26 Nov-7 Dec 2014 – Purest place on Earth: Antarctica!

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To heaven and back
Iron-grey skies play and tease the light
Iron-grey skies play and tease the light
Courtesy of Emily Kay Woods, Expedition staff
Courtesy of Allison McCarthy

“There’s no Antarctic ocean on the maps. The cold waves that beat against the Antarctic continent are from the southern portions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and in their flow around the ice-rimmed land they mingle to form one vast gale-swept wilderness of water.” Russell Owen observed as he nailed the essence of where we were headed.

Sturdy, hardened to Mother Nature’s ferocity and outwardly up-to-the-job, first impressions of our Yugoslavian-built seafaring vessel told me we’d be in capable hands.  After an excited embarkation on the ‘Sea Adventurer’, I surveyed the scene aboard 100 metres of promenade-lined and plush surroundings: A gourmet dining room, library, personalised cabin service and a spacious lounge complete with an impressive coffee and cookie station. Punctuated mind you by a succession of sick bags, tucked into the ship’s hand rails ubiquitously on every deck.

Sea Adventurer
Sea Adventurer nosing into otherworldly territory

Oh joy, here comes the chunder-induced pain before any gain. No, don’t become disenchanted before dipping even a big toe into the seas off the Antarctic – go figure when three oceans converge while circumpolar currents surge. An early presentation aboard the ship restored any waning confidence in conveying that our vessel was adept at ‘bio-mimicking’ a whale. Smooth, streamlined and evolved, Olympians of the sea totally in touch with their bodies – I optimistically interpreted. Like an orca then, I resided to keep my eyes on the prize.

Gentoo penguins – need we say more?

We set sail from the Beagle Channel leaving behind us views of the fjords past Puerto Williams, pushing ever south. Into the legendary Drake Passage we ventured, named after the pioneering Sir Francis himself.  Potentially we could have run a course through a choppy crossing of strong winds thrashing turbulent waters. In preparing for the worst – gale-force weather is not exactly uncommon – we were rewarded with out-of-the-blue benign conditions.

We picked up no more than a four on the Beaufort Scale; 12 being synonymous with a hurricane. Relax Lisa, your sea legs have already kicked in from a previous lifetime at sea.  With a swarm of wandering, black-browed and light mantled sooty albatross catching the updraft of our ship – dominating the scene in and around a cluster of cape petrels – I had to pinch myself we were really doing this. We were bound for the Antarctic! The last place on the Earth.  The thought alone nearly knocked me sideways – grateful that the gentle boat sway didn’t.

The Antarctic is like stepping into a painting – about as surreal as it gets

As the coldest, windiest and driest continent, Antarctica is also the globe’s largest white desert wilderness. Surely the purest place on the planet. To reach it, one must cross the Antarctic Convergence. This is a curve continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. More interestingly, mean temperatures in Antarctica’s interior plummet to -70 degrees Celsius where the record sits at an even chillier -92. That would be nippy on the knockers.  Thermals? Check.

The Antarctic is a generic term for the Southern Polar region, everything south of latitude 66.5 degrees whereas Antarctica refers to the continental land mass in that region. Conceivably, Antarctica is home to 90 per cent of the world’s ice – the largest single piece of ice on Earth that’s up to 19 million square kilometres – and 70 per cent of all fresh water. Incredible when you think the world’s only other ice sheet in Greenland holds just a drop at nine per cent of the globe’s frozen water. The continental ice sheet averages around 2.5 kilometres in thickness where a mere quarter of one per cent isn’t glacial, visible as snow-smothered mountains and coastal features. ¡Ay, caramba!

The winner of the the Sea Adventurer’s onboard photography competition

To set the scene on the seventh and final continent: Antarctica Peninsula is a long chain of alpine mountains, topped by an ice plateau and sculpted by countless active glaciers. Ice cliffs dominate the coastline where these gargantuan glaciers manage to carve their way through valleys or even override the ranges and eventually merge into the Ross Ice Shelf.  It’s tricky to contemplate how inhospitable and exposed that would leave any wildlife wandering around. Marine and bird life, despite the odds, abounds in and on the seas surrounding Antarctica. Seals, penguins and various other species of birds are the only permanent residents – all of whom are from a higher ilk of ‘tough cookie’.

No sooner had our ship’s thrusters started whirling and guests were given an itinerary of back-to-back lectures from expert-in-their-field expedition staff.  Marine biology, ornithology, the weather, geography, glaciology and geology, the environment and history headlined the daily agenda. Sitting in the lounge before an animated presenter and a big projector screen or viewing the same from the comfort of your cabin, simply by switching to channel 8, people appreciated the option to pick and choose.  Others would give in and snooze in either location when unable to fight it any longer.  Antarctic adventuring is more tiring than you think.

Alex, the expedition leader required all passengers to attend an IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) meeting about correct conduct on the white continent. It gave us a purity of purpose much bigger than ourselves. It was an adherence to conscience that made us acutely aware to all the precious variables at play within the still unspoiled environment. Consequently, we vacuumed our on-shore items, washed and sanitised the footwear and officially declared nothing other than memories and photographs would be taken. Fair enough.

Occasionally elusive and always enigmatic, Alex was also sea-green incorruptible, the fixed point on this voyage. The ultimate source of assistance, information and knowledge. Under present circumstances, his mental processes were fired to a white-hot pitch that would melt the walls. He seamlessly laced a dry humour through the necessary ‘Dos and don’ts’, exhibited a pin-sharp memory and a exuded calm like that of an ER surgeon. A rugged beard framed a moustache that curled up at the sides – matured his features without hiding a pair of bright, young eyes. I liked him instantly.

