We left the lovely National Park at Monte Leon knowing we had some long driving ahead of us. But first we had to do our weekly jobs so we stopped in the town of Rio Gallegos. Fortunately they could process our washing in a few hours so we could leave later that afternoon. With time on our hands we decided to visit the Museo Malvinas Argentinas which is a small museum setting out the war over the Falklands from the Argentinian side. The museum was mainly a collection of lots of models of planes, boats etc and although our Spanish is limited it did not seem overly biased. It did though focus more on the Argentine capture of the Falklands rather than their subsequent recapture by the British. As we travel south there are more and more references to the "Malvinas Islands" and there are signs everywhere proclaiming that they are Argentinian. Fellow non British travellers have asked us if we have any problems because we are British. The answer so far has been absolutely not. The people are really friendly towards us and that has included police and border guards. They never mention the "Malvinas" and when they find out we are from England are just generally impressed and interested in our journey or want to talk football. Leaving Rio Gallegos we camped for the night at Laguna Azul, a lake formed in the extinct crater of a small volcano. The advantage of this was it was very close to our first border crossing for the next day. To travel to Argentine Tierra Del Fuego you first have to cross an area of Chile as well as the Magellan Straits. So this day was going to be quite a drive as we would need to cross two borders and get a ferry all in the one day as well as drive about 400km. The half that was in Argentina was on good roads but the half that was in Chile was mainly on gravel. The first border crossing went smoothly although it was pretty busy. Still it only took an hour and was well organised. Those Central American border crossings now seem like a distant memory. We arrived at the ferry point to see the ferry just leaving. We had read the ferry was every 2 hours so thought we would be in for a bit of a wait but no there was another ferry pulling in just behind it. It was a quick and smooth 30 minute crossing and with that we were on Tierra del Fuego. Setting out across Chile it was pretty flat with short grass everywhere. In the sunlight the grass had a reddish hue making it very colourful. Arriving at the next border post there was again a queue but it went pretty fast and we were through. Fortunately we picked up internet here as we were trying to sort out payment for our trip to Antartica which was proving difficult. We passed Rio Grande and headed south in Tierra del Fuego eventually coming to the small village of Tolhuin and Lago Fagnano where we camped on the side of the lake. With the wind there were small waves crashing on the side of the lake so it felt like you were at the sea. Also you can tell we are now really far south as it was not getting dark until nearly midnight. It had been a long but successful day and we were in striking distance of Ushuaia. The short drive to Ushuaia the next morning turned out to be unexpectedly spectacular. The sun was shining and the road climbed up to Paso Garibaldi past shimmering lakes. This is the end of the Andes and whilst not that high there was still snow on the mountain tops. We then descended into the valley. After 18 months and 69,000kms we had made it to "El Fin del Mundo", the end of the world. Well not exactly, but to Ushuaia the Southern most city in the world. After some celebratory photos we headed into town. We had no time to celebrate if we wanted to head even further south so made a bee line to the travel agency. We were relieved to find that our payments had gone through and everything was settled. We were told to go out and enjoy the weather as it was warm and sunny which was very unusual in Ushuaia and return the next day to pick up all our documents. We did have a nice walk along the sea front but we also needed to go shopping for some clothes for the kids. However this was easier than we thought. First the town was full of outdoor clothing shops and secondly we were told the likely temperature in Antartica would be between minus 5 and plus 5 degrees. Having lived through many Moscow and Prague winters this was positively balmy. We were also hoping to meet up with one of my former partners from Moscow, Nick Brasington who was in Ushuaia for the day before boarding his cruise to Antartica. Unfortunately he was only there for a few hours and could not escape his tour bus so we did not get to see him. He did though see our truck through his binoculars from his ship! Having done most of the shopping we celebrated the milestone in our journey with dinner out. The treat was Patagonian lamb slow roasted on the coals. The next day we wrapped up our shopping but still had 4 days until our boat to Antartica left. Fortunately just next to Ushuaia is the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. We were still enjoying the unusual spectacular weather when we headed into the park. We went for a walk in the forests of Lenga trees with moss stuck to their branches. The rivers were full of beaver dams. The Beavers had been introduced from Canada early in the 20 th century and were now regarded as a nuisance. At the end of the trail we had stunning views down the Bahia Lapataia. This was also the end of RN3 which we had been driving for the last couple of weeks. This road comes all the way down the Eastern side of Argentina from Buenos Aires. The park has a number of free camping spots and we parked up at one by the side of a lovely small river. It was busy when we arrived but most people in the park were day trippers and as the sun started to drop behind the mountain the temperature started to drop and they all left leaving for a quiet and peaceful night. The next morning the weather had changed to more normal Tierra del Fuego weather. The temperature had dropped to 10 degrees, the wind had got up and there were showers around. Undeterred we wrapped ourselves up in our coats and headed out for some lovely walks. Mind you unlike the day before it was not warm enough to sit outside the truck between walks. Instead we tucked ourselves up inside the truck and enjoyed a good movie. It was nice to have some time to relax after all the driving we had been doing recently. Later in the afternoon it did brighten up and we were able to cook a big leg of lamb on the fire. It was nice and clear the next morning but still cool. We moved onto another campsite in the park and decided to do a long hike along the coastline. The trail wound round sheltered bays which were covered in mussels, limpets and other shellfish and then in and out of the Lenga forest. All along the way there were lovely views across the bay to the snowcapped mountains in Chile. With a day to kill before our ship sailed we needed to find a campsite where we could leave the truck for 10 days as well as get some jobs done. We found a pleasant campsite just outside Ushuaia which suited the bill and spent the afternoon preparing for our trip. Next stop Antarctica!
