Thursday, December 3, 2009

South America Day 15: In which we see wildlife

Penguins today, but first sea lions: I was up early and went out on the balcony to look at the bay, and out of the water popped a sea lion head! He came up several times but I was totally unable to get a photo.

We went up to the Garden Cafe but it was too full. We ended up on deck at the Great Outdoor Cafe - it was pleasant in the sun. We scarfed down rolls, sausage and melon as fast as possible then scurried to the Stardust Lounge to wait.

We waited nervously because of being turned away from the Falklands, but I guess Argentina isn't so picky - we were eventually given our identifying stickers. They needed them because there are five buses worth of people going on our tour to the Punta Tombo penguin rookery alone! One of the ship's tour-coordinators, Olga, was telling us the rules, which boil down to not bothering the penguins, and she was really funny. For one thing, she's a Russian, and she sort of had that Boris Badenov syntax going, plus whenever she talked about the penguins she called them Pingwins. She'd say things like, "Don't worry to seeing every pingwin. Dey're EVERYVERE."

Once we had our stickers we were freed to...wait in an endless line, which snaked all through Deck 6, down the stairs in the Atrium and out to the gangplanks. The bottleneck was explained once we saw the gangplanks - they were sloping at about a 45 degree angle!

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The young and agile descended without trouble, but most folks went down agonizingly slowly.

Once on our bus, we waited for ages to get off the pier and then drove through Puerto Madryn. [By the way, Puerto Madryn is not a very Spanish sounding name. There's a good reason for that - the town was named by Welsh immigrants who settled in Patagonia in 1865. The nearest big town to here is called Trelew! Apparently there are still between 1500 and 5000 Welsh speakers in Argentina today.] In any case, when we reached its outskirts,
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we lost half an hour to an idiot governmental checkpoint. Once we were finally on the road, we rejoiced!

Too soon. Maybe 20 minutes later we pulled over for a bathroom break. I also think this is where they picked up our box lunches, or maybe pulled them out of the boot. Shortly after returning to the road the guide, Amalia? Analise? passed out the lunch boxes and one bottle of water each. The lunches were extremely generous (a chicken sandwich six inches across?!) and we decided we'd be fools to try to eat it all while trapped on a bus. I did manage to finish the dessert, something like a Spanish Ding-Dong only much higher class. It had dulce de leche in it!

When not eating, I watched the passing landscape like a hawk, looking for guanacos. I love guanacos - they are one of several South American camel-like critters, related to alpacas and llamas. Guanacos have coats that are supposed to be softer than cashmere - I wanted to find some yarn, but no luck. However, I did see several little family clusters of guanacos:

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The land is mostly covered with scrub brush - low growing, water conserving, dusty sage green. This part of Argentina is in the rain shadow of the Andes and gets maybe 8 inches of rain a year; hence the roads, the sheep and probably the guanacos are dusty too.

It was maybe 40 miles on the map from Puerto Madryn to Punta Tomba but it took at least three hours to get there. We went the opposite of a straight line!

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