Pebble Island

I had some good news this week as the first step of our job allocations was published and I have been allocated to Scotland. The next step is to rank the job programmes in Scotland and I’ll find out which programme I get in another fortnight or so. Fingers crossed that I’ll get one of my choices in Dundee.

I’ve spent most of this week in theatre, assisting in an appendectomy at the start of the week and working with the anaesthetist the rest of the week. We’ve got an oral-maxillofacial surgeon here for two weeks and he’s got a long list of patients for surgery, not only a lot of dental procedures but also plastics. It’s been a great experience for me, and also rather intense, as the anaesthetist has been doing what all anaesthetists seem to do and grilling me mercilessly.

I woke up this morning to strong winds and pouring rain, but fortunately my flight out to Pebble Island still went ahead. The flights wasn’t as bumpy as I thought it might be but having stopped at Port Howard to pick up a couple of passengers it felt like we were flying sideways for the remaining 10 minutes to Pebble. When we arrived the pilot had to do some nifty work to get us down on the ground, and his take off a few minutes later was even more impressive as he fought the wind. I made a small video which I’ll try and get online once I’m back home and have easier internet access.

It was already late afternoon by the time I arrived and after a quick cup of tea I headed out in the rover with my host for a short drive down to the east end of the island where there are magellanic penguins, gentoos, cormorants, rockhoppers and if you’re lucky, the occasional macaroni, the one type of penguin here that I haven’t yet seen.

It was another good bit of Falklands offroad driving, including a long stretch along Elephant Beach, the longest sandy beach in the islands and currently home to a decomposing whale.

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After a short stop at the whale we continued on to the penguins, stopping first at the gentoos for a few minutes before heading on to the cliffs where the rockhoppers and cormorants hang out. It was difficult to keep my balance in the strong winds and even harder to keep the camera anything approaching steady so I didn’t get many photographs. The gentoos were really struggling to come in out of the sea as they were being buffeted by the waves.

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We then stopped at another cliff where a macaroni penguin can sometimes be found. We struggled out of the rover against the wind and went to the cliff edge to peer over. Sure enough, there huddled against a rock was a single macaroni, orange features easily distinguishing it from the rockhoppers. Looking straight down to it, with grass waving in the wind in front of me, the composition wasn’t brilliant, but at least I’ve seen my first ever macaroni penguin. Tomorrow I’m heading up to the west end of the island where there are more rockhopper colonies and the possibility of additional macaroni sightings, so perhaps I can muster up something more photogenic. Hopefully the weather will improve overnight and make things a little easier.

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Volunteer Point

This weekend’s visit was to Volunteer Point, renowned for its king penguins, but also home to a large population of magellanic and gentoo penguins. I was planning to go out on Friday afternoon, but having arrived at the hospital to find that the Caesarian section I was going to attend had already taken place during the night, the surgeon suggested that I go out with the visiting specialists in the morning and take advantage of the extra time. Who was I to argue?!

There is a house you can stay at but I decided to camp, taking advantage of being able to borrow a tent and sleeping bag from Kay. I also had to take my own water for the weekend so I was heavy laden and had to conscript a fellow guest to help me carry everything down to the hotel where we were picked up.

Volunteer Point is not actually that far away from Stanley, but it takes about 2 and a half hours to get there as the final 10 miles or so are off road, and take about 90 minutes to cover. It takes an experienced driver to both tackle the terrain and to find their way. Having not seen a single road sign since I’d arrived in the Falklands, I was amused to see the number of signs for Volunteer Point, the last one pointing off into the distance as the road ends and the off road section begins!

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Cake is very popular in the Falklands! This was at Johnson’s Harbour, the end of the road.

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It’s a popular tourist destination, and when the large cruise ships come in forty or so rovers are required to transport passengers for their dose of penguin spotting. Fortunately it was a quiet weekend and there were never that many people about. I wasn’t the only one camping, by coincidence one of the physios from the hospital was camping too with her husband and a couple of friends which made for sociable evenings, particularly as they were generous with their tea and alcohol supplies!

