It’s an interesting thought exercise for someone like me who has taken on some work after retirement – when is it time to pull the pin on doing this?
Today is the halfway point of my full-time teaching gig for term 1 at my old school. I have a teaching load divided evenly between English and History and all of the classes are were lovely. I know the English course very well and could almost teach it blindfolded, while the year 8 History class is covering Medieval Europe – I love this.
Then there’s the year 9 History class. They’re doing Australian history, not my favourite thing, but the class was nice and there was only one slightly feral kid in there. He was pretty much on his own though, so it wasn’t a big thing.
And then they introduced a new kid into the class…
It’s amazing how in a group of 28 kids, introducing one new kid can change the dynamic of the whole class. Every teacher reading this will know exactly what I mean.
A week ago, there was a strange boy sitting in the middle of the room.
“Hello Miss, I’m new,” he said.
Then he proceeded to try and talk about Adolf Hitler at the top of his lungs. I gently pointed out that Hitler wasn’t alive when the First Fleet was landing, and after a bit more back and forth he decided to pipe down. It wasn’t the most auspicious beginning. Each day, he was getting a little louder and a bit harder to shut down, while the original naughty kid was delighted to discover that he had a kindred spirit.
Yesterday, I had year 9 History straight after lunch. The class was loud, talkative, and unwilling to settle to work, while the two naughty boys were feeding off each other and performing for their audience.
I looked at them when they were waving their hands around, being utterly convinced that they were hilarious, and thought, “You know, I think I might be getting over having to deal with immature year 9 boys. After all, I don’t HAVE to be here…”
Of course, life being how it is, I’m typing this post while I’m sitting in front of the same class. They’re doing a practice learning task and so the room is deathly quiet. The new kid is writing, while the other one is probably drawing, once I took his laptop away from him. The rest of the class is diligently working – the kids might enjoy the new floor show that arrived last week but they still want to do well on their assessment tasks.
I had a nice interaction with the new kid as he handed his work in – he has a really lovely smile. There’s a good kid inside that annoying “I’m a new kid and I want to make my mark” guy.
Next week I know I’ll be wresting back my hold on the class, which can take a lot of energy. Ugh! Meanwhile, on the plus side I have my other classes who are all absolutely lovely. This situation with the two year-9 boys is in no way a deal-breaker. I know I’ll almost certainly still take CRT days (after a long break after finishing this stint!)
But I still think it’s an interesting question… when does something at work become too much to want to deal with, even when the pay is extremely generous and the work I do is in demand?
And how good is it to have financial independence? When I decide that enough is enough, I have the freedom to simply walk away and close this chapter of my life.
The crew arranged all sorts of mini-lectures to help fill the next two days. An astonishing number of them are birders, so we heard all about what that entails. As you can see, sometimes they went into a little too much detail, as this action-shot of Liga shows.
We also had a lecture about the environmental impact of our trip, which was surprisingly interesting, along with the technology the Hondius has to help mitigate any damage we might cause.
Now that we were firmly in the Drake Passage, whale sightings were getting more common. Up until now, the only whale sightings I’d seen were of blows, fins and flukes from miles away, which make for some very unimpressive photos.
Imagine how fantastic it was when the announcement went out:
“ A pod of at least twenty humpback whales are around the ship, primarily on the starboard side. We’re slowing the ship down to make the most of this opportunity.“
Talk about being galvanised into activity!
I had my phone with me, but no coat, so I ran to get a spot at the lounge windows.
The whales were so close. They were feeding, so they were surfacing and diving, but only in shallow dives so they were repeatedly coming up to the surface.
I had my phone positioned just below my eyes and I was pressing the photo button every time I saw something… which meant that I had a LOT of photos to go through after this was over. It was the only way I could think of getting a balance between actually experiencing it all with my eyes as well as trying to get a record of it.
The whales stayed near us for around 20 minutes, I guess, which was ample time to get that “whale watching “ box well and truly ticked off.
Afterwards, Eneko came by as we were all talking and he showed me some videos that he took of the whales from the deck outside. They were fantastic- so much better than my crappy photos.
We spent the rest of the day in the lounge, where I may or may not have taken a nap. People were flicking through their photos to choose which ones they were going to submit for the photo competition, sometimes asking for opinions from others.
It was a funny day. I think we were all coming down from the absolute high which was Antarctica.
Eneko was persuaded by Corrina and Liga to play a game of poker with them, to teach them how to play better. Poor guy, he was really reluctant to do it, because he’s used to playing 10 games at a time behind his computer screen. I got the distinct impression that face-to-face poker games don’t have much appeal for him.
They were sitting near me and I tuned out as I was reading a novel, but I surfaced at one point to hear him, looking at Corrina’s cards, saying, “No, no, you shouldn’t play this hand of cards,” and Corrina, totally bewildered, saying, “But why not??”
He was trying to explain and I could see his brain trying desperately to translate from Spanish to English something that, to him seemed so obvious, but to the girls was a mystery. It must have been a long night for poor Eneko!
All of us had bought seasickness patches the night before, but I think we could probably have done without them. The Drake Lake was living up to its name as we glided on through.
Only one full day to go…
DRAKE LAKE DAY 2:
This is where Frogdancer Jones gets a prize in the photo competition that she didn’t even enter. Even I’m astonished at the amount of good luck that this trip has let me experience.
The Drake Passage was even calmer today than it was yesterday, which seemed a little unbelievable, but there it was. The morning was spent packing our bags, giving back our muck boots and generally coming back down to earth.
Corrina set up a WhatsApp group so we could share photos. We’ve been talking on it ever since. 🙂
After lunch we were all called to the lounge and Ross went through the photo competition entries. There were 126 spread out over the 3 categories and everyone had one vote in each category.
Earlier in the day, we made Michael, a guy we’d met on the cruise, submit a photo of polar bears he took in the Arctic a couple of years before, in the “Fun” section. It got a huge laugh, but sadly, didn’t make the final cut.
At around 5PM we all got a hell of a surprise. There, ahead of the ship, were lights. We were already approaching Ushuaia… 12 hours ahead of schedule. That shows just how flat the Drake Passage was during our two days.
Over our last dinner, the boys and I sat near SamFrank. Someone asked him what he did for a living, (he was back to being a colonel again) and then I asked him what he did for fun when he wasn’t working.
“Oh, I teach ballroom dancing. I do a lot of dancing. I also play the guitar – I play a lot of guitar so that I can train my fingers to have lots of sex with my wife.”
I glanced across at Baptiste to see if he was hearing this. His eyes danced back at me. We were both hanging off every word.
“I’m also learning to play the harmonica. I also like to throw dinner parties. Or just any kind of dinner party… I like it when people dress up. I think people behave differently when they are elegantly dressed. Before I met my wife, I always organised every detail. It used to take me the whole day to set the table, decide who was sitting next to who, and to cook the food. Once, a man turned up in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. I made him go home and change.”
After the conversation moved on, I asked the guys to give me a playlist of the band that they both like – a German band called Rammstein. Morgan’s seen them play 47 times. It’s great music to listen to if you want to concentrate on something that you’re doing, because I can’t understand a word of the lyrics. I’m listening to them now as I type – a lovely song called ‘Pussy.’ It’s nice to see that German headbangers are fond of cats.
After dinner we all gathered in the lounge for the photo competition. Morgan had 2 shots in the final and Eneko had one. Not bad representation for our little group!
After the prizes were awarded, Emma, the ship’s doctor, beckoned me over.
“I accidentally submitted a photo in the Wildlife folder instead of the guides’ folder and it won the competition. I don’t feel right about accepting the prize, so I thought you should have it.”
She handed me a penguin soft toy. Maybe I was being rewarded for my bravery during the blood nose episode on Petermann Island?
Liga bought a bottle of Prosecco and shared it with us as we all toasted our friendship. I really hope we run into each other again.
There was a bit more talk about Eneko’s nicknames for us. He let slip a day or two ago that his nickname for Liga was ‘The Black Panther,’ which really suits her. He said that he had a nickname for both Corinna and me, but he was too scared to tell us. Corinna, who was absolutely dying to know what hers could be, finally got a promise from him that he’d tell her on the last day. That would be tomorrow…
I set off to bed at midnight, but a couple of hours after that, some of the crew came up to the lounge and took some people out into Ushuaia to the Irish pub. Corinna didn’t get back until 4 AM. That 7:30 AM wake-up call for breakfast must’ve been hard…
I took this photo on the last night because I couldn’t believe that Ming was STILL wearing her polar layers 24/7, even when we were back in port. When was she going to shed the yellow gortex?
