Saturday, January 29

Hot but happy

It’s been too long between posts! Our first two weeks back in Sydney have simply flown by. I’ve found myself drawn straight back into work with a stream of meetings, emails and conference calls. As has been the pattern for many years I’ve found myself up before breakfast most days for calls and back on the phone for a few more after dinner. Antarctica is rapidly becoming nothing more than a distant memory!

The weather has been simply glorious since our return. Temperatures have peaked in the mid-30s while Australia Day, the nation’s national holiday, proved to be Sydney’s hottest public holiday for more than twenty years. Garry spent the public day enjoying a traditional BBQ with friends while I worked as I had an American business colleague in town. However, it wasn’t all toil. We broke away for a couple of hours shortly before noon to walk across the harbour bridge and enjoy a leisurely lunch at Circular Quay.

We timed our excursion perfectly. As we crossed the bridge the annual boat regatta was drawing to a climax with vessels churning up the water in all directions. As noon approached a ceremonial gun opposite the Opera House let off a booming 21-gun salute. Lunch was then followed by a ferry ride back to Milson Point to resume working for another couple of hours.

The walk across the bridge is just the start of a new regime for myself. I'm determined to lose the "Heathrow Injection" obtained while living in London. I first heard this phrase about six years ago when a returning expat noted that everyone relocating to the UK inevitably puts on 10-20 pounds. At the time I simply chuckled. However, Garry and I soon discovered it was no laughing matter. The cold weather and indoor lifestyle in London really does encourage considerable weight gain. In an attmept to reverse the damage I've now started walking to and from work; a distance of almost six kilometres daily. Garry has also put us on a low-fat, lean meat and salad diet.

On the home front things are slowly falling into place. We took procession of our apartment mid-week once our tenants had vacated. The initial inspection proved a little disappointing. While the tenants had generally kept the place in good condition it looked tired. It’s been at least ten years since the walls were last painted and its suffered inevitable wear and tear. I think we’ve found the motivation we needed to plan our long mooted renovation!

For now we’ll repaint the entire apartment and repair minor dings. Garry has already been down to the hardware store several times to purchase trestles and painting gear. Last night we settled on colour palette. We’re planning a vibrant orange/red feature wall, soft brown and cream highlights and a brilliant white ceiling. It’s a huge paint job that’s bound to keep Garry busy for the next week.

We’ve been told by our removal company that our household effects should be released from customs and quarantine some time after February 7. The ship carrying our container safely arrived in Sydney on January 23. Garry had been tracking its imminent arrival on the Internet almost daily. We’ve also purchased a new washing machine and a new TV for the bedroom. Piece by piece our lives are falling back into place.

Sunday, January 16

New posts uploaded

I plan to spend the next week or so filling in a few gaps in the current blog record of our recent travels. This includes posts on our time in Chile, including Easter Island, and several posts capturing highlights from the final days of our train journey through the Swiss Alps. As a start I've posted updates today n our brief Santiago stopover and an early morning tour of the El Tatio geyser field high in the Andes. Both posts have been back-dated so that they appear online roughly around the date they occurred. You'll have to scroll down a little to find them. Check back during the week for accompanying photos I've yet to upload. Watch also for more such posts in the days ahead.

Shipping, shopping and settling in

We’re finally back in Sydney. Initial preparations for setting up home again are already underway. We already know the container holding our household effects and Saab is scheduled to dock in Sydney on January 23. It’ll then take up to six weeks to clear quarantine and customs. We googled the location of the ship carrying our worldly processions last week and discovered that it was due to dock in Freemantle, West Australia on January 15; the same day we arrived back in Australia ourselves.

Until our household effects clears customs we’ll been camped out in a serviced apartment literally across the road from our own property. This should make it reasonably easy to complete final preparations for moving back in. Garry has already taken it upon himself to repaint the entire apartment when our tenants vacate on January 25. The current paintwork is at least nine years old now so a touch up is well overdue.

