Antarctic Diary - Part 2
Hello and welcome to chapter 2 of MAD (Marian’s Antarctican Diary.)
A misty, colour-free day. We make landfall on an island that is a deserted Norwegian Whaling station and, Well! The atmospherics! Ghostly and spooky and strange and sad and fascinating and fabulous. It’s a (still active) volcano so the island is surrounded by sulphur pools which are steaming up into the terrifyingly cold air. And the smell! Mother of divine! Like there are 40,000 hard-boiled eggs sangwidges sitting on the shore.
I love it here. Love, love, love it. It should be called Desolation Island. Because of the volcano-ness, the sand is black. Everything is in shades of charcoal – dark grey, light grey, medium grey. 2 wooden fishing boats, bleached to the colour of nothing, lie rotting on the black sand. Whitish whale bones litter the place. A long, low farmhouse – once the home to the poor-bastard Norwegians - still stands but the roof has caved in. A short distance from the house are piles of stones, each topped with a cross and bearing Norwegian-looking names.
There’s a collection of massive metal drums that look like that famous museum in Bilbao, that was designed by, I think, was it Frank Gehry?
Himself is palpably uneasy – “It’s all a bit post-apocalyptic. It’s like one of those dystopian books you love so much.”
Really, I’m begging someone out there to make a 10-part series about a post-Apocalyptic world, set here. And if it could be in Swedish or Danish or Norwegian, so much the better.
There aren’t many penguins on this part of the island. We pass a group of 4, deep in earnest converstion. Abruptly, 3 of them waddle in to the boiling sea for a swim, but the 4th stands stubbornly on the beach. One of the penguins gets back out of the water and seems to be reasoning with the one who won’t get in. “Would you not give it a go?” He seems to be saying. “Ah, go on, you’re making the other lads feel bad.” But the 4th fella says, “No. Don’t be ‘at’ me. I’m just not in the form right now, I’ll stay where I am, thanks.” “Well, feck you anyway,” says the third one, “You’re after ruining it for all of us.” And off the 3rd one goes.
The Asian hipsters are wearing wonderful things. Even their water-proof trousers aren’t boring black ones, like everyone elses, but blue, red and green. Also they are garlanded with many ‘items of flair’, for example, Securicor-glasses has an ‘ironic’ little black cuddly dog hanging from the zip of his rucksack.
Sideshow Bob is lying on the snow on his belly, taking an up-close photo of something and I said, “There he is, Instagramming the living daylights out of a rock.” And Himself said, “Instagram? Not at all! He’s on some new, fabulous social-media thing that we won’t hear about until next July.”
We try hard, for once, to not be the first people down for dinner. But alas… Mind you, we are not alone. It’s a stampede.
We notice that the lone Asian young man has been co-opted by the three Asian hipsters! I tell you, it would gladden your heart! There they all are, the 3 hipsters and the very ordinary-looking other bloke, all chatting and laughing away in their shared quare foreign tongue. The expression on the ordinary-looking bloke’s face is a delight! He is lit up like a Christmas tree and you can tell that he’s thinking to himself, “I can’t believe these hipsters have befriended me. I am so lucky! I wonder if they’ll still be my friends when we get home to Japan/Korea/Maybe Taiwan.”
I’m going to give you a quick example of what a day on board looks like. Please bear in mind, the times are all approximate
7.30 Awoken by the bing-bongs for an excellent buffet breakfast.
9.30 You put on all your weatherproof clothes and go off in the zodiac to land on an island with penguins or seals or other lovely things
12.30 lungeon back on the ship.
14.30 Another expedition off the ship
16.30 Tea and cake served in the bar
18.30 A recap of the day and a ‘first look’ at the plans for tomorrow. Also hot savoury snacks served
19.00 A magnificent 4-course dinner.
After dinner there is sometimes a talk on ‘Bayshtes of the Antarctics.’ Or similar. Also there is a film on your telly in your cabin.
Just an observation: people are ‘very prompt’ for meal-times and the snacks with the 18.30 debrief prove particularly popular.
I ‘Take Agin’ Argentina!
It’s snowy and blizzary when we wake up. We’ve been lucky with the weather until now, but not so much today. I elect to opt out of this morning’s excursion because I have to wash my hair and I haven’t the energy to do both. You’d think the bracing cold would make you more alert and full of vim, but actually, it’s the opposite. The extra effort the body has to make to not succumb to hypothermia makes people chronically tired. And even the protective clothing is exhausting because it’s so heavy; the neoprone boots each weigh about a stone so taking a single step is knackering.
So anyway, under the best of circumstances, washing my hair is a major operation, but harder here because although the shower is sometimes hot or sometimes perishing, whichever flavour you get, you only get a thin trickle. (This is the only non-deluxe bit of the trip, the rest is fantastic and really cushy.) I am too cold to take all my clothes off so I wash my hair standing in my neoprene wellingtons and my togs.
Himself returns with photographs of baby penguins hatching from their eggs and I am sickened with jealousy and regret that I stayed home and washed my hair.
The bing-bong announces lunch and we break into a run, colliding with everyone else in the doorway to the dining room. We take our lungeon with a delightful couple of newly-weds and no-one asks what anyone ‘does.’
We sail into Paradise Bay and the snow has stopped and the sun has come out. Once again, the landscape and colours are different from anything we’ve already seen. The sea is like diamonds which have been melted down, all silver-grey and crystalline, almost syrupy, like water that sugar has been dissolved in. There are lots and lots of icebergs , maybe it’s the melting snow that’s giving the water such gloopiness.
