December 08, 2012 GMT
Antarctica - Part 1

Sorry we have skipped ahead with our blog, but because we experienced so much in such a short period of time we wanted to get it down while it was still fresh in our memories. We will do a backtrack/catch-up here is Antarctica Part 1......

Day One Monday 26th November It is the day we leave for Antarctica, we are pretty excited but also a little nervous as neither of us has ever been on a boat trip of this length before and certainly never on waters like the infamous Drake Passage, renowned as the roughest stretch of ocean in the world.

It is raining and overcast when we get up, what are we going to do until our 4.00pm boarding? This problem is solved when Mariano tells us we can stay in the Cabana all day if we like and he will take us to the Port. We pack up the bike and ourselves and leave for down town Ushuaia at 2.00 pm with our beautiful luggage. We left the panniers attached to the bike with our helmets and other bike stuff stored at the Cabana, so we just used reusable shopping bags to carry our gear to the ship, we must have looked like classy passengers!

Our beautiful Louis Vuitton Luggage, lucky we are not on a posh ship.

The bike tucked away in the garden at Ona Shin Cabanas

After lunch and a few beers we head to the port, deal with a very laid back customs and board the beautiful little ship “Polar Pioneer” that is to become our home and haven for the next 10 days.

Boarding the Polar Pioneer

The air of excitement is palpable among our fellow passengers, and the Aurora staff and Russian crew are certainly welcoming. We settle ourselves into our cabin (we have been upgraded to a private cabin with bathroom, woohoo!!) and meet on the bridge to get our first briefing which is a little dubious - the Port is closed due to the extra high winds and there is a storm building out in the Drake Passage, a decision will be made later that night as to whether we will cross or not, that is if we can get out of the Port. No time is wasted though and we have our life boat drill right up front while waiting for the Port to re-open. This was actually quite a bit of fun.

Life Boat Drill

Life Boat Drill

After a fantastic dinner the wind drops a little and we eventually do leave the Port a little later than planned at 8.30 pm and a decision is made just after midnight that we will indeed tackle the Drake Passage tonight. Don our expedition leader tells us to make sure everything in the cabins is put away or batoned down, that seasickness medication is at the ready, it will be an interesting crossing and we should be brave! Oh Shit! He was dead right, storm force winds (higher than gale force) gusting up to 50 knots and what the experienced sailors on board described as “moderate to high seas”, meaning 7 metre waves breaking over the bow with white-water occasionally breaking over the bridge on deck 6. However the staff tell us they have endured much worse conditions especially on the crossings to the South Georgia Islands. At least things weren't flying around the cabins they tell us???? Well maybe, but in our cabin the few things we hadn't secured were thrown on the floor and were rolling all around, the cabin curtains were swinging from vertical to 45 degrees and back again and we could regularly see waves wash past out deck 5 porthole. But I guess it could have been worse?

Day Two Tuesday 27th November 2012 We were tossed around for the next 36 hours, with only a handful of people making breakfast and lunch the next day. Having said that, the staff were fantastic, Dr John making the rounds of the cabins, handing out drugs of all descriptions and bringing people food. Both Skill and I are susceptible to seasickness and were worried about it before we left, but compared to most people we faired OK. We stayed in our bunks for the first day, I managed to make dinner, Skill stayed in his bunk so I brought back some food, which we managed to keep down, just. Moving about the ship, up and down stairs is quite a task in these conditions with both hands definitely required to hold onto the railings. Talk about a baptism of fire!!!!

Day Three Wednesday 28th November That night the rough ride continued, sleep is nigh impossible. If you don't brace yourself in the bunk you slide up, down and around on the bed. I am watching the clock from my bunk, it is 4.07 am as our little ship is being buffeted around on the sea, we seem to be pitching, lurching, rolling,......forwards, backwards, side to side, forwards, backwards, side to side. As I am thinking “Oh My Goodness, what have we done, is this what it's going to be like for the whole journey?”, the Polar Pioneer gives another lurch forwards, backwards, then if by some miracle there is no side to side motion and we seem to be suddenly travelling through much calmer waters.

Later in the morning just as I am leaving the cabin, we get Don's wake up call for the morning “Whales!” As I am only a flight of steps from the bridge I gingerly make my way up on my newly acquired sea legs and get to watch the antics of these majestic creatures. I cannot wipe the smile off my face, I got off pretty lightly on the seasickness front, I am on my way to Antarctica and I have seen whales before breakfast. How did I get to be so lucky????? Skill is not quite so enthused he is still in bed and feeling pretty ordinary, he doesn't make breakfast so that makes 2 days with only a few dried biscuits and small piece of chicken.

After I consume a huge breakfast an action packed day on board emerged, Martin (The ship's photographer) introduced photography to those who can actually take a photo without putting their glove over the front of the lens or having the horizon on a 45 degree angle, I guess I should have listened more intently. We also got our daily housekeeping and routine briefings, how to enter and exit the zodiacs, the all important tagging on/off system, the need for environmental vigilance including the need to vacuum our outer clothing today and disinfect our gumboots daily. Finally we are kitted out with our most important on shore fashion accessories, “The Gumboot”. By this time Skill is feeling a tad better but is still unable to make lunch.

