Montevideo and Bouza Bodega

Arrived in Montevideo this morning at a very civilized 10am, and from my first observation – Montevideo is a much, much larger city than I realised.  A population of approximately 1.3 million in fact.  It is the on the northeastern bank of the Rio de la Plata, which is such a wide river as to almost be an estuary I think.

The port was bright, colourful and very welcoming and from our entrance point we could already see many beautiful art deco buildings.

Our first stop was the Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral, which is at the Plaza de la Constitucion.  The architect was a famous Italian named Mario Palanti and it was built in 1925.  It is a most amazing cathedral… with gorgeous vaulted ceilings, rich timber pews, and the most incredible gold tiled floors… just beautiful.

Across the road in the Plaza de Constitucion we had a quick wander through a flea market, which was really interesting.  Lot of mate paraphernalia on sale… no way I was buying any of that stuff.  Ewww.

The city itself has a somewhat mottled past of unwanted colonialism.  Apparently established by a Spanish soldier named Bruno Mauricio de Zabala (god I love these long romantic Spanish names!) in 1724, as a strategic point on the Plata River while the Apanish and the Portuguese were squabbling over the area.  It was also under British rule for a time in 1807 – which means that nearly all these distant European countries were trying to lay claim to the country, as was Brazil and the Rio de la Plata regional faction…? (Not sure… our guide, Alisse kinda lost me here).  Eventually Jose Gervasio Artigas (1764-1850), who is affectionately referred to as, ‘Our Liberator’, and is a national hero in Uruguay, helped Uruguay consolidate itself as an independent state in 1838. Artigas is entombed at the Plaza Independencia and has a dirty big statue erected in his honour over the mausoleum.

Directly opposite the monument to honour Artigas, is a famous hotel, the Palacio Salvo, which was once the tallest building in South America in the 1930s, at the same time when the Eiffel Tower was the tallest construction in Paris and the Empire State Building the tallest building in North America.  The architecture in this city is amazing! Then we saw the famous Teatro Solis, or Sun Theatre – it would be amazing to see a production in this beautiful old theatre…  Built in 1856, it is Uruguay’s oldest theatre and is actually owned by the Montevideo government now, when they stated major reconstruction of the theatre in 1998.  Next we went past the Palacio Legislativo which is in the north of the city centre.  It is the current seat of the Uruguyan Parliament and was built in 1904.  It is a very stunning building, designed by some Italian architects (whose names escape me now).  There is a traditional House of Representatives, and a Senate with a chamber connecting them both which apparently has been created with all local stone.   Such an impressive building.  I imagine it would be lovely to look inside.
We then had time to swing by a local market.  This was not a tourist market, and while there was one small handicrafts/souvenir store, it was primarily meat, groceries, delis, a fromagerie, bottle shop etc.  It was so clean, so open and inviting, I was really impressed.  Apparently Montevideo has the highest standards of living out of all Latin America, and while this doesn’t mean they have no problems with unemployment and poverty – it does mean that the average conditions are better than many surrounding countries experience.

Our next stop was the Bodega Bouza (pronounced: Boozer, aptly enough!), which is a family run winery in the outskirts of Montevideo.  The practice with a single driving principle – small scale work will always offer superior results.  To achieve this goal, this boutique vineyard carefully follows the entire process from growing and harvesting the grapes, to processing and cellaring the wines.  They believe that the long term benefits of their care is reflected in the quality of the wine they produce.

Each year they produce about 130,000 barrels of wine – Albarino, Chardonnay in the whites, and Merlto, Tempranillo and Tannat in the reds.  They are varieties that are very well known as Uruguayan wines, and the Bouza Tannats have been receiving international recognition in recent years.
Early in harvest season, they trim away about 2/3rds of the grapes found on the vine – this apparently encourages a better quality in the grapes that remain.  I couldn’t believe how many grapes were lying around rotting on the ground in some areas of the vineyard; and especially not after recently being in the Falklands and hearing they will pay up to 7 quid for a PUNNET of grapes (not even a full kilo!).  These guys should be shipping them to Stanley to subsidize their drive for perfect grapes.  🙂 

Brand new French oak barrels… it all smells so good down in the Bouza cellars – timber and wine.  🙂  I’ve never seen a winery before with short term use of their French oak barrels – here, Bouza claim to only use their barrels three times before they are replaced, which explains why they all look so clean and new.  They sell them to other vineyards or to the public, through their gift shop, when they are done with them.  It must cost a fortune to turn over the barrels so frequently.We had to wait a while for our winery tour to start – but thankfully were able to help ourselves to some grapes to nibble on while we waited… well those of us tall enough to reach them were able to!  🙂 

After our tour, we had a chance for a little wine tasting.  It was very civilized, not like rocking up to the cellar doors at home where you’re offered a space to stand at a bar, some glasses and a spittoon.  Instead it was linen table cloths, charcuterie plates and fine table service.  Actually this whole place was rather fancy.

Loved this Albarino… light and crisp, not too sweet, quite fruity and a little citrus.  It’s lovely to find a new wine that you like – but I strongly doubt we can find this one at home!
Also at the vineyards is a vintage car museum. The family that own the vineyard are big car enthusiasts, and their collection is quite unique in that every vehicle is in full working condition and registered to be able to be driven on the road.  The smell of oil, grease and car polish is really strong in the museum building – these unusual cars are certainly lavished with attention.

Montevideo is a lovey city.  It looks like the sort of place that has a lot of cultural and historical highlights to offer.  I would love to spend more time here one day… Though given what is currently happening with the ship as I type this – maybe we should have just stayed in port!

