Stacy in Antarctica

An adventure to the frozen continent

Nov 8th – Ushuaia

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When my alarm went off at 1:30am I felt like I had barely closed my eyes. I dragged myself out of bed, showered and dressed in clothing appropriate for my winter expedition. I packed up my bags yet again and made my way down to reception to check out. A few people were already present in the foyer, all of whom I correctly assumed were part of our small group of 10 who were catching the 4:30am flight, because really, who else in their right mind would be up and checking out of a hotel room at such an ungodly hour?

United in our sleepiness and sense of adventure, we introduced ourselves and made small talk until one of the young men on reception asked us if we were the ones waiting for the transfer and pointed out that the van was already waiting at the entrance. We shrugged off our surprise at the clearly obvious answer to his question and loaded our luggage and ourselves into the van. As we prepared to leave our driver had the sense to perform a head count and came up two short. In the meantime, two other women had appeared in the lobby and were uncertain of where their group was until casually asked by the receptionist “Are you part of the group that is outside in the van?”

On the way to the airport we got to know each member of the group a little better. There was,

  • Myself; Australian, lives in Melbourne
  • Brent; ex-Canadian, now lives in Illinois
  • Melanie; Canadian, from Alberta
  • Panee; ex-Thai, now lives in Maine
  • Vera; Russian, lives in St Petersburg
  • Jane; American, lives in LA
  • Ari; Spanish, lives in Madrid
  • Tom; from the Netherlands
  • Mike and Marci; American ex-military, live in Virginia

We all wondered why there was only 10 in our group and where the other 86 people were who would fill the boat’s capacity. We then discussed the possibility that we were the only ones on the trip, realising that if that was the case the cruise would be cancelled but secretly hoping it anyway. By this time we had arrived at the airport and were greeted by someone at the LAN check in counter with our boarding passes already printed. While we waited in line to check in our baggage we commented on Vera’s apparently frugal packing skills only to find out that she had lost her baggage on her flight to Buenos Aires and had only arrived with her carry on bag. Floods of offers of clothing and accessories were given as a condolence as we had all packed enough to outfit another group of 10. We checked our bags and headed down to the departure gate to wait for our flight to arrive.

I think we had all hoped that the 3 hour flight to Ushuaia (pronounced You-shway-ya) would give us some time to catch up on much-needed rest but I was disappointed to find it crowded and uncomfortable. The only highlight of the flight being the magnificent crimson sunrise we got to see while leaving Buenos Aires. We were met in Ushuaia by our guide who put us into another van, dropping us off in the city center (if you could call it that) with strict instructions to be back at the Hotel Albatross by 3:30pm. Our luggage was then whisked away to magically reappear later in our cabins on the boat, along with it went Mike and Marci, who had booked a hotel room in the city to rest and freshen up after having arrived in Argentina only hours before our pick up time.

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The rest of us stood in a weary yet excited little group in front of the Hotel Albatross and plotted out our next move. Jane, feeling decidedly woozy after having already applied her sea sickness patch decided that a hotel was the best option for her and split to go find a vacant room, while the rest of us decided that breakfast and large lashings of coffee were on the menu. We found a nearby café/museum and settled down with a plate full of pastries to devour. After the pastries and coffee were long gone we made a plan to go and look around the tiny city of Ushuaia and help Vera acquire a more suitable pair of shoes for her time on the boat. We all spent the rest of the day separating at various tourist shops and running into each other over and over again. The “city center” really only comprises of a few main streets, bordered on one side by the harbour and the other by snow-capped mountains. It would require quite a lot of effort to get lost in a city such as this. Our guide had claimed that the local population was 90,000 but we were suspicious he must have included local outside communities to get that kind of number.

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The most notable thing about Ushuaia is that it is regarded as the southernmost city in the world. It is also the gateway to Antarctica due to the islands at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula only lying around 1000km away (or two days sail across the Drake Passage, but more on that later). In the harbour lies the wreck of the St. Christopher tug boat, one of the first boats you will see when driving in from the airport. Our guide pointed it out on our arrival and joked that it was the boat we were planning to sail on. We ran with it and had a good laugh about the possibility of being recruited for the purpose of fixing it up and making it sea worthy before we left, an ongoing joke no doubt experienced by every single group of prospective Antarctic tourists who enter the city.