In the early evening we both go to the bar for drinks where there are newly emerged faces, seasickness is well and truly on the decline. We are a diverse group aged from 23 to 70+ from all walks of life and socio economic backgrounds, mainly Aussies and Kiwis, but also Polish, Austrian, Canadian, American, British and Russian. Everyone seems happy and excited, with the prospect of what is to come. We are welcomed by Terry, (Hotel Manager and Barman) Don and Captain Yuri (our Russian Captain). There is a genuine feeling of fondness and mutual respect between the ship's crew and Aurora staff, a feeling of family that seems to pervade the ship. It becomes perfectly obvious from this tall, quietly spoken man that we are in the safest of hands, a very comforting thought as we retire after dinner that night, Skill's first meal in a couple of days.

Day 4 Thursday 29th November Because we have taken so long to cross the Drake Passage in the storm (travelling at a reduced 7 – 8 knots instead of the usual 10 – 12 knots) we are running behind schedule and Don and Captain Yuri are working continually to maximise our time in Antarctica and to allow as many landings as possible, these guys really go the extra mile. Low cloud surrounds the ship and then icebergs slowly appear on the horizon.

Our first Iceberg sighting

Our first Iceberg with penguins on it.

We gather on the bridge patiently waiting for our first glimpse of Antarctica and just after 10.30am Hydruga Rocks emerges through the low cloud. No time is wasted, zodiacs are in the water (manned by all the staff including our resident doctor and the diminutive Maggie - Assistant Tour Manager) and we make our first Antarctica Landing. We will let the photos do the talking

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Our first landing on Hydruga Rocks

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Chinstrap Penguins - The perfect pair.

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Chinstrap Penguin - Hello little fella

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Even more Chinstrap Penguins

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Yep its snowing - Lan sitting in the snow watching penguins

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Poohy Penguins

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Chilled out Penguin

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Left, Right Lone Penguin march

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Gentoo Penguin

After lunch and a short transit, zodiacs are back in calmer waters and we visit Portal Point on the Antarctic continent and cruise around the magnificent icebergs. It is at times like this I have to pinch myself, is this really me here in this indescribably beautiful place. Although these photos are great they do not do this magic place justice.

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Going to Portal Point

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Lan in the Zodiac

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Lan & Skill standing on the Antarctic continent

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Portal Point panorama

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Cruising the Icebergs

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More Iceberg sculptures

Day 5 Friday 30th November After another overnight transit, it is a beautiful morning of calm icy waters and an amazing sky. Zodiacs are once again in the water early and we explore Curverville Island and watch in sheer joy at the antics of the gentoo penguins.

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How we get the zodiacs in the water

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Curverville Island Beauty

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Curverville Island

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Cruising the Icebergs

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Icebergs with icicles

Terry picks up an ice sculpture for the bar. Tasted great in my G&T later that night.

Back on the ship and we spend the afternoon on the bow in near still glorious sunny/overcast conditions as we cruise through the Gerlache Strait, Butler Passage, and the narrow ice packed Lemaire Chanel.

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Gerlache Passage

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Giant Petrel

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Lemaire Channel Entrance

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On the front deck of Polar Pioneer

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Lemaire Channel Reflections

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Ice in the Lemaire Channel

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Cruising the Lemaire Channel, no wonder this place is known as kodak alley

We do a predinner cruise near Petermann Island

Cruising away from Polar Pioneer

Crabeater Seal

Weddell Seal

Then after dinner it is back out in the zodiacs where we land on Petermann Island. These photos are taken at 11.00 pm at night.

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Gentoo Penguins

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What??? More Penguins!

Penguins and Memorial

Abandoned Argentinian Base Hut

Skill and I sit quietly on a rock trying to take it all in. I say to him “You know we have been so lucky to see all the places in the world that we have, but I think that right here, right now is the most beautiful place I have ever seen” He agrees, then our moment of philosophical pondering is over as we realise our feet and hands are frozen. Time to get back to the ship.

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Our sheltering Haven, the beautiful Polar Pioneer

But wait, there's more...... stay tuned for Antarctica Part 2 coming soon!

Posted by John Skillington at 02:35 AM GMT
Antarctica - Part 2

Day 6 Saturday 1st December Yet another overnight transit, and we awake to 10 cm of fresh snow on the front deck of the ship, but by the time we have had breakfast the crew have hosed it off.

Snow on the deck

We are into the zodiacs for a landing on Almirante Brown an Argentinian field base surrounded by nesting gentoo penguins. We do a slow but steady hike up the hill in fresh powder snow, enjoying the views out over the bay, by this time the sun is out and we enjoy the warmth, while in the other direction there are dark clouds looming. Like 5 year olds we play in the snow and bum slide all the way to the bottom.

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Almirante Brown Base - Argentinian (currently unmanned)

Lan being a 5 year old

Back in the zodiacs we cruise around the corner to Paradise Harbour. The water is glassy and absolutely still. Santiago (Aurora's Naturalist) is such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guy that you are swept along in his wake. He turns off the Zodiacs motor and we just sit and enjoy the silence, it is breathtaking. By the time we return to the ship the cloud closes in and it is snowing again.

Weddell Seal - they are not scared of us at all.

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Gentoos, going, going, gone.

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Exploring the glaciers by Zodiac - Glacier doesn't look so big?

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Spot the Zodiac near base of glacier - now it looks big!