We are having an ‘eventful’ evening – never good when you are at sea!  First there was an unexpectedly strong 60kmph gust of wind hit the starboard side of the ship,just as we were turning to port in the bay outside of Montevideo.  This caused the ship to list alarmingly to port; sending dishes and glasses crashing everywhere and displacing water out of the pools and atrium fountain.  The staff are now all busy trying to dry carpets and square away broken crockery.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, we are now delayed by the same windy conditions from leaving the bay.  We have had to put to anchor for perhaps four to five hours, which will likely delay our scheduled 8am arrival into Buenos Aires tomorrow morning to be more like a 10am arrival.  Unfortunately, if this comes to pass, we will likely be arriving too late in Buenos Aires to make it to the airport for our flights to Iguazu Falls tomorrow.

I have every faith in Captain Gennaro Armo, and that he will make the best decisions for the safety of the passengers, the crew and the ship, but we are all feeling a bit of limbo tonight.  Send us all your Parking Fairies and cross all your fingers for us that we are not at anchor as long as anticipated.

Puerto Madryn Wildlife Tour

Today we were doing a full day wildlife tour of the Valdes Peninsula, which is a world famous, UNESCO World Heritage Area and serves as a protected nature reserve for its seal colonies, penguin rookeries, wild llamas, seabirds and whale watching,  So 21 of us set out for a Big Day O’ Nature.  Unlike the west coast of Chile which was heavily settled by Germans, here the settlements on the shores of the wide bay of Golfo Nuevo (New Gulf) were settled by the Welsh. Attempting to escape religious persecution in Britain, they were encouraged by the Argentine government with the promise of 100 square miles of land along the Chabut River.  The settlers came in 1865 and they named their first settlement Puerto Madryn in honour of Baron Madryn back in Wales.  Puerto Madryn is now a city of 120,000 people with thriving aluminium and tourism industries.

The port seemed overly chaotic when we disembarked for some reason, but we managed to find our driver and guide, Sergio and Roberto (‘Berto for short) and made our way to a nice clean, relatively comfy bus, which is a bonus.  All loaded up and off we went headed north.  No far up the road, ‘Berto introduced himself, gave everyone a map of where exactly we were going and then mentioned we were doing nearly 400km round the peninsula today.

*blink blink*

FOUR HUNDRED KILOMETRES!  I don’t remember signing up for that… but at least there should be plenty of interesting scenery on the way – we’re still in Patagonia here, and Patagonia is absolutely gorgeous.  On a trivial note, one of the guides told us that ‘patagon’ means, ‘big foot’. So ‘Patagonia’ literally translates as ‘land of big foot people’… I have no idea what that is about.

Our first stop was about an hour’s drive as we popped through the Valdes Peninsula visitors centre to have a look at a map, use the bathrooms and check out some interpretive displays on the wildlife that is indigenous to the area. Some stuffed hawks, and whale bones, and clean loos later, and we were back on the bus in 15 mins ready to go see some animals.

We drove another 40 minutes to reach the Puerto Pyramides area where were walked a short few minutes to a viewing platform that overlooked some dramatic cliff coastline. From the viewing platform, we could see a large sea lion colony, about 500m – 1km away.  Which is interesting enough, but my little happy snap camera is not up to wildlife photography at those distances.  So you’ll have to forgive the dodgy photos.  The cliffs were quite dramatic, and it seems most of the peninsula coastline is like this.

After pulling out of the Puerto Pyramides area, ‘Berto started making some ‘mate’ (pronounced ‘mah-tay’) for the driver.  It is a traditional South American brewed drink made with yerba mate, that is most frequently shared among whoever is present.  There are some protocols surrounding the sharing of mate, one of which is that it is rude to decline.  Another is regarding the direction the straw is facing in the cup when it is handed to you, and yet another is if you saying you have enjoyed it, apparently if you apply ‘yes’ this means you have had enough and you will not be offered more.  Anyway, I thought I would try it, and let me tell you it tastes as bad as it looks – it is so foul I think they may be sipping unknowingly on rehydrated sheep shit.  Never again thanks very much!

Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that we were about 25 minutes into our drive when I realised I was wrong about the interesting scenery bit.  For any Americans following this, if you’ve ever wanted to know what the Australian Outback looks like, just take a drive around this weird, dry little peninsula in Argentina and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to expect… only I have to say, as a general rule, our Outback tends to have way more trees.

After this, we started having trouble with our air conditioning on the bus.  Which ordinarily isn’t a problem – you just open the windows. Unfortunately, however, we are on a bus which all the windows are completely sealed, so we were kinda getting very hot and it was becoming hard to breathe.  So, we made an unscheduled stop at ‘Berto’s family’s sheep ranch to give Sergio a chance to check the air con system.  Berto’s family spend most of the summer in town at Puerto Madryn, but every week or so they come out to the estancia to check on the sheep.  They have the main house, a workers dormitory for the shearing season and a small hall that is used for feeding all the workers during the season. There were some trees here, that had obviously been carefully nurtured to offer some shade, but most of the ‘garden’ was covered in a succulent similar to what we would call a pigweed type plant.  The place is so dry they keep only one sheep per hectare, and looking about the countryside, we have no idea what they must be eating.