A DAY IN USHUAIA DURING WORLD CUP SEMI FINALS:
The mood was subdued at breakfast. No one wanted to leave.
Baptiste said at breakfast, looking sadly out of the window, “I just want to wreck the boat. Demolish it. If I can’t go back, then no one else should!” Trust me, it sounds better when it’s said in a mournful French accent.
As soon as we were off the ship and on the dock, the sky turned grey and the wind picked up. It was a bit creepy, as if our good luck with the weather only worked if we were on the ship.
Corrina asked Eneko for her nickname.
“No, not yet,” he said, gesturing back towards the sea. “There’s nowhere for me to run away here.”
“Oh my God, what IS it?” she shrieked. “It can’t be that bad, surely?”
Little did she know, but Eneko told the boys and me the nickname over breakfast. It was the ‘British Bear’, like Winnie the Pooh. I was ‘ The Australian Penguin.’ Now that I come to think about it, Eneko was always there when I’d fall down, get up and cheerfully waddle off again, so fair enough.
When we wheeled our luggage to the street, Eneko finally told Corrina her name. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention Winnie the Pooh and instead said it was like a grizzly bear. She was half laughing, half confused. I don’t blame her!
Today was the day when I realised truly how beautiful these people are. Some of them were due to leave Ushuaia that day, while some were like me and were staying an extra night. They all decided to walk with me back to my hotel.
Corrina took my carry-on bag and Morgan took my suitcase. We trundled through the streets of Ushuaia, passing a very hungover Garret and Timo, who were part of the late-night Irish pub visit with Corinna. I was chatting to Garret outside a shop and I mentioned that I could still feel the ground moving under my feet, as if I was still on the ship. “Really?’ he said. “I thought it was just my hangover.
Everyone dropped their bags at my hotel. Then we split up. Morgan and Baptiste decided to go to the nearby national park and do a 10 km hike. Liga wanted to climb a mountain track, while Eniko wanted to go to his B and B.
Corrina and I stayed in the hotel foyer, using the wifi to contact friends and family.
Scott from the UK let me know that after I’d left Australia, a woman was killed in a freak accident when crossing the Drake Passage. It wasn’t the Drake Lake, clearly. A freak wave hit the side of the ship and broke a window.
“I quickly googled the name of the ship but I knew it wouldn’t be you. You’re Fortunate Frogdancer!”
When the boys were about to return, we went to a restaurant and grabbed lunch. The four of us ordered, then sat on the wifi. On a whim, I decided to check my emails.
This was my first indication that the luck of Fortunate Frogdancer was starting to sputter and conk out.
There were2 emails from my travel agent. The first one said that I was leaving Ushuaia THAT DAY. What?!?
I fished out my printed itinerary. I leave tomorrow, according to this. So which one was correct? We tried calling the 24-hour help number ( not helpful… it was all recorded messages) and we tried checking in. Nothing was definite.
Then Morgan remembered that there was a shop on the waterfront for Argentinian Airlines and offered to take me there to sort it out. We said goodbye to Corrina and after the boys collected their bags, we walked to the shop.
I was feeling bad. This was their last couple of hours here, where they could be doing anywho there than chasing up my flight. We took our place in the queue and waited. After a while, I said to them, “Look, why don’t you go and find something more fun to do? I can see it through from here.”
Morgan looked seriously at me.
“ You are not my responsibility as tour leader anymore. That finished at the docks. This is a matter of friendship. “ Baptiste nodded.
Omg. Could they be any more wonderful? Morgan and Baptiste are just the best people in the world.
A couple of minutes later everything was sorted out. My printed itinerary was correct, and as a bonus, the nice man behind the counter also allocated me aisle seats for my first two flights.
After a coffee in a café, it was time for them to leave for the airport. They headed for the taxi rank and I headed back to my hotel.
That afternoon, Argentina was due to play in the World Cup semifinal against Croatia. Garret, Timo and a few other people decided that we should all meet at The Hard Rock Cafe to watch the game. I’d counted my Argentinian pesos and discovered I was running really low so I decided I wasn’t going to go. I lay down on the bed with a book…
… and woke to a message on WhatsApp asking where I was. I replied that I was running out of cash. No World Cup shenanigans for me!
Timo replied, “We have enough pesos between us to buy you a drink. Get yourself down here!”
As I walked out of my room, I saw the first Argentinian goal on the tv in the dining room. When I was halfway to the Hard Rock Café, I heard screaming from all over the place, so I ducked into a café to watch the replay of the second goal.
Turns out that they go mental whenever a goal is scored. It was so much fun.
By the time I reached the group, I was really hoping that they’d kick a third. I wanted to see the crowd’s reaction.
Afterwards, we stayed back for another drink and just as that finished, I turned and looked out the window. The street was jam-packed full of people. I raced to the door.
All the way up the main street of Ushuaia, people were walking, cheering and singing. It was wall to wall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier crowd.
As you can see, the whole town was out. You can hear me at some stage saying to someone, “It’s bloody beautiful!”
After the people came the cars. I think everyone who lives in Ushuaia was there, celebrating that their team was now in the final. I said goodbye to everyone and made my way back home.
As I ate the leftover of the massive half-a-tart that I ordered for lunch ( frugality for the win) I could still hear the celebrations. They went on for hours. Clearly, this is a country that loves soccer. There was lots of noise for a while, but it was happy noise. It made me smile.
(Only one more post to go. The trip isn’t over just yet…)
Straight after breakfast this morning, we were called into the lounge for a briefing. There were two women from Port Lockroy.
This port used to be a whaling station back in the day and there are still chains near the entry, along with whale bones left lying in the water.
The port is open for 6 months and every year over 4,000 people apply for the 4 available positions. This year 4 women are there, performing a mix of scientific, postal and public relations jobs.
Every day they are visited by 2 cruise ships, so their only quiet times are early in the mornings and after dinner, where they sit and stamp that day’s amount of the 70,000 postcards that they receive over the course of the season.
I only sent two. Didn’t want to overwork them. I would’ve sent one to James from Ireland, seeing as we sent each other postcards from Pyongyang, but I didn’t have his address.
This time, instead of being split into two groups, we passengers were split into three. Over the course of the morning, we’d have a landing neat gentoo penguins, a zodiac cruise around the bay for around 45 minutes, and a trip to the actual base at Port Lockroy. Which order anyone got to do all of this was completely luck of the draw.
Naturally, this worked in my favour. Again.
In the early parts of the morning, the guides were very conscious of time. I jumped on a zodiac which happened to be doing the landing on Jougla Island first. When we made our way up the dug out snow staircase, Rose grabbed me, made me sit on a barrel and she put my snowshoes on. They were hustling people along – no mucking around!
I didn’t realise it at the time, but they had to ensure that all of us had seen Port Lockroy and were all back on the ship before the next cruise arrived.
You can see in the photo how the landing teams put everything on a tarp, which is sterilised after we get back on board. They are really very worried about avian flu coming down here from the northern hemisphere. It could decimate the bird populations here.
Then we were off, trudging our way along the path laid out by the red poles the guides had planted earlier.
It was a cracking morning. The sun was so bright that I had to keep reminding myself to wear my sunglasses. I didn’t want to experience snow blindness like Baptiste did a couple of days ago.
It wasn’t a particularly long walk, just across a flat patch and then up a small hill where there were a couple of penguin colonies, along with a wonderful view of the bay. I took it slowly though, conscious that this was my last day.
The Gentoos were making the “hee-haw” sound that had already become so familiar. The air was cool and the sky was brilliantly blue. The penguins, the sound of snowshoes on snow and the murmuring of people talking were the only sounds I could hear.
I stayed up here for what seemed like ages. It was unutterably beautiful. The penguins were busily doing their own thing, with the occasional bird swooping around.
At one point, down the hill near a penguin colony, a stupid group of Vietnamese people strayed off the path, just to get a photo opportunity holding up their flag.The guides were quickly onto it.