Another ship cruise through the beautiful Neumayer Chanel to Port Lockroy, where there are four people stationed during the summer months. Port Lockroy is a British base that is undergoing restoration, it houses a museum and post office.

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Port Lockroy British Penguins saluting the flag

Port Lockroy Museum

Lan at Port Lockroy

We do a quick zodiac ride over to Jougler Point and revel in the beauty and sunshine. It is an amazing feeling to be walking on the frozen ocean.

Jougler Point

Lan and Skill at Jougler Point

Yacht at Jougler Point - crossing the Drake Passage in that would only be for the brave!

Sleepy Weddell Seal enjoying the sun too.

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God this place is just so beautiful. Panarama

Later that afternoon we have the Polar plungers, full immersion in the icy Antarctic waters. We didn't try it, must be old enough to realize it was only for the young, brave and fool-hardy. Some plungers have to wait for the floating ice to clear before taking the plunge from the gangway, but James tops everyone's efforts by jumping from the top deck in the nude, well not entirely nude, he was wearing gumboots and socks!. But it was OK, couldn't see much when he emerged....

That night we have a BBQ on the back deck, we cannot believe the weather, nor can the staff, they keep telling us how lucky we are, days of calm conditions and sunshine are not common in Antarctica and we have got more than our fair share. It is a really bizarre feeling, listening to music, eating fantastic food, drinking glu wein, dressing up in silly hats, in a word partying in this pristine location.

Funny Hats - Lan with Cath and Tony from Newcastle

BBQ on the back deck - that has to be the best background scenery for a party we have ever seen.

The brash ice starts coming in around the ship

More brash ice sets in at sunset about 11 pm.

Next morning, - will we get out? Luckily the Polar Pioneer has an ice strengthened double hull.

I guess I should also mention how lucky we have been with the group of people on this trip, with the exception of one or two more eccentric characters, everyone on board is an experienced independent traveller. We have all mixed really well, young and old alike, it really has been quite extraordinary. Most nights the bar is packed with people, having a few drinks and chatting, meal times are always loud and boisterous, everyone has made an effort to be part of the family. Tim and Kathleen our chefs and the Russian girls do an amazing job with the food which brings everyone together.

That night some hardy souls elect to camp out on the ice but we both decide we paid too much for a warm cabin not to use it and we don't need to say we slept on the ice in Antarctica. Our decision was vindicated when the campers admitted they didn't sleep much anyway in the overnight minus 5 degrees Celsius temperature without a tent and almost 24 hour sunlight. We slept just fine in our warm cabin!

Day 7 Sunday 2nd November We can't believe it, we awake to yet another sunny still day, after breakfast we pull up anchor and it is on to Neko Harbour, It is an absolutely stunning day, I decide that it cannot be any more beautiful on land than it is from the flybridge so stay on board drinking cups of tea revelling in our last day in Antarctica. Skill goes ashore and sits with Gentoo penguins, listening to the creaking, cracking, groaning of the very active glacier. He witnesses a huge piece of glacier calving into the still waters of the harbour causing sizable waves for a few minutes, then all is still again.

On our way to Neko Harbour

Arriving at Neko Harbour

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Another Weddell Seal welcomes us - actually they really could't be bothered whether we we there or not.

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The kayaks in Neko Harbour

We up anchor and journey over to Enterprise Island. The day is so gorgeous, most of us stay out on the front deck and Terry provides us with gallons of hot chocolate with a nip of mint liqueur, absolutely delicious! I now know what I am going to do with the aging Creme de Menthe in the back of the cupboard at home. On arrival at Enterprise Island we get in the zodiacs and go cruising through the brash ice, bumping and clunking our way through. We eventually find the wreck of an old whale factory ship before making our way back to our ship through icebergs and vast amounts of ice.

The old whale factory ship

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Amazing blue hole in the Iceberg

Clear still waters – you can see the icebergs extending to huge depths below the waterline

Skill marooned on floating sea ice

Who needs to go to Egypt - Pyramid Iceberg

Day 8 Monday 3rd November
Yet another transit overnight, we find ourselves in much choppier conditions near Elephant Point on Livingstone Island, part of the South Shetland Islands. The crew first check to make sure there is a suitable landing point and tell us that it will be rough and we will all get wet in the zodiacs, but the beach landing is OK. Amazingly no one flinches, especially not our 70+ lot and everyone makes the 15 minute ride to Elephant Point, so named because of the Elephant seal population. Upon exploring the shore we find 18 trapped elephant seal pups. Because of the very late snow falls this year they had become trapped by walls of frozen snow around them. After a little debate about the rights and wrongs of us interfering with mother nature Santiago initiates the inevitable rescue and we pitch in with ice axes, shovels and hands digging ramps out of the holes. Santiago, James, Tarn, Maggie and Don worked like trojans to get the baby seals out of water-filled ice holes, some of these seals must weigh 80 – 100kg and trying to lift them when wet and struggling must be like wrestling a greased pig.

Elephant seal pup rescue

More seals to rescue

Elephant Seals - so ugly they are kind of cute.

Baby Elephant Seals

Don't cry baby seal

Gentoo walking very carefully around the elephant seals

Lan walking very carefully around the Elephant seals

Antarctic Gull - much larger than the Aus version

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Giant Petrel - with a wingspan of about 2 meters these guys are huge!

Itchy seal - some of their faces look like cartoon charactures.

