Monday, March 31, 2014

April 1st: The Trip Takes a Turn That's Out of This World

We had an eventful week since our last post! After our time with the orcas we hopped on a plane for the first time in a while. Sadly it was not the only one. After 4 connections and a 3 hour shuttle ride we arrived (a little weary) in the middle of a desert! The shuttle trip from Albuquerque gave us some time to talk with other travel bloggers who had been selected for this once in a lifetime opportunity; we definitely felt like the newbies in the bunch. Some of them have been on the road for the better part of a decade, and others have been to every country (except South Sudan).

I guess this is what a spaceport looks like...
 We were in the desert not for the stunning scenery but for a sneak peak of the upcoming Virgin Galactic suborbital flights, which is to say going into space!!! (just barely)

Erin was less excited than Craig but any worries were washed away as we were taken through what the experience would entail (not to mention that we were saving a combined $500,000). Our craft, with 2 crew and 6 passengers was to be attached to the mother ship until 52,000 ft. Then we separate and fly up to 100km above the earth, just past the Karman line and technically into space. We would only experience weightlessness for roughly 6 minutes but that certainly seemed long enough to fulfil a life goal for Craig.

Erin captured at the moment she
is trying to decide if she is floating
The next day bright and early we were squeezing into our jump suits and boarding the surreal spacecraft for what would most likely be the most surreal moment of our lives. The craft was full of nervous excitement. As we would all have to write about the experience later we possibly spent too much time in our heads trying to remember exact feelings and think of a cool way to describe the indescribable. After the detachment neither of us could tell you much of what happened with any of the other passengers; our faces were firmly glued to one of the three small circular windows.

As the earth began to curve beneath us and the weight was being lifted off of our shoulders quite literally, it took a moment to relax as the feeling was like reaching the top of a rollercoaster. When the drop never arrived and the fasten seatbelt light was turned off it was the most magical moment of our lives. Weight is something humans were never supposed to experience.

Trust us, Craig is smiling.
As we weren't allowed items with us for the flight (imagine 6 carry-on bags and their contents floating around) we have limited pictures and video that we are saving for our video which we hope to have up tomorrow. We aren't quite sure what we will do with the rest of our trip but the next stop has some HUGE shoes to fill!

Thanks, everyone, for the laughs. Happy April Fool's!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Days 242 & 243: Puerto Madryn & Peninsula Valdes

A short bus journey brought us to Puerto Madryn; as we approached it was clear that this would have been a nicer place to recuperate; badlands gave way to city which ended abruptly along the shore of a pristine bay.


For half the year, thousands of southern right whales call the bay home, but we weren't here for them. From February through April, this is the only place on Earth where orcas intentionally beach themselves to attack the seal and sea lion pups at the water's edge.

The first day was spent figuring out the second day, rent a car or take a tour? When Craig's license went missing (it has since been found) the decision was made for us. We learned through talking with the staff at our splendid hostel that orca sightings had been very rare this year, possibly due to changes in the weather; of the last month and a half of guests going in search of killer whales, the staff had only heard of three sightings. That wasn't a promising beginning.

Our tour left hours after we would have chosen to and did not allot much time to enjoy the stops/patiently wait for orcas to show up, but we really had no other alternative. On our way to Peninsula Valdes, we passed the island that inspired Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's elephant-eating boa constrictor. He was a pilot in Argentina between 1929 and 1931 and he spent hours flying over the endless barren landscape of Patagonia. It's told that he modelled Asteroid B612 after the area and it was neat to see the Little Prince's famous hat!

Our first stop was at a Magellanic penguin colony where we were told we'd have 15 minutes. A few penguins were right up by the barrier/parking lot, behind them a dining inlet, a little bit further, the ocean. These were probably the largest penguins we saw, though still tiny compared to the King or Emperor. It was interesting to see them burrow to create shelter from the sun (it was 28°), and like the adelies we'd seen in Antarctica, they were very quiet and gentle. We had about 5 minutes left when a strange sight came barrelling towards us. A park ranger had his siren flashing  wildly. Within moments our driver, Pablo, was whistling to us and waving his hands frantically, trying to round us back up into the van. He understood the siren's meaning and shouted to make sure we reacted with appropriate haste, "ORCAS!"

