ANTARCTIC ODYSSEY 2011
When my wife and I finally went to Antarctica in November on the Ocean Nova, a Quark ship that carried us and 62 other passengers, it was the highlight of the year, if not a lifetime (well not yet!). As with all such 'expeditions', 'adventures', 'holidays', 'trips' or 'cruises' (though 'voyage' or 'journey' sound better as they don't conger up vast ships with thousands of partying passengers over-eating, drinking, drug taking and sleeping, and nor do they suggest an epic journey of discovery) there must be a doctor on board. These doctors are what in other circumstances would be termed a 'locum'.
The locum we had on the voyage was Dr. Backup. His name was not one designed to give one confidence and that confidence was sorely tried by Dr Backup's first name, 'Dudley'. I suppose it could be worse, 'Dud Fallback' for instance. All this was obviously not lost on the ship's team who always referred to him as 'Dr Dudley'. Oh and he was a pleasant bloke and seemed highly competent even though he grew up in a mental asylum where his father was the resident psychiatrist! The irony here is that for a year we have been trying to go to the Antarctic and two tries were unsuccessful (due to our original ship hitting a rock and then the company going bankrupt) this third and successful trip was essentially a 'backup'.
So, for us, this year has been dominated by the effort to just reach Antarctica. In a way it has been almost as heroic as the race to the South Pole between the Scott and Amundsen, but without the dogs and the deaths. Scott at least made it to his destination before he died. We sometimes wondered whether we would make it to Antarctica before we died. We did, to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula anyway, though not inside the Antarctic Circle, but there was a scare a few days before we were due to depart from Sydney when Qantas grounded its whole fleet of aircraft. In the end we got to Buenos Aires without a hitch.
The flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, where the ship left from, was an interesting one. Before the aircraft took off only some of the passengers were shown how to do up their seat belts. After we had taken off over water and climbed to about 15,000 ft we were shown where the life jackets were and how to put them on. At the time lunch was to be served we were told that because of an industrial dispute there was no food on the aircraft. Other than that it was a smooth flight. This was more than some of our fellow-passengers got as, due to another strike, they struggled to get a flight to Ushuaia in time to catch the Ocean Nova before it departed. Some didn't and some arrived without luggage. One has to wonder whether the British victory in the Falklands War with Argentina was as heroic as it was made out to be.
In Ushuaia, before our voyage, we wrote a few obligatory postcards and went to the Post Office to get stamps, stood in a queue for about 20 minutes with an armed security guard behind us, to ensure we didn't leave without paying for the stamps I assume. When we finally reached the counter and asked for stamps there was consternation. After much consultation amongst staff and searching back rooms we were eventually informed that they had no stamps but we could get them at a shop a block away. We sent the postcards using DHL.
The Antarctic voyage took us to the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the same itinerary as that of the Polar Star (our first and second aborted trip ship) that was damaged when it ran aground on the trip before ours earlier in the year. We accepted a replacement trip on the Polar Star but the company went into liquidation a few months later. After several months of claim rejections by our insurance company and the help, support and encouragement of Adventure Life we were finally compensated and went on the Ocean Nova, a smaller ship, which we preferred.
The voyage was a delight for the scenery, the silence, the sky, the stillness and the gales, the history (old whaling stations on South Georgia and Deception Island and a landing at Point Wilde on Elephant Island where 22 of Shackleton's expedition spent several months before they were rescued), the walks, the talks, the food (and not having to cook and wash up) and of course the wildlife (penguins, petrels, albatrosses, seals, though very few whales) and fellow passengers and crew (over 30 nationalities and not be confused with 'wildlife'). One of the passengers, who lives in Kenya, turned out to be a distant, unknown, relation of mine. Two other passengers were from Botswana. A visit to Africa, now the only continent we haven't set foot on, might be considered in the not too distant future.
It is very difficult to give an account of what the journey was like without photos. And even with photos the absorbing character of penguins only begins to show. The inquisitive behavior of the King penguins is like that of children but their children, the young penguins, look like bent old men shuffling along, round shouldered, in their greatcoats looking for where to take their next step or for dropped coins. The behavior of the Kings on land was in contrast to that of the Adelie penguins on the ice-flows as we passed slowly and silently by in the zodiacs. It was if the action stations alarm bells were ringing on the penguins' ice ship as they scampered, waddled and paddled as far from us as they could and some even took to the water. Did we look like Orcas or leopard seals, the penguin enemy gunboats (submarines might be a better description)?
The old disused whaling stations, the Antarctic's slaughterhouses, which even sixty years later whales still refuse to go near, have matured into beautifully textured works of surrealist art. The buildings, tanks, ships, factories and discarded propellers, machinery and equipment interspersed with seals and penguins were foregrounds to a much earlier tortured past when the rugged mountains of South Georgia and Deception Island were formed and towered out of the sea.
The silence, only disturbed by my tinnitus, and the eerie, low, horizontal, apparently under-lit, clouds made the Antarctic in the Erebus and Terror Gulf a unique experience enhanced by the narrow gap (a two and a bit dimensional world) between the sea and the sky where land, with and without snow and ice, could be glimpsed. The stillness and mirror-finish sea contrasted with the gale-force winds and rough seas around South Georgia. Both conditions were equally enjoyable for me though others who experienced sea-sickness or being thrown off their chairs in the dining-room or sliding up and down in their beds as the ship rolled and lurched, had a preference for tranquility.
The saddest part of the voyage was traveling back to Ushuaia across Drake Passage: it wasn't rough enough for me and the end of the voyage was near. There was compensation though; we won the quiz that the ship's Quark team devised and enjoyed drinking the prize.