Big male seals make a racket with their bellowing.

Because we had taken a fair amount of time with the rescue the wind and seas had picked up, the ride back to the ship in the zodiacs was slow and pretty rugged, we were absolutely drenched, and had to have three goes at lining ourselves up with the ship gangway. Getting out of the zodiacs onto the gangway was also very interesting, one minute we are level with the gangway, next we are 2 metres lower, but everyone managed to get on-board with no injuries thanks to our guides and the fabulous Russian crew.

After lunch Dr John appears in the dining room “Who needs drugs?” was the question. Nearly everyone was the reply. Bugger we are heading back into the dreaded Drake Passage. Don tells us it will probably be a “lively and bouncy afternoon and evening but not as bad as first crossing” and it was, but everyone handled it much better this time. I had no seasickness at all, Skill was OK but sleepy from the drugs, he makes dinner but heads to bed early, we are rocking and rolling again. That night I spend a late evening in the bar enjoying a few beers with a great group of people, there are only eight of us and we stay up till about 12.30 in the vain hope we might get sleep later in the evening.

Day 9 Tueday 4th November
Sleep was not an option, it was a reasonably rough night although it did get calmer as the morning went on. Most of the day I spent mooching around, reading, having a few beers in the bar and generally enjoying the company of our fellow passengers. Skill was not seasick but really sleepy from the medication so slept on and off for most of the day. He also had developed a head cold so was not a happy camper. That evening most of us made dinner and afterwards the bar. A pretty laid back day, catching up on sleep, we were all pretty exhausted it had been a non stop action packed 8 days. Not only were there multiple landings everyday, but also lectures, information sessions, and we also had access to the bridge any time we liked. We spent a lot of time up there admiring the way the crew navigate the icy waters and watching the world go by, not to mention the whales, dolphins, penguins, birds and icebergs. It had truly been amazing

Up on the bridge

Day 10 Wednesday 5th November
Another sleepless night for me, I am sure the drugs I was on were uppers, I was like a startled rabbit caught in the headlights. Skill was taking Phenergan so was sleepy but it was still a reasonably broken sleep. It was another quiet day on board in the morning until we got the news that Santiago (who is Argentinian) had negotiated with the Chilean authorities to allow us within 2 nautical miles (about 3.7km) of Cape Horn, a great privilege so were told, usually ships have to stay about 12 nautical miles off shore. We crammed onto the bridge and out of the cloud Cape Horn appeared, a sight I certainly thought I would never see in my lifetime.

Dodgy photo of Cape Horn in the rain and mist

Radar image of Cape Horn as we approached

Later in the day Skill signs up for the engine room tour, it must be a boy thing, the smell of diesel was overpowering as soon as the engine room door was open, I would have been sick so passed up the exciting engine tour opportunity.

Polar Pioneer Engine Room - pic for the boys

After that everyone seemed to be in party mode, the seas flattened out and finally we were back in the Beagle Channel.The bar filled with people and later in the afternoon Captain Yuri came and joined us for final Captain's drinks. After dinner we went downstairs and watched a slide show of photos taken on the voyage, before retiring to the bar for a late night, later for some than others. We anchored in the Beagle Channel for the night so finally had a good nights sleep in calm waters.

Day 11 Thursday 6th November We awake to find ourselves nearly back in Ushuaia, a last breakfast before we disembark, swap emails, say goodbye to new friends and disappear back to our respective lives. It truly has been a remarkable experience, one that we will reflect upon for years to come. We cannot speak highly enough of Aurora Expeditions and their amazing staff. We are so pleased that we made the choice to take an Expedition style cruise on a small ship.

The Aurora Staff

“A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike, and all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” John Steinbeck

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Panarama photo of Paradise Harbour

Posted by John Skillington at 07:14 PM GMT
December 22, 2012 GMT

Blog Backtracking...... our time in Ushuaia before we leave for Antarctica.

We are pretty excited to be in Ushuaia, we have heard so much about this place from our fellow motorcycling friends over the years. We find the Freestyle Hostel with no problems, secure parking out the back after negotiating a building site, throw our gear into the room, for tonight we have to share a dorm room with two Italian ladies but tomorrow we get to move into our own private room. We then head out for a king crab empanada and Quilmes beer. The Hostel is a busy place with many nationalities coming and going. We spend the rest of the day sussing out down town Ushuaia, finding the supermarket, before heading back to the hostel for a few drinks and managing to cook dinner in the hostel kitchen.

View from Hostel

The following day we move into our new room and spend the day chilling out in the upstairs lounge of the hostel, trying to catch up on emails and blogs. We also hunt and gather and discover that empanadas and BBQ sauce go really well together, that evening we fight for a space in the zoo like kitchen, it is a mele. I also share a few gin and tonics with an older Italian lady and proceed to have a 2 hour chat, me in English and her in Italian, surprisingly I think we understood nearly everything that was said. Skill had to intervene a few times with google translator, but I think it was the G & T s that really did the trick.

While the hostel is fine, in fact it is great, we are here for another 10 days and we don't fancy having to stay here and battle for space in the kitchen all that time, so we ride out to Rio Pipo the overland motorcyclists campsite of choice but there is not a sole around and it is bleak. We then go to the tourist office and later look on line at our cheaper cabana options. After that we go for a ride and suss them all out, we finally chance upon Ona Shin Cabanas owned by Mariano and Nancy, little did we know how lucky we were. This little oasis proved to be our home away from home, and Mariano, Nancy and their gorgeous cleaning lady (whose name we never got) could not have been more helpful.

