* Today, September 1 is the first day of Spring, also Wattle Day. The golden wattle are in blossom in the southern states but here I have captured our version of green and gold (our national colours), featuring wild budgerigars and the winter’s dried, golden grasses. I’ve been feeling a little poetic lately too…and by the way, a ‘chatter’ is what a large flock of budgies is called!
I love it when things in my life collide with one another—in a good way. I wrote a couple of months ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) about the garden I built and planted this winter. It continues to be a revelation in all kinds of unexpected ways.
I have learned that it is better, in most cases, to plant seeds in situ, rather than be tempted by the faster route of seedlings that are bobbing their little heads fetchingly from their tiny pots in the nursery and garden centres. Seeds sprouted in the exact place they will grow seem to understand they are at home and can grow accordingly. So, given enough water and some sunshine they get on with it. Whereas seedlings, sprouted and grown in their little pots thousands of kilometres away, in most cases, in hothouse conditions or entirely different places from where they finish up, are in shock when they end their journey in the middle of dry Central Australia. Even taking all care, I’ve watched them struggle and eventually not yield very well and then go to seed quickly. Whereas the things I’ve planted from the right, well chosen seed, take a couple of weeks longer but kick on and look hearty and the yield is very good. Don’t we all do better when planted in the right place?
I’ve also learned I can plant less than I thought, now that I have a good growing base. We are about to drown in lettuce and rocket (arugula), for example! And don’t ask why I thought I needed 7 basil plants! Must be a throwback to the Italian genes. I’ve already put away one lot of pesto in the freezer and it’s not even summer yet. I dug up and gave away one of the basil plants because things were growing into one another. My lovely friend who does little paving and brick laying jobs was the happy recipient. I traded him for some pieces of old pavers on which we could sit our pots up out of the excess water that sometimes accumulates in the saucers.
In addition to the plant growth, it appears a potential family of Magpie Larks has moved into the palm tree that overlooks the new garden bed. They are not my favourite bird in appearance or sound, which is rather strident and irritating, but there is no bird who shows more joy having a bath in the residual water after rain. And I especially love the way they patrol the garden and eat insects! Whichever of the species builds the nest, I assume the female, decided this was a friendly place to raise her chicks. I keep a bowl of water for animals, there is soil around to build the mud base of the nest, and sugar cane mulch to fluff out the upper layer, ready for eggs and long spells of sitting. We also have a lot of native vegetation to attract birds, and no pets to bother them.
A few days ago I was tending my garden and there was a noisy crow sitting atop that chimney on the neighbour’s roof, only about six or so feet from the Lark who was working on the last stages of the nest. Suddenly the crow, about four times the size of the Lark, lunged at it, hoping, no doubt, to eat eggs in the nest. The little Lark loudly called out, threw her little feet in the air, flapping wings wildly to fight off the crow, just as her mate flew up from very nearby to assist and save his lady love. The crow was chastened and left immediately. I fear he will return, however. It’s a bird eat bird world out there.
Today I have seen the Lark sitting on the nest as if there might be something worth sitting for. I hope so. Or maybe she was just testing it for the fluff factor. It has been National Bird Week here and I participated in a bird count every day this week. Wouldn’t it be nice to boost the count with some little hatchlings? A bit too soon I know, but a girl can dream.
I’ve been doing further chick checks on the Peregrin Falcons in Melbourne, and taking photos for those of you who don’t have time to check. There isn’t always much to see except sleeping chicks, and gathering debris. Ugh, it’s a very unhygienic looking area now. Today I was watching the three somewhat comatose chicks rearrange themselves when one in the back raised its bum and squirted poop in a very impressive arc all over the one in the front–still asleep. Siblings, eh? Feeding time is not appealing either, but very interesting. I was lucky to catch both parents there for one feeding session and snapped a screen shot for you. The female is the larger of the two and if I may anthropomorphise for a moment, looks quite unimpressed at her mate who is doing the feeding and perhaps sneaking a bite for himself? Imagine raising triplets! These two are really working hard at this parenting thing.
