Sunday, 28 February 2010

Rewind....Argentina, Argentina!

Buenos Aries 

BA is a beautiful city and well spaced out. "The Paris of South America" it was described as by Charles Darwin on one of his many Voyage's of the Beagle, so many years before me. A party town for me though as apart from the European architecture there wasn't much else to see. La Boca is a major draw card for some (especially for those soccer fans wanting to see the stadium) who are interested in the history of the area as this is where BA started. Some nice brightly colored buildings and English speaking waiters trying to lure all gringo's to dine at their establishment. 

The Zoo is worth a look for a bargain of only $6.5USD (Jardin Zoological). You can easily kill a few hours here with some pretty half decent exhibits of many animals I have not seen before. I didn't make it to the Botanical Gardens (Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays) as it was shut due to a fierce storm the week before causing some havoc! Running around a cemetery (Cementerio de la Recoleta) looking for Evita's grave site was recommended in the Lonely Planet but once again the LP led me to disappointment as this cemetery was way to well kept and flamboyant for me to enjoy! A trip to Iguazu Waterfalls can be arranged from BA but the day long bus ride (one way) for a water fall that you weren't allowed to swim under was not cool! So…back to the partying! I only seemed to find expensive night clubs that and you queue twice for a drink. This shit ain't fly with me so most of the partying was done at the hostel bar or back in hour 6 bedroom dorm! Some good transvestite shows, tango lessons/shows and mud wrestling can also take your time up. I would recommend only 2-4 days here unless your a city lover but for me I had seen enough and defiantly partied way too hard!   


Getting to Patagonia is recommended and if you can book a flight as early as possible to El Calafate or (worst case) Rio Gallegos then it will save you allot later. I flew to Rio as its much cheaper (because it's a shit hole with very little to see). I spent most of my time at the airport as you can sleep here and get a decent rest as there are no flights from 10pm to 2am and then 3am till about 7am (best thing about Rio). So this is a much better option than to head into town where not much happens unless you work at the car rental place or bus depot and everyone is scrabbling to get somewhere else! Much better then a dorm room at the hostel, the Airport has all you need and you will most likely be the only person sleeping over. I'd suggest the checkin table for the most comfortable airport slumber! Only 2 electrical sockets at the airpot for public, but no need to rush as nobody else around and they are hard find. Just head to the sign to the far left of the check in desk (near where you should sleep) and they are on the side of it. Or you can go to the bar and ask him to run a cord but they shut early and will make you buy something.

My time in Patagonia was very brief and I wish I had given myself some more time here. Whilst in El Calafate, a mega tourist attraction hence the wonderful English menus and many gringo's, you can do a number of organized treks and 4WD trips. I only spent a day here though as I had very little time due to getting trapped in Ushuaia (bloody buses) and I had wanted to spend most of my time in El Chanten (4hrs north of El Calafate). So unfortunately I missed the remarkable Perito Moreno Glacier which is located 80km outside of town. I did all this because I had my heart set on a ice climbing tour run out of El Chanten which I had pre booked and was absolutely pumped for! It was only a day of trekking but involved glacier walking and my to be first experience ice climbing! Unfortunately here in Patagonia every day is determined by the extremities of the weather. As I ate my breakfast at 5.30am in the hostel (Rancho Grande Hostel - pretty decent) waiting for this rugged Argentinian climber to come through the door with his backpack and ice shoes dangling from it I thought to myself that perhaps my pack was slightly under-packed. When I left Australia I had less then a week to pack. Keep in mind that I am away for a year and traveling across every continent with many different weather conditions and environments that I was going to endure. I also had a million other things to do before heading off and may not have done as much research as was necessary. My bag consisted of mostly "summer wear" as I was in South America and North America throughout the summer and then over to Europe for another summer followed by Africa and Asia briefly apron my return to Australia in December. In total my belongings weighed 19kg and was the least amount of gear I have ever traveled with.  

