Somewhat illogically from a geographical perspective the route of the Grande Amburgo goes past Montevideo, through the wide bay that separates Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and up the river Paraná to Zarate, before returning to Montevideo where we will disembark.
We were already 6 days behind schedule due to the delays at Dakar, but when we reached the bay we were held back another day waiting at anchor for a pilot to come and take us up the river to Zarate. This is an 18 hour journey, under pilot the whole way. There turned out to be 2 or 3 pilots who took turns. One of them gave me his daughter’s phone number in Buenos Aires should we need anything when there.
While I enjoyed the ‘deep blue’ of the open sea immensely (we’ve been watching Blue Planet II) and it’s definitely been my favourite part of the trip, there was also something fairly mesmerizing about our slow paced amble up the narrow river, through wetlands and lush foliage, passing the odd ramshackle hut and a few massive haciendas. We overtook canoes and scruffy little row boats, and were in our turn overtaken by speedboats captained by shirtless and shoeless locals.
We spent the entire day of the approach up on deck, moving from the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires before breakfast through the Tigre delta and upriver to the eyesore that is Zarate port in the evening.
On the approach to Zarate we passed under a huge road bridge spanning the river – standing up on the top deck it felt like you could reach out and touch it – and docked alongside another huge RORO.
Zarate port is enormous, and there are thousands of brand new vehicles, arriving from upriver factories by boat and from closer ones by truck, being loaded onto massive ships like ours. Everything from little Vauxhall runarounds to enormous heavy farm machinery. The loading of the vehicles went on all evening of the first day, all of the second day and until midday of today, the third.
Yesterday we decided to go ashore, for once in a relaxed fashion as town was walking distance to the port (well, about 5 km but along reasonably safe roads) and we had no curfew. We had originally planned to organize a taxi, but as all the passengers coincided at the gate at the same time, and as the previous days’ 40 degrees had cooled to a positively chilly 28, we decided to walk and save some pesos.
We set off along a green-edged narrow road, the super fit German and Swiss guys up front setting quite a pace. My back had ‘gone’ that morning and I hadn’t had time to swallow some painkillers, so it was a fairly painful yomp into town, but at least we got to stretch our legs.
We followed our usual routine – (cash machine – sim card – coffee/ice cream has become our shore mantra) and sat in a pleasant café on the square catching up on the world. Its amazing how when you have not been online for days, an hour of internet is perfectly sufficient to say hi to friends and catch up on their news, and to scan through the headlines and decide nothing much has changed. The first news I saw was an attack on Save the Children employees in Afghanistan. I have good friends who work/have worked for Save the Children. Good, committed people. My first instinct was to turn my phone off again. My next was to get right back to the real world and stand shoulder to shoulder – if only figuratively – with those who are trying to do some good against such odds. In the end of course I did neither, ‘liked’ a statement condemning the attacks and continued scrolling through my news feed….
Once we were all caught up, we wandered around the town, looking for somewhere to print a few photos we want to leave for the crew and a present for our long-suffering steward.
Zarate is a fairly nondescript town with not much going on, but the streets are tree-lined and shady, there is a pleasant main square, the traffic is more than manageable and the people exceptionally tolerant of my massacring of their language. Lauren claimed I was just mixing up Portuguese, Italian and French and hoping for the best, which is a bit unfair as I believe on the whole I was understood.
By 1pm the shops were starting to close for the 4 hour siesta, so after lunch in a lovely (if, ahem, laid back) café, we decided to head back. We were both tired, and my back was killing me, so I decided to try to get a bus back. The port is an enormous part of the local economy and I believed that there must be public transport to it. I’d seen some buses passing us on the way in, so knew they went at least part way. A kind nurse at a bus stop pointed us in the right direction (literally) and after a 15-minute wait at a shady bus stop an old rattly bus came along. We confirmed with the driver it went to the port, and when I asked how much the fare was he just waved us on. Everyone else had electronic passes like oyster cards so I guess we should have bought one somewhere, but no one seemed to mind, so we got a free bus back all the way to the port.
Today we headed off back down the river and had to face the reality that is packing after 5 weeks.
My back is still bad (terrible timing, it was fine all the way round Europe carting a massive backpack about) so we took things easy. Most of our stuff is now packed, and we received confirmation from the captain that should everything go well, we will dock tomorrow morning in Montevideo and disembark around noon. It will be tough to say goodbye to the Great Hamburger.