The Valdez Peninsula sticks out into the cold Atlantic and is the breeding grounds for sea lions, elephant seals and megellanic penguins, the scrub covered plains are home to lots of guanacos (wild members of the llama family). Southern right whales also breeds and calves here but later in the year. A lot was going on in the sea lion colonies, the mothers were giving birth and we saw many tiny newborn pups with the gulls squabbling over their still attached placentas. The males were pretty active too, as just 3 days after giving birth the mothers mate ready for the following year. There was lots of posturing, growling and teeth barring but surprisingly little physical contact between the males. We could see why they got the "lion" part of their name, with the male's thick manes. In a few weeks time the tiny pups will have fattened up on their mother's rich milk and be ready to learn swim. This is when something very usual and unique happens in the northern Valdez Peninsula, orca (killer whales) intentionally beach themselves on the pebbly shore to snatch the sea lion pups from the shallows. We'd seen it on TV and it is so impressive with the 8 ton orcas then trashing wildly to get back into the sea with its prey. However, we were just a few weeks too early to see it. Elephant seals are the world's biggest seals and even the few small females we saw lounging amongst the sea lions, showed the difference. Their pups were born earlier in the summer and were now very big. The megellanic penguin chicks were still dependant on their parents for food, as they were still half covered in non-waterproof, grey, fluffy feathers. We were really happy to see an armadillo running around, we have seen them all over South America but so far we have only as "road-kill". We wild camped for two nights in the park where the Rangers said we were permitted to. It was surprisingly busy with families and fishermen considering it was pretty but desolate with no facilities. We've seen far more local camper vans, often converted old buses, over the last few weeks. Argentinians also love to get away for the holidays to the coast. Heading south, we skirted along Argentina's eastern coast on Ruta 3. It was mostly scrubby desert all the way down. It was a long days drive to the beachside resort of Rada Tilly just south of Comodoro Rivadavia. We spent the following day on another fruitless search for new tyres. The preceding day, a stone had hit the windscreen and chipped it badly, it looked liked we needed a new windscreen but as they don't sell MAN trucks in Argentina, it looked like another impossible task. However things started looking up then the sceptical guy at the windscreen repair place managed to fill the large hole with the special resin. We also heard from Brett, Steve's brilliant brother in law, that he knew someone who worked for Michelin in the UK who might be able to help us find some tyres. Emails whizzed back and forth and hopefully Michelin will be able to help us find some replacement non-standard (in South America) sized tyres. After a day of trying to get things done we thought we would treat ourselves to a night out for dinner. The only problem was finding somewhere open that served dinner early enough. Eventually after walking miles along the beach we found a trendy restaurant right on the beach that started serving dinner at 8.30pm, the only other two restaurants in town started an hour later. It was a swanky place and reminded me of some of the restaurants we used to eat in, in our old life.A couple of days earlier we'd heard from a travel agent in Ushuaia that they had a last minute deal on a trip to Antartica. We quickly responded to the email and reserved it, we were still dancing round the truck with glee a couple of hours later when we got the email that they wouldn't take anyone under 8. We were gutted, especially Lucy, she was the one who was most keen and at 6, she was too young. Two days later we heard from Ushuaia again, they'd found a trip that would take us all. I wanted to ramp up the girl's homeschooling to prepare them. They had already done a lot about the wildlife they might see but now they wanted to know about the continent. We found with the Galapagos that if we sparked their interest and they learnt about what they might see, they got a lot more out of it. The guide in the Galapagos was amazed about what they knew and the questions they asked. So as part of their studies to become more familiar with the continent they made a gingerbread map of Antartica complete with different types of ice, South Pole, Transantarctic mountain range, desert valleys, Scott and Andmuensen's route...yum! We camped up the following night just off a pretty coastal drive on a pebbly beach under some cliffs. There were amazing marine fossils at different layers in the cliffs above and the rocks below. I love the fact that almost everywhere we go the girls get to see real examples of what they have learnt about. They studied geology and fossils way back when we were in the USA but still remember so much because of what we've seen on the way.Still not tired of penguins and sea lions, we stopped for a couple of nights in Parque Nacional Monte Leon. A few kilometres walk brought us to a large colony of megellanic penguins. We were fascinated by how close the nests were, at this time of year both parents are frequently at sea to fish for their almost fully grown chicks. In a couple of months, the chicks will have completely lost their fully grey feathers and be able to take to the sea. One of the penguins was just as interested in us as we were in it. The picturesque camp spot had a resident female fox and two large cubs, it was lovely watching them interact with each other. Nearby was a large island colony of seabirds and sea lions which made for a good walk with great views along the coastline. Mind you it wasn't all lounging around watching the wildlife, the afternoon called for a couple of hours of toilet fixing for Steve and I. Amazingly, we actually managed to fix the problem. Such is the glamour of overlanding life!
