Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The World´s Most Boring Road... Ruta 3 to Mar del Plata: Feb 22 - 24

I left Calafate early to avoid the Patagonian winds, and fortunately was successful. The paved road heads southeast to Rio Gallegos, then back up Ruta 3 along the Atlantic coast. However, there is a 200 mile dirt road that heads east, and I was told by the cops in El Calafate that this would cut off about 3 hours from the trip... so dirt it was. Fortunately, this time the information was correct: about four hours of pretty good dirt track brought me to the atlantic.

Along the way there was... NOTHING! You will find this to be a recurring theme for the next few days. Miles of pampas, interrupted on occasion by extreme monotony. I did see quite a few guanacos along the way, and finally caught site of several flocks of ñandú. These are an ostrich-like bird that is native to the pampas. Unfortunately, they are very shy and very fast, so by the time I got my camera out they were gone. So I´m cheating (truth in advertising) by putting a picture here that I grabbed from the internet so you´ll know what I saw

I won´t bore you with too many details of the next three days... I had enough boredom for all of us. But basically, stare closely at the picture at the right and then multiply it by 2400 kilometers and you´ll have a good idea of this part of the ride. I plugged in my Ipod (thank you Bill Gates), cranked up the music, set the autopilot (at one point there was a stretch going due north for 100 miles without one single curve), and pushed on.

I stopped the first night in Caleta Olivia, a beach town in the middle of nowhere. The next morning as I was passing through Comodoro Rivadavia I decided to replace my rear tire that was showing a bit too much wear. It only had 3000 miles on it, but the ripio (gravel roads) really tear up the tires.

I found a tire at a Honda shop that would work, but of course they only sell tires... they don´t mount them. That would have been a level of service above and beyond the call of duty. They did however, send me to a tire shop that would mount the tire. However, they wouldn´t take the wheel off of the bike to do it... that would have been a level of service above and beyond the call of duty. So there I spent the morning sitting in the middle of the road removing and reinstalling wheels so that they could change the tire. No proper jack, of course. It didn´t help that I also had a sprained wrist that was bothering me. I have to wonder what someone would do who didn´t know how to do this or have the tools. Ah... customer service at its best.

The only other problem on this stretch was gas. There are enough gas stations along the route, but this being high season many of them run out of gas. This became a problem a couple of times when I had to return to the last city to fill up. My gas milage on this stretch was terrible. While I usually get at least 40 mpg, two things cut this drastically. First, I was going as fast as possible to get this part of the ride over with. I usually cruise at about 100 kph, but I was pushing it to 120-135. The KLR is one of the least aerodynamic bikes ever built, and at higher speeds it is like pushing a brick wall. Then there was the wind. It usually ranged from 40 to 60 miles and hour (sometimes gusting more), and never seemed to come from behind me. So I was either leaning over at 45 degrees, or fighting a direct head wind.

I actually only ran out of gas once: First I ran out and switched to reserve. Then the reserve ran out, but there is a little trick with the KLR that where you lean it WAY over to the left and drain some gas out of the right side of the tank. This worked for another 15 km or so. Then there was the final time. Dead bike. No gas. Nada. Not even fumes. The happy ending: This happened about 100 meters from a gas station! It was the only time on the whole trip that I completely ran out of gas and it is obvious that the gas fairies were looking out for me!

That night I made it to San Antonio del Oeste, and the next day rode the final 900 km to Mar del Plata. My friend Alicia had offered to loan me her apartment there, so I was planning on a few days rest before finishing the trip in Buenos Aires.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier: Feb 20 - 21

Friday, February 20, was my last time leaving Chile. I had actually crossed between Chile and Argentina seven times! My passport looks like a commuter book. I think I should get frequent crosser milage, and a ¨fast pass¨. Unfortunately, the governments don´t give a damn, so I just wait in line.

I drove today from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, Argentina. El Calafate is extremely touristy. Nothing but cutesy shops and high prices. But it is also the jumping off point to the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had seen so many glaciers in Antarctica that I wondered if this would be worth it, but everyone kept telling me this was different. And they were right.

