Days 4-5 – Having a Whale of a Time

The next day, we experienced a little bit of ‘autumnal’ Antarctica. March is the end of the season (as evidenced by the Penguin post office having already shut down for the winter) and as such, the weather can be a bit more variable. We had a ‘plan A’ of sailing into Booth Island, a place situated in a bay with a ‘graveyard’ of icebergs. But by the time we arrived there in the morning, it was far to windy for us to land.

Hike on Peterman Island

But no worries for our crew! They luckily had a plan B (and C and D) and weren’t afraid to implement it. We headed down to Peterman Island, which was thankfully much calmer. It’s amazing how you can ‘turn a corner’ in Antarctica and experience some totally different weather. It was still grey and snowy, but at least the wind was manageable. Here, we saw a new species – Adelie penguins! (they’re the ones with Mexican accents in Happy Feet) – and fur seals fighting on the beach and one dared to attack a passenger who had lain down on the ground to take a photo! Luckily, a passing expedition member helped to fend him off, but it was a close call.

Adelie penguins

It was a worthy reminder of the dangers of Antarctica. So, too, was a cross planted on the shoreline. It was put up in honour of three British scientists who, on one of their days off, decided to climb Mount Scott on the opposite shore. They were never seen again. Just like the weather, the ice and the glaciers can turn on you in a second – crevasses opening beneath your feet, and sheets of ice shifting and carrying you away.

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But still, so much good scientific work is being done down here. And it was nice to get a real reminder of that, as our next (and very unexpected) stop was at Vernadsky base – a working Ukrainian research centre, and the most Southerly stop of our cruise. They welcomed us with open arms, and gave us a tour around their work and living quarters. It was fascinating to think of these men (and it is all men) working here all winter long. The Vernadsky base (previously the British Faraday base) was where the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered. It’s also the home of the most Southerly pub in the world! It has a really great story – a carpenter who was sent wood to build a boatshed, instead built a pub. He got fired for his ingenuity, but his legend lives on. They will exchange a shot of vodka for a bra. Hey, when in Antarctica!

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The next day, we headed back North again – this time, to Paradise. Antarctica threw us another curve ball, which was snow (this is actually pretty unusual for Antarctica as it’s the driest desert in the world). The water was too cold to melt the snow, but it was perfectly still, giving us our first experience of ‘pancake ice’.

weddell seal Minke whale in paradise glacier at paradise

There were loads of seals lazing about on the ice – crab eater seals and Weddell seals – lazy buggers! But you really got a sense of the scale of the glaciers from the zodiacs here. The landscape was just stunning, and exactly what you would expect from typical Antarctica.

crabeater seals

We then moved on to Danko Island, and the sun came out again! Hurrah! It is really something else when the sun comes out in Antarctica. The light is just so incredibly beautiful. Even looking through my pictures (and I stress, I am *NOT* a good photographer by any means) I’m amazed by how they came out.

Yet the most amazing experience was still yet to come (I do apologize for how the superlatives are flying left, right and centre but I cannot stress how much this trip has changed my scale for ‘amazing’). As we settled down for yet another delicious dinner (the food on this trip has been unreal), we heard a call from the bridge: Whales at 1 o’clock. I rushed out onto the bow in just my ballet slippers and the liner of my parka (no… not warm enough by any means!) and thankfully had my camera with me. Humpback whales surrounded the boat.

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Okay, okay. I’m not describing this well at all. I mean, humpback whales surrounded the boat. I’ve been on whale watching-specific cruises before, and I’ve spent a lot of time scanning the horizon for those tell-tale blows. There was no need for scanning here. Blows were going off like fireworks in the water, everywhere you looked – on the horizon or close to the boat, on the starboard or port side. There must have been hundreds of whales in the water.

I ran inside once my fingers began freezing in that permanent ‘shooting’ position and the camera had to be practically cracked from my hands. I went up to the dining room, which has panoramic views out over the bow. I loaded up my plate full of South American buffet. But the show wasn’t over yet.

Just in front of the bow, a playful humpback started slapping the waves with his flippers and tail, jumping up out of the water in front of us. Everywhere I turned my head there were whales, and the sunset was staining the sky rosy pinks and dusky purples. As corny as it sounds, I couldn’t help the tears that welled up in my eyes. It was honestly something truly special – and I will never, ever forget it.

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Days 2-3 – Antarctica the beautiful

Early in the morning, about 7am, something ghostly appeared on the horizon. At first, it was just a white smudge against the grey fog. But as we drew closer, I knew what I was seeing . . . my first Antarctica iceberg.

first iceberg

We’d had a surprise the day before: a perfect Drake crossing. The ‘Drake Lake’ as they call it. Although I’d felt a little bit ill in the morning, by lunchtime I had perked up in time to hear the good news. The Drake had been so good that our ship had made unprecedented time across the passage. We were going to arrive in Antarctica a whole day early. Amazing! Two landings that we didn’t expect suddenly appeared on the itinerary. This is when I have to give another shout-out to G Adventures, and their expedition team, who did everything in their power to make sure we had the best experience possible. They pulled out all the stops (and the zodiacs), made sure we had all our safety and biosecurity briefings down in good time, so that we would be ready for our landings.

