Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Merry Patagonian Christmas and... (24-29 December 2010)

On Christmas Day there was no seafood or barbie for me! From 7.10am to 5.50pm, I trekked a total of 28km, up and down narrow, rough, rocky terrain. 13 of the 28km was with a 25kg pack on my back. I weighed 63kg at the time. Was I out of my mind? Not exactly. Unfolding before me was the trully breathtaking geographical magnificence of the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile! This is the crowning area of a region known as "Patagonia" which is shared by Chile and Argentina and was first visited by the Spanish explorer Sir Ferdinand Magellan in the early 1500's. Legend has it that Magellan named the area "Patagonia" because the indigenous people he met were so tall they had HUGE feet, since in Spanish, "Pata" is a foot and "onia" is BIG!

Patagonia is almost treeless. It is officially a "steppe" which is like a vast semi-arid desert or olive drab hills with clay and sand (like a tundra). Wildlife include "Guanaco" (look like Llama but are actually in the camel family!), fox, condors (like vultures) pumas (rare) and the "Huemul" or Andean Deer (also rare). The key flora is the "Calafate Berry", like blueberry, used to make jam, ice-cream and even liquer. Patagonia is famous for its "Estancias" or sheep ranches which average 10,000 acres just like the stations in Oz. They are big! Patagonian lamb tastes just like Australia's.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Here is how my Christmas saga went from back-breaking to wine and song!

On Christmas eve, I flew 1.5hrs from Ushuaia to El Calafate in Argentina. From there, I took a minibus tour with 8 others and we drove 3hrs to enter the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile (UNESCO pretected, covers 181,414 heactares formed by volcanic eruption 12 million yrs ago). Our minivan tour visited several lakes and took in views of the "Paine Massif" (literally "big blue bolders") and the famous three "Torres" or "towers" which I would hike to later. After a lovely panoramic lunch, I was dropped off at Lake Pehoe to start my trekking adventure. I went for a run before catching the boat across to Refugio Paine Grande (my first night camping) but I got caught in 70km/h winds which is typical for this time of year. After a night of howling wind and rain in my tent, I greeted a grey, windy Christmas morning as I started my 5hr trek to Grey Glacier and back (ohne pack!).

My 5hr, 20min trek from Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Los Cuernos was simpy back-breaking. However, things got better. The sun was out and it was warm enough to go shorts and T-Shirt. Unreal. I spent Christmas evening in Refugio Los Cuernos by Lake Nordenskjold with massive snow covered mountains through the windows outside, a Christmas tree on my left and a Dutch couple, an older German guy and one willing Chilean gal on my right, washing down BBQ Pork and Chilean "fried rice" with gallons of "Tres Medallas" 08 Cab Sav from maker Santa Rita in Valle Central, Chile (lunch red, ripe fruit but no body). The German guy at dinner was a former executive of a big German car maker. The Chilean girl was his personal "guide". He would not reveal his true identity. Yeah sure, "I like to have relations!"

Boxing Day saw me wake up from my second tent night (slept like a dead man!) and then trek another 11km over 4.5hrs to Refugio Torres Central, right under the 3 granite towers that make this place so famous. The Torres Refugio is classy. I get a bed in a room with 3 others! Along the way to Torres, Thomas, a Chilean-would-be-sherper, offers to take my 7kg day pack (with all electronic gear and documentation) to lighten my load - what a glimmer of human hope! I was impressed. I did not give it to him. I made this cross and I had to carry it!

The morning of 27DEC saw me into my "summer" running gear and at 8am I headed off to the base of the 3 towers. The sun was out, no wind and the towers in no cloud - perfect. The map quotes 4.5hrs to do the 9km trip from the Refugio 137m to the 886m viewpoint. I did it in 2.5hrs via a combo of running and fast trek climb. The view from the Torres Mirador (Spanish for Towers Viewpoint) simply takes your breath away - again I land on another planet - it is easily the most spectacular trek and view in my life so far!

