30 January, 2016
As we approached Antarctica, ice floes appeared and then became frequent. These can damage the Orion's stabilisers, so we had to pull them in, allow more rocking, slow down somewhat, putting us a little behind the anticipated arrival time. But late in the day, by 18:30 - 19:00 we left the swells behind and pulled into Dallman Bay. Immediately, we were treated to two fabulous spectacles, whales and icebergs. The fog remained, but thinned somewhat as time went on.
A mother and rather large calf humpback whale surfaced and breathed and dived numerous times, and even breached once, right off the foredeck of the Orion. Other whales were about, but not as close as this couple. Whales are pretty unphotogenic, but we managed some nice images, as shown. Marieke Egan, our whale specialist, tried to predict their behaviour pretty accurately, to assist us to get ready with the camera.
Erin McFadden, the expedition undersea specialist, explained that humpbacks and other baleen whales don't have to dive so deeply, because the krill they feed on inhabit only about 200m down. Tom Ritchie believes that they find the krill by listening for them when the depth makes it too difficult to see them. Toothed sperm whales, Erin says, dive deeply (almost to 3000m) to find their food, deepwater squid, and use echo-location to find them.
And the captain was able to manoeuvre the Orion quite close to a particularly shapely iceberg, which then had the good fortune for it to capture a rare sunbeam.
At dinner, we had the luck and the honour to sit with one of National Geographic's top photographers, Dan Westergren. He had previously told us all about impossible photographic assignments he had undertaken, and over dinner we discussed his recent project in South Australia, where, amazingly, it transpired, he flew and stayed with the same family company that we used for a flooded Lake Eyre homestay and flyover a few years ago!
That night we discovered that we were far enough south that it never gets dark. Official sunset is about 22:30, and sunrise at about 04:00, but twilight prevailed in the intervening period.
29 January, 2016
Our expedition vessel (they are very careful to distinguish it from a common cruise ship), the National Geographic Orion, was awaiting us in Ushuaia Harbour, and we were able to board as soon as we got off the catamaran. The Tierra del Fuego bus tour and the Beagle Passage cruise were devices to allow staff and crew time to transition from the previous to the next expedition.
The Orion, formerly an Australian ship which used to undertake Antarctic voyages from Hobart and New Zealand, is, according to its commander, Captain Martin Graser, the perfect size for expeditions (which could be defined as cruises with a non-fixed itinerary, able to be varied depending on weather and sea conditions). It is ice rated and small enough to approach features and explore inlets and fiords not available to larger ships. It is 3,984t gross and 103m long, and was built as an expedition vessel in Germany in 2003. Passenger capacity is a mere 106, and crew plus staff total 80 - that's a comfortable ratio! There are 14 Zodiacs for excursions and landings, and lots of kayaks. The present captain was a consultant on the Orion's original design.
Our cabin is spacious and magnificent, on the bridge deck, on the port side, and is all that we hoped (and paid) for. We have a juliet balcony we can step out onto. There is a queen sized bed, and a small sitting room with couch, chair and desk. The finishings are luxurious. We've been in expensive hotels with bathrooms smaller and not as good as this one. As befitting the current owners, the cabin has its own copy of the fabulous National Geographic Atlas of the World. (For all we know, all cruise ships have these features. We've never done a cruise before, so everything about cruising is novel to us.)
We undertook a mandatory safety briefing, where, believe it or not, a roll-call was made to ensure that every passenger was present. First thing to notice, there are no children on board. We received a passenger list - only 4 are not from either USA or Australia. English is definitely the lingua franca on this voyage! Later, we were introduced to the Expedition Staff, that is the Lindblad / National Geographic employees who are not part of the ship's crew. Apart from the Expedition Leader, Shaun Powell, a very personable Texan, and his assistant, the staff includes a top National Geographic photographer and 6 naturalists, Erin, a Scottish oceanographer, and a "video chronicler".
The Orion's captain has an open bridge policy. This means that passengers can go to the bridge at any time to see navigation operations in action. We're sure that this freedom will greatly add to our enjoyment of the voyage.
By the sound of it, the expedition organisers don't want us to relax much. Days at sea will feature multiple presentations on various topics. Other days we'll be kept busy on zodiac cruises, shore excursions to visit penguin rookeries or to see scenic highlights. There'll be kayaking where possible and a polar plunge somewhere suitable.