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Flying penguins accompany the ship

And ready we were.

Dressed up and ready

Our first excursion was a zodiac cruise around Barrientos Island in the Aitchoo (H-O) islands. Bundled up in my brand new G-adventures branded red parka, waterproof trousers and new socks, I looked a bit like the Michelin tire man.

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We got off to a great start – not long after we left the ship, we saw a curious leopard seal pop its head up and say hello to the zodiac. He went on later to kill a penguin right in front of us. Well . . . we did ask for nature in all its gory glory!

The zodiacs were another pleasant surprise. The thought of heading out into the middle of the ocean in a tiny blow-up boat was not exactly enticing, but once inside, they feel really stable and comfortable. They held about 10 passengers at a time, plus a driver, and you really felt like you could get up close with the wildlife. They were also absolutely fine to take pictures in, and zodiac cruising became one of my favourite activities.

Barrientos

But what we really wanted was to get up on land, and we had our opportunity after lunch. We stayed in the same region, visiting Barrientos Island and nearby Cecilia Island, this time on foot.

And the first thing that struck me? The stench. Oh boy, the stench of the penguins! It really punches you in the nose. Thank goodness for nose blindness that sets in after a while. That, and the antics of the Gentoo penguins really distracts you. They’re far too cute to be that smelly.

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As part of the IAATO (the only somewhat governing body of the Antarctic region) regulations, we were advised to stay about 5-10 metres away from the penguins at all times, especially the older adults who were moulting. But there was nothing to prevent us from sitting down on the beach and letting the curious penguin chicks come to us. That was fine. And what fun! The moment you sat down, you had little penguin chicks arriving, pecking at your gloves and nipping the camera. It was a great first day introduction to Antarctica – and, to top it all off, we had our first whale sighting in the evening.

first whale first whales

But is it strange to say it just kept getting better? It did. Every day, it got better and better. Especially because the next day, we had beautiful bright blue skies – the kind you dream about seeing down here. It put our grey South Shetland Islands day into perspective. Now we were heading onto the continent itself – and Antarctica laid out the red, or should I say blue, carpet for us.

Neko Harbour. It still stands out to me as, I think, the most perfect day of the whole cruise. At Neko, we took a hike up to the viewpoint – where I brought with me my copy of The Potion Diaries. So TPD has made it all the way to the Antarctic peninsula! I’m not sure too many books can say that!

TPD at Neko Harbour

neko harbour view

As I stood on the top of the hill we’d climbed, I closed my eyes and just listened. Antarctica does that to you sometimes. Your eyes are seeing so many incredible things, and in such stark, contrasting colours – the bright whites and the bright blues, the dark ocean and the black-and-white penguins – that it often becomes overwhelming. And the noises of Antarctica are just as incredible. The ice creaks and moans, it goes off like a rifle and thunders like cannon blast. That last noise, the cannon fire, was actually ice calving off the glacier and tumbling into the bay. It set forth a tidal wave – a tsunami – of water that rocked the boat (and the poor kayaks) and crashed into the beach below. Thankfully, we were high up. But what a thing to witness! It was, quite simply, unforgettable.

neko harbour ice

Our second landing site was completely different – but also very cool (pun not intended… sorta). Port Lockroy, one of the British bases in Antarctica, and the home of the Penguin Post Office (there was a BBC documentary on it not too long ago, that was shown on the ship). We were all desperate to send out postcards, of course, but unfortunately the postal workers had left not two days before our ship arrived! That means our postcards are going to ‘over winter’ in Antarctica, and be sent when the crew arrives again in November. So we might see them around Christmas time!

They also have a little museum there, that’s been preserved so we can see what life might have once been like overwintering in Antarctica. They still don’t have running water or many facilities there so not much has changed!

Penguin Post office

We ended the day with an outdoor barbeque on deck – so much fun! If extremely cold. I chickened out by the time we got to dessert and headed indoors.

I was going to try and fit ‘Day 4’ in here too, but it’s been too much already. There’s been so much to see! I could go on and on for days. But for now I’ll leave it here. More soon!

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Antarctica – Day 1 – Last minute Antarctica . . . why not?

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Here I am, at the end of the world! Since writing this blog, I’ve been to Antarctica and back, and I can hardly believe it. Before I arrived in Antarctica, I didn’t know what to expect – now that I’m back, I don’t really know how to describe what I’ve seen. I’ll do my best. All I know is that the polar region has implanted itself deep in my heart, and already I’m aching to go back.

