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15 January 2005 11:19

Judith Crick's Trip Note Part 3

From One Extreme to Another

Last of Antarctica
Visiting an Antarctic base -- this one of the Argentine ones called Orcadas on Laurie Island -- part of the South Orkney Islands. Our personal weather bubble is back with us, blue skies, and sunshine amazing - South Orkney only gets 8 days of sunshine a year! We were welcomed ashore by the Argentineans at Orcadas Station and show all round by the doctor who spoke good English. This base was first established by Scotsman, William Bruce in 1904, so this year on February 22nd was their 100th anniversary. It is the oldest base in Antarctica -- Bruce had offered it to the British, but they rejected his offer, so he gave it to the Argentineans and very proud they are of it too. Its never quite clear how much actual research (or the quality of it) is done by the Argentineans or Chileans at their various Antarctic bases. The feeling is that they just want to be seen to be there for strategic reasons. Here they have a good museum in one of the older huts (some interesting examples of taxidermy!) with labels in Spanish and English. There is a graveyard on the pebble Beach (there is a Ramsay Grave). We were invited into the base for coffee and biscuits and you could buy stamps and post cards. Left a message for my cousin (Ramsay) in the museum. I wondered round - the base looked like it was in an idyllic location on this glorious windless, sunny day. On a narrow strip of gravel between two bays and snow covered pebbly beaches (no battling fur seals!), with towering snowy cliffs (lots of nesting birds) on either side. I am sure it’s a nightmare the other 357 days of the year! Today only sunshine, Adelie and Chinstrap penguins tottering about, making me laugh.

We cruised on with a sea full of icebergs one monolith, one and half miles long-- click, click, click! The captain did a cruise past - the tallest ice cliffs, at least 180 feet high, revealed fantastic eroded arches and clefts of deep (blue) caverns of cold air stretching back into the interior.

Next stop Elephant Island in very poor visibility and driving rain and snow. We passed Cape Valentine where Shackleton and his men first set foot on land after 16th months on the ice. Then we carried on to Wild Point, on the north of the island, where Shackleton’s men (Under Frank Wild’s leadership) spent 4 months living in up turned boats on a narrow spit of land, waiting to be rescued. We were hoping to land (I was very keen to set foot there!), but disappointingly the weather conditions were too bad. Steamed for three hours to a possible landing site on the south of the Island. Meanwhile a lecture from dark horse David Burkitt (who never boasted about any of his exploits), and had spent 4 months living on Elephant Island in 1970 with 13 others on a surveying expedition; great slides and enthusiasm! By 5.40pm a possible landing site was found at Cape Lookout. Got all dressed up and I was in first zodiac, but wind speed increased dramatically, as we were on our way, so we turned back. Getting aboard the ship again in the mounting gale was an adventure in itself! The wind had changed direction by 120 degrees and was blowing a gale -- we obviously were not meant to set foot on Elephant Island. David Burkitt, who had been left ashore by the reconnaissance party to receive the landing party on the beach, now had to be rescued. There was an anxious half hour while the rescue was performed, and in the meantime David had been literally blown off his feet by the wind!

Next stop South Shetland Islands. (Wilson Storm Petrels, Giant Petrels and Weddell Seals) One landing on King George Island (part of South Shetland Islands) at Turtle Point. Through pack ice in the zodiac to get there and visit an Adelie penguin colony. Lots of snow and very cold, actually landing on 1 metre deep ice covering the beach. Some major glaciers cliffs here and a cruise around in the zodiacs, for those who were game. A tower of ice the size of a multi storey car park plunges into the sea and we moved away quickly from the small tidal wave heading in our direction. Adrenalin!
Five hour cruise to Deception Island, where we were to pick up Peter Hall, South African artist (of Antarctic landscapes) who had been dropped off there 17 days ago, when the ship last called there. Deception Island is the caldera of an active volcano and there are thermal springs there--it is possible to bathe (not swim-- only about 4 inches of hot water) there and we were hoping to do this-- I was wearing a bikini underneath in anticipation. Still hours of motoring to go so I listened to a lecture on how albatross fly -- basically Benouli (no idea how to spell!) principle, but they need very strong (Southern Ocean) winds to lift their body weight--simple! At 8.00pm in a blizzard and little visibility we enter the caldera through the very narrow entrance called Neptune’s Bellows and into Whalers Bay. No warm bathe, but we did go ashore at 9.30pm in a 50 knot blizzard. Made our way to the old and abandoned British base, which was partially destroyed and abandoned by an eruption in 1969. Funny looking around old bedrooms and living rooms that had painted blue walls and snow drifts. It’s still day light at 11.20pm, when we leave Deception island, but the blizzard makes it darker.
Peter Hall recounted his experiences to us: he was 17 days ashore in a tent, hoping for complete isolation and time to think and paint. In that time 7 cruise ships call - one with 1000 passengers--it takes 5.5 hours for 1000 passengers to go ashore. We were only 50 passengers. There are a limited number of people allowed ashore at any one time to protect the environment.

