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!

The City in White

Nestled at the base of the twin volcanoes of El Misti and El Chachani, Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city. Although it has a population of around one million it has managed to retain the small town charm of a city like Cusco. The city is a little off the standard gringo trail and as a consequence there are less street hawkers. In the off-season the waiters in the restaurants appear aimless as they wander between empty tables and occasionally venture to the pavement to try and drum up interest. Although the city spreads itself liberally over the valley floor the old colonial centre of the town is relatively compact, with the Plaza de Armas at the centre of a grid of streets that play host to the usual collection of monasteries, museums and churches. Arequipa is unusual in a number of respects though: the cathedral extends to a full side of the colonnaded Plaza de Armas; all the main building are built using a white volcanic rock called ‘sillar’, giving the town a slightly cleaner and lighter feel; and, the the most outstanding building is not the cathedral, but the Monastario of Santa Catalina.

Built in the 16th Century, this refuge for the wealthy second born daughters of Latin American and Spanish aristocracy served as the Four Seasons of the ecclesiastic world. On entry as a novice, the girls would be allowed to bring a maid to help perform their daily chores allowing them more time to perform their devotions and craft. As a precondition for entry the family would have to provide a healthy dowry that was, in turn, invested in property within the city and agricultural land to feed the nuns and fund building works. For the wealthiest of nuns it was possible to build a personal living quarters within the convent and, as a consequence, the convent extends over an extended block in each direction; almost a mini Vatican within Arequipa. In fact, when the Vatican finally came to find out about the ‘unusual’ practices of this Dominican institution it sent a rather severe Mother Superior from Spain to rectify their behaviour.

In the end, the charm of Arequipa and the company our traveling companions David and Anne-Marie led us to stay in town for the best part of a week (including our trip to Colca Canyon). Staying in this charming city was a nice way to close out our stay in Peru. As was the case with Ecuador, it feels like we have only scratched the surface of the country. There is still a great deal that we haven’t seen in Peru: the jungle of the North-East, the high altitude mountains of the Cordillera Huayhuash and Blanca and the beaches of the North. It is now time to head south though to chase the summer season in Patagonia. With the decision to head down through Northern Chile to Patagonia we have had to postpone our visit to Bolivia. Hopefully, serendipity will continue to serve up its usual pleasant surprises in Chile.