sharing their world…

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It was a short night for recovery from three excursions the day before. But strolling through the  decommissioned whaling station was just what we needed. The sun was glorious, which added a bright touch to the otherwise gloomy history of Grytviken. There were about 40 whaling stations on South Georgia at its peak. Some would process 25 whales a day, and this went on for years. Is it any wonder the population was decimated? This was a grisly business requiring the sturdiest of constitutions to prevail. In the days of whaling the lifestyle was bleak and the work an acute attack on the senses. One can only imagine the sights and smells.

This one has a master’s degree in lolling, don’t you think?

The animals at Grytviken were lolling about in the sun, and we humans were not minding the comparative warmth either. Other than our stop in Stanley, The Falklands, this was the only time we were in contact with a human outside of our shipmates. The few people who live in Grytviken were purely there as caretakers and to run the shop and the Post Office for the ships that stop. It seemed a popular thing to do to post a card or letter from So Georgia, especially for those who were stamp collectors. So you see, when I say we were living in a virus free bubble, I’m really not exaggerating.

This was a native plant called Greater Burnet. The rust colour of its flower heads were the same colour as the rusting buildings all around. The seed has a barb on it that catches on clothing and animal fur and feathers which enable it to more easily spread. These types of things were why we had to regularly check the velcro and folds of our clothes, so not to bio-contaminate places.
Pretty self explanatory really.
This was in the small museum at Grytviken and was a copy from one found there many years ago. I probably don’t need to say more.
These are some of the storage tanks that contained whale oil.

The other main reason for visiting Grytviken was to observe Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave site. In a perverse way, Shackleton is mostly famous for failing. He attempted to explore Antarctica and his ship became frozen in the ice and was eventually crushed and sank. The crew tried to survive but it became apparent they would need help. Shackleton and five crew members got into the equivalent of a large row boat and after days of horrific weather finally made it to the land of South Georgia Island. Then they walked across the frozen, rugged landscape to get help. The harrowing story of their survival and rescue of the crew has become more important than the fact he never reached Antarctica. Eventually Shackleton’s miscalculation on his third attempt to reach Antarctica saw him die of a heart attack. We usually honour successful explorers, but often it is the unsuccessful ones who have paved the way.

Another bit of housekeeping that you may find interesting was the necessity for us to clean our boots every time we stepped off of the ship into a zodiac, but especially when we went ashore. The crew would help prise stones and shells from the crevices, then we had to rub the boots back and forth over brushes that were sitting in the saltwater. When we got back on the ship more crew would power clean the boots, and finally we would walk through a bath of disinfectant. Every. Single. Time. All of this was the conscientious effort to keep us from cross-contaminating these special places. We learned the lesson well, and as I told you in the first episode of this saga, we even scrubbed our own boots before leaving South Africa for our return trip.

The seal thinks this is spectator sport. Note stand the person in the water is leaning on. The pink just below the surface are the boot cleaning brushes.
Grytviken in the distance.

After lunch that day, Capucine, our cruise director, announced that the Captain had a special surprise for us. This turned out not to be the only surprise the Captain would have for us, but I’ll tell you about that later. We boarded zodiacs, as per normal and were treated to more lovely scenery and wildlife. But just when we thought we would be returning to the ship, our zodiac driver made a detour. There was a lovely waterfall around the corner and once we were there, the naturalist, Lucia, knelt down and opened a specially designed box that held a dozen glasses and a bottle of champagne! We all had a little bubbly, toasting each other and the Captain for what had so far been a wonderful trip.

Seal heaven.
Antarctic fur seals were hunted almost to extinction but thanks to preservation have re-established in great numbers.
Maybe we should name this Surprise Waterfalls.

We had one more excursion that evening, a landing at St. Andrews Bay. This time, the King Penguin colony was over 100,000 PAIRS of King Penguins! It was beyond imagination. King Penguins are gorgeous creatures. Their colouring looks as if it has been airbrushed onto them. They stand about 3 feet tall, but their presence seems much larger. What really impressed me was their gentle curiosity. They would walk right up to us and look, or stroll by as if we were one of their own. There was no fear, but it was their curiosity that was actually rather human-like. I’m sure we look very funny to them, however they only looked beautiful to me. The sound of them was extraordinary too. Occasionally the smell was there, but again, not like you would expect.

The St. Andrews colony had a lot more space to spread out, so it was hard to believe how many were here. And check that glacier in the background!
Probably my favourite photo from the entire trip. If they look like they are communicating, they are. Penguins communicate with their beaks. These two walked right up to me, so close I could have touched them. Incredible.
Penguins usually try to find a stream in which to stand while they are moulting. It helps them regulate their body temperature.

Even though the St. Andrews Bay colony is larger, than the Salisbury Plain one, the area is also larger and so the gathering isn’t as dense. The backdrop was stunning.

I will never forget that hour or so at dusk while these amazing creatures allowed us to share their world. I had to tear myself away, as I’m sure did everyone. This was the reason my intuition had wanted me to make this trip.

a new twist to this adventure coming soon…

(apologies for a notification that went out earlier, I hit the wrong button and published the post that was supposed to come after this one. It has been removed and I’ll publish it in a day or two—or more, if you are feeling overwhelmed, let me know and I’ll slow down the posts!)

South Georgia on my mind…

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After the flurry of activity in the Falklands, we were happy to have a few days at sea to rest and let everything sink in. However, don’t think we were without plenty to do! Every day either the National Geographic photographer or Nat Geo expert, as well as one of eight Naturalists, would give talks. They would prepare us for what we would see next, as well as review what we had just seen. Occasionally the Captain and the Expedition leader or the Cruise Director would also talk to us, about various functions aboard the ship. And if you were at loose ends you could nearly always go visit the bridge of the ship and stare out at the seemingly endless expanse of water and sky. And then there was afternoon tea. That will require a whole post by itself.

Subtle, but to the point.

On the second of our days traveling to South Georgia Island the seas became a bit rough and we were doing the ‘drunken man’s walk’ up and down the hallways of the ship. And that night, they became even rougher. We were half laughing, and half anxious, when coming back from dinner we saw that ‘sick bags’ had been tucked discreetly behind the hand rails of all the hallways. What were we in for? It turned out, we did indeed, have a rough night. The ship rolled enough that unless you were flat on your back or stomach it was hard to stay in bed. This was the famous Southern Ocean we had heard about. Very surprisingly it did not make us sick, and that was down to the fin stabilisers which literally sliced through the swell and kept the ship from getting tossed in a corkscrew motion. Next morning, a few people appeared with seasick patches on their necks, and a couple were wearing the sea-bands like I had purchased, but since I wasn’t feeling sick, only sleep deprived, I didn’t bother with the sea-bands and I was fine.

Sitting at meals and watching the enormous swell and waves slap the windows was a bit like staring into a front loader washing machine. It was kind of mesmerising too, and almost unbelievable that everyone wasn’t sick.

After 36 hours or so the swell calmed and the choppy waves seemed much less threatening. Every now and then we would lose an hour of sleep to having to set our clocks ahead. This was one such night. There were four hours’ difference between our departure and our eventual landing in Cape Town.

Shag Rocks, westernmost South Georgia Islands. Imagine an early explorer not knowing these were here and snagging the shags??

Early in the day before reaching South Georgia Island we passed the westernmost islands called Shag Rocks. As you might expect this is because it was the roosting place for hundreds and hundreds of Shags, Albatrosses, Prions, great Shearwaters and other birds. The ‘rocks’ are actually the tips of mountains that have their base over one thousand feet deep on the ocean bed. It is from this chain of underwater mountains that the Sandwich Islands and South Georgia also spring up.