First, it is HUGE. Something like 30 km wide by 80 km long. It is also one of the few glaciers surrounded by forest. Most people approach from the road and look at it across the river, or take a boat. Some friends had suggested that I go hiking on the glacier, despite the cost of a tour. It was good advice.

First, after an hour and a half bus ride, we took a boat to the base of the glacier. Just approaching it was impressive.

We then had a short hike through the woods to where we were fit for crampons. (I was told that Extra Strength Midol is good for painful crampons, but that´s another story).
For those not into mountain climbing, crampons are like a combination of the bottom of a golf shoe and the old-fashioned roller skates that you attached to your shoes as a kid. (If you don´t know what a skate key is ask your grandparents!). They keep you from playing ¨slip sliding away¨ on the ice.

Then it was onto the ice for a couple of hours. Interesting crevasses, blue holes, streams, and all the other things that make a giant ice cube worth driving thousands of miles to see.

There was also a pay-off at the end of the hike. The guides pulled out the fine crystal, and a bottle of very cheap whiskey, and we all had a toast of whiskey and glacier ice. And then, of course, we got to hike back down drunk. Well worth it!

As we were waiting for the boat to cross back to the other side (the River Styx?), we kept looking for ice falls (also known as ¨calving¨. We saw a few small ones, but couldn´t get a picture. However, we then heard a loud muffled explosion and an island slowly appeared in front of the glacier. Evidently an underwater piece had broken off. It was eerie, and looked kind of like a new island being formed by a volcanic eruption. It was a unique way to see the birth of an iceberg.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Out of Ushuaia, Back to Chile and Torre de Paines: Feb 17 - 19

When I left Ushuaia it was an incredibly beautiful day. The mountains that had been so miserable when I arrived in Ushuaia (cold, rain, fog, and dark) were just the opposite. This lasted for a while, then ¨Patagonia¨ caught up with me again. After three hours I was hitting heavy winds (60 mph) that were pushing me across the road. This was on asphalt, but I knew that after the border I had 120 km of dirt and gravel and I really didn´t want to fight it in the wind. Also, my stomach was doing flip-flops on its own.

Fortunately there is a small hotel at the border at San Sebastian. It´s the only thing there, so they know they have you by the short ones. They only had a room with four beds, but said they would only charge me for a double. Anything at that point.

Later, at dinner, I was talking to three young ladies from France and Belgium who needed a place to stay and the waitress suggested they share my room. Oh, if only I was producing porn pictures I couldn´t have come up with a better plot premise! Unfortunately, reality once again reared its ugly head and we just ended up turning it into a dorm... or more like I was the intruder at a girl scout camp. But it was a place to sleep, and ended up being much cheaper by sharing.
And anyway, I can always lie about the ending!

The next morning was much calmer, and the ride fine. Passing Paso Garibaldi gave me a great view of one of Southern Chile´s famous fjords.

The weather from San Sebastian then turned cold. I mean REALLY cold. I stopped to put on everything I owned, including all my electric gear. (Thank you Luz for the balaklava... I really needed it). I arrived in Puerto Natales (Chile) and spent the night.

Originally I had been planning on spending a few camping in Parque Torre de Paines, but given the cold I decided against it. Remember, this is the South At Sixty Tour, not the I Can Suffer Through Anything Tour ... I´m a woooos! The electric gloves and jacket liner were great, but I forgot to turn off the headlights and when I arrived at the park I had a dead battery. You can´t push-start the bike on dusty gravel roads (no traction) but I finally found someone with jumper cables and got going again.
I had a spectacular day riding a couple of hundred miles of dirt to and through the park. Only one minor mishap that resulted in a sprained wrist that is still bothering me. But you can see why the scenery is worth the effort. The critters below are guanacos, a kind of cross between a llama and an antelope.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back In Ushuaia: Feb 14 - 17

Our arrival back into Ushuaia couldn´t have been better. First, although the Drake Passage is noted for miserable weather and hellishly seasick passengers it hadn´t been bad for us. It was two days of open ocean, but kind of like a gentle roller coaster rather than being slammed up against a brick wall every 5 seconds. We were lucky... the next day a storm came up and the boats went through a very miserable passage.

As we awoke to come into Ushuaia we had an absolutely perfect sunrise. What a way to end the trip!

