How many times in the last couple of weeks have we had to explain that polar bears are in the north and not the south? And usually this has been the next question after “why would anyone want to go to Antarctica- there’s nothing there?” !!! But for us this is the beginning of the trip of a lifetime and an opportunity to further indulge our passion for wilderness, wildlife and photography.
We started talking to Simon at Antarctica Bound two years ago (I’m convinced he’ll be breathing a sigh of relief when he knows we are finally on the way…!) and the advice and help he has given, not to say the patience,has been amazing.
We knew exactly what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go – and we also knew what we didn’t want included. We set Simon the challenge of finding the right tour for us. At first he didn’t think it would be possible to find one tour that would cover everything we wanted and we thought we might have to do two tours back to back.
July 2013 – Simon phones to say he thinks he’s found the trip foru s….. Quark’s EpicAntarctica: Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Circle – and it is perfect. Everything we wanted and almost nothing on our ‘no’ list.
So, we booked. Almost exactly seventeen months have gone by since then and our adventure to Antarctica is now less than a day away! We didn’t waste the time since booking, making sure we would have the right camera equipment,right clothing, bags, and everything else you can think of for a month long trip.
And then we started reading blogs, trip reports and got totally confused!! How many pairs of socks is the right amount? Which lens will really be the best for taking Emperor Penguins up close? Camping washing line or not?
Over the last week we have been forced to consider the final selection. At the moment our spare bedroom is covered by all of the things we think we’d like to take. No way is it all going to fit in,either into the luggage or the weight restrictions. (We are NOT taking the cat – although she seems to think that if she hides in the clothes she might come too!).
This trip really is an epic adventure for us. Having got married earlier this year,this is our delayed honeymoon and “big birthdays” event all rolled into one. The time has flown by and now it is here. I guess we’ll find out if we got it right when we get there. And we’ll be sure to share the highs (and any lows). Just one more day to find the final items and get it all packed.
R&R – READING AND RECOVERY
Although the major part of our trip is the Quark cruise, we decided to add a few days of R& R and to get acclimatized. Plus we had heard from a number of people that Aerolineas Argentinas could sometimes be a little ‘delayed’ and that it would be better to ensure arriving at Ushuaia in time for the ship to leave at the very least!
Hence we find ourselves in Buenos Aires for three days. Acclimatising is, in the circumstances, an interesting concept- for the time zone it is perfect, Argentina and the Antarctic are three hours behind the UK. Not a huge difference, but enough to cause some confusion to the brain at bedtime. And so spending a couple of days getting into the right time zone is helpful. As for the climate nothing could be further from what we expect to face next week.
At the moment Buenos Aires is in 30 degrees of heat and somewhat humid….having packed for the ice, most of our clothes are at the very least ‘inappropriate’! However, we have managed to put on the thinnest trousers and t-shirts we bought with us and have been managing.
We have based ourselves in the Hotel Madero, which is situated on the waterfront and makes sightseeing of the important buildings easy enough on foot. Everything here is on a huge scale. From eight lane roads to enormous buildings.
We took in the major sights this morning and had an enjoyable lunch in a traditional Argentinian bar. The biggest challenge has been the currency conversion. We brought dollars and so have to work through the Peso to dollar to pound exchange rates to work out how much anything costs.
There are also three different exchange rates for the Peso: the official rate (at banks and in the hotels currently around 8.3 to the dollar) the blue market rate (we paid in the bar/café with dollars and got a rate of around 10 to the dollar) and the black market rate (around all the major tourist attractions and the shopping centres, people on the street offer “cambio” and will change dollars at around 13 Peso to the dollar). All rather strange and confusing – but the prices are around the same as (or slightly cheaper than) London for food and drinks.
This opportunity prior to the cruise has given us the time to catch up on reading about the trip itself. We can now truly identify a chin strap from a Macaroni penguin and have discussed the various merits of using the monopod as a walking aid, underwater camera pole (saves getting your hands wet and cold) or for actually balancing the camera!
Argentina boasts some of the best beef in the world and hopefully we will be able to report the truth of this statement after dinner tonight!
USHUAIA – THE END OF THE WORLD (Well, not quite)
We packed up and left Buenos Aires with some excitement and a little trepidation. Although we knew that the checked luggage would come in under the weight limit the hand luggage with the cameras was well over. We had read other blogs before leaving the UK which said that there was no problem at the airport, but you just never know do you?
