Nomades del Mar

To explore, to investigate, to wander – from the latin explorare, which means “search out”. The subject has been captivating science for decades, with researchers trying to seek its motivations. Why do we explore? Why do we surmount our fears and wander beyond the boundaries of safety? Do we explore by curiosity? By necessity? Is it driven by boredom?  What motivates all of us Explorers to seek adventure in chartered and unchartered territories?  It was discovered that mice with damaged cerebellums exhibit low levels of interest in exploring their surrounding, suggesting that the brain plays an important part in our motivation to explore. Is it then biological? Since 1990, we have come to agree that it is part of our inherent ability to survive. Exploration is now viewed in evolutionary terms, as a combination of motivations, leading to a strategy of survival – locating food, avoiding predators and stimulating learning.

Ever since I was a young boy, I have always been drawn to the unknown. I have always looked at the fence in the backyard as an invitation to seek new experiences. When I was 17, I left home and hitchhiked across Canada. I threw my compass away, and never looked back. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ”A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” After 17 years of traveling, I still live by his words and my desire for exploration is stronger than ever.  As Humans, as Individuals, as Explorers, are we defined by the places we have been, or by the places we are going?

We had been driving for almost 3 hours when we left Ruta 3, the National Road, and took the Provincial Road 30, direction east. Driving south from Puerto Madryn, the landscape was borderline hypnotic. Endless flat plains, or as Darwin described it in 1833: “…the view is generally bounded by the escarpment of another plain, rather higher, but equally level and desolate; and in every direction the horizon is indistinct from the trembling mirage which seems to rise from the heated surface.” The change of scenery was much welcomed, and for the next 70 km, the road sinuously took us closer to our departure point. From the pebble beach in Camarones and for the next 12 days, we were to kayak to Comodoro, a 300 km journey.

Camarones is a village by the ocean rich in history. In 1545, Don Simon de Alcazaba y Sotomayor, a Portuguese sailor under the command of Charles I of Spain, was the first to anchor in the bay. Following the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain had sent Alcazaba to access the new territory. Camarones, which is a word for shrimp in Spanish, was declared part of Provincia de Nueva León. During the heyday of the wool industry, the village was known for the quality of its wool and soon became an important port. Don Mario Tomás Perón, who owned two nearby estancias (ranch), Porvenir and Maciega, would also bring the small location international visibility. His son, Juan, became President of Argentina in 1946. His second wife was Eva, also known as Evita. The estancia Maciega is now restored and is a museum.

Along with Pablo and Sofia from Patagonia Explorers, Sandro and Eloise were joining the expedition. Together, the four of them form the group called Nomades del Mar. Since 2004, they have been paddling with the objective to explore the entire coast of the Chubut Province. This trip will complete their first mission and will set the stage for their next goal – continue to Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. Nomades del Mar is more than a simple name. It stands for a set of values that all four members carry in their paddling and lives. Nomades are known in human history to have the most sustainable lifestyle: following the seasons and being in harmony with Nature. Kayak is for the group, the best way to learn and respect the environment, wildlife and history and to share them with friends. As Pablo said to me: “Nomades del  Mar perfectly sums up our feelings and emotions about Nature and describes best our way of living.”

By 2h45pm, we had finished loading our kayaks with food and equipment. Each of us were carrying 20 liters of water. I had all the dinners onboard my kayak, Pablo and Sandro would carry the lunches plus cooking gear, and Sofia and Eloise had the breakfasts and lunches. We would only need to replenish our water supply once in Bahia Bustamante. The weather forecast was generally good for the next 4 days. After that, we would use the satellite phone to call and get updates. After a quick lunch and a final check, we pushed ourselves on the water and headed to Isla Blanca, our first point of interest. The sky was clear, not one cloud, a light breeze, this was a great way to start our adventure.