It was also nice to see that my bike was still intact at the hotel.

I spent a few more days in Ushuaia. Alicia, my travel agent, had no customers at the time since the season was winding down and wanted me to take her on the bike, so we did a little exploring.

One interesting nearby trip was to visit a guy who raises huskies to race. He has about 70 of them. As a former husky (OK, half husky) owner (We miss you, Yukon), I really appreciated seeing these. Obviously they weren´t too standoffish with me either! I was sorely tempted to bring home a few (like maybe an even half dozen). If I only could have figured out how to fit them on the bike!

We also went to the Parque Nacional Ushuaia. I hadn´t wanted to go into the park before, mainly because of the cost. The real reason for going is because this is where the road ends. I mean, this is really where the road stops: Nada mas. Finito. End of South America. Panamericana termino.... well you get the idea. So it was obviously someplace I needed a picture, but didn´t want to pay 50 pesos ($18) just to go in for a photo op. However, Alicia is a resident with all her documents. When they asked me if I was a resident also I just left my helmet visor down and mumbled ¨Si¨ in my best Argentinian accent. Result: Entry fee of 4 pesos ($1.15).

Obviously this was a picture that I had to get. As you can see, from here it´s only 3079 kilometers back up north to Buenos Aires!

I have to note that we weren´t done with discovering the wildlife here in Ushuaia. We did see one type of penguin in the park that we hadn´t seen in Antarctica. However, they weren´t as cute as the smaller variety. We are also not sure how they breed.

(With apologies to the religious amongst you... but that´s just my warped sense of humor)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The last day in Antarctica – Feb 11

Today is our last day in Antarctica. Where has the time gone? I was worried that 6 days on ice flows might be too much, but the time has flown by.

This morning we landed at Whalers Bay, on Deception Island. Deception Island is actually a volcano, and there is an opening to the caldera which is filled with water. So in we sailed through Neptunes Bellows, the narrow channel leading into the caldera. The weather was cold, wet, sleeting, snowing, and windy. Just like Antarctica is supposed to be. Coming ashore in the Zodiac was “invigorating”, to say the least.

Whalers Bay is an old whaling station that closed in 1931 due to a slump in the price of whale byproducts. There are still a number of buildings standing and available for exploration.

Deception Island is also one of the few places in Antarctica with flowering plants (there are only two types).

We saw a field of Pearlwort. The excitement was almost overwhelming!

We also had a few fur seals for company. Unlike the other seals we tend to see here (crabeater, leopard, waddell), these are actually members of the sea lion family with big flippers and external ears.

In the afternoon we went to Hannah Point on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands. Our expedition leader, Hannah, is quite proud of this place and calls it “my place”, although it was actually named after a ship that sunk a hundred years ago. I don’t think she was on it, but who knows.

At Hannah point there were – go on, try to guess – Gentoo penguins! But more interesting, we had another breed that we hadn’t seen yet, the Chinstrap Penguins.

They are obviously called that because of the distinctive chinstraps that they use to hold the tops of their heads on.

We also encountered a number of young male elephant seals. Male elephant seals can grow to five TONS. The females are only about one sixth that size. Imagine the implications for matrimonial bliss! So, ladies, when you think about complaining that Hubby has put on a few pounds, just think of the elephant seals and how lucky you really are.

I’ve mentioned before the frequent aroma of “eau de Penguin” that we’ve encountered on the islands. The elephant seals make this seem like Chanel #5. Elephant seals spend the vast majority of their lives at sea. They only come ashore to breed and to molt (lose their fur). They are molting in the above photo. In the ocean they don’t have to worry about where they go about their business, so on land they are what might be considered poorly potty trained. They simply go wherever they are, then wallow around in it. When they are done molting, after about a month, they go back into the water and have a good rinse off. But in the meantime, they can be a bit on the ripe side.

There now, isn’t that more than you ever wanted to know about elephant seals? But remember: Knowledge is Power… Go out and use it!

A final farewell:

At 9:12 tonight we passed out of Antarctica. Our last waypoint was Snow Island. How appropriate. We now head back to Drake’s Passage where we will be sailing for two days across open ocean. We hope that it will be as calm as the ride down, but heavy winds are predicted so it might be a bit of a ride.