“It’s not the flag I object to,” said one of the guides when I mentioned it later. “It’s the crevasses that are in the area.”
With conditions so perfect, I guess it’s hard for some people to keep in mind that we’re not in a tame place. But seriously, if you want to come to one of the most untouched and isolated places on Earth, do your research! Stepping into a crevasse could kill you.
After a while, I snowshoed my way back down the hill and got into a zodiac. Turned out, this one was on a cruise. Our last one…
We were lucky enough to see two seals out sunning themselves. Zoom in on the second photo – the seal’s on the rocks.
I was sitting in the front of the zodiac again, and I was so glad the sea was calm. I could have my iPhone out all the time without being concerned about waves splashing.
We passed by colonies of Antarctic/Blue-Eyed Shags building their nests from seaweed. Every year they come back to the same place and build on top of the nest they had before. Right in the middle, you can see one nest getting precariously tall.
None of us wanted the cruise to end. We went further afar, looking at the amazingly sculpted icebergs and gazing at the glaciers spilling into the bay.
Eventually the call came for our group to go to the steps carved into the snow to reach the base at Port Lockroy.
I didn’t know it then, but this was to be extra special, especially for all of us who were on the last zodiacs to arrive.
Port Lockroy is home to thriving colonies of Gentoo penguins, who make robust use of the buildings on the base. This means that when the people who live on the base each October arrive, the penguins are already well established.
They live under the old post office, all around the storage shed and there’s even a colony that has parked itself directly under the flag pole.
This means that for the first time on this trip, the 5 metre rule couldn’t be adhered to. I took this video as I was queuing up to go into the post office. I couldn’t believe how close the penguins were coming to us.
When we first arrived, I was charmed to see the penguins nesting under the old building, but I was more focused on getting inside and looking around.
The museum is set up as if it was the 1950s.
It was very utilitarian.
There was a stamp that we could get for our passports with ‘ Port Lockroy’ on it. I’d already got the ‘Ushuaia’ and ‘Antarctica’ stamps from the tourist office in Ushuaia, which may or may not make some countries’ immigration people dislike me, so I thought I may as well get the whole set while I was at it.
I had a quick look at the museum, but it was outside where the real magic lay.
Remember how I said that the guides were really conscious of time with this landing?
Now that we were on the last round, that urgency melted away. We were there for well over an hour and a half.
Ninety minutes in a place where the penguins were literally all around us. What a way to finish the landings!
And, as I said, they were so close.
It was crazy. I’d be standing, looking at penguins coming back to the base along their penguin highways, when I’d hear a quiet little “shuffle, shuffle “ noise coming up behind me.
I’d turn, and there would be a penguin literally 1 foot behind me, making his way back to the bay.
It was incredible.
They were totally focused on building their nests, with many birds waddling along clutching a pebble with their beaks.
They were all around us, walking, ( and tripping and falling), while we were marvelling at our incredible luck to be here at this place and time. What an absolutely precious hour and a half that was.
As the guides with the other groups dropped their zodiac groups back on the ship, they’d come across to the base.
Every time someone asked if it was time to go back to the zodiacs, they’d say, “There’s no rush…”
Liga and I looked at each other. We didn’t need to be told twice!
I took more videos here than I did on the rest of the trip combined. By now, the sound of the Gentoos was utterly familiar, as well as their waddling gait and optimism in the face of everything.
But this was the last time I’ll be here with them. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Just before we finally left, a bird stole an egg. I was at the wrong angle to take a shot of the actual theft, but as we were walking back to the zodiacs I snapped THIS SHOT.
The sheathbills sneak in, peck a hole in the egg and come back later to eat the insides. If you zoom in you can see the hole in the egg. It’s sad. The penguins only lay two eggs.
But of course, the skuas and sheathbills also have families to raise. Plus the egg would taste a lot better than the sheathbills’ normal food – penguin poo.
As we were enjoying lunch that was definitely tastier than penguin poo or penguin eggs, the ship began to move out of the bay. We were on our way home. Two days at sea, crossing the Drake Passage, and then we’d be back at Ushuaia.
At the briefing that night before dinner, Pippa asked if we wanted to get the weather forecast for the Drake. Would it be a shake or a lake?
She put up a picture of the weather chart.
“Of course, seeing as it’s you guys, the weather forecast for our entire crossing is blue,” she said, and started to laugh as we all cheered.
She pointed to the lower left-hand corner of the chart.
“You can see here that there’s a purple monster blizzard heading this way, but this will affect the group that’s coming after you. Your group has been truly blessed with unprecedented good weather.”
She went on to say, “ The one landing we had where it was grey and snowing, I had a few of you asking if it was safe to go out.” She laughed. “ It was safe. That’s considered great weather for landings in Antarctica.
“ The last group we had was a 21-day cruise including the Falkland and South Georgia Islands. The weather was so bad that they only had ONE landing for the entire trip. You guys have been incredibly lucky.”
Wow. I already knew from Morgan that the trip I was originally meant to go on last year had pretty bad weather, but this was on another plane of terrible. I sat there thanking all of the gods that my tour company picked this out of all possible weeks to go.
Ross, the guide from Cornwall, then announced the photo competition. There were 3 categories: Landscape, Wildlife and Fun. People had a few hours to enter, then the whole ship would vote, with the 3 favourites from each category ending up in the finals to be announced on the last night of the cruise.
There was no way I was entering. I was actually pretty pleased with how well my iPhone 6 performed, but it’s no match for the latest iPhones and wildly expensive cameras and lenses that lots of people were using. I was definitely sitting this one out.
We stayed up late in the lounge, talking, reading and the card players doing their thing. SamFrank joined us as we were talking to an American guy who was in the military. He, (SamFrank), mentioned that he was a colonel in the special forces.
From memory, SamFrank is a captain, a colonel and a general in the FBI and Special Forces who is also a dance instructor, presumably in his spare time.
We were late in the afternoon getting to Damoy Point, the place where we’ll be exploring. My group was scheduled to be the first to land and then we’d swap with the other group to do another zodiac cruise.
Over lunch we watched the weather get more and more grey. It started to snow.
The topic on everyone’s mind was the Polar Plunge. It was scheduled to happen after the afternoon’s activities.
Now, before we go any further, I should let you know that on this ship, the Polar Plunge isn’t simply a jump into the sea from the doors on deck 3. No, no, no. Apparently, that’s too dangerous. People have had heart attacks from doing it that way.
Pfft. As if…!
What the Polar Plunge is on this ship is a slow walk into the sea from a rocky beach, with the water inching up your body in an excruciating dance as you force yourself through ice-cold water to get to a point where it’s deep enough to submerge yourself, all while balancing on rocks that shift under your feet.
How do I know this? I saw Morgan’s video of himself doing it last year. It looked awful. I don’t know why this slow torture is considered safer than a short, sharp plunge into the sea, but there it is.
So everyone’s asking each other, “Are you doing the Polar Plunge?” “I’m thinking of doing it, how about you?” “I’m not doing it!”
Morgan didn’t exactly inspire confidence. When asked if he was going to do it – “I’ve done it once. I don’t have to do it again…”
Now, I packed my bathers. I like to keep all of my options open for ‘once in a lifetime’ things like this. But as lunch progressed, the weather outside got greyer. It began to look COLD out there. I didn’t expect the Polar Plunge to be fun, but it was definitely looking like weather that I did NOT want to strip down to my bathers in.
By the time we were called to get into the zodiacs, the sea was heaving and it was still lightly snowing. I know it’s entitled and selfish of me, but I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed. This is real Antarctic weather, but where was the clear sky of yesterday?
As I looked around, Baptiste was missing. He and Morgan are usually always together. It turned out that Baptiste had snow blindness from yesterday and this morning. His eyes are such a pale blue and even though he had sunnies on, they weren’t wraparound ones and so the glare from the sun on the snow messed up his eyes. The poor guy couldn’t stop crying and was staying in his bunk for the afternoon. We sent the doctor to look at him but it’s something only time could fix.
Morgan was also suffering. He was bright red from sunburn. Ahhh, the French! They may have one of the best accents in the world, but they don’t have the sun smarts of your regular Aussie.
