps. People are thrown out of their beds and we learn that the swell is around 15 metres high with no gaps between the waves. It is slightly nerve wracking. Thank god I’m not seasick.  

Day 9: Leaving on a jet plane 

We wake to a much calmer sea and our last full day on the boat. I feel really sad. We can’t believe it is over. 

In the evening, the captain calls us for cocktails. He enters the muster room and everyone cheers. He has had a busy night. He introduces the 55 crew who are mostly Filipino and have all been absolutely wonderful. The loudest cheer goes to the barman. They break into song singing ‘leaving on a jet plane’. I stifle a sob.

The ship’s professional photographer has put together a movie of his favourite photos. Geezer features twice – his great photo up close with a penguin. It’s a nice way to end the cruise. 

We finish the tour by docking in Ushuaia and drinking too much.

We have sailed 1200 nautical miles or 3000km to see Mother Nature at her best. I worry that I will forget some or all of the trip which is why I’ve written so much about it and taken thousands of photos. But how do you forget a trip like that? All that magic. Surely not. I do know that every time I remember Antarctica, it will warm the cockles of my heart.

** The postcards that I sent from Vernadsky took over a year to reach Australia, possibly due to our ship being the last to visit the station. Each ship carries out mail but they may have had to wait till the next summer to send ours.

21 March 2010

Antarctica: Part 1

Antarctica: Day 1: D-Day

I have looked forward to today – 12 March 2010 – for so long. Ten days of cruising around Antarctica. It’s hard to believe it has finally arrived. 

120 of us board buses to Ushuaia port where our GAP Adventures ship, MS Expedition, waits. We are the last to board because of our obsession with taking photos.

Last night our group met and mingled, chatting anxiously about seasick pills and the unthinkable. One woman made a toast. “Bon voyage! Hope we make it back.” (Nervous laughter.) 

The Drake Passage is one of the roughest sea crossings in the world. The last GAP tour was so rough (14m swell) that even the chefs got sick and couldn’t cook. I have more seasick pills in my backpack than clothes.

On board we are summoned to the ‘muster room’ by leader, Chris, and introduced to the 55 crew who hurry away to prepare the five course meal we are about to devour. After two months of hostels and surviving on bread, ham and cheese, this is pure luxury. They even have a turn down service and straighten the shoes in our lovely cabin. 

It is now 10pm. By 11pm we will be hitting the Drake but the boat is already rocking so we must be through the Beagle Channel. About now we will drop off our Argentinean ‘pilot’ who is on board to guide our ship out of Argentina into international waters. Apparently this happens on every boat leaving and arriving into a port globally.

Tomorrow we have lectures all day on birds, marine biology and ice formations. But the question on everyone’s lips is – will I get seasick? 

Antarctica: Day 2 – the Drake Passage 

Our crossing of the Drake Passage is surprisingly calm, so calm in fact that we are ahead of schedule and will get an extra landing in tomorrow at the Aitchos Islands – specifically Barriantos Island.

After gorging myself at the buffet breakfast, I wonder if I should have packed diet pills instead of seasick ones. I attempt a run on the treadmill, which produces an interesting dynamic, but I get more exercise chasing the weights that are rolling around the gym.

We make use of the straight sailing time to learn about sea birds, whales, the history of Antarctic explorers and about Antarctica itself.

There are plenty of birds around – albatrosses, fulmers and petrels as well as dolphins.

At the end of the day we 'muster up'  to go over our itinerary for the next day and debrief on the wildlife we've seen. The itinerary isn’t planned more than a day ahead because the conditions can rapidly change.

So after another five course dinner, we opt for an early night. There is a competition on to spot the first iceberg and I want to be up early to win it.

Antarctica: Day 3 – our first landing

Nothing could prepare me for the sights of today.

I get up just before dawn to watch the sunrise. It is 3 degrees on the front deck, colder with the wind chill. I don’t care because I have the deck to myself and the sun is about to rise. The skies are clear. 

The ship's photographer eventually joins me and we shiver together through the dawn. Having just bought a DSLR I'm like a limpit on his shoulder, picking up tips wherever I can. 

We spot passengers disappearing into the bridge, where the captain steers the ship. MS Expedition has an open bridge so anyone can enter the captain’s quarters. He definitely has the best view and, more importantly, it's warm!

I'm a second too slow on the iceberg spotting but it is magnificent. 85% of an iceberg is submerged and this one is enormous so I can only imagine its whole size.

After lunch we muster in the mud room in wet and cold weather gear for our first landing on Barriantos Island within the Aitchos archipelago. Small rubber speed boats called zodiacs take us to shore. They open up a side door of the ship and we step down to the zodiacs which is no easy feat when there’s a swell. 

We land as close to the beach as possible but still have to wade through knee high water in our boots. There are swarms of penguins – Gentoo and Chinstrap. They are comical and cute, unbelievably tame and curious, coming right up to nibble at our boots. They have no predators here other than leopard seals so they have no fear. Some are feeding their chicks. Others are clustered together for their annual moult - a particularly stressful time for them because they lose their waterproof coat and can’t go into the sea to feed. So they are cold, tired and hungry. 

