Wandering the World Part 19

Argentina, and the Voyage to the Falklands

For a few years I knew I wanted to visit Antarctica — it would realise the ambition of visiting every continent in the world at least once. For some time it looked like it could be prohibitively expensive but that hadn’t stopped a friend and myself from looking. We both really wanted to go.

I spoke to a few friends about this plan, and that I was determined to go there in the next few years. I don’t think they really believed I would though — they may have assumed I was just dreaming.

As the years passed by we ticked more countries off our lists, and we started to look at Antarctica more seriously. With some serious saving perhaps it was within our reach. Even on a budget we still wanted to see as much as possible, and making landfall on the continent itself was a definite requirement. It took some time to narrow down which company to go with but eventually we settled on an expedition with a company that sounded like they’d provide the best service in what we could see as our price range.

Antarctica is on average the coldest, driest and windiest continent in the world — yet we’d be visiting during its summer. This was not to say it would be warm though, it’s likely it would still get very cold. Our previous trips to Iceland and Norway went some way to prepare us for this though.

The journey to Antarctica was a long one, and it started with an evening flight from Gatwick airport in London to Madrid. When we arrived there, although only in transit, we had to pass through security. On the other side we found the options for an evening meal very limited — the best we could find was a thirteen euro baguette that could be heated in a microwave.

From Madrid we were flying on to Buenos Aires, but our flight was delayed at first by an hour and soon this was extended to two hours. Flight delays are nothing unusual, but when your original connecting flight time is at midnight, it doesn’t help. Sometimes for a long haul flight the time is made up whilst in the air, but in this case we landed in Buenos Aires two hours late as well.

Once we arrived and left the airport we met Julieta — our guide for the day who first showed us to our hotel. It was on the main road through Buenos Aires and was fairly central to everything. We then had one hour from checking in to also go out and find some lunch before our afternoon tour.

We found a cafe over the road that did sandwiches so I thought I’d go for something simple — a chicken sandwich. In reality though it was a pita bread cut in half with a pool of grease and a piece of chicken resting on it. There was no lettuce or any other salad with the sandwich — just fries.

The service in the cafe wasn’t great either. People who could speak Spanish arrived after us, and ordered long before we could. We also had to go looking for our own knives and forks as although they’d delivered them for other people at the time of serving the meal, they hadn’t for us. I got the impression they didn’t like tourists in this cafe, or maybe just didn’t like the British.

For many years there has been a dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands that sit off the coast of Tierra del Fuego. Although it lasted only two weeks in 1982, the two countries also went to war over these islands during a time of instability for the Argentinian government.

I thought perhaps the attitude of this waiter stemmed from resentment over this. Over thirty years had passed since then though, so although it looked like the waiter was the right age to have been an adult at the time, surely it couldn’t have been down to that.

This cafe may have been conveniently close, but I suspect there would have been other places that would have been faster to eat at. It didn’t matter too much though as we still finished in time for our afternoon walking tour of the Recoleta neighbourhood.

This neighbourhood was an area with fancier architecture, and was an area for the wealthy. As we walked from the hotel to this neighbourhood we passed the Teatro Colón opera house — a nice looking building which also screens it’s performances outdoors for people to watch for free. When there aren’t any performances on they also have tours which are thirty pesos for locals, and over one hundred pesos for foreigners.

Teatro Colón opera house

It may seem odd that there’s that difference in price, but I think it’s fair. I’ve come across quite a few places where prices are higher for tourists — but if you see the “tourist price” as the base price then what they’re actually doing is making it cheaper for the locals so that they’re still able to afford to see the sights in their own country where they may not be earning as much as visitors.

There were also quite a few other old buildings we passed as well — two of them were once owned by a wealthy family but now one of them is an up-market hotel that is used by the extremely wealthy. A couple of the other buildings we were going to be shown for their architecture we couldn’t actually see due to scaffolding covering them during some maintenance work.

Whilst we were being guided around Recoleta we spoke to Julieta a little about the politics of the country — in particular what the people in Buenos Aires thought of the Falkland Islands, or as the Argentinians call them: the Malvinas. We were told that most young people don’t care about the islands — it’s only the government that cares.

