The Arctic Adventure
It's been a while since I have been in responsible for people and even after 5 months running the business Thales has been foolish enough to put me in charge of, I felt more an a small pang of guilt turning my back on them for 5 whole weeks. Luckily after a few glasses of bubbles in the Singapore Airways lounge I got over it. After my third film, supping more champagne on the flight, a situation only spoilt slightly be the flatulence of the Chinese man behind me, I was in the swing of the holiday thing.
Due to putting most of our renovations through our Amex we had enough air-miles to do this trip at the front of the plane and only cough up for taxes and it it makes all the difference. Our holiday felt like it started the moment we walked into the lounge, rather than 24 hours later after enduring screaming babies, cramped seats and looking down your nose service.
Our travel in Europe was not so glamourous. We had decided to see a bit of the countryside and take the train from Copenhagen to Osl via Gothenburg. On arrival at Copenhagen Airport we had a bit of a dash from the gate to the station to grab a train with minutes to spare. At Copenhagen train station we had a dash between platforms to grab a train leaving for Gothenburg with minutes to spare. First stop............. Copenhagen airport. The leg to Gothenburg was a little dull; countryside was a bit bland, the train overcrowded and we lost our seats with about 20 mins to go, not realising that they had been reserved. Gothenburg was a bit of a freakshow and we had 4 hours to kill there. We spent most of it in a sports bar at a station drinking $20 G&Ts and eating overpriced Caesar salad. The second part of the trip started badly as track works meant and hour on a bus, but once on the train we went through some magnificent countryside in reasonable comfort. Jodie has bought a small picnic of 6 cans beer. Warm beer. Warm light beer. Nice. They were left untouched.
We were trained out by the time we reached Olso, so threw caution to the wind and got a cab out to our airport hotel. Top tip; don't do that. It cost $250.
After a night in a bland but comfortable airport hotel it was off to the super special world of the Silver Explorer, (which was the Prince Albert II last time but someone decided that naming a vessel after a genital piercing was not quite the right image). We had been worried that having been to the Antarctic on the same boat it would all be slightly disappointing on this trip.......but we need not have worried. Firstly, the staff wow us everyday, whether it be by passing us in the corridor, seeing us armed with a bottle of champagne on the way to the spa and having an ice bucket there within minutes of our arrival, insisting that they, not I iron my shirt for the Captains reception or by anticipating our every need in our room (and keeping the minibar stocked with G&T, ice, lime and champagne). After one trip ashore we found a few sandwiches in our room, champagne on ice and a note from the Butler, the lovely Melissa, saying that she thought we needed a treat. That's right, I said 'the Butler'. A butler is assigned a number of rooms as is on call whenever we feel like being spoilt more. They carry pagers and try to think of ways of surprising the guests by their thoughtfulness. I would love one at home.
On one very special afternoon which saw us out on the RIBs in a stunning fiord watching a well fed Polar Bear swimming through the iceflows before wading ashore and entertaining us by rolling in the snow (I think he decided if he looked cute for some photos we would piss off and leave him in peace) a boat fall of staff appeared and fed us champagne and handmade chocolates. The level of service is hard to imagine until it is experienced.
More importantly the wildlife has done its' thing. You can't 'book' wildlife out here so you never know how rewarding or otherwise such trips may be. We hoped to see Polar Bears, but perhaps at a distance. We hoped to see Minky Whales and Walruses as well, plus seals and rather dull birds (I do not mean that birds in the Arctic are dull, we just find most birds dull........except Robins.................and Parrots....................and eagles. In fact lots are interesting, but not as interesting and whales and things). What we hadn't planned on was being called out of the first lecture on the first morning for the most amazing sight; one of the tiny remaining population of 4-7000 Blue Whales feeding I front of the ship......... for over an hour...........at times within 50 meters. These creatures are incredible and again hard to imagine until you see one. They are the biggest creatures ever to exist on the planet. And that's something I did not know. Not even the Dinosaurs were as big. At over 30 meters they are twice the size of a humpback, the same size as the Space Shuttle, weight the same as 40 elephants and eat the calorific equivalent of 20,000 hamburgers each day. When they break the water they just keep going and going. They can 'talk' through the water over distances of upto 1000 miles, which is handy when there are so few around and there is a need to mate. Imagine if we humans had to go from empty bar to empty bar as we tried to find they 2000 or so eligible members of the opposite sex? Saturday nights would be long a dull. The experience was truly incredible, completely unexpected, one of the rarest sights in the world and a life long ambition was fulfilled.
