My Travels: The Fabulous Falklands (or the Marvelous Malvinas)

Westpoint Island

Westpoint Island,The falklands

Westpoint Island,The falklands

After an eternity at sea (less than two days for me) we sighted land in the early morning: The West Falklands. Excited

Map of the Malvinas

Map of the Malvinas

as little boys going camping we packed and check our gear and boarded the Zodiacs in a little bay of Westpoint Island. Between us and land, in the 500 meters or so, was a small yacht that turned out to belong to a couple that had sailed around the world and were now helping the elderly couple who had the cattle and sheep farm on Westpoint. Small yachts make me very nervous, even though one of my boyhood heroes was “The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone”.

Brightly coloured exposed outbuildings and a wind turbine contrasted the white stone cottage tucked away behind the bent trees standing guard and protecting it from the harsh elements.

Westpoint was dry and stark. Away from the farm there were no trees, just grass. We walked about 1.5 km up and down over the spine of the island to a communal roost of Black-Browed Albatross and Rock-Jumper Penguins. There were two colonies. We arrived at the larger one and then I split away to the smaller one, where I was alone with Johan Slazus.

Jumping Rock-Jumper Penguin

Jumping Rock-Jumper Penguin

It was mesmerizing watching them. They were intermingled, the albatross and rock-jumpers both with young. Great

Rock-Jumper Penguins

Rock-Jumper Penguins

wings were flying in to regurgitate feed and landing clumsily. While the penguins did the same, only not by flying but by jumping from boulder to boulder, but with a quick grace that was lost as soon as they started waddling again. Every so often a scuffle would break out between the two species.

Black-Browed Albatross

Black-Browed Albatross

I found the photography difficult. It was so difficult to isolate an animal and still tell a story. Then the group was so large and mixed I just could not find a pattern or texture. But what the pictures do not show is the hectic noise of squawking and babbling nor does it reveal the strong ammonia stench of the guano.

The IATO (International Antarctic Tour Operators) guidelines say to maintain a distance of 5 meters from the fauna, but as you place yourself 5 meters away from some birds in thick tussock grass and settle in to take pictures, you have penguins ambushing you from behind.

There was a Striated Caracara (a bird of prey) hovering and then landing around the smaller colony looking for unguarded chicks or eggs. I spent an hour waiting and watching as he jumped around and flew from one side of the colony to the next, landing in the thick tussock grass then emerging like a camouflaged marine from the shadows only to be rebuffed by the penguins, often in a small group standing like infantry and soaring with their beaks.

Striated Caracara

Striated Caracara

After a few hours we made our way back to the farmhouse where a large table lay inside groaning with biscuits, cakes and scones. I had a cup of tea as only the English can make, and snacked on a delicious shortbread biscuit. The hosts were so excited to have guests.

Outside on the hill stood a lone Landrover and a rock hanging from a tripod: the weather predictor:BASIL-0916

  • If the rock is wet, it’s raining.
  • If the rock is swinging, the wind is blowing.
  • If the rock casts a shadow, the sun is shining.
  • If the rock does not cast a shadow and is not wet, the sky is cloudy.
  • If the rock is not visible, it is foggy.
  • If the rock is white, it is snowing.
  • If the rock is coated with ice, there is a frost.
  • If the ice is thick, it’s a heavy frost.
  • If the rock is bouncing, there is an earthquake.
  • If the rock is under water, there is a flood.
  • If the rock is warm, it is sunny.
  • If the rock is missing, there was a tornado.
  • If the rock is wet and swinging violently, there is a hurricane.
  • If the rock has white splats on it, watch out for birds.

This simple and obvious weather predictor seemed appropriate for the Falklands.

Feather from an albatross colony

Feather from an albatross colony

Quintessentially English

Quintessentially English

Walking Westpoint

Walking Westpoint

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carcass Island

 

Just a few kilometers from Westpoint to the north lay a beautiful azure bay with white coral powder beaches. The name derives not from whale carcasses but from the survey undertaken of the island in 1766 by HMS Carcass.

The short intense history of the area from the Falklands to the Sub-Antarctic Islands to the Antarctic itself is one of the impressive aspects of travelling to such southerly latitudes.  As you get further south it is likely that the only exploration of these areas occurred in the last century or two. Unlike the rest of the ocean, that had been navigated by the Phoenicians and Greeks and Chinese thousands of years ago. It leaves the sights you see relatively fresh in the collective subconscious of our race.

Magellanic Pengiuns

Magellanic Pengiuns

We landed on a beautiful white powder beach lying in a long crescent with small waves lapping the beach from the sea. The beach was filled with Magellanic Penguins and a few other birds, including black oystercatchers.  The tragedy is that the island lies on a shipping lane and the high tide mark is littered with debris of our modern civilisation.

We had great fun taking pictures of penguins running along the water’s edge, diving into the small

Surfing Carcass island

Surfing Carcass island

waves and emerging from the water It was all low level shooting so we were lying in the sand and body and cameras were covered in the fine white salty powder.

