Home | Alexander Order | Latest News

JOURNEY TO ANTARCTICA: From Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego

Part 1 (November 23-24, 2007)

By Kate Woodward



Kate Woodward from England, on her arrival in Antarctica.



Dear Families and Friends,

I may be the first person to unhook the "under the desk" sliding shelf holding a keyboard in the library e-mail section, as most people are still finding their way about this beautiful ship and enjoying the look ofthe Andes, still snow-covered, as we make our way through the thus-far very benign Beagle Channel.

We have discovered that there is a $5 charge to send out an e-mail (no difference what length, however--ah-ha!), so will not be sending individual ones.  But this is too sensational a trip not to record, and having spent hours writing 10 sides of A4 paper by hand, regarding our first 3 days of the trip, I can see that e-mailing is a worthwhile option. 

Now...before I start... you probably know more about the apparently now sunken Explorer I than we do.

There is no Internet access here, and what we have gleaned is via passengers who have heard from family back in the UK who have called or texted them after hearing about the mishap, some seeing it on the BBC news.  Our understanding is that our sister ship struck an iceberg; apparently some of their equipment was not functioning--navigational instruments? Radar?  Anyway, this is not something that ought ever to happen--and I have heard that our ship has a stronger hull because, although it is not an icebreaker per se, it does have a strengthened hull for travel in Antarctic seas. The poor passengers on Explorer I had to get up in the night (not sure whether it was during the short 4 hours of darkness) and get into the lifeboats while they watched the ship begin slowly to roll over onto one side.  A helicopter and several other boats in the area picked them up and delivered them to an island, I believe, where there was a station big enough to hold them all while they waited for repatriation--extremely unfortunate for them, and I'm sure very scary at the time; luckily no casualties, but what an experience. 

Because of the difference in our ship, we are not worried, although I must say that at today's emergency boat drill (which is required by law), people scampered up the stairs to their meeting station and while the emergency procedures were explained, there was nary a squirm in a chair, nor whisper to a neighbor about what was planned for the next day... I doubt the captain had ever had an audience so completely riveted.

We feel very good about the safety procedure, should anything happen, and feel (as we did when we went on the Nile cruise after there had been the terrorist shooting of tourists in Luxor) that the best time to make a trip can be after an "incident" because everyone is super vigilant

So... we left Buenos Aires this morning at a very civilized hour, unlike 10 members of our 33-strong Noble-Caledonian group who had to get up at 4:00 AM to take an earlier flight to Ushuaia. Although it allowed those whose suitcases had been lost on the first leg of the trip to shop for replacement gear in a place where the cold is always a factor, even in summer, it left them "at liberty" for an awfully long time in this small town. However, suitcase-less passengers trying to do the same in Buenos Aires were much less successful (in fact, my significant over-packing has enabled us to lend a few items to one of our bereft fellow travellers).

As we drove to the national (rather than international) airport, we passed through tin-shack and bin-bag slums on both sides of the highway.  Although some huts were partially brick, they were unfinished and higgledy-piggledy on top of each other, rusty tin roofs knit together with black plastic, presumably to cover the joins or to give a bit of insulation.  All too much resemblance to the slums outside of Nairobi that we recently saw on a documentary about corruption as a way of life in Kenya--terrible to have people living in such circumstances in any part of the world, but somehow especially so when we are embarking on such an incredible trip, which is taking us so far from our own very comfortable homes.

The diminutive airport was right on the sea, about 12 minutes from our hotel, and like all buildings that are open to salt and weather, looked rather run-down on the outside.  But the inside was surprisingly spacious, and beautifully modern and clean.  We found that our flight for Ushuaia had groups of French and Germans as well as us--and Argentinians who were going on from Ushuaia (the capital of Tierra del Fuego, the island right at the bottom of South America) to el Calafate, home of a famous Patagonian glacier.  

After we landed and arrived at what looked more like a ski lodge than an airport, we waited and waited forthe luggage, and began to shift from one foot to another, trying to appear nonchalant.  Roger's and my suitcases were the 2nd and 3rd last to arrive. I was beginning to get worried that our own gear, to say nothing of the "excess" clothing that we'd promised to others might never appear.



View as one came out of the tiny Ushuaia airport.


From the airport, a coach took us into this town of 65,000 as we gazed at the Andes that surround it. There was still a lot of snow on them, although nothing at ground level--in fact, it was 7C and felt relatively mild until the wind blew--and apparently it is quite unusual for it to snow in November (late spring, in the southern hemisphere).  A young tour guide from Buenos Aires who spoke excellent English gave us an introduction to the area as we drove in--and I was amused when he directed our gaze to something on the right-hand side of the bus just as we (an entirely English group, except for me) were passing a sign on the left side pointing to "Las Malvinas"--the local Spanish name for the disputed Falkland Islands--very diplomatic!

A fabulous schooner (or frigate--not well-educated about boats) was sitting in the harbor awaiting its passengers, and apparently was about to take off on a voyage similar to ours.  I have to say that graceful as it looked, I would have been considerably more anxious (particularly in current circumstances) to be on a boat that looks so beautifully spare and dependent on wind power.  A group of primary-age school children on a school outing, filed up the gangplank of the Libertad in very good order as we boarded Explorer II on the other side of the dock.