The 3 granite towers are jagged and have an alien look about them. The highest one is Torre Sur at 2,850m. The lake in the foreground completes the picture. The return trip is all jog and takes 1.5hrs! I took one stack at Refugio Chilean, where I lost my camera but realised it immediately and collected it! Lucky. The entire return run was exhilarating but very painful! Since my time back was much quicker than I expected, I went on another trek.

This time slow and easy from 1:50pm to 4pm on the track to Campamento Seron which is part of the "perimeter track" that encircles the entire park. I am now back at Refugio Torres Central soaking my feet and my mouth in lovely Chilean Sav Blanc! It is 10pm and 52yr old Dutchie "Kristina" shouts me several red wines after singing in Spanish to the entire kitchen (4 cooks and 8 staff)!

The 28DEC was a rest day because I could not walk. I finally push myself to do a run around the camp and then head off on a 9hr bus ride to El Calafate which should have taken 5hrs! Welcome to South America!

The next day is perfect. Blue sky, sun, 20C and the Perito Moreno Glacier, 83km away looks spectacular. It has a 5km face, up to 60m high, 33km long and advances 30cm a year (this is fast, most glaciers do only mm). Seen one glacier, seen them all? No. This one is special because it looks great and "calves" (huge chunks of it fall into the lake) around a dozen times a day. Golfco Pictures managed to film one and it was big according to our guide! The one hour boat ride to the face finally put its size into perspective.

As you can see from the photos, the Torres Del Paine National Park and Perito Mereno Flacier was EXACTLY the magnificent places I expected. Except for that bloody 25kg back pack!
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Congratulations to Eliana Braga from Fortaleza Brasil who took the "lick photo" in this blog - easily the best one so far. She is in the running for Golfco Pictures "Best Signature Shot" of this trip!

NEXT BLOG: "...and a Pantanalian New Year !!!" due 4-5JAN11.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) I saw Thomas again, 10min into my return jog from the towers - what a coincidence! Did not stop to talk because joggers time trial rules must be obeyed - at all costs!

HINTS & TIPS: 1) Refugios Cuernos and Torres take credit cards! 2) Set out early. If weather goes bad it is typically after 4pm. 3) Better to book and pay for all day trips when you are there - tons cheaper! 4) I did not have time but go to El Chalten to see Mount Fitz Roy (3,405m).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Planet Antarctica (13-23 December 2010)

Antarctica is like no other place, I and my fellow travellers, have seen on earth. Quite literally, it is another world! What makes it this way is that it can be astonishingly beautiful one minute and absolutely unforgiving the next. Despite this, life has found a way to exist here and abundantly. It is the combination of massive snow covered peaks, multiple glaciers, thick sea ice, huge shapely icebergs and multiple wildlife that makes Antarctica unique. I also imagine that the last ice age must have looked like this over the rest of the earth.....another world, another time!

In total, we travelled 3,087km as far south as 65deg, 10min (170km from Antarctic Circle and 2,500km from the South Pole), seeing 37 species of wildlife (3 whale, 5 seal, 5 penguin, 24 bird). The best aspect of our trip was the 1 in 10 chance of getting mostly sunny weather and this allowed us to make all planned 10 landings over 4 days on Planet Antarctica: Aitcho Island, Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Wiencke Island, Pleaneau Bay, Petermann Island, Port Lockroy, Paradise Bay, Deception Island and Half Moon Island. I trekked around 15km over 4 landings, kayaked approx 10km over another 4 landings, camped one night, jogged 4km on the continent and even went for a 20m swim!

To get to Planet Antarctica you must cross the infamous Drake Passage. This would be like going to the moon in a space craft. In our case, we did it aboard the Canadian owned "MS Expedition" carrying 103 passengers and 65 staff from 25 countries around the world. We even had aboard the first Turkish citizen, Nurettin Yilmaz, to ever set foot on the continent. I was lucky to meet him and he will be interviewed by the Turkish media when he gets back! He even planted a Turkish Flag on the continent. We left Ushuaia at 6:15pm on Tuesday 16 December 2010. Ushuaia is around 1,000km from Antarctica.

