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December 14th ~ Heading South once again

A&K kindly invited me back for two cruises over Christmas/New Year – a lovely reassurance after the disappointment last year, after Le Boreal caught fire off the Falklands. OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg on Sunday evening was chaotic to say the least. We stood in two queues to have our passports checked, before getting to the check-in counters. I noticed a young Brazilian woman walk straight past the queues to the check-in counters. She was called back, had her passport checked, and then went straight back to the counter, much to the frustration of all standing patiently in the queue. Once on board, I noticed where she was sitting, in an apparently full plane. Not long before she moved to three open seats, but their occupants arrived, and she moved to a two-seater next to the windows. I had been assured at check-in of a window seat, but found myself sitting right in the middle of the plane. Anyway, as the doors were being closed, I jumped into the seat next to her against the window. She was horrified. Turns out Agatha is a chemical engineer, working in Brazilian water sanitation, and had been in SA for a friend’s wedding. WE had a little pep talk about courtesy, manners and her trying her luck regarding queues and seats on the plane, Agatha eventually conceding that others were also welcome to do so, as I had taking the window seat! You guessed, she is of the Age of Entitlement.

The Starbucks coffee at Sao Paulo at 4am was most welcome, before flying on to Buenos Aires – the Paris of the South. A&K had put me in the Pulitzer Hotel, right in downtown BA. It was wonderful walking along pedestrianised Florida Road, noting all the informal trade, much as we have back home. It appears that many young Argentinians spend their money on tattoos. I enjoyed an unforgettable rib-eye steak in a steakhouse recommended by the A&K representative.
US Dollars are accepted everywhere – the rate almost identical to the Rand (15 Pesos to a Dollar).

After a great night’s rest, I was up at 2.45am for a 3.30am pick-up to Newbury/Aeroparque Airport, for the flight south to Ushuaia. In true Argentinian style, we were given sweet snacks at 6am and insipid, warm tea with some creamer powder. I will never forget my first visit to Ushuaia in 2012 – the towering, snow-capped peaks, the frontier town built on steep slopes tumbling into the Beagle Channel, boasting perhaps 90% of the passenger trade to Antarctica. On this day, the sun was shining, yesterday’s snowfall rendered all mountain tops white, and I felt privileged to be back. The Arakur Hotel stands like a Citadel above the town, welded to the mountain side like a cosmic power point. A&K thankfully give us a night there, to rest and acclimatise before the passengers arrive the next day. Seeing the rest of the Expedition Team, all of whom I have not seen in two years, was just fantastic – we all get along famously, and feel part of a special team. Patri de Favero immediately promised not to imitate me to guests this year – that remains to be seen! Jannie Cloete, Cruise Director, has got more South Africans onto the team, which is great. Having rested in BA, and again in Ushuaia, I feel so much better than I did in February joining Ponant after a crazy travel schedule.

My brother, Pete, is joining me on this cruise, along with Bruce Nozaic, a special friend. In Pete’s inimitable style, he arranged basically non-stop flights to Ushuaia. Turbulence and air slip on their approach to Ushuaia gave them all a dreadful fright – Bruce tells me he was sure it was the end! They had seen their baggage at BA, but had not picked it up, so it never joined them in Ushuaia, until 3.30pm on a later flight – they are very fortunate. I am trusting that after a great nights sleep, they will both feel much better. Last evening they were absolutely shattered, but so excited. They reminded me of a group of fat Labradors when a frisby is thrown overhead! Leaving Ushuaia, they were taking photos, and revelling in the sights in all directions.

Refuelling in Ushuaia has apparently become too expensive, so we bunkered at Port William in Chile. What was supposed to be a 2,5 hour operation, took 5 hours, with a tug pushing the fuel barge into position, and trying to find the correct hose connections. On board, I asked for an Eggs Benedict at breakfast, off the menu, since the buffet options on Deck 2 have been abandoned (costs?).  It would comfortably have filled a hole in my tooth, once it arrived after a 40 minute wait. This gave me opportunity to catch up with Patri, who along with her husband Marco, recently moved to Hobart, Tasmania. They have two French Bulldogs which are their “children”.

There is no way that the team can have meals there, off a menu, once shore landings begin – it simply takes too long. The French too have a very different understanding of hot water – nowhere near boiling. Having brought my own coffee and evaporated milk along, I will soon have sourced a boiling water supply. Unfortunately, all the staff members have changed since March, so my usual suspects are not available to assist me. I am establishing new ones as we speak. One needs to get “in” with the ship’s mafia!

