I got the hotel shuttle to Buenos Aires Ezeiza airport reasonably early; add to that efficient (again) airport processing and I was early to the (remote bus type) gate lounge. It proved to be a mistake as there was little in the way of food air-side, one overworked cafe, and the lounge was crowded with few seats free. This was the older terminal rather than the new international one I arrived at. After a bit of wandering I found a place to sit, on the floor against the wall.
Wasn’t alone, killing time, and ended up chatting to a group of Brits heading to Ushuaia for trekking and fishing. One knew a lot about NZ (especially our housing affordability problems) as worked on community housing in the UK, Europe with govt, councils & was representative to EU/UN. His stepson was running as a new candidate for Labour in the U.K. Election, wish I’d made a note of the name (to follow up) but given the result doubt that worked out well. I think my knowledge of British politics, admittedly mostly from 'The News Quiz', 'Now Show' & 'Have I got news for you', held up!
An oddly familiar arrival
Its a 3 hour 20 min flight Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. It was a new'ish Boeing 737-800 but had a poverty spec cabin; no screens (at all, never mind seat-back) or even seat power. Was caught out by that but the 30% phone battery I boarded with was just enough to feed the podcast habit for the flight. There was no meal service, just a drink and a tiny bag of trail mix, which became 'lunch'!
The Ushuaia approach was oddly familiar; similar to Queenstown swooping over mountains then turning to line up along Beagle Channel for a short runway protruding out into the sea. It was a bit bumpy, with a couple more dramatic lurches, for the last bit but not 'Wellington on a bad day' rough. From the occasional gasps and applause on landing I suspect many on-board were not used to mountain flying.
The Ushuaia Airport Terminal architecture was cool, substantial timber frame construction.
On leaving the, slightly chaotic, terminal I was surprised how warm it was: 22°c and sunny! I was staying about 10 minutes drive out of town, 15 from the airport, at the Hotel Tolkeyen.
It is on the shores of the Beagle Channel looking back at the airport, but the flight paths (due to mountains behind) mean no aircraft pass over it. Even at ground level the geography still had a strangely familiar Queenstown feel; albeit ‘on sea’ rather than a lake.
The room was fine, with a lovely sheltered forest view, and once settled in I went for a short walk.
It was blowing a gale, occasional clouds of wind blown fine dry dust meant I didn’t stay out long.
Had dinner in the Hotel restaurant watching the sunset, at about nine pm, over Beagle Channel. As a natural night owl, I like the Argentinian timetable with an afternoon siesta, dinner anytime after eight. The local Cape Horn Patagonian beer was nice, but I’m no beer connoisseur, and it seemed only fitting to have beef.
It was good steak – served with red wine jus, scallop potatoes and long beans - but I need to communicate ‘rare' better as was more like medium rare. Thought this was a one-off but had similar in Buenos Aires, perhaps rare isn't so rare here? I didn’t need the Crepe Caramel dessert but had it anyway, was good!
Ushuaia, more as expected
Next morning woke to the Ushuaia I thought I was visiting; 7°c and drizzly rain. We had to drop bags for the ship before 11:00 but were not embarking until 16-17:00. Staying out of town meant I checked out in the morning and had time to kill. Would not have been a problem if sunny, plenty to see, but the wet weather was a bit of a pain. If nothing else, it confirmed the GORE-TEX kit and waterproof day pack worked!
I also got my first proper look at Ortelius, the smallest vessel (blue) on the left, home for the next 12 days. It docked this morning, later found they turn around in just a day, and was being prepared for us. I had no idea how much work was going on when I took this photo.
The main street is mostly low rise retail/commercial and, being Sunday, it was rather quiet other than tourists killing time. Some shops were open but mostly food places, gifts (multiple specialty chocolate shops?) and souvenirs. Thought odd none of the outdoor gear or photography shops were open; given several ships were departing today. You think they would be chasing last minute 'I might need…’ sales.
Found a Fiat HGT rather newer than the one I left at home. We don’t get this model in NZ, because we currently don’t get any Fiat cars! Saw quite a few recycled Fiat badges; familiar names on unfamiliar Latin American only vehicles as many are designed & built in Brazil.
There was plenty of evidence of the local cuisine, but after last night's huge steak I opted to have pizza for lunch.
While i ate, and used the WiFi for a last look at email/social media before 12 days off-line, the rain eased and the skies cleared. It was good to see a bit more of Ushuaia before heading down to the port.
Ushuaia is growing fast with lots of commercial and residential development servicing tourism; both nautical and the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park and Lapataia Bay.
M/V Ortelius, our basecamp expedition home
From Oceanwide Expeditions:
M/V Ortelius was named after the Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) who published the first modern world atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) in 1570.
MV Ortelius was built in 1989 in Gdynia, Poland, as a research vessel for the Russian Academy of Science and was named Marina Svetaeva. In 2011 she was purchased by Oceanwide Expeditions. The vessel was re-flagged and renamed Ortelius.
Now the ship is sailing as a 125-passenger vessel. Ortelius is 91 m long, 17.6 m wide and has a maximum draft of 5.80 m, with an Ice Strength rating of UL1/1A, top speed of 12 knots and one diesel engine generating 3200 kW.
It certainly looked better in the sunlight under a clearing blue sky!
Ship GPS position at 1400: 54°49‘S 68°17‘W | Air Temp: 13°C | Wind: N3 | Sea state: calm
It was finally time to board and that turned out to be a rather casual affair. We went through a scanner (mainly for bio control I think) then wandered down the wharf to the correct ship. The liner on the left is the one mentioned, by the guy in the immigration line chat in Buenos Aires, but I was glad to be heading for a more modest vessel.
I don’t usually do selfies (appear to be incapable of smiling while doing it!) but, 18 months after that first email, it seemed appropriate. This felt like the end of one long journey; to the beginning of an adventure into another world.
'This Antarctic shit is actually getting real!' (me)
The crew were there to welcome us on-board, check off the passenger list and give us our cabin assignment (I had opted for share twin). This came with the magic card which was both door key and used to swipe off/on the ship for excursions. This was just one check they have to ensure there is ‘nobody left behind’ because the implications of that…
It was a coincidence, ~1% chance, that I happened to capture my cabinmate boarding (leading below) in the only photo I took of the gangway. I was first to the cabin but found a coat, leggings etc on one berth. Not sure if someone had been in already I took the other. Turns out it was his rental gear, delivered direct, as 'D' arrived shortly after.
There was a welcome in the bar lounge, the first time I saw Dr Karl, and the first of several ‘technical briefings’ we’d get over the next couple of days. This one covered fundamental seamanship just getting around the ship should the going get rough; 'Keep one hand for ship at all times' and the initial evening schedule. One point well made was:
'Be Careful; an injury might not just put your own life or enjoyment in jeopardy. Due to the remote location, and difficulty of evacuation, it could end the trip for everybody if the ship has to return to Ushuaia early’.
That was a sobering thought.
Ready to abandon ship?
It was straight into a lifeboat drill, Dr Karl in centre below, which was on the top deck. Was nice to have fine, comparatively warm, weather for this part of the departure!
It was all done in a very organised way; hope we never get to experience what it really would be like!
At the completion of the lifeboat drill we started moving, we were away, next stop Antarctica.