With all the travel its easy to forget that the majority of my business is here in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Although exporting makes up most of the revenue, the majority of my time is spent in and around Greater Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland for my main NI, UK and International clients.
At home I mostly concentrate on commercial and corporate photography, the majority of it being in public relations and advertising.
One morning after meeting a client for coffee in Belfast city centre I decided to go wandering with the camera. It was one of those rare occurrences of that strange natural phenomena that is sunshine on a summers day in Belfast.
Born and bred in Belfast this is my physical as well as spiritual home but it is a rare for me to spend any time now in the City centre when not at clients or at venues. Like a lot of cities it is constantly changing and bears little resemblance to the Belfast I knew growing up at the height of the troubles.
The security checkpoints are gone, people are happy to sit out with their lunch in the grounds of the City Hall in peace and quiet that was unrecognisable 30 years ago. The City Hall itself has seen lots of changes, both from an aesthetic as well as political point of view and is now a main stop on the casual tourist trail and I recommend the guided tour for travellers both foreign and domestic!
We still have a long way to as regards tourism, a subject Im quite happy to rant about for hours. It is good to see some sort of a street cafe culture developing in certain parts although as I say we have a long way to go.
I remember as a kid, walking down through the city centre on a sunday with my dad, brother and sister. Everything was closed of course but it gave us the opportunity to look in all the shop windows and anyone in Belfast of a certain age will remember the Leisureworld window full of toys. In my case it was the big helicopter with the Action Man in it. Round the corner was Anderson and McAuleys the big department store where I (and probably everyone else in Belfast) remember buying my first toy. It was again an Action Man and I must have been about 7. I also remember falling down the stairs in Anderson and McAuley, a hard thing to do fall down two flights of stairs, with a landing in the middle. I have no doubt to this day that it was my paddington bear style duffel coat that saved me from serious injury. Back in the day when if you fell down the stairs it was your own stupidity, not the grounds for a law suit.
Across the road from Anderson and McAuley was the Bank Buildings, named not after a bank but because it stands on the banks of the river Farset, the river that gave Belfast its name and High Street where the ships used to come in (long before my time). Standing in High St of an evening you can sometimes hear the river running underneath and a view down the street at our own leaning clock shows the path of the river.
Bank Buildings still is home to primark and I remember aged about 11 or 12 stopping off on the way home from school to buy my first set of trainers. It was also the site of one of my Dads more interesting stories. He was standing at the back entrance waiting on my Mum coming out from shopping. The police and army were running up and down the street evacuating people due to a bomb scare. Eventually my Dad was the last one standing in the street and asked a soldier what the story was. ‘There’s a bomb in a van somewhere’. ‘Have you looked in this one?’ asked my Dad pointing to the van he had been leaning on for the last half hour. The soldier then described that they had all thought it was my dads van and how silly a fellow he was to be standing there as he grabbed my dad and they both ran (language was a bit stronger than that). Less than 10 mins later there was a rather large crater where the van and my dad had once stood. Sometimes it pays to be a nosey bugger and if everyone else is running away, you run too.
Of course there are very few reminders of the Belfast past these days so even if you are from the city, take the time to wander down through the city streets, past city hall, go on the tour, wander down to the river and then back up through cathedral quarter and stop in somewhere for a coffee, a pint or a fry, or all three. Get re-acquainted with the city.
For years Ive been wanting to do up an old car, wheeler dealers style. It probably goes back to an old harp lager (I think) ad on tv when I was a kid where a group of guys restore an old jag. Ive thought about an old jag, old rolls, old landrover even. Every event I photograph which includes generally older guys with beautifully restored cars makes me think about doing it again.
I have all the tools required, collected over the years although a lot remaining from my first cheap socket set when I was 18 and had my first car and was required to continually work on it given a student budget!
Ive replaced engines and suspension, done bodywork (badly, ok and ok in the rain) and Ive even been seen getting a bus to the North Antrim Coast with a car radiator and 10mm socket on a monday morning to try and put it in the car I abandoned by the side of the road on the Saturday afternoon!
I have two problems with this approach. Firstly I already have 2 cars, a campervan and a boat, all of which need a bit of work and I also have to rebuild the studio and am thinking about getting a loft conversion done to give me a bigger home office. Secondly I don’t have the time with all of the above and the normal amount of travel I do coupled with my workload at home.
Talking with friends after I came back from Antarctica, they suggested that I already have an old car that I can do up, my old Alfa 156.
It was in a bit of a sorry state having not been driven for almost 6 months with the travel and with the MOT falling due when I was in South America.
Back in early 2000 I was still recovering from my accident, had just returned to work after a year off and as I was now walking again, the doctors had just passed me fit to drive. My car at the time was an old Rover 214 which I generally did love but sitting outside for a year had not been kind to it and given that I couldn’t bend down properly, couldn’t change a tyre and all of the stuff required to get it back on the road and keep it on the road I started to think about getting a newer car. Id never before bought a new car so the same mate who suggested I redo up my Alfa had came up to my desk in 2000 and threw down the brochure for the Alfa 156. We had both walked past one in Prague a couple of years before, before they were even available in the UK/Ireland and I thought it was the most beautiful car Id ever seen, maybe with a little touch of sideskirts and rear spoiler, oh and decent alloys.
At the time anyone with a bit of wit was importing cars into the UK and with the land border with the rest of Ireland it made sense to see how much it would be to get one down in Cork and drive it up… just to see of course.
‘If you get one, I’ll get one and we’ll drive down to Monaco and drive the street circuit in them at night’, my mate said… yeah thanks for that.
I went for a test drive in one…
So I rang the dealers agent here in NI and enquired about how much it would cost…. …and then asked for his bank details for the bank transfer.
Id never ordered a new car before and having to get through the list of options could have been daunting…
…except this was an Alfa and every petrol head on the planet knows what they are. Just check out the numerous Top Gear references. Go here and skip it all to 6:44
Engine? 1.8 because if I get the 2.5 V6 I’ll be dead before I make the first repayment.
Level? Sport Pack 1.
Anything else? yes sunroof and low rear spoiler, not the pram handle one.
Do I need to ask which colour? Does it come in any other colour than Red?
6 weeks later I just happened to be in Cork on Easter weekend. I went round to the dealer on Easter Monday just for a nosey and told them who I was and what I had ordered. Apparently they had just had a consignment in and round the back was one ‘like mine’ if I wanted to go and have a look. It was straight off the boat with bits missing for transport, all the protective polystyrene and plastic still on it, things written in grease pen on the windscreen but it was still lovely.
I went home later that day whilst sticking on a cup of tea, I checked my messages. ‘Joe, just wanted to call to say your car is in in Cork, it needs some prep work and first service but it will be up to you in a couple of weeks.’
So I had been sitting in _my_ car after all.
Three weeks later a knock at the door and there was the salesman with my car sitting in my drive.
Fast forward 14 years later and its still there on the same drive but the tarmac has been replaced twice!
Last year I had the timing belts replaced as it was approaching 70k miles. A couple of years before (about 3000 miles ago) Id had to replace the clutch. A friend asked me to show my Alfa to his wife as they were thinking of getting a summer runaround car and he fancied and Alfa and needed to persuade the wife a little. She loved it..
..then over coffee she asked if it normally lost that much oil… A few drips maybe, a few litres, no… The Gearbox seal had gone leaking oil into the clutch housing, ruining the clutch and release bearing. They had an Alfa in their drive for 2 weeks until I got the new clutch and towed it to someone who would fit it.
Id failed the previous years MOT for the standard passenger side upper wishbone so had bought over 400 quids worth of rest of suspension and all round brake discs and pads, just hadn’t had the time to fit them yet.
Having wrapped up editing my Antarctic photos and waiting on the band schedule for the Canadian tour in September/October I found myself with a bit of time on my hands in July in Northern Ireland. As anyone familiar with this place knows, there’s not a lot of work about for corporate commercial photographers as its the usual 2 weeks holiday time and I normally go on a trip to keep working (last year was London, the year before Canada). With rare good weather scheduled I thought Id give the Alfa a go. I could work at it during the day and do the photo work at night, get the head down and get it done.
First I had to get it through MOT before Id even consider putting a lot of time and effort into it, so one rainy Thursday night with kettle on and fresh MOT in hand I sat about drawing up a list of everything that was wrong with the Alfa since I bought it and I was planning to put it all right and then bring the rest of the car back to showroom condition.
It was a long list.
A very long list.
I started small, I replaced the batteries in both key rings, and replaced the button rubbers. I polished the key up and ordered a new key ring for it. Small steps and all that.
With both keys now working properly I noticed the alarm wasn’t working properly so lost some blood sweat and tears removing the alarm module from the front wing. I needed to remove the front wing liner which needed a lot more grunting and swearing than the ‘undo the 6 bolts and remove’ that the internet said it would need. They neglected to mention the bending of the wing bit, the swearing and the bending of the wing back leaving not so noticeable crease marks… ah well.
The alarm was knackered, the internal battery had corroded and leaked all over the circuit board. A replacement one was ordered from ebay and installed only to find out I couldn’t reset it myself and needed the dealer to give me the master control code for my car. I went to get the code and the new franchise was able to tell me all the things Id had fixed on my Alfa, a small subset of them I knew about. One of the major complaints about Alfas was the dealers and Im not calling the previous franchise crooks but I had threatened to sue them on one occasion, had Alfa UK reimburse me for all my costs and they even gave me 1500 quid off a new Alfa (which I neglected to take up). One day I took the car in for a major service only to be told I would probably need 2 new front tyres and my brake pads were 90% worn. I asked the service manager to check again for me and he came back with the same figures. I showed him the less than hour old receipt for 2 new front tyres and all round brake pads. He mumbled something about 3rd party brake pad linings not being as thick as genuine ones…
I have every receipt for this car even down to the copper sump washers ordered 7 years ago. I have no record of some of these repairs so either they were done ‘under warranty’ for problems/recalls I didn’t know about and the dealer just forgot to give me the details or… well… lets just say ‘creative accounting’.
I love the Alfa brand but you can understand now why Id never buy a new one, although the previous franchisee had the franchise removed and the new franchise has been more than helpful so far.
One of the minor niggles was the inside heater fan controller. It would only work on max speed which was a simple enough fix, just change the controller. I had replaced it last year when I found the one in situ had been smashed. I couldn’t understand how it had been broken, it was well hidden down inside the interior of the car. Its not as if it could just break by itself and its not like someone replacing something above it could drop a spanner or something down the gap, break the resistor and not tell me…
…and people wonder why I like to do the work on my cars myself.
After hours of searching I managed to discover that because Id specified a sunroof and no aircon my car was limited to a very small number only available from 99 to mid to late 2000. This part only being assigned to this model. Being 14 years old there was no chance of a new replacement and because they were so brittle there are so few around 2nd hand by this stage. So I did an internet trawl on the forums and one kind soul managed to produce the circuit diagram from the original. Out with the components box and the soldering iron and now I have 3 of the 4 speeds. I did have all 4 on a bench test but somewhere between the bench and the tightening of the last screw I lost one. Still 3 is better than 1.
Since pretty much day 1 there has been a rattle under deceleration from the front of the car. Its the exhaust heatshield. The washer breaks through the thin aluminium headshield leaving one side of it loose and so vibrates under certain conditions. Its what we used to call in my engineering days ‘a feature’. Something that wasn’t quite up to spec but wouldn’t really kill you.
Some tinsnips and par of an old disposable bbq folded over and drilled to fit the gap sorted that out. It had only taken 13 years and 10 mins to fix.
Once the internal fan had been fixed I fixed the passenger footwell trim panel. It had been hanging down now for 14 years 2 months and another 5 mins…
As with all Alfas the front badge is slightly vampiric in that it fades away to nothing in the sun. I sourced a new one from a main dealer on ebay and spent an hour on that 10 minute job but it does look the business. I had thought about doing all the front end chrome plastic trim in satin black but bottled out at the last minute.
