Journey to the end of the world

Deep in Argentina, a quest for a Patagonian hunt goes unfulfilled

Argentina! A country that reminds most people of the lively city of Buenos Aires, its hot tango dancing scene and the spectacular Patagonian trekking route. For me, I think differently, I see it as the country where many rare and magnificent natural phenomena happen.

If you are a National Geographic channel fan, you might have already seen the striking scenes of a group of baby sea lions being attacked and preyed on by a family of orcas, at the edge of a remote beach. The scene starts with a powerful surge of the orcas tossing sea lion pups into the sky and letting them slam down to the ground, while tossing the remains of the poor creatures around. Sometimes, live pups are tossed around for fun of the young orcas learning hunting skills.

It is definitely cruel watching innocent animals being turned into dinner for another species, however, this kind of hunting behaviour is eye-catching, and I have never stopped dreaming of seeing it for myself.

The dramatic scene takes place at the remote coastal area of Patagonia, Peninsula Valdes. The area is well known among naturalists as the best spot to observe whales and orcas at close proximity. The place is also a habitat for colonies of sea lions, elephant seals and penguins. Since the observation seasons for each species vary differently around the year, a visit to Peninsula Valdes is definitely not enough for one to see the area's entire list of wildlife.

I decided to visit Peninsula Valdes during the famous orca hunt, during the southern hemisphere spring. I was told by several tour operators and online travellers that the chances of seeing the hunt were slim, while accommodation and travel costs are extremely high during this season.

Despite the warnings and costs, I travelled to the Peninsula Valdes from Bangkok via New York _ a journey which took approximately four days.

I spent only a day in Buenos Aires. Its beautiful colonial style buildings and streets, the friendly locals and the Argentinian steaks are great, but they did not tempt me away from my mission.

However, a trip to Argentina would not be perfect without a journey to "the end of the world", a small Argentinian town called Ushuaia, also known as the world's southernmost city.

Located about 150km from the famous Cape Horn, it is the starting point for many trips to Antarctica. The area offers a fantastic trek in a unique forest where the floor is covered with moss and ferns, and there is a famed scenic ferry tour at the bay of "the end of the world". At the end of the day, I was not lucky enough to observe the legendary orca hunt, but Peninsula Valdes still awarded me a great life experience.

Peninsula Valdes is known for the annual hunt of sea lion pups by orcas. The Peninsula is the first area in the world where scientists found such behaviour among animals, and have concluded that the Peninsula Valdes orcas have passed on these unique hunting skills for generations. Since the hunt is random and depends on the orcas and Mother Nature, there is no guarantee that visitors will observe it. Those who want to witness the hunt, should pick a day in March and spend all day at the ‘‘waiting spot’’, which is atop a sandy mountain in the area, and hope for the best. I waited for two days, then a group of orcas finally appeared, but not in hunting mode.

The plus side of not witnessing the orca hunt was being allowed to sit among hundreds, if not thousands, of penguins. In March, the chicks are ready to get into the water, while some were still shy and decided to stay on the ground, many had the courage to swim in the ocean. The beach of Peninsula Valdes was filled with their cheerful sounds. However, there was sadness along with the excitement, many of the chicks could not make it in the ocean and their bodies were found on the beach — the cycle of life.

In March each year, everyone in Peninsula Valdes does nothing except stare all day long at the ‘‘attack channel’’, which is where the orcas usually emerge to hunt for sea lion pups. Visitors will be taken to the top of a hill to wait for the hunt. There are many other wild animals at the waiting spot to look out for. I saw plenty of guanaco (a wild version of a llama) and a flock of rhea (the giant, flightless South American bird). Looking up into the blue sky, vultures and falcons can be found hunting all the time. Step down from the hill and you will spot armadillos.

Each year, hundreds of sea lion pups are preyed upon by orcas in the shallow waters of Peninsula Valdes. Watching these cute sea lion pups swimming cheerfully, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, these creatures are too cute to end up being dinner, while on the other hand, I spent almost three days on a plane and all of my savings to visit this spot, and I deserved to see something!

A sharp contrast from the hilly coast of Peninsula Valdes is Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego National Park, one of the most scenic national parks in the world. The area is covered with shady, sub-Antarctic forests with green ferns and moss flourishingly on the ground. While trekking, the view was stunning, with a beautiful bay and a snowy mountain in the background. Wildlife such as foxes and rabbits can be seen running around.

During my time in Peninsula Valdes, I rarely found vegetables on the dinner table and I blamed the remoteness that may have discouraged the hotel from stocking fresh vegetables. But when I left the area for other parts of Argentina and sat down for more meals, it became apparent that Argentinians are not big fans of vegetables. They are meat lovers. Argentinian is known for its meat and I had the best steak in Buenos Aires.

GETTING THERE WORLD

- Flying to Argentina from Bangkok is not easy. The flight to Buenos Aires could take around 50-60 hours, with at least 1-2 stops. So this might not be an ideal trip for children or the elderly.

- There are few daily flights from Buenos Aires to Trelew, which is the most convenient airport for Peninsula Valdes. The ride from Trelew to Peninsula Valdes takes about 4 hours. 

- The charming golden sunlight reflecting on the ocean and the magnificent Patagonian desert easily keeps one awake through the 4 hour drive.

About the author

Writer: Chak Cherdsatirkul