The MS Expedition was built in Denmark in 1972 and refurbished in 2009 - it is 105m long, 19m wide, weighs 6,334 tons and cruises at around 15-20km/h. Even a ship this big, rolled around on our 36 hour Drake Passage crossing from the bottom tip of South America to our first stop in the South Shetland Islands, just 12 hours away from the continent. The Drake Passage is wild. Waves can reach 12m and winds up to 150km/h. We were lucky not to get these but it was still a rolly polly ride for most who struggled to keep dinner down! Even in these conditions we were able to see many sea birds including the Wandering Albatross with a wing span of up to 3m, weighing up to 13kg and spending many years flying thousands of kilometers out here - simply amazing. Alone, alone, alone on the wide, wide sea!

The MS Expedition is entirely staffed by 48 constantly smiling and hello-ing cooks, cleaners, waiters and deck-hands from the Phillipines! These guys typically spend 8-10 months away from home travelling the Arctic and Antarctic. There are 7 officers and a further 12 non-Phillipino "expedition crew" and one musician to provide us with information and entertainment. Amongst these are a qualified geologist, biologists, naturalists, historian and one of the world's foremost ornithologist and Penguin expert! All gave interesting and often funny "lectures" on all aspects of Antarctica during the Drake crossings and in-between landings. Landings were a slick logistical operation, moving 103 people to shore in just 20min using rubber inflatable dingies called "Zodiacs" (after the manufacturer).

Landing No 1 - Aitcho Island, South Shetland Islands (UK), Noon-3:00pm Thursday 16 December 2010, Trekking 1:
Aitcho is a tiny island of Penguin paradise! There are 17 species of Penguin in the world and we saw a total of 4 on our trip with 2 on this island: the "Gentoo" (orange beak) and "Chinstrap" (black line under chin). All were nesting, most had two eggs and many even had chicks! They build their nests on ice/snow-free ground using a pile of small stones. Both sexes incubate the egg which takes 35-37 days to hatch. Penguins eat krill (small shrimp-like creatures), smell and we are told they taste like shite! We also saw "Shags" (medium-size black & white birds) on a rock, "Southern Giant Petrels" (big birds who eat anything) and even "Southern Elephant Seals" (or odipherous blubber slugs) which pile up on each other and burp on the beach!

Landing No 2 - Cuverville Island, Gerlach Strait, Antarctica, 9:00am-11:30m Friday 17 December 2010, Kayaking 1:
This was my first kayak amongst massive, unusually shaped ice bergs. There were 10 of us kayaking with the rest hiking a steep 130m hill on Cuverville and observing penguins, seals and birds. Kayaking on Planet Antarctica is surreal. You are surrounded by massive ice sculptures, creaking with deep blue fissures above water and fluoro green extensions below you. Penguins "porpoise" (jump) out of the water all around you looking for krill and the occassional seal stares down at you with cute cow-like eyes, lying on top of a berg or ice-sheet.

Landing No 3 - Neko Harbour, Andvord Bay, Antarctic Continent, 2:00pm-5:00pm Friday 17 December 2010, Jogging:
This is where we layed our feet on the actual continent! Whilst everyone climbed the 130m hill overlooking the harbour, I jogged 4km, up and down this hill, 4 times in the snow over 30min. My official run of the 7th continent was bloody hard as my feet sank in the snow, one out of every 5 steps but it was exhilarating. Another ozzie girl, Tanya from Melbourne ran a single lap up and down. Most of us just sat at the top of the hill admiring the view for almost 2hrs, coming to terms with the fact that our feet were connected to the South Pole!

