When Words With Friends is Words With Strangers

So I quite enjoy a game of Scrabble every now and then… only most people I know won’t play with me anymore.  No idea why.  Enter Words With Friends on my iPhone.

I quite like to play, but every time I go away and find myself with limited internet, I end up forfeiting a bunch of games from them timing out, and you have to start from scratch when you get home again.  Which I have fallen out of the habit of doing because I tend to look at it, and think ‘I’ll just forfeit when I go away again anyway.’  Long story short, I recently updated my app and noticed some changes, and started playing again because I’m not going away for a few months.

The new version of the app, though, has made it quite ten times easier for people to start games with randoms on the Internet and unfortunately it seems that there are plenty of guys who appear to be primarily playing to basically try to meet women… who’d’ve thought? Within the space of a week, I’ve had about half a dozen guys hitting on me via online Scrabble.  :/

It started off innocuously enough, a few ‘Hi, how are you?’, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Are you married?’, ‘Is that really you?’, type messages from guys who started games with me, and then this guy turned up:

My, who’s that handsome devil in the seriously impressive uniform?, Richard !!,,   Anyway, Lt. General Richard !!,, invited me to play a game with me and it was going fine. He was playing some obscure words that I’d never seen before which is rare but always great fun – I like a meaty game – and then about three moves in I get this:

Ummm… Do I have to answer this?  Is it rude to just ignore that and just play my next move?  Do we really have to make chit-chat to have a game of Scrabble?  Why is this unsolicited compliment making me uncomfortable?  Seriously, do we really have to talk at all?  :/

I left it for a few hours, but wanted to follow the game through so I eventually answered him and over the next day or so the conversation went along pleasantly enough…

Which was an honest enquiry.. how does someone at his rank on a peacekeeping mission in Syria have times for things like playing word games with strangers on the Internet? My curiosity however, was met with open hostility.  Whereupon the conversation, with no warning whatsoever, spiralled downhill rather rapidly… Errr… whoa there Nellie!?  That seems kinda special.  😮
Now I’m not one for being ordered to do anything, and especially not from a total stranger on the Internet. But curiosity kills the whatsamadoover and all that… And I was going to leave it there – but at this point I was pretty convinced that this wasn’t Lt. General Richard!!,, but rather more likely, a fucking boorish stockbroker named Ralph living in his Mom’s basement somewhere.

With minimal effort (a single Google Image search and a response within microseconds) the photo of this very smartly Lt General in the US military with the name, Richard CLARKE (Yes Dick, the name badge is quite legible in the photo) was not exactly hard to find, and according to the profile that Ralph probably stole the photo from, he’s a Director for Strategic Plans and Policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff!   IE:  someone you would very likely imagine is way too busy to be playing stupid word games with strangers.

So I decided to throw an extra volley across the bow…

Predictably, Dick didn’t respond and ended the game…
What a shame.  He was winning too.  :/

The Long Transit Home

Depending on how you look at it, it took us 37.5 hours or nearly six days to return home from Antarctica.

This morning we breakfasted and then disembarked the ship.  It was hard to say goodbye to some of these amazing people knowing we may never meet again.  They had shared their enthusiasm and passion with us for all things Antarctic and many of them had a huge impact on our enjoyment of this trip.  Travelling with such an intimate team has been amazing, I particularly enjoyed the staff joining us for dinner in the main Dining Room each night, you had an opportunity to really get to know them and really dive into what makes them come back each year to bring visitors to this remote part of the world.

We exited the gangway for the last time and the entire Expedition Team were lined up to wish us goodbye. Some of these guys we had only met superficially, but the zodiac guides who marvelled at the whales with us, Woody who was there to greet us on every landing site, and several of the others whom you just connected with – well it was hard to say ‘goodbye’. Ema is an amazing young woman – I really hope we meet again one day. I found we had so much in common.  Come to Australia, Ema!  <3 Weirdly, we were giving Woody hugs nearly every other day – he kept us informed and shared his seemingly boundless passion for Antarctica with us, and I was always wanting to hug him to thank him for sharing with us. Thankfully hugging the passengers isn’t against company policy. Trish and Annie. Ema crouching down to be as short as a Cross Girl.  😛 

And then – we were back at the End of the World in Ushuaia.
We found our hotel and dumped our luggage there and went for a wander about the town.  Aunty Mary and Lyn went on a tourist tram that runs around the city, while Trish and I went shopping looking for some things for the kids – but only after catching up with everyone on the free hotel wifi first of course!

Had a chat with yale, ‘Where are you now?’ he asked… shared my location for shits and giggles and it looked like this <–  God I love the Internet!

We pottered around town looking at souvenirs and mountain equipment shops until lunchtime, grabbed a small bite to eat (which in South America, always seems to mean empanadas) where we ran into – you guessed it, loads of people from the ship – before heading back to the hotel to check in properly and find our rooms.  We stayed at the Hotel Albatross which is down near the waterfront. Unfortunately, though, our rooms had even less views than last time!  C’est la vie, it’s only for one night and we spent the afternoon relaxing and finishing Trisha’s bottle of limoncello.  🙂

 

We opted for dinner at the ‘other most recommended’ restaurant in Ushuaia, La Estancia Parilla for some Argentinian BBQ – because they haven’t been feeding us enough on the ship, right?  No, not really… but I have grown rather fond of the chimichurri so off we went.
OMG – forgot about the portion sizes.  Between that and some language barrier issues, we ordered way too much food. Oh, and guess what?  We ran into more people from the ship at this restaurant too… who’d’ve thought? With full bellies and a few vinos under our belts, we wandered back down to the Hotel Albatross for our last night in South America.  Tomorrow the Dread Transit starts in earnest.