We also have several appliances and numerous minor items to purchase as part of our relocation. The shopping list includes a new washing machine and some outdoor furniture for our expansive main balcony. Of course we also have the joy of sorting out phone lines, cable television and all manner of regular household utilities. Garry plans to manage most of these chores in between job interviews. With a little luck we should be settled back in our own home by mid-February. At this point I’m sure if I’ll continue maintaining the blog as its original purpose will have well and truly ended. Dear readers, what do you think?

Saturday, January 15

The final flight

Garry and I are sitting in the Qantas lounge at Auckland airport. After exactly five weeks on the road we're preparing to board the final flight on our leisurely journey back to Australia. In a few hours from now we'll begin our new (or is that old ?) life in Australia. It's been five years, three months and nine days since we departed Sydney in 2005 to embark on our grand European adventure. It's hard to believe that another chapter in our lives is drawing to a close.

We've capped off our eventful journey home with three gloriously relaxing days at my parent's beachside home. The weather has been glorious with blue skies and sunshine every day. We've also made a daily pilgrimage down to the beach to soak our feet in the surf and watch majestic waves rolling in one after the other.

We even took advantage of our jet-lag early one morning rising in time to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. It was a magic experience and perhaps the ideal way to draw a metaphorical line under our time in London. A new adventure is dawning. Stay tuned for mor updates as we work to settle back into Australian life.

• Posted by iPhone
• Location: Puhinui Rd,Auckland Airport,New Zealand

Thursday, January 13

24 hours in Santiago

Almost six million of Chile’s 15 million people call Santiago home. As a result, the capital of Chile is a sprawling, bustling metropolitan that doesn’t look that dissimilar to any other large city. We’d originally booked ourselves into the Sheraton using loyalty points for three nights but had to abandon this plan after becoming stranded in Antarctica over New Year. As a result, we ended up spending less than 36 hours in Santiago. However, for all that we were ultimately keen to see this proved a perfectly adequate length of time.

To initially orient ourselves we bought tickets for the hop-on, hop-off bus that circles the inner city from 9.00am to 6.30pm every day. The entire circuit takes roughly two hours, giving visitors a quick sense of the city’s historical districts and its modern additions. Garry loves these bus tours as he enjoys gaining a brief sense of what it’s like to live in a given location.

After completing a circuit our first stop on the route was Santiago’s bohemian arts and cafe district, Bellavista. It was here we discovered the expansive Patio Bellavista, a delightful complex of redeveloped warehouses that now house dozens of cafes and restaurants. We stopped for a leisurely alfresco lunch before making our way toward Parque Metropolitano, expansive parkland that covers a series of hills on the city’s north side.

The 860-metre summit of the nearest hill can be reached via a funicular tramway, built in 1923. It offers an open-air ride through groves of mature trees as the sprawl of Santiago slowly unfolds before you. Santiago is huge! The hilltop itself is dominated by a 14-metre pure white statue of the Virgin Mary who stands looking serenely over the city with her arms outstretched. It now a historic moment but still attracts regular streams of devout Catholic pilgrims.

Our next stop was the city’s historical centre located in the shadow of a small hill called Cerro Santa Lucia. Pedro de Valdivia founded the city here on February 12, 1541. Today the hill is an attractive park upon which an extensive series of terraces, paths, viewpoints and grand stairways have been constructed. Much of this work was completed over a two-year period starting in 1872 by 150 convict labourers. The entire neo-classic construction is an impressive sight and it’s easy to imagine the city’s more fashionable citizens ostentatiously promenading here 130 years ago. The design and location do make you feel a little like royalty.

From here we wandered into the Plaza de Armas, the old city’s central square that remains the city’s heart today. The square is bordered by a series of impressive building that include the city’s cathedral, central post office and City Hall. Each building was constructed during a different period creating a wonderful array of architectural styles that simply reinforce a sense of the city’s growing age. We wandered briefly among its ornamental palm trees, past groups playing chess in the bandstand and the inevitable flurry of illegal street vendors and buskers before making our way back to our hotel for dinner and on to the airport for our flight to New Zealand.

