Friday, January 5, 2018

Post Silver Explorer post

Aaand it's back to harsh reality today - up early for the last breakfast, we got back to the cabin suite to find Ivy and Ralte busy stripping the beds. Our suitcases, put out last night, were gone already (to be next encountered on the carousel at Buenos Aires' domestic airport). The bing-bong on the PA that up till now has signalled an interesting - even exciting - message from Tim or the Captain this morning gave us our literal marching orders, and our cards were swiped for the last time as we left the ship with no ceremony other than the expedition leaders lined up to shake our hands at the bottom of the gangplank. No trumpets, no banners, nothing.

It would have been slight consolation to have had the hour and a half that was mentioned at one point for a bit of a look around Ushuaia, bit in the end it was not much more than half an hour. Most of the shops were shut, not opening till 10am, but there was still plenty of interest: brightly-coloured houses, a wide range of architectural styles including half-timbered and Austrian, there were a couple of museums, the waterfront, a Hard Rock Café, various monuments including one to Eva Péron, and to the Malvinas dead. On our bus tour back before the cruise, I'd seen lots of declarations, official and not, about the Malvinas being Argentinian, but had no time to find any to photograph this morning.

And then we were into the tedium of travel: Ushuaia airport, waiting, being bussed out onto the LATAM charter flight and squeezing into a 777-300 with absolutely no leg-room, even for a shortie like me. It didn't help that the Swiss woman in front of me reclined her seat fully straight away, got crabby when I asked her to lift it when the breakfast service began, and then slammed it back the moment the food was cleared. Well. There was my entertainment for the flight sorted. I spent the next three hours randomly poking and pushing the back of her seat as I crossed and uncrossed my legs and genuinely tried to fit them into the tiny space. Of course she objected, increasingly angrily, but I merely smiled and pointed out that if she moved it forward just a bit, we could both be comfortable. She actually shouted and shook the back of my own seat at one point, before eventually and suddenly giving in, and relinquishing the full recline. Win! (Selfish, inconsiderate cow.) (Her, not me, natch.)

The rest of the journey was uneventful. Silversea herded us into different coaches at BA domestic airport and ours headed off to the international airport, Ezeiza, a ring-road journey that the guide said would take 40 minutes "because tomorrow is a holiday". Turned out, because tomorrow was a holiday, everyone was on the road not giving way to anyone else, and the trip took two hours. But that was ok, because we had eight hours before our flight left just after midnight. Sadly, we were too early even to check in, so we parked ourselves at a café upstairs not far from a Malvinas memorial (that explained "The immediate cause [of the Malvinas Islands War] was the fight for sovereignty of these islands, taken by force in 1833 and dominated since then by the United Kingdom.") In contrast, there was also a Hard Rock Café with clothing once owned by Prince, Elvis, Michael Jackson and Elton John.

The airport is new and fancy, and we had ample chance to experience it because the VIP lounge would only allow us in as Priority Pass card holders after 11pm. So we sat and watched as the remaining few Silver Explorer passengers guests (and staff crew) dispersed in various directions, the Americans amongst them grimly anticipating delays and discomforts associated with a storm that was bringing sub-Antarctic temperatures and conditions to shocked eastern cities.

None of that for us. We eventually boarded NZ31, pleased to be in familiar surroundings again, and settled into this much roomier 777-200 for our 12-hour flight (again, a much shorter journey than for many others on the Silver Explorer, which was a nice novelty). We took off over the lights of the astonishingly huge city, flew uneventfully south-west, crossed the Date Line while sleeping and landed around 5.30am. We then took a horrendously, hideously expensive taxi to the city ($80, instead of the $38 out there), had a short wait for the ferry which we shared with umpteen eager cyclists aiming to "do a thousand metres" (total climb) on a 50km route, and got a cheerful taxi back to our house which, despite an exceptionally powerful storm hurtling through yesterday, was still standing unscathed. Always good.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Silver Explorer, Day 18 - Sorry

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
The Captain warned yesterday of a gale overnight, and no-one was quite sure if it was a joke or not, because that’s how he rolls – but in fact so did the waves during what was almost the dark (further south, the sun has been setting around 11pm and rising again before 3am, and the bit in between has never even approached what you might call dark).