Neon bright iceberg glowing in the Antarctic’s twilight

Day two of the crossing and circumstances had conspired to favour an early arrival: Deception Island, home to a horseshoe volcano, part of the South Shetland Islands. Staff jumped at the chance to have us hop into the zodiac, our 10-passenger rigid inflatable, ice-strengthened boat and make the first of three bonus ‘opportunistic’ landings. Wonderful weather on top, we were off to a winning start.  We emerged from the ship into a cold, icy world at once unfamiliar and intoxicating. Jaw-on-the-floor, I just gazed. Overawed like never before. Bone-deep delight surfaced upon a scene of polar magnificence, far beyond the grandeur of the glossy promo literature. My face distorted into a rictus by the wonder – as the Irish would say, it was savage.

Chilling off Antarctic waters
Chilling off Antarctic waters

Dramatic grey-pink skies radiated deep into the evenings, striking sunsets would bowl me over as much as catch me out.  The rays grazing the surface of sapphire waters were red, orange and yellow while illuminating mammoth icebergs, shimmering with a neon-bright luminescence. It’s like nothing we’d imagined nor could have imagined outside our experience to date. Including burning my chin between 9-10.30pm!

As the sun set at 9.30pm and rose around 3am, it was twilight throughout the night without ever getting close to pitch. Note to self: An unquestionably thinner ozone meant my no-melanin skin was absorbing UV light better than a sponge taking on water.  Welcome to being a redhead in Antarctica.  In doubting the credibility of my factor 50 sunscreen, and knowing the staff had previously gotten sunburned in fog, I took my glowing red chin and scooted down to the onboard shop. Shame, they didn’t stock SPF Antarctic.

Throughout the trip, we caught photo-worthy glimpses of humpbacks and killer whales as well as getting flashes of a dorsal fin, water-spurting blowhole or fluke on the odd minke and fin whales.  The Antarctic isn’t referred to as ‘Citation Nation’ for nothing.  Not a day passed without close-up sightings of penguins porpoising through the water. Sometimes only a few metres from our sea-kayaks while colonies of long-tailed gentoo, wing-spread Adélie or distinctive chinstrap penguins would bustle about in the bay.  Spread-eagled Weddell seals appeared oblivious, harrumphed and snorted before falling back into a lazy siesta again. Some day dreamed, others snored deeply in the weak sun. All inside a white landscape of floating sea ice, giant cravasses and glowing blue ice structures.  It decidedly set the tone of the trip.

A zodiac cruise under brooding iron-grey Antarctic skies

By day three, colossal ice action was becoming our new norm; ripping away now and again from glaciers or a mass of scultped icebergs, which sparkled in the sun and fed further excitement through our already thrill-saturated veins. We took our first leisurely zodiac cruise around Cierva Cove, clocking the cormorants gliding above and putting a disinfected pair of wellies down onto the peninsula. Standing firmly on Antarctica. What a euphoric moment. I stared at the steady accumulation of frozen ice thickening on everything outside in air cold enough that our breath hung white around us.

The afternoon saw a playful, eddying wind off Portal Point that I never quite knew which way was blowing. Both the penguins and Jason undertook a little porpoising. With a protruding tongue-tip that imparted a look of great concentration, Jason accidentally capsized from his kayak into the drink. Cue the copied penguin swimming. “Unintentional swimmer! Unintentional swimmer!” the rest of the pointing well-briefed kayakers boomed, while I nearly fell in backwards off the zodiac laughing too hard. Some overly-enthusiastic skulling there Jase?

A busy colony of gentoos bustling about in the bay

Orne Harbour was as labour-intensive as the trip was going to get. Floraine, a Swedish girl I gelled with on board and I night-hiked up a mountain, running up like crazed mountain goats to bleed off some excess energy. Feeling giddy all the way up for no other reason than where we were. And the company we were keeping. It always feels good to be amongst contagiously happy people. The high vantage point showed us a speck more of what a great expanse of white empty nothingness the place really was. We saw just a tip of the iceberg! Everything was abandoned to the cold and ice, yet surviving the most brutal conditions on Earth all around us were the penguins and birds. I’ll never complain that I’m cold again.

Cuverville Island was a small island dominated by a large, lichen-covered rocky outcrop. The morning saw a substantial rookery of gentoos coming and going about their business. Lots of mating action to be had there if not already underway. Was it wrong to want to witness the intimate ritual? A fascinating display of talking to one another, bowing genteelly in courtship as only gentoos can and wasting not a second more in getting on with the deed itself. Harmonious.

And so a plethora of persistent males wooed the females. Apathy arose when the odd female would reject a male. It was curious to watch the males shrug off the rebuff and try elsewhere to achieve their personal aspirations that day. More curious perhaps when the dismissing female clocked the consequences of her actions and shuffled after Mr Rejectee having changed her mind. “Sorry love, you’re too late – I’m with Martia now. Chau babe”, he squawked with a certain frisson of satisfaction.

Salty sea dogs aboard their trusty reinforced zodiacs

Outgrown all those behaviours, penguin mothers would attentively tend to their eggs while a predatory bird known as the skewer would permanently sniff out any eggs left momentarily unsupervised. Observing a skewer steal one on the sly to feed its own chick was one thing, but to have to watch the resultant penguin’s forlorn and lost reaction leaves you powerless. My heart instantly tried to climb up to my throat like a rat up a drainpipe.

