Friday, 22 August 2008

Great Short Film

I stumbled across this on Youtube this morning...

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Washed Out in every sense

We arrived in Snowdonia feeling confident but a little nervous in the shadow of the looming hulk of Snowdon and Crib Goch. Our trip up to Snowdonia through central Wales was beautiful and the weather held out until we left the pub just up the valley from Llanberis. We pitched the tent in a campsite opposite the pub and got our heads down early in anticipation of our start at 2.30am. In the few hours that we were asleep the wind picked up and the showers blew down the valley from Pen y Pass.

At 2.30 we all squeezed into a pick up and were transported up the valley to the car park at the base of Crib Goch. As we gathered in the darkness of the car park with head torches alight the clouds were passing swiftly across the night sky obscuring the mountainside. Within half an hour of starting we began the first of many scrambles up the rocky outcrops that line the face of Crib Goch. With only the light from our head torches route finding was tricky as our frame of reference was reduced to a few metres. As we broke through 800m the cloud closed in and visibility dropped further. The moist rock became slippery and narrowed to form the knife edge ridge that stretches to the summit and beyond. The going was slow as the wind increased, buffeting us from our left and forcing us to crouch down against the rock. In some ways, traversing Crib Goch is better at night and in the mist. The sheer exposure is often intimidating but in this instance we could see no more than a few metres. 

As we came of the ridge we seemed to lose the route and ended up traversing lower than we should across the face of Snowdon. The surface became slick underfoot and the rock broke loose. After 30 minutes of hunting for a way to the summit ridge we came across a butress that was climbable and made our way towards the summit. One stroke of luck was met with a deterioration in the weather as the wind strengthened further and the rain began to fall. As we reached the summit of Snowdon the weather has closed in so much that we had to huddle around the summit cairn.

As we descended the train tracks we passed several groups of people probably attempting the same feat. By this time, my clothes we soaked through and the rain had begun to seep down the inside of my gaiters and into the top of my boots. After twenty minutes of traversing the ridge line we dropped of the edge over a stile towards the campsite. We passed through the base of the cloud and the campsite began to appear. Both Rob and I were feeling fairly strong, if wet, on the descent despite losing our footing on the boggy ground. As the campsite came into view Rob noticed that our tent didn't seem to be where we had left it. The further down the valley we got the more obvious it became that something was wrong. The group stopped to regroup but we pressed on to investigate. Turning into the campsite we could see that the tent next to ours had collapsed. When we got to the Land Rover we still couldn't see the tent so we headed to the wall behind and saw a crumpled heap of poles and fabric. Given that the tent was filled with my kit, the cots, our sleeping bags and some food it must have been an incredible gust that lifted it off the ground and over a 12 foot wall. Unfortunately, the wall was topped with a barbed wire fence that shredded the ground and fly sheets. With nowhere to sleep that evening and soaked to the bone we reluctantly decided to call it a day, gather together our scattered remains and make our way back to Bath. We were both disappointed to have to quit after the first of the three legs but we I suspect it won't be the last attempt.

We learnt a few useful lessons on this attempt that would make a second effort easier and hopefully more successful. After a good night's sleep (I headed to bed at 8pm last night) I am a little sore in the quads and have a huge heap of soaked kit to wash and dry. I'll take a break from training today but will be back on the road on Monday as my preparations for New York take precedence.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Time is running out

This week, like most of the past few weeks, has been manic on the work front. On the plus side, the work is absolutely fascinating and right at the heart of what I want to be doing over the coming years. However, the period of time that we have been given to complete the project is incredibly short and that is putting a lot of pressure on all of us. The upshot of this is that I have not had too much time to worry about preparations for the weekend. 

When I spoke to Rob this morning it dawned on me how much still needs to be done before we even leave for Snowdonia: I need to get the tent from storage in Swindon, get some energy powder for drinks, maps, batteries, etc. I am looking forward to getting in the car and heading up there but the prospect of waking up at 2am on Saturday with 50km of solid walking over some of the most hostile terrain in the UK ahead of me is scary to say the least. I am sticking to mental images of a fried breakfast on Sunday as motivation...a positive metal attitude is the only option.

In other news, we will be booking our accommodation in NYC for the marathon today (no going back now) and Jasper remains as cute as ever...

Expect the next missive after the event on Monday with pictures and a link to the GPS route in Google earth. I may even try and squeeze in a little video... 

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Tapering for the weekend

Jasper has certainly put a dent in my preparations for the Welsh 3000s this weekend. Over the last couple of months I have been following a fairly rigorous training program for the NYC marathon in November. Having finished the first phase of that training last week I was hoping to move on to Phase 2 (with a little tapering of mileage to keep my legs fresh for a weekend in Snowdonia). The sleep deprivation of the last week or so has really taken its toll and it is hard to get motivated when the fatigue levels never seem to drop. I am hoping that the few extra hours of sleep I will get tomorrow will help me recover a bit before Rob and I head to North Wales on Friday.

The more I think about the challenge the more intimidating it seems to get. There are no two ways about's going to hurt! Now off to Boots to buy some Zinc Tape for my feet...

Sunday, 29 June 2008

And back to reality...

It hardly seems like two months now since our return to the UK. As we approached the end of our trip in South America our mindset certainly began to shift towards home and all that that entails. I remember standing on the balcony of our hostel in beautiful Buzios and checking our email on the laptop and Sarah beckoned me over to look at an email she had been sent by Sarah Hunter-Rodwell of Didlington Doodles. In the email we had received confirmation that our name was on the list for a litter of miniature Labradoodle puppies due at the beginning of May. We were so excited, but at the time it seemed like such a long way off that we didn't want to get too excited (besides, we didn't know how many puppies would be in the litter). Our last couple of weeks reinforced the proximity of our impending return and we began to adjust to the prospect of heading back to the UK.

After nearly five months on the road and jaded by the cost of living in Brazil we were quietly looking forward to getting back to the peace and quiet of the Cotswolds and re-establishing our life at home. For me the transition was always going to be abrupt as we returned on the Saturday and I was at week on the Tuesday (it was a Bank Holiday). I had been in contact with the office and knew that I was due to start a project up in Warwick and was glad to be straight back at the coal face, fresh and eager to get stuck in. The project is fascinating and the client is great so it is a huge relief to be back in such fine style.

For Sarah, the transition was always going to be tougher as the ambiguity of not having a job to come back to is always unsettling. As it happens, things fell into place quite quickly as the opportunity to continue her studies with a Masters in Early Years Education came up and news came through that Dawn (a beautiful Chocolate Labrador) had had a litter of six new puppies and we were sixth of the waiting list. After eight weeks of waiting we finally headed down to Cranbourne Chase last weekend to collect the newest edition to the Giles household...Jasper. Today he has been with us eight days and it has not been the easiest adjustment to make but he has been worth every minute of the lost sleep we have had. There will be more on Jasper over the next few weeks but now onto something completely different...

I mentioned in my post from Florianopolis that I was cooking up plans for active events to keep me focused and fit when I came back. As anticipated, I followed up and two things have come to fruition so far. The first is due next weekend and the second is due in November. On Friday Rob and I head off to Snowdonia for the weekend to join a group that is going to attempt the Welsh 3000s. We will be meeting up with Lou (who we met on the Navimag and rejoined in Mendoza) who is shortly to return from Ecuador and will head up to campsite just at the base of Snowdon to attempt the challenge. I am sure that we are woefully ill prepared, despite a lot of running and walks. Whichever way you look at it, 50k on foot in 24 hours and 14 peaks over 3000 feet is going to hurt. Still, a challenge is a challenge. The second event is the New York Marathon. Inspired by the feats of Thierry, our French friend from the trip to Antarctica, I was keen to take Simon up on his offer of a joint assault on the NYC marathon. The week before last we finally got confirmation that we had places in the race (not the easiest thing to achieve). So, the roads and trails around North Wraxall will be hit hard over the summer and autumn months. I have bought a GPS and heart rate monitor to track my progress and signed up to a program where I am tracking my progress. I'll write more about the training but for now I need to sign off...Jasper needs to head out to the garden...nature calls

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Cheek by Jowl

After a marathon bus ride from Florianopolis we are now in the spectacular city of Rio de Janeiro. After the near biblical day of rain in Florianopolis the weather came good for our last couple of days and the charm of Santa Catarina began to shine through the off-season gloom. The tennis continued to be a regular fixture as we followed a Canadian player, Peter Polansky, that we got chatting to on the first day as he made his way to the Quarter Finals only to be knocked out by the narrowest of margins. Watching these guys slug it out in the blistering heat of the midday sun was a fantastic and unexpected experience. The overnight bus trip to Rio was more comfortable than expected but it is nice to think that we only have a mere six hour ride remaining to take us from Rio back Sao Paulo next week.