After the shoot we boarded the Zodiacs and made our way to the end of the bay to a homestead which is owned by Mr. McGill who is a third generation islander. They have a bed and breakfast now to augment the farm, and business is booming. Funny, you take an Englishman anywhere and he opens a B&B. Take a Greek anywhere and you get a corner shop! We had another table laid high with all sorts of pastries and cakes made by the local Argentinian specialist pastry chef and chatted a while before fighting our way through the resident flock of caracaras who ambush guests still holding a piece of cake outside. They resemble crows in behavior but do have strong eagle like flight.

This was the second last day of 2013, and over night we were cruising in relatively still waters to the eastern shores of the Falklands, to spend the day at Stanley, the capital.

One Ocean Notes Day 3

One Ocean Notes Day 3

My Travels: Thinking or Sinking

Every time I think of a boat (and here I was on a small one) I think of a joke told to me by my German Scrub Sister, Hans Hoecker. A British ship was sunk by German U-boat in the Second World War, and the radio operator sent out a distress signal:

Self-portrait in the glass of the ship's compass. Just thinking.

Self-portrait in the glass of the ship’s compass. Just thinking.

“Mayday,Mayday! We are sinking!”

To which the inquisitive German U-boat radio operator responded: “Yes, but vot are you sinking about?”

So the first day at sea en route to the Falkland Islands was pleasant with a slight roll, slight wind and temperatures around 3 ° C and the photographers and birders spent hours at a time on the stern photographing Giant Petrels and Cape  Petrels following the boat. In the wind it was seriously cold and with the rocking of the boat and the wind it was cold and difficult to get good pictures as the birds zoomed past. Fortunately we were not shooting film and could use high ISO and delete hundreds of pictures after each shoot.

There was a Zodiac briefing with Nate Small, Assistant Expedition Leader and a passionate photographer. Then we had a wet-skin fitting session in the mudroom. The mudroom was on the 3rd level and in Soviet days was the place they launched scientific research devices through a hole in the centre of the ship into the ocean. We were told the ship was never used for spying, but now the hole is welded shut. The gangway on the side of the mudroom door had been destroyed in heavy seas on the last trip (what was I sinking about) so we had to use the gangway on the port side. We had to traverse the stern and official smoking area, which was frequented, by Russians and tourists in similar numbers.

Pintadas (Cape Terns) in flight

Pintadas (Cape Petrels) in flight

There were numerous lectures in the Presentation Room on the 2nd level. I went to one and left quickly. Soon after that the room was baptized “The Vomitorium” so my academic days were numbered.

Part of the Oryx Photography Group. Marius Coetzee at the helm.

Part of the Oryx Photography Group. Marius Coetzee at the helm.

So what was I thinking about? In fact, before the trip I had made a list of the pictures I wanted from the trip. This is something that is an obvious life skill but in photography Hannes Lochner, the great Kalahari photographer, showed me how to take business planning into photography. More about the list later, but in the end I got seven out of the nine pictures I wanted just by thinking. Here is my favourite:

No 7 of 9: Penguins on Ice

No 7 of 9: Penguins on Ice

Ocean Notes Day 2

Ocean Notes Day 2

My Travels: A Mountain Goat on a Boat

For those of you who do not know me in motion, I suffer severely from motion sickness. It is so serious that if I do not take medication I almost die. On my honeymoon in Kenya twenty one years ago I ran out of medication for the flight from Nairobi through the Rift valley at 2 p.m.. I was so sick I missed out on some serious game watching for a day or two!

So getting on the Vavilov was a big thing for me. Sure, I was filled with trepidation about going to the bottom of the world. But my biggest gut-wrenching fear was that I would be too sick to photograph. So I started Epanutin before the trip. This is an anti-epileptic agent that was used by the astronauts in the last great era of exploration. Then I had boxes of Stugeron, a standard over the counter motion sickness remedy. I started this while we were waiting at the Albatross Hotel. Little did I know this would all be futile in a few days time?

The ships backup magnetic compass; looking back at Ushuaia.

The ships backup magnetic compass; looking back at Ushuaia.

Welcomed by assistant expedition leader Nate Small at the gangway

Welcomed by assistant expedition leader Nate Small at the gangway

There was a short queue to board the gangplank from the single harbor pier. This was the same gangplank we would use to embark and disembark the Zodiacs at sea. It felt like we were all going on a school trip, even though 98% of us were long finished with school. I daresay, some of us felt like school children in the face of the experienced and weathered but super-friendly expedition team.

On board the ship Steven and I quickly unpacked in our cabin with two bunks. I chose the one that seemed to have my

Even a small plane looked inviting!

