Monday, January 4, 2010

Ushuaia convalescence...

Thursday 17 December – January 5, Ushuaia

Ok, let’s hope I am not tempting fate here by fixing Jan 5 as the departure date, given I’m writing this on the 3rd! By Tuesday I will have been here for nearly three weeks, here being the Hotel Lennox in Ushuaia. On arrival back in December I was taken straight to the hospital where x-rays confirmed two hairline fractures of my pelvis. The doctors recommended complete rest and accordingly I checked into this hotel to begin my convalescence.

I wasn’t expecting to be here for so long: initially I understood there was a stretcher service between Ushuaia and Buenos Aires which would have allowed me to travel much earlier. However, it turned out there wasn’t and I was obliged to spend at least 10 days here to recover sufficiently to allow me to travel in a normal seat – even on business class. And then the doctors here decided that my recuperation time should not include the week on the boat because they couldn’t assess the degree to which I had had proper rest.

So I had to pretty much stay in bed until new year’s eve when I was finally allowed to get up and gingerly walk around with one of those zimmer frames! Looks great

But the time here has been ok. I have been fortunate that a lot of people stayed on in Ushuaia for a few days and then one person from the boat, Frida, is still here as she is looking for work. The first few days it felt like there was a revolving door at Room 109 as people popped in on a regular basis. Picnics were organised on two consecutive days over the weekend and all was looking good! By the first Monday, however, most had departed and only Frida and Kelvin remained. Kelvin was busy organising the next part of his trip from Antarctic to the Artic – see for the details – but he took time to film my final thoughts for the documentary of the trip he is making: I’m looking forward to seeing the results!! Frida has stayed on here, looking for a job as she seeks to complete the next phase of her world cycling tour – she has already cycled from Switzerland to here, one of the reasons why she is know as “chica loca”.

Although there are many other reasons! She has been great company and has come up with good ideas to keep me entertained, ranging from bringing the 10 year old son of the Argentine family she was staying with to play Nintendo games, to introducing me to a fellow sailor she met, Georgia, with whom we enjoyed a few home-cooked meals!

And the most important person here has been Hugo, the nurse who has been coming in to see me three times a day. He has done a great job and I have enjoyed chatting to him in Spanish, mimicking a Northern Argentine accent (he is from Salta) and learning about his job and studies here: he works nights in the intensive care unit of the hospital and is studying to become a biology teacher.

I’m sure he will do a top job! He also keeps fish, rather more successfully than some of my efforts! As he recently bought tropical fish, I bought him a penguin to go in the tank and he named, after some persistent lobbying, two of the new fishes after “paciente ingles” and “chica loca”. Poor fish will be traumatized.

Christmas Day was fun in Hotel Lennox: no changes were made to the menu (which is one of the most limited you could imagine) but Frida and I enjoyed Christmas Argentine lunch and some good wine and champagne, and whiskeys – although how we ordered the spirits is still a mystery to me!

New Year’s Eve saw me getting up for the first time and enjoying some of Hugo’s home-made empanadas which were fantastic. And champagne, naturally the two go together. And the last few days have seen me walking a bit further each day, up to the hotel restaurant with view of the Beagle Channel and last night walking around the block to a restaurant by the port!

Tuesday I fly home to complete my recuperation. All in all, an extraordinary trip to Antarctica and lots of fantastic memories, even with a busted pelvis, as I hope the blog conveys! Adios from Ushuaia and the fin del mundo!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Drake II with a broken pelvis...

Saturday 12 – Thursday 17 December, Drake & Beagle

And so the return. I had really been looking forward to this, hoping for better sailing conditions than on our trip down when for the most part we had been faced with a southerly wind. Unfortunately, the southern oceans were not kind to us as amazingly we had a northerly wind for most of our trip back.

This meant that for most of the time we were under motor sail. Never particularly a good situation since it makes for a more unstable crossing. And certainly not when you have a broken pelvis!

