Could This Be Paradise? Or, 'Home, Home on the Range...'
We began our journey to see the Elephant Seals at 7:30am. Marta met us at Bahia Nueva, our hotel, along with our driver, Ignacio, and began our drive to Peninsula Valdez. We stopped at the Puerto Piramides Visitor's Center, where Marta explained showed us the many charts of flora and fauna we would see on the Peninsula. All the creatures are adaptable to the steppe environment, which is very similar to Texas. Dry, windy flat land, a few scrub brushes, days without rain; all suggest a 'home on the range' environment. So, Piche, (hairy armadillos), Zorro Gris, (grey fox), Guanaco, (similar to llamas and drink salt water), Maras , (a funny hare that looks and runs like a small deer), and Choique (Darwin's Rhea or Ostrich) all find their home here. Most of them burrow in the ground or a cliff-side for safety at night.
I noticed during a quick 'banos' stop, that a sign in the stall made it clear that we were to put our toilet paper in the toilet bowl. No big deal, you say? In Colombia and Argentina, we are required to put our TP after use in a garbage can, since the septic system cannot handle the paper. In some cases, there IS no paper. I have since learned to carry my own in a pocket.
Near the gift shop, was what appeared to be a water heater, painted red with a logo. I discovered that this was a 'mate' station where the locals could fill their thermos with water that is exactly 80 degrees C or 177 degrees F...just below the boiling point so as not to burn the tea leaves.
There is a certain protocol for preparing the yerba (pronounced 'zher-ba') mate. Not only does the water need to be a set temperature, but the leaves must fill about 2/3 of the small gourd, then, with your hand over the top, shaken back and forth, so the dust sticks to your palm. It is then blown from the palm, the cup tipped on it's side, and a well dug to one side with your finger. The water is slowly trickled into the well, until it reaches half way up. This is the time you place your bobilla (pronounced 'bom-BEE-zha') gently into the well, so as not to disturb the leaves. From this point, you are NEVER to stir the bombilla (strainer spoon) in the cup...bad manners...nor are you to slurp!
We arrived at the point where the sea lions lived, near the ocean, on a rocky outcropping of land. They made a loud hoarse braying sound, almost constantly. Thankfully, we were not up close, because they stink! We observed them from a high cliff as they basked in the sun. A few males, who had the typical 'mane' had their heads and necks raised to the sky. Occasionally, we would see two of them fighting. Not long after we arrived, Marta pointed out an area on the rock with a red stain. We were thrilled to discover a female who had just given birth to a baby. The placenta was still attached, but, because of the distance, could not take a close up. What a privilege it was to witness this event!
Did you know that the animal we see in the circus playing with a ball and clapping its hands is NOT a seal but a sea lion? An elephant seal is a true seal, because it's body undulates as it moves forward. A sea lion uses its flippers like hands to move forward. Interesting...
We then drove to Estancia La Elvira (think: Ranch) near Caleta Valdes where there was a reserve and nature path. We walked along the shore, where we read numerous signs about the flora and fauna. Plants with prickly leaves, well-suited for the environment were found in abundance, along with the occasional tiny lizard which crossed our path. One fascinating but macabre insect was a large wasp with a 3 inch black body, 5 inch wingspan, and striking reddish-orange wings. It's habit is to sting and paralyze a tarantula, drag it to its underground habitat, lay an egg in the abdomen of the the tarantula, where the larva feeds when it hatches. Remember that the sting only paralyzed the tarantula, and not kills it, so the young wasp has plenty of 'fresh' food to eat. So, the larva literally eats the body of the tarantula as it dies a slow death. Marta agreed that even though she and I hate spiders, they don't deserve this fate!
After a quick trip to a lighthouse where we overlook a beautiful coastline where elephant seals were basking (they look like beached whales), we headed to the Estancia Rincon Chico or 'Little Corner' Ranch, called such because it is located in the SE corner of Peninsula Valdez. Augustin and Maria are fifth generation Argentines originating from the Basque region of Spain (near France). This thirty something couple owns and runs the 14,000 acre Estancia or Ranch that houses up to 16 people comfortably. The wide open spaces, fresh air and solitude (they are five miles from the road) was most welcomed and enjoyed. We felt our bodies relax and our spirits rise as we were greeted at the door by the owners. After a fond farewell to Marta, and the arrangement with Ignacio of a return trip tomorrow to the aeropuerta, we sat down to Maria's homemade meal in a spacious sunlit dining room. The hall and living room were filled with old family photos, fossils found on the property, and many cultural artifacts and weapons.
Of interest were the ancient boleadora balls made of stone that the gauchos of the past used to knock down or kill various animals. It looks like a sling with three ropes, each having a ball at the end. Evidently, one is used to hit the head, two to wrap around the neck, and three to wrap around the legs of an animal to trip it.
The meal was first rate...we figured Maria attended cooking school, and we were right! We soon settled down for an hours rest, before Augustin arrived with his jeep to take us down to the beach (still his property) to get a closeup look at the elephant seals. It took a good 20 minutes to drive to the location where we would get out and walk. Augustin opened and closed three gates on the way there. On foot, we walked for a good 30 minutes down to the beach where six or seven elephant seals lay in the sun to molt. Two were seen bobbing in the water. The seals do not eat while here, only molt. Their home is farther afield, in the ocean where they find shrimp to eat.
We were tickled to be only a few yards from them at one point. Augustin warned us to 'lay low' so the seals did not feel threatened. Four were laying in a pile on top of each other, evidently to rub off their old layer of skin. I was able to get some amazing shots of the creatures. At certain angles, they were actually cute! Sideways, one could see the males ugly elephant nose.
We were told that whales, dolphins and sea lions have separate brain hemispheres for sleep and awake time. So, when they are in the ocean, they can actually have a rest and be awake at all times. You can tell which side of the brain is awake by locating the nostril that is flaring.
Returning to the car, Augustin gave us more info about his Estancia. He and Maria own 14,000 acres of land, divided into 10 pastures, or areas, each holding a different age bracket of sheep. One held one year olds, another, two year olds, a third, adolescents, another, males, and still another, ewes with their young. They raise Merino sheep for wool, and the going rate for the wool depends on the market year in Australia, which is the standard. An interesting note: Benetton, the woolen store, owns 2 1/2 million acres in Patagonia for their sheep!
After the ride home, we had about an hour to freshen up, connect to the Internet, and charge our batteries. The estancia runs on a generator which is usually turned on from 7:30pm to 10pm. No worries, I said...I was used to that in New Guinea!
The dinner of chicken, squash and potatoes was scrumptious, and when the meal was over (Argentines eat late), it was time to turn in to the cosy bed prepared for us. What a blessing this 20 hour stay has been for us. A bit of Paradise discovered on the Patagonian steppe!