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The Great White Continent (2005)

So this time it’s off to Planet Penguin. Having committed to this in a moment of weakness, by the time we’d stopped off at Auckland via Sydney, it was starting to look like the modern equivalent of Scott’s drawn out summer sojourn. And there was still the 11 hour drag to Santiago, with a three hour stopover and another slab out of my life to get to Buenos Aires. I knew we were entering western Chile immediately after take-off, when the Lan Chile map declared we were crossing the 'Mar del Tasmania'.

I was seated next to Carl, who runs one of the Rio Tinto subsidiaries in the iron ore group. Not much margin in iron ore – RT only clears US$10/tonne (or maybe it’s the old style ton). Then again, they savage 100 million tonnes out of the earth each year, so the tenners add up to quite a nice pile.

Carl was born in Africa, has lived all over the planet, now calls Perth home on his occasional drop-ins, and by his own admission speaks (apart from English) Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Latin and Swahili fluently, is competent in German and can get by in Russian and Mandarin. He can also swallow a bottle of Malbec without breathing.

Having lived in Buenos Aires, he told me a lovely story about one Mrs Cavanagh who, as a divorcee of considerable means, dropped into the local mickery close to the beautiful Plaza Saint Martin, with its lovely statuary and enormous jacarandas, and asked the managing God-botherer to anoint her second marriage. Silly bugger insisted that this could not be done – against God’s will and all that stuff. He forgot to check his surroundings. The scorned Mrs Cavanagh owned a nice crescent of land between the mickery and the park and promptly erected a 28 storey concrete monstrosity that obliterated the church’s view of the Plaza. Girlie – one, priest - zero.

Carl also gave me advice about taxis, having delicately asked me if I was being ‘met’. I replied that I had arranged with the Marriott for a hotel transfer. This gave him the freedom to tell me a) never get into a taxi with curtains on the rear windows (mugger lurking inside), or if the headrest on the front passenger seat is missing (allows taxi driver a clear run at pulling a gun on passenger in the rear). Kidnapping is still an excellent occupation, much less hassle and danger than (say) robbing a bank. I rang the hotel from Santiago to confirm my confirmed reservation for a safe transfer.

Having parted company with Carl, I settled into the lounge to watch some news in order to zombie through yet more hours. One startling fact emerged from the Iraqi reports. Apparently there has been no oil exploration for thirty years, and the experts believe that the reserves are larger than those of Saudi Arabia. Makes a lot of sense of Bush & cronies’ crusade to bring democracy to the country; and of their commitment to contribute a $B towards ‘rebuilding’ the industry as a ‘gift’ to the ‘economic reconstruction’ of Saddam’s former territory. Halliburton Inc. shares have doubled in the past year, being solidly in control of a slab of the service industries benefiting from such initiatives, courtesy of the vision of its interested parties, including one Dick Cheney, VP, USA.

Next leg, I’d just settled in next to a pretty, vertically challenged latino lad who was admiring his beautifulness in the window reflection when a stewardess nobbled me and dragged me into a seat in first class. Very nice. Seated next to Tony, a Brit living in Mexico City, we were in for a wild ride over the Andes, with the plane imitating a very crabby contestant in a rodeo. Once we were across the range it was fine, but with plenty of thunderstorm activity.

Tony is boss cocky for Shindler vertical-people-movers (lifts to us) in Central and South America and claims that Mexico City (population equal to that of Oz, at 20million) is a sensational city in which to live, with his wife and three daughters of ages 9-13. I’ll take his word for it. Like Carl, he also inquired as to my transport arrangements from BA airport and regaled me with more kidnapping stories.

To no avail, as my driver was perfectly pleasant, although no Inglese, and all was well until we pulled up at the Marriott and I found I'd left my glasses on the plane, along with the discarded Vanity Fair and crossword flight entertainment kit. However, the situation was quickly rectified by ducking around the corner to the local pharmacy and picking up a pair of el cheapo specs for 20 pesos (USD7). At this stage my retail antenna clicked in, as I realized that, compared with the peso-USD parity of 2001, when I was last in town, the prices in the shops were looking to be somewhere between excellent and "you-bloody-beauty"!