We have had rain. Not a lot, but enough to green the place a bit. We had 21mm a couple of weeks ago and another 6mm since. For those of you who regularly get rain this will seem like a drizzle, but here it is substantial enough to bring changes. Rain is magic for gardens and everything, in fact. It washes the leaves free of their red dust and everything looks crisp and clean again. And the smell of eucalyptus and whatever magic is in moistened desert dust is divine. The La Niña weather pattern is predicted to bring us more of the wet stuff over the coming few months and we are all feeling a bit greedy for it. We dusted off our rain gauges and send text messages…
‘Did you get rain?’
‘Yes, we got 5mm, how about you?’
‘No, it missed us completely.’
And so on.
The cherry tomato vines are growing like stink, the fig tree has its first babies and they are growing daily, and my lovely Bay tree that is about 15 years old and has survived my benign neglect for most of those years, has hit its stride and joined the happily growing throng.
And finally. Filling in the spaces of time between the many and varied activities of a domestic engineer/gardener/tech consultant/sporadic blogger, I’m trying to again find my mojo as a practicing artist. To take away the intimidation of a white canvas, I cut up a cardboard box, primed it and painted a loose little scene of my beloved Spinifex Pigeons and Finches from our recent trip to Kings Canyon.
There are plenty of unpleasant things going on around us too, but I choose to spend as much time as possible in the realm of nature, Rilke and Mary Oliver…
Awake suddenly at 4.48am my first thought was THIS is the morning. I’d read that Mars would be closer than it will ever be in our lifetime on this very morning. The closest it will ever be is 60 million miles away—the farthest will be 400 million. My second thought was ‘there is no way I’ll get back to sleep, so I may as well get up and see Mars’. Not the thoughts of an intrepid astronomer.
I’d read Mars would be the brightest thing in the sky that night. I was doubtful. I was just hoping I would be able to identify it. Our skies are so clear and dark that as long as there is no cloud, things can usually be seen, but I’m no expert at identification. My feet slid along the bare, cold tiles to the western end of the house. As I opened the French door to the patio there it was, golden yellow/orange, twinkling against the navy blue sky. “I’m seeing something I will never see again. No human alive will ever see this again. Something many people on earth won’t know about, or take time to notice, or have access to see.” And I stand there in the perfect early morning air gently ruffling my nightie and I watch Mars twinkle and I think, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
The first of our trips to places that were rebuilding after the bush fires was a trip ‘overseas’. More specifically during a trip to Adelaide (1500k/1000miles south of Alice) to visit our daughter, we had a side trip of a twenty-five minute plane ride over water to Kangaroo Island. Most of you will remember the horrible video from last December/January that documented the decimation of the Flinders Chase National park covering the entire western portion of the island. The loss was heart breaking. At the time, Don and I were sad for the loss, but also that we had not been there yet. We thought we’d have to wait for years to be able to see it. But that was before we hatched our plan to travel to the places that wanted visitors to come and help them re-establish tourism and put some money into the economy.
We were assured there was still plenty to see on the island by friends who had travelled there only weeks after the fires. They were so right. It was still gut wrenching to drive through kilometres of blackened national forest. But to go now, when things were starting to regrow was also very heartening.
The sustainable timber industry had forests of trees that were 95% ruined for use, but a few that were already shooting new growth. Beside this forest were dozens of grass trees. We have never traveled anywhere in Australia where we have seen as many grass trees (Xanthorrhoea australis). Interestingly, where we saw the ones that had been through the fires, they had shot enormous flower spikes, an urgent will to survive! But in areas we traveled that had not had the fires, hardly a flower spike was seen. Mother nature at her best. In some areas there were dozens of grass trees, kilometres of them along the roads even. It was staggering. Grass trees are extremely slow growing but seemingly, rather fire tolerant.
Of course the wildlife did not fare so well. But the rangers assured us they had seen platypus, kangaroo, goannas, wombats and birds returning. As the plants grow and become a greater source of shelter and food, they expect more animals to be seen. The fur seals and sea lions were plentiful, back from their near extinction from hunters a hundred years ago. The ranger at the gate of the national park said ‘Come back and see us in 7-10 years and we will be a different place’. That seems a long time on one hand, but not so much in other ways.