Rio is without doubt one of the most visually spectacular cities in the world and quite unlike any other city we have been to on the trip so far. The city is punctuated by steep mountains that separate the regions and make it feel more compact than it actually is. The main beaches of Ipanema and Copocabana are some of the most densely populated areas in South America as the high rise apartment buildings are crammed into the few blocks between the beach and the lagoon, just a few hundred metres inland. As there are a couple of public holidays this week the beaches were packed with people enjoying the last throws of autumn. The beaches reflect the diversity of life in Rio with each section of the beach ‘claimed’ by a different group: the pensioners playing suttlecock, favella kids playing beach football, bronzed poseurs playing beach volleyball in the tightest speedos they could find and only marginally more modest than the beachwear on show in the gay section between the rainbow flags. On Sundays and public holidays they shut down an entire carriage-way of the beach road for runners, rollerbladers and promenaders. This is where people come to see and be seen. It is fair to say that Ipanema beach takes the award for the most inappropriate exercise clothing I have ever seen; who would have thought that an octagenarian would wear a pair of speedos to go running.

After Chile we thought that we had left the most expensive country on our trip but Brazil has been a real eye opener. Our room in the Mango Tree Inn is possibly the worst value for money we have had thus far at $65 US for what if effectively a damp shed with a bunk bed. The restaurants are equally extortionate with fish and meat main courses in the region of $30-35 each we are talking London prices. As we head up the coast tomorrow to Buzios for our final attempt at a sunny beach stay we are hoping for a little self-catering to ease the strain on our already hemorrhaging budget.

The strangest thing about Rio is the proximity of extreme wealth and poverty. This morning we went on an organised tour of a couple of Favellas. These areas of the city house the poorest of Rio’s inhabitants and are effectively outside of government control. The Favellas are controlled by organised crime syndicates that run drug franchises around the city and are de facto no-go areas for the police. Robberies and street crime rarely occur in the Favellas as the dealers don’t want to draw attention to the area, this is usually reserved for Ipanema and Copacabana. However, as the balance of power ebbs and flows within the gangs there are regular shoot-outs as turf wars reach their inevitable conclusion. Recent investments by NGOs and the Inter-American Development Bank have improved infrastructure in these makeshift areas bringing rudimentary healthcare and eduction to the families that desperately need it. However, what is most striking is how close the Favellas are to some of the most affluent parts of town with single roads lined with million dollar houses on one side and tenements on the other. Education is the only path the kids in the Favellas have to escape the cycle of poverty but few have access to good quality public schooling. Hopefully this will change as the government begins to provide the much needed investment that address the needs of this underclass, until then the dealers will rule and have plenty of willing recruits with a shortened life expectancy.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Off-season melancholy

There is something melancholy about beach resorts in the off season. Restaurants stand empty save for the rows of tables with seats stacked upside down, legs in the air. Shops selling flip-flops and swimwear have brown paper messages plastered on the inside of the window: ‘Stock Liquidation’; ‘Final Clearance 50% off’. Sand drifts down the street, blown on the wind along the curb until it forms into drifts against a stick lodged in front of the storm drain. On our first day on the Isla de Santa Catarina, outside the city of Florianopolis, the overcast skies brought a chill to the air and the gloom added to the off-season quiet of a town slowly dropping into hibernation. Bright flowers in the courtyard of our hostel, a warm oasis in the doleful tranquility of the resort, indicate what might have been if we had arrived a month or so ago. Bathed in sunshine and bustling with holiday makers, this town would be positively radiant, however, the weather and season conspire to suppress the joie de vivre and dampen the spirits of even the ebullient Brazilians.

We had come to Brazil with visions of white sandy beaches bathed in sunshine and ice cold caiparinhas. With two weeks remaining on the continent we were prepared to surrender to the sound of the sea lapping against the shore, read a book and mentally adjust to the prospect of a return to ‘everyday life’. Being well seasoned travelers now we have both learnt to always have a Plan B and to adjust to the situation at hand. As such, we have a second beach trip planned to Buzios after a brief trip to Rio and have stumbled across an ATP Challenger Tour tennis event just down the road; entrance is free and the standard is fantastic and with a bit of luck the next couple of days will bring more sunshine to boot.

I mentioned in my post about Buenos Aires that we were already starting to think about home and the prospect of ‘business as usual’. After several months on the road the frustrations of an itinerant life are always close to the surface: the constant packing and unpacking of bags; the limitations of restaurant food for every meal; the need to pay for activities that at home would cost nothing; and, the inability to access the everyday amenities of home. As we get closer to our return the lure of normality becomes more real and compelling. However, we are both conscious that we don’t want to suffer the inevitable feelings of anticlimax that also accompany the end of such an epic trip and the only way we know to avoid this is to begin planning new experiences. Strange as it may seem, I am really looking forward to getting back to work and all the challenges that it will bring, however, I have also missed being able to get out and ride, run and walk in the way that I can when we are at home. With that in mind I have a number of plans afoot to enter events in the summer and to set myself some longer term goals for endurance events that will test my limits and bring structure and meaning to my training. Luckily it looks like I will have someone to push me on as my good friend Simon is also looking for a challenge. We have bandied around a few ideas and will continue to do so until mid-May when we will meet in person to agree a schedule. Knowing how we are, I suspect that there will be a distinctly competitive edge to it, all the better to focus the mind.

Turning up the heat

The thunderous wall of water seems to vaporise before it hits the plunge pool 60 metres below. From the viewing platform above the Devil’s Throat the river seems sedate in its passage towards the precipice, slowly flowing around islets of vegetation, barely a few feet deep. Fish swim lazily from rock to rock seemingly oblivious to the commotion less than twenty metres downstream. As the water flows over the terminal face of the falls the light refracts through the gentle curve of the fall before it reaches the vertical and dissipates into millions of individual droplets. As they fall further they form an homogenous meld of foaming white water that crashes into the plunge pool below, frothing and seething, sending a billowing cloud of vapour high above the falls.

The Devil’s Throat is the showpiece of the Iguaçu Falls, but there are several falls that match it or surpass it in power. What makes Iguaçu unique is the breadth of the horseshoe and the panoramic sweep of the falls. From the Argentinean side it is possible to see several aspects of the falls and you get a real feel for the sheer size and majesty of the spectacle. Well marked paths cut through the jungle guiding visitor to all the best viewpoints and a small train carries passengers to the walkway at the top of the falls. The humidity and heat of the jungle hold the perfume of the jungle plants close to the ground as the oppressive heat of the midday sun smothers the low lying canopy of vegetation. Copious butterflies flit from tree to tree searching for moisture and nectar, each variety seemingly seeking to out compete the next in the colour stakes.

The fact that we got to the falls at all was an achievement in itself. A group of local residents, exasperated by the governments lack of funding for education had taken to the streets and blockaded the one arterial route that links the town to Falls and the airport. Traffic was backed up all day and the picket lines were locked down. Luckily, on our way out we had reached the picket before they had enough critical mass to stop us crossing, however, our bus was not able to cross so we resorted to a mixture of hitchhiking and walking to get to the falls. On our return the traffic tailed back several kilometres and the barricade was watertight; no amount of talking and gesticulating could get us through. As we baked under the full force of the sun the mass of pedestrians grew and the clamour to get through increased until it was decided by the protestors to open the lines to pedestrians to ease the pressure. The legacy of civil disobedience in South America is longstanding and protest is a natural extension of the process of negotiation; whether it is parents demanding better education, water taxi drivers demanding more money or farmers challenging the onerous tax burden on their produce, demonstrators remonstrate in the loudest possible terms.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Lofts, boutiques and La Boca

Buenos Aires is the beating heart of South America popular culture. A long history of European immigration has left an indelible mark of old and new Europe on this city. From the architecture of San Telmo and the Parisian flair of the Belles Artes style public buildings to the ever-present campaign posters of Berlusconi aimed at the voting power of the Italian diaspora, the links to Europe abound.

