Travels in the Deep South - 2017




When we visited the Falklands in 2005 we made the decision not to carry on further south. The likelihood of encountering significant ice while sailing at 6+ knots was the major disincentive. Though Sunstone's hull is as strong as a well-built GRP hull and might have coped if we reduced speed significantly at night, we were concerned that the hull timber would be irremediably scarred.


Back in November 2015 we bit the bullet and decided to book a trip on a small cruise ship to South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula. Because there is a limit of 100 persons on the number allowed ashore in Antarctica at any one time from one vessel, we purposely selected a vessel carrying no more than that number of passengers. There are several companies operating in this category. In the end, though it was slightly more expensive, we chose the National Geographic Orion, operated by Lindblad. The association of the company with National Geographic was attractive, as were the emphases on photographic support and lots of information from well-qualified naturalists. In addition the Orion is a slightly faster ship than some others and so would spend more time at the various stops; we thought we probably had enough sea time! When we came to book for the January/February 2017 trip, we found that even 13 months ahead there was only one cabin left in the lower price range. We booked it straight away along with our flights and an extra excursion to hike the W track in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.


Two weeks before we were due to head away, in a state of excited anticipation, we received an email from Lindblad cancelling the trip. The Orion had suffered engine problems on the immediately previous voyage and required repairs. We went through a frantic process of cancellation and rescheduling. Fortunately we were able to rebook for the Orion's November/December 2017 voyage, as well as all our other arrangements. Lindblad were in fact extremely good about refunding all the cancellation and rebooking costs as well as giving us a 20% discount on the new booking. We just had to wait 11 months. . .






Like most cruise ships doing Antarctic voyages, the Orion departed from Ushuaia (far south in Argentina), where we had arrived a couple of days before departure. It was a little strange returning to a place by air that we had visited with Sunstone a dozen years before. Though the main street of the city had become somewhat more sophisticated, most of Ushuaia was as rough-and-ready as we remembered it.


We had a bit of gentle reminiscence visiting the almost empty docks at the Afasyn, which had been packed and teeming with activity when we last visited them on board Sunstone in 2005.


On 29 November we boarded Orion and set sail the same evening. Amazingly these small ships often have a turn-around of only five or six hours between one group of passengers and the next. Considering the problems of restocking, refuelling and refurbishing the accommodation, all in a very remote port, we thought this remarkable.






After a passage through the Le Maire Straits and a day and half at sea accompanied by flocks of albatross, giant petrels, pintado petrels and many other sea birds, we reached our first stop in the Falkland Islands at West Point Island. A pleasant hike across typical Falkland moorland in beautiful weather took us to a huge rookery and nesting site for black-browed albatross and rock-hopper penguins. The two coexist happily, the rock-hoppers particularly grateful for the albatross as a deterrent against the predations of skuas on their eggs.
















After a further stop in West Falklands to see the magellanic penguins in their moorland burrows, we moved on to Stanley, the capital, which we had visited in Sunstone in 2005. Little had changed in the town centre, despite the far greater number of cruise ship visits. However, the island capital was clearly larger, more populous and in more constant contact with the rest of the world, both in terms of communications and supplies. Two things were definitely unchanged. Stanley's character was still very much that of a little chunk of England and it is still the Land Rover capital of the world.





We had learned a good deal from locals about the Falklands War on our first visit, but learned even more on our second. This view is from Mt Tumbledown above Port Stanley; it was a position held by Argentine forces and assaulted, then taken by the 2nd Scots Guards, with significant casualties on both sides. Like so many armed conflicts the war led to little change, unnecessary loss of life and considerable bitterness between two countries which had at one time very friendly relations.



Our passage from Stanley to the north-western corner of South Georgia gave us a moderate taste of Southern Ocean weather, without being really unpleasant. It just made it a little harder to use the small onboard gym and we were not unhappy to be aboard a 100 metre long vessel rather than our usual 12.


We were delighted when we learned from our briefings that we would be making a large number of stops on the island. Though we were also keen to see Antarctica, for us South Georgia was almost more important and more interesting.