We are steaming northwards with a gentle 2 meter swell running, the mountains of South America off to our left. Lots of sea birds around the ship and glorious weather, feeling absolutely fantastic.

December 15th ~ At sea en route to Falklands

Quite auspicious that we should begin this adventure yesterday on the 105th anniversary of Amundsen’s attaining the South Pole on 14 December 1911. It was at 3pm on that day that Amundsen and his team arrived on that flat, uninspiring piece of ice at 90 degrees South. Exactly 5 years ago that Patrick and Robyn Woodhead of White Desert flew me to their camp in Antarctica to speak about the race between Scott and Amundsen – how far these lectures have come since those early, heady days. Guests have flown in from all corners of the globe to this city at the end of the world. Despite its        47 000 residents, Ushuaia maintains her frontier-like feel, and hosts around 90% of the visitors to Antarctica through her airport and dockside. After a wonderful buffet lunch at the Hotel Arakur outside Ushuaia, our guests starting arriving alongside Le Lyrial at 4pm. Perhaps appropriately the weather changed suddenly, from a balmy, sunny afternoon, a tempest developed with squalls of rain creating much chop and spray off the water surface. Guests rushed on board off the buses, the excitement and anticipation clear on their faces. The mandatory life-boat drill was carried out, many guests wondering if the huge life jackets were the ones they would have to wear for shore landings? Cruise Director, Jannie Cloete, introduced himself and the Captain, Remi Genevaz, before Expedition Leader, Suzana Machado D’Oliveira introduced herself and the Expedition Team to the guests. Suzana and the Captain work closely on achieving our itinerary, depending on local conditions like wind and ice. We were clearly reminded to remain flexible and patient at all times – Antarctica is a wondrous, unpredictable place. The evening meal was enjoyed whilst the ship eased down the Beagle Channel, surrounded by wonderful mountains, cloud formations and sunset. Bunkering of fuel was performed in the middle of the night at Port William in Chile – as the Captain said in his introduction, “we don’t want to run out of fuel!”

Today Le Lyrial is making fine progress towards Port Stanley in the Falklands, surrounded by sea birds on a calm sea. Guests were given the opportunity of exchanging their Parkas and muck boots. Ornithologist Patricia Silva kicked off the lecture program with “Sea birds of the Southern Ocean”. Patri has an enthusiastic, infectious lecture technique – her passion for these doyens of the air ever evident. Threats to sea birds, along with their incredible migrations and pointers to identification were shared. Le Lyrial provides a Whispa earpiece for the many Chinese guests on board, that the lecture be simultaneously interpreted into Mandarin for their added enjoyment.
Photo Coach Richard Harker followed Patri with his talk “Photographing Antarctica – What to expect and how to prepare”. Richard has a very dry, understated manner of speaking and his insights for guests new to Antarctica are invaluable. Many guests find their cameras behaving strangely, largely on account of moisture, and all the camera requires is a good drying-out. No doubt guests dream of taking images like Richard’s, unaware of just how challenging that may prove to be. Patience, observation of subject’s behaviour, and being prepared were emphasised strongly.
In balmy conditions, Le Celeste restaurant on Deck 6 was packed for lunch, including guests on the pool deck, enjoying the calm conditions and sea birds about the vessel.

Geologist Henry Pollard presented his talk on “Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift: How Antarctica came to the South Pole” in the afternoon. For many, this is a complex presentation, which Henry makes appear simple. There were many questions surrounding Magnetic Poles, resources in Antarctica, Mount Erebus as a hotspot within Antarctica and the super continent Pangea 180 million years ago. Sadly, a bit like World War graveyards, geology figures and time frames are mind-numbing.
Outside the naturalists and photo coach are assisting guests with bird identification, and how to photograph these magnificent creatures on the wing. The young adults on board (7-17) are enjoying an enrichment program presented by Helen Ahern and Dean Hattingh, which will add much value to their overall Antarctic experience. Pete and Bruce both skipped an afternoon lecture apiece – the effects of their flights still telling.
Before Captain’s cocktail party and Gala Dinner, the team presented a medley of the Falklands, highlighting what the guests are likely to see and providing some insight into this infrequently visited archipelago. Captain’s cocktail party was thoroughly enjoyed by all who had dressed for the occasion, before a sumptuous meal in Le Celeste restaurant. The Bayliss’s commented on never having seen me previously in trousers, never mind a jacket and tie. Many guests on board are seasick, but Sarah is thankfully feeling much better. The anticipation of arriving early tomorrow in the Falklands is palpable…

