Monday, 4 February 2013

UK, Argentina and Antarctica Report No 61

By Diana, February 2013
For corresponding pictures, go to AlbumNo61

We flew from Panama into London on 10thNovember, and took the plane straight on to Glasgow where we had booked a car to visit friends and relatives in UK.  To my horror I found that I had left my driving license on White Admiral in Panama, and even though Elisabeth had a digital copy of it which I produced, the car-hire company would not accept that. So poor Stein had to do all the driving alone. We first drove up to Culbokie,  a little town north of Inverness, where my sister Linda and her Norwegian partner Rune have moved, after his firm (a whisky distillery) had given him an offer of running the distillery up there.  It is a lovely area, and we enjoyed a long walk through woods in their slightly faded autumn glory, overlooking the Moray Firth, along to the charming little town of Cromarty.

After a couple of pleasant days we drove south to Blanefield to visit old friends Anne and Alistair, whose humorous company is always a pleasure, then to Skelmorlie in Ayrshire to my cousin Tom and wife Jane.  Tom and I had done a bit of acting together when we were at University, and after my summer  experience at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)I was keen to do more. End of story is that we are going to put on a play at the Edinburgh fringe festival in August, with he and I , his son Stewart, daughter Anne and daughter-in-law Linn all taking part, son-in-law Jason will be stage manager, and Tom the director. So we have a lot of fun ahead! Next stop was Lincoln, in the middle of England, where my old Aunt Joyce and her older husband Donald  (90 and 92) live. We picked them up and all of us drove to London to visit Elisabeth and family, where we had three days of enjoying each other’s company, especially seeing the two small boys developing quickly. 

We then drove the old folks home, and on 19th November took Ryanair back to Norway and home.

We had only four weeks at home before our next adventure, as we had decided to fulfill an old dream of going to visit South Georgia Island and Antarctica, and had found a Christmas/ New-Year cruise to these exotic places. Stein is now retired, but had decided to work  two days a week at the out-patient heart clinic, and will probably continue with this for a couple more years when we are not travelling. We had two important family occasions in this period.  On 7th December we went to Veierland to have Eli’s urn placed in the family grave. We went over on the ferry with Robert, Elisabeth, Hugh, Finn and Soren on a really cold day. A couple of Eli’s old friends on the island also turned up. After the urn was placed, Stein gave a short speech, Elisabeth lay down some flowers and Robert lit a candle.  Our final farewell to Eli… 

The day after there was a big party at Martin and Tonje’s house.  After the small wedding in Sicily in September, they decided to have a party for many more relatives. Tonje had set a beautiful table for over 20 guests, they had hired a gourmet cook, who gave us an amazing meal, then there were lots of speeches from both sides of the family, everybody obviously pleased with the match, and again I was the song writer. 

Martin and Stein did some musical pieces on guitar and  clarinet and Robert gave the happy couple a data art picture of them that he finished minutes before we left home. A very happy occasion for all!


We were off early on 13th December to Buenos Aires, via Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro, arriving 23 hours later, a bit frayed at the edges! It was lovely to fall into bed at the Emperador Hotel, where we stayed for three days. Buenos Aires is a beautifu, modern city, though poverty is just under the surface.  It is the only city where we can remember seeing whole families living on the street, and there are slum areas where the taxi driver speeds up so visitors don’t look too closely. We did have a sightseeing bus tour, otherwise walked for hours each day, admiring the impressive buildings and statues. Among the highlights is the Recoleta cemetery, one of the most famous in the world, full of marble mausoleums for rich families, one of which houses the body of Eva “Evita” Duarte Peron. 

 We also enjoyed the modern dock area Puerto Moreno  which has been restored with bridges, walkways and restaurants, and nearby  a large area of reclaimed land with rich bird-life, used for walking and cycling and picnics by the Rio Plata.  A visit to Buenos Aires is not complete without a tango show, so we joined the tourists for a tango lesson, dinner and dance-show, absolutely delightful!

On 17th December, sitting on a charter plane to Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city, we felt like children looking forward to Christmas! Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego is where many of the Antarctic cruises leave from, a ramshackle town obviously thrown up with no town planning to accommodate tourists, full of souvenir shops with penguin paraphernalia, bars and eating places.  We were taken on a tour of the nearby national park, to see the beautiful mountain scenery and abundance of bird-life near the Beagle Channel, before going aboard. MV Fram -  is one of Hurtigruten’s most modern ships, used for expeditions to Antarctica in our winter, and Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard in the summer.  She is a light ice-breaker, can go through a depth of up to one and a half meters ice, very comfortable with all mod-cons and excellent cuisine, but still not one of the ridiculously luxurious cruise ships. 

