Our trip to South America and the Antarctic Peninisula

by Peter Levin

Friday 14th Jan. 2000 Auckland/Buenos Aries

Our flight to Buenos Aries departs, we put our time back eight hours.1100 hours and our first sight of land, the Chilean Andes snow covered through the clouds and below us arid and hilly. Once across the Andes, Patagonia looks like Australian desert. Dry riverbeds with the occasional road. No sign of habitation or vegetation. contential hotel 1215. Approaching Buenos Aries now. Miles of plain, all farmed with a tinge of green, a cloud of dust where a vehicle travels one of the unsealed roads. 1225. Landed but we have to wait for a parking area such is the airport congestion. Our Hotel, the Contential, has the virtue of being reasonably priced and handy but not much else to be said of it.The noisy air conditioner a neccessity at this time of the year.

Saturday 15th Jan. Buenos Aries

eva perons mausoleum A bus tour in the morning. Few remarkable buildings. A third world air and plenty of old cars. The most memorable visit today was to the exclusive cemetery of 6000 mausoleums including Eva Peron's.They were mostly ornate some very grand. Our hotel's street has seen better days, lined with eight storied buildings that now appeared to be occupied by run down offices.

Sunday 16th Jan. Buenos Aries/Bariloche

Early call for us, bags outside 0630. Neither of us slept well, heat and a bit of jet lag I expect. Our flight was two and a quarter hours and a short bus ride into Bariloche at the base of the Andes on the Argentinian side. We flew over miles of farmed plain that gave way to arid plain rising towards Bariloche. 200mls rain at the airport but much higher at the town. Coats on on our arrival, a keen wind and 800 meters of altitude made themselves felt. Wild rose, lupin and broom an introduced weed problem. The town lies on a hillside above Lago Nahuel Huapi with a Swiss mountain village appearance and many tourists. Our hotel, Nevada, quite new and adequate although we are finding the Argentinian breakfasts meagre. The afternoon was spent with a drive along the shores of this large lake.EGL and adorable friend! Waiting for the bus

Monday 18th Jan. Bariloche/Peurto Montt

0700 Away by bus for the first of our ferry trips through the Andes to the Chilean coast. Brilliant sunny morning and lovely views towards the north end of the Lake. 0845 Barbara our frail elderly companion collapses and dies. Our ferry heads back and meets an Argentinian naval launch so that Tony, our leader, and Barbara, are taken off as our ferry resumes it's journey. This sad episode distracted us for some time from the grandeur of the scenery . Most of the peaks were bare of snow and although not of great height did not support vegetation so that I imagined a snow covered winter scene. 1010. We arrive at Peurto Blest at the western arm of this great lake, where we take a short bus ride to our next lake, Frias. A relatively short ferry ride with Cerro Tronador towering 3,460 metres in front usCerro Tronador as we head to the southern end of this light milky green lake, Argentian customs and another bus. This time our bus trip is a little longer at 23kms through forest until we pass into Chile at the road's highest point, then down to a braided river which we follow for another 70kms to arrive at the Chilean customs at 1315. Here we wait for twenty minutes then pass through a bare shed amidst threats of dire consequences if we are found with fruit in our possesion. 1635. After lunch at the Puella Hotel away on our last ferry trip to the western end of Lago Todos Laos Santos. Still mild but clouding up as we move west. 1815 Our ferry berths at Petrohue. Now a long bus trip along the shore of Lago Llanquihue to arrive at our hotel in Peurto Montt (pop 200,000) at 2055. It had been a long day but a very special beautiful trip through mountains, lakes and forest.

