Quark Antarctic Expedition – Day One Boarding in Ushuaia

As much as we were in desperate need of sleep, the bus taking us the Tierra del Fuego National Park and to see the End of the World was going to be picking us up at 0750 and we had to have our bags all packed in in reception, be checked out and had our breakfast by the time the bus arrived – which meant another stupid early start with not enough sleep.

But we got there. Dressed, packed, checked out, bags in reception, breakfasted and ready for exactly 0750 on the dot. We then pottered around town picking up passengers from other hotels before heading directly to the Tierra del Fuego train station. I wrote quite a lot about the history of the prison train that operates in the Park and how it is now used to ferry tourists around, last time I was here so instead of repeating myself… here’s a handy link for anyone who is interested in the history…   <cheeky re-used blog post>  😛

I decided to take the train in again – it was a beautiful trip last time and a beautiful day today, so why not. The train has a multilingual audio guide and we had a very noisy group of German tourists behind us last year when I was on the train, so I was hopeful of hearing more of the commentary this time. Alas, it was not to be, this time we had a bunch of inconsiderate Italians who wouldn’t shut the hell up when languages they didn’t need were coming across the PA system. Oh well… so be it. :/  Have I mentioned how much I hate tourists? Yes, I know, probably only every other post – but travel would be awesome without other tourists about.

The park was still beautiful and in spite of not being able to hear most of the commentary… again!

Okay – I can’t explain this, but when I went into my travel wallet to dig up some currency to pay for our train tickets, of all the pieces of paper and entry tickets to all the museums and attractions I have been over the last year (from Hong Kong to Moscow, from Rio to Stockholm, from Tokyo to Vancouver) for some reason, I seem to have kept my ticket for this very train trip from February last year…  😮  

After the train ride, we met back up with our guide, Mikaela and head to Lake Agamaco to the exact same spot I visited last year. This tour we walked from the lake through to the large Visitor’s Centre across the boggy peat around the lake. The walk was only about 20 mins long but we had a beautiful fresh breeze and gorgeous blue skies.

At the visitor’s centre, which was packed for some reason, we had *the* most amazing hot chocolates ever, and a quick look around the museum/gift shop before hopping back on the bus for the picturesque drive down to the boardwalk at the End of the World.

When I was here last year we arrived in this beautiful place and there was just our group of barely twelve people – today there were busloads of people here. Everyone was jostling to have their photo taken in front of the famous sign showing how far it is to Alaska, and then they were jostling for positions along the barriers to have their photos taken in front of the view. It’s still an amazingly beautiful place, but decidedly less serene than my last visit.

As a side note, I now quite strongly believe that whoever invented those Selfie Stick things should end up in Shepherd Book’s ‘Special Circle of Hell’, which as you all know is reserved for child molesters and people who talk in the cinema – and now the inventor of Selfie Sticks.  People, when you travel, stop waving those things around inconsiderately – be social and ask someone nearby to take your photo, most of the time people are only too happy to oblige. </rant>

I am kinda pinching myself a bit today; I distinctly remember being here last year and thinking, “I want to just drink this place all in, I don’t imagine I’ll ever be back here.”  The End of the World is singularly beautiful and I was so glad to be back here admiring the view again and looking at the gorgeous cloud formations, in spite of the crowds of pushy tourists.  Seriously – click on this picture, or right click and open it in a new tab or something to see it in a decent size, it is so beautiful here…

We head back into town after our walk around the End of the World and had about an hour before we had to head to our meeting point to embark the Ocean Diamond to begin our expedition. We decided to quickly find a few last minute supplies and then head back to the bar at the hotel we had stayed at last night because we knew they had reliable wifi and well… we already had the password. 🙂  The internet on the ship was a bit of a mystery – we had no idea how much it would cost or how reliable the access would be, so we figured we better say our goodbyes and send last-minute messages while we could.

So – what can you expect on a Quark Polar Expedition? We all still had absolutely no idea, but we were about to find out.