I ordered a room service hamburger and some local vino blanco, which made for a good meal, and hit the sack. Needless to say, the eyelids snapped open at 3.30am, so more television, and I was just about to switch it off when I realized the men’s final of the Oz tennis open was about to begin, so I ran through the 82 stations and picked up ESPN with channel 7 visuals and Spanish commentary. It didn’t help, and our bloke still lost.

Lynne and Ed arrived safely, so we headed out at midday in search of some adult refreshment. It was Sunday, but many of the shops were open on Florida (Ed picked up a shamelessly cheap cashmere vest), and the Pacifica Mall was ready for us. A Bloody Mary and a baguette provided suitable sustenance.

Casa Lopez is a wonderful shop – superb leather goods. I bought a 3/4 leather coat at the Pacifica store, then we headed back to their main store on the Plaza St Martin and did more damage. I pocketed a handbag to match my new coat, a suede shirt, wallet and spectacles case made out of strange ‘leather’, The sales assistant said it came from a small indigenous animal called a carpincho. Ed bought a gorgeous reversible antelope jacket in navy – light as a feather and soft as butter. My Casa Lopez haul set me back a total of A$1,000 at duty free prices.

As we left the Casa Lopez Dollar Extraction Company, I showed Ed my carpincho case, whereupon he assailed me with the wonderful intelligence that the material is derived from the world’s largest rodent. The case, given its shape and texture, was immediately designated the rat scrotum.

The welcome party for our Antarctic expedition was scheduled for 7pm, so we made our way to the function and met up with Tom and Sharon from California and Bill from somewhere starting with M. Tom owns a string of travel agencies and specialises in New Zealand. He’s 62 and Sharon’s 58 but looks 40, sporting a stunning figure despite the fact that she consumes her own weight in food every meal. They’ve both had a bit of work done by the plastic craftsman, but very successfully. Tom’s travelled all his life and went to Machu Picchu in the sixties. At that stage, there was a tiny switchback railroad and on the way up they rounded a corner and killed a sheepdog. The driver was inconsolable. On the way back down, he slammed the brakes on, with sparks flying and only just managed to grind to a halt before hitting a huge boulder that had landed on the tracks, precisely where the dog had been killed. No wonder they’re so religious on this continent.

Bill’s also a traveller – when he finished school, his father told him to go away to grow up and sent him to Spain for a few years. After university there, he hot-footed it to Buenos Aires then Rio for ten years. Then there’s Joel from Boston, who told Lynne a charming story of being held up by bandits in Kathmandu. The bandits relieved them of a large portion of their funds, then gave them a receipt, with instructions to show this if another group of bandits held them up later on. Puts a different twist on “I already gave at the office”!

We’d booked a table at La Cabana restaurant. Our taxi driver lived up to the reputation of his set by taking us to La Cabana de Lilas by the port – in the opposite direction from our destination (I’d read an article a couple of weeks previous to the effect that it’s a sport of BA taxis to make every journey as circuitous as possible). He then protested that this WAS La Cabana; there was no other. So I ducked inside to ask the patron a) if my reservation was on the books or b) directions/address to the correct one. Kindness itself, the restaurant staff then proceeded to try to ascertain the correct address. It took four of them ten minutes not to provide me with the address of what is arguably the most famous restaurant in the city!

Back in the cab, we shot across town without incident to the door of the right place in Recoleta. The driver had managed to add USD8 to his tab through this strategem.

Not to worry, we were ensconced in the winter garden, which was very pleasant, with the rain tumbling down on the conservatory that has a huge tree growing through it. I couldn’t work out whether the menu was expensive or cheap (were the prices USD or pesos)? I gave up worrying and ordered grilled provolone (marvellously simple – a slab of provolone grilled, then topped with a slice of tomato and oregano), followed by rib-eye steak with side salad and souffled potatoes – all of which were outstanding. We washed this down with a couple of bottles of malbec (the favourite Argentine vino tinto).

Turns out the prices were in pesos (they use $ sign on the menu, which could confuse a stupid person), so the evening was remarkably economical. Our taxi back to the hotel cost $3.

Next morning, the cruise company organized wake up calls for 6.15am, and we departed the hotel for the domestic airport at 8am.

Having checked in by 8.40am, and finding that our plane to Ushuaia had a scheduled departure of 10.40, we repaired to the coffee shop to while away the time. Diego, our tour flunky responsible for delivering us to the ship, stooged around and cautioned us not to expect the plane to leave on time, nor perhaps to stick to the advertised flight plan. It was a scheduled Aerolineas Argentina flight, so we weren’t too concerned.