When we landed at Damoy Point I discovered why it’s best to be the second group to land. Snow that hasn’t been trodden on is soft. It’s deep. If someone… say, me for example… steps where no one else has stepped before, she just might sink up to the top of her leg in the snow. Now I see why snowshoes were invented, though they’re still not foolproof. (I won’t tell you how I know this.)
After my snowshoes were on, I set off, following the bright pink plump gortex bum belonging to a sturdy German woman. I figured that she’d pack the snow down pretty well for me. It worked. I made it to the Gentoo rookeries without further mishap.
But this time we were getting a taste of what the Arctic is like. The wind was whistling and the air was cold. Not TOO cold, for my 5 layers of clothing, but I was certainly keeping all layers zipped up and close to my throat, unlike yesterday.
There was a little hut that has been saved as a historic artifact – the British had a landing strip here at some stage and the hut was used for men to wait for the plane – but you had to take your snowshoes off to go in. It was such a palaver to put my snowshoes on in the first place that I ignored the hut and trudged on.
There was no snow, but the wind was whistling past us. There was a track straight to near where the penguins were, and then the trail looped around down by the bay to see sweeping views.
By this time I’d lost the others and I was trudging through the snow on my own. I kept weighing up what to do about the Polar Plunge. As I said before, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance… but the weather was getting greyer and more windy. Just the thought of having that wind whipping around my nether regions while they were wet from the sea was almost giving me frostbite.
I dug my chin into my scarf and kept walking. I was getting very unhappy about that damned Plunge.
Still, even though the day’s weather wasn’t the best, the place still had an extraordinary beauty – wild and untamed.
There were two rookeries right near us, but a third one was way, way away on the top of a hill. Quite a hike for those little guys to get up and down the hill on those pudgy little legs.
Then it was time for the swap over to the zodiacs. Imagine my absolute joy when Pippa, the tour leader, announced that the Polar Plunge has been cancelled for today.
“YES!!!!!!” I yelled, fist-pumping the sky. I was so elated that I nearly tumbled into the sea then and there.
Let’s see what tomorrow’s weather would bring.
I have to say, I’m loving the zodiacs. It’s amazing how much you can see from so low in the water.
But look at what another group experienced, while I was slogging my way across the ice. How incredible! I think it was Charlie who shared this video with me:
He said that they were a little worried that it might try to take a bite out of the zodiac. They would have been safe if it did, though. On the first day, I remember our guide saying that a seal would have to puncture more than a third of the sections of a zodiac before it would start to sink.
Look at this little guy.
We were bobbing around in the bay when another zodiac zipped across to us. The kitchen staff had decided to bring us hot chocolate with whipped cream and rum to keep us warm.
Liga asked for no whipped cream but 2 shots of rum. Smart girl!
Drinking a cup of hot chocolate in the middle of a bay in Antarctica is something special.
So is seeing this. A blue iceberg.
We all tumbled back into the ship and joined up again for dinner. As usual, the food was sumptuous. I looked out of the window at one stage and saw HORIZONTAL SNOW. This doesn’t bode well for tomorrow…
Then we went up one deck to the lounge and settled in for another quiet evening. The girls usually played cards with whoever wanted to join them, while the rest of us quietly chatted, read or caught up on our blog writing. (That’d be me. I get antsy when I’m on holidays if I don’t get the day’s events written down for the blogs.)
Morgan said, “We’re not far from Ghana… according to my phone!”
Corinna came up to me later that night and pulled me aside. Her face was alight.
“I have more on SamFrank!” she said.
“Tell me. Tell me now!” I said.
“You know how Eneko shares a cabin with him? Well, he was telling Eneko this afternoon that he is a dance instructor.”
We both burst out laughing.
“So, then Eneko told him to prove it, so SamFrank started doing the tango around the cabin!”
This morning was a bit of an earlier start. We were out in the zodiacs by 8 am, cruising around Paradise Bay. This time, all 5 of us were in the same boat, which made it more fun.
The first thing we went to see was cormorants nesting in the cliffs. This is Morgan taking what are probably far better pictures than me, but at least in this shot you can get an idea of the cliffs we were looking at.
There was great excitement when we realised that there were a couple of chicks there. The best shot I could get was this one – you can see the chick’s head peering out from under the mother in the nest on the left if you zoom in.
The guide driving our zodiac is a birder in his free time. In fact, most of the guides have a burning interest in something bird -ish, plankton-ish, to do with whales, seals and sounds in the sea, etc. With this job they get paid for following their passions.
“I think that the animals in the Antarctic get too much press,” he said. “The birds are equally as interesting… and as beautiful.”
We stayed there for a while, then word came over the walk-in talkies that there was at least one humpback whale in the bay, right beside the glacier.
Other zodiacs were closer to it than us, so we hung back to let them get a good look. Dammit. But there’s one good thing about being on a tour and having friends – Eneko was on a different zodiac. A closer zodiac. And he likes to take videos.
This is what I saw. Zoom in beside the light blue iceberg on the right.
There’s a rule that there should be 4 zodiacs at the most going near an animal. If it starts to look distressed, angry or starts to try and get away, we turn around and let them go.
This particular whale was feeding. We’d see the blow at first. Then he’d surface and we’d see the arch of his back before he’d slide under the waves again.
We followed him for a fair while before our guide pulled the pin, saying that it looked like he was starting to avoid us, so we should go.
Ah well. In Antarctica it’s the luck of being in the right place at the right time. OR having the right friends who are in a better-placed zodiac.
So do you want to see what Eneko’s zodiac saw? Here it is:
I’m so grateful that people like Eneko and the other members of our group are so generous with their photos and videos.
A few minutes later we saw a leopard seal lying on a little iceberg.
What? You can’t see him?
Here he is, raising his head.
And stretching his flipper.
He was totally unconcerned about us, just lolling around sleepily.
Our guide looked at the sky.
“Looks as if that band of snow might cause us trouble later on when you’re doing the landing,” he said.
I looked where he was looking. The sky was a gun metal grey and the wind was getting colder. I fished out my cowl from my backpack and put it on. Corrina, opposite me, was beginning to shiver.
There was only one patch of blue in the sky.
‘ Never mind,’ I said to myself. ‘This is the sort of weather that people expect to have when they come here. It’d be unreasonable to expect another day like yesterday.’
But I still felt a bit wistful.
We continued cruising around, going up to a glacier for a closer look. Not too close though. If ice fell off the glacier if we were right in front of it, we could be swamped by the wave it would cause.
After a little while it was our turn to go ashore.
We slowly moved towards an Argentinian research base called Almirante Brown. It’s only used in the summer and it was still deserted, so we were able to use it. It has a landing area, which makes it convenient.
Crazy true story about this place. Back in the day, this base used to be manned all year round. A doctor was stationed there for a year. He was all set to come home when Argentina radioed the base and said that he had to stay for another winter. Or another year. Anyway, a lot longer.
So he went mad and burned the place down. Now they only have people there in the warmer months of the year.
As we made our way towards the little landing steps, there were Gentoo penguins on the pebbly beach. Someone asked if they were nesting there and our guide said, no, they were just resting after being in the sea. They won’t nest there because of the tide.
“ Last year on a different beach I saw what must have been a couple of inexperienced penguins building a nest very close to the tide. When we went back the next day, the nest was gone- completely washed away.”
You can see how closely the penguins live among the buildings. Here is a penguin highway, with traffic going both ways.
Once we made it up the steep stairs, we put on snowshoes and started to make our way along the paths that our guides had laid out earlier that day.
Look! Who would ever have thought I’d need to know about snowshoes?
There was a lower path and a higher path.
The lower path swung right by a couple of Gentoo penguin colonies that had taken over the Argentine camp.
After that, the trodden- down path headed up the hill towards a place that promised a great photo op.
Being fat and unfit as I am, once I had my snowshoes on, I looked up at where the finishing point was and decided that I’d stick to the low path.
It was beautiful. Even though there were buildings here, in a strange way they seemed to enhance the scene, rather than detract from it. The penguin colonies were smaller here, but the were still just as gossipy, with their cries that sound a little bit like a donkey’s bray echoing from one group to another.
It’s fascinating to stand and look at the penguins. There’s always something to see. They’re such busy, sociable creatures.
Plus, it helps that they look so comical when they walk.
