Tuesday, 13 December 2016


Let's sit here you and me and let the breeze of a summer afternoon wash over us, bringing with it the heady scent of jasmine, the rustling of leaf burdened trees that toss and sway hither and thither, the soporific cooing of pigeons and the droning of winged insects. Billowing puffs of white clouds are pushed across an azure sky and the resident dogs flop resignedly onto the cool tiled terrace waiting for the heat of the afternoon to abate. It's hard to keep your eyes open. This could be England on an idyllic July day, the landscape is familiar enough, but we are instead in the pampas lands of Argentina; the treeless plains, where the song of blackbirds, chaffinches and thrushes gives way to kiskadees, ovenbirds and the piercing screeching of parakeets.

Perhaps we should go for a stroll; shake off the effects of a heavy lunch and too much wine. We can keep cool. We'll walk in the sun-dappled shade of the eucalyptus and sweet scented pine where the rufous horneros, the national bird of this country of gauchos, cattle and tango, wail at one another with maniacal laughter and build their domed nests of mud atop a stout bough. Wherever we go chimango caracaras chase and scold, expertly riding the air currents on dainty wings, twisting and tumbling as they squabble for territory, food or attention. If we look skyward we can see a pair of their larger relatives, the Southern caracara soaring over a belt of trees. The other birds don't like them; it seems wherever they go they attract a mobbing group of martins. 

After a few minutes we come to the wide open fields of the Estancia where cattle graze contentedly on the lush grasses. The fields are big, their size allowing drier grasses space to ripple in the wind as waves on a turbulent sea. It is a flat, open landscape, reminiscent of parts of my beloved Norfolk, yet somehow wilder and untamed. Here the farming is less intense, things have room to live and breathe.
For all that, water is the lifeblood and here on a summer's day water is in short supply. Close by is an oasis, a natural hollow forming a doughnut ring of moisture with a raised dry Island at the centre covered in a jungle of tall thistles. 

Life is attracted to this area which for its size holds far more than it reasonably should. Be still and watch. Birds come to drink; sparrows, finches and flycatchers, a pair of moorhens, more gaudily coloured than ours at home but the same shape and with the same habits, peck their way from one side to the other. Did you see that small ripple? At first nothing, then a small striped head pokes out from the carpet of purple pond weed: a pied billed grebe. It is carefully keeping an eye on us and keeping the rest of itself submerged; hidden from perceived danger. But we're not here to harm, simply to observe. And it works. The moorhens feed their fluffy chicks just in front of us, bright yellow finches come down to sip the thirst quenching fresh water, a gangly limpkin grunts from atop a small bush, brightly coloured ducks drift warily by, past martins collecting mud for their nests. So much in such a small space.

We should move on. Further along the track our attention is taken by the squawking of parakeets. Here in some tall pines they have built their nests, large communal affairs of coarse twigs wedged into the junction of branch with trunk. Noisy birds that somehow seem out of place in such an environment, but a colourful addition to our growing list. Let's scan the fields and see what else we can find. The fence posts are a good place to start. They always seem to hold a good selection of the smaller species and there in front of us is one of the most beautiful of creations you are ever likely to see, a forked tailed flycatcher. Nature has given us many wonders over the past five weeks, but surely this modest little bird ranks up there with the penguins and the condors. With long tail plumes catching the breeze, It is simply exquisite. But there's something more, look over to the left. That's not a caracara, it's a bigger more purposeful hunter. A harrier, a long-winged harrier, quartering the fields with piercing eyes coming closer with every shallow wingbeat. The breeze causes this hunter to tack this way and that and we get stunning views as it battles the air currents. Happy? Good. But we still have another treat to share.

Back at the house there is a sheltered garden where an array of agapanthus is in full bright blue bloom. This in itself is a treat, but there are even brighter jewels to find. Hummingbirds! Shining irredescent emerald green, darting around the flower heads to sup nectar. Sometimes it is hard to keep track of their movements as they whirr on short pointed wings, probing their long beaks into the flower spikes.  It seems the birds make a circuit every few minutes to entertain us as they feed. 