Unfortunately, Sergio couldn’t get the air con going, but he did get the window near the driver opened and popped up some vents in the roof, so… all good and we were on the road again.  We drove for another half an hour or so and came upon a large natural salt lake.  There are two on the peninsula, but unfortunately, they are on private property so we couldn’t go in to have a good look.  *sad face*

Next, we drove to Punta Cantor, to check out an elephant seal colony.  Again the coastline was beautiful and very dramatic after spending hours driving through the low, flat and dry terrain.  The elephant seals were all flopping about on the beach – what a life, just laying about in the sun, go for a swim for some fish later, and then lay about in the sun some more. Some of these big male elephant seals weigh in at just over three tonnes!  One of the ladies on our trip was just observing what a great life they must have when I thought I saw a black fin about three metres off the beach.  Waited a few moments, and it saw it again – YES, that there is an orca cruising the beach looking for easy prey.  Okay, maybe life is not so stress-free for seals after all.  We watched this amazing whale, with the bad reputation, swimming slowly past all the seemingly oblivious seals, but I bet they knew exactly where he was, and that they were safe.  The orca could not risk attempting to swim up onto the beach there to snap up a seal because the waves were not strong enough to carry him back into the water, and he risked being stranded on the sand.  We were all watching enthralled at how close he was going to the seals, all hoping for a David Attenborough documentary-worthy moment, but he just cruised on slowly past.

On the way out we met a hairy armadillo, who happens to live in the area.  His primary activity seems to be running away from tourists who are chasing him for photos.  Poor thing.  When everyone left him alone, he pretty much came trotting over to curiously meet people, but chase him and he was running away.  Again, I saw people trying to pet this animal – no idea how wild it is, no idea if they bite or can harm you, but people were doing it anyway?!  Maybe it is the fact that we are from Australia… where nearly all the fauna and half the flora can kill you, and that makes us somewhat reluctant to touch strange creatures.  Not sure.  But we all look at these people trying to touch unknown animals and think, ‘what a wanker?!’

Then there was a quick drive by stop for a penguin rookery and more Magellanic penguins… very cute.

After our brief encounter with the orca, which absolutely made nearly everyone’s day, we were faced with a two-hour drive back to the ship.  The noisy corrugated road, that was in sad need of grading, the endless ‘desolate’ landscape (someone else’s word, not mine), and before you knew it – there was nearly 20 people sleeping all the way back.

All up it was an interesting day, but far too long, and not what we were expecting – I think most of us were expecting short drives with lots of wildlife stops, not long drives and only three wildlife stops.  Had we known that we were in for a 400km drive, I strongly doubt that many of us would have chosen to spend our short time in port sitting on a bus all day driving through terrain that looks just like home.  It was just way too long, especially when we understand Puerto Madryn has plenty of points of interest to offer visitors.  Oh well, not every day can be Easter Island ( the benchmark for amazing days out for the rest of my life, I think)… there’s alway tomorrow.  🙂

Falkland Islands

Welcome to the Falkland Islands!  Another tender port for us today – but thankfully the last for this cruise… well, if you don’t count the Bay of Islands in New Zealand on the way home, and no one seems to be counting one that for some reason!  Anyway, we were off the ship bright and early and met at the docks in Stanley, by our intrepid guides for the day.  We had booked a 4WD day trip to Volunteer Point with Patrick Watts, a local tour operator, to head overland and go and see the penguins.

We met our driver, Toni D, and another couple of ladies from the ship, and the five of us struck out at the front of a convoy of Toyota Landcruiser 4WDs towards Volunteer Point.  Bringing up the rear of our convoy was Toni’s husband, Richard, also driving was her niece Bonita, and making our lunches later would be her brother Derek and his wife, who are permanent wardens down at Volunteer Point.  With a population of around 3,000 people, it’s not surprising that the tour operators are a family and friends endeavour, and it was interesting to find out that all of them have ‘real jobs’.  🙂  On the way, we gorged ourselves on the very striking, and very northern Scotland looking! – scenery.  Low alpine vegetation and an impressive amount of quartzite scree in nearly every direction.  A little further inland and we were greeted by peat bogs for as far as the eye could see. Once upon a time, the island was shaped by glaciers and ice, and the landscape that remains is incredibly beautiful. We drove along full of questions, and before too long were all chatting like old friends about life in the Falklands.

Toni (a sixth generation Kelper) and Richard (immigrated from the UK in the 70s), are sheep farmers. They have a property of some 13,000 acres that has about 6,000 sheep on it, and they’ve just had a long week of drafting and shearing, but here they are, up bright and early to show us around.  Toni would be proud of me when I tell you all that they are mostly farming MPM sheep now… that’s Multi-Purpose Merino for you non-agricultural folk, and they are improving their wool quality (19 microns) since hiring in consultants to assist with their pasture management and breeding programs.  See? I was listening.  🙂  They also have about 90 cattle on their property (for domestic consumption only), and people in these parts would kill for a salad or some strawberries, grapes or mangoes.  Fruit and vegetables are mostly imported and therefore stupid expensive.  So the local diet is basically a vegetarians’ worst nightmare.  🙂  Their kids are both living in the UK now, after having gone there to complete their tertiary studies, but they are hopeful they will return at some point, even if it is just for a few years.