There was so much dramatic lighting around South Georgia.
Our first sighting of King Penguins, a smaller Gentoo and some seals for good measure.
This adult Albatross’s wingspan is about 6 feet! The ‘baby’ is still being spoiled!
Where is my Mum?

The first morning of our next zodiac excursion was to Prion Island. This is a very protected area, only allowing small numbers of visitors at a time so larger cruise ships can’t really stop here. Our Expedition Leader had gotten us permission to land, less than 50 people at a time. The Antarctic fur seals greeted us when we landed and the first of the King Penguins were here too, as well as a small colony of Snowy Albatrosses. There were lots of pups and some mums still nursing the babies, but there were also a few very feisty young male pups who were trying out their teeth and aggressive skills as we moved along the boardwalk among them. A lady was nipped on the leg by one, due to a miscalculation, and Don was chased by this one, however we think that may have been moustache envy.

Moustache envy if I ever saw it.
Heading back from Prion Island to the ship. Check out those glaciers!

Our next landing was between two glaciers (not the same glaciers as in the photo above) that lay in the valleys of mountains on the northern coast. Salisbury Plain is a well known colony of about 60,000 King Penguins, some elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals. Many places we visited had several species cohabitating with little problem. Most of the spats and dominance tussles happen within a species and not between species. It was amazing to see them all moving around between one another. Again, the penguins were moulting and at their most vulnerable so we kept our distance so not to disturb them. And in case you are wondering, every so often the wind would waft the guano smell our way. That too was extraordinary, not in a good way. But mostly these colonies did not smell as bad as you might expect.

As the waters calmed, hundreds of king penguins finished with moulting swam out to check out the ship. We watched with absolute delight from the deck.
Each to their own style of sleeping.
What’s for dinner? That depends, did you go fishing today? Er, no. Nuf said.
What 60,000 King Penguins look like on Salisbury Plain.

I’m mostly letting photos do the talking with this post. The place was extraordinary.

On this particular day we had three excursions. If it was exhausting for us, you can imagine how much more exhausted the naturalists and the crew must have been. They were also extraordinary in their efforts to keep us safe but show us the best the surroundings had to offer.

Before each excursion one or two of the naturalists would scout the location to make sure it was safe and that we could see wildlife. They reminded us of racehorses at a gate, so keen to get into the water and explore.
The seals proliferated the waters’ edge but there were also penguins dotted amongst the seals–see the tiny white figures on the rocky shore, in the distance.
The seals swam all around us, diving and watching.
On this particular ride I enjoyed the scenery as much as the animals.

point to ponder…

Even the shortest zodiac ride was about 1.5 to 2 hours–the longest about 3.5 to 4 hours. This includes walks to and from the wildlife, frequent squatting to take photos, and bumpy rides on rough seas. Now imagine trying to stay hydrated when you are doing two (or three) of these excursions a day. And further, imagine there was ZERO opportunity to relieve one’s bladder on any of them. I think you get my point.

Okay babe, I get your point.

stay tuned…there’s more to come…

the Falklands…

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Thank goodness I take so many photos. They help bring me back to the more sensory experiences of the places we have been, especially when the places are as unusual as the Falkland Islands. A lot of the time I can actually remember how I composed the photo and how I was feeling when I took it. The first zodiac ride was not something I had been looking forward to. See anxiety: boats of all sizes as noted in the previous post.

Our ship is in the background and we are about to return from our first excursion on New Island, The Falklands.

Learning how to layer the gear for maximum effect, and remembering so much new information added to the zodiac learning curve. In order to not sweat profusely we had to put on everything but the jacket, life vest and boots, then walk from two floors up and halfway the length of the ship to the area closest to the marina, from where we launched, and finish getting dressed there. Our room key, which was also our identity card, was inserted into a ready-made, see-through pocket on the sleeve of our jacket. This was one of the hardest things to remember because we had to use it on its own much of the time in between excursions. God forbid you should walk all the way to the launching point, having forgotten your card in the stateroom! The card had a scanning code on it that they used to scan you off and back on board with each excursion—no one was left behind.

The gear was awkward and heavy, but very, very practical, and of course, attractive. The zodiacs held 10 of us per excursion, not including the crew member/naturalist at the helm. There was a very precise method of boarding the zodiac, which was different when boarding from the ship, because you were stepping down into the zodiac, rather than stepping up from the water’s edge. I was fine boarding from the ship’s marina, but for some reason the crew just didn’t quite grasp where my centre of gravity was–being very short on one end. I could never hoist myself, and the heavy, awkward gear, up onto the edge of the zodiac while wading in water and they always had to help me. It was not a pretty sight—think beached whale.

For most of us the first real awareness of the Falkland Islands was during the war in 1982. History recap: the war was because Argentina wanted to take over the running of the islands, but the 3,000 inhabitants wanted to continue under British rule. The Brits won. Our first three stops were not to the capital, Stanley, but to some of the other islands of the archipelago, the first being New Island. Given it was also our first excursion, it was fortunate the launch and landing to shore were both on calm waters.

Our first sighting of New Island, through the mists.

Wikipedia will tell you that the terrain in the Falklands is ‘rugged’. They do not lie. What isn’t rocky and steep is covered in Tussoc(k) grass, which provides a habitat for many smaller animals. The tussock was at least knee high and taller. It had been gently raining that afternoon so everything was wet, including the rocks and tussock. We landed in King George Bay and had to walk across the island to an area that held an Albatross community. The naturalists who were younger and fitter than us had indicated this was a relatively easy walk. Although, thinking back on it, the naturalist who said ‘easy’ did halt just a split second before saying it. Hmmm. We had to walk up hill before we got to the area with the albatrosses. It was not that easy for us, especially me. In fact, the rocks were slippery and the visibility beneath the heavy Tussock was not good and I fell. Fortunately it was a soft landing in terms of breaks or bruising but I can tell you I really felt the twisting and turning for several days afterward.

The Snowy/Wandering Albatrosses have enormous wing spans of 5-6 feet and their chicks take about a year to mature so are huge by the time they leave the nest. In fact they often weigh more than the parents as they have been fed well and are just sitting all the time. Hmmm, note to self… This was a special time of the year to view the nearly mature chicks and in a place that the Naturalists don’t always get to visit. We had arrived early to the Falklands and so were able to take this unplanned excursion on New Island late in the afternoon of arrival.

Those of you who follow my photography @amosthemagicdog on Instagram will know that one of my favourite subjects are the plants, flowers and textures wherever we travel, and especially here at home. So after seeing the albatrosses I was keen to photograph some of the unusual flora on the way back to the zodiac. You have to believe me when I tell you I slept well that night. Dead tired.

I haven’t really highlighted two important facts on the nature of this cruise. It was both a repositioning cruise, and an expedition cruise. The ‘repositioning’ part refers to the start and finish of the trip, beginning in one port (Argentina) and ending in a completely different place, in our case, South Africa. The ‘expedition’ part of the cruise refers to the need for flexibility given weather conditions and wildlife sightings. The weather had deteriorated overnight and so instead of the planned trip further north in the Falklands, the ship repositioned itself in the night to a more sheltered area near Barren Island, and was ready for a fresh excursion the next morning. It was terribly exciting…the first penguins of the trip! Before each excursion the naturalists would talk to us about what we could expect to see at that landing. There was so much information coming into our brains, it was no wonder we were sleeping well.

