Sunday, December 2, 2012

Scotch On The Rocks

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Today is the final segment to our wonderful adventure to Antarctica. I can see land out our window which has to be the outer islands around the southern tip of South America. We are scheduled to dock sometime early tomorrow in Ushuaia, and to then make our way home to Kansas City, arriving there on Dec. 4th.

I have not written much on the final days of our journey partly because we had no internet, but also in large part because I simply did not have any free time. Let me share with you a little of what it is like to get ready to go ashore in the Antarctic Peninsula.

To begin with, we quickly learned in the Arctic that anything we would wear with cotton was a serious mistake. When we were finished dressing, the final layer of our clothing was waterproof and wind proof. Our bodies naturally exude moisture, and when it has no place to escape, it became absorbed by cotton. Cotton, when it becomes wet, loses its thermal properties, so we would end up in wet and chilling clothes. Therefore in preparing to get out in the weather, the first order of business is to remove all of our clothing – including cotton underwear. Prior to this however, I have carefully laid out all of the items that I must put on, and laid them on my bed in the correct order in which they would go on. Standing in our room buck naked looking at all the gear made me feel a little like a matador preparing to enter the ring! The first order of business is to don a heavy thick pair of merino wool socks- not ordinary wool, mind you. Next, I then pull over the socks an extremely light pair of silk long johns. They are so thin that you would think them useless, but in truth, they are quite warm.

Next I pull over my head a corresponding silk long sleeve shirt being careful to tuck it into my pants so that wind does not blow up under it. About at this point in the process, it is starting to become a little warm in the room, and so I turn down the temperature. Next on the agenda is to put on both a top and bottom layer of merino wool trousers and a pullover shirt. It takes a little effort to slide it over my thick socks, and then it does not want to slide very well on my undergarments. By the time this process is complete, I am becoming quite warm, and so once again I lower the thermometer. I then put on my waterproof and windproof pants. All of this material wants to slide down off my hips, so I use an old belt to pull them tightly to my waist.

I am now prepared to do battle with my huge specially made boots. They are good to a temperature of -45F, but pulling them on over the heavy socks and half way up my calves over the silk and wool leaves me momentarily breathless. Finally Lisa joins the fun, and helps me into my waterproof coat. Because of my arms, putting it on myself can be quite painful. It then takes both of us to get the zipper up completely to the top of my neck. Speaking of “hot,” at this point I am cooking, and so we open the outside door to cool the room. But wait – I am not finished! At the same time I am dressing myself I also have to assist Lisa. This is clearly a team effort. Once again, Lisa has to assist me in this process by helping me put on my life vest which is required for the ride ashore. They say “one size fits all,” but trust me, I put that statement to the test. It is so tightly bound around my chest that I can hardly move, but somehow I must now get a merino wool neck band in place to protect by face from the cold winds. This is followed by a wool hat that has flaps to pull over my ears. Finally I must put on silk glove liners, and lastly the thick gloves themselves. Not able to do much at this point, Lisa puts the “dry bag” for my camera around my neck, as well as the camera itself. I am sweating so badly I could scream, but somehow I pick up my walking stick, and slowly waddle down the hallway. There I am inspected by the Hotel Director, and then dispatched to the waiting zodiac. At this point, I feel a little like a young kid again who has just been dressed by my mother to go play in the snow. The only problem is that I can hardly move.

Is all this gear necessary? Absolutely! The temperature this time of year on the Antarctic Peninsula averages around freezing. Sometimes it is a little above or a little below that number. However, when you get on the cold water surrounded by ice and snow, throw in a little wind, much less the 30mph we encountered at one point, and before you know it, the cold starts to seep in.

All in all from start to finish, the entire process takes about an hour, although as time progressed, we got better and could do it in 45 minutes. We then had to be downstairs about 15 minutes prior to our scheduled departure, and generally our trip ashore took only 15 minutes or so. We would generally spend an hour to an hour and a half onshore before returning to perform the entire process in reverse, with one added step; a stop at the “mud room.” I have no idea how that name was acquired, but it was here that we had to stop to both wash our boots and then apply a special chemical that would prevent us from “spreading” anything from place to place. By the time we reached our rooms and got everything off and redressed, an entire half day or more was gone. Then it was off to lunch, repeat the entire process in the afternoon, barely have time to make the all-important “recap and briefing,” and off to dinner. As you can see, there was not much time left to write, much less to manage any pictures.

Since I last wrote so much has happened that to reconstruct it all would be impossible. We saw some breathtaking scenery, millions of penguins, and add to that birds, seals, dolphins, and whales. The sheer diversity of life along the Antarctic coastline is staggering.

Our stop at Neko Harbor has to be a highlight on our trip because it was our one and only landing on the actual continent of Antarctica, as opposed to one of the many islands which dot the Peninsula. It was a cold snowy day with a good wind. They did not want us to linger on the beach in order not to disturb the penguins. However, when we started to walk on the snow, both Lisa and I quickly got into difficulty. At first, as we climbed the steep snow covered hill everything seemed fine, until suddenly and without warning, the snow would give way and one or the other of our feet would quickly find itself embedded in the snow almost up to our knees. I had trouble pulling my foot out without losing my boot, and sadly with my balance problem, I quickly realized that any serious walking for me was not possible. Lisa had this happen a few times, but suddenly she dropped through the snow on both feet, and panicked about her knees which are artificial. Fortunately the staff came to her immediate rescue and managed to get her back on the beach, where they arranged for her to have her own personal zodiac ride around the point of land so that she could see the penguin colony. Once I realized that she was in trouble, I cut short my somewhat aborted walk and returned to the ship to be with her. Not quite the experience we might have wished, but we can both say we made the continent.

Our next big adventure was our stop at Port Lockroy. This natural harbor was our southernmost point at 65degrees and 10 minutes South Latitude. What was very interesting was the fact that in this location, the British established a secret “Base A” during the Second World War. Today the British have established a museum commemorating the importance of this location. A nearby newly constructed building serves as a research station for 4 months of the year. The old buildings house the museum, a store, and even an official Great Britain Post Office. Our ship had some difficulty in entering the harbor due to the presence of a large number of icebergs which had been blown in the night before. This made our ride to shore all the more interesting. In fact, from shore it was at times impossible to even see our ship. In one of the funniest moments of the trip, as we departed from our visit from our last stop in Antarctica, our Zodiac took a rather strange route. I wondered why we were going away from the ship when suddenly from behind an iceberg appears a zodiac which is flying a huge SilverSea flag and is full of crew from the Hotel Department.; indeed, the Hotel Director himself was at the motor. Everyone onboard the little zodiac was waving and calling out to us, and so I assumed that somehow they had lost an engine and needed a rescue. When we reached them, they grabbed our side ropes and tied the two craft together as one of the waiters proceeded to deftly step over to our boat carrying a tray full of drinks, in glass mind you. One drink was the color of the icebergs all around us and the other looked a little like coffee. After drinks were served and a toast to the end of our adventure was offered, cookies were passed around, and we proceeded on our way back to the ship; that was until I wondered if we could chip off some ice from one of the glaciers and take it back to the ship where I could have it for drinks that evening. As soon as I uttered the words, our driver pulled up to an iceberg, grabbed two large pieces of ice, and put them on the floor. They were so dense and cold that they would take a very long time to melt. The ice was crystal clear and filled with millions of trapped little air bubbles. When we reached the ship, we took the ice onboard, and our butler proceeded to disappear with it.

At dinner that evening, Lisa and I were served our drinks using ice from a glacier that in all likelihood was over 1,000 years old. As it warmed in the glass, the trapped air provided a continual stream of little pops. And so, it was a fitting way for Lisa and I to toast to an absolutely wonderful experience here on the Silver Explorer. Today as we are packing, it is with some sadness to leave a ship that in some ways has become a home away from home. As it stands, we will not return until August of 2014, but it is something to look forward to.