Neko Harbour gave us prime opportunity to hit the water in the kayaks once again. Named after the floating whale factory ship, Neko is home to approximately 250 breeding pairs of penguins but infamous for its calving glaciers. A startling video shown on board beforehand made me sit up and pay attention showing the impact of a hefty calving. Think tsunami and then visualise flipping zodiac boats, kayaks capsizing and penguins running for their lives. That’d up the ante in our video footage.

Looking for someone?

For us at Neko, what started with the penguins casually swimming alongside us and some small chunks of ice rumbling down into the sea turned into nothing more than a strong headwind and strenuous paddle back. Personally, I’d have preferred riding the wake from an over-zealous carving. Turning my back to a breath-snatching wind, I tried to ignore the frigid air brushing my neck and taking possession of my toes. Alas we started to make our circuitous way home. Cold was creeping quickly through my drysuit and base layers. There was an attending chill that fought to take my breath away and I groaned like someone much older. Eventually back on board after the best part of three hours, my half frozen fingers responded with about as much dexterity as oversized clubs at the end of my arms. What did I expect in the Antarctic?

Next up, The Lemaire Channel. The Russian captain’s biggest challenge navigating us through an 800-metre wall-to-wall narrow crossing for 11 kilometres; negotiating towering peaks overhead and a sea surface smothered in densely packed ice. Very otherworldly, it no longer felt remotely familiar to anything else on Earth. The ship’s course was further choked by an imposing display of large tabular bergs, bunched together the way sky scrapers loom over New York.

Time for reflection: Just kayaking off Antarctica, no big deal.

Making it to Petermann Island was a sight to behold. Our most southerly point on the voyage. Having taken its name from a German geographer and supporter of polar exploration, the island is home to 300 breeding pairs of Adélies and the most southerly colony of gentoos in Antarctica at around 2,000 breeding pairs. That’s a pungent amount of penguin poop. The sun on Petermann peaked at the trip’s highest temperature, perhaps tipping into double figures.   Perched on a rock our eyes were glued to a wide ice structure akin to a bouncy castle gently pitching and rolling in the water. It was like watching an arcade’s two pence slot machine stacked with coins, edge closer off its moving tray. The ice didn’t break but I guess as far as the jackpot was concerned, we’d already won that the moment we stepped onto an Antarctic-bound boat.

Probably our best Tuesday ever!

Glancing around Petermann Island, the snow petrels patrolled the Antarctic-cool skies. Blue-eyed shags would come and go, feeding their chicks. Some of the penguins took to tobogganing on their chests for ease and speed of travel while others tootled up their highways heading to Gentoo Road, Adélie Alley or Chinstrap City. All in the name of nest-building, diligently fetching materials to construct their safe-havens, high up out of harm’s way. If you’re a penguin you might as well build your nest with panoramic views. Hard going on their hard-working but happy feet though. Such purposeful little creatures, I studied them for hours. A tidal wave of excitement rolled over me that then just as quickly mutated into a smile erupting on my face. This was my new happy place.

Going for a dip in water less than one degree…that’s going to be nippy on the knockers!

Having visited a Ukraine station, passed several Argentinean ones it was time to head to a British base. The Ukraine’s Vernadsky station was sold by the Britons for the nominal price of a pound back in 1996, as it was cheaper for them to sell up than pay to remove the buildings. Incidentally Vernadsky was where scientists first observed depletion in the ozone layer, known as the ozone hole. That’ll burn more than just your chin at 10pm without the right precautions. The Ukrainians seemed pretty pleased to receive us, their first set of guests since March. Willingly, they opened up the bar hoping for a roaring trade by sharing their homemade vodka. $3 a pop or a shot in exchange for a lady’s bra no less. What’s the secret ingredient then lads, distilled penguin? It tickled me in discovering a batch of wood was previously handed over to the site staff with a brief to build a jetty. Destiny had other ideas that day, at least the minds of three Ukrainian guys did when they opted to erect a bar instead. Sadly they got the sack but a fine example of ingenuity boys!

Port Lockroy, home to the British Antarctic Survey station
Port Lockroy, home to the British Antarctic Survey station

Port Lockroy was the name given to the British Antarctic Survey. A good vantage point to cast your eyes over Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a fairytale-esque set of mountains featuring prominently on the icescape. A delightful little museum depicting life on the Antarctic in the ‘50s, including rusting cans of food on exhibit, an amply stocked gift shop and the Penguin Post Office were the highlights of our visit. I chatted to the base’s staff in the time we’d been allotted: a bubbly Scottish girl with wild curly hair as red as new copper and a forthcoming English guy with connections to Nottingham. It was nostalgic to swop some stories of home sweet home.

If the glacial temperatures of the Antarctic weren’t quite racy enough for you, the staff offered a ‘Polar Plunge’.  Whether donning your bikini, budgie-smugglers or bathers, the idea of voluntarily jumping in for a head-to-toe dip seemed to hit a new level of crazy.  My thought process rapidly established some mental balance: Tempting…but no.   The ‘before’ and ‘after’ expressions were priceless on the 35 folks that opted in. Comedy gold mingled with just a hint of Schadenfreude – guys, you had my full respect. I felt only a tenth of their pain when volunteering to become an ‘intentional swimmer’, albeit in a drysuit. A mentalist I am not. In water less than one degree, I fully submerged and laughed hysterically in the watery process. Should’ve gone the whole hog!

