Saturday, January 31, 2009

Drake Passage, Iceberg Alley and beyond...

The Falklands marked our last stop before Antarctica. Unfortunately, to get to Antarctica one must cross the Drake Passage. There are scores of stories about horror crossings, and about one story where it's called "Drake Lake"...and that was last year's Star Princess cruise! This year started out pretty reasonable, but during the night the winds picked up to hurricane force and 10m+ waves (yes, 10 metres) came at the ship. It was not conducive to a good night's sleep as the shipped rocked, rolled, jarred, shuddered, groaned and otherwise made her displeasure known. Jen and I took a vote and decided the time the ship shuddered from deep in her stern all the way through to her bow and then pitched to port so hard we almost fell out of bed (well, I almost fell out, she had a wall on that side!) then slowly wallowed back to the same degree of pitch starboard, was probably our favourite minute and a half of the crossing!

In the morning, after things had settled to the lowest hurricane levels, that's one step above gale, our captain came on to let us know we were in one piece and to let us know that we had been "smacked" a few times, just for those people who didn't feel it. Persistant rumours around the ship had some of the rogue waves at twice the "official" height. However big they were, they were plenty big. And I have to say how pleased I am that I chose to do this trip on a BIG ship. I can't imagine that crossing in something smaller and missing out on some of the extra locations that smaller ships can reach was a very small price to pay, imho.

But then the weather gods smiled on us and the seas flattened, the wind lessened and the days turned glorious - if totally overcast most of the time. The first piece of significant mass as we entered the waters of the Antarctic is Elephant Island. This is where Ernest Shackleton dragged his crew in their lifeboats after the Endurance was crushed by pack ice in November 1915. They spent four grueling winter months on the island before being rescued. It's an epic tale and there are several books, some based on diaries from the captain and crew, and many internet sources if you want to find more information. Elephant Island isn't huge and we circumnavigated it during our cruise. It was fascinating to watch the sea colour change as we moved and as the sun played hide and seek. The island went from relatively dull to foreboding to shimmering blue-grey with green jewelled water during our journey. Sea birds played in the updraughts of the ship and penguins jumped alongside.

Amber and Susan watching Elephant Island go by from their balcony

I think this is an albatross...I'm about as adept at identifying birds as I am at shooting them in the freezing drizzle off a moving ship!

My first Antarctic penguins. These are chinstrap penguins

Who says penguins can't fly?!

We didn't get spectacular sunrises this year, but the colours were still pretty amazing and I was glad I got up at 3:30am. We spent the whole day cruising through Iceberg Alley. Days are LONG in Antarctica at this time of year with almost no real night, just a dwindling twilight that fades into almost dark for a couple of hours before the sun tries to peek out again. No commentary really for these photos, nothing written or visual could begin to do this area justice.

Some people were hardier than I

At least my roomie, Jen, was also rugged up for the early morning cold

I had seen a few penguins in the water and a few on distant icebergs

before this gorgeous iceberg floated by with a bunch of penguins all over it. It spins me out that these little guys can actually get up to the top of a big iceberg like this. If you look really closely, you can see one straggler at the bottom looking up...not sure if he's the smart one or the slow one!

Looking at the little specks on top of an iceberg that seemed to be pretty close to the ship really shows how deceptive distance is here. It seemed to me that we were plenty close to them at some points - this is one reflected in our balcony door!

I just couldn't stop myself, the icebergs were simply too striking to stop taking photos. The colours, textures, light and shapes; the close-ups and scenic vistas...indescribable

We started this day at 3:30am and so far, we're barely at noon and there's lots more to see!

Montevideo, Uruguay

We had beautiful conditions when we left Buenos Aires

but it didn't last until we reached our first port, Montevideo. We had a big day planned with a Gaucho Tour and sightseeing. But as we ran along the shoreline it didn't look very promising. This is a port that the Star Princess had to stop at to take on supplies and fuel for the rest of our trip, so we sat just off the coast for hours, waiting for conditions to improve enough for us to get into the harbour.

The temperature had dropped a lot from Buenos Aires, too, and I had to break out some of the winter woolies!

Eventually, the wind started to settle and the skies began to clear. The captain made the announcement that we could go ashore. Yippee! Of course, our tour had already been cancelled but we figured we could check out the city anyway. Montevideo, about 220kms from Buenos Aires, is Uruguay's capitol and largest city. Like Buenos Aires, it sits on the Rio de la Plata, not on the ocean. This river can get surprisingly rough as we just found out.