Landing No 4 - Damoy Refuge, Wiencke Island, Dorian Bay, Antarctica, 9:00pm Friday 17 December 2010 - 5:30am Saturday 18 December 2010, Camping:Since the hut was out of booze, I came to the rescue with some Argentinian Malbec from Mendoza which was enough to fuel jokes and chit-chat until sunset at 12:50am and beyond. Most of us slept a few hours and some stayed up to watch the sun come up at 2:20am. It actually does not get dark in between and there is plenty of white light - constant day for at least 4 months in summer! We also set up our porta-loo next to the hut since you cannot leave any human souvenirs anywhere in Antarctica. The next morning it was freezing and we packed in record time to get back to the ship by Zodiak for a hot tea and shower!

Landing No 5 - Pleneau Island, Penola Strait, Antarctica, 9:00am-11:00am Saturday 18 December 2010, Kayaking 2:
Penola Strait is packed with peaks, glaciers, sea-ice, pack-ice and bergs. It is the quintessential Antarctic landscape and the sun made it ten times more spectacular! Kayaking across calm waters revealed ice bergs and whole mountain peaks and glaciers reflected in the water. Being away from the ship and people allowed us to hear the thunder of distant collapsing glaciers and the creaking of pack-ice. Kayaking activities included dodging bigger ice pieces, running over smaller ones, passing under arches in some bergs, licking the walls of others and singing into berg caves and fissures. The other passengers observed this icy lamington wonderland on the Zodiaks as there was nowhere to trek.

Landing No 6 - Petermann Island, Penola Strait, Antarctica, 3:00pm-5:30pm Saturday 18 December 2010, Trekking 2:
Petermann is a few kilometers south of Pleneau and was the most southern point of our trip: 65deg and 10min, only 2,500km from the South Pole. Petermann is also rich in wildlife and nesting site of Adelie Penguins which we saw. Kayaking was cancelled due to too much ice and we joined the others on a fabulous trek through this rich potpourri of wildlife. What made this island spectacular was its close proximity to the huge peaks and galciers of the continent and the myriad sea of ice in between.

Landing No 7 - Goudier Island and Port Lockroy, Jougla Point, Antarctica, 8:30am-11:30am Sunday 19 December 2010, Trekking 3:
This landing actually comprised two sites near each other. Half went to one and half to the other and then we all swapped by Zodiac. Goudier Island and Jougla Point was a show case of penguins and old whale bones from the whaling era before World War II. Port Lockroy is the location of a penguin research station and the world's most southern functioning post office run by England.

It is staffed from November to March each year and also contains a souvenir shop to fund research actvities. I along with many others, wrote two post cards and mailed it back to Sydney (brother) and Melbourne (Myer) from a post box in this very location using specially commissioned Antarctica stamps!

Landing No 8 - Chilean Naval & Air Force Base, Waterboat Point, Paradise Bay, Antarctica, 4:00pm-5:30pm Sunday 19 December 2010, Kayaking 3:
Whilst most people visited the active Chilean military base and museum, we kayaked across the bay to mainly observe wildlife on the shore. There was limited ice bergs and ice sheets in this area. This was also the site of the "vanilla" penguin, same as the Gentoo but a beige or vanilla colour replaces any black markings.

Landing No 9 - Whalers Bay, Deception Island, South Shetland Islands (UK), 9:00am-11:00am Monday 20 December 2010, Trekking 4 and Swim:
This was the only landing with cloud, mist and a short snow fall. Deception island is the "Santorini" of Antarctica. Like its Greek counterpart, it is a submerged, crescent shaped island caldera formed by a massive volcanic eruption and able to support a ship navigating and anchoring inside.

This island has black volcanic sand beaches, still steaming from subterrainian thermal activity and surrounded by snow covered peaks! Not exactly Santorini! This island was home to a major whaling station where whale oil was produced and stored from the 1930's to the end of World war II. It was then used by the British Antarctic Survey until 1969 when a minor eruption caused its abandonment. It is spooky place, full of broken huts, old boats and acres of whale bones. After viewing penguins and an abundance of lichen and algae we visited the abandoned whale processing boilers, tanks and huts.

