Saturday, 29 April 2017

ANTARCTICA 2017
My once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica, my 7th and final continent to conquer, began with a business class journey with Lufthansa to Buenos Aires. The entire vacation was courtesy of an inheritance from my cousin Celine who died of motor neurone disease.

Flight to Argentina
Being such an epic and special trip, I pushed the boat out and booked Business Class with Lufthansa from Dublin to Buenos Aires, where all the people for this voyage were required to meet up, no matter what part of the world they might come from. First I flew the short hop to Frankfurt, and was able to avail of the executive lounges to relax, sip coffee or wine, nibble on goodies, charge up my electronic devices and avail of the Wi-Fi. The second hop was a long 14 hour one on board a 747, and I was glad that nobody was occupying the seat next to me, affording me of even more privacy and space to put stuff. The flight was totally smooth, but oddly I remained awake throughout, even though I was lying fully flat and comfortably on the electronically controlled seat. Arriving after dawn, the aircraft began its descent over Uruguay, passing the city of Colonia and across the enormously wide Plata estuary before reaching Buenos Aires the other side.

Hotel Emperador
Along with all the people who were taking the Antarctica cruise, I spent one night in the very comfortable old style Emperador Hotel, which is located in a nice area of the city. But I was too tired to explore, having not slept at all during the long flight, and I devoted my limited energy to checking in with the Hurtigruten office which had set up in a conference room in the basement. They advised me of the very early start next morning and to have luggage out by 10pm that night, which I would not be seeing until I reached the cabin of my ship the following evening.

Flight to Ushuaia
A 3 ½ hour flight with Latam airlines brought us to the southernmost town in the world. Descending to Ushuaia over the Beagle Channel, a wall of mountains hugged the plane either side right down to the landing at the airport on a small flat island which is linked to the city by a causeway. Ushuaia has an idyllic setting and is an attractive and colourful city rising up the steep mountainside from the shore. The spectacular landscape reminded me of the wilder parts of Norway and the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Tierra del Fuego tour
Being a small airport, it wasn’t long before I was on board my bus for a pre-cruise excursion, destined for a tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park. The first commercial premises we passed as we in the suburbs of Ushuaia was a huge pet grooming and supplies shop. It was indicative of the extent of dog ownership in Argentina, as again I encountered in Buenos Aires. It took little time to reach the entrance of the national park, and the beautiful green and blue wilderness which lay beyond. Fortunately the elements were kind today, with some sun and some light sprinkles of rain. Our young redhead local guide told us that today we were experiencing the fairest weather that this region of southern Patagonia can offer, being at such a southerly latitude, akin to Norway in the northern hemisphere.
We encountered people camping in the wilderness, which is permitted here once you clear up after yourself. Boardwalks provide wheelchair access to some beautiful viewing points, but of course the intrepid able-bodied navigate into the remote backwoods. A visitor centre provides eating and picnic facilities and an interpretive centre. Very close by is the border with Chile, the location of which was subject to disputes and negotiations and mutual enmity in times past.

MS Fram
Late in the afternoon we were driven to the quayside where our ship, the MS Fram awaited us. A medium sized vessel, it is part of the fleet of Norwegian shipping company Hurtigruten, with whom I had voyaged previously. I had a compact outside cabin on deck 3, just perfect for me and cleverly designed, but a bit of a squeeze for two people. The vessel has 7 decks utilised by passengers. The Panoramic Lounge is named well and has telescopes for closer viewing of the wildlife from the cosiness of indoors. Just outside of it is a spacious outdoor deck with two Jacuzzis. From here can climb up to the top outdoor viewing deck for a bird’s eye view of what lies in wait ahead. Deck 4 has the attractive dining room, the main reception area, shop, lecture rooms, charts and information boards.
We set sail just as I sat down for dinner. Tonight, as with most nights, it was a very tasty self-service buffet featuring soup, Norwegian cold cuts of venison, pork, salami etc, smoked salmon, lovely breads baked on board, a different feature roast every evening (beef/pork/gammon/venison/chicken/duck/lamb), pasta and casserole dishes, vegetarian options, and invariably those long carrot crisps which I grew so fond of, and Norwegian lingonberry sauce to serve with anything and everything. Little dessert cakes and mousses were on offer to have with the coffee.
Half an hour down the channel, the ship turned around, headed back to Ushuaia. It was announced that a couple had missed boarding Fram due to a flight delay, and that we were turning back in the hopes of picking them up and saving the day. In the event the port authorities refused an unscheduled non-emergency docking, which must have been most frustrating to the couple who were left to watch the ship go, come back and go again.
Safety drill was performed. We were introduced to the Captain and crew. Our Norwegian Captain looked and sounded the part with a deep, loud, slow and deliberate enunciation. We had a female Navigation Officer who was later to give us a lecture in the art of navigation and what she would have to do in the unlikely event of all systems failure.