This morning though it was calm again, and there ahead of us, too rapidly getting larger, was land: Tierra del Fuego, and the end of our voyage. Everyone is sad about it. It really has been so special, and though some people (mainly the ones who got soaked in the downpour in Stanley while I was in the museum knowing nothing about it) would have liked a bit more sunshine, general opinion has it that we did well, seeing Antarctica in all of its moods. Well, most, anyway. I can cope without experiencing a blizzard.
When we got back to our cabins suites after breakfast, there were our suitcases laid out on the bed – a pretty brutal sort of hint. We had already received disembarkation instructions last night. There was a little note from our butler Ivy offering to do the packing. That’s an interesting concept and almost tempting, but I’m passing it by. Too many decisions that only I can make, really. And thank goodness for my expansion zips, which were the reason I bought this particular suitcase ages ago, and which it’s been ever since a mark of honour not to use. Silversea gives you a puffa jacket as well as an outer parka, both of them very well made, but they’re something else to make room for. Along with the two blouses I didn’t wear, tch.
We took a break to listen to Anthony Smith’s talk about the art of bronze casting – something apparently random but which he managed to link to everywhere we’ve been – Ushuaia, the Falklands, South Georgia and even Antarctica have had bronze busts or statues that we’ve seen. The one in South Georgia was actually by Anthony himself: a bust in the museum, of Ernest Shackleton (of course). It was actually fascinating, to be shown the many stages in the process of creating a bronze, and Anthony is clearly multi-talented.
We’ve been impressed by the depth of knowledge of all of the lecturers, and have particularly enjoyed the talks by Anthony, Luke and Cory, who know their stuff inside out and communicate it intelligently and accessibly. And then it was Denis’s turn, to play the full-length version of the video he’s been compiling and without a doubt going cross-eyed and without sleep during the last couple of days to complete. Of course he has the big lenses, multiple camera bodies, and even a drone – but the talent and expertise help, too. It’s fabulous, and a wonderful reminder of the places we’ve been, the things we’ve done, what we’ve seen.

And so that was pretty much it: there was the Captain's jolly auction of that lovely map (it's gone to Chicago, for US$1300); then some drinks in the Panorama Lounge before dinner, with chairs at a premium as groups of new friends made the most of the last chance to be together; followed by dinner ditto; and then the ritual putting out of the packed and labelled suitcases before bed, and setting the alarm for the last breakfast, and the eviction at 9am as the crew work like crazy to make things ready for the lucky new consignment of passengers guests, who have all those good things ahead of them while we trudge through the tedious bits of flying back home again, our adventure over.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Silver Explorer, Day 17 - Smooth sailing

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
At the daily Recap/Briefing a couple of days ago, someone asked Expedition Leader Tim what the forecast was for Drake Passage. “Doesn’t matter,” came the breezy reply. “We’re doing it anyway.”

There’s no denying though that it’s been weighing increasingly heavily on everyone’s minds, this two-day sail from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula back to Tierra del Fuego: we’ve seen the maps, noted the arrows and colours, consulted the key telling us ‘swells of 8-10 metres’. I’ve just read someone’s blog myself, from only a few weeks ago, where someone was tossed down the stairs and broke a leg, having to be medevac-ed away, while everyone else was confined to their rooms (and beds).

But it’s looking as though we are going to be lucky – as, honestly, we have been all through this cruise. We’ve seen all the wildlife, we’ve experienced all the weather, and now it seems as though our earlier rough crossing to South Georgia will be the worst we’ll be able to bore people with back home, because the dreaded Drake Passage today looks like Drake Lake.
Flat, calm, glossy blue, under an equally blue sky dotted with white clouds – we could be in the Mediterranean. Or at least New Zealand. It’s a gift. It’s tempting to peel off the Scopoderm patch (source of suspicious wonder to Aussies and Americans, who can’t even get it on prescription, let alone buy it over the counter). But that would be tempting fate, surely; so on it stays.

