Tag Archives: sea lion

In pursuit of penguins

30 Mar

 

Rockhopper penguin

‘I spent ages getting my hair right this morning’ – Rockhopper penguin, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

Bariloche, Argentina
[by Paula]

If, like us, you’ve got a bit of a thing for penguins you’ll probably enjoy this blog post.

If you’re not that bothered about penguins, well, you are clearly dead inside. Not enjoying this blog post is, therefore, the least of your worries.

Come on, can you really resist this face?

Bed-head penguin

The bed-head look for this young penguin, Cabo dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina.

From the Andes we headed across to Argentina’s east coast in pursuit of some of the best wildlife-watching in the country. Even though we were out of season for whales – which are one of the biggest draws to the area – we were more than happy to settle for the gazillion penguins that live on some beautifully wild stretches of coastline. Not to mention the sea lions, guanacos, armadillos, nandus (ostriches) and massive cormorant colonies.

Guanaco, Cabo Dos Bahias

See, it’s not all about the penguins. Guanaco, Cabo Dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina.

Penguins have got a lot going for them. They waddle around like little old ladies out on a shopping trip. They do silly things like falling over, running around erratically or hopping about in an comedic manner. They tend not to run away when humans are around. And I’m not saying that only the ‘cute’ animals should be admired, but they do also happen to be damn cute.

They just make it too easy for us to amuse ourselves by giving them human attributes – the posh word for it is anthropomorphism. It’s kind of childish, yet irresistable.

We were pleasantly surprised by the lovely Monte Leon national park, south of the superbly-named town of Comandante Luis Piedra Buena – it’s one of those friendly little national parks that never seems to get over-run with people.

It was the first time we’d had a really close encounter with a penguin. We were watching the huge colony from a bluff above the beach, when suddenly one appeared right at our feet. Moments later its (rather sickly looking) chick popped its head out from under the boardwalk we were standing on.

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin, Monte Leon national park, Patagonia, Argentina.

Penguin chick

A penguin chick pokes its head out from a hiding place under the boardwalk, Monte Leon national park, Argentina.

As we later stood watching a sea lion and cormorant colony, the low tide created an artistic marble effect. We later found out that the phenomenon only happens a couple of times a year.

Low tide marble effect

Marble effect at low tide, Monte Leon national park, Patagonia, Argentina.

Our old friends the Magellanic penguins will always be dear to us, but at Puerto Deseado we were heading to see, for the first time, a type of penguin that had been on our wish list for years – the delightful Rockhoppers.

With their punky yellow and black hair-dos and red eyes, they are a bit of a cut above the rest.

Rockhopper penguin

Rockhopper penguin, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

We were amazed at how close they let us get. We could have stayed there all day observing them interact. And they are hilarious to watch because (the clue’s in the name) they move around by hopping across the rocks. They’re sometimes even partial to taking a big feet-first hop into a rock pool for a swim.

Dive in Rockie!

Rockhopper plunges into a rock pool, Penguin Island, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

Hopping Rockhopper

Whee! Rockhopper penguin does what he does best…

Most species of penguin chicks in these parts are born in the spring, and live in the colony’s nesting sites until the end of summer (April). Until they are juveniles, they have non-waterproof fluffy feathers and can’t go swimming to find their own food.

As autumn approaches, all the penguins (including the adults) start to moult, and the old coat is replaced with a new smooth, hydrodynamic swimming suit. After that they all dive into the ocean and head to warmer waters for the winter.

The in-between phase makes them look like a bunch of awkward, scruffy, surly teenagers. We all remember those excruciating days when you just couldn’t get your hair to do a thing right.

Penguin bad hair day

Bad hair day for this Rockhopper. Not a photo you want to be published on the interweb.

 

Moulting penguin

This moulting penguin tries to ignore the mess by closing his eyes. Cabo dos Bahias, Argentina.

Our time spent with the Rockhoppers was part of a boat trip out to a ferociously windswept place called – can you guess? – Penguin Island. En route we also saw a spectacularly noisy, not to mention pungent-smelling, sea lion colony. One the way back a dolphin circled the boat. It was a spectacular day.

