Down the bottom of Chile, looking south toward Antarctica, Punta Arenas is at the confluence of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and has a subpolar, oceanic climate. Its average daytime temperature is 15 degrees and the surrounding ocean water is typically 2 degrees: no wonder no-one is swimming.
It’s the jumping off point north to the popular Patagonian adventures in Torres del Paine National Park and south to the Antarctic peninsula.
Thanks to our fabulous guide with Quasar Expeditions, we managed briefly to slip under the skin of this frontier town – where puffer jackets dominate the fashion scene, guanaco is on the menu, the waterfront wharves are covered in murals and the houses are painted bright pinks and yellows to counteract the heavy, grey skies.
A couple of years ago, I found myself on the Vava’u archipelago, in Tonga, ready to jump into the water with a whale.
With that gigantic dark shape moving around in the water below, I confess I was pretty nervous! No, we did not cavort, the humpback mum and her humpback calf decided they weren’t in a playful move, and, in the blink of an eye, one of the world’s largest animals simply sank down to the watery depths and disappeared.
Recently, I chatted with Carmen Ellis of Majestic Whale Encounters, for the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers. She says that if they don’t want to play, whales just don’t hang around. Drawing on her experience running whale swimming tours in Tonga, French Polynesia and Norway Carmen says, “If they don’t want to be there, they just turn their pectoral fin and, within seconds, they can be gone.”
However, every experience is amazing, she has had bumbling calves simply bump into her (the calves totally ignoring each country’s exclusion rule that applies about swimming with wild animals), and says that even sub-adults and dolphins are such curious creatures, they will interact with swimmers.
She has swum with orcas in Norway and pilot and humpback whales in Tahiti, where she’s also seen the unusual Reeso dolphins, while in Tonga, she has spotted the false killer whales (which are the same dark grey as an orca, but without the white patches), and lots of stingrays, sharks and turtles all round.
Her company’s next tour destination is Sri Lanka, swimming with blue whales. “We’re not the first, years ago, there was an industry shut down because it wasn’t being respectful to whales, but a new industry is developing in the country’s north, in Trincomalee.”
To read my story in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on swimming with orcas, humpbacks, pilot and other whales, click here
A perfect day in Torres del Paine, Patagonia from sunrise to sunset, starts with dawn with the dirtiest Jeep, and continues with chasing guanacos through the highlands, nose running while clinging to a bolting horse tearing across icy plains, and all day watching snow clouds gather through the towers and teeth of the Paine massif on a winter adventure.
But the real reason we’re here is for the pumas of Patagonia. Nicknamed ‘ghost cats’ because they’re so elusive, they’re the reason we’re braving sub-zero temperatures, snowy afternoons and chill winds that tear down the Patagonian ice fields to claw at our faces.
I’m lucky enough to be able to say that it’s my second time in Torres del Paine national park, and my third time visiting Patagonia, twice on the Chilean side, and once on the Argentinean side.
This time, I travelled with Quasar Expeditions,
If you’re after a chilly, nose-running read on spotting these beautiful pumas, click here and (hopefully) enjoy!
Quasar Expeditions runs five-day Secret Season itineraries from $4300 a person. Puma-tracking itineraries cost from $5540, including a tracking fee and four- or five-star accommodation. See quasarex.com
Last month, I found myself hiking along a section of Chilean Patagonia’s most famous walking route, the W.
The route curls around the Paine Massif, a majestic family of jagged peaks, whose tops were shrouded in cloud and cloaked in snow. Condors hunted between their teeth, and the air jolted to the sound of avalanches, hundreds of meters above me.
It all taps into the recent story I wrote for Prevention magazine, a women’s health publication, about five great hiking holidays. In it, I included the W, but also Tasmania’s new Three Capes Walk and the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Northern Territory, as well as the Kumano Kodo in Japan and the Spanish classic ultra-long walk, the Camino de Santiago.
Why do we walk? To get fit? To slow down? To go on pilgrimage?
The benefits include better health and spending time in nature, while some walks, like the Kumano Kodo and the Camino, were very deliberately designed to create time to clear your head and sift and sort through the bigger problems in life, says Di Westaway, founder of Wild Women On Top.
“Finishing a trek that takes you outside your comfort zone is a confidence-building exercise. It might be really arduous at high altitude, with plenty of “OMG, what was I thinking?” moments, but that exhilaration and achievement afterwards is a huge personal lift,” Diane adds.
You can read the story online, or you can just pull your hiking boots on now…
It’s been a big week on the Great Barrier Reef, with the launch of the world’s first ridesharing submarine, appropriately named scUber.
Uber has teamed up with a baby sub named Barry, for a month of dives to explore the Great Barrier Reef – currently hovering around Heron Island, off Gladstone, it moves up to Cairns this coming week.
Fancy a seat? They’re $1500 a pop, book on the app.
If you think it’s just a publicity stunt, you’re right. Queensland’s tourism board has teamed up with Uber to highlight the health of the reef, to encourage people to come and see it for themselves. Hopefully, they’ll learn to love our marine icon – the world’s largest living thing – and therefore help protect it.
The Balkans are literally the land of honey and blood, named by Turks who netted the peninsula – from Slovenia to Albania – into the Ottoman Empire, where it remained ensnared for five centuries until 1912. In Turkish, “bal” is honey, “kan” is blood. And as they learned, the riches are sweet, but come at a price.
This summer, I spent a couple of weeks on a tour with Intrepid Travel, from the Albanian capital of Tirana through to Kosovo and on to Macedonia, before returning back to Albania.
It was my first time in the western Balkans, though I’ve skirted around the region, in Greece, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, at different times of my travelling life.
So some things were familiar – using bears as novelty drawcards at restaurants, the Cyrillic alphabet – but there was plenty of new ground – seeing little red-roofed villages, the symbol of Middle Europe, clustered around a mosque, instead of a church, or the sheer beauty of the Accursed Mountains.
Beautiful and blissfully ignored by the mass tourism that pervades such European cities as Barcelona or Paris, I almost don’t want to share them, to preserve their purity.