Woke up nice and early – dammit, and finalised our packing.  Argentina Aerolineas only allows 15kgs in their checked luggage and I got slugged on the way down and I was likely going to get slugged on the way back, but the others were doing their best to distribute their weight between their backpacks and their suitcase so we didn’t all incur a fee.  We breakfasted at the hotel and then checked out at 10:15am – yeah, that was as late a check out as they were willing to give us.  Thankfully they have a few lovely lounge areas where we could wait until about 11ish before we could call cabs and head to the airport.

Got to the airport without incident and almost immediately we were running into staff and other passengers from the ship – particularly Louise and Jessica (of the Toowoomba Coincidence) who seemed to follow us all the way home.  Anyway, the ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ of international travel had well and truly started and we took our first three-hour flight back to Buenos Aires.  No hidden stop-over this time so it seemed rather quick in comparison to the way down.  Oh and we even had a really happy and chatty check-in guy at the airport who didn’t charge me excess baggage. *wipes away a tear*  What a nice guy!  Oh and gotta love Argentina Aerolineas btw – your in-flight meal is a sickly sweet muesli bar thing, and there is no milk for your tea, only Coffee Mate (blergh!)…  But we were on our way.

As it happened, we had a short three-hour flight, whereupon we arrived in Buenos Aires Domestic Airport which is right in the middle of the city just about, and then we were stuck with an eight hour wait before we were scheduled to fly from EZE, Buenos Aires International (Who booked this shitty transit? Oh wait, that was me).  So we had been busy hatching plans before we went ‘Internet Dark’ on how to avoid spending what seemed like an interminably long time hanging around either one airport or the other, and we had decided upon asking Jorge if we could take him out to dinner!  Jorge was the driver that Ceri had recommended to run us to the airport when we left BA, so we had contacted him and said “Can we please book for you pick us up at the BA Domestic airport, and take us somewhere for dinner somewhere local before dropping us to the International?  If you are free, we would love for you to join us for dinner, and Ceri and his wife too if they are available.”  Yeah, it was a little cheeky, but we had plenty to gain (dinner at a local restaurant with a charming Argentinan!) and nothing to lose by asking how he felt about the plan.  😀  Jorge replied almost immediately saying it would be his pleasure, and what sort of food would we like?  😛  Score!

Here are Jorge’s contact details if you need a driver in Buenos Aires… 

I had told a few people on the ship about our transit plans to get home and they were quite impressed – Bernadette (from Holland) in particular, literally pouted and said, “I want to travel with you!”  She too had some horrid long airport layovers to deal with also.  And yes, you’re damn right we’ve done this before!  😉

Anyway, everything went to plan, Jorge met us at AEP Domestic and took us to a – you guessed it, an Argentinian BBQ place!  😀  I have no idea where in Buenos Aires this place is, but the food was fabulous and our hostess, Marinas was wonderfully welcoming.  Because we were there so early (Argentinians are rather continental with their dining hours) we pretty much had the restaurant to ourselves, and thanks to Jorge – we didn’t even have to take our bags out of the car – Marinas had blocked off a space right out front of the restaurant in readiness to give Jorge somewhere to park.

We had an incredible platter of BBQ’d meats – lamb, beef, chorizo, black pudding, and something that may have been offal or donkey (not sure).  Some wine, fresh bread and a token bit of salad and we were very happily recovered from our airline muesli bars indeed.  🙂  Sadly, dinner came to an end, and Jorge took us to EZE International airport to await our long-haul flight.  We checked in, and ran into Jessica and Louise, again.  Then found somewhere comfy to wait for our flight which was just after midnight.  The flight is much as these things always are, with extra bonus horrible thanks to the prat in front of me who reclined his seat within minutes of getting into the air, and of course, I’m still coughing from the end of the flu thing I have.  Thankfully though, we were able to wave away the horrible airline food as we had been stuffed full of wonderful BBQ meats and chimichurri goodness.

A movie or two later, and I thought I’d have a look at the live flight map (this is a big frequent traveller no-no, and should never be done – it makes the flight seem even longer than it is, if that is at all humanly possible).  But I did and discovered this:
We were headed right back to Ushuaia!  If there were direct flights we could have knocked six hours flying time off the trip!  Arggh!  We had heard that the first flight to land at Ushuaia’s international airport was from Melbourne and had come directly over the Antarctic continent – but they don’t do that route anymore – not enough call for it.  Nothing to be done but to sit back and take all the drugs.I managed to get some sleep on the plane, but won’t be admitting to how much of what medications it took to achieve that.  And eventually we arrived in Auckland.  There we had another three-hour layover (‘Hi, Jessica and Lousie, oh and Mark too) before we were to board to Brisbane.  Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by nearly an hour.  Fortunately (or perhaps miraculously) they seemed to make up most of that time in the air somehow – I’m not asking questions on that one.


