Camping with penguins and Easter Island, November/December 2011

Punta Arenas - Waiting to go

Back to Antarctica


When I went to the South Pole, six years ago, it was a 'once in a lifetime' trip.

There were pretty unique circumstances making it possible for me to afford the trip and I loved Antarctica, but was quite sure that I would never be able to return.

I even wrote "I think that's fairly unlikely and my life would have to take some very strange turns for that to happen." (not precisely about getting to Antarctica again, but more specific about the South Pole, but the underlying sentiment is the same).

Oddly, my life has been taking some strange turns since then and going back to Antarctica became a possibility.

Going to the South Pole again didn't seem to make much sense (going there is essentially 'checkmarking'. Once you've done it, there is no real reason to do it again. (Well, if the opportunity would arise, I'd go in a minute. But that's not the point here...)

But camping next to a colony of emperor penguins seemed the perfect trip for me.

I'd get to go back to Antarctica, get to camp far away from everything else, stay on mostly flat ice (a scenery I love), with a couple of icebergs thrown in as a bonus. And get to see thousands of cool looking penguins as well.


It took some time to get it all organized, but finally it was time for the vacation.

Starting point for all tourist tours to the interior of Antarctica is in the south of Chile. (If you take a cruise ship to the coast, it's more likely you'll start from Ushuaia in Argentina and if you go to one of the US science stations as a researcher, you probably will go via Christchurch in New Zealand, but for me Punta Arenas in southern Chile was the starting point again.)

Getting there took me a while. It's a long flight anyway, but the first flight was already delayed, so I missed my first connection (even with two hours of transfer time planned in) and then had to fly via Uruguay, where I (due to more delays) barely made my connection, but my luggage didn't. So I arrived a couple of hours later than planned (and my luggage, which seems to prefer to travel at a more relaxed pace anyway, on the next day). But I had a 'buffer day' planned in, so it wasn't a problem.

It was even less of a problem, since it turned out that the flight to Antarctica wouldn't happen as planned. There had been severe weather down south for some time, so even the group that was supposed to have flown to base camp a week ago was still waiting in Punta Arenas.

So there was some time to see the sights of Punta Arenas.

Unfortunately, as nice as Punta Arenas is, there isn't that much to do in the town itself. And most of it I had already done six years ago.

So I did what I did back then and went to the cemetery.

This might seem like an ominous start to a trip, but the place is the main attraction in Punta Arenas. Which, in most places, would be an insult ("The most interesting place in this town is the graveyard."), but in Punta Arenas, it really is interesting, with its 'apartment blocks for the dead'. (Only rich people seem to be able to afford actual graves, everyone else is, essentially, put into 'capsule hotels for eternity'.)

Punta Arenas cemetery Punta Arenas cemetery

I also went to the main square of Punta Arenas to rub a foot on the statue there, which, according to tradition, will ensure safe return to Punta Arenas. Or at least gives you something to do.

Rubbing the feet in Punta Areanas

But visiting the cemetery and stroking a toe isn't really a day trip, so I went for a walk. The 'Magallanes National Reservation' is at the edge of town and it has a couple of hiking paths. No big attractions there, but nice paths, some waterfalls, a few viewpoints and a chance to do something instead of sitting in the hotel room and waiting.

Magallanes National Reservation waterfall Magallanes National Reservation view Magallanes National Reservation brook Magallanes National Reservation brook

At that time of the year (and with a bit of drizzling rain at the beginning), I had the place basically to myself.

In the evening was an info meeting about the Emperor Penguin Trip and a chance to meet the fellow travellers and get some updates. (And to be introduced, rather awkwardly for both sides, to the director of the DLR, pretty much the German equivalent of the NASA. Awkwardly, since there was a meeting between him and representatives of the local government about support for some scientific endeavours that DLR was planning. And someone noted that I was German as well, so we both were pulled out our respective meetings/dinners, just to be introduced to each other, with neither of us having much to say to each other...)

More interesting was meeting the other people on the trip. There were (for the first part of it) four Chinese people and a Russian couple. And Eric Larsen as polar guide and Dick Filby as bird expert.

Bird expert?

Surely I would be able to identify an emperor penguin myself.