Lots of people asked me, have you always wanted to do this? And my answer? Actually, no. Antarctica felt to me . . . out of reach. After all the far flung places I’ve been, even Antarctica seemed like a step to far. For one, there’s the expense. For two, the distance. And three? Well, less than half a million people have ever stepped on Antarctica.

Why me?

A key secret to my happiness, I’ve found, is to keep my goals realistic. That way, when I get to do something I never expected, I get to be totally surprised.

As a result, I was thoroughly unprepared for a trip to Antarctica. Many of the people I’ve met on board the ship Expedition have been looking forward to this trip for a year or more, but I was only able to book a week before launch, via Sarah Scott at Freestyle Adventure Travel. If there’s anyone out there looking to do a similar last minute trip to the seventh continent, I would thoroughly recommend dropping Sarah an email! She was super quick to respond, really helpful with all my questions, and unrelenting in her desire to get me on board a ship. This was the only ship I wanted to get on because it worked perfectly with my itinerary, and so I was not an easy, flexible customer. She also got me an amazing price, which helped make the decision very easy indeed.

The trip itself was run by G Adventures, a well-known Canadian travel company. Knowing that they were the ones running the show really put me at ease – and for good reason. The trip was impeccably run, and the staff went above and beyond to make sure we had an amazing Antarctic experience. Kudos to G – and I’m sure I’ll be on another one of their trips before long.

Even landing in Ushuaia was incredible. I got the 4:35am flight from Buenos Aires (not so fun), landing at 8am in Ushuaia, and as I stepped out of the airport I was gobsmacked by the views. It was a bright blue sky day, the air was fresh and crisp and huge snow-capped mountains surrounded the bay. I was enchanted.

Ushuaia - Copy

Ushuaia is a home for adventurers, hikers and – of course – polar fanatics, and it caters to them. I was able to pick up a few last minute things (key of all: warm socks) to round out my polar wardrobe. I was lucky that Sarah (of Freestyle Adventure) was lending me the waterproof pants and gloves that I needed, while on board a parka and waterproof boots were provided. So as long as I had a few other layers, I was fine.

We boarded the ship, the Expedition, at about 4pm. My first impression of the ship was one of surprised delight – it is very well appointed, and my cabin (which I was to share with three unknown females) was spacious. I managed to secure a bottom bunk (my main priority) and luckily there was no quibbling about that. My three roommates were all lovely – two were travellers from Toronto (who knew each other) and the third was a woman from Arkansas.

Ushuaia (2) - Copy

We all headed up on deck before long, taking advantage of the beautiful clear skies. The excitement on board the ship was palpable – along with a little nervousness. We had the infamous Drake Passage ahead.

What would that bring for us?

 

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Bushcamping, or, Just in case you were getting a little too jealous of our adventure…

(*More pictures to come when I have better internet!*)

We are now a week into our overlanding adventure and it’s been a baptism of fire! While we were lulled into a false sense of security by two nights in the beautiful coastal town Paraty (more on that later), the three nights and three long drive days that followed was our proper induction into overlanding life.

Our first bush camp stop, somewhere outside Sao Paolo

What is typical overlanding life?

  • Drive days that last between 8-10 hours
  • Pulling over on the side of the road for pee-breaks (and learning to overcome squatting fear for girls – watch out for spiders!)
  • Becoming way too well acquainted with the affectionately known ‘shit shovel’
  • Sharing close quarters with 25 people who have not showered for 3 days
  • 25 people who are also covered in DEET thanks to all manner of biting, flying insects (this one probably unique to this part of the world!)
  • Eating whatever the cook group manages to scrounge together for you (normally pretty delicious despite catering for multiple food preferences, gluggy spaghetti and lack of ingredients!)
  • Deciding whether to pitch your tent on a sand pit, ant hills, cow dung or stones
  • Doing all this in the sweltering heat and high humidity

Good times. And I’m not even being sarcastic! It is good times. It’s not for everybody (at some points, I wondered it if it was for me). Yet nothing bonds a group together quite like bushcamps, and we were well stocked with beers and plenty of good, hearty food to keep us going. Long drive days are broken up with intense games of mafia, naps, lots of reading and even more writing (that last one reserved for me and the diarists!). I’ve blitzed through The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (so fantastic), How They Met, and other stories by David Levithan (which I read on Valentine’s Day – perfect) and Code Name: Verity (very different to what I expected and much older, but had me tearing up at the end). The nights tend to be short – early to bed and early to rise. The bushcamps vary: the first night, we attempted to pull into a campsite but had to camp outside instead (the campsite was actually a nudist retreat – only three days into the trip, we weren’t quite ready for that much openness!); the second night, we camped near what smelled much like a sewage treatment plant (by far the least pleasant stop); and the third night, we suffered a disaster by being kicked out of our first site by locals – only to find paradise in the form of a campsite in a stunning, Jurassic Park-like landscape with ACTUAL showers and ACTUAL toiletseats. True-to-goodness bliss.