We should have been. At 10.20, Diego returned to inform us that the plane was at the other (international) airport, and that we would be bussed there. So run that by me again, Diego – this is a scheduled flight, and the pilot’s dropped the bird out of the air onto the wrong runway, 50km away? And we have to go there? There are no planes here (apart from the 50 or so standing idle in the plane park across the way)?

Needless to say, Latin logic prevailed, and a shipload of passengers was inefficiently moved across the globe. This process in itself was amazing. We were herded from gate 7 to gate 11; processed through the gate with our boarding passes clipped so that we could enter a bus (it’s a three day drive to Ushuaia), then, despite being assured that we were to be taken directly to the plane, we were dumped on the wrong side of the terminal and had to go through check-in and boarding clip process again! By this time it was 2.30 and I was feeling more than a tad frayed. It got worse. My seat was 32D on a Macdonnell Douglas plane – a centre seat in the arse end of the plane, next to the two dunnies serving cattle class and the view out the window completely obliterated by a very large blue engine.

With none of us having had anything to eat or drink since 8.30am (and only then because I’d bought a coffee), the crew took an hour before they managed to serve refreshments, or in this case an Argentine version of lunch. I was sandwiched between a native Ushuaian lass (no Inglese) wearing a Burberry raincoat and Francesca from Svitzerland, a fellow passenger to the Antarctic; with the added atmosphere of a long queue to the dunnies and the kitchen service blocking any other possible view of the outside world. I figured I had two choices – self-implode with a cocktail of claustrophobia and blind fury for the 3hr 17.25minutes journey; or up the ante. I did the latter, and we had a rollicking time helping ourselves to the plane’s supply of vino tinto. Francesca is a head-boiler (juvenile league) and was married to a serial adventurer who flew his plane and family throughout South America in the ‘50’s, when it was controlled by the various military junta. A few years ago he got a bit careless and flew his plane into a mountain in Mexico.

When we finally made it to Ushuaia (apparently the views coming in were gorgeous, but I wouldn’t know), only one of my two bags showed up, because there was too much baggage, so the airline put the balance on the next flight to Ushuaia which, because of our delays, showed up twenty minutes after ours. Reunited with my worldly goods, we hit the deck of our new home, which is very pleasant, especially considering the fact that this is an expedition ship. However, the interior designer of the public rooms had mastered the art of the banal, and the charlatan who painted the murals should be locked up. Conversely, the cabins are well fitted out, and the bathrooms excellent. During our interminable wait at the domestic airport, Lynne and I had cased the duty free booze shop and bought 5 bottles of decent wine (malbec, malbec-pinot rose, sauvignon blanc) for USD32; so I piled the rose and vino blanco into my tiny fridge, discarding such useless tipples as apple juice.

We shared our dinner table with Jimmy and his mate Charles from Texas, and Bob and Helen from California – she’s from the school of bad facelifts, which unfortunately has resulted in her skin looking like it’s been drawn over a canvas stretcher, with telltale drag lines running from her ears to sternum. Jimmy owns a small ranch in Texas, 600 miles north of San Antonio and 90 miles from the nearest decent store. His home help comes in from town 23miles away and brings in any necessities. His friend down the road has a 13mile long driveway. Jimmy was invited to play golf with Steve Wynn (the guy who reinvented Las Vegas with the Mirage – the first of many glitter palaces, including the Bellagio, which was so named because Steve couldn’t come up with a name that he liked, but Paul Anka had been sailing on Lake Como and suggested to Steve that he name a gambling den after a town of remarkable style and beauty). This is where Lynne comes into her own. She immediately figured out that you don’t get invited to play golf with Steve unless you’re seriously rich or dangerous, and extracted the fact that Jimmy runs a string of country newspapers in the southwestern states. Charles lives near Utopia, Texas, which he says is a very special place (well, it would be, wouldn’t you think?).