The rear badge wasn’t as bad but had started peeling so I ordered a new one off ebay. I had that transaction cancelled after a week as they had no stock. I ordered it again from a different ebay vendor and they cancelled after 2 days as they will never have stock ever again. The joys of working on an older car that used parts for a short production one. The swiveling boot lock badge, like the door handles in the windows, was one of those neat wee design touches that made me love this car. Of course that neat wee design touch costs so it was dropped after a few years and as all the badges go, new is the only way to replace…
…but they aren’t being made any more. So Ive got a ‘kit’ of laminates to stick in the places of the original lacquers to see if that brings it back to ‘close to showroom’ which I think is now what I’m aiming for.
To finish the front off Id decided to take the headlights apart and spray internal silver front ends satin black. This headlight was on the 156 GTA and it was an easy enough modification to do and the only thing Id do to take it away from standard. Id never really liked too much silver at the front and the black does add that edgyness. It also cuts down on the secondary reflections from the headlights which throw the light in all sorts of directions when trying to park at night.
Taking the headlights off also involved removing the bumper which for some unknown reason wasn’t the same to do on both sides, so whilst one side had 5 bolts and a pop rivet the other side had 6 bolts. Of course nobody else’s car seemed to have this on the net so I sat and swore for a while at the one remaining last pop rivet and then bent the wing with a pry bar trying to get it out. That would be another hours work with the pry bar and a hammer trying to bend the wing back into the shape it had been before I tried to ‘fix’ it. During this whole procedure I also found out that the front wing supports also rust a lot. They rust in a strange way that turns them very sharp at just the point where your arms need to go in to undo the last wing bolts. That wet feeling you get dripping down your arm when you know its not raining. After cleaning out the cut in my arm, I proceed to repeat the procedure with my other arm on the other side. So yes both sides rust equally as well and in roughly the same 1-2 inch position as the scar on the other arm!
Showroom finish is definitely now on the wish list rather than must have.
Some kind souls had keyed the car when it had been parked on the street once and mysteriously Id also had a wing mirror broken the same day that the bins get emptied. Probably just coincidence that last one.
Id picked a replacement wing mirror up from a scrap yard and it was another 10 minute fix that involved a cup of tea, some swearing and the loss of an hour for some reason.
I needed four new tyres so took all the wheels off and went into detail with the alloys, cleaning them with a toothbrush, polishing them up, coating them with a couple of coats of protectant and then 2 coats of wax. The results were amazing and with the new tyres and tyre slick they almost looked like new. Yes Id discovered that showroom from 50 metres was the look I was going for.
With the wheels off I cleaned out all the wheel arches, sanded down and treated any rust and then painted the brake calipers red in high temperature paint.
The wheels looked so well I did the same with the entire car. I used a universal cleaner to clean the whole car and did indeed use a toothbrush on occasion. Polished the whole car and two layers of protectant and finally two coats of very expensive carnuba wax over that. I did get a paint match and then go in and fill every single stone chip, scrape and whole on the car, but didn’t leave it long enough to harden and the polish took it all off again. Maybe next time…
I did manage to bring the pink rear spoiler back to a sort of reddish colour so again maybe next time. Falling short of a full respray or machine detail it doesn’t look bad at all.
With all the paintwork looking shiny and new, some of the plastic looked a bit tired and the normal plastic dressings weren’t working. I got some long lasting miracle cure stuff which was something like 20 quid for a 15ml bottle so it better be good!
During the MOT the windscreen washers had worked just enough to get me through but they needed an overhaul but it was just down to a broken valve in the Y piece. So all that sealed up and coated with the new restorer and to be fair it came back better than I remembered.
The old number plates were an MOT pass but now compared to the rest of the car they looked shabby so I got some nice new pressed aluminium ones that really set the car off.
Turning to the inside I wet vac’d the entire car and cleaned every single space out. I got new custom car mats and dressed the entire interior in a custom satin finish show shine. Apart from the slightly worn leather gearknob and one worn patch on the steering wheel, I never remember the car looking this good.
The engine compartment got the same treatment, cleaned up, any rust treated and protected and all the plastic and rubber parts shined up with a coat of wax for all the metal.
I replaced the coolant and did a oil and filter change as well as a lot of swearing at the unbroken air filter box, the partially broken air filter box and the now bouncing down the driveway air filter box. A couple of hours later it was glued back into one bit and with some old curtain rail clips was not looking its best but performing good as new with a new air filter in it as well.
One of the side skirts had been hanging off since the clutch change when the garage decided to jack it up on the skirts rather than the jacking points. Id sourced some tiger seal and propped the skirt up on breeze blocks and old bits of carpet to hold it in place for the 24 hour curing time. Next day I removed it all to see that Id missed a bit and spent the next 48 hours removing it and redoing it again properly!
I thought Id maybe leave the suspension and brakes for another wee while.
I thought Id leave doing the rust underneath the car and sealing the whole underside for another wee while.
Finally put a bit of chrome bling on the exhaust and fit some red led mood lights to the interior which will be a work in progress for optimum placement.
That’s about it for the minute, its not perfect, I couldn’t get any of the dents out as the dent removal kit I bought off ebay, didnt, and falling short of some major investment in time and money its as good as its gonna get for a while. Its certainly in a better condition now than it was when it was my daily driver 10 years ago.
All that was left was to fire up the Alfa and take it for a run up the coast to Ballintoy Harbour (one of the Game of Thrones venues), and as these stories are nothing without pictures…
I love my job, I do, no, I really do. Yes, this is my job, I travel the world taking pictures of things to show people who may never see them for themselves or which may prompt people to go see things for themselves or are included in educational textbooks for generations to come to show them the things I was shown when I was a kid and led me to be here taking pictures to show… …you get the message.
So the next person who asks ‘how was your holiday?’ will get a punch in the face.
Today is one of those days its definitely not a holiday, you have to scrape your sorry ass out of your bunk at oh my God its early am, woken by a far too cheery man for his own good. You realise your throat has closed over during the night and blowing your nose and shaking your head you realise you have a decision to make. Yes, far from the rest of humanity, in a place most people only dream of reaching, you are sick, sick enough to not go out on a zodiac.
Then you look out the window and realise where you are and the wee voice in your head tells you to man the fuck up, get some pills down your throat and get on with it. Those photos wont take themselves.
The great thing about being on a boat with people from the USA is that you can find a pill for everything. I spend my life railing against taking pills for everything and anything having been on the receiving end of taking this pill to stop me dying, this pill to stop the pill that stops me die making me throw up, the pill that stops me from staying awake all night due to the side effects of the pill that stops the pill that makes me die throw up. Of course I also have to remember that if I take the pill that stops me from dying and the pill that stops the side effects of the side effects of that very same pill together, they will make me die, albeit more slowly than if I hadn’t taken any pills at all. That’s how I see the US pharmaceutical industry tv ads, selling you a circle of pills that will keep you alive for 10 minutes more than you should have or maybe just make you think that.
Yes I am a hypocrite so as Im swaying in a boat that isn’t swaying I’m offered a number of small blue pills that someone got off their sister who is a nurse. My brother is a nurse and he purposely wouldn’t kill me, so I ask three times what they are but then realise I’m 5 days away from being able to Google it so by then I’ll either have survived or be dead. Either way just pop the blue pill.
Its not quite World War Z but the lurgy I have has started to take its toll on the breakfast goers. That and the early morning calls and the over abundance of food. Others too think they can afford to miss the multiple course breakfast and just go for coffee and the pastry. But breakfast is where the unusually happy crew manager gives his daily briefing and that’s just gold dust.
This morning we are going for a zodiac cruise around Cierva Cove, we could have aimed to make a landing there at a station but they have left for the winter and the sea ice is forming up so we will get nowhere near the coast. This afternoon we do have a landing but by then the blue pill will have worn off and I have a decision to make, go out or rest up in the bar because tomorrow is our last landing day and its inside a volcano at an old whaling station followed by chinstrap penguins and elephant seals and I really don’t want to miss that.
Today I feel the cold, I should have worn my hat for the first time but hey thems the breaks.
As is now becoming ‘usual’ if you could ever apply that to here, what starts off as ‘just another zodiac cruise’ turns into another one of those blink and you will miss it trips. The sea ice is giving us that tinkling sound like hundreds of thousands of icecubes in hundreds of thousands of crystal glasses. Its quite a loud noise when you sit still with the engine off, any fans of ‘Its a wonderful life’ will know thousands of angels were being made all around us. I’m smiling now, I was smiling then, just one of those surreal sounds that you really cant describe to people, an alien sound yet comforting, simple, happy, elegant, all the words that were on the chalkboard on day one that we all had no real comprehension of.
Ive mentioned it before but the ice again is fascinating. the icebergs that have rolled and tumbled with the dirty base of the valley the glacier took hundreds or thousands of years to collect as it crawled by is now floating at the top, almost within touching distance as we idle by.
The kayakers are cutting through the closing sea ice and it looks hard going for them today but every one of them is smiling. Every one of us is smiling. We see a new type of seal, a Weddell seal and a new type of penguin, the chinstrap.
Its surreal. I’ve overused that word in this blog but how else can I describe it, Im in Antarctica idling in an inflatable boat through closing sea ice where the murmur of the engine can just be heard over the crescendo of tinkling noise that builds when we push a bow wave of the natural field of icecubes in front of us.
Two hours just flies by and Im wondering what exactly was in that blue pill or if I’m still sleeping and will wake up as we start to cross the drake passage on day 1.
I have mentioned the surreal thing. Right, the crew top it all with lunch on deck, a barbeque, in a blizzard, on an open deck, on a ship, in Antarctica.
Im famed for my BBQs, Ive even had one in the snow (well ok the bbq was out in the snow, we were all in the house).
This, I had to take photos of to prove it as no-one would believe it.
Sitting there in the cold the chill descended on me and I made the decision to cut my losses for the day and retire to the bar for this afternoons excursion aided by a few medicinal hot whiskeys. No more blue pills for me and bed early.
If I didn’t know any better Id say the 6am alarm calls were recorded. They aren’t alarm calls in the traditional sense where you get the choice to set your alarm for breakfast time minus the time it takes to get from bunk to handwashing station at the entrance to the dining room. No, this comes across the emergency speaker system so it might just be information you might need to hear. I do applaud the expedition leader though, you couldn’t pay me to do that job. It would be ‘ah whatever, talk to me after Ive had my coffee’.
The afternoon in the heat, the hot whiskeys and an earlyish (9:30) bed had lifted the cold a bit but today we were sailing through the caldera of an active volcano to land at an old whaling station, then off to Hannah Point for our last landing before heading home. That dreaded home word. It already seems like we’ve been here a month because we couldn’t possibly have seen and done everything in just over a week.
Now Ive been on trips where we’ve had a ‘must see’ that has been a bit ‘meh’ or been driven round somewhere beautiful (st petersberg – the russian one) but because you spent all night partying on a sleeper train, the only thing keeping you awake is your head hitting the coach window occasionally. When the guys here say to get out on deck to see us sailing through the narrows into an active volcano, you know this isn’t ‘ordinary’. We seemed very close to one side with a fair bit of space on the other, but that was explained by the massive spike of rock just under the surface. Apparently there’s something very similar which can catch your engine at low tide off Crawfordsburn beach. That rock will ruin your beach bbq plans and mean you might have to stick her on the beach for a day or two to patch the whole or get a new prop for the engine…
…well lets just not go there.
Did I mention it was almost full white out conditions? No? Well it was. This was our ‘opportunity’ to go for an Antarctic plunge but with the blizzard and wind it was too dangerous. With windchill it would probably be our last plunge if we tried it. Damn, I was looking forward to that.
As I walked down the gangplank to the zodiac a voice boomed out above me in a very posh, quaint, English male accent.
‘It must be cold if Irish is wearing a hat finally’.
Yes, it was cold.
Selfie time. This is real adventurer time!
The buildings in the distance behind me are some of the storage tanks for the whale oil. This was a smaller station than those in the BBC documentary I mentioned about South Georgia but at the time I thought they were massive and it showed the industrial scale of the whaling industry.
The site is preserved and some of the old wooden structures still survive. Whilst the idea of the whaling industry is abhorrent, how people survived here is nothing short of miraculous. This photo of us with one of the buildings in the whiteout shows the conditions. Heaving going with minimal kit, never mind working here.
