À la recherche du temps perdu

I'm thinking about my next trip. I've booked an Astronomical Adventure up and down the coast of Norway in January 2020, but I still yearn after the deep cold of the Antarctic. I went to a travel exhibition last week and come away with loads of catalogues. I had a phone call from one company - a trip across the Northern Pacific from Canada to North East Russia. My heart sank. It was a luxury hotel on water - completely inoculated from the world.

And so yesterday I was re-reading last March's blogs and boy did it make me home sick! And I thought I'd go through them - correct and edit where necessary and put them on my site as a continuous narrative. They brought back such strong memories: frightening - I was back there marvelling at the ice, rock and sea. I was there thinking this is amazing but....regretting that I'd not in my 71 years done anything more than just sail in a boat with a 100 others.

And the news is not good. On my reckoning Longyearbyen will be bathing in sub tropical weather in a few years despite the Arctic winter and Antarctica will have forests on its foreshores before long. And we want to go elsewhere - Mars, Europa, Enceladus and Titan. I remember the ending of the film “2020” when an advanced alien civilisation turns Jupiter into a minor sun - turning many of her icy moons into Earth like habitations. No, no, no!

We must focus on efforts here. Save the Polar Bear, the tundra, the millions of live forms with which we share this insignificant blue dot. Explore by all means, discover the wonders out there but leave well alone. 

Read on:

Preparation ( February 2018) - Monday 19th February 2018


It's now less than two weeks to our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, less than 2 weeks to kayaking in the Southern Ocean. Yesterday I had a "dry run" on the Thames by way of preparation. I had been nervous a couple of days before. I needn't have been.

The London Kayak Company operates a series of excursions. Mine ran from Poplar opposite Greenwich to HMS Belfast just past Tower Bridge and back. You're flowing with the current both ways so it's not as strenuous as it could be.


A group of us waited at the slipway opposite The Great Eastern pub on Saunderness Road. The trip started at 2 pm. On the dot two men dressed in appropriate aquatic clothing came paddling up the river with 5 kayaks in tow. They grounded the boats and clambered up the slipway with two huge waterproof bags - they contained the gear we needed. Clown like waterproofs, waterproof tops and life jackets. I found getting into the clobber itself an adventure. I remember thinking that I'd better get used to this as I'll be doing it a lot down South! Our two guides gave basic instructions reassuring us that the kayaks were as stable as the Swiss franc. We signed a waiver, wrote down our names, addresses, next of kin and contact number - just in case any of us was fished out down stream at the Beckton outflow.


 The kayaks were two seaters, steered by a rudder operated by the person in the rear seat with his feet. Once we were in the kayaks and correctly positioned, sitting up, with knees wedged into the sides and feet securely pressing on wooden blocks - they gave you thrust as you pushed the paddle through the water - we were "locked in" with a waterproof covering. We were told how to release ourselves from said prison should we roll over -  again being assured that we'd be incredibly stable once on the water.


And then we were off. Pushed out into the inlet we attempted to paddle and steer as we hit first one wall than the next before heading out into the Thames. It was magical. Across the river was Greenwich hospital and the Cutty Sark and on the Poplar side all the new high rise developments. Interspersed between  postmodernism London were gems of 16th, 17th and 18th domestic architect - human size - so unlike the brutish stuff now crowding out the sky.

There was considerable traffic on the Thames - especially the big tourist boats that zoomed up and down. They created a substantial wake, but being buffeted by waves was exhilarating rather than scary. The police patrolled the river and we were overtaken by a large rowing boat with 10 oarsmen. I felt far superior to them! We passed many famous pubs. The Narrow with its Gormley standing man in the Thames; on the other side the Prospect of Whitby, Gordon Ramsey's fish pub at St Katherine's dock. And an aquatic police station with a white and blue police sign!


Reaching Tower Bridge we passed a load of old sail boats before we went under the bridge and waved at the crowds on the embankment by the new Bridge Theatre. Then around HMS Belfast for a photo session with the Tower of London as a backdrop before starting our return journey.


The tide was on the turn flowing out into the Thames Estuary. That carried us along: so glad it did. A short way from Tower Bridge I realised how tired I was getting. I and my companion, talkative all the way up stream, fell silent as we concentrated on getting back. It was turning dark and the waters were choppier so it made paddling more difficult. We kept looking out for familiar sights on the way back - passing Canary Wharf meant we were nearly home - except it was another twenty minutes before we ran the kayaks up the slipway. It took an age to get out of both the kayak and the clothing.


It was a brilliant experience. A real sense of achievement, great guides and just the right amount of hard physical exercise to make it feel really worthwhile.

Best of all, I now have banished my worries about kayaking in the Antarctic. How good is that!