After five days of wandering around the streets of Buenos Aires it was sometimes hard to believe that we were in South America with all the street-style boutiques, couture stores and cafes bustling with cosmopolitan Porteños. However, move South of San Telmo and you quickly find yourself in La Boca, the home of Boca Juniors (the club made famous by the eponymous Diego Maradona). La Boca is the ‘other’ side of Buenos Aires; altogether grittier and more in-keeping with the Barrios of Lima and Quito. As we made our way to the La Bombonera (the Boca Stadium) we could see families seated on the steps of their tenement buildings, drinking and chatting in the warm, late summer evening. Along the streets, vendors were selling knock-off merchandise and impromptu grills were smoking with tripe and chorizos dripping fat onto the red hot coals, fanned constantly with a copy of the evening paper by the distracted owner.

Inside the stadium the atmosphere was electric. Stood behind the home team’s goal, the entire stand opposite seemed to throb to the beat of the drummers within their midst; a jumping mass of blue and yellow chanted for ninety minutes without stopping for breath. The football was mediocre at best, but the experience was unforgettable.

San Telmo used to be the home of the wealthy Portenos before they moved north to Recoleta. Now, San Telmo has become gentrified again with artists, photographers and fashionistas moving into loft apartments and a thriving market for antiques, lively bars, clubs and restaurants. A brief flick through the Buenos Aires Time Out will confirm how cutting edge BA has become with avant garde artists, musicians and designers producing work on a par with what you may see in London, New York or Milan.

Just a ten minute cab ride north takes you to Recoleta, the heart of old money Buenos Aires. High rise apartment blocks with ornate atria and twenty four hour service, tower above a grid of couture boutiques and saddlery shops frequented by the wealthy polo playing community. The buildings overlook the Cementerio de la Recoleta, the resting place of Argentina’s rich and famous (including Eva Peron - Evita); bringing back memories of the old money apartment blocks on the Upper East Side of New York, bordering Central Park. The coffee shops buzz with ‘ladies who lunch’. chain smoking and quaffing impossibly small coffees. Cars double park outside the malls, protected by their diplomatic plates and blacked out windows. Every now and then a tiny lady with totter out of the mall laden with bags from Dior, Versace et al, hand them off to a driver and jump in the back, shielded from eye contact by over-sized dark glasses.

I look forward to returning to Buenos Aires in the future with a budget to shop and party whilst staying in the Faena Hotel + Universe. After nearly four months backpacking it was great to spend time in a pseudo-European city doing all the things we would do on a European city break. We are now into the three week countdown to our return and mentally we are trying to readjust to the prospect. Our final stint in Brazil will be more like a holiday as we spend time on the beach preparing for home. We are strangely looking forward to heading back to the UK, the promise of seeing friends and family is so enticing that we are palpably excited at the thought. We are already planning the next phase of ‘life at home’ but more on that later...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Shaded by Sycamores

Sycamore’s line the matrix of streets in Mendoza turning what should be a parched, dusty city into a grid of dappled, shady streets and avenues. The Centre of the town is dominated by the Plaza de Independencia and its four satellite squares, one at each corner. Our hostel was located on a a broad, tree lined avenues several blocks away from the centre of town where, on either side of the streets wide irrigation channels bring precious water from the nearby Andes to sustain the sycamores with their smooth, peeling bark and mottled green leaves. The wine lovers amongst you may recognise Mendoza as the heart of the Argentinian wine industry. The long, warm summers and plentiful supply of meltwater from the Andes provide ideal conditions for red wine production and this is evident in the number of vineyards and winemakers in the area.

On our second day in Mendoza we took a tour (not the best but fairly informative) of the vineyards to get an idea of how the industry works in this part of the world. We were shown around three very different winemakers: the first, a large scale commercial winemaker (Weinert) several hundred of thousand bottles a year; the second, a smaller scale commercial vineyard; and, the last was a boutique, family run affair that concentrated only on what they could make in a small barn. The Weinert winery made both red and whites but concentrated on blended reds for the mass market. Their wines were generally made in vast concrete chambers lined with epoxy paint and then aged in giant oak casks. None of the wines we tasted their were anything to shout about.

The second winery was much more interesting. It had been set up by an Italian who had tired of mass production and was aiming for quantity over quality. He made several wines including a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend but focused on high quality Malbec, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. What I found particularly interesting was that they had taken white wine production techniques from Australia and New Zealand including liquid nitrogen cooling techniques and malolactic fermentation, that turns the green apple like malic acid into the softer, more buttery lactic acid.

The final vineyard we went into also played host to our buffet lunch, a collection of cold meats, juicy meat empenadas and artesenal cheeses. As it happens, the wine made on the premises was probably the best, despite the fact that it was served in bottles without labels. The lunch was delicious and quite typical of the region. The meats and cheeses were all served on platters made from the remnants of old oak wine barrels and the vegetables, roasted or pickled including beetroot and red cabbage.

In addition to the vineyards we visited a beautiful modern distillery. The building had been designed by an local architect using local materials in a very modern style blending industrial and domestic methods. The grounds had been landscaped and planted with Cypress, cacti and lavenders to take advantage of the warm weather and arid conditions. It brought home to me how much great architecture, classical and modern there is in this part of Latin America; I look forward to seeing more when we go to Brazil as I hear that Sao Paulo and Rio have some amazing new buildings.

Monday, 31 March 2008

A Dot in the Pacific

Rapa Nui is the definition of remote. Over 3600km from mainland South America and over 2000km from its nearest inhabited neighbour, Pitcairn Island (Population 50), it exists on the margins. Its enigmatic history is fascinating and its modern existence is precariously dependent on the thousands of tourists that visit from mainland via Santiago or on the cruise ships that swing by en route across the Pacific. As a Chilean dependency, it is supported by the central government and, as such, has all the facilities you would expect to see in a frontier town: a hospital, bank, post office, satellite communications centre, etc. However, all its cultural references derive from Polynesia: Rapa Nui language is 80% the same as Maori and the song and dance take cues from Hawaii, Tahiti and Micronesia. It is thought that the island may have been originally settled both East and West and this is evident by looking at the physical characteristics of the people. Although Polynesian in appearance they are distinctly taller and more slender than their Western Polynesian cousins. When Thor Heyerdahl was conducting research in the 1950s he heard stories of there having been two distinct ethnic groups on the island with one displaying Caucasian characteristics such as red hair and pale skin.

Although almost 163 square kilometres in area, over 90% of the c.3800 people that call Rapa Nui home live in the few square kilometres of the main town, Hanga Roa. The island is formed of three extinct volcanos and is triangular in shape. At its highest point it is just over 500m high and the landscape undulates with grassy hills cut through with the remnants of a volcanic landscape: lava tunnels, basalt rock faces and showers of tuff (compacted volcanic ash). Most of the coastline either consists of steep sided basalt cliffs or rocky shore, the legacy of lava flows now being eroded by the pounding waves that roll in, uninterrupted over thousands of kilometres of open ocean. Only one pair of white sandy beaches exist on the North side of the island but these are certainly the epitome of the Pacific island beach idyll; gently curving coconut palms and tufts of coarse grass giving way to fine, silver sand.