I was just a kid when the Falklands War happened, and have never been one for modern history – so my grasp of the how, when, whys of that particular war have always been a bit vague.  I asked Toni D if she was ok to talk about it (didn’t want to bring up topics that might be potentially sensitive or distressing?!) , and she was only to happy to answer my stupid and probably, extremely ignorant questions.  It was nice to have a local and informal take on what happened.  Toni said the war happened because the military rule in Argentina was starting to face extreme opposition from the populace, and they basically decided to attempt to assert sovereignty over the Falklands to 1) free the people of the Falklands from ‘unwanted’ British colonisation and 2) restore the Argentinian people who had lived in the Falklands to the islands and reclaim their homeland… only the Kelpers (Falkland Island residents) weren’t interested in being ‘freed’, and the Argentinians who were to reclaim their ‘homeland’ were given the opportunity to stay… so, it’s not like there are a displaced people out there somewhere?  No.  It looks like the whole war was a misdirect so that the Argentinian population would stop looking at how horrific their government was treating the people.  So yeah, cunning plan – the people are revolting, let’s give them a war to worry about instead.  The engagement lasted only a few months, but there was approximately 600 Argentinians soldiers who lost their lives and over 200 British soldiers who died in the ensuing battles as well.  When it was all over, the UK maintained control over the islands and the Argentinians, left having planted shit tonnes of landmines in the Falklands.  There are contractors today who are still busy working to remove landmines; thankfully the Argentinians kept records of where they had planted mines, so (disturbance by weather, and the ocean, aside), they are not as hazardous to find as in some other countries.  Toni did say that many of the landmines were being cleared in areas that the Falklanders had no intention of ever using, but thanks to UN landmine anti-proliferation agreements, they were forced to continue spending resources finding them and defusing them.  Further to all this, the ‘Argies’ like to stir things up by flying over Falkland airspace every now and again, and they have an annoying habit of attempting to assert their claims over the Falklands in the UN and in the media whenever it suits them. A referendum was held on the matter of sovereignty not so long ago, and unsurprisingly, 99.7% of Falkland Island citizens voted to remain part of the UK.

Anyway, by this time we had reached the end of the road and waited while our convoy caught up.  It was time to switch into low range and head off-road over the peat bogs towards the Point. Peat bogs at home in Australia are all considered sensitive ecosystems and woe betide the hiker who ventures off the track and walks on the peat… here, we were driving through them in huge 4WDs and heading in a multitude of directions, they have so much peat, many people are still using it for fuel.

Volunteer Point is an impressive peninsula to the north east of Berkeley Sound, and to get there we had to pass through the settlement of Johnson’s Harbour, and drive south approximately 10 miles off road through a private sheep station and straight through the peat bogs.  We bumped and jostled along for about an hour through some really pretty countryside, and were very grateful to be in Toni’s comfortable Landcruiser. It was not like any 4WD track I had ever been on before – the whole drive felt kinda bouncy and spongey, no doubt from a combination of squishy peat, and really good suspension!

Above: Feels like the Toyota Club is in town.  🙂
Below: Our amazing guide, Toni…

*Not a penguin in case you were wondering – this is an Upland Goose.

Eventually, we made it to Volunteer Point which has over 700 breeding pairs of resident Gentoo penguins, hundreds of pairs of Magellanic penguins, many other sea birds, such as oystercatchers, sandpipers, upland geese and of course – the main drawcard, the King penguin colony, which consists of over 500 breeding pairs.  There are apparently 17 species of penguins in the world, and the King penguin is the second largest of all the penguins.  The Falkland Islands boast breeding grounds for five of the 17 species, so it is an excellent place to go visiting penguins in the wild.

First ones we saw were the Gentoo penguins, which are easily recognisable by the wide white stripe that extends across the top of their heads and the white markings behind their eyes. They’re really pretty and stand about 20” tall.  They hang about in groups, incubating their eggs, or in this case, due to the time in the season, we see all the adolescent Gentoo hanging about enjoying the sun and moulting off all their baby feathers.  There are tiny fluffy white feathers all over the ground, blowing all over the hillside – be a bit of a nightmare if you were an allergy sufferer.  The Gentoo penguins look quite playful compared to their neighbours, as they seem more laid back and more tolerant of each other’s company.  Or perhaps that is just because the group we were looking at was comprised of mostly lazy teenagers busy, you know, just moulting about the place.  They also didn’t seem to mind the occasional Magellanic penguin who was masquerading in their midst.

These guys stood around so still for so long, they reminded me of the moai monuments in Easter Island…

The Magellanic penguins, Sphenicus magellanicus, is probably the most widespread of the penguins around the coast of the Falkland Islands, and apparently the most vocal!  They have an unmistakable donkey-like call and the locals have taken to calling them ‘jackass’ penguins for this reason.

The Magellanic penguins live in burrows across the vast areas of unpopulated coastline that they inhabit and this makes this a little more difficult to see, and a lot more difficult to accurately count. Magellanic penguins are also found on various coasts in South America, but the population is under threat.  There are an estimated 40,000 birds killed each year as a direct result of oil pollution.  For example, in 1991, a single oil spill was estimated to have killed 15,000 Magellanic penguins in once incident.  The adult birds return to the Falklands during September, following a winter migration that takes them all the way to the coast of Brazil, and they always come back to the same burrows, and the same partners, year after year for breeding… which is simply remarkable.  When they return, they spend several weeks preparing their burrows, and each year they excavate further making some burrows over two metres deep.  Naturally, this claiming of territory results in some squabbles over land, and there is nothing funnier than watching penguins flapping and squawking at each other.  You can almost hear them saying things to each other in your head… and they sound like grumpy old men.  🙂

Generally two eggs will be laid in a burrow and, this may alarm some people, but these eggs have traditionally supplemented food for the Falkland Islanders.  Hmmm… penguin eggs for breakfast anyone?  Toni D tells us that they are no longer allowed to eat Magellanic penguin eggs, as their numbers are far from safe – however, they are still allowed to eat the eggs laid by Gentoo penguins.  You are allowed to only take the first Gentoo egg laid in a nest.  It turns out that actually encourages the penguin to lay another egg, as the penguins will always try to raise two eggs.  Often times the first eggs have proven to be infertile anyway, so encouraging them to lay a second egg a little later in their breeding cycle see them end up with more breeding pairs raising two chicks instead of just one.