We arrived somewhat bedraggled and overtired and cramped and sore in Brisbane at 10:40am on a Sunday morning and all I wanted to do was collapse in a heap.  But, you know, can’t do that – you need to get on local time as quickly as possible.  All up our transit time was roughly 37.5 hours door (in Ushuaia) to door (in Brisbane)… but then as we were going through Customs at Brisbane airport, I mentioned this to Louise, and she said, ‘Well, actually, we left our travel destination, Antarctica, six days ago, so really, it’s taken us six days to get home.”  Eww… thanks for that, Louise!  🙂

 

So home again, home again jiggety jig… until the next adventure.  <3

 

Quark Antarctica Expedition – What to Expect

When I was researching trips to Antarctica, I found some of the more nitty gritty practical stuff that I really I wanted to know, seemed conspicuously absent from the travel brochures. If I wanted to know any of the little things, I had to direct my questions to the Peregrine ‘polar experts’ and I didn’t want to be continuously bothering them with too many queries about what they might perceive are insignificant details. So I thought I would compile some info here, so I could remember it and also in case anyone searching is looking for a ‘Quark Antarctica Frequently Asked Questions’ type thing. We travelled on the Ocean Diamond in March of 2018, obviously different ships will have different amenities – these notes are based on our experiences on that ship.  If you’d like to read the ‘day to day’ activities of our trip, you can click HERE and find my travel diary of how our journey South of the Antarctic Circle went, and then just click ‘next’ to see each day.

Cabin
We didn’t get a cabin allocation until about two weeks before we were due to leave. This is an unusual experience for me as when we cruise, we usually choose our own cabin – but since we booked through a travel agent, we didn’t seem to have that option. When we finally got out ‘boarding passes’ there was a cabin number written on the travel documents, though it was in tiny print and you had to hunt for it.

Our cabin was really well appointed and quite comfortable for two. We had a larger than usual room with plenty of space to store our things. The beds are neither too soft nor too hard, so I’m a happy camper who prefers a firm mattress – of course, the rocking of the ship really helps you sleep, so the mattress is not as important as onshore stays.

There is a TV in the room which runs some documentary films and seems to have a movie channel, playing an excellent selection of favourite films, but we have been on board a week and I can’t find anything resembling a TV guide, so it’s a bit of a crap shoot if you want to plan an hour or so to relax and watch a movie. We were able to copy a movie off my laptop onto a USB and watch it through the DVD player, so that was useful.

The only issue we seem to have had with our accommodations is the air conditioning – when we got here the room was a stuffy 24C and we had to call in the AC guy to come and turn it down for us. As we were getting ready for bed, we told him we wanted it around 19C (which is a good sleeping temperature) assuming we would be able to adjust it using the thermostat for a warmer temperature in the daytime. But he seems to have set it at around 17C in here, and the thermostat isn’t working, so if we want to be warmer during the day we need to call him back every morning, and again to cool it down every night.

 

Quark Clothing – Parka and Boots

One of the first things the staff did for us was to outfit us with our Expedition parkas, which have been specially designed by Quark for Quark passengers for Antarctic and Arctic Expeditions.   They are big and bulky, with loads of pockets to hold your excess things, but they are super warm and I have found myself wearingly only a thin merino thermal layer, a long-sleeved t-shirt layer and the parka. No need for a jumper or polar fleece layer at all. Aside from being a butt-ugly bright banana yellow, they are an excellent item of clothing and have obviously evolved from years of feedback and from passengers being unprepared for the conditions here.

Over the top of all this, you will find yourself wearing your PFD (personal floatation device) every day when you are off the ship. You must wear it on the zodiacs and you will find yourself wearing it while walking around on land because wearing it is easier than carrying it. It’s a fairly slim design as life jackets go, but it’s fairly heavy and rather bulky on the back of your neck and chest. You end up walking everywhere feeling like the Michelin Man.

The Muck Boots that are lent to passengers to use while they are on their expedition are also another very sturdy and solid piece of equipment that is absolutely essential.   There is a major downside to the boots being provided on the ship though… they’re men’s boots. All of them. So ladies are being given whatever size is appropriate for their feet. In my case, I wear a ladies size AU 6 (or EU36-37) and in a men’s boot – say in Dr Marten boots – I wear a men’s size 4. Only problem is, women’s legs tend to be far more shapely than shoes made for men’s legs – men’s size 4 boot is effectively made for a ten year old boy with chicken legs. So I had to go a size up and wear a size 5, and even that was far too tight in the calves that I had to fold the boots down, rendering them less useful as waterproof boots when getting in and out of the zodiacs at landing sites. After the first day though, it rapidly became apparent that the size 5 boots, even with the height of them folded down on themselves was no good – as it was still so tight around my upper ankle that it was cutting off the circulation in my foot and starting to bruise my shin! So I had to go back and get a men’s size 6 boot. I am still wearing them folded down and even with two pairs of sole inserts in each boot, I feel like I am clambouring about in clown shoes. My feet are slipping about all over the place inside my boots and I have been ever so slighting twisting my knees every day – not good. I’ve also had to be extra careful on the rocks and ice when ashore to make sure I don’t lose my footing in these boots that are two sizes too big – they’re quite the trip hazard. So if you know you have a tiny foot and muscular calves… I’d seriously consider trying to bring your own good quality insulated waterproof boots from home. They might be expensive and may never get used much again in the future, but the stability and sureness underfoot would be worth it.

 

Food
The food has been amazing on board, with a wonderful variety and plenty of it!

An enormous buffet breakfast is served at approximately 0730-0830 in the main dining room and there are plenty of options from various breads, cereals, cold meats, smoked salmon, cheeses, eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns, baked beans, a couple of omelette stations, tea, coffee, juices, yoghurts – the whole shebang.

Lunch is again served buffet style between 1230 and 1330 (depending on how morning land and zodiac excursions have gone). There is usually a pasta or stir-fry stations, plenty of salads and cold meats, and hot dishes that vary every day which usually include some grilled fish, and some sort of casserole option with vegetables, rice or pasta to compliment. Soups are also available at lunch, with breads, and desserts also on offer. There is a daily a la carte sandwich, hamburgers and other things available on request and the dining team do their best to help provide options for people with dietary requirements. There is also a new refreshing non-alcoholic punch to try every day.