And we, my friends, have ourselves completed the circuit. We have travelled over the past few weeks from tropical Brazil through sub-Antarctic islands, barren wind torn steppe, glacial splendour and the temperate farmlands. We have seen mighty waterfalls, stood gazing at star strewn skies, been caught in torrential downpours, scorched by fierce southern summer sun and blown off our feet by unrelenting winds. Orcas, penguins, toucans, condors and radiant butterflies we have seen. Happy, courteous, charming people we have met. And we have barely scratched the surface of what the continent of South America can offer. I hope you have enjoyed taking my hand as we have experienced these things; I've certainly found writing them down a therapeutic and enlightening experience. Finding the words to capture the moment has allowed me to understand what I have felt as the days unfold. Thanks for staying with me.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Freezing Glaciers and Flaming Flamingos

El Calafate, a pleasant enough medium sized town in Argentine Patagonia, is named after a berberis. This plant is profound hereabouts and the berries are used for making liquor, for putting in pies or simply for eating (don't try this at home folks). Another pinprick in the romanticism of my imagination. I expected the name of this lakeside town in the deep South of Argentina to mean 'The Gateway to Heaven' or something. Instead it is named after a small shrub. We find ourselves here for a couple of days having been driven for 6 hours or so from our last base in Chilean Patagonia. The drive was uneventful, along long straight roads, except for a frustrating wait at the border stuck behind a coach load of Chinese tourists. Here we queued for the best part of an hour whilst some bored national guardsman decided whether or not to stamp our passport. Petty officialdom drives you mad at times. It wouldn't have been so bad had he not stopped what he was doing every couple of minutes to chat to his mates. South America!

We played tag with this particular bus full of orientals on the long drive across the empty, harsh, wind-blasted steppe. We overtake them and stop for coffee/toilets, they pass us and we find ourselves behind them again. We arrive at our hotel and guess who arrives a few minutes later. Good fun. The landscape all around though is very barren. Ranches, or Estanchias, are huge; they have to be. There is simply nothing to sustain sheep or cattle unless you have a lot of land over which they can roam looking to eke a few calories from stunted grasses. Now and again water, in the form of a narrow river, will create an oasis of green and suddenly the landscape is transformed. But only for a few kilometres; it soon reverts to barren wilderness. Ancient glaciers have carved this land, gouging out huge valleys and escarpments, leaving behind hundreds of miles of bare rock, boulders and gravel. The thin layer of soil accumulated over millenia struggles to support life. We saw very little.

However it was to a glacier, a real active one, that we were taken yesterday. The Perito Moreno Glacier to be exact, an hours drive along the blue lake Argentina, Lago Argentino, that is formed by the melting ice that falls from the glacier's face. It is an awesomely impressive natural monument, forming the focal point of a National Park of wooded alpine slopes and meadows that are able to flourish due to the sheltered nature of the valleys and the abundant rainfall. No rain today though. A boat, uncannily full of Chinese tourists.......,.no can't be, takes you within 300 metres of the north face ( it cannot get closer for reasons of safety) where you can look in astonishment at the wall of ice towering 70 metres above you. The glacier itself is some 5 kilometres wide, a fact difficult to grasp when all you can see is a wash of white. There is nothing to give it scale until what looks like a small snowball breaks away from the face. It takes a second for the sound, a loud sharp crack, to reach you and then for the boom as the boulder of ice, not a snowball after all but a mass probably weighing tonnes, splashes into the lake. Snap, snap, snap but the pictures struggle to convey the sense of magnificence.

After the boat trip, that weaves between ice bergs of wonderful smooth shape and electric blue radiance, we were taken to an area that overlooks the glacier's both North and South faces. Here some stunning views are to be had looking back along the snaking river of slowly moving ice into the heart of the Andes themselves. The ice moves at the rate of 1.5 metres a day and is always disintegrating as it funnels into the narrow channel at the mouth of the lake. The accumulated ice we were looking at fell, as snow, between 400 and 900 years ago. These kind of facts numb the mind. To think the chunks of ice we were watching plunge into the near freezing water were laid down possibly at the time Norwich Cathedral was being built; it has taken all that time to slowly, but grindingly surely, reach the end of its journey. You can only stand and stare.