I’m blaming the drugs for my falling asleep in Danny’s quite amusing lecture about spending a winter south of the Antarctic Circle. Every day there have been three or four Powerpoint talks by the expedition staff about things we’ve seen or would like to, and they’ve mostly been good: Cory’s this morning about orcas was especially professional and interesting, if rather sad and depressing (she was restrained in her references to SeaWorld, but no-one was in any doubt about her opinion). We’ve all learned a lot.
I also learned a bit more about the ship today, discovering, on this second-to-last day, a deck I hadn’t been on before, and routes I didn’t know. It was such a gloriously sunny day (although still very cold) that it seemed a waste to be inside, so I was out prowling. Not much wildlife, though, apart from some petrels and albatrosses – and apparently some hour-glass dolphins behind the ship at lunch, though I couldn’t actually spot them. This is why Luke is never seen without his trusty binoculars round his neck – even when he’s dressed up in a suit and tie like at tonight’s Captain’s Farewell in the theatre.

After a typically droll and amusing speech, Captain Piers introduced the staff for our chance to applaud what they’ve been doing for us; and drew the raffle for the engraved decanter and similar that have been on display outside the restaurant for the last week. Tomorrow there will be an auction for a personalised map of our route that really is lovely and would make a fabulous souvenir – I’m sure the money raised (for the crew welfare fund) is going to be substantial.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Silver Explorer, Day 16 - Polar opposites

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
"I would have done it," said the old guy who, despite Silversea's polite dress code suggestions, pads around the ship in odd socks. "But I didn't want to." I did, though: the infamous Polar Plunge. I stripped off to my togs on the black sandy beach of Telefon Bay in Deception Island, one of the South Shetland group, and hurtled into the water, under, and out again – my fastest immersion ever. Apparently, some found the stony beach hard on their feet. I didn’t have time to notice.
The water wasn’t as heart-stoppingly cold as I’d been fearing all along; and also the bit that I’d really been anxious about, getting back to the ship afterwards, was quicker and much less uncomfortable than expected. In no time at all, I was luxuriating in the jacuzzi on the rear deck, watching through the steam as the rest of the Plungers earned their (actually disappointingly boring) certificates – about 45 of us in all, a third of the passengers, amazingly.
It was all about opposites today: hot and cold, black and white, volcanic and glacial. We woke to low cloud as the ship approached Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow gap in the island's flooded caldera (with, the Captain told us, a large rock lurking under the water right in the middle – fortunately the Silver Explorer didn’t do a Milford Wanderer). Inside, everything was monochrome, even more striking after yesterday’s glorious Technicolor. Geologist Wolfgang tried to communicate his wonder at things like craters, volcanic bombs and so on, but most of us just listened politely. Or maybe that was just me.
The walk around the craters got more interesting when we came across a crab-eater seal, and then saw little streams of bubbles along the shore. There were patches of warm water (the volcano last erupted in 1970); also striking layers in the snow bank along the beach; and icicles. But naturally it was the Polar Plunge that really livened up the visit, with much shrieking and laughter.
Afterwards, easing our way out to the open sea again, past the remains of a wrecked fishing boat that hadn’t been so careful, we headed in improving weather to Half Moon Island, which was as glamorous as yesterday’s locations. Sharp, clear mountains, big glaciers, stony beaches, red castle-like rocks, blue sea and sky, and lots of penguins. They were mostly chinstraps this time, roosting in noisy rookeries, patiently waiting for eggs to hatch or nuzzling the fluffy grey chicks that they had tucked on their feet under their bellies (not an easy thing, to transfer them from one parent to the other at the shift changeover). There was a lot of squawking going on – shouting at an opportunistic sheathbill flitting through the colony looking for a titbit, greeting a returning mate, or just joining in when a neighbour started hooting. Luke provided an interesting running commentary.
After a while, though, I went down to one of the beaches where penguins were coming ashore, and just sat and watched and listened. Waves were breaking, small icebergs, transparent and white, were clinking together, as well as doing their fascinating rice bubble thing: snap, crackle and pop as the air bubbles inside them burst. Even the tiniest bergs were audible - when I had watched them from our veranda drifting past on the glossy sea, each of them was surrounded by rings of concentric circles caused by the popping. Penguins popped out of the water to stop and preen themselves before returning to their nests, and in the distance I could hear them hooting. (I could also smell them, but let’s not destroy the ambience I’m trying to build here.)
It was so beautiful, and personal, and special, and such a privilege to be there to experience it all. Not many people do: so I’m really, really grateful to Silversea for enabling it. And also for doing it all so well – especially the unhurried excursions ashore, that allow the time for exactly this sort of sitting back and soaking up. Brilliant.
And then, with a distinct and universal sense of reluctance, we climbed into the Zodiacs again for the last time, and returned to the ship. We ate dinner – with multiple photo op interruptions - as Antarctica’s islands receded into the distance, glamorous to the last white peak and rocky black monolith, while ahead of us lay the dreaded Drake Passage, roughest stretch of water on the planet.
But before that there was the Crew Concert to enjoy in the theatre: singing and dancing that was enjoyable in itself, but all the more so for showing us another side of the people who have been looking after us so well for the last two-plus weeks. (Yeah, shocking photo, but it was after dinner, and these guys are no slouches at keeping wine glasses topped up.)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Silver Explorer, Day 15 - Best New Year's Day ever

