No penguins yet, but I am sure the Wandering Albatross with the 12ft wingspan gliding outside the bar window is eyeing up my Martini! There's a lot of bloody sea out there to choose from so there must be something he is after and the way he keeps looking at me, then my martini, then back at me, it seems pretty obvious what it is. Maybe, just maybe, the Bloody Mary at 11, the champagne before lunch, the wine with lunch, the G&T during the lecture on discovering the continent, and now the Martini to warm me up for Captains cocktail party are now conspiring against me to make me a little paranoid.
Whilst the blog is officially over, this is a post script due to a very special trip to the antarctic.
The weather is perfect so far - some dramatic clouds and sleet as we left Ushuaia then this morning, clear skies, a balmy 4C and Drakes passage is 'calm' with only 1 metre plus swells (they were 8-10m a couple of days ago). Having said that, as I sit and write a fog bank has appeared and swallowed up the boat, which may force the wife back in who is enjoying her Martini outback.
The first few days in Buenos Aires were lovely and relaxing. Having visited before, it was easy to get in to the swing of the place...................drinking wine in Plaza Dorrego, watching tango and eating great big lumps of dead cow (or chip omelets if you're Jodie). BA remains a vibrant and interesting place and hasn't changed a bit in the past two years. That isn't necessarily a good thing; pavements are still full of holes and dog poo, graffiti is everywhere and poverty is all around. However, the locals remain friendly, there is always something going on and there is an air of excitement about the place. Oddly enough on the evening we arrived the same street carnival was in full swing in San Telmo as was on on the day we arrived in 2008, with multiple bands consisting of banks of drummers supporting scantily clad ladies who could move their bodies in fantastic ways. Wonderful.
We also had the chance to go and see the Polo again, but this time didn't feel like poor interlopers and were able to sup pink champagne to our hearts content. Jodie once again got all over excited by the polo players. How very shallow. Just because the are rich, fit, charming and part time models, it doesn't make the suitable partners. I shouldn't knock it as the polo groupies are fairly good eye candy as well....................especially the one missing a bra who walked towards me as the sun made her top transparant. Fashion. Great.
Lynne arrived on day 3 and we showed her the sights - drinking wine in Plaza Dorrego, watching tango and eating great big lumps of dead cow. She also had a rather bad experience when we found ourselves slightly off the beaten track and a druggie on a bike ripped her gold necklace from her neck. I gave chase for a while but a short fat bloke in flip flops is no match for a bloke on a bike motivated by his next fix. No bad thing really as I am not sure what I would have done had I caught up with him. It is a real shame for Lynne to have such an experience on her second day as it has flavored her view of BA.
We are now south and on our proper trip, meeting up with Janet, the last member of the foursome, at the gates of the port. Our boat, the Prince Albert II, is close to perfect. The food is great, the staff friendly and knowledgeable, and the booze plentiful. We were slightly concerned when we arrived at the airport to find ourselves in a long badly organized queue behind 50+ Chinese guests but that probably proves that everybody is at least a little bit racist! Anyway, the flight was fine (J and I slept like babies due to the mere 3 hours of booze induced sleep the night before), the reception at the other end smooth, the lunch in a mock ski chalet 30 mins bus journey from Ushuaia very tasty but a little un-necassary, and the combination of all the above made us re adjust our expectations of the trip downwards, but we need not of. We find ourselves in one of the most hostile environments on earth in complete luxury.
Enough of that for know because the main purpose of being here is the scenery and the animals. It is now day three on the boat and we have been in amongst the islands and icebergs since about midday today, some 18 hours earlier than expected due to the best conditions many of the crew had experienced. Having said that, at two this morning it was very spolshy and it took ages for a martini fueled J & J to find a door the crew had forgot to secure to enable us to experience the big swell and 80 kph winds in our wet proofs and bare feet...........how very responsible.