 We had the cheapest accommodation (expensive enough), an inner cabin which was fine, but had single beds and no window. However if we turned on the TV, we could see where the ship was going from the web-camera at the bow.  For the last three days, we did upgrade to a cabin with a big window and a double bed, for a bit more comfort over across the Drake passage.  The officers on board are Norwegian, and the rest of the staff from the Philippines. We felt very safe, and there was a very high level of service.  There were a little over two hundred passengers aboard, rather a lot when everybody has to go ashore, but the ships with fewer passengers are much more expensive. There are very strong “Polar Ice Boats” for going ashore, 8 tourists at time, which went quite quickly with 4 boats going back and forwards.  There was an international expedition team aboard, people with special knowledge in polar areas,  geologists and zoologists, who gave interesting lectures on the history, famous expeditions, nature and wild-life. Altogether we can thoroughly recommend an expedition on MV Fram!

As we sailed from Ushuaia west in the Beagle Channel, the sky was clear blue, and the snow-capped mountains looked wonderful in the evening sunshine. After a calm two day sail, we approached the Falkland Islands, where we were to have three stops, two at westerly islands, and one at the capital, Stanley.  This was our first meeting with the wild life of the South Atlantic:  penguins, albatrosses and cormorants in their thousands nesting side by side on the cliffs were  a breath-taking sight!

 Cameras were clicking away, and the birds seemed quite unafraid of us, it felt like a privilege that they admitted us to their realm.  The countryside here reminded me of Scotland, a lot of moorland with very few trees, and cliffs at the rugged coast. Stanley is a charming little city, clean and colourful, again tourism has obviously become important. We took a long walk, about 20 kilometers to a lovely beach with a nature trail, with signs explaining  what could be seen of birds, animals and plants. We did see a second type of penguin, the endemic  Flightless Steamer  Duck, and the local wild geese, and we braved the warnings about possible mines to walk down to the beach (the only casualty since the war 30 years ago is one cow!) The local people are friendly and very British, their heroine is Margaret Thatcher who has a street named after her, and the war memorial decorated with poppies is a sign of their gratitude to have been liberated from the Argentinians.

  I did a little geocaching, despite having forgotten to bring a GPS, and was delighted to find two, just from the clues given on internet.

The heaviest weather of the trip was the first day out from the Falklands, when there was a near gale blowing, causing some passengers to stay in their cabins. It became calmer as we approached South Georgia, an exciting sight to see ahead with its towering snowy mountains, and icebergs drifting off-shore. Stein who has grown-up in Sandefjord, has always been interested in these islands, because of the Norwegian whaling which was still important when he was a boy in the fifties and sixties.  A lot of  the whalers came from Sandefjord, and Stein remembers the excitement in town when they all came home on rusty ships reeking of whale oil, with plenty of money to burn. Our first stop was at deserted Fortuna Bay with huge amounts of fur seals and elephant seals lying relaxing along the beach, and colonies of penguins.

 This time we saw King penguins with their beautiful yellow colouring around their heads, and their big chicks, with their fluffy brown coats in different stages of moulting.  From here we were supposed to walk in Shackleton’s footsteps a few miles to the whaling station at  Stromness,  but because of light snow and poor visibility this walk was cancelled. We were a bit annoyed as it seemed to be a bit on the over-cautious side. Anyway, we arrived there by ship and had another good walk, lots more seals, and also reindeer to be seen. 10 reindeer were introduced by the Norwegians in 1911, another 7 in 1925 and they have now grown to about 3.000. They destroy the vegetation, and there is a plan which has just been put into action to round them up and shoot them. Laplanders from the North of Norway have come to help doing this. We could not visit the old Stromness whaling station, as it is full of asbestos and buildings about to collapse and it all has to be cleaned up and made secure. The next day, however, we could visit the old station at Grytviken, which has been cleaned, so visitors can wander around the old machinery used for the whaling industry. This was Christmas eve, and there was a service held for passengers and crew in the old church which was brought from Norway in 1913. It was a rather unusual church service, with everybody in life-jackets, singing the carols in three different languages at the same time! One of the passengers, American Jackie, played the old organ – quite an effort with the foot-operated bellow! The other interesting thing to see in Grytviken is the old cemetery with the grave of Ernest Shackleton, his head lying towards the South Pole, which he dreamed of, but never reached.
This was our last landing in South Georgia, but Fram moved further along the coast, and anchored for the night in a calm and deserted Bay for the Christmas celebrations. The kitchen staff had done us proud, with a lavish spread, with every type of Christmas food one can imagine - at least for the 30 or so Norwegians!

