From Buenos Aires we flew to Patagonia, a remote area of Argentina that is as far removed from the bustle of the big city as it is possible to get. This is a a vast steppe-land, where four generations ago people emigrated from Wales (plus a few from England and Scotland) to try their hand at sheep rearing in these empty acres. It must have been a very tough life with few comforts. But the Welsh influence is seen today in street names in places like Trelew (pronounced Tre-lai-o) which was our first stop.
In a hire car which had clearly seen service on the gravel roads we drove for 120 klms to Punta Tomba which boasts the largest continental Megallenic Penguin colony in the world with over 100,000 breeding pairs. At Punta Tombo you walk between roped off areas which are full of penguins. The rule is that if a penguin crosses your path you give way to it. Otherwise you can wander at will watching these lovely creatures as they waddle from the sea to their nest sites. And there are so many, often just standing on the path that you have to be careful not to step on one. They seem unfazed by the presence of us humans so long as we let them get on with the task of rearing their chicks. At this time of the year many of the nests have chicks and it looked to us as though the colony was thriving. Penguins are such engaging creatures, ungainly on land but superb in the sea. They can't help but make you smile as you stand and watch them going about their daily business.
After Trelew we made a rather long drive to Peninsula Valdes. I'd always wanted to visit this part of the world ever since I saw one of David Attenborough's Life on Earth series which featured footage of Killer Whales (Orcas) snatching penguins off the beach. The gateway to the peninsula is Puerto Madryn which is a bit of a work-a-day place but pleasant enough for all that. A few kilometers up the coast from Madryn is a colony of Elephant seals so we spent a happy hour watching their antics. At this time of the year they were placid enough, having already given birth to their pups, but in the mating season all hell breaks loose among the males as they fight to establish their harems. They certainly look a tough bunch and we were happy to observe them from the safety of the cliff edge.
Moving on from Madryn we made a 120 klms drive to Punto Piramides where we had booked some rooms. It was a very long drive on exceedingly straight roads over flat, and for the most part, unvarying terrain. Only when we approached the end of the peninsula at Piramides did it become more hilly more interesting. It wasn't the only thing that was interesting. When we eventually found our booked accommodation, feeling very tired, hungry and in need of a rest, it wasn't at all what we had expected. The only people at the 'hotel' were some workmen who hadn't even heard of Marco, the guy we had booked with, and the place looked a complete mess. Marco was nowhere to be found and there was no way we were going to stay in the place anyway. So, at 5pm in the evening we went looking for somewhere to stay for 4 days and luckily found some lovely rooms which suited us just fine. Thankfully, we hadn't paid a deposit to Marco and never did find the man.
Piramides is a lovely little place, catering mostly to the tourist trade but at this time of the year it isn't that full. Had we come in January it's doubtful we would have found anywhere to stay (apart from the campground!). It is set in a gorgeous bay with great sunsets and we were fortunate in our time there to have sunny skies and hot weather. It has a laid back feel and everyone seems to know everyone else. We are learning that Argentinos are really friendly, kind people which always makes a trip more relaxed and pleasant.
As I said, the attraction for me in this part of the world is the Orca, so the next day we set off towards Caleta Valdes which is where they can best be observed. We were travelling along gravel roads for something like 150 klms. Straight as a die it's a cause for celebration when a bend comes up. But the roads are very tricky and potentially dangerous to drive. They are vey wide but have extensive ditches either side and rolling a hire car is a not uncommon occurance. So, despite the fact that there was hardly any other traffic and all I had to do was steer in a straight line for several hours, travelling at no more than 50 kmph, it was a tiring process.
Along the way to Caleta we did some bird-watching (Burrowing Owls being a particularly good spot) and wildlife watching - Guanaco (like a Llama) and Mara (a sort of cross between a hare and a kangaroo!). As we approached the coast we met a ranger who told us that Orcas were in Caleta bay so we rushed to a viewing platform there and saw a group of these distinctive creatures patrolling the bay.
Caleta Bay is formed by a sandbar running for several kilometers parallel to the coast. It is a favourite hauling up spot for Elephant Seal. There is now only one entrance into the inner lagoon formed by the sandbar, although in times past large sailing vessels were able to sail in and pick up cargo. Now, Orcas have to wait for high tide to get into and out of the lagoon.
Despite the name of Killer Whale, Orcas are dolphin. But these are not your average, friendly trick performing dolphin - they are highly skilled, social animals who have developed the art of hunting in packs. Around the world Orcas favour differing hunting techniques. At Caleta they have refined the art of patrolling the sea shore where seals lay up and snatching them from the beach by breaching themselves. This is highly dangerous for the orca as they could get stranded but clearly the risk is worth it. Some scientists believe that this hunting technique is an adaptation to dwindling numbers of prey being available due to hunting by man in the past.
We watched as the Orca swam about the lagoon and then headed out to sea, now that the tide was high enough. We jumped in our car to follow them to the next observation platform where we had great views of several groups swimming just a few metres offshore and a few metres away from where the seals were basking. On this particular day there were no attacks on the seals but it was fantastic to be able to see these wonderful creatures going about their business.
One guide later told us that Orca pass on their hunting skills to their offspring by taking a seal pup from the beach, flinging it into the air, placing it in the mouths of their young before returning the seal to its beach completely unharmed, but presumably traumatised for life!
Valdes is a wild and remote place and has an incredible variety of wildlife. It also has a huge population of whale, particularly the Southern Right Whale which mates and gives birth in the waters just off the coast. The females don't eat at all during their 8 month long nursing of their offspring and we arrived at the end of the breeding season. Most whales have now migrated to the rich waters of Antarctica but there are still a few Southern Rights left at this time of year so we took a boat trip out to see them. Our guide was a very experienced researcher, Steve Johnson. You can check out his photos and videos on www.quilimbai.blogspot.com
The Right Whale is so named because it is very curious and often will not flee from boats which approach. It will even come up to them sometimes to have a look and see what is going on. Hence, they were an easy target for whalers in the past - the 'Right' whale to hunt. In these waters we have the Southern sub-species of the whale and before too long we came across a nursing mother and her almost grown calf. Before too long they will head off for Antarctica but we spent quite a time with the pair. Adult Right Whales can be identified by the calluses on their heads, each one as unique as a human fingerprint so these are a well studied group of animals and we had a great morning whale watching.
Sometimes you can look forward to visiting a place for so long that the reality is a disappointment. Not so Valdes. It's a strange place. Flat and scrubby and at first seeming not too interesting. But spend a little time there and the wide open landscape seems to seep into the bones a little. In the evening the grasslands are full of golden light and seem to stretch into eternity. A place to lose yourself for a little while. Our kind of country.