We followed dinner with a couple of digestifs at the bar, then off for a good night’s sleep on a rolling sea. Rather too much rolling for my liking, and next morning, after unpacking and in denial for an hour about how bad I felt, I was seasick for the first time in my life. I ducked up to reception and grabbed a supply of motion sickness tablets and was fine within a couple of hours. The day consisted of lectures - penguins, sea mammals, petrels and albatrosses and lifeboat/safety drill that seemed to go on forever. All part of the German crew’s determination that they don’t want to police us (but you vill obey). My favourite question during the day was “if we come across whales during the night, will you wake us up?” which was given short shrift “It is dark in the night and ve vill not be able to see”.

At dinner we were joined by Laura, 42, vegetarian and self-proclaimed bi-metropolitan with residences in New York and Vermont, and not engaged in working for a living at the present. Lynne’s antenna went into overdrive and in no time flat she’d worked out that Laura lives courtesy of a substantial trust fund. The process of extraction is a thing of beauty. Lynne extracted Laura’s parents’ address (89th and Park, i.e. loaded) and her prep school (fees USD100,000/annum) but polite attempts to extract the source of her stash fell on fallow ground. Lynne said she reminded her of a friend whose folks own one of the largest domestic appliance companies around. Toaster, popcorn poppers and frypans make for a healthy trust fund if you have the market cornered in consumer paradise.

However, we found out all about Laura’s grandma’s will and technique of tagging her personal chattels. Well before she dropped off the twig, granny invited the favoured of her brood home and gave them coloured stickers so they could case the joint and tag what they wanted. If there was an overlap, the decision went to mediation, and according to Laura, it all worked out fine. All in all, it was a vastly entertaining evening,

Our second day at sea didn’t start well, with me completely forgetting my appointment with the masseur at 9am. Ed and I had the obligatory Bloody Mary at midday, courtesy of the 42 Below vodka I’d picked up in NZ. This is purely a quality issue, as the cost of a Virgin Mary at the bar is USD4 compared with the Bloody Mary price of $5. We went through the zodiac/landing/wildlife training, good advice for the sensible, but ignorance or incapacity could put a stupid person in substantial danger.

At 3pm on the second day out of Ushuaia, the expedition leader announced that we were early and would be making a landing on the South Shetland Islands. He lied. By the time we got there the weather had changed and the wind had ramped up to 50 knots. So we sailed by in preparation for our landing at Half Moon Island on Thursday morning.

After dinner we repaired to the bar with Laura, with Lynne still in hot pursuit of her heritage, until I decided to be colonial. Quite simple really – ‘So where does your money come from; or is that too direct a question?”. Bingo. Turns out that Laura is descended from the “poor” branch of the Vanderbilts.(?!). Her grandmother caused a family crisis by marrying a ne’er do well racecourse owner, so one assumes the slab of the trustfund was less than it would normally have been, but there’s probably still enough for most small countries to live on for a decade.

Half Moon island is where the oldest Argentine station is located, named Camara after the first pilot to be killed there by mislanding his sea plane into a hill. We managed the zodiacs without a problem and, having been told that there could be some souvenirs to be had at the station, we made our way to the orange huts and Argie flags flying some way off. After avoiding several fur seals and some chinstrap penguins who’d shuffled off from their guano haven, we trekked up the snowy path to be greeted by Claudio and the station commander, Patricio. Camara was appropriately founded on April Fool’s day in 1953. Between the two main buildings, there was a row of sticks in the deep snow with various names. Turns out this is the outdoor freezer and the names were various cuts of meat. So the cook ducks out and digs up whatever takes his fancy. Today this pretty boy was cooking fish dunked in herb batter, which looked and smelled really good. The Argies gave us coffee and chocolates and extracted USD20 for patches to sew onto our parkas – total ripoff, but they were the only souvenirs on offer.

Back on the rocky beach, I was bemused by the fact that it’s forbidden to take anything from Antarctica, including rocks. I reckon every person on earth could take a rock from this beach and you still wouldn’t notice. Ed reckons that if anyone ever has a shortage of rocks, this is the place to come. (Note: Really Useful Fur Seal Safety Lesson: they’re aggressive, so if one comes barrelling your way, pick up two stones and clack them together – fur seals hate this sound.)

On the way back to check out the penguin colony, there was a woman from our ship on her knees examining something in the snow. Well, not really, she’d fallen over and couldn’t get up. It took Ed and Bill considerable effort to get her to her feet and they then had to walk her back to the zodiacs – quite a distance and not easy going. Stupid old cow had taken an hour to get to where she’d fallen and had no chance of getting back without aid. Ed had a word to the expedition leader when we got back to the ship – none of us signed up to nursemaid folks who are not physically capable of doing basic landings. Clearly the doctor who signed her off as ‘fit’ was equally incapacitated in the brain department.