Despite having read and heard a good deal about South Georgia we were still astonished by the scale of the place, both in terms of the scenery and the plentiful wildlife. There were huge glaciers and jagged peaks everywhere. The black sand beaches and moorland behind were blanketed by king penguins interspersed with groups of fur seals dominated by huge and very aggressive males guarding their harems.


We were very interested to hear that despite having been hunted to near extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the fur seal population on the island and in the surrounding seas has rebounded to a very similar level as before hunting began. This and the other prolific sea-based wildlife is a tribute to the continuing presence of huge numbers of krill in these waters, as krill are the essential diet for the vast majority of the creatures toward the bottom of the food chain in the cool southern waters.








The king penguin chicks are familiarly known as 'oakum boys' because of their brown down. When they shed these for proper feathers and colouration, the moulting process often makes them look as though they have had a poorly barbered Mohawk or mullet. The chicks are often significantly fatter than their parents, who lose weight while feeding them.





Despite being two of a hundred humans all dressed in orange parkas, there were still enough opportunities in the hugeness of the landscape to get away and absorb its grandeur undisturbed.





The small dark blob which appears to be just behind the skua's tail is in fact a new-born fur seal pup. The pink to its right is the placenta, for which the skua is presumably awaiting a chance.


The seal pups are undoubtedly cute-looking, even when they are due in the long term to grow into one of the ferocious and highly territorial males.





The story of Shackleton's remarkable journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia and his trek across the island to Stromness is too welll known to recount here. However, we did have the opportunity to sample the last section of his trek from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. Even in much more pleasant conditions than he experienced, the hike over scree, up and down steep slopes, was not for the faint-hearted and the view of Stromness can be little changed from Shackleton's day - though there was no echo of the whistle he heard to indicate the end of his journey and the start of the rescue of all his men back on Elephant Island.





On the way down to Stromness we came across a rookery of gentoo penguins. A few already had chicks, though it was early in the season. Unusually gentoos often lay two eggs rather than one. However, we were told that one is often smaller than the other and hatches first, this hatchling being small, less likely to survive and more often taken by predators as a kind of sacrifice for the later larger chick. Life can be tough in the wild.








The former whaling station at Stromness is a slowly mouldering ruin. There has been no attempt to preserve any part of it. However, at the other major station, Grytviken, there are some attempts at preservation and conservation. There is a wooden church, small museum, souvenir shop and post office, as well as a gallery, developed by the long-term caretakers and yachties (now living in New Zealand), Tim and Pauline Carr.


Shackleton's grave is also there and is regularly doused with whisky by visitors toasting his achievements and 'mana'. There are also plenty of the very, very large male elephant seals.











There was an unexpected highlight for us of our visit to Grytviken when we noticed Wanderer III moored in the harbour. As many will know the boat was originally owned and cruised by the Hiscocks, but has for some time been owned and cruised extensively by Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson. Though we had never met them, we naturally knew of them; and they of us. Quite apart from their exploits and writings they are also fellow Blue Water Medal recipients. We sought them out and were lucky enough to spend a pleasant afternoon exchanging experiences. They were spending the summer in South Georgia helping with the de-ratting program, which remarkably has managed to rid the whole island of the pests, allowing native birds to flourish again.








It is easy to ascribe human attributes to animal behaviour as these photos show: a huge male elephant seal rising above the crowd, a committee meeting of king penguin elders, an elephant seal pup practising its yoga and a king penguin just checking on its egg.






The elephant seal pups were particularly engaging. Given the opportunity they would cuddle up to and nuzzle almost anything and anyone. This might appear to be particularly friendly, but in fact had more to do with hunger. These pups were all old enough to have been weaned by their mothers who had deserted them so that they might start feeding themselves. In the meantime the pups were in search of anything which might be a source of milk, including Vicky's boot and Ian's beard.





Toward the south-eastern end of the island the scenery was particularly dramatic. This was enhanced by a single day of quite heavy snow. We understood that there had been little snow the previous winter, so this fall gave us a real taste of what we had expected South Georgia to look like.


In Larsen Fiord we were lucky to be able to get out in the inflatable kayaks carried by the ship. Though these were not the most wonderful vessels to paddle, they did allow us some more isolated time on the water in the midst of very dramatic scenery.