There had been a bit of a disturbance at the designated landing site as a youngish fur seal had decided to make a nuisance of himself and charge at us every so often. I saw three fur seals play fighting in the distance so went along the beach a bit to get an angle on them with the long lens. I then did one of those stupid things, I took the shot and then turned and walked off. Now there is a fair distance between them and I don’t know how fast a fur seal moves, I don’t know if they are aggressive to humans or if this was real or play fighting amongst themselves. The key points in that comment is that I don’t know, I turned my back on wildlife whilst not knowing. I didn’t back away as I normally do watching where I was walking and slowly backing off until I reached higher ground. It could have been complacency or the effects of the cold or this was the last day but again the voice in my head was screaming at me ‘this is the type of shit that gets people killed’ or worse puts me in a position where someone puts themselves in danger trying to offer help. OK maybe I’m over exaggerating but remember where this is. Its now near white out and Im all alone watching where Im putting my feet in the white on white conditions.
Of course the first thing I come across is a grave.
Good job Im not superstitious.
The white out is broken up by the red wet weather gear of my ‘buddy’. So what is it appropriate to shout to the first human being you see after a bit of a wake up call like that?
‘Get the fuck out of my shot’.
I wont dignify his response by broadcasting it here, suffice to say it was a proper series of swearwords, also appropriate to being almost turned over by a whale.
We have a saying here ‘nice weather for ducks’ which means its raining so heavily only ducks would enjoy it. So ‘nice weather for penguins’ although the penguins didn’t seem to think so.
I put my hand in the cold Antarctic water as we went back to the zodiac. Two weeks previously Id done the same in the warm subtropical Pacific and two weeks before that in the cold North Atlantic at home. Small world.
A lot of tired but exuberant people over lunch. Traipsing through the snow and blizzard was the toughest going we had had here but it felt like real adventure. Yes, real adventure as we tuck into the three course lunch…
The chinstrap penguins seemed equally as stupid as the gentoos but they had a whole black and white vibe which made them seem a lot cooler than the gentoos. Hannah Point was perhaps the most difficult terrain as it was very icy and sticking to a flag marked path was crucial here, it was a steep slope and we had to walk along a ridge to get to the elephant seal colony. Not the place for your bad leg to buckle as one slip and it is straight to the scene of the accident!
People tell you things, its just words, sometimes there’s a picture with the words that can be worth, well a thousand words. The phrase ‘you will smell the elephant seals before you see them’, doesn’t quite portray the assault on your senses, mainly your nostrils.
At first you think the smell is so bad they must be over the next ridge, but you would be wrong, they must be over the ridge after that and you would be wrong again. I must really be downwind of them and then the wind changes so you really are downwind of them.
FFS what have they been eating.
From what I can gather elephant seal behaviour is boiled down to emitting noxious gasses from either end and at times both ends simultaneously whilst trying to argue with your neighbour for absolutely no reason whatsover. Ive had nights out in rural Irish towns where that behaviour wouldn’t be out of place.
My inner 10 year old was loving this although after this mornings experience with seals, I heeded the ‘don’t get between them and the sea’ comment. I didn’t ask for clarification of this as seeing them up close I thought it was self explanatory. If they decided they wanted to go for a swim, in a hurry…
Although it appeared other than barging their neighbour they didn’t want to do anything in a hurry.
Hand on heart I have never heard, seen, smelt and even tasted as many farts in one place since I was 13 and the school canteen thought it was a good idea to supply us all with egg and onion sandwiches on a 6 hour school trip by coach.
Sure where would you get it?
Sun was setting over the South Shetland islands as we turned for open sea and headed North.
Work was over and we had 2 days of sailing rough seas home, the only thing for it was to retire to the bar, toast Antarctica and party the night away. I thought Id be sensible and get to bed at a reasonable hour and get up late (8am) for a day of talks, reviews and generally hanging around the bar.
I woke up the next day completely shattered, Id been in bed about 11 as usual but hadn’t taken any sickness pills or cold remedy as I was out of them. Feeling rough I went down for breakfast and then for the first time went back to my cabin, hung the do not disturb sign and feel asleep for a few hours.
I went up on deck to clear my head… well that’s an understatement. I went up to the top deck and had to use the camera in front of my face as a windbreak as I couldn’t breath. The beautiful blue sky was deceptive as the ship was bobbing around in the Drake Passage. Blew the cobwebs off and when someone followed me up to see if I was still attached to the ship I realised it might be fortuitous to return to the bar at this stage.
I didn’t want to start drinking too early today as we had the charity auction later that evening and who knows what I would come home with after a glass or two of vino. Needless to say the crew supplied us with a complimentary drink before the auction!
Bidding was brisk, and high on the first set of items but there was nothing really unique to me that described my trip. Then of course it came to the auction for the arrow used to take whale dna samples. Now Ive run charity auctions, Ive participated, Ive paid over the odds for items I could have bought in the same place I went to collect my items but never before had I been allowed to bid against myself. Put the drink down Joe, this is serious business.
Someone else had set their mind on the arrow and the auctioneer kept reminding us that it was a broken arrow and they apologised for that, I said it would just allow me to make up more stories around it. Id set myself a limit and I found myself bidding that limit with no sign of the other person backing down. Some of the other wealthier bidders had been quiet allowing us to duel it out, which did surprise me a little. The hammer came down and I was the proud owner of one broken arrow with a faint aroma of whale.
Later in the bar I expressed my surprise at why the other bidders hadn’t bid for possibly the most unique item there and to a man and woman they said ‘would never get it through customs’..
The following morning I was up early to get up on deck as we rounded Cape Horn. Tick another box off the bucket list although we were lucky to make it out through the mist but yes, cape horn was there and we did round it.
Over breakfast I expressed concern that I was feeling so rough having not drank too much and been in bed for around 11ish as usual.
Yes, when the clock in the bar said 11 I went back to my cabin.
You passed my cabin bouncing off the walls about 3:30am.
Didn’t anyone tell you? They stop the bar clock at 11pm every night…
The crew did their best to fill the remaining time and we got a good tour of the ship which was originally built in the cold war era by the Soviet Union for underwater sonic research. Looking for aquatic life, whales, measuring thickness of Arctic ice, that sort of thing, not submarine hunting or broadcasting to the ballistic subs at all. That 3 mile towed sonar array communicating with the sister ship (also chartered by the same company) was purely peaceful..
..love it. Sure, where would you get it…
Im going to end here, I still had to endure a day in Ushuaia made easier in the company with some of my shipmates, then a couple of nights in Buenos Aires including dinner with one of the most beautiful women Ive ever met… …but that’s another story for another day.
What matters is that I was sad to leave Antarctica, sad to leave South America, very sad to leave all my old and new friends but with some memories that will last as long as my memory does. This trip has a large place in my heart and I’m a better person for having gone and seen it. It was a trip of a lifetime and coming from someone for whom trips of a lifetime are my business, that is saying something.
Is the best thing Ive ever done… unquestionably, yes. Educational, socially and spiritually uplifting. A feast of sensory experiences. Sights, sounds, smells, feelings that will last with me forever.
Would I do it again, unquestionably yes but with the proviso that what made the Antarctic leg for me wasn’t just Antarctica but also the blend of the crew on the ship, the fellow travellers I met along the way and the stage in my life I am at. I achieved a dream that a little boy brought up on the Falls Road in the middle of the Northern Ireland troubles in the 70s and 80s has no expectation to dream never mind accomplish. Above all though the trip might be over but the journey continues…
PS – Somewhere over the rainbow… On our last night we had a slideshow of selected images taken by us on the trip and at the time someone was playing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – beautiful song.
Before I go on to describe some of the wonderous happenings that landing on the Antarctic soil entails, Ive been asked to address the elephant in the room that is the selfie issue.
If yo’uve been following my blog about the tail end of the South America leg of this trip you will know that Ive been trying dismally to perfect a ‘selfie’. You know the skill that any 13 year old girl with a cameraphone has, yet with all this kit and knowledge of optics, physics, engineering and so on I still manage to take a selfie with eyes closed, sky, feet, that expression you have 10 seconds after you’ve taken your selfie when you realise you didn’t account for shutter delay or the exasperation on your face when you realise you’ve hit the shutter button 5 times to no avail but as soon as you turn the camera round to take a look, it takes the photo. Well if you are between the ages of 12 and 18 or are female then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.
I couldn’t feel more middle aged right now if someone bought me slippers and I realised I had my own ‘comfy’ chair.
I confided this lack of photographic ability to some of my travel companions and God bless them but they took hours and hours with me trying to sort it out. Patience of saints, the two of them.
Id progressed from complete ineptitude to consistently capturing the essence of ‘grumpy fecker’. That will have to do.
Im now fully prepared for something Ive thought about since I first heard about Antarctica. Id read about it since I was a kid, Ive seen films, documentaries, I went to the Tom Crean Antarctic explorer play, Id read books on the explorers on this trip and now this was it. My turn.
…after yesterdays weather I was taking nothing for granted although when I got up, again to an almost deserted ship (up an hour before the early morning alarm call) I figured that if I get close enough I just say fuck it and jump overboard and swim for it.
Everything so far had been monumental. I’ll say it again, life changing, and 4 months on I still mean that, but this was the main event. After this you can turn the ship around and go home.
I hope not but this is the reason I’m here.
Up in the bar a few other hardy excited souls were pouring coffee down their neck and I realised I wouldn’t have to jump overboard and swim for it, there were enough of us of the same mindset to throw a zodiac over the side and speed for shore.
This morning was different, the talk was more in hushed tones, we just wanted to get on with it. Our port of call would be Neko Harbour.
Everything was double and triple checked, I brought four cameras with me today, 2 weren’t just enough, what if this broke or the bag went over the side or or… I also had some extra luggage in the backpack. Id bought every kid I knew either a small toy penguin or badge and Id bought a batch of the ships badges and they were all coming with me to shore. They would be set down on land, photographed on land and then every kid would get bored with my story and would get something that had set foot on Antarctica.
I rarely post on twitter, just to update to my ramblings, rovings and so on but after going to see the show I had tweeted to the production team that Id raise a glass to Tom when I set foot on Antarctica the following month.
So as the zodiac rode up the beach, I got off the boat, put my lifejacket in the pile, took off my rucksack, broke out a small bottle of Jameson whiskey I had bought in Belfast City Airport for this exact purpose. (I had bought another one I’m going to drive down to Tom’s pub ‘The South Pole’ in Cork later in the year to drink)
My fellow travellers just laughed at the non drinking Irishman who suddenly dumped the cameras to take a swig of the water of life. I explained what it was for and passed the bottle round and a select few in my merry band toasted their own favourite explorer and their accomplishments.
It was pointed out to me that water is covered by IAATO and alcohol might not be. I did point out that it was a form of water and in Irish is the water of life, so technically I thought I was ok.
Life will never be the same.
A few years ago I was interviewed for the college I tutored photography for. And the director asked what work I most valued. My voice stumbles in this section because I remembered my own childhood and once ending up on stage in the Civic theatre in Belfast as a kid. I still remember that to this day. I am proud of being a small part of the group of people that, a couple of times per year, gets kids from various backgrounds in Northern Ireland and has them as part of a dance production in one of the major theatres in the country. No matter what happens to that child for the rest of its life, every time they go past that theatre they can remember the time they danced on stage to hundreds of people. No-one will ever be able to take that away from them.
Ive walked on Antarctica.
10 years ago I didn’t think Id be able to walk again. I was totally reliant on people for the most basic of needs and here I am standing at the end of the earth.
Never give up hope.
Besides which there’s nothing that a penguin picture wont cheer up.
Back into photographer mode I noticed in the middle distance a mini march of the penguins so I thought Id take up a position to get them as they went past, if indeed they did go past. IAATO guidelines cover not only distances to the wildlife but also to keep out of their regular paths and not to block their way if moving en masse. Again tell it to the penguins, they decided to turn 90 degrees to march over to see what I was up to.
Although shot with a telephoto lens I did realise that the tugging at my leg was an actual human this time but they were more concerned that I might be sitting in the tsunami line if the cracking noise from the glacier beside us turned into a full scale calving.
The wee jedi master voice in my head was telling me to be mindful of my surroundings and probably better to move my ass unless I wanted to become a permanent fixture on the continent Id tried so long to reach.