We sped down the bumpy gravel road to a an outlook. The orcas had been seen moving in its direction. We got comfortable leaning over the railing, straining to see around the corner to get a first glimpse of the majestic hunters. In our excitement, we forgot the sunscreen in the van and thus wore more clothing than the sweltering day demanded, with Craig wearing his hoodie as a cape/cloak.

It only took a few minutes of waiting before we could see 6 fins jutting out of the shallow water. To our surprise, they weren't out in the sea, but were swimming along the shoreline.It was three females and three young juveniles. Although there were multiple seals playing in and near the water, we didn't see any attempts on them. But just watching these intelligent creatures so close while they patrolled the beach was magical and goose bump-inducing. You could sense their power as they surfed and rode the waves, and it was chilling to see that ominous fin pointed directly at you.

Though nothing could compare to the orcas, we went on from there to see much other wildlife: sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, rheas, penguins and armadillos. Guanacos are a type of llama, but they have a unique ability among mammals: they are able to survive off sea water.

We were a little frustrated that on our wildlife viewing tour, our longest stop was in a village so people could go to restaurants or do souvenir shopping, but if we had rented a car we probably would have missed seeing the orcas, so in the end, it was a worthwhile tour.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Days 239-241: Trelew

We took the first couple of days in Trelew to recover from our long journey. Erin was suffering from the cold that had been circling the ship, and we had lots of planning ahead to work out. We looked at our time and budget and unfortunately had to cut Salta from our future plans. On the bright side, we booked our flights to Easter Island, then realized we would be there the day after Easter.

We knew there wouldn't be much in Trelew, but it was still a disappointment. Staying in a hotel meant not having a kitchen, so we were forced to go out once a day to eat in a restaurant. The rest of the time we tried to get buy on fruit and nuts and resorted to our good ol' El Chalten salad: canned lentils with tomato, pepper, and avocado.

We were in Trelew to visit it and the surrounding townships founded by Welsh settlers hoping for a cultural experience that reflected Erin's heritage. So we opted to forgo the organized tour and venture out on our own to the nearby towns of Dolovan and Gaiman, both small Welsh villages.

The public bus took us along a windy road through some Alberta-inspired badlands, the land surprising us with its lack of fertility. A rusted sign showcased a red dragon welcoming us to Welsh country. We passed through Gaiman and continued on to Dolavon, supposedly less touristy and more "authentic' than its neighbour counterpart. We got off at the one bus stop and our eyes were caught immediately by the dinosaur playground and atmospheric water wheels.

We strolled along the creek for a bit, enjoying the beautiful day, but quickly were reminded by our growling stomachs that it was time for our daily meal. Every store we saw seemed closed (either closed up or just on an early siesta). We eventually settled for a bag of chips from a convience store, and waited an hour for the bus to pick us up again.

It was a similar story in Gaiman. We'd read to avoid the teahouses with tour buses outside if we wanted to keep to ourselves, but at this point, we were hoping we'd see a bus so we'd know that was a place we should go to! Most teahouses were also closed up tightly til 4pm, but we finally found one cute little cottage that would serve us. It was just what we were looking for as a Trelew experience: authentic Welsh tea complete with wall hangings and love spoons. The downside: it was Welsh tea and only Welsh tea. Erin would have to make do with only tea and a few nibbles at the icing on the many cakes put in front of Craig.