Moments later, an overweight man came over to my table where I was enjoying my strong morning coffee. He did not look at all like the rugged Argentinian man I was expecting and he was not caring any climbing gear. He informed me that due to the impeding storm clouds forming over the summit that todays climb would be cancelled. A full refund was available but not wanted…"how about tomorrow?" I asked only to find that it was already fully booked. This was not good news to my ears as tomorrow evening I was scheduled to depart the National Park on route to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. I was so guttered and this was obvious to the young Argentinian woman who had served me my breakfast. She came over to my table and suggested a number of hikes I could do on my own. I had already researched some of these (for tomorrow's activities) and asked her about the difficulties of the 8 hour hike to the Laguna de los Tres which was the base camp for the Cerro Fitz Roy (Mt Fitz Roy) climb…

I set off early after breakfast as I had a lot of ground to cover. The day didn't look too bad and I wondered if perhaps they hadn't got the numbers required for the trip and went for the "bad weather option" to save themselves from loosing out. A slight chill in the air but I was well enough rugged up with a number of layers and a Gortex jacket I had picked up a few weeks earlier in Bolivia. Walking for about 2-3 hours on my own with only a few campers spotted on the way scattering around their campsite arranging breakfast, I came to a fast running river with no signs of a crossing. I still had a good hour before I should reach the lagoons however I couldn't find a way to cross. Up the river I went for a kilometer but still the river was running to fast and no foreseeable crossing. I started making my way back determined to find a tree across the river where I could pass. Off in the distance I could see some other hikers. They were on the other side of the river so I kept on the same route down the river until I found well weathered path that led to a timbre crossing. Another hour of scampering up the mountain accompanied by the tunes on my Ipod I finally reached the top where I was overcome by the beauty that I was being witness to… Mt Fitz Roy reached to the sky with its snow capped peaks and smaller mountains either side. At the foot stood a massive glacier standing still in time and the Bluest of lagoons I have ever seen was the result of the sun melting down onto this ice sculpture. A simple travelers lunch was served on a rock by the lagoon…salami, bread and cheese with a sneaky chocolate bar (to help with the energy levels for my decent). An hour or so was spent wandering around and taking many self portrait photos of myself and these glorious surrounds. 

On my decent I could see rain clouds coming across very quickly and I pitied the many that were going past me in the other direction thinking perhaps the early start was a good idea after-all. During my 4 hour trek back to El Chanten (where I enchanted some bad weather) I thought about a quote that I had read a few weeks before that was taken from Charles Darwin's journals - "The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown. They bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration throughout time." I had reached the ultimate destination for the modern traveler: the stereotypical unspoiled, rugged terrains of the far south and was seeing the Fitz Roy Mountains just as Darwin had almost 200 years ago….in all of it's awe-inspiring unadulterated splendor!

I left Patagonia the following day content with what I had experienced in such as small amount of time. I new then I would be back to Mt Ftiz Roy one day and perhaps then I will give myself enough time to do some ice-climbing!  

Tierra del Fuego

Hundreds of years ago the natives in this far southern barren land (The Yaman) communicated with each other by lighting signal fires along the coast - A passing vessel captained by Mangellan saw these in the 1500's decided to name this place "Tierra del Fuego" (Spanish) which means "Land of Fire" in English. My visit here was for one reason and one reason only… Antarctica! Sorry lovers of the Tierra del Fuego but as the ships depart from Ushuaia this was the only reason I made it this far south. 

Rather than flying direct to Patagonia you could also fly FAR South…to the END OF THE WORLD however be prepared as Ushuaia is a major tourist destination and almost all the glitter is no longer, as the beauty of this area has been trampled by the many tourist flocking to get that stamp in their passports (as I did) to say you have been to the most southern town in the world. If you fly all the way down to Ushuaia you could then make your way back up over land to Patagonia. If not enough money to head to Antarctica then you can do a boat ride around Ushuaia seeing some penguins. A number of hiking treks and camping is available in the National Park also but is obviously seasonal. I stayed at FreeStyle Hostel which is the best in town for that price range ($60peso). WiFi and a few computers in the common room with fast enough internet and heated floors! Make sure to book you bus/flight out off town as soon as possible (sometime even before you arrive) as it is quite common to get stuck in town longer than anticipated (like me!).

Over the last few months I have had allot of people ask about my travels (Ie. where to go and stay) so I hope this Blog helps those fellow Globetrotters heading to South America. You can also see all the hostel's I have stayed in if you log onto Hostel World and check out my page....very handy option.  

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Sunday, 21 February 2010

Craziness at Carnival - Rio de Janeiro - Feb 2010

New liver needed please??!

