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Perils of Polly: Swimming with Magellanic penguins

Posted: March 30, 2012 - 8:57am
Polly Crawford
Magellanic penguins sound like donkeys, so they’re called “jackass” penguins. They don’t live in ice and snow!

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

Argentina is long. Very long. Miles and miles of paved highway on flat land. First the land was covered with crops and cattle. Then it degenerated into semi-arid scrubland. But every single mile along Route 3 was fenced -- with expensive fencing.

Despite the monotony of driving, today was a day for excitement, for we were to see our first penguins. That was one of the main reasons for coming to Argentina. We left the pavement and crawled along a dusty, gravel road around the Peninsula Valdes. We got our first glimpse of guanacos, a llama-type creature which lives throughout Patagonia, and rheas or nandus, which are speedy, ostrich-type flightless birds. Then we ventured down a tiny dirt track which widened into a cliff top where we could look down and see hundreds of elephant seals basking on the beach. Down the road a bit further, we saw a burrowing owl. We were pretty pumped.

Finally we followed the signs to the Magellanic penguins. We thought we would have to view them from a distance, but to our surprise, they were hanging out right at the pull out -- babies and adults. Plus there were a lot at the gravel beach walking, standing, and swimming. How fun to watch these black and white creatures with their stiff-legged waddle! We had really scored in wildlife viewing today.

We dragged ourselves away from the Valdes Peninsula by midafternoon and began thinking about a campsite. Saturday night. We're at the coast. It's going to be full.

We drove to Playa Union anyway. There was really no place else. After being turned down at two campgrounds, I got into beg mode. I pleaded with the manager at the third campground. She must have felt sorry for me, as she finally led me back into the campground and found a tiny spot between the garbage, the road, another camper, and a fire pit.

"I'll take it!" I gushed in Spanish. We carefully parked, paid our $25, and I looked around at the crowded quarters with people everywhere and announced, "I'm setting up the tent." I needed more privacy. Squirming into a swimsuit lying down on a tight bed in a hot, stuffy, van just didn't thrill me when there was an option.

This was our first set up, but it turned out to be easy enough. The tent was up within 10 minutes, attached to the back of the van. It greatly expanded our living area, and we could open the back doors of the van into the tent, giving us, literally, breathing room. Gone was the hot, stale air of the closed-up van.

The beach was a bit crowded and Sue exuberantly proclaimed how awful crowded beaches were and she wouldn't stick one toe into the water. I shrugged. I'd been on beaches more crowded than this. I was hot and sweaty and bounded into the cool Atlantic waters. It wasn't really cold -- just cool enough to be refreshing. The waves were perfect for playing and I marveled that I was actually swimming in waters south of the penguins! It squelched the notion that penguins only live in cold climates!

I finally gave up the ocean, we walked around, got some pastries, and headed back to the campground. Showers were the next order of business, and Sue came back totally disgusted. "Showers are only open from 8 to 10 p.m. and there're 30 people in line! Forget it!"

She proceeded to wash up in a bucket. I, however, was coated in saltwater. I got my shower gear and went to wait in line. It turned out the showers hadn't even opened yet. Finally, about 8:15 it opened, with a "guard" only allowing women in as there was space, since there were about six shower stalls. My total wait was probably 45 minutes, but that shower -- even with lukewarm water -- felt awfully good! I figured I wasn't doing anything else, anyway.

We found most of the campgrounds had showers open only for a limited time, with the excuse that there was a water shortage. But once again, these same campgrounds had leaking toilets and faucets -- go figure.

The showers were only one problem with camping in a crowded campground. It was the weekend, and the Argentines were here to party. And they know how to party -- at least how to make noise! The loud music, laughing, yelling, barking dogs, crying children went on all night long. Even my earplugs had trouble muffling it. When we finally rousted ourselves out of bed at 6 a.m., it was still noisy. I guess they sleep during the week!

Check back next week for the next installment of Polly's perils.

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