There was a steep, icy, rocky climb up to the high vantage point over the glacier but to be honest I was just happy being there. I didn’t think my leg was up to the climb, well the climb maybe but I didn’t it buckling on the descent so I thought, yes you’ve made it this far, lets try and live another day shall we?
I went up part of the slope and was joined by one of my travel companions. Out here we were a far way from the ship, had lost site of the landing beach and most of the rest of the shore party were off up climbing the hill so the two of us were left on our own. Time to let discretion be the better part of valour and have someone watch my back when taking photos and vice versa.
I spotted this one wee penguin doing a circuit of this large rocky outcrop so thought Id follow him to see if he was doing circuits for any particular reason or was just that stupid.
Yes indeed, he was that stupid and do you know what, he wasn’t the only one. I followed him to the edge of the rock outcrop and in my desire to get an angle on the shot of him above all his companions way down below I found myself sliding on my belly sidewards across the ice, commando style. Well that’s one of the defining stupid moments of my life. I looked around and could see no-one or nothing. I was only about 10 feet away from the rocky outcrop but was lying belly down on an ice cliff that stretched quite steeply down to the shoreline below. Sliding face first to a battered and bruised face and one million hits on youtube wasn’t the least of my worries. Yes this ice sheet was covered in penguin tracks but nothing to indicate there weren’t snow covered crevasses that wouldn’t sustain the weight of a middle aged spread young man. They would never find my body. It really is that simple. Forget the euphoria and emotional rollercoaster of getting here and being here, remember where you are, everything around you can kill you and be mindful of your surroundings.
I got to my knees and sighed in relief at seeing other human beings, at least if the ice gave way now people would see me fall!
Time to head back to the ship before we headed off to Wilhelmina bay to hopefully get some sightings of humpback whales. We had seen quite a few on various cruises around our landing points and even saw a few logging on the way back to the ship but this is the one place we might get to see a few together.
Id fallen in love with the whole standing out on deck thing by yourself. Although I was joined on and off by a few folk today. The weather was clearing and the scenery was outstanding/awesome/spectacular all of the words you use for things that really aren’t that outstanding/awesome/spectacular but which are quite appropriate here.
There’s also that morose feeling that you have turned the corner, the high point has been reached and now you are heading home. Like the kid fighting tiredness on Christmas Eve or staying out until the sun goes down on your summer holidays, you are straining to get that one last view, that one breath of clean air, all whilst trying to avoid frostbite or in my case, put on a hat.
Running up and down to the bar for fresh coffee covers most of that.
This was going to be a cold one, 2 hours out on the zodiac in the evening with the weather closing in and real sub zero temperatures. I might even bring a hat!
I stopped short of the hat but put on every layer Id brought with me. Id be glad of them later on as it started to snow and the wind got up in the middle of the bay.
Early on we spotted a family group of humpbacks logging on the surface. I mentioned in a previous post about the logging but it was becoming clear that this was humpback whale central, they were everywhere. The crew radios were abuzz with sightings and stories. None of us left our own groups because that’s what it was, our own group, we would all have different stories to tell later in the bar.
Like the hole in the ozone layer thing I mentioned earlier, it is now all too clear why these magnificent animals were almost hunted to extinction. You just wait until they are logging, sail up to them, stick a harpoon in them and tow them ashore. Writing this blog a few months after the fact does have certain advantages. The BBC recently ran a 2 part series on the whalers of South Georgia, mostly poor Scots guys who left poverty to work on the whaling boats and what a commercial industry that turned into, making fortunes for the companies and a perfect example of human greed and not paying attention to future ramifications as long as there is money to be made now. Instead of hating the guys I felt sorry for most of them, one of them was in tears and obviously haunted as he described how certain types of whales would cry out as they were being slaughtered. Whilst in Wilhelmina Bay I couldn’t comprehend how or why anyone would want to do it, now I know both. Its a disgraceful chapter in certain nations histories and some would like to continue it today. Have a look at these beautiful magnificent creatures that do no harm to anyone and ask why.
At the time of writing though hundreds of children have been slaughtered in Gaza and if we don’t stop people dying, is it any wonder what else goes on.
We were getting very close to the animals here and there are rules on how close you can get with the engine running, without the engine running and so on. Again nobody tells the whales and when the wind changes and you start to drift over their tales and strictly aren’t allowed to start the engine to get away then you once again get a feeling for where you are in the world. Like my trip to the Arctic last year, it doesn’t really matter if you can swim or not as you aren’t going to be around long enough to find out.
The family pod we came across was beautiful, Im assuming mother, father and child, with the child rolling around, flipping its pectoral fins, diving, lying on its back, giving us a full show.
We were drifting past the back of the three animals when the juvenile turned and it seemed that curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to take a look at us. Again, cute.
Then one of the parents disappeared beneath the water, the boil on the surface headed in our direction.
Now the zodiac driver did apologise afterwards for his ‘swear’ word that he let slip when however many ton of humpback whale broke the surface no more than 20 feet from us, threw its dorsal fin up and looked for the world like the tail was coming up to turn us all into the water. Can I just say that what he said wasn’t a swear word, its not even close, certainly not compared to the mouthful of swearwords that came out of my mouth. IAATO guidelines or not it was time to get the fuck out of there before said parent decided to give us something other than a warning. (no that wasn’t the swearword he used either, but was one of mine).
Do you know that feeling of shock and heart racing when someone pulls out in front of you in traffic or cuts you up or just narrowly misses you or narrowly averts an accident. You know where you react and about 30 seconds later the shock hits you and you don’t see the funny side any more. Well…
…be mindful of your surroundings, it ain’t a zoo!
As Dr Bruce Banner is quoted as saying ‘don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’. No shit sherlock! (that might have been the ‘swear’ word used – very understated for the situation we found ourselves in, in my view).
It was one of those times when you are insignificant and nature just carries on around you. I remember lying in my bed trying to sleep in Africa out on Safari, Id never heard so much noise, things hunting, screaming, killing, eating, humping, talking, communicating and just being fucking noisy. All around, everywhere. That’s what it was like here. Feeding, diving, rolling, sensory overload.
Somehow the snow falling, the chill reaching the bones, the double gloves and the regretting not bringing a hat didn’t matter. The ships crew were excellent, we’d stayed out longer than planned, no rush here in amongst all this. The bar and restaurant staff even got dressed up in penguin suits and got their own zodiac and went from zodiac to zodiac throughout the bay dispensing a hot chocolate and Baileys mix. Gentlemen, I salute you!
The blue twilight was now descending and the ship was very far away so time to return. The wind had dropped and we were gunning it back to dinner a medicinal hot whiskey and maybe a short DJ session in the bar. Off in the distance I spotted a whale tail in the blue light. We were speeding along, on the antarctic ocean, one handed I lifted the camera and telephoto lens, manually focussed, quick switch of the wheel to change the settings down to a low aperture and high iso to still not get enough shutter speed. Hanging on to the boat I had one eye in the viewfinder and fired off a single shot.
‘Did you get that?’ said one of the people in the boat.
‘Yeah, of course I did!’ I said with a smile whilst the wee voice in my head really said ‘not a fucking hope in hell of anything but blurry blue in that one’.
Over dinner and in the bar I noticed that a few people like me were coughing and sniffling. Someone had brought a cold aboard and in the confines of the ship and the need to hang on to the guardrails at all times, it was now making it way through us all. I could feel my throat tightening and eyes getting sore. Not exactly a great recipe for a photographer but lets get to bed early tonight after a couple of medicinal hot whiskeys. After instructing the barmen on their construction, it seemed a lot of my fellow travellers thought they should partake of this brand of Irish medicine. As my dad used to say ‘cures coughs, colds and sore arse holes.’ Indeed.
I did my usual DJ set and retired to bed about 11pm. Id see how I felt in the morning, tomorrow was a good cruise in the morning and another landing in the afternoon but the day after tomorrow was another biggie so Id see how I got on.
Oh I suppose you want to see that blue light photo? Well here it is and Ive printed it off letterbox crop and its hanging in the office in front of me.
Do you ever have one of those dreams where you wake up and go about your ‘normal’ business yet there isnt another sinner about and you think you are the last person on earth. Well that was me this morning and it wasn’t a dream!
I slept soundly enough, just woke up about a half hour before I was supposed to, which was still bloody early so I thought Id just get ready and head up to the bar deck for some coffee. Nobody passed me on my deck, the next deck or all the way up to the bar. Nobody in the bar, nobody on the outside deck. I checked my watch again and it was just turning 6am and yes I did have the right time zone.
Somehow I had managed to miss the 50 knot winds and the ship being thrown around most of the night which explained why no-one else was there and when the first stragglers arrived to throw my plans for taking command of the ship and sailing home I realised that it must have been rough and that our days itinerary was probably out the window.
It was impossible to land at our station visit and the ship was now heading for the sheltered waters of Lockroy Bay and Goudier Island. We had missed out on one of the possible highlights of the trip as far as commerce goes as Vernansky Research station was our only available spot to spend money on Antarctica at the Ukraine base post office and gift shop. Well you cant go all that way and not bring some tat home can you? Instead we settled off Goudier island not far from the British Port Lockroy station which had unfortunately closed the week before for the winter season. It was lucky that the weather got so bad the night before because travelling in a Russian flagged ship calling at a Ukranian base during the Crimea crisis might not have been such a good idea at all.
Anyway moving on it also meant that our planned trip through the Lemaire channel was at risk as we were now out of position but we would at least try the approaches to the channel later in the day and see how we got on.
It was in harbour here that we saw our first and only signs of human life, a Chilean Navy helicopter flew low in over the nearby mountain range, shortly followed by a Chilean Navy ship on patrol from the nearby Chilean base and then the British research ship visiting to clear out the rest of Port Lockroy’s things before winter.
It seemed odd to see evidence of human life here and even odder to know that the Chilean base is all year round, partially to continue any possible future claim to land here.
The cruise today would be a relatively short one as the brash sea ice had started to close in around Port Lockroy and there was no chance of landing. It was more a stretch your legs type thing to get us and the kayak team out for the morning.
The video from yesterday shows the type of thing, cruising around icebergs and brash ice.
The brash ice has this weird tinkling noise as it floats and collides together. Think of thousands of ice cubes in glasses all clinking together at once and you are still nowhere near close to the noise. Again surreal is the only way to describe it. You sort of can place the noise of ice clinking together, just not on this scale! Its hard to make out the tinkling noise in the clip above the engine and wind noises but it sort of gives you an idea.
The kayak team were having a ball of a time today, calm sheltered water and beautiful backlit glaciers to paddle past. Now its a bit of a sore point (well not really I doth protest too much) about skipping the kayaking but for safety sake you had to be able to perform a barrel roll in the kayak and get out of it quickly. Now I would take a risk with my life no problem but its the poor buggers who would try to rescue me or the guides that might take the flak for my stupidity that I decided not to bother. I have no regrets about that decision despite my whinging on the boat! I have a kayak here at home and do paddle here in worse conditions (although not as cold) but its a sit on top and there are no problems with me falling in and getting back on (if you don’t count the time I nearly drowned myself on Lough Neagh but we don’t have to go in to that story right now…)
My boat driver that morning was one of the most elegant women I have ever met in my life. Considering I used to do a lot of red carpet work, that is saying something. Argentinian (of course) of Italian descent so even after a night of rough seas she still turned out professional, demure and with a style and charm that’s hard to beat. She was also our ice expert its because of her lecture I know more than I ever thought I would know about ice.
Well that morning something happened, a call came in on the radio from the kayakers about a close encounter with a large leopard seal on the hunt and out boat driver ‘got a feeling’ for a patch of water halfway between the island the glacier the kayakers had went past.