Not only are they pretty iconic animals, where we would be going, there wouldn't be many other species to confuse them with.

What I hadn't been quite aware of (since I primarily saw the trip as a chance to get back to Antarctica and see 'The Ice' again, with some cool thrown in as a bonus) was that the trip was also marketed as a trip for birders. And, since ANI is very good of hiring high quality guides, they got "Top UK birder" Dick Filby for this trip. (Though Dick seems to be a bit uncomfortable with claiming that title.)

And, to my surprise, it turned out that the other participants in the trip turned out to be birders as well (i.e. they were more interested in seeing emperor penguins than going to Antarctica and, if emperor penguins would happen to live in Zambia, would have travelled there instead).

It didn't make much of a difference once we were in Antarctica, but it made the time in Chile quite interesting, since I was, essentially, travelling with a tribe from a different culture. I noticed a similar thing with computer scientist - they mostly have a similar 'cultural' background, so you can expect that a number of obscure references are understood, regardless from where people actually come from.

And in this case, there was a noticeable common 'birder culture', which everyone (regardless of nationality) shared and to which I was a stranger, so I was a bit in a 'fish out of water' situation. Which I actually like, since it's more interesting. (Well, at least in a proverbial sort of way, not in a 'lying on the floor, gasping and dying' literal sort of way...)

One advantage of hanging around with birders, which I noticed the next day, is that they have a good information network, as far as birds are concerned. (Actually, handling information about bird sightings is Dick's "real job".)

At one point I was sitting in my hotel room when the phone rang. "Do you want to see a King Penguin? There's one downtown at the beach right now. Just go down to the end of your street and then about 50 meters to the right." "Will it still be there in 10 minutes?" "Most likely." "Ok, I'm on my way."

King Penguin in Punta Arenas King Penguin in Punta Arenas

At first the penguin was just lying there and I assumed it was totally exhausted, since it didn't take much notice of what was happening around it, even as a small crowd started to gather and two policemen arrived to keep the crowd (and, probably more importantly) stray dogs away from the penguin. (The policemen seemed slightly embarrassed. Probably 'guarding penguins' was not in their job description when they signed up.)

After 15 minutes the penguin stood up and started to groom itself and started slowly to walk along the beach, completely oblivious to the fact that a procession of about a dozen people was following it. But then, it's a King Penguin, so why pay attention to mere commoners?

King Penguin in Punta Arenas King Penguin in Punta Arenas King Penguin in Punta Arenas with police guard
King Penguin in Punta Arenas King Penguin in Punta Arenas with police guard

We also had a half-day excursion with a small bus, driving down some gravel road and looking for birds.

Gravel road

Soon a pattern emerged. We would drive for a bit (usually less than a kilometer) until someone spotted a bird (any bird), the bus stopped and everyone would jump out of the bus and take lots of pictures. After about twenty minutes, everyone would get back onto the bus and we would drive until someone spotted the next bird.

Birders at work

While I have to admit that I was quite surprised to see flamingos this far south, since I had always considered them as 'tropical birds', I was getting a bit bored of birds and photographed sheep instead.

Flamingos in Chile img_8239.jpg

This disinterest in birds might be a bit strange for someone who was going all the way to Antarctica to see penguins, but, as mentioned above, the main reason for the trip was Antarctica. The penguins were just a bonus. And penguins are cool in a way that, Upland Goose aren't.

Since we had the next two days off, a trip to Torres Del Paine was organized.

Having days off was a bit of luck in the situation. Usually, the flights to Antarctica are scheduled, based on the weather conditions there, on short notice. So, if you are scheduled to fly, you are expected to be in your hotel room at three specific times every day to get an 'go' or 'no go' on the flight. (At least that was the case in 2005. I assume that you might opt for a call or text message on a mobile now.)

So you can't really do much while you are waiting, since there's always the chance that you get a "we're flying today, be ready to go in one hour" update, which basically limits you to half-day excursions. (Unless the weather in Antarctica is really bad and it's obvious that it's not going to improve any time soon.)

But since we were third in line (the first flight would take the group that had been scheduled for last week's flight, followed by a cargo-only supply flight), so even if the weather would be perfect right now, we still wouldn't fly for three days.

