Antarctica – Day 1 – Last minute Antarctica . . . why not?

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Here I am, at the end of the world! Since writing this blog, I’ve been to Antarctica and back, and I can hardly believe it. Before I arrived in Antarctica, I didn’t know what to expect – now that I’m back, I don’t really know how to describe what I’ve seen. I’ll do my best. All I know is that the polar region has implanted itself deep in my heart, and already I’m aching to go back.

Lots of people asked me, have you always wanted to do this? And my answer? Actually, no. Antarctica felt to me . . . out of reach. After all the far flung places I’ve been, even Antarctica seemed like a step to far. For one, there’s the expense. For two, the distance. And three? Well, less than half a million people have ever stepped on Antarctica.

Why me?

A key secret to my happiness, I’ve found, is to keep my goals realistic. That way, when I get to do something I never expected, I get to be totally surprised.

As a result, I was thoroughly unprepared for a trip to Antarctica. Many of the people I’ve met on board the ship Expedition have been looking forward to this trip for a year or more, but I was only able to book a week before launch, via Sarah Scott at Freestyle Adventure Travel. If there’s anyone out there looking to do a similar last minute trip to the seventh continent, I would thoroughly recommend dropping Sarah an email! She was super quick to respond, really helpful with all my questions, and unrelenting in her desire to get me on board a ship. This was the only ship I wanted to get on because it worked perfectly with my itinerary, and so I was not an easy, flexible customer. She also got me an amazing price, which helped make the decision very easy indeed.

The trip itself was run by G Adventures, a well-known Canadian travel company. Knowing that they were the ones running the show really put me at ease – and for good reason. The trip was impeccably run, and the staff went above and beyond to make sure we had an amazing Antarctic experience. Kudos to G – and I’m sure I’ll be on another one of their trips before long.

Even landing in Ushuaia was incredible. I got the 4:35am flight from Buenos Aires (not so fun), landing at 8am in Ushuaia, and as I stepped out of the airport I was gobsmacked by the views. It was a bright blue sky day, the air was fresh and crisp and huge snow-capped mountains surrounded the bay. I was enchanted.

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Ushuaia is a home for adventurers, hikers and – of course – polar fanatics, and it caters to them. I was able to pick up a few last minute things (key of all: warm socks) to round out my polar wardrobe. I was lucky that Sarah (of Freestyle Adventure) was lending me the waterproof pants and gloves that I needed, while on board a parka and waterproof boots were provided. So as long as I had a few other layers, I was fine.

We boarded the ship, the Expedition, at about 4pm. My first impression of the ship was one of surprised delight – it is very well appointed, and my cabin (which I was to share with three unknown females) was spacious. I managed to secure a bottom bunk (my main priority) and luckily there was no quibbling about that. My three roommates were all lovely – two were travellers from Toronto (who knew each other) and the third was a woman from Arkansas.

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We all headed up on deck before long, taking advantage of the beautiful clear skies. The excitement on board the ship was palpable – along with a little nervousness. We had the infamous Drake Passage ahead.

What would that bring for us?

 

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Bushcamping, or, Just in case you were getting a little too jealous of our adventure…

(*More pictures to come when I have better internet!*)

We are now a week into our overlanding adventure and it’s been a baptism of fire! While we were lulled into a false sense of security by two nights in the beautiful coastal town Paraty (more on that later), the three nights and three long drive days that followed was our proper induction into overlanding life.

Our first bush camp stop, somewhere outside Sao Paolo

What is typical overlanding life?

  • Drive days that last between 8-10 hours
  • Pulling over on the side of the road for pee-breaks (and learning to overcome squatting fear for girls – watch out for spiders!)
  • Becoming way too well acquainted with the affectionately known ‘shit shovel’
  • Sharing close quarters with 25 people who have not showered for 3 days
  • 25 people who are also covered in DEET thanks to all manner of biting, flying insects (this one probably unique to this part of the world!)
  • Eating whatever the cook group manages to scrounge together for you (normally pretty delicious despite catering for multiple food preferences, gluggy spaghetti and lack of ingredients!)
  • Deciding whether to pitch your tent on a sand pit, ant hills, cow dung or stones
  • Doing all this in the sweltering heat and high humidity

Good times. And I’m not even being sarcastic! It is good times. It’s not for everybody (at some points, I wondered it if it was for me). Yet nothing bonds a group together quite like bushcamps, and we were well stocked with beers and plenty of good, hearty food to keep us going. Long drive days are broken up with intense games of mafia, naps, lots of reading and even more writing (that last one reserved for me and the diarists!). I’ve blitzed through The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (so fantastic), How They Met, and other stories by David Levithan (which I read on Valentine’s Day – perfect) and Code Name: Verity (very different to what I expected and much older, but had me tearing up at the end). The nights tend to be short – early to bed and early to rise. The bushcamps vary: the first night, we attempted to pull into a campsite but had to camp outside instead (the campsite was actually a nudist retreat – only three days into the trip, we weren’t quite ready for that much openness!); the second night, we camped near what smelled much like a sewage treatment plant (by far the least pleasant stop); and the third night, we suffered a disaster by being kicked out of our first site by locals – only to find paradise in the form of a campsite in a stunning, Jurassic Park-like landscape with ACTUAL showers and ACTUAL toiletseats. True-to-goodness bliss.