Almost a non event for myself as I had looked into the cost involved with acquiring accommodation and the 6 day minimum that was a necessary requirement. Not a fan of being tied down in the 1 location forced me to abandon the hunt for a hostel and to simply wing it upon arrival. Worst case scenario would have meant leaving my belongings in a locker and staying out all night with my slumber location being the beach the following day. Not too bad an idea but surely only a 1-2 day possibility. Having only a few friends in Brazil I also put out the feelers for any potential couches I could surf on! A long time ex patriot friend in the North came to my rescue with the possibility that she may have a friend who could put me up for a few days. After getting in touch with Olivia's friend Susie this plan started to fall into place with amazing style and freaky luck turned into a major highlight of my trip! 
Susie, an ex pat also had been traveling the Northern states of Brazil for the last month with a friend of hers from London. These two freakishly flew into the International terminal 20 minutes after I touched down so the airport pick up was extremely helpful as my bags were heavy with the 12 bottles of booze that customs allow you to bring into Brazil! 

Arriving back at Susie's gorgeous 3 bedroom apartment located on the main street of Botofogo with views of Jesus, a pool and dinner being prepared by the families personal cook was definitely not what I expected. Spoiling myself with these luxuries was something that most backpackers will not come across very frequently. Being only a few years younger these 2 were in town for their first Carnival experience also had planned to do it in true style with tickets to perform in one of the school's at the sambadrome. Snaffling an extra ticket for myself was priceless (as can be seen from these images). With the addition of another 2 Pommy lads we had our 5 imitation parking officers doing our best to sing in Portuguese whilst sambaing in front of thousands! Turns out that we must have done something right or perhaps it was my lucky Australian boxers, which made 1 or 2 appearances whilst sambaing that got our school into the top 5 for the event! 

As partying was like second nature to these guys we hit it off almost immediately. My time in Rio was extended to a week and we partied every night. From the local Boca street parties with authentic music to performing in the sambadrome and then later (Main event - Monday) getting to watch it from the grand stands with the locals. Our days started late and were spent either by the pool or at the beach. On the rare occasion we would start the partying early arvo however our stamina (mine mostly) was affected by this and we (I) needed to save some endurance as most of the partying would not start until 1am and finish up at sun up! I personally did 2 sunrises throughout the week so not too bad considering I'm not much of a drinker!  
The weather was extremely hot throughout the week with my 1st day in Rio being the 2nd hottest place on the planet for that day (or so the Brazilian news reported). The beach had mostly shore breakers and was a little green but a refreshing break from scorching our bodies and trying to darken up my Irish tan! Once the sun sets over the mountains where Jesus stands tall, the entire beach claps which is a pretty amazing experience! I might try and bring this back to Bondi and see how it catchers on…

My last night of partying was spent at the closing of the largest indoor dance music conference in the Southern hemisphere. Headlining was Armin van Buuren and the atmosphere was like no other gig I have been to. Everyone was dressed up…the gents in trousers and dress shirts, girls in stilettos and frocks and the 5 of us were wearing tees, shorts and flip flops! I have never seen so many attractive people at a rave and only a handful of Aussies about so not too many Westies to spoil it! There was no queueing for the bar as very few drank and no fighting which is rare in Oz. We partied right up the front until sunrise and then dragged our weary bodies home to bed.

I'd like to put a special thanks out to Susie for her hospitality, both Fatima's for their cooking/cleaning, Olivia for her recommendation and the Pommy lads for not giving me too much shit about being whiter then them! 
Now I make my way overland (two days transit) up north to Salvador where I will then head west to Lencois to meet up with Olivia and spend a week or so chilling in the mountains and national park. 

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Thursday, 18 February 2010

Antarctica - Continent Number 7

Everyone who ventures to southern South America can not miss getting on a boat in Ushuaia and heading to Antarctica. My pictures and words can not prepare you for this unadulterated nature reserve beyond your wildest expectations! This will not be my last time to Antarctica! 

Antarctica is AMAZING!

To write words or show you some pictures to try and describe this most southern desert does not seem appropriate as you truly will not comprehend the magnificent beauty that is found here in Antarctica. Never have I seen anything like this before...the largest and most sacred of nature reserve in the world.
A photographers playground where every shot looks like something off the cover of National Geographic magazine. Unfortunately this amigo left his SLR at home due to the bulkiness of the bloody thing so now I venture to the worlds most distant sanctuary of wildlife with a miserly point and shoot Lumix digital with an internal lens....grrrr!!! 
Day 1 of Landings -  Half Moon Island
After 2 and a half days across the Drake Passage and many sick crew mates we arrive at Half Moon Island, our first landing. We charge through the rough seas in our Zodiac rubber inflatable dodging the odd pack of penguins skimming through the surf. On shore we have been blessed with many Chin Strap Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, Adelie Penguins, many Albatross and a hand full of Antarctic Fur Seals. The remains of a whalers ship stands tall on the shore offering some coverage to the breading Chin Straps. A few hours were spent hiking over the Island viewing many colonies and simply sitting back and watching these funny little creatures go about their daily routine as if we were not within an arms reach of them! 