In 1880, a steamship called Villarino was commissioned by the Government of Argentina. Her inaugural trip was to bring the remains of General San Martin, liberator of Argentina, whom had taken residence in France, back to be interred in Buenos Aires. After her delivery, she began a career in transporting goods along the coast of Patagonia. On March 16 th 1899, after 19 years of service and 101 trips to the south, Villarino sunk on the reefs of Isla Blanca during a stormy night, it was her 202 nd visit to Camarones. While her wreck lies at the bottom, (though her prop is on display by the beach in Puerto Madryn) the rocky island thrives with life. As we got closer to the reef, Antarctic Skuas began to fly over our heads. Skuas are known for being pretty territorial, flying extremely close to anyone venturing on their turf. With one just a couple of feet over my shoulder, I suddenly remembered the images of Sir David Attenborough, reporting on penguins, Skuas harassing him – although those ones were just investigating. Isla Blanca is populated with various marine bird colonies and Sea Lion colonies. On the rocks, groups of Dolphin Gulls, Rock and Imperial Cormorants, and Oyster-catchers:  Magellanic, Common and Blackish, each owning its little piece of rocky real estate.  In the water, inquisitive eyes with long whiskers popping up and disappearing keeping tab on our whereabouts. After rounding the island, we paddled away, heading to our first night stop. We settled in a little bay, not too far south from Camarones. After dinner, although some of us wanted to sleep outside, we had to forfeit our wish and raise the tents. With 92% humidity and 13 degree celsius, it was going to be a wet night.

I woke up as the light started to fill the sky. Out of my sleeping bag and into my warm jacket, I got out of the tent and marveled at the beauty of how this day was starting. On the horizon, a thick pink line was stretching from north to south. In the bay, on the water, a large group of Crested Ducks looked like japanese Kage-e (shadow pictures from the Edo period) floating on a dark blue metallic liquid. In the sky, the absence of clouds created a giant blue gradient, starting with a hint of red and ending with a deep black. While the others woke up, Pablo put the kettle on the stove, it was time for breakfast with mate.

Mate is for Argentina, what coffee is for France or Italy and tea for England – beside being the national beverage, it is a sacred ritual. You drink it in the morning and in the afternoon. The leaves of Yerba, a species of holly, native to South America, are poured loose in a calabash gourd. Once the leaves have steeped in warm water (it is important that the water is not boiling), the tea is drank with a Bombilla, a metallic straw. According to the Guarani legend, when the Goddesses of the Moon and of Clouds came to Earth, an old man saved them from the attack of a Yaguarete (jaguar). To reward the brave soul, the Goddesses gave the man a new plant from which could be prepared a drink of friendship. Mate was born.

Our second night stop – a little pebble beach nestled between small cliffs, protected from the wind, finally allowed us to enjoy the warmth of the sun and within minutes, everything felt like a hot summer day. We braved the cold water of the Atlantic and all went for a swim. While some could only manage a quick dip, others, myself included, stayed in and took the occasion to gather mussels and lapas. Fresh from the sea, with garlic and butter, followed by Argentinean beef grilled over fire, dinner was exquisite. That night, I stayed late and sat by the fire and watched the flames dance against the rock. For a moment, it all felt like a scene from a John Wayne western. With some imagination, I could hear the coyotes over the hills and the harmonica playing “”Rio Bravo”.

Isla Leones (Lions) was our next destination. Originally named Isla Barela, after its discovery by Don Diego Barela sometime between 1745 and 1746, the island was renamed Leones. Captain Tafor, from the ship “San Sebastian” decided that the name was better suited due to the constant barking from the high number of sea lions found on the island. After the sinking of “Villarino”, it was decided to build lighthouses along the coast to ensure safe navigation. In 1916, the crew of the ARA Mackinlay began construction of the lighthouse. Its light lit for the first time one year later. In 1968, the “faro” was shut down and replaced by the San Gregorio Lighthouse. Located on the main land, consequently much easier to maintain, its light still guides navigators today.

As our kayaks landed on the beach of Caleta (inlet) John Woddal, on the north side of Leones, an armadillo was seen walking through the remains of old machinery used when the island was occupied. On the water, a curious event was taking place. A large group of cormorants was swimming in a tight circle while another large group of Kelp Gulls, surrounding them, was squeaking. It seems that the birds were in a territorial dispute – one wanting to intimidate the other. It almost looked like a choreographed ballet. In fact, I started to laugh at the resemblance to Michael Jackson’s video “Beat It”.

After visiting the “faro”, we got back in our kayaks and paddled around the point, to Bay of the French, located on the south side of the island. The place was simply an eden filled with marine birds and sea lions. In front of me, a giant petrel was preening herself, spreading her huge wings wide open and looking at me with a mean look.  A crested duck closely swam by and puffed his feathers, sending an arch of water droplets over him. In the water two male sea lions in my wake, playing hide and seek. On the shore, snowy sheath-bills, egrets, and gulls and oyster-catchers cracking mussels open.  A colony of penguins going up the beach, their little bodies, in tuxedo costumes, lumbering side to side in unison. Every thirty meters, a steamer duck couple swimming, their heads low, giving them a stealthy look. Chubut Steamer ducks, native to the area and are known for their unique and entertaining way of escaping. This flightless species of waterfowl uses its wings like propellers, producing a lot of noise and making them look like old steamboats. That evening, shortly after going out for a swim, a group of Peal’s dolphins passed in front of our campsite chasing bait fish, trailing a flock of birds hoping to get any leftovers.