It was a rough ride back to the ship, as the wind had picked up to 30knots. Back on board, Stefan, the expedition leader, informed us that we were unable to make a landing in the afternoon because of the wind, and that we would head south to Neko Harbour for our first landing on the continent, then sail across to Anvers Island to visit the American base in the afternoon.

Bill had set up a table for dinner with Tom and Sharon and Laura, and a good and very rowdy time was had by all. This is Tom’s second marriage and Sharon’s third. Tom’s favourite town is l’Isle sur la Sorgue in Provence, so we had plenty to talk about. We headed up to the forward lounge for a drink we didn’t need, and, out on deck at 11pm, a couple of whales cruised by a very large iceberg on the port side, which promptly delighted us with a spectacular calve. Apparently a passing whale can cause sufficient vibration to set off calving. Cool stuff.

Neko Harbour is gorgeous Our zodiac took us past a large iceberg with deep crevices and a deep hole in the centre. It looked as if it was lit by blue neon lights from within. The massive glacier tumbling into the bay was similarly blue. Glaciers are clear – the edges look white because of abrasion. John (our expedition staffer) told us some scientific stuff about colour spectrum to the effect that whilst ice looks blue, if you were trapped inside it, it would look red. Tell someone who cares.

The zodiac landing spot had been carefully chosen as that part of the beach where the stench of penguin guano was the most intense. Christ they stink, and their droppings are pink, courtesy of an unending diet of krill.

Penguins don’t know the international road rules for dealing with humans, so they waddle in and out of your zone at will (5 metres distance). These were Gentoo penguins, which are pretty cute. There was also a Weddell seal having a snooze in the snow. At one stage she had a scratch and stretched her back. That was her sole activity for the two hours of our visit.

At 2.30pm we arrived at Palmer Station on Anvers Island, one of three US bases on Antarctica. Bob Farrell, the Director of the station and quite cute to boot, came on board and gave a professional powerpoint presentation in the lecture theatre. However, the most interesting bits related to the other two US bases at McMurdo and the South Pole.

McMurdo is a substantial operation, with 1100 people in summer, its own TV station and bowling alley, and a nice phenomenon called the McMurdo dry valleys, which are almost snow-free, windy and home to lots of mummified seals. The US Air force flies in supplies (e.g. toilet paper) and the Coast Guard breaks the channels through the ice. The Air National Guard flies in LC130s that land on skins. At Amundsen-Scott South Pole station they relocate the South Pole each year, as the ice sheet moves last year’s pole away from true. So there’s a series of ‘south’ poles at 93’, in temperatures –103F. All the communications antennae are horizontal because all the satellites are to the North.

Palmer station only allows 50 people on site at any time, so our group lucked into an hour’s visit to the Adelie penguin colony. We knew we were there before we turned the corner and saw the penguins by the incredibly putrid stench of guano. We strolled around the crap and were vastly entertained by the Adelie’s sole mission in life – rock relocation. These little critters find a small rock, pick it up in their beaks and take it somewhere else to add it to a pile. Sometimes the wife isn’t keen on the shape and size of the rock that hubby fronts up with, whereupon she gives him the rounds of the rookery. The chicks have voracious appetites and harass their parents by chasing them down and squealing to be fed via the charming process of the adult regurgitating a delicacy of krill carried in a stream of saliva while the chick indulges in an unattractive variant of French kissing. By the time we reboarded the zodiacs, the ice was moving in, so the Scott and Shackleton groups missed out on the Adelie Experience.

We then went ashore for a tour of the facility – our group, Amundsen, scored the station’s doctor, Will, who was entertaining. Being American, Palmer Station has a substantial store, so we stocked up on t-shirts, fridge magnets, patches, hats, pins and a plethora of other useless trash to inflict on unwitting friends and relatives on our return to warmer climes. The station’s weather vane is graced with a metallic cutout krill.

At the evening debrief, Anna showed her snaps from the day, particularly those of the Weddell Seal who didn’t move; then went on to show us some other snaps demonstrating how to identify male and female seals. Females have to holes on their lower belly, where the teats pop out for feeding. Males have one, and the penis is clearly visible under the skin surface because it has a bone in it, “so it always works”, and is of substantial dimensions. “Probably some of you are jealous, no?”