Dinner is served in the main dining room starting from 1900-1930 after the evening debrief/recap. Dinner is a four course table service menu with appetizers and salads, a soup course (usually a choice of two soups), a main meal course (usually a fish, beef/pork option and a chicken option) followed by a desserts (usually a specialty dessert, an ice cream sundae type option, a cheese platter or a selection of fruits). Dinner is served with complimentary red or white wine – often sauvignon blanc or cabernet blends from Argentina to Italy to New Zealand. For those that don’t favour wine, beer and soft drinks and juices are also available. We are used to a cup of tea or coffee being served at the end of a meal, but for that, we needed to go to the Club to make our own.

Seating in the dining room is strictly first-come first-served, there is no reserved seating and no allocated table numbers. One of the best aspects of dining on the ship is that members of the Expedition Team will come and join a different table for dinner each night – a more interesting and well-travelled and sociable bunch you will never find.  So our dinner conversations have all been very lively and inspiring.

Internet
I could find ZERO information on Internet availability or cost prior to actually getting on the ship – even the Expedition staff who briefed us in Ushuaia were cagey about the accessibility once onboard, which is a bit shit or I would have told my family not to expect to hear from me at all for the next 14 days.

Further to that, there is considerable pressure from the Expedition Team who will encourage you to ‘disconnect’ and discover this amazing place as the first explorers would have – without the ability to connect back to The Real World™. Additionally, your fellow passengers will also loudly and proudly exclaim on the first day or so that they are going to completely disconnect for the duration as well, so there is considerable peer pressure to leave the Internet alone too.   Given that the Internet on the ship completely sucks balls, in both speed and expense, as well as actual availability – there doesn’t appear to be many people actually using it.

There are three packages available:

  • USD$35 Webmail Package : they will set you up a text only email address for use while you are on the ship.
  • USD$60 Package: Internet access of 60MB of data. Untimed but limited by data usage.
  • USD$100 Package: Internet access of 200MB of data. Untimed but limited by data usage.

None of these packages are suitable for blogging or sending lots of pictures back home but still, they might be all fine and dandy if you were 100% confident that you have NOTHING running in the background of your smartphone or iPad or laptop that was going to be refreshing or downloading or synching stuff while you were carefully trying not to use your data. It would be all too easy to jump online to chat a bit via WhatsAp or Messenger and then check your limit and find out it’s been all chewed up by something you didn’t know was running. I have decided not to buy an internet package but I have a feeling I am going to really regret that by the time we are on the Drake Passage on the homeward stretch.

 

Photo Journal
The on-board photographer who is here to give you hints and tips on how to best capture your Antarctic experience also sets up a couple of laptops on the ship and encourages passengers to share photographs. These photographs will be available to all of us at the end of the trip.

What often seems to happen with wildlife photography and when we are out in the zodiacs in particular, is that half the people on the small boats will have a great view of a particularly exciting wildlife moment and the other half of us will end up with a row of yellow jackets, or someone else’s camera protruding into our shot, or just a blurry mess as you spin around onto your knees to allow others to see. So we all get to view these amazing things, but only about half of us have the good fortune to capture those special moments of a whale breaching or of a leopard seal hurling it’s catch – so the photo journal is a really good idea and many people will participate in sharing their images. So long as you are not a professional photographer planning on making a commercial enterprise out of your photographs, I would strongly encourage people to share their best shots so we can all come away with beautiful images of our shared experiences regardless of where your seat is on the zodiac that day.

The images get compiled and are made available to passengers via a Quark website where you can go to download them once you are home. Worth noting is that the downloadable images will be in a slightly lower resolution than that which was provided by your fellow passengers. Also worth noting – once you put your images into the Photo Journal you are basically giving them to Quark; to potentially use in their advertising brochures and online web presence.  While the Photo Journal is a great resource for the passengers and is a fantastic idea for sharing your best pictures with your fellow travellers, Quark are very happily collecting amazing images for free – which doesn’t bother me, but maybe a concern for some.

Laundry
Halfway through our journey, a ‘special’ for an entire bag of laundry for USD$30 was offered to us, which we took full advantage of. The laundry bag is very generously sized if you wanted to wash jumpers or polar fleece items. The laundry list was amusing – there are pantyhose and stockings listed on the items that you may want laundered, and we couldn’t help but wonder who on earth is coming down here with pantyhose and ladies shoes!

Had we known this laundry offer would come around about mid-trip, we could probably have gotten away with a one week pack instead of packing enough clothing for two weeks – having said that nearly everyone here is wearing the same things to shore every day, and the same things to dinner every night, so it is not like a traditional cruise in that respect! Walking pants or even track pants in the dining room are passable attire.

Giftshop
There is a gift shop onboard that carries a limited range of Antarctic souvenirs, but they do have a good range of warm clothing if you find you don’t have enough layers or need a second beanie or something. I have noticed though that most of the items seem to circulate through a discount table or rack at some point – this could be because we are at the end of the season and they are trying to get rid of stock, or it could just be the way the gift shop always runs… but I’d avoid paying full price on any of the clothing items for the first few days and wait to see if any discount tables appear. The store manager also appears to have considerable discretion to discount items too.

As it happens, there is often an opportunity to send postcards from one from one of the stations along the Peninsula here. Now I haven’t sent postcards home for years, but we are in Antarctica and I’m kinda curious how long it will take, so why not? We were given about 30 minutes warning before going ashore that we would be able to send postcards at that day’s landing, so as you can imagine everyone was scrambling for the gift shop to pick up some cards – which unfortunately had heaps of cards with images of South Georgia and the Falklands and the Southern Oceans, but not many that actually had images of Antarctica or that said, ‘Antarctica’. So I’d advise getting i early and buying some postcards that say ‘Antarctica’ if you are planning on trying to send some home for fun – or better yet, pick some up in Ushuaia on spec.