That evening we tried to go to a family run Chilean seafood restaurant (yes I know we are in Argentina) for dinner but were told we would have to reserva, so reserva we did. Oh well Pizza it is instead. We return to the hostel after a fantastic calzone, it is midnight, we are finally getting into the swing of eating late.

The following day we spend all morning trying to find somewhere to do an oil change, in the end Skill gives up and buys some oil, he then heads out to the supermarket to buy a bucket or bowl to drain the old oil into. He returns quickly, very chuffed with himself, he has found some old water bottles in a bin that should do the job.

Skill happy with his bin find

A speedy oil change ensues at the back of the Hostel. After several goes at trying to find a proper place to dispose of the oil and being told to just put it in the bin, we regretfully do.

Oil Change at the back of the Hostel

We head to Chkos restaurant where we enjoy a sumptuous king crab dinner and watch the sunset over the Andes at 10.30 pm.

Phone photo Skill at Chkos Retaurant

On Saturday we get ourselves and the bike packed and at midday we move to our beautiful little Swiss style cabana, it is a glorious day, we settle ourselves in then head off to the Carefour supermarket to shop, the top box is absolutely chock a block. It is so nice to have our own space, our own kitchen and our own fridge. The first thing I do is fill the ice cube trays, yay finally G & Ts with ice. It is such a beautiful day we proceed to sit in the sun and have a few wines. Our life is pretty much perfecto.

Skill drinking red wine outside our Cabana

Our red wine of choice costs less than $2.00 AUD

View from our bedroom window

To be honest our time in Ushuaia goes quickly, people say what did you do for nearly two weeks, in a word not too much we seem to be very good at filling our days with doing very little. We wander down into the town each day (it is about a 20 minute walk), walk around the harbour watching the myriad of cruise boats come and go.

Boats in the Harbour

Lan and Skill at the Harbour

Then hunt and gather at the supermarkets on the way home.

Going to the Supermarket

Coming home from the Supermarket

One morning a couple of days after we move into the Cabana I wake up and look out the window (I can see the mountains without lifting my head off the pillow) to see that we have had a considerable snow fall over night. After breakfast we wander into town in the sleet and snow.

We have had a fair amount of snow overnight

Coming home from the Supermarket after the snowfall (Compare this to a couple of photos above to see how much snow we had)

A cold and windy day in Ushuaia

Down town Ushuaia, the weather is cold.

From then on in the weather takes a turn for the worse and most days we have rain, sleet or snow, sometimes a combination of all three, and there is always the wind ranging from a gentle breeze to gusty cyclonic conditions. I am so glad we didn't camp.

On one day we head to the Museo Maratimo which is located in an old prision that held up to 700 inmates in 380 small, cold cells. Many of Ushuaia's first non indigenous inhabitants were convicts. Many similarities with Port Arthur. This prison was not the original and housed criminals and political dissidents up until the 1950s. (I think) The museum was a hotchpotch of Ushuaia's history but interesting none the less.

Lan talking to some pretty notorious inmates

After nearly two months of Argentinian food we are hanging out for something with a few more vegetables in it. On one occasion it takes us three days and three supermarkets to hunt down enough ingredients to make Burritos (couldn't find flat bread had to make do with pocket bread) but we are eventually successful, even finding plain natural yoghurt is a challenge.

Yay Burritos for tea

One day while out having our daily hot chocolate at Laguna Negra -our cafe of choice- Skill spies this notice in the window.

Motorcyle Rally Poster

When we get back to the cabana he does a bit of a search and emails the organiser (with the help of google translator) who insists that we must join them at the meeting which will be held at the airport. The weekend of the rally arrives (we are still in two minds as to whether we should go) and we decide we will go for a quiet ride out to the National Park, we must pass at least 100 bikes on our way out, and when we return to refuel at the YPF service station two local motorcyclists accost us and insist that we must join them and show us the way to the meeting. We are pleased they did as we would have had a bit of trouble finding it as it was at the old airport.

We had a lovely weekend with these guys and although our Spanish is still hopeless and very little English was spoken we still felt very welcomed. We thank them for their hospitality. On the Saturday afternoon we had official photographs on the runway at the airport and then a police escorted ride through the streets of Ushuaia before parking up in the middle of town, there were probably about 200 bikes of all sizes, types, and makes. The riders aged from 4 to 80+. Later in the evening we venture back to the airport for an Asado dinner, slide shows and a local entertainer who was pretty damned good. We leave early at 1.00am.

The ride onto the runway

Lan and Skill at the motorcycle rally

Bikes, bikes everywhere

The bikes assemble on the runway

Our Police Escorts

We assemble in the main street

The next day we meet at 10.00 and it is off for more police escorted rides up to the glacier and then out into the surrounding countryside before another asado lunch. We decide we need to leave the meeting early so we can get back to the Cabana to sort out our gear and the bike before we leave for Antarctica tomorrow. We do eventually get ourselves sorted out and that night as I go to sleep listening to the rain on the roof and wind through the trees I wonder what we will do with ourselves till 4.00 pm tomorrow. Oh well I am sure we will think of something.