Eventually, 3:30 pm rolled around and we went down to the meeting point near the dock. We were filed onto buses and driven around the block into the commercial port area.   There waiting for us was our Quark Expeditions, Ocean Diamond expedition ship. The atmosphere was a mix of excitement and anticipation with a palpable sense of apprehension… see, no one of really knows what to expect from this trip – once we were on the ship we are entirely in the hands of the expedition staff and no one appeared to have had done this type of trip before.  Antarctica really is a once in a lifetime experience it would seem.

We were greeted by staff at the door and given our room keys and cruise cards, then escorted to our cabins to ensure our baggage had arrived. Our room is very cool – nice and larger than your average twin oceanview cabin.  It’s well appointed and tastefully decorated – complete with cool penguin photos on the walls.

After this, we had our first briefing, where we were introduced to the Expedition Crew, which is comprised of about 20 polar experts from all over the world – geologists, ornithologists, marine biologists, a historian and all sorts. I will post up all their bios on a separate page or I’ll get too distracted. They are an extremely well-qualified bunch and it was rapidly apparent that they seriously enjoyed their jobs and were full of enthusiasm for the expedition even though they have all done it many times before. We dispersed from our initial briefing to go unpack, check all our luggage items had arrived and to await a safety drill that would be happening in the early evening.

We stored all our stuff carefully in anticipation of the dreaded crossing of the Drake Passage, and explored the ship a little – it is a beautiful small ship, with the Main Lounge for lectures, a Club Bar for recreating, a Dining Room large enough to seat everyone on board at once, a small fitness centre, health and beauty Spa and a wee Gift Shop. With only seven floors, the gangways and Dining Room are on Deck 3 and our cabin on Deck 6, so I could foresee a lot of stairs in our immediate future. 🙂

Safety drill was simple and pretty much as per every other ship safety drill I had done. We drilled in the Main Lounge with our life jackets and listened carefully to instructions about our muster points and what to do in case of emergency.

We were then shepherded down to our designated lifeboats where we were waiting for the crew to do their drills before we would be given the ‘Okay’ to head back inside.

While we were standing around underneath a happily very well secured lifeboat, waiting in our lifejackets for the drill to finish and some typical traveller small talk type conversations were happening around us – and while the following conversation is remarkable, it is also increasingly commonplace if you are a travelling Australian.

It went something like this:
Polite Man: “So, where are you guys from*?”
Me: (noting his Austrailian accent, I answered more local) “We’re from Brisbane.”
Polite Man:  Really? (with a smile) “We are from just up the range, in Toowoomba.”
My Mum: (laughing) “I grew up in Toowoomba!”
Me: (also laughing) “And I was born in Toowoomba.”
Nearby Stranger, joining our conversation: “I’m from Toowoomba too!”
Me:  (grinning now) “No way!”
Polite Man: “Unbelievable!  We live in such-and-such-suburb.”
Stranger: “OMG, I grew up in SameSuburb too! And went to the SameSuburb School!”
Polite Man’s Wife (also laughing): “I used to teach at SameSuburb School!  But you are far too young for me to have taught you.”
Stranger: “My Dad used to teach at Same Suburb School too! Do you know Jeff H.?”
Polite Man & Polite Man’s wife: “Yes! We know Jeff and Kate H… so that must make you, Jessica H.! Oh my! You know, I was just talking to your father before Christmas and… etc.”

Talk about a ‘Small World’… Happens on nearly every trip – someone runs into someone they know from a past job or an old school friend or an SCA acquaintance. It was a lot of fun to see this interaction unfold, with everyone shaking their heads at the coincidence of running into someone they were so closely connected to, some13,000 kilometres from home.