The eggs themselves sound a bit disconcerting to consume… when boiled, the ‘egg white’ is actually somewhat translucent, and the yolk can range from dark orange to deep red, which, according to Toni, leaves it looking more like an eyeball than a boiled egg!  That would probably turn a lot of us off, though Toni assures us they make excellent omelettes, are also good for light and fluffy scrambled eggs, as well as being fantastic to make meringue – pavlova being a favourite in this part of the world too.

There are so many thousands of penguins here, and we were able to get very close without disturbing their natural activities.

But the penguins everyone has come all this way to see are the beautiful and striking King Penguins, Aptenodytes patagonicus (cool name, huh?).  I saw some of these once at the Edinburgh Zoo (back in 1995), and remember being struck at how tall, and how beautiful, they were back then.  Today, the colony did not disappoint.  The King Penguin is the second largest penguin in the world, and they breed on sub-Antarctic islands.  The global population is estimated to be at around 2 million pairs and is thankfully slowly on the increase.  The King penguins were in the Falklands long before people arrived in 1870, but many were killed for their oil and feathers.  Their population has slowly been making a recovery since the 1960s, and are now on the increase in all their natural habitats.  Volunteer Point is the most northernly and most accessible King penguin rookery in the world, and it has the largest group of King penguins in the Falkland islands with over 1,000 breeding adults, rearing 400-500 chicken each year.  A recent aerial survey photograph has estimated that there were approximately 4,000 King penguins at the point today!  Which is not difficult to believe.  There were so many of them!

The King penguins were so interesting to watch.  They are about 3ft tall and weigh about 10-15 kgs (that is 3 – 5 Dixies for reference 😉 ).  They live to about 20 years of age and they are usually of breeding age at around 6 years old.

High pointing is part of the courtship display between male and female penguins.  The two birds will face each other and lift their heads pointing upwards making themselves as tall as possible.  I have no idea why they do this – but it must be some sort of ‘come hither’ sexy penguin behaviour.  Not much chop if you’re a short arse penguin, I say.  😉

Penguins also do this weird horizontal head circling thing, which they tend to do while they are incubating their eggs and this makes them less mobile.  If another bird gets to close, they adopt this threat posture where they throw their heads into the air as a waring that they may strike with their beaks. But the most fun behaviour to watch in the penguin was to just watch them walking. Flippers out for balance, and waddling from side to side as they shift their weight, they plod along, and you can almost hear them having strange little conversations:  *penguin waddling about in a circle looking for something*… “Penny!  Where’s my socks?!”  😉

You could spend all day making up dialogue for penguins, waddling about like weird little grumpy old men. You can see the penguins preening their feathers, especially when they have just returned from sea.  Penguins apparently, have a special preen glands that produces a waterproof oil and they rub this all over their feathers with their beaks.  This oil is vital to helping the penguins stay warm and dry while at sea. We often saw penguins having a bit of a squabble, flapping and fighting with each other.  This behaviour is warning other birds during various stages of courtship and breeding.  The males hit each other with their flippers, and even peck and bite at one another to ward others away. Something else we observed was a lot of ear preening and shoulder rubbing.  This apparently means the penguins are getting uneasy or they are feeling threatened… sometimes if people were getting too close, they would start this sort of behaviour.  I saw one man actually try and pet the penguins, and while I wish I had told him to wind his head in, I was also rather hoping he’d get bitten for his trouble.  Thankfully he stopped before I got close enough to say something.  What a knob. We also saw lots of trumpeting behaviour, which is commonly done by all the male penguins arriving at the colony.  They do it to announce their presence and when bonding with a female.  How unusual of the male of the species to rock on in and be all loud and stuff.   😛

We had a spot of lunch – thankfully no penguin eggs – and it would soon be time to hit the road and head back to the ship. The weather was starting to close in around us, and there was a small storm heading off to the… I want to say ‘south of us’, but I could be wrong.. that rumbled a bit and send down some rain in the distance.  The island turned moody very quickly and we found out the idiom in the Falklands isn’t ‘four seasons in one day’, it’s ‘four seasons in four hours’.  As we drove back through increasingly moody Scottish highlands… err, I mean Falklands peat bogs, I had mental images of Kate Bush in *that* red dress running around in my head singing Wuthering Heights, which made the other ladies laugh when I shared the odd mental connection – but they all agreed it was entirely fitting.

I did mention that if I was asked, I would say that the Falklands are full of rocks, peat, sheep, penguins and extraordinarily well-travelled sheep farmers!  I have seen remote communities before, and many people who live in them, never ever leave their area of origin. Given their remote and isolated location, I was surprised by the fact that the Kelpers travel as much as they do – but it makes sense.  If you are brought up knowing you will have to travel for serious health problems, or you will have to travel if you want to further your education, or you will have to travel to visit relatives… then you become travellers yourself.  It’s just part of life for them. In this way, they are just like Aussies and Kiwis… everything is so far away, we know we will have to travel to see the world, and when we travel – we go and we stay gone as long as time, money and leave will allow.  We don’t go to Europe for a week – we go and we stay a month.  The Falklanders are just like this too.

Our off road convoy driving over the peat… bouncing along.  I’m sure paying for it today!  Oi, my neck/back. This is Boot Hill, I have included it here because I know how much the locals just LOVE this concept… can’t get enough of it!  There are two stories of how this organic collection of ‘boots on spikes’ came into existence.  One, involves military contractors leaving a boot behind when they leave the Island much like throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain so that they might come back one day.   The other story involves some young louts who had gone and stolen something they shouldn’t have, and having ended up with white chalky marks on their shoes for their trouble which would give them away as the culprits.  So they abandoned their shoes at this hill in order to attempt to avoid detection.  Toni and Richard absolutely love telling their guests all about Boot Hill, and if you ever get the chance to do their 4WD tour, be sure to ask to stop and take a photo… they can’t get enough of that shit!  😉 

By the time we got back to town, we had talked about military contractors, bird species, first settlers, healthcare, higher education options, family weddings, local and international politics, climate change, child birth, taxes, travel, and lord knows what else in between!