Drake Passage
The expanse of sea between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is known as the roughest area of water in the world. Part of the South Atlantic, the Southern Ocean, Drake Passage is notorious from the times of early exploration. Rounding Cape Horn was a feat of survival in those early ships. In high summer, such as this time in late January, it posed a more moderate threat to the wellbeing of my very delicate sea-going stomach. It was a bit rocky, but not dreadful. I enjoyed a Jacuzzi on deck in between watching giant albatrosses following us in our passage. Having the largest wing-span of flighted birds, it is considered very unlucky to have an albatross land on the ship as it cannot take off again due to insufficient take-off run. It’s stranded like a big 747 that has landed in a large farmer’s field under duress. It took two full days to cross the Drake Passage before reaching our first anchorage in Antarctica.

Yankee harbour
Our first landfall in Antarctica was at Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands, under a very grey sky. Ms Fram anchored, and the tough little metal Polarcirkle boats took us speedily to shore in the very quiet waters on the lee side of a long narrow spit of grey pebbles.
Landing was on the steep long spit of shingle. We were assigned into small enough groups for landing purposes, each group being assigned the name of a creature which inhabits Antarctica. I was one of the “Snowy Sheathbills”, pronounced more rudely by the Norwegian exploration team as “Snowy Shitbills”, always making the English speaking among our group smile. All groups were named after Antarctica wildlife. The Snowy Sheathbill is an unpretty bird which serves as the vulture or undertaker of the continent, cleaning up the remains of death.
Before this and every landing I had to don waterproof trousers which I purchased on board, and boots, wind and waterproof hooded jacket and floatation vest supplied by Hurtigruten. Boots had to be disinfected before disembarkation, and cleaned upon return. Even camera and telescopic equipment had to be vacuum cleaned before all landings. All in the interests of preventing disease and organism transfer from place to place, which otherwise could impact greatly upon the local environment.
The expert Exploration team of scientists had already landed and assessed the area for wildlife, picking the most appropriate landfall spot, and setting cones to guide our walking route. This is what they team did at every anchorage, to ensure least impact on the environment and maximum safety for all. The most import thing was always not to upset the penguins, their eggs, and chicks, and to keep our distance from the aggressive fur seals, which could move with surprising haste with their four short limbs.
At Yankee Harbour I saw lines of Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie penguins parading in lines down the grey spit, gathering in several areas where they made huge noise. The fur seals eyed me warily from a distance I was keen to maintain.

Brown Bluff
MS Fram approached first landfall on mainland Antarctica in full sunshine, at brown Bluff, a well described headland which is covered with brown lichen, the only flora which is found on the continent. It was a another fairly steep gravel beach landing, with the sun shining brightly this time, enhancing the stark and bright beauty of the place. Penguins abounded, and I was nervous of stepping on an egg and resting chick as I explored the great big lichen covered rocks. I watched an adult penguin feeding its great big fluffy baby, fractionally bigger than the parent in size. This was the first place I could smell the stench of death in addition to penguin faeces, as bird corpses rotted, their owners having succumbed to the forces of nature such as ice avalanches, storms and everything Antarctica could throw against the continuity of life.