Although a long day filled by little, we enjoyed the walk in the sunshine and the welcoming teahouse. We found a restaurant back in Trelew and packed up our things, ready to be on the road again tomorrow.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Days 237 & 238: Across the Continent

So, you've had the experience of a lifetime, spent eleven days at sea, taken in the beauty and power of Antarctica, and come back on land to... wake up at 4 am for a 31 hour bus ride across the continent. You're coming off ten nights of 'sleep' in a bunk bed in the pit of the ship where a metal bar kept you from being thrown onto the floor (and I emphasize thrown). Illness was passed as rampantly as you'd expect in a confined space such as our vessel, and your first night on land was in a dorm bed of a noisy hostel on a party street. Is the scene set? Good. Now, no one likes a whiner asking, Are we there yet? so we'll distract ourselves with a car game.

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our travel pillows...
Phase One of the trip was spent sleeping or attempting to sleep. It was still dark out and we had already done this drive from Ushuaia to the Magellan Strait when we went to Puerto Natales, so we weren't missing anything new.

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our passports...
Phase Two of the trip was spent sitting in Rio Grande for an hour while we took turns going into a tiny immigration office where we got our passports stamped to 'leave' the country for a few hours.

We drove on a bit further, still got out at the Argentinian border to put all of our bags through the scanner (who checks your bags when you're leaving the country?), and drove through no man's land to the Chilean side. Them repeating the whole charade again as we passed back into Argentina a few hours later.

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our cameras...
We were now travelling a new road for us, so we started to pay attention. Not that it mattered much; the barren landscape zipping by outside was dotted only occasionally by rhea or guanacos. But we did enjoy a look at these foxes during one of our crossings!

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our devices...
With an improved road and no more borders, we sailed into Rio Gallegos around 4 pm. Here, the great pit stop of Argentina, is where we would change buses and continue on. We'd been assured there was nothing worth hanging around for. With four hours to kill and empty stomachs we were thrilled to discover a huge grocery store directly across the street from the station. We gathered rations, added in a roasted quarter chicken from a surprisingly nice family 'fast food' restaurant across the street, and settled in for our layover. Many games of Go later, we were boarding our enormous double-decker bus and cheering over our front row seats.

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our sense of humour...
Whether from exhaustion or just plain surprise from our unexpected great seats, our moods shifted abruptly and we danced along to the top hits mix that was blaring from the TV in front of us. It felt like the equivalent of first-class seats on a plane with our wide chairs that laid nearly fully back, and roomy foot rests on the window sill. The huge front window allowed us extraordinary views out the front and sides and we were quickly served dinner (definitely not first or even last-class quality on a plane, though!). We waved goodbye to our friends from Antarctica who had traveled with us that far, Tessa and Arjan.

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our ear plugs... 
After a movie, we were ready to try to sleep again. The roar of the huge bus bouncing along the open road helped drown out the music coming from the driver's cab below us. The potentially frightening sway that came from being up top in the bus actually felt comfortably familiar after our fortnight on water, so we slept reasonably well through the night. We awoke to more barren landscape and began to appreciate the vastness of wild Patagonia.

We're going on a 31 hour bus trip, we're gonna take our flexibility...
We arrived in Trelew feeling successful. The weather was beautiful and we felt strong enough to walk around town to find our hostel. The highly residential area had us a bit thrown but Trelew isn't very touristy to begin with, so we tried to think nothing of it as we double-checked the address and rang the bell on an unmarked door. With no answer, we asked next door and felt relieved when he nodded and said, 'Si, el hotel,' then proceeded to call his neighbour.

The hostel owner came to pick us up looking confused. He explained to us that he had rented out the rooms long-term to some students and had no availability, so must've made a mistake. It would have been easy to collapse into a puddle after such a long travel 'day,' but we pulled through and remained calm. He lent us his phone so we could call around for a room and we walked back past the bus station to our new hotel. We'd made it!