We are off to the Antarctic Peninsular and tomorrow I will at last set foot on Antarctica.

Iguazu Falls
The Iguazu Falls are the most stunning falls in South America--some would say the world. Viewed from below the tumbling water is majestically beautiful in its setting of begonias, orchids, ferns and palms. Toucans, flocks of parrots and cacique birds and great dusty swifts dodge in and out along with myriad butterflies (at least 500 different species). Above the impact of the water, upon basalt rock, hovers a perpetual 30m high cloud of mist in which the sun creates blazing rainbows --and if you are lucky enough to do a moonwalk, rainbows by moon light! The falls are the result of the confluence of some 30 rivers (flowing through Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay), which above the falls opens out to a width of 4 km. There are rapids for 3.5km above the 74m precipice over which the water plunges in 275 separate falls, over a frontage of 2,740m at a rate of 1,750 cu m a second (rising to 12,750 cu m in the rainy season). On both sides of the falls there are national parks. Transport between the two is via the Ponte Tanredo Neeves--there is no crossing at the falls themselves. Of course both countries proclaim their side of the falls are the best! But they are not! Argentina is far better--you can spend a whole day doing the different walks and the train and still there would be things left to do another day.

If you stay on the Brazilian side in the hotel das Cataratas you are a captive audience. 8km inside the national park and no walkways/trails (apart from one 1km one to the falls) - it’s not safe apparently to wonder around- wild animals--nowhere to go running! If you are ever lucky enough to get to the falls (and they are wonderful) try and stay at the Sheraton on the Argentine side (I couldn’t get in, it was full). I felt completely trapped on the Brazilian side -internet was UKP5 an hour, there was no little shop (only v expensive jewellery shops), so couldn’t even buy a packet of crisps or a bottle of water (the bottled water in the room was UKP 2!). Fortunately I had two bottles of Argentine Malbec with me--the hotel encouraged you to support the Brazilian wine industry and try a glass, but at UKP5 a glass, I declined and drank my Argentinean wine, which had cost UKP 1.80. I walked to the falls alone on the first night just as the sun was setting--dazzling and then found next day, that my guided tour of the falls was the same walk at I had done last night! Tried to find out from very unfriendly and very unhelpful hotel staff about walks--there are none - you can pay to go in a jeep or a boat, but they said there was the ecological tour at 5.00pm. And there was a "happy Hour" where the "promotional drink" was two for the price of one for half an hour at 6.00pm. Hoped I might meet someone on the ecological tour and share a promotional drink! No such luck! I took the ecological tour alone (with a young girl from the hotel) and it was a dirt track behind the hotel where I saw two large lizards - but I had seen larger round the hotel pool! Hotel staff were particularly useless about the flora and fauna around the hotel -- they didn’t even have a map of the national park area! Each night I walked down to the falls and saw great dusty swifts disappearing into the falls--they just vanish into the cliff of water--they nest behind.

Back to Buenos Aires and relief that internet is only 20 pence an hour! 8.30pm and there is a cacophony of car horns, fireworks, flag waving, people leaking out of car windows and sunroofs, traffic at a standstill. Have they won something? It’s Sunday 12th Dec--is this another (over-the-top) Christmas celebration? What am I witnessing? Just another night in BA? This went on well into the night. I left very early the next morning and never found out. At 4am many roads were closed and I had a nightmare journey to the airport.

Lake District region of Chile
My introduction to the Lake District region of Chile was at Puerto Varas, overlooking Lake Lago Llanquihue. This beauty spot 20km north of Puerto Montt was the southern port for shipping on the lake in the 19th century. The lake covering 56,000 ha is the second largest in Chile. Across the great blue sheet of water I saw, while I was running, two snow capped volcanos, the perfect cone of Orsorno (2,680m) and the shattered cone of Calbuco (2,015m). This was the first and last time I saw these volcanos. I was supposed to do two full days of trekking--climbing Orsorno, walking the "desolation path" etc., but with my guide, Manuel on the first day, we did the whole volcano (in driving rain, wind, snow) in two hours, so then Manuel took me on the second days walk, in the afternoon of the first day. Everyday it poured with rain and I returned to the hotel dripping water all through reception. One day they kindly dried everything in the tumble dryer. I was so glad at this point that I had my Antarctic clothing with me still! I loved it, so much exercise and fresh air. Also went running most days.
One day I did horse back riding to Calbuco volcano, advertised as a ride with great views of the volcano and lake, but of course it rained all day! We stopped for a picnic lunch by a waterfall (70m) and the guide cut massive rhubarb leaves, which he inverted and we wore on our heads as personal umbrellas--very effective. No English horse would be able to do what these horses could do. Up and down very steep and narrow ravines of streams. My instructions were--lean right back going down and lean right forward going up and hang on to the mane (no the reins!), and watch your legs don’t get trapped by boulders! Hanging on like grim death to the mane, because the horse takes the ups (over boulders) as a jump and I was thrown backwards. On the downs --leaning back and stand straight legged in the stirrups--sounds ok until the gully you’re descending is only wide enough for the horse’s girth and not your legs--that’s when you get lots of bruises! I was terrified --there was only one gully considered too steep for the horse, so that we dismounted and led the horses up and down. On the way down you--never let your horse get in front of you--How do you stop a horse getting in front of you? The ride was amazing and very scary--the steep rocky stream beds I would have preferred not to climb myself, let alone lead a horse by hand!
Only one final thing to tell about Puerto Varas and that was white water rafting on the Petrohue river --the blurb says wonderful views of volcanos but you’ve guessed it--it was raining--raining so much that the spray top provided felt like you weren’t wearing it! I froze after the rapids (which were very good) and paddled lots just to keep warm, although there was no need. Welcomed ashore with a pisco sour, my first in Chile, this trip.