After watching them for a while, I kept walking along the track. As I got a little higher, the view that I was aiming for gradually appeared.
It was a little bay. Words can’t do it justice…
Once I’d viewed my fill, I snowshoed back to the fork in the road, where I decided to keep going to the top. I figured I could stop every now and then to catch my breath and pretend to take a photo.
No one would know…
Liga: “Come on Frogdancer! You’re nearly here!”
I was so glad I made myself do it. The weather was fine. A little grey, maybe, but clear and sunny.
The view was incredible.
No, not this view. This is just us spelling ‘ICE.” We’re not allowed to sit on the snow, remember? So this was the best we could do.
I stayed up there for ages, not able to tear myself away from how magical it all was.
On the way down, I accidentally strayed off the path and suddenly I was up to my thigh in snow. Oops. Went on the wrong side of the red pole.
Luckily for me, Morgan was nearby, just waiting for a phto op as I was starting to get up:
I was proud of myself though. I was able to stand up again without needing anyone’s help.
Off I walked, a sadder and wiser woman…
All this extra sadness and wisdon didn’t help me when, 10 minutes later while I was waiting for a zodiac, I tripped over someone’s discarded snowshoes and almost face planted in the snow.
Not my most graceful day.
Our tour group leader Morgan sent photos of himself to his family showing that he was wearing a teeshirt yesterday. His brother wrote back, “Why are you wearing a tee shirt? It looks like it’s warmer at the South Pole than it is in France! We’ve really fucked up the planet.”
During lunch I made sure to sit where I could see the views from the windows. People were there laughing and talking, while all the while there was the most spectacular scenery on Earth silently gliding past.
What an extraordinary experience I’m having!
But something momentous is looming over me, something that will be incredibly difficult for me to achieve. Yet achieve it I must.
Maybe I’ll do it.
I said I would do it, but I don’t have to…
But I made sure to pack my bathers.
The sea water is currently between 0 and 2 degrees. That’s NOT in my comfort zone.
While we were sitting in the dining room, eating our lunch, someone got wildly excited and started telling and pointing out of the window.
We all saw a whale breach just enough to blow a spout and then twice show its tail as it dived. Very exciting. It’s probably lucky the shop has stabilisers because fully 100% of the passengers all ran to our side of the ship to catch a glimpse.
This post is pretty much icebergs.
We saw a seal but my photos of it were pretty bad. The photo at the top of the post was taken by someone else.
In the afternoon we were going to have another landing but there was too much ice in the opening of the bay, so instead, both groups were taken out on the zodiacs to cruise around.
We were sailing around, looking for whales and seals but there weren’t a lot to be found, except that one seal I’ve already mentioned.
But no one cared.
It was simply enough to be here and to experience the beauty that was all around us.
At one stage we passed by a huge chunk of black ice. This is ice that is perfectly clear because it has spent thousands of years being slowly compressed until every skerrick of air is gone. Rose, our guide, got one of the men to fish it out so she could take it to the dining room.
I took this video to try and show you what it sounds like as the zodiac moves over and through the ice. It’s a cracking, crunching sound. At the end, you can hear the conversation the guys in the boat were having about using the black ice.
My absolute favourite out of all the ice is the blue ice. It’s simply stunning. I’ve taken hundreds of photos to try to show you just how beautiful it is.
Some of the icebergs have weird and wonderful designs on them. This is because at some stage they’ve flipped right over, so we’re seeing what used to be the underside, which has been sculpted by the water.
All too soon it was time to go back. Ridiculous! We’d only been out for 3 hours or so!
In the next photo, please have a good look at the rectangular iceberg in the middle and a little to the left of the shot. It stars in the next little story…
As we were putt-putting towards the ship, all of a sudden there was a huge CRACK. As our heads swiveled to the left, a huge chunk of ice slid off the back of a rectangular iceberg and crashed into the sea.
There’s no photo of the actual event, sorry. It all happened so quickly. Morgan’s zodiac had passed a lot closer to it and they noticed a huge crack running up the side of it. They wondered if they should hang around just in case it calved, but of course you never know exactly when these things are going to happen.
But what an amazing thing to see! I’d say that it was one more tick off my list of things to see, but I didn’t even consider that something like this would happen just as we were going past.
We met for dinner and spent the evening together almost dazed at what we’d seen that day. From the very first moment we were out of the ship until the end of the day when we came back after cruising around the bay, the day was something magical.
I know that behind the scenes there’s a lot of work that goes on by the crew to ensure that we tourists have a wonderful experience. But all of their work, combined with the utterly perfect weather, made this a day to remember.
I was hot by the time it was our turn to go on land. As you can see by the photo, I’d unzipped my jackets and pulled up one of my merino tops, just to let some cool air in. This was definitely not what I was expecting from Antarctica!
The wrap around sunnies that I’m wearing turned out to be a good buy. They’re polarising, so any glare from the sun on the snow was mitigated. Some of the people in our little group weren’t so lucky…
The crew had prepared the landing site for us, with one path going up the hill, while the other stayed down near sea level, near 3 Gentoo penguin rookeries.
Being unfit, I stayed down on the lower level, which I regretted afterwards. I didn’t let my perceived level of fitness hold me back again. I was surprised by how much I could do. (aka: EVERYTHING.)
At this stage of the year, the penguins are mating, building nests and starting to lay their eggs. There have been some really heavy snowfalls this winter, so their mating season has been delayed.
It didn’t seem to put a dampener on their ardour. We saw lots of baby penguins being made.
I saw many penguins making their way up from the sea, carrying stones in their beaks to make their nests.
They were so intent on their task. They’d walk up along their penguin highways – and occasionally on ours – carefully carrying a stone. If they tumbled and fell, which happens surprisingly often, they’d be unflappable. They’d pick themselves up and carry on. Sometimes they’d stay lying down and take a sip of snow, as if they’d been planning to do this all along.
Each year a pair of penguins will lay two precious eggs.
We saw a Skua fly away with a stolen egg, then land a few feet away and start to eat it.
I know that the skuas need to feed their babies too, but it was still sad to watch.
One of the guides said, “ It’s worse later in the season once the chicks are born. The Skua scavenge on dead birds and live chicks.”
I’m really glad I didn’t get to see a live chick being torn apart, or dangling helplessly from a skua’s beak as it dragged it away…
One of the most important rules when on land is that you don’t interfere with the penguins. If one crosses your path, you have to stop and let it pass. They have brains the size of a walnut, so sometimes they get confused and forget where they were going, so they just stand and stare at you.
We always try and keep a 5m gap between us and them.
When we first reached land, I headed off down the path on my own and had a good 10 minutes of alone time, just watching the penguins in the rookery and looking at the scene around me. I could still hear voices, but the noise of the penguins was far louder.
I felt like the luckiest woman in the world. Here I was, standing a scant few metres away from these wild things, while the backdrop of huge chunks of ice glittering in the sun was all around me.
Not many people get to experience this.
Especially with weather like this. I crossed my fingers and hoped that it’d continue.
I saw penguin courtship behaviour, where they bow to each other very solemnly. I didn’t get a video, unfortunately, but it was very formal and medieval courtly love, like an ancient dance.
I saw a couple of clumsy penguins losing their balance and tipping over.
Then I saw a few hundred more. Honestly, for such pretty birds, their design is far more suited to the sea than on land.
But that just makes them all the more endearing.
Words cannot do justice to the absolute beauty and majesty of this place. It’s incomparable.
All too soon it was time to go back to the ship.
We got back into the zodiacs, feeling so privileged to have been able to experience this perfect morning. Bad weather can blow up here in a matter of minutes, so come what may, we’ve experienced this absolute pearl of a time.
The plan is that while we’re having lunch, the ship will take us to a new location, where we’ll go out and explore.
On the way back to the ship, I had a ‘Venice’ moment. I was sitting front of the zodiac and we were whipping along. Wind was buffeting my face and I closed my eyes, just as I did in Venice as we were about to enter the main canal. When I opened my eyes, there was the beauty of Venice laid out before me.
Today, I closed my eyes and let the wind buffet my face, just as I did then. When I opened them, there was the blue ship framed by white icebergs. It was stunning, in a totally different way to Venice.