Sea lions

Sea lion colony in the morning light, en route to Penguin Island, Puerto Deseado, Patagonia, Argentina.

 

Sea lions

What you looking at? Sea lion colony en route to Penguin Island, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

Further north, we diverted off the main highway again, to the little town of Camarones. From there we explored the superb coastline around Cabo Dos Bahias, home to yet another quiet and unspoiled Magellanic penguin colony. There was no one there other than the two hitch-hikers we’d picked up on the way.

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin, Cabo dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina. I’m sure he’s smiling…

Afterwards we had a fabulous couple of nights wild-camping on the coast near the colony, with not another soul in sight.

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina.

It was all well and good, hanging around with penguins and camping on the beach, but we had a deadline to consider. We were heading north to the towns of Welsh Patagonia to gather material and interviews for a series of articles for the BBC, and time was ticking away.

Glad to have some work, but sad to see an end to our wildlife extravanganza, we dragged ourselves away and headed for our ‘office’ in the town of Gaiman – the mosquito-infested backyard of the local fire station.

From there we turned our minds from penguin colonies to the intriguing world of the Welsh colonies of Argentina.

Days: 1,274
Miles: 34,519
Things we now know to be true: Even penguins have bad hair days.

NOT HAD ENOUGH? PLENTY MORE PHOTOS BELOW.
Click on any image to open as a gallery.

 

Advertisements

Land of fire

11 Feb
Beware of guanacos, Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is both harsh and beautifully desolate.

El Calafate, Argentina
[by Paula]

When European explorers reached ‘the end of the world’ at Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s, they called it the ‘land of fire’ because they could see hundreds of little blazes on the coastline and believed the indigenous natives were waiting to ambush them.

In fact, the people were just minding their own business. They were living in a pretty inhospitable place with a wind-chill factor that – as the Brits say – would freeze the balls off a brass monkey, yet they went around naked. Not surprisingly, they lit a lot of fires, including inside their wooden canoes while they were out fishing.

With that in mind, it seemed rather churlish of us to complain about the cold.

Jeez though, it was freezing. But we’d made it to Tierra del Fuego and absolutely nothing was going to piss on that bonfire.

On leaving El Calafate last month (we are now back here again), our first quest had been to find somewhere to fill our propane tank. We headed to the industrial city of Rio Gallegos, where our Buenos Aires friend Gustavo is originally from. He hadn’t exactly over-sold Gallegos as an ideal holiday destination, and it felt as miserable, wet and windy as we’d expected.

But on the sunny side, we did find the gas plant and they were at least able to partially fill the tank. The van feels kind of sad without the cooker, which is also a source of heat in the evenings, so it was relief all round when we pulled away from the factory and headed south again.

Before long we were exiting the country and boarding the ferry to Tierra del Fuego, which is a series of islands split between Argentina and Chile.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Colourful yet brooding – Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina.

Given that we were arriving about a year later than we’d originally estimated, it might sound strange to say that suddenly it all felt like it was happening in a rush! We so wanted to get there without anything going wrong, but at the same time we were aware that arriving might feel like the end of an era, and almost started to mentally drag our feet.

Meanwhile, we had two separate superstitions going on.

Jeremy had his ‘Spurs fan’ syndrome. This is something that supporters of the football club Tottenham Hotspur suffer from – as soon as they are winning they become convinced they are going to ‘throw it all away’ and behave in a far more nervous, negative and irrational way than when they are losing. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile Jeremy was thinking: “I can hardly bear the fact that we are almost there. But at least even if we break down here, we can get a tow to Ushuaia.

I had my ‘morbid journalist’ syndrome. This derives from reading/writing too many headlines about people who are tragically cut down just as their lives have reached a high point – such as, ‘tragic newlyweds eaten by shark on honeymoon’ or ‘crash victim was travelling to meet long lost twin’. You get the idea. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile I was thinking: “I hope we get there before we die.”

So with those cheerful, unspoken, thoughts we set off from the fabulous campsite in Tolhuin to very carefully drive the final 100km to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia.

