The Mawson’s Hut Antarctic Expedition opened many doors for me and one of the most important was the confidence to step out of my comfort zone. I had never travelled by myself before, in actual fact I hadn’t done a real lot of travel overseas apart from the traditional Canadian trip and European trips. This was really my first solo adventure journey and what a great journey it turned out to be.
Reading the Sunday papers I found an advertisement by Peregrine tours for a trip to Mach Picchu and if you wanted there was a side trip up to the Amazon staying in a lodge right on the river. I had to be in Ushuaia in early February anyway to meet up with Tony Mowbray as we were sailing to the Antarctic Peninsula, so any other travels had to blend with my travel dates with Tony.
Without hesitation I booked both trips along with a third one they had on offer to trek through the Andes from the Patagonia region which was way out of my comfort zone. My wife was normally my travel partner but nothing about this trip interested her, but she encouraged me to go.
The Patagonia leg concerned me as there would be a lot of hiking both up through the mountains and over the Perito Mereno glacier. My fitness level wasn’t too bad but I would need to get hiking fit. I was 54 years old and no longer a spring chicken but still mentally strong enough to get ready for this trip. First thing was to buy new walking boots, this is not any easy task especially when get to walk about 5 metres with them on your feet in the shop. Satisfied I had made the right decision I got home and start walking in them, it only took a couple of days to realise I had made a serious mistake, unable to return them I went back to another outdoor store and finally found the perfect fit. The salesman told me that you would need to walk at least 200 klm to wear the boots in before I left. I lost weight and set about getting myself fit and when the time come to leave I was comfortable knowing that I would be able to keep up with the younger members of our team of travellers.
Tony left Newcastle many months before I had to leave as he was sailing his new yacht “Commitment” to South America. I had to ensure I had all of my sailing gear along with my cold weather clothing as it would have been too much luggage for me to carry with me. No sooner had I waved the yacht off that I realised that all of the cold clothes that I sent with Tony were the same ones I would need travelling through Patagonia. So back to the shops to buy all new thermals, Gortex jacket, first and second layers along with gloves and everything else that I would need. When I got home from this trip I certainly was going to have a great wardrobe of outdoor cold weather clothing.
I left home in early January 2007 and flew into Santiago, Chile where I had 10 hour wait for my flight to Lima in Peru. Nearly 40 hours later I arrived at my hotel at 2 in the morning. Tired and a little jet lagged I met my fellow travellers, did a couple of tours around Lima and the surrounding countryside. My research showed that Lima was a very safe city, when I arrived I realised why this was so. Nearly every house has a barbed wire fence or broken glass across the tops of solid walls. Outside every house was an armed guard carrying a small machine gun, apart from these guards there was a police officer on every corner carrying, you guessed it a sub machine gun. What they were protecting us from was the huge migration of natives moving from the jungles into the cities. Obviously employment was difficult so theft was the only way to survive. I loved Lima, it was chaos and it never stopped, horns and alarms sounded all night, because of the heat you had your window open so as a consequence sleeping was extremely hard. I stayed in Miraflores, right on the Pacific Ocean and a great place to stay especially for tourist. I have great memories of my stay there and I think my first real love for completely different cultures.
After a few days we flew into Iquitos an old rubber production city with many beautiful, but old and run down, European buildings left over from the rubber boom days. We travelled down the flooded Amazon by motorised canoe to our lodge for the next 3 nights. Sinchicuy Lodge based right in the heart of the jungle. We visited local villages, met the local natives tried out their home made sugarcane wine, danced, tried out blow guns, fished for piranha and was tempted to swim in the Amazon, the Piranha didn’t worry me as much as the Candiru fish, actually a little parasite, that enters through your body orifices main the men’s penis and lives and grows within your genital area. The piranha seem tame compared to these little creatures. So swimming was out of the question. We did a lot of canoeing on the Amazon with a visit by the rare pink dolphins who came to welcome us. We visited a town built on large tree trunks that act like pontoons. When the river floods the town floats with the river height and when the flood subsides the houses sink back to their original level back on the ground. Each house, shack has a wooden path to the outside toilet which is a pan over the river, the children were swimming around these toilets and having a great time in the water totally oblivious to the sewerage they were swimming through.
We walk through the jungle on wooden pathways just above the water line, these were constructed by the natives so they could travel between villages. They were roughly made for the lithe natives and not us heavy Europeans. One lady in our group put her foot through one of the rotten timbers and was wet up to her knee, of course we all had a little laugh at her expense which she took good heartedly. There were some sections that actually had a sapling tied between trees that acted as a hand rail. We stopped to listen to our guide and the same lady with the wet foot leant back on the hand rail which instantly gave way and she disappeared into the water. Of course we all broke up to see her pop back up soaked to the skin, unfortunately she didn’t see the funny side to this episode. It didn’t really matter we were all wet with perspiration anyway, at least she was cool. One of the very special memories I have is the village children running through the jungle playing and having a great time, when they got hungry they would climb one of the many natural fruit tree and throw down enough fruit for everyone, so natural and so easy.