Having left Dorian Bay the night before we spent the morning checking out Melchior Island. I am told I didn’t miss a huge amount there as it was very cold and snowing. The brave souls on the ship took a zodiac tour around, but it didn’t seem to be the most comfortable one of the trip. I, however, would have happily traded places! But that was not to be. After Saturday lunch, Europa set a course for the north and our return to Ushuaia. Down in my cabin I was being prepared for the trip. This included being kitted out with a hard drive with the ship’s catalogue of films to entertain me through the hours! I was pleased as punch to get this as I had long exhausted the films I had brought with me. I was also kitted out with a lot of books, the usual paperback thrillers that people bring and then leave on these trips! Nothing better than a page turner to wile the hours away! Perhaps most importantly, we got extra duvets and cushions to pad out the bunk so I couldn’t move so much in the crossing and removed the panels from the bunk above so I didn’t feel like I was in a prison!

After the first couple of days the sharp pains subsided and I was left pretty much pain free, with more a sensation of discomfort due to lying in bed generally. My biggest problem turned out to be using the toilet as I had to stay in bed! I’ll spare the details but it wasn’t always fun, especially for those who helped me!

A special mention to Doc Lia. She was fantastic, diagnosed the injury correctly right at the start and looked after me for the rest of the crossing. She – again correctly – argued against my requests to get up, especially when we were nearly back in Ushuaia and I was keen to get out of bed! Any movements then could have really put me back. She also kept my spirits up and we did laugh a lot! It quickly dawned on me that Ship’s Doc and the cook are probably two of the most important posts on a ship! And especially for the Doc, she had to be on top form even when she felt under the weather – and people did with the seasickness!

The rest of the crew were also very helpful, right down from Captain Eric and Marleen (guide) with their “strict” peptalks and tales of past disasters to put my own in perspective to everyone else who came by to chat, check on me, keep my spirits up and generally help pass the time! Particularly, Nick and Daniel, my cabin mates who put up with the disruption and all the visitors and provided friendly encouragement as we crossed the Drake. Special mention too to Marjolein who brought me many of the dinners and helped me through some of the late afternoon blues I suffered! Much appreciated. This is a picture of Captain Eric and soon to be Captain of his slightly larger cruise ship, Nick (cabin mate).

The journey was rough, with no sailing the boat lurched in all directions as we struggled northwards into the wind, with all engines at max. At times it felt never ending and I know that for a lot of the crew – permanent and voyage alike – this was a shared feeling. Being at sea when you can’t sail hammers you! A lot of people were sea sick, thankfully not me. I think I would have despaired if I had been seasick! I did feel bad during two days, headaches which stopped me reading and watching films – you can imagine how pissed that made me feel! However, the problem was that I had stopped drinking tea for some reason – after a couple of cups I was back watching Casion Royale!

In the meantime, the crew’s struggles across the Drake were rewarded when Europa sailed close past Cape Horn. I was there I can say!

The pics here were again taken by Frida – see, I said you would get some credit! :)

And so, finally on Thursday morning we docked back at Ushuaia to be met by an ambulance and Dr Mario. Emerging squinting into the bright Ushuaia sun, I was lifted out of the boat in a wheelchair and whisked off to hospital with the sound of Europ’s horns blasting the quayside in a pretty cool depature! What would the hospital and x-ray reveal I wondered...

Dorian Bay from a bunk...

Friday 11 December, Dorian Bay

I had a pretty uncomfortable night following my fall. I found it difficult to turn onto my side and could feel that something was pretty wrong. In the morning, Doc Lia came to check me out. It was hard to perform an exact examination on the boat, in such cramped circumstances and without x-ray facilities.

With her help I tried to get out of the bunk, but it was a non-starter. The pain was pretty bad in my leg anytime I tried to move my right leg from side to side. At that stage, the Doc had diagnosed a potential fracture – to be proved correct seven days later in Ushuaia – but she couldn’t be sure. I was confined to the bunk, hoping I might be out of it in a few days if there was no fracture.