As the tour continued we eventually got to the Plaza Francia — a park with a very large rubber tree known as the Gran Gomero. Some of the branches were so big that it had to have supports to hold it up. The way it’s supported reminded me of the Major Oak in Nottingham — a tree associated with the legend of a Robin Hood. However this tree was far larger with massive twisting roots, and new roots forming from branches. It was planted in 1791 by Martín José Altolaguirre, the owner of the land at that time, and so is actually much younger than the Major Oak.

On the other side of this park was the entrance to La Recoleta Cemetery which since 1822 began to fill with mausoleums. It is also the final resting place of Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón, and known better to the world as Evita. I dare anyone to visit that mausoleum and to not get the song that Madonna sung stuck in your head.

Inside the Cemetery

Inside the cemetery there aren’t just old mausoleums, but also new ones where families have sold off their plot and a new mausoleum has been built. The majority of important figures from Argentina’s “recent” history can be found here, such as the wife of San Martin, the liberator of many Spanish colonies in South America. Each Mausoleum is owned by a family forever, or until they sell them on, though the maintenance is usually done through a fee paid to the Government.

From the cemetery we moved next door to the Church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar. This church looks very Spanish in design, which of course it is, and the interior is reminiscent of those that I saw whilst in Peru. It was built in 1732 by the Monastery of the Recollect Fathers, members of the Franciscan Order — the 18th Century order for which the neighbourhood is named.

When they built this church they also started the cemetery, but it wasn’t until decades later that the president at the time requested the shift in the purpose of this to be used for housing the mausoleums of the ruling elite.

From the church we walked through the crafts market down into a park that was located near a large University building. It is a massive building and it’s large stone pillars at the front are reminiscent of the National Gallery building in London. Apparently education is free in Buenos Aires and this one is their best university dedicated to the study of law.

As we’d been on our tour the temperature had soared, and the water I had on me had increased in temperature to that of a cup of tea. It was warm, and in this area there was nowhere for shelter. I was started to feel dehydrated at this point, but we continued on passed an art gallery and the British Embassy to a memorial for Evita.

Evita to some seemed ambitiously ruthless in her ascent to fame and power, though it was her constant work that helped to bring about the right to vote for women in Argentina. She’d changed the face of politics and was one of the first females in the western world to be openly seen influencing politics. It was no surprise that the people of Buenos Aires today idolised her, and had memorials in her honour.

Once we’d seen the Evita memorial we then parted ways with Julieta. My friend and I headed in the direction of a baroque style building we’d been told about during the walking the tour.

I knew I was in need of water, so along the way we went up an escalator into a shopping mall to buy some. Unfortunately they only accepted Argentine Pesos, and we only had US dollars on us as this is what we’d been advised. The currency exchange place required a passport to exchange money, but we’d both left ours at the hotel. Instead we wandered the streets until we found a kiosk that would accept dollars.

Despite our lack of directional skills, we found our way to the Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes with the baroque exterior. We knew the rough direction it was in, but we never expected to actually find it. Along the exterior of this museum dedicated to sanitation, there are thousands of ceramic tiles from the British tile company, Royal Doulton — a company which once made stone sewer pipes.

After a quick change at the hotel we headed out once more for an evening meal at La Cabrera. This was quite a taxi ride away from the hotel, but it was somewhere we’d already reserved a table at months before flying out — it was the best way of trying their prestigious Argentinian steak. It’s one of the most popular restaurants in the city which is what makes it so hard to get a table at.

We got there a little too early so walked around the block and sat down for a while before returning to the queue. We were then one of the first to be seated so managed to get a table indoors where it was air-conditioned.

We had been forewarned that portions at this restaurant are very large so it is normal to share dishes. With this in mind we ordered a 600g steak, fries, and a mixed salad. The steak was unlike any I’d seen before — it was bigger than what a Sunday roast would normally be! The quality of the meal was excellent, and along with a large bottle of water for the table it only cost 490 pesos, so the equivalent of about £15 per person.

