Life on Board

We were on a minibus recently, being heartily gouged by the Argentines (as usual), this time for a short transfer between Ushuaia and the local national park (14km on good roads? One whole hour and $20 each please! Oh, and Las Malvinas belong to them, no really). Anyway, we got chatting with an English couple, and the conversation turned to Antarctica cruises. Had they been on one? The answer came back that they were “not cruise people”. It was an answer we understood – not only are the trips pretty pricey, but cruises generally have an association of retired ladies and gentlemen in double breasted blazers drinking slightly too many pink gins at lunchtime. The occasional bingo night maybe? Perhaps a Perry Como-themed dining extravaganza or two, followed by slightly moth-eaten tuxedos at the captain’s table? Was this how life on board a cruise ship was going to be?

Er, no.

Our boat had two main types of people on board. About two thirds were older or retired couples who had planned the trip a good year or so in advance. And these were not the Florida-grotty tour group types we had come across elsewhere – for the most part they were extremely well travelled, reasonably well heeled, fairly open to new experiences and with a good suite of stories to liven up dinner time. There was a faintly crazy Vietnam vet and his lovely wife (who had been frostbitten climbing Aconcagua the year before and who we ran into carrying HUGE rucksacks in the Torres del Paine a week later), a happily retired Texan couple who had been dating for 20 years and were on board to celebrate her 65th birthday (complete with singing Costa Rican waiters, the inevitable guitar and the perhaps less inevitable plastic tray rhythm section). A solo Aussie who had happily attended his only son’s wedding a week before and was on board to celebrate a quasi-honeymoon of his own. A cast of characters, if you will.

The Sea Spirit, avec icebergs. Our cabin is, erm, completely invisible in this photo

The Sea Spirit, avec icebergs. Our cabin is, erm, completely invisible in this photo

And then there were the young ‘uns. Oh yes, the young ‘uns. We were made pretty darn drowsy by our super-strength sea sickness pills (honest, guv’nor) and so didn’t spend too much time each evening laying into the open bar. However, a good third of the passengers were young travelers who had booked at the last minute, and were determined to get their  money’s worth. Oh yes.

So, Lucy and I would retire to bed pretty soon after dinner each day, tired out by the early starts, the multiple extraordinary Antarctic landings; the excellent lectures throughout the day on glaciology, whales, bird life and rugged-beardy-explorer history; a hearty and usually pretty good three course dinner; and a cheeky beer while watching the sun go down. Hey – you’re in Antarctica, what is the point of being hungover? In fact, we were so well behaved that we didn’t actually pick up on the gossip until the last night of the trip, when I couldn’t resist the lure of a dodgy sound system and even dodgier pop music and decided to give my sea legs a damn good boogie. Well…

…it turns out that the young crowd had spent most of the trip drinking vast quantities of free beer, dancing frenetically while the ship heaved on the swell and hooking up with each other. And they had clearly been watching too much bad American television – one particular faintly balding stud had apparently spent most of the trip in bed with not one, but two of the woo girls on board. And he claimed to have found himself a third on an off night. One even went swimming in the sea naked. We were utterly woebegoggled. I mean, Lucy and I like a good party as much as the next man (and the next two ladies), but seriously?

Lucy in full-on whale spotting mode. And pretty good at it she was too!

Lucy in full-on whale spotting mode. And pretty good at it she was too!

Guys, we’re getting old. Perhaps it’s even time to move back to London and settle down?



So, we have just been reborn from the bosom of the Southern Seas. [shrugs]. Like all true artistes, this trip for us was a performance, a microcosm of humanity. [takes a deep drag from a Gauloise]. Cast adrift in a cowardly steel bubble to find reflections of itself in the Icy Southern Ice. [exhales sulkily]. Only to return willingly to its own detritus after the initial shock has subsided. [Sells soul to Charles Saatchi; starts making formaldehyde sculptures of sliced up penguins].


