24th December 2008 – 3 January 2009
Well on Christmas Eve, it was like most places in the world, the shops were full of shoppers particularly the “last minute” men in the perfume shops. We did ours in about five minutes – champagne and chocolate for tomorrow. No presents – this trip has to have been one of the best Christmas presents we have ever given each other!! Many places will close early today as, like in other parts of the world, the family celebrations are on Christmas Eve. We had managed to get booked in for dinner at a nearby restaurant so were wondering what it would be like when we got there at 9pm. There were about twenty people there altogether, all different nationalities. With canapés and cocktails, followed by a four course dinner with wine included we had a laugh, especially when JC asked for a whisky with his coffee. They asked if he wanted Red Label or Black Label, then it turned out they didn’t have enough for a measure of either so they mixed them up and added a tot of Jack Daniels for luck! His three fingers of “blended whisky” was served up free of charge much to the envy of all of the other diners. At midnight all of the staff came into the dining room and we all toasted to a Merry Christmas with champagne. They did a great job looking after twenty foreigners on a night when almost all other places were closed with their staff at home celebrating with their families.
On Christmas Day Ushuaia was like a ghost town – certainly looked like the Bottom of the World today – hardly anyone in sight – not even kids on their new bikes!! After a late breakfast and a brisk walk we watched Christmas movies with our champagne and chocs trying to get in touch with family and friends by phone. This was not too successful, so if you didn’t get a call – we didn’t forget you, we just couldn’t get through. Seemed strange to us, no Christmas music, no carols, no turkey or Christmas pud. But we did have some snow on the mountain tops, were very pleased to get calls from Margi, Michel and Aimee in Dubai, Andy and Bridget and Christine in the UK- that cheered us up and made us feel a bit closer to home. We watched the Queens message on the internet – that was probably not a good idea – not a lot of good news there! Thankfully some places did open in the evening and we celebrated with a simple bar meal. A very very strange Christmas for us this year.
Boxing Day – we went for a walk along the sea front and were glad that we were not walking off too much Christmas Lunch. The sun was shining one minute and the sea was very calm then within minutes it would change to dark broody skies, heavy rain and wind. Its time to move on from here.
As we left Ushuaia, our first thoughts were that we are now heading home. This is the first time we have driven North since July and although, in his head JC is already planning the next trip, we are both looking forward to getting home and catching up with everyone. Perhaps we need a new sticker to replace ALASKA TO ARGENTINA 2008 – something like ‘BRANDESBURTON OR BUST”.
The weather on the road North is definitely preparing us for home – heavy rain, strong winds and only 9C – roll on Buenos Aires where we will be back in the warm weather for a while. We retraced our steps to the “Land of the Trout” and stayed again at the same hotel before hitting the gravel road again to get back to the mainland taking a different route this time. It was in a much better condition but still sheep, sheep and more sheep with the sheep stations being the only diversion from the road and the pampas. Like small villages, they are totally independent with their own homes, schools and churches.
Thankfully the rain has stopped but the winds are still blowing across the pampas. In the wind and on the gravel the motorcyclist we passed must have had to concentrate to stay upright, the trucks picked their way through on whichever side of the road they could and the buses just rushed on through spreading loose gravel everywhere!! Thankfully we made it without any more damage to our windscreen. At last we reached the end of the compulsory gravel for this trip – if we do anymore it will be through choice to see some of the wildlife along the Atlantic coast. The short ferry across to the mainland was bobbing and weaving like a small float in a bathtub – the bus parked in front of us looked like it was going to topple over – could this be a taste of what we have to come on our sea journey – hope note.
At our final border crossing of the trip, the police and customs were their usual helpful smiling selves – we know the routine here. It seems a long long while ago since the bad borders of Central America. From this border we have another 2660kms of pampas until we get to Buenos Aires – so please don’t expect any stunning photographs with this update.
After a long dull day in the pampas we stopped at some one horse town and eventually found an hotel. It was Sunday and as we checked in we asked “Where’s the bar?” – response “CLOSED”, “Where’s the restaurant?” – response “CLOSED” so when the receptionist asked JC for his Credit Card he replied “CLOSED”. We did eventually find a bar and something to eat in the town before an early night as we are planning another long day of around 750 kms tomorrow to reach Comodoro Rivadavia for the night.
