Antarctica: Icy morn

ice1Our morning goal is the Lemaire Channel, a dramatic narrow passage seven miles long and one mile wide. It’s a fine day, warm (by these standards, anyway) and windless, lenticular  clouds spinning in the blue sky like alien ships. The ice crunches against our bow as our sturdy ship pushes through the pack ice, past penguins hanging out on the floes like some cartoon scene. “It’s beyond,” says Berryhil, a fellow traveler, using the word that somehow has become the trip’s theme. “Peaceful beyond peace,” says another ice watcher.

Push as we might, the Lemaire Channel proves too clogged for navigation, and we slip back into the icy bay in search of whales and seals. A pair of humpbacks surface, rolling up but refusing to show us their flukes.

Antarctica: One fine day


Gentoos on parade

Gentoos on parade

The group before us has caught fine views of a humpback whale. By the time we clamber into our Zodiac and head out, the snow has started, and the whale has gone deep. We cruise the edges of the island, immersed in the elements.

The afternoon brings a steep, short climb to a gentoo penguin rookery. The snow is soft, causing potholing with nearly every step; to prevent penguin panic, we fill the whole back with enough snow to keep them from becoming stuck. A dozen or so birds march back and forth along a snow bank, anxious sentries uncertain whether to come or go.  Up the incline, on the rocky nesting bed, one half of a feathery couple has burrowed down into the snow, building its nest beneath the surface. Its mate – heaven knows which is the male and which is the female – continually waddles to and fro, bring rocks and sticks to line the next. The deliveries go on and on for hours.shippull

Post-dinner, we’re afforded a chance to go shopping at the small historic outpost of Port Lockroy. It is literally possible to use a credit card – anything except American Express – to purchase book marks and mugs and sweatshirts that help support the small museum dating from the 1940s, complete with the jarred marmite and canned tomatoes that serve as relics of an isolated life.

To visit, we need to park. Setting anchor is folly in seas hundreds of meters deep. Far easier, and more engaging, to bury the ship in an ice shelf and let us human penguins waddle about the ice. Usually the ice is too long melted, but because the ice has been late this year, we’re able to crunch out on the shelf in the fading (but never quite gone) light and romp right next to the ice-hardened hull. It’s a sight none of us could have imagined … made better with the assurance that unlike the Shackleton crew, we’ll be able to climb right back on board into the comfort of duvets and hot chocolate.


Antarctica: Our first landing, on Half Moon Island


The gusts are enough to throw an average sized person – or penguin – to the snow-packed ground. Your best hope is to put your back to the wind, bend your knees and tough it out.

The good news: the katabatic winds don’t last long, and we resume tromping along the packed “people paths” in search of photo opps.

We’re south now of 60 degrees – solidly in Antarctic waters and the forbidding, otherworldly surrounds that seem like some other planet. Greenland and Alaska seemed more hospitable than this jagged panorama of upthrust black stone crusted with ice; in those other rugged places, man has divined a way to co-exist with conditions. In Antarctica, only a handful of research stations operate year-round; anyone who has “overwintered” is a tough soul indeed.peng1

As visitors aboard Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic’s Explorer, we’re doing well just to untangle our camera gear – tomorrow we’ll carry less – pull ourselves from the occasional two-foot plunge through the snow pack (a stark reminder to  stick to the “people path”) and troop around the rookery of chinstrap penguins. We’re following the rules and keeping at 15-foot distance between us and the birds, but the birds seem to have missing the memo and occasionally waddle over to check us out.

The  black-and-white birds are as comical as a cartoon. Flippers flapping, they waddle until they belly-flop into the snow. Or better yet, the sea; its here that they fly, spinning through the ocean in watery flocks. It’s nesting season; no chicks for another week or so, but a bird still has to eat.

In this world, images don’t quite do the trick. But we’re giving this, literally a best shots, with the help of the expedition’s photo team. At each point of interest – near the Weddell seals at one end of the island, by the rookery on the ridge – a photographer answers questions and helps with camera settings while making sure none of the our fellow travelers gets too close to the birds.