Things I’m really glad I brought with me…
Merino neck warmer – I bought a cosy neck warmer at a ski shop in Whistler for about $30. So far it has proved a great investment on the zodiac cruising as you can pull it up over your face and to cover your ears when it’s cold, and it’s a lot easier to wrestle with than a scarf.

Toe warmers – we happened to pick up bulk bags of toe warmers when we were in Canada in January, and they were $9.99 for a pack of 16 pairs of toe warmers… here on board and in Ushuaia (and indeed back home in Brisbane) they are selling for about $3.00 a pair. So bulk toe warmers from Amazon or something is not a bad plan, they’re good and they really help when you are sitting still in the zodiacs for what can seem like quite a long time if you are cold. They are also useful to put in your mittens or pockets – or even attach them to electronic devices if the batteries don’t like extreme cold.

Laptop – every day we are out on the zodiacs and every day I’ve been worried about dropping my camera overboard. I have it tied to my wrist with a lanyard, so it’s unlikely, but I’m sure it happens to someone. Anyway, I’m glad I brought my laptop as I’ve been backing up my photos after every excursion – so if the camera goes over, I’ll only lose a handful of pictures, not the lot. Also, I’ve been able to write this blog even though I’m offline… which is good or I’d be so far behind I’d never catch up.

Teabags – weird as it sounds, English Breakfast tea is often thin on the ground. It’s popular as all giddy-up so it gets used up quickly and on ships sometimes seems to run out. The weird orange, chamomile, or apple cinnamon flavoured teas will still be around for the whole trip but good old English Breakfast tea bags will disappear. So I always pack a little bag – back up tea bags, raw sugar, hot chocolate sachets, chai lattes and even mushroom cup-a-soups. They don’t weigh much but can make life more pleasant – which probably says a lot about the type of traveller I am 😉

Things I wish I had brought with me…
A travel mug – there is no tea or coffee in our rooms and no room service, so to get a cuppa we need to go down to the tea and coffee station on Deck 4 and then carry it up four small flights of stairs to Deck 6. Not such a big deal, except when the ship is rocking or if there are plenty of people about. A covered travel mug would have been a good addition to my pack.

A crazy/unusual hat – even a bandana would do. It is apparently a tradition to hold an alfresco dining evening at some point throughout the expedition (weather permitting) and everyone is encouraged to wear a crazy hat. Come to think of it every cruise I’ve been on has a ‘mad hatters’ lunch or afternoon tea or something, so I probably should have been all over this one.  Instead, passengers were encouraged to get resourceful and create a fun and crazy hat from found objects around the ship. Mind you, you never seem to have a lot of spare time, so making some piece of creative headgear is not so easy.

A USB stick – I usually travel with one, but for some reason, I forgot to bring one on this trip. I mentioned earlier, the Photo Journal where people can share images they are happy to have disseminated to all passengers… if there is any particular photo you absolutely love in the ‘Photo of the Day’ or you hear people talking about someone or other’s great leopard seal feeding pic, you can copy it from the laptops during the trip to get the high-resolution version, rather than wait for the resized downloadable content. A USB is also useful to share bulk pictures or videos directly with other people you meet on the ship.

Chocolate – the Expedition Staff usually only have a few hours in town during turn around days and they tend to use that time to find free wifi spots to catch up with family and friends.  It turns out that one of the only food staples that they tend to run out of is chocolate. So if you’d like to make immediate friends with the expedition staff – bring lots of chocolate to bribe your way into their good books.  😉

Things I should have left behind…
Snacks – we brought a few snack foods on board, including cheese and crackers, because we know that the cheese and crackers thing isn’t really an Argentinian thing or an America thing for that matter. Many times I have walked into American supermarkets looking for the makings of a decent cheese plate, and found the options are severely limited. You just can’t find good charcuterie, pates, dips, and fancy cheeses in regular supermarkets the way you can in Australia. So we brought some of these sorts of snacks on board.   What we hadn’t counted on was, Gunter – our Austrian Executive Chef on board, who has the cheese and crackers and savoury snacks thing absolutely nailed down… an entire wheel of Roquefort stationed at every buffet meal; happy thought indeed.

Walking poles – One of our party brought a walking pole with her as she has long-term knee problems, and we were anticipating crossing rocky and icy terrain when ashore.  Quark provides walking poles at every landing site, so you can use theirs and not have to worry about bringing yours and putting it through the biosecurity cleaning processes.

If you happen to be reading this because you’ve stumbled on it while searching about doing a Quark Expedition and you have any questions that I might be able to provide insight on – just ask in the comments and I will do my best to answer.

 

 

Quark Expedition Day 12 – Cape Horn

“A sense of the future is that the present generation is morally responsible to future generations.”

~ Andrew Aakharov and C.P. Snow

Woke up – still have the lurgy – but after another decent nights sleep thanks to the rocking of the ship, not feeling too bad.  Today we had another light schedule to look forward to and then the saddest bit of any trip, the packing that signalled the end of our adventure. *sniff sniff*  I can’t believe our trip is coming to an end so soon.

We had a light breakfast and then a mid-morning presentation called “Looking North”, that I had really been looking forward.  The Expedition Staff were going to tell us all about their northern hemisphere summer jobs – most of them work the other half of the year in the Arctic!  We had already heard tales from some of the staff over dinner, or just while chatting when hanging out around the ship or on shore; this morning’s presentation was effectively a ‘Where else can Quark take you?’ which told through the experiences of their expedition staff.