The new schedule allowed us to land on Half Moon island today, walk in the snow and marvel at the penguins. It also means that as I type this at 11.15 pm with the sun dipping below the horizon the boat is slowly navigating its way through icebergs big and small. We have just passed a small one of about 10 meters square which was hosting about twenty Chinstrap Penguins resting after a hard days fishing. Some in the distance seem massive, maybe miles across ( last year the boat found one 110 Km long and 23 km wide. Huge). I can see one which is capsizing and may be 200 meters above the water at it's tip. They are awesome and I cannot believe they will ever melt.
During one of the lectures we were told that we were explorers, not tourists, as we have made the choice to come to the last continent to be discovered. I do not think that explorers drink quite as much champagne as I have or go to sleep in between frette linen each night, but it does feel like a very special place.
Now, the other type of wildlife we see are our fellow travelers and what an interesting bunch they are. We have the intrepid explorers who are visiting for the 5 th time, the scientists who are trying to convince themselves this is about furthering their understanding of the world and not just fine wine, the honeymoon couple who obviously want to use the ships movement to take the effort out of the 'just married' activities. There are also a lot of couples which consist of ugly but obviously wealthy men attached to younger women who substitute make-up, Botox and designer clothes for personality. Leopard and tiger skin print must be essential cruise wear for some. However, having met an increasing amount of our ship mates, the consistent characteristic is that they are all interesting people with interesting stories to tell and after a few days together we are all getting along famously. The Chinese largely keep to themselves but that is mostly language and they all seem polite and sociable. We have met a few kindred spirits who are happy to sit late into the night boozing and telling stories, but I think the other passengers now take it in turns with the FT's. They have a good night, laugh a lot but are then broken for a day or so and we need fresh blood! Janet, one of the sailing crew from Sydney is keeping up well, but John and Jane, an ex US Naval aviator and his quietly spoken wife, are finding the going slightly more difficult.
It is now day 5 and what a great couple of days we have had. Jodie woke at 3am on the 11th and saw out of the window huge icebergs passing close by, being illuminated by the morning sun, so up on deck we went. The 'bergs were massive and beautiful, hundreds of meters long with flat tops. The colours, size and shapes where out of this world and impossible to describe. After an hour or so of repeating 'fantastic' and 'amazing' over and over whilst taking hundreds of pictures we decided to sleep for a few hours longer before our first trip on to the Antarctic continent proper.
Until going ashore I didn't realize that there is a concept of continent bagging but once there a number of people got out signs with 7 written on them and took photographs. J and I did a quick tally and worked out that for us, stepping on to the Antarctic content gave us a full set. This is not an end in itself but we do feel privileged to have been able to travel so much.
The last few days has mostly been spent marveling at Gentoo Penguins, Adelie Penguins, various seals, icebergs and mountain backdrops. It has become very apparent how limited the English language can be (or at least my grasp of it) and words genuinely cannot describe the size, beauty and unrealness of this place. It is like another planet; more inhospitable, empty and vast than any other place we have visited. We have been in a constant state of awe.
Occasionally this state of awe is surpasses by something really special. The day before yesterday (I write this on day 6) we were out in the RIBs looking at icebergs up close and a pod of about 15 Orcas appeared and we managed to follow them for some time as they searched for an unsuspecting penguin or seal to eat. Unfortunately they didn't find one.
Yesterday was even better and we woke to the announcement that 2 Humpbacks were off the bow. After a while if became apparent we were pretty much surrounded by them and there was a group of about 12 in total and they fed and dived all around. We found one sleeping and managed to park the boat next to him. They were with us for so long we eventually went for breakfast and sat munching on scrambled eggs whilst the humpbacks entertained us outside the window. On another night over dinner two humpbacks appeared outside the window next to us and the sun caught their backs and the mist of their water spouts as they blew and dived ageist the white mountain backdrop. An incredible sight.