We had a few moments to whip through town before heading back to the port and we got a feel for the lovely town of Stanley.  We saw the Governor’s House – the Governor being appointed by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II… as a side note, at dinner after our Stanley visit, one of our dining companions was hitch hiking across the island, and was picked up by none other than the Governor of the Falkland Islands himself.  They had a good old chin wag and he dropped them across the island!  The Governor sounds like a dude, picking up hitch hikers in what is presumably a government vehicle!  🙂

The town of Stanley was historically a place where ships would port for repairs and supplies before and or after rounding the Horn.  Many ships that were deemed irreparable were either cannibalised here, used as storage, or like this one, left to its own devices until it rots away.  Toni did tell us the name of this ship – but, my memory has let me down on that one. This is the local Catholic church, very pretty, and very small town England look about it. And of course the CoE church, which is somewhat more substantial.  The archway you see to the right of the church is made our of Blue Whale jawbones… I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I mean, yes, whaling is a bit part of our global collective history, and there is no point removing the arched monument and attempting to whitewash this period of global expansion and discovery, but I look at something like this and it just makes me sad for those beautiful gentle creatures.

After this, it was back to the ship – and zomg, I was so exhausted.  What a big day, and what a simply amazing day out!  I have to send out a huge thanks to Toni for doing such a fantastic job of sharing her passion for the Falkland Islands with us.  We were very impressed with the gorgeous countryside and the beautiful and quirky penguins, but I think the biggest impression was left on us by Toni herself.  She shared her extensive knowledge of the Falklands, her enthusiastic community spirit, and her deep love of her remote island home, and I can not thank her enough.

Toni D, if by any chance you happen to find yourself reading this one day, and you’re planning a trip to Brisbane, Australia – just message me here; I would love the opportunity to show you around my home… we may even be able to hook you up with a Harley Davidson tour around Byron Bay.  Thanks for everything.  <3

Verdict: 10 out of 10, One of the best days ever! Can’t recommend the Falklands highly enough, I would totally go again!   🙂

Rounding Cape Horn

Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and it is located on the tiny island of Hornos Isla – named after the city of Hoorn in the Netherlands.  Cape Horn is the northern boundary edge of the Drake Passage and is also the point where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans collide; it is known for being particularly hazardous to navigate due to excessively strong winds, huge swell (not today), strong ocean currents and even icebergs which occur up to 50°, even in mid-summer (mid Feb).

“Rounding the Horn”, which we are doing this morning, is traditionally understood to involve sailing from 50° degrees South on one coast, traversing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean (or vice versa) to 50° South on the other coast – the two benchmark latitudes represent a particularly difficult and time consuming endeavour and it involves travelling some 930 miles.

Today we have excellent calm conditions, not a lot of swell, the waves are nothing to be concerned about, but you can certainly feel the 75-80 knot Antarctic winds buffeting the ship about. There’s also a weird sideways drift feeling happening occasionally, which is probably the strong ocean currents pushing the ship around.  I could be wrong, but I thought I heard the ship’s sideways thrusters working intermittently, which could be a way of attempting to counteract the current from pushing us off course?  Not sure, I’ll have to ask one of the crew later.

Cape Horn has been considered one of these most treacherous shipping routes int he world.  Sailing conditions in the Southern Ocean are fierce at the extreme southern latitude of 56° South… to give some reference, the southern tip of Africa is only 35° South, and Stewart Island at the southern tip of New Zealand is only 47° South.  Below 40° South, winds can blow from west to east around the world almost interrupted, which is where the ‘roaring forties’ name comes from.

