My Travels: An African en Route to the Antarctic – Ushuaia

I am not sure why I decided to go there. Like many good things in my life it was idea that germinated a long time ago and when the opportunity arose it came to fruition.

One of my uncle’s was a radio operator on the South African Antarctic base when I was a child. Then Paul McGarr gave me Michael Poliza’s “AntArctic, a real tome filled with door stopping images, for one of my birthdays. Finally Miles Mander showed me his pictures of his stint on the Big White Continent a few years ago when he went as an environmentalist. About the time I met Marius Coetzee of Oryx Worldwide Photographic Expeditions, and it was inevitable that I would join him on this voyage.

So there I was, in a helicopter without doors flying out of a snowstorm over the Andes into Ushuaia, the southernmost port of Argentina some 5 hours flight from Sao Paolo in Brazil by a big jet. Size was beginning to matter to me because this is the picture of the harbor I saw from the air, and the small white boat in the middle foreground was the one I was boarding: The Akademik Sergey Vavilov. Not the small cruise ship to the left, and definitely not the giant cruise ship behind with all those lifeboats. I was to find out that evening that the Vavilov had all of two lifeboats for the 90 or so passengers and a crew that numbered only slightly fewer.

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov: the small ship centre front below the helicopter!

Tierra del Fuego in Southern Patagonia from the air was spellbinding. Our first flight by helicopter had been curtailed by a snowstorm. Remember, we were at sea level at the height of the Southern hemisphere’s summer. The wall of white just pushed us back. Back at our hotel we sat watching the snowfall, then the sun came out and we went up again for an extended flight. Glaciers unfolded below us, ragged peaks with a fresh dusting of snow stood like giant walls on our side. Strings of lakes like a rosary cascaded into a massive glacial lake with white beaches and a snowstorm at either end, some 40 kilometers apart, as we flew through the central clearing.

Craggy snowdusted Andean Peaks

Craggy snowdusted Andean Peaks

Preflight briefing by very professional pilots

Preflight briefing by very professional pilots

Wide open to my left and clear view in front.

Wide open to my left and clear view in front.

We landed frozen to the bone even with thick jackets and windblown. The size of my ship for the next 18 days had been dwarfed by the grandeur of the Andes, but I remained on a high from the helicopter flight.

A clear lake with snowstorms on either end!

A clear lake with snowstorms on either end!

Ushuaia is a rugged town that caters for tourists, explorers and miners.  Marius and I hooked up for lunch with two other couples that would be joining us: Johann and Susan Slazus and Carl and Susan Taljaard. They were already at Freddy’s restaurant in the main street. It was busy, double glazed windows displaying giant sea crabs. We ate one of those between us; it was succulent and tasty. The meat was filled with flavor of a glacier fed ocean.

Giant crab at Freddy's Restaurant

Giant crab at Freddy’s Restaurant

Bar scene in Ushuaia

Bar scene in Ushuaia

After lunch we made our way to the Albatross Hotel in front of the harbor, where a prominent sign in red proclaimed “No Entry to the English Pirates”. We had some coffee and met Stephen Phillips  (my room mate from Texas) and Debbie Smale (an ex-South African living in London). The process was leisurely, but the bar we were waiting in was filled with tension and excitement as people met and measured each other. Passports were collected for the ship’s master and then we were transported by two buses the 400 meters to the quay and boarded our little ice-strengthened Russian Research ship, the Vavilov. It was about 5:30 p.m.. Our bags were delivered to our cabins, but even as the ship lay moored I could swear it was rocking!

The view from our Hotel Tolkeyen looking across the bay to the airport.

The view from our Hotel Tolkeyen looking across the bay to the airport.

My Travels: Crossing the Rivers – Part 1

“Onesmus, can you call for lunch? Ask them if the Memsahib wants to come with the driver.”

“Ndio.”

“What do you think, O? The wildebeest are coming down to the river on our side. Should we wait here, or move further downstream.  There’s big pressure there with lots of zebra. The pressure should force a crossing.”

“Better to wait, Basil. The animals are funny when it comes to a crossing. Too many cars, or one car in the wrong place, can scare them off.” I had lost count of the cars: Landcruisers, Landrovers, 4X4 Toyota Hiace buses filled with Chinese and Indians. Sixty or seventy vehicles at a crossing, both sides of the bank, the Mara Triangle on the west and the Masai Mara National Reserve on the east bank of the Mara River, are not unusual.

It was before 10 a.m. in the morning. We had just left a million wildebeest and one hundred thousand zebra in the Marsh Plains, about seven kilometres to the north.  We had left Rekero camp, further south on the Talek River, at 6 a.m.. In the plains we had seen a lioness hunting, then mating with Scarface, an old lion with bright pink keloid over where his right eye should be. Then we passed two lionesses with three cubs looking towards Governor’s Camp. We drove from there to the main crossing point on the Mara River, hoping against hope that there would be a crossing. The heavy rains in the evening of the last two afternoons seemed to have dispersed the wildebeest from the Paradise plains along the Mara River and the crossing points. They were grazing peacefully far away from the river on the lush Marsh Plains.

Opposite us at the river, on the Mara Triangle were three small herds of wildebeest, each between five and ten thousand. On our side were the same number of zebra and wildebeest. The herds on our side were streaming towards the more upstream crossing, and the Triangle herds were gathering at the main crossing. The cars mimicked the wildebeest. As the animals neared the bank, so would the cars on the opposite bank squeeze together for a view. Before they got close to the water, invariably one wildebeest would move up or down stream and start a movement in the herd. The group of cars would do the same. Engines would race, passengers bounce through the veld along the river to the crossing in the direction of the wildebeest movement. The three crossings are within two kilometres of each other.

One dark green Toyota Landcruiser stuck out.  It was parked about one hundred and fifty metres from the eastern bank,  a strong camera bracket mounted on the left passenger door, and a calm Guru sitting watching. Onesmus, our guide, greeted him. “ Jambo”, he continued in Swahili. “How are you? How is the game viewing? Do you think  there will be a crossing today?”

Alone in the cruiser the Guru answered back politely and we all waved goodbye.

Marius moved excitedly, I thought because of the possible crossing. He was agitated. “O, do you know who that is?”

“No, why?”

“I am sure it is Anup Shah. He is the world’s best wildlife photographer. Can we go back and ask him?

We had just driven off from his passenger side, and made a big circle around him, like vultures at a kill. We stopped again in the same place. Onesmus asked his name. “Jina lako nani?”

“Anup” was all he answered.