Chelmsford YHA Group


The Monthly Newsletter of Chelmsford YHA Local Group

February 2005

Helen's Antarctic Diary


Thursday 18 November

Santiago, Chile. We can't get a hotel in the city as APEC and George Bush are in town, so we're taken to a hotel in the mountains. It's good to get out of the city, which is hot and industrial, but full of jacaranda and bougainvillea.

The mountains are amazing, full of sage brush and red earth and cactuses and California poppies. We find ourselves driving up hairpin bends with helicopters flying below us.

Our hotel is part of the Viale Nevada ski resort, just closing at the end of the season. It's 11 000 feet up, deep in snow and surrounded by peaks, and we're short of breath.

Friday 19 November

A hot day - 30 degrees. We're up at 4 am to starlit mountains and a sumptuous buffet breakfast. We're taken by bus back down the hairpin bends as the sun rises, out to the airport.

We fly to Puerto Montt, halfway down Chile, and are shepherded onto a tour bus. The city was colonised by German settlers, an attempt by Chile to prevent the Argentinians from taking the area over.

We drive out to Puerto Varas, a Germanic village on the edge of lake Llanquihue, for an excellent lunch in a restaurant on stilts. Aftern that we're driven out to the Saltos de Petrohue, a set of falls between two volcanoes: Calbuco, which erupted when Darwin visited in 1893, and Osorno.

The area is very lush, lots of cows and alpine meadows and gorse and broom.

Back by bus to Puerto Montt to board the ship, the Nordnorge at 6pm. It's a class 1c icebreaker - can get through ice half a metre thick - but looks more like a cruise liner. We are given a rather scary safety lecture (how to get into survival) and introduction to the ships' officers and expedition crew. The ship sails out at 9pm and spends the night cruising.

Saturday 20 November

We leave the ship at 8.30 for an excursion by bus: the Villages and Churches of the island of Chiloe. We land at Castro, shabby but brightly painted with traction engines by the docks.

Chiloe is full of lush green valleys and lots of rhododendrons. Most houses are built of wood and shingled with Alerce, the local wood, very attractive.

We take a very small ferry - our bus only just fitting one - to the island of Quinchao, and drive to Achao where we saw the Iglesia Santa Maria de Achao, a fine vaulted wooden church, and had pisco sours and kebabs of black potatoes and meat.

The town is full of internet cafes and stray dogs, all having a whale of a time.

We drove back to Castro for a look at the Iglesia San Francisco - lavender spires - then back to the ship.

We spend the afternoon rounding the coast of Chiloe, dotted with houses with no roads or streetlights, probably no electricity.

Then out into the channel, revealing long-distance views of crystal clear Andes, improbably high.

Sunday 21 November

A spectacularly clear day, blue skies and sunshine, around 15 degrees.

We wake to the sight of snow-capped mountains on either side of the ship. Different vegetation again - thick native forest. We dock at Puerto Chacabuco, get onto buses and are driven out to Puerto Aisen, through mountains and dense forest.

The roadsides are thick with lupins and buttercups and there are lots of natros - red-blossomed trees. They get 3m of rain per year.

We get taken to botanical gardens then a stop at waterfalls and rivers. Then a slow circuit of Puerto Aisen. Everybody has wood stoves for heat, and children board during the week at school. (Chile has a literacy rate of 94 percent.)

The ship leaves at 2.30. We spend the afternoon watching the scenery. The mountains get lower and signs of human habitation fewer and fewer. Towards evening we went through the Darwin passage into the Golfo de Penas, where the ship starts rolling horribly.

Monday 22 November

Overcast and cool

Wake up to hills - we are out of the Bay of Sorrows. At 10.30 we pass the wreck of the General Leonidas, a sugar carrier, that went aground on a bank in the 1970s. At 11.15 we pass through the Angostura Inglese, the English Narrows, very dangerous at certain states of the tide.

At 11.30 we go to hear a lecture on longitude.

While we are at lunch, the ship anchors outside the tiny village of Puerto Eden, and we go ashore.

PE was wiped out by Red Tide a few years ago and now has only 200 inhabitants. The only way to get to it is by sea. We are ushered into their brand-new school for a look around, then roam the boardwalks and up to the top of the hill behind the village.

Enterprising locals have set up card tables and are selling painted mussel shells, small boats made out of fish leather, and grass baskets.

Back to the ship at 5, and set off again through the fjords.

Tuesday 23 November

Low cloud, rain, and cool

Wake up to milky green water and ice on the edges of the sound - we are parked .7 of a kilometer from the Skua glacier.