As we motored out to the spot we passed some birds which looked like they were feeding on the remnants of the last meal the leopard seal had devoured. Would the seal he still hungry, would it still be hunting? Was it even still in this area? Out of the corner of my eye I saw some movement on the water surface between us and the island. That’s when the professional in me took over and I said nothing to anyone. The old Belfast slogan of ‘whatever you say, say nathin!’ took over and I raised my lens in the direction of the movement. I could just make out that it was a Gentoo penguin and it was swimming erratically. Either something was up with it or it had already had a passing visit from the leopard seal. It was just then a matter of keeping the camera framed on the penguin as we went past on the boat and waiting. Easier said than done in a moving zodiac but just as my fingers were getting numb I caught a bit of movement and then as with all the sports and dance photography I do everything slowed right down…
Its difficult to explain afterwards, experience tells you the right time to press the shutter. I only fired off one frame although the camera is capable of much more. The problem with machine gunning a subject is that you get a shot every 1/10 or 1/4 of a second and you might just miss that 1/25 second gap that a single frame at the right time would get you. Of course you might miss with your single frame and you get nothing at all.
I pressed the shutter and had a good feeling that Id probably never take a better photo. I don’t know what the people on the boat reacted too more, the leopard seal breaking the water or me firing off that one shot when there was nothing to see all around. Either way within seconds as the leopard seal started thrashing the now dead penguin around they had a fair idea of what Id taken the photo of. Everyone wanted to see but I don’t like to check in camera, firstly because if you are looking at the back of the camera your eyes aren’t out there looking for any danger or any other possible shot at the same time. Also screens on the back of the camera are notoriously unreliable and whilst a shot may look sharp and exposed well on the small screen, blow it up to the size required for billboards or any commercial use and it will be found lacking. Unless the shot is capable of that sort of reproduction, its useless to me. If the shot is good then I have the closing slide for my talk tonight, if not, well my 25 minute career as a wildlife photographer is over.
As you can see from the videos I did bring a small video camera with me, a waterproof one. Now as word of the leopard seal kill spread out over the radios all the boats and kayaks converged on our spot, as did the now curious and well fed leopard seal. Some of my shots still have bits of penguin hanging out of his mouth. All the zodiacs were equipped with go pro cameras on booms for placing under the boats and the huge leopard seal was circling us as well as trying to swallow one of the kayaks whole.
Basking in the estimated glory of my ‘money shot’ I thought Id get in on the act by sticking my camera under the water too and waving it around to see if it could pick anything up. I’ll look at the footage later to see if there’s anything there. So with hand turning blue one of the guides mentioned it in passing that it might not be the smartest idea Ive ever had to stick my hand in cold water next to a third of a ton hungry predator at the top of the local food chain.
‘I know, Im just thinking that’ yeah understatement of the year!
After tinkling through the brash ice for a while which strangely reminded me of Christmas for some reason we headed back to the ship for lunch and to attempt to enter the Lemaire channel approaches.
The Lemaire channel is perhaps the most photographed part of the voyage and as such is probably the least interesting from a professional photographic point of view. What was interesting was that we weren’t going to transit the channel as it was filling with ice and it was unlikely that we would get through. The plan was to progress as far as the narrows on the thrusters, then turn around and come back out.
The plan sort of worked, we did indeed get to the narrows but the amount of ice meant that we had no other choice than to try and push on through. I thought they did this for all the tourists but sure enough when everyone went out on deck and the bridge was closed and we crawled through the channel for hours you could not have parted anyones ass cheeks with a sheet of paper.
What a journey though, minke whales, penguins, icebergs, blue ice, towering cliffs above all added to the fear of being stuck here forever and going through the list seeing who we would eat first.
Its hard to pucker up and hold your breath for hours on end but eventually we made it through the channel and the crew set up an impromptu afternoon hot rum session on the front deck. There was a lot of nervous laughter and it sort of made you think that this wasn’t the normal tourist fare. The iceberg strewn passage ahead that we had to navigate to get to open water was another thing that the crew on this ship made appear normal when anyone who has seen Titanic would realise its far from normal.
The relief was visible but what happened next was one of those genuine almost wet yourself laughing moments. One of my friends innocently said that the captain should just pull over there and let us all drop anchor. I’m sure he meant it in the nautical term and he had no idea that drop anchor was Belfast slang for going to the toilet. I couldn’t breathe for laughing and it took me a while to convey the image I had in my head of all of us hanging our backsides over the side of the ship and ‘dropping anchor’. I think IAATO might have a rule about that. I certainly don’t think the Minke whales criss crossing our bow would appreciate it!
The rest of the day was spent pushing on through the French channel and out into open water to put us back into position for tomorrows excursions. As the crowd on the bow deck of the ship dwindled I stood alone out there for what must have been 2-3 hours. We have an expression back in Belfast which describes having a good time and taking in the sights/sounds/views. ‘Sure, where would you get it?’ is what we say. I didn’t think there was anywhere else in the world more appropriate than right here, right now. I was already going to skip dinner to prepare my talk tonight but why not just sit here, alone, watching antarctica go by.
I also had another one of those moments of clarity you sometimes have when travelling. The sun was beating down and I was genuinely lapping up the sunshine. One of the crew came out and suggested I go put on sunscreen. At first I wondered if this guy had a direct line to my mother but he went on to explain that this whole in the ozone layer thing I might have heard of was directly overhead and there was no protection whatsoever between my head and the sun. Its one of those times when something you hear about yet never in a million years expect to affect you directly or something you hear about that has a global but no personal impact suddenly hits home. That penny dropping moment when you realise if it hadn’t been slowed down we would all be wearing lead suits by now and life would be a hell of a lot more difficult than it is now.
Stunning, beautiful, amazing, awesome, majestic, are all just words and come nowhere close to describing the scenes I saw that day.
I’m Irish, I’m supposed to know what to say, I’m supposed to have a story to tell about everything, I’m also a photographer and every picture should tell a thousand word story. Trust me on this one, that’s not even close. I don’t know of any language that has the descriptive words for this sort of experience. Or if there is one, it is beyond my intellect.
Just as we reached open water we passed this huge tabular iceberg and I went up to the bar/lounge deck to let a few people know. I stood there without cameras for a good five minutes whilst everyone was snapping all around me. Many wondered why I was just standing there looking but eventually I cracked and with a rather loud ‘oh for fuck sake’, I sprinted across the deck, down the galleyway, down 2 decks and to my cabin to retrieve my cameras. I got some frames off through my cabin window as the light was now beautiful on this massive piece of floating ice. Another one of those ‘am I really seeing this?’ moments but I was assured other people were seeing it as well.
It was the only real clear day we had and certainly the only clear evening and we were treated to a full ocean sunset. I even got to see the green flash illusion that occurs on ocean sunsets which with many years watching sunsets on the Irish west coast, Ive never seen. To be truthful I didn’t see it here either as I had no idea what I was looking for. Someone had to show it to me on the back of their camera!
As I was skipping dinner tonight I stayed up on deck after sunset and it was another one of those laugh out loud moments. The ship slowed down slightly during dinner and in the gloom all around you could hear the sounds of whales breathing at the surface. The sea around the boat was alive with animals and it was one of the most beautiful yet ridiculous things I had ever seen. One of my friends had stayed up on deck to get a few post sunset photos (at my suggestion) and we just laughed as this was probably going on all around us the whole time yet until now we hadn’t known what to look or listen for. Humpbacks were tail flipping and bubble feeding and it was probably just as well it was too dark to take photos because we got the chance to just stand and watch and then when it got too dark to just stand and listen. You could feel the nature out there, you could feel the energy.
You could then feel the cold and I had a presentation to prepare. I got the talk before I started about making signals if I was struggling for time. I think wires were crossed a little because I thought they meant for them to signal me when Id gone on to long, they thought I was to signal them if I ran out of subject material and wanted to go into the Q+A!
The talk and the Q+A went down well and its certainly the most southern I’m ever likely to give a talk so chalk up another first for me. Well I say it went down well, maybe they were just being polite. I did promise everyone that I would reveal my ‘Death of a penguin’ shot at the end of the talk though, warts and all and give a bit of a talk on it particularly if it wasn’t up to the technical standards for sale.
I suppose Id better show the photo in that case, well its ok, not bad for someone with only 25 mins experience of wildlife photography. Its currently up for sale with Getty images along with some other select photos from my trip. Getty is an exclusive agency so its only available through them.
It takes a lot for me to scrape my sorry ass out of bed at this time in the morning. Usually its reserved for something really important, really expensive or really special. Today and for the rest of the week we have all three rolled in to one. This is it, not quite setting foot on the continent yet (if ever) but out in the boat, then setting foot on land for the first time in 3 days later today.
I was going to say I was trying to perfect the one handed shower this morning but if you haven’t read the last blog post then you might have a completely different idea of the reasons why. That’s not to say I haven’t perfected the art of the one handed shower in the past…. …when you’ve broken your arm as many times as I have it sort of becomes natural!
Before I left home Id went shopping in a local sports store to layer up in preparation for this trip. I need not have bothered in the end because in the end Canada last year was colder. The advice is to layer up with the most layers on the first trip and at least then you can take layers off and adjust. With the ship supplied waterproofs I didn’t need the specialist trousers Id bought 12 years ago but only wore once (in Canada) but the thermal base layers and fleeces I did buy were invaluable. The cheap as chips (2 quid I think) fleece liner gloves were one of the best buys I brought with me. I have expensive neoprene specialist photographer gloves, I had skiing gloves with me, both designed for long periods of time out in the cold, wandering around or standing still. The zodiac and shore trips were 2-3 hours long maximum and whilst the evening cruises could get bone chilling, there was little sitting around so small, light, easy to take on and off, easy to dry gloves were just the job.
That’s probably not the gear advice a lot of people have been asking for but I rarely talk about camera equipment other than a recent tripadvisor post to describe some of my sealed waterproof cameras and lenses (again invaluable here in Antarctica) but I can often rave about the small pieces of insignificant kit or adapted things that enable me to continue shooting when normally Id have to shut down are crucial. For example having learned in Canada that a lot of time was taken up with taking things out and replacing and taking layers on and off, I bought some cheap carabiners in Aldi (20 for 3 or 4 quid) and attached them to a lot of stuff I would be temporarily taking on and off. So for example one each was attached to the loops on my skiing gloves. So instead of taking off, putting in my pocket, watching every time I took them out, I just clipped them to the D ring on my jacket and then took my hands out.
Its one of the things I have learned from my travels and it is appropriate here in this pristine wilderness. You are a long way from home. You are a long way from buying another set of ski gloves and do you really want your lasting legacy to be a set of ski gloves lying in a bay or part of an iceberg or worse tangled up in wildlife?
There were a right few people down for breakfast this morning and the place was buzzing. There was land visible from every window. Land, for the first time in days. And what land, snow covered, mist shrouded, cold, damp, icy and completely silent. The silence really hits you when the boat is stopped. A quick walk out on the snow covered deck and its as if you have your ear plugs in. Nothing other than the hum of the ships generators. Walking along the snow covered decks down to the gangway the silence and gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on us. Everyone was strangely quiet, that quietness that you get when you walk into a large cathedral.
The routine for each excursion was the same, down to the boot room to get your boots on, suit up, check everything is attached, out and disinfect your boots and then join the queue on the lower deck for the gangway. Check everything again in the queue and watch where you are putting your feet. I thought it might be worthwhile making sure I wasn’t one of the first in the queue, that way I could watch and see how other people get down the gangway and into the boat. Going on your arse first trip on the first day would be a great way to get your name known to the few people who hadn’t noticed the bright green Irish shirt wandering around the ship on St Patrick’s Day. Standing in the queue is a good opportunity to look around and take in some of the things that were covered by the days of lectures so far, the difference between the types of ice (pancake ice here in the bay), what to look out for for whales and seals. Its all starting to come together.
My turn to hold hands with the big burly Russian sailor who would use that grip to pull me out of the icy water if I go head first into the drink instead of stepping onto the zodiac. I try to learn please and thank you every where I go and nowhere was spasiba more appropriate than when I got my backside safe shuffling along the zodiac!
We were off, gliding across the still morning water and everything including our research ship was a shade of grey. Ive been on Belfast Lough in my own boat on mornings like this but gliding through inky black water between the pancake and brash ice, Ive never felt further from home. The atmosphere was subdued expectation or more hope than expectation.
I had a few things I would like to see, a few things I wanted to do and a whole host of things I hoped to see and do. With previous trips to Norway and Vancouver, very little had gone right over the whole period. I was lucky to get photos from both places and deep down you know you will be lucky here to get to see anything at any random given time, never mind get photos of it.
