I had not penned a poem for years but as I lay curled up in my bunk rocking from side to side, my mind light from the two-day fast and the drugs to try control the nausea, my thoughts floated away.
I grasped these words out of nowhere when I realized how important it was for me to touch people, physically and with an aura of thought expressed in writing and pictures.
Liz and I had some deep conversations when she visited me but I cannot remember any details. We spoke of travel, of exploring, of growth, of wilderness and of the collective subconscious.
Then out of nowhere came this poem:
Far away, where even eagles do not soar,
Where sunset never happens but can hold the evening.
A land so harsh, yet a land so beautiful.
A land where our dreams are lost, where the spirit is gone.
Emptiness fills the silence and the white.
A land where the sea closes you off with waves,
Or great ice blocks your passage.
An empty land, cold and fearless,
Where our collective unconscious fails.
God fails almost?
Something I saw a lot of was bird feathers; when the penguins moult the feathers collect in patches at the water’s edge and then get blown into the snow to form pockets or ice to form frozen fossils. Finding feathers all over the place was reassuring, and slowly I began to record the dreams I had and look for the feathers. My spirit was connecting but I was struggling to define to what. There seemed a paucity of spirits in this place, like no other wilderness I had been to. Yet there were just so many messages that I saw but I was just not ready.
Quiet in heaven’s soft light
Glaciers glowing blue at the water’s edge
Cold feet and fingers frozen
Eyes watery to frame a feeling
Close enough to touch
And to dive into the water
Black blue land on the horizon
Swallows a single stony peak
White fades into blue into grey
Absolutely nothing in the way
The sea waves stop moving
The world is growing closer
Still colder camera battery fails
Slow picture making
No wind or sun just being
Slowly a picture appeared at my side and then in the camera:
Three weeks later as I walked down the steps into my home a single feather floated down in front of me and whispered: “ Everything is going to be just fine. You’ll see.”
I felt an immense peace descend on me in the midst of the bedlam of city and surgical life.
“Good morning” came the wake up call at 7 a.m. , later than usual. Boris (the expedition leader) has a mid-Atlantic singsong accent. “We are about to enter Port Stanley and should ready for the gangway at 9 a.m. The weather is overcast, temperature 5 degrees Celsius and winds will pick up later. Gangway time is 9 a.m.”.
After a short overnight cruise we arrived at Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands whose total population is a bit over 2600. Our two lifeboats of passengers and crew would not add significantly to the tourism income on the 31st December 2013, but we are on land again. I imagine when a big cruise ship arrives the population of the island must double sometimes and all the bars and coffee shops must be open.
The Vavilov entered through a narrow isthmus into a large bay, oblong with the long end opposite the entrance. The town lay on this facing bank, having been severely damaged by landslides due to aggressive peat harvesting and then the war of 1982.
Let me say that I spent from 1978 avoiding conscription in South Africa until it was abolished in 1992. Most wars today and in the past are not about what is right or wrong, but rather a power game. That’s makes war a non-started in my books.
Stanley looks like an English town with quaint buildings and bright colours, but no hedges or village greens or avenues of oaks. The tundra is brown and desolate. The sky and sea were grey. I was tired of the big cameras so I slung the Fuji X100 around my neck and hit the town.
Passport control consisted of the Vavilov authorities giving the Falkland Immigration Officials a pile of documents to be stamped. Then we jumped off the Zodiacs onto the pier and walked through customs control shedding life jackets and outer gear on the benches lining a glass structure next to the pier.
On land Again
First stop was the local tourist information and curio shop cleverly marked with penguin prints in the tar leading from the customs. With the impending
isolation from mobile and internet coverage I felt myself withdraw more from the quaint commercial attempts in Stanley. I bought nothing.
The first stop our photographic group made was at the Christ Church Cathedral. Outside in the adjacent park is a monument made by sparring four whale ribs and joining them at the top. The stone church is beautiful and simple, and has touched the lives of many. Memorial plaques that line the inner walls attest this for the saving or loss of whalers, frontiersman, explorers and soldiers.
After the church we walked along the waterfront, slightly raised from a narrow pebble strewn beach littered with parts of or total shipwrecks. We stopped to watch Landrovers go by and take some panning shots. The inhabitants are weathered like their cars, with an air of irritation that tourists have invaded their peaceful town. At least most of us were English or of `Commonwealth origin. Argentines were definitely not welcome! For the South Africans that read this I got the feeling this was the “Oranje” of the South Atlantic, except they spoke English and not Afrikaans.
We walked past the post office and city hall, the flower lined lane to Government House (the Falkland Islands is independent but under British Protection), then the Liberation Monument and War Memorial. We ended at the Jhetum Shipwreck, and turned around, with the bay on our left and the large hospital on our right. The hospital was incongruously large for a population that small, but I suppose it serves the Antarctic bases and shipping community as well.
Malvina House Hotel
We stopped for a cup of tea at the Malvina House Hotel. Considering the antagonism to the Argentinians I was surprised to find a newish hotel with a Spanish name. I suppose if it was Hotel Porto Argentino it would have been bombed or burnt down. Shelley, mother of Garrad and Alex, two children on the ship, was sitting there writing in her journal. Joe was out exploring with the children. He had just returned from a trip climbing Mount Vincent, the tallest peak on the continent, but more about that later. Also, tucked away in the corner were a few of the expedition crew huddled over Macbooks catching up on emails and social media. The ship does have limited email access but only a few people connected on board and I cannot imagine spoiling all that peace with the main distraction of our current generation. Never before has a generation been so distracted from living as now by the power of the internet and all the mindless entertainment it has spawned.
Fish and Chips at “The Victory”
After tea we walked to find a fish and chips bar. Many bars and restaurants were closed at lunch on the last day of the year, but we found “The Victory” and huddled inside. We toasted our voyage and Lawrence’s Hasselblad with Foster’s Beer (there was no local beer), ate the fish and chips, while I looked at the picture of the great Polaris Icebreaker on the wall. Our Vavilov looked way too small and I was about to find out that reality.
After lunch we meandered back to the pier, kitted up for the Zodiac trip and asked Quinn to do a short trip of the bay so we could take pictures.
Aggressive Soup Curtails Dinner
Back on the ship we left our boots in the mudroom, took our wet skins to our cabins and hang them in the corridor to dry. I was excited, but Boris made an announcement that would change my life:
“Welcome back on board, ladies and gentleman. I am sure you had a fantastic time in Stanley. We set sail shortly and will be entering the open sea in about two hours. The weather forecast is for strong wind so please pack away all loose items in your cabin and check there is nothing to fall off shelves or roll onto your head while sleeping. A big camera can do a lot of damage. Once you have storm proofed your cabin please come down at 5:30 p.m. to the presentation room for Ira Meyer’s talk on “Photography in the Antarctic”. After packing away my gear, I went down to the 2nd level Presentation Room. I was excited and I was getting to know Ira and loved his work. He published a book last year called “ICE at the Ends of the Earth”, which is filled with beautiful and moving story-telling pictures of the polar ice, north and south.
I might have gone in to the Presentation Room but I left the “Vomitorium” as Ira ended and questions started. The boat was really rolling.
Huddled in bed for New Year’s Eve I heard that dreaded announcement:
“Ladies and gentleman. It is 7:30 and dinner is served. Please note because of the rough seas the soup will not be served.”
As I lay sick in my bunk I could only laugh at the thought that the soup was too aggressive to take out on rough sea days.
After an eternity at sea (less than two days for me) we sighted land in the early morning: The West Falklands. Excited
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.
It was mesmerizing watching them. They were intermingled, the albatross and rock-jumpers both with young. Great
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.