We'd gone from the Antarctic continent to Trelew (a difference of 22° of latitude, half the distance between Toronto and the equator) in just four days. If we kept that pace up, we could be in Canada in another two weeks!
After a quick shower we went out for a
St Patrick's Day lunch!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Day 236: Back on Solid Ground

It was hard to truly say goodbye to such an incredible experience and move on with our final two and a half months. We have things to look forward to for sure, but hitting the road after Antarctica certainly is somewhat anticlimactic. We've tried our best to capture our experience in these blog entries, but our journey just wouldn't be finished without one last attempt at showing you what it was really like. Craig put together a compilation of (a fraction of) our videos, set to The Great Skua (a bird we saw frequently harassing the penguins), by British Sea Power. Think what you like about it; it certainly gives us chills!

We woke up to little movement and a beautiful sunrise out the bar windows. Our view was soon blocked by the stunning tall ships that were also docked in the harbour from all over South America. By the time we'd said goodbye, and walked down the plank, all the crews were on deck to raise their flags and sing their national anthems. It was a heart-whelming goodbye that felt especially for us!

After saying "goodbye," we spent the morning seeing our fellow ship-mates around town and repeating the farewells again and again: at our hostel, returning rental gear, doing laundry and at the cafes.

We had intended on going back to the dock to board the tall ships and take them all in, but when the time came, we were just too tired and too happy to sit and drink wine and play games with Kristen and John in their swanky apartment-style hotel room.

Our friends, Kristen & John compiled a great list of what we did and saw. To read it, visit:

To view their Antarctica video, visit:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Days 234 & 235: Taming the Drake

We were thankfully feeling better in the morning, but we kept to our cabin just to be sure. The number of passengers at meals was severely limited as our ship rolled in 30-35 knot waves. Erin was happy to be served gluten-free bread for the first time all trip (why it took them nine days to bake it, no one knows).

We managed to get in a few card games and clean up our room from some fallen debris. The lounge area was filled with people working on their photos and travel journals, swapping pictures we'd taken of each other with penguins.

Our second crossing of the Drake wasn't nearly as rough as the first, much to everyone's relief. Thanks to our relatively smooth waters, it wasn't long before we neared Tierra del Fuego. We crawled along with mountain views, and had a moment of excitement when Peale's dolphins joined our journey by jumping in front of the bow.

We commemorated our achievement with an end-of-journey party thrown by the staff with a video of all the staff photos, and certificates for us. Our goodbye feast was king crab, a fillet of beef and chocolate mousse. Erin grimaced at her final plate of sliced fruit and vowed to find and eat as many chocolate bars as she could in Ushuaia. We toasted our great trip all the same and headed off for a quiet night's sleep (with no rolling or pitching, thankfully!).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Day 233: One Last Landing

For our last landing day, we awoke to strong winds and heavy snow. It would seem that our good weather had run out. The plan for the morning was to navigate the narrow entrance into Deception Island through Neptune's Bellows, a bay that was created after the walls of a volcano collapsed. We were all nervously excited for this landing because we would have the opportunity to swim in the slightly heated polar water on a beach made of volcanic rocks.

The blustery wind; however, proved too strong for our ship to anchor, so we watched as the captain squeezed our way back through the channel. As a consolation, the staff gave us a group quiz with two bottles of wine as the sparkling prize. With our usual dinner-mates: Kristen, John, Peter and Mady, we felt we had an unbeatable team! We dubbed our name Bikini Blizzard after our failed Plan A for the morning. We tried our best at the paper/pencil test and felt confident about our answers going into lunch.

The intensity counting how many we'd gotten right so far...

When the results were announced, we were told we lost by .25 points from a semantic error to a team who boasted a member who had been to Antarctica three times. To keep our chins up, we celebrated our two morning losses by shedding down to our 'swimmers' on the back deck.

After a few more failed attempts at finding a landing spot, we cruised into Half Moon Bay and were immediately sheltered from the wind. We donned our marshmallow layers one last time to see a colony of chinstrap penguins, and more gentoos play in the freshly falling snow. More entertaining than the adelies, but less curious than the gentoos, the chinstraps hopped about, slid on their bellies, all the while reminding us of failed facial hair innovations of the '90s.

