Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Polar Plunge is not just for Penguins

"Strange. There is always sadness on departure. It is as if one cannot after all bear to leave this bleak waste of ice, glaciers, cold and toil..." - Fridtjof Nansen

One perfect day turned into another; this was truly the trip of a lifetime. On February 3rd at 4am we crossed into the Antarctic Circle (got to 66' 48"). This was a momentous event as only a few times a season can the boat get that far, late into the summer like this, and another milestone for us. We have been in both polar circles and on every continent now. Where is my T-shirt? We were headed to Crystal Sound but our luck left us and the weather forced the captain to turn back so we had a morning of lectures instead.

As compensation in the afternoon the crew found a large area of sea ice and after a test nudge, backed up and charged at it full steam crashing right into it. Once it had settled with a fair portion of the boat embedded in the sea ice they opened up the belly of the beast and we all streamed out, including crew. What a sight: about 150 adults went super childlike, including us, lying on the snow being snow angels, making snowmen, chasing each other with snowballs and generally goofing around. It was just like christmas, that is, if I lived in the northern hemisphere in a place where they get snow for christmas. A couple of seals and a Gentoo penguin looked on with amusement.

The next day we went to Jougla Point at Port Lockroy where we saw a large colony of Blue Eyed Shags, the older, the more sky blue their eyes. Straight after we arrived back, at about 12:30, we were invited to do the 'polar plunge'. My toes were still numb from the excursion so I cracked open my first pack of air activated foot warmers and went down in my shoes and socks, shorts and Lindblad bathrobe. We had to disrobe and wait in line in the mud room for our turn, getting more apprehensive as it got colder as we got closer. At the end it was a quick order to 'jump high and look at the camera' and you were in the barely sub freezing water (they said 29F, about -1.7C), where the cold hit you like 10,000 needles. I just wanted to get out as fast as possible so I scrambled to the platform and pulled myself up and into the boat, where we were greeted with a towel and a large shot of Schnapps (don't tell, but I had two). I then went and put on my bathrobe and got my feet into my preheated shoes, still with their foot warmers in them, keeping my feet toasty for the next five hours. Not something I ever need, or want, to do again, but hey, how many times do you go to Antarctica? FYI, the 'jump high' directive was a trick because that just makes you go deeper for longer; don't fall for it. We were two of 54 that jumped from a ship of 143 passengers, which they said was a record.

We spent the afternoon cruising through the Gerlache Strait and Dallmann Bay on our way back to the Drake Passage and 'home' (Ushuaia). We came across some humpback whales and a flock of penguins swimming in the sea alongside them. The humpbacks were really friendly staying close to the boat and lazily flicking up their tails as they dived down and then came back up floating and blowing and then lazily going down again. The penguins would skim across the water in short jumps as a group cleaning up any leftover krill. It was a marvelous scene that went on for about 90 minutes. We had come across  whales twice before, humpbacks and killer whales, but this was the closest we had got to them.

The next day we were back into the Drake Passage, the most notorious section of water in the world, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, creating a whirlpool effect. We were not as lucky as on the trip down. Staff strung ropes all around the ship so that no matter where you were you could hold on to something. The boat bounced up and down, lurched forward and back and rolled side to side. We had one of the cheapest rooms on the ship with only a small porthole and that was closed and bolted in case the glass blew out, the whole day and a half. Many passengers had patches on their necks (most for the whole trip), a protector against sea sickness and only moderately successful from what we could tell. We had successfully avoided taking anything the whole trip (we are very good on planes and boats - Elizabeth even smiles during plane turbulence), and so wanted to try to last. The only time it started to get to me was about the last two hours. We held out and soon we were looking at Cape Horn and smooth seas; it was weird seeing green and trees again.

A map was kept up to date on our travels
The trip was over, probably the most amazing of our amazing lives. At first glance a lifeless, white, barren, cold but stunningly beautiful landscape, in reality teeming with an astounding array of life. We saw penguins feeding chicks, gathered together as families, collecting twigs and fortifying their nests, waddling, swimming, sliding. And seals and whales and a large variety of birds. We are so lucky, or as Spock would say 'random chance favours us'. Next stop Peru where we try to give back a bit by doing some volunteering in Cusco.