Every few years the press of ice, forming a chevron, blocks the flow of water in the lake. When this happens a huge bridge forms which eventually collapses under its own weight. That sight must be quite something; the noise can apparently be heard 50 kilometres away. I believe it. We were lucky to witness one or two sizeable collapses ourselves and the noise is truly frightening. The raw power of nature is something man can never really conquer.

That was yesterday. Today we fly to Buenos Aires. In fact I'm writing this blog from the aircraft cruising high in the heavens, buffeted by a strong crosswind blowing from the bowels of the Andes. I'm sitting here with another group of Chinese folk - surely they can't be the same ones - amidst coughing, spluttering and sneezing. If I don't catch something it'll be a miracle. And why are those skirts the air stewardesses wear so damn sexy. We had the morning to kill before we caught the flight, so walked the short distance to the Laguna Nimez nature reserve, an area of wetland and shallow dunes beside Lago Argentino where Chilean flamingos dwell. Here we walked the circular trail in the teeth of a howling wind ( the same one rocking our 737), which was not very pleasant. However the birdlife more than made up for the inconvenience of once again having your eyebrows blasted to a place roughly above your ears. 

There were certainly flamingos on the lagoons, shining pretty pink and red as they fed or stood on a single leg huddled into the wind. The mineral rich waters must provide ideal conditions for the algae upon which they feast to proliferate; the birds were certainly sporting rich livery. Other than adding bright colour these living croquet sticks were not doing very much. No, the chief entertainment was provided by a pair of cinereous harriers and a mottley group of chimango caracaras occupying an area of reed fringed water. I've never been privileged to have such beautiful graceful birds come as close. So close I could not track their movements through the camera viewfinder which they filled as a blur when they sped past. The harriers presumably had a nest secreted amongst the short reeds and spent a lot of time seeing off the scavenging caracaras, providing dramatic chases for our delectation. Once the male brought in a prey item for the female, a chick of some water bird, and the pair made a food pass just a few metres from where we stood. The female then nearly hit me as she buffeted her way back into the reeds. Incredible. Back home it is sometimes possible to witness this kind of behaviour with our marsh harriers, but never anywhere near as close and never with birds that are so tolerant. Such an unexpected and uplifting episode. Snap, snap, snap and perhaps on this occasion you can capture the sense of the magnificence played out before us.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Big Feet

We've moved from a windswept Falklands to a windswept Patagonia. A hiccup or two on the way with cancelled flights, missed pick ups and frantic telephone calls and emails. But all came good eventually. The first short leg of this stage of the trip (shortened even more by the aforementioned cock ups) finds us on the edge of Torres Del Paines National Park in Chile ensconced in a delightful complex called Patagonia Camp.  One or two of the waiters live up to the name, but everyone is very friendly, efficient and welcoming. Patagonia apparently means Big Feet, and there was me thinking romantically that it meant 'Land of the Towering Peaks' or some such. It was, so we are told, given such a mundane, nay stupid, name by early European settlers because the natives were considerably taller than the average 16th Century Portuguese/Spaniard; malnourished midgets all. Ferdinand Magellan is credited with being the first European to set eyes on the Patagones Indians chiefly by seeing huge footprints on a beach. Hence the name given to the region. And the name has stuck.

Whatever, the landscape is magnificent, the view from our luxurious tent (yurt) breathtaking, the colour of the lakes the deepest, purest blue, disconcertingly several shades darker than the sky reflected therein. Torres del Paine means Towers of Blue and it is this overriding colour that gives the park it's name. I feel quite pampered as I lounge about surrounded by cushions of all shapes and sizes, mock fur rugs covering the floor, tapestries draped on the walls and a selection of nibbles and a bottle of red left by the maid. And all I have to do is raise my head to see this.....