At around 4:30 AM I woke with a start. It was pitch black in the cabin. The ‘swish swish’ noise was back.
It … it was getting closer.
It was coming down the ladder towards me…
It was Ming! Her bright yellow Gortex parka and waterproof pants were swishing together as she moved. She swish-swished to the bathroom and then swish! swish! as she grabbed some things in the cabin. Then she swished out the door. I rolled my eyes, then closed them and went back to sleep.
When the morning announcement woke us, I leapt out of bed and opened the blinds. Right outside our porthole was a chunk of ice floating merrily by. I leaped like a gazelle into the shower, threw on some clothes and bolted for the deck.
There were surprisingly few people up there.
The air was crisp and cool. I didn’t wear gloves and after a few minutes, my hands started to feel it. Everyone who was on deck was grinning delightedly at each other and taking photos.
There were a few gasps as a small group of penguins broke the water’s surface as they swam to find food.
We learned in one of the lectures we’d had that it takes less energy for a penguin to continually leap out of the water when it swims, rather than swim in a straight line with its body always in the water.
My hands began to feel too cold, so I went back inside to grab breakfast. We were all sitting together, very excited for the morning that was about to unfold.
The passengers had been divided into two groups. There are strict rules about how many people are allowed to go ashore at any one time. No more than 100 people at a time, and if you are on a ship that has more than 500 passengers on board, you cannot go ashore at all.
In Antarctica, less is definitely more. We had 150 passengers. Half would go ashore while the other half would cruise around for an hour and a half in the zodiacs. Then we’d swap.
We were in all the same group, except for Ming. She was in the group that was going to go onto Cuverville Island first, while our group was going on a zodiac tour around the bay.
Over breakfast, we heard the story about a guy who was on the ship a couple of years ago, who smuggled a penguin under his coat and hid it in his shower recess for two days. It was discovered by a cleaner. When the ship docked back in Ushuaia, he was taken away and arrested.
Was it true? I hope not. I felt just awful for the poor, bewildered penguin.
After breakfast all four of us piled into our cabin. Unsurprisingly, Ming was the first to be ready, seeing as all she had to put on was the lifejacket and muck boots. She’d been in her 5 layers of clothing for 2 days now! The rest of us struggled into our layers and helped each other to shrug on our life jackets. We were talking nervously, waiting for the call to go out for our group to report to the zodiac boarding deck for the first time.
Before we knew it, we were off!
A zodiac is like an inflatable boat that seats up to 10 – 12 people. You plant yourself on the sides of the boat with your feet on the floor. It’s possible to stand up, though the driver asks that you ask for permission first. Obviously, if the sea is rough you’d be crazy to try. It’s very fast and manoeuvrable and is (almost) impossible to capsize.
Luckily for us, the sea was smooth. As we drew closer to the island we could see people walking around, with red poles sticking up from the snow, marking where it was safe to go.
We turned and began putt-putting our way along the side of the island, looking for interesting things to see.
One thing I definitely didn’t expect to see was a sailboat!
The guy driving our boat had heard about it. The people had sailed across the Drake Passage from Ushuaia and had contacted our ship the night before, letting them know that they were there, in case they needed some help if their sailboat was iced in or something. We saw this boat off and on over the next few days. They seemed to be staying in our general neighbourhood.
Look at how thick the snow is! Oh… and if you zoom in, those three smudges lying on the ice are Weddell seals.
In one of the lectures, we learned that the water here is so cold that if the seals kept everything working at full steam when they were swimming, they wouldn’t be able to survive. So a survival mechanism they have is that they can shut bodily functions off – one of them being digestion – until they can reach land. Here they are, enjoying the sunlight and happily digesting penguins, krill and fish.
I could be wrong, but I think this might be a skua. Or a cormorant. Probably a cormorant. Maybe someone from the trip could let us know in the comments.
We could already see that we were going to get up close with some penguin rookeries when it was our turn to get onto the island, but this was our first look at them.
These were Gentoo penguins, which were far and away the most common penguins that we saw on this trip. They are so damned CUTE, so chunky and earnest.
The pinky colour that you can see around them is their poo. They eat a lot of krill and that gives their poo its colour.
Before I got here I read a few comments from people that had come here before me that penguins stink.
That’s not totally true. They do have a whiff of fish paste about them, but it wasn’t overpoweringly horrible, which was what I was afraid of. Of course, I don’t have a great sense of smell – probably from sharing my house with 4 sons for so long – but no one else complained about it, so I rest my case.
Our zodiacs communicated with each other by walkie-talkies. If someone saw some wildlife, they’d let the other ones know.
There was a rule that there were to be no more than 3 or 4 zodiacs near, say, a whale at any one time, so as not to stress the animals out. The guides would all share the time so that the majority of people got to see everything there was to see.
We stayed here for a while, watching these penguins waddle down to the water and then jump in. They looked to be enjoying the sunshine.
We were in water that was perfectly clear, with blue skies above and no wind. Our guides keep saying that we’re so lucky. The cruise before us had bad weather every single day, while Morgan, the YPT team leader who went on the cruise last year, the one that Latestarterfire and I were supposed to go on, said the same thing about that one.
Looks like being trapped in Australia last year with the covid quarantine from the rest of the world turned out to be a good thing after all!
I absolutely fell in love with the aquamarine colour of some of the icebergs. It was startlingly beautiful.
Look. At. This.
Like seriously, how is any landscape able to be so wonderful?
It was quiet. The only sounds we heard were the quiet murmurings of people, the clicking of cameras, the almost braying sound of the penguins floating over to us across the water and the sound of the sea lapping against the boat.
Every now and then a crunch would happen if we slid over the top of some ice.
I began the cruise by rationing the photos I took, because we have another 3 days after this. Someone mentioned a similar thing to the guide and he said, “No, don’t do that. This weather is extremely rare for Antarctica so make the most of it. You’ll see all the guides on land will be taking pictures as well. This sunshine is unbelievable!”
After what seemed like 15 minutes but was actually an hour and a half, we made our way to where the other half of the passengers were queuing to get into the zodiacs.
We were about to set foot on land at last!
A couple of housekeeping things:
Now that we’ve finally reached Antarctica, I’m going to split the days up. I literally took 984 photos, (thanks Charlie for showing me how to count them!), and it’s taking an enormous amount of time to trawl through them all to find the best ones to share with you.
2. After reading yesterday’s post, Morgan reminded me of an even STUPIDER question that was asked on the trip.
It was when we were doing the mandatory briefing on the lifeboats. We were up on the deck, looking at these orange-coloured pods that are able to hold over 100 people for 3 days.
“There will be enough food stored on board to feed 100 people for the time that we’d be waiting for rescue,” said Pippa. “If the call goes out to evacuate to the lifeboats, all we ask is that you bring the water bottle that we gave you on the welcome pack left on your bed. We ask that as soon as you go back to your cabin, you fill it up and have it always ready in case we need to abandon ship.”
I used the word ‘still’ in the title on purpose. Look at the sea. Today we well and truly had the Drake Lake! Also, as promised, the bird photos I’ll be using were taken by other people – these photos are shots taken while we were crossing the Drake Passage.
I slept pretty well, though once or twice a ‘swish swish’ noise floated from somewhere. It didn’t disturb me much and I was woken by the morning announcement by Pippa , with her Scottish accent:
“Goood morning everyone! It’s 7:30 on a beautiful day in the Drake Passage. We have calm seas, blue sky and a forecast top of 3C. Breakfast will be served in 15 minutes. After breakfast, we will have the mandatory briefing on how to board and disembark from the zodiacs, followed by a lecture by Josh about the race to the South Pole. Have a good day!”
We all met in the dining room. SamFrank was there and I realised that this was the first time I’d seen him since the day we set sail. He sat down at the table next to me.
Breakfast started out great! A huge buffet with all sorts of options to suit everybody. Intending to get my money’s worth, I sat down in front of a plate brimming with bacon, scrambled eggs, fruit, yoghurt – even a breakfast pastry.
As I started tucking in, I made the mistake of saying to SamFrank, “I don’t think I saw you yesterday.”
“No, you didn’t see me,” he said earnestly. “I was very seasick. Every time I put anything in my mouth I vomited it straight back up.”