Suddenly a ghostly ship appears out of nowhere, it’s entirely dark-brown, just like a shadow. It’s not like a modern ship, but like one from Pirates of the Carribean, in that it has three rigs for sails, which is mandatory for any ghost ship, no? I have to check with Himself that I’m not hallucinating it.
He confirms that he does indeed
see it and says that there’s an Argentinian military base near here and we conclude the ghostly ship has something to do with them.
An announcement! The Argentines will not let us land! Feckers!
We are standing by, sweltering in our 18 layers of clothing, awaiting further instructions.
Another announcement! The Argentines definitely won’t let us land! Plan B: we are to go out in the little zodiac boats for a mini-cruise.
I shake my fist at the Argentine ghost-ship and shout, “I have TAKEN AGIN you!”
Himself and I have a conversation where we do the Irish version of whatever the Argentines said when they wouldn’t let us land. “A ship, you say? And you want to land here? Yes, but I don’t know if I’d be let, I mean it’s against regulations. I’m sorry now, I am. We’re all sorry, but it’s more than our job is worth. I’d better go now because myself and the lads have a lie-down every afternoon between 2.30 and 5pm. Dead to the world we are. We notice nothing. Nothing at all. Well good luck now and enjoy your trip and you didn’t hear any of this from me.”
As we board the little zodiac for our mini-cruise, a man, a US person is complaining bitterly about what cheeky bastards the Argentine military are and I look at him and unwelcome words come into my mouth, looking for escape: “No, indeed, it is not like your military ever behave in high-handed fashion!” But I suck my tongue and suck my tongue and swallow down the thoughts and eventually the words go away.
The sun has come out and we’re on a huge silver lake, in the centre of a circle of radiant white mountains. The water is dazzling and shiny and very still, like a flyblown mirror (but in a nice way.) Icebergs, like frozen waves, break the surface. These are some of the shapes I see: a giant crocodile; a helter-skelter; the Starship Enterprise; a mister Whippy ice-cream; a comb going through curly hair; the Royal Palace in Lhasa; a jet-ski; the back end of a whale; a brain; a giant anvil and a white Crunchie. Some of the icebergs are white but others are a luminous blue colour, as if they’ve got LEDs built into them.
At times I feel as if I’m in a huge modern sculpture museum with giant sculptures made of white glass or white marble.
We’re on the same level as the water, which makes everything shockingly immediate. I could jump off the boat and sail away on an iceberg if I wanted.
Every now and then there are deep boomy noises like thunder and they’re ice avalanches. Then we actually see one happening - a huge chunk of ice tears away from the rest of the glacier and topples into the water - and we’re told to brace ourselves for a massive wave and I am really, really worried that I will ‘Get Water In My Bad Ear’ (one of my worst fears, I have a ‘bad ear’, I have the Keyes’ ear, all my brothers and sisters have it too and we get ear-infections at the drop of a hat. We must avoid at all costs getting Water in Our Bad Ear.) Mercifully the wave doesn’t make it as far as our little boat and my ear is saved.
We leave our cabin for the daily debrief which happens at 18.30. We are seven minutes early but I have noticed that they tend to serve snacks at the daily debrief – lovely things like you get in Marks and Spencer at Christmas time, for examples, cocktail sausages and mini-onion bhajis and spring rolls – and you really want to be at the head of the queue.
There are already 60 people ahead of us. “Honestly,” I say, in tones most judgemental. “You’d swear no-one ever got fed around here.”
I formally withdraw my grudge agin Argentina. Life is too long.
Himself’s face is bright red – he’s after getting sunburnt! In Antarctica! I give him a stern talking-to about using sun protection. Tell me, what is the problem with mens and sunfactor? They behave as though it is a girly affectation and a sign of weakness.
Himself leaves for his overnight outdoor camping on the Antarctic ice-shelf. I was meant to be going – before I’d left home, I’d signed up for it and already had my boasting prepared. “Oh yaze, well I camped outdoors in the Antarctic. Cold? Oh yaze, shockingly! I thought I would die. But I reached deep inside myself and found the inner strength.” But yesterday the preparatory talk put THE FEAR OF GOD in me!
Dave the guide said several things that made me reconsider:
1) There would be no coming back to the ship no-matter-what. If a person changed their mind and found it too cold and windy and life-threatening, that was TOUGH! No-one was going home till morning.
2) The temperatures would go down to -10, maybe -15
3) It would be better if you had no wees to make, as to do so you would have to get out of your sleeping-bag and put on your hefty boots and 4 layers of trouser and several protective jackets and walk ‘some distance’ on the ice and through the snow and wind to find a make-shift jacks. Seeing as I generally have to get up about 12 times a night, this is a worry.
4) The important thing was to try and stay warm but this would be very difficult
Then Kevin the guide came on to give his advice and he said, “The important thing is to try to stay warm, but this will be very difficult. Some people dig trenches down into the ice, but if you do that, please fill the hole in when you leave. Try not to drink anything at all tomorrow because it would be better if you did not have to get up in the might to make your wees because you could get cold, and the important thing, the really important thing is to stay warm and this will be very difficult.”
Then Dave the guide came back and said, “One more thing: the most important thing is to stay warm, but this will be very difficult.”
Then Kevin the guide came back and said, “One more thing. You could be ett by a tiger seal in the middle of the night. Finally! Stay warm! But it will be very difficult!”
So it is sad, but I will not be able to swagger about in boasty fashion, bragging of my icy endurance.
I will be back ‘soon’ with more icy adventures for you…