Snow Island, according to the charts, is located at 62 degrees 51 minutes south by 61 degrees 16 minutes west.

It looks like another chunk of rock in the middle of the Southern Ocean. But it was our last view of Antarctica, and as such will always be located for me in my memory and my heart. This truly is an incredible, unbelievable place. Many people have asked me what the highlight of my trip has been. That has been a difficult question to answer. I’ve loved the people of Colombia, the beautiful colonial architecture of Ecuador and Peru, the colors of the Atacama desert, and the vibrance of cities like Bogota, Quito, and Santiago, among others.

But for a magical place that’s spectacular like no other on earth, the answer has now got to be Antarctica. What an experience!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Whale of a Tale – Feb 10

This was one of the coolest days! (Wait till you see the picture at the end)

Many of the group got up at 5:00 this morning to take a hike on Cuverville Island. I took a look at the inside of my eyelids and decided that was all the scenery I needed for the time being. 7:00 seemed like a so-much-more-civilized time for coffee!

After breakfast, while cruising from Cuverville to Neko Harbor we had more great scenery.

But then someone shouted “Thar she blows! Whales off the port bow”. Now, we saw whales almost every day, so this wasn’t that different. But I wandered up to the bridge, camera in tow. Off the bow we saw one, then two, then a third humpback whale.

Usually we see them, then they disappear. Generally we see the backs, maybe a fin, ocassionaly the flukes (tail).

These, however, seemed to have found a swarm of krill and were feasting to their heart’s delight. They also were doing something we hadn’t seen before, setting up “bubble nets”. This is when the whales go deep and blow bubbles in a circular pattern to trap the krill. The whales stayed around the boat for quite a long time.

Suddenly one decided it was time for a really big gulp, and up he came. With my fingers working fast and furious on the camera, I came up with my favourite shot of the trip. Note that there are actually three whales in this shot: one in front and one in back of the whale that is feeding. Also notice how he expands his throat to take in more water, then forces it out of the side of his mouth through the baleens. !

I can hardly wait to receive the offer from National Geographic. I’m sure it will be in the mail when I get back to Panama.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pleneau Island and “The Russians are Coming… Actually, They’re Here” - Feb 9

This morning we went on shore at Pleneau Island and, imagine my surprise, there was another colony of Gentoo Penguins! I say this because the Gentoo seem to be the pigeons of Antarctica: They are everywhere. However, this doesn’t stop them from being cute, adorable, and amusing.

We saw our first yacht sailing past this morning, the Balaena from New Zealand. I tried to make radio contact, but no luck. What I really wanted was a story for my daughter Kim’s boat cruising website, but she’ll have to make due with the pictures. Having had sailboats in the past, I can’t even imagine the difficulty of sailing in these waters with a small boat. Might even be more exciting than my motorcycle trip!

In the afternoon we visited Wordie House and Vernadsky Station. Wordie House is an old British research station in the Argentine Islands that closed in 1954. They still preserve it as a museum.

There was also another private sailboat anchored there. I couldn’t get details, but it will be another picture for Kim’s collection.

From Wordie House it was just a short hop to Vernadsky Station. This was originally a British research post, but they later sold it to the Ukranians for 1 pound sterling. Vernadsky has done a lot of the research measuring and documenting the growth in the hole in the ozone layer, so it’s quite scientifically important.

However, science isn’t the only things that keep the lads busy. They run a very profitable little post office, with letters and post cards going first to the Ukraine, then to wherever they are mailed. I’ll be interested to see how long it takes to get a post card from Antarctica to Panama via the Ukraine!

They also keep the bar open for visitors, selling shots of vodka (what else!) for a buck. We, of course, felt that we would be impolite guests if we didn’t avail ourselves of their wares.

And in addition to collecting information about the ozone, they also collect (… drumroll…) bras! Just how this started is lost in the muddied waters of history, but they have quite an impressive collection behind the bar. The prize exhibit, as clearly obvious in this photo, belonging to a being of whose proportions we can only begin to imagine.