Yup. You guessed it. Regular followers of the blog (Hello Mum!) will be familiar with our occasional photographic self-indulgences – odd silhouettes, overexposed shots, close ups of random objects. Well, in Antarctica the scenery was so strange that we (ok, actually more like I) allowed my clumsier inner digital artist full rein, taking large numbers of shots at strange angles, odd camera settings etc. All in the name of the “Artistique”. Oh yes. I was going to break deep new ground in terrible self-indulgent photography. It was going to be legendary. And I basically couldn’t resist the bad pun in the blog title.

Well, I didn’t think to tell Lucy. We always edit our photographs – we had so many photographs of Antarctica that we ended up deleting about 60% of them. Somewhat unusually, however, we didn’t sit down and do this together. As a result, Lucy actually applied a base level of actual quality control – so destructive to my artistique creations – and I wasn’t there to protest, to stand up for, say, the beautiful out of focus shots of the sky etc.. Oops.

All artists must suffer, however – perhaps the suffering itself is the art [ahem; slaps self round face; gets over it]

Below are some of my creations which survived…

Polar Plunge!!

James is much braver than me. Also much less susceptible to the cold and with less heebie jeebies about deep water.

So he got to do the polar plunge, whilst I relied on the protection of needing (needing I tell you) to be our photographer for the occasion to avoid having to dive off the ship, into the ocean, just off the Antarctic peninsula. Water temperature: oh, about 2 degrees Celsius.

And just for added fun, he knew that from where I was standing (armed with camera. Did I mention the importance, nay vitality, of recording this occasion?), it was actually quite tricky to see the people diving into the ocean until they were quite far out, so he made an extra special effort to do a really long dive so I’d be able to catch him. In fact, he probably spent the longest in the water of anyone on the ship.

Crazy mad fool.

[Manly voice] "AAAAAGGGGHHH. It's FREEZING!!!!!!!"

[Manly voice] “AAAAAGGGGHHH. It’s FREEZING!!!!!!!”

Five hours later...

Five hours later…

Trip of a Lifetime (yet again!)

So we are getting the hang of this Antarctica lark. Our room is right at the front of the boat, so the routine is to get up after a night of being gently rocked to sleep by the ocean; look bleary eyed out the window at a few passing icebergs; head down for a hearty cooked breakfast; climb into our parkas, waterproof trousers and fluffy hats; hop in a zodiac and off we go. And this morning was like any other, except for the huge protective steel plate the crew put over our window which blocked out the view – apparently this the sort of thing is standard when you are dodging icebergs in the night. Oh well, I guess we can just about cope with that.

But what exactly were we going to do today? We had already ticked off our Antarctica must dos – we had seen penguins, whales, icebergs, seals and glacier covered mountains. We had already toasted each other with mulled wine in a zodiac while being rocked by the heavy swell from gargantuan chunks of ice falling off the side of cliffs hundreds of meters away. We had already tobogganed screaming down the side of a glacier. I mean, what else was left?


  • Penguins! And not just penguins, but penguin chicks – thaaasands of them. Seriously, the cuteness scale just grew a new 10. And the gentlemen penguins make presents of stones to the lady penguins just like in the David Attenborough documentaries (and yes, they do actually steal them from each others’ nests when the owners aren’t looking)
  • Elephant seals! On holiday from South Georgia! Lying there on the ice looking for all the world like the happy fat couple that they were.
  • Icebergs! You are motoring gently in a little open boat through channels in the ice, gaping awestruck at the blueness, the contorted shapes, the sheer size of these things. And suddenly there is a leopard seal, just sitting there minding its own business. And suddenly a huge chunk falls off an iceberg, rocking the boat and causing the other icebergs to lurch, pitch and roll ever so weightily around us. And suddenly there’s a WHALE! Very, very large, and right in front of us. And it swims right under the boat and you can see the whiteness of the flukes through the blueness of the water. And then another chunk falls off the iceberg. And … you just don’t know where to look!
  • History and passport stamping at the old British base at Port Lockroy. Even better, Lucy has run out of space in her (previously brand new) passport so I now have a stamp she doesn’t have – hah!
  • Watching awestruck as the ship threads its way through narrow channels with high icy cliffs on both sides. Improved (of course!) by a plateful of ribs from the open air lunchtime barbecue on the sun deck.
  • Swimming in the sea (well, you have to really). Lucy is probably best placed to cover this, as the part of my brain that dealt with this is still frozen solid
  • Standing on deck after dinner and a couple of drinks, watching the sun set (extremely slowly, obviously) and reflecting on how amazing the day has been. Oranges and pinks and golds and … but of course … Killer Whales! Ten of them! With little baby killer whales! Swimming alongside the boat for the best part of half an hour as it slowly fades to dark.