Half Moon Island featured next on the itinerary; another supreme site for sea-kayaking. A prime location for penguins to amble across pebbled beaches too, beavering away at the construction of their homes.  While whales occasionally spy-hopped, meaning they would poke out of the water ‘nose up’ for a stealthy peek at their prey, Antarctic terns dive-bombed for a quick bite to eat.  The mountainside was a frozen region of towering ice with steep, jagged peaks.  Some shed cold tears as they trickled down the ice face while my fingers marched a slow exploration of the sea ice, bobbing alongside us; exquisitely scalloped all over where waves and wind had intervened and left their design of existence. An audible and continuous ‘snap, crackle and pop’ diverted my attention away from anything else. I paused to take in the beauty of a world engulfed in crystal. Everything reflected light and contributed to the heightened brilliance of the late afternoon. I will sorely miss this place.

The Antarctic is steeped in as much ice as uniqueness. Nothing there but silence, blessed and profound. Icebergs stand off-centre in a lush white scene encircled by midnight-blue ocean. The place effortlessly achieves a state of otherworldliness and in being there, it almost feels like your physical form transcends its corporeal limitations to escape the very bonds of Earth.  It’s from time immemorial where light bursts forth in dazzling profusion. One of the farthest ends of the planet yet such a serene but dramatic space.  I, as much as everyone else pray we never tame it. Stepping into what feels like a painting more oft than not, the surrealism takes hold with such intensity, it’s overwhelming on the emotions. And it will leave your image-tank more than full. Someone asked me during the trip, “Dear, are you enjoying the Antarctic?”  Stunned to the root of my soul, I just welled up, smiled with a nod and swallowed hard.  Beyond incredible.

Antarctic paradise
Antarctic paradise

Icy trails and penguin tails – by Lisa Morris

Having embarked the ‘Sea Adventurer’ with no expectation,

Within hours, we were bestowed a visual sensation.


Favourable seas teemed with wildlife,

Gliding on the Drake, bewitching birds were rife.


Antarctic terns, cape petrels and the masterful albatross,

Swirling above, their paths would majestically cross.


I marvelled at their movement – the Titans of the Sky,

All of whose soaring displays for my attention they would vie.


I glimpsed a pod of humpbacks breaching,

And watched the mother’s calf take mindful note in the teaching.


Penguins, penguins, penguins! Ahoy!

Bustling colonies of gentoo, chinstrap and Adélie – oh boy.


Porpoising to the water’s edge to assume a ‘waddle come shuffle’,

These highway-bound creatures were so purposeful.


Was it a perpetual vigilance against the sly old skewer?

Nature takes penguins’ eggs for good reason but still leaves them fewer.


My soul sang upon sightings of minke, fin and killer whale,

This seafaring expedition was leagues from a fail.


Glacier-studded mountains towered over Antarctica’s glistening icescape,

Eyes feasted on colossal ice action as carvings made a striking escape.


When polar grandeur mingles with an overwhelming calm, it surfaces euphoric delight,

Especially when steely grey skies play and tease the light.


Snow-smothered peaks create a serene but dramatic environment,

Leaving every nerve atingle in this otherworldly continent.


In a place that’s steeped in as much history as snow,

A fellow passenger enquired, “Dear, are you enjoying the show?”


I swallowed hard and nodded with a smile,

Quark Expeditions had gone fathoms deeper than the extra mile.

13-25 Nov 2014 – BA’s bygone elite, a big bike meet & four mad Irish

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j trees
BA’s joyous jacaranda trees in mid-November bloom


City lights
City lights

Back in Buenos Aires (BA) post a zippy 18 hour bus ride, it felt like we’d been dealt a second chance card. We had cheated ourselves on the previous breathtakingly scanty visit, eager to be at the world’s edge. Due to the onset of snow we hadn’t seen the city’s centrepiece, namely its colonial architectural elegance nor been enveloped by the ginormous jacaranda trees. November is one of the best times of year to be in the capital, not least for the splendour of the jacaranda’s blue trumpet shaped flowers, fluttering down on you like silky rain.

Architectural elegance sweeping the capital

With only three days at our disposal, we purposely stayed at Recoleta Hostel boasting a sunny rooftop terrace, accommodating staff and freshly homemade bread at breakfast; about the cheapest lodging closest to Cementerio de la Recoleta as well. After the primal experience of being in the clutches of the Devil’s Throat, Iguazu’s most monstrous waterfall, it felt calming to go somewhere a bit more sacred.

The streets of Recoleta Cemetery

It was not your conventional burial ground lined with neat rows of graves regularly punctuated by engraved headstones. Recoleta’s cemetery had a labyrinth of stately streets lined with imposing statues, marble sarcophagi and mausoleums housing ornate and beautifully adorned tombs – complete with a resident ginger cat on patrol, Toto. It was visually grabbing as a book is un-put-downable but it didn’t take long before I could feel myself getting lost in this architectural grandeur.

Winged angels watching over

Stood proud or kneeled over the deceased, the winged angels seemed to carry a calming aura; brought to life through searching eyes behind a mesh of cobwebs, as old as time itself. The sense of watching was powerful. Not threatening necessarily, just…eerie. There was also a tangible peace about the place, although I wouldn’t fancy walking those quiet streets at night. I left that task to Toto. Before my mind had time to arouse any further musings, Toto had parked his bum on my lap, paddled his paws for a moment on my legs and looked up with eyes that craved affection.