Even a small plane looked inviting!

feet pointing forward. Some days into the trip my feet would point every direction except that! My cabin was on the 5th floor. The lounge and bridge were on the 6th. There were more cabins on the 4th and 3rd, with the dining room, reception and mudroom on the 3rd. The Russian crew slept behind closed doors on the 2nd floor and on the 1st floor was the presentation room.  One or two floors below that in the bowels of the ship was a multi-media room. I only plucked up courage to visit this just before our return leg through the Drake Passage, in case we did not make it. There were four big screen computers including Macs for people to load and share pictures.

Soon Boris Wise, the expedition leader, at a cocktail in the lounge, welcomed us. With all the medication I had

Trying to get out of the lifeboat.

Trying to get out of the lifeboat.

stopped drinking alcohol. Life was about to change. Just as well, as the next event was lifeboat drill. I was stunned to find there were only two lifeboats for the ship that could each hold one hundred people. I crawled in and out, and then looked at the big cruise ship on the other side of the pier and wondered if I had made the correct decision. I had never been on a cruise ship and would not in future, even though my wife, Ines, wants to do just that.

The first dinner was abuzz with excited conversation, meeting new friends and hearing tales of adventure.  We spent the rest of the evening photographing birds off the stern and then retired to bed. I slept well in the Beagle Channel, which is super calm. Then the ship stopped to offload the pilot and we entered the open ocean with some rocking. We were heading to the Falklands.

Ocean Notes: Our daily newspaper

Ocean Notes: Our daily newspaper

My Travels: An African en Route to the Antarctic – Ushuaia

I am not sure why I decided to go there. Like many good things in my life it was idea that germinated a long time ago and when the opportunity arose it came to fruition.

One of my uncle’s was a radio operator on the South African Antarctic base when I was a child. Then Paul McGarr gave me Michael Poliza’s “AntArctic, a real tome filled with door stopping images, for one of my birthdays. Finally Miles Mander showed me his pictures of his stint on the Big White Continent a few years ago when he went as an environmentalist. About the time I met Marius Coetzee of Oryx Worldwide Photographic Expeditions, and it was inevitable that I would join him on this voyage.

So there I was, in a helicopter without doors flying out of a snowstorm over the Andes into Ushuaia, the southernmost port of Argentina some 5 hours flight from Sao Paolo in Brazil by a big jet. Size was beginning to matter to me because this is the picture of the harbor I saw from the air, and the small white boat in the middle foreground was the one I was boarding: The Akademik Sergey Vavilov. Not the small cruise ship to the left, and definitely not the giant cruise ship behind with all those lifeboats. I was to find out that evening that the Vavilov had all of two lifeboats for the 90 or so passengers and a crew that numbered only slightly fewer.

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov

The Akademik Sergey Vavilov: the small ship centre front below the helicopter!

Tierra del Fuego in Southern Patagonia from the air was spellbinding. Our first flight by helicopter had been curtailed by a snowstorm. Remember, we were at sea level at the height of the Southern hemisphere’s summer. The wall of white just pushed us back. Back at our hotel we sat watching the snowfall, then the sun came out and we went up again for an extended flight. Glaciers unfolded below us, ragged peaks with a fresh dusting of snow stood like giant walls on our side. Strings of lakes like a rosary cascaded into a massive glacial lake with white beaches and a snowstorm at either end, some 40 kilometers apart, as we flew through the central clearing.

Craggy snowdusted Andean Peaks

Craggy snowdusted Andean Peaks

Preflight briefing by very professional pilots

Preflight briefing by very professional pilots

Wide open to my left and clear view in front.

Wide open to my left and clear view in front.

We landed frozen to the bone even with thick jackets and windblown. The size of my ship for the next 18 days had been dwarfed by the grandeur of the Andes, but I remained on a high from the helicopter flight.

A clear lake with snowstorms on either end!

A clear lake with snowstorms on either end!

Ushuaia is a rugged town that caters for tourists, explorers and miners.  Marius and I hooked up for lunch with two other couples that would be joining us: Johann and Susan Slazus and Carl and Susan Taljaard. They were already at Freddy’s restaurant in the main street. It was busy, double glazed windows displaying giant sea crabs. We ate one of those between us; it was succulent and tasty. The meat was filled with flavor of a glacier fed ocean.

Giant crab at Freddy's Restaurant

Giant crab at Freddy’s Restaurant

Bar scene in Ushuaia

Bar scene in Ushuaia

After lunch we made our way to the Albatross Hotel in front of the harbor, where a prominent sign in red proclaimed “No Entry to the English Pirates”. We had some coffee and met Stephen Phillips  (my room mate from Texas) and Debbie Smale (an ex-South African living in London). The process was leisurely, but the bar we were waiting in was filled with tension and excitement as people met and measured each other. Passports were collected for the ship’s master and then we were transported by two buses the 400 meters to the quay and boarded our little ice-strengthened Russian Research ship, the Vavilov. It was about 5:30 p.m.. Our bags were delivered to our cabins, but even as the ship lay moored I could swear it was rocking!

The view from our Hotel Tolkeyen looking across the bay to the airport.

The view from our Hotel Tolkeyen looking across the bay to the airport.