Our route out of Ushuaia was through the Beagle Passage into the Drake Passage which is the northern extremity of the Southern Ocean and separates the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in an east-west direction, as well as South America and Antarctica in a north-south direction. The Drake, pioneered by Francis of course, is renowned for being wild and stormy and is the reason every single passenger on board has all manner of seasickness medication. We're told that Harbord, after 10 days on board the Nimrod with Sir Ernest Shackleton exactly 100 years ago wrote "some of us are over the seasick stage and we no longer want to die". We faced the Drake with trepidation.
Our southerly passage of the Drake was none of the above. The ship rocked and pitched certainly (and many passengers were seasick) but the crew and staff have expressed great amazement about how benign the Drake is. Modest swell, lots of fog and basically no wind! As we approached the Antarctic Peninsula, the swell did pick up markedly, but still not much wind, and visbility quite poor. One staff member said the swell was 4m - it certainly looked big to us, but he said that it often gets much bigger.
It took about 36 hours sailing from Ushuaia to our first destination the Antarctic Peninsula. This was a faster time than usual, apparently, because of the calm conditions. In between rather too much consumption at mealtimes, the hours of sailing are pretty well filled with interesting and very professional lectures from staff on photography and wildlife, geology, geography, oceanography, politics, treaties etc of Antarctica, and some manadatory briefings (use of Zodiacs, biosecurity rules and precautions), as well as bird-watching on the stern deck. This last was fairly futile with few birds (they like the wind!) and too much fog.
27 January, 2016
The time came to put ourselves in the hands of the company operating our Antarctic cruise, Lindblad / National Geographic. We moved from the Hilton to the Ritz Carlton Hotel, only about 1km away in Las Condes. We actually walked from one to the other, in wonderful sunshine. The Ritz trades too heavily on its brand name, we think. The digs are classier and more expensive, but the Hilton seems to be a better hotel.
Lindblad hosted a welcoming reception, and transported us to the airport for a chartered LAN flight to Ushuaia in Argentina. Yet another reciprocity fee to enter Argentina, but we had pre-paid it in this case, over the internet. Customs was appallingly slow at what looks like a very new Ushuaia airport terminal, but eventually we were all loaded onto buses for a drive through the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
This park, which shares a border with Chile, marks the very southern end of the Pan-America Highway, only 18,000km to Alaska. According to our guide, Tammy, this is quite a popular road trip. The park itself was reasonably busy with walkers and campers - it is summer, which must be peak season in this remote place at the end of the world. Tammy taught us how to pronounce the town's name. The "h" is virtually silent - oos-why-uh. The weather was surprisingly mild, about 10C, overcast and a slight breeze. The park looked very dry and dusty, as if it hasn't seen good rain for some time.
From Lake Lapataia at the end of the road, we took a catamaran along part of the infamous Beagle Passage back to Ushuaia. This is the route, we think, taken by Charles Darwin and The Beagle on the voyage around Cape Horn to the Galapagos Islands. Nice scenery, snow capped mountains, cruise ship activity, recreational kayaking and bird rookeries plus bird-watching tours were all evident on this little trip.
The catamaran dropped us back at Ushuaia which is a surprisingly large town. Tammy had explained that it has a population of about 70,000 encouraged by the government which offers a tax free environment - no income tax, no GST. Being the starting point for most Antarctic cruises adds to the town's busy-ness at this time of the year, and the small harbour certainly was evidence of that!
26 January, 2016
We are in Santiago because our Antarctic cruise company wants us here! It's our first visit to Chile, and Santiago is a convenient destination because Qantas flies here directly from Sydney.
Chile imposes an extremely annoying Reciprocity Fee on arrival. We paid it on entry in US$ but it amounts to about AUD300 for the two of us. Why is it annoying? Because only Mexicans and Australians are required to pay the fee and we imagine that it is required because the visa for Chileans visiting Australia must cost about that much. It is after all a reciprocity fee! No country wanting to encourage tourism, including Australia, should charge anything more than a very nominal amount for a visa.
According to the guff we have read, Santiago was founded in 1541 and is the capital of what must be the longest & skinniest country in the world. Its population is over 6 million (the whole country, 18 million), but it doesn't give the impression of being such a big city. High rise is modest, most of it in the Las Condes region. There may be huge surburban areas that we're unaware of and the density is probably greater than we realise. The skyline in all directions (except to the west coast) is mountainous, but even in our short time here, the nearby Andes are often obsured by summer smog or soggy clouds. The sight of them, snowcapped, in clear winter air must be spectacular.