We then got quite lucky with finding a taxi to get us back to the hotel. Although it was almost twice the price of the previous one due to road closures since we’d left out.

At the entrance to some roads there were mounds of rubbish on fire preventing access. According to BBC News these barricades were there as part of a protest relating to the power cuts across the city, for which the heatwave was being blamed as the cause. Even at 22:20 the temperature was still 38 degrees Celsius — it’s no wonder that a lack of power for their air conditioning units was causing protests.

In the morning we had some free time before we needed to be at the airport for our flight to Ushuaia — the main city in Tierra del Fuego. After a long flight we decided we’d have a late start, and at 10:00 we went to see if we could get a tour of the opera house.

When we arrived the noticeboard said tours were every fifteen minutes, although apparently English tours are only once per hour. This meant we had missed the 10am tour, and there wouldn’t be another one for a while. Despite this we decided we’d queue for the 11:00 tour.

Overnight the power situation hadn’t improved and the opera house was suffering from this. By the time the power was restored it was a little after 11:00, but they weren’t willing to start the tour late. This meant the first tour of the day would be at 12:00 noon — too late for us to be on it as that was also the check-out time for the hotel.

Realising that the morning had been wasted we headed back to the hotel to cool off for a while before checking out, and waiting for our lift to the airport. As it was a domestic flight we headed to a smaller airport that was located on the seafront with a great view of the South Atlantic Ocean. This flight had stricter baggage limits though, so we had to pay an extra US$39 between us for the excess. It was expected though as under necessity we were carrying a lot of heavy cold weather clothes.

By 15:40 we’d gotten through security, had another unhealthy lunch, and had boarded our flight. It may have been cooler on the plane but I could feel the heat radiating from the closed window blind next to my seat. This would soon change though as we were flying to a place that would be considerably cooler.

Our arrival in Ushuaia was also one of the fastest baggage claims I’ve ever experienced — both of us had our bags just seconds after entering the collection area. From the outside I thought this airport looked like a ski resort with a dramatic backdrop of the snow-capped mountains of the Andean mountain range.

Ushuaia isn’t that big so it only took us ten minutes to take a taxi from the airport to the city. At first there was some disagreement though as the driver insisted we weren’t staying at the hotel which we’d told him. Once he got confirmation that our booking details were indeed correct everything was settled, and we were able to check in to the hotel.

It wasn’t a bad hotel — it was quite reasonable, but you could tell it had a lower rating than the five star hotel in Buenos Aires. This one did however have a Christmas tree, which reminded us of just how close to Christmas and the New Year we still were.

After checking in to the hotel and dropping off our luggage we wandered around the Southernmost city in South America. At only eight degrees Celsius it was also much cooler than the previous day in Buenos Aires. Here we finally broke the pattern of having fries with every meal by having chicken in a Dijon mustard sauce that came with vegetables. The vegetables were grilled, but it was the first time we’d seen any on this trip.

Being this far south meant that the sun would not set until 22:15, and twilight would last for another hour. We thought it’d be nice to photograph the sunset, but unfortunately whilst we wandered around the city waiting it started to cloud over and eventually started raining.

Defeated by the weather we headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. My friend also decided to check his email whilst there and got confirmation that he would be emigrating to Canada upon his return. He’d have some big changes to prepare for so I imagined there was a lot on his mind at that point.

The sun had already been up for a couple of hours by the time we went for breakfast. By 10:00 we’d checked out of the hotel, and had left our bags behind to pick up later. As we were in a place that was based around Spanish culture we knew that the shops would close around 13:30 for a midday rest, otherwise known as a siesta. With this in mind we decided we’d start the day with souvenir shopping before they closed.

What we found was that most souvenir shops were similarly priced, and most had the same things for sale. Only the larger shops had some slight variation in this. At the end of this main road we also came across El Presidio Museo Maritimo but we decided we’d visit there when we returned to Tierra del Fuego after the expedition.