This first trip would be a bay cruise with no shore landing. Good to get your bearings and get used to the procedures, climates and excursion routines, hopefully before seeing some wildlife later in the week when we get tuned to know what to look out for.
Well that was the plan but within minutes we had a ‘whats that over there?’ before gliding over to see a couple of Humpback whales logging. Logging is what they do when they are at rest, they float with their blowholes near the surface and breathe in and out. Click on the youtube video below for a short clip of one breathing. (the black log middle rightish of the screen)
Once you hear that noise, you then realise that in the silence all around you, that noise is happening all around you and the place isn’t silent after all. It is one of the most magical noises I have ever heard. There are whales all around, all just lying there resting on the surface. Far from being a barren landscape you realise the logs in the distance aren’t logs because there aren’t any trees, they are resting whales. Honest to goodness real life whales, and on hour one of trip one on the first day!
Then a call comes across the radio and the engine springs into life and we race across to another part of the bay. What could be more important than sitting here watching Humpback whales breathe? Well a pod of Minke whales cutting through the glassy water, that’s what. Apparently seeing this many Minke whales together is unusual but the word unusual is a bit hard to quantify as you skim across the surface of the water in Antarctica in a zodiac looking for a pod of whales.
To the untrained eye, (i.e. mine) the sight of the dorsal fins cutting through the water initially sent a chill up my spine. Whilst these huge animals weren’t sharks, the thought did cross my mind that we all wouldn’t be as happy or excited if it was great whites breaking the surface and circling our boats. The layers of clothes would come in useful then as apparently sharks can smell fear and there would probably be a lot of fear to smell!
Its genuinely one of those times when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here you are as far from home as its possible to get and you are surrounded by things you’ve only ever seen on tv. Surreal doesn’t really cover it.
On the way back to the ship we came across a juvenile fur seal and it was fascinating to watch the behaviour that we had heard about in the lectures just the day before. In my photography talk on the ship I mentioned a lot about listening to the local guides, the whale guy, the seal guy, the onboard photographer, the ice queen and the historical lectures. They aren’t just time fillers, these are the people who know their stuff, are passionate enough to put themselves through this journey time after time and dedicated to their own areas. I learned more about my photography on this trip from them than from anyone else. This seems an odd thing to say but getting to know your subject is one of the key components of being successful at any area of photography. I doubt there’s another photographer who knows as much about Belfast and Northern Ireland than I do. I probably do about 10 times the hours in research than the actual taking photos. Its knowing the small stuff that allows you to focus in on particular areas or to know that a particular landscape is glacial here in Ireland which can translate to other places in the world. Just small titbits of information about what way a seal behaves either passively or aggressively is enough to make you wait that split second to press the shutter. As I learned in my first day on my first job, experience is the thing you get 30 seconds after you needed it. Its wise to rely on other peoples experience and to learn from them.
The fur seal was just our introduction to the seal community here, we came across a leopard seal in hunting mode and from watching it slinking around, listening to the previous lecture and then asking a few questions when I got back, I thought Id like the opportunity to take a photo of it in full hunting mode. Probably little or no chance with the random nature of things, the guys from National Geographic spend days or weeks just to get one set of photos, they aren’t at the vagaries of a 16 day itinerary subject to weather and so on.
Our seal quota was complete when we came across a crabeater seal lying on an iceberg (yes really) on the way back to the ship. Great photo ops and it was hard to believe we had seen all this on our first excursion on our first day.
I genuinely didn’t expect to see this much in the whole trip but it was back to the ship to thaw out, have lunch, photography lecture and then on to our first shore excursion to the worlds largest Gentoo penguin colony. It felt as though Id earned lunch today.
This was it, the first shore landing of the trip. Cuverville island and the worlds biggest Gentoo penguin colony. I had been told that one of the things I will remember about the trip is the smell approaching the penguins, the stench of rotting fish and penguin droppings. Only to be surpassed by the smell them before you see them Elephant seals. Its probably more to do with the absence of any other smells than anything else but to be honest I was just concentrating on not getting my arse wet falling in getting off the zodiac. Shuffle to the front, swing your legs over, make sure they are planted firmly, stand up in the water and walk ashore. Yes seems simple. This was one of the main reasons for the carabiners. Make sure everything is tied down and nothing is loose that can catch on anything that will make your first shore trip a short one. In itself very little we had to do was dangerous but that’s all relative. Id learned in Canada that taking a walk in -25C and telling noone where I was going was just stupid. Yes it might only be a few hundred yards but fall in deep snow at that temperature and they wont find you until spring.
Same here, its not the falling in that is inherently dangerous but the rapid cooling effect and the having to dedicate a boat to take you back to the ship to warm up before you get hypothermia. Again I was in more danger of getting hypothermia sitting in my back garden but in my back garden I could just walk into the house, am less than 200 metres from the doctors surgery and less than 10 miles from 4 major hospitals. Be mindful of your surroundings, that old Jedi quote keeps coming back to me.
So I managed to land ashore with all the grace that a 44 year old man dressed like the michelin man clambering off a rubber boat on a stone beach in the snow and ice could muster. Thankfully everyone else must have been of the same opinion as the cameras and videos were all firmly planted in pockets and backpacks during this phase of operations.
So the shore procedure is to get to a safe level and deposit your lifejacket in a pile. That way when the last boat leaves and there are any lifejackets lying on the beach there will be a hell of a lot of forms to be filled in. IAATO specify the distance to leave to respect wildlife under all possible circumstances, how to carry waste, how to check belongings to make sure no litter is left and Im assuming somewhere in there is something about human castaways. We were the last ship calling this season so we really were on our own, all the summer bases were closed and having read the book on Tom Crean and the Shackleton expedition staying here for 2 years I made sure I wasn’t in the last group leaving any shore excursion.
Finally breathing out again after depositing my lifejacket in the growing pile I looked up along the shore. There is nothing in any of the guidebooks, nothing in travellers tales and blogs and nothing in historical documents that prepare you for the sheer comedy that is a penguin walking down a steep slope, going on its ass, sliding quite a distance and then getting up, dusting itself off and looking back up whence it came. Its slippy up there that ice dontcha know. A genuine laugh out loud moment, I thought these guys were supposed to be used to these conditions.
Penguins are comedy gold and we would all talk for hours over dinner and later on in the bar about what we saw.
Antarctica is a protected environment so there are only limited places where you can walk and the visiting area is quite small in places. The IAATO briefing mentions the minimum distance we have to keep from the wildlife but obviously no-one has told the penguins this. Particularly the juvenile inquisitive ones who just walk up to you and stare. As I mentioned before surreal doesn’t quite cover it. Looking behind me and having a penguin entourage is something Im not going to forget in a hurry.
Whilst the beauty and humour in Nature was there to see in spades the cruelty wasnt far behind. This was the last visiting ship of the season and even though the place seemed full of penguins this really was the end of the breeding season and most of the penguins had already left for the water. The remaining juveniles with their downy fluff probably wouldn’t survive as there was little time left for them to fully develop and become self sufficient before the winter set in.
Right at the very end of the trail I lay down in the snow to get some long distance shots of a group of penguins on a slight crest against the glacier in the background but it wasnt long before a very inquisitive juvenile decided to take a close interest in what I was doing. He or she obviously hadnt read the IAATO briefing on acceptable distance limits!
It wasn’t long before I felt a gentle tug at my trousers which I assumed was one of the guides telling me to back off a bit. I didn’t want to disturb the wee fella so started to back off slowly only to get my other leg and arm tugged as well. Looking back there wasn’t another person to be seen but there were three other penguins nibbling at my waterproofs. So much for no interaction.
All too soon it was time to not be the last person back to the ship so as we had a bit of time left our zodiac took a short tour of the bay and it was the first time I got to see the really blue blue ice icebergs up close. Id come across this type of blue ice before in the alps. Old blue clear glacial ice. You forget how blue it actually is. Have I mentioned its blue?
Well here’s a photo to prove it.
Back then to the ship for afternoon tea, then happy hour, then dinner and then one of the ‘fireside chat’ lectures in the bar. Dangerous thing the fireside chat in the bar… …particularly as Im doing the one tomorrow night.
To say the discussions on board that evening were animated is a massive understatement. Two things dawned on most of us, firstly that we had seen as much in one day as most of us had expected to see in the whole trip and that the lack of phone, tv, internet, facebook, twitter and everything else was actually causing this group of human beings to actually talk to each other. Something Id missed on last years trip in the Norwegian Arctic although that probably has more to do with that particular demographic than anything else.
Tomorrow was going to be a long day with another 6am start, trip to Goudier Island, cruising the Lemaire Channel and French passage then my fireside chat in the evening followed by an unscheduled Q+A in the bar where I would no doubt answer questions over a medicinal hot whiskey.
Again professionalism and discretion took over and I retired from the bar about 11pm. Big day tomorrow.
Its taken me a long time to get round to writing these blog posts. Its not for the want of trying, its one of those rare times I have genuinely been lost for words. When I first went onto the boat, up in the bar there was a poster with hundreds of words written on it and room for some more. The words were all words people have used to describe their trip and their experiences of Antarctica. Im sure my pet hate word Awesome was in there somewhere (although to be fair to anyone using it, this is one place on earth that it really is appropriate) as well as loads of other bland comments like life changing, surreal, amazing and everything else that you see mentioned on Facebook to describe the otherwise mundane.
I make no bones about it, from the first 10 or 15 minutes I realised that this would indeed change my life and the absolute joy of realising that truly this is one of the last remaining wildernesses on earth and that it is statuesque because it has little or no human interaction was tinged with the inevitable feeling that nothing would ever come close. This time last year I stood in a similar white polar environment looking directly up at a coronal explosion of the Northern lights knowing I would never top this feeling, this truly awe inspiring phenomenon and yet a year later here I am thinking the same thing every time I move my gaze or use one of my senses more than the others.
Ive been to World Cup final games where my team has scored, sensory overload, you cant hear, you cant speak words, just primeval noises and raw emotion jumping up and down and hugging those close to you, friend or stranger alike. This is the same but different, you don’t want to blink for fear of missing something. You speak in short phrases, hushed tones in case you miss something, your body shuts out the cold, the wind, the rocking, the blinkers are on and you are there. You are in the moment, this is life, this is the experience of a lifetime and in another 30 seconds there will be another experience of a lifetime and so on…
..but Im getting ahead of myself, which explains why Ive sat down to write this numerous times over the last couple of months and every single time been sidetracked by the photos, the videos, reading my new friends comments on Facebook or just sitting back and thinking ‘Sweet Jesus, Ive been to Antarctica’.
I guess Ive just blown the paragraph about wondering if our shore landing would go ahead due to the weather. So lets get that over with now, yes I did set foot on Antarctica, no I didn’t go in the kayaks and no I didn’t get to camp out overnight on the ice (weather killed that one).
Ive never been one for cruise ships as I mentioned in my blog on the Northern Lights trip. I think Im too young to be going anywhere near a cruise ship and I genuinely thought Id be the youngest on this trip by about 20 years. I was mistaken. And then some.
I split this trip into 3 parts, the two days of tedium to get there, being there and then 2 days of editing photos, catching up on the sleep I missed, fixing all the things I broke during the trip including myself and possibly drinking myself into oblivion to avoid the drake passage crossing and to mark the end of my work trip and the start of my journey home.
I had my cabin assigned and my luggage was waiting for me in the cabin along with my waterproof gear so that’s a relief. No need to stand for a week in the shower wearing the same set of clothes hoping they dry overnight. Having a wee boat of my own I realised that everything has a place and everything should be in its place. Or more to the point everything should be squeezed into its place packed with as much soft material around it as the space will permit, then add a little more packing and force the door closed.
The Drake Passage is the worst stretch of water on Earth. After last years experience in the Norwegian sea/Arctic Ocean I did wonder if my ‘How bad could it really be?’ thoughts would be better kept to myself over dinner or should I just getting the looking like a dick over and done with early in the trip by mouthing them.