We will be home soon, and looking forward to seeing everyone.

Thus ends another adventure!


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Elephant Island

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We Came, We Saw, It Conquered

For the last 2 ½ days our ship has sailed south towards Antarctica, finally crossing the 60 degree south parallel. The weather has been very favorable, in fact it has been about as good as you can expect in these waters. As is normal, storms develop in the west and rush to the east, passing through the Drake Passage south of Ushuaia about every 3 to 4 days, but as if by some miracle, after making the passage, they have been turning northward slamming the Falklands, and leaving the area in which we have been sailing enjoying pretty good conditions.

Our destination of course is Antarctica, but initially we will start our journey at the northern tip and then sail southward. Our first stop is Elephant Island which is actually at the outer reaches of the South Shetland Islands, and which lies just off the coast of Antarctica itself. We stopped at this destination because it is famous for being the location at which Shackleton and his men first reached land after losing their ship the Endurance to ice in the Weddell Sea.

Elephant Island must be one of the most desolate locations on the planet. The island supports no significant flora or native fauna. The sides of the islands are sheer rock which reaches an elevation of around 2,800feet, and the prominent feature of this small landmass is a huge glacier, the Endurance Glacier, which discharges directly into the sea. There is no safe anchorage on the island, and the normal weather is foggy with snow and howling winds which can reach speeds of 100mph. Shackleton and his crew managed to establish a camp on a small spit of rocky land off the northern tip of the island, today known as Point Wild. DSC00666The area that they eventually called home is hardly big enough to walk on, and offers no shelter from the elements. Eventually the crew used their upturned lifeboats, surrounded by boulders and canvas as makeshift shelters. Once they realized that there was no hope of rescue, Shackleton and five other men set out on an incredible risky voyage in one of the lifeboats in a desperate attempt to reach South Georgia. The 21 remaining crew had to live and survive in these horrible conditions for four months before Shackleton returned to rescue them. It is one thing to read about this experience or even to watch a film about this epic story, but quite another to actually see firsthand how absolutely impossible their survival seemed. Then we ventured out from the boat into the elements, and at that point, I was overwhelmed at what they had achieved.

Conditions upon our arrival were a rather dense fog, a pretty good swell, and with what seemed to be strong winds. It was snowing, or more correctly, the sky was spitting grapple, small ice balls. Our ship maneuvered into the lee of the surrounding cliffs, and conditions improved considerably. The fog lifted a little, and the winds died down to around 25mph. The temperature was -4C or 24F. The ship sent out a scouting party to see if it was possible to actually land on Point Wild, the actual location of Shackleton’s camp, but they reported that the swell was too great to permit a safe landing. Therefore, we were going to be treated to a one hour zodiac ride around the area which would include a close-up view of the monument erected by Chile to Shackleton on Point Wild, and a ride along the glacial front.

As I prepared for the ride, I stuck my nose outside our sliding door, and I don’t care what they said conditions were, the “feel” was altogether different than South Georgia. So, for the first time I climbed into “all” the gear with which we had been outfitted, and literally waddled down to Deck 3, our departure point. Once there, the Hotel Director, himself, gave me an inspection, and when I was done, I felt like a little kid having been dressed by my parents to go out and play in the snow. The problem was that I was so dressed that I could hardly move. I did make it into the zodiac, and once we left the lee of the ship, I got to experience just a small fraction of what Shackleton’s men endured every day. I had to insure that every area of exposed skin was protected.

We were the first zodiac, and so our tour started with a visit to Point Wild and the monument. As we approached closely, I was amazed to see just how little land was open and what there was, was simply rugged rock outcroppings. The little spit of land was filled with penguins in large numbers and a few fur seals. In fact, one of the real joys of our zodiac ride was the constant stream of little penguins darting along and in front of our zodiac. DSC00688Clearly they were enjoying our company. As we left point wild for a ride along the glacial front, I begin to notice that my hands were becoming cold. On my left hand, I had the really heavy glove that we had been issued, and inside of that, I was wearing an additional silk glove liner. So the left hand, while becoming cold, was really OK. My right hand was another matter. I was also wearing the silk liner, but this glove was one that we had found on the internet that offered a slit in the forefinger and thumb which allowed me to extend these digits in order to operate my camera. I quickly learned two things; first, the glove was in no way up to what I needed for this weather, and second, my extended fingers were quickly becoming painful. As time progressed, I no longer had any feeling in my finger, the hand was also becoming painful, and I realized that I was in trouble. Fortunately, I had a good hand warmer with me, Lisa’s armpit! I forgot taking pictures, and for the last half of the ride, I kept my right hand in her arm pit; all the while I prayed that our little trip was quickly going to end. With her help, I made it back without incident, but I will not use that glove in these conditions again.

It is pretty easy to go cruising along in a nice warm ship wondering at the amazing scenery outside, and occasionally opening a sliding glass door to quickly snap a picture or two. Today was my first real exposure to conditions in Antarctica, and it was a lesson quickly learned – this place can kill you. Later in this trip, we will make actual landings on the continent of Antarctica itself. This brief experience has really made me realize even more what a fantastic achievement the eventual rescue of Shackleton’s crew really was.

So, welcome to Antarctica – and hang on, there will be more on the way.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paying Our Respects To Shackleton

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Since I last wrote, Lisa and I have experienced two absolutely spectacular days continuing our visit to the South Georgia Islands. We are now en route to the Antarctica Peninsula; a trip of around 800 miles which will take two days of sailing.

At the end of my previous blog because of the weather, the Captain had decided to seek shelter in Cumberland East Bay which offers one of the best shelters on the Island. As a result, we had a calm and restful night; when I awoke in the morning, I opened the curtains on an absolutely beautiful day with sunny skies, and nearby was a rather large iceberg and also nearby I could see King Edward Cove which is where the principal settlement of Grytviken is located.

While we enjoyed breakfast, the Captain moved the ship into nearby Cumberland Bay which is home to the immense Nordenskjold Glacier. This glacier offers one of the largest walls of ice sliding into the sea anywhere in the world. Even though it was quite windy, the ship determined that it was safe to operate the zodiacs, and so we were treated to a 90 minute zodiac ride up to and along the glacial wall. DSC00030The temperature of course was around 35F, but with the strong winds it made for a cold ride. However, all of us had been properly prepared by the cruise ship before coming to this region, and we had each been given new parkas that were more than capable of keeping us safely warm.

As we approached the towering ice shelf, we could clearly hear the popping sounds of air being released from the warming ice. We had to weave our way around a sea of floating ice, which ranged all the way from a floating mixture of slush and seawater, to large icebergs. Occasionally there would be a loud noise as if a gun had been fired, but it was only the sound of a large chunk of the ice wall calving off and falling into the water. At one point, the driver of our zodiac moved us into the slush filled water and cut the motor on our boat so that we were floating soundlessly. Even with my poor hearing, I was aware of the popping sounds which filled the air, and the ever present swish, swish of the floating icy slush; amazing. Before we knew it, our time was up and we returned to the warmth of the ship.

I might mention here that sometimes the large swells make getting into and out of the zodiac a real challenge, particularly for someone like me who has developed balance issues. The seamen and expedition staff manages to pull off some of the most amazing feats in this regard. The seamen are hanging on a moving platform in cold conditions and no matter how rough the situation; they are real professionals at insuring our safety.

During lunch, our ship back tracked to Cumberland East Bay and this time entered King Edward Cove, which is where the little community of Grytviken is located. At one time Grytviken was home to a whaling station. Later it also became home to a meteorological station. When whaling died out, a ship repair facility was established, but it, too, was closed. Today the little community is home to the South Georgian Government and is a very popular destination for cruise ships visiting the Antarctic.