Friday morning we were up early for the proposed sail through the Lemaire Channel, otherwise known as Kodak Alley. It was discovered by a German expedition commanded by Dallman in 1873, and traversed in December 1898 by Gerlache, who named it after Charles Lemaire, a Belgian explorer of the Congo! The relevance escapes me.

Unfortunately, this was one of the many days when the Channel was blocked with ice – it’s a mile wide and seven miles long – so it was a case of best laid plans of mice & men. Even so, it was spectacular, with the precipitous cliff faces freshly dusted with snow. This was as far south as we were going, at 65S.

We headed off for Port Lockroy, a British station with a shop, from where we could mail our postcards. I’d intended to write mine over lunch (I’d already addressed them) so had to scramble off a few salient messages about penguin guano to all the victims (including myself, to whom I wrote “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here, love, Me”).

Whilst the selection of goodies was less extensive than Palmer Station, the quality was good, so I managed to dispose of a small fortune in USD on a t-shirt, penguin pins, fridge magnet and stamps so I could drop all my mail into HM’s red postbox.

We had a tad of difficulty getting into the shop, courtesy of a baby penguin sunning itself on the wooden ramp. There were penguin chicks in abundance, which made the going difficult along the rocky path that had been hewn into the side of the island.

Before we were allowed to get to the shop, we had to do the obligatory penguin smellavision at Jupiter Point for an hour. These were gentoos, real cuties, but they do pong. Mixed in among the million penguins were a few thousand blue-eyed shags, none of which I managed to see. There was also an excellent selection of whale bones and squeletons (Anna, our marine mammal biologist, is from Brittany). Apparently a visiting Brit was killed here a couple of weeks ago – he broke away from a group clambering over rocks, headed off to a drift of snow about a hundred feet thick, fell into a crevasse and froze to death before his intrepid rescuers could fish him out. Stupid bastard.

Port Lockroy was used as an anchorage by whalers and established as Base A by the Brits in 1944 as part of a secret wartime initiative to monitor German shipping movements. The expedition was codenamed Operation Tabarin after a nightclub dive in Paris, because the team members would be staying there during the long dark winter. It ceased operation in 1964 and now has a small museum filled with tinned and bottled delicacies that saw their ‘use-by’ date a very long time ago.

Port Lockroy is surrounded by beautiful mountains, the best of which are the seven sisters – a towering range of (would you believe) seven peaks. When we arrived, it was still overcast, but we had good views of them through the mist swirling around their peaks. John, the expedition director, told us this was the first time they’d seen them this season.

By the time we left, the entire area was bathed in beautiful sunshine and it was balmy enough to lunch on the after-deck. We proceeded to sail through the afternoon in gorgeous weather, sipping way too much Chilean chardonnay. At about four o’clock, we spotted a gam of humpback whales in company with a large number of Orcas. Anna said she’d never seen this happen in thirty years of coming to the Antarctic. The captain immediately turned the ship around to move into the middle of activity and we had a wonderful hour’s entertainment on a sunny summer’s afternoon.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Peterman Island. More penguin shit. More gentoos – this is their most southerly rookery. Jean Baptiste Charcot, in his craft aptly named “Pourquoi Pas?” obviously didn’t have much going on in his life when he wintered here in 1909 and named the cove Port Circumcision, supposedly for the Holy Day on which it was discovered, but I suspect it was because he couldn’t find his frozen cashew all winter.

Lyn and I walked around the penguins and seals on the foreshore while Ed headed up the slope to check out the view. After the cursory look around, he was about to walk down when he decided to take the quicker and highly effective option of hurling himself down a penguin chute. Quick and funny, except for the guano that churns up the back of your parka.

