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Published: February 3rd 2019
On Tuesday, lunch was put on by our hotel for everyone that was going on the cruise. It was the first chance to meet some of the other passengers, which I did (dad wasn’t hungry so didn’t join us). I was also sitting near Christopher, the bird guy. He is a guide on the ship, but he is also a biologist that specialises in birds and is very knowledgeable!
With lunch out of the way, we boarded our buses. Dad and I waited until last and got on a nearly empty bus because everyone had rushed to get on the first two buses for some reason. We didn’t mind as this gave us the opportunity to spread out. Along the way, our local guide, Anna, gave us some information about where we were and what we might see as we headed back up the road to Puerto Natales. The trip went a bit quicker than on the way down, partly because I slept a bit but also because of the information Anna gave us.
We arrived in Puerto Natales and were dropped off at our hotels. We couldn’t relax, though, because we had dinner at another hotel. So, after
taking our bags to our rooms (Dad and I were at the 3rd
furthest from the reception) we headed straight back to board the bus and head to dinner. Again, we had the opportunity to meet some more of our fellow passengers.
On Wednesday, we had an early start as the itinerary for visiting the Torres Del Paine was jam-packed. Our first stop was at the Milodon Cave, which we had driven past on our way to Patagonia Camp but had no idea at the time. It is a massive cave and some archaeologists had found the remains of a Milodon, the largest of the pre-historic megafauna that lived in the region, inside. It is actually related to sloths. There was also some evidence found showing humans used the cave when they arrived in the region. Like Australia, the megafauna in Patagonia died out within 1,000 years of humans arriving in the area. Apparently, there is some debate about whether it was the humans who sent the megafauna extinct or a change in environmental conditions. I would guess it’s the former because humans did the same thing in Australia. I think some people just don’t want to accept the
blame for the actions of our ancestors.
We left the cave and headed out to the eastern side of the park. We stopped at a small village which had a tourist shop there. It was absolutely packed in there with 3 busloads of people inside. There were a couple of books of interest, but mostly it was food and tacky souvenirs.
Our next stop was a place Dad and I had visited on the Fauna excursion we did last week. It’s a nice view of the Paine Massif over a blue lake, but I could have skipped it with no regrets.
Then we moved on to a place we hadn’t been to but did see as we drove past last week. The bus dropped us off in a parking area and we had a short walk up to the viewing platform for a waterfall. It was quite loud but not anything special. The most impressive part of the stop was watching a UFO-shaped cloud forming over the Horns of the Paine Massif.
We then headed to our lunch spot. The buses were too large for the roads around the park and we regularly slowed right down
to pass traffic going the other way. Our lunch spot was near the same lake that we had lunch at last week, but this time we were eating in the restaurant of a hotel on an island in the lake. To get there we had to cross over a narrow pedestrian bridge with a very strong cross-wind.
When lunch (where dad finally tried a Pisco Sour and loved it!) was finished, we headed to our final stop in the park. It took a while because of the buses, but we eventually arrived at the place where Dad and I started the Pingo trail last week. Instead of going on the Pingo trail this time, we headed down to the beach on the edge of the Grey Lake. We had to cross a pedestrian suspension bridge to get there and only 6 people were able to cross each way so we had a bit of a queue. There was quite a bit of movement in it, so I understand why there was a limit. We got across and walked on the track down to the beach. The beach was a pebbly beach and the wind was crazy so walking across
it was interesting. While Dad headed back, I continued along the beach so I could get a good view of the Gray Glacier. We headed back and apparently were a bit late, but there were people who had gone further than me so were even later.
Eventually everyone was back, and we headed back to Puerto Natales. The road is being upgraded in many sections, so it took a long time for us to get back – nearly 3 hours! Instead of going back to the hotel we headed straight to a restaurant in Puerto Natales and had a delicious lamb barbecue. I’m not a big fan of lamb, but this was really good.
At the end of dinner, we had an announcement from the Expedition Leader, Aaron. He said that the ship was nearly at King George Island so that was good. However, apparently the weather at King George Island wasn’t ideal for flying into but they hoped there would be a window for us. To make sure we could maximise our chances, it was decided we would drive back to Punta Arenas and fly from there, rather than from Puerto Natales.
So on Thursday morning
Torres del Paine
we were up early again and drove back down to Punta Arenas. This was the third time Dad and I had travelled to road, so we weren’t looking forward to it. I was fortunate enough to be able to sleep most of the way, so it wasn’t too bad.
We stopped in Punta Arenas where they gave us a couple of sandwiches for an early lunch because we had to be at the airport at 12… we were finally going to Antarctica! Checking into the flight went smoothly. I was worried because they had said we were limited to one checked-in bag and I had two. I had been planning to leave one of my suitcases at the hotel and pick it up on our way back to Santiago but someone said the flight from the Falklands is regularly delayed so they told me to bring it. After worrying about the weight issue, it all amounted to nothing. I suspect the fact that we had only 70-odd passengers instead of the maximum 96 probably helped there.
As we boarded the plane, we had to cross the tarmac through the strongest winds we’ve experienced so far… and that’s really
saying something! The flight was uneventful, although looking back I am amused at the reaction when we saw the first icebergs in the sea below us. We landed on the gravel runway on King George Island safely. Apparently there had been strong clouds and winds before and after our arrival, so we were fortunate to get the window for landing. But nothing was going to stop us getting to Antarctica now!
All of the passengers and staff travelled in two airplanes, so we had to wait for the second plane to land. Then they left but we had to walk down the runway for a bit so we had to wait for an Argentinian Hercules to land before we could start walking down to the beach. The walk down to the beach was interesting as the path runs alongside a Chilean research station. We also saw a Russian Orthodox church sitting on a nearby hill, which seemed a bit odd. But from what I gather, these bases are as much about territorial claims as about scientific research.
We arrived at the beach and had to put on lifejackets as we waited for the zodiacs to pick us up
Torres del Paine
and take us to the ship. There was a small group of chinstrap penguins nearby, which caused much excitement. Again, like the icebergs, looking back at this was amusing because if there were two things we saw a lot of on the rest of the trip, it was penguins and icebergs!
We eventually got to the ship and to our cabin. Dad and I were staying in a semi-private room, which meant we share the bathroom with the next cabin. We were very happy to find that there was nobody in the adjoining cabin, so we had the bathroom all to ourselves! The cabin itself is a bit tight, but we fit in there fine. We put our stuff away so the “luggage fairies” could take the suitcases and store them for us.
About the ship. The ship is called the Akademik Ioffe and it was built in Finland as a research ship for the Russian owners. The cruise company, One Ocean, leases the ship (and the sister ship the Akademik Vavilov) for the Antarctic and Arctic summers. They are ice-strengthened but not ice breakers. The layout is utilitarian for the most part, which makes sense as it
Torres del Paine
was designed as a research vessel. There is still a Russian crew that runs the ship, and most of the kitchen staff are Russian too. Most of the cruise staff (hotel, bar, expeditions) are Canadian, English, New Zealanders or Australians.
It turned out that our cruise was the Ioffe’s first for the season. This was because during the Arctic summer it had run aground and had been in dry-dock in Quebec for longer than expected. Some people were worried that the ship wasn’t ready for an Antarctic cruise. But for me, I would be more concerned about us having the same captain!
All in all, it’s the perfect base for our exploration of the Antarctic, which was about to begin!
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