But they still look beautiful. 

Further along the beach, amongst the thousands of penguins, we spot four types of seals – fur, Weddell, leopard and the ‘jabba the hut-like’ elephant seal. My Flabber is ghasted. It is wildlife in its own surroundings, raw and stunning. It is untouched and it regularly crosses my mind that I am disturbing something so pristine. So I feel a bit uncomfortable.

There are giant whale bones washed up on the beach after the whaling days a hundred years ago. There is an old mast from a whaling ship, which had probably fallen victim to getting stuck in pack ice.

A leopard seal catches a penguin and plays with it before killing it. I'm mortified. We move past the killing melee as slowly as possible but the giant seal is more interested in us. It follows us on the boat so the driver kills the engine. He briefly disappears, popping up out of the water next to Geezer and I on the boat. He snorts and then dips back into the water. He swims after us again but eventually loses interest. I've been holding my breath the whole time.

We have a debrief before dinner and there is a distinct buzz in the room. When Chris asks how our day was, everyone cheers. He looks pleased.

Tomorrow we head further south to Melchior and Danco islands.

Antarctica: Day 4 – the best day of my life?

I saw true beauty today. It took my breath away. Untouched and serene – the truest beauty that nature has to offer. Nature that I will never set eyes on again. Maybe. They say Antarctica is addictive and I understand why. This place has an unimaginable magic about it. That a documentary or photographs or a travel blog won’t do justice.

Today the weather has turned and we wake to snow, rising swells and gusty winds. It isn’t looking good for a ‘zodiac cruise’ – our first of the tour. But the expedition team eventually manoeuvre the ship around Melchior Island so we can get off.

The swell makes jumping into the zodiacs difficult and the staff are strict with their instructions. Do exactly as you are told. Accept help by a seaman if offered. Once on the zodiac we are free to cruise about the icebergs in the chop.

I love boats and being in this tiny rubber zodiac on the big swell makes me giggle. Up and down in the chop. Up and down. I feel like ya-hooing amongst the bobbing icebergs (and I think I do more than once).

We cruise around icebergs that look like skateboard ramps. Colour combinations of whites and the mintiest blues – the freshest, purist blue you can think of. And then you see a bit that is a beautiful sky blue. The water is clear and blue too. It reminds me of mouthwash. Swirling around these icebergs. 

The glaciers look fragile as if they are about to slide all the way down the mountain into the sea. And some of them have so that we have these icebergs to cruise around. 

I take so many photos but the pictures I’m most concerned about are the ones in my mind. I am hoping that I will never forget a single second of this. Because it is so good.

A Weddle seal pops up to say hello. It jumps on and off the rocks as if putting on a show just for us. The wildlife here is so curious about us and our boats.

Reluctantly, after an hour and a quarter, we head back to the ship. The ride back is just as choppy and exciting. Getting back on the ship is our next challenge because the swell has risen further. But I get back on the boat with the help of the three able seaman and I walk to my cabin with a smile the size of China. Oh wow!

We devour lunch and prepare to set foot on Danco Island, which is covered in snow and ice. There is virtually no wind, visibility is good. It is quiet and calm. My feet get wet but I don’t care. We hike up a hill and arrive at a summit that overlooks the bay. 

The island is covered in Gentoo penguins. And there are two humpback whales just milling around in the bay. There are many floating icebergs and in amongst them is our ship, which looks more like a toy from where we are. 

But the surrounding mountains and glaciers are truly breathtaking. The entire landscape is majestic. I think everyone is a bit stunned. 

When we are back on the ship, several people are just standing on the deck in awe. An Irish guy, Kieran, is listening to his ipod and I wonder what music would match this view. As if hearing my thoughts he puts his headphones in my ears. It’s Enya. I burst out laughing. Ah yep OK.

Tomorrow we have permission to land at one of the only winter manned stations in the Antarctic. Most research stations here are only manned in summer. It is a Ukrainian station with a homemade vodka bar. It’s St Patricks Day and the Irish are all excited and fidgety about it.

For the first time we have anchored for the night and the ship has turned off its engines. It’s gone quiet, almost as if it wants us to reflect on today’s magic. The silence is deafening but lovely. And I can’t wait to close my eyes to see those pictures again.

10 March 2010

The most excited a human can possibly be

If it is possible to be more excited than I am right now, I can't imagine it. Yesterday we arrved in Ushuaia, Argentina where our Antarctic trip leaves from. Our hostel overlooks the channel where the boats sail out to the Antarctic. On one side is Chile and the other side is Argentina. It is beautiful.

It's 10 degrees here. 4 degrees on Friday predicted. It's a nice change to be out of the heat.

Tomorrow we leave our hostel and meet the rest of our tour. I always feel a bit nervous meeting up with a tour because you just pray that there aren't going to be any dickheads. We will be spending the next 12 days in close quarters with these people sharing the trip of a lifetime.