We returned back to Lima to head to Machu Picchu. We flew into Cusco, this is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, I loved everything about Cusco. A train ride to Machu Picchu to Aqua Calientes where we stayed for a few nights while we explored the incredible Machu Picchu, trying to put it into words cannot do it justice. It was just magnificent, the buildings, the mountains, the tiered crop gardens, the unbelievable stone work and the sheer weight of these stones, you could never imagine how they fitted them together let alone how they got them there in the first place.
One of the absolute highlights was in Cusco where we visited one of the old Spanish Monasteries. I have a love of collecting antique books and I was now standing in the library of the monastery with these most magnificent hand drawn leather bound books. These were drawn by the monks hundreds of years before. They were in shelves 3 levels high and you were hit by the strong musty book smell that just added to the exhilaration of being there. All I wanted to do was touch one, turn the pages of the one open on display but just out of arms reach to see what wonders lay on the next beautifully lithographed page. All good things come to an end as we finally left Cusco and headed back to Lima to say goodbye as everyone headed off to different parts of the world.
El Calafate Argentina
I arrived at the airport and waited by the carousel waiting for my bag, you know the one with all of my new cold weather clothes and jackets I bought for El Calafate, the ones I need to walk on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Yep that one. Well it went missing, didn’t turn up, lost. This was late afternoon about an hour before the shops close and the afternoon before I was to trek on the glacier first thing next morning. No warm clothes no walkies on the glacier. After battling with the airport officials I entered the bus patiently waiting outside for me full of tourist who were not impressed with the delay caused by me. I no sooner arrived at the lodge I was staying in then headed straight to the shops, another gortex jacket more thermals, gloves, socks, undies, toiletries, cost didn’t worry me as this was all covered my insurance so I spent up big – wrong – it pays to read the wording on your travel insurance policy. A valuable lesson learnt.
Perito Moreno Glacier
Magnificent, spectacular, thrilling and sunburn. I out of all people should know the dangers of sun on snow and ice, I put it down to being flustered by the loss of my bags. I had the sunscreen packed and because I didn’t have it that morning I never gave it another thought. Regardless of that it was a magical place and fantastic day. My bags were waiting for me when I arrived back at the lodge. I now had to buy another bag to carry all of my new gear. It was getting embarrassing, I had a a bag full of souvenirs, my suitcase, my backpack and now another bag for the additional clothes, eventually I was going to end up on Tony’s yacht where space was at a premium.
El Calafate to El Chalten
A bus ride to El Chalten was through some most beautiful and isolated country void of any trees and a moonlike landscape. We stopped for morning tea at a little roadside café and growing out the front was the Calafate bush with fruit, another first for me. We continued our bus journey that was heading towards the beautiful Andes’ and the home to the numerous rock climbers who visit here to try their luck. Mount Fitz Roy is one of the most spectacular and beautiful mountain peaks and lays within the Los Glacier National Park on the border between Argentina and Chile. El Chalten is also one of the most popular trekking locations in the world. We were booked into a quaint little lodge, everything in town is little and looks like everyone went to the local tip found a huge amount of old building materials and set about building their home or lodge. Me door didn’t quite lock, maybe because it had dropped a few inches so the lock was never going to work. This rustic town construction added to that old western town feel and again I love the out of normal type living.
Next day we went on our first 25klm hike up the mountain and past the rock climbers camp. Our guide put his fingers in the straps of his backpack and away he would walk at a steady pace both up mountains and down mountains never changing his pace. I on the other stumbled and tripped my way down the scree riddled mountain trying to keep up with him. It was a spectacular day with so much scenery and outstanding mountains. We constantly filled our water bottles with beautiful clear icy cold glacial water from the many streams running off the mountains.
We did another walk the next day with similar distance and again it was excellent, the best part was that most of the group were younger than me and I was able to keep up with no problems at all. Actually I don’t think I had ever been so fit preparing for these treks. The last day I did opt out of a short 10klm walk, I had broken both my legs and knees in motorbike accidents and on the last day they started to protest a little so to be on the safe side I had an easy day. I decided to take my packed picnic lunch and head for the local waterfall a few kilometres out of town, this few turned out to be 5 plus the 5 return was equal to the little 10k walk the others did. I got to the waterfall took the required number of photos then sat and just took in the beauty and serenity. There was a little piece of land that jutted out into the river with a great photo of the waterfall. I decided to eat my lunch there and sat back to enjoy the lovely warmth of the sun and quickly fell asleep only to wake an hour later. To this day that is a very special moment I remember often.