Our next stop, and campsite for the day was Isla Valdez. The small island is famous for its rabbits, brought by early European settlers. With the absence of predators, the rabbits now rule the land. The terrain is fairly similar to the one found in Provence, France, home to the culinary delicacy “Lapin de Garrigue”, a rabbit with a particular strong herby taste. We didn’t have anything to go hunting with, but we decided to try our luck anyhow.  Hunter-gatherer was a way of living for millions of years, prior to the practice of agriculture. There is actually a deeper level of connection, understanding, and respect of Nature when you harvest from the wild. You take part in an act that has been practiced daily, by all living creatures on Earth since the dawn of Life.  You understand the value of food. You understand what it takes to get it – lots of patience and great skills. It is not done for sport or fun, but to feed yourself. Rabbits are no easy catch. When facing danger, they will react in two ways. They will run as soon as they see you, in which case a little furry ball with long ears and a white fluffy tail will be seen darting behind rocks. Or they will stay still and hope to be missed. Their fur blends incredibly well with the landscape, and on more than one occasion, I almost stepped on one, before it sprinted with a giant leap inches from my feet and scaring the heck out of me. Our hunt was a big failure. Not only did we not come back with any rabbit, but we did not even got close. Our lack of technique was by far outmatched by their capacity to escape.

Isla Valdez was fascinating in another way. Beside the rabbits, it was the Land of the Small Creatures. At all the other locations we had been, the usual bird of prey was the Caracara, but here, it was the much smaller American Kestrel. Close to our base camp was an ant nest of a size I had never seen in my life. The anthill was at least 50 cm high. While walking the hills, I stumbled on the legendary Tarantula Hawk (black wasp with red wings, up to 5 cm long) carrying a small numbed tarantula into its burrow.  I had seen them on several occasions on the Peninsula Valdez, but witnessing one after successfully catching a spider was a first.  Finally, the next morning, I discovered that a small scorpion had taken refuge under my tent. It was another first for me. I had never seen a live scorpion in the wild.

On the morning of day 8 th, we arrived at Bahia Bustamante. In 1953, Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-son, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination. The place has an amazing bio-diversity and is surrounded by 25 000 acres of pure Patagonian nature.  You can visit the Petrified Forest, where old tree trunks have transformed into glowing opal rock. Or horseback ride to the nearest estancia and become a rancher for one day, where you will tend to the famous Patagonia Cordero (lamb), known for its great wool, lean meat and unforgettable taste. If you are an avid bird watcher, then the Peninsula Gravina is your destination where you will find 21 breeding colonies of several marine and coastal birds. If you are lucky, you might enjoy the dolphins and orcas that often swim the bay.

The landscape, up until Peninsula Gravignia, was a combination of cliffs, beaches, hills and rocky islands. But passing Cabo Aristizabal, into Bahia Solano in Golfo San Jorge, was like stepping into a new world. It felt different. It looked different. It sounded different. We were now paddling in a big swell, uninterrupted, from the Atlantic, bringing along cold air from the Antarctic. On the shore, endless steep beaches, the waves rolling on the pebbles with loud roars. It felt strange. It felt like another planet. Even the sheep were different. They were black. With a large colony of sea gulls every 200 meters, it was like the same piece of scenery was repeated over and over, for miles and miles. We went from spending our time exploring, to paddling as long as we could to cover as much distance as we could. Constant 20 knots headwind forced me to raised the hood of my Kokatat jacket and put my Tropo mitts on. Stopping for break or lunch, became an adventure in its own. The shore had a 45 degree angle, and to get on, one had to combine speed, timing, and agility. You had to ride the highest wave to land as high as possible, then get out as quick possible and pull your kayak up to safe ground before the crush of the following wave. A situation that would flood the cockpit and send you rolling. To add to the difficulty, the pebbles acted like rollers, and every time a step was made, your feet would slide down one pace before stopping. Getting back in the water was a total different experience. This time, it was play time. You simply sat in your kayak and slid down onto the water. The trick here again, was timing. You had to make sure to land just before the wave retreated. If not, then the nose of your kayak would enter at the bottom of the crest and you would get the full weight of the wave on your torso. And a mouthful of salt water!