This is possibly my favourite photo from The Falklands…except for the above ones of the penguins. It shows the grasses and terrain and the two native Upland Geese. The male is the white one, the female a russet and brown to blend in with surroundings while she sits on the nest. Isn’t Nature smart?

The objects of our second excursion were Gentoo and Magellenic penguins, Sea Lions, cormorants and other bird life on Barren Island. If you look at the photos and see not much vegetation, you will understand the name. Though, be assured, there was ample life around! The penguins were just adorable and seemed not the least bit afraid of us. We were instructed to keep a five metre (15 feet) distance from them and so it did make photos with an iPhone challenging as these penguins are fairly small. This is where my affinity for photographing animals and their environments helps me. I think close ups of animal faces are wonderful, but they don’t tell you much about the surroundings the animals live in, so I’m actually very happy to get reasonably close to the animals but also able to position them in their surroundings.

The sea lions were the exception to my theory of photography as they were quite dangerous to get anywhere near, so my photos were not great. They were enormous (males between 700-800lbs), growling and aggressive at times, so that you knew standing well back was the best decision, photos or not. That is the large male at the left and his harem of females to the right.

There were remnants of whale bones scattered on the landscape, some nearly as large as my torso. Sadly, there were also remains of baby penguins that did not live to maturity. There were lichens and layers of sea life everywhere. It was all beautiful.

The next morning’s excursion was to Bleaker Island. The weather deteriorated, so rather than a second excursion (thanks to the gods) the Captain moved the ship to the calmer waters of East Falkland Island, near the capital of Stanley. On Bleaker Island we saw more penguins, different to the previous ones. These were called Rock Hopper Penguins. They were so hilarious looking—kind of a mixture of uber-cool and pissed off! Picture the penguins Robin Williams voiced in Happy Feet (Ramon and Lovelace) and you will know what I mean. Nearly all of the penguins we saw were moulting, which is why they were on land and not in the water. While they are moulting they are vulnerable to the cold and wet, so for a few weeks of the year they stand in large communities dropping feathers while the new ones grow in…and they are starving. They can’t fish so they can’t eat. This was another reason we had to respect some distance and not make them feel threatened.

You can see the pieces of hail-we just stood with our backs to the wind until it was over.
You see? These rock hopper penguins had the right idea too.

Our first little while on Bleaker Island was a very rude shock. The weather was cold and the headwind was nearing gale force gusts. And then it sleeted. And then it hailed. And then we all turned our backs to the weather like penguins, until it passed. Again, Bleaker was an apt name. We then trudged along on the uneven ground that was thick with long grasses. In hind sight, this was the most difficult excursion of all, but at the time we weren’t sure they all wouldn’t be like this!

Once again, this area could contain land mines, so we were not walking through it but staying on the path.

The following morning we were moored near Stanley and the ship’s Cruise Director, Capucine, announced they had put together a land excursion for us to take across the bay via bus, to see more rock hopper penguins as well as the rugged terrain. The shock for us was that they are still scouring the area for landmines, planted in the 1982 war. We were not to venture from the well designated path.

After the bus excursion we were allowed to roam around Stanley to get a feeling for the place. It was somewhat like an idyllic English village and we could see why the locals would have wanted it to remain as it is. The archway in front of the church is made from whale bones! (And just by the way, as of 2 April, they still have no COVID-19!) There have to be some rewards for living in one of the remotest parts of the world.

Farewell Stanley, bring on the Southern Ocean again.

get ready for penguins…

Buenos Aires to Ushuaia…

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Air New Zealand in Auckland

I ‘m very keen for you to see some of the most special parts of our trip. But like us, you will have to endure the ‘getting there’ stages first. The actual flights to Buenos Aires were good. However, upon landing we learned that an unexpected strike of baggage handlers had been called for that very afternoon. All of my anxiety was at attention and getting ready to say ‘I told you so’. The airport handled things pretty well, sending out workers with room temperature soft drink, ick, and little snacks of some kind of sweet Argentinian sandwich biscuit. There were two flight-loads of us waiting, so hundreds of people, gathered in a space with three luggage belts.

And one bathroom.

Not wanting to make people feel more uncomfortable in an already uncomfortable situation, I shot this purposely as a silhouette and thought the patterns were interesting, but it doesn’t really show the hundreds of us packed into the area.

To their credit, there was toilet paper, and soap to wash hands, but only two of the three stalls in the Ladies’ toilet were working. Typical. (remember, COVID-19 was not reported in Argentina until March 3, this was 21 Feb) We had been among the first to disembark and get through immigration so, incredibly, there were a few seats left. We grabbed them and settled in for what could have been a long wait, or worse, no luggage appearing at all. After two hours outside workers came in to perform the duties of those on strike. We finally spotted our bags among those making their way along the conveyor belt. By this time, our booked and paid for transfer ride had left the scene. We had been warned they would only wait for an hour in case our flight was delayed, but no one mentioned baggage handlers striking. We wandered around trying to find how to get in touch with them, because by now it was out of hours, after 5pm on a Friday. A couple of workers tried to help us but to no avail until one young woman pointed us toward the window of a transfer service. We thought we would just ‘eat’ the already paid for service and get a new one. As we walked up to the window, there on a piece of paper stuck to the glass with tape, was our surname! Excitedly I said to Don, ‘Look, look, that’s us!’ When a young woman approached us at the window I pointed to the sign and then to us saying ‘That’s us’! She smiled and said she would contact the driver who would come around in fifteen minutes or so. As we would discover, the ‘or so’ was the local way of doing things. But in about half an hour we were on our way to the hotel.

Arriving at what was now deeply dusk, we decided we really didn’t have the energy to go looking for food and weren’t particularly hungry, so we skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Happily, the Magnolia Hotel was everything it had sounded like when I found it on booking.com. The boutique hotel was owned and run by Maria for the last 12 years. Maria and her husband had lived in Miami for years and so she spoke perfect English. She had bought the house with a clear idea of the type of hotel she wanted to run. ‘Like everything,’ she said ‘it has been much harder than I ever imagined’. The rooms were furnished with a few pieces of tasteful, vintage furniture, and large comfortable bed, good air conditioning and a clean bathroom. There was no TV, only Netflix, but we weren’t there to watch TV, and with good WIFI we were able to access email and news.

The breakfasts were delicious with two kinds of croissants, the light and crispy French style and the other, a slightly more dense version with a thin glaze of icing. They were my favourite. Fresh butter, marmalade and Dulce de Leche (caramelised sweetened condensed milk) and a rich, yogurt type of accompaniment, were available each morning, as were an array of fruit, cheese and eggs to your liking. The little courtyard accessible from the breakfast area was calm and restful, and one morning there was even a local bird in it, perched and quietly watching.

Until this trip, I had gone for three years without eating anything but the smallest scrap of wheat and most of the time no grains at all. I also could not seem to digest fruit. Onion and garlic were off the menu as well. As you can imagine this made traveling very challenging. However, having not challenged the status quo in a while, I was determined to do my best to enjoy the local cuisine. I dived into the deep end and ate one of the pastries…and fruit. As the days went by I repeated my sins, only to discover I was experiencing NO ill effects whatever. I could scarcely believe it.

After a night’s sleep we did some research and to our dismay, discovered we had landed in Buenos Aires on the long weekend before Carnival. Time to implement Plan B. These are the things that can really mess with your travel plans, not that we had much choice. Our charter flight to board the ship left on the Carnival holiday, Tuesday, and we had come a few days early to try and recover from jet lag. So, you get what you get sometimes. And it was all fine, though more crowded than it might normally have been, due to many locals being off work and out to see the sights and attend celebrations.