We wandered around for some time, trying to get photos of the Andean mountain range with its snow-capped peaks, but it was difficult to do so without getting many buildings in the shot. Ushuaia is the only Argentine city on the opposite side of the Andes so it seemed appropriate to try and get them in a photo.

We then wandered down to the waterfront where we could see a ship from Argentina’s Navy, and amongst others the Plancius — the ship we’d be boarding later in the day. There were quite a few boats around there including an odd one called the Saint Christopher. This ship was once a salvage vessel until it was grounded and left there as a reminder of the number of ships that have been damaged in the area.

Saint Christopher

Prior to it’s life as a salvage vessel, Saint Christopher was a rescue tug designated as the HMS Justice during the second world war.

Heading back to the main street we eventually found a place to have lunch. I went for a “Bife de Chorizo”, another popular Argentine dish which is basically a steak grilled over a charcoal flame with chimichurri relish. This was a dish the guide in Buenos Aires had recommended too so it did seem like a good choice. It came with an order of mashed potato, and whilst not as good as the steak in Buenos Aires, it was still quite good. They hadn’t asked how I liked my steak cooked, but by pure chance it just happened to be cooked perfectly.

After we’d finished our lunch we sat in the hotel lobby and waited for our transfer to the ship. Prior to our visit we’d heard about a Russian research vessel that had gotten stuck in the Antarctic ice. Whilst waiting in this lobby we heard that not only was this ship still stuck, but the Chinese icebreaker that tried to rescue it had also gotten stuck. Their next step would be to send a helicopter to rescue the people once the weather improved. It was unlikely this would affect us though as we’d be travelling to a different part of Antarctica.

At the entrance to the pier they have a customs office, but for outbound ships we could just walk straight through. There was also a sign stating their belief that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have illegally occupied the Malvinas Islands since 1833. Subtle. I wondered how many British tourists have seen it and laughed on passing as well.

When we arrived at the boat they checked us off a list and marked a cabin number in chalk on our suitcases. This would be so that the crew could take them to the right rooms whilst we queued in the reception of the ship to hand over passports for the duration of the voyage and to get cabin keys.

Boarding the m/V Plancius

The reason for them keeping the passports is that when arriving on islands such as the Falkland Islands they can handle the passport control in one manageable group instead of having everyone queue individually for this.

We got a cabin that was actually pretty good, and had a fair sized window instead of just a porthole. It turned out we had been upgraded due to them not having a full compliment of passengers, so a very nice surprise. I don’t usually unpack on this sort of trip, but with a couple of weeks on-board it made sense to. By the time I’d finished they’d lifted the anchor, and had set off on the start of our expedition.

In a previous life the Plancius had been an Oceanographic research vessel built for the Royal Dutch navy in 1976 under the name HNLMS Tydeman. This icebreaker was later rebuilt as a 114 passenger vessel to be used by tourists, and we’d be spending around eighteen nights on-board. This by nothing but coincidence would mean we’d be making landfall on Antarctica almost 103 years to the day since the Scott expedition reached the South Pole.

A meeting in the lounge on deck five was compulsory. This was for a briefing and an evacuation drill which is standard practice for sea-faring vessels. During the drill we had to get our life vests from cabins, have a roll call, and go out to the lifeboats. During the roll call they thought we’d lost a couple but it turned out a Chinese couple didn’t understand what was going on, didn’t understand English, and hadn’t confirmed their presence. The ship’s hotel manager was not impressed.

For a while after the drill I stayed out on deck with both of my cameras in the hope of getting photographs of some seabirds as we moved through the Beagle Channel. Unfortunately it seemed most of the seabirds that are usually around this area must have been taking a break, so instead I went to the next ship briefing.

During the briefing they handed out glasses of champagne to celebrate the start of the expedition. They explained what we’d be doing and took the time to introduce the crew to us. Amongst the crew there was an atmospheric researcher who once wintered in Antarctica, two ornithologists, a historian, and several other specialities including a ship’s doctor. These were all there to use their particular skill sets to try and make it the best experience possible for the passengers.