This is Part 3.

Part 1:
Part 2:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cruising with the National Geographic crew, Antarctic ports and Climate Change

Seen on the wall of the ship

The Bridge
Cruising with National Geographic was not only an adventure but an educational experience. Everybody and everything was approachable and accessible. The ship had an open bridge policy, which meant you were allowed on to the bridge any time to talk to the crew, look over the maps, have a naturalist point out birds for you and more. The ship was filled with naturalists and had a global perspectives speaker. All the staff would eat with the passengers so you could find yourself dining with several naturalists, the expedition leader or even the guest speaker.

Peter Hillary
Early on I was having a discussion abut the ice shelf collapses and how that will accelerate glacier melt with a particularly cluey staff member. After our discussion I said to Elizabeth, 'That guy knew what he was talking about' and she said, 'That guy was Peter Hillary.' Doh! Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, was our Global Perspectives speaker.

Whenever conditions would cause plans to change and a morning or afternoon would end up free we would get presentations from the naturalists and photographers, as well as during evening 'recap' when they would do short talks on their favourite topics. As this was also a research ship, presentations could include videos, photos and information on research they had just conducted during a dive while we were out on excursion. Talks included:
  • Historical account of whaling
  • The skua support society. Skuas were generally not liked because they attacked the penguins, but they gave a more balanced perspective on the circle of life in Antarctica.
  • Ice and frozen oceans
  • Krill
  • Shackleton's amazing 1915/16 adventure in Antarctica
  • Their research on leopard seals
  • Killer whales
...and many more.

Palmer Station
Refreshingly most talks would include references to climate change and its effect on Antarctica and the wildlife there in a matter-of-fact scientific way. No debate, no hesitation, just straight out this is what is happening and why. Our trip also included an excursion to Palmer Station, a US research port that only allowed eight visits from ships this summer and we were one of them. The station presented a lot of local information on climate change:
  • Long term data shows temperatures at Palmer Station have increased 7 degrees Celsius since 1945. This is more than 5 times the global average. Antarctica in general has increased temperature at about twice the global average.
  • The station used to get fresh water from a nearby glacier but since it has receded so much they now use osmosis to purify seawater.
  • The Adelie penguin numbers have decreased from 15,000 in 1974 to 2,000 in 2014 due to the decline in sea ice.
  • Krill numbers are falling in the area and are affected by warming oceans. 70% of the krill population might die due to climate change. This is a huge issue as krill are near the bottom of the food chain and are eaten by penguins, seals and even whales.
  • Phytoplankton has decreased by 90% north of the station but has increased 60% in the south. Phytoplankton produces about two thirds of the planet's atmospheric oxygen. New research indicates that as oceans warm photosynthesis in phytoplankton may shut down.
  • There is accelerating glacier loss in West Antarctica.
  • The Larsen B ice shelf in West Antarctica is almost all gone making a total of 5 ice shelves that will have collapsed since 1989. Larsen C is showing signs of beginning to collapse. While ice shelves do not contribute to sea level rise they hold back glaciers that do contribute to sea level rise. These collapses are partly due to warming oceans melting the ice shelves from underneath and were unexpected, meaning current sea level rise projections are greatly underestimated.
Coming to Antarctica was always planned as an educational experience as well as an adventure; that was why we chose National Geographic. But it was frightening to see and hear how fast climate change is affecting this pristine and crucial part of the global ecosystem. One only hopes that the world makes good on its promises in Paris.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

There are penguins in Antarctica?

 "...I never saw, nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die, not though I live three lives of mortal men, so great a miracle..." Tennyson's Morte d' Arthur.

Antarctica, the final frontier, these are the voyages of the National Geographic Explorer, boldly going where...well, you get the idea :-) Seriously though, Antarctica is like another world: bleak, desolate, white, the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth. But, then again it was the most exciting, most beautiful, adventure and animal filled time of our lives. By animal I, of course, mean penguins. Those tiny, cute, adorable poo filled creatures that are all around you in their hundreds filling your senses in more ways than one.