And so I missed the last couple of days of our trip around the peninsula. This included Dorian Bay and the Melchior Islands. I guess I was lucky to the extent that I got injured towards the very end of the trip – imagine how frustrated I would have been if it had happened at the start??!

As it was I stayed put in my bunk, reading and watching some films as crew members came and went to give me news of the landings. Thanks to Frida, I got hold of these photos. The ship does look beautiful from the shore, and I am imagining myself back in my bunk as my fellow passengers checked this out!

By then, all thoughts – not least mine – were turning towards the crossing back on the Drake. How would it play out for me, when would I be able to get up? How would I handle basic toilet stuff? Would I be seasick? Questions which were soon to be answered...

Port Lockroy and a tumble...

Thursday 10 December, Port Lockroy

Yesterday evening we sailed around to Port Lockroy, enjoying a lovely sunset on the way up from Peterman Island and arriving at Port Lockroy at around midnight. We arrived on a special day for the base as it was the first time it was to be “manned” by a female team.

The base is a British one but was originally discovered by the French explorer Charcot, and named after a French politician Lockroy. The British established a base here in 1944 – Base A – as part of military operations in the Second World War. Following the end of the war, it was converted into a scientific base and was particularly well-known for its research into the ionosphere, especially towards the end of the 1950s.

At the end of the 1960s it was closed due to economic reasons and the transfer of scientific work to other British bases in Antarctica. However, that was not to the end of the story as in 1996 it was reopened and now acts primarily as a tourist stop-over with some monitoring of the local penguin population. This monitoring is aimed at ascertaining the impact of tourism: to do this they allow visitors only on one part of the island and thus compare the impact on our favourite friends! Apparently results show a slightly positive impact on the penguins because it deters some of their few predators, notably the skua birds which go after penguin chicks.

The main role of the base, nonetheless, appears to be one of welcoming visitors, providing a postal service and offering a range of merchandise in the well-stocked shop! We landed in the morning, again in a snow-storm, and were greeted by a seal hanging out on the path leading up to the base!

The base crew explained it was the first time the seal had come so far up the path and we had to be careful moving around him. It was something of a surreal experience seeing a seal practically on the base doorstep! Indeed, penguins crowd around the base, outnumbering the human presence massively! Once inside, we bought gifts in the shop and sent postcards! Or in my case, bought stamps in the hope of sending postcards – more on this later! The base also has a small museum detailing the history of the scientific expedition, and including the equipment which was used to measure the ionosphere in the 1950s.

The four base crew – all women – spend the Southern summer at the base, carrying out the penguin monitoring and looking after the tourists. They were very hospitable and were invited to dinner on the boat – a surprise to come in so many ways!

In the afternoon, we visited a surrounding island and did some hiking so we could have a proper vista of the base. It was an enjoyable afternoon and one which concluded with one of our biggest snowball fights to date.

Departing the shore in the final zodiac, we feared that our companions back on Europa would be preparing a revenge and so we prepared dozens of snowballs for a counterattack. But, to our surprise, all was quiet on Europa and instead of revenge preparations, the permanent crew had been setting up a deck BBQ – much to our great surprise! This still didn’t stop us letting fly with a snow blitz!

And so to the deck BBQ and what was to be a major turning point for me in the trip! The setting was fabulous, even towards midnight the sky was bright and the surrounding bay looked beautifully calm as we enjoyed lots of food, wine and dancing.

And here was my downfall, dancing on the deck I took a tumble, falling badly on my backside and hip. Struggling to get up, it was clear that something was not right and quickly Ship’s Doctor Lia was by my side checking me out. Helped by the crew, I gingerly moved into the deck house and then later down to my bunk. Little did I know that I wouldn’t leave it for the next seven days...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Booth and Peterman Islands

Wednesday 9 December, Booth and Peterman Islands

Once again Europa departed as the most part of its crew were out for count below. Emerging some hours later it was something of a surprise to see the changed weather conditions, although the Captain had warned of the approaching low pressure system yesterday evening. Instead of bright blue skies and piercing sunshine, clouds shrouded the peaks and soon a blizzard was blowing across the Europa as it ploughed on, this time, and for the first time, heading northwards and back towards Ushuaia. But before then, many things still to see. The initial programme today was due to see us take in a tour of the Yaluah islands, not landing, but Europa cruising to take in the Adelie penguins.

