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 checkin 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 didnt 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 havent had to pack up and pretend to leave before I get the bill. A guiness 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 theres 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 heres another tip, dont 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 dont 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 wasnt a pastry covered in sugar. I didnt 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…
…next stop, Antarctica…
…happy St Patricks Day…
…to be continued…
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.
Theres 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 ostritch 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 Microwwved 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.
Abou 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.
The journey back was reasonably uneventful. I managed to finish off Col Chris Hadfields book which I can thoroughly recommend. Chris has done ok out of me, I bought two paper copies, one for me and one for my brother and queued up for an hour and a half in Belfast to get them signed. Having an hour and a half you would think I could come up with some sort of phrase or greeting that would convey the gravity of meeting one of your real life heroes and yet have a little humour as well. Ive met, photographed and spoken (slagged off and been slagged off by) a listers, musicians, politicians etc but after an hour and a half the best I could come up with was shaking his hand, looking him in the eye then pausing for about 10 secs before saying one word ‘Inspirational’. He gave me that sort of ‘I feel your pain’ looked and moved on to posing for the signing photograph.
It reminds me of a story of on of my best friends who was in a line up to meet Bill Clinton who was then still the president. Again 10 mins in the lineup thinking of all the funny, serious, witty, momentous things to say and all he came up with was ‘hows it going?’. I laughed when he told me the story but then he just said ‘if you think that was bad, you should have heard what I said to the Pope’. I never did hear that story…
I had bought a few books for my kindle reader for the flights, busses, boats and Chris’s book was one of them so thats 3 copies! I also got a few recommendations from friends as I returned their copy of Long Road to Freedom I had borrowed 3 years ago and still havent read. In my defence all the time I get to read is when Im travelling and with this amount of camera gear, physical books weight is just too much. I do like to read physical books at home though. I got Long Road to Freedom for kindle as well as Tom Creans story after going to see the one man show earlier last month.
Getting back to the hostel was a bit of a relief, relief that I had my bags intact, relief that Id made it across Santiago in one piece on a Saturday evening and relief because the toilet in the bus was broken for the full journey.
I had said in a previous post that my hostel was a bit of a dump but that wasnt the main point it is a 100 year old building undergoing ‘improvements’ and has character. The only other real options in the city centre were sterile corporate places where you dont get to meet anyone. I would be getting better hotels as I went along but as I was spending a lot of time here in a place with little to do I thought Id check out a hostel as there was always interesting characters about.
Until I realised that Santiago isnt really a tourist town, there were a few french/german groups staying but only for a night on the way to somewhere else. Everyone else were locals down for one reason or another so the common room was empty most nights, which was a pity. Not one single solitary Aussie the whole accumulated 5 days!
Knackered after the journey, woods, journey and with a 5 hour flight with a stupid o’clock start I thought Id use my one last full day in Santiago as a rest day. Id pretty much got everything that was on my pre-trip list in my first couple of days and had almost run out of local currency saving money for the early morning taxi ride to the airport.
I had a few shots to get but they were far out. The open top city tour had mixed reviews on tripadvisor but they did take credit cards and it was 2.5 hours round the whole city that I could sit on my arse and get the couple of general view shots I needed by just hopping on and off on the way round.
Of course the South American games were on and the main road through the city centre was being used for the cycling time trials. As it intersects the city, no city tours today. But it did mean there were cops everywhere and very few people on the streets. As with every sunday the other main streets were cordoned off for cycling and recreational use so went on a 11km round trip walk to get the final photos I needed. it was really pleasant, little smog, lots of families out and about and very quiet with just the sounds of bikes going past.
For my sins Id already eaten a McDonalds on this trip as it was the only place open and wanting to avoid burger king as well I had a look round the hostel for what was open.
Problem was I only had about 4 pounds 50 left in local currency…
..which got me steak and chips, a bottle of water and coffee and a pastry in a local restaurant! About the same as the McDonalds earlier in the trip.