It is not, however, the physical geography or remoteness that makes Rapa Nui so famous, but the unique Moai. These giant, monolithic sculptures stand guard over the island and need to been seen to be believed. At one location on the South East coast a line of fifteen Moai stand on their ceremonial platform (Ahu), gazing in towards the island. Rectangular in structure, with angular facial features, recessed eye sockets and bulging bellies they cut an imposing shadow against the sunrise. Originally, it is thought that they had oval eyes make of white coral and jet black obsidian, however only one now remains, reconstructed at Ahu Ko Te Riku. No one knows for sure why the Moai were carved or how they were moved from their nursery at Rano Raraku, however, it is thought that they were used for ancestor worship before the introduction of the birdman cult. This cult centred around an annual ceremony that saw young men of each tribe competing to return the first egg from the Sooty Tern rookery on Motu Nui. They had to descend a steep cliff before swimming the shark infested waters to the island a kilometre of so off shore. There they would wait until the first egg could be found before swimming back to the mainland to become the venerated ‘birdman’.

Modern day Rapa Nui seems to be indicative of many of the Polynesian island in its battle to retain cultural distinctness whilst balancing the comforts and trappings of modern life. Cars abound on the island although few seem to be driven outside of Hanga Roa. The islanders all work in tourist related activities either in guest houses, hotels, restaurants or tour agencies. However, there is still a strong sense of cultural identity with the local language still used in preference to Spanish. The islanders sing and dance for the tourists but you get the impression that they would do so even if they weren’t getting paid to do it. On the flip side, however, all the pitfalls of island communities abound.

After several months on the mainland it has been great to see an entirely different place. We are so far removed from South America here that you may as well be in Asia or Africa. The four days that we have spent here have been relaxing and fascinating and have given us a taste of the South Pacific. I would love to see more of the islands further West in Micronesia and Melanesia but that will have to wait for another trip. For now, we will take the memories of this unique island back to Santiago and on to Argentina. In a few days we will be heading for Mendoza to celebrate Sarah’s birthday in the vineyards of Western Argentina. We are approaching the one month countdown to returning but still have a lot to see on the final leg of our South American odyssey.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Apathetic cruising and a vanishing culture

It is probably testament to what we have done over the last six weeks that the Navimag seemed underwhelming. On the face of it, three days cruising through the Patagonian fjord land should be something to really savour. However, after hitting the heights of Antarctica and Whale Sound the Navimag seemed a little pedestrian.

The Navimag is a ferry that runs the route once a week between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (and vice versa). The ferry weaves its way through small channels between the mainland and the island archipelago. It carries a 150 strong contingent of international backpackers and a cargo of sheep and cattle (that after three days squeezed into trucks smell ripe). We had been warned that the food was lacklustre and to take plenty of wine onboard to fuel the quiet hours. As it happened, the food was actually pretty decent and the bar wasn’t as expensive as you might imagine with a captive clientèle. The ferry runs a series of lectures and films to explain the route and the Kaweshkar people. However, with my broken Spanish and their broken English the films and lectures became more of a burden than an education. As a consequence, we had plenty of time to catch up on backdated blog entries and photo editing that had taken a back seat whilst we were enjoying Patagonia.

One interesting element of the three days was a brief stop in the hamlet of Puerto Eden. This small village of a couple of hundred inhabitants is only accessible by boat and is home to the last dozen or so fully indigenous Kaweshkar people. The Kaweshkar have inhabited the Patagonian fjord land for several thousand years and until the 1950s followed a nomadic way of life, in small family units diving for shellfish and hunting sea lions. They would spend 80% of their life in canoes and designed them such that they could keep a fire running constantly within the canoe. They wore only loose sea lion skins and swam naked in the icy waters for up to an hour at a time diving for mussels and scallops. These people were as hardy as they come. Nowadays there are only 12 or so pure bred Kaweshkar living in a small township within Puerto Eden. They are no longer nomadic and like many aboriginal groups have fallen foul of the temptations of alcohol. Western culture has overwhelmed this small group to the extent that there is only one surviving person that speaks their native tongue. It is sad to see but unfortunately it seems inevitable that the Kaweshkar will go the same way as the Ona and Yamani people in Tierra del Fuego.

We are now in a small town above Puerto Montt called Puerto Varas. This are os known as the Chilean Lake district for obvious reasons. The town itself is like a diluted version of a Swiss or German mountain resort. Every corner seems to play host to a Strüdel maker or chocolatier and the houses have a distinctly Alpine feel. Tomorrow we will be making our way back across the border to Bariloche in Argentina before crossing back a few days later to Pucon. We are due to get to Santiago on the 25th in time for our flight to Easter Island on the 26th. Both of us are very excited about seeing La Isla de Pasqua. In the meantime, Happy Easter to everyone at home. Have a great few days off!

The Uncloaked Towers

Most visitors arrive in Puerto Natales on day one and by 7am on day two are on their way to the W trek in the Torres del Paine National Park. Sarah is officially done with trekking. The W trek was off the agenda and he circuit (the 5 day extended version) was never even a topic for discussion. With two weeks to pass before our ferry up to Puerto Montt we decided to do something a little different and after much canvassing around town settled on our trip to Whale Sound and a Land Rover supported trip into the park. The quid pro quo for not trekking was a temporary lifting of the moratorium on bikes.

As with the rest of Patagonia, the weather in TdP National Park is fickle to say the least. Mid-summer snows and gale force winds are a matter of course in this part of the world and many a trekker will complete the five day W trek without seeing the Paine Massif as it is often blanketed in cloud. We must have been making deposits into our Karma bank over the last couple of months as we were blessed with a cloudless view of the entire massif on our second night of the trip.

Everything about our trip was faultless as Pablo and Mariano had organised the ideal itinerary, provided the best equipment, cooked the finest asados and accommodated every variation that we asked for. After three months patiently waiting to get back on a bike I was eager to spend as much time as possible on the bike. After a 30km morning riding on the corrugated surfaces of the road I was so badly bruised and saddle sore that I had to peddle entirely out of the saddle for the 20 km ride in the afternoon. I felt like a kid who had been craving sweets for so long that I had gorged myself and felt so sick that I couldn’t even look at another cola cube. Luckily we had Pablo’s fantastic Land Rover Defender 110 to support us all the way and our planned riding trip turned into more of an off-road driving excursion. With the constant wind dropping off the Southern Patagonian Ice field it was so much nicer to be viewing the mountains from the protection of the vehicle than battling into a biting headwind on the bike.

The much photographed landscape of the TdP massif is captivating and surprisingly compact. Although relatively small in relation to the vast expanse of the Patagonian landscape it is capricious in the way that it changes as you move around from one viewpoint to the next. From one angle all three of the towers are visible but only a kilometre down the road they are hidden but a new vista opens up of the Fortress and the Horn. Even if you stay in one place the mood of the range can change in minutes as venticular clouds emerge and disappear. The changing light highlights different parts of the massif and casts dark shadows into the valleys that are cut into the lower level of sedimentary rock. As we awoke on the third day in our camp on the Southern shore of Lago Pehoe the entire massif was enveloped in cloud. However, after breakfast the mantle of cloud has lifted and only ethereal wisps of cloud remained giving the mountains a more mysterious character.

It would have been remiss to visit Chilean Patagonia without exploring the National Park and the breathtaking spectacle of the massif did not disappoint. As was the case with Tierra del Fuego, I would love to visit the park in winter to see a different aspect of its personality. As we make our way North over the next few days we will be closing a chapter of our travels that I had high hopes for. Every aspect of Patagonia has exceeded those expectations and I am left wanting more. In fact, whilst down here I read a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s biography by Nicholas Shakespere and a quote from it seemed to encapsulate my feelings about Patagonia:

“You have to have some sort of magic circle to which you belong. It’s not necessarily where you were born or where you were brought up. It’s somewhere you identify with, to which you always happen to go’s what Proust calls ‘the soil on which I still may build’”.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Crashing Ice and Fleeting Rainbows

The milky blue waters of whale sound were several degrees colder than the Straits as the melt water gushed from the base of the glacier. Long slivers of brash ice drift on the current towards the mouth of the fjord. As we made our way in the kayak towards the terminal face of the glacier we saw what looked like a waterfall on the central nunatak that separates the two sides of the face. This waterfall was actually a huge shower of ice caused by a large section of ice high on the face calving off and pulverising on its descent to the fjord. Every few minutes there would be another crack and thunderous rumble as another section of the face parted company with the glacier. This glacier is in retreat, as are many others. The tell-tale signs of the retreat are plain to see in the rock faces that surround the face. Indeed, the central nunatak was recently entirely encased within the ice of the glacier. However, as the ice retreats these orphan rocks are left, scraped clean by the erosive power of the ice, as future islands in the fjord. The most recently uncovered rock is easily distinguishable by the absence of lichen that over a couple years will change the colour of the rock from orange to a dusky red or green.