To be honest, Buenos Aires was a little underwhelming. We made the most of it and walked many miles and rode the ‘hop on-hop off’ bus to various sites. But the city is sprawling, and kind of tired looking. That being said, we had some delicious food, and saw some things we had never seen, like the most amazing cemetery called Recoleta—where Eva Perone is laid to rest. Don’t you love a good cemetery?? We also achieved our goal of getting some rest before boarding the cruise. And the bonus for me was staying in the Magnolia Hotel, probably my all time favourite hotel ever, certainly in my top five. We attended the oldest market in BA, and I even chatted (LOL) with José the busker, who only spoke Spanish. Through my ancient knowledge of Italian I gathered he wrote his own music, was also a poet, and was from Santiago, Chile. And he was a charmer.

And that chocolate cream cake…Yes. Absolutely.

We had a brief trip to the zoo that was heavily under construction, in transition to an Eco Park but no one seemed sure what that was. We also spent a couple of hours at the botanic gardens, always a favourite shady place for us, especially when the days are hot and humid as they were in BA.

On Tuesday we had an early transfer at 6.30am from the Magnolia Hotel to the airport. Again the casual local habits threatened to derail us when our booked transfer didn’t appear. The lovely breakfast lady/server/receptionist at the Magnolia apologised and persevered until she got us the desired result. We were very ready to move into the next phase of our journey.

For as long as I can remember Tierra Del Fuego has been one of the most exotic names and places I can recall. Even saying it is music to my lips. I remember my year 7 geography teacher mentioning it, and little else about it, but the name stayed in my psyche all these years.

Once aboard our charter flight from BA to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra Del Fuego, we felt we could relax and let Ponant take care of us in luxury, as promised in its corporate description. The flight was two hours and as soon as we landed we were whisked onto buses and off for an afternoon tour through Tierra Del Fuego National Park and finally to the docks in Ushuaia where our home away from home, Le Lyrial was moored. We were served a very nice grilled/barbecued lunch in the Argentinian style while in the National Park. Sorry, no photo—picture beautifully charred meat, poultry and veggies piled on a huge serving dish with plenty of chips (french fries) for everyone. And bread. And butter. And for the first of many times over the next three weeks, dessert.

Tierra Del Fuego National Park actually has very few accessible areas, preserved mostly in its natural state. It is a subantarctic forest with glaciers and
We made our first acquaintances from the cruise when a couple of young men offered to take a photo of us after I had taken one of them.

Our bags had already been transferred to our stateroom aboard Le Lyrial. Already we were in the lap of luxury. We were greeted by the Captain and a couple of the crew, who we would soon get to know and think of as advisors and protectors. Every one of our crew was not only friendly but very funny. I suppose partly it was their job, but I have always found, with the only exception being a very cranky shopkeeper in Paris, the French to be accomodating and helpful if you approach them with respect and just the tiniest smattering of their language.

Unknown person, standing conveniently where I wanted him, looking out at Beagle Channel, Tierra Del Fuego

It is always a bit painful when starting a cruise, whether it be ocean or river. It is mandatory to attend the safety demonstration, try on your life vest and listen to the sounds of ‘abandon ship, abandon ship’, which you hope never to hear again. After the huge day of flying, bussing and vesting, we were served the first of many delicious meals with 122 others who would travel with us for the next 22 days. It was a lot to take in. Fortunately, the next day was ‘at sea’ and we could settle in as we made our way to our first destination, the Falkland Islands.

Goodbye Ushuaia, End of the World…hello Southern Ocean

there’s more to come…

what happens…

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Have you ever followed a special feeling or intuition that you couldn’t really explain? I’ve been doing it most of my life. In the early stages I wasn’t aware of it, but by my third decade I was beginning to get the drift. Some people call them ‘hunches’ or the ‘small voice’ inside. I’m not really sure what it is, but it is wise in ways that I would not claim to be, and yet, somehow it comes out of me. The next few posts will be the story resulting from one of those very strong intuitive feelings.

We have just completed a trip I would never have dreamed for myself. Not because I couldn’t dream that big, but because I couldn’t imagine putting myself through the potential physical punishment. Most of my conscious choices in life have been mental challenges. Trying to understand who I am and those who are close to me learning skills and such. Physical challenges have just been there all my life, as with many people. When I was about a year old a wave unexpectedly washed me out of my Dad’s hands into the sea.  Spoiler alert, he found me. When I was five I developed Rheumatic fever, and again at nine, and on and on. Every few years I’ve had a new physical challenge to work through. So I never felt the need to prove myself under physical duress in other ways.

Only home three days from another big trip, our travel agent told me about a trip to cruise from Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina, to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), South Georgia Island and Tristan Da Cunha and to finish in South Africa. I became quietly obsessed. Logically, there was almost nothing about this trip that should appeal to me. I don’t really like cruising because, well…people…too many and too close at hand. Also, travel is always a challenge, because of my food sensitivities. And then there is sea sickness. I told my husband on the last miserable boat ride we had, not to bother asking me to go on another boat. Ever. He didn’t ask me this time, it was kind of my idea. What was I thinking?

That’s the thing. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling. It was an intuitive knowing that for reasons I didn’t understand, I needed to make this journey. If every potential thing had gone wrong on this trip it would be the trip from hell. Another spoiler alert, it didn’t. This made it the trip of a lifetime. Actually, either way it would have been the trip of a lifetime, but, well, you know… The real reason I decided it was a good idea was because I’ve learned that big challenges yield big memories. Whether they are memories of hellish challenges, or memories of penguins, sea scapes and new worlds, we took the chance it would all be worthwhile.

COVID-19 was the one thing we had not counted on.

We booked the trip 10 months before embarkation. That’s a long time to anticipate, plan…and worry. Enter coronavirus—just to ramp up the anxiety a bit. A few weeks before our departure on Feb 20, we were both checking the news regularly. At that point the virus was mainly in China. There was none yet in Africa, at least none that was reported, and the same for South America. Since our trip mostly focused on a small passenger luxury cruise with Ponant to islands of the Southern Ocean, where there was also no virus, we felt we were safe enough to go. Just a day or so before leaving Australia we received communication from Ponant that if we had traveled to China, Italy or Iran, we would not be allowed to board the ship. True to their word, before boarding, Ponant representatives had a look at us and checked our passports, as well as had us sign wavers that we had not traveled in those places. And thus, we entered our bubble of safety.

However, I was definitely having ‘buyers remorse’ for two weeks (at least) before the trip. The Southern Ocean is notorious for the roughest seas in the world: refer to paragraph 3 re: seasickness. I had two seasickness meds with us, and bought a third thing I’d heard about, at the airport as we were leaving…sea-bands. They are elastic bands with a small plastic dot that when worn activate pressure points on both wrists that help control nausea. I have no idea if any of them worked because I never needed them. I hasten to add this was not because the seas were smooth, they were very rough at times. But I am now wise in the ways of ‘stabilisers’–in particular, fin-style stabilisers, on ships. If we do a cruise again, my first question to the sales agent will be ‘what kind of stabilisers do they have?’ Glory be. What a boon to the motion sick traveler. As the seas slapped us around the stabilisers kept the ship from doing the deadly corkscrew motion and I was saved. I hasten to add, there were a number of people, one crewman even, who wore the seasickness patches behind their ear. They didn’t seem to be bothered by the motion either, but I never got around to asking them whether the patches were precautionary or necessary. Seasickness was my most pressing worry. It could have spoiled the entire experience.

image of Ponant Cruises ship Le Lyrial
Our blessedly stabilised ship carrying 124 passengers, 157 crew, and no penguins,
who were sorely disappointed.