Except, it turned out,  I hadn’t.



High Anxiety - Thursday 1st March 2018





The snow's not helping. I was already in a state of high anxiety before Mother Russia's frigid offspring was dumped on us. The press doesn’t help; isn't there enough news in the world without going ballistic over our cold snap? You'd think we were in the depths of Antarctica given the headlines and news reports.


Anyway it's got to me. Thomas Cook didn't help. I ordered some Argentinian pesos. I said I was leaving on Friday and they said they'd have them in on Tuesday. Tuesday came and went and no lolly. I phoned on Wednesday. "Where are my pesos?" I enquired. From the hesitant answer it was clear my order hadn't been processed. They'd check for me. "We can't get any currency." was the reply. I phoned around and luckily I was able to Click and Collect from Heathrow with Travelex.


Today Thomas Cook made a "courtesy call" to tell me that the Argentinian peso was a restricted currency and I could only get it in the country when I arrived. I had some pleasure in telling the caller that Travelex didn't have that problem.

I tried to go on the British Airways website - nothing. I thought "Oh God, it's down, it's crashed, it hasn't been able to cope with all the enquiries about doom and destruction with planes freezing in mid air like that scene in "The Day After Tomorrow" when helicopters fell out of the sky frozen solid".


Will the Piccadilly Line be operating to Heathrow? Will the airport be open and if so will our flight to Buenos Aires be cancelled or delayed? If that happens how do we get to Ushuaia in time to catch our boat to the Great Ice Continent? Will our driver still meet us at the airport if our plane's delayed? All these questions I asked Nik at our travel agents Audley Travel and with patience he calmly re-assured me. Yet I've still butterflies in my tummy.

Will I get cramp on the 13hr journey? Will I be allowed on the plane - is all my documentation correct? Have I too much luggage? Have I too little? Will I like Buenos Aires?


It's a dangerous place, all South America is run by either the military or corrupt political parties and gangs. Cut backs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: what effect will that have on consular services if I'm banged up in a notorious South American jail?


Will Drake Passage be rough or smooth? Will I be seasick? Will I snore? What happens if when kayaking a whale swallows me. Does whale poo float? Does it smell? Are Leopard Seals really dangerous? Surely they'd prefer penguins to me. Do penguins have fleas?

Will my lap top work?  What happens if an ice sheet calves - will a massive tsunami tip the boat over? How long will we survive in Antarctic waters? Will I be able to e-mail home?

Will I sleep tonight?


And this is a holiday of a lifetime!





All the way to Rio (sort of) Sunday 4th March 2018




I never realised the World was so big! A 13 hour flight brought us to Buenos Aires somewhere in South America. I'm sure it's a lovely city but flying cattle class doesn't get you much sleep so when we arrived at our hotel the first thing we didn't do was hit the town. We merely slapped it gently around the face.


We were picked up from the airport by a most loquacious  guide, who told us all about the city, the country and its president, the corruption, the failing economy and where to eat and where not to go in BA. All that in the hour it took to travel from the main international airport. 

The hotel Casa sur Bellini, situated, we were told in an up market part of town, was fabulous - although we needed the aid of the staff to help us unlock the electronic door lock, the card operated electricity supply to the room and the room safe, but otherwise no problems.


On arrival we were given two glasses of wine - not any wine: Malbec! -"the grape of Argentina" - its gift to mankind, along with corned beef. After a shower and change of clothes we staggered out into a  very hot late afternoon - it should have been morning but British Airways screwed up and we left Heathrow rather later than scheduled. Never mind,

A is a city of parks, millions of magnificent trees and a lot of very young, beautiful people.


We made our way to the Palermo district and found Don Julio, a meat restaurant - I have never seen steaks as big anywhere. We had langoustines  and salad followed by an incredibly sweet crepe full of super sweet "condensed milk". It was delicious but far too much for my tooth.


We stumbled back to the hotel and flaked out. We needed to be up by 5:30 am to get a lift to the airport to catch the 9:05 am plane to Ushuaia. It was late but the driver, pilot told us not to worry as he'd pick up speed on the way down and we'd arrive as scheduled.


It was a 3 hour flight, much over the sea and then we approached Tierra del Feugo. As the plane banked and approached Ushuaia the whole of the Beagle Sound and the surrounding snow capped mountains were laid out below. Absolutely stunning. In no time we were on a coach heading for our Hotel Albatross - right by the Harbour. A meal in the restaurant next to the hotel with a couple of  cold beers and we were set up for a walk around the town. Except it being Sunday the town was out. It looked a bit woe be gone but what do you expect from at town at the end of the world.