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise

Oh wow, 2018. You’re going to be an incredible year, if New Year’s Day is anything to go by. Simply the best ever, people.

It began with the Silver Explorer sliding into Neko Harbour in Andvord Bay on the Peninsula – so, actual mainland Antarctica again, the real thing. It was an overcast morning, and changeable, but we saw some good reflections of the towering glaciers around the bay. One of them is particularly active, frequently calving and causing minor tsunamis on the beach where our Zodiacs landed – I say minor: one of them was evidently big enough to flip a fortunately empty Zodiac once - so we weren’t allowed to hang around on the beach just in case, and were sent straight up onto the snow.

I followed the trail of red flags uphill, under strict instruction not to stray, because of the chance of crevasses. When I got to the top, I could see for myself what might lie under a coating of snow: opposite was a tall glacier that was riddled with deep, blue crevasses. It was tempting to hope for a spectacular calving, but I remembered the Gentoo penguin rookery down below and tried not to. One bit did still fall from the face, though, in slow motion and with a low rumble, which was sufficiently impressive but not enough to make a wave.

The weather was very indecisive, and it actually snowed quite big flakes at one point, but then it started to clear. I spent a lot of time (the great thing about Explorer expeditions is that there is no rush at all to return to the ship) watching the penguins on their nests, stealing pebbles, hooting, preening and waddling along their highways: waist-deep (to them) trails through the snow complete with intersections. They were a bit wary about getting to close to us and sometimes lit out across the fresh snow, struggling and often resorting to scooting on their bellies.

We set off then for Cuverville Island along the Errera Channel as the sky cleared and the sun shone from an increasingly blue sky. The mountains glistened, the ripples on the water glittered, the icebergs glowed and we were blown away by how beautiful everything looked. It was all too good to miss, so we lunched at the Grill outside on Deck 6 – yummy panini for me, which I was just about to enjoy when things got even better. The captain’s announcement and a change of direction brought us alongside a pod of ORCAS!!! Regular readers (hi, Queen) will remember that I have been hunting orcas all around the world for many years, have never seen one, and have become convinced that they are avoiding me.

But here they were, a pod of at least 15, cruising along quite close to the ship. Of course I didn’t have my camera with me, and had to race upstairs for it – and then the battery gave out. But I got some proof, and was – am – thrilled finally to have made the acquaintance of these classy, clever and charismatic dolphins. And intrigued, too, that instead of being classically black and white, these were black and orange – apparently thanks to diatomous phytoplankton in the water, which stick to their skin. Anyway, it was the reason to order a celebratory Kir royale (or two).