A pair of coffins holding the remains of BA’s bygone elite

The coffins – some subterranean in crypts while others were showcased behind glass fronted buildings – held the remains of the city’s bygone elite: past presidents, military heroes and influential politicians alongside the rich and famous. Included in such historical remnants was the final resting place of Eva Peron, otherwise known as Evita.

Interestingly Evita rose to power alongside her husband and became one of the most revered political figures in South America. She supposedly eclipsed the legacy of the president, her man. She reached out to the nation’s poor, who came to love her dearly. She built housing for the impoverished, created programmes for children and distributed provisions to families on the breadline. As well, she allegedly: campaigned for the aged, offered health services to the destitute and advocated a law extending suffrage to women. This lady was on the verge of saving humanity!

Plaque of Evita

2657498308_ba3521bb0fIn her second term in office, at the height of her popularity she died suddenly. At the age of 33 from cancer. A massive blow to what Evita called the country’s descamisados  (the shirtless ones), although the couple was said to rule with an iron fist. This may’ve been down to the fact they jailed opposition leaders, banned any medium referring to her as an ‘illegitimate child’ and confiscated assets and resources from the retired richer classes, among other acts that led to a benefits-driven society reliant on a popularist government. I understand that today Evita still holds sway with some; there was no denying the extent to which she gifted on a massive scale to the struggling Argentinean classes. Was she a true economical leader – many say not. Did she empower folk or create a culture of dependent people unwilling to work? A controversial woman who left a somewhat challenging legacy in her wake.

280943484_98d2635ccdAnother bus journey under our belts: BA to Tierra del Fuego – although akin to flying business class – morphed into a tedious road trip after 50 hours straight. We’d clocked over 100 hours by bus inside a week where the latest coach-going epic was complete with a bureaucratic delay at one of the borders. C’est la vie, we were well on our way to circumnavigating Argentina, again. Although this time by four wheels rather than our trusty two. I pined after Pearl although repeating the boundless voids of Ruta 3’s bland landscape would have made a dreary ride; costing us wear and tear on the bikes, pockets more pesos and our sanity.

Buenos Aires: A cultural capital


A young eternity later: Ushuaia. Take Two! Upon entering the town, I got that heady mix of familiarity, nostalgic fondness for a place and a growing anticipation in meeting up with friends, old and new. Not to mention the voyage of a lifetime. Shimmed between the Beagle Channel and the snow-capped Martial Range, Ushuaia’s bustling port is the final trace of civilization seen by Antarctica-bound boats, our next port of call.

If Santa was a bad ass biker, meet Mario: Ho Ho Ho!
If Santa was a bad ass biker, meet Mario: Ho Ho Ho!

More than just the world’s southernmost town, Ushuaia is teeming with bikers around mid-November. Why? Encuentro Internacional de Motovjijeros en el Fin del Mundo  is a mouthful and why. An international gathering of motorcycle travellers at the world’s end. Our timing was flawless on that occasion.

The mad Irish quartet!
The mad Irish quartet!

Our Irish biking friends Mike and Orla wended their way down from Chile and joined us for the short window we had in Ushuaia. Reuniting with them took a blink of a moment to pick up where we’d left off.  It was ‘savage’ fun with Mike’s brother Fintan and sister Neasa on top, engage in a constant cook-a-thon for the human dustbins amongst us and thrash – okay – get bashed by the Irish at card games. They were a hoot and they showed us a good craic!

Feeling peckish Jason & Neasa?
Feeling peckish Jason & Neasa?

Hanging out in feel-good surroundings, benefitting the body by climbing a mountain and rewarding one’s wellbeing with some home-cooked winter-warmers is often all it takes. We were just six friends, and all pretense and protocol couldn’t hold against the bonds of our shared experiences.

1-12 Nov 2014 – Against the clock, a watery wonderland & battered eyelids

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Before withdrawing from our haven that’s been Chacras de Coria these past halcyon weeks, Toto took us to a six day international enduro race at San Juan. Countries were represented from around the globe, flags on display from all corners of the world. A sense of excitement and racing fever gripped everyone, the place became an instant sand-churned hive of activity.   The site was a furnace, the sun an executioner but that mattered little and less; we were there to witness what looked and felt synonymous to the Dakar Rally, one of the world’s most famous endurance races in South America where competitors cover around 500 miles off road per day for two weeks. Or at least it did to my mind’s eye on a more compact scale. I gaped at the scene for hours overawed by these focused men and a sprinkling of fiercely determined women. Their sand, dirt and ripio riding skills left me eating their dust, and some. These guys weren’t just competing, they were pros making the circuit – a heightened blend of technical difficulty and endurance year upon year – look a doddle. They were whizz-ards on wheels – it was quite simply mastery in motion.

Enduro racer showing off his sand riding skills
Enduro racer showing off his sand riding skills
Churning up sand in a race against the clock
Churning up sand in a race against the clock

Fond farewells exchanged with our Mendozan amigos, Pearl and Jason’s moto, I stared out the bus window peering contentedly into the depths of the tropics nearing Brazil. Northeast Argentina’s trees grew in density and colour, thickets of startling green rainforest became my window of vision’s new norm. After 36 hours of straining my eyes and imagination and memory in a metal four-wheeled box, my eyes had grown heavy with a weariness I’d not felt in a while. A curious lassitude had settled over me although after Andesmar’s cheery game of bingo for its passengers over the course of a rather de luxe ride akin to flying first class, I smiled to no one in particular and leapt out the moment we arrived. Long distance bus travel over 1,400 miles of tarmac definitely had its merits, saving wear and tear on the bikes and pesos in our pocket. The day was bright, warm on the skin and a hairdryer’s current of air caressed our faces.