And that’s probably the best part about bushcamping on those long journeys: it makes the destinations so much sweeter.

Take Paraty, our first stop after Rio – and our slice of paradise before the bushcamping began. It’s an absolutely stunning old colonial town and world heritage site with cobblestone streets, cute churches and wall-to-wall cachaça stores (that’s the alcohol that fuels the decidedly lethal caipirinhas).

After exploring the town, we climbed aboard a boat for a little exploration of the little islands and beaches dotted along the coastline. Now this was truly amazing. The water was beautiful and teeming with fish. The sun shone brightly (so much so, many people got burned… including Lofty, who won the first ever truck ‘numpty’ award for his ‘interesting’ suntan marks). We had a yummy lunch and spent the day swimming and sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Not too shabby for a bunch of soon-to-be-shabby overlanders.

But the reason for all the drive days that followed? The Pantanal – the world’s largest swamp. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Despite the reputation, it was magic. But more on that in the next blog post…

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Surviving (and thriving) at the Sambadrome

I can’t believe how quickly our time in Rio has disappeared already! Tomorrow we leave on the Oasis Overland truck ‘Dingo’ for pastures new, and I have little idea what to expect. I’m getting ready to take each day as it comes and to be open to whatever adventures are ahead.

But in the meantime – what a time we’ve had! Sambadrome loomed before us with the prospect of eight hours of partying through the night. Would I be able to handle it? Would it live up to the hype?

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Half party, half city – the two sides of Rio

For me, the answer was ABSOLUTELY. Sambadrome doesn’t just live up to the hype… it is the hype. I’ve never experienced anything like the electric energy that rocketed around the concrete stadium when the floats were in view. Everyone got into the spirit, dressing up in headbands and glitter – and some in full body paint and very little else! While I wasn’t one of those people who could dance all night, I did stay right up until the last float passed through the stands and the sun rose in the sky. It was an epic night/morning to say the least.

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We were in Sector 13, which is right at the end of the parade. There were many benefits to Sector 13 – it was a lot of fun to watch the dancers finish at the end and the chaos as they rushed to take their costumes off and join the party. You could easily find discarded costumes (they made for great pictures and cool – if unwieldy – souvenirs! I think there’s a purple alien head still in the hallway of our hotel) and you felt like part of the local scene. The downside is that we were quite far away from the main action itself and we didn’t feel like we could completely grasp the magnitude of the floats. The binoculars I had just offered a tantalising glimpse of the immense effort that went into every single detail of the parades. It would have been better to experience them in their full glory.

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Throwing away the costumes at the end… so sad!

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6am snoozes… when’s the next Samba school on?

It was definitely an immense way to kick off the trip – and something I will never forget.

Rio has been unforgettable in lots of ways. We went paragliding from Pedra Bonita – an incredible flight over the stunning beaches and coastline of the city. We wiled away an afternoon on Ipanema beach. We watched sunset from the base of Sugarloaf and drank beers on a seawall with the locals. We bought ridiculously cheap Havaianas in Copacabana (and promptly left them in a beachside bar… sigh). Lofty partied in Lapa and I wrote in the corner of an Irish pub.

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Finally, we toured the largest favela in South America – Rocinha – which over 70,000 people call home. We umm-ed and ahh-ed about doing this tour, but in the end we decided that it was the only way to get close to understanding the flipside of this capricious city. Of course, with bus-loads of tourists walking through it every day, Rocinha is one of the ‘safer’ favelas – but it was still eye-opening to see the conditions that still exist for over 3 million residents of Rio de Janeiro. The company that we used takes all the money for the tour and uses it to fund a day care and school inside the favela. While of course it felt uncomfortable to be essentially gawking at people’s lives (and all in the knowledge that we were leaving at the end), we were greeted with warm and open arms by the people we met there – and not just the ones who were taking money from us. I am glad that I went, if only to feel like I’m coming away with a more balanced view of this city and the country I’m about to explore even further.

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The view from the top of Rocinha favela

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All in all, Rio has lived up to its reputation. It’s incredibly beautiful, but it also has a dark side. On the same day that Lofty and I commented on how safe we’d felt the entire time we were here (and we did – we took money out of ATMs without issue, we took the metro at all hours, we partied at the blocos), some other members of our group were not so lucky. It just goes to show that both the raves and the warnings about Rio are true. If you are ever able to find yourself here, practice vigilance and be safe – but feel comfortable that even the bad is not enough to dim the good.

Rio just shines too brightly.

And if you need any further convincing, here’s our time in video form:

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