No doubt with a little more time we’d have visited more of Santiago’s historical buildings and perhaps a few museums. However, we appreciated spending time outdoors and saw enough to satisfy our own sense of discovery. Garry also enjoyed our hotel’s outdoor BBQ restaurant which always had a lamb roasting on charcoal spit and every conceivable carnivore’s delight hanging on hooks nearby. If you ask him he’d tell you it was the perfect way to end our tour of Chile. Over a three-week period we’d seen the country literally from top to bottom (from the Atacama to Punta Arenas) and east to west (from the Andean altiplano to Easter Island).

Monday, January 10

El Tatio

A tour of the Atacama Desert is incomplete without a visit to the El Tatio geyser field. Its location on the Andes altiplano, 4,320 metres above sea level, supposedly makes it the world’s highest such field. It also has a rather unique geology. Overnight sub-zero temperatures chill the plateau and its underground water source which then makes for some spectacular geothermal activity shortly after dawn.

Incredibly, an entire natural depression nestled in the mountains erupts with hundreds and hundreds of billowing steam columns and spluttering geysers. Some columns rise an impressive ten metres or more into the air while the largest geysers erupt for almost ten minutes at a time. It’s an impressive sight.

Even more remarkably, within hours the morning sun has warmed the area causing most of the geothermal activity to cease. While El Tatio’s geysers weren’t as spectacular as the geyser we saw in Iceland several years ago, the dramatic transformation from a flurry of steam columns to a barren plateau was definitely a highlight.

Given this unique dawn phenomenon, visiting the site required an exceptionally early start. El Tatio is also located almost 100 kilometres from San Pedro. As a result, we rose at 3.20am in time to join a tour group at 4am. We then endured a two-hour bus road, a third of which consisted of travel along rutted gravel roads. However, the journey was worthwhile and I’d recommend it to anyone that’s never seen geothermal activity before.

Perhaps the only negative of our entire visit was the rather meagre breakfast provided afterwards. This consisted of stale bread rolls, chocolate chip biscuits and eggs that our guide hard-boiled in a nearby hot spring. I later read that the water at El Tatio is undrinkable thanks to dangerously high arsenic levels. I certainly hope the bag in which our eggs were cooked was properly sealed!

Our journey back to San Pedro was broken up by two memorable stops. The first was a photo stop at a high-altitude wetland where we were able to watch endangered black coots nesting, flamingos wading and the odd vicuna (a type of high altitude Llama) grazing. The scene was unbelievably peaceful and idyllic. Our second stop was at the remote village of Machuca located about 4,000 metres above sea level. The village consists of a dozen adobe buildings, each capped by a quaint thatched roof of reeds. However, its most note-worthy building is a small white-washed abode church that sits on a nearby hill.

I boldly strode out to visit the church while Garry loitered in the village. He’d spotted local cooking delicious Llama kebabs on a small charcoal BBQ. Garry probably chose the easier excursion. For those readers familiar with high-altitude travel you’ll know that air pressure falls as you rise subsequently reducing the volume of oxygen taken with each breath. As a result, climbing up to the church yard left me breathless and had to rest for several minutes before moving on.

Sunday, January 9

Sun-bleached history

We kicked back a notch today. As a result, the laid-back desert life lifestyle became today’s highlight. We joined a 3.5 hour tour in the morning of two local archaeological sites, Tulor and the Pukara de Quitor, then spent an afternoon by the hotel pool or dining alfresco with a local beer in hand. After a relatively full week of flights and daily excursions the change of pace was much needed.

The archaeological tour proved more interesting than expected. This is thanks in part to the captivating scenery that greeted us at each site. Our tour started at Tulor, located ten kilometres away from San Pedro de Atacama on the edge of the desert. It was here in the mid-1950s that a French archaeologist, Padre LePaige, discovered a small village of distinctive circular adobe houses.