It would be ok in the mornings I could get USD changed at the airport or just pay by card. The taxi was covered (just) with no tip which would probably end up with my bags just thrown out of the car
My spanish is definitely improving (although that wouldnt be hard) as I had almost a 10 minute conversation with the taxi driver who did ask if I was from north or south ireland! When he got to the bit about the train station, bus station and immigration he lost me a bit, although it seems to be a standard taxi driver conversation worldwide.
One thing really noticeable about getting through Santiago airport at 7-8am was in the queue for security. There were hundreds of people queuing but only 3 women and all of them were accompanied. Must still be just the men who do business flights and trips here, not something Ive seen anywhere else in years and a slightly odd feeling.
There is a cafe in the airport called the ontime cafe. Trust me they arent. 45 minutes to get me a coffee and an empanada. I went in with 50 mins before my flight and had to go up with the bill and demand to pay it. I was given a frosty reception but when I took my boarding pass out and started to walk towards the gate they were quick enough with the bill.
The flight down was split into two parts, one to Puerto Montt and then an onward flight to Punta Arenas. It was actually two flights so they served 2 meals on the way down. I needed have bothered in the airport at all, but there you go, every day is a schoolday.
It was mid afternoon before I arrived at my hotel. It was the first time I can remember staying in the number one ranked hotel for a city on tripadvisor so I had high hopes for this one.
The hotel was excellent, one of the largest single rooms I have ever seen. Its a modern place, quirky with a lot of character and a lot of characters running it. A great place to stay for a couple of days.
I headed out straight into Punta Arenas to have a look round. Weather was overcast with a lot of wind, but the forecast for the next day was mostly clear with a lot of wind, my last day there would be overcast with a lot more wind. I think the lot of wind is a feature here as most of the flagpoles dont go more than about 6 feet past the rooftops.
The format here seems to be places open, cruise ship passengers arrive, they eat, buy, walk around aimlessly, leave, places close and repeat, but only on the days the cruise ships arrive.
Today and the next days were two of those days so all the restaurants that would take USD in straight payment were full of the people from the cruise ships. Still it was interesting to walk around and get my bearings and realising that it wasnt that big of a town and I could cover most of my photo list in a couple of hours.
Punta Arenas claims to be the last place on Earth but that is also claimed by Ushuaia where Im going in a few days. Punta Arenas is on the mainland of South America and Ushuaia is on the Tierra Del Fuego archipeligo so technically on an island. Its that whole Honningsvag/Hammerfest thing again. Ushuaia will be the furthest town south though and theres no question about that. funnily enough its rougly the same latitude south as my house is north, so should be well used to the weather.
The town itself definitely has that end of the world feeling, a bit of a dump, a lot of character and history, reminds me a lot of Donegal!
One of the last trip chokepoints was secured when I managed to get my bus ticket for Ushuaia for Thursday. I wont really relax until I have made it to Ushuaia and even then on board the ship but its another one of those trip up points which would take major rework and a lot of hassle.
The breakfast at the hotel was every part the breakfast raved about on tripadvisor, freshly made chapattis with cheese and avocado, good coffee with a fruit, musli, yoghurt and jam mix. Breakfast of champions and I would be glad of it later on that day.
Everything went to plan for the first couple of hours. The plan was, up as early as breakfast would allow (8am), finish by 9ish (about lunchtime irish time), check emails and so on for a half hour then when the sun was high enough get out there and get the photos done.
The original plan was to do in and around the city centre depending on sun conditions, walk out the 4km to the duty free zone, get something to eat out there, get cash changed out there and taxi back and do the rest of the city photos with the afternoon sun in the other direction. Then start working my way through the to do list for the food and drink photos.
Well that was the plan and everything was going well right up until reaching the duty free zone when one of my lenses went kaput. I’d sat long and hard deciding on which lenses to bring and my best lenses had to be weighed (literally) against my travel lenses. The lenses I regarded as crucial were the best ones but the backups, general coverage ones and long distance were lighter so a mix was taken. The crucial ones were the good ones and the rest were cover but I could get by without.
It was one of these backup lenses that failed. A Canon 24-105 L lens with Err 01. Now on subsequent investigation this seems to be another ‘common’ problem. Well as much as problems on the internet become problems. There is a techinical discussion online of the causes and fix and I wanted to know if it was fixable here. It wasnt, technically it was as know in the business as ‘fucked’. It would be a couple of hundred quid fix at home perhaps but as the nearest service place was 1400 miles away that wasnt an option. Coincidently the nearest place to buy a replacement was also 1400 miles away… …possibly.