Being so close to such an active glacier is an astonishing and belittling experience. As we paddled closer our guide Jem made his way over to the other side of the fjord. As he got closer to the glacier the perspective of the size of the face became more apparent. He became an infinitesimal dot under the towering face of ice. The sections of ice that were calving were the size of a eight story building but, from a distance, looked insignificant. Scale is so deceptive in Patagonia as everything is so vast. There are so many fjords, sounds, channels and islands here that few are ever visited. The archipelago west of Tierra del Fuego is so remote and the weather conditions so unpredictable that few visitors deign to travel here. This isolation is itself a huge attraction as you feel like you are one of the privileged few to experience the landscape that is one of the last true wildernesses.

After an al fresco lunch on a beach we made our way down a small adjoining fjord with towering mountains on either side. After negotiating the eddies and currents created by the turning tide at the mouth of the fjord we had a wind assisted paddle down the southern shoreline. The mountains tumble so precipitously into the water that we had to crane our necks back to see the peaks. Overhead we were lucky enough to see the unusual sight of two of the largest birds flying together. There are few places other than Patagonian archipelago that you can see albatross and condors flying together.

On our return to the Zodiac we could see the waves of showers as they rolled down the valley towards us. Every shower was accompanied by a rainbow as the low slung sun refracted through the approaching curtain of rain. In fact rainbows were the one constant over our stay in the archipelago as the weather changes so fast; clouds and showers roll in rapidly on the ever present wind and disperse as quickly.

Silent Giants

A flash of the white belly, flippers splayed and a hulking body in suspended animation portends a calamitous clap as the humpback returns to the surface of the bay. As we sat down to our breakfast Sarah caught the first breach out of the corner of her eye and soon everyone crowded around the doors awaiting a repeat show. In this case lightning did strike twice as the whales treated us to a repeat of the first pyrotechnic show. A few minutes passed with little more than a flash of dorsal fin and then it became obvious that they were heading for the bay. The humpbacks are known to swim right into the bay, barely 10 metres from the shoreline, to rub against the kelp and rocks; presumably scratching an itch. In this case, a pod of three humpbacks followed by a retinue of dozens of sea lions, swam right into the shore and lodged in the kelp for a several minutes before turning and hugging the shoreline past the camp. This kind of encounter with whales is a real privilege and one that we could only get at a place like Isla Carlos III.

The morning was spent kayaking out to Rupert Island a couple of kilometres off the south camp. As we rounded the sea lion colony at the headland the silence was broken by a chorus of barking and wailing and the splash of several hundred sea lions simultaneously staggering to the water and diving into the kelp. Within the seconds the first heads began to pop above the surface around us, bulging eyes staring before disappearing again. Young pups performed their acrobatics all around us diving and somersaulting for fun. After a couple of minutes watching the spectacle we could feel something strange under the kayak, looking over the side I could see an effervescence as bubbles burst on the surface. A pair of young males were under the kayak blowing bubbles for fun before swimming back to investigate the rudder.

After lunch the wind and waves had grown enough to take kayaking off the agenda so we decided to head out in the Zodiac with Juan to try and find some whales that he had not yet had the chance to collect skins samples from. Over the course of the next three or four hours we followed several pods including a pair that he had not yet sampled. In order to take the sample we had to approach the whales from behind and get within ten metres or so of the fluke. As we approached he would take aim with the crossbow loaded with a hollow bolt that, as the dorsal disappeared, he would fire into the muscle. The whole exercise took less than a couple of minutes, but required incredibly precise driving from the skipper who had to find the perfect balance between speed and discretion to avoid the whales taking fright and diving.

As the sun began to set we decided to head out for a final paddle in the now calm waters of the bay. Followed by our usual escort of sea lions we headed around to the north shore of the island. Most of the whales had now moved further out into the Straits but as we turned for home we came across a pair of whales less than a couple of metres off shore. Slowly paddling in their direction we awaited their re-surfacing (always a random event as they often change direction in a dive). Then, barely fifteen metres off the bow the first whale surfaced. Seeing and smelling the blow from a kayak gave us a completely different perspective as we were that much closer to the surface and the kayak is entirely silent. Paddling just fast enough to track them we finally saw them arch their backs in preparation for a dive, before the fluke appeared silently, trailing a shower of sea water, then disappeared without a sound below the surface.

We had seen humpbacks at a distance in Antarctica but the encounters at Isla Carlos III were spellbinding. The sheer quantity and proximity in the marine park is something rare indeed.

Chile's Maritime Garden of Eden

Rounding the headland of Cabo Froward, the most southerly point of the South American continental land mass, the waves steepened and the wind whipped spray off the crests into the Zodiac. The waves came in sets of 10 or 12 with the last in the series larger than the rest, destined to break over the bow as we plunged in the trough that preceded it. Two hours previously we were standing on the shore, 5 km north of San Isidro Lighthouse, wondering why we were wearing full survival flotation suits and orange oilskins. However, sat shivering with two hours remaining to Isla Carlos III I was wondering why we didn’t have full dry suits like Jem, our kayak guide.

The further west we got in the Straits of Magellan the higher the mountains became, some topped with glaciers and all covered in a thick blanket of native vegetation. San Isidro Lighthouse marked the final permanent habitation and ahead of us lay virgin wilderness, a haven for marine mammals and seabirds. For the five hours that we plowed into the westerly wind we were kept constant company by Black Browed Albatross, Southern Giant Petrels and Imperial Cormorants. The petrels and albatross skimmed the frothing surface of the water gliding from peak to trough with effortless inflections of their wing tips.

As we approached the Southern edge of Isla Rupert we caught sight o
f a commotion on the water; a congregation of birds and sea lions jumping,flapping and diving in a frenzy of wings and flippers. As we got closer the tell-tale blow of a humpback emerged from the centre of the melee and then a giant head emerged, mottled white with calcification and barnacles. Slowly the moth closed and the head retreated back into the foaming waters as the dorsal fin of its partner broke the surface. For five minutes we floated spellbound as maybe two hundred sea lions gorged on the shoal of herring trapped by the whales. The albatross and petrels bobbed on the surface scavenging the detritus left in the aftermath of the chaotic commotion.

The scientific research station on Isla Carlos III is located on the eastern edge of the island looking out over the marine reserve that is the summer feeding grounds for dozens of humpbacks and several giant colonies of sea lions. Each year the humpbacks swing by the Straits of Magellan on their way back from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the breeding grounds in the warm waters of Colombia and Panama. Juan, the resident whale expert, has been busy over the last few years tracking their movements and taking skin biopsies for DNA testing to establish sex and lineage. Each humpback stays an average of three weeks in the reserve and is identifiable by the shape and markings of the dorsal fin and fluke. Juan has spent so much time with the whales that he can instantly identify each whale by name and number with only the slightest glance of a distant dorsal fin.