We were particularly pleased and amazed at one of the ship's policies which was to have an 'Open Bridge'. When we originally read of this we assumed that it meant the bridge would be open when underway in undemanding conditions. In fact the bridge was never closed; it was possible to go up and visit even when the navigating officers were involved in quite complex manoeuvres. Naturally we were very interested and had a number of long conversations with the very professional and knowledgeable watch-keeping officers, all of whom were Scandinavians except the Captain, a German living in France when not at sea.








Even though we had one of the less expensive cabins, it was, by our standards pretty luxurious and comfortable. The vast majority of passengers were Americans around retirement age. However, there were, surprisingly, a total of 10 Kiwis (above) as well as a smattering of Australians and Canadians. Unusually for a cruise ship, the majority of the passengers were reasonably fit, though very few used the tiny gym. We needed to do so, as we had to stay fit for the hike we were due to take following the cruise.






After a brief stop in the South Orkney Islands to see the chinstrap penguins we continued on toward the Antarctic Peninsula. On the way we skirted a very large tabular iceberg, 17 miles long and 4 wide. To give some idea of scale, what the photo shows is an ice face about ten stories high, which means that there is probably about 80-90 stories of ice under water.







Does this look like Antarctica? Our first - and in fact only - stop on the 'frozen continent' (other stops were on islands), looked oddly like something from a desert in the USA or Australia. This is Browns Bluff. Fortunately the groups of adelie penguins working themselves up to plunge off ice floes en masse looked more suited to the Antarctic. The ebb and flow of the adelies as they got up courage to take the plunge was amusing to watch, but a matter of life and potential death, as there were unseen leopard seals waiting for a penguin lunch.





This is more like the brochures! In sparkling weather the crew brought out the sparkling wine to celebrate our reaching the Antarctic continent itself. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.


Later the same day the Captain found some 'fast ice', two seasons-old and about two or three feet thick. He drove the ice-strengthened hull well into this ice until the hull was embedded for about three-quarters of its length. This allowed us down the accommodation ladder to walk on the ice with snow shoes - and a life jacket, just in case!





While the ship was still firmly embedded in the ice, passengers were invited to take 'The Polar Plunge'; water temperature -1'C. The vast majority had the good sense to decline, but there are always a few, not surprisingly including Vicky, who can't resist.


Fortunately the ship's hot tub had been activated to resuscitate the adventurous - or foolhardy.



During the following days there was some whale spotting, including some encounters with humpbacks at close range in the Zodiac inflatables, which were used to take us ashore at each stop. The stops were numerous and very expertly, as well as safely, handled by the crew even when there was a swell running for beach landings.









With the solstice approaching there were some wonderful late night vistas of scenes which looked truly antarctic; and day-time cruising in the Zodiacs among weirdly shaped icebergs.



About three days before we were due to head away from Antarctica back toward Ushuaia, the Expedition Leader broke the news that one of the passengers was gravely ill. He was receiving treatment on board, but it was pretty certain that he would have to be medivaced by air to Punta Arenas in Chile. Fortunately by this time we had reached almost as far south as we were likely to go in the Gerlach Strait. The evacuation would have to take place from the only available airfield, on the South Shetland Islands, where there are a number of bases. At the time the airfield was closed because of ice on the runway, so we could head there by way of Deception Island, a collapsed crater forming a natural harbour which had been a whaling base. There was also a colossal colony of chinstrap penguins on the outer black sand beach and across the island; this has been estimated, with ariel photography, at 100,000 pairs!








Fortunately, by the time we reached the South Shetland base, the weather had settled and the runway was clear for the evacuation and in the calm conditions moving the patient by Zodiac to the shore was a relatively safe and simple operation.


We have only praise for the way the Expedition Leader his staff and the ship's doctor handled the entire operation with very little disruption of the cruise itself, while maintaining the safety of the patient as their primary concern. This was very much in keeping with the way in which everything was handled on the ship. We heard subsequently that the patient made a full, if slow, recovery after essential medical treatment in Chile.