It was further to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires than from Ushuaia to Christchurch in New Zealand. Tomorrow afternoon we join the MS Expedition and make our way to Antarctica.....




All the Way to Memphis: Tuesday 6 March 2018






We’re on board the Mothership  “Enterprise” MS Expedition. Hugely well organized. The boat docked last night to throw off the last group of tourists and by 4 pm this afternoon we were all on board and in our surprisingly spacious and comfortable cabins. There was a place for everything and everything had its place. In no time we’d unpacked and stowed all our stuff. The “en suite” is small but perfectly formed and I decided that a shower and a clean change of clothing was the ideal way to welcome myself aboard.


Deck 3 has lovely views of the sea! Then we were summoned to main reception for a safety briefing along with our life jackets stored under our beds. This was fun as we had to put them on and then traipse upstairs  to the upper deck to look at the lifeboats and imagine abandoning ship!


After that we had the welcome briefing, meeting all the crew from the chef to the scientists and Zodiac drivers. Immediate excitement was a very colourful weather map showing a huge storm in Drake’s Passage – it looked like a hurricane. Anyway – we weren’t going there just now. Would spend tonight anchored in the calm Beagle Channel.
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Then it was the turn of the Captain – a barrel chested Russian with an incredibly thick accent. He sounded like the ancient mariner having sailed on all the seas. He then introduced his executive team and finally we all had a glass of champers to celebrate.


By then we were all ready for our dinner. Very nice, substantial and we shared it with three Australians who were doing South America. Lots of laughs and I think we’ll be dining with them some more. The only downside was being given a receipt every time you ordered a drink.


The internet is satellite connected and essential. Captain Scott would be turning in his grave were he not frozen in to see what today’s Antarctic explorers deem to be essentials.


After supper it was down a deck to get fitted out with our Southwesters. With little tags to show who you are. It’s amazing how much fun people can get from watching others trying to zip up. Then back to our cabin before I was off to my kayaking briefing. I’m paired up with an Australian lady of indeterminate age. Her name is Jenny – I haven’t mentioned the royal marriage yet but no doubt that’ll come up
.

And we have to be in the Mud Room at 8 am to get fitted up for our kayaking.  Our instructors/guides properly prepared us with warnings about high winds, capsizing and life expectancy in the near freezing waters. When I asked one of them how many people had capsized he said none on his watch. Oh! and if you did tip over a Zodiac would be there and heaving you out of the water in less than a minute
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On that cheerful note we went back to our cabins. And for a first night on the high seas.



“Left hand down a bit, Mr. Phillips”: Tuesday 6th March


Up at sparrow’s fart this morning as the kayakers had to meet up in the Mud Room at 8 am. After a decidedly refreshing shower and spruce up I was into my thermals and to the aforementioned Mud Room after a short detour to the restaurant for a semi full “English”.

In the Mud Room we were greeted by our kayak tutors and were first shown what we had to wear and how to get into it. 

I now know what it’s like to go into space. First there was the dry suit which covered you from tip to toe and sealed you in – not a drop cold Antarctic sea would touch your skin. Next the skirt which plugged you into your kayak and finally the life jacket. Having put all this clobber on, had it checked and then removed one was sweating like the proverbial pig.


There then followed the lesson on the kayak. How you were going to get into it from a Zodiac boat, how to sit and what to do should you, unfortunately, capsize. What we were told was quite reassuring since our tutor had not lost one of his pupils in four years. I’m reassessing my desire to get up close and personal to a whale or large leopard seal.


All this took an hour and a half. We then had to assemble in the “Discovery” lounge for our mandatory lecture on the Antarctic, its history, wildlife and most importantly what you can and cannot do on the land. You can’t block a penguin super highway – tracks in the snow that the penguins use to get about their colonies. You can’t get too close: keep your distance otherwise the poor critters get distressed. You can’t go to the loo. If you’re caught short on land a Zodiac will whisk you back to the boat and toilets.



Getting in and out of a Zodiac is a skill we all have to master – mainly moving about on one’s arse. It’s important you don’t miss the last one home. If you think you have you jump up and down shouting loudly “What about me you bastards.” Luckily they count you off the boat and back on again so if you’re left behind they know.


After that we had to register in Zodiac teams. So if you want to go with your companion in the same Zodiac you sign up for the same team. Joining a different team to that of your partner is a great way of announcing the delivery of divorce papers once you’ve returned home. The kayakers were auto enrolled on the “Mallory” team.


Next we marched down to the “Mud Room” with all the clothes and equipment we’d use landing on Antarctica. There they’d be checked and vacuumed to ensure we didn’t deposit any nasties on those pristine lands. That led on to the wellie boot fitting exercise and the sheep dip where our willies were wiped clean of any uninvited guests. We rounded off this mammoth exercise in comprehension and retention by signing some sort of Convention – it could have been the Test Ban Treaty for all I cared by then.