Sunday – sunrise 4.56, sunset 21.46. Lynne, wise woman, skipped the morning excursion at Paradise Bay. First up, Amundsen group went on a zodiac cruise of the bay, piloted by Patricia from Argentina. We hooned around the bay chasing Minke whales and touching icebergs, and stopped off to check out a cormorant colony and some blue-eyed shags. Cormorants can dive up to fifty feet under water. We were then taken to a small Argentine base – closed at the moment. A few years ago, the station’s doctor called home to say he’d had enough, after being at Paradise Bay for two years. His office refused to replace him. He tried again, still “No Way, Jose”. So he sent a message saying that, if they didn’t replace him, he’d burn the station down. Still no go. So he waited until the supply ship sailed into the bay and then torched the joint. They took him home and pensioned him off in a Buenos Aires loony bin. Ed and I stayed the minimum time then headed back to the ship. Laura joined us in the galaxy lounge, and screeched “Yuk, my handkerchief stinks of guano”

Lynne had stayed up and gone to the library after I’d retired hurt last night, to find the Ukrainian musician, Alexander, poring over books trying to improve his Hinglish. He can’t get a job in the Ukraine as a professional muso, so figures that he has to earn his keep on cruise ships. Lynne checked out his text and said 95% of it is stuff that would be of no practical use, of the type “I have to take my elephant to the dentist”. So she’s going to Barnes and Noble to buy some decent books to send to him.

We headed north on our overnight cruise to Deception Island, so called because it looks like a solid island, but has a single, narrow opening called Neptune’s Bellows, through which you enter a flooded caldera (the last huge eruption of the volcano blew out the magma core and turned it into a deep harbour).

We had to wait to sail in, courtesy of the world’s most decrepit cruise ship, Marco Polo, being there before us for a quick cruise around, so we were 15 minutes late. Once inside the caldera, the beaches are black scoria and littered with whale bones and fur seals, plus the obligatory couple of gentoos. A long stretch of the beach has sulphuric steam coming off it, which stinks to high heaven, but not as badly as a penguin rookery. We walked around the beach and up to a col with views of the open sea. Deception Island was a whaling station, abandoned in 1931, but in its heyday there were 6000 whale carcasses in the bay waiting to the processed, the entire bay red with their blood, poor critters. There’s a sad little cemetery here, plus the rusting remains of the station that look like a tragic sculpture of a bygone age. The whaling station is protected under the Antarctic Treaty as Historic Site #71.

The crew had dug out a small pool on the beach for those foolhardy enough to want to take a dip in the Antarctic. There were probably about 20 takers in all (certainly not me) who stripped off and immersed themselves in the ready-made pool, plus a frosty dunking or two in the bay for good measure – great fun and totally crazy.

After Deception Island, we headed for Hannah Point, named after the sealer Hannah of Liverpool, which had a bummer of a Christmas Day in 1820 when it was smashed against the rocks. Hannah Point has the only few pairs of Macaroni Penguins in the South Shetland Islands - they’re moving south as the temperature rises. We saw one Macaroni with a chick, living in the Chinstrap rookery (where they create mayhem, because they’re so aggressive) plus a mound of Elephant Seals, then headed back to the ship early because the weather was turning feral.

Lyn, one of the naturalists, joined us for dinner, which was entertaining. She’s the penguin expert from South Africa, where they now have a colony of penguins in Capetown. A couple of years ago, there was an oil spillage offshore, so they flew the chicks to Durban to be fed and billeted out until they could clean all the penguins caught in the slick. As the chicks had fledged by the time they were due to go home, they left a couple in Durban, who promptly jumped into the drink and made a beeline for Capetown, a 2000km passage, where they duly turned up a couple of weeks later. The penguins like the urban surroundings, and stagger up from the beach and lodge themselves in the nicely manicured front gardens, because they like lolling about in the shade.

Anna (the marine mammal biologist) and Lyn joined us upstairs for a digestif, and regaled us with stories from some recent cruises. The first was a lesbian cruise, which they reported as great fun, contrary to expectations. The second was the Japanese, who wore face masks whenever ashore (not for the smell, for anti-infection) and the only way the expedition staff could tell whether they were enjoying themselves was by the intensity of shutter-bugging.

Keen to make sure we’d left no stone unturned, we headed back down to the Leda Lounge and met up with Jimmy, the Texan, and Laura promptly took a nose-dive into his lap, whereupon Jimmy pronounced that she had “Narse Thaaars”. I retired before any further damage befell us, being the last folk to call it a day, as usual.

By morning we were back in the Furious Fifties – overcast, damp and choppy. I went up to the masseur – a nice young chap from Hungary, and had my body pummeled for an hour. The swell rose to the occasion as the day progressed, so it was fairly compelling by late afternoon.