It was the most versatile lens I had brought but it was the one I wasnt planning to use that much on the antarctic trip but from now on I really couldnt afford any more failures.
Standing literally in the arse hole of nowhere isnt really the time to get mad or pissed off, you just have to deal with it and I always carry 2 lenses at least so I didnt need to trek back 5km to start shooting again.
It was about 6 hours from breakfast so I was starting to think about getting something to eat which needed local currency.
Not normally a problem but the messing about with the lens had tipped me into Siesta time. This is now really beginning to fuck me off as Im stuck out here with everywhere closed and even the one or two wee places that are open dont take credit cards or usd. Im busting for a piss and water is getting low.
I do a few photos out at the Zona Franca and then decide to come back the slightly shorter way via the coastal road and through the city.
The wind gets up dramatically and Im afraid to walk close to the sea in case it blows me in, and then I begin to feel the first drops of rain. Strange because directly above me is clear blue sky and I can see the sun lighting up the raindrops as they fall on me. Behind me though there are a load of dark clouds bearing down on me rapidly. The rain is coming from there, that is some amount of wind!
I need not have worried too much as the rain didnt last long, it then turned to hail then snow.
Caught out in it with my freshly waterproofed waterproof trousers and my newly bought thermal liner gloves sitting nice and warm in my rucksack in the hotel. Keeping my thermal boots company as all I would need today is my light walking summer shoes. Of course Id never have been able to walk that distance in my boots but there you go.
So tired, hungry, thirsty, wet, I sat down for a bit and remembered the Tom Crean story play where he was stranded on Antarctica for 2 years, went 600 miles through these seas in an open boat and crossed the yet unchartered south georgia islands to help rescue the rest of the crew on elephant island. I also have just finished Chris Hadfields book and remember the lines about sweating the small stuff and wondering what next would kill you. Im not likely to die but sitting here isnt going to help.
I pick myself up, look around, smile and realise, Joe, you are at the fucking end of the earth, you have always wanted to come here, so fucking get moving.
400 yards later the wind slackened a bit, the rain/sleet/snow stopped and the sun came out. A couple of hundred yards offshore I saw what looked like black and white dolphins doing a lot of air time playing around. Truely honoured to be standing there watching it. Only later did I find out they were Commersons Dolphins native to the Magellan Strait and quite rare. I did think at one point they could be baby killer whales but there you go.
On the way back to town an Albatross flew over. Now thats not something you see everyday either.
I should wear my glasses more because squinting from a distance the large gannets looked like penguins. Im starting to hallucinate.
I make it back past town to the municipal market to the number one (and cheap) restaurant on tripadvisor for great seafood. They dont take dollars or credit cards and only have about 4 tables and besides which 100 yards away is the cruise ferry passenger terminal and a ship is in. Ive no chance.
Punta Arenas is a shallow port so the cruise ships moor out in the straight and shuttle people in on tenders. This goes on all day.
I wander back into the town centre to another restaurant famed for its seafood but lately with some mixed reviews. Its a lot pricier than the market but it will take usd at a shit exchange rate and give me pesos as change.
I go for the baked king crab and if Im perfectly honest it was one of the most beautiful things Ive ever tasted. It was good but also bear in mind the crackers and dip they gave after I had ordered was also up there.
The food was excellent and all washed down with their famous pisco sour. Now with everything today and it only being 3pm I genuinely did stagger out into the sunlight.
It was back to the hotel to dump the gear, check emails and then the main point of picking my laundry up! Another one of those compromises, I would normally pack enough for the whole trip but as this is a summer and winter trip and all the extra gear brought Ive had to layer up the clothing. Not a biggie but the cleaners save me a lot of hassle by doing me a one day service.
Thats it now, ready to go to Ushuaia. Just one last day of chilling about the hotel, going down to the chocolate shop for lunch, writing this blog, packing my bag and getting some things together for the 11 hour bus ride tomorrow.