Making the hand luggage look as small and light as possible we did get through the airport fine – and the checks at security were cursory to say the least. The flight was on the ´interesting´ side, pretty bumpy but the views were spectacular. Coming through the clouds on the descent into Ushuaia with mountains covered in snow just outside the window and flying over the bay with the town (the last city at the end of the world – although I think that Chile claims the same title!) spread out below was quite breathtaking.
The flight touched down at 19.00 and by the time we had collected baggage, found the transfer and made it to the hotel it was around 20.30 – but it seemed like early afternoon….the sun was still high in the sky and it was broad daylight. Fortunately the hotel has blackout curtains – it was still light at 23.30 when we switched out the lights in the room!
Ushuaia itself is best described as an outpost. With one main street filled with shops providing everything from outdoor clothing (just in case you forgot anything) to penguins in every shape size and form (stuffed toys of course, but in chocolate, stone, soap etc etc) and a variety of cafes and restaurants. To one side of the main street is the sea and the busy port with small and large ships arriving and departing, and inland towards the mountains is the residential district with house in many colours.
Finally, it is sinking in that tomorrow we will be leaving on the Sea Adventurer and will have a cabin as our home for the next twenty three days. Arriving in Ushuaia to see the snow covered mountains and the drop in temperature of nearly twenty degrees makes it all much more real!
So far we have only discovered two important items that we left behind…..a South American adaptor – we have adaptors for every other type of socket worldwide – but not for here! I´d certainly advise that if you make this trip and spend any time in Buenos Aires or Ushuaia you make sure you have the right adaptor. And today we realized that a bottle stopper would have been really handy! Since this trip is going to mean that we are on board for Christmas and New Year we are taking a couple of bottles of bubbly with us (bought in the very helpful supermarket at the end of the main street). Neither of us are big drinkers and so to protect the remains of the bottle from spillage and to maintain the bubbles, a stopper would have been ideal!! I guess we´ll have to make the most of it and drink it all in one go!
Some of the people who arrived on our flight yesterday are leaving this afternoon on Quark´s sister ship Sea Spirit. They have been waiting patiently in the hotel lounge and we have a taste of what we´ll be doing tomorrow. We plan to take a walk along the sea front to watch the departure and prepare for our own adventure to continue tomorrow.
PRE-BOARDING – THE EXCITEMENT BUILDS
Remember to book early!
Finally last night we met our fellow travellers. Quark held a meeting in the hotel to give us information about embarkation and what to do with our luggage. As we expected the majority of the others are Americans, followed by a good percentage of Australians and then British with a few other nationalities.
The explanation of what will happen is simple and then we reaped the benefits for having booked over a year ago…an upgraded cabin!! Turns out that Quark move people round the ship (at first we were slightly panicked by this as we had spent some considerable time pouring over the cabin plans, dimensions and configurations and choosing the one that we thought would suit our needs best), to provide for late bookings. We didn´t stop to ask any questions, but gratefully accepted the move from the lower deck (one porthole cabin) to the main deck (picture window cabin). This means we´ll get a better view of the waves crashing on the ship during the Drake Passage crossing!! And hopefully some great iceberg views too.
Somewhat frustratingly today we have to wait around for embarkation time. Check out at the hotel is 10.00 and meeting to transfer to the ship doesn’t take place until 15.30 – this means there are around 80 people wondering what to do (take a late breakfast). Those who only arrived last night take the opportunity to wander round town and do last minute shopping. But taking hand luggage around for the rest of the day (remember how heavy our camera bags are?!) isn´t really a viable option. So we found a space in the hotel lounge and hunkered down for the duration.
This delay is understandable since the ship only arrived in port this morning and is due to leave tonight. Between times the crew has to prepare for the new set of guests. But still it is a challenge to see the ship in the port and contain the excitement of setting off.
Between reading the Kindle, playing cards and rechecking the cameras for the hundredth time we´re keeping the excitement under control. Hopefully our next report will be from the ship under sail.
LIFE ON BOARD SEA ADVENTURER – THE NEED TO KNOW BIT
Cabins are well appointed and larger than we expected and from the pictures we had seen. Beds are very comfortable and the room temperature can be adjusted to suit individual requirements. The small en suite bathroom is compact, but provides an excellent shower with a toilet and wash hand basin. There is really no need to bring shower gel or shampoo as those that are provided are perfectly adequate and smell just fine. It might be worth bringing a very small amount of a shampoo and shower gel you really like for a weekly ‘treat’. And, if you like to use one, bear in mind there is no conditioner provided separately. But there is a hair drier….I’m not vain, but with the need to be prepared to go on deck at a moment’s notice to see the wildlife, it’s certainly a benefit to be able to dry your hair quickly rather than risk going out with wet hair into a very cold environment!