Franny:  “Well, golly gosh we are nearly at the end of our trip friends and no doubt you are feeling sad about having to leave Antarctica and our beautiful Ocean Diamond.  Well, friends, fret not! We have the Expedition Team in the Main Lounge with a presentation of exciting Arctic adventures!”  We are going to miss Franny and her “golly goshes” and her “fret nots”.  🙂

Woody our Expedition Leader was up first, he works out of Svalbard, Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland, taking people on trips deep into the Arctic region searching for polar bears and walruses and other crazy wildlife.  He also spoke about how unexpectedly green and flush with wildflowers some of these areas can be.  These voyages start in the very north of Norway and then go further north from there.  I didn’t have any of the materials they showed us in their presentations, they were mostly personal photos and such, but I found some content on the Quark website, and Woody is in this promotional video I found basically explaining what a typical day is like on a trip like this in the Arctic.

Next to speak was Naomi, and she spends her northern hemisphere summer working in the high Canadian Arctic.  These trips are often photography land stays where visitors can explore the high tundra regions looking for musk ox, polar bears, arctic fox, beluga whales and other unusual wildlife. Visitors get to explore in Unimogs (all-terrain vehicles) or go hiking as you choose to get in amongst the ‘Badlands’.  These trips start from Yellowknife in northern Canada and then go to a static camp called the Arctic Wilderness Lodge.  It looks very remote and very interesting as well.

But the presentation I was really looking forward to was Pato’s.  He had mentioned to us over dinner, how he was working next season on the ’50 Years of Victory’ – the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker that Quark does expeditions to the North Pole on… and when they get there, his main job is taking people on hot-air balloon flights.  This trip looks simply amazing… I mean who would even think that hot-air ballooning at the North Pole should be a thing?!   The expeditions start from Helsinki where you then fly to Murmansk in northern Russia to board the icebreaker and head to 90° north.  Pato said being on the icebreaker is like ‘living through a mild earthquake for a week or so’.  Sounds like a truly unique journey.

We left the ‘Where to next?’ presentation feeling inspired… with so many travellers on this ship having a wide variety of interests and experiences, we had already gathered a huge list of cool places to add to our respective ‘Bucket Lists’ – but now that the expedition team has shared some of their favourite polar expedition experiences in the north, we have even more places we would love to see.

Just after the presentation, we had an announcement on the PA that we were coming up on Cape Horn.  The weather was a bit overcast but we had been given permission by the Chilean government to approach the Horn. It looks pretty much how I remembered it from last year… a remote little rocky island with a solitary statue/monument of an albatross on it.  Only last year we had bluer skies and nicer weather.
It was raining and most of the rain was definitely frozen… We did see a remarkable ocean to ocean rainbow though – that was very cool and I haven’t seen that phenomenon before. Back to moody, ‘romantic’ weather!

After this, we had a bit of lunch and then there was a ‘Global Warming and Climate Change’ lecture with Norm, the geologist.  I chose not to attend the climate change lecture in favour of getting a headstart on my packing.  By all accounts later, it was as doomy and as gloomy as I would have anticipated and all I can say when I think about the polar regions melting and sea levels rising is – what are we going to do about Venice?  Build a bio-dome over it and only visit it by submarine?  The environment is going to hell in a corporate handbasket of greed, and globally our governments – all of them – are not doing enough to halt the destruction.  It’s sad, and it’s depressing and it’s going to be a mess our children end up having to clean up.

After Norm’s lecture, we got to hand back our delightful clown shoes and PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices).  Goodbye clown shoes – I won’t miss you even though I will miss the amazing places we went together.

Then we had a disembarkation briefing which was basically to let us know what to expect in the morning and that people who had booked to fly home the same morning that the ship was due to return to Ushuaia were to mark their luggage differently and were to disembark first so they could go by bus directly from the ship to the airport to make their flights.  We met people who had flights booked to leave Ushuaia at 10am, which I have to admit just had me baffled.  Travel by ship is oftentimes unpredictable, so booking a flight home barely two hours after your scheduled disembarkation seem to me, to be almost inviting trouble… What if we had bad weather and were held up?  What if we had technical problems and ended up completely off schedule?  It happens all the time with sea travel, so I’m not sure why people would court disaster by allowing themselves so little time to make connections.  *shrug*  With people from all over the world on the ship – many of us had long transits ahead to get home.  I’d say the average transit home was ranging in the 24 to 30-hour bracket.  A LOT of people were finding themselves in the same situation as us, a 3 hour flight from Ushuaia, followed by an annoying 8-10 hour layover in Buenos Aires, followed by long-haul flights.  Yuk.

After this, we had our Final Expedition Recap, on the way to which I went out on decks and could see land – it was probably Chile that I could see, but it meant that we weren’t far off from heading into the Beagle Channel, and from there only hours to Ushuaia. The whole Expedition Team were at the Recap to briefly talk about how their area of the expedition went. Woody had been updating the laminated maps that were kept near Reception, but he put up a more detailed map now that gave a better idea of where we went.

The proper map:

We also had a look at the Bridge Reports and abstracts from the Expedition Log which shows exactly where we were each day:

Annie shared some information on the vast array of wildlife that we had seen throughout the duration of our voyage – there had been a running tally of sightings that was kept at the Expedition Counter near Reception which staff and passengers were able to update and it was an impressive variety of wildlife by the end of the trip.