This was followed by our first meal on-board which due to it being New Years Eve as well they decided to make it extra special to celebrate. For the starter it was a seafood dish, but as I don’t like seafood they gave me the vegetarian choice which was a tomato and avocado salad. The main course was beef, lamb, and vegetables and this was followed by a dessert of chocolate, ice cream, and “drunken fruits”. It may sound like someone’s managed to impair the fruit’s judgement, though what it actually means is fruit soaked in alcohol. It seems they’re really fond of their alcohol on this ship.

They then followed this with a glass of kahlua, and a cup of tea. I made a bit of a mess though as the kahlua had whipped cream on the top of it, and when drinking it the cream moved out the way and caused more to flow than intended.

Back in the ship’s lounge we all split up into teams and took part in a quiz of three rounds. By the time the first two rounds were complete we’d made it into joint first place, but it was then time to begin the countdown to New Years Day. As the hour approached they handed out glasses of champagne for everyone — each glass being specially engraved to mark the occasion, and was for the passengers to keep.

With only ten seconds remaining we all began to count down. This was followed by cheering and the traditional singing of Auld Lang Syne. As is fairly common though it didn’t go beyond the first verse.

When the third round of the quiz was over we snuck into the lead and won it — winning two bottles of wine between the five of us. These were put behind the bar for us to use during a later meal. By this time we had navigated out of the Beagle Channel. We were no longer in the calm waters protected by the land — we were now in the open sea and our journey had begun in earnest.

Our first full day on the ship was a day at sea — there’d be no sightseeing. It did however mean we could have a later breakfast, and get some more sleep to recover from a late night.

The weather during the morning was cloudy and wet so there wasn’t a great deal to see. From 11:00 until 12:00 there was a talk in the dining room about the history of the Falkland Islands. We were told about how the history of these islands had been turbulent long before the conflict in 1982.

Long before the confirmed discovery of the islands, the sovereignty of the Americas was in dispute between Spain and Portugal due to Christopher Columbus having met with King John II of Portugal before he got support from Queen Isabella of Spain. In 1493 Pope Alexander attempted to resolve this by splitting the New World in two between Spain, and Portugal — this included any lands yet to be discovered.

It is believed a number of expeditions sighted the Falkland Islands after this time, but it wasn’t until the late 1500s that it is believed it was landed upon by the English. When John Strong landed on the islands in 1690 he then gave them their current name. Just twenty-three years later they were disputed by Spain as being theirs under the treaty of Tordesillas. This eventually led to what is known as the Falklands Crisis.

After the history lesson we were called deck by deck to visit the boots room for fitting ready for the excursions that would start the following day. It was a relatively quick process but still took almost an hour for the whole boat to do this. They require you to use their boots so that as the boots get dirtier they won’t cause the cabins to smell, and helps them to avoid contamination.

In the afternoon there was a little more free time on deck before another lecture, this time one on the birds we could expect to see. The lecture was mostly a slide show where for each one we were told if the species was unique to the Falklands or not. This was followed by a mandatory briefing about excursions and how the Zodiacs would be used.

Zodiacs are a brand of rigid inflatable boats which the Plancius uses for ferrying passengers to and from the land, and also used to tour as well. The ship was equipped with a few of these — enough to carry everyone on-board at the same time. For most land based excursions they’d only use the two though as it took more effort to access and prepare the others.

After another short break we had yet another briefing — this time to cover the activities for the next day and what options we had. We were told that if the weather conditions prevented a landing on Carcass Island, that there would be an alternative plan — though they didn’t suggest what this would be. Perhaps they didn’t yet know themselves.

I thought the sea at this time was quite rough, though the crew all thought it was calm. I couldn’t tell if they were being serious or not — just how rough was the sea going to get?

Although I like to try the local foods and will try many things at least once, I’m also quite fussy as I won’t eat most fish and there are quite a few vegetables that I don’t eat either. So when the evening meal was served at 19:00 there were only small parts of it I’d eat. I’d eaten so little during this first day that I was hoping we’d be back to a buffet style meal at some point so I’d at least stop wasting food.