Whilst the temperatures have risen as we have driven North the wind speeds too have escalated and the blustery conditions have been the worse we have experienced so far. We haven’t seen many bikers in this wind – I am not surprised. The road just seemed to go on and on. They call Montana “The Big Sky State” but Coastal Patagonia is a very serious competitor for that title with nothing to break up the horizon at all. The only break with the monotony of this long straight road were the guanacos, rheas, sheep, the odd bend in the road and the views of the Rio Santa Cruz as we crossed it again. We had crossed this river before on our way to El Calafate. Then it was a small river coming out of the great Lago Argentina and has widened along its journey to rush out into the Atlantic.
Finally we came down to the ocean – blue skies, 32c and blue sea – some different scenery for a while at least broken up with the “nodding donkeys” of the oil fields which are the major industry in this part of Argentina. The wind never gave up all day but we managed our 750kms trip and as we checked into our hotel the receptionist welcomed us to “The Wind Capital of the World” - that explains it all then!!
The following day as we left Comodoro the road North was closed and the police directed us back to the Southern entry to the city. As there were ambulances running around, we assumed that there had been an accident.
Following the road out we came to a complete standstill in a huge queue of traffic also trying to find a way out. JC took his map and disappeared to do his pantomime of “how do we get to here?” with a local lorry driver. He wasn’t much help but a young guy in an old wreck of a car shouted “Follow Me!” and did a u turn. The fact that we did follow him off route shows how much more relaxed we have become (or stupid) since we started this trip. There is no way that we would have done that before! We kept close behind him and as JC suspected he led us out but to the South! We flashed him down, explained where we were going and thanked him before heading back into Comodoro. As we reached the main roundabout we could see more queues. At first I thought there had been another accident as there was a fire in the road. It was only as we got closer that I realized it was some sort of protest and they were burning tyres. So much for our early start today, we were just going round and round in circles getting nowhere until JC spotted a couple of truckers who were obviously p******* off with having to hang around and were hatching a plan to get through. We slipped in behind them as they went the wrong way around the roundabout and out of the jam!
At least now we were heading North but NW and not NE back to the coast but the navigator came through with the goods and despite having to drive on more ankle deep gravel through an oilfield we made it back onto the Ruta 3 North to the north of the city with a clear road through for the rest of the day. Reached Trelew, one of the original Welsh settlements in Argentina,lots of Welsh street names and dragons about. The plan is to spend two nights here, including New Years Eve, and go to see the penguins at Punta Tomba. Bad news was that the hotel restaurant and bar were closed until 7th January – not a good prospect for New Years Eve but not a great deal of choice of hotels in Trelew! Wandered around the town that night looking for something to eat and a prospective New Years Eve party and ended up in a pool bar – JC in his element – 1 litre bottles of Heineken – so I guess we will be heading in this direction on the 31st!!
We haven’t had many messages from home on our board this week but we know that you will all be busy with Christmas. We had, however, a note left on our windscreen from a family from Rio de Janeiro and a great message from Karen and Mike in Philadelphia – good to know that we are still creating a stir as we drive along!
On New Years Eve morning, we stopped to pick up a picnic lunch on the way out to Punta Tomba. It was like being in a supermarket in UK – long queues of people and everyone with some form of bubbly or other in their baskets, which we hoped was a sign that there would be celebrations to see in 2009.
Again, lots of interest as we drove through the town, particularly at the local filling station where they thought we were part of the Dakar Rally!!! But were even more impressed when we told them what we had done!
Like most independent travelers we read the guide book and get on our way. Today we were heading to Punta Tomba to see the Magellan penguin colony and headed, as directed by Lonely Planet, to the gravel road Number 1 from Trelew. We were surpised not to see any other traffic on this road as the penguins are a major tourist attraction. After about 55 kms of gravel, we found out why – there is now a paved road off the main highway built in 2008. Lonely Planet published in 2005!! Lesson learned – double check with locals.
Punto Tomba is a UNESCO World Heritage site where around half a million Magellan penguins come each year to mate and make their nests in burrows. The chicks are born in December and then they all leave again end of January beginning of February. We spent a great couple of hours their watching them sunbathing, waddling down to the sea, swimming, sleeping and feeding their chicks. Inquisitive creatures, they were not at all afraid of us. The area is monitored by rangers, visitors keep to the paths and they even have pedestrian bridges over the main routes that the penguins take down to the sea to ensure that the birds are not disturbed. There were so many penguins it was unbelievable. Some of the burrows were so far away from the sea – pity the poor parents who have to waddle there, catch fish and waddle all the way back to feed their impatient, hungry chicks!