And that’s probably the best part about bushcamping on those long journeys: it makes the destinations so much sweeter.

Take Paraty, our first stop after Rio – and our slice of paradise before the bushcamping began. It’s an absolutely stunning old colonial town and world heritage site with cobblestone streets, cute churches and wall-to-wall cachaça stores (that’s the alcohol that fuels the decidedly lethal caipirinhas).

After exploring the town, we climbed aboard a boat for a little exploration of the little islands and beaches dotted along the coastline. Now this was truly amazing. The water was beautiful and teeming with fish. The sun shone brightly (so much so, many people got burned… including Lofty, who won the first ever truck ‘numpty’ award for his ‘interesting’ suntan marks). We had a yummy lunch and spent the day swimming and sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Not too shabby for a bunch of soon-to-be-shabby overlanders.

But the reason for all the drive days that followed? The Pantanal – the world’s largest swamp. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Despite the reputation, it was magic. But more on that in the next blog post…

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Surviving (and thriving) at the Sambadrome

I can’t believe how quickly our time in Rio has disappeared already! Tomorrow we leave on the Oasis Overland truck ‘Dingo’ for pastures new, and I have little idea what to expect. I’m getting ready to take each day as it comes and to be open to whatever adventures are ahead.

But in the meantime – what a time we’ve had! Sambadrome loomed before us with the prospect of eight hours of partying through the night. Would I be able to handle it? Would it live up to the hype?

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Half party, half city – the two sides of Rio

For me, the answer was ABSOLUTELY. Sambadrome doesn’t just live up to the hype… it is the hype. I’ve never experienced anything like the electric energy that rocketed around the concrete stadium when the floats were in view. Everyone got into the spirit, dressing up in headbands and glitter – and some in full body paint and very little else! While I wasn’t one of those people who could dance all night, I did stay right up until the last float passed through the stands and the sun rose in the sky. It was an epic night/morning to say the least.

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We were in Sector 13, which is right at the end of the parade. There were many benefits to Sector 13 – it was a lot of fun to watch the dancers finish at the end and the chaos as they rushed to take their costumes off and join the party. You could easily find discarded costumes (they made for great pictures and cool – if unwieldy – souvenirs! I think there’s a purple alien head still in the hallway of our hotel) and you felt like part of the local scene. The downside is that we were quite far away from the main action itself and we didn’t feel like we could completely grasp the magnitude of the floats. The binoculars I had just offered a tantalising glimpse of the immense effort that went into every single detail of the parades. It would have been better to experience them in their full glory.

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Throwing away the costumes at the end… so sad!

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6am snoozes… when’s the next Samba school on?

It was definitely an immense way to kick off the trip – and something I will never forget.

Rio has been unforgettable in lots of ways. We went paragliding from Pedra Bonita – an incredible flight over the stunning beaches and coastline of the city. We wiled away an afternoon on Ipanema beach. We watched sunset from the base of Sugarloaf and drank beers on a seawall with the locals. We bought ridiculously cheap Havaianas in Copacabana (and promptly left them in a beachside bar… sigh). Lofty partied in Lapa and I wrote in the corner of an Irish pub.

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Finally, we toured the largest favela in South America – Rocinha – which over 70,000 people call home. We umm-ed and ahh-ed about doing this tour, but in the end we decided that it was the only way to get close to understanding the flipside of this capricious city. Of course, with bus-loads of tourists walking through it every day, Rocinha is one of the ‘safer’ favelas – but it was still eye-opening to see the conditions that still exist for over 3 million residents of Rio de Janeiro. The company that we used takes all the money for the tour and uses it to fund a day care and school inside the favela. While of course it felt uncomfortable to be essentially gawking at people’s lives (and all in the knowledge that we were leaving at the end), we were greeted with warm and open arms by the people we met there – and not just the ones who were taking money from us. I am glad that I went, if only to feel like I’m coming away with a more balanced view of this city and the country I’m about to explore even further.