I think most people have heard of the ‘roaring forties’, but not being from a sailing type background, I’ve never heard of the ‘furious fifties’ or the ‘screaming sixties’ before, but in the middle of that, is where we are right now.  The winds are hazardous enough that ships travelling to the east tend to stay in the Straits of Magellan (and that is perilous enough in itself!) up in the northern forties if possible; however rounding Cape Horn requires ships to press south to 56° South which is smack-bang in the middle of the fiercest winds. The weather here is really changeable as well, as we approached the Cape, it was sunny, blue skies, windy of course, and a clear outlook; travel a few minutes, literally just a few minutes, and a few miles further south, and the skies have turned moody, the wind has picked up to ‘I can’t hear myself think’.  This is because the winds are exacerbated here by the funnelling effect of the Andes Mountain range and the Antarctic Peninsular which forces any prevailing winds into the narrow Drake Passage.
Naturally, strong winds tend to cause correspondingly large waves, and these large swells can roll around the entire Southern Ocean free of any interruption of land – that is until they hit the shallow waters to the south of the Horn, which causes them to be shorter (closer together) and steeper – again causing an additional hazard to ships as they have no time to recover from one steep wave before encountering the next.  And if the strong eastward current through the Drake Passage meets an opposing east wind, this can have the effect of even further building up the dangerous waves.  Oh, but wait… there’s more!  On top of these ‘normal’ conditions, the area west of the Horn frequently experiences ‘rogue waves’ which can attain heights of up to 30 fucking metres! (98 feet!!!) OMG…! Between the horrid wind conditions, the treacherous currents, hazardous waves and oh dear lord, terrifying rogue waves, and ICEBERGS, it makes you wonder why anyone would attempt to sail around Cape Horn.  It is no wonder that over the centuries, Cape Horn has gained notoriety as the most dangerous shipping passage in the world, has seen numerous shipwrecks, and has become known as a ‘sailor’s graveyard’.  I can’t imagine someone in the 16th century with comparatively rudimentary navigational equipment and little to no support if something goes wrong, being too happy about having to ‘Round the Horn’ at all… but the Straits were just as treacherous with their own hellish windy conditions. As we moved further around, we find things here are very changeable, as we sailed towards the Cape, it was sunny, mild and hardly any swell, but not five minutes later, the sky is turning moody, the swell has picked up, the currents are pushing the ship about, we are looking at a bit of rain and the wind. OMG, the wind!  It’s unbelievable.  On the outer decks, we are all leaning into the (bitingly cold!) winds to avoiding falling over.  Opening the doors to the open decks has become a two person job, and it’s beanies and windbreakers for everyone, and the ship’s flags are snapping sharply.  But then, just as our shore expert, Hutch, said, “Ladies and gentleman, you have now ‘Rounded Cape Horn, and we are officially in the Atlantic Ocean”, the wind dropped to almost nothing, it was weirdly still for a calm minute or so, and this is going to sound really twee, but a small rainbow appeared in the distance right over the Cape.
Traditionally, sailors who have rounded Cape Horn were entitled to wear a gold hoop earring in the left ear – the ear which would have been facing the Horn in a typical eastbound passage, like ours. Additionally, they say that these seasoned sailors were allowed to dine with one foot on the table, though for the life of me, why this is a ‘thing’ I don’t know.  A sailor who had also round the Cape of Good Hope was allowed to dine with both feet up on the table.  Feet on tables aside, it just sounds like good excuse to go buy some nice hoop earrings if you ask me.  😉 Seriously though – I don’t think our Captain would care which Horn you had rounded, if you had a go at putting your feet up on the table in the Main Dining Room, you might find yourself put off at the next port! 

It was quite the experience watching the ship Round the Horn and seeing the rapid changes in the weather – even though we have what would be called damn near perfect weather for this area.  I’m having another one of those moments where I’m thinking… Wow, just 15 months ago I was on the Caribbean Princess crossing 66° North into the Arctic Circle near Iceland, and now here I am literally round the bottom of the world at Cape Horn!

I never expected I’d be off travelling the world and doing all these amazing things.  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – I have no idea whose life I am living, but I am really getting worried they are going to want it back!

Ushuaia, End of the World, Beginning of Everything

Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Antartica e Islas de Atlantic Sur Province in Argentina.  But it is more commonly known as Ushuaia – the End of the World!  Generally considered the southernmost city in the entire world, Ushuaia is located in a wide bay on the southern cost of the island called, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego – which is bounded by the Martial Mountain ranges and the Beagle Channel.

We sailed in through the beautiful Beagle Channel glacier field, just watching amazingly beautiful glacier after glacier appear as we sailed through the channel.

Getting ready to go ashore, I saw this little notice in the Port Guide… never seen that before.  I was just a kids when the Falklands war was going on, it never would have occurred to me that tensions might still run high.

Once at the port, we met our guide, Andres, and our trusty drivers, plural, for the day Coco, and Juan Emannuel (don’t ask, long story), and we head off towards the famous Train at the End of the World to take us into the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

On the way, Andres gave us plenty of information (much of which he had to repeat later, poor fellow – the bus PA system wasn’t working).  The term Ushuaia (pronounced u-sua-ia / u’swa ja), comes from the yagan language ush and waia, which means ‘deep bay’ or ‘bay to background’.  I asked Andres how the region got the name Tierra del Fuego, ‘Land of Fire’, which seemed a name more likely for an active lava field than an alpine tundra spotted with peat bogs, and he told us that the original peoples of the area, the Selk’nam Indians (also called the Ona people) first arrived in the region about 10,000 years ago, and they would have enormous bonfires that were visible from the straits – the same fires that Magellan spied from his ship; hence the ‘Land of Fire’.

You can see by this map, that very little care was taken when drawing the boundaries between Chile and Argentina on this particular island – they have quite literally taken a ruler and sliced through the countryside, with one side of the mountain in one Chile, and the other half in Argentina.  As we traversed the park, it was a bit, ‘Oh 3kms that way is Chile’… and ‘half of this lake is Chile, and that half of the lake is Argentina’.  Seriously?  That’s gotta make conservation efforts a little tricky!

Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost national park in Argentina, and it is full of dramatic scenery – waterfalls, dense forests, mountains, glaciers, lakes, peat bogs, and rivers.  It is a simply stunning place, and I think you could easily explore here for months without seeing the same spot twice.  The forests here are of Antarctic beech and Lenga beech, which looks very similar to Tasmania’s alpine forests which are also heavy in Lenga beech trees.  There are many species of fox, rabbit, muskrats, mink and beaver here… most of these species have been introduced, and several are now actively culled – the meat used for crab bait, and the furs sent for tanning and sale. Interestingly, and this makes total sense but I probably wouldn’t have considered it at all, had Andres not mentioned it; there are no reptiles in this entire region.  It is too cold for them here, so there are no frogs, no snakes and no lizards at all.

The park stretches 60km from the Beagle Channel on the Chilean border and is quite frequently accessed by the very quaint, heritage listed, ‘End of the World Train’.  The End of the World Train, which was more properly named, the Southern Fuegian Railway was established as a narrow gauge steam railway, which replaced an old wood track rail system that was drawn by bullocks – the primary purpose of which was to supply Ushuaia’s prison.  The steam engine trains were built over a 25km length on the Ushuaia waterfront, past Mount Susana and then through the Pipo River Valley into the Tierra del Fuego National Park.  The railway, which is a cute 500mm (20”) gauge, was designed to connect the prison camp with a forestry camp for timber supplies.  