After an hour we leave and cruise through the islands all day. We go to the morning lecture - "Ice Mast High" that gives a history of Antarctic exploration up to Bortchevik and the Swedish expedition of 1898.

The islands are now completely uninhabited and we still have the mountains looming, plummeting straight down into the water with corries of snow at the peaks. Every so often we pass a beacon on the islands, red on the port side, green on the starboard.

At 5 we go to the lecture on plate tectonics and their influence on topography and weather. Then there is the daily briefing at 6.30, during which the expedition leader said there might be "some movement" over the next hour, as we entered the Magellan channel.

Within half an hour we are in a gale, with the ship heeled over. People are being sick in the corridors and staff are putting bathtowels around the doors to the decks to soak up the water.

Once we entered the channel the wind falls behind us and things calm down.

Wednesday 24 November

Mixed weather - sunshine and heavy rain

We sail into Punta Arenas at 6.30. The scenery has changed dramatically - we are accustomed to seeing islands and mountains on both sides of the boat, but PA is low and undulating and on a strait so wide that you can't see the other side.

The town is similar to Puerto Montt - single storey houses dominate, brightly coloured, with a few high-rises in the northern end of town.

We get onto the buses at 8.30 for visits out to sheep farms, local estancias. We see condors and rheas on the trip out, along dirt tracks with beautiful views of the islands and sounds.

When we get to the Estancia it rains - hard. We scurry to the "museum", a bizarre assortment of traction engines, birdcages, chainsaws and juke boxes.

We see a sheep shearing demonstration, then go to peer at their pet puma, Tina, pacing up and down in a big cage. Then into a courtyard dominated by a huge fire, with a gaucho turning lamb carcasses on spits.

We have lunch - the lamb - in the "restaurant", a huge shed with glass walls overlooking the sound, circular saws for tables and logs with sheepskins for chairs, and a huge traction engine for heat.

The sun comes out while we are lunching, and a gaucho comes and does a sheep herding demonstration, with a motley assortment of dogs, on the grass in front of the shed.

We get back to the ship at 2.30, and shortly are sailing between the islands and mountains of Tierra del Fuego, huge and jagged, with glaciers rolling down to the sea.

Thursday 25 November

Cold and rainy

A day spent fighting yawning sickness. We pass Ushuaia at breakfast, and spend the day in the Beagle Channel. This area is a lot more inhabited, we see a number of settlements and fishing ships and evidence of logging.

In the morning we attended a mandatory briefing about the Antarctic: don't drop anything, don't take anything, wash your boots in case you spread disease between rookeries, don't make holes in the snow that baby penguins could fall into, and don't tread on the rocks, in case you wipe out centuries of lichen.

In the afternoon we attend a lecture: Magellan and the Spice Route. We arrive at Cape Horn at around 3pm. The weather, which had been sunny and calm, deteriorated just before we got there, so we couldn't land.

A 60 knot wind heels us right over to the sound of crashing crockery from the cafeteria, and we stop in the lea of a bay to drop our Chilean pilot. Then out into the wind again to round Cape Horn, close enough to see the steps to the top of the cliffs, the coastguard's cottage, and the monument to the Albatross.

Because the sea is rough, the evening's briefings are cancelled.

Friday 26 November

Mild but snowy. Crossing Drake's Passage.

Yesterday's wind died overnight so we have smooth water with long periods of sunshine. Towards 3 it starts snowing and continues fairly steadily.

At 9.30 there is a briefing about tomorrow's landing, and at 11.30 we get to visit the bridge. (I'm taken with a soft flying pig toy, suspeded from the ceiling behind the Captain's chair.)

At 12 we see our first iceberg, announced over the tannoy, about the size of a house. In the afternoon we attend a lecture on Shackleton.

After dinner we see the first few minutes of a film about Amundsen, but then more icebergs are announced - huge ones, with cargoes of penguins.

Saturday 27 November

Overcast and cold

Out at 5.30 - our first day in the Antarctic! - to the sight of the most beautiful white mountains, blue sky, black sea. A centimetre of snow on the decks, and very little wind.

We had been aiming for Yankee Harbour but in the night the captain had made the decision that Half-Moon Island would be a safer landing.

From our breakfast table we can see little black dots on the island that prove to be chinstrap penguins. At 8.30 the zodiacs start loading.

The smell of the rookery hits us even before we landed. The island is mostly covered with stained snow, with a few rocky outcrops. There are penguins making their way down to the sea, and a handful coming back up. If you stand still they will walk right past you. You're supposed to stay 15 feet from them but they don't know that.