More important is the fact that it is here that the remains of Ernest Shackleton are buried. His story is so classic and enduring as well as being such a significant part of the history of Antarctica that I really must take just a moment to briefly outline the highlights of an incredible exploit. Shackleton was a famous explorer of Antarctica. In 1914 he set out on yet another expedition in his ship the Endurance. However in January, 1915, an early winter captured his ship in the pack ice and in spite of the heroic efforts of her crew to free the ship, it steadfastly refused to become free. The ice sheet, in which they found themselves trapped, was floating around in a clockwise rotation in what is known as the Weddell Sea. Shackleton reasoned that they would be trapped for the winter, but that when spring returned his ship should be returned to the approximate location where they had become trapped, and they would simply continue with their expedition at that time. The challenge of spending the winter on the ice was huge, but at least they had the safety of their ship and plenty of supplies.

All that changed when on October 27, 1915, the ever moving ice closed in on the ship and actually fractured the hull. There followed a race against time to remove as many of the supplies from the ship as possible before she sank; in the end, this left the crew stranded on the ice with little protection. The story which follows is one that deserves to be read in detail, but in short, Shackleton and 28 of his men managed to reach the shores of Elephant Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. Here they were at least on land, but their prospects for rescue were basically zero and their supplies were becoming exhausted. In an absolutely daring attempt to save his men, Shackleton and five other men managed to make the approximately 800 mile journey all the way to South Georgia Island in a fortified lifeboat, where they knew there was a permanent whaling station in Stromness Bay. They managed to make landfall on the southern side of the island. However, the whaling station was located over the mountains on the north side of the island. Having just barely survived the raging seas around the Island, he and two other men took the unprecedented risk of attempting to climb over the glaciers and mountains to the other side. No one in history had ever attempted that feat. By some miracle, they arrived at the Stromness administration center, and requested help in returning to get the remaining men on the other side of South Georgia Island, but more importantly, Shackleton wanted to launch a rescue mission to save his crew still in Elephant Island. I do not have the entire history in front of me, but it took several months to mount a rescue. Even then, all he was able to commandeer was the assistance of the Chilean government who dispatched an ocean going tug for the attempt. Eventually, Shackleton rescued all of his men, and the history of his achievement is one of the great legends of Antarctica.

Our afternoon outing from the ship was a visit to Grytviken, but first the zodiacs transported all of the passengers, along with a number of the crew, to a landing site just below Shackleton’s grave. From there we all walked up the hill into a well maintained, but very small graveyard, where his tombstone and his remains are buried. Shackleton actually returned to Antarctic exploration. However, he died of a heart attack while on a cruise in 1922.DSC00104 His family elected to have him buried on this island; so in a moving tribute, the ship had hauled up champagne glasses to the site so that all of us could take part in a toast to Shackleton’s memory and his heroic achievements.

From the graveside up on the hill, we all made our way into the small community. There was located a restored church from 1813, and a large number of buildings from the site’s past. The former manager’s house has been turned into a well done little museum and gift shop. It was with some sadness that we departed this little community, but not before some members of the community came onboard to give us a wonderful presentation about the efforts to restore the island to its pristine shape, and afterwards the party joined us for dinner.

Before leaving the issue of Shackleton completely, I feel compelled to relate an incident which occurred on our cruise to the Arctic in June. At that time access to the bridge of the ship was not restricted so that at any time we were free to go forward to observe operations. To reach the bridge, you first walked through a small foyer which is surrounded by the rooms for the ship’s officers. At the end of the foyer is the door leading to the bridge itself. I was mesmerized by the photographs placed all around the foyer. There are copies of many of the surviving prints from the Shackleton adventure including a picture of him and a picture of the Endurance stuck in the ice. Their ship carried a photographer; however, when the ship had to be abandoned; only a very small fraction of the glass plates on which this history was recorded could be saved. Here in this small area are many of those surviving prints. While I was standing there a young officer passed by and I commented on how historical these prints were. He looked at me with a blank expression, and so I asked if he was familiar with the Shackleton story. His reply absolutely floored me. He had never heard of Shackleton, and even though he went by these pictures every day, they meant nothing special to him. I am sorry, but if you are going to be an officer on a ship headed to the Arctic or to Antarctica, I would almost think that it would be required reading to know this story – just my opinion, mind you.

The next day Saturday, Nov. 24, dawned clear and sunny. We could see that out to sea there was a dense sea fog just offshore, but for our landing into Gold Harbor, the conditions were favorable with the exception of the winds again. Our Captain managed to expertly maneuver the ship into the lee of the surrounding hills where we had enough shelter to commence landing operations. I was curious as to why he selected a really small area of beach at the end of a much longer run. When I asked him about it, he smiled, and asked me to look closely at the beach. Then he asked, “Where else could we land?” Well, in looking closer I saw that every square inch of space was taken up by wildlife across the entire stretch of beach with the exception of the one small area he had chosen. Can you imagine a stretch of beach so populated with animals that there was quite literally no space left to land? That fact combined with the fact that the location he had selected offered the best shelter from the strong winds, and it was once again obvious that he knew what he was doing. Gee, I guess I best leave it to him to navigate the ship!

We went ashore to what our Expedition Leader calls her most favorite location in the entire world; Gold Harbor is regarded as one of South Georgia’s most beautiful sites. It is an amphitheater of hanging glaciers, large descending waterfalls, and vertical cliffs rising straight out of the sea.DSC00230 The towering snow covered peaks of Mt. Paterson create an unforgettable vista. The area is home to an abundance of seabirds and seals. King penguins rule, but we also find Gentoo penguins and a large number of albatrosses. The most unforgettable creatures occupying the beach however are the huge Elephant Seals. These creatures spend upwards of 80% of their life in the ocean, and come ashore only to bred. A large male can reach a length of over 16 feet and weigh almost 8,000lbs. They have been known to hold their breath for more than 100 minutes and can dive to over 7,000ft. They are excellent swimmers; however, on land they look to me like giant slugs! After our wet landing, Lisa and I walked the beach, being careful not to get too close to the wildlife, but in fact the wildlife came to us. The animals are not afraid of humans and many are naturally curious. At the water’s edge there was a constant stream of penguins going to and from the water. They would walk for large distances to reach the beach, then go and find food, only to return and walk back to their nest to feed the chicks. We saw some penguin colonies at what seemed like impossible heights up the steep cliffs, and wondered in amazement at how these cute little animals could make the trip up and down.

After our journey ashore, the Captain moved the ship back to sea, where we entered the fog for our short journey down the coast to Cooper Bay. As we entered the Bay, the fog lifted to a mostly overcast sky, but the winds were howling at a steady 35kts, gusting to 40kts. The ship will not, for safety reasons, launch zodiacs with winds exceeding 30kts, so an outing was in question. Once again our Captain managed to position the ship such that the winds were within safe limits, and even though it was windy, and the swells were a little rough, we launched for a one hour zodiac cruise into the many little coves around the Bay.DSC00265 Nestled on the rocks within the coves, and nesting among the large tuffs of grass were the Macaroni penguins. Actually more fun than the cute little penguins were the seals which found our little zodiacs almost irresistible to play around. For an hour we were ceaselessly entertained, and while we never got ashore, we got a lot of good photographs, before returning to our ship.