All I need to do is pack, get up for 8am breakfast, belt that in to me then hobble as fast as my wee legs will carry me down to the bus company for 8:30am.
…to be continued…
I was generally here to work and not in the taking photos way but back in my engineering days way. Over the last 3 years my mate has built a number of houses with different success on his eucalyptus wood in a remote area of Chile south of Constitucion. When I say remote I mean its about 200m from what used to be the main coastal road and you could get a full 3g signal and internet access anywhere on the land. Well thats part of the story. I was able to facebook and tweet from day one but my spanish isnt up to much so the 25Mb per day I thought I was paying for was actually 25Mb per month. As you go extra internet for free with a top up (up to a maximum 150Mb for a month) of voice and texts that I wasnt using (still have 48 texts and 50 mms messages free if anyone wants them) I thought there was little point once I had got there. I thought the 25Mb would maybe last the week of emails, tweets and facebook but unfortunately not turning off auto update on a few apps used up all my data as I slept on the first night. So much for that great idea!
Still I was here to get back to nature and I was helping my mate build his house by putting in windows and wiring the place for led lighting and other mains power powered by a large solar panel and a couple of large batteries he had. I did laugh at the putting in windows because where I was brought up when you put someones windows in that meant smashing them. The only other time Id really put a window in properly was when I was ‘revising’ for my finals with a friend of mine at my parents old house. We went outside into the back garden to kick a football about for a break and got one break too many. His second shot I saved the ball but didnt save the stone that went straight through the kitchen window. My mother who was on night shifts rose from her sleep and reminded us two in no uncertain terms that if we really knew what was good for us we would sort it out asap.
Instead of revising that evening we drove around to find a glaziers and then replaced the window.
Id brought some things with me that were hard to get in Chile such as window tinting (not really something we need to do to our windows in N Ireland) so I could only source the stuff drug dealers fit to their cars, and strings of led lights, which is something drug dealers fit to their cars… hmmm.. good job I was off to Chile and not Colombia.
This house was timber framed single room with a wood burning stove in typical rural chilean design. I was staying in the previous iteration which was idential in theoretical design but smaller than most peoples bathrooms in the western world. It reminded me a lot of a bothy, a type of mountain/country shelter built in Ireland and Scotland to shelter people who get caught out in the mountains. I had to remind myself that my mate and his girlfriend stayed there one entire winter. Those of us with first world problems like no soya for our morning latte or cant find replacement batteries for the blu-ray remote have no idea.
Although it is a reminder of how we used to live in Ireland, certainly in my lifetime and Ive been in old bungalows in the north and west of Ireland recently that started off as the same one room construction with turf burning range.
My mate decided when they realised they were going to have a baby that bigger premises were required so luckily enough my trip coincided with some of the last preparations for winter.
I wasnt worried about the accommodation, it was better than camping which I thought I was going to do.
I wasnt worried about drinking the well water, which I resisted for about 3 days and then thought what the hell, Im thirsty!
I wasnt worried about working in the 20-30C heat because it has been a long time since I have been able to do anything like this at home.
No what I was most worried about where the dogs.
Im not scared of dogs, I love dogs and in general dogs (like small babies) love me…
But there were 8 of them, 5 Belgian shepherds and 3 German shepherds and they were a pack with my mate and his girlfriend as leaders and they were all protecting this 5 month old baby….
…that was what I was worried about, would they let me onto their patch and would they let me anywhere near her…
I really neednt have worried, I paid each their dues in turn and then put them in their place! By the time I cut my hand open on one of the windows and blood everywhere, two of them ran to my defence.
Although I have to say opening the door of the ‘bothy’ every morning to see this lot come bounding down towards you, throwing up clouds of dust backlit by the sun, is not a time to show fear of any description.
Im trying very hard now not to look for a dog when I get home. That would be the end of my travelling and probably me settled down into the old man routine…
Of course with this many dogs out in the wilds you have to deal with the flea problem. Which I did by allowing myself to be bitten at each and every opportunity. What the mosquitos missed, the fleas got. I had used sprays but working and sweating for 8-10 hours a day just made things worse. My face hadnt looked that bad since my mid teens!