There is enough cupboard space for clothing items and an area which accommodates boots and parkas away from other clothes so that they can dry without making everything else wet. There are also drawers and shelf space and a small desk, so room for all the ‘other’ items you need to bring. It is worth spending a little time planning where to put things when you arrive both to make them accessible in case of needing to get on deck quickly but also to stop them flying around during rough seas.
There’s an open door policy on the ship. This means that no one is able to lock the door of the cabin. This is for safety reasons and has not been an issue. A safe is provided for the protection of your valuables.
Each cabin has a steward allocated for the whole voyage. This amazing person (whom we have yet to actually see) comes in every morning to make the beds, clean, restock the bathroom and take away any laundry. In the evening they come again to provide a turn down service. Gerry, our steward, has been superb. Whenever there have been items left on the beds and he has been in to make up the cabin, every single item has been put back exactly where it was left.
There are enough sockets, but bear in mind they are European type. We have found it helpful to bring a 4 way trailing gang to enable us to charge up multiple batteries and use the laptop at the same time.
Each cabin also has a phone which allows you to reach reception and other areas of the ship in case of emergency. You can also purchase a phone card for making calls home. We will be testing this out on Christmas Day to see if the family is having a good time back home!
The cabin also has a TV – this is primarily to provide the daily programme and anything you need to know about landings on shore. It also enables you to watch the educational lectures provided by the expedition team from the comfort of your cabin. Each day there is also a video shown.
Each day on board has its routine, mainly timed around meal times and activities. Everything you need to know is shown on the TV screen in the cabin and posted on notice boards round the ship. Most things are discretionary (except for the safety briefings).
Meal times don’t vary much except for when the weather or onshore activities dictate. There is plenty of food all of excellent quality and, except for dinner, served in buffet style. The restaurant is free seating which means you can choose who to sit with each meal time – a great way to get to know fellow travellers without finding yourself stuck at the same table every meal.
Outside official meal times there is a coffee and tea station available 24/7 and snacks and cookies if you find yourself hungry at any time.
Each day there is a briefing meeting to find out what has been seen during the day, and an update on what is likely to happen the next day. Additionally, the expedition team put on lectures about different aspects of wildlife, birdlife, geology, history etc.
Landings can take several forms and are timed to ensure everyone has ample opportunity to experience the area.
Outside of meals and activities, time aboard is your own. There is an excellent library, a lounge and, of course, all the decks to spend time watching for birds and sea mammals such as Peale’s Dolphins and the ubiquitous Great Petrels, not forgetting some sunsets (before you get too far south).
Internet is available from two Wi-fi areas on the ship. There are two options, one for an email only account and the second to purchase megabytes of data. The second is relatively expensive. To access emails only, you need to purchase an ‘account’ (at $30) but this lasts for the whole voyage, so arguably if you are going to take advantage of this it is better to purchase it as early into the trip as possible. The email account does not allow the attachment of any documents and so can’t be used to send pictures home.
There is an onboard shop which is open infrequently, and stocks souvenirs, gifts and things you might have left behind – sunglasses, dry bags and sun tan cream. If you want to send a postcard home from South Georgia, the shop has a stock of pre-stamped postcards which means you can write them before landing and then just post without having to spend time queuing on arrival.
Observation/viewing areas are all round the ship. Very few areas are off limits (it is also possible to sit on the bridge and watch the captain and crew steering!), but choosing the best place to stand depends on the weather and the wind direction. So far there has been ample space for everyone to see and for cameras to be swung around to capture the birds following the ship. Expedition staff are often on deck to identify any species you are not sure about.
Bring an extra washing line. You will get wet, even if it is just from washing your trousers in the detergent bath upon returning to the ship. The in-cabin clothes line is fine but doesn’t give your cabin mate any room for their clothes! The best ones are those used for camping that don’t need pegs. But be aware that you might need to go looking for one much earlier than your trip – many shops only have them available during summer camping season.
Bring a repair kit for waterproofs. There are plenty of jagged edges at landing sites along with other things that you can get snagged on and any rips will destroy the waterproofing capabilities immediately. The expedition team might be able to help but don’t rely on it.
Don’t forget something to clean your camera equipment with. Even if you don’t change lenses, thus protecting the sensor, the lenses themselves will get dirty, whether from spray, rain, dust, or any number of environmental conditions. Keep an eye on this and take the time to clean the front of the lenses (and your viewfinder) on a regular basis.