At this point, we all thought that we were saying our “goodbyes” to South Georgia and heading off to Antarctica; however, around 7pm our evening briefing was stopped, and we were told to grab our coats and cameras so that we could go outside for a little surprise provided by the Captain. As we all ran to do as suggested, I looked outside to see some stunning scenery. By the time I got on deck, it was raining, but I could see that the Captain was taking our ship through a narrow passage. Macaroni penguins were swimming in the sea and up on the cliffs. After we got through the small opening, the ship was surrounded on all sides by high ice-capped mountains with a glacial front right before us. There was not much room for the ship to maneuver, so after reaching the middle of the little bay, the Captain slowly rotated the ship and returned out to sea, as we all sat in awe at what we had seen. What a wonderful farewell to South Georgia.

Today and tomorrow we will be at sea on our way to Elephant Island.

Tomorrow I hope to have time to work on my photographs, but in the meantime I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Welcome To Antarctica

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Yesterday afternoon we crossed into Antarctica- well perhaps; and therein is a story worth telling.

You may recall from our trip to the Arctic that a general definition when you are actually in the Arctic is when you are north of the 60 degree North parallel. Remember, the equator is defined as zero degrees, and the North Pole is at 90 degrees north. Similarly in the South, anything south of the 60 degree South Parallel is considered to be in Antarctica, and the South Pole is at 90 degrees. These parallel lines drawn on the earth’s surface were not done at random, but are based on the fact that the axis of the earth is at an angle to the sun, so that the 60 degree parallel marks the location on our planet where the summer solstice, at 60 degrees north there is 24 hours of sunlight, and at 60 degrees south on that date there is 24 hours of darkness. The winter solstice simply reverses everything with 24 hours of darkness in the north, and 24 hours of light in the south.

So, regarding Antarctica, the international treaty which governs this vast continent, defines all territory south of the 60th parallel south to be within Antarctica. At this point in time, we are visiting the Islands of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, both of which are possessions of the United Kingdom, and are above the 60th parallel. However, as I will explain, most scientists would consider them as part of the Antarctica territory.

To understand the reasoning behind this, I need to introduce another concept that of the “Antarctic Convergence.” The boundary at which the cold waters of Antarctica converge with the warmer waters to the north is defined as the Antarctic Convergence. This is an extremely important physical boundary in science, and it is relatively easily observed. By way of example, every two hours our ship records the water temperature. Yesterday afternoon we were in beautiful sunny skies and moderate temperatures. However, within a matter of six hours the water temperature had dropped by 8 degrees. Our sunny skies gave way to sea fog, and the outside temperature was noticeably colder. We had crossed the Antarctic Convergence Boundary. This boundary is what scientists consider as the real delineating factor as to what constitutes Antarctica and its boundary. Even while moving slightly from year to year, this boundary is amazingly constant in its location. It is very close to the 60th parallel, but not synonymous with it. In most places, it is actually slightly north of the 60th parallel, but in a few locations it is actually south. So, back to our location, yesterday having crossed the Convergence Boundary, we technically entered Antarctica, even though we have yet to cross the actual political boundary, the 60th parallel.

I know it is confusing, however at the convergence, the waters are incredibly nutrient rich and hence, a great feeding area for wildlife. These waters can also be unpredictable and at times extremely rough. This is one reason that the Drake Passage is so well known for its rough waters because the boundary passes right through it. We will talk about the Drake Passage later when we actually transit it on our way home. A good example occurred on this trip. We just visited the Falkland Islands. The have very little if any snow in a year, and never see an iceberg. By comparison, we travelled about 800 miles almost directly East, so we were at the same latitude as the Falklands, but the South Georgia Islands still had a great deal of snow on the ground, and the very first sight that greeted me when I opened our curtains, was a very large iceberg silently gliding by my window. We had indeed crossed the convergence.

This morning we awoke to a low overcast sky from which we could from time to time get either rain or light snow. The temperatures were slightly above freezing. The winds were moderate at first, causing a little swell, but as the morning progressed both the winds and the swell increased dramatically. We had all been made aware of an approaching storm, but the forecast indicated that we should be able to make our wet landing on the Salisbury Plain and retreat back to the safety of the ship before the winds and waves became too intense. It was a good plan that almost worked!

Our reason for visiting this location was simple; here is the second largest King Penguin colony in the South Georgia Islands. At last count, there were reputed to be around 150,000 nesting pairs of birds, and since their little chicks had recently arrived, the actual number of birds in this location was probably closer to 400,000. It was a truly incredible sight, but it did offer a few challenges. The weather was far from perfect, and predicted to worsen as the morning progressed. For this reason, we started operations very early in the morning. Our group managed to make the shore without incident, but the wet landing was a little rough. At that point, Lisa and I were confronted with a very uneven stone covered beach on which to walk and we both had our walking sticks. Then there was the little matter of the male fur seals who had staked out their territory along the beach. DSC09697It was nearing mating season, and the males were in the process of claiming a good spot right on the beach as near to the water as possible in order that when the females would arrive they might be the lucky suitor. When we landed, they were not yet too aggressive, but both Lisa and I had the aroused seals charge us with a loud roar. Considering the little darlings weighed between 800 to 1,000 lbs., it was an intimating site. We both did as we had been told, and that was to growl back, clap our hands, and not to retreat an inch. If you retreated then it was a sign of weakness, and they would continue charging and very likely give you a bite on the leg. I was threatened several times, but Lisa had only the one event fortunately. Of course, we were not the only objects of their threats. We witnessed several all-out fights between groups of males, and I can tell you that it was rather viscous. In fact, most of the animals had large gouge marks and open wounds on their sides, so this was a serious matter.

The little, or should I say, large King Penguins were another matter altogether. DSC09732The entire beach was filled with them, and we had to remember that a penguin always has the right of way. We were prohibited from approaching them any close than 5 meters, but if we stood still the penguins became curious and would walk right up to us. I was absolutely having a blast– this is something that I have always wanted to see! As I watched, I saw that the penguins on the beach were in transit between the large colonies just up the hill from the beach, to the ocean where they were hunting for food to bring back to the newly hatched chicks. Because the colony itself was rather far up the hill, I could only observe the big brown chicks from a distance, but it was an amazing sight to see so many in one place. At the beach front, large numbers of King Penguins were jumping into and out of the roiling surf. It struck me as funny that I never saw just a single penguin jump in or out of the water. Instead it was always groups that moved in unison.

Because the wind was increasing as well as the rain, Lisa and I decided that it was time to return to the ship – that proved to be a good decision. After we had all our safety equipment on, we walked down to the water’s edge to grab our ride back to the ship. The surf was really up and as our zodiac approached, a wave caught the front, pushed it into the air, and the wind just about flipped it over. Miraculously the driver barely managed to stay in the boat, none-the-less a disaster was narrowly averted. By the time the crew managed to wrestle the little boat into position for us to board, it had filled with about six inches of water. We had a really rough ride back to the ship, but I was so excited about having finally seen a King Penguin, that I hardly noticed the ride.

By the time we had dried off and changed clothes, the weather outside had really worsened. This meant that the predicted storm had moved in much sooner than anticipated. We went to get a cup of warm coffee planning on doing some reading when we realized that a real life drama was unfolding. Conditions had continued to deteriorate at the landing site where it reached the point that one of the craft almost flipped over, and most of the little zodiacs had filled with too much water to be safe. So, the shuttles were stopped, however that left 33 people stranded on shore in worsening conditions.

I was extremely impressed with the way in which the crew and the Captain handled the situation. First, the group on shore had all the emergency equipment needed to safely spend several days there if necessary – that had been planned for well in advance. Also planned in advance was an alternate landing site that offered a little more shelter from the wind. It had not been selected in the beginning since it was almost 2 miles from the colony and the beach was full of “really” aggressive males, which only added to the excitement. Everyone had been fully briefed on the importance of wearing proper clothing just in the event that something like this occurred. So even though the winds were now howling and it was a rain/snow mix, the group managed to make the 2km walk without incident. In the meantime our ship had repositioned, and once things were ready, a fleet of zodiacs was dispatched to retrieve the poor stranded travelers from their cold walk.