Cuverville Island is a huge Half Dome-shaped rock sticking straight up out of the water, and some of the passengers departed on a hike that the daily newsletter, The Chronicles, seemed determined to put us off tackling (difficult, long, steep, slippery, must be fit, etc) so I channelled my feeble side and stayed down on the beach. And was so pleased I did! The sky was blue, it was sunny and warm enough to strip off several layers, and this big colony of Gentoo penguins was so busy and entertaining that I would have hated not to have the hours we did just to sit and watch them.

They were porpoising through the water, nipping in and out from the beach, sitting on rocks in the sun, literally playing on small sculpted bergs in the shallows, jumping onto them, slipping off, pushing each other off, and generally clowning around. What with that as the main entertainment, against a background of a huge variety of icebergs, all sparkling in the sun, time just whizzed by. And then even when we had to return to the ship, dwarfed by the sparkling mountains behind it, there were crab-eater seals to inspect on the way, and yet more beautiful, sculpted, transparent, blue-glowing icebergs to admire.

After a little down-time, it was time for the evening recap and briefing in the theatre, but just as we got to (unfavourite) Danny’s bit, he passed on a message from the captain that we should all go outside straight away. So we did, and there was a big pod of humpback whales this time, feeding. Now I’ve seen humpbacks often, but never when they’ve been working together to ball up krill and then to scoop them up in their huge mouths. That in itself was fascinating – but add on the flocks of terns over their heads, the low sun highlighting their blows, the sparkling sea, the mountains, the icebergs… Spectacular, glorious, glamorous, unforgettable. And it went on and on, the crew ushering us into their bits of deck so we could see better, and closer, and it was just the best.


So we ate dinner in our suite, efficiently and beautifully served by our butler Ivy, and drank the sparkling rosé that was waiting for us here when we first boarded the Explorer and, with interruptions to look at yet more humpbacks from our veranda, we watched March of the Penguins and considered this the absolute best New Year’s Day ever.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 14 - Goodbye to 2017

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
It's the last day of 2017 and I usually do some kind of list for this post - but since I'm in the middle of an expedition here, I'm going to skip that. It wasn't my greatest year for travel, anyway - or a particularly good year for many people all over the world. So let's draw a veil over all that and concentrate on the here and now.

Here, this morning, was Mikkelsen Harbour, in an island to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula. It's just a little dot of rock in the middle of a bay where huge glaciers meet the sea all around. Today the island was crusted with snow, the bare patches of rock covered in nesting Gentoo penguins (who were also busy providing their own encrustation - I haven't dwelt on this, but boy! Penguin colonies sure do stink). There were also a crabeater seal, an elephant seal and two Weddell seals who occasionally spoke to each other in their weird electronic-sounding wails and whistles.

The focal point of the island is a red-painted building called a refuge hut - though, given that the door is securely padlocked, it's moot how much refuge would be accessible. Ask the Argentinians about that - it's their flag painted on the outside.

There was also a photogenic wreck of a wooden boat, surrounded by whale bones - but what took everyone's attention was a penguin which had thought it was a good idea to climb up onto a small and very sculpted iceberg that was grounded on the beach - and then discovered that it couldn't get down again.

It dithered for ages, to our amusement, trying to summon up the courage to jump down from various points around the edge, and chickening out time after time until, finally, desperation triumphed.

Back at the ship, I hadn't even taken off my boots when whales were spotted nearby, so I dashed out on deck to watch as a couple of humpbacks circled the bay in a leisurely manner, occasionally lifting their tails (to a chorus of shutter-clicks) to dive. There was a seal on an ice floe too.