To finish, around a dozen of us stripped down to our cozzies (and some did undies) and dived into the 1.5C water! I swam 20m until my head almost exploded! In the water your body feels like it has no limbs and when you get out of the water it feels like there are thousands of slaps and pins and needles all over your body. You then loose sensation in your toes and fngers. After my swim, I sat in the hot sand and burned my butt so bad that I had to run back into the water to put it out! Exhilarating!

Landing No 10 - Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands (UK), 3:00pm-5:00pm Monday 20 December 2010, Kayaking 4:
This was the last landing. Whilst most people farewelled the penguins, we kayaked the coast to observe orange-red rock lichen and a huge iceberg shaped like the island itself (half-crescent moon), complete with a lime-green, icy beach inside. This was easily the biggest berg we had seen and visited.

After landing 10 we headed back into the Drake Passage for our 49hr voyage to Ushuaia, passing within 11km of the infamous Cape Horn (most southerly point of South America) and "splashing down" at 7:00pm on Wednesday 22 December 2010. The trip back was slightly rougher with constant rolling of the boat. Many people could not sleep. Many spewed. Jogging on the ship's treadmill was like running on ice - hold on to dear life!

Planet Antarctica is easily the greatest travel experience for me after visiting 46 countries in the world to date!

PLANET ANTARCTICA ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My sincere thanks to our expedition leader, Julio Preller for proof-reading the above blog and our expedition orthinologist and penguin epxert, Frank S. Todd for his interview with Golfco Pictures.

PLANET ANTARCTICA FACTS: 1) Fifth largest land mass in the world at 14 million sq km (Australia is 9 million). 2) 98% is covered in ice, ie, only 2% is actually accessible dirt/ground/rock. 3) Has the same average annual precipitation as the Sahara thus classifying it as a desert. 4) Coldest place on earth: -89.2C recorded in Vostok Station. 5) Windiest place on earth with Katabatic Winds reaching 300km/h. 6) Ice cap averages 1.6km deep and is up to 3.2km in many places. 7) Contains 90% of all ice and 70% of all fresh water in the world by volume. 8) In winter the sea-ice causes the continent to almost double in size.

NEXT BLOG: on El Calafate and Patagonia in Argentina with target 31DEC10.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) Visited Martial Glacier on 13DEC10 in Ushuaia with Tiny and Stefan from Belgium. 2) Took 3.5hr cruise around Beagle Channel islands on 14DEC10 in Ushuaia with Daniella from Patagonian Cruises. Saw Seal Lions and Shags. Learned about two tribes of indigenous peoples.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fin Del Mundo

"At the end of the Earth". Ushuaia is truly an outpost. Set against a natural harbour and surrounded by what is literally, the end of the Andes: towering, jagged peaks, full of snow. Alaska, Twin Peaks, Iceland, Hobart on steroids...get the picture?

Ushuaia was originally founded in in the late 1800's as the Argentinian "Alcatraz", ie, to service a huge prison, housing Argentina's most hardened criminals but when costs got a bit too high the Navy took over the prison in 1950.

Most houses are made of wood with steeply pitched steel roofs to manage tons of winter snow. When I arrrived the temperature was 4C and peaked at 10C. It does not get much warmer than this! There is a snow storm outside right now as I finish writing this! While I was here, the sun rose at 4am and set at 11pm with a faint blue glow in the sky in between!

While jogging, I noticed that this town is swarming with dogs and without leashes or fencing. Did I break a few records! Luckily I did not need to rely on my tetanus shots! The K9 problem is so bad that all household bins are actually metal baskets purched on a pole next to the letter box to stop the doggies from making a mess. Not a good look!

Before the snow storm, I visited the "Tierra Del Fuego National Park" and the "Martial Glacier", both breathtakingly beautiful and only 24km and 7km away. The national park actually borders Chile and even has beavers in it who, like rabbits in Australia, are actually pests and in uncontrollable numbers. The Martial Glacier is not as large as most and the face sits at around 1,000m altitude, however getting there is a killer since we hiked from the 385m car park to get there!