Also I had anxiety about what clothing to pack. Never having been on a zodiac excursion in my life, I did some extensive research online a few months prior and eventually chased down the required clothing. Said clothing were: wool socks, tops and leggings, beanie and neck gator; waterproof outer pants and waterproof gloves and shoes. The cruise was a National Geographic Expedition cruise and they partnered with Ponant providing very warm waterproof jackets and knee high boots (aka: wellingtons). We got to keep the jacket, which, despite best efforts at minimal packing, we then had to ease into already full suitcases (one each) to come home. Thankfully Ponant kept the boots so no further stuffing of cases was required. Would my research prove adequate, would the items procured be fit for purpose?…more anxiety.

Aren’t we fetching? We may not look glamorous but we certainly were warm!
Captain Patrick Marchesseau and yours truly–not glamorous, just not inappropriate either!

And then there was the side fact that this was a luxury cruise with a French crew and lots of French passengers, ie: French women passengers who might be intimidatingly stylish . What’s a 66 year old from the bush to wear? I was so anxious I tried on every single thing that I was thinking of taking, and photographed myself wearing it so I could analyse the images. Roll your eyes now. Anal, you say? Well, it worked. I’m happy to report I never looked inappropriate and at the end of the cruise a handsome Frenchman told Don and I we were one of the most glamorous couples in the photos taken on board the night of the Captain’s dinner. You can judge for yourself. But I also note, that on the flight from Adelaide to New Zealand for our departure to South America, a middle aged woman ran to catch up with me as we were deplaning and said ‘I just love your ‘look’ and wanted to tell you!’ I was not wearing the same outfit we wore to the Captain’s dinner either. Such a boon to anyone who tries their best. I always try to pay it forward, even to strangers when I see something I admire. I had only recently realised for myself that the changes I had been making to my hair, makeup and wardrobe were so that I would look the same on the outside as I feel on the inside…grey hair and sagging body parts aside.

And there were other things, the normal things, to be anxious about. Lost luggage, late flights, dietary needs, fitness level, sickness—over and above the obvious COVID-19 issue. And the ever important question of whether or not my pants would fit after three weeks of French food. The closer the trip, the more anxious about all those things I became. I tried to tell myself what I always try to tell myself ‘the things we worry about are almost never the things that happen!’ And sure enough, I was right—er, well, my wiser self was right. But that’s easy looking back 6 or 8 weeks later, isn’t it? The one thing I didn’t worry about was the thing that happened.

to be continued…

(this series of posts of our recent travels and other non-important musings by moi (are you feeling the French vibe??) are designed to entertain those of you who may need a break from self-isolation and social distancing. I hope you enjoy it)

travel and a shooting star…

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We have been traveling and I will eventually tell you about the trip, but first I’m going to tell you about getting home.

Our trip home from South Africa truly began, I think, when on our last full day at Gondwana Game Reserve, Don looked up at the early morning sky and saw a shooting star. He later told me he wondered if it was an omen. We hoped it was. We’d had good advice from our travel agents, given the difficulty of finding earlier flights than we had booked, to stay and use the bookings we had. Fluid as the situation was, we ended up asking them to change our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg to an earlier one, in case things got cumbersome and messy, giving us plenty of time to catch our return flight to Australia. There were two seats left, so the shooting star was doing it’s job! When we arrived early for the flight from Cape Town things were pretty calm and not many people around. In fact when we turned in our rental car the porter said they were only expecting 60 vehicles returned that day, when they usually get between 500-600. So, yes. Things were quiet.

It was a Tuesday and the airline lounge had loads of space when we arrived but a couple of hours later it had filled up. As we were boarding to leave, another Aussie couple in front of us told the story they had experienced Friday, the previous week. They had arrived to take a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg but were told the international connecting flight on to Perth, Australia, was cancelled and they’d have to make other arrangements or be stuck in Jo’burg. No notice, no compensation, just make other arrangements. (It was not Qantas.) Johannesburg is notoriously dangerous, which they knew full well, having lived there many years before. Of course this put us more on edge than we already were, and had been for the entire previous couple of weeks. We were trying to enjoy our much anticipated holiday, but in the back of our minds lived the constant changes in circumstances for getting home.

Once we had boarded the SAA flight to Jo’burg, we looked at each other and breathed a short sigh of relief, knowing we had in front of us two more legs to our journey. Once in Jo’burg the security and immigration procedures were easy. Mostly. The airport lounge had only a few people but again filled up over the four hours we waited. The departure sign indicated we were to ‘go to the gate’, which is nearly always a euphemism for something other than boarding. Usually waiting. This time was no exception, except that 90% of the people were jammed up together in a small area that was not moving and was certainly not practicing social distancing. So, we did our own thing by hanging way back, well out of reach of the others who were waiting. And then we saw that for some reason the South Africans were again searching bags before boarding the plane. It appeared they were looking for large liquid containers. Once the boarding procedure actually continued and was well thinned down to the last couple of dozen passengers, we stepped forward to have our bags searched and were then allowed to move toward the boarding zone.

By the time we got on board the 747 and the Qantas crew greeted us, I leaned slightly toward the crew member nearest me (but not too close!) and said “I’m SO glad to be here”, to which she replied “We’re so glad to have you! We just want to get everyone home safely.” Once again as the plane took off, Don and I held hands as another hurdle had been cleared and we were in the air. Three days after our flight from Jo’burg, South Africa closed its borders. And another day later they have said no one is to leave their home.

The flight was about 12 hours, during which time we ate twice and slept a little and watched a movie. Not knowing what to expect when we deplaned in Sydney, anxiety was still churning through my insides. As we touched down we breathed a deeper sigh of relief, but still, uncertainty hung in the air. As we rolled down the runway the head of the flight crew came over the intercom and welcomed us home, saying that Qantas was proud to be helping Aussies as they have always done for the 100 years they have been in service. “I hope you will appreciate the crew on board have just flown their last flight for a long time (they were all being stood down due to the airline shutting down) This crew have put themselves in harm’s way to help their fellow Aussies and I couldn’t be prouder of them.” By this time loud applause had broken out across the plane, tears filled my eyes and the crew wiped theirs as well. We knew once we were on Aussie soil again, we would figure things out, and now we were there. As we deplaned and thanked each crew member we passed, my eyes continued to be rimmed with tears, and I noticed even the male crew members’ chins were quivering and they swallowed hard to try and maintain their professional standards.

Queued in Sydney with masks and forms

Not for the first time on this trip have we left what felt a relatively safe bubble to venture into the new world. As we walked from the gate and before we entered that visionary land of Duty Free, we were greeted by two figures, one with masks and the other with declarations to sign and instructions for self isolating. But there was nowhere to stop to fill out the papers until after we had walked through Duty Free. There, only three tables for a few hundred people to stop and fill out the declaration forms that we would be self-isolating, where we had come from, and where we would be staying. Huddled together, Don and I produced our own pens as a small token toward trying to stay somewhat separated.

We were instructed to stand in a queue, not far enough apart at first, but at least we had masks this time. When we got closer to the medical team that would take our temperature and individually talk to us about how we felt, and answer questions we might have about self-isolation, we noticed they did have a few lines of tape on the floor about 1.5m (5 feet) apart. But no one had been there to point this out or to encourage separation at first. Eventually we figured it out. I guess they were still on the learning curve just like us.