“I thought: ‘This is it. This is how we die’.”

Big days such as these can sometimes turn out to be an anti-climax, so I was genuinely surprised that as we played Jeremy’s ‘end of the world’ playlist during the drive, we both got a bit choked up. It’s a cliche, but during the trip we really haven’t focused on our so-called destination. But during many months of uncertainty when our van was broken down in Ecuador, we realised it would matter to us if the chance to reach our goal was taken away.

About 5km before the city, we both needed to pee. As we pulled over to a riverside parking area, a guy came running over to ask for our help. His jeep had become totally wedged in a muddy dip near the river, with its nose pointing upwards. We couldn’t get the van down there to pull him out, so tried a few other ways to get traction on his wheels, to no avail.

What was really needed was a lot of weight on the front – he asked us to stand on the bumper while he tried to get it moving. It seemed a bit dangerous because if the car did lurch forwards into action, we’d have nothing to hold on to but fresh air.

We climbed onto the bumper and bounced up and down while he cranked it, the tyres throwing mud about 10ft in the air.

I thought: “This is it. This is how we die. Squashed under a little jeep, in the mud, 5km north of Ushuaia. Tragic, and yet also a bit embarrassing.”

The bumper tactic was unsuccessful, but at least we were alive. He called his mate to come and drag him out, and we were out of there. Within a few minutes we turned a corner and there was Ushuaia, and we were jumping about and celebrating, which we briefly blogged about the day after we arrived.

Ushuaia - we're here!

Made it!

It was great to bump into our friends Rike and Martin that night, who helped us mark the moment with a few Cape Horn beers and some Patagonian lamb. Within a few days we were also making new drinking buddies of Rebecca and Bruce, of Yellow Van Days – Brits who shipped a T4 van like ours from the UK and are at the beginning of their journey.

Being a Brit in Argentina has caused no issues for us but there is, to say the least, a difficult relationship between our two countries. The Malvinas/Falklands dispute with Britain is a significant part of life all over Argentina, but it’s particularly noticeable in Tierra del Fuego – which considers itself to be part of the same region as the Malvinas.

'The Malvinas are Argentinian'

‘The Malvinas are Argentinian’

There are signs, monuments and references to the 1982 war with the UK all over the place. One notice at the dock quotes a local law banning “English pirates” who are there to plunder Argentina’s natural resources. It’s an ever-present topic for debate here, and it’s something we want to blog on later in more detail.

From Ushuaia we spent a couple of days wandering in Tierra del Fuego national park, where some of the colours and landscapes – not to mention the wild weather – are reminiscent of Scotland.

It’s in the park that the road actually ends for real, at Bahia Lapataia, about 20km south of Ushuaia. After that, you’re just staring across the Beagle Channel, towards the more remote islands of the archipelago and the Antarctic.

Beagle Channel

Bahia Ensenada, Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego National Park.

After a few days it was time to turn north. North! A new chapter was beginning, and it got off to a damn good start. We headed straight back into the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, towards one of the biggest wildlife ‘must sees’ on our list – a relatively new King penguin colony south of Porvenir.

It doesn’t open til 11am but, like keen little penguin nerds, we slept outside the gate the night before, alongside another two campers. At 8am the next day, the park guard knocked on our door and asked if we’d like to go in before opening – a film crew was there and they wanted some foreign tourists wandering around in the background. We were out of the van like a shot.

To spend more than two hours watching the penguins reflected in the water under a blue sky, with hardly another soul around, felt like a massive privilege.

These chaps are amazing. Being royalty and all that, they’re not so silly and clumsy as the proletariat penguins, with their daft antics and lack of balance. Oh no, they do a lot of dignified standing around, looking like they feel rather important.

As if the day wasn’t quite going well enough, in the late morning a little furry head appeared on the bank about 100 metres away. It looked like an otter at first, then someone pointed out it was a tiny baby sea lion.

We couldn’t believe our luck when the wee guy then plopped into the water and started making a beeline for where we were standing.