The reason for this is the rather unusual route/plane/landing/flight, so it's impossible to switch crews. There is just one crew and after flying to Antarctica and back, they need a rest period. So there's (roughly) a maximum of one flight per day.

So the plan was to drive up to Torres Del Paine, stopping for every bird along the way, spending the night in a hotel in the national park and drive back to Punta Arenas the next day.

We stopped in Puerto Natales for some lunch. And to see a strange sculpture of some fingers coming out of the ground (whatever it is supposed to be - I don't want to be there when all of it is coming out of the ground...)

Hand sculpture, Puerto Natales

But the reason for stopping there wasn't the sculpture. Or the view across Seno Última Esperanza.

Puerto Natales view

The actual reason for stopping were these swans.


There's nothing special about them. Black-necked Swans are quite common. But for some reason, there was a huge interest in them. When we drove back the next day, the intention was to have lunch in Punta Arenas again, but some of the birders preferred to stop at the swans again for more photographs, while the rest of us went to get something to eat. When we came back (with some packed lunches for them) about 1.5 hours later, they asked for (and got) half an hour extension, since they had some more photographing to do.

Not that I am complaining - it's always interesting to see that someone is enthusiastic and highly motivated about something you didn't even think worthy of a second glance. It's a good moment to ask yourself whether there is something in it that you might find interesting yourself. (Though in this case I have to say that my attention span for watching birds as such (as opposed to mobile landscape decoration) is probably less than five minutes a day...)

We slowly proceeded up north, stopping next to every bird along the way.

Street to Torres Del Paine Caracaras bird

I did get bored after a couple of hours asked, admittedly a bit petulant, whether we, for a change, might stop for a bit of landscape for a change.

While Torres Del Paine has a bit of a bird population, it is mainly known for its scenery, which, so far, we had ignored. In most cases the birds (except for birds of prey, like the Caracara) were in some low lying area, probably for protection and for the small brooks and ponds there. Which meant we often stopped exactly at those points, where there wasn't much scenery to see.

But after a while we found a 'modus operandi' where I would just walk ahead along the road, enjoying the walk and the view, and they would pick me up a kilometer or so down the road, when they were finished. So I didn't get bored standing around while they were photographing birds, and they didn't get disturbed by me standing around, looking bored. Problem solved.

Bus coming to pick me up

So here are some scenery pictures from Torres Del Paine.

Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine
Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine

While it is usually quite windy in that area, it was surprisingly calm on that day.

High winds Me a nd Torres Del Paine

I had been in the same area about six years earlier and at that time the wind was like this:

Me on a windy day at Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

By now it was close to sunset (and driving the unmarked gravel road in the dark is not much fun, even for our professional driver), so we had one last stop at a waterfall. (This was specifically for the waterfall, although there were some birds sighted on the way to the waterfall...)

Torres Del Paine waterfall Torres Del Paine waterfall Torres Del Paine waterfall

While we were standing there, a small (at least it looked small from that distance) avalanche came down near the top of the mountains.

Torres Del Paine, avalanche Torres Del Paine, avalanche Torres Del Paine, avalanche

Some more post-sunset pictures on the way to the bus, spotting a guanaco (a sort of llama) posing against the mountain backdrop, and we were off to the hotel.

Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine Torres Del Paine, guanaco Torres Del Paine, guanaco

While the selected hotel was on a great location (not really noticeable when we arrived, but quit impressive the next morning), there was some problem with the reservation and also some problem with the price.

The place was quite expensive and I had been told a different price before the trip. I was reasonably sure that there wasn't any intention of fraud - people in Chile seem to be quite proud of doing things correctly and 'by the book' and doing some sort of 'tourist scam' seemed extremely unlikely, but at that time of day (it was an hour to midnight by then), it was impossible to figure out what happened. In retrospect it seems that they had originally quoted the price in US dollars as well as in Chilean pesos and those had been mixed up in Punta Arenas. So it turned out to be just a bit of miscommunication.

But since the plan was to leave around 6 am for a walk anyway, I decided that it wasn't really worth getting a hotel room for the remaining hours and went to sleep in the bus instead.

At least, since the bus didn't have any curtains, I did awake to see the sunrise.