Everything packed, stowed, repacked and emergency stuff left to hand I went up for the welcome briefing in the bar. Now being the only Irish person on board and it being St Patrick’s Day tomorrow and a full day at sea I thought I had the weight of the nation on my shoulders. Well certainly the stereotypical view of my nation on my shoulders. I was met with a chorus of disapproval when I said I wouldn’t be drinking until the last shot was taken and we had turned for home. Yeah, lets just see how long that one lasts…
During the briefing, lifeboat drill (seriously, who the feck is going to rescue us out here?) and dinner it was a formal introducing yourself politely to the people you would be singing in the bar with later on in the week. Carefully not dropping any swear words and in general trying to be as unlike myself as possible. Yeah that wouldn’t last either.
There is always a danger on this sort of thing of ending up with the couple (usually English) who sit and drone on with non funny anecdotes about driving along the A1234 on a sunday morning when every sane person is sitting at home nursing a hangover. I genuinely thought Id be sitting most nights bolting my dinner down me or eating sandwiches then retiring to my cabin for a night of editing and captioning photos.
I couldn’t be more wrong. From the first embarkation meeting in the hotel where I met an English couple who had blown a redundancy payment to take the trip of a lifetime, to the guy just out of the US military travelling the world, to the south american tour rep, the north american tour rep, the wall street hedge fund manager, the hedge fund owner, the commercial lawyer, the retired bus driver, the commercial diver, the whale guy, the seal guy, the whale woman, the boat drivers, the hush hush military comms woman with an unhealthy interest in soccer to the rest of the adventurers on this trip, every single one of these people had stories to tell, interesting stories, life changing stories. Every single person on this trip was a traveller. This isn’t your package holiday to Spain, this isn’t your typical guided tour holiday, these people were fellow travellers. They get it. Ive rarely felt at home with a complete bunch of strangers in my life. This is gonna be good.
The lifeboat drill was interesting and Captain Phillips wasn’t the ideal movie for in flight entertainment on the way down. Then again if you fall in here, I don’t think you have to worry too much about your ability to swim. Well certainly not for very long anyway.
Dinner was a surprise, a 3 course affair with salad bar and the typical sit down now Joe and pace yourself ended up at 3 plates and having to waddle back up to the bar later. My thoughts about skipping a lot of the formal sit down meals evaporated as the tables were big and people moved around and it was one of the main places to hear the plans for the following day (as well as the meal roster). Having a choice for dinner was also a novelty, you all know I love my grub but it even got a bit much for me later in the week and I did indeed skip a couple. One to prepare for my photography talk and one when I realised I couldn’t eat one more thing or Id have to get larger waterproofs.
I noticed most people were wearing the scolopamine patches behind their ears for sea sickness and the crew advised everyone to apply these now and take other meds as we were going to be in the Drake Passage later that night and its difficult to get tablets down you when everything else is going the other way.
Now really, how bad could it be? I have my own boat, have been on some rough irish sea crossings and even though I thought I was going to die in Norway I still didn’t throw up. In fact the only sea sickness medication I had has been expired for over 8 years already. Still whats the worst that could happen? I popped a couple of those and left it to fate.
Dinner over I headed up to the bar to see if I could spot the usual suspects I would be joining later in the week. The usual suspects consisted of myself and the barman. Now not wanting to really back up the racial stereotype on the first night I thought discretion was the better part of valour and went back to my cabin to get the head down as the tablets were making me sleepy. In the little net above my bed I put my water, more tablets, sick bag, another sick bag and my torch. Hate waking up in a strange place and not knowing where the light switch is, never mind the toilet door, lifejacket, whiskey…
Speaking of the toilet door, it was a shared bathroom with the next cabin, each cabin had a door so the plan was you went in, locked their door, did your business or whatever, cleaned up/washed down/fumigated/checked for floaters and then unlocked their door and went back to your own cabin. Well that’s the theory…
I was rudely awakened from the post seasick med stupour by the boat rolling around and someone banging on the door and calling my name. That horrible ‘oh fuck we are all going to die’ moment was upon me just long enough to realise that the urgency in my next door neighbours voice wasn’t down to us sliding beneath the Drake Passage but more down to the fact Id forgotten to unlock their side of the bathroom. Oops. Still I wont do that again…
Mental note to introduce myself to my neighbours over breakfast and apologise, not good locking them out of the toilet and them getting to know your name by reading it off your cabin door.
It was early enough and today was mostly lectures on boat safety, birdlife, whales and our proposed trip itinerary although nothing is set in stone here due to the unpredictability of the weather and conditions. Now you read this with any travel brochures or booking anything from concert tickets to crazy golf but as you are getting thrown around on the ocean you do take the hint. Its then you realise what all the chains underneath the dining room chairs are for, to keep you at your rough place setting. They are also attached to certain chairs in the bar as well, although one of our party never ever realised this the whole trip. Like how many times do you have to sit in bucket seat then go arse over tit across the bar floor to realise that perhaps picking the untied chairs with the highest centre of gravity isn’t the smartest idea in the world. Obviously it doesn’t take a genius but it takes a certain kind of special to do this at least twice a day and not realise. He could of course just believe in fate….
The out of date tablets had just made me drowsy, and hungry so I made my way down for breakfast and noticed the queue for breakfast wasn’t as long as for dinner last night, perhaps there were too sittings or perhaps the patches thing didn’t really work out for a lot of people. I was still feeling less than 100% compos mentis so thought Id ditch the tablets and if I was sick so be it, at least Id be alert enough to take photos.
The day was a series of shuffling from lectures to food, to lectures, to snacks, to lectures, to coffee, to food, to lectures…
…then all hell erupted. I missed whatever was on the loudspeakers but judging by the people scrambling to get back to their cabins to get their wet weather gear on and crew running about the place, it was probably going to be something I would like to photograph….
Now another point of explanation here, there were a lot of people on this ship from sunnier climes than Ireland. Drier climes too so whilst I contemplated putting on a jumper they were running for the full wetskin suits. So there was I standing on the top deck in combats, trainers and fleece thinking I should have really went and got my gloves as well as the cameras. I wasnt that cold, it was certainly winter day in Belfast type weather, nothing to worry about but then we hadn’t crossed the convergence yet and it was technically still summer.
It was then everything became clear, we had spotted two blue whales swimming together. Now every primary school classroom Id ever been in had a picture of a blue whale somewhere, every schookid knows they are the biggest mammal in the world and the biggest thing in the ocean and here were two of them just swimming past us. Just swimming is an understatement, they were bombing through the water, spouting away. In that moment you realise that this is the real thing and that you are in that movie, not just watching it. The captain heeled the boat around (not exactly the nautical term but last time I saw something change direction that quick it was night, it was stolen and the police were chasing it) and went after them for an hour. Again this is where words fail me. Very much in the moment, we are chasing two blue whales in the drake passage. Permission to say ‘fucking hell’ rather loudly captain?
We followed them for about an hour and our whale guy said he had only ever seen 3 blue whales down here and that was 2 of them and that he had never seen 2 chase each other like that. Id better get these photos edited quick then!
The full enormity of that ‘do you have any places left’ email sent off to the company one night 6 weeks ago is now starting to dawn on me. This is something special and this is only day one.
Up until now all the conversations had been polite and the usual chit chat of people travelling and exchanging pleasantries. The thin veil of no swearing in 14 different languages was now gone and the conversations over coffee that afternoon were incredibly animated. It was an introduction to a group of about 70 people all being in the same place and being touched by the same thing but seeing it differently. How privileged you are is brought home by the fact that some of the people raving about the whales are the Russian crew who have been doing this 6 or 7 times a year for years. When they go and waken crew members up to see something, you know its worth seeing.
The rest of the day was just a buzz of excitement and everyone was enthused and running around smiling. Its amazing how much of a cure that was for the poor folk suffering from sea sickness lying on their bunks. Still, if you have to drag your sorry ass out of your sickbed for 10 minutes, there’s no better sight.
The small matter of St Patrick’s Day had not passed us all by and of course yours truly decided to take a front and centre role in proceedings. At the bar that evening the music shall we say was ‘easy listening’ and the bar staff apologised explaining that we all weren’t their usual demographic and that they had no music to match. That was soon sorted with a trip down to my cabin to get my tablet with my music on it. Naturally I had to do DJ and of course it helps to remain sober to do this important job. Now I have no DJ experience and the closest I have to it was that my brother was one. I thought that 300 miles off the end of the earth this was qualification enough, what I didn’t know was that I was applying for the gig for the week. Ive never wanted my name in lights but seeing it on chalk on the bar noticeboard was just another piece of the professional veneer eroding away.
I still was sticking to my guns about not drinking until the landings part of the trip was over.
Then of course I wasn’t counting on a beautiful Argentinian woman walking up to me, looking me straight in the eye, taking my hand and saying ‘come have a drink with me’. Ah shit, I am only human and I am a sucker for Argentinian women. It was only one drink though and I was heading down to bed at 11 so that’s not too bad. Besides which tomorrow is another day at sea so that doesn’t really count, does it?
Even less people showed up for breakfast this morning, which was surprising as Id had worse Irish sea crossings. Saying that though I did have a gravity lesson in the shower that morning. I just naturally assumed that the handrails around the very small shower cabin were for elderly or infirm folk but standing there buck naked in the shower holding my shower gel in one hand and squeezing a small pile into the other you start to notice that whilst you think you are standing vertical for some reason the shower curtain is sliding up your back. Luckily I’m blessed with fast reflexes and at times I even surprise myself how quick thinking I am. Realising I should really drop the bottle and not reach for the one thing that’s going to stop me from ending up in the toilet, naked, with a hand full of shower gel was one of my most inspired thought processes of the whole trip. Seeing that grab handle start to disappear just out of reach is one of those horrible slow motion shiiiitttttt moments that you know the chances of winning from are slim. This time I did win though but the night I was pretending to pole dance in the bar I wasn’t… …but that’s a story for another day. From now on, its showering with one hand on the grabrail at all times.
The rest of the day was the mandatory IAATO briefing to remind us all that we were going to the last pristine wilderness on Earth and we should keep it that way, lectures on seals, explorers and tagging whales. The queues for meals were definitely shorter and although there was a late night film showings, this was getting near the time. Our cabins were tidy, our wet gear was tried, our kit was disinfected and vacuumed out, the lectures were done, introductions were done but from tomorrow things would be getting serious. Last night we crossed the convergence and outside on deck it was noticeably colder. Thermal trousers and gloves colder although no need for a hat just yet…
Tomorrow I am up at 6am, tomorrow I ride in a zodiac in the Antarctic Ocean. Tomorrow I set foot on one of the Antarctic islands.
I still havent got round to writing my blog on my Antarctica trip. To be honest with you all, I dont know where to start. Ive never been on a trip that where a place has touched me as much as Antarctica has. Usually its the people that make a place for me and this trip was no different but there is something special about this cold frozen untouched part of the world.
Rather than just ramble on incoherently, I’ll put my thoughts together over the next couple of weeks and only put them together with finished photos.
Speaking of photos, in the meantime here is a slideshow with a selection of the expedition images. Music is provided by my good friend Stephen Maguire
And I feel fine.
Well Ive finally arrived at Fin Del Mundo, the end of the world, except its not really the end of the world, theres another town a wee bit more south of here in Chile but its too small to count apparently.
My arrival in Ushuaia was a bit subdued but stunning due to the just post sunset colours of the snow covered mountains and the relatively clear skies. Unknown to me the only clear skies I would have in Ushuaia as I sit now listening to the Man Utd Liverpool game on the internet and type this blog.
Looking back Im glad I decided not to just chill out and stay in the B+B and get out and wander round the town in the evening twilight, as it really was stunning and the clean fresh air with little wind brought to mind an Alpine village, next to the sea, at the end of the world.
You would think I would have known better with my ‘sure its only 6 blocks up to the B+B, no point getting a taxi’ thoughts as I left the bus station. Besides which again I didnt have any local currency (doesnt really seem to matter here) and there were no taxis at the rank as a couple of busses had got in at the same time.
The six blocks was of course six blocks across and six blocks in or should I say, up. Halfway through hauling the luggage up the very steep hillside I begged a taxi to come past and take all my money!