Next blog will be on Antarctica and if the ship has satellite internet then I will broadcast 18-20DEC10. If not, then 23DEC10.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Journey to the Bottom of the Earth

Ola! I made it! Sydney to Ushuaia in Argentina. Just 3 flights and 3 stopovers taking 36.5 hours, 18.5 of those in the air! The air crew kept talking to me in Spanish - I am a local already!!!

Ushuaia (Pop 60k) is officially the most southern city in the world. No road on the planet goes further south! Ushuaia is also the place that I will set off for Antarctica in 3 days, a mere 1000km away and 3.5 days sea voyage compared to around 2 weeks from Tasmania or New Zealand.

The Facts - What I learned on the plane:
  • South America consists of 12 countries a with total population of 360 million (300million in USA), 75% of which lives in cities and 81% of which is Catholic.
  • First civilised by Incas in Peru between 5000 and 2500BC.
  • Discovered by Columbus in 1492 (Carribean) and invaded by the Spanish in 1552, who took over the last of the Incas in 1572.
  • Columbia holds the world record for civil war. In 2010 it hit 40 years but recent press report it is ending.
  • Sao Paulo has the largest Japanese community of any city outside Japan (like Melbourne was for the Greeks in the 70s).
  • The Andes is the longest mountain chain in the world at 8,000km.
  • Angel Falls in Venezuea is the waterfall with the largest drop in the world at 996m.
  • Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia is the highest lake in the world at 3,808m (Katoomba is at around 1,000m).
  • The Atacama Desert in Peru and Chile is the driest on earth. NASA tests all its Mars landers there.
  • The Pantanal in Brazil is the largest wetlands (swamp) in the world at 230,000 sq kms (almost the size of NSW!).
  • The Amazon Basin is the largest river basin in the world at 7 million sq km (Australia is 9 million sq km!!!) and is home to 40,000 plant, 1,300 bird 400 mammal, 4,000 fish and 2,500,000 insect species!!! It even has 75 types of monkeys.
The Dramas: What happend to me on the way:
  • Back pack checked-in at Sydney did not arrive in Buenos Aires! I used my airplane Spanish and a lot of hand waving to finally track it down and get it to Buenos Aires 3 hrs before leaving for Ushuaia - what a close shave - would have gone to Antarctica in shorts!!!
  • I lost my iPhone somewhere between Santiago airport transit and arrival in the hotel in Buenos Aires. Now you know how much "wine tasting" I did on the 18 hour flight to Santiago!!! And it is only day 1!!!
First Impressions - What hit me after a couple of jogs:
  • Chileans and Argentinians travelling with me look very European and dress very well (like myself). Like Europe, businessmen wear no ties.
  • Like the Yanks, Argentinians drive on the wrong side of the road and too close to the shoulder - I have more stones in my joggers than I care for!
Next blog on Ushuaia, due 13-14DEC10...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Launch

After two months of planning, Cafe Gandel in Rose Bay North saw the unveiling of Golfco Pictures next epic adventure documentary "Ai Caramba", South America 2011.

Expedition leader John Golfin outlined the amazing 4 month itinerary using a large map and globe, both marked with the planned routing. 12 family and close friends as well as 7 children gasped with excitement as the following highlights unfolded: Antarctica, Patagonia, Pantanal, Angel Falls, Galapagos, Amazon, Machu Pichu, Lake Titicaca, Uyuni Salt Flats, Chilean Fjords, Atacama Desert, Iguazu Falls and Easter Island. South American countries to be covered are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

A total of 10 tours and 22 flights were booked to bring to you this epic adventure. I sincerely thank my family and friends that came along for the launch and look forward to bringing you spectacular blogs every 2 to 4 days. I welcome your comments.

Come and join me,
John "Attenboroughopoulos" Golfin