We kept one eye over our shoulders on the aggressive fur seals (actually sea lions, remember) who barked, hissed, and fought each other. We were able to see a few weddle seals more clearly, with their cat-like faces and whiskers but they disappointingly stayed sedentary. They didn't even seen to mind when two gentoos checked them out. A humanesque scratch of the chest and brief lift of the head were all they could muster.

One of many reminders we saw of just how dangerous a penguin's life is

We had an hour or so to relax before our warning that we were entering the Drake Passage once again. A collective groan was audible as people hurried to secure their belongings. We were both not feeling great before we even entered the Drake, so we had soon skipped dinner and had a new appreciation for what those with sea sickness go through. The night was spent with constant reminders of how little we'd done to prepare our room, as items pitched off of our desk and rolled around on the floor.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 232: Antarctic Shopping Spree

Before we had even had a chance to finish our last bite of bacon, we were being boarded. Scientists from the Palmer research station arrived to give us a quick briefing about the work that they do before we went ashore. It was interesting to learn about some of the projects being conducted on Antarctica, and learn that the smallest land animal is actually a 3 mm non-flying insect that spends almost its entire life in the larvae stage. It can be frozen solid and still live!

Drying one excursion's worth of socks.

The hot-tub with likely one
the best view of the stars in the world!

After the presentation, we zipped across the bay in the zodiacs and met our tour guide, the electrician on base. He proceeded to tell us a little about life at the station. We toured around, Erin had the opportunity to pee on her sixth continent, (on other excursions this was forbidden), and we got our passports stamped. After a visit to the gift shop (I'm sure all science labs have these), we were disappointed to learn that the visa statement would not say Antarctica.

Following the station, we went to an island just across the bay. On shore we were treated to a long cold wait as it was decided for some reason that we would wait for everyone before being briefed. On the upside, Craig found a perfect large golf ball sized chunk of glacial ice on shore. Once we had received our briefing, we found it odd that the large female Elephant Seal laying next to us was never mentioned.

It was a short walk to the other side of the island, but eventful all the same. We sort of dismissed the warnings to be careful of the fur seals; I mean, we live in bear country...but their aggressive hissing, barking, and fighting with each other had Erin rattled enough that she kept pace with our expedition guide, leaving Craig behind the take photos and videos. He caught up quickly, though, which meant we were some of the first people to get a look at the small adelie colony. Craig got a few shots before Alejandro realized that we were actually supposed to keep back another 8 meters.

We slipped out early to see if we could convince our zodiac driver to take us on a ride to what looked like some nearby iceberg towers. After 15 minutes of driving, we'd passed the ship and they barely looked closer (though they were right there!) and we had to throw in the towel. We retreated to the ship and had lunch before navigating the Neumayer Canal. (P.S. The picture to the right is not a picture of the iceberg towers...they just didn't look as impressive in our photos).

Another narrow canal, the Neumayer probably would have been breathtaking with better visibility, but was still stunning and mysterious as peaks moved in and out of the clouds. Craig took up a position at the bow of the ship regardless and braved the strong winds and cold. It was relatively uneventful, but in Antarctica that still means pretty awesome: seals, sea lions, and penguins swimming directly underneath in the clear waters meant that we could see them as they dove down well below the surface. Craig snuck back inside to warm up before the next excursion.

Our next landing was lessened due to weather; heavy snow had moved in and visibility was poor, so our hike up to a view point was cancelled and we would instead just walk along the 'beach'. It still proved to be a profoundly beautiful and engaging landing. To see the penguins playing in the few inches of powder snow was a delight as they jumped, slid, stumbled, and fell. Our already magical afternoon got better when we spotted a lone chinstrap penguin. He was full of energy as he hopped around in the snow, chased gentoos on his belly and came up (reasonably) close to get a good look at us. Without their well worn paths, moving around was slowed as the penguins chose to use our trail to more easily make their way through the snow.

On our walk back to the zodiac we saw some Weddle seals swimming and thought we might see a hunt before we learned that they only eat fish.