16th December ~ Port Stanley Falklands

Quite strange to contemplate that on this day in 1838 a very significant battle took place in South Africa between the Zulus and the Boers, as we approach Port Stanley in the Falklands. It was a relaxed start for many guests, who may have eaten (drunk) more than usual last evening at the wonderful Captain’s Dinner. The tussock grass and low hills of the Falklands beckon seductively as we ease through the outer harbour, and inner harbour to the floating docks left here after the conflict in 1982. For all the passengers, it is their first visit to the Falklands and excitement levels were high as they prepare for various excursions. Some are going off in search of Rockhopper Penguins, others into town. Farm and battlefield tours are also on offer-sheep farming has long been a mainstay of this remote community. Nowadays, fisheries and tourism fill the two top revenue spots.

My dear special brother and his cabin mate ended up at the bar after dinner, before retiring to their cabin to enjoy some Chivas Regal. As one does, one of them was texting friends very late, and forgot to disconnect from the Internet. The rest is history, expensive voucher used up, and a mistake which will probably not happen again.

I was fortunate enough to go on the battlefield tour, guided by a local market gardener who lost his left eye to a misguided Argentine bomb during the war. A garden shed stood between him and the explosion sparing his life! This is unusually difficult terrain for any infantry advance, particularly mid-winter. With the Argentine forces seizing control of Port Stanley early in April 1982, a Vulcan bomber rendered the airstrip unusable to Argentine aircraft. After serious losses by both Navies the British established a beach head at San Carlos on 21 May, surrounded by high ground making air attacks almost impossible. This however demanded a 60-mile march eastwards across the island to engage the Argentines at Port Stanley. With no cover to speak of, all movement was effected after dark, exacerbated by winter weather and cold. Legendary hand-to-hand conflicts followed, between veteran soldiers on both sides. The British lost most of their helicopters when a civilian container ship was sunk, requiring assistance from local farmers using tractors and 4×4’s to move equipment and ammunition forward. Desperate fighting ensued in mid-June as the high ground around Port Stanley was taken inch by inch. On 14 June 1982, the Argentines eventually surrender to the British -a very sobering tale of modern warfare. Mine-clearing teams are still hard at work ensuring that the country is clear of these devices – many of these personnel hailing from Zimbabwe. Apparently they are very happy here-their only complaint – the weather! On the positive side, the sovereignty hiatus ended, and economically and socially the Falklands have advanced significantly since 1982.

The cool, windy overcast conditions very quickly changed to sunny skies and warm temperatures – a beautiful day in the Falklands. Guests have ample opportunity to walk around Stanley. The new museum is a beautiful addition to this town, and the incredible display of 35 decorated Christmas trees in the Cathedral beggars belief. An unusual fund-raising initiative. It is lovely to see many of the staff off Le Lyrial out and about, enjoying the freedom and sunshine. Tours to the Rockhopper Penguins were hugely enjoyed, as were the nature hikes around the bay.
The youngsters who partook in the rock pooling had 5 scientists between 10 of them, collected samples, prepared slides and observed them through microscopes. Some of the youngsters joined the farm tour, where 2700 sheep were being shorn. The outdoor lifestyle, horses, motorcycles and ATV’s really appealed. A yearling Leopard Seal was found dead on the beach, whose teeth thoroughly impressed the observers. Many Islanders are clearly doing well financially, evidenced by the type and quality of vehicles seen everywhere. Land Rover will be pleased to know that their Defender is very well represented, but Toyota clearly the 4×4 of choice.

Watching the Captain manoeuvre Le Lyrial away from the quayside, and out via the narrow gap with a very strong wind across the bow was seriously impressive. His 42 years at sea clearly evident, 23 as captain. At Recaps/Precaps this evening various aspects of life in the Falklands were discussed including the massive increase in squid fishing, decline in wool trade, decline in oil prices and the delights of life generally down here. Flights out, however, are few and far between, either via England or Santiago, and very expensive. The evening proved balmy enough that many guests chose to sit outside on Deck 6, alongside the swimming pool. Yes, there is a pool on board, not that anyone has used it since we left Ushuaia. Ahead of us lie two sea days and 800 nautical miles en route to the Southern Ocean gem of South Georgia.

 ship-and-moon17th December ~ At sea

Le Lyrial has a following sea today, making for very comfortable sailing despite a fair swell. Large numbers of sea birds about the ship – stars of the show being the Wandering Albatrosses with their 3 meter wingspan. Guests delight in standing on Deck 6, the birds being identified by the naturalists and expert photographic advice being offered by Richard Harker. Much cooler today, and most folks are wearing their bright red A&K parkas. Some interesting comments were shared about not seeing land in any direction, with thousands of meters of water beneath us. Larry pointing out that even if all the landmasses were pushed into the Pacific Ocean, it would still be 2 miles deep! Perhaps Earth should be called Water?