Atacama Desert San Pedro De Atacama (altitude 2,436m)
Small town more Spanish-Indian looking than is usual in Chile, crumbling ancient walls. This place is a dirt town - an oasis in the desert, a tiny place of dirt narrow streets you could walk around in ten minutes. It’s all red sand streets and red adobe buildings and walls. Within minutes everything is covered in red dust! My hotel looks like nothing - a few single storey buildings around a red gravel court yard, all in blistering temperatures. A serious cover up job was required so as not get fried and burnt, just crossing the yard from my room to reception. I’m in another desert and it is completely different to the last one. Antarctica is the driest place on earth--here apparently they have rain. Planned day trips and my first one departs at 6.30--it’s a two hour drive to the start of a 15km walk at a height of 4,500m. Good training! The walk is to Monjes de la Pakuna. First stop breakfast overlooking salt plane lake and flamingos shifting the muddy bottom for algae. And it’s cold here at 4,500m. By 9.00am we are dropped off and walking amongst amazing mesa and buttes (think that’s the name for them, but happy to be corrected!)--Volcanic rock monoliths magnificent towers that cooled faster, were more resistant and shaped by desert wind erosion. The walk took us up and down and altitude forced me to take it slowly and there were lots of breaks. The last stretch was two hours towards a salt lake that never seemed to get any nearer. Desperate for a pee, in a landscape completely devoid of rocks or vegetation -- in desperation squatted behind the only clump of cactus grass (0.5m high) and hoped that the heat haze and the distance I’d got ahead of everyone disguised what I was doing! After the salt lake it was a further ¾ hour walk to the bus. The last stop was a lake with thermal pools -- the lake had so many different colour blues, turquoise and white salt against a back drop of different reds, yellow, orange and brown mountains - magnificent!
Tatio’s blistering geyser field was a 4.00am depart from the hotel (owing to the clear atmosphere and isolation - starry, starry night here in the desert) to arrive at 4,500m at sunrise, to walk in the geothermal field and bath in the thermal pools flanked by soaring peaks. At dawn blow holes issue forth powerful spurts of steam while simmering pools of water lie encrusted with colourful mineral deposits. Actually the geysers blow 24 hours a day, but the effect is best at dawn, when the air temperature is the coldest (minus degrees C at this altitude) and the sunlight streams through the columns of steam. This is the second largest geyser field in the world. The Valle de la lune with fantastic landscapes caused by the erosion of salt mountains. The valle is best seen at sunset. First to "Death Valley" or "Mars Valley" because it resembles a red Mars landscape. Looking down onto the amazing rock formations of salt in colours of red, yellow and grey. Initial terror! Nervously took off from the top of the cliff and ran down a very steep and very long dune--where others were preparing to sand board down. It was a first for me and what a feeling of elation on safely reaching the bottom! I had just covered myself in sun cream and so ended up wearing a layer of dark grey sand all over, including a full set (beard and moustache). We progressed to Valle de la lune with requests to our guide to "do that again" (run down a dune). Moon valley is where NASA tested the moon buggies, as the landscape is so inhospitable. Ran down three more dunes, each one seemed to get steeper. Was so filthy and happy. Walked through canyons and caves - all formed by salt erosion and all reds, oranges and yellows and getting redder as the sun went down. Finally to watch the sunset - which was a bit of a disappointment-- in a cloudless sky, so no clouds for the sun to turn red as well. Today was 21st Dec, so the longest day and the sun set at 8.15pm at this latitude.

23rd Dec and I’m in Quito -- took me 24 hours to get here, as had to first return to Santiago and had a 9 hour wait at the airport (only because I was taken to the desert airport so early, that I caught an earlier flight) for my flight to Quito via Panama City (cheapest route). Was really worried about arriving in Quito, but actually it’s a great place with, its altitude at 2,850m, it has a permanent spring climate and it very green with lots of parks, a colonial old city and a very international flavour in the new city. Friend Carol joined me and we spent Christmas there and proceeded to the Galapagos Islands on 27th Dec for a ten day cruise. You’ll have to read the next exciting instalment to find out more a bout the Galapagos Islands..

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