I don’t know if the crew choreographed it or whether it was just sheer good luck, but the third and last day of our visit to Antarctica was simply unbelievable.

And now, the photographs…

Day Two: The Antarctic Strikes Back

Apologies for the slight delay in the next installment of our coverage of the Antarctica cruise – we’ve been hiking for the last week and hence rather out of email and web contact.

So. Where were we?

Ah, yes, we’d had day one (of three) of our landings, which had all been in the South Shetland Islands, a hundred miles north or so of the actual Antarctica peninsula. Whilst we’d had a lovely time and seen oodles of penguins we were both, at this point, slightly ambivalent about whether or not the trip was all we’d dreamed of…..

Maybe the expedition team sensed that too. The ship we happened to be on had a very short itinerary – 3 days of landings as opposed to the usual 4 days – and the expedition team had decided during the day that they were going to try to step things up a bit. As we arrived back on ship, they told us that for the next 2 days, we’d be going on 3 landings / zodiac trips per day (usually it’s just two), and that we could sensibly expect to be pretty darn knackered by the end of it all….but also pretty darn happy with all we’d seen.

So we went to bed feeling a little more optimistic….and woke up feeling really a LOT more optimistic. To be precise, what woke us was an announcement over the PA telling us that a humpback whale was close to the ship, and those in cabins on the starboard side (ours) might contemplate looking out their windows. Four bleary eyed footsteps later, we were about 50 foot away when the whale next breached and spent the next 5 minutes generally hanging about the place looking whale-y and waving its fin at us. The best and certainly biggest alarm call I have ever had!

Things were looking up.

As importantly, overnight we’d travelled to the Antarctic peninsula itself, so the scenery now was kind of what you expect: snow; mountains; glaciers; icebergs. Lots of icebergs.

So, off for excursion one: a zodiac cruise in the brilliant sunshine, gliding through fields of icebergs all gleaming blue with the snow-capped mountains sparkling in the background. For company, teams of penguins flying through the water next to the boat and the occasional elephant seal. It was without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been; alone, for me, it would probably have made the entire voyage worthwhile. And that was just half of our first excursion of the day. As we came ashore to Cuverville Island we were greeted by a penguin tobogganing down the snowy slope towards us which, for whatever reason, was one of the things I’d really wanted to see (and it’s just as cute in real life as on TV). The sense that someone, somewhere was coordinating all of this to give us some kind of uber-Antarctic experience was only heightened as we watched a penguin fight off a skua that had just killed its chick (did I mention that the penguins all had chicks? Have you any idea how RIDICULOUSLY adorable a parent and chick penguin are??).

A little time back on board to cruise through the (spectacular) Gerlache straits before we headed off for our next trip, to Neko Harbour. More penguins, of course, and some more chicks, but the main attraction is both the harbour itself – very scenic – and, of course, bareback tobogganing (well, hey, the expedition team didn’t want us getting bored now). And yes, it’s pretty exhilarating to slide down a 100 ft snowy slope ending up close to a beach which is deserted other than for a few penguins and a resting seal.

How do you top all that?