Marine Biologist, Larry Hobbs presented the first lecture of the day “Elephants, Lions and Leopards – the Seals of the Antarctic”. With more than 50 years experience, Larry’s knowledge and passion is extraordinary. He speaks about these creatures with a deep empathy and understanding. The Fur Seals with their delayed implantation, and annual increase at nearly 16% despite 1,2 million animals being slaughtered on South Georgia alone. The Antarctic Sea Lions have a steadily declining population, probably due to the massive increase in squid fishing – their primary food source. The enormous Elephant Seals who are capable of diving a mile deep (1,6km), and swimming extraordinary distances on their foraging journeys. The beach master breeding males can weigh 4500kg, yet only hold a beach/harem for a season. Their pups are born weighing 90lbs, and grow to 250-300lbs in 23 days – the nursing female producing milk with 60% fat content, and losing 20lbs/day in body mass. As usual, it is the Leopard Seals with their large, serpentine heads and long, slender bodies who elicit most fascination. Some have been recorded eating 10 Penguins in an hour, and having 175lbs of penguin in their stomachs at any one time. As in the bush, it is the Sea Leopard, and the Killer Whale (Orca) that guests most want to see.

Geologist Henry Pollard presented fascinating, sobering lecture titled “Earth’s Ice – A Shrinking Inventory”. Citing many examples of receding ice fields all over the globe, especially Greenland and Western Antarctica, Henry made human impact very clear. There is no denying global warming and the hothouse gas effect, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary. The hard, statistical evidence cannot be denied, nor can the satellite images of receding ice fields. Henry has an unusual way of presenting unpleasant information without alienating his audience – a special skill. Various options to alleviate the present trend were outlined, and we ALL need to take responsibility.

In the afternoon I spoke about Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who took the prize. An almost unbelievable Polar career, first through the North-West Passage, first to both Poles, one of the first through the North-East Passage before embracing the age of flight. I concentrated on his background and astounding preparation to conquer the South Pole, before his tragic death aged 56 searching for his arch rival, Italian Nobile, in 1928. Perhaps the unhappiest explorer of all, ironically. I could not advance my images, which threw me completely, so much so that I left out much of what I wanted to say. It was mortifying and has thrown me completely. Stick to storytelling, so I shall not be using any images for my Scott talk. Very upsetting when one hopes to do well, and the whole Expedition Team present. Most unsatisfactory in every regard.

Spent part of the afternoon with a special couple from Saskatchewan in Canada, talking about the ship/yacht industry and the folk who work in it. Of course we got onto the Canadian cold and collisions with Moose. Harold once hit and killed a Moose with his truck, and was so incensed that he ran over and kicked the Moose in the snout, almost breaking his foot. Three young singers alternate is entertaining guests in the lounges. They are brilliant, and I fear it is a thankless job singing whilst guests are chatting, enjoying a drink and generally disengaged. Le Lyrial is exceptionally comfortable and fast – guests unfamiliar with vessels of this size have no idea what a magnificent ship this really is.
There are jars of peanuts/mixed nuts in the lounges, intended as snacks. The jars have a tapered neck, a bit like a wine carafe, rendering it almost impossible to get the nuts out of the jar. I sometimes wonder if it is not a French ploy to make us all look like monkeys with their hands in a pumpkin, unable to get to the nuts?! There is no doubting its economy  -most jars remain untouched. Often wonder how they fill them initially.

Richard Harker then spoke on Photographing Antarctica – Mastering your Camera. It is very interesting watching the audience following matters surrounding aperture, shutter speed, white balance and depth of field. For some it may as well be Hieroglyphics, but Richard has a unique manner of imparting his knowledge and skill. There is no doubt that guests who attend his lectures, and pay attention, will depart Le Lyrial as better photographers. The number of guests using their phones as a primary camera is intriguing. Some of the photography features, however, on modern phones are staggering.

It has been another fine day at sea aboard Le Lyrial, steaming eastwards towards South Georgia, and no doubt guests will sleep well tonight.

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