Not long later we came across a pod of the creamy white Beluga whales. Not one or 2, but 28. More than any of the crew had ever seen in one place at one time and they stayed around us for about an hour. To me, at a distance they looked like a flock of swimming sheep. Jodie thought this odd.
After seeing the whale, I was content that if I saw nothing else on the trip, it would still class as one of the most amazing experiences ever. That afternoon we had a great time in the RIBs, and watching a glacier crumble into the sea. I got to eat ice that had been frozen for about 10,000 years and breath in air released from that ice and that also blew me away. When this snow fell it fell on a world inhabited by cave men.
We also saw our first Polar Bear, but this was a very sad sight; it was malnourished, dirty and lying on a beach to which it had been lured by the sent of a seal on a distant ice flow (they can smell seals up to 20 miles away), but would never get to it and was likely to be dead very soon. We kept our distance and tried to leave it in peace.
The following day, just as we sat for breakfast, the second Polar Bear was sighted.......with 2 cubs. Now the agreement of tour operators out here states that parties will keep about 200m from the bears, but the bears do not know this and this family group stalked the boat and got to within 5 meters. A more perfect sight is hard to imagine. They are as cute as they are lethal and I was glad to be in a big heavy ship. We were transfixed for nearly an hour as the bears wandered around the ship, stepping from ice flow to ice flow, trying to work out how to get to the 'snacks'. Before giving up and resuming its' hunt for food. The sight of these beautiful creatures disappearing into the distance to continue there ever more difficult and ever more important search for food was as magnificent as it was sad and brought tears to many peoples eyes..........especially Jodie who sobbed like a two year old!
So could it get any better? Yes. Later that day we came across a bear which had just killed a seal, had dragged it onto an ice flow and was about to chow down. Jodie and I felt rather guilty as it was obviously put off by our presence and didn't really settle down to eat, worried that we might be there to steal its kill. So we retreated into the bar to sup on Martini's.
The none wildlife bit of the trip has also been awesome. Having Laura, Paco, John and Jane onboard (we met this gang in the Antarchtic and kept in touch) is great as they are huge fun and share our sense of mischief. We have been boozing and laughing a lot but sleeping very little. Much of our boozing has been done in the roof top spa, overlooking the ice-flows and hills, with the fantastic staff replenishing Champagne, Bloody Mary's and brandy when ever we wished. Due to the sad fact that the ice has melted quickly this year, we have got closer to the North Pole than any other trip before about (400 miles) and we took great pride in the fact that not only were we amongst the few people in the world who had been so far north, and amongst the smaller group who had done so in a spa drinking champagne and in the even smaller group to have done so in the Antarctic as well. I know it's not up there with Scott or Fiennes, but it's an achievement none the less.
Speaking of achievements, Jodie and I were also the first to take the Polar Plunge, which is an uplifting experience. In only shorts and a bikini (obviously, me in the shorts) we stepped off the side of a RIB into the 0 degree sea to the applause of about 100 of the passengers and crew. It wasn't the plan to go first, but for some reason Conrad, the expedition leader called our names the moment we appeared. Not sure why - perhaps it was it was the fact that he knew we were dumb enough to just get on with it. He told us that he had never been stupid enough to do it..........and it burns. It was an incredible sensation. Within 2 or 3 seconds it feels painful. After 20 it feels life burning and you can tell it would be mere minutes before unconsciousness came shortly before death. Luckily, we were out fairly quickly and back in the spa where Ray quickly brought us a hot chocolate fortified by Amereto.
Not many of the passengers or crew took this opportunity but we had persuaded a lovely Frenchman called Stephan to do so. We had bumped into him a couple of times in the first couple of days. Initially he found us in the spa drinking champagne and to,d us we were mad. The third time he got into the spa with us to discuss champagne, but still insisted we were mad. After 30 minutes or so we told him what a great experience it would be to be amongst the few who had been in the sea so far North. He said we were mad. I am not sure if it was our powers of persuasion, half a bottle of champagne or the fact his lovely wife's battle with cancer made him a little reckless but it was great to see him squealing like a pig and shouting 'this is madness' as he flamed around in the freezing water. He later told me it s insane but thanked us for encouraging him to do so. Later when he joined us for dinner one night he informed us that he and his mates once took a private plane to El Bulli rural Spain (which is now closed but was once considered the best restaurant in the world). I think he was a little mad.