First you have to get to Antarctica, and that is across the notorious Drake Passage where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans crash together creating  a maelstrom of water activity similar to a washing machine, well, usually. Fortunately for us we had a straight fairly sedate run across the Drake with the wind behind us that took half a day off our travel to Antarctica and gave the passage the nickname Drake Lake. This allowed us to go into the Antarctic Sound and see the fabulous table icebergs (not on the itinerary). That kind of unpredictability was the only thing predictable about our trip.

A day on the Explorer was always an unknown adventure. You would have a rough itinerary the night before that would completely change by the morning as weather and ice conditions would force our expedition leaders to change their plans and we would be going somewhere else to do something else. The something else would always be amazing. Let's go into detail about one excursion and you'll get the general idea:

It was our first actual landing on the continent of Antarctica, at Neko Harbour. You're given a 15 minute warning when it is your turn for your group to go to the Mud Room. The Mud Room is where your lockers are with your waterproof, windproof pants and knee high boots. After kitting up and putting on your life jacket you go to the opening in the ship where you disembark on to zodiacs (very hardy rubber rafts). These ferry you to the shore where long before you land you are aware of the aromatic smell of penguin poo (you get used to it).
The Mud Room and heading out

We stepped on to the continent and were greeted by hundreds (thousands) of Gentoo penguins calmly going about their daily activities and generally ignoring us as if we were an endemic species they were used to. They would waddle, jump, feed and warm their chicks, collect rocks to shore up their nests and more. We would be captivated and had to tear ourselves away to climb up a long snowy path to a craggy rock where two skuas were guarding their offspring from other skuas. We looked past the skuas to an amazing panorama of snow, water and glaciers with the occasional sound of a crack signalling a calving event. Eventually we needed to wrench ourselves away from that amazing experience and return to the shore.

But we did not have to walk all the way; we were able to slide down the snow like a water slide on our waterproof pants, surprisingly slippery and fast, spinning out of control at the bottom like little kids. We then hopped into the zodiacs and headed back to the boat where we went into the now aptly named Mud Room to clean all of the penguin poop and mud off our shoes and pants with specially set up cleaning brushes in buckets of disinfectant.

Another time we went out on zodiacs looking at icebergs of all shapes and sizes, some even with caves, while dodging chunks of floating ice. The driver pulled a chunk on to the boat so we could feel how heavy it was. We came across Crabeater seals (they eat krill, not crabs) and Elephant seals (they eat penguin as well). We had a perfect moment where the engine was turned off and we all sat in silence listening to the birds, waves lapping, ice cracking and wind howling around us. Afterwards we just coincidentally came across a pirate zodiac that was giving out hot chocolate with a wee dram (not) of whisky added. I don't think they quite get the concept of pirate...

Chunk of ice pulled out from the sea

Friendly Pirates

The days were one amazing adventure after another, with postcard scenery and bountiful bouncing, swimming and waddling penguins, lazy curious seals and swooping birds. We even had a morning of kayaking, until the wind picked up, the rain started to fall and we all had to scramble back to the boat, some people needing a tow from a zodiac. Luckily I saw the weather changing and had already started heading back; it was hard work but we got to the boat under our own steam, good exercise. The weather changes fast down here.

Skua protecting their nest

A Blue Eyed Shag


Sliding down the snow


Moving through the ice in a Zodiac

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Not quite escaping Christmas in Morocco

Atlas Mountains in Morocco
As the year was drawing to a close the question remained of where we were going to end our year of travelling, how we were going to spend Christmas and when we would go home. The where we decided would be Morocco as this would likely remove Christmas from the equation entirely and the when ended up being New Year's Day. Apparently people don't like flying after the big night out, and flights were half the price of the days before and after. As we are light drinkers the decision was easy. It also seemed appropriate, as we had left home on the 27th Dec 2013 and spent our first New Year's Eve ever away from home, to come back just after our second New Year's Eve in a foreign country.