Up to the top of the island, then a bit along, and there is a yellowjacket with a huddle of tourists looking at an elephant seal on the beach below.

Back on the boat, we have a briefing about the pack ice, which had proved impassable for a cruise ship further south two days ago. The suggestion is that we turn north and explore the peninsula.

After leaving Half-Moon we sail down Livingston Island to Deception. Livingston is HUGE, mountainous, all covered in a powdery, sugar coating of snow with monstrous glaciers pouring down to become ice shelves above the sea.

At Deception we cautiously go through Neptune's Bellows - a narrow entrance with a submerged rock in the centre and sheer cliffs on each side. Deception is a caldera, a ring formed by the collapse of a volcano, which is still active - the science base there was destroyed by a mudslide in 1969.

We go ashore at 6pm. The water is steaming, and the water's edge thick with Cape Petrels, looking like pigeons. John the yellowjacket shows me the arthropods the birds feed on, all dead from the heat. The ship's crew digs a pool for anybody who fancies a cold plunge and hot bath.

The island has been in use from 1911 to 1969, firstly for whaling, and then for research. There are lots of derelict buildings, abandoned boats, and whalebones everywhere. Rumour has it that a South African photographer is camping there for a couple of weeks.

I walk to the aircraft hanger at one end of the beach and then to Neptune's Window at the other - a short climb to a cliff from where, theoretically, you can see the continent - all I see is sea and a couple of small icebergs.

I almost stand on a skua on my way down. It was asleep on its nest on the ground and looked very much like a rock. It woke with a start and I sheered off sideways.

There is a plaque on a couple of the buildings in English and Spanish detailing the history of the island, and saying that it is now part of the FIDS, the Falkland Island Dependencies Survey. It made no mention of what the Lonely Planet guide says - that the island is hotly contested between the British, Argentinians and Chileans.

Back on the ship, we dine at 8.30 as the ship left the island, and around 9.15 we pass another iceberg, the size of the ship, with penguins for passengers.

We are supposed to head south to Port Lockroy, but there is uncertainty about the ice, and at 10.15 Ian bounds in to say that there is pack ice outside, and that I had missed a whale! The ice is very loose, like coconut sprinkled on the water, and when we passed pieces they looked fizzly and frilly, like snowballs dropped in water.

Surreal to come back indoors, dressed in full polar gear, to find a chambermaid hoovering the corridor, at 10.30 on a Saturday night!

Sunday 28 November

Beautiful blue and gold day, maximum temperature of 12 degrees

Overnight the ship turns around, unable to get through the Gerlache channel because of pack ice, so we end up going to Yankee Harbour on Greenwich Island.

Disembarkation starts at 8.30 and while we wait we see a humpback whale. Great excitement! It is half a mile away but you can see its fluke and fins.

Once in the boat, we are carried to the far side of a narrow spit. The weather is perfect and the temperature 12 degrees. Fabulous white mountains and glaciers surround us in a wide curve, with icebergs bobbing in the sea.

On the spit we are landed onto small pebbles, many shattered into fragments by the cold, then have to clamber onto a snowbank. We see our first Weddell seals, dozing in the sun, and our first Gentoo penguins, in a large rookery at one end of the spit.

Back on the boat and under way, we attend a lecture on the doomed Nordenskjold expedition of 1902 and have a long and leisurely lunch.

We arrive at Admiralty Bay on King George Island at about to visit the Polish Antarctic station, Henryk Arctowski. It proves to be fascinating. We are landed into a foot of water on a pebble beach at the base of a lighthouse.

The rock at the base of the lighthouse is home to a driftwood madonna and a host of plaques, put up to commemorate the visits of scientific expeditions. The first building we come to is a tourist information centre!

Off to the left is a long pebble beach where some elephant seals are basking, and to the right are a string of buildings, leading up to the main community building. The buildings are either old freight containers, or wooden with yellow paint. Outside the main building is a flagpole with whalebones surrounding the base, where they have hoisted a Norwegian flag.

There are about 40 people at the base, a mixed team of women and men. Everyone speaks English and we are invited inside. It is wood panelled and surprisingly comfortable and spacious

Behind the community rooms, back in the open, is a barbecue pit - surrounded by whalebone seats - and a cluster of buildings, including a greenhouse, and a garage for tracked ice vehicles.