The camp, nestling into the hillside rising from the shore, is made up of a series of interconnected boardwalks linking platforms that support heavy geodesic domes that are the sleeping quarters for the scientists and guests. On the largest platform, set aside from the domes, is a dining tent with large glass sliding doors and windows that provide sweeping views of the bay from the dining table. Further north still, on the tip of the headland, is an observation hut that is used to spot the whales and study behaviour. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic spot for a camp, floating above the ferns and red trumpet flowers of the copihue. As night fell the bay sheltered bay began to calm as the wind reduced to a soft breeze in the lea of the island. A blanket of silence fell on the camp as we prepared for dinner the only sound was the intermittent blow of the whales lazily breathing between dives.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Delving into history

Our next two days on the peninsula dealt us a mixed bag of cloud, snow, wind and rain, but always accompanied by an irresistible combination of unique landscape, flora and fauna. After a couple of days gorging on jaw dropping ice fields and penguin colonies teeming with Gentoos, Adelies and Chinstraps, the following days took on a more historical complexion. On the route over we had heard a series of lectures on the heroic and often tragic history of Antarctica. From the early days of exploration and discovery, through the ‘gold rush’ of commercial whaling, there are numerous stories of hardship, sacrifice, heroism and bravery. As we stopped off at Wordie Hut and Deception Island some of these stories began to come to life as the remnants of that era lay abandoned or in suspended animation.

Hut at what is now known as the Ukranian Vernadsky research station is a time capsule that transports one back to the age of tinned ox toungue, metal capped jars of marmite and hand written coal manifests. As I wandered around the now abandoned hut I got a real feel for what it must have been like to over-winter in Antarctica during the immediate post-war period. The instruments: helioscopes, radio transmitters, barometers and slide rules stand on the desk that would have played host to the resident meteorologist. The living room lies untouched with a bookshelf full of Evelyn Waugh, Neville Shute and Graham Greene, all propped up with a bust of Nat King Cole.

The entrance to Deception Island, the caldera of one of three active volcanoes on Antarctica, is guarded by the sheer cliffs known locally as Neptune’s Bellows. As we passed carefully though the narrow entrance, it became immediately obvious why this was used by whalers as a safe haven to weather out storms and butcher their catch. On the beach the remnants of this ear and the later British research station were scattered all around. Water boats, used by the whalers to store their fresh water, lay partially buried and partially open to the elements; but ultimately
intact. A graveyard of broken oil barrels is testament to the haste with which the whalers abandoned their outpost when land based whaling was shunned in favour of factory ships. At the other end of the beach large oil tanks and crumbling huts, used by the British as a supply depot during Operation Tamarin, stand rusting and disused. Just wandering around this open air museum is a humbling experience as one tries to understand what it must have been like to earn a living in this most extreme of workplaces.

The sight of Deception Island was abandoned after eruptions in 1967 and 1969 caused many of the buildings to be buried under volcanic ash and landslides. Poignantly, two graves still remain of whalers who passed away whilst on the island. The sacrifices made are difficult to imagine now, in an era when few careers pose real hardship and the accoutrements of travel make life in the Antarctic more comfortable. The ‘heroic era’ is neatly summarised for me in a poem (introduced to us by our on board historian) that was recited by Douglas Mawson as he battled his way back to the coast after a disastrous and tragic journey of which he was the sole survivor. This poem was also a favourite of Shakelton who had an open, written dialogue with the author, Robert Service, throughout his career in the Antarctic. For me it sums up the psychology of the period; one that is anathema to most of us today.

The Quitter

Robert W. Service (1912)

When you're lost in the Wild, and you're scared as a child,

And Death looks you bang in the eye,

And you're sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle

To cock your revolver and . . . die.

But the Code of a Man says: "Fight all you can,"

And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow . . .

It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

"You're sick of the game!" Well, now that’s a shame.
You're young and you're brave and you're bright.

"You've had a raw deal!" I know — but don't squeal,

Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,

So don't be a piker, old pard!

Just draw on your grit, it’s so easy to quit.

It’s the keeping-your chin-up that’s hard.

It’s easy to cry that you're beaten — and die;

It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;

But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —

Why that’s the best game of them all!

And though you come out of each grueling bout,

All broken and battered and scarred,

Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,

It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

A cornucopia of snow and ice

The dark morning cloud cover lay as heavy as a blanket over Paradise Bay as we made passage towards the Argentinean research base on the mainland. Inky black clouds obscured the mountains behind Almirante Brown and stretched right across the bay to the glaciated range on Anvers Island. However, as we began to make our way up the short slope behind the research station, small chinks began to appear as the wind dispersed the cloud. Within twenty minutes we had glimpses of the Anvers Massif as the sun reflected off its icy slopes. The natural drama of the Antarctic Peninsula is heightened by the unpredictability of the weather and the snow and ice fields that stretch from the high mountain peaks right down to the sea.

After a short visit to Almirante Brown, we began our journey down the Gerlache Straits towards the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage often strewn with brash ice from the constantly carving glaciers that tumble down the sea cliffs. The Gerlache Straits, named after the Belgian explorer Adrian de Gerlache, separate Anvers and Brabant Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula. Both sides of the channel rise precipitously from the sea to high snow fields above. Giant glaciers bulldoze their way down the slopes depositing large glacial bergs into the waters of the straits, glinting blue as the sun refracts through the air purged ice.

By the time we had reached the entrance to the Lemaire Channel, the clouds had scattered to the far side of the mountains bathing the entire area in liquid sunshine. Entering the channel stirred up images from Jules Verne with Captain Nemo guiding his vessel through the fantasy lands to an unknown world beyond. Barely a few hundred metres across at its narrowest point, with the enormous glaciers of the mainland to one side and the hanging glaciers of Booth Island to the other, the Lemaire Channel is often referred to as ‘Kodak Gap’ for its breathtaking beauty. As we slowly made our way through the ice, we approached a small sailing yacht with a bowman high in the rigging spotting for the helmsman to avoid the unseen ‘growlers’ lurking below the surface that could be lethal to a vessel of its size.

After the thrill of passing through the Gerlache Straits almost any afternoon activity would have been anticlimactic, however the afternoon zodiac cruise proved to be a real highlight of the trip. Within the space of ninety minutes we saw the most spectacular icebergs imaginable, caught sight of a pod of Minke Whales and tracked a Leopard Seal on the hunt. Iceberg Alley is aptly named as it serves as a checkpoint for many of the glacial icebergs drifting north along the coast of the peninsula. In the late afternoon calm the clouds began to close over us as the sun dropped back towards the horizon. As it began to approach the mountain tops of Anvers Island, the sky took on a creamy yellow cast and the clouds darkened to a dusky magenta.

The fickle weather conditions of Antarctica would inevitably conspire to dish us up with another helping of wind and rain, but as the sun set over the magical cornucopia of ice and snow we knew that we would have this day to treasure come what may.

First sight of land

After the rough and tumble of Drake’s passage the relative calm of the sheltered coastal waters of Enterprise Island were a welcome relief. Our first two nights a sea only allowed sporadic sleep as the waves tossed us to and fro and the walls of the cabin creaked and groaned around us. With no swell to speak of and a weakening low pressure system dampening the winds we were afforded our first full night’s sleep. We were up early to the dulcet tones of Stephen, our expedition leader, calling his usual refrain:

“Gooood Morning! Good morning it’s 7am and we are currently cruising towards Enterprise Island at a steady 12 knots. The weather outside is overcast and two degrees centigrade. The wind is blowing at between 15 and 20 knots from the west with the occasional snow shower. Breakfast will be served in half an hour. Good Morning!”

Our first full day in Antarctica saw us take two excursions: the first, a zodiac cruise around Foyn Harbour and the second a shore landing on Cuverville Island to see a Gentoo penguin colony. After a morning of briefings and safety demonstrations we finally arrived at the site of the first excursion, Enterprise Island. Named after the enterprising whalers that made this a base for operations in the Gerlache straights it contained a number of artifacts from the whaling era including the wreck of a factory ship, scuttled in the 1920s in order to save its cargo of whale oil. It is testament to the value of their cargo that, when a fire broke out on the ship, they preferred to intentionally run the ship aground to save the cargo than save the ship. As the snow blew horizontally across the face of the Polaris we made our way down the gangway to board the zodiacs for the first time. Before visiting the wreck we circled round the shoreline, weaving in and out of small bergy bits (that is a technical word for an iceberg bigger than 5m but less than 15m and 1m above the really!). As we turned the corner a pair of crabeater seals broke the surface, nostrils flared, before dipping back below the surface. It was a real thrill to see our first seals at such close quarters, their pelt slick and shiny in the icy water, bulging eyes blinking slowly. After slowly cruising around the bay for an hour the rusty hulk of the ‘Governer’ emerged from the snow speckled sky, it’s pock marked and ferric red hull standing ten metres proud of the surface. The carcass of the ship, long since stripped of it fittings, is now home to a small colony of antarctic terns. The terns taking it in turns to swoop low over the ‘Spirit of Sydney’ a small charter yacht moored on the lee-side for protection.