We only have a single full day available to us here and elected to spend it on a 5 miles 'fauna' walk offered by one of the resident guides. The starting point for this particular hike is about a 90 minute drive from the lodge taking you through some rugged terrain with walls of stratified rock thrust at crazy angles into the rarified air. These rocks are testament to some violent activity when our planet was much younger and record the laying down of sediments which contain evidence that once this whole area formed the sea bed. Look closely and fossil remains of marine creatures can easily be seen.
The impressions from a moving vehicle are ones of wide sweeping moorland through which dark masses of granite emerge and career towards the heavens. The tallest peaks are covered in an icing of glacial white where cloud forms to the leeward side creating tendrils of wispy smoke flowing as if from a factory chimney. Here and there are stands of stunted, skeletal trees, victims of past fires, and dried, wind blasted depressions where water can pool for a while before evaporating into the atmosphere.

And a glance upward will sometimes reveal a black form of a soaring condor surveying the wide open terrain, it's home and domain, for any animal that has found living here beyond its ability.

Our stroll across the steppe would have been lovely in the subtle warmth of an English spring day, but here the wind sheers across the stunted vegetation, slamming into your face and rendering everything an effort. Your hat is tugged helter skelter threatening to blow away and take your head with it. Life is hard out here and the trail littered with skulls and bones of guanacos, some of which may well have fallen prey to a puma but most probably succumbed to the ravages associated with living on the edge of existence. The wind and dry conditions apparently result in a slow rate of decomposition, so bones and the hides of dead beasts linger. Once the scavengers have picked the carcass clean.

However the circle of life continues and it the season for giving birth with many newly born calves wobbling around on unsteady feet. For newborns they seem quite large, but I guess they need to be well able to begin their life of non-stop foraging almost straight away. It is also the mating season with the males chasing one another, necks outstretched, jumping, biting and generally showing off to impress the females and set up a seat of dominance.

After a while we climbed onto a ridge which as well as affording a spectacular view of the massif, also contained ancient cave paintings made when these lands were inhabited by native Indian peoples. Knowing my desire to see a puma, our guide said I should continue on the trail and cross the sign that instructs people not to proceed further. Ummmm ok. So, there I was slowly edging along a path leading to a puma den when a pale sandy coloured form poked it's head out from behind a rock. Catching my heart as it leapt from my mouth and stuffing it back in my chest, I was mightily relieved to discover the beast was only a stray Guanaco that ambled on its way unaware that the human being watching it was glad he had a spare pair of trousers back at base. I beat a retreat. No puma for me and I reasoned 1. Surely the guide would not have put me in danger, and 2. The guanaco would not have been browsing within 3 miles of the scent of a big cat. But then this is South America where health & safety is not even a glint in a government's eye and of course guanacos are eaten by Pumas every day so can't be that clever. The chances of seeing a puma are virtually non-existent though unless you know exactly where they are and are prepared to stake it out for as long as it takes. But later our driver showed us some video he had captured on his mobile of a puma hunting in front of his van in broad daylight, making a kill right there and then. Right place, right time.

Our walk complete, we were being taken to our picnic spot when I happened to glance out the minibus window to notice three large brown forms standing beside a dead animal. It took me a couple of seconds to realise what I'd seen and a further few seconds of frantic gibbering to convey to the driver that we should stop and reverse 100 metres down the track. He did so and there just off the road we were able to scramble out and watch three young condors tucking into a dead guanaco. This was more like it. As we watched in awe the efficiency of these huge birds in cleaning up deceased animals, a total of four adult birds drifted slowly over our heads and inspected the scene. One landed and proceeded to assert its dominance, landing in the middle of the youngsters and quickly feasting on the prime flesh. A few squabbles added spice, the birds snapping at each other with bills slick with fresh blood, so I too snapped away to my hearts content. The results are not too clever, but believe me trying to hold a heavy camera and lens still in the teeth of a forceful gale, shooting into a heat haze, is really not easy. You can get a good feel for the scene though I hope.

The remainder of the day was spent driving through the park admiring the impressive, ice capped, mountains and general scenery. We also saw some wildlife, notably a couple of harriers and some male rheas with their herd of chicks. One had 13 young to contend with and seemed to think walking them along the road was a good idea.