A post dinner zodiac cruise, apparently. Again, this was more about the scenery and the general atmosphere than the wildlife, and so we didn’t take our camera just so that we could both relax and appreciate the view. Sorry about that – it was rather spectacular, particularly the part where a glacier calved a couple of large icebergs, whilst we were quietly resting in our zodiac, engine off, a few hundred metres away, sipping our mugs of warm mulled wine and listening to the icebergs crack. A bit more time to enjoy the sun setting over the ice, then back to ship for a well earned rest before tomorrow’s escapades.

We’d had the most amazing day and any doubts we’d had about the cruise were long gone now. Looking forward to the next day, we kind of figured that anything else from here would just be gravy – I mean, how much more amazing could things get?

An Antarctic Adventure

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (otherwise known as New York City, c. 2009), James and I met up with an old colleague / friend who was on his way back home from an amazing round the world trip. His personal highlight from the entire period of globetrotting? A voyage to Antarctica. A continent unexplored – we listened, amazed and somewhat saddened by the thought that we were perhaps unlikely ever to make it that far.

Roll the clock forward to 2011 when we were planning our own amazing adventure – scheduled to depart in late February 2011 for 6 months or so. Of course, that put us firmly outside the Antarctic season so, once more, we heaved a small sigh of regret at an opportunity missed.

Then came the slight shift in our plans that resulted in us moving our trip start date to late May. At the time we were pretty devastated and looking everywhere we could for small silver linings to brighten the cloud a little. We also figured out that a RTW ticket is SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper starting and finishing in South America rather than the USA or UK. So much cheaper, in fact, that it might even pay for a trip to – you guessed it – Antarctica. A plan was born.

Of course, at that time we had no real clue how much an Antarctica trip actually cost….

When we found out, after a long and laborious day’s research in Bangkok, we were a bit less certain about this whole affair. Rack rates were pretty pricey – I mean sure, penguins are cute and all, but can anything be THAT cute? We came to the conclusion that we could only really justify this part of the trip if we managed to find ourselves a good deal in some way. Cue many months of finger crossing, followed by some frantic trading of emails with various cruise agents as soon as we arrived in South America.

Result? We got lucky (of course!!), and set sail for the seventh continent. The sun was shining for us, both metaphorically and physically speaking, as we embarked on the first step of our voyage: the Drake Passage, notorious for 15-20 metre swells and the quite spectacular seasickness that accompanies them…. We on the other hand hit a sea high of about 1.5 metres, laughing cheerfully for our entire trip across the Passage, with interruptions only to indulge in our nightly 4 course dinners.

All in all then, we were feeling pretty chipper as we made our first landings of the trip, in Half Moon Island and Deception Bay, in the South Shetland Islands. And there were, indeed, many penguins And some whale bones. And some cool geological stuff that made the beach steam.

Pretty cool.

BUT: On the other hand, just how cute can penguins (even on a steaming beach) be??  I mean, even with a good deal, this trip is pretty darn expensive. And you can see penguins in Chile. And the 4 course dinners were great and all, but…..

Did we make the right call??

Don’t Cry for Me Argentina…

…The truth is, I’ve been quite happy
On an estancia
Near Buenos Aires
Just riding horses…..and eating sausage

A key part of Argentina’s heritage, estancias are the big old farm estates where Argentinian cattle are lovingly reared on an all grass diet to make them into the tastiest beasts in town. Believe it or not (and this is a Lonely Planet stat so maybe take it with some salt), Argentines each consume on average about 70 kilos of beef per year. That’s a lot of cow. Meat is something of a religion here and the cow is certainly pretty dominant in the national identity.

So we figured we’d best go see these cows on their home ground, as it were, by means of a visit to a working estancia, where the farmhouse has kindly been converted into a pretty darn luxurious hotel whilst still retaining the feel of a family house (helped not a little by the eight dogs lolling around the place and generally making a nuisance of themselves).