Time to ourselves as we left the shelter of Argentina and the Beagle Canal and headed out into Drake’s Passage proper. Last night because there was a storm blowing up Drake we stayed over in a safe anchorage. By midday we were experiencing interesting seas as lunch is being served.


This afternoon there’s a lecture on some ongoing scientific work – possibly investigating the contents of passengers stomachs after we were hit by a few substantial waves.



"Hello my Darlings": Thursday 8 March 2018




Well we’re still sailing up Drake’s Passage: it slightly less rough than yesterday  - it was a revelation to discover that we changed course during the night. Something to do with Poseidon and his Furies that had whipped up a real storm.


Today the weather moderated and it was another day of preparation for kayaking with “how to use the paddle” lesson at 3pm and a final briefing at 5 pm – ‘cause tomorrow at 3 am we drop anchor at the South Shetland Islands and if the weather’s fine and the seas not too rough we do our first stint in the Antarctic waters at around 8 am!  I am petrified but….


Tomorrow morning the Zodiacs will take people to Hannah Point (named after a ship wrecked there) on Livingstone Island to look at the penguin colonies and possibly seals.  While that’s happening we’ll be in the water for an hour or so hoping not to hit an iceberg or frighten any wild life as we paddle desperately in our two man kayaks. Later on the ship will head for Deception Island, the caldera of an old volcano, and some, but not me, will have the opportunity to plunge in the freezing waters partially heated by hot springs.


Because today we’re still at sea and the wind and rain were lashing outside we were stuck in door…to sit through lectures on photo composition, whales and dolphins, sea birds and ice and the Antarctic. I didn’t go to the one of photos since I thought my camera was buggered. The other three filled the time between meals and all in all were good. The one on seabirds was especially fine, as the woman presenter clearly loved all feathered creatures, especially the penguins she drooled over talking about them.


The ship’s photographer is a fellow kayaker and at the briefing meeting I took the opportunity to ask about my wonky camera. He fixed it in no time. I hadn’t correctly inserted the memory card. I claimed failing mental faculties for not being able to do such a simple task. The great thing is I’m all set now.


Peter, my companion on this epic voyage, and I have met a few fellow travellers with whom we share a meal or two and pass the time of day in the lounge drinking gallons of tea and coffee. We’ve met a number of Aussies and a few from dear old Blighty. At dinner this evening we met a Democrat from Boston so we all had much fun slagging off Donald Trump. The trouble is a good number of the passengers are inveterate travellers – all seeming desperate to tick off the seven continents before they exit. There are only so many times a trek up an ancient Peruvian mountain path remains interesting.


The on board musician was playing tonight so I made my way up to the bar for a gander. I had a beer and chatted to a few people while Peter watched a film about Antarctica and the Arctic. I was, however, so wound up about the kayaking tomorrow that I couldn’t enjoy myself and went to our room to prepare for the great event. Anyway his renditions of Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon left me unmoved.


Tomorrow’s the big day. Whatever happens we’ll be well and truly in Antarctica.







"It's Ice Jim, But Not As We Know It": Saturday 10 March 2018





Well I did it – an hour’s kayaking off the South Shetland Islands.


I didn’t sleep very well last night worrying about what the dawn would bring. I was up at 6 having arranged my clothes for the great adventure the night before. I went up, with Peter, for breakfast to be told that the kayaking group would meet up at ten to eight. At breakfast I saw my kayaking partner. Except she wasn’t – she’d decided not to go through with it. I went to the library where the band of brothers were foregathered. When I said that my partner had backed out I was told I was teamed up with the female instructor. I could have kissed her and told her so.


Suiting up wasn’t as difficult as the dry run or as I feared. In no time we were lowering the kayak into the water and after being plugged in – the skirt you wear stretches over your cockpit like a drum skin - we were off. There was one instructor at the front and back of our little flotilla as we made our way from the ship to the headland. Rounding that piece of sharp, ragged piece of black rock we spied elephant seals and chinstrap penguins along with the carcass of a whale  beached on the shoreline.


We weaved our way through the rocks making sure we didn’t get too close. There was always the danger of getting distracted photographing and with the swell and current you could find yourself  smashed on the unforgiving Antarctic coastline.


The bay we were in was flanked by an ice sheet, a wall of ice coming right down to the water’s edge. It stretched for miles. As the morning progressed the grey ice reflecting the sky gave way to a bluish tint and as the sun broke through the scene was spectacular. You can’t call it scenery – it’s not that; it’s a presence of eons of ice accumulation and ancient rock. Quite numbing.