One of our group had read of this collection and brought along her own contribution specifically for the station. Unfortunately (for her sense of philanthropy), they decided that the specimen offered was not of sufficient scientific curiosity to warrant a display in the station. Seen two, seen ‘em all!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mutton Cove and the Fish Islands – Feb 8

In the morning we were again unable to land, but took a Zodiac ride around Mutton Cove. There were some incredible icebergs that looked like they had been sculpted for the next Antarctic Ice Art Show.

We also saw some Imperial Cormorants nesting on the ice flows.

We were constantly passing incredible icebergs. Many, because they were formed under water and contain very little oxogyn, are an absolutely brilliant blue color.

In the afternoon we landed on the Fish Islands. A series of very small islands with names like Minnow, Sardine, and Cod. Lots of Adelie penguins to keep us amused. Photo, Me and Adelie Penguins.

It was interesting to watch a skua (a fairly common bird here) looking for a meal, since one of his favourites is penguin chick. He was not successful this time.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

South of the Antarctic Circle: Detaille Island and the Antarctic Peninsula - Feb 7

I wanted to be awake for crossing the Antarctic Circle. Don’t know why, but it just seemed like a cool thing to do. However, we were supposed to cross at about 4:00 am so I didn’t think my chance were too good. I happened to wake up at about 2:45 and made my way to the bridge. Lo and behold, we had picked up speed and I had missed it by about an hour! Anyway, I got the GPS reading at 66 degrees 45 minutes south (The Antarctic Circle, defined as the latitude at which there is 24 hours of sunlight at the summer solstice, Dec 21, is currently at 66 degrees 33 minutes south). Photo, Across the Antarctic Circle.

Saturday we couldn’t land due to ice conditions, but we took a Zodiac cruise around Detaille island. Lots of sea ice really made you realize that you were in Antarctica. This really is an expedition, not just a cruise. It certainly isn´t your basic Carnival Cruise to the Caribbean, and there is a definite element of danger.

The penguins also liked the sea ice.

There were some truly amazing icebergs, and I may have to put together a collection of photos just on the chunks of ice.

Even on a Zodiac ride, the wildlife was amazing. We had some very curious crab-eater seals following us. One just couldn’t understand why we didn’t invite him into the boat with us.

In the afternoon we landed at Cape Saenz, on the Antarctic Peninsula itself. We were greeted by a pair of leopard seals, the second highest animal in the Antarctic food chain. The favourite meal of leopard seals is the penguin. The only predator of the leopard seal is the Killer Whale (Orca).

We also had a humpback whale who got curious and decided to investigate our Zodiac for about 20 minutes. He just stayed close by, rolled over a few times, and was very playful. We also didn’t invite him onto the boat due to his length of about 40 feet! In this photo he was between our boat and another.

All in all, we ended the day wondering how we could top this!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Arrived in Antarctica: Petermann Island - Feb 6

We’ve landed in Antarctica.

As I drove my motorcycle off the ship and onto the ice I really felt like one of the early explorers. Looking back in my rear view mirror, seeing the ship, the ice, and the penguins, was overwhelming!

OK, the above isn’t exactly accurate. Try as I might, I couldn’t get them to let me take the Kawasaki on the boat. But I felt really bad for the Kawi… it had come this far and wouldn’t get to go the last bit with me. So I took a piece of motorcycle to Antarctica: A rear view mirror. At least I could honestly say that I had gone to Antarctica WITH the bike, if not ON the bike.

Our first view of Antarctica was unimaginable. Critters and scenery that had only existed for me in National Geographic or postcards.

All of our landings were made in Zodiacs. Sometimes more dry than others.

Antarctica is penguin country. They own the place. Willy is EVERYWHERE. We saw three different breeds of penguins, and didn’t have a landing with at least some to keep us company. BTW, it’s impossible to be sad while watching penguins. This is a Scientific Fact!

This was getting close to the end of the breeding season, but there were still plenty of chicks around. These are Gentoo.

Adelie Penguins were also plentiful, but not as many as the Gentoo.

It was always interesting to watch feeding time. Mom and dad go out to sea, eat krill, and come back to regurgitate it for the baby. Mmmm... fresh puke. But the babies seem to like it!

As the chicks molt their baby feathers, they are sometimes left with some interesting haircuts. This style is called the Mohican.