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The view from the top of Rocinha favela

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All in all, Rio has lived up to its reputation. It’s incredibly beautiful, but it also has a dark side. On the same day that Lofty and I commented on how safe we’d felt the entire time we were here (and we did – we took money out of ATMs without issue, we took the metro at all hours, we partied at the blocos), some other members of our group were not so lucky. It just goes to show that both the raves and the warnings about Rio are true. If you are ever able to find yourself here, practice vigilance and be safe – but feel comfortable that even the bad is not enough to dim the good.

Rio just shines too brightly.

And if you need any further convincing, here’s our time in video form:

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Carnaval, Cariocas, Caipirinhas, Copacabana and Coconuts – our first couple of days in Rio de Janeiro

How do a million dancing, singing, happy people hide within a city block?

That’s what Gabby and I kept asking ourselves as we searched through the streets of Rio for the notorious Bloco Cordao da Bola Preta in the Central district. Where is the Bloco? We tried to follow the hordes of cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) and tourists alike in fancy dress, but they kept peeling off in different directions. Bloco? We asked one policeman. That way. Bloco? We asked a street vendor. He pointed the other way.

Then we turned a corner and heard it before we saw it: the rhythm of drums, the cheers from the crowd. Our eyes quickly caught up with our ears as we spotted a huge bus surrounded by a mass of humanity in brightly coloured costumes, feathers and headdresses, glitter and confetti everywhere. We squeezed our way through until we were right next to the samba school, dancing and drumming in time to the enthusiastic conducting of a woman on top of the bus. We samba-ed in our own gringo way in a slow march through the streets… laughing and cheering alongside a crowd who knew all the words to every song. Now this was the Carnaval we’d been looking for.

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We found a Bloco! Multibloco in Lapa

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Only it wasn’t. We hadn’t found Cordau da Bola Preta at all but stumbled into Multibloco in the Lapa district. Oh well, who cares! We had a blast and this is Rio baby. There’s plenty of partying to come.

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From the moment we landed in Rio, one thing was clear: we were not in Disney World anymore. Our hotel, the Riazor, leaves a little to be desired… especially when you’re coming out of some pretty nice 5-star accommodation! But the rooms are clean and safe, the beds comfy, and the air-con and wifi both work – so what more can you ask for?

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Beautiful Copacabana beach

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Our first misty view of Cristo from the streets of Copacabana

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Thank god for these water tracks… they made walking on the beach bearable!

I wanted to get right into the spirit, so our first stop was Copacabana beach. Luckily the bonus of our hotel is that it is right by a metro station, so getting around the city is simple and safe. When we arrived, we had a traditional Brazilian lunch, which involved loading up as much food as possible onto a plate and paying by the weight – delicious. It was then only a short walk down to the beach. And what a beach. The sun was blazing and, despite it being a Thursday afternoon, the beach was packed. Thank god for the people who water the sand so it can be walked on – otherwise I might have burned the soles of my feet to a crisp!

After baptising our trip with a mandatory toe in the South Atlantic, we kicked back at a beach bar with a couple of Caipirihinas and a delicious agua de coco – although, admittedly, I probably drank too much too quickly. Combined with the exhaustion of the flight and the heat of the day, I was knackered and feeling a bit ill by the time we were ready to go out for dinner. Me, too unwell to eat? Almost unheard of. But it turned out a good night’s sleep was what I needed.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our tour of Rio. It was a great way to get oriented around the city and check off some of the major sights! And Rio did not disappoint at all. Our first stop was the Cristo Redentor (do what we did: get there early to avoid long lines at the bottom and monstrous crowds at the top!) and it was truly breathtaking.

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Cristo Redentor

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The crowds by Cristo, overlooking Sugar Loaf mountain

The tour also took us past a favela, into the district of Santa Teresa and to the main Metropolitan Cathedral, which was unlike any cathedral I’ve ever been in! It can hold 20,000 people at capacity, which is kind of mind-blowing.

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One of the most photographed favelas in Rio

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Inside the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao

Finally, we went up Sugar Loaf mountain in the cable cars to get absolutely stunning 360 views of Rio. What a town.

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On Sugarloaf mountain, with a view of Copacabana

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Inside the cable car

Thank goodness we had a good experience of Carnaval on Saturday morning, because Friday night can only be summed up as mildly disastrous. Owing to some misinformation from our Rio tour guide, we ended up arriving late to not one, but two blocos – arriving after the party only to find the masses of post-party drunk people still wandering the streets. Yes, there was still a bit of music but nothing like the fun, happy atmosphere we imagined.

As much as many blogs and articles I’ve read suggest simply ‘wandering the streets’ until you find a party, a little bit of pre-planning would have helped us have a much better night!

So far, Rio has been pretty amazing – even though I’m glad that this blog and my books give me an excuse to come home in the middle of the day to escape the heat and rest for the evening… Sambadrome is tomorrow, and I’m going to need all the energy my body can muster if I’m to survive the night!