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My home for the weekend, amazing to go to sleep listening to the penguins.

We had fairly good weather, with mostly bright sunny days but unfortunately it was quite cloudy in the mornings and evenings and the sunrise/sunsets weren’t as good as we had hoped. It has a reputation for spectacular skies but it wasn’t to be on this occasion. The second night we had rain and strong winds and I woke up at 2.30am to find the tent trying to collapse in on me, which necessitated a speedy reorganisation of everything before I ended up with a lot of wet belongings. It settled eventually and I got back to sleep somewhere around 4am, still managing to drag myself up before sunrise.

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The first morning, having been up at 5.30 in the hope of a good sunrise, we were just thinking of heading back to our tents for a little while when we spotted a sea lion coming into shore in the hope of nabbing himself some penguins for breakfast. In seconds all the penguins had fled the beach and left him disappointed. He made another landing further up but with no luck. The sun having gone behind a large cloud, all the penguins having fled and the sea lion back in the water we decided a bit more sleep was in order.

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The main attractions for the weekend were, of course, the penguins but there were also a lot of smaller birds on the beach feasting on the abundant supply of insects. They were a mix of plovers and sandpipers and both moved very fast but I did manage to get some photos that I was pleased with eventually. Most of the penguin photos are in separate posts.

 

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Two-banded plover

 

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Two-banded plover

 

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White-rumped sandpiper

 

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Falkland steamer ducks

 

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Magellanic oystercatchers

 

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Magellanic oystercatcher

 

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Dolphin gull

Volunteer Point – King Penguin Creche

The king penguin creche is a hive of squawking and cheeping activity. King penguin chicks take a long time to grow to maturity, so king penguins can only raise two chicks in a three year period. The chicks start out grey and then become brown when they’re bigger before finally gaining their adult plumage. Most of the chicks are in the centre of the group but there are usually one or two on the outskirts.

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You have to keep 20 feet from the penguins, but sometimes the penguins have other ideas. This pair were very curious and walked straight up to me and hung around for quite a while.

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Gypsy Cove

It was a beautiful day, so when I got home from the hospital I made the spontaneous decision to head out on a walk to Gypsy Cove, a beach local to Stanley which a number of people had mentioned and home to magellanic penguins, and possibly more exciting to me, black crowned night herons.

Time was going to be a bit tight as I set off just before 5pm and the cove is about 4 miles away, so I figured that I could just about make it out and back before it got dark. It turned out, though, to be a further walk than I’d anticipated, in part because I lost the path at one point so had to follow the road which was less direct, not to mention, less enjoyable. Although much of the path out of Stanley passes through industrial areas, there are good views across the water and some interesting wrecks to be seen. 

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Christ Church Cathedral

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I decided not to use the stile!

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Approaching the beach were some very attractive dunes, but they were all fenced off due to the risk of mines in the area. What I hadn’t realised is that Gypsy Cove itself is inaccessible for this reason and that you can only walk around the top of the cliffs, looking down to the beach. So much for my image of photographing the magellanics close up. By the time I arrived, though, there was beautiful evening light the sun was already too low in the sky to reach the beach in any case. When I finally reached the cove I’d walked about 9km, so rather further than originally anticipated and it was closing in on 7pm, which only left me with just over an hour of daylight for the walk back. Fortunately a couple arrived in a car as I was returning to the car park so I very cheekily asked for a ride back to Stanley and occupied myself photographing some Falkland Thrushes and a Dark-faced Ground-tyrant (wonderful name! but I didn’t manage to get a decent photo) whilst I waited for them to finish their walk.

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Yorke Beach

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Falkland Thrush

Back to Punta Arenas

Having finished my last walk in the park it was time to head back to Puerto Natales and then Punta Arenas. I did stop to photograph a group of ibis on my way out of the park though.

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I felt rather guilty ignoring a couple of hitch hikers at the exit of the park but I really wanted to enjoy my last bit of freedom, with my cameras to hand on the passenger seat and the ability to stop as often as I wanted for photos.