Overnight we had arrived at the first stop in our expedition, and awoke to sunshine over the west coast of the Falkland Islands. This was short lived though as by the time we’d had breakfast some storm clouds had appeared, and the wind had picked up. The wind was that strong that they decided we’d be visiting West Point Island instead of Carcass Island.

After a quick briefing to explain what we’d be doing on the island we then had fifteen minutes to get ready, and to begin boarding the zodiacs. I did think I was going to go out on the first boat but my life jacket wasn’t tight enough for them to be happy, so I ended up on the fourth boat. The sea was quite rough from the winds, and this caused me to get wet every time we hit a wave. It was fortunate it was a short journey to the shore.

The disembarking onto land was pretty easy, and for all of us it was our first time on dry land in 2014. Once the last group arrived we were led by a member of the crew up hills and across fields until we caught up with the earlier groups. As I got closer I shifted from one group to the other so I could get to where we were going as quickly as possible — I don’t like to walk slowly if I can help it.

After about a mile we had reached the opposite side of the island and could then proceed by ourselves as long as we stayed at least five metres away from any wildlife. The place we’d reached was a colony of black-browed albatross with rockhopper penguins mixed between them.

There was so much going on, and it was difficult to know what to capture in photographs so I found myself taking as many as I could. I started off concentrating on the nesting albatrosses, but found there were places where I could get closer to them. Getting to be closer to the animals, whilst still the required five metres away, meant it was easier to capture their behaviour — though it was important to try to not influence this.

At times I sat down on the grass a little over five metres away, but found that the birds would walk closer to me. Obviously the birds hadn’t been told about the same rule as us.

Black-browed Albatross

Once I was happy I’d photographed albatrosses enough I worked my way along a sodden path to a place where I could get closer to some rockhopper penguins. It was great seeing them so close and to watch them hop from rock to rock. I thought it looked like they were having fun as they bathed in the stream and dried themselves off. Though as the wind was so strong by this time it was surprising they needed to dry themselves at all.

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

I found the penguins to be fascinating and spent quite some time just watching them. Eventually I moved on and followed another winding path though the weather soon turned to heavy rain. I tried to continue taking pictures but the raindrops made it impossible to focus — I had no choice but to abandon any further photography, and to get my cameras into dry bags.

My friend followed suit, and we trekked back across the island at a much quicker pace as we weren’t being led the way this time. We boarded the second Zodiac to leave the shore and was soon back on-board the Plancius. Back on the ship we had to clean and disinfect our boots before we were allowed inside. This was to avoid bringing anything on-board from the island that could potentially cause cross-contamination between islands on future excursions.

Being amongst the first back on the boat meant I had some time to back-up my photographs before lunch. For this meal we were back to a buffet which meant I could choose foods that I liked. To start with I had a carrot and ginger soup; however one of the others on our table knocked the bowl out of the waitresses hands causing it to fall over me. I think she was horrified that I’d been covered from head to toe in hot soup.

The hotel manager on the ship saw it happen, and even though it was a passengers fault, they provided free laundry services to get my shirt and trousers cleaned as soon as possible. After a quick change, I went for copious amounts of pasta as I’d not really eaten much over the previous couple of days.

Whilst in the dining room we’d weighed anchor and set off, this time in the direction of Saunder’s Island. The weather had gotten worse again so we were unsure if we’d be going on the planned excursion or not in the afternoon. With the way the weather was it meant any excursion at all was unlikely.

Bad weather can dampen people’s moods when it has an impact on what we can do, but the weather did improve. We couldn’t however visit our intended landing spot, but we did make landfall further around the island on the site of the first British colony in the Falklands — Port Egmont. This settlement was started in 1765 by Captain John Byron, years after it’s initial discovery, and around the same time as the French had settled elsewhere on the islands.

It was a rough ride to the island, and for most of the time there it rained. We walked from the ruins of the old fort up to a memorial, and from there to the top of the cliff before walking back along the seafront. On our way along the seafront I spotted a juvenile black-crowned night heron sitting on a rock. Once I’d pointed it out to a few people they were then pointing it out to others over the next twenty minutes.