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Typical tourist pose at Cristo – kind of has to be done!

 

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A Packing List for a Grown-Up Gap Year

KR and minion

It’s kind of amazing how travelling changes you. Opens you up to adventure, new experiences, new people. Only a few hours after we said goodbye to our families, switching from ‘vacation’ mode to ‘backpacker’, we met a Brazilian couple who gave us tips on everything from how to ward off the Zika virus to the best places to eat in Rio. We exchanged email addresses and they told us to get in touch if we needed anything once we arrived.

Travel magic at its best.

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First official selfie of the trip – at Fort Lauderdale airport en route to Rio via Bogota

It’s officially been eight years since my last gap year – and in many ways, not much has changed. I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, but I’m still using the same backpack, sleeping bag and packing cubes as last time. The backpack in particular has seen many corners of the globe; she also accompanied my sister Sophie on her gap year adventure! I can definitely vouch for the longevity and durability of a Lowepro bag. I’m taking more or less the same amount of clothes, and I still remember that the most useful thing I brought with me was my sarong. But what has changed is the sheer amount of technology that is accompanying me this time around. Whereas in 2007 I travelled with a flip phone, iPod and a point-and-shoot camera, this time I feel like I’m carrying around my own Best Buy superstore. I guess that’s the burden that comes with being a ‘digital nomad’. I do have The Potion Diaries book 3 to write on the road, after all!

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Two backpackers ready for the road

Looking at this list all laid out, I’ve probably overpacked – and from everything I’ve heard, there will be plenty to buy in South America! The tricky thing has been to prepare for all the different temperatures that we’ll be encountering on our trip – from the sweltering heat of Brazil to the potentially very cold nights of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Also, now that I’m closer to 30 than 21 (I turn 30 on this trip, ahh!) and this is supposed to be a grown-up gap year, I don’t want to feel like a ‘backpacker’ all the time. My solution is to bring jeans with me so I can go sit in a café and not feel too grungy. And if I’m ever wondering why my bag is so heavy, someone please remind me that I’ve packed five actual tree-books, in additional to my Kindle. Don’t judge me, I need them all! *clings to books*

Here’s my packing list, comprising my life for the next four months:

Clothing

1x aforementioned skinny jeans
1x grey hiking trousers
2x shorts
1x cut off trousers
1x jogging pants
3x sundresses
4x t-shirts
4x vest top
1x long sleeve shirt
8x underwear
3x bras
3x socks
1x long winter socks
1x thermal top
1x thermal pants/leggings
1x rain jacket
1x sweater/fleece
1x cardigan
1x beanie
1x gloves
3x bathing suit/bikini
1x sarong

Shoes

1x waterproof trainers
1x Merrell sandals
1x Flipflops
1x Butterfly twist flats

Medicine

Paracetemol + Ibuprofen
Anti-malarials
Bite cream
Solarcaine
Savlon (antiseptic cream)
Bio Oil
Immodium
Antihistamines
Birth control
Hand sanitizer
Band-aids

Toiletries

Sunscreen
Bug spray (75% Deet)
Solid shampoo from Lush
Deodorant
Razor
Make-up (mascara, concealer, bb cream, blush, lip salve, black eyeliner)
Dry shampoo
Mooncup
Toothbrush + toothpaste
Hand mirror
Nail scissors
Cotton swabs
Eye drops

Technology

Laptop + charger
Kindle Paperwhite + charger
iPhone 6 + charger + extra batttery
Waterproof Lumix camera + extra battery + charger
SD cards
External hard drive
Letouch 4-in-1 USB charger
Gopro (and a few accessories – a floating device, selfie stick)
Headphones + headphone splitter
Plug adaptors (for all variations – South America seems to have a ton of different variants when it comes to plugs!)
Withings watch (to track steps and sleep along the way – also works as an alarm clock)

Other

Writing notebook and pens
Books (to be exchanged on the road)
Passport + travel documents (including photocopies of passports and travel insurance documentation)
Flashlight + head torch
Binoculars
Toilet roll
Day bag + small side bag for the cities
Wallet
Sleeping Bag
Thermarest
Water bottle
Sewing kit
Trek towel
Travel lock
Sunglasses
Canada pins (to hand out along the way!)

But probably the most important items we’ve packed are our travel mascots… Kylo Ren and his minion! I initially bought a Disney Star Wars vinylmation hoping to get BB8 (it’s a lucky dip out of 8 different characters) but decided I wouldn’t mind getting Ren, Poe, Finn… but I ended up with Kylo. While initially I was a tad disappointed, it all works out now that Lofty’s mascot is a minion 😉 Look out for KR and minion showing up all over South America.

KR and minion – our intrepid travel companions

 

 

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