When we leave, instead of leaving Admiralty Bay we sail around Dufayet Island in the Excurra Inlet to see the glaciers at the top of the inlet. The sun is starting to set and the colours are fabulous, pastel shades of blue and green and pink. Then we sail into the Martel Inlet, where there is a Brazilian base. It is about 11pm when we go past it, still in daylight, and a little cluster of people are outside, watching us.

Another ship has entered the bay, a Brazilian supply ship called the Admirante Rangel, which hoves to by the base. They toot their horn but our ship doesn't respond - probably worried about waking the tourists.

Monday 29 November

Another warm sunny day - temperature high of 4 degrees

We are woken at 6.30 by a tannoy announcement - we are following a pod of killer whales. There are about 7 adults and 2 babies, and we follow them for about half a mile.

At around 8.00 we moor at Brown Bluff on the north-eastern tip of the Trinity Peninsula, our first continental landing. It is another caldera, looking very different to Deception Island: it is a huge brown hill with a short black pebble beach at its base. The pebbles are bubbly, almost like pumice.

The beach is colonised by Adelie and Gentoo penguins, and the Adelies are standing in a pack on the edge of the sea, trying to persuade each other to dive in. One of the yellowjackets shows us the body of a poor little Adelie picked over by a skua. Parts of the skin are intact, with the feet and flippers. The feathers are enormously dense, and apparently completely waterproof - if an Adelie loses feathers, it dies, because its insulation goes.

In the afternoon the ship tries to pass through Admiralty Sound to get to Paulet island, but the way is blocked by huge tabular icebergs, calved off the Larsen ice shelf. We turn around and go through a larger sound, and find ourselves in a huge area of ice, thousands of bergs, floes, and pack ice.

The ship picks its way through and we pause briefly off Paulet to see - through binoculars - the stone hut where Larsen and the crew from the "Antarctic" passed a winter after being stranded in 1903. It is surrounded by a fence to stop the millions of Adelies from nesting inside - the Swedes want to rebuild it.

You can still see the track to the top of the island where the men used to climb to look for help.

After we leave Paulet it becomes too cold to stay on deck - temperature is 0 and the wind rising. We pass Joinville Island, huge and coated with a hundred feet of ice, and the ship passes iceberg after iceberg (some with penguins in a disconsolate little cluster on them), and the ship heels over more and more, to the sound of crashing from the cafeteria. Eventually the ship stops in shelter and we straighten up for dinner, a Phillipino / Chilean buffet.

Later the weather deteriorates further to a force 4 wind and choppy waves.

Tuesday 30 November

Overcast and cold

It snows fairly steadily overnight and we aren't able to make a landing in the morning. We cruise past some famous waterfalls on Vega Island (why aren't they frozen?) and past Cape Well-Met, where Nordenskjold met up with his men after a year stranded.

In the afternoon we arrive at Esperanza Station in Hope Bay, on the South Eastern tip of the Trinity Peninsula, to overcast skies and flakes of snow. We are landed onto a rocky, icy beach that leads steeply up to the jetty: it is very low tide.

Esperanza is Argentinian and they are trying to establish a claim to the Peninsula by creating a permanent village there, shipping in pregnant women to ensure some Argentinians are born there. Children spend a year there at a time and the base is manned all year round.

At the jetty we are divided into language groups and an Argentinian air force officer, from Buenos Aires, shows us around.

We only have an hour on shore and it is nowhere near long enough: we scuttle from building to building. We start out at a tiny stone hut where three members of Nordenskjold's expedition spent a winter waiting for rescue. The hut was rebuilt in the 1960s. Then we are taken to the fringe of an Adelie rookery. The base is deep in snow, and the penguins are scooting around like miniature toboggans on their fronts.

Then we see a small museum with bits of sledging gear and a couple of informative boards: the all-time temperature low at the base has been minus 35.

Then to a small school. There are about 8 children there, the older ones very excited, the younger looking overwhelmed.

Then down to the "casino", the common room, with a big eating area, bar and TV lounge. There are souvenirs laid out for sale on a table - badges, paperweights, postcards etc.

Before going back down to the zodiac I climbed through deep snow to the flagpole at the top of the station, flying the Argentinian flag, with a small shrine at its base.

Wednesday 1 December

Stormy, rough, low clouds. Drake's passage.

We go through a storm in the night, with things falling off the shelves. Very little sleep, and an announcement comes over the tannoy at 6.45 that we are at Elephant Island.

Elephant Island is where Shackleton left his men before sailing to South Georgia to fetch help. I watch the island slide past in high seas and fog. It is completely precipitous, there simply aren't any landing places, Shackleton chose the one and only place where it was feasible. The ship stops a short distance from the shore at Point Wild, where they spent three month's sheltering under two upturned whaling boats. Our ship noses in - in very rough seas - far enough for us to see the statue to the Chilean captain, Piloto Luis Pardo, who went with Shackleton to rescue the men.