Hello! Baby sea lion

A baby sea lion pops up to say hello, Bahia Inutil, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

We all held our breaths. Did he realise we were there? Yes, he clearly did – not only that, but he put on a show for a good 20 minutes, posing this way and that, even doing a back-bend at one point and looking at us upside down with his big milky round eyes.

Baby sea lion pose

Striking a pose – this baby sea lion was really turning it on for the cameras.

The park guard explained that he was three weeks old, and spent all day alone while his mother was out hunting for food. Perhaps he was just lonely?! Exhausted from his performance, he flaked out on the bank and took a nap at our feet.

We were tickled pink as we drove off towards Porvenir. Not only had we seen amazing wildlife, but it was the first properly summery day we’d had in ages and we were basking in it.

As we approached Bahia Chilota, we were hoping to see some more dolphins. Just as we turned into the bay, a whole group of Peale’s dolphins started somersaulting and racing along in the water in front of us, their white bellies glistening in the sun. Let me say again, we couldn’t believe it.

Dolphin back-flip, Chile

A Peale’s dolphin does a back-flip, Bahia Chilota, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

We decided to drive out to a lighthouse just beyond the town, and there found the most incredible free-camping spot overlooking the bay.

Camping near Porvenir

Great free-camping spot at the lighthouse, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

The dolphins continued to put on a show, especially when a ferry passed and they went nuts with excitement, leaping in front of the bow and always seeming to just miss a collision by inches.

For the first time in ages, we ate dinner outside, the sun still warming our necks well after 9pm. We knew it was going to be a cracking sunset – all we had to do was try to stay awake til then! One of the many joys of this part of the world – as in the north of Britain – are the sunsets that come as late as 11pm.

It truly was a perfect day, the blazing skies providing an ideal end to our trip to the land of fire.

Great free-camping spot at the  lighthouse, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Sunset, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Days: 1,227
Miles: 32,176
Things we now know to be true: Perseverance pays off.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW. CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE SLIDESHOW:-

 

Overdosing on superlatives

28 Oct
Pan de Azucar national park, Chile

Er, bit dry here in the desert isn’t it? Pan de Azucar National park, Chile.

La Paz, Bolivia
by Paula

We’ve been over-doing things recently, in the best possible way. What with our marathon journey south to meet my family – the Jollys – in Chile, and the ensuing five weeks of astounding sightseeing, travelling and general Jollity, we’re all out of superlatives.

As well as that, there’s been a large overdose of sun, booze, food and spending. It’s been a blast, but the waistlines and wallets have taken a hit.

We’re about to get our wellies on and dig in for a cold, rainy winter in the Bolivian highlands – it’s the least we deserve; the austerity programme starts here.

So busy have we been that the blog has been badly neglected, so we’ll deal with all the amazing stuff we’ve been doing in a couple of posts. If you get bored at any point, you might want to play ‘superlative bingo’ – see how many times you can count us saying ‘fabulous’ ‘stunning’ ‘the best ever xx we’ve ever seen’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘breathtaking’ etc. You get the idea. The north of Chile and south of Bolivia have some of the most breathtaking (got it?) landscapes imaginable – no words (or even photos – see gallery below) truly come close to doing it justice.

Atacama desert drive

The long, straight, drive south through the Atacama Desert.

After racing through Peru last month, we picked up a rental car in northern Chile and started the two-day drive south to meet my parents in La Serena. Some people may find deserts boring, but we never tired of the seemingly endless straight roads cutting through the Atacama desert. For the first time on our trip we really had to think hard about refuelling the car and ourselves, as we could go for hours without seeing a sign of civilisation.

We’d booked a cabaña for the first week of my parents’ trip and would be mostly catering for ourselves. It was a major national holiday – celebrating independence from Spain – and we found out that every supermarket in the country would shut for 48 hours, just before my parents arrived. Panic stations! The idea of telling them, after their 30-hour journey from Scotland – ‘er, we haven’t got any food, or (even worse) wine‘ was unthinkable. We screeched into Copiapó a couple of hours before the final closing, to stock up. It was the equivalent of starting all your festive shopping at 4pm on Christmas Eve – ill-advised and ugly. Shelves were emptying, people were scrapping over the last mouldy onions and children howled as if Armageddon was coming. We threw together some meals we hoped wouldn’t go off in the hot car, and pushed on south.