*Without variation, every single conversation between travellers start like this, by the way – “So, where are you from?”  🙂

Then it was time to be returning our lifejackets to our cabins and before long we were being summoned back to the Main Lounge to be issued with our official Quark Expeditions Polar Parka. Quark have for many years now issued their passengers with a parka of their own design for passengers to for use during the voyage, and which passengers get to take home to keep. I dare say it has stemmed from a recurring problem of people turning up ill-equipped to deal with the conditions here, and then over time has resulted in a jacket that best suits the type of zodiac expeditions that passengers will be taking part in every day – it is waterproof, insulated, hooded, has a pocket for room keys and plenty of snaps, bells and whistles. Very fancy, very warm and very bright fucking yellow. I dare say I will be very grateful for it over the next couple of weeks, but it is unlikely to ever see the light of day once I get back to Australia – so I opted for a Men’s L size jacket which is long enough to keep my butt warm and will perhaps make a good ski jacket for Mr K down the track. Besides, yellow is so not my colour!  (NB:  That is Pato photobombing in the background, we will find out more about Pato later).

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. At 7:30 we were greeted personally by the Maitre D’Hotel (Alex from Ukraine) and shown to a table with a very friendly waiter named Paulo.  We were treated to a lovely five-course meal with complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks to accompany our meals.

The sea was obviously expected to get a little rougher later tonight and we found this out in the traditional manner of passenger ships – sick bags had been placed in the stairwells for any guests who unexpectedly started to feel green around the gills!  Ominously, an announcement also came over the PA system just after dinner that Dr Shannon, our onboard physician, would be in The Club after dinner handing our free seasickness medication for anyone who needed it…

All up an exhausting first day and we turned in fairly early being rocked to sleep in what turned out to be moderately rough seas overnight.  I love being at sea!

Transit Day – Buenos Aires to Ushuaia

We left Buenos Aires this morning – early. Too bloody early. Our flight wasn’t until 0920 and even though it was a domestic flight, we have been advised to get to the airport two hours beforehand – like you would for an international flight, on top of which it was going to take up to an hour to get to the airport… So our transfer was booked for 0630 with Jorge… Jorge was recommended to us by Ceri as a reliable driver with a vehicle large enough to take the four of us and our four largish suitcases. So yeah, we were up stupid early after being up drinking until 0130 or so. Clever, huh?

We made it to the airport in plenty of time – Jorge sped us safely through the early morning traffic while we watched the most startling pink sunrise come up over the shanty town areas of Buenos Aires. Again with the speed landscape photography, only the blurred mess I shot out the window of Jorge’s flying Mercedes minivan matched my foggy mental state perfectly on this occasion.

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike ‘slum tourism’? By that I mean tours that take obviously financially comfortable/wealthy tourists into the favelas or shanty towns (which our tour yesterday did briefly) so they can gawk at how the people are living in poverty? I hate that shit. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be living in a run-down shack with a piece of corrugated tin for a roof and watch a $300,000+ bus roll through your neighbourhood with 50 or more wide-eyed, Sketcher wearing, fanny-pack wielding, (largely white) tourists staring at you from behind UV tinted windows. Fuck that. These people are living their lives and doing their best to get by – it’s not a spectacle, it’s survival.   🙁


But I’m off topic – we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia with Aerolingus Argentina, a local airline who, unbeknownst to us had a 15kg luggage limit. Great, my bag with all its bulky warm stuff in it was nearly 20kg when we left home – the heaviest my suitcase has ever been when leaving the country (it’s routinely over 20kgs on the way home but never over about 16kgs when I leave). I got it down to 18.5kg but I still got slugged with a 590ARS (about $40) excess luggage fee anyway.  (*Ed: I just met a woman named Shirley at dinner who flew with the same provider and her baggage was 6kgs over but her husband’s was right on 15kgs and she didn’t get charged. I was the only one of the four of us who was over, but I got charged. Bastards!). Any-hoo… in for a penny in for a pound, I say. So if I’m going to get slugged on the way home, I may as well go the full hog and head home with 25kgs – they’re just going to hit me with the fee anyway!