The prison train was used to transport prisoners to the camp, and transport out logged timber from the forest.  The conditions under which the prisoners worked and were accommodated sounded appalling – they worked long hours in deep snow; lived in dank tiny cells, and suffered cruel conditions with guards who make Alcatraz guards sound like candy stripers. Men were stood in sopping wet clothing for hours in the freezing cold for minor infringements, locked in small cells in the dark, indefinitely, these and many other cruel punishments were devised for transgressors.  Being allowed outside to go work cutting timber, under armed guard, was a privilege – even if that mean standing in deep snow, working with tools with freezing fingers for hours on end.

The landscape is scattered with tree stumps everywhere – nothing grows quickly down here, and likewise, nothing rots away quickly here either due to the low temperatures.  At the time the trees were cut, they were taken at ground level, but you can see umpteen stumps left behind by the prisoners all appear to be at different heights… this apparently is indicative of how deep the snow was when each particular tree was cut down, as ‘ground level’ constantly changed with the snow depth.

The prison was eventually shut down in 1947 and the railway was closed in 1952 following the reduction in forest resources (that will happen when you cut down really old, slow growth forrest), and the train tracks suffered some damage during an earthquake.  It was some 40 years later that the train was revived and repurposed as a heritage tourist attraction.  The 7km route takes about an hour to traverse into the park and every view from every window is just stunning.

After our train journey, Andres and Juan-Emmanuel picked us up and took us to a few different areas of the National Park.  First we went to have a look at a beaver dam… which if you’re North American may not seem such a big deal, but when you’re Australian and you’ve never seen a beaver, was really quite curious.  The island has several introduced species that have all wreaked havoc on the sensitive ecosystem here to the detriment of the local flora and fauna.  The Tierra del Fuego National Park is studded with mountains, lakes and rivers carved out by glaciers which form deep valleys and beautiful water courses – and we went to checked out a dam across one of these rivers, that was built by two beavers in barely two months and I could not believe the size of the endeavour!  It brought a whole new relevance to the saying ‘busy beavers’.  I couldn’t’ believe that it took just two industrious rodents to create such a huge dam across a whole river in such a short period of time – meanwhile, back home, I can’t seem to get my back fence finished in two years… not even with ready money! Incredible work, pesty beavers.

After this we went to the actual (literal or metaphorical, I am not entirely sure?!) ‘End of the World’ site within the park.  We are approximately 17,818kms from Alaska.  And yes, apparently you can walk it!  Andres told us he met a man who had walked from Alaska to Ushuaia and it had taken him almost three years to do the entire trip on foot… absolutely remarkable.  Apparently he has set some kind of record in completing the epic adventure and has written a book about it, though my notes have deserted me and I can not remember his name or the title of his book!

Here, for our viewing pleasure was some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen in my entire life… it is a wide sweeping landscape of mountains, lake, river and low alpine vegetation.  Impossible to truly capture with my dinky little happy-snap camera, but it was a truly breathtaking vista.

Also here, for our sensory pleasure, our guide, Andres, introduced us all to Legui – a local spirit made of sugar cane, oranges and herbs, so that we may all toast the occasion on our having travelled to the End of the World!

After enjoying our Legui, the scenery and admiring the landscape, we returned to our bus and took a short drive through the National Park to a beautiful lake; Lago Acigami.  On the way the the lake, Andres was telling us about a previous tour group that he took to this lake… he had 20 or 22 people, and when he got to the lake, three Russian men from his tour, all stripped down to their bare bums and went swimming in the lake, even though it is freezing cold all year round!  He said, there was nothing he could do – swimming is not advised because of the risk of hypothermia and mostly the locals use the lake for kayaking, fishing and other recreational activities, but no one goes swimming there, and here he was – three of his passengers stripped butt naked went running down and dived on into the lake.  Of his trying passengers, Andres said, “There was maybe ten tour bus going into Tierra del Fuego that day, and me?  Why Me?  Why I get the group with the crazy naked Russians!”  While Aussies are usually up for a lark, and we all thought this story was hilarious; oddly none of us wanted to follow suit!

Nearby at the lake we saw some caro caro birds – a native scavenging bird about the size of a smallish eagle.  They didn’t seem to mind being surrounded by a dozen people with cameras and they appeared to have found something from the nearby campground to rip apart.

Further into the park, we went to the post office at the End of the World, where they often drop tourists to get a special stamp in your passport to show your travels to Ushuaia.  Of course being from a cruise ship, our passports were all safely stored in the ship’s administration office, so none of us had passports to get stamped – but they are normally happy to stamp papers as a memento of your having travelled so far.  Alas, the post office was closed by the time we got there… but I have to admit I have never seen such a scenically located postal service, ever!  Such a pleasant view from work everyday, wouldn’t you say?

On our way back to Ushuaia, we saw more beautiful scenery, and then drove through town back to the port, where we encountered large housing projects and quite a quaint but thriving town, which reminded me of Queenstown in New Zealand, but with a stronger military presence loitering about… not sure what that was about, but there were both police and army seemingly posted on every other corner.  Someone mentioned a strike that was happening in town that day and that banks were all closed, but this is one of the drawbacks of not speaking the language – things can be happening all around you and you can be completely unaware because you can’t read the headlines of newspapers or hear what is being said on radios or televisions.

After a short wander around town to pick up supplies (read: Legui to bring home!) we went back to the port and were swiftly back home on ‘ze friendliest ship on ze seven seass, ze beautiful Sea Princess’.  🙂   It’s strange how the ship becomes home away from home.