Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica

From Rio Gallegos – the town where we dropped off the sailors Daria and Jean-Michel, it was only a hop to get to the border. A World Cup soccer match playing, so the Argentinian officials paid no attention to us. With their eyes glued to the TV, they stamped our passports and car papers, and we were through. On the other side, the Chilean borders have the reputation of being the most restrictive of Latin America: no fresh food, no untreated wood and iteven no honey or raisins are allowed through. Everyone gets searched and given a hefty fine when they find something of the list of forbidden items, sooo… we’d taken one more day before crossing the border to eat and cook everything we had: veggies, fruit, potatoes, onions and garlic, eggs and yoghurt… a big bag of raisins I preserved with pisco- the grape spirit we still had from Peru. Still, we overlooked half a lime in the bottom of the fridge! Fortunately, we had not been able to find and fill out the declaration form online, so the inspector searched our camper beforehand. She warned us to declare this little bit of fruit she confiscated, otherwise we could still be fined. Thankfully, our big chunk of cheese was allowed. In Chile the towns were so small, we didn’t bother to look for fresh supplies, plus we still had two days’ worth of cooked food in the fridge. By then we were at another border – from Chile back to Argentina, who didn’t give us any trouble.

Ferry to bring us to the island of Tierra del Fuego

We made it to Tierra del Fuego! Although it was just a question of persistent driving on the #3 – a pretty good and smooth road, it felt like an accomplishment. The island looked different from what we’d seen so far of Patagonia: it was greener and grassier, with occasional wetlands and streams. Everything looked friendlier; less rugged. Cows made a comeback. And then, trees appeared! Short, crooked, halfdead, and covered with mosses, they looked mysterious and pitiful. When the landscape became more mountainous, they started to look so much better, that when we saw a sign of a nature park, we wanted to stop there, but the park was closed because of a forest fire. We saw the ominous clouds, and later also the glow of a large fire from a distance away. So finally we saw trees, and now they’re on fire… Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire is burning; what tragic irony.

Tierra del Fuego landscape

Pitiful trees, but as the mountains appeared, the trees started looking taller and healthier

The forest fire was visible from the town of Tolhuin, where we stayed for the night

The approach to Ushuaia was marked by increasingly higher mountains and dense, black forest. Ushuaia faces the Beagle Channel and is surrounded by mountains on the other three sides, which may be why the Patagonian winds are gentle here. We may have hit a sunny and warm spell but did not stay to enjoy it. We wanted to find room on one of the cruise ships to Antarctica before the start of the busy season.

Tierra del Fuego’s mountains at the southern end of the island.

View over Lago Fagnano, on the way to Ushuaia from the town of Tolhuin, at the far end of the lake.

Welcome to Ushuaia

The camper’s hangout along the waterfront in Ushuaia. This town is lacking a descent campground

Downtown Ushuaia

Downtown Ushuaia

View from our window: There is the ship we will be sailing to Antarctica with

Two days later we sailed south on the 168 passenger expedition cruiser Ocean Victory, across an unusually quiet Drake passage.

Even on level four the waves sprayed against our windows during an “unusually quiet Drake passage”

After two days to develop our sea-legs and two nights of seasickness medication (even a calm Drake passage has six-foot swells) the dark outcrops of the volcanic South Shetland Islands appeared through the morning fog. Not everything was covered by snow here– a fact the penguins seem to like, since their eggs would freeze when laid on snow. We slowly sailed to Halfmoon Island to go ashore and check out how the chinstrap penguins live and love (and poop). They are cute, as expected. In the water, when they chase krill for food, they are fast and limber, and seem to fly in groups under and on water. Once on land they clumsily climb the rocks (or snow) to their nest, where they make a big scene of greeting their mate, sometimes with the gift of a pebble to add to the elevation of their rocky nest. The ones that found their place still covered with snow were out to search their mate and make love. At this first landing we also familiarized ourselves with Antarctic penguin’s krill-red poop. Penguins poop every ten to twenty minutes and it was everywhere on and between the rocks. In the snow, a penguin’s rookery as well as the paths they create to and from the water is colored red – it may make a good anti-slip track on the snow, but for us, the rocks were slippery. Upon our return to the boat, we had to seriously scrub our boots and pants – not only to get rid of the filth and smell, but especially to prevent contagion of avian flu. As half of the participants explored the terrain, the other half looked around the waters in zodiacs. The water was clean and clear. Close to us, two humpback whales decided to come up for air. It was a good introduction to the southern continent.

Volcanic rock on Half Moon island

Old volcanic cores show dark against the snow

The “chinstrap” stripe makes the penguins appear to have a broad smile

A whaler’s boat-wreck on Half Moon island

Mother and child humpback whale

When we woke up, we saw icebergs floating by our window. Our ship quietly moved through a dreamscape of dark water, white mountains and blue skies. Icebergs of pristine white, based on a turquoise underwater float silently greeted us when we passed them. A spread of glistening ice jewels in between them vied for attention. A school (or is it a flight?) of penguins rapidly dove and surfaced alongside the boat. A seal looked up from a slice of sea ice. All looked peaceful…clean… serene…otherworldly.

The first morning felt like being in a dream…so quiet, so serene

This breakfast setup was created by some on-board influencers. They were not planning to actually eat outside (!)
How beautiful can ice be…

In the afternoon we set foot of continental Antarctica  – where a walking trail was beaten through the snow, with orange perimeter flags to ensure a distance from the penguins (though the penguins didn’t respect that distance keeping much) and to protect the fragile nature we came to enjoy. Again, to keep our presence on land low, we were divided between landing- and boating groups – and switched halfway through. From the zodiac we saw leopard-,  crabeater-, and weddell-seals…it takes a few days of observation to know the difference between them. The floating ice was amazingly varied; from glasslike with crazy shapes, to glossy faceted white, or soft snow-topped blocks with bright blue sides, or flat ice-sheets.  The water was so clear, one could see an entire sunken whaler ship, or penguins flit through the rocky-bottomed water.