Sunrise Torres Del Paine Sunrise

Not worth getting up for early, (I'm not really a morning person - getting up in time for sunset would be closer to my preferences - so seeing a sunrise is worth mentioning just for its rarity value.)

On the lawn in front of the hotel were three 'dogs'. At least I thought they were guard dogs belonging to the hotel, but it turned out that they were wild, gray foxes. (The main indication that they are foxes is the tail.)

Fox on hotel lawn Patagonian Gray Fox Patagonian Gray Foxes

There was also a pair of birds breeding on the lawn (probably not the best of places for a nest, but beautifully located) and attacking anyone coming close to the nest. As the foxes weren't interested in the nest (probably hadn't even noticed it) and were just scrolling across the lawn, they were quite startled when suddenly a screeching bird came right at them and flew close over their heads. (Unfortunately I didn't get a picture at the right moment.)

Patagonian Gray Fox, bird attack

Then it was time for a morning walk.

The 'official' reasoning for having a walk at this early time was trying to see a puma. There are a couple of them in Torres Del Paine National Park and they are mainly active in the early hours, so if there is a chance to spot them, it is then. (Actually, they are mainly active by night, but for obvious reasons it's quite hard to spot them then.)

Although the operative word here is 'chance'. It is very unlikely to see one at all (and even less likely at that time of year), so it was pretty clear that 'looking for a puma' was just an arbitrary reason to see a bit of the scenery on a quiet walk in the early morning light. Nice scenery, though.

Torres Del Paine, early morning Torres Del Paine, early morning Torres Del Paine, early morning
Torres Del Paine, early morning Torres Del Paine, early morning

On the way back from the hotel, we needed to get across a fairly narrow bridge, which barely had enough width for the bus. A couple of cars had already left their paint on the bridge (as had our bus on the previous evening, which left a bit of a scratch on its right side).

Bus on narrow bridge Paint on narrow bridge Narrow bridge builders

On the way back to Punta Arenas the trip was a bit more relaxed - by then everyone (except me) had hundreds of pictures of every bird species seen on the way, so we removed geese, ducks, black-chested buzzard-eagles and caracaras from the list of birds to stop for (while keeping swans and condors), so didn't stop that often.

Though we did stop for guanacos.

Guanacos Guanaco Guanacos Guanaco
Guanacos Guanaco Guanacos Guanacos, making more...
Guanacos Guanacos Guanacos Guanacos

And also for a very nice waterfall (because we were making a detour to a lake with a swan on it).

Torres Del Paine, waterfall Torres Del Paine, waterfall Torres Del Paine, hollow tree

We even managed to spot two condors that were just taking off and thus flying quite low. (Mostly, if you see them, they are circling fairly high above.)

Torres Del Paine, Condor Torres Del Paine, Condor

Arriving at the ANI office in Punta Arenas there was a bit of news.

Waiting at ANI offices, Punta Arenas

Good news. In fact, the news we had been hoping for. The weather down in Antarctica was good and there had been a passenger flight the previous day and a the cargo flight was already in the air, so there was a good chance that we would be flying to Antarctica the next day.

So the instruction was to be have your bags ready for collection at 10am and be flight-ready in the hotel lobby by 2pm the following day. (Flight ready means wearing a full set of polar clothing. When you leave the plane, you will be in Antarctica and there's no option of getting dressed then. Also, in case the plane makes an emergency landing somewhere, you need to be able to survive for a couple of days, which you are unlikely to do in town clothing.)

So I was sitting in the hotel lobby, all ready to go, when the phone rang and I was told that the flight was cancelled. "Check back into the hotel, next update will be at 8pm."

More waiting.

This is, potentially, the most annoying part, when you are waiting for the next call, and can't really do much. Partly due to time constraints (you have to be back at the hotel for the next update), but also since most of your gear is already at the airport, so you only have the stuff in your hand luggage (and whatever you asked the hotel to store for you while you're away) to play around with, which usually isn't much. And, if you're unlucky, this can go on for days. Admittedly, this is where taking a Kindle with me turned out to be useful...

At 8 pm the phone rang. "We're flying. Check out and be in the lobby in twenty minutes."


Off to Antarctica.

Emperor Penguins, here I come!

Onwards to Antarctica.

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