I quickly discovered a down side to wearing a mask. It was triggering the feelings I get with a panic attack…sweaty palms and shortness of breath. I had to surreptitiously ease the bottom of the mask from time to time to get a fresh breath to keep from fully panicking. I know this kind of defeated the purpose, but I didn’t want to have a full on attack just at that moment. There was enough going on already. And let’s face it, we’d already had a lot of contact without masks.

Once we were in the amazingly short queue for immigration, I lifted the mask so the officer could see that I matched the photo in my passport, and I just never put it back on. We were clear of most everyone by then. After clearing immigration we collected our bags, had declared we had been in South Africa and ‘wilderness areas’ so they could check our shoes for bio-contamination particles, but they only questioned us and moved us on. Having learned about the importance of bio-contamination on the trip, we had both scrubbed our shoes the night before we left Cape Town. Thank goodness. We could scarcely believe it once we were out in the open air of Sydney.

In the middle left of the water you can see the ship.

We got into a cab, that was not very clean, I must say, and rode to the InterContinental hotel. We were welcomed and our room upgraded to a harbour view, even without asking. Smack in the middle of that beautiful harbour was a ship, anchored. Waiting. We later learned it had a number of cases of COVID-19 aboard.

We ordered room service and then slept a few hours until rising early to begin the last leg of our journey home. This time the taxi was clean and the driver even had antibacterial hand cleaner.

No one but us going through security

Once inside the airport, it was clear, things were not normal. There were very, very few passengers and literally no one ahead of us going through security. And once through security we had another surprise, the airport lounges were closed! Previous indications were that the lounges would be consolidated, but open, so we had to forage for breakfast. A few cafes were open with basic food like fruit and yogurt and croissant sandwiches and coffee or tea. But there was no place to sit. In some cases the tables and chairs were taped off limits, in others it was just obvious you were not meant to sit with the chairs and stools atop the tables. The only places to sit were at the gates, and fortunately with few people, we could get some physical separation.

Tables and chairs not to be used

After a couple of hours’ waiting, our flight boarded a few minutes early and all 22 passengers were on. There were 11 people in economy and five of us in business class. Plenty of separation for everyone!

Upon landing in Alice Springs we were accompanied by two different security people into the company of several border force officers and asked again to fill out the self-isolation form, and again, grouped at a table too small for safe separation. But with only 22 of us, we managed, and again used our own pens, for whatever good it has done.

Yesterday, three days after our arrival, we heard the news that all persons returning from overseas by air will be made to quarantine in hotels at their entry point. Two thirds of Australian cases of COVID-19 have been traced to people returning from overseas visits. Hopefully the quarantine will help.

We are now on Day 3 of self-isolation and are starting to get used to the new way of doing things. Thanks to good friends we had our car waiting in long term parking at the airport and groceries in the fridge, with more to come later on. It took a couple of days to go through procedures for getting groceries delivered but we have just taken our first delivery and it all looks good. Don is washing the windows for the first time in our nearly 37 year marriage and so far we are both healthy. Hoping for good things in your homes as well. 

finding Amos…

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It was a warm summer morning, a welcome couple of degrees cooler than the previous one, and with just enough breeze blowing to maybe keep some of the flies away. Ever since that cruel three millimetres of rain a couple of weeks previously, the one that literally rained mud, the mosquitoes and flies had been horrendous. I can stand the occasional fly, except in my mouth–oh yes, that has happened! But when the sticky ones come in droves and crawl around the moist corners of my eyes and nose, the romantic notion of living in the Outback is quickly replaced with annoyance.

Sun cresting over the ranges looking down the valley

I’d motivated myself to walk because I had been two days without walking, my main source of exercise, and my body needed it. The sun wasn’t over the horizon yet, but the glow was stunning by the time I reached the top of the hill, only a few minutes from our house. As is my habit, I scanned the surroundings while walking down the hill into the golf course valley. A couple of weeks prior I’d looked to my left at that very spot, and there, silently trotting along, were three dingoes, about fifteen feet away from me. They were not interested in me and a minute or so later I realised why. Coming around the corner was shirtless guy and his dog out for their morning run. I’m sure this was all just a little too much urban life for the dingoes who liked the cover of night for their running.

The three amigos hurrying into the valley for cover

As I continued down the hill the sun crested the horizon. There were no other humans around at that moment so I walked, and listened. There is a point near the back of the course where the buggy path diverges into two, one to the left and one to the right, though they meet again at the same place. I saw a small dark ‘something’ in the middle of the left path. Was it moving? I got closer, expecting it to be a bird, feathers being ruffled by the breeze, perhaps. I had found dead birds in this area before. But as I got closer I realised, not only was the ‘something’ moving, it was hissing with what seemed like distress. And no wonder. A few feet closer I realised, it was a tiny kangaroo joey! This just didn’t compute in my brain. Of all the things I’d seen or ever thought I’d see, this was not one of them. Kangaroo mums usually keep their joeys safely inside the pouch…unless…perhaps it had been set upon by the dingoes! I had seen dead kangaroos in this little valley a few times, one morning I even saw a dingo feeding from a carcass. As I rushed up to grab the poor little thing, I simultaneously glanced around for immediate danger, and scanned the joey for injuries.

It seemed remarkably uninjured. And the scrub was quietly holding any secrets it might have. I held the joey close to my body, hoping it would feel the warmth through my tee shirt. It was very distressed and continued to make the hissing sound, but was not aggressive. Slowly, it began to feel the comfort in the rhythmic movement of my body walking rapidly home. Suddenly, nearby there was a young Indigenous man. He saw that I was cradling something and he came over to me. I told him I’d found it in the dirt. He was bewildered and then asked if I wanted him to take it…well actually he motioned that, I don’t think he spoke much English, as is common here. I thanked him and said ‘No, I know who to take it to’. At least I’d hoped I knew. He looked doubtful that this white-fella-woman would know how to care for it but I smiled and said thank you and wished him a good day.

A couple of minutes later I met the old Italian gentleman who walks his German Shepard most mornings. He saw what I was carrying and seemed very concerned. I told him I knew someone who could take care of it and he smiled and said ‘Oh, that’s good’ and gave me a thumbs up! His English wasn’t so great either, but at least I could speak a little Italian if necessary!

A minute or so later shirtless guy, running with his greyhound, came bounding down the hill and gave us an odd look. By this time the return walk seemed like it was taking forever with the wee one still distressed, so I just said good morning and kept moving. I imagine he wondered all day long what I was doing with a tiny joey cuddled in my arms. I know I would have!

I was on the home stretch and started trying to think of what I could put the joey in when I got it home, who I would call, and remembering gratefully this was Don’s morning to leave home later for his weekly commitment at the hospital. He would be there to help. When I got to the glass doors he saw me and came over and as he got closer he rushed to unlock it, having guessed what I was holding. “What have you got there?” I quickly explained to him what had happened and we set about on our divided tasks, he finding the phone number of The Kangaroo Sanctuary, and me finding an old pillow case or tee shirt to hold the joey.

Don took over nursing duty while I phoned the Kangaroo Sanctuary. We had visited the Sanctuary two and a half years before, and saw the love and dedication they gave their little rescued kangaroos and I knew if they couldn’t take the joey, they would know someone who could. Fortunately, Tahnee answered my call and said she was coming into to town in a little over an hour and she would collect little joey herself. This meant I could nurse the sweet little thing, and savour every moment until help arrived. As we sat quietly, joey nestled deeply into the old tee shirt, and quieted down. At one point I could feel his head, moving rhythmically, perhaps sucking on his paw, as they sometimes do. By the time Tahnee arrived, he was calmed down enough to definitely be looking for a teat to feed from. I had tried to give him a drink from a small cloth dipped in water, but he didn’t want that. He wanted the good stuff!