Each part of the island has a slightly different character. Emu Bay, where we spent the first two nights, is peaceful and green. There were plenty of Kangaroos, though most didn’t show themselves until it was too dark to get photos. However, upon our arrival we had only just gotten out of the car when we looked up to see a Koala, asleep in the gum tree beside the house we had rented. It was only the second wild Koala I’ve seen in the 37 years I’ve lived in Australia. Of course I’ve seen them up close in various sanctuaries around the country, but not in the wild. Much of their habitat is disappearing so they are dwindling in numbers.
Seal Bay was a fun place, even when I took my eye off the task at hand and had a large male seal decide to have a run at me. The hazards of concentrating on the subject when photographing wildlife!
The walk on the beach was very windy, but I absolutely love seeing and photographing the treasures that are washed up on the sand.
We had some delicious food at some characterful places, including Penneshaw’s The Fat Beagle (best brownie ever!), seafood selection near American River, and breakfast and lunch at Millie Mae’s Pantry (Penneshaw). Though, quite a few places were still closed from winter, and covid, and fire devastation. In each area we visited we found one or two good places to eat. And we self catered a couple of times as well. The local IGA had a good selection of fresh foods.
But one of my most lasting memories was seeing the smile that almost never left our daughter’s face the entire time we were there. It’s been a tough year for some…and a very tough year for others and the environment. Take heart, there is still joy to be had in life and remember at every opportunity the words of Kurt Vonnegut
I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’.
Like most people, at the beginning of 2020, we had plans. We had the long planned for trip to the Southern Ocean and South Africa, but as the year unfolded with tragic bushfires here in Australia, we added another plan to our itinerary. We decided to spend our travels over the next year or so going to places in our country that had been ravaged by the fires. With the trip to the Southern Ocean looming and bushfires still raging, we decided to wait until we returned to start making plans to put some money back into the various places that needed it. Little did we know…
Of course by the time we returned in late March the Pandemic was declared and borders were closing faster than a safety gate. Like everyone we followed along as weekly, even daily, changes were announced toward trying to control the spread of COVID-19. So familiar is it to our daily lives that we now have a shorthand language developing. No one says COVID-19 anymore, it’s just ‘covid’… and ’iso’ instead of isolation. But as things here in Australia have eased, we have picked up our plans again to help reinvigorate tourism. Our latest trip was three days and two nights, here in our own Territory.
A couple of months ago when the Northern Territory reopened the parks, but before the borders were reopened, we were encouraged to support the reopening tourist sites and businesses. There were a limited number of vouchers offered to locals as incentives to apply toward local travels. Two other couples, and we, decided a trip to Kings Canyon (no apostrophe in case you are wondering) in Watarrka National Park could be a good place to go before the weather heated up too much. The other two couples had previously visited, but we had not. We have strategically been saving some of our travels in Australia for our dotage, when International travel no longer seemed doable, or appealing. That would be now, on both counts!
Kings Canyon is about 325 kilometres from Alice, around 4 hours driving, depending on which route you take. There aren’t many things to stop for en route, unless you enjoy the subtle desert country as we do. But there are a couple of things, as well as the unique scenery. Unfortunately it remains very, very dry here at the moment, red dust turning green trees to brown. One good rain and it would all be rinsed clean and green again. Even with the dust, I managed to find a number of wild flowers to photograph.
We visited the Henbury Meteorite Reserve as well as a classic old bush style pub called Jim’s Place. The Meteorite craters were more impressive than I expected. You could plainly see where the meteors had hit and disrupted the normal land forms. The ‘larger’ meteors were only the size of a 200 litre fuel drum, but they blasted out enormous craters, one of which grew a small ecosystem of its own because it could hold precious water after the sparse rains.
The main attraction for the trip was, of course, Kings Canyon. It certainly was beautiful, but if you were expecting something like The Grand Canyon in the American southwest, you might be a little disappointed. Still, this one required 500 steps ascending up to the top of the rim and then was a 6 kilometre walk around the rim before coming down again. It takes about 3-4 hours. I made the decision to walk the shorter, less arduous, walk through the bottom of the canyon along the creek. You know I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, but I’d been having some problems with a muscle that affected my walking and would spasm afterward and decided 500 steps up seemed a little out of my reach on this occasion.