At first, it was thought that he’d only found the wall foundations until the site was partially excavated in 1982. Researchers soon realised that shifting sands had actually buried the houses up to their roofline and thus almost every wall was completely intact. This discovery is all the more remarkable when you realise that these walls are composed of mud and straw; and are at least 1,500 years old. Today you can see just a couple of rooms partially uncovered while the remaining walls have been reburied leaving a series of curious mud rings in the ground.

Two replica houses have been constructed nearby giving you a good feel for both their design and the cool interior. These buildings also make for an impressive sight sitting stranded in thousands of acres of dry, barren desert landscape. Sadly, our visit will probably be remembered more for the unfortunate bathroom incident I suffered as we were finishing our tour of Tulor.

Buy me a few beers one day and you may hear the full story. For now I’ll simply confess that desert food got the better of me in the middle of nowhere. The embarrassing situation which resulted was then compounded when we discovered the only bathroom in the area lacked toilet paper. I’m now returning to Australia minus a pair of underwear and a large chunk of my dignity. Enough said!

Our second archaeological site, the Pukara de Quitor is a more recent settlement. It consists of a dozens of fortified structures built on steep hill overlooking a small river (more like a stream) that runs through a dramatic gorge and out into the nearby salt flats. The site was founded by the local population in the 12th Century as a defence against neighbouring villages seeking water and land in the small oasis that follows the course of the Rio San Pedro river. Today the site offers visitors a stunning view across the salt plains towards the soaring Andes mountains. The tallest peak visible is more than 6,000 metres high.

The Pukara de Quitor was also the sight of a famous battle between the Incas and the Spanish Conquisitors. In 1536 Rodrigo Ordofiez unsuccessfully tried to take the fort but was driven off. In late-1540, the Spanish returned, this time led by Francisco de Aguirre commanding 30 elite horsemen and a thousand conscripted Inca soliders. He captured the fort and as a warning to the local population then decapitated up to 200 elders and leaders, leaving their heads prominently on display.

Aside from this short tour, our only other excursion today involved a casual wander around central San Pedro looking for somewhere to dine. Our walk took us past the Church of San Pedro, built in 1744 from adobe bricks and furnished with items made from cactus wood. Yes – cactus really do have wood. We later saw several beautiful cactus wood craft pieces in the local market. If Antipodean quarantine restrictions weren’t so onerous I’m sure we’d have bought something.

Saturday, January 8

Just 35mm of rain annually

Garry and I are enjoying the desert climate at San Pedro de Atacama, located on the northern fringe of Chile's Atacama Desert. Barely 100 kilometres from our current location is the driest place on earth where it's rained four times in the last four decades (that's an average rainfall of 0.5mm annually). We've based ourselves in San Pedro where it rains 35mm annually.

The lack of rainfall became abundantly clear yesterday when we noticed a plasma television on the wall of a cafe where we ate lunch. Nothing odd about that you say? Think again. The cafe was covered by a roof of slatted branches, offering nothing more than partial shade for hungry customers. We're definitely not in lush Santiago anymore!

Our first afternoon in the Atacama saw us join an almost obligatory afternoon tour of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) located 12km out of town. It's a fascinating landscape of weird, wind-sculptured rock formations where rain almost never falls. In fact much of the rock in the area is actually made of little more than incredibly hard, dry rock crystal. Our tour ended at sunset which we watched from a narrow ridge overlooking a giant sand dune more than 100 metres high.

Our second day in the Atacama saw us take a full day tour of the Salar de Atacama (known in English as the Atacama Salt Flats). This incredible 15,620sq km plain of dried salt lies 2,305 metres above sea level. It's surface consists of rough, jagged salt rocks that stretch as far as the eye can see. However, every so often, subterranean water rises to the surface creating spectacular brine lakes. Salt-tolerant brine shrimps thrive in these waters, attracting thousands of hungry flamingoes. We saw plenty of these birds today, all with their heads down filtering lake water through their beaks at a furious rate.