Places to stop were few and far in between. For the first time since the beginning of our trip, that evening everyone was tired – physically and mentally. Our campsite was exposed and the wind kept blowing strong from the land, bringing with it shovels of sand. Everything was crunchy, our food, our drinks. Sand was getting everywhere. That night, I buried myself in my sleeping bag, only a tiny hole over my mouth to breathe. The tent was being hammered by the wind. The sand blasting the fabric. I felt like George Clooney on the set of the Perfect Storm. A huge fan set to maximum, a prop guy next to it with a shovel, pouring sand at the Director’s cue – “More sand! More sand!” In the morning, we woke up covered in sand. Each of our tents had failed to stop the invasion of those tiny particles. We looked like dust covered mummies just awoken from an ancient sleep.

The forecast for the day was not good. It would be long and tiring, with not much ground covered, but is was manageable. We had 30 km left to do before arriving at our final destination. Considering the weather, it would take us 2 days. With wind still blowing strong from the land, I pushed my kayak and dug my Lendal paddle in the water. I took the lead, Sofia and Eloise where in the middle, and Pablo and Sandro closed the convoy.  My Kokatat hood up and jacket zipped all the way, only my sunglasses exposed, I was deep in my paddling. After 20 minutes, I looked over my shoulder and saw that Sofia and Eloise had landed their kayak on the beach. I looked ahead and accessed my position. The shore was made of cliffs with small canyons every 200 meters. In each canyon, the wind coming from the mountains was being funneled and unleashed over the water with great force. I had already begun crossing the mouth of one canyon and decided to finish it. I would stop after and wait for the others. I paddled another 15 minutes, and realized that the conditions were worsening quickly and escalating to a dangerous level. I had only covered 500 meters and the wind had pushed me offshore another 300. I would not be able to cross the mouth and decided to head to the beach right away. Gusts of wind were fierce and now I was far enough from the coast that the waves were getting bigger. I tried for about 15 minutes to turn the nose of my kayak into the wind. Every time I got close, a massive gust would bring me back to square one. And every second, every minute, the wind was taking me further away from the shore. I had to act quickly. I had to act before it would be too late. The thought of capsizing was far at the back of my mind. I could not allow myself such an event. Capsizing would mean my failure in handling the conditions and would seriously diminish my chances of coming out of this in one piece. I turned my Tiderace leeward and proceeded to turn. I crunched down, my full body leaning forward and to the left, putting my entire weight against the incoming waves and the constant push of the wind. I kept a firm grip on my paddle as the wind continuously tried to blow it away. Once the turn completed, I dug each stroke deep in the water and battled my way back. I could barely see where I was going. My glasses were crusted in salt. The thing I knew for sure was that I had to keep paddling, at any cost. I could not stop, not even for one second. Now turned, the wind would bring me back to shore. It would take a long time and I would certainly be far from the others, but I would make it. The night before we had passed some fisherman and I knew that if needed, I could ask them to bring me back. I landed 300 meters before where we had started that morning. Pablo was on the beach, jumping, his hands in the air. He was beyond happy. I, honestly, felt a sense of pride. I knew I had come close to something extremely dangerous, but I had mastered it. I had kept my senses and handled my way out safely. Pablo told me that they had called the Coast Guard. That is how bad it was. That afternoon, I walked up the hill and clocked the wind speed with my Brunton, at 95 km/h. I watched the ocean in fury. Gusts were flying over the water with such wrath, they look like white ghosts going to war. The only ones who were enjoying this moment, were the gulls, terns and petrels, who contrary to us, flew the air with such ease – it was amazing watching them.

We didn’t get to reach Comodoro. The weather forecast for the next 2 days was going to be the same and there was no point in risking our safety. And that is fine. Exploring is not only about reaching a destination, but also about experiencing a journey. Some destinations are not meant to be reached on the first time. They command respect by not giving themselves easily. Limits are meant to be pushed. Barriers exist to be broken and new worlds are waiting to be discovered. But an Explorer must know when to stop and humble himself in front of Nature. Exploring challenges our own human nature – it reminds us that nothing is static and nothing is finite. The world is in constant movement. Life is an endless source of exploration.  In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldin flew to the moon carrying the Explorers Club Flag. As they landed on the lunar soil, Armstrong was able to sum up in one small sentence the essence of exploration – “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *