I have just disembarked from the Vavilov, a ship usually used for Scientific research but for the past eight days, hosted 92 passengers, ages seven to seventy, 15 nationalities across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic, or as many of the passengers referred to it 'the seventh continent' which they had 'done'. I'm writing more fully about it for the magazines that have commissioned, but this is the off the record of days at sea and on ice that proved both exceptional and surreal.
The first day we had 50 knot winds and most of the passengers stayed in their cabins dosed up on tablets provided by the young doctor (handsome Dr Matt). The birders, an intriguing breed themselves, flocked together getting excited about albatross and terns and other winged creatures which hovered around the boat, ushering us on our way. The Russian captain detoured to miss the worst of the storm but it was all part of the adventure (none of us thought this while we were throwing up, only afterwards as one would).
Attenborough's Frozen Planet sort of prepares you for the first sight of Antarctica, icebergs like huge Henry Moore Sculptures in the ultimate wilderness gallery wait for our zodiacs (black boats where twelve of us sat each day on the edge trying to take photos, watch out for seals, whales, penguins, anything really and take photos without falling off or losing our hats.
"If you fall in you will be yanked out by the butt and shoulders and dragged into the centre and then got back on the boat straight away, hot toddy and hot shower. You will be cold, you will feel ill. So don't fall in'. Or words to that effect. No one fell in.
All the crew were impossibly patient with even a few of the impossible to please passengers who had all travelled a lot, seen most of the world, some of them several times. We had interesting outdoors experts, many of whom had their own adventure companies back home (in Canada usually), and one woman 'Sonny', who was part of the four woman team who twenty years ago trekked to the South Pole, skiing there all the way, carrying 200lb sleds. She is one of the most self effacing people I have ever met. She caught bronchitis, tendonitis, nearly died and didn't complain. Man cold anyone? The documentary 'Poles Apart' which was shown during the trip, showed how they were unable to get sponsorship from over 2000 corporate sponsors ('you're women why? are you lesbians? don't you have husbands to look after? you don't have the physical strength blah blah, sexist blah) and how an expedition at the same time led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes fared (corporate sponsorship no problem, no talk of dubious intent of sharing a tent with another man). Sir Ranulph was trekking to focus on the effect of starvation on the human body. I suppose if the women had used this reason for their trek the sponsors would have suggested they were doing it to loose weight for personal reasons rather than scientific research. Fiennes liked the girls saying that as they were different sexes it was better as there wasn't a feeling of competitiveness. That was twenty years ago but from experience I don't think attitudes have changed.
I admit I have never thought of men and women thinking of travel in a different way. The experience of travel or the intention of travel, but during this trip it became increasingly apparent the genders do think in different ways, one to tick box the other to experience, although I realise it's not always the case.
There was no internet on board the ship for eight days. Tom went into serious cold turkey but at least he had the computer games that didn't require internet and the distraction of incredible icebergs, seals, whales and penguins.
Ah, the penguins. We saw about 24000 of them while we were there. There were a few biologists and eco scientists qualified up to their woolly hats in Phds and Masters, who were there to observe. We were there during the hatching season so saw chicks and various types, Adelie, Chinstraps to name two, none of whom tap danced but the way they waddle, they look as though they do.
Two excursions per day, each very different. The most powerful being on Christmas morning when we landed on Deception Island at a former whaling station. The weather while we had been there had been good, calm seas, easy crossings to land on the zodiacs, but on the morning of the 25th we had wind and heavy snow, almost a white out. The conditions were fitting as we had learnt about the attempts of Scott and Shackleton and the appalling conditions they dealt with during their expeditions. This was nothing compared to what they had to experience. But as each zodiac landed, on a volcanic beach now thick with snow, only three penguins there to greet us, the vast empty buildings of the former whaling station - the only hint of colour in the monochrome landscape, it was the first time we got a taste of what the explorers experienced. We were there for a few hours. Twenty or so decided to skinny dip (mad wonderful mad people) but I didn't. Should have done and if you go, do it, because it's mad and then so is bungey jumping.
There was a daily schedule punctuated by regular excellent meals, cookies, hot chocolate although the hot chocolate and diet coke ran out before Christmas because we had a group of twenty students on board.
More to follow...