The moment had arrived! We collected my parents at tiny La Serena airport and crushed their stuff into our far-too-small car, along with all the panic-bought wine, and drove to Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley. We spent a week in this stunning, rainless valley where pisco and wine grapes abound, as well as fruits and olives. It was all so lush compared with our drive south.

Birthday champers

Happy birthday to me. Elqui Valley, Chile.

I enjoyed a birthday of post-breakfast champagne, followed by a scrumptious lunch of roasted goat at one of Elqui’s solar kitchens – where everything, from the bread to the meat and the mashed potatoes, is cooked in simple metal ovens that are fuelled purely by the heat of the sun.

It was shockingly cold in the mornings, until the sun warmed the valley, and in the evenings too, when we huddled into fleeces and went out to gaze at the most amazing stars we’d seen in years.

We were starting to form some first impressions of Chile – unbelieveable skies, fabulous empanadas and sandwiches, lovely straight un-potholed roads. And, most importantly, gallons of very quaffable wine plus a very healthy respect for a Proper Cup of Tea.

On the downside… terrible accents! We started to doubt that we could actually speak any Spanish at all, until one Chilean reassured us, ‘don’t worry, our Spanish is awful, no one can understand us.’ And prices that make you want to weep with despair (how much?!) – with one exception; wine at prices that bring tears of joy.

After a lovely week of mooching around Elqui, we pushed on north, stopping for a night of pisco sours and fish at Bahía Inglesa, and then on to the magical Pan de Azúcar National Park.

Now, in our experience so far, much of the north Chilean coast is not much to write home about – a lot of creepy half-abandoned coastal slum towns, heavy smoky industry and mining, and all often blanketed in a coastal fog.

“The idea of my dad bottling some Chilean partygoer, whilst still in his underwear, gave me cause to ponder…”

But there are exceptions, and one of those is Pan de Azúcar – a sparklingly pristine piece of coastal desert, with a little island that’s home to a few thousand Humboldt penguins. We pitched up at a cabaña and camping place, with a smack-bang view of the island, and slept like babies to the sound of the waves. On our first morning we could see the penguins pottering about on the beach through the binoculars. Beyond excited! For a closer look we took a boat out to the island and got to watch them from close to shore, also seeing sea otters, sea lions and spectacularly colourful pelicans. Fabulous.

One of the many reasons we’d chosen this spot was for the peace and quiet. With it also being a national park, there were rules about not making noise, playing music, partying and so on. Safe bet, we thought.

On the afternoon of our second night, the Chilean Hillbillies arrived – a massive family in the cabaña next to mum and dad’s. We eyed them a little suspiciously. It was Saturday night, what did they have planned? That might sound a bit paranoid, but anyone who’s read our blog before – or any account of travelling in Latin America – will know that our fears were justified. How can I put this? – very generally speaking, there is a widespread lack of consideration for other people’s tranquility here. So much so that people planning a beach party will often park right next to where you’re camped, despite there being 10 miles of empty beach for them to choose from.

And so it was this time – music blaring from their open car, shouting at the tops of voices for hours on end, despite polite pleas to turn the music down. About 10 of them were outside their cabaña and about 3ft from our tent, all night.

Sunset, Pan de Azucar

Sunset view from our cabana at Pan de Azucar national park – looks peaceful, eh?

I’m pretty resigned to putting up with this sort of thing when it’s just Jeremy and I, but when the family are having their night ruined, I see red.

At 4am I cracked. I went over to ask them to go inside their cabaña, so we couldn’t hear their noise so much. They refused. They said: ‘We have babies inside the cabin, if we go inside our noise will wake them.’ I was incredulous. I said that they were doing just the same to my parents instead.