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I had a few such opportunities, the first being a bird of prey that was sat on a fence post by the road and was completely unbothered by my presence, letting me get very close for a photo.

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I had to stop, of course, in Puerto Natales to fill up the van with petrol, fortunately having not run empty! In the end I also made a detour into a small shop selling yarn from local merino wool and visited the cafe I’d stopped in on the way up to email the camper van company to organise the drop off the next morning. The latter issue was my new cause of worry as the paperwork said that they didn’t open until 10am but I needed to be up at the airport by then in time for my flight. Emails sent, I continued my journey on to Punta Arenas, realising that I also had to get the camper van cleaned before I handed it back in the next morning.

The rest of the drive down was uneventful and time passed fairly quickly. I spotted what I think were the same group of ibises I’d seen on the way up and pulled over to get some photographs. 

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Not long after my attention was caught by a couple of caracaras eating something at the side of the road and I realised that they weren’t alone. There was an armadillo there too! I quickly spotted a pull off and turned around and drove back. The caracaras flew off but the armadillo was busy eating what looked to be a hare. I took a few photos before it looked up at me, stared for a minute or so, and then turned tail and scuffled away as fast as its little legs would carry it.

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By the time I got into Punta Arenas it was close to 9pm. I spent some time driving around trying to find a place to get the van cleaned, but to no avail. Unlike in the UK, hoses don’t seem to be an integral part of petrol stations. Eventually I gave up and decided to find a place to park up for the night. I started at the beach, but it was very busy and I just didn’t fancy it. Plus, I really needed a bathroom stop! Eventually I decided to go to the restaurant that had been pointed out to me at the hostel I’d stayed in and get a bite to eat and use their facilities. Having eaten I drove down the road a little and just parked up opposite the stadium for the night.

Torres del Paine – Lago Gray

Before leaving the park I had one last hike planned, at Lago Grey. I had originally thought to do a couple more short walks that day but when I checked my calendar before going to bed the previous right I discovered to my surprise that my flight out of Punta Arenas was not in the early afternoon as I had thought, but at 11am, meaning that I was going to be very short of time to get the van dropped off in the morning before heading to the airport. My initial plan was to park up and sleep somewhere of Ruta 9 for the last night, but I realised that I was going to need to be in Punta Arenas on Friday night and so I needed to get a move on! 

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Despite being under time pressure I wasn’t going to compromise on stopping to take photos and my first opportunity came when I saw a couple of hares by the side of the road. The resulting photos weren’t great, but at least they show very clear evidence of running away hare!

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Not much further along and the landscape changed to being more open and flat. Having just started to speed up again after some roadworks I crossed a bridge and then spotted a fox to the side of the road, so of course that meant another stop!

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The next distraction was a rainbow over some distant hills. 

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Finally, I made it down to Lago Gray, where you can take a boat tour up to see the big glacier at the head of the lake. I was lucky to get there before all the tour buses turned up, when I returned back to the van at the end of the walk there were queues on both sides of the bridge over the river due to the 6 person limit.

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Unlike all the other walks I did in Torres del Paine this one was a circular route (or rather, lollipop), but I didn’t know this until near the end when I could see the beach reappearing around the corner.

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Having reached the official viewpoint, the walk continued around the coast and I spotted this amazing little iceberg that had calved off from the glacier. I hadn’t really known what to expect from this walk and had wondered if I was making a mistake taking the time for a hike when I still had over 300km to drive but I really enjoyed it and the varied views of the lake.

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Torres del Paine – Mirador Cuernos

Having explored the north east of the park it was time to head south west and slowly back towards Puerto Natales. When I’d done all my panicking about running out of petrol on the day I drove up to Torres, I’d forgotten that my explorations of the park would take me back in a homeward direction, rather than being an addition to the 145km I’d driven up to the park.

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It was a fairly long drive down to the place where I intended to stay the night and the roads were in variable condition, but by this time I was well used to watching out for potholes. I made quite a few stops along the way for photographs, and was delighted when I spotted a lake, complete with pink flamingo dots. Of course, the flamingoes started moving determinedly to the opposite side of the lake when they saw me coming, but at least I managed to get some photographic evidence of their existence!