Still it was a far cry from the time I was nearly hospitalised in Buenos Aires bitten probably close to 100 times in less than a few minutes in the mosquito equivalent of carpet bombing.
Other than dogs the woods had some chickens, ducks, turkeys and a run was being prepared for rabbits. All very nice when you get the initial tour but at 3am the next morning when you dont know which to kill first, the rooster crowing to early or the dog barking at the rooster crowing. By the end of the week something will surely die a mysterious death if this continues.
The one advantage of working hard was you get to enjoy your food and some of this was again unlike anything I had tasted before, everything local including bananas, watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes. None of this picked before riped, artificially riped or stored for days nonsense, straight from plant to plate. Superb.
Of course with no running water the problem of just how foxes shit in the woods had to be addressed. Not so much the woods but a big plastic bucket with a wooden frame over it. You do your business then cover it with wood shavings and then pound it down ready for the next person. The shavings in this case were eucalyptus which has anti bacterial properties as well as smelling nice and ultimately a very good disposal tool for the waste.
There really is something special to having a dump out in the fresh air with noone around with magnificent views of the sun setting over the pacific. Id not go so far as to say poetic or life changing but getting there.
One thing I hadnt been prepared for though was the noise. We were at most 2-300m from the south pacific pounding away on the beaches and the roar was constant. Except for the time it wasnt and it all went quiet. Just about the time my mate got a text from his father asking if we had felt the earth tremors. Good job we were already above tsunami line in the woods. Well normal tsunamis. If it was the end of the world tsunami it would be a great place to see it come rolling out of the pacific ocean mist.
Anyway that sort of masks the wee questions running round my head about how many tremors and saying I wished they werent talking about this series of tremors being similar to ones just before a really big quake. Ive never been in a really big quake, just a few minor ones but I slept through them. Funny when you wake in a hotel in Japan and people wonder why you didnt evacuate like the normal people. Evacuate when? During the earthquake? What earthquake.
I hate it when the earth moves and I miss it.
By the end of the week we had most of the work done that I had planned on but just needed some supplies to make the temporary wiring more permanent, so it was a bus ride into Constitucion for more stuff and to book my return bus ride.
When I say bus ride I really do mean ride, the bus is only really stationary for a fraction of a section and is accelerating hard as you try to plan your now ‘swinging into a seat’ arse firmly on something other than the floor. By the return journey I had mastered the art of picking two empty seats, not together but one after the other. By the laws of physics if you aimed for a point forward of the nearest one you should be able to make one of them or at the very least arrest your downward movement to the floor with the base of your spine. These wee minibusses even have conductors and they must be very fit or Chile is littered with loads of them lying by the roadside. They help people with their luggage as the driver accelerates away leaving them running beside the bus.
We spent most of the time in Constitucion running around dentist practises. Not for me this time, it was my turn to take my mate who had a toothache which was building into almost unbearable. I say almost because I think me stopping to take photos between the first dentist, the x-ray dentist and the first dentist again made it slighly tip into the unbearable stage. Well I just cant help it, hes a big lad and if he survived winter in the Bothy and the previous mud hut version which was next to useless then he would be fine.
I told him in true explorer speak to go on without me but he was worried about me getting lost. I was going to argue about how could I get lost in a town centre of about 300m2 but thought better of it and put the camera away.
Teeth temporarily fixed and electric wiring bought we thought we’d brave the trying to jump off the bus without getting run over by it return leg home.
A few whiskeys later and all was right with the world and I set up to take a few photos of the best sky I had ever seen. All week I had difficulty making out the contellations because there were just so many stars in the sky and the milky way was as clear as Id ever seen it. No light polution here and I hope that the whiskey fueled photo session does turn out slightly better than the hazy version I remember.
I returned to the bothy and lit the fire, the now familiar smell of eucalyptus hit me as well as the heat. On the first night I said not to worry about lighting the fire as it would only drop to about 13 degrees or so…. Next night the fire was lit.
My last full day was spent wiring and re-wiring until we were happy with the layouts and lots of soldering and screwing in and then standing back and then thinking ‘do you know what, another led there would be great’. Well thats how it started and as the rum flowed it developed into the most magical lighting system ever created by man.