The Filipino 'hotel' staff were charming, friendly and consistently cheerful as well as professional. Within hours they appeared to know the name of virtually every passenger - as well as their favourite drink and breakfast items.


Beyond this, we were daily treated to both formal lectures and more informal information briefings on geology, biology, oceanography, wildlife and history. All delivered by highly qualified staff. Not surprisingly for a vessel carrying the National Geographic badge, there was a considerable emphasis on photography, with two professional photographers on board to share their expertise with passengers of all levels of ability and interest.


For us as cruisers on a small boat, often in wilderness areas, miles from any kind of support, the idea that the cruise was an 'Expedition' seemed at times a little laughable. However, we were very pleased with the determination of the the staff team to get us all ashore as often as possible. This was frequently two or three times a day for several hours, when ever the ship was anchored.


Having spent what was for us a small fortune on the cruise, we had approached it with some doubts as to whether it would live up to its billing. In the event, we felt that if anything it exceeded our expectations by a considerable margin. After a relatively gentle passage north across the Drake Passage, we arrived in Ushuaia more than satisfied with our experience of cruising in a ship - even if that experience is very unlikely to be repeated!


These are five of the expedition staff, who helped make the trip so interesting. They were heading off for a short holiday after the cruise. From left to right: Jonathan, Andy, Nick, Robert and Tom. As you can tell from his gray beard Tom has been making these trips for years, none of which have dimmed his lively enthusiasm for the wildlife of the deep south.



Our arrival back in Ushuaia gave us a couple of days of radical repacking and readjustment to adapt both our luggage and our culinary expectations to our impending hike. In the midst of this we also celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary.


There are no direct flights from Ushuaia to Puerto Natales in Chile, where we were to join our hiking party. We were booked to fly to El Calafate and then bus to Natales. It was just as well that we decided to arrive very early at Ushuaia airport for our flight, as it had mysteriously disappeared from the schedule. Fortunately a frenetic conversation with airline officials got us aboard a flight which was just about to leave. We were interested to find that we were in exactly the same seats as those on our original booking and it was clear to us that we had been rebooked at some point - but both the airline and Expedia had neglected to let us know this esssential fact!


In Puerto Natales we met up with the rest of hiking group for the W Track in the Torres del Paine National Park. From left to right: Paz (our Chilean guide) Nicole, Alysha, Vicky, Tom, Nathan, Gavin. All the others were about half our age and twice our fitness. Even though we normally think of ourselves as pretty fit, we were generally the back-markers each of the five days of the hike.







The primary and most well-known attraction of the Torres del Paine are the remarkable granite towers, which rise from the glacially carved mountains. Much of the rest of the park is light woodland and moorland which surrounds the rocky highlands at the centre. The first day of the W Track climbs steeply to view the towers, but much of the remainder of the track skirts the heights across the moorland and along the shores of Lake Nordenskjold.


Though we are seen here with full packs, we were fortunate that for parts of two days, we only had to carry a smaller load leaving some of the weight at stops to which we were returning. Our ageing joints were grateful!





This area is well known for its strong winds, as we well knew from having made our way down the Chilean Canales further to the west. On the second day of the hike the strong rachas scoured the lake and the shores along which we walked. When gusts raise 'spray devils' like those in the photo you can be pretty sure that there is 50 knots or more of wind.


In these conditions it was just as well that light-weight Vicky was carrying a heavy pack, but it was still necessary at times for her to hold on to Paz ahead and be held down by Tom behind, for fear that she would simply blow away!


Though the 'Towers' are the most famous of the Parks rock formations, we found some others just as striking and intriguing.








Each night we stayed in refugios, which were very much like backpacker hostels. Mostly accommodation was in bunkrooms with large communcal eating arrangements. For Christmas Eve the refugio laid on a special, suitably convivial meal.




By the end of the hike we were exhausted and pleased that the last leg was on a boat which took us down Lake Grey, past a beautiful glacier, to the road and a bus for the return drive to Puerto Natales. Another all-day bus ride took us back to Ushuaia to catch a plane to Buenos Aires and finally to Auckland.


Whatever the tedium of some aspects of travel, we were well pleased with our lengthy trip, full as it was of unique experiences and memories, packed into a relatively short time.