We also got an opportunity to see some of the photos that passengers had been sharing in the Photo Journal.  Some of my photos made it into the slideshow which was nice. Acacia showed us a video she put together of our entire trip, which was very cool – that first landing at Stonington Island seemed like ages ago now! 🙂

Jean announced the winners of our poetry competitions – this entry from Bill (a paediatrician from Boston):

The penguin is a concept absurd,
in behaviour, more fish than bird.
And its pectoral fins are just vestigial wings
Which only makes the distinction more blurred!

And this entry from Paul from Houston:

Ode to the Humble Krill
I watch in wonder as humpbacks breach,
while all around seabirds wheel and screech.
I walk with Gentoos on the shore
while high above, cold mountains crack and roar.
I gaze in rapture as leopard seals stalk and glide
while swimming penguins baulk and hide.
And as I close my eyes tonight
I have a clear and sharp insight
All this beauty would be for nil
Were it not but for the humble krill!

Then Pato showed us a video he had put together of our crazy Polar Plunge swim!  Trish is in here, seen jumping into the water, and the photo of me coming up out of the water makes an appearance towards the end too.  🙂

This is the last voyage for these guys this season and they too will scatter all over the world tomorrow after we disembark.  Our guides are from Australia, Canada, the US, Switzerland, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, and basically as diverse as the passengers. So they were getting a little sentimental with their farewell speeches as they don’t know when or if they will be working together again… so there were some choked up staff and a few sad faces among the passengers too.  Then it was time for cocktails before dinner.  We had another amazing dinner, and an opportunity to thank Gunter and his wonderful kitchen and Dining Room teams.  The food service on the ship was exceptional – it far exceeded our expectations.

This was followed by drinks and fun in the Club.  But being still in recovery mode, I had decided on a fairly early night instead.  Well, that was the plan anyway…

My early night involved having a shower and going to bed and of course, updating this.  And by the time I had written most of the above it was just after midnight.  I thought we must be getting close to Ushuaia by now – I knew we were ahead of schedule thanks to missing the storms, so I drew back the curtains and what greeted me, but we were not only close but through my salt-grimed window, I could see we were docked at the Ushuaia pier!  I mustn’t have heard the thrusters positioning the ship because I was listening to music as I was writing.  I was immediately excited that I would be able to call the family in the morning when I found some wifi, and I put the laptop away, brushed my teeth and tried to go to sleep.

That lasted all of about five minutes before I was up, out of bed, and quickly rugged up and out on deck making ridiculously expensive phone calls back home to let everyone know that we were back safe!  I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep until I had called home.

Best $36.40 I ever spent.  <3

Quark Expedition Day 11 – Crossing the Drake

“I find the greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as is which direction we are moving. To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

The fantastic movement of the ship meant I slept in until 0730. What a simple pleasure after being on someone else’s schedule for the last couple of weeks. We had some respectably rough seas overnight causing the ship to rock and roll a bit and it was awesome. I love it when it gets a bit rough 😉 so I slept like a dead thing and if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still having trouble breathing from this flu, I might even have been able to say I felt ‘rested’ for the first time in years. I need a bed that moves like this at home; keeping your body moving all night and no particular pressure on any one point on your spine.

For a change, we went down to breakfast to get some tea and a bit of Vegemite on toast… (yes, second last day and I found out they had Vegemite on the ship) whereupon we ran into a young American couple wearing seasickness wristbands who claimed they hadn’t slept at all because the weather was so rough and their cupboard doors and coat hangers in the closet had been clattering about all night, and they did not like the motion of the ship at all. I think perhaps that they might not have travelled by ship before or they would have taken the coat hangers out of the closet and put them on the floor or in a drawer, or tied them together with a bathrobe belt. Before we went to bed last night, I had taken nearly everything off the desk and secured stuff in drawers, bound the coathangers in the closet together with thick rubber bands, that I always bring on ships for this purpose, and basically secured anything that could slide around. We have two heavy chairs in our room, which they could have been placed in front of cupboard doors that wouldn’t stay closed, but apparently, they were trying to just line up their Muck Boots in front of the closet…? You live and learn I guess.

The program for the day consisted of a few lectures – “Life of Plastic’ with Liliana the ornithologist on board. She is currently working on a project where she is collecting plastics from every single zodiac cruise she goes on. She has a 1m wide net that she drags behind her zodiac and it sieves the water for plastic particles which are then funneled into a tiny collection bottle at the end of the net. These are then sent back to a university she is working with to study the presence of micro-plastics (beads and plastic fibres) in Antarctica. She was telling us about a story of a shipping container that had 90,000 plastic rubber ducks that fell off a Chinese cargo ship 17 years ago, and how these had been washing up all over the world. Ocean plastic is not becoming a huge problem, it already is a HUGE problem – there is now an estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic floating in the Pacific Garbage Patch. 

She also talked about an Albatross colony in North America where all the baby chicks were inexplicably dying, confusing scientists and creating a terrible smell of rotting chicks in the colony. Scientists removed the dying chicks and lay them out away from the colony to decompose. After a few weeks, they returned to find that most of the chicks had their little guts full of plastic – plastic bottle tops, plastic pen lids, even a plastic toothbrush. The chicks, with their guts full of plastic, were unable to fit enough real food into their little tummies and they effectively started – and the poor unwitting parent birds were bringing them back more and more plastic contaminated food.