Tomorrow we move on yet again to visit Argentine Patagonia. Getting a little travel weary if truth be told, but I'm sure the long hours of driving will be worth it. I'll let you know in due course.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

King Pins

Everywhere we have been on these islands folk have told us how lucky we have been with the weather. You can tell this is part of the British Isles because the weather is always the main topic of conversation. And we have been lucky, we know that. Until today. Today the never ceasing wind reached a new strength, gale force, and the sun deserted us. This is what a typical Falklands summer day is like; challenging.

We were picked up from Stanley, an enigma of a place if ever there was one, after breakfast and bumped and bounced for nearly 3 hours over what was essentially open moorland. There are no saloon cars here for once outside the settlement and into 'camp' the roads quickly deteriorate. First there are a few miles of packed dirt and gravel and then nothing but a faint track where yesterday's Land Rover/Toyota/Ford 4x4 slowly ground it's way to the beauty spot known as Volunteer Point. As your head whacks into the hand grip one more time and your back wrenches as you are jerked this way and that, it's hard not to wonder what the hell you are doing this for. But then a sliver of golden sand comes into view and you know the journey is nearing its end. The excitement mounts as you see your first Magellanic penguins outside their burrows, notice giant petrels tacking into the strong wind and hurtling across the treeless ground on long aerodynamically perfect wings, hear the braying calls of  other birds huddled together in their nesting groups. You've arrived and are free to roam for the next 4 hours, or until the wind, the rain and the blasting sand beat you into submission.

The reason we have endured this bouncy castle treatment is to visit a colony of king penguins. Their breeding cycle lasts for over 12 months, so there is always activity here making it a popular spot with tourists. Cruise liners now visit the deep waters of Stanley Harbour on a regular basis providing rich pickings for locals that transport punters to this spot in a fleet of vehicles. Today though the weather has prevented one of these ships from docking, so there are a total of only eight of us spread out over several acres of beach, shallow dunes and moor. We know the other four folk, couples from Spain and Holland, because we have bumped into them in the lodges on other islands as well as several times wandering along Stanley's only street of interest. It's like having a small gathering of friends. 

Swathed in thick layers, scarf wrapped around ears and mouth, hat pulled down, jacket zipped up to its full extent, we trudge towards a smudge of black and white birds nestled against a rise in the ground. 

Each colony is encircled by a ring of painted stones beyond which you may not pass, but this doesn't matter. The penguins, many of them large beach ball chicks, have spilled out of the exclusion zone and adults are all around, some preening, some courting, others just loafing. They all allow close approach before suddenly starting as if they have only just noticed a 6 foot human nearby, looking briefly concerned they shuffle away on big leathery feet to a safer distance, perhaps 2 feet away. In some cases it is a question of the birds coming to you, moulting chicks still half covered in thick light brown down that approach from behind and chase after you as you try to beat a retreat. Close up those beaks are quite long and look very sharp. There's no real danger but we don't fancy a nip.

There is so much going on all around that it is difficult to keep up, best then to simply sit down and let the action unfold. At least for as long as you can bear the howling, cruelly unabating wind.

After an hour or so we seek shelter in a portacabin which serves as a mess hut for the drivers and a refuge for red faced, dripping nosed visitors. A warming cup of coffee and a sandwich, stories swapped about previous adventures traipsing across the islands and other parts of the globe and we're out again for a stroll, or rather hunched trudge, down to the seashore. Here a group of South American terns are busy fishing in the shallows, gracefully dipping into the froth to pick off some stranded morsel. The beach itself holds a few two banded plovers, very handsome birds, and several white-rumpled sandpipers, migrants to these parts. And of course there are parties of penguins making their way to and fro, wind blown swirls of loose sand curling around them as they stoically make their way.

Back in the colony we spend our remaining time simply admiring the vivid colours of the kings. A lot of birds have just completed their moult and are in pristine condition with vibrant deep ochre face and chest patches that gradually fade through shades of lightening yellow into a bright white belly. When seen up close quite stunning.