The B+B is another one of those described as quirky on tripadvisor, but the selling point was the description of the breakfasts and the idea that tea, coffee and cake is available all day. It isnt until now that you realise how crucial a decision that was.
I wandered up and down the town in less than an hour and went in and out of a few gift shops. Stomach was still up in the air from the 11 hour bus journey so just headed back to the B+B for tea and a cake.
On check-in I was given the house rules which included using a coaster every time I made a cuppa, the manager kept coming out every 10 mins or so to arrange the coasters, check the direction the flasks were pointing and to make sure there were exactly 8 pieces of cake left out at every instant in time. Dont know about quirky, reminds me more of fawlty towers. Still they are very helpful and mean well.
Up early the next morning for sunrise or what would have been sun rise if it wasnt snowing. The day was going to be a washout both photographically speaking and physically. This close to the Antarctic trip I didn’t fancy getting soaked and coughing/sneezing/moaning my way through the expedition. I just hoped my fellow travellers think the same way
I sat around for a few hours catching up with emails and sorting out a few stock sales before venturing into town about lunchtime. Well I say lunchtime, I have absolutely no idea what time people here eat at. All I could find open was the chocolate shop so hot chocolate and a fig, port and chocolate cake was lunch. All very tasty but not really the type of stuff you want to be eating for lunch during travelling. But hey, who am I to argue.
It clears a little in the afternoon so I wander around getting some shots so at least I have some in the bag.
I go to check out some of the gift shops but of course its now siesta time 1-3 and everything is shut. Lots of confused looking tourists wandering about the place trying doors and talking in small groups.
I exchange some cash in a local hotel. They are doing a rate of 10 pesos to the dollar and considering the official rate is abouty 8 pesos to the pound, thats a bloody good deal. Its the state of the Argentine economy in the last couple of months, it had pegged the peso to the dollar but as had to devalue and its fallen about 20-30% in the last month alone. Everyone wants paid in hard currency so are prepared to make a deal. It is of course a cruise ship stop off so everything is probably 20-30% more expensive than normal anyway so it evens out…
…or it would if you could actually find somewhere fucking open!
I do find a very good camera store but with the huge import duties on overseas goods I could sell all my equipment 2nd hand here and rebuy it new at home and still make a fairly sizeable profit. Prices here for foreign camera equipment are about 2-3 times the price in say new york. I dont need a replacement lens that badly!
I wander around aimlessly for a few hours until about dinner time 5-6pm in the forlorn hope of being able to buy some food, any food, but to no avail. The only place open is the irish bar and it is bunged to the rafters with a queue out the door, as is the chocolate shop…
I find a supermarket and get some bread and a couple of manky bananas to replace the manky bananas I bought in Punta Arenas.
I go back to the B+B for tea and cake and settle in for the night to watch some english language channels on the first tv since I left home.
The next day was slightly better and the sun managed to shine a bit so I went out and wandered round the same streets taking the same photos but without the rain as I had the day before.
There were no cruise ships in town so there wasnt a queue for the irish bar and I did hold out some small hope that they might actually have a tv and might actually being showing what turned out to be Irelands winning of the 6 nations. But no.
I did cave in and order guinness along with my steak sandwich and 20 mins later the waitress came over to tell me there was no guinness and would I take the quilmes stout instead. Sure why not, but why wait until now to tell me.
I know we Irish enjoy our dining out experiences and North American visitors can get pissed off with our non-instant restaurant service but we seem like fast food compared to here. I cant think of a single meal where I haven’t had to pack up and pretend to leave before I get the bill. A guinness and a steak sandwich taking 45 minutes is definitely taking the piss, particularly when it takes you to 1:05 and siesta time when everywhere else is closed.
The bill comes and there’s a cover charge and a request for a tip. Seriously a cover charge for one person in a fucking almost empty pub? That’ll be your tip then. Oh and here’s another tip, don’t serve a burger smaller than a big mac and call it a steak sandwich, serve it fucking quicker and… and…
You can see Ushuaia is starting to wear on me. Its the cruise ship port syndrome, they don’t give a shit as most people are only here for an hour or three and never to come back again.
I wander round out to the aerodrome across the bay where a pilot tries to divest me of a few hundred dollars to take me on a scenic flight for an hour. Now if he could tell me where I could watch the man u liverpool game, get a meal and a drink that I actually ordered, within the 90 mins timeframe Id just give him a few hundred dollars! Its something to think about for the day I have to spend in Ushuaia on the way back.
I wandered around for another couple of hours, hoping for the ‘best’ restaurants to actually open. I was feeling a bit sick by this stage with sugar overload and was crying out to sit down with some vegetables or anything which wasn’t a pastry covered in sugar. I didn’t really want to go to one of the all you can eat parilla restaurants (bbq) because when travelling you have to be careful with the time take to fully digest meat meals. You cant be bloated for a day or two and keep walking/taking photos although Id probably take it at this point.
I wander round meeting some more confused hungry tourists but cant face the chocolate shop or the irish pub again so get some souvenirs and head back to the hotel for coffee and cake.
Really feeling quite ill at this point so just get to bed early hoping its just a passing thing.
I get up and go down for a nice plate of eggs this morning and lay off the pastries and dulce de leche. In my whole month in Buenos Aires before I hadnt tasted dulce de leche and didnt know what my friends back home were raving about. Now I do but this morning was a time to lay off the sugar rush.
Id not been able to find anywhere to watch the game so just sat about the B+B all morning talking to some of the other guests, confusing talking in bits of 4 different languages before you guessed it having some tea and some cake.
Being here in Ushuaia has saved me a fortune, Ive hardly spent a penny and bloody nowhere has been open. Nothing opens to 10, shuts at 1, might open 3-7 and then maybe again in the evening but Ive never been around that late to find out.
So Liverpool have well and truly gubbed Man Utd, my luggage has been already picked up by the ships crew and Im 2 hours away from heading down to meet up with the ship and starting boarding…
…which means just enough time for tea and a cake…
For this blog post I thought Id do something different, a real time blog typed on the bus on my tablet as I went along. Before uploading here Ive just corrected a few of the autocorrect mistakes, the rest is as written. In retrospect it does come with a bit of a warning, it is written as it happened and sometimes when travelling its not all good news and some things you cant make light of. If you travel long enough you encounter the same sort of things as people do at home, including bad road accidents.
There’s no happy ending to this blog so you if you want to skip it then please do….
So what to do on a 12 hour bus journey at the end of the world. Well avoiding being killed seems to b the current state of affairs as we sit on the rough ground at the side of the road. I much preferred the last hour of dirt road travel which was slower but no daft overtaking manoeuvres that force you off the road. Up until that point it has been fairly uneventful the scenery is mostly flat, not Saskatchewan flat but not far off. There’s no living skies though just the dull flat grey common at home. There’s no trees very few bushes, the odd flock of sheep, very odd cow and occasional llama. (what is an occasonal llama). There also was one lost looking ostrich I’m putting that down to hallucinations or, just a very odd wtf moment.
The very odd time you get a glimpse of a settlement but more often than that it turns out to be a ghost settlement. I do think it would be a great place to explore in the camper van but not the place for my 1997 ford transit diesel. Then again I bought it because of its age and that most times it can be fixed with a hammer, screwdriver, gaffer tape, swearing and heavy boots.
I didn’t realise they served hot sweet coffee and snacks on the bus when I walked away into the local store last night for a sandwich and 3 bananas for the journey. My speaking Spanish is still shit but my listening and understanding is improving. As I left one said did that guy really pay 2000 pesos (about 2.30) for a sandwich and old bananas? Yes I did and I had enough cash left to pay 3 times that. Of course only when the bus conductor hands you immigration forms that you think you are going to have to stuff you face with bananas before the border. Thankfully Argentina isn’t as strict on fruit importation as Chile so banana overload isn’t going to be a problem.
You might have gathered I’m sort of writing this in real time on my tablet hanging off the seat in front. Fine on the paved roads but autocorrect and the delete button are doing overtime on the dirt roads.
We get off the bus to walk onto the ferry for the Magellan strait crossing. The bus is full of travellers and a couple of small tourist groups.
Right now thoughon this unpaved road the proximity of the space bar and the
Home and all windows buttons on the android keyboard is doing my fucking head in ☺
One of the tour groups is being led by a girl from northern Ireland so after following the group like a stalker for a while I say hello and introduce myslf on the ferry crossing. Turns out the llamas are guancos and the lost ostrich is a rhea, all common about these parts. I hope that’s today’s quota of stupid questions used up.
After the ferry its a 3 hour drive on dirt roads to the border with Argentina. One hour in you realise why its a 12 hour bus journey and you should get your head down. Problem is I would hate to miss something. All the blogs I have read about this journey say how little there is to see, but maybe they slept most of it and missed it all!
Nope, they probably didn’t. A couple of hours on the dirt road and nobody can see out the windows anyway.
We reach the Chilean border post just past the miles and miles of minefields. Yes minefields, they date back to the time of dictatorships in both countries and still plague the border although the EU is helping fund the inevitably slow clearance. There is a wee queue and a big one at the border post. The wee queue is for immigration, the big one for the toilets. The queue is there and every person can see every person at the front of the queue try the door, see if ts locked and walk off. Now you can see this done once or twice and think to your self yes they have tried everything and then accept the the door is locked. Or you can prove that stupidity does indeed cross all national, racial and language barriers.
Most people have the same idea 5 more hours to go so let’s try and shove a Microwaved hotdog bought for our last 1000 pesos into our gobs sideways without choking before we get back on the bus. Luckily no heimlich manoeuvres are required before we continue the couple of miles to the Argentinian border where the toilets as well as the border are open.
Only about 5 more hours left to go.
As we near Rio Grande (there are a few of those around as well) the big open flat lands with big skies and oil or gas rigs reminds me again of Canada. Although the sign in the arsehole of nowhere a with a show house and sign for planning of 1000 homes reminds me of Ireland.
Rio Grande seems a big enough place based around oil or gas and the various branches of the military.
Then its once again on out into the wilderness but on decent good roads.
About two chapters of Tom Creans book out of rio grande there was a strange formation on the now rolling hills. It looked like a range of sculptures on he ridge line sort of like upside down forked lightning 20-30 feet high. As we got closer it was more like a petrified forest but as we went on more and more appeared. Like those trees in Africa with very few leaves. After another hour of dozing on and off these scattered woods became denser and in the distance a snow capped mountain range appeared, not quite Alps more Scottish Highlands. As we went further the woods became forests and the mountains more alpine. Throw in some fjord like areas and we were driving through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world…
Suddenly the driver hit the anchors going down a steep slope with a sharp right hander at the bottom, he kept on breaking though and stopped about halfway down. It all became clear there was a car on its roof by the side of the road and by the looks of it another over the side down the embankment into the sea. The car on its roof had a woman half hanging out of the rear passenger window, still alive but judging by the blood around her not for much longer. Just a few feet past the car were about 6 cross memorials. Unfortunately the state of both cars means there will probably be a few more next week. The bus stopped and asked if anyone had any first aid equipment with them. Nobody had much past a small kit. I’d left my large kit with my mate but even from the bus it was clear first aid would have been useful. We went up to the top of the hill to see if we could get any mobile reception to call for help but nothing. The bus conductor stopped a few of the large hgvs and asked them to radio in for help but we are an hour past it now and nothing has passed us yet, maybe rio grande direction.
Its one of those times you wish you could do more, brought 2 kits, went on that first aid training course in January instead of maybe thinking of doing it in April when I get back. Of course if I’d have been travelling with my brother, a nurse, someone who does actually save people, then things may have been different. They aren’t and tourists being tourists an hour later the next snow covered alpine valley and the cameras are out again. That’s not a criticism its just the way life is.
I’ve been in the position where it all went pear shaped on a holiday. Most of the people including the staff were useless, why should they be anything else? If you don’t come across this type of thing regularly then stay clear and let those who know what they are doing get on with it.
At least nobody took any pictures.
Now ah hour or so out we are in the alps and stop in right beneath a ski-lift, this time its only a stoppage for a bit of a landslide next to a new tunnel being built.
The arrival into Ushuaia is just as the sun is setting and is absolutely stunning it should really be another wow moment and deep down it still is.