This is happening throughout the marine food chain from seabirds and fish, to seals, dolphins, sharks and whales… all of them have masses amounts of plastic in their guts. Microplastics are just as bad and even harder to eliminate.  Did you know that a single washing of a polyester polar fleece jumper/jacket can put up to 19,000 microplastic fibres into the waterways? They are too tiny to be filtered by any water treatment plant and will end up straight in the oceans.  The biggest culprits are plastic drink bottles, single-use plastic straws, styrofoam cups, and plastic bags.  We all have to work harder to keep this shit out of our ecosystems.  :/

Later there was another presentation on “The Antarctic Food Web” which focused on what is feeding on what in the Antarctic environment – a lot of which boils down to ‘everything eats krill’ – poor krill – then the higher order animals eat the krill-eating animals.  🙂

After our lectures, we returned to our room to find a certificate for us saying that we had completed an Antarctic voyage below the Antarctic Circle. Approximately 35,000 people each year travel to Antarctic but barely any travel below the Circle. For example, this was only one of two Quark Expeditions to go below the Circle this season – and they have been running two-week trips on this ship from last November to March. Most Antarctic voyages spend a fair bit of time in the South Shetland Islands or the South Georgia Islands or even going as far north as the Falklands before heading briefly towards the tip of the Peninsula. So it’s quite rare for tourists to come as far as 68° south. We were also presented with a sew-on cloth patch commemorating our Polar Plunge!

This afternoon there were some more presentations – a screening of Jacque Cousteau’s, ‘Voyage to the Edge of the World’ which showed some very old school irresponsible ecotourism practices from the world famous oceanographer, including doing dangerous stuff like climbing through tunnels in icebergs that could roll?! ☺

As well as another history lecture – “From British Imperial Expeditions to International Polar Science’ which was talking about the geopolitical status of Antarctica over the years.

Before we knew it, it was time for the evening recap where we got a weather update from Woody – we were making good time across the Drake Passage, and the South American storm cell that had been of considerable concern had fortuitously moved off to the west while the other storm cell was losing steam, so it looked like we were going to be lucky and not get caught up in either. So much so that the Captain has set course to take us to sail around Cape Horn in the morning, if we can get permission from the Chilean government to approach – ordinarily you are required to keep 12 nautical miles clear of the Horn, but if we get permission to enter their waters, we may get up to 3 miles off the Horn. Aunty Mary, Lyn and myself sailed around the Horn on the Sea Princess last year – twice even, as our at the time, Captain Genaro Arma was so excited to be finally (after over 20 years at sea) be able to be sailing around the Horn for the first time, that he turned the ship around and circled it clockwise and counter-clockwise. It’s kinda cool and not a little bit crazy that we are going to get to sail around the Horn for a third time considering none of us works at sea.

Scotty was busy out on decks photographing seabirds still, and overall we had a lovely quite day at sea.

After the recap, we had a Toast to Antarctica in the Main Lounge with the Captain and a Charity Auction in Support of an organization called Penguin Watch. Penguin Watch counts the numbers of breeding pairs of penguins in the Southern Antarctic Ocean and on the Peninsula. So we had our wonderful Expedition Team walking around filling us up with champagne while they auctioned off some wonderful and exclusive Antarctic souvenirs – including the Antarctica flag off the front of the ship, a charted map of our journey complemented by hand-drawn wildlife, a unique Antarctic Heritage woolen blanket and a backpack covered in Antarctica patches. (I didn’t have my camera on me, but Acacia shared some photos:)

After this, it was time for dinner – and we had Ema our onboard microbiologist and her friend Rachel from Switzerland joining us for dinner. Ema and Rachel met on an Arctic trip last year and have kept in touch, so when Rachel decided that she wanted to visit the Antarctic, she found out which ship Ema would be on. Most every meal we have been sitting with lovely people from all over the world*. Travellers, every single one of them – people who have been to some amazing places, and are happy to share their tips and favourite sites, and people who have plans to visit even more amazing places.

Many of them want to visit Australia ‘one day’ but for a change, they seem to know that they can’t just come for two weeks and expect to be able to ‘see Australia’ – believe it or not this is quite unusual. Many people we have met in our travels, (particularly Americans… who, I know I am generalising, but I have to say have a dreadful grasp of geography in general) expect that they can come to Australia for a 10-14 day holiday and will think that they have ‘seen Australia’. I have spent collectively roughly 3 months in the US, and haven’t even scratched the surface.  The travellers on this trip all seem to have plans for a minimum of 6-8 weeks to come see Australia and are full of questions on where they should go as they feel it is such a big undertaking.

We had a wonderful dinner (ooh, I should find some photos of the farewell dinner…) and exchanged details with Ema – I do hope if she ever comes to Australia that she looks us up.

* a couple of exceptions – the very odd man from Sydney with the carb-on-carb-with-a-carb motif, full-sugar diet. And a particularly odious man from South Africa. This bloke, John, sits down at a table of women and started immediately telling us stories of how he always travels first class, and how his grandchildren keep telling him to buy a Ferrari so they can drive it and blah blah blah… If you can’t hear my eyes rolling at his bragging, well, let me insert them for you: *ROLLS EYES VERY LOUDLY*. He told us about flying Emirates (first class of course), and how the flight attendants were asking him when would he like to have his shower – there are showers in first class you know, and how he started asking the ‘little Indonesian hosties’ (Indonesian? Really? On an Emirates flight?) which one of them was going to come in and scrub his back because first class should come with someone to scrub his back… I wanted to tell him that sexually harassing airline staff in their workplace was hideously inappropriate, but he was such a dinosaur it didn’t seem worth the effort. He too, also only went ashore on the first day and has now ‘seen Antarctica’!  Perhaps the two of them spent the entire trip hanging out together at the Club Bar!  The second time we had the misfortune to have him join our table he told us that his roommate was busy packing and that ‘he’d make someone a good wife one day’… to which, yet again, a table of five women, collectively sighed.  Am thinking about avoiding the entire country of South Africa to make sure I never run into him either.  😛