Day 1: Embarking on the National Geographic Explorer

Map of our planned route. Source: National Geographic / Lindblad Expeditions website

Day 1 began with an early morning wake-up call and a healthy breakfast at the Cesar Park Hotel in Buenos Aires. For the first time, we had a glimpse of the 146 other people who will be our shipmates for the next ten days. They hail from all parts of the world including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. My mother and I expected a mostly older crowd, but a large age range is represented: from a ten-year old boy to an 80 year old woman who has dreamed of visiting Antarctica for many years.

Our trip is called an expedition for a reason. Despite the best-laid plans by the captain and the leaders of the expedition, our activities can change on a moment’s notice due to inclement weather, a sighting of an iceberg or a pod of whales. We are ready to pursue adventure! I am all for that – the best way to travel is with a vague final destination that gives you direction while keeping in mind that the mission is the discovery of the unknown and the unexpected during the journey itself.

So we boarded a bus to Buenos Aires’ local airport for a flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost populated point of South America. Four hours of flying time later, our plane descended slowly through the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, banked right and settled in for a landing at a narrow air strip. The airport, which was constructed in 1997, replaced what was previously considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world due to the high winds and short runway. (An adventure I am glad I do not have to participate in!)

From there, a second bus took us slowly through the town of Ushuaia, a growing town of 60,000 people whose main economic activities are fishing and Antarctica-related tourism, although the waters, islands and parks of the area hold great appeal for lovers of the outdoors as well. For example, the national park of Tierra del Fuego offers hiking, camping and fishing.

At the end of the Pan American Highway, in the National Park of Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is Spanish for the “Land of Fire”. It is so named because when early explorers first sighted it, they observed smoke rising from the hills. The indigenous people who tended the fires, the Yamanas, considered fire to be an integral part of their culture given the intense cold and high levels of precipitation from rain and snow year round in the region. In fact, the Yamanas chose to wear very little because they found wet clothing made them more susceptible to illness. So they opted to keep themselves warm by building fires everywhere they went (even on their boats!) as they went hunting for food such as sea lion and local fish.

The National Park of Tierra del Fuego has an unusual characteristic. First, due to the rocky landscape, its trees have shallow roots and often collapse under heavy snow conditions. Then, because of the extremely cold climate, it takes a long time for these dead trees to decompose – over 300 years! The slow growing conditions also mean that the same trees can take up to 100 years to reach their full height.

My mother, before boarding the catamaran for a tour of Beagle Channel

The park is also home to the beginning or ending point of the Pan-American Highway. The highway runs between Fairbanks, Alaska and this national park at the southernmost point of the road system in South America. There are an adventurous few with plenty of time on their hands who have even driven its entire length. Any vehicle qualifies: a mobile home, a motorcycle or a bicycle! I had heard of this during my backpacking trip through Mexico and Central America ten years ago; I met two English cyclists raising money for charity (their now-defunct website was www.cyclingwithoutborders.com). I did not ask our guide how travellers manage to cross the Darien Gap, a stretch of dense and dangerous jungle straddling the border between Panama and Colombia, through which the Pan American Highway does not pass.

At the end of our second bus journey, we boarded a catamaran for lunch and a tour of the Beagle Channel, a 180km stretch of salt water which connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The area is dotted with mountainous islands and depending on the direction in which you look they either belong to Argentina or its next door neighbour Chile. In the 1980s, a dispute over who owned this area brought Argentina and Chile to the brink of war (a treaty of “peace and friendship” was later signed).

This is the lighthouse in the Beagle Channel, guiding ships as they cruise between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans

While cruising the Channel, we got to know some of our our fellow travelers. I even met two Rotarians who were very familiar with the Peace Fellowship program of which I am an alumnus. It’s a small world! We learned more about Tierra del Fuego and the wildlife of the region. During the three hour tour, we saw birds such as Kelp Geese, the Chilean Skua and the Blue-eyed Shag. We also saw South American sea lions, including one who had recently given birth to a pup and was using it as a chin rest. :) At the mid-point of our trip, we circled around this lighthouse (see inset) for our return.

Back in Ushuaia, we embarked on our ship and checked in to our cabin, which was much bigger and more luxurious than I could ever have imagined! It has a comfortable working space and a wide window which looks out on to the water. It is from here that I have been writing my blog posts and organising the nearly 200 photos I have taken so far.

In the first couple of hours on board, we attended an orientation and briefing sessions about emergency evacuation procedures, meals and some of the activities that await us in the coming days.

Our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, is docked in the port of Ushuaia

The public address system on board the ship is used not only to announce meals and briefings but to give us notice if something exciting is spotted. It is piped directly into your cabin and cannot be turned off. Sleep is a luxury, they say. :)

Argentina is the starting point for many voyages to Antarctica as it offers one of the closest points from which a ship can travel to the Antarctic Peninsula, only 800km away. Travelling to the continent from Australia is twice that distance, and from the southernmost tip of Africa the distance is fivefold greater. Our main touring range will be inside the 55th and 65th latitudes south and we will travel for 36 hours to reach the peninsula.

Our journey will begin by sailing across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Passage is named for Sir Francis Drake, a famous English explorer, who first reached this place in 1577. It is known for some of the roughest seas in the region. My mother and I both swallowed a pill of anti-seasickness medication in the hopes that it would help us weather the ride.

Our room on board the National Geographic Explorer

At the convergence of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic currents, the water temperature will drop and this will cause the air to cool. Soon, temperatures outside will drop to freezing and below that, depending on the weather. Currently, the sun rises at about 4:30am and sets at about 10pm. On our approach to Antarctica, I am told that this will gradually increase to the point where we will have nearly 24 hours of daylight.

2 thoughts on “Day 1: Embarking on the National Geographic Explorer”

  1. Ah! Ushuaia. We visited there 5 years ago on our own Antarctica cruise (Jan 2008). We went to KM zero of the Pan American Highway as an activity. In that area, there are lots of beavers (yes, Canadian beavers). They were brought in many decades ago in a misguided attempt to control some other wildlife, but they have no natural predators. Consequently, they have established themselves very successfully.

    The outcome has been large areas of dead trees, all stripped of their bark, as the beavers build their dams and lodges. Lots of waterlogged areas behind the dams. And It was obvious from the bus. Ecology is a system, not some transplanted thing.

    You spoke of Ushuaia as the most southern city in South America. Actually it holds that distinction for all continents. Punta Arenas, Chile, likes to make the same claim because they are on the mainland, whereas Ushuaia is actually on an island. But I’ll support Ushuaia for the honor. There are actually some other human habitations further south, but they are all science stations and do not have a permanent population.

    Of course, while at KM zero, we took advantage of the most southerly post office in the world to send some post cards.

    Steve

  2. On our trip we also went no further south than 66 degrees S. Even though we were there only 2 weeks after the winter solstice, we never experienced a true 24×7 sunshine day, as we had done on an earlier arctic cruise above Norway (in June). Not experiencing 24×7 sun was the only disappointment to an amazing voyage.

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