After some time shopping around, we settled on ‘Peter Pan’ hostel; only a hop, skip and a jump from the Puerto Iguazu bus terminal although my mind couldn’t help wander towards a fondness for Pearl, my two-wheeled Tinkerbell. Who wants to trudge around in sticky temperatures laden with gear like a pack mule when you have a perfectly good motorcycle chomping at the bit – allowing the wind to breeze through your hair and take you places to boot? My backpacking days were definitely numbered from here on in.

Our 36 hour bus route from Mendoza to Puerto Iguazu
Our 36 hour bus route from Mendoza to Puerto Iguazu

Iguazu Falls is by far and away wondrous as it is watery. We entered the national park, a World Natural Heritage UNESCO site – at once unfamiliar and intoxicating – to see a series of waterfalls that indeed confirmed our suspicions. It made all previous cascades seen around the globe look like a running tap by comparison. In every drop of water stretching for 2.7 kilometres: spilling over the cliffs’ edges and plummeting hundreds of feet into deep pools at the canyon floor. The falls plunging over each precipice pounded the eardrums with a sonorous noise, striking at every sense and deliciously assaulting the core of my being. Its thunderous boom impressed on my soul, knowing the deep-rooted roar would forever resonate in my memory. The guy next to me observed, “Well, that’s nice”.

Just look at those fierce falls
Just look at those fierce falls

Just what brew of creation had formed the cascades and resultant biodiversity hotspot? Rio Iguazu meanders for 1,200 kilometres through the tropics of Argentina and Brazil and then dissolves in fury and uproar and power in perhaps the planet’s mightiest waterfall. It was astounding. As I inclined my head, I just stood breathing it in for goodness knows how long. It was instant and dramatic. But why was the water tinged with a dirty brown colour?

Four decades ago, the waters actually ran as clear as the content from your kitchen tap. Since then because of deforestation in most of the watershed, each time it rains water washes away the unprotected soil, which turns reddish brown. Consequently, the turbidity affects everything else: fish can’t find each other to court and spawn, birds and mammals that feed on fish can’t see their prey. And so the eco-chain is adversely affected – cue the domino effect. Egocentricity takes advantage again. I understood the dams upriver acted as sedimentation tanks lessening the problem. Mmmn, about as effective as a cat flap in a lion enclosure. Or mayhaps it was like putting a sticking plaster on, hiding the damage but not the hurt.

Over 1,200 butterfly species at Iguazu

The Argentine perimeter of Iguazu offered us more intimate close ups of the falls, especially on the trails while the Brazilian side – excited to see both boundaries of Mother Nature’s unrestrained wonder – yielded an altogether different experience. A more holistic, panoramic perspective. Between the surging waterfalls and us was a fine variety of flora and fauna inhabiting the Atlantic Forest. Home to a plethora of plants including 32 species of orchids punctuating the subtropical vegetation, densely packed beneath a gentle rain of butterflies fluttering all around. Either side, any sound we were making on foot was immediately masked by the endless noises of living forest. Tropical birdlife such as the toucan and parrot added a splash of colour against the spectrum of greens, whom between them and 400 other species chattering and warbling, sang in a sweet cacophony.

Swifts on the rock
Swifts clinging onto the sheer rock face

Through the trilling of the songbirds and the hissing of insects, I could hear the water resounding, its ever-present bellow penetrating deep. Looking past the cascades upon closer inspection, swarms of jet-black swifts – smaller than a person’s palm – flew briskly into the heavy curtain of water. Zipped straight through onto the sheer rock face. Who knew they’d be doing something like that? What ungraspable and amazing breadth of confidence these little creatures displayed. Feeding on the insects ricocheting off the raging water, the swift was the Titan of the sky. From our vantage point of various bridges parallel to the tiered falls, I’d see their keen eyes looking up at me. Others were far too occupied preening their drenched feathers. All perched happily on the wet rock, resting vertically on the wall – thanks to their legs too short against wings too long – to allow them to land on flat ground.

We glimpsed a fair few black and white tegu lizards skulking about, probably irritated by the swarm of coatis. Relative to the skunk, the ringed tailed coati is a raccoon-like animal with a flexible snout, forever sniffing to snack on something solid. Or any unappetising, indigestible morsel for that matter. Pugnacious they were, many landed themselves in a skirmish to win that extra mouthful from their peers. Their spirited aggression and murderous affrays made it impossible to forget their presence. Particularly as the park had strategically placed billboards throughout depicting a boy’s lacerated hand, courtesy of the little blighters. Gotcha: Don’t feed or fight the dastardly devils. I wondered what the aforementioned boy had failed to keep in his possession at the cost of losing a pound of flesh.

A cheeky coati on the scavenge for food
A cheeky coati on the scavenge for food

Above the dense undergrowth of Jurassic jungle, trees grew colossal in size whose upper feathery tops could be seen from miles away, some like thick fingers scratching at the sky. Canopies towered up to 30 metres, home to the odd monkey seeking refuge from the harpy eagles, eager to forage their next meal. The expanse of dense foliage also worked wonders in hiding the elusive pumas, panthers and jaguars – no doubt roaming leagues away from the throng of tourists and every other patron of the park. Moist air hung heavily in the rainforest, barely stirred by a lazy breeze. Entering the shadows provided the slightest solace from an uncaring sun – a tad concerned that I’d start to audibly crackle in the searing temperatures. The steamy atmosphere seemed to press in close where our only relief to the wet heat was of course the showering spray from the falls – the perfect antidote.

