P-p-p-p-p pick up a Penguin!

Trip Start Jun 12, 2008
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Trip End Nov 19, 2008


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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

So we left Buenos Aires and started our journey South. The bus ride was another overnighter of about 18 hours! Water off a duckīs back to us now. We were heading for Patagonia our first stop being Puerto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdes for some David Attenborough wildlife adventures!

We arrived on time and quickly checked our emails to arrange to meet up with our traveling pals, Toby and Louise, who by now probably thought we were stalking them. Well we were! They had arrived the night prior and we had discussed hiring a car for a couple of days to see the area at our own pace. Upon checking we discovered that everything was in place and we arranged to meet up to start our mini road trip! First though we need to find somewhere to stay. We wondered about looking for a place in Lonely Planet which was actually not where they said it was, and happened upon a hotel. We went in to check the prices. They quoted us AR$165 a night, too much for us. We must have looked tired or something, but the lovely girl on reception could see that it was out of our budget and said maybe there was a possibility of a discount. Now, my experience in South America is that if someone offers a discount before you even have to ask there is a good deal to be done, and a quick look at the keys on the wall showed there was hardly anyone else staying there! The girl asked how much we could pay, I went for a cheeky AR$110 thinking that it would be turned down point blank, but the girl got on the phone to the boss, and without any delay he agreed! Low season bargain! I advise everyone to try it! The place wasnīt the Ritz but it was quite good enough for us, private bathroom, cable, and breakfast all included! No time to rest though, we had a quick shower and headed out to meet up with the other two!

We arrived just in time to sign off on the car, and I volunteered to be the second named driver! Eeeek! George looked worried and, given that I actually canīt remember how to drive, she should probably have been the other person! Never mind, it didnīt really matter in the end as Toby heroically managed all the driving over the two days, all 600 miles! That is almost the equivalent to Oxford to Edinburgh and back! Scale here is crazy! After giving the car a thorough once over Toby tentatively set off, and took this opportunity to tell us that her hadnīt driven an manual in years! Great job! The first thing to get used to was the unmarked and unsignalled crossroads and one way system. We decided that it was best to stop at all crossroads as it appeared that no one else did! We navigated our way out of town and on to the open road. Everyone took a sigh of relief, the long straight roads were fairly easy going!

As you may have guessed from the name Puerto Madryn this area of Patagonia is the 'Welsh' area where settlers came around the beginning of the 1800īs. Towns in this area have names such as Trelew, Gaiman, you could stay in Dyffryn Gwirdd hosteria or take a stroll down (and this is my favourite) Calle Juan Evans! We headed to Gaiman for a 'Welsh Tea'. It was a pretty little village full of brick houses and Welsh Tea rooms! Very odd really. We drove about and found the very chintzy 'Lady Diana Spencer' Caerdy'dd Casa de Te Gales! It truly was one of the strangest places ever, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, it wouldnīt have looked out of place in Vegas! The gardens were perfectly kept and the hedges and bushes perfectly trimmed, there was even a giant tea pot outside! Inside was one of the most kitsch places ever. I am not sure I can describe it accurately now as it seems so dreamlike in my head. The place had been visited by Di 15 or so years back, something they were evidently very proud off. There were  picutes and memorabilia everywhere! The wallpaper was floral and the table clothes pink and and the carpet red. The tables were immaculately laid with white lacy doilies, white china and mini flower basket decorations! Mmmm mmm! What a place!

As for the tea itself, Iīm not sure quite how authentically Welsh it was, but that wasnīt really important! It was huge and the tea was good and strong! There was hand cut sandwiches, buttered bread and jam, and a huge selection of various cakes. All of this served by some welsh looking (?) old ladies in black skirts and white pinnies! Brilliant. The best thing, undoubtedly, was the tea pot cosy. It topped the whole thing off perfectly! Woolly and red it clashed beautifully with the pink tablecloth. What a place! We gorged ourselves stupid until we could eat no more. Our blood sugar soared and I thought I would explode. I have never eaten so much cake in my life! Nor in such overdone surroundings! Fantastic!

We waddled out like the penguins we were off to see next, our minds working overtime on the sugar we had consumed, our mouths jabbering nonsense as they tried to keep up. I hoped Tobyīs attention would hold for the journey to Punta Tomba and the colony of Magellanic Penguins we were off to see. It was quite a drive, large portions of which on gravel and sandy road. I think Toby enjoyed drifting the car around the corners once he got used to it. We arrived at the colony at 6ish and were staggered at the AR$35 per person they were charging. However, we paid up and within a couple of minutes had forgotten about the charge. I figured that we were going to see a few penguins from a distance but in actual fact we were walking right through the middle of their colony! It was brilliant. Apparently the colony at peak times can have up to 300, 000 penguins breeding there. At the time we were there about 15,000 had already arrived. The males are the first to arrive from the sea and they compete for the best nesting sites, cleaning and tidying and generally making a pad to impress the ladies! The female penguins turn up and waddle up the beach and the hill listening out for the comedy calls of the males! It was quite a sight. Everywhere you looked there were penguins. They were inquisitive and quite tame, some calling, some busying themselves with tidying, some couples already together snuggling in their nest and some fighting each other! We wondered around laughing at their comedy pantomime performance. I thought they were great and it was all I could do not to pick one up! They really seemed out of place on land! As the sun set we looked watched the penguins continue to come in form the sea looking for their partner and their new home. It was a really nice setting!

