Following Oceanwide Expeditions’ cancellation of our Hondius trip to Antarctica – and, of course, the surreal mixture of disappointment and relief that went with it – we decided not to cancel our flight to Ushuaia. We had, after all, packed for colder weather and, in the southernmost city in the world, temperatures would at least allow us to make use of a fleece top and jacket, in contrast to the 40-plus degrees we were suffering in Buenos Aires. It turned out to be the best decision we could possibly make.
My initial thought when the trip was cancelled was to text home and alert everyone – family, work – to our early return. But that was soon pushed aside. We had the guts of three weeks left of our honeymoon and the thought of returning to Ireland and work and the January blues did not appeal to us. But, with so much time on our hands, the world was our playground and so we decided to head south to Ushuaia anyway and figure out a plan from there.
We made the right decision. We’ve always loved the beautiful little cities of Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Ushuaia reminded us of those. From the moment we met our transport at the airport, we felt at home. The stiff breeze and cool temperatures helped with that, as did the snow-topped mountains behind the city.
Ushuaia is a lot like Galway in some ways. Cities in Ireland are, in comparison to the major city destinations around the globe, quite small – but with buckets of character. Ushuaia’s colourful buildings – none of which are more than a few storeys high – wide open spaces and both sea and mountain views make it a city well worth visiting, even if you’re not en-route to Antarctica.
With each passing moment, the relief we’re feeling slowly eats away at the disappointment until all that remains is that overwhelming feeling that we dodged a bullet. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Antarctica Travel Group on Facebook, where I’ve been reading more and more horror stories about tours turning around or passengers in quarantine.
Yesterday, we went on a ‘Walk with Penguins’ tour to Isla Martillo – more on that in a later post – and we met two pilots from California. They informed us they had flown a private jet down here with a number of passengers who embarked on an expedition to Antarctica a week or so prior to our discussion. Unfortunately, some of those passengers had since tested positive for Covid-19 and were in quarantine on board the ship, their trip of a lifetime ruined by a virus that gave them mild symptoms, if any at all.
What proved to be more difficult for this tour group was the fact that the US requires a negative antigen test in order to re-enter the States. These two pilots were, therefore, in a difficult position. To wait for those who tested positive to be out of quarantine would delay the entire tour, more than likely causing disruption to the schedules of all passengers who had already taken so much time out for their trip. The alternative was to leave without those who tested positive on the ship but, with antigen tests needing to be carried out again before departure, what were the chances of even more passengers testing positive?
This is just one story we’ve heard while on the ground in Ushuaia. Every day so far we have looked out to see our ship, the Hondius, at port or anchored in the bay. We’ve since learned that the ships at port are embarking for Antarctica as planned – hopefully Covid-free and successfully. Meanwhile, the ships anchored in the bay have passengers quarantining on board.
While we were aware that Oceanwide Expeditions had cancelled the remainder of the 2021/2022 Antarctic season, it wasn’t until Tuesday that we received our official confirmation that we would not be travelling south as planned, owing to the increasing numbers of Covid infections in Argentina, in Ushuaia and onboard the ship due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Passengers testing positive – and their cabin mates, whether they tested positive or not – have been forced to quarantine in their cabins, as have all those who have come into contact with a positive case, whether at mealtimes or elsewhere. The safety of the crew has also been of major concern to many tour companies, along with the fact that each tour embarks on the same day the previous tour disembarks.
Oceanwide, of course, have taken every precaution to ensure a worthwhile trip for all those who have embarked in recent weeks, with initial voyages on the Hondius and the Plancius this season proving “manageable”. But under the current circumstances, the company has made the responsible decision to postpone all remaining voyages of the season with the Hondius and Plancius for the comfort and safety of crew, staff and passengers.
We’ve been planning this trip for three years, with an original date of late February 2021 in our diaries. That trip was cancelled in August 2020 when all tour companies revealed the 2020/2021 season would not be going ahead. Following this latest news, our trip has been rebooked on the Hondius for late January next year.
We’re facing another year-long wait but, with Omicron spreading fast, perhaps 2022 will be the year we finally free ourselves from the steely grip of this relentless pandemic.