Saturday, January 21, 2012

Happiness is...the adventure of a lifetime (part 4)

Wow. Just when I think things can’t get any better this trip surpasses my expectations. Just the other day I saw one of the top ten most incredible sights of my life. Let me tell you about it.

On Wednesday the 18th we made a short stop in Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. All of our tours so far have been handled by the tour company I booked with so I haven’t had to make any choices or even read to see what the choices were, but they gave us the day free in Port Stanley and recommended we just explore the charming little British town there while docked and I had intended to do just that. But two of the ladies I sit with at dinner had mentioned they were going to book another penguin excursion so I decided I’d look into it. It was rather expensive but sounded pretty good and I figured I came all this way to see the penguins so I might as well go all the way and see more. But when I went to book things I was told the tour was all sold out. A bit disappointed but also slightly relieved at not having to pay so much more I booked a different tour that cost about ½ and put myself on the very long waiting list, not thinking anything would come of it. But the day before we made it to port I found out they’d opened up more spaces so I was all set to go.

That morning we tendered over to the dock and got loaded up into Land Rovers to make the 2 ½ hour journey overland to the North Eastern edge of the island where the penguin colony was. The landscape was rather barren but beautiful; desolate, covered in a thick carpet of gorse and scrub broken up by occasional rivers of rock or fresh water springs. We could see the ocean in the distance as we bounced up and down hills and through the boggy terrain, giving any off-road experience in Moab a run for its money. The air was warm and carried a rich smell that reminded me of desert sage, not that the scents themselves were similar but they both pervaded the air and made me feel home and part of nature somehow. It was lovely.

Eventually we passed through some private sheep grazing land and over a rise leading to the seaside. And there were the penguins! There were three types nesting there; Kings, Gentoos, and Magellanic. They mostly kept themselves separate in three distinct areas but every once in a while you’d see a straggler trying to make friends with another group and it was all open and wild. There were wooden posts and white rocks marking the penguins’ exclusive territory but there were no fences or paths and man and penguin mingled freely.

The Magellanic are burrowers and they made their home just at the top of the beach anchored and sheltered by some of the plants growing on the edge of the sand. The Gentoos were the smallest of the three and had space farther away from the water on a lower stretch of land. The Kings are the 2nd largest of all the penguins, very similar in look to the Emperors and had usurped the grassy area at the top of the hill. And then there was the beach. If there hadn’t been penguins frolicking on it I would have sworn we’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Caribbean. The water was a tropical turquoise and the sand was nearly as white as the Antarctic snow. Sprinkle a few penguins on top and you have a surreally picturesque experience. Put me standing a foot and a half away from said penguins and you’ll see why I was in ecstasies.

I spent two hours wandering about in a state of awe and giddy abandon taking thousands of pictures and wishing I could spend at least a day there watching the birds waddle about, trumpet and call to each other, feed their chicks, sit on their eggs (though I think they were just going through the motions at this point, it was a bit late in the season to still be brooding), and swim in the clear blue waters. When I reluctantly climbed back into the Land Rover for the ride back I was more than grateful that things had serendipitously worked out so that I could be there and thinking that I would easily have paid double for the experience. It will be one of my most cherished memories.

Thursday was a sea day spent doing laundry, taking in a few more of the informative lectures from Mike Wilcox as well as those presented on ship, listening to/watching some of the first rate entertainment on board, eating way too much food, and visiting with some incredible people.

Yesterday marked the one-week-to-go date L on the itinerary. We docked in Puerto Madryn, Argentina where we had yet another great penguin experience. Again we took a 2+ hour bus ride out past the city and down to the coast to the Punta Tombo National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary where we were able to witness hundreds of thousands of Magellanic penguins dotting the hillsides as far as the eye could see. The scenery here was very desert-like with very little plant life even on the coast; the grayish brown sand and the gray scrub brush making a perfect camouflage for the fluffy grayish brown chicks and their protective parents. Here the draw wasn’t so much the birds (dare I say I am becoming immune to the charms and novelties of penguins in the wild?) as the vastness of their numbers. When I get home and have more internet I’ll post a few pictures so you can see what I mean, so incredible.

Back on the ship that afternoon I took a short nap, watched Evita in preparation for our stop in Buenos Aires, listened to the string quartet perform before dinner, ate and ate and ate, watched a fabulous encore performance by the violinist Michael Bacala, and then ate more at the midnight dessert buffet before rolling myself to bed. Have I mentioned how hard it’s going to be to head back to reality after all of this?

Today is a sea day and we’re beginning to make preparations for disembarkation in a few days. I should be doing some packing and re-organizing the mess that is all of my stuff at the moment but I wanted to get one more post in before leaving ship. Tomorrow we’ll be docked in Montevideo, Uruguay and then Monday morning we finish our cruise in Buenos Aires. Our tour continues with a few days in Iguazu Falls and then one more day in Buenos Aires before heading back to the states Friday morning. I don’t know that I’ll have access to the internet again once I leave ship so this will probably be it until I get home. Thanks for anyone who’s stuck with these long and mostly pictureless posts, I promise you’ll be inundated with photos when I return. But hopefully you’ve had just a taste of the marvelous wonders hidden at the end of the world and maybe, just maybe I’ve inspired some of you to try to make this trip yourselves. I promise you won’t regret it!

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