From El Bolson we headed south to Parque Nacional Las Alerces set in the low Andes. The park is full of lakes, mountains and a glacier. It is criss crossed by crystal clear rivers which sparkled in the wonderful sun we were having. The park was created to protect the Alerce tree which is one of the longest living trees and grows like California's giant sequoia. Unfortunately most of them have been cut down years ago and only young trees can be seen near the parks trails. Those thousands of years old are located deep in the park. The park is very well set up and as we arrived during the week there was no charge to enter. There is a choice of free, or paid campsites with more facilities. Although the park was pretty busy we found a lovely quiet camping spot by the lake where we spent a wonderful couple of days filling our time with nice walks and a bit of fishing. Luck with the fishing continued as I managed to catch two Rainbow Trout. They are getting bigger too. We decided we would spend an extra day in the park but thought we would move on to a different spot for a change of view. On the way we stopped to do a lovely walk along a river to a viewpoint to the glacier. Again we were fortunate to be able to camp right on the lake shore with great views. While the girls did some painting with Alisha's new water colours I tried my hand at fishing again. Success all round. The girls paintings are really coming on and I caught two even bigger Rainbow Trout. We reluctantly left the Park for the long drive across the country back towards the Atlantic. Fortunately at this Southern point in Argentina it is only about 700kms to get back across the country. The drive across Chubut province was flat and the lush green mountains were soon left behind replaced by dusty gravelly desert punctuated by sandstone gorges. We could also feel for the first time the strong Patagonian wind blowing. There is very little out here and once we left the town of Esquel the next town of more than 10,000 people was over 500kms away with just small villages in between. We were coming to the end of our long days drive when the vibration from the front wheels started to increase. It built up to quite a juddering so we pulled over in the middle of nowhere to check. What we found was that one of the tyres we had bought in Santiago had a big problem. A big part of the tread was coming away from the tyre. It had not punctured the tyre but the tyre was finished. We had two options, change the wheel ourselves or limp back to the tyre shop Gilly had seen in the last village 30kms away. As the wind was blowing a gale we decided to limp back. It was Saturday evening and the tyre shop was open although it was clear the guy did not really want to do any work. So in the end Gilly and I did half the work but with the weight of our wheels it was useful to have an extra pair of hands around. As the front tyres are a different make from the rear and spare ones it meant we had to change both the front wheels so as not to have different makes and treads on the same axle. This means that effectively the other front tyre is useless except as an emergency spare. The problem we now have is that one of our original front tyres is near the end of its useful life so we desperately need to buy two new tyres. As it was 9pm when we finished changing the wheels we were relieved to see the village had a free campsite so we pulled in there for the night. After a shorter drive the next day we arrived in the Welsh (yes Welsh town) of Gaiman. Welsh settlers had populated parts of Patagonia in the late nineteenth century and there are a number of Welsh towns dotted around Patagonia. The street names all reflect Welsh names such as Jones and some of the people still speak Welsh although it is in decline. Some of the houses looked as though they were straight from Wales although the desert landscape behind the town looked very different from Wales. What the town's were famous for now was their Welsh cream teas. So that afternoon we set off in search of one. Once inside the lady brought over a big pot of tea with a woollen tea cosy on that your grandmother would be proud of. It was all lace curtains inside and on the table. Then out came the cakes, some scones and jam, cream pies, lemon meringue and chocolate cake. We did a pretty good job finishing it off but clearly we would not be cooking tea that night. However instead we had an evening chatting with some nice Welsh overlanders driving a Land Rover who were enjoying a taste of home. The next day was our jobs day but first we went to see if we could find some tyres. After visiting 6 tyre places it became clear that finding tyres of our size is going to be very difficult. The problem is we have 20 inch wheels and trucks in Argentina and South America all seem to have 22.5 inch wheels. This could be a problem and where we are heading the town's are not really getting much bigger. We spent the night in Puerto Madryn a port town that was also a seaside town in summer with lots of people enjoying the beach. However we would not be staying there for long as we are heading out to the Valdez peninsular in search of Patagonian wildlife before resuming the tyre hunt.