We decided on a short Tucan tour, our first in 7 months of random travelling, to maximise our experience and time in unfamiliar territory. The tour was subbed out to the local firm Nomadic Tours and feeling decidedly nomadic ourselves had a nice final tour of the year ring to it. Christmas Eve arrived and we immediately started heading east towards the Sahara Desert and finishing the day near Todra Gorge.

At Ben Haddou
Woke up Christmas Day without fanfare; in this predominantly Muslim country it's just a normal day. We drove out to the gorge seeing kids going to school, people working, walking, carrying out their normal activities. A fairly surreal feeling for somebody who has spent the last 53 years of this day among family and friends giving out gifts, sharing meals and considering it special. We arrived at the gorge and hiked into an oasis and this is where things started to feel strange. Among the palm trees, with people riding or pulling donkeys, it started to have a vaguely Christmas card feel to it.

Some of our rock climbing photos
We continued on to the face of a cliff where the option to rock climb was offered. What else are you gonna do on Christmas Day in a Muslim country? Although it looked a lot higher than I imagined when it was discussed, I decided to give it a go. Tackling the lower one first I was placed in a harness and the safety rope was tied in several knots around a clip. I then put my life in the hands of the guy holding the rope (and his rope tying abilities), the rope itself and the hook placed in the cliff face about 30m up. In reality you are pretty safe I think, but when looking down from a fairly sheer cliff your mind can magnify the chances of any of those safety features failing. It was hard work but good fun. Down below Elizabeth and the other tour group members were yelling encouraging statements and cheering me on. You look for small rocks, ledges or holes in the cliff face to use as anchor points to push or pull yourself up to your ultimate goal. Every time I would have trouble finding the next anchor point the disembodied voice of the rope holder would drift up from below shouting 'go right', 'go left' or 'it's easier the other way'. I finally reached the ribbon tied to the hook in the cliff and proceeded with the best part, abseiling down. Once I had got my breath back and encouraged by that success and feeling pleased with myself I tackled and conquered the even higher rope (50m).

To my delight and never failing to amaze with her determination and courage, tiny Elizabeth also decided to tackle both climbs and completed both with seeming ease and dexterity. We hiked along the bottom of the gorge back to our hotel and quite a sumptuous Christmas dinner of a variety of tagine dishes and finished off with a creme brulee, complete with a small Christmas tree, obviously trying to make the foreigners feel more at home.

Helllooo buddy :-)
The next day (Boxing Day) was a drive out to the Sahara desert going off road until we reached our auberge, the place where the Berbers had our camels assembled for the trip into the desert. These gentle and friendly creatures took us up and down sand dunes for the next hour until we reached our camp of tents. Another Christmas card moment occurred looking at the long shadows the camels were making on the sand. The camel behind kept overtaking mine slightly with its head alongside me allowing me to give him an occasional pat on the head. We were surprised to learn that the desert is not all sand dunes, it is mainly large tracts of hard rocky ground punctuated by clumps of sand dunes that roughly stay in the same place year after year.

New lake in the background
We were also surprised to see a large expanse of water in the distance. Recently they had experienced a huge amount of rain, receiving more than they would normally get in a year in one day, and even more surprisingly their first rains for over 5 years. It looked really beautiful like an oasis on the horizon but the consequences were seen all around this region with washed away roads and bridges and damaged buildings. More climate change surprises like those witnessed everywhere we go.

Elizabeth and friend sand surfing
Hurry up and start the fire
First up as we arrived was the dumping of our back packs and heading into the dunes for some sand surfing. It was great fun and easier than it initially looks with a few children nearby joining in the fun. Afterwards it was first come, first served on tent selection and a tiny Christmas tree with battery lights appeared on the tiny round table near the main tent. We all sat around discussing the experiences thus far while sipping the Moroccan specialty of green tea with mint leaves. Dinner of various tagine dishes was in the main tent. Although the day had been quite warm, with the sun gone the temperature was dropping quickly.