The Spanish conquered the Amerindian natives of Chile in the 1500. Apparently, the peace-loving northern and central Incas were easily defeated, but the southern Mapuche tribes offered much more resistance. Because of the extra distance, the massive immigration which later transformed Argentina and Paraguay was much less on the west coast. That said, recent census reveal that 52% of Chileans are European, 44% Amerindian and 4% African ethnicity. Chile declared its independence from Spain in 1818.
The spectacular and modern arts centre, Centro Gabriela Mistral, provides shaded space for relaxation and socialising
The 30km taxi ride in from the airport was along excellent freeways, and included, we think, the 1.8km San Cristobal tunnel, a major engineering achievement, which opened in 2009. Some of the route followed the fast flowing and very brown Rio Mapocho, and we saw lots of shanty towns which no doubt account for much of the city's population, and remind us that poverty is a common blight in South America.
Santiago is a bustling city. The historical old city, which centres on the Plaza de Armas, literally buzzes with pedestrian crowds of office workers and other locals. There are tourists, but not many, and most are Speakers, by the sound of it. Cars are mostly excluded from this area, enhancing its attractiveness immensely. Magnificent buildings, dateing from the 1800's, are everywhere, and those in bad repair are getting expensive looking makeovers. Weekends, and Sundays in particular, are a different proposition altogether. All the street shops are closed, the crowds largely disappear, and the whole ambience begins to resemble a rundown area of Detroit. Museums are open though (they close Mondays) to give the residents some culture to absorb. Also open exceptionally, and very crowded, are the large ultra-modern shopping complexes, like Costanera, near our hotel. These new developments must be giving street shops a bad time.
Our French must be better than we realise, because it no problem for us to read the language and converse in basic restaurant language in French speaking countries. Here in this Spanish speaking country, it is very different - signage is often hard to decipher, and we cannot understand or make ourselves understood with non-English speakers. We acknowledge that this is our problem, not theirs, but the difference is quite notable to us. There are not that many tourists here, and many locals are clearly as monolingual as we are. They try hard, and are very friendly and helpful, but it's sometimes quite a battle.
We bought BIP cards (similar to Opal cards) and loaded them with Pesos so we could use Santiago's subway and buses. Give our non-existent Spanish, this process was mainly hit and miss and involved hastily handwritten notes and demonstrations on a calculator. We probably spent more Peso than we needed, but in the end, we concluded a transaction with the patient Transantiago lady. And the BIPs work fine, as does the clean, efficient and crowded Santiago underground metro system which we made good use of.
We became prey but not victims of thieves on our very first full day in Santiago. Someone squirts a vile bird-dropping substitute over you from behind, points it out, then offers to assist you with clean water. They then rob you when you let go your belongings. We know about this scam and were on to it straight away - we told them (a couple working in tandem) to go away, firmly and quickly. They were persistent and kept coming back to point out the mess on both of us, but we only survived unscathed by rejecting their advances and not ever putting anything down. We had wet-ones to do our own clean up, and the damage does not appear to be permanent. Other than that incident, we feel quite safe in Santiago. A heavy security presence is evident everywhere we went.
We spent all our free time wandering around the streets of Santiago, using the metro to get between major villages and back to our hotel. The photos show what we saw. One large highlight which we stumbled upon because it didn't even feature in our pre-reading for Santiago was Santa Lucia Hill, and the fortifications and Castillo Hidalgo on top. This rocky outcrop, an old volcano apparently, commands fabulous views of the city and is involved in much of its history.
The Santa Lucia Hill top lookout was packed with visitors taking selfies, but this one was actually capturing the view.
Our hotel in Santiago is the Hilton Doubletree in Av. Vitacura in Las Condes. It's ultra-modern and is still having some teething problems, but our room is spacious and very comfortable. It's within 2 minutes walk of the huge Costanera shopping mall, and 5 minutes from the Tobalaba metro station.
After sunset from hotel window in Las Condes, the pedestrian bridge simplifying access to the Costanera shops.
Santiago is in an earthquake zone, and indeed we felt a brief but strong tremor whilst on the 13th floor of the Hilton. The hotel assures us that the new building is constructed to the highest standards, and indeed, while some guests were disturbed, no alarms were set off.