The harbour area has some nice views of the city and tons of people were out on deck to enjoy the first of the sunshine and our approach.

The Uruguay Navy had a few ships sitting in the port and another cruise ship, smaller than the Star Princess, had already made it in.

We had to be nudged into place by some local tugs. It was interesting to watch and to see exactly how delicate of an operation it is

A new friend asked if I would like to join them for a city tour; she was pretty confident that her driver would be there, despite the long delay. With nothing to lose I hung around with the group and sure enough, the tour guide was there and ready to modify the original plan for us. So seven of us piled into a mini-van and off we went. Noemi Marquez was our guide and did an awesome job. Her excellent English made listening to her commentary enjoyable and she really showed a passion for her city along with a wide knowledge of interesting tidbits. Her email is and if you are heading to Montevideo, I would highly recommend that you arrange a tour with her.

I have to admit to spending more time simply watching the landscape, listening to Noemi's stories, chatting with my tour mates and generally enjoying myself, rather than commiting the names of the things we saw to memory. Perhaps when I get back to real internet connection I will come back and add some information to these could happen! It was still pretty windy and many of the locals decided against visiting the beaches and parks along the water, even though it was a Sunday. Noemi told us that Saturday had been one of those picture postcard days and that all of the beaches were packed. It was nice to be able to just cruise along and stop wherever we wanted to without having to deal with hordes of people. Especially as once again, we were shooting a lot out the window of a moving vehicle! We stopped at the Plaza de la Aramada which has a monument to Uruguay's mariners and a killer 180 degree view...when the coastline isn't covered in a guazy shroud!

We drove past marinas, beaches and parks filled with locals enjoying mate while huddling behind any available shelter from the wind. This is a city filled with dog woman had dyed her poodle shocking pink and a Weimeraner tried in vain to get the fluffy toy to play...wish we hadn't been speeding by because it was hilarious to watch and we were turned around in our seats until we rounded a curve! We also wound through residential areas of all economic levels. The variety of architecture, even in a single block is pretty amazing. It's also surprising how many private residences have their own security - many had gates and quite a few even had guard booths inside the gates. Noemi told us that crime is a problem in Montevideo and it is increasing due to a rising unemployment and other socio-economic factors. It's a little surprising as Uruguay is said to have a very good education system and they have a very high literacy rate. The jobs just aren't there, I guess.

We had to make a pit stop partway through our tour, so where else but a service station?! Luckily there was a very pretty church just down the block so three of us headed that direction while the others did what needed doing and stocked up on bottles of pop! Turns out we should have shopped there as all of the other stores along the main cruise ship tourist area were closed by the time we got done with the tour - ahh, Sundays, cruise ship or no cruise ship! Jen had wanted a bottle of wine from the region, "who knew I should have bought my wine at the gas station?!"

Monuments and impressive buildings are scattered all over the city. I sure wish I could remember what they all are!

One of the popes dedicated this huge cross and a statue of him graces the other side...we were going the wrong direction to get that, too

The Parliament House is pretty impressive and is surrounded by other statues and beautiful buildings

Down by the plaza had more cool buildings

Susan had the coveted front seat and would ocassionally jump out when our driver would pull to the side of the road! Here she's also dashed across the road into the Plaza Independencia to take some photos of the statue of Artigas, Uruguay's independence hero. There is a museum dedicated to Artigas directly underneath this statue, too.

Just beyond is the Puerta de la Ciudadela. This arch is all that remains from the great walls that once encompassed the city.

The best part of the day was seeing all of the small bands of dancers, drummers and performers practicing in small green spaces and down alleyways...they are practicing for Carnival. In Montevideo, Carnival lasts for a month! Our driver was awesome. We were cruising down a one way street and saw a troupe off to the left. We called out to see if we could stop and take photos. He stopped, snapped the mini-van into reverse and tonked back to the corner. The woman who organized the tour, Pauline, has just had knee surgery so is limited in her mobility and the driver backed up so she didn't have to walk the extra half block! There was a bit of a crowd gathered to watch the rehearsal already so we didn't feel totally intrusive, but we still gave them some space and tried not to be distracting to them.

It was so cool - you could feel the drums in your chest

and the music totally made you believe you could dance...even if you are a total un-co like I am! But in reality, it's best left to the professionals