Tuesday 19 Jan. Puerto Montt/Puerto Arenas

Our hotel the Vicente Perez good and we slept well. Houses clad in shingles of Chilean redwood or steel. Evidence everywhere of the importance to the German immigrants. 1000. bus to the airport. 1500. We approach Punta Arenas airport and the sight of the Magellan Strait. We step into a semi gale westerly to find ground staff dressed for warmth which garb we hurriedly copy. Twenty five minute drive in the town through pasture (of sorts) and scattered housing. Thin soils and 50kts of wind. An obvious Chilean military precence. This is an oil producing area. We walked the town, sat in the square and collected some email.Phoning home

Wednesday 20 Jan Punta Arenas/Peurto Natales/Torres del Paine

Slept well. 0900. bus headed for Puerto Natales. A long drive. Soon away from Punta Arenas and we drive many miles through extensive sheep grazing properties, seeing merino/corriedale flocks and the odd Lesser Rhea. Flocks of upland geese amongst the sheep. Rolling to flat with extensive views. Suprising to see so many different birds in this low rainfall and cold country. All the land is fenced but few houses to be seen. 1100. Comfort stop at a village in the back of nowhere well painted with a sizable church and a pet condor. This countryside is full of interest despite the brown appearence and sparse vegetation. We are seeing condor, flamingo,upland geese, ibis and many duck. Some of the estancia are well kept with substantial buildings. Mostly owned by Croatians who employ managers. 1330. Lunch at Puerto Natales (pop18k)on an inlet from the Pacific and the terminus for the Peuto Montt ferry that takes three days. 1545. We continue north after collecting our leader, Tony who has caught up after his delay. Metalled road with snowy peaks to the west. 1600. We turn west and head for the Andes visiting a cave famous for having the remains a giant sloth discovered there, even with it's skin intact, that is until it was sent to England via the tropics! 1700. We see a family of Patagonian foxes. 1945. Arrive at Hosteria Las Torres in the Torres Del Paine national park. The last three miles involved changing to a small bus to get over a very narrow bridge and a substandard track. However the hotel is lodge type and very comfortable.

21st Jan. Torres Del Paine

0835 Quite a long day in our bus, that is after our mini bus from the Hotel has negoiated the Torres Del Paine very narrow bridge, touring the park. We travelled in a big semicircle always with the magnificent Cuernos del Pain high peaks rising to over three thousand metres and including some startling towers of granite. Glacier Ice Finally we battled a fierce cold wind and walked to see a glacier fed lake choked with ice. 1940. Back at our hotel. This national park of 260,000 hcs features groups of peaks, many lakes, birds, some mammals and access to one of the terminals of the huge Patagonian ice cap.

22nd Jan. Torres Del Paine/El Calafate

0930. Onto the minibus for the half-hour trip to the road and our own bus to head north to El Calafate and the Moreno Glacier. This morning is milder with a warmer northerly wind. Two Condor seen circling above. 1200. Cerro Castillo a real border town complete with cattle yards, horses and a howling wind only lacking some tumbleweeds and Clint Eastwood. Here we passed through Chilean customs and transferred,Cerro Castillo-border town much to my dismay, to a smaller bus and started our trip to El Calafate. We headed north with a further 250 kms to go. 1400. Lunch at an isolated wild western type "hotel"Our lunch stop that suprisingly gave us rather good tomato and ham buns. 1520. Relief at joining a sealed road for the rest of our day's trip. 1635. We arrive at our hotel in El Calafate, pop 5000.

23rd Jan. El Calafate/Ushuaia

1115. Gael and I have not joined our group for their early start on the four-hour return trip to the terminus of the great Moreno glacier. The rigour of the bus trip outweighed our desire to see the glacier, however we spent the morning pleasantly exploring the town. It sits beneath a towering hill to the west. Obviously something of tourist town catering for glacier visitors with hotels, one a large five star. Like all the towns we have visited the telefonica shop is busy serving those many people without their own connection. Despite the tourists we found the town full of local colour. As usual plenty of dogs treating the town as their free range.1330. We leave for Rio Galleogos. 1340. We have a puncture, I observe that after wear the front tyres are moved to the inside dual and guess where the puncture occurred, I am not attached to this bus!. 1400. On our way again. 1540. Esperanza, a tiny isolated oil settlement. 1730. Rio Galleogos airport where we check-in unsure if we will get seats. 1845. We take off not a seat to spare.1900. We land at the brand new Ushuaia airport built to take much larger planes than our 737. Our plane approached through low cloud flying at mountain top level, quite exciting. Our hotel is in town, a chaotic lobby, and no lift but room and food OK.Ushuaia first buildings