Posted by John Skillington at 10:27 PM GMT
December 25, 2012 GMT
North to El Chalten

We sadly leave Ushuaia after nearly a month. Long sad goodbyes to Nancy and Mariano then it is onto the bike. It is cold and rainy, we then have to queue for fuel at the YPF, as the two previous service stations are out of fuel.

It is a pretty miserable ride up over the Garibaldi Pass where the rain turns to sleet and the temperature is down to 0 degrees. Once we are over the other side conditions improve and we have our picnic lunch in the sun beside yet another pretty river, As we approach Rio Grande it gets windier and windier After doing a bit of internet research before leaving Ushuaia we have an accommodation option at Ruta 40 B&B run by Willy a fellow biker and traveller. We find it easily, what a great place to stay, Willy is a lovely guy who gives us run of the house including the kitchen. Later in evening Dutch cyclist Zoost arrived beaten by the wind on a lesser known Pass into Chile, he has decided to take the more travelled route, Ruta 40.

Next day we wake late to roaring winds, we decide not to make a move and stay put. A lazy day ensues chatting with Willy, the wind dies down a little in the afternoon and Zoost decides he will ride towards San Sebastian. We go for a walk and hunt and gather for a curry dinner. That night Willy joins us for dinner as Indian curry is something new for him! Willy has a myriad of friends and family coming and going, it is lovely to be in a family home again.

We leave Rio Grande in windy conditions, but we fair OK and I am not fazed by it at all, maybe I am just getting used to it. Skill and I both laugh saying we have been leaning to the right so much on the way South, it is now difficult to lean to the left, I am sure my seat has a permanent dip in it on the left side. We cross the border out of Argentina.

Border crossing at San Sebastian, Argentina

“It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, the lads are starting to put up a wire Christmas tree at the San Sebastian Border

Next we cross back into Chile and stop in the middle of nowhere at this cute restaurant for lunch.

Restaurant just after the border crossing into Chile

And we continue on, the wind has eased off and it is a lovely, but cold ride across Tierra del Fuego to Porvenir. We find the Hotel Espana, and just get the gear off the bike before it starts to rain. Later in the afternoon we go for a walk, they are obviously a bit twitchy about Tsunamis and with good reason I should imagine. I hope our hotel is above the evacuation zone?????

Tsunami Signs in Porvenir

Tsunami Signs in Porvenir

The town is tiny and there is nothing much open only the Panaderia, so we buy empanadas (pastries with savory fillings) and eat in our room.

Next day we can't catch the ferry until 2.00pm so we check out the highlights of Porvenir which takes less than 30 minutes but it was nice to be out and about.


They have an affinity with concrete animals in Porvenir, not sure what a Polar Bear is doing in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps it is an oversized Labrador????

It's a giant swan

Which way does the prevailing wind come from?

It's beginning to look like Christmas here too!

Down to the ferry stop where there is a myriad of international travellers, a young Belgian couple hitchhiking there way around South America for 7 months, a French couple who now live in Ecuador and are scouting for travel destinations for their motorcycle touring business, Peter (Peter on the Road) a German driving a huge Mercedes Benz motorhome truck, and finally an English couple riding GS1200s, Iona and Stewart.

Waiting for the Ferry

We eventually load up and the bikes are tied down before we adjourn inside with Iona and Stewart, the three hour crossing goes very quickly as we chat with the guys. We arrive in Punta Arenas, leave the ferry, find some extremely expensive accommodation and go out for drinks and dinner with the Brits, as we are back in Chile we have a great seafood dinner and some Calafate Pisco sours. As it is only 2 days before Skills birthday it was a nice treat and we really enjoyed their company.

We leave Punta Arenas as it is not the most inspiring place in the world and ride in calm conditions towards Puerto Natales, it starts to look rainy so we stop to put on our wet weather gear. Just as we are about to head off again a travellers bike pulls in, it is Nick who we met at John and Annettes. An hour long chat ensues, we get info on Ruta 40 condition and fuel availability and Nick gets info on accommodation, border crossings and ferry times. This is the great part about meeting up with travellers, there is always information to be shared. Just as we are about to head off, Peter in the large motorhome pulls in to check we are all OK, we are so he heads off leaving the bikers to continue our road-side discussions.

A roadside chat with Nick

We eventually get going and continue on, the wind starts to pick up and the last half hour into Puerto Natales is challenging but not even close to the conditions we endured on the way South. We have a recommendation for accommodation in this little town and find it easily, while it is pretty basic and even a little dodgy, it is clean, cheap and cheerful and run by a local family with 2 small children, and it has secure parking for the bike.

Arriving in Puerto Natales

There is the usual myriad of cyclists, backpackers, travellers and locals, we stay overnight and next day walk the town checking out this cute little place and organising our goods and chattels and food for our visit to Torres del Paine National Park. Overnight the conditions take a turn for the worse, it is cold, rainy and blowy so we decide that as it is Skill's 50th Birthday we will stay put, it is a lazy day spent indoors with pisco sours and cashew nuts instead of a birthday cake. We also watch Josefina, Grandma, Lily and Martina decorate the Xmas tree. Later in the evening we visit a groovy little cervezeria with Tex Mex for dinner. All in all a pretty cruisy day.