With this being Number 7 for approximately half of the ship you can imagine that the bar was pretty rowdy that night! 

Day 2 of Landings - Brown Bluff and Devil Island
Two landings the following day with Brown Bluff being our first official landing on the continental Antarctica. Many more Penguins with their chicks however with new life comes death and we experience many of these new chicks being the victim of their largest threat - Skuas. These scavenging marine birds are distant relatives to gulls but with a slight more aggressive nature.  Approximately 1.2 chicks per happy couple so to see 2 was quite a rare experience and to get so close to this highly perched nest was unreal. After an epic climb to the summit with most spectacular views and a good slide back down on your bum we returned back to our vessel. Whilst cruising about we en-counted a pod of Killer Whales resting only 20 meters away from the ship. With approximately 40 of these Orca’s you can imagine the excitement that this created onboard so we circled these magnificent specimens of the sea once more to get the picture perfect odd 40 something photos! A quick sauna drained all the life left in us that afternoon and the bar was less popular then the night before...

Day 3 of Landings - Paulet Island and Antarctic Sound
Icebergs ahead!!! Unfortunately, due to pack ice being in our course we had to divert to Plan B and Snow Hill would not be reached on this endeavor. On route we still had thousands of icebergs scattered in front of us like pieces of glass across a kitchen floor. We would simply pick a course and charge these bergs at a good speed hitting them directly in the centre and splitting them open so that we could pass through. The Captain had replotted a new route and our destination was Paulet Island. On our way though we en-counted our first sighting of Emperor Penguins! Two 4 month old chicks were standing around on top of an iceberg slab sunning it up. This was a special day as this species were not usually found this far north and had hitched a ride on the iceberg with a few other Adelie’s playing around. Our crew leaders first sighting of such young Emperors so we truly were blessed! Now we had seen 4 of the 5 Antarctic Penguin species and only had the Macaroni Penguins to track down.

After a short climb past all the nesting Adelie Penguins up and over the summit we came down into an iceberg bay that was a winter wonderland for the Adelie’s to play in without the any fear or the close by Antarctic Fur Seals. We watched as they jumped off the icebergs and into the water skimming it as if they were dolphins and at some points getting a good 2 feet of clearance out of the water as if they had the ability to fly themselves. They would often stretch their wings and you thought to yourself that you needed to remind them they couldn't take off. Must have been instinctual for these guys to try. More seals being territorial as I snuck up nice and close for that perfect snap shot.

In the afternoon we spent a few hours cruising around the Active Sound in our Zodiac’s. As you can imagine it was bloody freezing and this amigo had on thermal pants, jeans, Gortex trousers, 3 shirts, 1 jacket, 1 Gortex jacket, 1 rain coat, beanie, gloves, scarf and 3 pairs of socks under my Wellingtons! Still I froze but it was so worth it! Our Zodiac driver was Julio the crazy Argentinian who pulled the nose of our Zodiac up to an Iceberg and let us get out on it and run around like loonies! You can not imagine the feeling of being able to dance around on a Iceberg in the Antarctic!! This was merely the beginning for Julio’s madness as we had spotted a massive 3000kg sea serpent that looked as prehistoric as they come - The Leopard Seal. This slug like creature was sunning itself on an Iceberg and for that picture perfect opportunity Julio decided to pull up next to the berg and let a few off. Being at the front of the boat Martin (Crazy South African) and myself get ready to dispatch. To my surprise I get almost knocked out of the boat as Kate (scandalous Pommy) barges past to make the landing her own! My time to dance like a penguin on the berg with this monster of the deep would not come as another Zodiac had pulled up quite close and the Leopard Seal had slithered back into the sub minus waters. Grrrrr!
“More Emperor Penguins” was the call over the two-way as some had been spotted close to where the Captain had decided to park the ship (literally parked on a Iceberg so the boat wouldn’t sway that evening) so we shot off to find roughly 10 - 15 of these adolescent Emperor’s. This was the most that any of the crew had ever seen this high up and we had truly been blessed with some good luck that morning when our path was changed. 