During lunch, our ship repositioned to Stromness, which is a former whaling station on the northern coast of South Georgia Island. The historical significance of this location is that it represents the final destination of Ernest Shackleton’s epic rescue journey in 1916. The main event for the afternoon was an opportunity for people to walk the same 4km journey as that taken by Shackleton, and to visit what is now known as Shackleton’s waterfall. For people like Lisa and me, a ride to the beach to view the wildlife and the abandoned station was also offered. While walking the beach area, we saw mostly Adele penguins and Fur Seals. A few Elephant Seals were scattered about, but given the cold and the wind, we stayed long enough to enjoy the experience before returning the our ship.

Because of the bad weather, and in an effort to position the ship for a meaningful day tomorrow, the Captain decided to move down the coast to a more sheltered bay, and then to anchor there overnight. That proved to be a wild ride! At one point, we had 21ft waves and 40 mph winds, all of which made for a challenging experience before we pulled into our shelter where we spent a calm and pleasant night.

Tomorrow we are visiting Grytviken where believe it or not, we must clear customs and immigration before proceeding ashore. It is at Grytviken that Shackleton is actually buried, and today it is the home to a research station and also the local administrative offices.


Ps I am posting this on our blog along with a map, however I have taken so many pictures that there is almost no way I can edit them to add to the project. That may have to wait until I am home.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Back Home On The Silver Explorer

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We are now back on board our absolute favorite cruise ship, the Silver Explorer, and frankly it feels a little like coming home. So many of the crew are familiar faces, and the welcomes were warm and genuine on both sides. Our good friend, Fabien LeConte, the Hotel Director, was kind enough to join us for a “welcome” dinner together. Our cabin was setup just the way we liked it, and the refrigerator was even stocked exactly to our preferences – it could not be any better, but then again Fabien is a perfectionist.

Let me back up one step. When I wrote last, Lisa and I were preparing to leave Buenos Aires on an early charter flight provided by the cruise line. Our flight southward to the most southern city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, took around 4 hours.Buenos Aires, Argentina On arrival, we were driven outside the city, almost to the entrance of the National Park, where a wonderful lunch had been prepared at a lodge nestled among the wilderness of the countryside. Once lunch was over, we made our way to the ship for a speedy check in, and there were so many hugs and kisses all around among the wonderful crew that, as I said, it truly felt as if we were coming home.

Our first day was spent at sea en route to the Falkland Islands. It was a busy day spent getting our gear together and being briefed on zodiac operations for the days to come. At no point on this journey will our ship actually be docking. All departures to shore will be done by zodiac. During our day long cruise, I marveled at the large number of birds which surrounded the ship. I could sit for hours marveling at the constant swooping and diving of so many different types of birds. I have written about this before, however by way of but one example, take the albatross; it will spend its entire life at sea returning to shore to breed only once every two years. Pretty amazing stuff for a land lubber like me to absorb!

Early the following morning we disembarked to visit West Point Island in the Western Falklands. Lisa and I have been to the capital of the Falklands, Stanley, on three occasions, but never before had we actually seen other parts of this beautiful countryside. The Island of West Point is privately owned by the Napier family and is run as a sheep farm. In fact, there are more sheep on the Falklands than there are people. West Point Island is slightly less than 6 square miles, and we are visiting here in order to hike to an area known as Devil’s Nose which are home to large colonies of Black-browed albatross nesting side-by-side with the cute little rockhopper penguins. From our room’s balcony, we could watch as the crew set up the zodiac operations, and to our amazement the area was home to a large number of dolphins who felt that the zodiacs had come to play with them.West Point Island, Falklands We were able to watch in fascination as the beautiful animals frolicked alongside the zodiacs. Our landing was a dry landing onto a concrete jetty, but then we were faced with a steep uphill climb and a hike of a little over 1.3 miles across the island to reach our destination. Fortunately for Lisa and I the owners of the island were kind enough to offer rides in their Land Rover to people who were not quite up for the long hike there and back! While we were waiting for our ride, we looked around at the beautiful scenery. Right in front of us, and indeed all around us, were large birds known as Cacarra. I have a great picture of one on a pink float. West Point Island, FalklandsThey are clearly birds of prey, but we were told that they would not harm us; however we needed to be careful because they were curious, and if presented with an opportunity they would carry away whatever they could grab. Our ride arrived and we squeezed into the back like sardines packed in a can. The ride was steep and rough, and there was no way that either of us could have made that walk. We finally arrived at our destination, Devil’s Nose, and from the top of the hill we could overlook a spectacular rock formation and valley leading to the nearby ocean. The sky was full for birds of all types, but the huge albatross was clearly the most awesome. In order to see the nesting penguins, it was necessary to descend down a steep incline through very tall saw grass, which hid the many burrows made by the birds. It was a difficult walk for Lisa and I, and no sooner had we started down than Lisa took a very bad tumble. Her footing slid out from underneath her and she rolled downhill, turning over and over until finally coming to rest. People rushed to help her up and she was whisked by the car back to the home of the local family where she could rest.

Meantime unlike Lisa, I had brought my walking stick, but even then it was with a great deal of difficulty that I managed to get to where I could photograph the little rockhopper penguins and the nesting albatross. West Point Island, FalklandsI grabbed some pictures, but moved along rather quickly to return to see how she was doing. I found Lisa sitting outside in the nice weather where she claimed to be just fine. She mentioned that she had a headache, and had hurt her knee and hand, but would be just fine. “Sure” I thought to myself. I never had an opportunity to go inside the home where I understand the owners had assembled a huge layout of pastries and cakes for our party. Instead I was fascinated by the fact that every spare space on the top of the house was home to a giant red-necked vulture. West Point Island, FalklandsAt one point, I counted 10 of the birds atop the home. The owner told Lisa they were quite tame, but they made for a chilling site. By the time we returned to the ship, Lisa was starting to feel the affects of her fall. The Hotel Director immediately provided her with some ice packs, and she returned to our room where she fell asleep and stayed that way the rest of the day. I am guessing that she had a mild concussion since later in the afternoon she had trouble focusing, and she had to excuse herself from dinner because the noise in the dining room was hurting her head. Fortunately after taking the afternoon to rest, she was up the following day and she seems to have fully recovered.

During lunch, the ship moved some 175 miles from West Point Island to Saunders Island, again in the Western part of the Falklands. Our landing that afternoon was what is known as a “wet” landing, where the zodiac is pulled up close to the beach and we get out in the water and wade ashore.Saunders Island, Falklands The winds had picked up considerably for the afternoon, which made loading the zodiacs from the ship a bit tricky. I can tell you that the crew does the most amazing job of insuring that everyone is safely loaded on and off the little boats sometimes in the most difficult conditions you can imagine. Likewise when going ashore, here again they preform what I consider a miracle to get someone like myself, who is neither exactly petite nor nimble anymore, safely through the surf.

Saunders Island is approximately 51 square miles and is run as a sheep farm.Saunders Island, Falklands We were landing and taking a short walk across a sandy isthmus to see mostly Gentoo penguin colonies along with some Magellan penguins, AND my very first ever sighting of a King Penguin.Saunders Island, Falklands Two things of interest happened besides seeing all the penguins as I was walking among the penguin colonies; I looked up to see a family sitting on a nearby rock. The kids were running around clearly enjoying the day, and I could not help but wonder where on earth this family had come from. I assumed they must live on the island. However a few minutes later, an entire family of children and parents arrived to make sure that we stood behind the penguin colonies for protection. I could not imagine what it was we needed to be protected from until I hear the pounding of hundreds of hoofs rapidly approaching. Over a nearby hill came a running herd of sheep being herded by people on motorbikes and horseback. The sheep by some miracle avoided the penguin colonies; hence standing behind one gave us some shelter because as many as there were of the stampeding sheep, I think they would run anything in their path down. The entire family of people and sheep disappeared almost as quickly as they had appeared, but we still had this nearby family vacationing out in the middle of nowhere. The man of the family got up and came over to talk to me wanting to know where I came from and a little about the ship. As it turns out, he is a Royal Marine who is aircraft commander of a helicopter at the nearby military base. He and his family are doing a one year tour of duty on the Falklands, and on such a beautiful day, he was permitted to take a helicopter with his family so that they could have an outing on Saunders Island. It is amazing what you can run in to in this world.