Ready on the Zodiac

Penguins always have the right of way here. You have to wait, and keep a distance

When the highway is too narrow, you simply turn around and go with the flow, right?

Hiking on Antarctica

Two sailboats were anchored beside the whaler’s shipwreck

Leopard seals can be recognized by their lizard-like face. They are the only seals that eat – besides fish, squid and krill – warm blooded animals, like penguins.

Weddell seals are large, fat and easy going. They like to live in groups. They eat fish, squid and krill.

Crab-eating seals actually don’t eat crabs, but crustaceans, like krill. You can see this one ate krill by the red poop. They can be distinguished from leopard seals by their snout, which bends up

On Gouldier Island, we landed at Port Lockroy, the British research station/ turned museum and Antarctic post office, where we could get an impression of how researchers lived – a couple of decades ago. Newer quarters for the crew now manning the station were off limits, but two of our ship’s expedition crew worked there for four months, fell in love and got married later on. They gave us more details about the work they still do there, like counting the island’s penguin nests and their eggs, and see how many return next year; clean the penguin poop off the rocks, man the museum and post office, and clear the snow around the buildings, and probably much more that I forgot… Every day there were lectures about everything concerning Antarctica, like about it’s wildlife, explorer’s expeditions, photography tips, and recaps of the places visited.

Port Lockroy

The museum and (British) post office had to be dug out of the snow this winter. Now the penguins can move under the building to make a real mess!

These are Gentoo penguins, by the way.

This big Weddell seal almost blocked one of the penguin highways.

Port Lockroy kitchen

Port Lockroy sleeping quarters

I believe this is a skua cleaning up a dead penguin.
The zodiacs are coming to pick us up for the exploration of the bay
Can you believe this little tern flies from the arctic to the antarctic, every year?

We saw around four sailboats, two super yachts, and two other cruisers while we were in Antarctica. With the upcoming Holiday season and southern summer, it will be a lot busier.

The canoe team is going out for a separate tour.

For four days we meandered through the chain of islands that hug the coast of Antarctica, with stops around two times a day. One of the last days we landed in snow so deep, that despite the snowshoe team having beaten a path, we’d sink in thigh-deep at times, mostly, but not always, when passing or overtaking someone and just stepping one foot to the side. At one point I had both legs to above my knees in the soft snow and had to crawl out- I guess it was the hardest for us since we were the first group after the snowshoers and the snow had not settled completely yet. (The way back already was easier) Anyway, that night my knees hurt, I had trouble taking the stairs up or down, so the next morning I skipped the last outing and stayed on the ship. But even from aboard there is enough to see: one night while sailing through the Gerlach Straight, we were called out of bed by the bridge, when they’d spotted a pod of orcas. We ran outside in our pajamas, as not to miss these majestic animals in their natural environment.

Slushing through the snow
Single trail through the snow
Swimming penguins

This shows a good view of a penguin rookery and the highways to and from the water
Ceremonial greeting

In the left front there are a few penguins that built their elevated rocky nests right on the beach.

Ready to go for a swim?

Imperial cormorants taking off. Sometimes they get mistaken for flying penguins. But penguins only fly in the water.
Beautiful imperial cormorant (also called imperial shag)
Imperial Cormorants build their nests on top of the snow, using seaweed. As the snow melts around them, the nests sit on a snow tower – until it collapses…
It was such a warm and sunny day, that a BBQ was organized on the top deck.
Orcas spotted in the late evening sun.
Almost midnight…

Antarctica has the world’s most glaciers

Along towering mountains and glaciers, through the Lemaire’s channel

The sheathbill is Antarctica’s only non-seabird. It likes to take rides to the South American continent.

Before turning back to Ushuaia, we were surrounded by glaciers and floated through packed icefields, then Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage (could not believe at first that the ship could fit through, and it felt like moving into a giant sluice/lock) where on both sides tall mountains loomed over the ship. As soon as we hit open water, the Drake Passage made itself known with wild, high swells, and wind that broke the balcony partition between us and our neighbors. The floor of our cabin flooded, and we asked for sea sickness pills, which gave us a good night sleep despite the shaking and bouncing. The following days at sea were better: the swaying lessened somewhat; Mark, our cabin’s steward offered free laundry service and a bottle of wine to compensate for our remaining wet floor; last day’s lobster dinner was the best food we had on the voyage, and the recaps and entertainment made everyone feel like we had the best Antarctica trip ever. Too soon we disembarked and returned to our camper, waiting for us at the Ushuaia Airport parking lot.

Home again!

8 thoughts on “Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica”

    1. Dank je Maarten voor je reactie. We hebben ook een prachtige tijd gehad en vinden het fijn dat we onze ervaringen delen kunnen. En voor de komende maanden staat ons nog veel moois te wachten.

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  1. What an amazing trip! Beautiful photographs and fascinating tale of your adventure. Thanks for creating and sending these. I love them. Where to next? Is this near the end of your Second Time Around? Do you head back to Virginia or Netherlands?

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    1. Hi Anne!
      This is only the beginning, though the end of South America comes near…we still have to travel north along the most scenic part of the Andes between Chile and Argentina, where some more highlights await us. We will end this South American leg in Santiago de Chile around April. Then we’ll go home and start driving from Europe to Africa or Asia – not sure yet. But it’ll be a looong time before we’ve finished our second time around. Good to hear from you, and stay posted!

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