Do you think your parents are more important than our children?‘ they asked? I said they were equal. They laughed as if this was the most preposterous idea they’d ever heard. By this time there was a lot of shouting. They told Jeremy: ‘Chileans party til 5am, get over it!

Unbeknown to me, by this point my dad was poised at their cabaña door with a blunt weapon, ready to smack someone if it got out of hand. (note: he has no actual history of violence).
The idea of my dad bottling some Chilean partygoer, whilst still in his underwear, gave me cause to ponder: ‘Hhmmm, must do better next time on planning relaxing holiday for the parents…’

But it was a mere blip. We blew away the sleepy cobwebs the next day with a spectacular walk up on the plains, with giant cacti and dramatic cloud formations punctuating the bright yellow landscape and azure skies, then came home to snuggle in with a chicken soup.

It was a pretty wild place. In the evenings we retreated into the cabaña at sunset and, even when inside, piled coats and blankets on, playing cards and keeping warm with wine and pisco. Mum and dad took the ‘roughing it’ pretty well!

Pan de Azucar national park

All wrapped up for a chilly Chilean evening, Pan de Azucar national park.

After navigating the busy one-way streets of Antofagasta, with only a little shouting involved, we spent the night there before moving on to our final destination for mum and dad – a week in the heart of the desert, in San Pedro de Atacama.

Only a little more shouting was involved in our trying to find our cabaña, in a dusty little plot on the edge of town. It was a sweet adobe place with a magnificent view of the mountains, the most awesome of which was the almost 6,000-ft Volcano Licancabur. Its snow-capped peak shone by day and turned luminous pink by sunset. It’s hard to describe what it’s like being in one of the driest places on earth. We’ve never felt so desiccated, and no amount of water or moisturiser seemed to hit the spot.

We spent a fabulous day driving round some of the nearby sights, including a walk and picnic at the breathtaking oasis of Quebrada de Jerez – one of those lovely desert surprises that you wish you’d been the first to stumble upon.

At Laguna Chaxa – in the middle of the Atacama salt flats – we got our first sight of flamingos amid a spectacular mountain and lake setting, and watched them for hours.

Derek arrives.

Derek arrives! San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Next day, it was back to Calama to collect my brother Derek from the airport! We celebrated with a barbeque and – you’ve probably guessed it – a vat of Chilean wine. Coincidentally it was our second anniversary of being on the road in Latin America.

Next day we became the only people on the planet to fail to find one of the most famous sights around San Pedro – the Valley of the Moon. ‘It must be here somewhere‘, I kept confidently declaring, as we drove further and further across the salar, before realising we’d missed the turning and also missed sunset. Oh well!

A star tour with an astrologist in San Pedro was one of the highlights of the few weeks. We gathered in the dark and looked up at the biggest sky imaginable. Venus shone under a sliver of a moon. We tried our best to absorb a dizzying and humbling barrage of space facts, before gazing through mega-telescopes at the most incredible sights we’ve ever witnessed, including a supernova, distant galaxies and disco-lights stars. (not the technical term, I don’t think).

One constellation was so impressively sparkly that everyone gasped when they saw it. ‘Yeah, we call that one the eyegasm‘ said the astrologer.

After a hot hike to the indigenous Atacameño ruins at Pukará de Quitor the following day, we set off for a second attempt to enjoy sunset at the Valley of the Moon. You won’t be surprised to hear it’s a bit like a moonscape. Sitting on a vast sand dune and watching the colours change over the jagged rocks and distant mountains at sunset was pretty other-worldly.

It was tears and gloom as my parents set off for home the next day. One of the absolute worst things about being away from home are those awful airport goodbyes.

Derek, Jeremy and I bedded down in Calama for a few hours, before starting the next phase of the Jolly holiday early the next morning.

We thought we were all out of superlatives to describe everything we’d been seeing…. and then we got to Bolivia…

Days: 754
Van miles: 17,551 (to Ecuador – where the van remains for now)
Non-van miles!: 7,239
Things we now know to be true: Outer space is really, really big.

—-

PICS PICS PICS!
Below is a pic gallery of some of the recent highlights – just a handful of the 2,000+ images taken over this period….