Overnight our ship sailed almost 800 miles to the East Falkland Islands where early in the morning it managed to pull into the small cove just off the capital of the Falklands, to the city of Stanley.Stanley, Falklands Lisa and I had visited Stanley on two occasions, and each time the weather was not good and the winds were very strong, making just walking around miserable. On these visits, we had arrived on very large ships which could only drop anchor way out away from the city. We then had to undergo a 45 minute ride to shore on a tender in rough seas. What a pleasure it was to be only a 5 minute zodiac ride from the center of town, and just to top off the occasion, except for some strong winds early in the morning, the day was warm and sunny. As part of our stay, SilverSea had made arrangements for us to enjoy a 3 hour complimentary tour of an area known as Bluff Cove. This was the very first time I had ever gotten to see what it looked like outside of Stanley, and it was an absolutely wonderful experience.

From the pier, we were loaded on little mini-busses which gave us a quick drive around the little town before heading out into the central part of the island. We drove for around 30 minutes before departing the paved road, and continuing on a well maintained gravel road across absolutely beautiful country. Our little bus pulled over into a small lot where we were met by a fleet of Land Rovers which would transport us to the cove. Whoa! I have been off-roading many, many times, but this was the most incredible experience I have ever had. I cannot believe that the Rovers did not break an axle or puncture an oil pan, but other than the one that became stuck and had to be towed out by two other Rovers, they performed flawlessly – of course when we alighted, I felt as if I had played too many games without a helmet. Yes, Lisa did not fare too well with the rough journey, but she is a trooper and managed to enjoy the day and after some rest is doing well.

The cove is home to over 1,000 pairs of Gentoo penguins, as well as having a small colony of King penguins. Bluff Cove, FalklandsThe sun was out and it was a beautiful day, except the wind was blowing a bloody gale, which made it – well, let’s say “uncomfortable.” We had an hour to wander on our own before returning to the ship, but we were encouraged to visit the Sea Cabbage CafĂ©, which was hidden from view behind a grass-bank facing a beautiful sandy beach. Unbelievable, is all I can think to say. The lady, who runs this little hideaway for tourists, had filled the little kitchen with an outlandish offering of cookies, cakes and pastries, all of which were prepared by her. Bluff Cove, FalklandsToday she has a number of volunteers to help serve coffee and tea, and all of this is complimentary and part of the tour. Lisa and I enjoyed our respite from the wind, while enjoying some truly delicious treats. All the while, we could look out the window to watch the constant stream of penguins walking to and from the surf. It was all rather magical. Then of course we had to undergo that hellacious ride back into town, but it was all really well done and everyone had a wonderful time. Once back in town, we took a few minutes to visit the Cathedral in front of which is a “one of a kind” archway made from the jaw bones of blue whales. Stanley, FalklandsThe Anglican Cathedral is the southernmost Cathedral in the world.

Yesterday we departed Stanley around 1:30, and headed east towards the South Georgia Islands. Unbelievably the sky was blue and without clouds. The seas calm and we are having a wonderful time – it would be nice if this weather holds, but since we are heading into some of the roughest waters in the world, I suspect that the fun is yet to come.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Headed South–Buenos Aires, Argentina

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I actually have very little time to send this blog about our one day experience in Buenos Aires; however, there were a number of interesting things that I thought worth sharing.

Our 24 hour journey from Kansas City to Buenos Aires was relatively uneventful, with the exception that when we landed I found I had a good old-fashioned cold. So instead of doing anything on our first day, I spent the entire time in bed sleeping; I literally slept away the day.

Thursday was our one full day in the city, and we arranged for a guided three hour driving tour of the city which ended up taking four hours. Buenos Aires is architecturally a beautiful city of over 3 million people. It has wide boulevards, and lovely, violet trees that were just beginning to blossom. DSC08894The city is so beautiful that in fact, it reminds me of being in Europe. The weather was absolutely beautiful, without a cloud in the sky, and temperatures in the mid-70s.


But underneath this beautiful exterior, there lies what I would call a “rotten core;” I started to notice that things were not exactly as they seemed. By way of example, when we entered our car I commented to our driver that his radio was missing. It was missing for the simple reason that it had been stolen the week before. The thieves broke his window, and stole the radio in the short time between when he parked to go get a cup coffee and returned to the car. When I made the comment, "well at least it's covered by insurance," he told me that the window would be covered, but not the radio. Apparently the theft of a radio is so common that insurance companies no longer provide coverage that was my first clue that the city had an underlying problem.

One of our stops was at the plaza in front of the Presidential Palace and the city’s main Cathedral. DSC08931Standing in the plaza, we could clearly hear only a few blocks away, the sounds of a riot. People were yelling, there was constant gunfire, which we assumed to be rubber bullets or teargas. The only affect the nearby mayhem appeared to have on the local populace, was that the constant gunfire would scare the pigeons into flight. Other than that, the people simply ignored it. When I asked what was happening, and why there was gunfire, our guide merely shrugged her shoulders and said there are demonstrations everywhere around Buenos Aires all the time.

As we were driving, our guide gave us a serious lecture about security while traveling in the city. We should not have anything on us of significant value since pickpockets are everywhere throughout the city. In addition, we should have our cameras around our necks at all times, and we should always travel together as a group rather than allowing anyone of us to become separated. Also, we must carry copies of our passports with us at all times, but never the originals because they could be easily stolen as well.

As we traveled through the five districts of the city, some districts were elegantly opulent with their own private security forces scattered at every corner. In other parts of the city it was run down and in shambles. At one point, our driver and guide made sure that all of the doors in the car were locked. Our tour guide put her purse underneath her seat, and when she needed to make a phone call she refused to take her phone out and use it until we had left the confines of that district. I asked her why she did not use her phone, wondering if there was some crazy restriction regarding phone usage, but she replied that if she had it in view, then there was a large chance that someone would break the window and take it. Obviously, that did not give us a great deal of comfort when she suggested that we go for a 20 minute walk by ourselves through the central area of that district.DSC08966

It really is hard to explain the dichotomy that we are seeing. Parts of the city as I said are lovely, and yet there are other parts were even our guides were afraid to go even in broad daylight. I have never been to a city where I have personally witnessed in just one day so many protests, some of which were obviously becoming violent.

In fact, Lisa just reminded me that on our drive from the airport to our hotel, we stopped at one traffic light and looked to our left only to see a huge stair leading to a governmental building which was filled with people all of whom had dropped their pants and underwear and were standing there with their butts hanging out. The police seem to just be standing around and not paying much attention. In fact, the only attention they appeared to be getting was from the TV cameras taking a picture of the scene. According to our guide, this was some protest by Greenpeace, and she had no idea what it was about.

On a lighter note, Lisa and I were fascinated by the appearance of a large number of mostly young people who were walking through the parks with as many as 20 dogs in tow. These were referred to as “dog walkers.” Since most people in Buenos Aires live in apartments, if they own a dog, then they hire a “dog walker” to take them out during the day while they are gone to work. It is quite a sight to see someone handling so many dogs at one time, but much to my surprise, all of the dogs seemed to be really well behaved. Also somewhat surprising, all of the dogs were really large. It would seem that small dogs are not in much favor in Argentina.