24th Jan. Ushuaia/Akedemic Ioffe

1000. Bags out and we vacate our room. We have most of the day before we board. Ushuaia is a bustling busy town (pop 45,000) with lots of good shops, there is even one set of traffic lights. We did some shopping and used a very smart new email facility. 1620. We board our ship the Akedemic Ioffe, a converted Russian research trawler, although the large listehing device amidsthips leaves some doubt as to the kind of research. Our cabin with own facilities and very comfortable. We are fortunate in this respect, as others in our group have not been given the cabins they had paid for. 1000. Now well down the Beagle channel and the pilot has left. Slight sea with 20kt northerly. A good dinner. A large party of Swedes aboard, we are outnumbered 4-1.

25th/26th Jan. Drake Passage

We are so lucky. Smooth seas.Breakfast aboard

26th Jan. South Shetland Islands

0915. We see our first iceberg. The sea conditions still the same a quartering northerly under 15kts so we have made good time. We crossed into the Antarctic convergence overnight, the boundary of Antarctica, so we are seeing many more seabirds. 1330. As we have made good time we get a shore trip onto Aitcho Island. Gael coming ashore 30kt NW made conditions marginal but all went well. We spent an hour and a half ashore in what was to be by far our worst weather of the trip so this time as long enough. However our preparations for the cold stood us in good stead but I would have been better with a waterproof covering for my balaclava but two pairs of woolly socks and thermal long johns kept us warm in the bitter cold today. We had bought oversize sea boots that accommodated the extra socks besides being light and smart. Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin colonies and moulting sea lions. The zodiac operation is well managed, they take ten of us at a time.

27th Jan. Neko/Port Lockroy

We steamed overnight and dawn saw us surrounded by land and icebergs with some whales to be seen.Port Lockroy Gael at Neko 1115. Returned from a wonderful shore trip at Neko.Port Lockroy A gentoo penguin colony, an Argentinean shelter hut, for desperate people from the look of the mess inside, and a minke whale passing by. Perfect day, partial cloud and no wind. Much ice and many bergs. Gael did a sightseeing tour via zodiac later in the day prior to us leaving for Port Lockroy. 1935. Returned from our trip to the shore station (UK) where we had fun sending postcards with their special stamp.Port Lockroy Another Gentoo rookery, the young about half-grown. Moored nearby was a 30' gaff rigged steel yacht that aroused our curiosity but all was explained that evening when Trevor, an Australian, came to dinner on board. Trevor, for no reson that he explained, had just spent a winter alone down here, only the third person to have done so, inside the cabin sole had iced up, the cabin roof also, only 6 hours heating a week and to read required each page to be thawed. Interestingly his yacht had only been released from the ice on Jan.4th.

28th Jan. Lemaire Passage

0530. We awoke to the most spectacular scenery of this trip.Lemaire Channel Mountains, glaciers pressed us on either side and Orcas nearby.Lemaire Channel Our crew call this the Kodak Cut and even I was infected by the breathtaking sight and ran off a film but well short of many of our companions who spent five or six films on the scenery. Lemaire Channel We put ashore to see some Adelie Penguins. Later we moved to see an ex UK station now taken over by Ukraine. This station well set up with good public rooms and even a big bar left behind by the Brits. The Ukrainians even had a little tourist's shop selling T-shirts etc. The Antarctic Peninsula now gets 10,000 visitors a year! 1700. We steam north as this is our furthest south at 65 degrees.