Today we trekked up to the Martial Glacier which was also pretty nice. The view from the top was fantastic. Came back to the hostel and hit the red wine and cheese. Can life get any better than this? I have an overwhelming urge to scream out ya-hoooooo! Wait till I get on that boat!

8 March 2010


Many travellers skip Uruguay on their South American travels. But given it's only a two and half hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, I'm not sure why.

We hadn't heard anything about Uruguay and a bit of research before we left probably would have been a good idea.

We hopped off the ferry in Colonia with just our day packs after leaving our luggage in BA, no expectations and no mosquito repellant (more on that later).

A short bus ride to Montevideo, the capital, and we were in the meat headquarters of the world. Our first stop was the Mercado del Puerto or the meat market. Here they grill every part of an animal on hot coals and serve it on giant platters called a parrilla. We opted for pork and beef ribs (yes - goodbye vegetarian days, hellooo carnivorous bloodhound) and one can only imagine the size of the beasts they came from. Certainly larger than your average Australian rack. The pork won the taste test hands down. There is so much meat that they are served with nothing but a blob of hot apple.

We stuffed oursleves beyond stupid and rolled on to our dodgy aforementioned (in my last post) hostel.

Montevideo was fairly quiet and after walking round the city for a few hours we felt we'd seen enough. So we caught a bus to Punta del Diablo, a small fishing village off the beaten track that is slowly becoming popular as a travel destination. The hostel had told us it was only a few hours away so we thought we'd do a quick day trip. Six hours later we arrived cursing ourselves for not researching more. Then we saw the beach, the strange looking beach huts and the very friendly, chilled out locals. Our hostel was absolute beachfront. Suddenly our plans went out the window and we were working out how we could stay.

If you have been on the road for a while and need a few days to chill, Punta del Diablo could be your place. It's cheap and chilled out... to the point where the chef is so busy chatting to you that he forgets to cook your meal.

A couple of days later we were leaving Punta on a red eye bus to Colonia va Montevideo. But not before having been kept awake by a swarm of vicious mosquitos that bit through our clothes. We scratched our way to Colonia, cursing ourselves for leaving the repellant with our luggage.

Thinking we had escaped the mozzies, we wandered around the historical part of Colonia and treated ourselves to a nice lunch. If you listed the countries most affected by mozzies, Uruguay must be up there. Wearing no repellant, shorts and t-shrts, we were eaten alive. Instead of enjoying our nice lunch, we sat and slapped at ourselves till there was actually blood spattering on the table cloth. Feeling paranoid about looking paranoid we left in disgust and pretty much gave up on sightseeing. Regular repellant doesn't work here.

We just about ran out of Uruguay slap, slap, slapping which was a shame because there was more we wanted to see.

Uruguay hasn't quite got the hang of tourism. The postcards are terrible and the information bureaus haven't a clue. But that's probably part of its charm. Don't miss out on coming here but plan ahead and bring strong mozzie repellant!

4 March 2010

Back to basics

One of the things I love most about backpacking is that it makes me live in the moment and it brings me back to basics - getting myself from A to B, finding food and shelter. 

It doesn't take much to make a backpacker happy... a decent shower (if it's hot even better), comfy bed and an edible breakfast usually does the trick. WIFI and a friendly front desk are a welcome bonus.

The sad thing about backpacking is that with age comes an increase in standards. At the ripe old age of 34, a 5-star hostel has now become the norm... a soft towel, intact sheets and lockers that lock. 

Take the hostel we are in tonight.. El Diablo Tranquillo in Punta Del Diablo, Uruguay. Guy at the front desk puts his hand out and introduces himself, helps us by changing our booking so that we have a beachfront dorm and offers to help us with bus bookings when we want to leave. A soft towel, beds that are already made and food that's waiting. Ahhhh...

Take the dorm we stayed in last night... Unplugged Hostel, Montevideo, Uruguay (AKA backpacker hell and should be renamed 'Unlucky'). Barely big enough for my bag let alone six Spanish people and their dozens of suitcases (which by the way has become the new trend in backpacking... backpacks are SO yesterday), a cold, dribbly shower and a smelly and frankly horrid room. They served warm beer and cold coffee. AND someone commented on Hostel World about it's great location. I guess some people think that the middle of nowhere is a geat location. 

But back to tonight... picture this... you get off a bus that you've been travelling on for six hours (the last dodgy hostel told us three) thinking some choice words, when you come across a beautiful surf beach haphazardly lined with cabanas that can only be described as completely 'out there' in all colours and inviting, hippy, outdoor bars. You walk across the beach to an isolated bright red wooden beach shack with hammocks swinging in the breeze and some surf boards nearby. You open the door to your dorm, sit on your bed and look out at the surf... that's us! Wecome to paradise! 

PS. as I am writing this a mosquito has landed on the wall and it is the length of my finger. Hmmm...