We’re luck to have the landing at all, we learn. Our experienced team include a delightfully humorous German captain and an American expedition leader making her 121st voyage here. Thanks to their long experience and careful watch of ice and wind charts, they’ve steered us to sheltered bay where the winds allow us to go ashore. We learn this at the daily briefing, where the next day’s plans have been completely rewritten by high winds and a season of tough ice.


Off to Antartica: Rolling through the Drake Passage

The dreaded Drake Passage keeps many people from contemplating a trip to Antartica. The sail through the Roaring Forties leadings to the Screaming Fifties (we’re talking latitude here) on to the Antarctic Convergence (where the water gets REALLY cold) and the Southern Ocean.natdeck

Night-time swells were up to 20 feet, we’re told; by day, we’re rolling (and yes, the ship and those aboard it do roll, clinging to ropes stretched across the lobby) through waves of 12 to 15 feet….what’s considered medium crossing conditions. The skies are variable, which is to say one minute hailing, the next sunny, the next so foggy you can’t see the waves outside the window, and again to snow and sun.  A scopolomine patch proves critical. The young girls (and old men) who thought they could tough it out are finding otherwise. (For me, with a patch stuck securely behind my ear, the trip is a breeze.)

In the climate controlled comfort of our 162-passenger ship, the National Geographic Explorer, we can only imagine what it might have been the Shackleton crew and those of other exploration teams to sail the Beagle Channel, heading to who knew exactly what. To be whipped by hail and snow and gusts on a sailing vessels whose canvas was already worn from the trip from Europe – these people were brazen, brave and likely nuts. What an amazing feat it was.

Here aboard our Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic trip, we’ve got snug parkas, warming cups of hot cocoa and a photo lessons with the staff. Our biggest problem: figuring out how to get the best photographs.

No ice floes yet, but we’ve got hundreds of miles yet to steam before we hit the shores of the White Continent.

Argentina still mourning Evita

One of the most beautiful places in Buenos Aires is also one recoleta smallIMG_7285of the most stunningly serene cemeteries in the world. And for most of us, its most notable resident is Evita — Eva Peron. Despite some recent efforts to move her remains to an estate where she would lie next to her husband-president, Evita remains memorialized in a post-life condo mausoleum of the Duarte family. It’s a beautiful place, with lots of visitors. Not a bad place to end one’s days.



Mugged in Buenos Aires

Yes, it happens! Two blocks from our nice hotel in Recoleta, a block from the shopping center of Patio Bullwich. We of course should not have been wearing our good watches.

But there we were, wandering jet lagged on a national holiday, 10 in the morning.  But before we could blink, the robber had this arm around the husband neck and was pulling at his watch. And before I could get close enough to kick him between the legs, the band broke, the husband went down on the sidewalk and the robber was gone.

Several people stopped to help, appalled. A taxi driver took us to our hotel gratis. Luckily, injury was limited to scrapes and abrasions and sore muscles. We were lucky.

BA is still a great city. But it hasn’t been the best of times here — hence the impending change in government and rising crime.

Our incident is a reminder to keep a sharp eye when we travel, pack our brains and leave valuables behind.

Off to Antartica

The hassles of travel rarely vex me. But the grim realization is that camera and computer gear are heavier than I recalled. Weight limIts

Why we pack backups: disintegrated boots.

Why we pack backups: disintegrated boots.

iare strict on our flights, leading to a last-minute airport flurry that required grabbing aump of clothes o image of my suitcase and stuffing them in a bag to carry on as a result of an inaccurate home scale.


Had we known the flight would be delayed we might have acted differently. The flight WAS delayed, by e act 12 hours (can we say somebody failed to staff according to FFA exhaustion standards) — an AA gaffe costing us a day in Buenos Aires and cab fare. We went home to sleep and would happily have re packed for less weight except AA  had or bags. Guess i be wearing all jeans and coats on the plane south to make luggage weight limit.

Traveling or at home, stuff happens. We’re on the plane, and happy to be headed to The White Continent.