Amongst the vegetation grows the guapoy, a type of strangler fig that uses the larger trees for support until it finally asphyxiates its host. I was more wary of resident snakes lurking in the bushes and any leeches ready to latch on although didn’t see any of the former, or lose any blood from the latter. Unlike our meet and greet with the mosquitoes’ favourite pastime; by dusk they hummed in a column, stymied by the thick layer of insect repellant we’d slathered over our already sun-screened, salty skin. A sinking sun cast long shadows over the park giving way to a beautiful evening of warm and limpid light nearing dusk. The air was alive with the unmistakable sound of cicadas.

At 8 o’clock – both the first and last hour of the park – it’s precious. Particularly as the crowds dispersed first thing and eventually diminished around closing. In between, the walkways were like a river, thick with traffic and all of it flowing furiously in two directions – we were riding with it one way or the other like logs in a current. Folks gathered in from all over: they stopped suddenly on walkways, crowded the lookout points and choked the viewing platforms. Although rife in numbers, the window for ‘people watching’ opportunity was rich, which presented a two-legged show in varying degrees of strangeness. Doesn’t it always?

Half price tickets were given to us on returning to the Argentine side a second day. Our third day at the falls however was given over to a nautical experience, much cheaper on the Argentinean border. An unmissable, full-on-soaked-to-the-skin experience that will leave your face distorted into a rictus, jaw aching from the onslaught of laughter as much as your eyelids brutally battered. I fought with every bit of sinew in my body to keep my eyes open upon entering the gushing falls – an utterly pointless endeavour, as was wearing our waterproofs. A snorkelling mask would have worked like a charm though. Insanely good fun.

The mighty Iguazu Falls
The mighty Iguazu Falls

When the sun beamed down on the columns of rampant water, rainbows sprung up everywhere. In a puff of radiance, double arches of colour formed now and again. It’s when you see a duo of rainbows, you think double wow! It gave rise to a certain je ne sais quoi. And certainly put back what the national park’s commercialism tried to take away – in parts made to feel like an attraction-crammed theme park – some of the romance and rawness of the place. Rainbows, like emotions are the colours of the soul, they’re spectacular and incredible. When you don’t feel, the world becomes muted. Dull even, reducing life’s range of colour down to monotones, greys and blacks. I think travel invariably facilitates living a life rich in layers of colourful reactions and responses – one that knows no bounds is an incredible dance of being. Iguazu Falls was a visual symphony as much as a visceral experience. Not one to be missed.

11-31 Oct 2014 – Buckarooing cowboys & two wheeled utopia with Argentina Moto Tours

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Camping out on Barreal’s dried mud lake

Scooping up our things, we laid out the iron planks outside our colonial style backpackers ‘La Casa Roja’ for the last time, rolled a few feet down our makeshift ramp and set off for homeward bound: ‘Hogar Dulce Hogar’ – Home Sweet Home. Our return ride from Santiago to Mendoza went practically without a hitch. Canadian Matt had successfully sold his KLR, even if he had crashed on the way over down the slippery-smooth switchbacks near Portillo and lost his temporary import paperwork. Not ideal but luckily not a deal-breaker for his bike sale.

We cruised the 225 miles back, albeit stopping at the border crossing to profusely apologise to a migration official for not having a stamped form in our possession. To be fair – although irrelevant to our case – we’d never been issued said document despite needing one. A delicate situation started to brew and it seemed to me neither patience nor a willingness to understand others had historically been salient traits of this person. Oh well, the core feeling of perseverance persisted and with a little more resolve, we were processed and sent on our way.


Before throwing both legs astride Pearl, I realised the same border official had forgotten to stamp an exit ‘Salida Chile’ into my passport. She was either having a bad day or her mind had drifted towards dinner. Crisis was eventually averted after my passport underwent its own admin labyrinth when repeatedly passed from person to desk for the best part of an hour. Apollo 13, you are good to go.

An afternoon back in Mendoza saw us gawping at Chacras de Coria’s ‘Gran Festival de Jineteada’. Set in a ranch style environment, the village’s annual gaucho competition is an established tradition that goes back for generations in the cowboy culture of Argentina. The rider’s objective is to stay on an untamed horse for up to 15 seconds, dependent on category. I saw three categories: the ‘Crina’ bareback where the rider was only allowed a leather strap, placed around the horse’s neck. Spurs were used and the mounting time was 8 seconds. ‘Surera’ category saw the horseman ride with only a sheepskin as a pad, reins held in one hand and a whip in the other; mounting time was set at a gruelling 12 seconds. Lastly, ‘Basto with counter’ specified the rider used stirrups decorated with brightly coloured discs without losing them at any point. Mounting time was an impressively enduring 15 seconds. ¡Ay, caramba!

‘Gran Festival de Jineteada’ – a competition for Argentinean cowboys!

The morning’s mist vanished, which gave way to a burning midday sun. And fiery temperaments to match. I can only imagine what the layers of saddle equipment and fancy frills plus the weight of a man were doing to the wild steeds. Driving them crazy was an understatement. On one hand, it was akin to dressage in what looked liked the highest form of horse training – from the rider’s stance at least. Namely seeking to stay mounted in the saddle for as long as possible before being dragged off their own mare and relieved by another horseman. The risk of being catapulted off, trodden and on seldom occasion crushed to death was not altogether uncommon. These guys were not just skilled horsemen, they were nationalistic symbols of South America.