But it is the massed ranks that really impress. Tightly crammed they form a tapestry of jostling colour, a  bubbling cauldron of activity like so many yellow topped king pins. Was our own three hours of jousting to get here worthwhile? You bet it was.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

War Zone

Wherever you go on these islands you are reminded of the events of 1982. The Argentinian invasion and the ensuing war still has a profound affect on the inhabitants, the landscape and the general feel of the place. Falkland Islanders are a hardy folk, living in harsh and extreme conditions where neighbours look out for one another, accents a cross between West Country and Irish. The economy is doing well, people seem content, loving the remoteness and the sense of space and emptiness. They don't want the essence of the place to change and they certainly do not want to be anything but British. The chances of another invasion are pretty slim; there are 1,000 service personal stationed here, Typhoon jets, battleships and of course 21st century communications. Back in the '80s there was no internet, no Sky news, no smart phones. Information was hard to come by and therefore controllable by the government. Things have changed.

There are monuments all over the islands, mainly British but some Argentinian, to various ships that were sunk and battles that were fought. The lives of all those lost are commemorated in a simple but poignant way. The physical evidence of some of the more dramatic episodes can still be found scattered over the wild, windswept moorland landscape. We were shown some of these today on a trip to the far end of Pebble Island; wreckage of Argentine Dagger aircraft. Three were shot down by Sea Harriers in one single engagement.

It will be a long time before these reminders of violence erode, yet nature is slowly erasing the evidence. The relentless wind and the rain and the snow will each play their part. For now though meadowlarks use the niches in the wreckage as nesting sites. It is, after all, an ill wind.

The main focus today was a visit to a rockhopper penguin colony amongst which we hoped to see a scattering of macaroni penguins. The trip to the site was long, bumpy and harsh on the body. A total of seven hours strapped into a 4x4 grinding over rough, untamed moor and rock screes. We saw no habitation, no signs of human activity accept a few ramshackle fences to corral sheep: not a soul. We traversed the whole island and encountered nobody; there was simply nobody to encounter. The stops we did make, mainly at stretches of sandy beaches or rocky coves were quite stunning. Take away the incessant wind and the scene could have been from a brochure for holidays in Barbados or the Seychelles. Quite surprising and all the more beautiful for it.

Picture the scene then in the middle of a Southern Hemisphere afternoon. Four folk from 8,000 miles away with a local guide, a few hundred penguins, cormorants, skuas and lots of open space. Nothing else except the sparkling sea. We sit and watch, we wander carefully around, we pose for pics, we sit some more each to his and her own thoughts. And then drama. A caracara hovers over the colony looking for an opportunity to steal an egg or chick. The resident skua doesn't like this intrusion and with purposeful beats of its powerful wings zooms like a missile low over the ground towards the intruder. They tangle, they spar and the caracara moves away. At least for a little while. It will be back soon enough. Inbetween times the skua sees an unguarded egg, pounces and flies away with the prize. It's mate joins it and they both feast on the nutritious meal that will fuel their own breeding. That egg has been jealously guarded for three weeks and is now gone. A cycle of chemical and nutritional exchange that has been taking place over millennia. 

There is death here, but also exuberant life. The penguins are but feet away as they move to and fro, and yes we do see some macarronis amongst the throng, our 5th penguin species of the trip. Bigger, bolder with golden plumes dancing in the breeze. 

I move away from the colony and sit on a rock sheltered from the prevailing wind. Here I have a commanding view should any bird stray close enough and stall into the ever moving air. It's not an unsuccessful strategy for several species use the headwind as a convenient way to slowly scrutinise the ground below. No energy expended: maximum return. First up, a turkey vulture, then a superb black-browed albatross and then the caracara with a prize. An egg with a chick near hatching. Heart wrenching and exhilerating at the same moment. Can you understand that?  Emotions twisted and turned. On the one hand so sad that a penguin so close to being born has met its end before seeing the sun, on the other excited that such a raw event is being played out a few metres from where I sit. It is hard to reconcile these feelings, I feel privileged and basal. I have witnessed an episode of a real life soap opera and there was nobody else to see it. I gaze out over the sun spangled sea and bless the moment I determined the natural world should be my bible.