Monday Feb 14, 2011

It’s all a bit of a blur now, but we woke on Saturday to more of achingly beautiful Chile, as the Veendam cruised the Canal Sarmiento and Straits of Magellan (the majestic waterways that cut through Torres del Paine National Park). In the afternoon, however, after our wonderful stretch of unexpectedly good weather, Nature reminded us who’s boss. The wind got up, as it frequently does in these fjords, reaching gale-force at times … and murky, misty rain dropped a curtain of grey across the landscape.

By the time we stopped at the famous Amalia Glacier, we could see little more than the vague ghostly shape of this monster river-of-ice (22 stories high at its face, where it crunches into the sea). And about the only things worth photographing were floating icebergs and a pod of black dolphins.

These remote, dramatic regions of South America are one of the last, truly wild frontiers – and mysterious Amalia reveals herself only when it suits. Sadly, for us, it didn’t suit her that day. (Maybe that unique pleasure will be ours next time we bring some mad-midlife Kiwis to the bottom end of the world …?)

Spindly Chile (fenced between the Andes and the Pacific) stretches 4300km – over half the length of the South American continent. And cruising’s the only way to see the remarkable fjords that we were currently voyaging in. Through much of yesterday, the weather remained the same, as we continued picking our way northwards through narrow channels and open seas – past forested islands, rocky outcrops, cascading waterfalls and snowy peaks.

But today proved to be another stunner … the skies washed clean with a beautiful pink sunrise.

We went ashore in one of the most picturesque spots we’ve seen thus far. Perched on the water’s edge and hemmed in by mountains at the end of an island-studded gulf, Puerto Montt has an almost alpine feel to it. And the surrounding Lakes District – with its vast natural wilderness, active volcanoes, glorious lakes, and gleaming rapids – is a sight for sore eyes, I tell you.

Leaving the town behind, we first drove alongside the Llanquihue Lake … then enjoyed a short catamaran-ride on Lake Todos los Santost (described by Theodore Roosevelt as “the most beautiful lake I have ever seen”) … then motored on to the gushing Petrohué Rapids … then enjoyed pisca sours (the local, welcoming liqueur) plus pink salmon-steaks in the village of Ensenada … then, finally, drove to a lovely lakeside resort, Puerto Varas, for some handcraft-shopping.

A perfect day in Chile? I doubt if it gets any better than this!

TOMORROW: One final day at sea before we reach journey’s end, in Valparaiso and Santiago. It ain’t over yet, folks, so don’t go away …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our Mad Midlife group, just click on ‘COMMENTS’ (or ‘NO COMMENTS’) beside the title for the day’s blog, and type away!




Friday Feb 11, 2011

The Veendam tied up this morning alongside what used to be a penal colony, before being pioneered by Yugoslav settlers and sheep ranchers. Punta Arenas promised us a somewhat different experience – and it began with a two-hour drive in one of the colourful coaches that met our ship.

Our destination (over mostly unpaved roads, across endless scrubby grazing) was Isla Riesco, a family-run sheep farm on Otway Bay – where we enjoyed a typical, mouth-watering, Patagonian lamb barbecue. (I hate to think what’s happening to our waistlines?)

Then, a return ferry-ride, a further short drive, and 20 minutes on foot along wooden walkways brought us to a beach where Magellan penguins live and breed. Black of beak and feet, they’re less colourful and smaller than the Gentoo and King penguins we met on the Falklands … but just as cute.

To be honest, this trip is turning out to be a WILDLIFE BONANZA. Take this afternoon, for example. Along with the penguins, we also saw some guanacos (South American cousins of llamas and alpacas) … a puma (admittedly in captivity on the farm) … and oodles of birds. In fact, as each sighting has occurred, we’ve been ticking them off in our little book – and, with the help of today’s young-lady guide (a self-confessed bird-nut), we can now claim to have spotted the:

Andean Condor … Antarctic Shag … Bar-Winged Cinclodes … Black Faced Ibis … Black Necked Swan … Crested Caracara … Dolphin Gull … Great Grebe … Kelp Goose … King Cormorant … Magellanic Oyster Catcher … Pink Flamingo … Polar Skua … Rhea … Rock Cormorant … South American Tern … Southern Lapwing … Striated Caracara … Upland Goose … with more to come!

Not all of them were close enough to get good photos – but we’re not doing half-bad for amateur ornithologists, don’t you agree? (Check out the slideshow in our next post … and eat your heart out, you nature-lovers!)

TOMORROW: We’re cruising through the Strait of Magellan where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans converge – with the promised of more glaciers and glorious scenery. So go make yourself a cup of tea, then come back …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our Mad Midlife group, just click on ‘COMMENTS’ (or ‘NO COMMENTS’) beside the title for the day’s blog, and type away! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from … (oh, you know the rules by now)!



Thursday Feb 10, 2011

We’d thought about it, dreamed about it, read books about it, and tried to imagine it. And, last night, as darkness was falling on the wild Southern Ocean, we DID it: we sailed around Cape Horn! But it wasn’t quite what we’d expected …

Firstly, the wild Southern Ocean (feared for its 150 kph winds and 30 metre swells) was relatively calm, I kid you not! We’d had a lovely day sailing from the Falklands – a stiff breeze, and a bit of chop, but that’s about all. And as we rounded Cape San Diego (at the bottom right-hand tip of the Argentine mainland), with land and islands galore off our starboard side, the sea got even flatter!