When Tahnee arrived I shared the story of finding the joey alone in the dirt and crying from distress. I explained to her there were regular sightings of dingoes in that area and she said most likely the mother was being chased and she pushed the joey from the pouch, hoping that one or the other of them would be saved. It is a survival strategy that a good Mama kangaroo would employ. She also informed me he was definitely a little boy, and that he was a ‘Euro’ which is a small variety of kangaroo. She said she could tell he was about five months old because his eyes were opened but he had no hair yet. He looked a little like an alien, in fact. He would probably just have begun poking his head out of the pouch at that stage, to get used to the sun, but he couldn’t stand or hop around yet—which was why I had found him laying down but with his head held up as he ‘hissed’. Hissing is the distress sound that a Euro makes, rather than a howl or a wailing sound other animals might make. It actually sounded a bit like wheezing, which alarmed me when I first got close to it. Tahnee said once he was calmed he wouldn’t make that sound all the time, which we had already seen when we were waiting for her to come.

Tahnee recognised me when I called for help at 6.30 that morning, as the person who owned a painting of one of their kangaroos, Queen Abi. Abi is a red kangaroo and is very cuddly and sweet with Tahnee, having been raised by her and Chris, the founder of the Sanctuary. We had actually met Queen Abi when we visited the Sanctuary. I wanted her to see the painting in person and so we showed her inside and she was amazed. She had pictured it as a much smaller work and was delighted to see that it took pride of place in our home. Once she had a look at the joey she asked if she could photograph us in front of the painting—a kind of full circle moment for all of us. She asked, very kindly if we had a name for him and I did. I told her he could be Amos. My Instagram name is ‘Amos the magic dog’, based on a name my Dad gave our lovely old cattle-dog-cross, Storm, over 18 years ago. Both Dad and Storm are gone, but ‘Amos the magic dog’ was what Dad called Storm, since he was kind of a magical little creature for both, appearing out of nowhere, and for disappearing just when you wanted him! He was magic, and so was Amos the joey, who appeared like magic at the perfect time and place for me to rescue him.

Amos the magic joey

After they left, I suddenly remembered, the old tee shirt I had pulled from the drawer was one of Don’s from Sanctuary Cove. It seemed even more likely Amos was on his destined path, two sanctuaries in one day, what are the chances? Tahnee later sent me a video of Amos lapping water from her hand. I think he is a little survivor.

that which breaks us…

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When I came to live in Australia, nearly thirty-seven years ago, hardly anyone outside of the country knew where it was. It was funny and sad at the same time. When the Olympics was held shortly after we were married I can remember reporters asking people if they knew where Australia was. Some were honest and shrugged and said ‘no’. Some said ‘yes’ and then identified it as the country, Austria, somewhere in Europe. Now we are known far and wide for the tragedy unfolding on our shores. I wasn’t going to keep writing about it, but several people have said to me that it has helped them to read some non-news words.

I have re-written this post three or four times now. The situation changes daily, both locally and nationally. It is like nothing any of us have experienced before.

10 January, clearest skies for a couple of weeks

Every morning I do a ‘mountain check’. One look and I see the air quality. That seems ridiculous to do since we are 1500 to 2000 miles away from where most of the fires are burning. But it is not just the fires, it is the drought, aided by the winds, that we are experiencing. We have some fires here, too, but because we don’t have the fuel load and because our area is not densely populated, it is a different situation. Can I see the mountain clearly or is the layer of haze still veiling it from view? Let’s just say our clear days have been so few in recent months that I’ve actually photographed the couple that we’ve had. Yesterday was one. Usually it is crystal clear blue sky here, day after day.  Two or three evenings ago, the dust and smoke haze was so thick I couldn’t tell if the sun had set or not. The smell of smoke is alarming and we are all on edge. This kind of persistent haze has never happened in the 28 years we have lived here.

Many of us are so broken hearted watching the devastation to the land and inhabitants that we love, we have a form of traumatic stress. Psychologists are telling us this is normal, because the circumstances are not. People feel helpless and because most of us are kind and compassionate, we want to stop the pain we see others experiencing. One manifestation of this has been the outpouring of food and clothing and household items donated to the victims. Sadly, this has created another crisis. The inescapable reality is that most of the victims have no place to keep anything. They have lost their homes, cars, sheds…everything. They can only use what they can keep with them in rescue accommodation, and what they can eat without refrigeration. There is still no power in many places.

The agencies helping people are urging us to give money. Someone said to me it seems soulless to offer money, but in this case it is the most useful thing those of us at distance can do. If you are inclined to give money, Donations to New South Wales Rural Fire ServiceVictoria’s Country Fire Authority and South Australia’s Country Fire Service will go towards bushfire efforts. Do not donate to anything that sounds unfamiliar because the scammers are already at work. I’m thinking there is a special place inside a firestorm for scammers, thieves and arsonists, all three of which we are seeing, thankfully only as a small minority. If you are wanting to give money to help animals, Wires and Birdlife Australia are reputable organisations, as well as the ones in this previous post

I ride a daily swell of emotion, occasionally am broken, and then regenerate. A recent occasion was a video taken on Kangaroo Island. More than a third of the island has already been decimated by fire, and the wildlife with it. Today, as I write, the fires have flared and worsened and more homes, animals and habitat have been lost. The people in the largest town were trapped and had moved to the shoreline near the water to wait out the latest fires. The video clip to which I refer was shot by a resident in the previously burned out areas as they hunted to find surviving koalas. A scan of the inside of their car revealed at least five koalas, huddled in and on top of the seats. It was a punch in the guts to see the stunned look on the poor creatures’ faces, traumatised but quietly, awaiting help. I’ve seen many photos and videos of firefighters and others giving them drinks from their water bottles, the koalas gently and eagerly accepting the help. The extreme importance of this colony of koalas is that they were a healthy, breeding population. Chlamydia has infected the koala population on the mainland for years. Experts have tried to manage it but in some areas it has effected 100% of the population. 

To what extent we have contributed to climate change is still in question. What isn’t in question is that the environment is very different than it has been in living and recorded history. We have been warned over and over about erratic weather patterns, violent storms, fires and floods. We have not responded effectively. If this isn’t a wakeup call, I don’t want to see what it will take to create one. At the very least, the way we live is not a sustainable and loving way to treat our planet. This week I have learned that 2019 was the hottest and driest in Australia since records started, in 1900. Our beautiful country was uniquely adapted to its normally dry conditions, but this is beyond…

Remnants of the dust storm last night, 11 January

Last night we experienced the most violent dust storm any of us can remember. As I walked to take this photo this morning, rubbish bins and flower pots were strewn along the road, evidence of the winds. The grit in my eyes from just that five minute walk is reflected in the photo. For the second time in a week, the small amount of rain that came was in the form of mud. The windows are streaked with it, having been cleaned only five days ago from the last pitiful rainfall of 3mm (about 1/8th inch).

dirty rain

Our national broadcaster, the ABC, has aired a donation message using their theme of ‘We are One’. We are indeed. The vision was edited to show the devastation but also the positive work that is being done. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing all that vision at once, but I went into the ‘ugly cry’ and felt terribly sad for a few minutes, which helped me release some of the emotion. And then I started feeling a bit better, for seeing the ways in which our country and the world have come together. We are extraordinarily grateful for the world’s well wishes and donations. We will recover, but we will never be quite the same.