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There were plenty of beautiful turquoise lakes on the way down, but also plenty of dead trees, evidence of the fires that ravaged the park a few years ago.

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When I reached the car park in the late afternoon it was full of cars, and there were plenty of folk out either admiring the waterfalls or on the hike to the viewpoint. Once I came back from the walk myself the car park had emptied and I moved the van to a prime lakeview. It was a very windy evening, and judging by the warning signs that isn’t unusual in this part of the park. The walk down to the viewpoint was enjoyable and took in quiet a variety of landscapes, although all with the mountains featuring prominently in the background. After the previous day’s exertions and my morning hike I was feeling quite leaden-legged though and did have a hard time motivating myself at the beginning.

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The wind got really strong during the walk and at times I was nearly blown off my feet. There was a huge amount of spray coming off the lake and you could use it to predict the gusts as first the spray built up and then slowly crept towards you before hitting you with a giant blast. I felt like I was in a fantasy world being hit by a blast of magic! I had to protect my camera during the blasts as there was so much spray brought with the wind.

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By the time I got back to the van it was nearly 8pm and I was more than ready for some dinner. I had a hard time sheltering the stove from the winds and had to chase after the pot lid when it was sent flying. Sadly, I also lost my cheese to the same gust of wind, although I think that the caracaras may have subsequently enjoyed it. 

Torres del Paine – Laguna Azul

The plan for my second day in Torres del Paine was to travel up to the north of the park to Laguna Azul, where there was a hike between two lakes. Having gone to sleep under an incredibly clear sky, I woke up to pouring rain so abandoned my plan for an early start and snuggled back under the giant stripes blanket until close on 10am. When I dragged myself out of the van, clad in my waterproofs, I realised that I’d managed to park in the muddiest part of the parking spot. At least the spots of pasta sauce I’d sent flying had been washed away.

By the time I’d been to the bathrooms and back it was drying off so I finally set off to Laguna Azul. My first stop was at a waterfall that was just by the side of the road, albeit down a rather steep and rough road. Somehow the tour buses made their way down there, so it didn’t stay quiet for long.

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I didn’t linger long before continuing on my way but very soon had to stop again as I spotted some guanaco by the side of the road. I wasn’t the only one who stopped, and suddenly the road was flooded with Belgian tourists, all keen to creep up on the guanaco… until I had a good giggle at the tourist in the middle of the road who was so busy looking had her iPad she was oblivious to the guanaco that was creeping up on her!

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The grey sky was slowly lifting during the drive and by the time I arrived at the park it was looking a little brighter and feeling quite warm and muggy.

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I stopped to photograph some geese and swans, and then to chat to a couple Canadians who also had a Wicked camper van before heading off on the walk.

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I didn’t go far before coming to a sign post for a viewpoint. I wasn’t convinced that this was the route I was planning, but lacking any signs for Laguna Cebolla, my official end point, I decided to following the signs instead. Given that the walk I had planned on would take a good few hours each way and I’d had a late start, I was also reconsidering my choice.

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fter a 14.5 mile hike the day before my legs were feeling rather heavy as the path began to climb. There were quite good views across the lake to the towers but unfortunately they were mostly lost in the cloud, although it did clear a bit whilst I was at the summit. It was a nice enough walk, but it was a shame not to have done the walk I’d originally planned, and I think that the main highlights of the trip were the guanaco and the birds that I saw along the way.

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When I got back down to the van I took a small walk down to the shore of the lake, a really nice beach, and sat and chatted with the Canadians for a little while. They kindly offered me some black beans, which I very gratefully took having only eaten crisps and nuts all day. They also had a field guide to the local wildlife and I was finally able to identify some of the birds I’d seen along the way.

It was now time to turn tail and head back the way I’d come and slowly start working my way down to the south of the park and eventually back to Puerto Natales. Of course, another guanaco stop was required on the way.

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