On the subject of breakfast it is worth trying to describe the boat a bit more. There are some 110 passengers and and about 120 crew which maybe some indication as to how well looked after we are. I was kind of expecting a slightly dodgy 80 's hotel experience, based on my trips on the Rotterdam to Hull ferry. Fat northern girls in leotards providing the entertainment, miserable bar staff serving up flat lager and masses of over cooked food. This could not be further from reality and I can honestly say I have never stayed in a hotel anywhere that comes close to the quality of the Prince Albert II. Within a day the staff all knew our names (they are given our photos and names and instructions to memorize them), they remember preferences immediately and make sure they get them right on the next visit. They have even pulled it out of the bag for Jodie. The food is consistently amongst the best I have ever had and the wine selection impressive. In fact I am a rather hard to please guest and I have no issues at all. My expectations have been consistently exceeded. Conrad, the South African Expedition leader in his late 30's is one of the most professional and impressive men I have come across: organized, interesting, calm and enjoying the complete respect of all the crew and passengers. The Captain, a very serious Finn, is also a man I would trust my life too................which is lucky because I am. We also have a very interesting historical expert called Victoria, who is straight out of an Ealing comedy...........very head girl and old fashioned English, who fell in love with Antarctica some years ago but couldn't afford to keep going so left work, did a course in Christchurch then applied for Jobs on expedition ships for the next three years until she got one. She is full of enthusiasm and really brings a story alive. Occasionally she drinks too much and brings up the subject of threesomes!
I am also glad it is not an Australian boat as they seem rather relaxed about the whole booze thing. A couple of days ago Jodie and I jumped in the hot tub on the back deck and spent the next two hours going through the icebergs with bottles of champagne being delivered at regular intervals...................and staff walking past the sign warning against mixing hot tubs and booze to give it to us. No way would that conform to the Aussie Responsible Service of Alcohol rules! I am pretty sure we would have been barred from taking a couple of glasses of wine on deck in to the 50 knot wind and blizzard at 11pm last night at the end of a good dinner.
We are now on day 7 and the weather remains perfect. The Captain keeps declaring it is the best he has experienced in the 5 seasons he has been here. A couple of nights ago a storm passed through Drakes Passage with winds too strong to measure and no, boat left Ushuaia. We got a bit of a lashing but were largely ok, and by the next morning the sea was like a Mill pond and the sky blue, and by and large this state has remained. This state really does mean we see the continent at it's best as each incredible landscape has a mirror image in the sea, penguins can be clearly seen in their underwater environment and the blues and whites of the ice formations are at their most vivid. I don't know why Scott and Shackleton made so much fuss!
It is now the 8th day and the last day on land. We also got the opportunity to spend a little bit of time in the sea and to be honest a little bit of time, about 5 seconds, is enough. We had a walk around Whale Bay on Deception Island, stripped off then ran from the 1c air to the 1c water. Bloody stupid thing to do. I justified the mad decision to take the polar plunge by saying I would never get the opportunity to do so again. Having thought that through, it is flawed logic........................if I had just one opportunity to cut a leg off it wouldn't be a sensible thing to do. The good thing is that Deception Island is an active volcano and has hot springs under the beach so the staff had dug a hole which filled with hot water and J and I jumped straight into that to warm up.
We saw our last penguins whilst on the beach; a few Chinstraps taking a break from fishing. After seeing 1000s upon 1000s of penguins I can confirm it is impossible to get bored of the little critters. In the water they are the most agile and graceful beasts, porposing out of the water, turning on themselves and moving as fast as the boat. It is very different on land and they have much more in common with determined yet grumpy old men, doggedly stumbling through the snow, tripping over their own feet and taking hours to return to their nests high up on the rocky outcrops. They smell as well. Really really smell. You know when you are near a rookery and when you actually get up close the stench can be overpowering, especially if you have a hangover. Despite this drawback, there is nothing better than sitting in the snow watching them potter about through their snow trencher, ganging up together to go for a swim whilst increasing the chances of avoiding a Leopard seal attack or chasing after egg stealing Skuas. The most fascinating and amusing behavior involves the building of pebble nests on rocky outcrops to keep eggs out of snow. Due to the location of the rookeries, it can take a male penguin more than an hour to get each pebble from the beach. The better option is sterling from another nest so there is a constant flow of ungainly thieves stumbling, stealing, occasionally fighting and often falling on to their beaks to satisfy their partners. Which ever route to getting the pebble, the male will take it back to the wife and present it with a bow and drops it near her nest. If she likes it she will pick it up and place it as she sees fit, but more often than not it will be rejected. "I asked for a small grey rock, not a grey small rock". This may sound familiar behavior to some.............. Not to me obviously.