¡Ay, caramba!

On the other side of the horseshoe, each and every stallion did their utmost to resist being tied to a post and blindfolded. No mount looked in the mood to lose their efficacy. Rather, reflex kicked in and they employed any combination of buckaroo-style charging to fight off their unwanted passenger with such fervour, I wasn’t convinced whether it made a good show or just seemed harsh on the horses. The more unruly and rough the horse’s behaviour, the less chance the horseman stood of making his time; the harder each of them furiously worked to counter one another’s blows.

Jumping for joy!

I yelped out and gasped more than a few times to the countless near misses of ‘man-under-horse-feet’ injuries; congratulating the horses more than the gauchos for their instinct to step over riders that had fallen off in a heap. The horses were incredibly adept at getting out of the way, their muscular legs missing mens’ limbs and torsos by a hair’s breadth. But not always. The ‘sport’ wasn’t for the faint hearted. An inner morbid-curiosity wanted to see every shade of blue, black and purple colouring the magnitude of human bruises the following morning. It was a show if not a sight alright.

An awesome Andean sunset
Look at that beautiful big open space – biking bliss

Pockmarked yet smooth, the colour of Maldivan sand emerged when the sun shone down on it, mocha when it didn’t; this was our second visit to Barreal’s mud flat ‘La Pampa Leoncito’. It was a dried up lake that spanned for around 10 kilometres, by no means were we on the scale of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni but it was pretty special all the same. Its dips and rises defined a landscape in miniature, like the hills and valleys of the Andes from whence it came. The evening was warm, by six it was still touching a sticky 30. A hazy sky filled

with sporadic patches of cloud sailed eastward on an endless breeze. The land yachts whizzed along in an uncharacteristically tent-snapping wind – the ‘Zonda’ – cutting through like cruise missiles. They drained every second of light before the last smile of sunset gave them and us a magical end to a marvellous day.

Happy 34th Lisa!
Happy 34th Lisa!

Ten of us had set up camp on the crazy paving dried mud and in true Argentinean style, we satiated our gargantuan appetites with a mouth-watering asado. A stillness settled over the flats as dusk came and went. A deep red blush appeared in the west as the sun bedded down for the evening. Night’s soft dark cloak soon covered the sky as the stillness stirred. Our campfire winked around the span of bodies, a thousand yellow eyes flickered and filled the air with the sting of smoke. It made every shadow leap and twist making a monstrous mockery of our encampment, aspects of which would look ordinary and go unnoticed by day. Another outdoorsy day soaking up the scene, eyes gulping down the Andes while supping a full-bodied red. We were drinking from ‘the cup’ made from a formidable wanderlust cocktail.

Lisa and Louis having a giggle


October was the month to celebrate the birthdays of our Mendozan friends Toto and Euge alongside mine, which I shared in honour with all Argentinean mums on Dia de la Madre – Mother’s Day. Birthdays abroad are always memorable and I felt luckier than ever to be with these people with whom I now shared a little history.

Before the month was out, we were treated by Juan-P and Toto to a few complementary two wheeled trips. We were their guinea pigs to guide having set up a newly established tour company for motorcyclists: Argentina Moto Tours.

Keeping it together on a loose, rickety old bridge.
Camping overnight in Barreal with Mike and Orla

Please, guide away fellas; they bestowed the best of central Argentina on us: the iconic snow capped Andes, colossal volcanoes, glacier studded mountains – picturesque and panoramic as far as the eye could see. Sparkling lakes and deep blue lagoons, isolated desert and dirt trails galore. Ensconced in ‘The Waltons’ style retreat, home to a resplendent garden tucked away in an oasis village and hectares upon hectares of vista-beautiful vineyards to ride through. What more could you want to crank your gears? We were indissolubly in two wheeled utopia.

On one of the sorties, we cruised through Villavicencio to get to Quebrada del Hielo, which essentially meant we wended our way through the mountains leading to the ice. (A warning to how treacherous it becomes in winter). Having arrived on the Plateau la Pampa, we found ourselves situated in a big open space. Not a car horn, exhaust or whisper of traffic anywhere. Biking bliss. We fetched some dead wood for the asado while Juan-P reached for a cluster of Jarilla, a wild plant used to smoke and infuse flavour into our food. The meat took on the aromas like a sponge. As a former vegan turned vegetarian, I had long surpassed any need to reconcile my re-established relationship with meat.

Riding in one of Argentina’s finest vineyards

Slowly sipping a good measure of Malbec actually loosened me up for the return journey, particularly the first section that was bone-jarringly gnarly. With a heightened lack of inhibition, I let the craft and guile of Pearl alongside a free flow of adrenaline carry me over the broken rocks. On terrain more suitable for enduro riders I wanted to pace back and forth irritably, to release the rampant energy that powered my bones and muscles. Not controlled, steady or confident, I shelved that counter-productive box. Every unbridled nerve atingle, more momentum and less trepidation was the winning combination, isn’t it always? Having fumbled my way with both feet down to begin with, powering forward in first on the way back caused ululation to break out on all sides. A sweet tasting moment, even if my heart had tripped and traitorous hand was shaking like a leaf.

A Monday morning’s ride out – ace!