And then we glided away across a glassy sea to the site of our afternoon expedition, Cierva Cove where there's another (unmanned) Argentinian base but mainly a huge variety of icebergs. We got a bit distracted by a passing minke whale, and a snoozing leopard seal on a berg, but most of the time we were marvelling at the ice itself. Scallops, cracks, bubble grooves, caves, undercuts; luminous blue, dazzling white, dirty black, crystal clear; from clinking slush under the Zodiac to a towering mountain of an iceberg that dwarfed everything around it: all astonishing, and beautiful. And, amazingly, not even cold - though the temperature was meant to be zero, there was no wind, plus a bit of actual sunshine, and it felt warm enough to dispense with hat and gloves. So when Luke passed around a chunk of ice he'd fished out of the sea, I could feel the bubbles popping under my touch.

Unexpectedly (for us passengers) we then came across a Zodiac loaded with cheerful crew in Happy New Year hats handing out glasses of bubbles (the alcoholic sort this time) and biscuits and chocolate. Nice touch! And of course it had already been New Year's Day in New Zealand for quite some time already.

After the customary evening briefing - at the end of which someone asked about the weather forecast for our crossing of Drake Passage in a couple of days' time and got the answer "Doesn't matter: we're doing it anyway" - we headed off to dinner and found the restaurant beautifully decorated for NYE. Balloons, streamers, glitter, hooters, hats and tiaras - and all the staff cheerfully in the mood too. The food was good (crab and Dover sole for me) and our dining companions from Canada and Australia good company. Conversation topics tonight included the Panama Canal, US customs horror stories, and bath robes. Oh, and humpback whales made a couple of appearances outside, too.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Silver Explorer, Day 13 - Seven continents, tick

With thanks to Silversea for this hosted cruise
Name-dropping: there's always a degree of one-upmanship when you're in the company of other travellers. Sometimes it's subtle, sometimes blatant, but you're never for long in ignorance of the other places they've been. Of course it can be hard to avoid when you're a bunch of strangers parked around a dining table trying to find common ground, and normally I find it more amusing than irritating (apart from that teeth-gritting skite on the Intrepid trip who defined the latter extreme). I'm always aware of how many places i haven't (yet) been, which is a bit shameful for an even incognito travel writer, so I let the others get on with it. But tonight? Tonight I boasted about scoring my perfect seven. Continents, that is: Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa and now, finally, Antarctica. 

I set foot on it this morning at Brown Bluff, an extinct volcano on the tip of the Peninsula where a snow-streaked bare rocky cliff rises up over 700m. Some people did a bit of a climb up onto the glacier, but I stayed at sea level, poking around on the pebbly beach ogling the Adélie penguins who have a 20,000-strong rookery there. Two hours passed effortlessly - well, there was some effort, but it was all to do with the preparatory dressing in five layers on my top half and three on the bottom, and then doing impossible things like bending my arms. It was minus 1.6 degrees outside today, and just a touch chilly.

The penguins didn't seem bothered, busy nesting, sitting on fluffy grey chicks, canoodling, squabbling, hooting and screeching, and rather sweetly collecting pebbles as a present for the nesting partner. Every so often there was a literal March of the Penguins, as they filed along the beach to cluster together beside the water until one of them was brave enough to leap in, followed by all the rest. Apparently there are leopard seals here for them to contend with, so there's safety in numbers.

Besides all the penguin activity, there were beautiful icebergs to admire: blue, white, transparent, sculpted and hung with icicles, small, big and gigantic. They make a constant popping noise as air bubbles break: it's very distinctive.

Our afternoon expedition was along the coast a bit at Hope Bay - aka Esperanza, as Argentina has a base here with a permanent population which includes children, astonishingly. Here we did a Zodiac cruise around the bay, getting a closer look at some lovely bergs and failing to resist the urge to take yet more penguin photos. They're so cute, and move so fast in the water, that the perfect shot is always tantalisingly tricky yet possible.

Finally there was dinner, with the Persian/US couple again, and the young SAFAs who now live in Sydney - tonight's conversation included a very old joke, a car high-jacking, Adelaide and Hurricane Irma; while the Explorer sailed past a huge variety of spectacular icebergs back up to the tip of the Peninsula and headed down the other side.

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