On a quick final note, I asked our guide point-blank why Argentina felt that the Falklands islands belonged to them. Argentina calls the islands the Maldives and they are shown on every map of Argentina as if they belonged to this country. Our guide became quite animated at the question, and said with more than a little anger that the islands had been taken from them by Great Britain, and that they belonged to Argentina and should be returned immediately. When I challenged her on that version of history, she flatly told me that I was wrong. So I spent the afternoon researching the subject, and she and I will have another conversation as she takes us to the airport since her version of history was not exactly accurate.

Tomorrow morning we leave the hotel at 5:45 to catch a charter flight to the city of Ushuaia, which is at the very bottom of South America. There we will join our ship and enjoy an 18 day cruise of the Antarctic area. So stay tuned – more to follow.


P.S. After writing this blog, Lisa and I went to dinner at a REALLY wonderful Italian restaurant called Bella Italia Ristorante. There I was presented with the most creative and impressive wine list I have ever seen. Are you ready: it was on an iPad! You could press a button and change to one of five different languages. You could turn the pages as with a traditional wine list, or it offered the option of selecting wines by color, variety, or price. If a particular wine was of interest to you, merely selecting it would bring up a picture of the bottle and a full description of the wine. If you decided that was your selection, you pressed a button which then transmitted your choice to the staff, which would then show up with your choice. Besides being creative, the food was wonderful, and the price reasonable. What a wonderful way to end our stay in Buenos Aires!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It All Ended In A Blur

Benin and Togo

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I am sorry that I left everyone hanging after Cameroon, but our cruise ended with a blur of activity. Each of our last two days lasted around 12 hours; so we would leave the ship around 7am each day and return around 7pm. As you may understand that left us very little time to do much else, but eat dinner and prepare for the next day, and then somehow to return late and have our bags outside our rooms for an early departure when the cruise finally ended back in Accra, Ghana.

After leaving Cameroon, our ship gave Nigeria a very wide berth before docking at Cotonou, Benin. The Republic of Benin is a long and narrow little country squeezed between Nigeria on one side and Togo on the other. It is home to around 9 million people who are derived from 42 different ethnic groups. The literacy rate is low at 35%, and the life expectancy is only 52 years. As a former colony of France, French is widely spoken along with many tribal languages. Benin is where Voodoo originated and it still widely practiced, alongside of Roman Catholicism. However, in the north of Benin it is Muslim, and they do not tolerate any other religions in that area.

As we boarded our buses early in the morning for our first outing, we were amazed to see that each bus had onboard a Police officer armed not only with a mean looking sidearm, but also a submachine gun. DSC07959Our guide happily told us how safe we were and not to worry, but I suspect that there had to be a reason for the Police presence besides simply giving them something to do for the day. From what I could see, the people we met were all friendly and I personally felt no threat. However, the population is so poor that I suspect if an opportunity presented itself, where we could be relieved of our cameras, for example, that would probably represent more than several years’ worth of income on the black market.

Our first activity was an exciting trip to Lake Nokoue where we visited the floating village of Ganvie. After driving for over an hour over bumpy roads, we arrived at a colorful market area where people from the village came in their dugout canoes to sell their fish and to trade for goods. DSC07948Meanwhile we boarded small wooden boats and set out on the Lake to reach the fishing village of Ganvie. The village itself is built on stilts made of teak wood, and the homes for the most part are either bamboo or hand cut wood with tin roofs. The entire community is literally floating and all movement is by small dugout canoes; it was very colorful and interesting. Everyone was excited by our visit, the children in particular. Many of the women, while friendly, would put something over their faces in order that we did not take their photograph for fear that we would “capture” their spirit. DSC08043After a boat tour of the village where we saw their Cathedral and the local school, our boats were paddled over to a very large floating market. In the central courtyard, chairs had been arranged around the perimeter in order that we could be honored to watch a local voodoo festival. The costumes were amazingly colorful and the performances were quite unlike anything I have seen before. DSC08126The Elders of the tribe all sat looking on in very colorful costumes, while the young novices put on some truly amazing performances. They carried huge elaborately decorated circular vestments which had a hole in the center through which they put their heads. During the ceremony, they would throw the vestment up in the air as if making a large pizza and proceed to spin it around. DSC08191They had all kinds of fancy maneuvers all the while spinning their cloth vestment. Sometimes two novices together would throw their vestment into the air, and then each one would trade with the other, all the while keeping the vestment spinning. At the end, they spun it high in the air and then neatly allowed it to fall to their shoulders just so that their head was again in the center. I tried to take some video, and I truly hope I can learn how to incorporate that into our DVD. Once the festivities started, I was told that it would go on for hours. We departed after about one hour, and the group was still going strong – it was an amazing look into the local culture of the Tofinu people.

Once again we battled the local roads, if you can call them “roads.” We were going to a “beach resort” for lunch, and when we turned onto the final road leading to the resort, they told us to hold on a little longer because we only had 3 km to go, or about 2 miles. Well those 2 miles might as well have been 60 miles, because the “road” was so bad that it took almost an hour to cover that little distance. Of course after lunch, we had to travel back along that same road – I kept thinking as the bus lurched and bumped it way along “enough is enough!”

After lunch, we visited three places, none of which was really of much interest. They really do not have much in the way of interesting tourist attractions, and so the government has supported the creation of some “tourist” spots. First, we stopped at a monument named the “Route des Esclaves.” DSC08317Then we moved to the Historical Museum of Ouidah, which was nothing more than an abandoned French fort from the colonial era, DSC08336and finally they took us to “The Sacred Forest.” This I really did not get. It was a majestic grove of huge trees among which were some sculptures to serve as reminders of the plight of the slaves. DSC08362There was an old man there dressed in White with a young girl by his side. Everyone took pictures, but what it all meant “kinda got lost on me.” We finally limped back to the ship after a very long day, grabbed dinner, and fell into bed for yet another long day ahead!

Early the next morning we arrived at Lome, Togo. Togo is again a Republic, and is home to around 7 million people. It seemed to be somewhat more prosperous than its neighbor Benin, but still the life expectancy is only 61 years while the literacy rate is 61%. It too was at one time a French Colony. Our first stop was to visit a traditional bush school of the Ewa village where we met the teachers and their students. DSC08486As we had done on our previous cruise, passengers had brought along school supplies to be donated to the school, and the ship had collected the supplies for distribution. They were piled high on several tables and were warmly accepted by the school staff. While all they had for a classroom was a bamboo covered open sided structure, it was clean and functional. DSC08524The children were so happy to see us, and quite obviously they had dressed up for the occasion. Frankly the entire village compound was spotless but Spartan. After we visited with the children, trying as best we could to communicate, they all lined up and begin to sing for us – it was a really good experience. Once again, our chef had made a large number of cupcakes for the youngsters, and once again as they were handed out, the kids were not sure what they were until we showed them how to pull the paper off.