The next day we set out to the Peninsula Valdes and some whale, seaņ and penguin watching. It was quite an exciting prospect as we were here for prime whale and elephant seal season. Our first stop was at a beach just 15 or so kilometres out of town to try and see some Southern Right Whales. We drove up to the beach and went for a stroll looking out to sea. It didnīt take long for some action. There were a couple of pairs of whales larking around about 50 m out to see. We watched for a little while before moving on. Not a bad start I thought. We headed on to the headland which was slighty elevated, hoping we would get a good view of the whales we had just seen from above. When we arrived we found a few more groups of people already there and as we peered down not only did we see the whales from the previous beach but also 15 or so whales playing around on another beach down below, where onlookers had gathered. These were even closer, just 15 or 20m off shore. We looked on from our vantage point, open mouthed at the whales proximity. They seemed to be having a great time, larking about in the relatively warm waters. We watched as a mother and calf swam around the headland from one beach to another, gracefully moving through the water with no apparent effort. It was a beautiful sight. After 20 minutes or so we headed down to the beach for a closer look. There were lots of pairs of mothers and calves rolling around in the shallow waters. The mothers teaching the calves, useful swimming techniques. Occasionally, you would here the deep, heart shaking sound of the whale-speak or the loud hiss of a whale breathing. They seemed to be enjoying themselves a great deal, almost playing to the crowd as they bobbed their barnacle encrusted heads up and down or rolled onto their backs sticking  their huge fins out of the water. I felt quite lucky again to be watching this. It wasnīt until the next day when we visted an eco center and I found out that there are only 3000 of these animals left that I realised how lucky! It was a great start to our wildlife day!

We set off to our next destination, the large Peninsula Valdes. George was particularly excited that we would be visiting the famous Killer Whale or Orca beach made famous by the Attenborough footage of the Orca riding the waves onto shore to eat the baby seals (apparently her favourite wildlife film - sicko!). Unfortunately we would be too early to even have a chance of witnessing this for ourselves; it was unlikely we would see one at all! Our first stop was at a small town to have our pre bought picnic lunch and to get Toby a couple of cups of much needed coffee. Then it was on to Orca beach. As we expected there were no Orca there, but there were groups of Elephant seals. They were another funny looking animal and were more out of place on land than the penguins! In fact they only need to come to land in order to give birth otherwise they would live in the sea all the time. The enormous bull seals groaned and grunted or simply slept, whilst their harem of females prepared to give birth. They were just simply big bags of blubber with faces at the end! They didnīt do all that much, but I guess that was why they were there! Just to chill out and take things easy!

The next stop was another penguin colony which we didnīt stick around at for long as time was against us and there was one more location for elephant seals and the possibility of Orca sightings. As we got to the beach the sun was just going down and we knew we had only about an hour or so of light. We wondered along the path ,down to the beach and saw the seals. There were many more here and the mothers had already given birth so there were loads of black 'little' pups. WE were able to get much closer here. There was one particular pup who had only just been born, within hours we guessed given the fact that the umbilical cord was still attached! In its blind state it was trying to suckle, the mother calling to it and trying, in the most awkward fashion, to maneuver a good feeding angle without crushing the wrinkly ball of fat! This was a real Wildlife on One moment! Apparently the babies put on something ridiculous like 200kg in 6 months and the mothers lose 300kg! Crazy fast weight gain! Also, fact hunters, elephant seals show one of the biggest dimorphism's (I think this is the right word) of any species with the male being something like 5 times bigger than the female! Interesting, no...?

Anyway the sun was setting and it was a beautiful setting; seals lined the beach and a rainbow appeared on the horizon. I busily snapped away as the others strolled off. Suddenly I heard excited screaming from the others. Apparently Toby had just finished declaring that if he were an Orca he wouldnīt come to this beach, when George (jungle training still working) spotted the big, black fin of an Orca 80 or so metres out to sea! They shouted out to me and pointed but I couldnīt see anything. I joined them and there it was again. Swimming parallel to the beach, we hurried down the path trying to keep up with it, the light was fading fast now and we were keen to all get a good sight of it. I wasnīt convinced it was an Orca at this point but the others assured me that it was. We tracked it and then it was confirmed, the binoculars showing clearly the white and black markings of an Orca. A male, George "Attenborough" assured me, the dorsal fin was straight! Anyhow, it was all very exciting and scored massively on the Wildlife spotters scorecard, a million billion points apparently! We headed back to the car, all congratulating each other on a good wildlife day out, and it really was!



The next day we said goodbye to Toby and Louise over lunch. It would be our last time together as our paths led in different directions from here. It was really sad to say goodbye to them, we had made good friends and shared some good Argentian moments together. We wished them well on their travels hoping that we would keep in touch and see them in the future. We were off to the far South.......



 
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Where I stayed
J&S Hotel

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