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At 3:30pm all 10 of us we were back at the Hotel Albatross, comparing notes and discussing our day’s activities. There were a few other people in the café where we were instructed to meet but no sign of anyone who would take us to our ship. A short while later, a young man and woman appeared in bright blue jackets with the One Ocean insignia. They introduced themselves as Nathan and Carolina and instructed us to follow them outside and onto a bus. Suddenly all the anonymous people seated around us in the café were our new friends as we piled on the bus that would take us to the docks where our ship, the Akademik Ioffe, was waiting.

The bus traveled no more than 100m before it stopped in front of the tall white vessel that would be our home for the next 13 days. At the top of the gangway we were greeted by Boris, our enthusiastic Expedition Leader, and a line of other blue-shirted staff members with wide smiles and sturdy hand shakes. Our first task was to find our rooms and check that our luggage, which had been whisked away from us that morning, was all there. I was surprised to find that my twin cabin, the auspiciously numbered 444, housed only myself and my huge suitcase and the adjoining cabin, with whom I shared a bathroom, was empty. I didn’t realize at that stage just how grateful I would be for the extra space in the coming days. There turned out to be less than 45 adventurous customers on the boat with another 20 One Ocean staff members and an indeterminable number of Russian crew who kept the ship in order and our bellies full of food, but otherwise kept to themselves in the bowels of the ship

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After spending a few moments settling in and unpacking all our thermal gear, we were ushered to the bar to hand over our passports and enjoy a cup of coffee and a few more introductions before being called to our first of many briefings held in the dining room. Boris placated us with a few pleasantries and introductions and then delivered the bombshell, we would not be traveling to Antarctica tonight.

Unfortunately for us, the necessary permits for our travel to Antarctica were lost somewhere in the bureaucratic depths of the Canadian Government. As far as we could gather a senior member of the company was all but camped out in front of a particular Member’s office in Toronto with a goal to do whatever was required to get that elusive signature allowing us passage. The myth had plenty of time to evolve from there as we sat and pondered the situation over the next 24 hours with ever-increasing urgency.

We all made our way back to our cabins after the announcement to continue unpacking our things and console ourselves with optimistic thoughts about how staying overnight in the port of Ushuaia would be so much better than navigating the Beagle Channel and entering the Drake Passage that night. Carolina had tried to make light of the situation at the meeting by exclaiming that we were the first group who would see the Beagle Channel during the day, a consolation we were trying hard to get equally as enthusiastic about, while not knowing exactly where we would be going when the sun came up.

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Our moping was interrupted by a lifeboat drill, which required us to dress in our most warmest of outfits, grab the life jacket in our room, and head outside to our respective lifeboat on the port or starboard side. There we were briefed by the Captain and his First Mate on the emergency procedures and invited to take a look inside the claustrophobia-inducing covered life boats.

That was the end of the doom and gloom for the evening and we made every effort to brighten up the atmosphere over dinner and into the evening in the bar over free drinks. It wasn’t the start we had planned for but we remained in high spirits, buoyed by the new faces and stories to tell. Everyone on board was looking for adventure and was determined to enjoy themselves no matter what may come. We fell asleep on the calm, clear water in the harbour and hoped for better news come sunrise.

Note: Each of my Antarctica posts will be accompanied by a Flickr set with more photos.

Today’s Set: Antarctica – Day 1

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2 responses to “Nov 8th – Ushuaia

  1. orchidthief88 January 20, 2012 at 1:34 am

    Stacy i’m half inspired to take up blogging again! So excited about this!

    • Stacy January 24, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      I am excited about writing it but there is so much to say that it takes me a bit of time to sit down and write about each day. Keep checking back because I will eventually finish the story!

      I love blogging, but right now I lack a good writing space. Right now I am sitting in a big open room. I work so much better in dark and dingy holes without distraction. I pray for one in my near future.

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