Champagne on ice(berg)

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January 1st 2009
Published: February 11th 2009
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Overnight we had steamed slowly back north to Cuverville Island (named by Gerlache after a French Admiral), between Rongé (a female contributor to Gerlache’s expeditions) Island and the Arctowski Peninsula at the mouth of Andvord Bay. When we awoke it was overcast here and we decided not to go ashore but to relax and enjoy the environment from the ship. Cuverville is home to 4,000 Gentoo Penguins and was the site of an interesting study in the 1990’s that concluded visitor disturbance here had no impact on the overall breeding success of Gentoos.

When the shore party returned, we headed off back south, past Danco Island and via the narrow Errera Channel into Neko Harbour on the east side of Andvord Bay. I spent the whole trip on the bridge with just one or two other passengers dropping by. The entire bridge crew were there checking soundings, icebergs, radar, compass bearings and charts (which are highly inaccurate and incomplete around most of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions). It was one of the most delightful short passages of the whole trip for me - it somehow felt very remote, very rugged. The sun was shining, not a breath of wind, the mountains, islands and icebergs reflecting on the surface of the water. A perfectly delightful few hours.

In the afternoon, I went ashore at Neko Harbour, which was named after a Norwegian whaling ship and has a tiny refuge hut just above the shore where we landed. We climbed up a hill behind the beach in crunchy snow. It was unusually warm - relatively speaking that is. When you are wearing several layers of clothing 5°C begins to feel pretty hot, especially climbing in the sun up the snow, and everyone was soon stripping off layers. Simon, our Zodiac driver today, said he’d never before felt as warm as this on the Peninsula. Neko is yet another lovely spot by a glacier, which calves thunderously sending massive ice fragments into the water and creating mini tsunamis across the bay. There were Gentoo Penguins all over the place here, completely oblivious to human visitors, and we had to be careful not to trip over them. On the way back to Minerva, a Zodiac was tied up to a berg with champagne chilling on the ice to celebrate the New Year; a nice touch we thought.

Back on board, the Captain had decided that benevolent forecasts for the Drake Passage allowed us enough time for some more landscape cruising so we headed out of Andvord Bay and turned southwest past Lemaire Island and entered the Neumayer Channel between Anvers and Wiencke Islands. On the way we were hugely fortunate to see a large pod of Orcas that crossed right in front of the ship and down the port side, not twenty metres from where Lisa happened to be at the time - on our port-side balcony from which she had her own private show. As we ate dinner, we gained Port Lockroy at the southern end of the channel and launched a Zodiac to drop off mail at the British Antarctic Survey base there for franking and onward delivery around the world.

We then turned Minerva around and for two or three hours after dinner we cruised back up Neumayer in the phenomenal late evening light. On the bridge, the Captain’s musical pick was Amy MacDonald’s “This Is The Life” album - the first track, “Mr Rock & Roll” blew my mind when it started up, it just seemed to be the right music for the place and time… The landscapes were breathtaking - everywhere you looked you were presented with a combination of water, ice, snow, rock, mountains and plateaus, with dramatic cloud patterns ever changing across a constant blue sky. On Anvers Island, Mount Français - the Peninsula’s highest peak at 2,825 metres - provided a particularly striking backdrop for the first part of the 25km-long passage. We were heading downwind, the water flat and calm, and although the sun set around midnight, it was still light when I called it a day at one o’clock - still bright enough to take one or two last photos before retiring.

Having left the Palmer Archipelago behind us overnight, we had entered the Drake Passage, heading back towards Ushuaia. The notorious Drake was benign so far, with very little wind and just a gentle swell under the ship. The day continued calm but grey and overcast, never really tempting us out on deck. We passed our time catching up on things and relaxing around the ship. In the evening the Minerva’s farewell cocktail party and dinner was held, and we were guests of Steve Weber, the Hotel Director, and his partner Rita Checkenmaille.

After dinner the wind and the swell built up and by midnight the ship was pitching and rolling quite severely. Lisa’s 50mg of Stugeron three times a day seemed to work pretty well, however, and she could continue to function quite normally. We were tossed around in bed a fair bit, but I managed to sleep fairly normally.

Although the next morning brought early clear skies and a respite from rough weather, a couple of hours later the large swells kicked back in and the grey descended once again. There were some very large movements of the ship and the odd crashing could be heard as things ended up where they shouldn’t be! In the late afternoon, however, I did manage to get a good shot of a Southern Royal Albatross with the 400mm.

Having passed Cape Horn (not within visual distance unfortunately), we passed under the lee of the southern tip of Chile about five o’clock and the swell died off very quickly. A couple of hours later we were in the Beagle Channel heading west to Ushuaia in flat sea, having completed our round trip of about 3,500 nautical miles.

We had dinner with the usual suspects, and spent what was left of the evening packing and getting ready for our morning disembarkation. The pilot came aboard at eight o’clock and at midnight on a warm and starry night I could see from our balcony that we were pulling into a bright, twinkling Ushuaia where we would spend the night alongside the dock.

We disembarked at nine o’clock in the morning, sad to say goodbye to Minerva and her crew, but glad in a way to be starting our journey home. In Ushuaia we took a walk along the waterfront and through the naval base area to stretch our legs, caught a bus back to the town centre, visited the Maritime Museum in the 100-year old gaol, and feasted once again on delicious southern Patagonian lamb, flamed over a charcoal fire.

After lunch we headed off for our Aerolineas Argentina flight that left on time and had us at our hotel in Buenos Aires around nine in the evening. We were staying one night, this time at the NH Lancaster Hotel on Avenida Cordoba, very conveniently located and brilliantly renovated in 2007 - tasteful colours and comfortable, functional rooms. We opted for a light room service dinner, as we were pretty tired.

I took an hour and a half’s walk in the morning, under perfect blue skies, the temperature about 28°C - up to Plaza San Martin and around the central downtown streets. It was as lovely as ever, and felt good to warm outdoors once again. Wishing we had more time in Buenos Aires (a city that always makes me want to stay for a few months and learn Spanish), we left for the airport at before noon, and by early afternoon were winging our way to London for a two-night stop-over before returning home to Singapore. Ironically, as we came into land at Heathrow the captain announced a temperature of minus four degrees - colder than anywhere we had experienced in the summer Antarctic.

Howard's Antarctica Galleries at PBase

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23rd February 2009

Great blog!
Hi, Just saw your comment on the 50+ bloggers....and as you say, we don't have to be backpackers to enjoy it. Your trip to Antartica remind me of mine last trip ever....even if I must be honest, you did a way better job on your blog, as I had only one entry back last Feb 08. Where is your next trip? Pierre-Alexandre
22nd March 2009

Next trip?
Thanks for the comment. Next trip? Thinking about Bhutan later this year...
16th April 2009

great memories.
Your blog brought back wonderful memories of our TWO trips on Minerva (then Explorer 2) with John Moulds and Patricia Silva in 2004 and 2005 We had calm weather on both our trips , except when we hit incredibly strong gusts of winds while being out in one of the bays at Port Wild . We have 100's of great photos of our most exciting trips to the deep south . Thanks for the memories.
18th August 2009

Antarctica advice
Hi Howard, great photo's and blog, myself and my new better half are looking to go on a similiar cruise for our honeymoon, can you please let us know which company you went with and any information you think would be useful. Happy travels and all the best Steve and Suzanne

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