29th Jan. South Shetland Islands (Half Moon Bay Island) /Deception Island

0730. 180nm further north and we enter the beautiful Half Moon Bay at, you guessed it, Half Moon Bay Island. Welcomed by a flock of petrels/shearwater accompanying our ship. Calm sea and light wind. All is white snowy and mountainous. An Argentine helicopter overhead but their shore station here is not occupied this summer. A large Chinstrap colony and several dozen fur seals. We spent some time ashore as the conditions were so pleasant and the site interesting. 1045 Return to our ship. 1500. Ashore on Deception Island really the remains of a large volcano, which we entered through a gap in the wall and so formed an almost completely enclosed harbour. It was much used by whalers to the extent that it could be wall to wall dead whales awaiting rendering. We examined what remained from the whaling days and the remnants of a British base until destroyed by an eruption in the '70s.1700. All back on board and say goodbye to the Antarctic as we head back to Ushuaia.

30th Jan. Drake Passage

All day at sea. Brisk NE Sea slight with big lazy swell. As usual many of us were up in the bridge where the tolerant Russian officers were always helpful.

31st Jan. Drake Passage/Cape Horn/Beagle Channel

1055. Two blasts of our ship horn signaled Cape Horn in sight. Although a bit out off our course we diverted to see this famous landmark and see it we did, with unusually good weather.To prove I was there Our cruise winding down now as we tidy up and pay our ship's bills. 1345. Our closest approach to Cape Horn and now we head east to the Beagle Channel and then Ushuaia. After a good crossing of the Drake Passage.

1st Feb. Ushuaia

0700. We berth at Ushuaia and prepare to disembark for our hotel, this time a bit out of town on the edge of the Beagle Channel. We were very happy with the cruise and our cabin but not all our group were so well served. The lower deck cabins without facilities were hot, as their ports could not be opened, others were short changed on their promised cabins. 1000. We are at our hotel but at this stage I have begun to have a wicked flu' that was to hang on for several days. The group went for an afternoon tour of the local National Park.

Feb 2nd Ushuaia/Puerto Madryn

Stayed abed until we left for the airport for our flight to Trewlew. A forty-minute bus ride to our hotel in Puerto Madryn. Straight to bed for me. The hotel hot with no dinning room, I longed for some soup.

3rd Feb. Puerto Madryn

Our group left, without Gael and I as we are now both unwell, on a day in the bus touring the Valdes Peninsula. It turned out to be somewhat of gruelling day from some accounts, 400kms with three stops and a 10 hour day. We spent the day about this pleasant town, a popular beach resort and more attractive than the Buenos Aries beaches.PuertoMadryn sea front

4th Feb. Puerto Madryn/Iguazu Falls

0720 I am a bit better but Gael now sicker, we are a sorry pair. We leave for the Trewlew airport on the start of a long day's travel. A three hour wait in Buenos Aries airport for our Iguazu flight then an hour in the bus as we pass into Brazil to our hotel. 1700. Our hotel turns out to be built in grand scale overlooking part of the falls as they are very wide.

5th Feb. Iguazu Falls

Our good weather continues. I am much improved but Gael remains very quiet and stayed close to the hotel all day with the many quarti, long nosed large cat sized animals scavenging all they can find. Just below our hotel was the walkway down to the Brazilian side of the falls and one can almost get to touch them and get soaked in spray. The wet view Later in the day I took a trip to see the Itapiu dam across the nearby Parana river; worth the time see and be impressed with this enormous undertaking. From our hotel we can see Toucans in the tree tops. Our room not the best rather hot and in need of renovation.

6th Feb. Iguazu/Buenos Aries

The world's largest 0830. Breakfast and Gael much improved. Bus now back to Argentina to see the falls from that side, this approach was spectacular as the boardwalk led us almost above one huge torrent disappearing into a cloud of mist below. After our last look at the falls we called into the largest and most complete arts and curio shop I have ever seen, I remember rows and rows of dried piranha facing me with their jaws agape! We had considered missing this part of our trip because we were feeling so ill but we were rewarded with two fascinating days and wonderful scenery. The rest of the day and our wonderful trip were spent getting ourselves back to Buenos Aries in time for our midnight plane back to Auckland and home.