Boy did we party that night. A BBQ was held on the stern of the ship, hence why the captain had made the boat steady. Russian’s behind a BBQ is not as bad as it sounds and we ate like kings. Russian’s behind the bar is more suited and we had free booze until it ran dry. Russian limbo is not a game to be taken lightly as Ben (youngest on board) and Craig (incoherent Welshman) learnt the hard way. Cheap and nasty vodka is poured down your gob, face and all over your cloths as you do the limbo! If some smart ass is standing near the limbo poll at the time of you doing limbo then chances are he will pour beer in at the same time. It was either the wrong techniques during limbo or the sculling of booze that occurred during the game “Goggles On” that sent both Ben and Craig to their bedrooms at an unprecedented hour.   

Day 4 of Landings - Bernardo O’Higgins Chilean base & Zodiac cruising in the Bransfield Strait
A rather sketchy start to the day as we headed over to Bernardo O'Higgins Base the Chilean Army Base where we were lucky enough to get our passports stamped as this was our second official continental landing. A crew of approximately 40 Chileans working throughout the summer to do research and repairs to the 1950’s base. A few more Chin Straps and their chicks nesting were to be found scattered around the base.
On our way to our next destination the camera happy Martin spotted some humpbacks that were resting which meant the spent allot of time on the surface fluking but unfortunately no breaching!
That afternoon we ventured in the zodiacs around Astrulabe Island on the hunt for some more wildlife and boy did we find it! Numerous Leopard Seals, Fur Seals, Penguins, bird life and a few Elephant Seals! This was our first sighting of Elephant Seals and we were keen not to get too close to as they are one of the few creatures that are known to be better smelling dead rather than alive.

Day 5 of Landings - South Shetlands: Deception Island and Hannah Point
A very early start to the day for most yet I seemed to press the snooze button a few times and was lucky to grab the last boat to the Bailey’s Head (on Deception Island). Here we witnessed the largest Antarctic (2nd largest in the World) Chin Strap Penguin colony. These little critters were everywhere - like little people running around getting food, teaching their young, scampering up onto the shore after a quick dip. So funny to just sit back and watch as they went about their life without a concern in the world that we were there.   

Deception Island was just after breakfast and many of us were very excited as we had been waiting for this the whole trip. We sailed into the bay which was an active volcano. Once used extensively as a Whaling harbor, until an eruption emptied out this place, now just the remnants of a past era remain. Not as picturesque as the previous landings and there was an eeriness about Deception Island that may date back to the mass slaughter of so many giants of the sea.
After a climb up the peak over looking Deception Island, a wander around the old whalers station and a close encounter with a Weddell Seal who was content to just lay back and let me snap up some picture perfect snaps we were allowed to go for a swim! That’s right...a dip in the sub minus Antarctic waters of an ACTIVE VOLCANO! Only a small handful of people were able to brave these extreme conditions. Some were more willing then others...Ben who went nude was one. Some were a little resistant...Karina who I had to throw in and Kate, Steph and Martin really dragged out the whole getting unchanged process! Approximately a millimeter or 2 of thermal water sat on the surface however it didn’t seem to make any difference. Once you went under you pretty much ran back out screaming like a little girl. Some thermal pools of water were on the shore where you would stand in for a moment to warm your feet but then the heat was too much and you would run back into the ocean. 

A quick priority exit for the swimmers back to the ship where the sauna was pre-set to 105 degrees and was required to bring some feeling back into our blue bodies.
That afternoon we had our last landing for the trip. It was perhaps a combination of this being the last time we would be walking on Antarctica or the fact that the seas were extremely rough that brought no smile to anyones faces. The trips expedition leader almost called of the trip and if it wasn’t for the sighting of a large colony of adolescent male Elephant Seals the trip would have been scrapped. On the ride over we all got to test out the “Waterproofness” of our gear. Unfortunately my equipment didn’t stand up to the test. Lucky for me I had snaffled a bottle of vodka on shore to have a we sip on my 7th continent which helped bring some warmth back to me.
On our way over to the Elephant Seals we spotted four Macaroni Penguins  almost hiding incognito amongst a few hundred Chinstrap Penguins. This was it now for us....we had seen all 5 species of Antarctic Penguin’s and extremely satisfied with the variety and number of other wildlife, birdlife and sea creatures we had experienced! The odd Blue Whale on the way back to Ushuaia would top it off but considering one of the crew had only seen Blue Whales on 3 occasions in his 40 years experience in Antarctica and the Arctic our chances were slim! 
A few days cruising back through a relatively calm Drake and we were back in Ushuaia, Argentina. Not the happiest day of my life as all our moods were low considering we had just departed our most favorite and the most beautiful destination in the World - Antarctica!! 

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