We went for a walk down to the local shop to get supplies for our last night dinner. I normally take people out on my last night but so far from anywhere and with the little one going to bed early we just stayed in but not before Id walked down and put my hand in the Southern Pacific Ocean crashing on the shoreline. 10 days previous Id put my hand in the Northern Atlantic Ocean on the north coast of Ireland but that wasnt exactly a comparable experience, no danger of frost bite here!
As it was the last night we broke out the gallon of local red wine we had bought for 2 quid, lit a bonfire, dug out the air pistol and tried to shoot anything that was moving, and if it wasnt moving we shot it anyway, but the only things moving were beer cans and plastic bottles.
No sign of the ‘mice’ that hung around the place which might explain some of the scratching I heard one night in the bothy. The cat ( I forgot about the cat) caught one of these ‘mice’ and brought it up to the house and started to devour it. The mouse was a bit on the large size, in fact it was a it on the large size for a small rat. That would explain why the rooster was crowing at all hours and the chickens hadnt laid any eggs in a couple of weeks. When I mentioned moving the decomposing rat off the decking after the cat had finished with it I was told just to leave it for the wasps… …and they duely arrived and finished off most of what the cat left.
On the final morning the dog had stopped barking at the rooster but I was getting used to trying to snatch quick naps between its dawn chorus of 3am and whenever I had had enough and chased it telling it to ‘shut the fuck up’ rather loudly.
Today though I was woken by an angry torrent of Spanish from what I assumed was one of the local farm neighbours. Now you dont need to be speaking in tongues or Sherlock Holmes to work out that a middle aged countrified chilean shouting a lot and waving a dead chicken as two of the dogs tried to make themselves as small as possible means theres an apology in order.
Of course the perennial smart arse in me was about to suggest that its ‘chicken tonight then?’ but thought better of it incase his english was better than my spanish.
As we walked down to the bus on my way back to Santiago my mate just threw the following one out there ‘did you get much trouble from the Tarantulas?’
The one whose holes are all around the compound.
Oh sorry meant to show you the tarantula holes on the first day so you wouldnt walk on them at night when you went out for a piss.
I think my mouth was still open at this stage.
Oh dont worry they wont kill you unless you are susceptible to bites and stings or something.
Have you seen the state of my face? Do you remember translating for me in the pharmacy after the mosquito attack?
OK maybe I should have mentioned it sooner….
…and about the snakes..
Then I thought about the rats, flea bites, bubonic plaque and in just over a week I would be boarding a ship for 11 days with a ‘point of no return’.
Sure maybe the symptoms would show by then….
I hate goodbyes, Ive spent too many sad moments in bus stations, train stations and airports so we talked shite for a half hour waiting for the main bus back to santiago and then promised to message later that evening on Facebook as I left and he went off to get his teeth fixed. Id spent a great week with my friends and really bonded with their daughter, my goddaughter and I hope it isnt 4 years until I see them again.
That 6 hours back on the bus didnt feel like the continuation of the adventure but rather the end of one…
…to be continued…
…but before I do a few words about my mate. He will probably read this and I dont want to blow smoke up his ass but he is truly one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Hes worked on 4 continents that I know of, in a series of professions (including bloody good photographer) and having had the dream of building his own home on his own land for years has done it and is doing it. I hadnt seen him in 4 years and probably 2 years before that but within 10 mins of the bus ride picking me up everything is normal again. So if you are reading this, keep living the dream mate, its bloody hard work and very few people have the inner strength to continue on. Proud to call you a friend and so glad I got to be a small part of the project.
It all started with a friend of mine asking if I fancied a quick trip somewhere sunny during March. She had leave to use and both of us were going stir crazy watching the rain bouncing off the windows in Northern Ireland.
2 days later she realised she couldnt really get the time off and I had booked a month long trip to South America including an 11 day photographic expedition to Antarctica. It all started with looking for a couple of days in Morocco then Dubai and then to the end of the earth and beyond.
This time last year I was at the highest city in the world and hopefully this time next week I will be at the lowest.