Deception Island
The landing was very easy on Deception Island, a circular isle of volcanic origin with a narrow entrance for ships. The Polarcirkle boat took me to a lovely smooth black volcanic beach where I stepped on land and walked the length of the strand which was backed by dilapidated buildings from the old whaling station. Ironically, in this land of cold, the volcanic sands ere were marginally hot and steaming at the edge e of the water. Some people opted to take a dip in the sea, which was 2C below the warm first inch of water, and I was amongst those who received the certificate of the Polar Plunge. It was a very quick swim; I dunked down and swam 6 strokes, and jumped out again before my body went into cramps.
Deception Island is full of old storage tanks and works from the days of the whaling industry, where they siphoned off the fat and blubber as fuel. A part of the volcanic beach was used as a landing strip for aircraft, and some accommodation buildings are still in existence. It’s a fascinating place, a bit of Lanzarote in the Antarctic.
      
Wilhelmina Bay
Today the sun shone bright and we all had the joy of experiencing an extended sea excursion by Polarcirkle boat to witness close up the activity of the whales of Wilhelmina Bay. It was an extraordinary experience seeing the giant beasts plunge beneath our relatively fragile vessels, only to surface briefly for an expiration of a spout of sweater from their blowhole and a sweep of their tailfin before another plunge. These were Orca, Killer Whales, in pursuit of a Minky whale to drown by force and exhaustion and eat the carcass thereof. I had no stomach to witness the wise of blubber of the dead animal below waters, and retreated to cabin upon return of ship. However, I couldn’t escape the news broadcast through the public address system of the ongoing pursuit of the poor creature which took four hours to finally kill. Often I hate nature so much that I blindfold myself to it.

Lemaire Channel
Our Captain gave us no guarantee that we would get through the infamously ice-chocked and spectacular Lemaire Channel, but he said it was well worth the try if only to experience the immensely beautiful scenery. Tall ice clad mountains arise each side of the narrow passage, such that it takes your breath away. The sun shone bright, the skies and sea were bright blue and crystal clear. I was so excited that I almost danced from side to side of the vessel and up to deck 8 to get the best views. Just as we were near the end of the channel a great big iceberg sat right in the middle, blocking our passage. We turned around, delighting in the scenery once again, and made our way the long way around the island to get further south to Vernadsky.

Vernadsky
Beneath a grey sprinkling of snowdrops Ms Fram moored within shouting distance of the tiny Ukraine scientific base, Vernadsky, which was gifted to Ukraine by the British as soon as it broke free of the USSR. The Ukrainians maintained the base exactly as it had been inherited from the British, zero changes in the name of legacy. Now, the base’s doctor was our tour guide, with a medical and dental responsibility of little more than 20 men, and who spoke just a little English. An enthusiastic and friendly guy, he showed us through the generator room with solid diesel engines of certain vintage, and on through his doctor’s room which was a museum piece where he had to treat his patients with the best patch-up he could offer in such a remote location. There must be a refrigeration point where the deceased can be preserved in a state of rest until transfer to the comforts of home cemetery. A large vodka still has been essential here to tide the men over harsh year round climate, especially in the absence of television and internet. The vodka is briny from been distilled from sea-water, but has a distinctive piquant kick. It is served in the historic English bar. A number of the men engage in crafts to sell the souvenirs, like ultra-remote men’s sheds- and I purchased from them a cross-stitch picture of their logo, a penguin performing a Ukrainian dance.
   
Detaille Island
A traditional Hurtigruten Polar Circle ceremony was held as we crossed the Antarctic Circle, in which I partook. Foolishly I kept my weatherproof Hutigruten jacket hood up. But King Triton took it upon himself to pull back my hood, made a big gap down my perished back and pouted iced water down there and down my front, thoroughly saturating me. As a reward I got a mini glass of warming Aquavit! Landing on Detaille Island was not really an option for me, as I was developing increased lack of balance and footing. This landing was challenging for everybody, but I stayed on the Polarcirkle boat and got a glimpse of the British Base building.

Horseshoe Island
Next stop was another British base at Horseshoe Island, where they sell stamps and can post cards bought on board ship, which will eventually reach their destination after some considerable delay. Once again the landing was not possible for me, but I enjoyed the speedy Polarcirkle boat ride all the same. For some of the past several stops, there were opportunities for passengers to arrange to camp on shore overnight, a novelty which did not appeal to me, especially as it cost so much extra for the pleasure of denying oneself the comforts of life on the ship. There were also possibilities of doing special kayak trips from some of the landing places. I attended some of the very interesting lectures on the subjects of wildlife, navigation, Antarctic exploration history, etc. The trouble was that in the darkened lecture room I almost invariably became seasick and ended up having to leave the lecture about a third of the way through. That was in spite of taking full doses of travel sickness and anti-nausea pills. I found that either eating, dosing horizontally or going up on Deck 7 were the things that saved me from the lurgy.