The return trip by zodiac was far rougher as the wind had picked up considerably. As this was making the journey far more dangerous they added a second crew member to each Zodiac so they could help with keeping the nose up during transit. I think if the weather had been like this before we left the ship, we’d never have gone on the excursion on the basis it was too risky.

Not long after returning to the ship it was time for the evening meal. The starter for this was one I didn’t like, so they decided to get me a bowl of the soup from earlier instead. This was then followed by a very nice turkey dinner that actually included vegetables I like. The dessert was almost as good — a yogurt with blackberries and a slice of kiwi. Following this we had a briefing for what we’d be doing in Port Stanley, and that we’d be travelling at full speed all night to get us there on time.

Next morning we got a wake-up announcement at 07:00 as we were approaching Port Stanley. As we wanted to fit a lot in we rushed to get ready and have breakfast so we could be amongst the first ones to land. Thankfully we got onto the first boat and were the first onto land.

When we got there we were greeted by seals on the pier, though apparently they didn’t hang around for long after the first Zodiac arriving. At first glance the island felt incredibly British with brick houses and picket fences that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Yorkshire. It was no wonder that in their recent referendum they decided to remain British, and to not join Argentina — it was a piece of Britain away from home.

We even saw an early morning runner out doing some training. Since my last trip I’d taken up running — having started off with what is known as “couch to 5K”. In the couple of months since starting I’d worked my way up to 10K and planned to continue running when I got home. I’d not packed any running clothes for this trip as I hadn’t considered that there could be opportunities to run here.

Port Stanley

The tourist information centre was closed so we couldn’t get a map as had been suggested, or even book a taxi. Fortunately a local offered to book a taxi for us, but when it arrived another arriving group took it.

The reason for the taxi was that during the briefing we’d been told about the possibility of seeing Magellanic penguins at Gypsy cove. Most of the ship was interested by this, and the only way to get there in time was by taxi.

However, it turned out that there were only two taxis on the island and they weren’t expecting this amount of business. It felt like it would have been good if the tour company could have arranged for a minibus or something to take the group instead — but perhaps Port Stanley didn’t have any of these.

Eventually we managed to get a taxi and it took us through an industrial estate, past the rusty shipwreck of the Lady Elizabeth in Whale Bone Cove, and finally over the hill to Gypsy Cove. It cost US$20 for a return journey per passenger, so considering the numbers that wanted to go there the drivers must have been doing quite well.

For the next hour and a half we wandered around the cove, but couldn’t get down to the beach due to it being fenced off. The reason for this was that the Argentinians placed landmines on the beaches during the last conflict. Although this beach had been cleared it was possible for more to have been washed ashore from a nearby minefield. It wouldn’t be safe to walk down there.

On the beach we could see a large number of Magellanic penguins, two king penguins, and some upland geese. Since coming ashore at Port Stanley the sun had come out and was now illuminating the cove to make it look even more impressive.

Along one path we came across Ordnance Point — a spot where you can find a gun emplacement from the second world war. This rusty old gun was placed on the Falklands Islands to protect them from the Germans alongside the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF) whilst over 150 men and women went to Britain to help in the war effort. The Falkland Islands still had to be protected to protect Britain’s interests in Antarctica, and itself would have made a good fuelling base in the Atlantic.

On our way back along the coast we stopped for a while to watch a pair of Magellanic penguins go back and forth to a burrow with twigs — obviously they were building a nest. My hope was that on a beach with potential landmines that either they were light enough to not set any off, or they knew to avoid them. That wouldn’t be a great way to make a penguin fly.

Magellanic penguins nest-building

At 10:30 the taxi returned for us and took us back to the port where we’d been picked up from — the amount of time we’d had at Gypsy Cove was about right for what was there. We then headed in the direction of the museum, but made a few stops in gift shops and the post office along the way. The route takes you passed a memorial to those that died during the 1982 conflict, and along the seafront where you can see another shipwreck.