Then the ship backs out to sea and we set off across Drake's Passage, in mountainous waves. Apparently quite normal - two years ago the Nordnorge took four days to do the 36 hour crossing!

Thursday 2 December

Stormy. Drake's Passage.

A horrid night, full of things flying off the shelves and the desk and the table and the nightstand. I spend the day in bed apart from a brief half-hour watching the waves smashing against the side of the ship from the cafeteria - something of a mistake. Ian, the swine, feels fine and roves the ship looking for chess players.

I am up and about for the Captain's Dinner in the evening: tenderloin and Baked Alaska. The Captain makes a speech and the Philippino waiting staff rather bizarrely sing Auld Lang Syne. By late evening we are travelling through the Beagle Channel - nice and flat, whoopee!

Friday 3 December

Overcast and warm, maybe in the lower 20s

We come in to Ushuaia, southernmost city in the world, at about 7am and wake to found ourselves moored. Ushuaia comes as a shock after the Antarctic and two days of sea crossing. It is a prosperous, bustling place, surrounded by mountains, with a population of 50 000. Across the dock walls is a huge banner saying (in English) "Ushuaia: End of the world - beginning of everything".

We retrieve our passports and barcode ourselves off the ship for the last time at about 8 am, to find buses lined up in ranks on the dock. Ian goes off on his own to see the "Railway at the End of the World", and I am carried out of town to the very end of the Pan American Highway to the Ushuaia National Park. The park is full of introduced problems, like rabbits and beavers. We get to see Indian Bread fungus and the native Nortofagus trees, and a couple, dressed up to the nines, tangoing to a ghetto blaster in a hut in the middle of the forest!

After that we are taken back to the city for a bit of souvenir shopping, then carried out to the airport for the flight to Buenos Aires.

We land at Buenos Aires at about 5. Our tour guide is a brisk blonde called Heidi who gives us a few facts as we drove to the hotel. The city was founded in 1506 as a port (it's on the River Plate) and declared independence from the Spanish in 1861. The main thoroughfare is called the 9th of July after the date of liberation. It has a population of 4 million.

We stay at the Hotel Intercontinental - very posh with live pianists (with grand pianos) and concierges and wealthy Argentinian polo players getting married and having their photos taken on the marble staircases. We feel very scruffy and very hot in our Antarctic gear.

We book a table - via Heidi - at a local steakhouse called Las Nazorenas, which has a massive barbecue pit in the window. It is friendly and low-key, full of houseplants and dominated by a long bar. Small children are still running about when we leave, at midnight.

Saturday 4 December

Very hot and sunny

We have a horribly early start, with a city tour at 7.45. We start off at the Plaza de Mayo, the town square, only to find the Cathedral closed because it's too early, to our disgust. We have a look at the Casa Rosada, and the monument where the "May Mothers" still come every year to remember the people who disappeared under communism.

We also see the Cabildo, the old town hall and one of the oldest remaining buildings, built in 1748. We drive on from there across the 9 de Julio avenue, and stop at the Cemeterio de Recoleta, a huge cemetary more like a city, each mausoleum different, and overrun with stray cats. We queue up to see Evita's mausoleum, covered in roses.

Back on the bus we sweep at speed through the city - through the Palermo, a kind of park area, with a huge silver rose that opens with the sun, and a Japanese garden. Then we stop for half an hour in La Boca, the artist's quarter, and walk up through La Caminito, the little street where the tango seems to have been born. It's full of little brightly coloured houses and artwork everywhere.

Back on the bus we drive through the Retiro and past the Torre de los Ingleses, supposedly like Big Ben (nothing like it at all), and eventually are dropped at around 12, back at the hotel. Ian and I make a beeline for a craft market we've seen at La Recoleta, stopping en route for lunch of empanadas and omlette in a little pavement cafe overlooked by jacarandas.

We spend an hour and a half happily spending large numbers of Argentinian pesos on ridiculously cheap crafts, then stop, hot and dusty, in a very smart and very crowded cafe for tea. Then we split up: Ian wants to see the railway station and I want to wander a bit. I underestimate how big the city is and by the time I reach the hotel I have huge blisters.

We are bussed out to the airport in the twilight for our flight back to the UK.

See also some of Ian's photos of Antarctica.

Please send any comments on these pages to Dave Plummer