Skill's 50th Birthday

Decorating the Christamas Tree at Martina's House Hostel

Next day it is a fairly clear day so we make a break for Torres del Paine National Park armed with our food, drinks and camping gear. We refuel at the Copec and off we go, we get about 30 km out of town when we stop to check the chain oiler, it is at this point the bike decides it is not going to idle and is coughing and spluttering, after stopping and starting it a few times and revving it for a few minutes the problem abates and we continue on, very weird. The ride is glorious, even though there is a bit of loose rolly ripio. There are guanaco babies everywhere, towering mountains and aqua coloured lakes, the sun is out, there is no wind, it is simply stunning.

The ride into Torres del Paine

We enter the National Park and camp at Las Torres beneath the snow capped jagged towers, it is glorious scenery and the sun is out, we just chill back and have a few glasses of red wine before chicken and pasta for dinner. We go for an hours twilight walk before hitting the hay at 11.00pm.

Skill having chicken soup for lunch

Next day we have a slow start before organising our back packs and heading out on the Mirador las Torres Walk.

Skill crossing the first bridge

Lan looking a tad weary

The walk takes you 9.5 km and over 800 m ascent, I bailed out at the first refugio at about a height of .450 metres, because I am basically lazy and unfit, and besides I had caught Skill's head cold and was not feeling that great. It was a beautiful sunny day, in fact it was bloody hot, I even got sunburnt. Skill decided to continue on enjoying a day on his own, and I sauntered back down to the camp. He tells me the view from the Mirador (view point) was spectacular, but concedes he had underestimated the climb and over estimated his fitness - so he was now totally shattered! An early dinner and that night we both slept pretty well.

Another bridge to cross

The scenery changes to beautiful forests

The infamous Towers in full glory

Torres panorama 2.jpg
Torres del Paine panorama

The following day we packed up and decided that we would do the dirt (ripio) loop back to Puerto Natales as we could not get fuel in Cerro Castillo so didn't have enough fuel to cross the border at Cancha Carrera back into Chile.

Leaving Torres Campground (Bridge)

Stopped to admire the peaks

What a magic place.

My videoing skills from the back of the bike still need refining especially on the corregations but check out this link. It was a stunning ride.

Not a bad place for a lunch stop?????

We arrive in Puerto Natales, refuel and head back to Martinas House Hostel, park the bike and get a room. All too easy. A quick bit of washing before we head out for the best Pizza Dinner since our arrival in South America.

A new day dawns and we say goodbye to Josefina and family again, then it is off towards El Calafate and another border crossing out of Chile at Dorotea and back into Argentina at Rio Turbio.

Yet another border crossing, back into Argentina

Once again the wind Gods are being kind and it is a beautiful calm day. We arrive at Tapi Aike where we need to get fuel if we want to take the ripio shortcut to El Calafate. They are closed for siesta at 12.00 and will reopen at 1.30pm, it is now 1.00pm. We have our lunch and a cup of tea, and just as we are finishing up the generator fires up and a guy appears to man the pumps.

The fuel stop at Tapi Aike

The 60 km ripio shortcut is slow as it's covered in deep rolly river gravel but gets a little better after the first 30km, and we arive back on the sealed road a little shaken up but all good. Onwards to El Calafate where we try a few accommodation options before deciding on the campground at Camp Ovejero. There are 4 other German travellers all on bikes and an assortment of cyclists of all different nationalities.

Drinks at the Campground Ovejero (sorry it's blurry could have been our state of mind)

That night the wind picks up and howls all night continually buffeting the tent and blowing dirt everywhere, when we get out of bed in the morning there is grit everywhere and the willow and poplar tree branches are carpeting the whole camp ground. I am still not feeling very well (aka Princess, apparently) and Skill valiantly decides we should get some accommodation, the wind dies down a bit and we get the bike packed up before heading to the tourist office to get a list of hostels with parking. We end up at a really unusual place, a motel room attached to a hostel that gives us access to the kitchen, it is clean, well the room but not the kitchen, and reasonably priced. We have a shower, make breakfast at 11.30 and I go to bed for the rest of the day. That seemed to do the trick, as when we go out later in the evening I am feeling great. A chicken and pasta dinner at a cheap and cheerful place, a few beers and all is right in the world.

We awake to sunshine so decide we will head out to the glacier, we gather our picnic lunch together and take a beautiful 80km ride to the Moreno Glacier.

Once again the pictures do the talking.

Lan at Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Moreno Glacier panorama 2.jpg
Panorama of Perito Moreno Glacier

I had just started the video when this happened, check out the link.

We leave at about 4.30pm and artfully dodge lots of rain storms to arrive back El Calafate without getting wet. We park the bike and unload our gear just before it dumps down, it is very wet outdoors, so wet in fact that the gutters are all banked up and water is up over the footpaths. Glad we aren't camping tonight.

Well as the weather predicted we have strong winds and sunshine in the morning. I talk Skill into staying for another day, we get ourselves organised, do some washing and get some emails done.

Washing time

Just after lunch as I am sitting in a protected spot out of the wind reading my book, the temperature suddenly drops and next thing it is snowing/sleeting but the sun is also out. I don't know how this is possible but it is. By this time it is really, really cold, time for indoors and a cup of tea. We head out for a few drinks and an early dinner (9.30pm) before calling it a day.

We awake to a lovely day and head towards El Chalten in beautiful still conditions despite what the road sign warning says. It makes so much difference to the ride when there is no wind.