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places. –Hemingway

All photos straight out of the camera, no retouching, only cropping.

The date on this post should actually be 11 Saturday January, in case you are confused by the timing of things I refer to. Either WordPress has not figured out how to post on local times, or I have not seen how to do it. Small problems.

loving a sunburnt country…

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This is not the return (again) to blogging that I imagined. I’m moved to write to whomever have hung on and to any others who might be hearing the plight of Australia’s drought, heat and bushfires that have raged for months.

There is a well loved poem here, called My Country, by Dorothea Mackellar. Perhaps its most famous line…

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains…

I think of these words each day as I dread turning on the news. Almost daily we hear of worsening fires and personal loss, as well as livestock, habitat and native animal losses. I watch it because it is uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortable, I know, as for those who are living it.

We grew up in a small town. When almost anything happened, you would either know the person, the family, or know someone who knew them. That is how Australia feels to me. We are the same size as the contiguous USA, but only a tiny fraction of the population size. We have traveled all over Australia and it has always been our favourite kind of travel. So when something devastating happens, it feels like it is happening to someone we know. My heart is very heavy. I watch so I can understand the challenges and witness the triumph of humans during tragedy, as well as the horror when humans make bad decisions…like starting fires in a tinder dry country.

Parts of our country have been in drought for 5 or more years. Last year the Murray Darling River was so dry in spots that millions of fish died, towns ran out of water, farmers went out of business, entire regions suffered. Farmers have had to de-stock their stations because they are out of grazing land and feed is too expensive for them to buy when they have no income. Further, lands this dry are vulnerable to dust storms that carry topsoil thousands of kilometres, here to Alice Springs and beyond.

…Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky, When sick at heart around us, We see the cattle die…

Fires have spread like angry beasts to wine producing regions and fruit growing areas, previously moist enough to resist them. While it is true that people who live in the bush sometimes allow too much build up of fuel on their properties, it is also true that previous fires have been more manageable. We are witnessing unprecedented heat and winds on top of drought and the results are quite literally catastrophic.

barely visible Mt Gillen this morning

A few days ago the government deployed military personal and boats to assist in areas where the power, food and water were gone and to evacuate people. Some were taking refuge in and near the water, where possible, because the fires were still threatening, having already taken hundreds of properties and an unknown number of lives. Over a thousand people have been evacuated on navy ships, while many thousands more have vacated the fire threatened regions when and if they can get petrol to do so. This is not easily possible in some areas where fuel is scarce, though being transported in, and where there is only a single highway in and out of the areas. Fallen trees and fires that have jumped roadways have necessitated road closures, trapping people in some cases.

In fires back in September/October, a huge area of koala habitat was destroyed, as were hundreds of koalas. People began bringing Koalas to the Port MacQuarie Koala Hospital and their Go Fund Me page saw generous donations from everywhere, enabling their important work for now and the future. They will be using some of the money to establish wildlife drinking stations over a wide range of lands, but the loss has still been devastating. Estimates of losses at nearly half a billion animals have shocked all of us.

Now we are donating to the people who have lost everything. Most of these people were living in regional areas because they love it, but also it is less expensive. Many do not have insurance and cannot afford to rebuild. The government is working on helping them, but of course no government can afford to rebuild housing for so many lost properties. And no one can replace a lifetime of physical mementos. But with help many will be able to rebuild and move forward.

Here in Alice we have learned 2019 was our driest on record. We received only 67mm (2.6 inches) of rain where our normal is 289mm. This, after a particularly dry previous year. Our town basin water is at its lowest point ever. We have had many more dust storms than normal, and high winds much of the time in between, drying the land out further and creating poor air quality. Mostly it is not heavily laced with smoke, though sometimes it is. Areas around Alice have burned periodically over the last year. We live in a place where everything is brought from a distance where it can be grown, so we are quite vulnerable when large scale flooding, drought and fires happen. Unprecedented, sustained temperatures in excess of 40C up to 46C (114F) have taken a toll even on the native vegetation.

This morning as I write I can barely see the mountain for dust in the air. But I know the winds and heat we have had are moving south and will worsen their fires. I feel somehow complicit. There are dire warnings for this day in particular. There are still hundreds of fires burning, many out of control. If you are seeing these stories in your news, believe them. It is real, and much worse than most of us ever thought we would see. We know we are in this together, that Australians are resilient and compassionate people—even more so for the hardships suffered.

And finally, to the thousands of volunteer firefighters who make up most of the crews. I cannot imagine how exhausted you are, the horrors you have seen or the size of your hearts to protect your fellow beings. We are all enormously grateful.

An opal-hearted country, A wilful lavish land– All you who have not loved her, you will not understand–

circle of life…

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Months can go by and nothing extra special happens on my walks. The walks are always special to me because I love the light and tiny changes I observe along the way…neighbours having lawn sales, trees shedding their bark or leafing in the spring, flowers defying the incredibly inhospitable conditions. In fact I was attempting to photograph a spring flower on a very dusty plant when something caught my attention. I think it was the bright white amongst all the red dust covered foliage because there certainly wasn’t much movement.

Notice the red dust on the older leaves, but how bright the growing tips and flower are.

There just a few feet away was a white butterfly solidly clinging to a naked branch on a naked bush riddled with sharp thorns! I decided to see if the butterfly would sit still long enough for me to get a decent shot. Turned out, this Caper White butterfly wasn’t going anywhere. As I got closer I realised there were about 9 or 10 chrysalises lined up on the same branch, and it looked as if this was the first fully fledged butterfly to emerge. The transition from caterpillar to butterfly is really one of nature’s most amazing life cycles.

There were a few Capers flying in the area and I stopped to watch, but the solitary one on the branch held tight. I realised it would have been freshly emerged and trying to dry its wings so it could join the others.

the first morning and the butterfly was clinging solidly to the thorny branch.
White flashes amongst the dusty leaves

The following morning I decided to again try my luck and chase the butterfly trail. Since there was not a single leaf left on the two bushes where I found chrysalises, I hadn’t been able to identify the plant they chose for their nursery. Fortunately, a local woman saw my Instagram post and added the identifying species of both plant and butterfly. Gold. When she said the name of the plant something seemed very familiar. I turned it over and over in my head and then looked it up online. More gold. It turned out, even though these bushes were currently without foliage, I had actually photographed one four years ago in full foliage and with a gorgeous blossom. Eureka! The plant is called Bush Passionfruit and both the blossom and the fruit hold some similarities to the domestic passionfruit. The blossom smells very sweet, has long stamen and the fruit is much smaller but sweet and usually attacked by birds and ants before humans can retrieve it! It is a well known bush food for the indigenous people. Apparently the plant recovers very quickly after the decimation of the leaves.

Tiny little caterpillars feeding on the Bush Passionfruit leaves
Caterpillar about to form its chrysalis
The second morning
Bush Passionfruit in full recovery (photo Jan 2015)
I still remember its heady perfume

On that last morning it seemed I had already enjoyed the peak activity on the previous day…until I walked away and saw another, larger nearly naked bush, with caterpillars and chrysalises on it. This completed the life cycle story. Oh, except for this shot…. someone is already doing some family planning for the future!

(this post was inspired by Kim Smith whose blog is called Nature is My Therapy. She writes compelling stories about her adventures and excellent photos to accompany the words)