I have been to Argentina before and had been promising friends to come visit them in Chile to help build their house and to see their five month old daughter whom Ive agreed to be godfather for. It would just be rude not to go..
The last time I was in South America (4 years ago) I had looked at fitting in a tourist trip to Antarctica but as it was short notice (4 weeks) and there was a 2 year waiting list at the time, I had no chance. Thanks probably to the global recession, 3 weeks notice was more than enough to confirm a place on one of the smaller expedition ships. More on this later.
The journey consisted of just over 4 weeks, Belfast to London, to Madrid, to Santiago Chile and then a couple of nights there before the 6 hour bus ride to Constitucion (site of the big earthquake and tsunami destruction in 2010) then another half hour to my friends place hes cleared in his eucalyptus forest in Los Pellines right on the Pacific coast. A week there helping out build the house and install solar lighting and other such things before the reverse journey back to Santiago. A couple of nights there before an early morning flight to Punta Arenas in the southern tip of Chile, a few nights there and then an 11 hour bus ride to Ushuaia in Argentina and a few nights in the southernmost city in the world before 11 days hopefully culminating on an overnight stay on the Antarctic continent itself. The journey home would be a less laborious affair with a flight up to Buenos Aires, a couple of nights there and hoping to catch up with a friend there before flight to London and then on to Belfast for a rest.
Plenty of scope there for missed connections, lost luggage and so on.
In order to tie in with the expedition most of it was booked in less than 48 hours with little or no research, and sitting here a week into the trip before a 6am taxi to the airport for a flight which isnt listed…
The plan was simple, start early get an overnight at the travelodge in Heathrow for the early morning flight to Madrid. A great plan, Id read about the heathrow travelodge in a book by philosopher Alain de Booton when he was asked to be laureate for Terminal 5. A great plan indeed, except there was already a travelodge at heathrow named heathrow central… which is just outside the airport and by public transport at that time in the morning meant standing in the rain waiting on a night bus and… bugger that for a game of soldiers.
Anyway by the time I had realised this and thought I wouldnt bother about losing the 20 quid the original booking cost me the terminal 5 hotel was already full.
Standing in the hotel foyer I decided a cab was the best option… …at 5am.
Certainly sir that would be 16 quid. Now, you can see terminal 5 from the hotel. Its less than 3 miles away. Welcome to London!
I had 23kg bag allowance for most of the journey (more later) so I was quite proud of myself when it weighed in on the scales at 22.7kg, a wee victory there. Now if only all of it would turn up in Santiago, that would be a plus. The bag was so heavy because I was packing for 2 climates, the 25-30C climates of Santiago, Pellines and Buenos Aires and the 5-0C climates of the rest of the trip. Plus I was bringing a lot of photo gear for the expedition. For the first time I can recall I was going somewhere I couldnt just buy my way out of trouble. 11 days on a boat is a long time if one of your camera bodies or lenses fails.
Also for the first time in years I was away for periods where I wouldnt/couldnt be contacted. Well I was going to the end of the earth and beyond.
I cant sleep on flights so the long flight from Madrid to Santiago was populated by about 6 feature films. Handy to catch up on, just hope they are all different on the way home!
I arrived very late and very tired in Santiago and went to the transport desk to get a shared bus to my hostel. It is amazing how much your spanish improves when you are standing at 2am in 25c wearing the clothes you left wet raining 5C London in. I was told (I think) that a shared bus would be maybe an hour, but maybe not and from the shrugs of the shoulders I suspected the maybe not bit wasnt on the optimistic side. So I wandered over to the taxi desk and prepared to be bent over yet again.
About 20 quid to go the half hour right to the door of my hostel. Bargain!
I checked in, pulled my bags up the four flights of stairs with no lift, realised Id booked a single room with shared bathroom so decided to take a piss in an empty water bottle I had with me and just crash out and worry about the rest of it in the morning.
I awoke and was very careful which of the two water bottles I reached for first thing!
The time difference was only 3 hours so my usual dragging myself out of bed at midday at home was perfect for the 8:30am start for breakfast.
I was informed that I couldnt have picked a worse night to fly in as it was the end of the summer holidays here and everyone was back to work on Monday and the airports and bus stations were bunged. Shit I was going to go to the bus station today and book my seat for the Pellines trip on Monday.
