Crossing the drake passage to Antarctica

cap horn in calm conditions
Picture of the drake sea at Cap Horn taken in “calm” conditions

The Drake Passage

Crossing the Drake passage from South Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula is something you’ll inevitably have to do if you dare venture to this elusive seventh continent by ship.

The Drake passage is a large body of water south of Cap Horn in south Argentina. This passage is particularly rough as on this latitude the water can flow freely all around the world without being slowed down by land. This is the only place in the world where the water flows unhindered without any land mass stopping it.

Furthermore, due to the shape of South America and the Antarctic peninsula this passage becomes very narrow (compared to the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean) and acts as a funnel where the two oceans meet, creating very rough conditions.

Many sailor stories feature ships crossing south of Cap Horn to get to the other side of the Americas and many of those ships end up as wrecks. Now, with the opening of The Panama Canal in 1914, they don’t have to go there anymore (although many ships continued to do so for a while after). Unless, of course, you want to go to Antarctica.

Another way is to fly to Antarctica but even that requires special conditions and planes can be grounded for days, weeks and even months waiting for the winds to change.

 

Drake lake and Drake shake

Depending on the conditions, your trip across the Drake can range from anything from a relatively calm experience to one of the roughest passages in the world. Colloquially, these are known as either a “Drake Lake” or a “Drake Shake”, respectively.

By “calm” we’re talking 2 days of 2-3m waves – not more than most people will be fine with rest, some fresh air and a couple of seasick pills. It’s still a rough time if you’re not used to it but you’ll survive. This is what we had on the way back.

On the way out though, we had a “Drake Shake” with 5-meter waves coming from the side. This is enough to slide plates off tables and it’s enough that you can’t sleep on the side. It was also enough that half the ship was sick in their cabins, even with pills.

Although, it was hard for me to sleep properly (because I was constantly rolled around), I felt fine and a few seasick pills kept me in ace condition.

It takes two days to cross the Drake Passage in a cruise ship and those days can be the longest days of your life if you do it in the wrong conditions. Luckily, in modern times we have charts and weather reports that help us avoid these conditions – in fact, as this post is being written dozens of modern ships are waiting in port in Ushuaia due to weather conditions. They simply can’t cross it without putting their passengers in danger.

Back in the old days, the ships were weaker and they didn’t have proper charts. I wouldn’t want to cross the drake during those times – let alone be the first adventurer to explore south.

One good thing, though, is that when you get to the other side – a new world awaits!

Arriving in Ushuaia at the End of the world

30 hours after I left my home in Copenhagen I arrived at Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is placed all the way down at the southern tip of Argentina which has earned it the name of “Fin del Mundo”, or “End of The World”.

It was a long trip, in fact the longest of my life

It was a long trip, in fact the longest of my life, but finally I was standing there at the baggage line in the tiny airport hoping dearly that my checked bag had made it too. I had the essentials in my carry-on but there is still a lot of important stuff that I wouldn’t be happy about losing.

When I came in to Ushuaia I saw towering snow covered mountains in the horizon and it hit me what a vast distance I had travelled. I had gone from the cold north all the way across the hottest part of the earth and continued around until I hit cold again. Just a little bit longer and I would have  gone from pole to pole.

There’s enough to do here if nature is what you seek

I went on thinking about Jules Vernes’ legendary book, Around the World in 80 Days, and how it’s now possible in less than 2. The engineer in me was impressed, the adventurer in me felt lucky.

Another thing I noticed was the people. In Buenos Aires it was busy with business men and women in suits, tourists wearing sneakers and ladies wearing high heels. When I touched down in Ushuaia there was none of that. Here, you didn’t see a lot of locals, the main language you heard in the halls was English and the sneakers and high heels had been switched for trekking boots.

It was clear that this city was a tourist town and that many adventures and expeditions started here. To the north and west you have Patagonia, a sparsely touched and very remote part of the world. A heaven for bird watchers and trekkers alike. To the south you have the 7th continent and it’s pristine winter wonderland.

There’s enough to do here if nature is what you seek!

As I walked out of the airport I noticed something very odd. Something very peculiar that I had never seen before; A line for the taxis!

I would rather wait 10 minutes for a taxi any day, than being asked if I want a taxi a hundred times before I’m even out of the airport.

Yes, that’s right. I long line of about 50 people waiting to get a taxi ride. I have never seen this before. Coming from Central America where there are literally hundreds of both official and un-official taxi drivers waiting for you when you come out this was a refreshing change of pace. I would rather wait 10 minutes for a taxi any day, than being asked if I want a taxi a hundred times before I’m even out of the airport.

So I grabbed a taxi, shared it with 3 other tourists and off I went.

When I arrived at the hotel I knew that I would fall asleep instantly if I stuck around for too long, so I made a point of just dropping my bags and then hurrying out before getting too comfortable.

When I walked around town I noticed something strange again. I felt dizzy and confused. I felt fresh but tired at the same time. I noticed that when I had to do something that involved cognitive activity I was at 25% at most. I also noticed that my balance was somewhat off.

I got myself a burger and a Beagle, a local craft beer, walked around for 1½ hour and went back to the hotel. I instantly fell asleep and slept for 11 hours until I woke up next morning at 7am. And with that my first day in Argentina was over.

Although I’ve travelled more than most I’m happy that I can still have new experiences and new feelings. There is always something more to do and something more to see.

This is also the first time in South America and soon I’ll be on Antarctica. That’s 2 continents I’ve never been to before on the same trip and within 2 days.

Let the exploring begin!

clear skies over Ushuaia
Clear skies over Ushuaia, Argentina. The trip is off to a good start