Must get windy here!!!!

We stop to take some photos of the Glacier Viedma (I think) and Lake Viedma and run into Georg, a Swiss traveller who has been on the road for 10 months. After a chat it is another 100 km to our lunch stop.

Georg, a Swiss traveller

On the way to El Chalten

Lunch stop outside El Chalten

On arriving in El Chalten we find the fuel station, tourist office and finally a hostel. They arrange parking for us tucked away in an alcove, as chance would have it we are next to another Aussie (NSW) registered V-Strom 650. The owners are away on a trek so we are told. I guess we will meet them on their return.

The hostel is a huge place with the biggest rooms I have ever seen, more like a suite, in the end we decide we are going to stay here till Christmas, as it is a gorgeous place if a little on the expensive side. However from here we tackle Ruta 40 to Perito Moreno (nearly all gravel road - ie; ripio) where there are mostly uninspiring towns, limited fuel stops and we are not sure what will close for the Christmas period. So all in all much nicer to stay here.

Now let me fill you in on this little place where we spent the Festive Season, it is right on the Argentinian/Chilean border and it was only built in 1985 as an outpost against Chilean encroachment. It has now become a major tourist destination for trekkers. It is nestled at the confluence of 2 rivers and from our hotel you can see (when not shrouded in mist rain or snow) the absolutely beautiful granite spires of Mount FitzRoy (3045m) and Cerro Torre (3102m). Although it is highly touristed it is a bit like going to a very small Australian country town as far as faciilities go, yesterday we had to go to 3 little shops to get enough food to make dinner, there is one ATM, a dodgy fuel station and there is no mobile phone reception, but it does have satellite internet. The town is powered by diesel generators. Having said that there are about 80 different accommodation places, lots of little restaurants and even a micro brewery.

Our first day in El Chalten is spent walking the streets of this thriving metropolis. We hunt and gather at the 3 little shops, tomatoes and red wine at one, chicken at another and biscuits at the last one, it is like a treasure hunt. You can't plan what you will have for dinner, it is a matter of making do and improvising. That night it rains quite heavily but surprisingly there is no wind.

Welcome to El Chalten

More awesome towers

The following day we go for a walk around the streets and along the river. Just after lunch James and Michelle (the hiking V Strom owners from NSW) make an appearance and we spend the afternoon chatting and comparing notes. They are a lovely young couple who have been in South America for 7 months and will continue up through Central America. In the afternoon we take both bikes out and ride to the end of the road where the ferry boat takes hikers across the Lake to Chile where they continue on to O'Higgins. It is an absolutely beautiful afternoon, a stunning ride on the one of the most scenicly beautiful roads we have encountered. We arrive back at the hostel after 8.00pm, cook dinner and look out at the most spectacular scenery. Still not a breath of wind.

Michelle & James on the ride out to Lago del Desierto

Lago del Desierto (I think)

The ride out to Lago del Desierto

The ride out to Lago del Desierto

It is Christmas Eve, what to do, well those of you who know Skill well, will laugh when I say we went on a trek, admittedly it wasn't up to his usual scrub bashing, rock hopping, exhausting 7 hour adventures. We took a leisurely 3 hour hike up to a couple of lookouts quite near town, once again it was a breathtakingly beautiful day, but not all of those illusive peaks would show themselves.

El Chalten panorama.jpg
Panorama of El Chalten

Lago Viedma panorama.jpg
Rain sweeping in over the mountains towards Lago Viedma - panorama

We wander back into town, have pizza and a Quilmes beer for lunch at 4.00pm, which now seems to be our standard lunchtime, revisit the three mini mercados and luck in as the trucks have been today and the shops are full. I think we will be able to manage a roast chicken and vege Christmas lunch. On our way back to the hostel we pass the microbrewery and decide we should check it out. And still no wind. The locals are gob smacked, there has been no wind for 5 days in a row, apparently this never happens. It has been the most stunning day, in fact we got sunburnt on our hike. At midnight crackers and a few fireworks go off along the main street, welcoming Christmas Day. Feliz Navidad.

Christmas day dawns with glorious sunshine and still no wind!!!! We exchange our ever practical gifts. A new belt for me (my old one broke) and new wool socks and thin gloves for Skill. He now has to ditch a pair of old socks.

New socks and gloves for SKill

A sunburnt Lan with her new belt

After a late breakfast we sit outside in the sun and have a few beer (it is Xmas day after all) and then venture inside to cook our roast chicken dinner, all in all it was pretty good. After our late lunch we go for a walk, the mountains are stunning and have fully revealed themselves. Skill decides he will do a longer hike up to Mirrador del Fitz Roy and I go for a walk out to the National Park Office where I sit and ogle the fully visible Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. The word awesome is often overused but ever so accurately describes these two peaks. I then venture for a hike along the river. Skill's hike is about 10 km and a 400 m ascent, so quite a bit easier than the Torres del Paine track, but still quite strenuous for Christmas afternoon.

Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre finally reveal their peaks

Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre finally reveal their peaks

Our Christmas Day concludes at midnight with a few wines and the knowledge that it has been a very special unforgettable Christmas. The weather has been incredibly kind to us.

Tomorrow we tackle one of the more difficult parts of the infamous Ruta 40 heading North.

Posted by John Skillington at 05:40 PM GMT

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