Our next stop was supposed to be the South Orkney islands, and then Elephant island, where Shackleton’s  expedition had landed after their ship was crushed in the ice, but unfortunately this year the ice-barrier  was further north than usual and these islands were not able to be reached. As a compensation, we sailed further south around the Antarctic Peninsula than is usual on this trip. Now we were really in the land of ice, with icebergs of all shapes and sizes floating around the boat with their fascinating shapes, arches and lovely blue colour. The ice apparently absorbs all colours of the spectrum better than blue. 
Diana among giant whale skeletons at the Arctowski station

 There are several research stations set up by different countries here, and our first stop was at a Polish station, named after famous meteorologist Henryk Arctowski, otherwise the stops were at deserted beaches surrounded by glaciers and snow-covered mountains, and enormous numbers of seals and penguins. We have now seen 7 different types of penguins (there are 8) and 5 types of seal, including the ferocious leopard seal. A lot of time on deck was also spent whale-watching, rewarded by sights of backs, tails and occasionally most of an animal jumping out of the water (breaching). There were hump-backs, minke whales, fin whales  and killer whales in the area. At Deception Island we were challenged to take a swim. 50 of the passengers took the plunge, including myself, who hates cold water, but cannot resist a challenge.  The secret is speed, I raced in , covered my shoulders quickly then raced out again – not so bad! Stein was braver and took a couple of strokes in addition, and we both got our diplomas for ice-bathing!

From the Lemar Channel, which at about 65 degrees south was the journeys’ southerly point, MV Fram turned to go north back to South America. We rather sadly stood on deck and watched the glaciers, ice-bergs and mountains recede.  The Drake Passage south of Cape Horn is an area feared by sailors for its storms and heavy weather, but we enjoyed a calm passage most of the way. We had been told that we would stop at the Chilean islands of Diego Ramirez south-west of Cape Horn, where it might be possible to land. 
The white patch in the hill behind he Chilean station is an albatross
colony.There are many, many more on Diego Ramirez!

There is a Chilean military station here who had agreed to let us come ashore. (They were probably bored!).  Fram put down her anchor and we looked longingly at the attractive hills with enormous colonies of albatrosses, penguins and other birds, but unfortunately the weather had decided to blow up a bit, and there was too much swell to take the boats out.  We then sailed on to just south of the Horn, which is marked by a large statue made of two pieces of metal, formed so that the space between them is the shape of an albatross. We felt a little cowardly passing Cape Horn in a cruise ship and not in our own sailing vessel... 
Back in Ushuaia, we had a morning to wander around town, buy penguin souvenirs, and get annoyed by the large sign at the harbor which says “British pirate ships forbidden to anchor”.

These Argentinians have a cheek! From Ushuaia  we had another long, long haul on three  planes  to get us back to Oslo, then a train journey to Drammen and finally a taxi. Even after such a great adventure, it is always nice to get  home!

We arrived home on 2nd January to a cold and icy Norway. Stein went back to his two days working week, I have been at home, meaning to do lots of tidying jobs, but of course one is not nearly so efficient as when one went to work. Stein has had several skiing trips, but at about -15 degrees, it is too cold for me, and the snow has been quite hard.  We have just had a lovely week-end with good friends Christian and Dagmar at their cottage in the mountains, where the snow was softer and the temperature a bit higher, so I have also been tempted to take a couple of trips. 
Hedda is very happy with snow and ice covering the Drammen fjord.
Near our apartment.

 I am more at home in the sun, though, and am already looking forward to 6th February, when we will go back to our boat via two days in London, where we will see Elisabeth and Hugh and their boys.  Martin, Tonje,  Martin’s kids and Tonje’s mum are all coming to the boat in Bocas Town, Panama, two days after us for a relaxing holiday in the sun. In late February my brother Jim arrives from Canada for a week, and then we will start to sail White Admiral back to Norway. We plan to sail from Bocas del Toro in early March with good friends Frode Filseth and Andreas Hauge to Providencia,  Grand Cayman, Cuba and Florida, USA.  Should be another adventure!


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