After a while I was getting a bit worried – we’d lost the ship and all I could see were more rocks and more bleached bones. After about half an hour we headed back. Boy was I glad to see the boat sheltering in the bay.


In no time we were back on board and everybody was beaming. “I've done it” they all seemed to be saying. We were now an unbreakable team. The instructors are fabulous, understanding and tolerant – you felt so confident in their hands.


We had hardly any time get out of one set of clothing before we were into waterproofs, wellies and jackets to take a Zodiac to a penguin colony.


Cute is not the word to describe these darlings. We saw Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni penguins – all this season’s brood molting and getting ready to dash into the sea for 6 months or so. Penguin colony, however, are not sweet smelling. Thousands of little blighters peeing and pooing for months on end and no one to clean it up! There was evidence of the cruelty of life there. Leopard seals literally shake penguins inside out so they can get to their fat. As we went ashore there was a "welcome mat" - the remains of one such poor creature.


I thought that was it for the day, at least kayaking wise. We upped anchor and headed for the caldera that is Deception Isle. The entrance to the bay is quite scary as it’s very narrow; Too much wind and you can’t get in but today was fine, even if standing on deck watching the caldera open up chilled you to the bone.


Here there was a choice of activities. A Zodiac ride exploring the caldera, a hike up the slopes of the volcano to see one of the remaining smoke holes followed by a dip in the waters of the Antarctic slightly heated by remaining thermal energy from the dormant volcano. And kayaking!


Quite few wanted to do the walk so there only eight of us including the instructors. Again I was shepherded by them. We spent a gorgeous, if tiring hour, exploring the various pools in the caldera. When we came back I was so knackered I made a comical attempt at getting out of the kayak, and a lifetime getting out of my clothes. I am now completely spent. 


"I wonder if I’ll have the energy to climb into all that clobber and paddle myself around our next port of call.

 


"Here be dragons": Sunday 11 March 2018


 

Giants live here. Wherever you look giants are slumbering - hidden by the deep snow and the low clouds that hang overhead. In the long dark winter months they move about and carve icebergs into fantastical shapes.



Or so it seems. Last night after leaving Deception Island we travelled south. Overnight we moved into a strange new world. Massive ice fields on the shoulders of tall jagged mountains calved into the sea.  We had crossed into Antarctica proper.  Parking up in a small bay – it was kayaking time for me and for Peter a Zodiac cruise. 


In our kayaks we skirted the shore of the bay, being careful not to get in too close, and dodging the wonderfully sculptured icebergs that were stranded in Iceberg Graveyard. It’s hard to describe the beauty of the ice – tinted blue with blue streaks running through them – the result of denser ice and different refractions.


We came across a whale and its pup breaching the surface and we tried to keep up with them – they’d pause to allow us to catch up before moving off again. A shout went up  “Leopard seal “ as it came swimming close our group. Sarah, our kayak guide, in an off handed manner said they’d either leave us alone or be very curious – we took the hint and slowly paddled away putting plenty of distance between us and the seal. After about two and half hours we returned to the mother ship for lunch.


The boat then moved onto another bay: called “Circumcision” because some early explorer discovered it on January 1st the day of Jesus’ circumcision. Sheer lack of imagination! By the time we arrived the wind was up and the water was choppy. Phil, the other kayak guide, said that the conditions were at the limit for kayaking. I, along with a few others, backed out and went on a Zodiac to visit another penguin colony.


Penguin colonies stink. Krill poo and vomit covered the place. Here hundreds of chick were fledging, losing their downy coats and doing nothing except hang around looking dejected or chasing an adult insisting they cough up some delicious half digested prawn like creature. It was not a pretty sight. Although the penguins themselves were very charming. There are, however, only so many times when penguins are endearing – I passed that point a while back.


On board our ship M/S Expedition hygiene is taken very seriously. You’ve all heard about the cruise liners felled by a rampant tummy bug. Many of our fellow passengers are on the cruise of a lifetime and don’t want to be taken out by some bug or other. So we have to clean our hands constantly. That is nothing compared to the rigmarole we go through when we come back on ship after visiting the penguins. 


Our wellies are encrusted in penguin poo so once we’re on board we have to scrub them very carefully to remove every trace of gunk and then to dip them in a powerful disinfectant. Next the wellies are inspected and if not properly clean you have to repeat the whole process again. 


The food is very good, and plenty of it. The cabins are neat and comfortable and the cabin staff is without exception extremely efficient and friendly. After the evening meal at 7 pm you can watch a film in the lounge – usually some worthy wildlife themed piece – or retire to the Polar Bar and hear Kevin play. He’s excellent. 