Over the course of the afternoon we slowly made our way south to our second destination for the day, Cuverville Island. Named after a vice-admiral in the French navy on accord of it’s shape (that of a french admiral’s hat) it sits in the Errera channel and plays host to a large rookery of Gentoo Penguins. With over four thousand breeding pairs on the rookery the first thing that strikes you is the smell of the guano. Stained pink by the presence of krill in their diet, guano gives a strange hue to the colony and can be a real assault on the senses. The chicks are constantly calling out to the steady stream of penguins making their way from the shore, up the beach to with the promise of food. A small group of us climbed a slope behind the colony to get a broader perspective of the rookery and were rewarded with scintillating views across the island and the Errera channel. It is only from a vantage point like that that you can get a perspective on how small the boat is in the relation to the landscape. Every so often a loud crack would be sent across the bay as crevasses collapsed on the glacier or large chunks of the terminal face carved off into the sea. After two hours on the shore we were ready to return to the ship, but not before a thorough brushing of the boots and onboard disinfectant to make sure that we were not transferring infections between sites.

Our first visits left us eager for more and hoping for better weather. With the Gerlache Straits and the Lemaire channel came the promise of outstanding glaciers, towering sea cliffs and dramatic blue icebergs...fingers crossed for good weather!

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Crossing Drakes Passage

As we cruised East along the Beagle channel the sun was setting over the stern of the Polaris and the snow capped peaks of the Isla Navarino and the Mitre Peninsula shepherded us towards the South Atlantic. The waves lapping against the hull and lolloping motion of the ship lulled us into a false sense of security as dusk turned to night.

Swinging out of the top bunk and dropping to the floor, my first morning steps slammed me into the door to the bathroom. A little stunned, I was thrown back across the room onto the bench that runs below the porthole. The shower would have to wait. My memories of Drake’s passage will always be of the motion induced by the pulsating swell of the Southern Ocean. Uninhibited by land, the swell progresses clockwise around the continent of Antarctica only rising and falling in response to the wind and depth. At the start the swell and wind were aligned behind us and the motion was predominantly up an down. Five metre swells were the norm and the air temperature hovered around 8-9 degrees celsius. As we crossed the Antarctic convergence, where the colder water of the Antarctic gyre meets the warmer water of the South Atlantic, the low pressure system deepened and the wind picked up, shifting the swell to our starboard beam. Already queasy from a day of heavy swells, the passenger numbers on deck dwindled as fast as the pot of Dramamine on the reception desk.

As the second day dawned the swell began to rise further until it reached 10-12 metres on the beam. Walking around the ship became a mission in itself. The number of attendees for the lectures on bird life, marine mammals and antarctic history dwindled as people retired to their bunks. Those that did brave the lectures held on to the fixed tables as their chairs lifted and shifted as the boat rolled through 30 degrees each side of vertical. At night whilst laid in our bunks, perpendicular to the centre line of the ship, we shifted from almost standing on the wall to protecting our heads from banging against the wall behind us. The bunks were sprung allowing the vertical motion of the ship to make us appear weightless for a moment before dropping back to the mattress and a chorus of squeaks.

As the sun began to set on the second day of the crossing the first icebergs came into view signaling the approach of the South Shetland islands. These tabular icebergs, rising over one hundred metres from the sea, may have been floating for over a year since they were sheared from the terminal face of the Ross ice shelf. As they are taken north-east by the current they float around the coast being gradually eroded by the constant action of the sea. Over time the icebergs are eroded under water and the centre of gravity shifts tilting the table top and exposing the rounded sections that were previously submerged. With the arrival of the icebergs and shelter of the South Shetland islands the swell began to reduce allowing us our first good night’s sleep.

Monday, 18 February 2008

New Photos posted

I seem to be running a backlog of both photo posts and blog posts. In a bid to get back on track whilst we have a wifi connection I have uploaded a couple of blog posts and a fifty or so pictures from Titicaca to Tierra del Fuego. I am now up-to-date with my gallery, but I have a week or so to catch up on my blog writing (a lot has happened in the last week). We are off to Antarctica this afternoon (Wow...I didn't think I'd get to say that) so there will be plenty of time between bouts of sea sickness to write blog entries. I guess there will also be a big batch of new photos to update when we get back.

In the meantime, feast of the beauty of Chile and Argentina. Suffice it to say that Patagonia has not disappointed. Tierra del Fuego is quite simply the most beautiful place I have visited on my travels so far. I loved the desolate isolation of the Deosai Plains in Pakistan and the verdant beauty of Kashmir but Tierra del Fuego has it all, and more. The mountains, topped with glaciers, reach down to the raging sea of the Beagle Channel in the South whilst the North of the island has Patagonian steppe that is so expansive that you feel lost its folds. The sky seems to be double the size down here as clouds float free in an ocean of blue. The weather can change in an instant giving every day a sense of the unexpected. Serendipity has played it's part in introducing us to the most hospitable and generous hosts we have met so far.

I am so excited to be heading to Antarctica but I am as excited to be coming back to Patagonia.

South to Santiago

After several days in the blistering heat and arid wilderness of the Atacama it was nice to know that we were on our way South to La Serena, Santiago and ultimately Patagonia. We left San Pedro on a full cama (almost flat-bed) bus in the two front seat on the top floor, with panoramic views of the desert as we sped our way South-East to Calama and Antofagasta. This city, the powerhouse of the mineral rich mining economy, is entirely dependent on the copper reserves of the nearby Chuquicamata mine. Wide boulevards, cut out of the desert, are the thoroughfares for countless modern pick-up trucks with giant antennas, transporting mine workers and engineers from their compounds to the mine and logisitics operations. The road from Calama to Antofagasta on the cost seems to have a constant stream of lorries shipping supplies to Calama. By the time we reached the coast night was beginning to fall and the curtains closed so that we could all attempt to sleep the remaining 8 hours to La Serena.

We awoke to a subtly different landscape. Although still parched and wild, the hills were now covered with low growing vegetation and candelabra cacti. The coast, now visible to our right, seemed to be a never ending series of bays with rocky cliffs open to the sounding swell of the Pacific. We caught La Serena, possibly the second oldest city in Chile, at the height of the domestic holiday season. Teeming with Argentinean and Chilean holiday makers, drawn by the long expanses and sandy beach and hot, dry days, the city still managed to keep the relaxed charm of a Mediterranean seaside town. After a couple of days visiting the beach and wandering the plazas and streets of the old town we were relaxed but ready to move on to Santiago for our flight to Patagonia.

We arrived in Santiago with low expectations after hearing stories of smog, pollution and big city anonymity. Our hostel for the night, Residencial Londres, is a converted period house that has retained all it’s original charm. Although it shows the signs of aging, its parquet floors, corniced ceilings and art deco furniture give it a sense of authenticity in a city that is more chic than any we have visited so far. With only an afternoon to spare before our flight the next morning and craving the opportunity to visit a European or US style mall we made our way to the North of the city and the Las Condes mall.

Satisfied with our purchases (some ‘normal’ shoes to supplement our hiking boots and Crocs) and a new duvet jacket to replace the one I lost, we made our way back to central Santiago. As we discussed our first impressions of Santiago over a drink that evening it was clear that we are both looking forward to returning at the end of March. In the meantime, we have the small matter of Patagonia to attend to. This next section of the trip is the part that I have been most looking forward to and in some ways I am a little nervous that it won’t live up to my expectations. I have a collage of mental images from the iconic vistas of the Pertito Moreno glacier and the Torres del Paine to the textual descriptions of Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux. However, none of these are in context and most importantly, they lack the texture and sense of place that you only get through traveling and meeting the people that live and work in the area. Fingers crossed that I won’t be disappointed!