After the ridiculous swim episode we had a afternoon hike around some craters then headed off into the open sea to be greeted by 50kph winds, snow blizzards and sizable swell and it became obvious that people still had not found their sea legs. Dinner was quiet and got quieter. We started with a table of 10, which quickly became 9, then 7, then 9 again as a couple of academics joined us, then became 7, then finally 6 as other headed rapidly to their cabins. The view out of the window changed from all sea to all sky rapidly but was often blocked a green looking person leaving for a lie down.
The two academics were lecturers on the boat, and one, Richard, is a real bird fan. Too much of bird fan in fact and he exclaims with far too much excitement when he sees a rare bird. I had to inform him that such excitement should be reserved to interesting things..................... like whales............... as we keep finding ourselves running about the boat to just see rare birds. He pointed out that the Grey Metal Sooty Albatross we saw on the way down was so rare tweeters travel 1000s of miles to see and we were very lucky to see one. At that moment another appeared outside the window. Three followed us at one point. I rest my case.
We are now slap bang in the centre of Drakes Passage and are still getting knocked about. Our cabin is on the 4th deck and is getting waves hitting the window. Breakfast and lunch were quiet. However, in true ft style we chose the night of the 17th to celebrate Jodies birthday, which was the same night as the Captains farewell drinks and dinner, during which we had been invited to join the expedition leader for dinner. Jodie got a cake, the crew sang to her and we returned to a decorated room and another cake ( which we ate for breakfast as going to the restaurant seemed like too much hard work the following morning). I think this night was the only night we didn't spend time on deck as it has been wet and by 1am had become a frozen skewing rink. I had to be firm with my very bolshy wife.
(18 Dec) We managed to get through the Drake just before the wind picked up and we now sit in the Beagle Channel with 115kph winds forcing the boat over at a jaunty angle. I am genuinely sad to have left Antarctica. It has been a magical few days and whilst I appreciate we have been lucky with the weather, I would love to spend more time here and be more challenged. Less Champagne and more tents and walking. Francis Spufford, in the forward to the book The Antarctic sums it all up rather well. "Antarctica reaches around you, on clear days. It's bigness takes you by the heart and squeezes. Whether you went as an explorer or tourist,as a scientist or as a climber, as an administrator or as a cook, you start scheming, the moment you leave, to get back there again". In fact I am considering attempting to be the first short fat unfit novice to walk across the continent.
On a more serious note, we did visit Port Lockroy, which is an old British research station maintained by the British Antarctic historical association and manned by volunteers from early November to late March. This years crew consists of 4 attractive and bubbly ladies. I had to explain to jodie that if I failed to return to the boat from this trip, she should not be too worried and I would do what ever was required to survive! J and I are now seriously considering volunteering in 2012 or 13.
At the end of the trip we said fond farewells to many of our fellow passengers. Larry and Sandra, a 70+ Urban Transport consultant and a 50+ Dr returned to Vancouver had spent the previous night and a couple of previous nights with the FTs trying to drink the bar dry. Sandra was an incredibly elegant and educated petit blond who on our first meeting was digging a bulky Israeli out of the snow, and on our second meeting called me a girl for not drinking my whiskey straight. We hope to see them soon. Ann and her 76 year old Mum, Joan had been great fun with Joan showing no signs of aging and whilst it was great to see her taking the polar plunge, we were all relieved it was not in the skimpy bikini she had threatened us with.
Our principal partners in crime had been Paco and Laura who we met in the hot tube as we quaffed champagne on the big iceberg day and kept us company often after that (but also occasionally scampered away to recover). Laura is of Porto Rican extraction, has limitless confidence and makes Jodie look timid (maybe not...........that would be ridiculous). An on form Paco consumes and handles beer at an alarming rate. We also teamed up with them in BA a couple of times before we left and I blame them for the miserable condition I was on for our journey back. We hope that they will also inflict themselves on Sydney soon.