Argentine clipper, the "Libertad", in Ushuaia harbor (RMW photo)


Unlike the larger ships we've been on, this boat has a gangway that is gently inclined and which brought us right to a corridor leading to our cabin.  After being given our "swipe" cards (which are used like credit cards on the boat, and which are also swiped each time anyone leaves the ship as well as when they return, so a completely accurate list of who is where can be kept), we were escorted to our cabin which, although a lot smaller than our huge hotel room at the Melia Hotel in Buenos Aires, is absolutely lovely--including bottled water (with no "Welcome to Buenos Aires, Water, 25 pesos"--about $8!--on it), nice shampoo samples in the compact but immaculate bathroom, very attractive décor, and on our beds wonderful fluffy bathrobes and slippers for our convenience--it is charming and has everything one could want, although we have not figured out how to use the safe yet. Roger's need to have a plug for his C-Pap machine repositioned (which involved some additional wiring) was taken care of while we were at dinner by the ship's electrician who made light of the task (no pun intended)&emdash;very impressive.

The emergency drill mentioned above, at which everyone, especially the crew (many of whom knew crew on Explorer I, so were very upset about what happened), was completely serious, was followed by time for us to watch the final loading of the boat (so much food and drink--for 196 passengers for 18 days).  Then there was an introduction of the 14 (yes 14, and several of them PhD's) expedition leaders who would be instructing/leading us.  They each took the floor and introduced themselves briefly--many are university lecturers in their "real" lives, but return summer after summer to Antarctica as it has stolen their hearts and changed them forever.  The nationality of our instructors was a real mix, from South African to American, to English, to Argentine--and if we don't come back full of new knowledge after this trip, it will be inexplicable. They were quick to warn us that while the big cruise ships had dancing ladies with feathered headdresses for entertainment, we'd be meeting feathered creatures instead.  There are two cetologists (whale experts), multiple naturalists specializing in different areas, a geologist, who said we might see one of Antarctica's volcanoes (of which there are quite a few) in action if we were lucky, and more scientists, male and female, from late middle-aged to the "baby", who is probably in her early 30's; almost all have 20+ years of coming back time after time because there is no place like this on earth.

A VIP (very important passenger), who in fact sat next to us on the flight today, is a retired Scottish school teacher well into her 80's--this is her FIFTH trip to Antarctica, and when she arrived at the gangway, she was greeted by name by the crew checking us in and the same happened again with waiters at the welcome champagne/"tea" reception in the Verandah dining room--they were clearly delighted to see her.

Her enchantment with the ship as well as the voyage itself bodes very well. 

We made our way around the ship several times, taking quite a few pictures (there is also a professional photographer/teacher aboard--plus 2 other still photographers and one cinematographer, but they are busy filming/shooting the trip, which is why they have someone who will give lectures about the challenges of photography in this environment), and suddenly realized that our hands and heads were freezing; the wind had come up and we were just wearing our fleeces--thanks for yours, Sebast!--over our shirts, not the impressive red parkas that were awaiting us (to use and take home) in our cabin.  So we went in to warm up and discovered to our amazement that it was nearly 8:30--coming from the UK where it's now dark at 4 or 4:30 PM, we hadn't really noticed the time as it was still light (and we were not hungry after the special reception that included goodies too numerous to mention).


Ushuaia harbor from the deck of Explorer II as we prepared to sail.


Dumping our outdoor gear, we went to the more formal dining room which, unlike the Verandah Restaurant, which is buffet style, has waiter service.  The menu was incredible. Roger and I each had a salad with shrimp and a few shaved vegetables as well as salad to begin with, then superb rack of lamb cooked exactly to order, with a wonderful ratatouille topped with 3 thin, cooked potato slices held together with an onion "marmalade"; delicious, and comparable to what one would enjoy in a fine restaurant.  He chose a selection of cheeses for dessert (served by a waiter from a trolley--the only thing he felt was not outstanding--the cheese, not the trolley!), while I had a coconut flan with poached mango. It was tiny, but scrumptious, and could have been eaten in 2 or 3 healthy bites, which made me feel less guilty about enjoying it!  This first time, we skipped the appetizer and soup, but since the portions were of "nouvelle cuisine" size, we may not always be as abstemious. Even so, the small portions will make it easier to avoid putting on too much weight (although I was horrified to see that not only is there healthy daily bouillon at 11 AM but a full British "tea" at 4, with sandwiches and cakes, and on top of that there is also a 10:30 PM "snack" available in all the bars, which I have avoided even seeing this evening by heading for the library).



The formal dining room, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


We are still slowly making our way through the Beagle Channel and since the captain recommended taking anti-seasickness medication before going to bed, I guess I'd better go do that now, as it's been dark for an hour (Roger went to bed with the sun).

Tomorrow will be a day "at sea" as we head for the Falklands... with a chance to change one's parka for a different size in the morning, before writing one's name in it (since these are ours to keep) as well as a "borrow-wellies" morning activity, when those of us who couldn't fit wellies (which weigh a ton, as well as taking up a lot of room) into our luggage can borrow one of the 200 pairs they have on board--wearing for the first time our multiple layers of silk then cotton then wool socks to get a comfortable fit.  

There will be lectures tomorrow about what to expect in the Falklands the next day, as well as the chance to relax, knowing that we are here with luggage, that we're off to a smooth start, and that everything so far is fabulous.

I have to say that just coming out of the airport to the stunning mountains was a wonderful foretaste of things to come.  How very lucky we are!



Wellies propped against one of the beds, and Kate's papers already beginning to litter the desk in our stateroom!  



© 2008 Kate Woodward

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 128, February 2008