Star Gazing in San Pedro de Atacama

Whilst in San Pedro I fulfilled one of my goals for the trip by taking a trip to the observatory of a French astronomer called Alain Maury. The north of Chile and the Atacama desert in particular, is famous for its hosting of an international array of telescopes and observatories. The high altitude, cloudless skies, predictable winds and lack of humidity converge to produce optimal conditions for observing the heavens. Alain has been running trips for several years now and his house outside of San Pedro is well kitted out for star gazing.

On arriving at his house we were given an introduction to the Southern night sky and the methods for observing the stars planets and constellations. With so little atmospheric and ambient light pollution the stars reach down to the horizon on all sides. The bright band of the Milky Way bisects the sky from North to South with tightly packed nebulae and carbon ‘sacks’ where gas obstructs the stars leaving gaping holes. To the West of the Milky Way we could pick out the Megellanic Clouds, neighbouring galaxies that appear as puffy clouds in the night sky, only observable in the Southern Hemisphere.

After our introduction to the constellations of Leo, Orion, the Pleiades and many more we were told how to locate the Southern axis around which the stars seem to rotate. We were told how to find the various planets before the telescopes were set up to observe the Saturn with it’s rings and Mars in all its glory. Nebulae, barely visible o the human eye became dense clusters of multicoloured gas and nascent stars.

It is unlikely that we will ever return to anywhere as well suited to star gazing as this, however, evenings in the garden in North Wraxall will take on a new dimension.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Sand and salt

In the last two weeks we have gone from the torrential downpours of the Bolivian rainy season in Puno to the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert. After years spent in Saudi Arabia there is something very familiar about the desert that separates the Pacific from the Andes. As we made our way across the desert to the Peruvian border the unfolding landscape of rock strewn desert, punctuated with glissades of wind blown sand, seemed familiar sight. In between a games of bingo (in Spanish - I seem to still be mixing up my 60s and 70s) my mind wandered to the passing landscape and the strange draw that it seems to have for people. After 15 minutes without passing the slightest sign of habitation we started to pass grids of land, demarcated by lines of succulent plants; each box playing host to a small square shack made of interwoven leaves. What makes people lay claim to this seemingly barren land? My only guess is that it is some means of claiming ownership to land that could have future value for mineral rights.

The Atacama desert is far from a monochrome expanse of sand and rock. The landscape evolves from flat, rocky plains, punctuated with mineral rich hills in all shades of red, yellow and brown. The volcanic activity of the Andes creates large swathes of basalt an laval flows that over millennia have been eroded by the ever-present wind and occasional rainfall, to leave deposits of fine, multi-coloured sand to be blown into large dunes. Behind San Pedro stand the proud volcanoes of northern Chile. Mostly in the region of 5800m, these volcanoes (active and dormant) shape the landscape of the Atacama. as they catch the snowfall of the Altiplanic winter they become coated in snow, that subsequently melts, feeding the subterranean water courses that ultimately feed the salt flats. As the water flows underground the minerals leach into the water creating a hard water, heavily laden with salts of arsenic, boron, sodium, potassium and lithium. These water pool under the surface of the Preandean depression and ultimately form the salt lakes that are home to three species of flamingo (James, Chilean and Andean). With nowhere to run-off, the lakes evaporate, leaving salt flats rich in mineral deposits.

San Pedro de Atacama sits at the northern extreme of the Salar de Atacama shielded from desertification by a barrier of trees planted in the 1960s. The town, home to 1600 residents and 6000 tourists, survives under the most extreme environmental challenges. The sun beats down on the town, cloud-free, for 330 days per year. The temperature can range can be in excess of 50 degrees a day as the night-time temperatures plunge under cloud-free nights. At just over 2500m the sky atmosphere is clear yet the maximum temperatures are kept in check. The town is entirely dependent on tourists and as a captive market the prices are inflated, making it the most expensive town in Chile. During the summer months the tourists seem to be overwhelmingly South American, yet there are the ever-present hoards of backpackers and insulated groups of well heeled European package tourists.

The streets are lined with travel agencies touting trips to the dunes, salt lakes and geysers that make the Atacama famous. Well before dawn you can hear the streets come alive with tourists waiting to be picked up by the buses and the drinking goes on late into the evening. Without a car, we have been forced to take day trips to see the sights. As a commodity service provider to a captive audience the tours have been far from the best that we have taken but the sights themselves do not disappoint. The penetrating sunlight and dramatic backdrops combine to produce a landscape and environment that is unique and should not be missed.

However, after four days in San Pedro it is definitely time to move on. We have decided to head south to chase the weather. We will be heading to the city of La Serena tonight by bus and then on to Santiago. Before the week is out we should be in Ushuaia where we will look into last-minute vacancies on the Antarctica route. If we are successful we will be at sea for 10 days before returning to resume of journey up the spine of the Andes, through the legendary fjordland of Patagonia to the Lake District.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Deja-vu all over again...

The bobbing of the cone of light from my head torch on the footsteps ahead of me was a familiar sight. After a 1.50am wake up call we had been climbing for two and a half hours before the nausea began to abate. This time the ultimate goal was simply a connecting bus to get back to our transport back to Arequipa, however, the motion and experience of climbing at night was unmistakable. The climb out of the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world, was the reward for a wonderful day descending the day before. Unlike its more famous cousin, the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is a deep ravine, cut by a frothing river, out of lush pasture land between two volcanic mountain ranges. The flat desert plateau of the Grand Canyon is as far away from Colca as you could get. The snow capped peaks are gradually transformed by Inca terracing, planted with potatoes, beans and maize. Women adorned with intricately embroidered, wide rimmed hats work the fields whilst their husbands repair the terracing and clean the irrigation ditches in their impossibly large stetsons.

The further down the river valley you get the flatter the flood plain becomes until you reach a point where the river begins to cut deep into the alluvial deposits. Within a few kilometres the walls of the mountains converge, squeezing out the flood plain to the width of the river and so the canyon begins. Over two hours we dropped from the ledge onto the path into the canyon. Entering a think blanket of cloud that marked the temperature inversion,separating the warm air at the base of the canyon from the frigid air dropping off the snow capped mountains, the path was wide and lined with shrubby trees. Within half an hour we had emerged from the cloud to be greeted with a terrifying drop over a thousand metres to the river below. After four days on the Inca trail we were used to the exposure of these paths, cut into the near vertical canyon sides, but how the mules manage to negotiate the steep steps and hairpin bends, whilst fully laden is still a mystery. We stopped a couple of times to let families pass with their retinue of mules and donkeys carrying provisions to their villages below. It’s hard to imagine a two day round trip, every week or so, just to go food shopping. The luxury of a trip in the car to the farm shop is exactly that.

Our accommodation for the evening at the ‘Oasis’ the end of the canyon was a ‘rustic’ bungalow. It is hard to imagine what a ‘rustic’ bungalow is, but I had wishful visions of a slightly dilapidated bungalow with a porch and a basic kitchen. I should have know better. The closest comparator I can think of is an african rondhavel. On top of an adobe foundation of a foot or so was a five foot wall of bamboos, widely spaced for easy access to the local community of spiders and rodents. The round pitched roof of bamboo and grass looked less than waterproof, but that was to be academic. The beds inside the hut were much like the charpoi beds that are found in Pakistan and Afghanistan with dusty covers and rancid sheets. The one saving grace of this ‘oasis’ was the naturally fed swimming pool, a haven after a hot sweaty day of trekking.

After a fitful night’s sleep, mostly spent dreaming about spiders in Sarah’s rucksack, we were awake at 1.50am for a 2am start. It took the best part of two hours to get going as I was starting to come down with a stomach bug. The turning point in the climb was when I found out that I had a pocketful of lemon sours that each lasted a good 20 minutes and provide the much needed energy that I wasn’t able to eat in solids. Exhausted and slightly delirious, we finally reached the town at the top of the canyon at 6am. No more serious trekking until the Patagonian Lake least that’s what Sarah thinks!