Life on the estancia is tough:

  • Get up, leisurely breakfast.
  • Horse ride round the estate to go look at the cows (fat, glossy, happy). There’s bulls too, which apparently are far too chilled out to be considered dangerous. The gaucho (yes, a real live gaucho, with a beret and EVERYTHING) laughingly told me that the bees were far more of a menace. You can take the girl outta the city…..
  • Laze round the pool and maybe even do a bit of hardcore swimming / yoga to try and create room in your poor beleaguered tummy before
  • Lunch. This will last most of the rest of the day, being a multi course grill extravaganza. Grilled pig (chorizo, blood sausage). Grilled chicken. Grilled cow (any cut you can think, of). Grilled lamb. If there happened to be any road kill that day, they’d probably chuck that on the grill too. Wash all the above down with some good local plonk and try not to doze off
  • Horse show. This was one of the weirdest things I’ve seen horse wise – basically a horse / gaucho bonding thang where they get the horse to lie down with them, then sort of stretch out the horse’s legs for it whilst it’s lying on its back. Check out the photos, they kind of do it more justice than I can
  • You must be pretty hungry / thirsty by now. Time for a light 3 course supper with some more plonk
  • Bed. You need it.

Repeat until full relaxation is achieved. Took all of about 45 minutes for us!
What can I say. This traveling gig can be a pretty tough job at times, but someone’s gotta do it.

Little Big Apple

Ahhhh, Argentina.

We arrived in Buenos Aires on 3 Jan after a long but rather lovely flight from London (first class! Yeah!!!). We feel we did a pretty good job in terms of value for money, all told, consuming sufficient champagne even before the flight to make us a tad on the late side for boarding….to the extent that they threatened to not let us on the plane….. Hmmm. Fortunately, they relented, and on we trotted to enjoy more vintage Bolly, the occasional movie and some well earned rest, Though for those interested in these (clearly key) matters, the BA pyjamas are a distant third vs. the Cathay and Qantas numbers.

First surprise: it’s warm in Buenos Aires in January, so out with the fleece and rain jacket and on with the sundress (James looks great in his). Even better, Buenos Aires is renowned for the excellence of its ice cream, a reputation which we put to quite some testing in the days we were there, and found to be entirely justified. Compared with a rainy January back in the UK, we started to feel quite smug.

In some ways, BA is a slightly strange town to visit when you’re traveling in a couple; the day time scene is not that hectic (other than all that ice cream eating), and rather more focused on strolling around the place, trying to get a feel for the city they call the Paris of the South. It’s the perfect excuse for leisurely strolls around the city, pausing only for the occasional recuperative cafecito. And more ice cream. But BA is far more famous for its nightlife, centred around the great triumvirate of techno, tango and, ummmm, meat.

But travelling with just the two of us makes the techno scene rather unattractive – there’s noone to persuade you that staying up until 3am to get INTO the club and then boogying until 6am sounds like a great idea, really, and James has seen all my best dance moves so many times as to no longer be that excited by them (fool that he is).

That’s ok though. We’re both great at eating meat. Or we thought we were, before our second steak dinner here. The steaks are huge (NY steakhouses seem like healthy eating paragons by comparison) and the sense of sheer weight on the old digestive system after a couple of those puppies had us signing up for a life of vegetarianism and exercise pretty fast. Still, we can enjoy tango with the best of them….just as long as we don’t try to actually dance it, that is – I’ll need several more joints in my legs before I can even begin to emulate the Argentine style with anything resembling grace. Hmm, we don’t have this BA nightlife lark as sussed as we thought.

All told? It’s town of culture and style, great food and wine; and plenty of ice cream. A great post Christmas destination to reacclimatize us to the harsh realities of life on the road.


No Negotiation Please, We’re British

I have never thought I was the best negotiator. In particular, the hardball, screaming, shouting, temper-losing, bullying, American school of negotiation leaves me strangely cold. I can do it professionally enough if I absolutely have to (the skill is in ignoring the internal voice telling you that you’re acting like a dick), but people who do it to me just piss me off and make me obstructive. Every now and then, however, you need to deal with used car salesmen, Uzbek carpet dealers, New York jewelry makers and other serious professionals, and that is when the negotiation skills have to be dusted off. And I’m afraid to say that recently this didn’t go quite as planned.