Not a pretty site when I landed in Ushuaia, the airport overlooks the bay and the wind was blowing a gale with the whole harbour full of whitecaps and waves. Instantly my thoughts went back to my first sailing trip and again I felt sick in the stomach. I met up with Tony and the other passengers at a local “All you can eat” restaurant. It was good to catch up with familiar faces and to step foot back on “Commitment” after so many months. I worked with Tony to refurbish “Commitment” for many months before she sail to South America.
We spent a few days in Ushuaia preparing and restocking the boat. Our old friend Matt flew in to join us, Matt sailed with us to Mawson’s Hut so it was good to have the 3 of us back together again. There were 8 of us on this trip as we headed down to Puerto Williams for a night before tackling the Drake Passage to the Peninsular.
Yep, like clockwork. Rounding Cape Horn I became sick, heart wrenching, I want to die, please take me now sick. As usual it didn’t matter whether you were sick or even dying you still had to do your watch. Again I was partnered with Matt who took the lion’s share of the watch allowing me close my eyes. That’s how I deal with sea sickness I just can’t keep my eyes open. Thankfully feeling better after a day or so we finally arrived very early morning on our 4th day into Port Lockroy. We were all keen to get ashore next morning and enjoy our first day on the ice exploring the old English research station which is now the only Post office in Antarctica. The Gentoo penguins were much bigger than our Adelie penguins from our previous trip. They were just as inquisitive often having a peck or two most of enjoyed the closeness except Tony who for some reason kept his distance – you will have to read my book for this to make any sense.
Over the next two weeks we visited the American Research Station at Palmer who had the Australian flag out to welcome us into their port. Their hospitality was second to none. We were invited to eat in their canteen in the warmth and comfort of their very generous surrounds. They showed us the results of their research and gave us a guided tour around their complex. The next day they invited us back to watch the Superbowl on their large screen, their techs had organised to have it sent live to them. What would have Mawson, Scott and Shackleton thought about this?
After 3 incredible days here we headed around to the Ukraine research Station Vernadsky. This used to be the old English Station and it was where they discovered the hole in the Ozone layer. The same scientific equipment that made the discovery is still there. Unlike the American base we just left the poor Ukraine’s were doing it tough. Their supply ship had still not arrived and they were running short on supplies. The Americans gave us some food to bring to them and we exchanged bottles of wine for some of their souvenirs. They were very pleased to see us and showed the same hospitality as the Americans did. We explored one of the old huts a couple of hundred metres away still as the researchers left it many years before. The food is still in the cupboards, equipment and bedding is still there. Bones of seals and penguins lay strewn around the hut reminders that life was still tough for our recent explorers.
The ice and the beauty of this part of Antarctica is majestical, sailing through here is so special, it is you and nature. We were in a very heavy fog in an ice field with Matt at the bough directing Tony who was steering around the large amounts of floating ice, with many large pieces scraping down the side of the boat. While we were on deck watching for the ice the others below were watch the radar for large ice or boats in the area. I’m not real sure what they were looking at because out of the fog came the huge National Geographic ship no more than 10 metres away from us. We were so lucky, I’m not sure they picked us up on their radar also otherwise they would have given us a much wider berth. The next day we passed a passenger liner a few hundred metres away with 3000 passengers, they could never land but just pass through. They all came to the rail to look and photograph us as we all waved as we passed. Within the hour we got an email on the boat of a photo taken on the cruise liner of our yacht and us waving at them. How great is technology.
Our last day back at Port Lockroy was magnificent, all of the layers of clothes were shed and we sat around in short sleeve shirts drinking beer and wine. Wendy Woo our great friend, decided she would like ice in her wine, easily done, into the dinghy and over to the floating iceberg and chipped a bit off, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Our return across the Drake was fair with choppy seas and about half way home the unthinkable happened – our steering broke. During the boat’s refit, we removed, cleaned or replaced every single item on the boat, except the steering mechanism. Now floundering in the Drake passage and let me tell you, you do not want to flounder in the Drake passage. During the refit and also during the packing of the boat we kept coming across these series of steel pipes. We were keen to get rid of them but Tony insisted that they were put somewhere safe. They were for the manual steering of the boat in case the steering was lost. Now where was that safe place Tony told us to put those poles? Check under all of the beds – nope not there, try in all of the hatches – nope not there. Then we looked at Matt because Matt loses everything but not this time we finally found them in the back hatch under the bags of garbage we were taking home with us. Using these and a jury system Tony designed we final gained control of the boat and by this time the weather had changed and the seas were becoming very rough and dangerous. 24 hours of very difficult steering we were able to get the powered self steering system working. Finally we made it back to Ushuaia without any further mishap.
After two and a half months away I finally flew home.