Toasting marshmallows
Entertainment in the desert
The guides got a roaring fire going outside and we all gathered around it while they entertained us with bongo drums, hand cymbals and singing of African sounding music. Ultimately it became our turn to entertain them back and we all had trouble remembering all of the words of any song known to man. So with the help of an ipod to prompt for forgotten words, Elizabeth and I completely sang through the Eagles' Hotel California. Packets of marshmallows then appeared and we proceeded to toast them over the fire. Insider tip: marshmallows dipped in whisky before toasting are surpisingly (or unsurprisingly) yummy. The guides and travellers drifted off bit by bit until Elizabeth and I, due to a dwindling fire and out of wood, also retired to our tent for the night. FYI the Sahara can get extremely cold at night (negative temperatures). With numb toes, gloves and hat on, and two heat packs within arm's reach (yes I do not like the cold), I finally fell asleep wondering if they would find an icycle in the morning.

AIT Ben Haddou
I survived the night and at first light we were on the camels and heading back to civilisation. The trip back included stops at the Atlas Corporation Studios, Morocco's answer to Hollywood, and the heritage town of AIT Ben Haddou, site of movies such as 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Jewel of the Nile' and 'The Living Daylights'. The town is still lived in even though it does not have power and is kept in the same state as it was generations ago. Eventually we made it back to Marrakech, where we found a club that sold alcohol and enjoyed some unwind time with red wine and belly dancers.

The Hammam I went to
Finally, in the spirit of 'when in Rome' and 'you're only here once', we subjected ourselves to the full Hammam experience. Boys and girls had separate times and sexes working on them. First off you are taken into a room where you undress and hopefully have brought your own bathers, or you get given very unflattering paper ones. When ready you are taken into a large room, sat on a big table whereupon a rather large gentleman dipped a bucket in a pool of warm water and proceeded to wash me down. This was not a gentle wash down; bucket after bucket was dropped over me or thrown at me.

I was then led into a small sauna that was thick with steam and left until I started getting dizzy. The same man then came and dragged me out and proceeded to wash and mercilessly scrub me down with something called black soap (byproduct of Argan Oil), showing off the large chunks of dead skin peeling off me. Then it was another sauna followed by a rough massage where my legs and arms were twisted behind me, cracking sounds occurred and other muscles similarly 'loosened' up. Another splash down, another sauna and finally a shower, a robe, some Moroccan tea and time to recover. I was then taken upstairs for a one hour relaxing massage. Quite an interesting experience and I left feeling like I had been cleaned, twisted and oiled to within an inch of my life. I might go straight to the relaxing massage next time...

A super fun tour group :-)
thanks Mary for the photo

The fabulous tour group that we had been a part of then went in three different directions and we were left in Marrakech for two nights on our own, including New Year's Eve. It was a terrific group and we felt the loss after a very busy and fun time in Morocco. Hopefully some new lifelong friends were made. New Year's Eve was a bit of a fizzer and we ended up in our room at midnight. Just like Christmas, it is not really celebrated here as they run on a different calendar. Soon we were on the plane back home with a 7 hour leg being bumped up to business class (finally) so we could see how the other half travel. It certainly increased our expectations and back in economy class for the last leg we felt like battery hens. Something to be said for ignorance is bliss. As we entered the baggage area in Perth Airport we were summoned to the counter and informed our baggage decided to stay in Dubai, clearly not in a hurry to settle down. Goodbye 2014, hello 2015, our year of travel was over, tired and without our bags we were home...
The correct way to make
Moroccon tea

Desert camp

AIT Saoun

Jardin Majorelle Gardens

Jardin Majorelle Gardens

Jardin Majorelle Gardens
Entry to the old city

A common sight in Marrakech
Marrakech Museum

Ben Youssef Madrasa

Marrakech Museum
Marrakech Souk

Storks at Badi Palace
Badi Palace

Badi Palace
In the moment :-)
View from our hotel

New years eve in the main square

The Sahara
Some Videos

Me rock climbing

Elizabeth sand surfing the sahara

2 Years of Travel and we are up to 47 countries