Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Back Home On The Silver Explorer

Map picture

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.


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