Over breakfast I checked that it really was 25C at 10am and yes it was!
Most of the day was spent wandering round the centre of Santiago city which is very hot, very dusty and as the day progresses, full of smog. About 5pm each evening I just gave up trying to breath and just went back to the hotel.
The hostel does deserve its ‘quaint’ and ‘historic’ tags on tripadvisor. shithole is another way of putting it
I wouldnt go that far though, yes the air conditioning, well it didnt exist, the ceiling fans didnt work, the builders were all over the place, the tvs didnt work, the showers always looked cleaner after you got out, on the top floor room I had you had to leave the windows open all night and the city sounds disguised the occasional scurrying sounds heard around and about. The ground floor room I had on my second stay didnt have a ceiling fan, was slightly smaller than a prison cell and had no ventilation whatsoever. Temperature control was by sweating profusely. Glad I was knackered and woke up with only mild heat stroke….
Santiago itself is a bit like belfast in that there is fuck all to do on a sunday. The city centre closes although it does go pedestrian and allow people to cycle freely between 10 and 2. Apart from the real city centre which was cordoned off by police to prevent some sort of protest. I doubt it was flags but it did make me feel like home, only warmer.
Having covered most of what I had to photograph on the Saturday the sunday was just running around avoiding the sun, drinking a lot of water and trying to find somewhere open to eat that wasnt McDonalds. I failed on that last account and had my first McDs in about 4 years. Damn.
I knew it was going to be an early start down to the Pellines so got to bed early and like the sad old man I am watched a couple of movies on netflix. Yes come half way round the world to stream movies to your laptop. Big plus for the hostel, the internet connection is superb!
I had been told that the bus station next to the university metro station was the one serving the south of the country which played a great part in the hostel I chose, right next to the university metro station. A great plan because an early start down to the Pellines and late back (over 6 hours each way) meant that I could just wander with my bags, leisurely over to the station with my pre-booked tickets…
….of course all that assumes theres only one metro station called university…
..university of chile, university of santiago…
…whats the difference?
Getting out of bed an hour earlier to get the metro early on the first monday back after the school holidays, thats what.
At least it was cool, by cool I mean merely 15 or 16 degrees.
I sat in the station with a coffee and thought the hour wait maybe was overkill but sure its done now…
Other than worrying about my bags going all the way to Santiago the next big hurdle, would the bags put into the bus hold be there by the time I got to the end. Watching at every stop just in case my orange swiss gear bag dissappeared off into the distance. Id also bought a cheap rucksack from one of the only shops open in Santiago on a sunday and put the more expensive stuff in that as it didnt look worth stealing…
I neednt have worried about that at all as I had had a strong coffee and was starting a 6 hour bus ride… …at some point I would more than likely need to take a dump on a moving bus in south america. In the heat..
I figured Id better get it over and done with before six hours of accumulation had built up but that didnt make it any more pleasant an experience. Not knowing the language and accidently picking the shittest seat with no legroom on the sunny side did allow me the full view of the drivers storage area. Pride of place in that area was a half used bog roll. Now this told me that before I made my way to the back of the bus and attempted to hold my nose and breath for longer than is humanly possible, I had better raid my bag for the tissues I always pack…
…I always pack them, dont I?
Yes, that and the alcohol cleanser…
Arriving in constitucion there were stark reminders of how heavy a toll this town took in the 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. There were also signs that they hadnt really learned any lessons at all from it with wooden houses still climbing up the steep hillsides.
The journey had been long and arduous to get here, but seeing my mate for the first time in 4 years and setting off for the woods made it disappear into history quite rapidly.
I had updated my facebook and twitter throughout the journey and when I made my ‘off to the woods’ post I got a few ‘you can check if bears really do shit in the woods.’ comments.
I asked my mate if there were any bears and he said no, only mountain lions and they wont appear on his site for a few weeks yet.
I can confirm though that whilst I am uncertain as to bears toiletry habits in woodland areas, foxes do indeed shit in the woods…
…to be continued…. more travel and transport stock photography here more daily life stock pics here more conceptual stock photographs here