The Adelie are another form of penguins, one which are generally found further southwards. We have just about reached their outer limit.

The Adelie are distinguished from the Chinstrap by their facial markings – explanatory photos should reveal all:

However this part of the programme was abandoned due to the inclement weather – no one, not even the hardiest of souls, fancied penguin spotting from a wind and snow swept bow of the Europa! We’re on holiday after all, aren’t we?! But the crew came up with a good alternative.

We landed at Booth Island, further north and, I think, on the same level as the northern entrance to the Lemaire Channel. We suddenly realised how fortunate we have been with the weather. A blowing gale, horizontal snow in our faces made for a completely different experience from our last few days.

But a good change it was too. We could say we had experienced a “realer” Antarctica! We hiked part way across the island to find an old stone structure which was used to house meteorological instruments in the first part of this century.

Leaving Booth Island, we backtracked on ourselves slightly to take in Peterman Island. Here we were due to see our first large grouping of adelie penguins, and we were not to be disappointed.

But first things first, climbing off the beach we nearly stumbled on a weddel seal, laying out across the beach. It was extraordinary to see this animal so up close, and so at peace. I thought he was sleeping, but it turned out he wasn’t, merely “resting” and probably keeping half an eye open to check on us funny aliens!

We walked around the island, checking out the various rockeries of adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins. I managed to see one pair of gentoos swapping positions on their eggs.

It was interesting to watch the ritual they have as they change places. Quite a lot of fussing goes on, and naturally several bouts of the throaty call we have come to recognise over the last few days!

Back on the boat we enjoyed a relaxing evening back on ship, for the first time in several days there were no hiking trips planned! Sometimes it is good to be able to relax and catch up on blogging and photo selection, even more so at the moment as we have a photo competition on board! Surely my pic of a penguin crapping must be a candidate for best picture in the wildlife category?!

Lemaire to Vernadsky

Tuesday 8 December, Lemaire Channel to Vernadsky Base
  • 04h00: 64°53.6 South / 062°54.3 West
  • 08h00: 64°58.4 South / 063°21.6 West
  • 12h00: 65°06.8 South / 064°00.7 West
  • Vernadsky Base: 65°14.8 South / 064°16.61 West
Europa departed while most of its crew were fast asleep, leaving behind Paradise Harbour and setting course for the Lemaire Channel and our most southerly destination – the Ukrainian research base, Vernadsky.

The Lemaire Channel is a breathtaking scene, an 11km long channel, surrounded by mountains and glaciers with at times a mere width of a 1km. Continuing our theme of Belgian influence, the Channel was named after a Belgian explorer in the Congo, again by that chap Gerlach.

The Channel lays along a southwest / northeast axis, linking Flandres Bay and Bismarck Strait to the north with French Passage to the southwest, with the Penola Strait sandwiched in between. Maintaining a British presence, the mountains to the east are suitably named after Shackleton, while the island to the west also sounds vaguely Anglo-Saxon = Booth! The passage through the Lemaire Channel was a sight to behold, the weather stunning with a clear view far down the channel and up to the peaks of the mountains. The Captain said it was only the second time in 10 visits that he had been able to see the peaks. We once again understood how lucky we had been with the weather!

And then we caught sight of our two humpback whales. Off to starboard they were elegantly making their meandering way up the Channel past us towards the northern side.

The Europa altered course and soon we were in hot pursuit, a clutch of whale papparizzi looking for the perfect shot. Mine, far from being perfect, caught some of the scene, while the whales seemingly played hide and seek with the boat. But better than taking the photos was to stand still and simply take in the atmosphere of being in the presence of such magnificent animals.

Continuing along the Channel, our path slowly broadened out as we entered the Penola Strait.