The next day we moved from Circumcision Bay to Paradise Harbour. Not sure if they were discovered by the same guy. For us Paradise Habour is special as it’s the only part of Antarctica proper we touch – all the other places are on islands. Again, it was an early start for the kayakers. The water was mirrored and with a light wind, it was ideal for a paddle.



We were going to be out for a while – around 3 hours, but we were promised that we’d take it easy. I partnered Kay from the States, she steered and paddled, I just paddled. We criss crossed the bay, making our way through ice flows and we stopped a lot: there was a lot to see – whales and penguins in the water, cormorants on the cliffs, seals lounging on icebergs. Here the glaciers came down to the water's edge and at one point there was a beach with a glacier behind it. We landed and the ship’s photographer posed us on the beach. After that it was back to base and lunch.


In the afternoon I again dropped out of the kayaking and went to a penguin colony – why?  There was a long climb up a snowy slope and crest to an exposed vantage point looking over the bay. Peter, and others we’d teamed up with, went on the climb but I didn’t – I was scared of falling on the ice. Instead I went on a Zodiac cruise where we saw two groups of whales and a beautiful crabeater seal that kept bobbing up, its lovely wide eyed face feet away from us. It was enchanting and a privilege to be in the presence of such a delightful creature. 


Now is time for the “Happy Hour” although since only one cocktail a night is reduced in price it seems a slight exaggeration.  The Argentinian beer is good so I stick with that. After dinner – it’ll be the Polar Bar and Kevin and if the sky is clear Milky Way gazing!

Tomorrow is the last day we can kayak and we’re heading to two other bays to visit penguins, birds and seals. After that we’ll be on the move heading for Ushuaia across Drake’s Passage. The forecast is that the crossing won’t be too rough.



"Beam Us Up Scotty": Monday 12 March 2018





A slight technical problem with the blog. The Internet via satellite is a bit hit and miss. Although not as hit and miss as my attempts to upload my missives.


The problem is that having written the blog in Word - too expensive to load directly - I open my blog page – except it doesn’t always work – the signals died. When I get a signal and the page open I copy and paste the piece in Word onto the blog page. And hit the “Publish” button. Nothing happens and I’m told there been an error and the page hasn’t been uploaded. So I try again, and again, and again ……until the blog is posted. Then I find that actually it has been posted again, and again, and again…. Hence the multi-postings in the past. 


Today was our last day in Antarctica. We were scheduled to go back to the South Shetland Islands but because the seas were so calm it was decided to hang around the Paradise Bay area. At 6 am it was snowing very hard, the skies pretty dark and icebergs all around us. After breakfast the ship hauled up its anchor and we headed for Cuverville Island a few miles up the coast and through an iceberg-strewn channel. There we dropped anchor.


The morning programme was a Zodiac ferry to another penguin colony or kayaking. Except the kayaking was cancelled. Although the surface of the water was calm there was enough of a swell to make the boat pitch from side to side. Launching kayaks in such circumstances was deemed to be unsafe as there was a risk of falling between the boat and the kayak. So it was off to another poo splattered stink hole (I am seriously out of love with penguins). Anyway the trip was worth it, because  from a penguin surrounded headland you could see whales diving as they swam out to sea. You then had a choice of going back to the boat or taking a Zodiac ride around the bay. 


I chose the trip. We ended up being surrounded by three humpback whales. They slowly circled, getting closer and closer to the Zodiac. They’d open their blowholes and a spray of water would spurt out and then they’d dive tails out of the water. They’d disappear and then resurface even closer to us. People were beside themselves with excitement. All I could think of was Indians circling a wagon train and the description in “Moby Dick” of the white whale rising out of the water and smashing the whaling boat. 

It was a brilliant experience. 


After lunch we again raised anchor and headed for Wilhelmina Bay a large glaciated bay. There was some doubt whether we could get into the bay, but Captain Pugwash managed to steer a safe passage! Again the afternoon’s kayaking session was cancelled because of the swell. To be replaced by a Zodiac cruise of the bay. Mountains surround the bay and the glaciers formed between the mountains went down to the water. There was a strip of white all the way around, with black rock and mountains rising up into the clouds. Icebergs of all sizes were there, all carved into curious shapes – one was so large that it had its own covering of clouds. 


We went right up close to the shoreline and islands to watch fur seals dozing, fighting or just showing off their wonderful profiles. One followed us – or was he herding us out of his territory? There were loads of unidentifiable flying objects (birds) all around. We made a detour to an old metal wreak  - the victim of a fire – it was a whaling factory ship so it burnt brightly as the blubber oil ignited. Amazingly no one died although $20 millions worth of oil was lost. In 1913 that was a tidy sum.