We also had a ‘hidden stopover’ on our flight – which meant we made a scheduled stop somewhere to refuel and to dump some passengers and pick up a few extras, only 95% of us just stayed in our seat during this roughly 45min process. I still have no idea where we were stopped, as most of the in-cabin announcements were in Spanish and English versions were so thickly accented I couldn’t understand them anyway.   So a hidden stop-over and then onto Ushuaia.

Ed:  I did find out from Jorge where this ‘hidden stop’ was – a place called, El Calafate in Patagonia which is famous for its Peiro Moreno Glacier which, just a week after we were there, had an enormous ice bridge calving…

Anyway, we arrived in Ushuaia and the first thing that happened was Aunty Mary left her backpack on the plane thinking one of us had grabbed it for her – which of course we didn’t as we had our hands full with overweight hand luggage that was supposedly keeping our checked bag weight down. So she had to go back to try on to the plane to try to find it – the staff had apparently moved it on her, but thankfully she managed to reclaim it.  I was so relieved the missing backpack didn’t become a ‘thing’.

On the drive from the airport into town… I’m back in Ushuaia!  Unbelievable.

We exited the airport (funky building it is too) where we were greeted by Quark Expedition staff, they helped us with our luggage and transferred us to our hotel… only it turned out they were transferring us to our hotels – plural.

For some reason, Aunty Mary and Lyn were staying at a different hotel, we had no idea why because neither of them had brought paper copies of their booking with them, and they were (initially) none too pleased. Then Aunty Mary went around the back of the van to get her suitcase and it just wasn’t there either – whereupon a small panic ensued before it turned out they had already offloaded her bag while she was trying to ascertain why she was at a different hotel…   A misplaced backpack and now a misplaced suitcase = not fun.  Did I mention that we were all really rather tired?!  :/

The view at their hotel apparently ameliorated the inconvenience of being in a hotel somewhat out of town it seems… and we received this pic fron them shortly after they checked in.

Trish and I were ferried to a different hotel, the Canal Beagle, right in downtown Ushuaia which was decidedly older and less flash and had a view much more like this – complete with construction, smashed windows, stray dogs and all good things.

Didn’t matter we were only going to be there for one night.

At 1830 we had a Quark Expeditions briefing where we found out that we wouldn’t actually be embarking until 1600 the following day. So this pick up day in Ushuaia was officially Day 1 of our trip, and we thought we were embarking first thing the following morning, but not so – we just had to have all our luggage at reception by 1000 so it could be transferred to the ship but we wouldn’t actually be embarking until 1600.

Which meant we had zero plans for an unexpected day in Ushuaia. Lyn and Aunty Mary decided they would book a helicopter tour over the area, and Trish and I decided to go to the Tierra del Fuego National Park – I went there on my last trip and it was positively spectacular, so I was happy to journey into the park again. I figured I would decide in the morning if I wanted to do the prisoner train again, but at least we roughly had a plan.

Next things next.  Dinner.  I found us a choice of two restaurants after a bit of Googling – the Restaurant Villaggio for seafood and Italian style dishes, or the Estancia Parilla for Argentinian BBQ. Well, we thought nothing was going to top our Desnivel steaks from the night before so we opted to go to Villaggio. Chosen for the enormous king crab options on the menu – not disappointed!

It was a lovely restaurant with delicious foods – we had a beautiful meal and then headed back to our hotel/s.  King Crab Casserole with Roquefort cheese, Grilled Atlantic Salmon and fries, Tenderloin Steak (fillet) with Potatoes au Gratin and that whole crab platter photo was snapped at a nearby table.  🙂

After dinner, we went for a quick wander through town back towards our hotel, but of course, most places were closed for the evening so we will have to double back and explore more tomorrow.

Gifts made from Rhodocrosite also known as Rosa del Inca or Inca Rose stone.  It is the national stone of Argentina and is particualrly stunning for it’s beautfiul red and pink hues.

And thus endeth our uneventful transit day… all things being relative.


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.