We met a lot of lovely people on the trip and all where very interesting. There were a couple of cruisie types with extensive wardrobes and a unhealthy fascination with status, enjoyed themselves.
Towrads the end of the trip, with my liver failing and the first Bloody Mary of the morning becoming more and more vital we me a lovely couple called Allan and Sue. Both were from Yorkshire but now lived on the Isle of Man. We had a lovely night and early morning with them testing the patience of the staff. The following day they confessed that they were very glad to have met us but also very glad it was near the end of the trip as they do not think there bodies would have lasted if we had met earlier. The issue is that as Englishmen and women we are conditioned to leave a boozer when one or more of 4 criteria occur; the barman says last orders, cash runs out, many hours of darkness suggest that it is time for bed or we begin to loose muscle control. In the Arctic, in the middle of summer, with a free bar and outstanding bar staff, the first three never happen. And that was the problem.
We also met a lovely couple of guys traveling together called Mike and Paul. Mike had sold a family business a couple of years ago and now kept himself semi retired but involved in a few companies he had invested in. He was also involved in politics somehow so was very much the diplomat. Paul was a wild life painter, talented photographer, obsessive bird watcher (he has a pager which tells him when rare birds are sighted around the world) was very funny but may have mild Ashburgers. He made me seem diplomatic. A typical conversation: Jodie "So what types of Seagulls do we see in the UK Paul?" Paul: "Only the ignorant think they see Seagull in the UK. They all have names you know".
The Silversea expedition staff remain outstanding and once again we felt completely safe in their hands. Which is important when wandering in the homeland of one of the most vicious land animals in the world. The feeling of safety was helped by the three members of staff always armed and standing on the high ground. There was Peter, the very very very talkative Canadian historian who could not talk during this duty and gave us all a break. Chris was a bearded bald guy (known by J and I as upside down head) in his early thirties who when not guarding us was extremely informative about every Arctic subject. Most striking was Caterina, a polish lady, well over 6 feet tall, without an once of fat and a large tattoo of a bear paw on her back. When not bear guarding she led dog teams and had walked for 17 days to the North Pole. If she were any older, I am sure she would have been in the KGB.
Conrad, the expedition leader for both our trips is particularly outstanding. A South African in his late thirties, he is an amazing professional but also full of fun. We were lucky enough to have a good relationship with him and as a result enjoyed a little more freedom to stay out a little longer on the ice or jump in a boat with only him. We were jealous of his life, but oddly he was jealous of ours and was looking forward to getting off the ship for a while and leading a more land based existence in Cape Town.
It was very sad to leave the ship, although without a doubt my life expectancy is better by being off it. We had decided to stay in Tromso for a night, figuring we may never be back (now we know we will never be back) and our hotel room had a view of the boat and this was hard. As we helped ourselves to food, paid $10 for a beer and sat in our cheaply furnished room, we yearned for Den Den and her never ending supply of champagne and martinis.
Tromso is fairly ordinary, or at least it is on an overcast Wednesday. We did enjoy taking a cable car up to the top of one of the overlooking hills, and I enjoyed less the final upward mile or so to the summit. The sky was blue at that time and the view was stunning. I met a local at the top who told me this was as good as it got. He also claimed that Tromso was mild in winter; rarely did it get below -15c. Madness. Paco and Laura were still with us at this point and I didn't realize that Paco had decided to join me on my walk and I stomped off, never looking back and seeing his lonely waterless march until I was on my way back down. Bad James!
The only remarkable thing about Tromso is how very ugly the locals are. Now I know I am far from perfect, but my god, what a high density of freaks and weirdo's in one place. Still, I suppose few normal people relish the chance of spending, 4 months in daylight, 4 months in darkness (at the glorious -15c or above) and the other 4 months being rained on. we also saw the 4 ugliest lesbians on the planet. Living in Sydney, I've seen most of them so I can be sure of this.
We are now in the sky and about to start the next chapter of the adventure. London, Oxford, Liverpool and Ludlow, before heading off to Paris and Morocco.