Our tour also took us up to the Andes altiplano more than 4,350 metres above sea level. Here we visited two picturesque lakes; Miscanti and Miniques. These lakes are rimmed by a thick band of bright white salt and their waters are the most iridensent blue you can image. Behind them sit a series of towering, arid volcanic peaks; again, more postcard fodder. We then stopped for lunch in the small rural village of Socaire noted for its adobe churches. Abode buildings are constructed of mud and straw bricks, making these rather unique buildings.

Today's tour ended with a brief stop in the village of Toconao. It's renown for a simple, white-washed adobe bell tower built in 1750. The tower is now a protected national monument. The town owes its existence to a remarkable oasis found in a nearby valley called Quebrada de Jerez. We visited the valley earlier in the day. It's a awe inspiring sight. Mature trees and grass nestle in the shadows while dry, desolate hills and salt plains stretch to the horizon. We learnt that each village family has a small plot in the valley where they grow fruit trees, grapes and vegetables.

Tomorrow we're off to tour the ruins of two ancient civilisations that first settled the San Pedro area. The oldest settlement discovered so far dates back to roughly 800BC. Our final day in the Atacama will see us rise at 4am to drive 97km to El Tatio, the world's highest substantial geyser field. It sits 4,321 metres above sea level. The early rise is important as the geysers are at their most spectacular as the rising sun warms the sub-zero desert, generating impressive columns of steam. Stay tuned for more memorable photos.

PS: Keri if you're reading this post and discover spelling errors, please blame my spell-checker. When logging onto the blog the system automatically detected my location and established itself using Spanish language settings. I later tried to run the spell-checker which caused almost every word came back as an error. I know my spelling is shaky at times, but challenging every word was a rather harsh slap in the face.

Thursday, January 6

Isle de Pascua

Garry and I are back in Santiago this evening after an inspiring two and a half days on Easter Island (known to the Chileans as Isle de Pascua). The weather was warm and sunny much of the time making our daily excursions all the more enjoyable. I'll post more details shortly, but here's a couple of photos from our time on the island. Tomorrow morning we fly north to Calama to join a four-day tour of the Atacama Desert.

Tuesday, January 4

We've done our seventh continent

We’ve completed our Antarctic Christmas cruise. What an incredible experience. Every account you’ve ever read about the white continent’s beauty and serenity honestly doesn’t do it justice. Antarctica really is the world’s most pristine, untouched wilderness. Nature is definitely master of this domain as we discovered when inclement weather delayed our flight from King George Island to Punta Arenas for three days.

This delay meant that Garry and I were lucky enough to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Antarctica; all at no additional cost. I use to fantasize about celebrating the start of the new millennium in Antarctica but ultimately never booked a cruise. In my wildest dreams I never imagined ten years later my youthful fantasy would become reality.

In the end we spent eight nights and nine days cruising around the South Shetland Islands and along the Antarctic peninsula. We travelled as far south as 65.05 degrees before pack ice finally blocked our route. Along the way we enjoyed up to three daily excursions, each offering something new and unique. Day after day the polar scenery never failed to amaze, while the wildlife proved more numerous and accessible than I’d ever imagined.  The photo below is just one example.  It's now used by the cruise company on its home page to promote the very cruise we enjoyed.

Highlights include watching penguins mate, build nests and feed new born chicks. We also saw Humpback whales, Fin whales and Killer whales feeding and frolicking; often several times a day. Seals were found basking on ice flows and beaches almost every day. We spotted Crabeater seals, Leopard seals, Weddell seals and juvenile Elephant seals. The bird life was equally abundant. We saw Cormorants feeding chicks on their nests and encountered more than one curious Skua (that’s a large, dull brown scavenger bird).

With so much to share I’ve drafted a separate post covering each day of our cruise. Enjoy these summaries of our incredible experience:
Finally, enjoy the best of more than two thousands photos I’ve taken along the way. Choosing which to upload has been hard work. Everything in the polar regions is a photo opportunity to die for. Without a doubt Antarctica was well worth the wait. Go if you can!

As of January 5, I've posted detailed summaries of entire Antarctic cruise. I'll continue to upload more photos for each post as time and Internet access allows. Check back every few days for more great images of our polar experience.