Our driver heard over his intercom that more whales had been sighted further out in the bay so we hammered out there. Travelling fast on a Zodiac can be hairy. He then shut off the engine as a couple of whales swam by. We hung around for a while before returning to M/S Expedition.Once on board we headed out to sea, in the company of at least six seals. As we moved away from the shore I felt as if Antarctica having seen us off withdrew into herself, lowering a curtain of mist between us, the mountains and the immenseness of the Continent. 


We are well and truly on our way home. We’re in open seas and heading for Drake’s Passage and the tip of Argentina and so to good old Blighty.

 


"Let the Sun Shine In": Wednesday 14 March 2018




I wrote these entries on Monday and Tuesday. It's now Wednesday morning and we're hanging around Ushuaia waiting to go to the airport. Internet connection means we learnt that Stephen Hawkings died a few days after Ken Dodd - from the Sublime to the Ridiculous....



Monday 12th

One could feel resentful. This is the last day of our holiday and we’re at sea. It is early morning and the sun is streaming in through the porthole of our cabin. We had just one hour of sun while we were floating in and out of Antarctica’s many snow encrusted islands. There, grey seas and sombre skies set the tone as the mountains, black and moody, silently watched we interlopers.


Any sense of resentment would be infantile. We have spent 5 days in the presence of a giant, whose vastness we can only guess at. A slumbering, gentle Titan, at least while we were there, showed us the benevolent side of its nature. A month or so on, things would be quite different as the southern winter sets in.


It is too early to make sense of our experiences. They are a jumble of sights, sounds, smells (penguin poo!) and emotions. With time and reflection this magical place with take shape in the memory – a box of sweets to be opened on a cold, wet morning or a sun drenched evening, and delighted in.



Tuesday 13th 



We’re early and Cape Horn is directly ahead. On the way back Drake’s Passage was as passive as it was angry as we headed south. That means the boat flew across the waters and we are almost 24 hours ahead of ourselves. 


We’re going to sail around a bit: currently we’re in the Pacific and on the port side there’s a lighthouse stranded on some rocks. We go out on the deck and snap away – we are surrounded by sea birds and amazed by their endurance – as we cross into the Atlantic. On a headland at Cape Horn is a monument shaped as an albatross: we don’t see it.


We’re hanging around, bobbing up and down, impatient for our landing at Ushuaia, but we have to wait. Our flight to Buenos Aires is not until tomorrow afternoon. That gives us plenty of time to sort out our luggage and catch up on a bit of shuteye. I am definitely winding down: it’s as if the excitement of the past few days has all piled up in a heap and I’m underneath it trying to catch my breath.


I’m sitting in the lounge with others waiting for a talk on Shakeleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition and on the screen a Cuban group is playing "Guantanamera". Another part of our re-entry programme to South America.


The farewell show was something special. A mixture of auction, thanks to the crew and expedition team. The Russian captain was as unintelligible as before. How any of the crew understands his commands is a mystery. It is clear, however, that he runs a very happy and efficient ship.



Kevin played a load of his own songs: he is extremely good! The auction raised loads of money for a charity the company supports. Finally we had a slide show of shots taken by our tour photographer Uri. There were some lovely shots of the crew and travellers as well as stunning ones of animals. All these will be accessible on g Adventures website.


After that we headed into Ushuaia and tied up as we had our final evening meal. Tomorrow we disembark and in the afternoon head for the airport and a plane to Bueno Aires. A night there and it’s a flight home.



“The Days of Wine and Roses”: Thursday 15th March 2018


We’ve just taken off from Ushuaia. Sitting here I think about our flight down such a short while ago. I try to capture the way I felt as we banked over the town and saw the mountains and the Beagle Channel below us. Yet I can’t. I assume I was full of anticipation – it was nearly the last stage before we well and truly headed for Antarctica. Also some relief – over 16 hrs. in the air and countless hours hanging around in airports – to be nearly there.


I don’t think I thought about kayaking in the Antarctic as we landed in Ushuaia. My naivety!  Believing that 2 hours on the Thames would prepare me for four fairly long sessions in icy waters, surrounded by icebergs, leopard seals and whales. The terror was still some days off. Three who’d signed up didn’t start or else only did the first trip. Did I really have the nerve to back out? It would have been brave and cowardly at the same time. The fear of loss of face overcame the physical fear of getting into the water.


I’m done with penguins. Don’t get me wrong they are lovely, but they stink. They nest on pretty unattractive sites and make them even worse by pooping all over the place - walking about is a nightmare. In addition, while you were meant to keep well out of their way they didn’t bother and would come right up close and stare at any piece of clothing, before an exploratory peck or two. The mixture of penguin poo and ice was deadly. I fell over twice and a couple of people did themselves a mischief and needed the close attentions of the ship’s doctor. If you’re over 65 you take your life in your own hands messing with penguin mess.