Well it was New Years Eve and off out we went to try and find some food, drink and maybe even a bit of dancing if we were lucky. All the places we had seen last night, even JC’s pool bar, were closed and the streets were deserted at 9.30pm!!! We headed back to the hotel – remember no bar, no restaurant, thinking we would be watching TV and foraging in the back of the Toyota for supplies!! Thankfully we found one restaurant which was open with a very abrupt waiter who grudgingly found a place for us – obviously most of the tables had been reserved. However, as the night went on “Mr Grumpy” soon became JC’s best mate. We had a great time despite no countdown or Auld Lang Syne and after midnight the tables were pushed back and we joined everyone on the dance floor. There was a large French contingent on one side of us and an Asian group on the other side as well as plenty of locals with everyone raising their glasses and wishing each other “Happy New Year”. Don’t know what time we left – too much champagne for me but far away from home we had a great start to 2009 and raised our glasses to you all!
Despite our late night we were up and away to visit Peninsula Valdes another wildlife sanctuary where we hoped to see elephant seals, whales and sea lions. The drive out over the isthmus to the peninsula is one long straight road and the locals seem to use it as a race track overtaking at great speed and tailgating in their rush to get to the beach. We made it in one piece thankfully but were very disappointed with Puerto Piramides – a small seaside town clustered around a sandy bay with gift shops, cafes, ice cream stalls and whale watching operators one on top of the other. After our lovely day with the penguins yesterday we decided to put this place down to “bad luck” and head back inland – so sorry folks no sea lion or whale picture but if you need reminding what they look like – check back in Alaska or Galapagos in the trip journal.
Headed back into Puerto Madryn for the night, where despite the wind the locals were all out along the beach enjoying the sunshine and watching the coming and goings of the cruisers docked at the jetty. As we wandered along to the Lizard Café for super the families were all still out there promenading, playing football or just sitting chatting together under the trees – it reminded us of simpler times when we were children in the UK. Some of the old tree trunks had been cleverly carved into all different kinds of shapes by a local sculptur.
Back on the seemingly never ending road to Buenos Aires stretching ahead of us like a giant landing strip in the middle of nowhere, we wondered if we would ever get there, this has to have been the most boring drive of the trip! Finally, we saw our first crops growing, and, despite harvest being almost over,our first combine harvester of 2009!! So we can give CMC some farming photos.
Still acres and acres of flat land, so dry and sandy that the wind turns the whole place into a massive dust bowl. The closer we got to Buenos Aires, we were definitely in BEEF country, huge herds of cattle roaming these broad plains.
Counting down the kilometers now with each road sign – we can’t believe that we are nearly at the end of the journey. Our plan, or so JC conned me into believing, was to stay somewhere about 50 – 100kms outside of Buenos Aires so that we were not entering the city, with no hotel booked, on a Saturday evening when we expected it would be very busy ,but that we would get up early and go into the city on Sunday morning when it was quiet. He knows the NAV gets tired at the end of the day and is not happy in a strange city, especially one this size and not knowing where we are going to end up. However, we couldn’t find anywhere to stop – not even at the airport and with three maps across my knees we made our way into town. We knew where the shipping agent’s office was and had found an hotel nearby but had not made any booking because we always need to check out the parking first!!
We made it, the city was not as busy as we expected, most people are probably on their way to the coast – it’s the start of the Summer holidays now - or having a picnic along the side of the Autopista (can’t imagine the UK police like that very much!!!) and the Dakkar rally left town yesterday!
The hotel has good parking and we are just around the corner from the shipping agent, so we can get to see them first thing Monday morning and confirm our sailing date. It’s a very strange feeling reaching the end of the road trip, quite sad really but, hopefully, we have plenty of time left to see the sights of Buenos Aires before we get on board and head on home.
We think we have a sailing date for Sunday 11th January, there will be no internet connection on board. If possible we will send you an update about Buenos Aires before we leave here. If not we will update together with our reflections on the whole trip, once we get back to the UK.
Bye for now and All The Very Best foR 2009!!!!!
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