You might get a kick out of the “bathroom” facilities that had been prepared for us. Off to one side of the compound several large and colorful sheets had been hung. I was told that the bathrooms were behind the wall of sheets. Well – kinda; behind the wall of colorful sheets were four square enclosures, each made up of yet more colorful sheets. It was unisex all the way, because when you entered the little area and pulled the sheet behind you, all you had in front of you was a hole that had been dug in the ground, along with a contraption that you could sit on that served as a toilet seat. A local native served as a kind of traffic cop pointing people to the next available unit. I asked him if he would mind holding my camera while I used the tent, which he obliged. Little did I ever imagine that while I was relieving myself the native proceeded to use my camera to take photographs of my head over top the unit. I found his handiwork when I looked at my pictures. Well at least he had a sense of humor. DSC08527

After leaving the school, we drove for three hours to the North of Lome into the Plateaux Region reaching the base of Mount Agou the highest point in Togo. As we climbed, we arrived at the boundary between two districts at which point, our motorcade was stopped by the local authorities. Even though we had a police escort and an armed officer on each bus, the District Commander insisted that in addition one of his armed officers ride along on each bus. Once this all got worked out, we continued our drive up into the high mountain forest. We finally arrived at what appeared to be a motel of some kind where arrangements had been made for us to have lunch. We had brought our food with us, so while preparations were made, we were split into groups to go for a forest walk with a local native. I started out with my assigned group; however, I quickly saw that the group was headed into dense vegetation on a downhill sloping trail made of loose rocks and roots. There was no way I could make that journey, and so I turned back to the paved road intending to go back to the motel, when I saw that the other groups were all going downhill on the road. I figured I would tag along, but I got so engrossed in taking pictures of some of the beautiful flowers that when I looked up I was surprised to see that all of the groups had disappeared into the forest on different trails thus leaving me completely alone on the road. I was not worried at first; I figured that everyone was going downhill, so I would just continue downhill on the road assuming that even if I did not find them the busses that had passed to pick them up would at least come back up the road and I could hitch a ride. In hindsight this was a dumb decision as I merrily walked along taking pictures. From time to time, a woman carrying a baby would pass, and I smiled and took their pictures. Then a motorcycle approached carrying a young male that slowed as it approached me. He went past me slowly and then stopped and backed up to where I was taking a picture. I smiled and tried to seem nice. He then tried to sell me something or other, but it was a real uncomfortable feeling coming up my spine – his look was not all that pleasant. At that point, the sound of yet another motorcycle could be heard and he left, but the motorbike that followed had two young males who seeing me came to a complete stop and dismounted to come over to me. At this point my senses were telling me that I was not in a good spot, and smile as I may, my anxiety level was rising as they circled me, one on each side. Just then an older man came out of the forest from a small trail, and seeing the scene, he immediately came over near me and just stood. The two young boys quickly left the scene, and I resumed walking. The gentleman, all dressed in a fine robe, walked behind me on the opposite side of the road. I greeted him and he said something back, but if I stopped, he stopped. If I moved, he moved, and once again I was uncomfortable. Suddenly the road turned a corner and I could see our buses up a small incline and as I turned towards them, my companion moved on. I later saw that he was one of the members of the local welcoming committee, and it then became clear that he knew I had no business walking that road alone, and thus he had stayed with me until I was safe. Whew!

On our long drive back to the ship, we stopped at a local village on the outskirts of Lome where we were invited to observe another Voodoo ceremony or service. DSC08778This experience was quite unlike our encounter in Benin. We had fire, smoke, fire breathing participants, small explosions, and drums and singing that was so loud that Lisa and to leave with a migraine. DSC08714I did not understand a thing that was happening, even though on our way home our guide tried to explain what we had seen. I do know that the people were friendly and that several of our members were invited to join in the ceremony. After an hour we had to continue on, but we were once again told that the ceremony we saw was just getting started and that it would continue until early evening.

We arrived at our ship late, and I barely remember packing for our return home the next day.

Thus our one month adventure into West Africa came to a close. I really am sorry it has taken me so long to finish the trip; however I did not get my bags completely unpacked until two days ago, and just this morning, I finally retrieved our pictures from the cameras. I hope to post the pictures soon, and when I do, so I will send out an e-mail.

I hope everyone has enjoyed travelling with us to West Africa, and stand by because believe it or not, our next trip is to Antarctica – in three weeks.


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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Limbe, Cameroon

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Yesterday was our second stop in Cameroon. It was only a half day visit so that our ship could depart early, as I will explain later. Once again our ship had to anchor over a mile offshore because of the shallow waters, and those same waters contributed to the large swells and choppy water we encountered on departure. It is amazing to me how well the crew manages to assist us in boarding the little Zodiacs as the bounce and bob in the roiling water.

Anyway our morning had three planned activities. First we visited the Limbe Botanic Gardens. Second we visited the Limbe Wildlife Center, and thirdly we returned to the large amphitheater at the Botanic Gardens for an absolutely wonderful cultural presentation from various groups who had traveled from all over Cameroon.

The Botanic Gardens were both interesting and sad. It was clear that at one time, they must have been an absolute treasure, and in fact at one time it was said to be one of the most important tropical botanic gardens in the world. The Gardens were created by the Germans during the colonial period. In 1920, the British took over responsibility under the direction of the Royal Botanic Gardens. The British departed in 1932, and left the management of the gardens to Cameroonian personnel, until when in 1958, Cameroon obtained independence at which time, the Government took responsibility. Unfortunately, it is clear that they lacked the skill and knowledge to maintain them, and so today most of the Garden is in sad shape. Besides a few good flower pictures, I was fortunate enough with the help of the ship’s photographer to find a praying mantis, and we both got some very good pictures for our albums.

Our next stop was at the Limbe Wildlife Center. The Center is a collaborative effort between the Government and the Pandrillus Foundation whose primary goal is to save Cameroon’s unique primate wildlife that is threatened by illegal hunting and the illegal pet trade. The animals in the Center are all orphans who were torn apart from their families as a result of the “bush meat” trade or the illegal capture of their family members. At present, it is home to 15 different species of primates, including the beautiful mountain Gorilla and the Cross River Gorilla. They also house Chimpanzees, Mandrills, Baboons and the beautiful and strange Drills. It was not a large facility, however it was very interesting and again I did manage a few good photographs.

Lastly, we all returned to the Botanic Gardens where in the very back corner they have the remains of a wonderful amphitheater. The ship had arranged for beverage stands to be setup all around the stage perimeter and individual chairs had been brought in for us. In the bowl of the theater, there was not a breath of wind, and both Lisa and I had sweat literally rolling down our faces and filling our eyes, but that did not dampen our enthusiasm for what was to follow. There were five different groups from all over the country that had come together to present their performances. It reminded me if a gospel choir competition where each group was elaborately dressed in their own “uniforms,” and they hung nearby and watched the other groups performing as they awaited their turn on stage. In an hour long concert, the groups spurred each other on until by the end they were all wound up and putting on quite an after show as we departed the stadium. For the first time, I actually got some good video, and now my challenge is to see if I can figure out how to include that in our DVD’s.

Our time in Cameroon had come to an end, but sadly I wish I could have had more time to get to know the country. After our two day visit I really feel that I know little more about the country than the three specific places we visited. We never got to see one of their cities or to walk among the people. Yes, we saw the “forest” people, an old Garden and a Primate Rescue center, but that was about it. Alas, we had to leave early for our next port of Cotonou in Benin because of the pirate danger. It would appear to me that Nigeria must be the source of the risk, because our ship left as soon as we could all get back onboard and has been running at full speed ever since. We left heading almost due south, and during the night turned to our northwest towards Benin. This had the effect of putting us well off the normal sea lanes and far away from Nigeria. All the curtains and shades around the entire ship were closed to lower our “light” visibility, and I noticed that the fire hoses are deployed and ready for use on the outside decks. Fortunately there has been no incident, but I do praise Silversea for taking all precautions for our safety.

I am sorry that I have not had the time to upload any photographs from this second cruise, and I will not have time today – I do not think. Getting these last two blogs out is about at my limit because after today, our one day at sea, our last two days on this cruise will be 11 hour adventures each. We are both a little panicked about packing in time, so Lisa has already started and I will follow shortly.

Somehow I will try to sum up our final days in Benin and Togo, but most likely it will be when I get home.

I do hope everyone is well, and with any luck, we will return home on the 13th with our bags in tow.