The museum in Port Stanley, at the time at least, was £3 to look around. It wasn’t that big, but there was memorabilia from the island’s history, and a lot of information about the 1982 conflict. It looked like in the previous few weeks they’d also hurriedly added an extra section that detailed the result of the referendum.

Of the majority turnout all but 3 people voted yes for staying British, and one person invalidated their ballot paper. You could understand why they’d want to remain British. Everything about the place felt British: the accents, the currency, the style of buildings, the police uniforms, and even the short opening hours of their post office.

We spent enough time looking around that we were on the last of the Zodiacs going back to the Plancius. After lunch they weighed anchor as we set off on what would be a two day journey to South Georgia.

In the afternoon there was a session in the lounge for teaching people how to take better photographs. I did stop by briefly to see what it was like, but there wasn’t really anything special discussed in the session. Most of what was talked about was the composition of photographs, though they did briefly mention the importance of light.

A little later in the afternoon whilst the sea was particularly rough, there was a session that talked about rockhopper penguins, the night the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands, and finally about the black-browed albatross. This was followed by dinner, and for a time some of us sat and talked in the dining room until it was time for one of the guides to give a talk.

The guide explained how he does work for a museum, cataloguing species from collections, and mentioned that even for newly discovered species they need the skin of the species to use as a reference for them before they can be officially recognised.

What this means is that when possible they will collect dead individuals from a species, or in the case where they can’t find one — they’ll kill one. I disagree with this approach considerably — with today’s technology we should be able to come up with something better than needless killing.

One option would be for them to wait for one to die, though this isn’t going to happen. Either the discoverer of the species will be too impatient and worried that someone else may register the species first, or it may be that their funding covers a limited time frame. Whichever way you look at it, they’re killing a newly discovered animal for either fame, or money.

In my opinion it would be better to take DNA samples from a random sample of them. This could then be supplemented by using a 3D scanner on the same sample population and to produce a model based upon the average of them. I would hope this is something that the organisation responsible for recording species has already thought of though. I can only assume that there is a specific reason for needing a corpse.

Breakfast on the next day was a late one as there was little for anyone to do whilst on the open sea. There was however a morning lecture on the penguins we could expect to see on South Georgia upon our arrival. The main focus was on their breeding patterns such as how long each sex would spend sitting on the egg, and the frequency of which they’d swap over.

It felt like being back at university as this was then followed by another lecture — this time on the history of South Georgia. They discussed how it had been used as a whaling station as recently as the 1970s, and how it was used as a staging ground by the Argentinian military when they invaded the Falkland Islands.

In the afternoon we then had a lecture on glaciers — something that we’d be seeing more and more of as we travelled further south. An iceberg is constantly melting where it touches the salty sea water — this is what causes them to rotate and create fantastic shapes. Their colouration though comes from the sunlight shining through the water molecules.

The final lecture of the day was a photography workshop. I did wonder if I should submit some of my photographs for it but decided I didn’t want to hear how bad they are. It could have been useful though for seeing where and how to improve. By the end of this session I realised it wouldn’t have been that useful anyway, but it was interesting to see what sort of shots others were taking.

Before dinner there was one last lecture where they discussed how data loggers and transmitters can be used in tracking bird migration and behaviour analysis. This soon changed topics though as the guide started to talk about what we could expect the following day.

For the evening meal it was veal in a mushroom sauce with pasta, and something claiming to be apple crumble afterwards. I commented to the others on the table that it’s one of my favourite desserts and the Australians we were with jokingly told the staff I wanted a second portion. To my surprise they actually brought one out! Rather than be greedy I decided I’d share it all out between the rest of the table instead of having it myself.

For what remained of the day most of us relaxed in the lounge with a story from the expedition leader. The story was about one of this adventures in the north when he encountered a polar bear with some of his friends. He was great at telling the story, and you could really picture their camping experience. It was an incredibly amusing story, and finished with everyone in fits of laughter.

Perhaps it hadn’t been the most adventurous of days, but we learnt a lot that day. Soon we’d be arriving in South Georgia for the next stage of the expedition, and one step closer to Antarctica.