An anticlimax? Yeah, for the heartier members of our group it was …

But then a funny thing happened. As more and more islands appeared (see map), we and our fellow passengers crowded into the Crow’s Nest Lounge and out on the open decks – determined not to miss the momentous event. By now, the legendary Southern Ocean wind was howling down the length of the ship, but when the word finally spread: “There it is! Cape Horn! Over there!” … 1000 cameras started clicking. Couples clutched each other at the rail, wind-buffeted group-shots were set up, and congratulations were enjoyed all round.

However, there was one small problem. The lumpy black rock we thought was Cape Horn, WASN’T! It turned out we were still half-an-hour away. And, by the time that half hour was up, it had got too dark for useful photos and a rainy-mist had set in. So most of us retreated to the warmer innards of the ship … still not quite sure which of the lurking grey shapes out there was the real Cape Horn!

Great mariners we’d make – right?

Anyway, we DID it … and we’ve got a certificate from the ship to prove it!

This morning, while we were eating breakfast, the Veendam docked in Ushuaia – gateway to Tierra del Fuego (‘land of fire and ice’), and the southern-most city in the world! There’s a frontier feel about this Argentine outpost. It’s about as close as the civilised world gets to Antarctica (only 1000 km away to the south), and it’s set in an almost whimsical wilderness of rugged mountains, forests festooned with lichen, glacial peaks and shimmering lakes.

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We started the day with a coach-ride through the beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park – sampling breathtaking scenery, and spotting birds, beaver-dams and a big red fox (hunting rabbits). Then we piled onto the top deck of a large catamaran, for an introduction to the Beagle Channel that took us up-close to black-&-white cormorants, snorting sealions, and countless other seabirds.

The sky was blue, the sun was burning, and we Kiwis were busy peeling off extra layers of clothing by the time was got back to Ushuaia-at-its-best. But, less than two hours after casting off and leaving Ushuaia behind, we were deep in the Beagle Channel, all rugged up in our winter woollies as we cruised through the spectacular ‘Avenue of Glaciers’ – freezing ice and snow all around us.

Hard to believe we packed all this into 24 hours … but we did! It’s just part of South America’s magic.

TOMORROW: We’re spending the day in Punta Arenas (Patagonia) and dropping in on another penguin colony. So watch this space …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our Mad Midlife group, just click on ‘COMMENTS’ (or ‘NO COMMENTS’) beside the title for the day’s blog, and type away! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want a better look at our map and photos, just click on them and they’ll enlarge –  magic!



Tuesday Feb 8, 2011

What a totally fantastic, utterly unforgettable day! We’ve spent it on the Falkland Islands … at the edge of the Southern Atlantic … and it’s hard to know where to start.

When Charles Darwin arrived here on the Beagle in 1833 he declared “the whole landscape had an air of extreme desolation”. And, as the Veendam dropped anchor out from Port Stanley, it was easy to see why. Rocky, rugged, chilly and wind-swept, I couldn’t help wondering why anyone would want to live here? But, as we rumbled ashore on the ship’s orange tenders (lifeboats), the colourful Stanley township took on an olde-worlde character of its own.

Our transport for the morning – a genuine London double-decker bus – reminded us that we were on British soil … and, settled in our upstairs seats, we were soon eyeballing the town’s significant buildings, landmarks, museums and shipwrecks, and learning some essential Island history (including the 1982 conflict between Britain and Argentina). Our guide for those two hours was a Kiwi (from Papatoetoe!) – as was the lady co-ordinating our afternoon wildlife trip! (Turns out there are Kiwis everywhere … and they love the place!)

Following lunch on our own (me and Mrs Cooney had fish’n’chips in the quaint old Victory Tavern), we careened off across private farmland in bucking, bouncing, lurching 4×4 Land Rovers – en route to a penguin colony where around 1000 pairs of Gentoo penguins nest on lumpy, peaty land beside a sandy beach.

What can I say? They were gorgeous! Most of them were youngsters (teenagers, we were told) – busy molting as they stood, rank upon rank, face-on to the stiff breeze … or flopped down asleep on their plump white bellies. Far from being scared of us two-legged animals, they were as curious as all-get-out – waddling up to us, looking at us sideways, sniffing and gently pecking our hands, and begging to be photographed. Most of the adult birds were out at sea, filling up on fish for their hungry brood – but, here and there, we saw parents regurgitating gooey delicacies into open waiting beaks … and the occasional babysitter with a chick tucked under her feathers.

A few King penguins could be seen amongst the Gentoos – taller, more regal, with even brighter orange colouring – and down on the beach could be found the odd Magellanic penguin (smaller with black beaks).

If it wasn’t for the biting wind, and the strong smell (from potent penguin-poop), and the fact that the ship might leave without us … we could’ve stayed there for hours. But, after a warm drink and some welcome cakes at the nearby Sea Cabbage Café, we bucked, bounced and lurched our way back across the rocky, boggy landscape to the Port (and the centrally-heated Veendam).

I don’t want to rub this in, but … if these destinations in the south of South America aren’t already on your ‘bucket-list’, it’s time to put them there!

TOMORROW: We reach legendary Cape Horn, in the tempestuous Southern Ocean, at the bottom of the world. So stay tuned, whatever you do …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our Mad Midlife group, just click on ‘COMMENTS’ (or ‘NO COMMENTS’) beside the title for the day’s blog, and type away! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief. And if you want a better look at our map and photos, just click on them and they’ll enlarge –  magic!