Over lunch, Ed entertained us with stories of his upbringing. Essentially, his mother got shot of his dad as soon as Ed was born, then, after a year or so, decided that her maternal instinct didn’t exist. So Ed was shipped off to a variety of schools – Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, et al, and was thrown out of most of them. The Roman Catholic nuns were Ed’s least favourite. Pathological sadists, they’d gather up their rosary beads so you couldn’t hear them coming, then whack the kids with a ruler, used in three ways – the flat, the wooden edge or, worst of all, the metal edge across the back of the knuckles. Sister Bitch Mary snuck up on Ed on the Thursday before Easter and delivered the metal edge treatment, which broke the skin of the knuckles. Ed saw red and grabbed the nearest weapon to hand, the inkwell, and hurled it at her retreating back. It hit her on the skull and Ed was looking for a new school, but, because it was Easter and he was in the choir, they didn’t march him off the premises until Monday.

At the Lutheran School, the boys and girls, hormones raging, were domiciled on opposite sides of the road. One boy was punished severely for being caught holding a girl’s hand. He went home, found his dad’s gun, and, the following morning, emptied it into the principal as he walked up the front steps to start the day.

As the day wore on and we moved into the Antarctic convergence, the Drake unleashed its power on us. (We’d been warned the previous evening to ‘Drakeproof” our cabins.) It didn’t pay to look out the window, with full sky views one second and full water views the next. Just the right ambience for Captain Sven, a rather attractive Swede of 37 years, to host a cocktail party. All the seats and tables on the ship are anchored to the floor. We were enjoying cocktails when a rogue wave hit the ship and managed to tip several passengers out of their seats, including (of course) the stupid old cow. The ship’s doctor, Fritz, took no notice whatsoever and had to be asked to take a look at her. His scan was cursory at best, I think he was only checking if her arms and legs were still attached and didn’t even bother to look at her eyes, despite the fact that she had hit her head. Our party had all instinctively reached for their glasses and didn’t spill a drop. Stefan announced that dinner would be delayed a tad while the dining room cleaned up the breakages.

Over dinner (heavy bottomed short glasses all round), we finally got to hear Ed’s Live Television Moments. My favourite was the live beer commercial. The brand, Tempo, sported a brown, wide-mouthed bottle. Ed got the instruction ‘pour the beer’ which he did, but a rather pickled mouse plopped out of the bottle and into the glass! I guess the sales didn’t increase. The other favourite was a coffee commercial. After the close-up shot of the coffee products, the director beamed down the instruction “tilt the camera up”. Ed, on the floor, signaled to the cameraman “NO” but the director repeated the instruction, the cameraman obliged, to put the lower half of the seated female newsreader, legs wide open with a very short skirt, centre screen just as the voiceover crooned “recognise this old friend?”

Our final day at sea dawned fine and clear. At 6am we were still tossing around mightily, but by 8.30 the seas had calmed to a gentle swell, with the air temperature at 8C. We knew all this courtesy of Stefan’s early morning ritual, which started with “Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning Lays and Gennelmn…latitude/longitude/ location name/temperature/barometric pressure/sea swell/sunrise/sunset/breakfast/day’s activity/Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning” – a regimen that had driven 90 of the 100 passengers to homicidal tendencies over the past ten days.

By 11am Cape Horn appeared over the horizon. The Chileans won’t allow ships, unless they have Chilean clearance, to approach closer than 12kms. We took a final turn around the ship’s shop, run by Jacqui the Brit, who does a fine line in merchandising, before retiring to the sunshine on a beautiful afternoon in the Beagle Channel. We weren’t due to dock in Ushuaia until the early hours of the morning, so we enjoyed a late night drink in the galaxy lounge with Jimmy and Charles, who tours the US with his airshows which are re-enactments of the attack on Pearl Harbour – still highly successful and he obviously enjoys mucking about with planes. By this stage we’d been without signs of habitation for ten days, apart from the Antarctic stations, one ship and a couple of yachts, and it was a real pleasure to see the lights of Ushuaia.

Dismbarking at 8am, we headed for the airport via the obligatory ‘tour of the city’, which consisted of a couple of houses on sleds, some gigantic rose bushes and the town’s water supply. It’s a scruffy little resort/frontier town, but with a very nice airport from which it’s only 36 hours to Australia…..

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