Stonington
We landed at Stonington Island, where lies an abandoned British station, off the coast of Graham Land at Marguerite Bay. Again I abandoned the idea of clambering up rocks to get on shore and gain a peek inside the building. It was the most southerly point we were able to reach before returninh northward.

Crystal Sound
The air and sky around Crystal Sound was extraordinary. Blue, crystalline, in parts a bright misty white, it took my breath away. I saw a phenomenon which I had seen described in a book on Antarctica, and one which I called a “snow-bow”. It is like a white bow infused with subtle colours in reverse order of a standard rainbow. Here the sea is encrusted in ice, and sleeping down in the cabin I experienced quite some shuddering as the ship was constantly breaking ice, and with a fierce crunching noise all the time. It was quite a challenge to relax with the ship’s icebreaking equipment deployed to cut passage.

Port Lockroy
It was quite overcast when Fram arrived off Port Lockroy, but it was a balmy 3C outside! It was a pity that the sky was so overcast at this iconic British outpost, famously featured in the documentary “Penguin Post Office”. The historic building is manned by three people for three months of the year, in the Antarctic summer. There’s the official British post office, where I posted six postcards, combined with the souvenir shop where I purchased a t-shirt (Port Lockroy design & logo), place mats, and Christmas tree decorations in the form of tartan penguins, seals and whales! A sort of Scotland meets Antarctica will be hanging from my tree in future. The building is fascinating, with old food tins and utensils left exactly as they were on final mission to the island base. Beds, soft porn images painted by the occupants, and old technology are evident on the island base.


Filipino Buffet
On our second last night it was delightful to partake of a Filipino buffet, prepared by and in honour of the crew, who were mostly from Philippines. I was very excited to experience this Asian culinary experience, and what a delight it was. There were special breads, peppery sweetcorn soup, salads, a beautiful suckling roast pig, and a couple of delightful meat dishes including a dark rich spicy beef stew. Lovely desserts featured too. It was a feast to remember.Drake Passage
As MS Fram set out over Drake Passage it was announced that we would be going full speed ahead as a passenger was in need of urgent medical attention. It was to take just over one and a half day’s voyage rather than the full two days. Of course full speed meant we were encountering the high seas of notorious Drake Passage with maximum impact, so I had to ensure I had my maximum allowed dose of travel sickness tablets at hand. There was nothing scenic to distract the eye, but the relentless waves which smacked hard against my cabin. My strategies to beat the lurgy was to either feed up my stomach when I was ok, take to the open air deck in the Jacuzzi or on a deck chair. Or else take to the bed in my cabin and41 doze.

Arrival back to Ushuaia
The ship arrived in Ushuaia after lunch, and all of us, including myself, who were curious, watched as the seriously ill passenger was taken on shore by a waiting ambulance to the local hospital. He looked totally immobile, and it turned out that the Chinese gentleman was an elder (not very elderly at all!) of a larger family.
  
Escondido tour
Along the road out of Ushuaia was quite shocking to see huge billboards with pictures of children and young people with rewards offered for returning them safe and alive. I don’t pretend to know much about this hostage/reward situation in Argentina, or the police services or billboard advertising industry or legal situation in the country, but these ads gave me an uncomfortable feeling. It alarmed me to the number of people who ‘disappear’ in the country. The road was blocked by the corpse of a horse who had come to meet his maker on the highway. Horses seem to wander wild and free just about everywhere in the region. Ambulances raced to rescue what I don’t doubt were human victims of the speedy highway. A beautifully brooding landscape and sky added a note a dramatic despair to whole experience.
Our young guide added a more cheery note as he shared his knowledge of the nature and climate of the area. Winters are long and snowy, and skiing is very popular. So is dog-sledding, and we pulled up by a sled dog centre, greeted by the howls of the hounds as we were guided to an area of historic and natural interest. The dogs are all friendly; we were reassured, just eager for a bit of attention. He brought us to an area of special interest, an extensive tract of pure sphagnum moss, which is used as a wound absorbent material as well as having agricultural uses. We were shown a big mound in the earth and asked to guess what it was.  A prehistoric mound? No, it was a bunker for storing weapons during the era of dictators in this part of the world, a store of arms to fight the likes of the Falklands War. Our guide said, nobody wanted any of that nonsense, they never did. The power hungry dictators were the big mischief makers of this region in those bad old days, and some of them continue to further be in more northern countries on the continent.
Some miles onwards we stopped at our ultimate viewing point for a peek at Lake Escondido, a giant stretch of water in the distance beyond a smaller lake in the foreground. A very beautiful area in a melancholic sense, it would take days and even weeks to explore its full riches.