This stretch of watch was at times still as a lake, the numerous icebergs reflected beautifully in the deep blue waters.

From here the horizon opened up southwards, towards our final destination of Vernadsky, while aft we could see the mountains slowly close in around the entrance to the Lemaire Channel.

And then Vernadsky. Formerly known as Faraday, or Base F, under British control from the early 1940s until the early 1990s when the Brits sold it for a pound to the Ukrainians.

There was some debate as to the extent of scientific research being carried out in the station. Some speculated that the base was more of a flag carrying exercise than any serious scientific endeavour.

In Dan’s view – and the most authoritative we have – the base ranks well alongside comparable monitoring bases: no groundbreaking research, but solid data collection and monitoring. But certainly they are known for one thing: their bar and homemade vodka! Following a brief tour of the base, we all quickly headed upstairs for a drink – and in some cases (no, not mine) a few!

The bar was quite surreal, a mix of its British roots and recent Ukrainian infusion. “Local” Ukrainian music certainly added more flavour and parts of our crew danced with the locals while others downed the rather pleasant vodka.

Back on board it was an occasion to catch up with postcard writing, enjoy the lovely sunny weather on deck – it practically felt like spring! Later after dinner a group of hardy souls headed out on another landing, this time to the original British base. Or I should say hut. It was pretty basic stuff, people lived there for up to 3 years at a stretch. I found it surprising that the Brits were setting the place up in 1943. References were made to reconnaissance work, certainly there must have been a military angle to it all at that stage? Questions, questions... On a lighter note, I maintained – with Nic’s assistance – my record of inscribing Teo and Lilly in all destinations to date – this time with massive boulders in the snow! It was backbreaking stuff I can tell you!!

Neko & Paradise Harbours

Monday 7 December, Neko & Paradise Harbours
  • 04h00: 64°40.9 South / 062°38.0 West
  • 08h00: 64°49.2 South / 062°37.5 West
  • 12h00: 64°50.6 South / 062°32.0 West
  • 16h00: 64°53.6 South / 062°52.0 West
  • 24h00: 64°54.5 South / 062°52.8 West

Today we arrived at Neko Harbour – our first continental Antarctic landfall! The harbour is named after a whaling ship which used this area as its base. We landed on one shore of the Harbour close to another large penguin colony, mostly chinstrap this time.

On the other side of the harbour glaciers swept down the mountains to reach the lake like sea. From time to time, we heard cracking sounds and noticed small parts of ice and snow coming off the glaciers, but no large pieces were to calve off. In any event, we had received the all important instruction to get clear from the beach area as quickly as possible if any were to fall. More hiking was on the agenda as most of the group set out for a nearby hilltop.

After enjoying the magnificent views at the top and the obligatory snowball fight, we sledged down to the bottom. Many of us, myself included, had brought plastic bags to aid the process. I lost mine however with seconds of starting down the slope: going headfirst it was probably best I had lost this extra speed aid as the slope was very steep – and a bit hair-raising! Fortunately I came through unscathed, but some others suffered scratches and bruises. I decided, given my injury record, not to risk another run! And the plastic bag was recovered...!

Over lunch we moved around to another area, the Argentine base of Admiral Brown.

This brought more of the same, extended long snowball fights, hiking to the top of the local summit and many attempts at sledging down.

Some of the permanent crew seemingly risked life and limb going down the steep slope backwards.

It took the group I was with us some considerable time to make the summit as I had to rescue Joan from a hole in the snow! Having managed to get stuck practically all the way up her leg I spent several minutes digging and kicking her out! Surely she didn’t really need the leg?!

In the evening we moved around to the appropriately named Paradise Harbour. A wonderfully calm bay, surrounded by the most majestic mountains and sweeping glaciers.

We spent an hour or so on the zodiacs cruising around and taking it all in. It was a lovely sight, watching as the sun slowly set behind the mountains – and this was at around 22h00!

Finishing off another good day, we retired to the bar for a glass of wine.