“Oh no, you poor thing,” I said. “Didn’t you buy a patch from the doctor?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “At first I thought I was fine, but then I felt some vomit come into my mouth at dinner so I left very quickly.”
Um… this isn’t the sort of conversation I wanted to have over breakfast. As he kept talking about vomiting, I began to look at my scrambled eggs with a queasy eye.
“At first I was bringing up food, but soon it was just watery…”
“Hey, Frank!” I interrupted. “Let’s not talk about vomiting, ok? It’s not something I want to get in my head when we’re at sea. I’m feeling great and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Ok, yes,” he said. “But what you don’t understand is that as soon as I tried to eat anything it just came right back up ag…”
“Frank! You’re still talking about it! Please stop!”
This time he got the message and after a few moments of conversation with the others at my table, I was able to look at my breakfast, including the scrambled eggs, with a renewed appetite.
Eneko then needed a point to be clarified.
“So, if you need to go to the bathroom when you are on land, that is ok, no?” he asked.
“NO!!!!” we all said at once.
“Oh, not for number twos, of course. But if you need to pee in the snow, that is alright, yes?”
“NO!!!” we all said again.
“You cannot pee in the snow,” said Morgan firmly. “If you need to go that badly, they will take you back to the ship on a zodiac.
I thought of my pee bottle and felt a little smug. I’m really hoping that I don’t have to use it and can bring it back to use as an actual water bottle.
This breakfast was turning out to be quite the exploration of bodily functions…
The bottom two decks are below sea level, so when we are getting in and out of the zodiacs we’ll be doing so by two big doors at sea level on deck 3, which is also the deck that our cabin is on. How convenient!
In the mandatory lecture on zodiac safety we were told that when getting in and out of the zodiac, or whenever we need some help steadying ourselves on sea or land, we’ll need to grab each other’s arms just past the wrist and hold on to each other like that. Simply holding each other’s hands isn’t as strong.
When we get into the zodiac we have to sit on the edge straight away, then slide on our bums over to where we’re going to sit. Same thing when we’re ready to get off. You don’t stand, you slide over to where you’re going to manoeuvre your way out.
Backpacks are on your back when you get in, then once you’re seated you take them off and put them at your feet. Put them back on again just before you disembark.
We were then reminded about the strict rules against sitting, kneeling or lying down on the snow, to try and mitigate the risk of avian flu, which is decimating bird numbers in the northern hemisphere.
Immediately after that reminder, we had the stupidest question of the whole voyage, asked by some doofus guy with an American accent:
“ Can we do snow angels in the snow if we move away from the penguin nests?”
Heavens above. The saintliness of our team leader, Pippa!
“No you can’t,” she said patiently, ” because that would necessitate lying down…”
It must be so hard to answer stupidity like this with courtesy and patience. This is why I like teaching teenagers. I can turn and bang my head against the whiteboard when I get questions at this asinine level and we can all have a good laugh.
Listening to the Scott /Amundsen lecture, I looked out and saw my first albatross soaring against the deep blue of the sea and sky. Drake Lake today.
The lecture about the race to the South Pole was really interesting. The guy included lots of photos and gave lots of information giving us the context of the situation and also what happened afterwards. When I was a child I remember seeing an old black and white movie called ’Scott and the Antarctic’ so his end didn’t come as a surprise. Actually, I still remember the scene when Oates sacrificed himself so the rest of them had a better chance of survival.
Just before lunch I had a great idea. I grabbed my coat and lurked around the dining room door and when it opened I was the second one inside. I ate quickly and then made my way to deck 7, where the bridge is located.
The ship has an open bridge policy, so unless they’re in the middle of navigating through really bad weather, people can pop up there and have a look around at pretty much any time.
To my surprise, I was the only one there. Well, apart from the guy actually steering the ship, of course. We had a bit of a chat, in between him doing his duties. He’s from Russia and spends half his year up North doing Arctic cruises, then he comes down here for Antarctic cruises.
I spent some time there just gazing at the horizon. There was nothing to break the even line between sea and sky no matter where you looked. It felt like we were in the middle of a huge bowl. The sea was placid, birds were swooping around and it was all so peaceful. It’s strange to think that by this time tomorrow we could be seeing icebergs.
After I’d seen enough, I zipped up my jacket and went out on deck. Not 2 minutes later, I saw my first whale. It wasn’t leaping out of the water or anything… I saw the back breach the surface of the water and a spray of seawater was flung upwards. Then, about 20 seconds later, its back broke the water again.
Then, as if to really hammer home that this trip is really happening, it started to snow. OMG. Zoom in. Those white flecks are snowflakes. This is only the 4th time I’ve seen snow falling. I was very excited, much to the bemusement of a guy from Wisconsin.
“This isn’t really a snowfall,” he said. “This is nothing.”
I didn’t care that it only lasted about 4 minutes and then vanished into clear skies again. It’s snow and I’m definitely counting it!
I didn’t care that it only lasted about 4 minutes and then vanished into clear skies again. It’s snow and I’m definitely counting it!
My hands were so cold from trying to take photos of the birds following the ship, but the rest of me was toasty warm. We were warned that windchill is a factor here and clearly the jacket I hired was good at stopping the wind.
Before the afternoon lecture on seals, we were treated to ice cream cones. Very civilised. Then, when the lecture finished at 5:30, the call went out…
… the first sighting of land! Smith Island was on the horizon. Suddenly, it’s real.
We’re almost there!
At dinner, we sat at the table next to Ming and her friends. She’s very easy to spot, because as soon as she set foot on the ship, she put on every layer of polar gear she brought with her and, to the best of my knowledge, she hasn’t taken it off. Her outer layer of Gortex is a bright yellow jacket, so on a ship where everyone is dressed in trackie dacks, jeans and light jumpers, she certainly stands out.
Corinna leaned into my ear, after looking around to ensure no one could hear her.
“Hey Frogdancer, didn’t you and Morgan say that SamFrank said that he worked for the FBI?” she asked.
“That’s what he said when we dropped off the luggage,” I said. “Why?”
Her face lit up with merriment.
“One of the American guys told me that he said that he was in the special forces… as a general!”
We both started laughing.
“Only a couple of days ago he was a captain,” I said. “That’s quite the promotion!”
“The guy said that SamFrank said that he couldn’t tell him what his current mission was, but that he couldn’t be photographed on social media.”
We couldn’t wait to tell the others. And yes, they enjoyed it as much as we did.
Morgan was originally going to share a quad cabin with SamFrank as one of the roommates, but he and Baptiste were allocated different cabins by the ship’s staff, so Morgan organised a swap.
Eneko is stuck in SamFrank’s cabin, but the boys, much to their relief, are not.
We stayed up pretty late – this ‘no sunset until well after midnight’ thing really fools you – and went to bed knowing that when we woke up, the view from our porthole was going to be very different.
I can’t recommend my room in Ushuaia. The room I was assigned at the hotel was the loudest place I’ve ever slept in. The window opened right on the main drag on the harbour and so there were cars and people going past all night.
Why is it that people who are awake and walking around streets in the middle of the night seem to speak at double the volume than they normally would?
I didn’t know it then, but in rooms right near me, two people on my tour, Morgan and Baptiste, were also tossing, turning and thumping their pillows in frustration at the noise.
By 5 AM I’d given up on getting any meaningful sleep so I got up and threw back the curtains. It was sunrise and the harbour looked beautiful. I took a quick shower, grabbed my phone and went out to explore.
It was so quiet. There was hardly anyone around. I carried my fleecy jacket with me but I didn’t need it. A cruise ship was slowly coming into the harbour. “That’ll be me in 10 days,” I said, not knowing that I was getting my first look at the Hondius, which would be my home for the next little while.
The air was crisp and cool, but only my face and hands were feeling it. I couldn’t believe that there were tulips blooming in the ground in summer!
As I was walking, my thoughts turned to coffee. Surely, even on a Sunday morning, there’d be somewhere open? I cut into the streets of the town and asked a passing policeman. Sadly, no. Shops here open at 10 AM. So I wandered back to the hotel, hoping like hell that there’d be someone there at reception to let me back in.
Once I was done with breakfast, I went back to the room and looked at the photocopies of the emails I’d been sent by the travel company. Something suddenly leaped out at me.