We are in a jewelry bazaar in deepest, darkest Asia and we are trying to do a deal. There isn’t a large amount of money at stake, but it’s enough that any money we manage to save would be pleasing enough to make an effort for. We had done our homework properly – a full day walking the stalls identifying the precise type of necklace we wanted. We have taken photographs of all the items on offer, with prices and other details written on the stallholders’ business cards and included in the photos. We have worked out the various pricing factors involved – size, materials, quality etc. – and how they impact “first prices”. We have winnowed out any that are off the quality / pricing curve and have slowly been narrowing down our tastes and choices to a few candidates. We have made a final shortlist without making up our minds as to a firm favourite – price would determine which way we went.

The pricing discussions started well enough: I had (extremely politely, while explaining what I was doing) insulted the sellers of the two final candidates with extremely low offers. Please don’t react now, I had said, we appreciate that these are insultingly low offers and we want to give you time to think about them. Both offers had been flatly refused, and that was fine. The two stalls were within sight of each other and we had an hour and a quarter until the market closed at 5pm. The plan was to loiter within sight of both stalls letting the dealers stew until one of them cracked and tried to negotiate. At which point you stick to your guns but let the other see you talking. My hope was that Lucy and I would be talking to one dealer each at one minute to five seeing who was prepared to offer the best deal. We would never get the goods at our offer price, but we would get the best terms available. And it would be fun.

And we screwed up. We had done a slow walk past of each dealer asking if they had considered our offers (no – far too low) and we were headed off for a drink to let them stew. As a result we had only walked away from each salesman twice when one of their assistants chased us down in the market and agreed to our terms in full. Bugger.

One that we DIDN'T buy, despite the happy Lucy smile!

One that we DIDN’T buy, despite the happy Lucy smile!

The Return of the Anti-Completist (or: Heffalumps!)

OK, so the title may need a little explanation. Heffalumps, of course, require no explanation whatsoever. Assuming, of course, that you are English and have been brought up on a sensible diet of weak tea, buttered crumpets and Winnie the Pooh. If, however, you are deep in the wilds of Myanmar talking to a highly educated local doctor with an inquisitive mind and persistent manner then referring to a passing elephant as a heffalump requires a half hour discourse on A.A. Milne, the beauty and wonder of childhood, the geography of the 100 Acre Wood and the gender of piglets. It also leads to difficult questions like “How can you be sure that the heffalump was an elephant?” and “What is the role of the donkey? And what was he doing in the hole?”.

Hang on, elephants? Anti-completism? What?

We are still in Myanmar, and it is before Christmas. We are on the point of turning for home, and our travel has taken on a certain character. We started the trip many moons ago in May, happily sightseeing everything in our path, making sure that we wrung the very best from each place we saw. It was amazing, it was enlightening, it was deeply satisfying, and it was exhausting. More recently, we have become a little … anti-completist. The mantra of the anti-completist is: “what is it about this specific place that we cannot see anywhere else?” It’s not pure laziness, although this has a little to do with it. It’s more that, having seen thousands of Bhuddas, hundreds of temples, dozens of endangered and endemic species at arms’ length, various tribal gatherings, the world’s highest point, deepest canyon, weirdest industrial accident, fattest tourist and best leaving party, we are becoming – erm – a little harder to impress.

So, heffalumps. Oh yes.

Having shunned a few gold-encrusted temples (blah), the last of the anti-completist must-dos in Myanmar was a trip to a working elephant camp in the teak forests near Taungoo, where we were shown round by the above mentioned local doctor – tour guide by profession, free clinic provider and general all round saint in his spare time. The photographs below will tell the story better (and certainly more succinctly) than I could. Let’s just say that waking in a rangers’ hut on the edges of the jungle, tramping through the bush on the back of a working elephant, cutting down a huge teak tree and hauling the thing back on chains to base camp was a real privilege. Consider us impressed.