Antarctica was beyond special. For me it brought together all the fantastical stories of ice, giants and menacing mountains. The silence was so profound. If you raised your voice only slightly you feared starting an avalanche or disturbing a long slumbering giant hidden in the icy glaciers that were all around. Whales had a profound effect on everyone. Moving slowly, slipping effortlessly beneath the waters or splashing with their tails or fins: it was quite magical. And the icebergs, cut into all shapes and sizes by the sea, wind and the sun. There was so much to take in: so much to admire and wonder over – my brain grew tired having to process all that was new and unusual.



I should be satisfied, but we’re restless creatures. Always wanting more, wanting improvement, seeking newness. Which means I’m sort of planning what I’d like to do next. If it doesn’t seem too fanciful, what about a return trip, but next time in a smaller boat with many fewer companions? Then again, maybe seeing the missus and the four bundles of fur will make me realize that you don’t need to go halfway around the world to find adventure, excitement and stimulation.



P.S.

Coming into Buenos Aires we hit some bad turbulence. Dropping a few hundred feet and then rising again almost instantly has different effect on passengers. Some prayed and wished a fond farewell to their loved ones. Others were like the cowboy captain in “Dr Stranglove” cheering madly as he heads for oblivion. I was the latter.


We soon found out the reason for the turbulence – a massive storm over BA. This meant we couldn’t land and we were at the tail end of a queue of planes in the air. The effect of loads of planes landing very close together was that the luggage handling facility went into meltdown. Plane loads of passengers staring at empty, stationary baggage carousels and no sign of their luggage. The South Americans are an excitable bunch and it looked at one point we might be witnessing the next revolution! After an hour, however, we had our luggage and were met by our very patient driver.


We were too tired to do anything extravagant that night it being about 9 pm before we’d showered and changed so we had a meal in the hotel and a couple of bottles of wine which we shared with a couple from Haywards Heath who were with us in Antarctica. The wine cost more than $50 a bottle – but what the heck - it was an excellent Cabernet Franc and we’re on holiday – just.



"If You Want to Be A Polar Animal": Sunday 18 March 2018



I had an e-mail from an old friend (all my friends are old!). Yesterday he attended a lecture on Antarctica at Wolfson College, Cambridge given by  Jonathan Shackleton, cousin of Sir Ernest. The talk was at the Trinity College Dublin Association (Cambridge Branch) Spring Event. Apparently JS is an alumni of Trinity. My friend said the talk was highly amusing - constantly being interrupted by the England - Ireland rugby score.


As far as I'm aware my friend has never set foot in Ireland, and got his degree from Bristol so I'm at a loss to know how he managed to be organising talks for the Association. 

JS's talk was  cryptically titled "A Dead Man’s Friend: penguins, a priest and polar people". His books are published by Penguin!


It's been a strange two days back. I've difficulty sleeping but when I do, it's invariably about being on a boat and heading home. I fell asleep on the sofa the other day and it took me an age to figure out where I was. On waking I could have sworn I was in a cabin - I didn't  recognise our front room. I'm also feeling wonderfully well and, well, bouncy - that's the only way I can describe it. It's the Antarctic effect. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to go there and experience the sheer wonderfulness of the place. My mind's eye overflows with images of the bays, the ice, the mountains, sea and sky.


So I'm planning a return trip. I've already made contact with a company that offers a 17 day sailing trip - fly there, sail back and spend days camping on the Continent as well as loads of opportunities to kayak. It's hugely expensive and I'll have to send the missus out to work and line up the cats  for pussy shoots but that's my direction of travel.



In the immediate future it's more kayaking - in Finland or Norway or the River Lea!



“Bragging Rights”: Monday 19 March 2018



The guys at gadventures are pretty special. Really, really made you feel they cared that you had the best possible time on board, on water, on land. Mind you they had Antarctica to lend a hand.

Special thanks to Sarah and Phil - our kayak guides, and to Lyn whose enthusiasm for penguins was such a joy to experience. To Kevin - our Canadian singer who could sing and play anything from the Beatles to sea shanties. To Jaune - who kept our cabin tidy and clean despite our efforts to undo his - and his ready smile.To the cooks and waiters who made meal times something to anticipate. To Yuri - for his great photographs.

To Norm and Mary Anne - surprised that they had a suite on board and proudly showed me around the space as big as our house! To Rob and Carol - lots of laughs. And to many more fellow travellers whose company we enjoyed on board ship and land.




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