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Penguin Distraction: Punta Tombo to Dos Bahias

I started this blog post writing about penguins. And eventually it will be about penguins. I have gone back and forth on writing about this here. But this week I woke to news so disheartening, so...disturbing, I have to deal with the emotions that are clouding my days now as we sit in one of the most remote places on earth. I woke to the news of the election, and as if I were a watching some “end of the world” movie - the evil villain had actually won. I don't recognize the country I left two years ago. Violence, overt sexism, mocking the handicapped, hatred for another person's religion and race - these are not the values of a great nation. We have been living in countries, amongst the most generous and kind people, where the same promises were made to their working class by similar demagogues to disastrous results. For most of my career, including 10 years in politics, I championed the causes of vulnerable populations. Principals of civil rights, human rights, women's rights, the right to clean air and water, have been the pillars of our democratic institutions and are the reason our country is so great - yes, already great. After rolling slowly through 17 countries, I know that for a fact.

We hit our 2-year mark on the road this week and if there is one thing we have learned, one thing that has transformed us the most, it is that judgement of others and creating walls is no way to live. We are all incredibly lucky to live in the United States. In a tiny grocery store in Colombia, an elderly man approached me and asked if I was American. When I said yes, he asked earnestly if it was all a joke - was this Trump person real? In Ecuador, gas station attendants asked us to explain (in Spanish) what the hell was going on with the “Clown” - their words. In Buenos Aires, a casual chat at the bar turned into a “we don’t get it either” conversation. These conversations came up for us in country after country this last year. People living on $2 a day. People who believe Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) is the provider of life-sustaining gifts only to see it destroyed. The world is watching. Maybe after all they’ve been through, they thought we knew better.

We have begun preparations for our return home. Last week I felt anticipation and hopefulness for our future life in the States. I honestly don’t know what I feel now. I know I feel frivolous and trite writing about penguins. But I will. Because we still have 3 more months of reprieve before we have to face the ugliness from this election. The photos below are from a beautiful remote place, protected and serene. Today they provide me with a distraction from how I feel right now.

So (sorry for the rough transition)...back to penguins.

We headed south from Peninsula Valdes toward the Punta Tumbo Protected Area and Dos Bahias. Two separate colonies of penguins about 2 hours drive along the Atlantic coast. The penguins go there to nest and have their chicks.

We got to Punta Tumbo as the clouds were starting to close in and rain was threatening. I was starting to think I wouldn’t get to see a penguin without rain, but as we made our way to the catwalks the rain held off. This penguin colony has over 250,000 mating pairs of Magellanic penguins. That's half a million little waddling tuxedo clad birds. It is South America's largest penguin nesting ground. Armed with binoculars and long camera lenses, we set out. Then at the entrance we were we told we have to give them the right of way and stay at least one meter for them. One meter? The first turn on the catwalk had a penguin crossing our paths so I put the binoculars away. It was a little thrilling how close we could get, but more thrilling was the sheer number of them. As far as the eye could see, penguins were covering the hillsides. They were all so busy. Even though they were building nests, walking back and forth to the water to fish, doing their little mating dance and calling, they seemed unfazed by our presence. Occasionally one would saunter up, cock back it's head sideway, and take us in with one curious eye.

These huge nesting colonies occur only during the breeding season along the coast of Argentina. The penguins begin arriving and mate in September, the egg laying begins in October. The chicks hatch in November. By March they are gone and back in the water.

The male reclaims his burrow from the previous year and waits to reconnect with his female partner.

Magellanic penguins are monogamous. The penguins have the same mates for their whole lives. ​

So imagine this. You are in a huge crowd. There are 500,000 people all standing very close to each other. You are searching for your mate. You know she is somewhere in this huge crowd. You start to look at all the faces around you. They all look the same. You call her name. Again and again. Then she hears you!

This is the way they find each other again or call for a new mate if theirs has died. They sound like a donkey. The females are able to recognize their mates through their call alone. Kind of amazing.

The species is classified as threatened, primarily due to the vulnerability of oil spills, which kill 20,000 adults and 22,000 juveniles every year off the coast of Argentina. Climate change has displaced fish populations, so the penguins must swim an extra 40 km (25 miles) further from the nest for fish. While the penguins are swimming an extra 80 km (50 miles), their mates are sitting on a nest and starving.

We left Punta Tombo and headed to our overnight spot about 55 km down a gravel road to an abandoned sheep ranch. After we set up camp, we walked along the water and had our sundowners at the ranch's small 1800's cemetery. Happy hour is often a surprise on the road. Sometimes great, sometimes awful - always interesting.

Gregor said, "Look Janice, I finally got a spine." Typical Gregor humour...

John doesn't really love the early morning planning sessions. Can you tell?

In the morning we hit the road for our next penguin colony in Dos Bahias. The rain was starting again and as we turned onto the road, we slid a little, then slid some more. Under what appeared to be gravel was a muddy clay surface as slippery as ice. John put us in 4 wheel drive and for the next 80 km we spit mud up into the air and slipped all over the road. We had to be a careful not to slide too far because drainage ditches on either side could tip us if a wheel went in. It was like driving on a slip & slide. Gregor took the lead because he needed the momentum to get up the hills and we had to take it slow so we didn't spin out. It was a tense 2 hours.

The road started out ok, but quickly turned to mud and clay with the rain. I read the guidebook while we were driving - and it told me these roads are impassible when it rains. Probably should have checked that before we left.

Taking a break to let the shoulders relax...and compare mud.

Our tires were basically bald with all the clay/mud on them.

Once we got to the tiny town of Camarones, the road stabilized. We got gas, loaded up on some fish empanadas, and set out to look for a camp spot close to the park entrance.

Best fish empandas in the tiny town of Camarones.

We found beautiful wild camping along the water, and again had a happy hour with a killer view. The next morning were up early and the first ones in the park. Without anyone else around, enjoyed our penguin time all alone for hours.

No one here first thing in the morning. We camped about 3 miles from here.

Water proof feathers keep them warm in the freezing waters.

A little penguin privacy, please...!

Mama and Papa

Ok, ok, enough penguins. But if you want to see them in action, hear their donkey calls, and just enjoy how damn cute they are waddling around like little's a 90 second video with more:

After a few hours we climbed back in our rigs to explore more of the park. The area around the two bays (Dos Bahias) is home to guanacos, condors, foxes and wild rabbits. Rocky cliffs overlooking a cobalt blue ocean. It's really a beautiful place.

Wild guanacos were hanging out by the water. They are so funny - part camel, part deer, part...kangaroo? Scared, but curious.

Guanacos on da roof!

We headed back and camped in our same spot, tucking in close to each other to provide a wind break for a BBQ. After a delicious meal cooked on the fire, it was clean up time and then bed. We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean, and although we had a cold night and the wind shook us awake a few times, it was a splendid spot.

Well, hello there fellow camper!

Happy. Hour.

We positioned the rigs to block the wind and then Janice and I set about building a wind break for the fire. It was Andy Goldsworthy worthy.

We didn't expect it, but this Atlantic coast has given us some of our best wild camping yet. Next up, we finally hit Patagonia in Chile. This part of the world feels very "far away from it all".

Right now that's a good thing.

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