Flight back to Buenos Aires
The seriously ill Chinese man, having refused further hospital treated, was carried to the boarding gate by his family, but refused boarding. Presumably he was forced to return to appropriate hospital care.
The flight from Ushuaia began with a turbulent ascent over the tail end of the Andes, a smooth middle and a turbulent conclusion through a thunderstorm ridden descent down to Jorge Newberry airport in Buenos Aires. Landing at the domestic aerodrome gives the impression of touching down in a city park, with tall trees to either side, all overlooked by an elevation of posh residential edifices. An interminable taxi ride through heavy rain and even heavier traffic took me the modest distance to Hotel Puerto Madero, located in the gentrified old docklands area, which closely resemble that of Dublin. I had got the taxi at a fixed fare rate and the driver was pretty excited to receive my tip.

Hotel Madero
The Hotel Madero is located in a gentrified area of the docklands, which is very like a similar development in Dublin city. I loved this chic modern hotel from top to toe. My bedroom was ultra- smart, and I was delighted to avail of a sm41all swimming pool on the top floor with an open terrace where I could gaze down on the city. Members of staff were helpful throughout and dining was good experience. A selection of house breads provided a taste sensation not to be forgotten. Upon returning home I gave a well-deserved report on TripAdvisor. The hotel’s location made for very enjoyable evening walks along the salubrious pedestrianised docksides, lined with pavement cafes, colourful artwork, and renovated cranes. A place where families promenade with pram and dog in tow, safe in the knowledge that it is very well policed and safe in spite of its proximity of a shanty town area across the water.

Tour of Buenos Aires
I had booked to be on a small group 3 hour tour of Buenos Aires, to get an overview of the city. My intention was to save a better acquaintance with the city on a more in-depth tour which is on offer twice a year with Travel department. I was the only native English speaking person on the tour; the others were Spanish, French or Portuguese speaking and all very amiable folk altogether, much more so than the passengers on Ms Fram. The guide was just delightful and introduced us to the very heart of the city and the Casa Rosada government building where Eva Peron addressed the people from the balcony.

Homeward Bound
I departed Buenos Aires on a frantically wet morning, with the rain thundering down on the glass ceiling of the airport, making a noise that co41uld have come from hell itself. However the 13 hour Lufthansa 747 flight to Frankfort was smooth as silk and I slept throughout in my Business Class seat, only to be woken for breakfast by the flight attendant who said “Wakey, wakey, sleeping beauty, I’ve never seen someone who’s slept so soundly throughout a flight!”
In Frankfurt Airport I caught the short flight home. I had chosen a window seat for the short sectors, but on this occasion I was sorry that I did. I was beginning to feel out of sorts and bot hungry at all, and declined everything except water. The lady beside me had her wine, Campari, and meal laid out on her own and the centre table at the absent seat which serves as an extended buffer to personal space on short haul Business Class. I had developed massively painful belly cramps and nausea, and couldn’t get comfortable no matter what I did. I suddenly had to ask the lady to make way for me to rush to the washroom. Her drinks and food nearly went flying! It became clear that I had suffered an acute blockage in my gut below the stoma, caused by the indigestible and un-chewable sweetcorn I had consumed 4 days earlier at the Filipino feast. I was able to remedy this immediately, and the pain and nausea disappeared, but I was left exhausted for the next hour. It taught me a lesson on what never to eat again!
I arrived home safe, full of memories, happy but a bit jet-lagged after my adventure of a lifetime and with a mental energy for another epic trip!


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