“Passengers need to take their bags to a drop-off point between 8 and 11 Am. It was already 9… I was waiting for the meeting we were supposed to have at 10, but what if everyone else had dropped their bags off??
I went to the reception desk and asked the girl to call Morgan’s room. He’s our tour leader. He came down to me and said that he was going to be dropping his bags off in 5 minutes and I was welcome to come with him.
Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! I knew booking a room in the same hotel as the tour leader might come in handy! In a few minutes time he was back, along with his friend Baptiste.
Morgan and Baptiste are from Paris and are in their early 30’s. Morgan is a journalist who is an avid traveller. He went to North Korea 4 years before me in 2014 and we think we might have had the same Koren guide. Baptiste is a policeman, who quietly notices everything that happens around us. You know how you can read in books that someone’s eyes dance when they’re amused by something? Baptiste’s eyes actually do! (And considering some of the people who were on this trip, there were lots of times when our eyes met in mutual appreciation of the ridiculous.)
Morgan was offered a sweet deal – this was his first tour as a leader. He has been travelling with YPT (Young Pioneer Tours) a lot over the years and went on the Antarctica trip that Late Starter Fire and I were supposed to go on last year, before covid locked Australians into not being able to travel overseas.
YPT contacted him and asked if he’d lead the 2022 group, in return for a free trip. What a bargain! Of course, he grabbed it with both hands. He’s no fool!
While we were getting our bags checked in on the waterfront, a small Asian guy with an American accent, wearing a yarmulke came up to us. He was in our group. On the FB group he was called Sam Sampson, but it turns out his real name is Frank.
Morgan introduced us and we briefly chatted, with Frank telling us that he was not allowed to be seen on social media, so he invented the alias “Sam Sampson from New York, New York” to become a member of the FB group. Seemed a little strange, but ok…
Once Morgan and I were looking after our suitcases, he sidled up to Baptiste and said in a low voice,“ We’ll have to compare notes on law enforcement during the voyage. I work with a branch in the states called The Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’m a captain.”
As Baptiste said later, as the three of us were laughing about it, “ Seriously dude, we’ve all heard of the FBI!” My take on it was that it was total BS, but then again, what do I know? (When I got home I looked up ranks in the FBI. Turns out that unless you were a Captain in the military, retired and THEN joined the FBI, there was no such rank. Stay tuned, though. SamFrank, as we called him, is quite the character.)
We had around 6 hours before we had to board the ship and the guys kindly said that I could hang out with them: that day we did a LOT of walking. Ushuaia isn’t very big, so there wasn’t much scope for adventure.
I spotted this soft toy in a shop window. Why on earth would anyone want to buy a kangaroo (with a joey) in Ushuaia? It’s funny what catches the eye, though. None of the others spotted it but it leapt out to the only Aussie in the group.
This is Morgan and Baptiste as we were walking around a lake on the outskirts of town. Did I mention that we did a lot of walking that day?
Around the lake. All over the town.
We stopped for lunch and Corinna joined us. She’s a very confident Italian girl in her late 20’s, who speaks with an English accent. She has the cutest, kittenish face, with a smile and a zest for life that is utterly contagious. Turns out that she was one of my cabin mates, which was a stroke of luck. Again, like Morgan, she has travelled extensively, often to places that not many people go to.
Seriously, Argentina needs to drop a few zeros from their currency. All of these notes were to pay for lunch for 4 people. It was crazy.
After lunch, we still had a couple more hours to fill before we could go to the docks to board the ship. We went to a supermarket to fill in time. Look at the price of this wine!
After walking for a couple more hours after lunch, we were finally able to board the ship. In the queue to board, I met Liga from Riga, Latvia, who was also going to be sharing our cabin. At first meeting, I was intimidated by her. She has an ultra-serious demeanour, coupled with an air of not seeming to take fools gladly and an accent that had very Russian-sounding overtones.
After we’d spent some time talking in the cabin though, I warmed to her. She’s an incredible young woman who has achieved so many things in her life. She was part of her country’s army reserves, she has been a truck driver, and she voluntarily dunks herself in icy cold water every fortnight – (I’ve seen a video of her going into a stream in the middle of winter and breaking the ice on the surface to submerge up to her neck in the water) – and she has also, like the rest of the group, travelled extensively, doing such things as hiking to Everest base camp, carrying everything she needed on her back.
She’s in her late 30’s, fiercely independent and is a single mother to a 5-year-old daughter. Her dry sense of humour was an absolute delight, though, true to my first impressions – what you see is what you get with Liga. There’s absolutely no bullshit about her – she says what she thinks and if you don’t like it? Too bad.
It was wonderful.
Then there was the fourth member of our cabin – Ming . She was a Chinese woman in her 40’s, already dressed in her polar layers. At first glance, she was very nice and friendly with no obvious shortcomings. But there was something that would make itself very obvious over the next few days…
This is the third time Morgan has been on the Hondius and he told us two things:
The food is so good that you’ll leave heavier than you arrive
2. If the captain cancels the Welcome drinks on the first night, then the Drakes Passage is going to be rough.
Anyway, the welcome drinks were lovely and so was dinner.
Afterwards, our little group settled into the lounge on the 5th deck. Liga mentioned at Sam/Frank had told her that he was in the special forces and he can’t tell her what mission he was on. We all had a laugh about that, especially when I said, “Gee, things change swiftly in the special forces world. This morning he wasn’t allowed to speak about his job in the FBI and now he’s in the special forces starting to talk.”
Just then, a young Spanish guy walked up and sat down.
“ Frogdancer?” he asked. When I nodded, he said seriously, “ I’ve been investigating you on FB.”
“WHAT?” I said. I certainly wasn’t expecting that! (I hope he enjoyed the Dad jokes I post every day.)
“ Eneko is a member of the group,” Morgan said.
“Of course,” Eniko said. He shook my hand. “ I’m a private investigator.”
I shot a glance at the boys. First Sam/Frank and now this! Eneko fished his phone out and showed us his official card. Baptiste, being the policeman that he is, had a good long look at it, enlarging parts as he read.
“Of course, “ said Eneko, “ I only do this for fun. I’m really an online poker player.”
After a while, he left and the boys, Corinna, Liga and I collapsed with laughter.
“What is going on? ” laughed Baptise. “ First we have the FBI and special forces and now a private investigator! You know, this is the perfect place for a murder on the orient express. By tomorrow morning there’ll be a body.”
We weren’t sure what to make of Eneko, but it was soon clear that he’s a great guy. He has a special way of viewing the world and has been smart enough to build a life that absolutely suits what he wants to do. He has an apartment in Spain, with a window that only looks out onto an internal courtyard “so I don’t have to see the people” and he stays there for a few weeks at a time playing online poker.
He has the sort of brain that loves numbers, patterns and statistics (which I decidedly do NOT!) and so he’s able to play 10 people at a time. I’ve seen a photo where it shows his set-up – it’s incredible.
Once he’s made enough money, he leaves the apartment and goes travelling. He is a terrific photographer. When that particular trip is over, he comes back and does it all again. He has a 20-year-old car that looks brand-new, which made me think of the FIRE lifestyle. We only spend big money on the things that we value and we minimise spending on the things that don’t interest us as much. In many ways, Eneko is living the dream!
While we were talking in the lounge, someone mentioned that the doctor was over the other side of the room selling seasickness patches for 4 euros each. That sounded like a bargain to me. The ship was moving through the Beagle Passage out towards the Drake Passage, about which Wikipedia says: “The Drake Passage is considered one of the most treacherous voyages for ships to make. Currents at its latitude meet no resistance from any landmass, and waves top 40 feet (12 m), hence its reputation as “the most powerful convergence of seas”.
The ship was rolling a bit, which actually seemed quite pleasant, but I didn’t want to risk getting sick if we emerged from the Beagle Passage into the “Drake Shake”, which is what the Drake Passage is usually like. Personally, I had my fingers crossed for the “Drake Lake”, which is rare.
Because the sun doesn’t set until nearly midnight this far south, we stayed up really late without realising it, sneaking into our cabin after 1 to see Ming peacefully sleeping in her upstairs bunk above mine.
Later that night, I was woken by a mysterious “swish, swish” sound in the cabin. I stirred, then rolled over and went back to sleep. The ship’s rocking was beautifully soothing.