The other two women in the group decided to join me. We had a fun walk and conversation that easily filled a couple of hours. After we had all returned to the accommodation Don began telling me of a very curious encounter the men had as they were finishing the walk. Heading out of the canyon there is a water tap installed above a beautiful, large rock. Since they had been one of the first groups up that morning it didn’t appear anyone had used the water tap and the rock was dry. As they approached, a small Spinifex Pigeon scurrying along the path came up to one of the men’s shadows, circled around a couple of times, then scurried over to the rock, stopped, and stared back at the men. Not getting the hoped for response, the pigeon did it again. After the second time, one of the men ‘got’ the message–the pigeon wanted them to turn on the water so it could have a drink!! I’m always yammering on about how smart birds are and some of the amazing feats they’ve preformed over the years since humans have been recording such things. So Don knew this would interest me. I was also intensely envious. A Spinifex Pigeon has been at the top of my list of birds to see, and perhaps even photograph, for many years. As many times as we have been out bush in the 28 years we’ve lived in Central Australia, I had never seen a Spinifex Pigeon.
Later in the afternoon, Don and I decided to take a little walk around the grounds of the ‘resort’. As we left our room, Julie came running out from their room two doors up and called to her husband who had just driven in, “Jim, hurry, there’s a lizard trying to eat something!” We immediately wheeled around and headed toward their room too. Once on the balcony we looked into the rocks 8 or so metres away and there was a large Perentie, probably 6 feet long, dragging a rabbit down the rocks in preparation to dine al fresco. Jim was brave, approaching to about half the distance between us and the lizard and with his high quality lens got some amazing photos and video. This was a truly unusual thing to see.
Just when we thought we had reached peak Perentie excitement, what should appear but a Dingo!! It was very keen to share the meal and began to climb down the rocks. The Perentie was equally keen to keep the rabbit to itself. The dingo looked up and saw all of us staring and must have decided things were a little too risky for his liking and he retreated as quickly as he had appeared. The Perentie gulped down a piece of rabbit about twice the size of its head and then disappeared into the rocks. We all agreed one or both would be back to finish the meal.
Sure enough about an hour and a half later, both the Perentie and the Dingo reappeared. The Dingo grabbed a hunk of rabbit, stopped to quickly swallow it whole, and the Perentie came back to the remains, but must have been full from its first meal and left again soon thereafter. You can bet money by dark that evening there was no rabbit left.
About twenty minutes before sunset we headed down along the boardwalk to the area where people brought their drinks and nibbles to watch the skies and mountains in the closing light of evening. I had been crouched over some wild flowers near the boardwalk and when I stood up to finish walking to the area under the desert oak tree, I was faced with a wild dingo staring down my husband!! Don was trying to ‘shoo’ the dingo in my direction but the dingo hesitated just long enough for me to get my iphone ready. Suddenly the dingo wheeled around and headed for me. I did get a bit of video but the more amazing photo is the one I almost blindly captured as the dingo trotted within inches of me on its way to wherever dingoes go! With the canyon walks and wildlife, it was a day we would remember for a long time.
The next morning, our driver (and friend) Jim, asked us if there was anything else we wanted to see before we left the area. Still intensely envious of the men’s encounter with the Spinifex Pigeon I laughingly said I would loved to have seen that. As the canyon was about 20 minutes’ drive from the accommodation I didn’t want to inconvenience everyone in pursuing my bird passion. But Jim insisted we should try and who was I to argue??
This time, as we approached, two Spinifex Pigeons came scurrying* out of the scrub and right up to us at the entrance. They raced over to the water fountains that were still dry as it was fairly early in the day. I got my iPhone ready and in position and then quickly pushed the button to allow some water down to the grate. It was like Pigeon magic, they scurried in, out and around like gleeful children in a public fountain in mid-summer.
But the men called me over to the other water tap that drained onto the rock. Once there I again squatted and got the camera settings right and Jim let the water do its magic. In seconds the Spinifex Pigeons purposefully made their way toward the water that settled into the crevices in the large rock. Whoever thought of this idea was a genius. I’m sure the birds think so too! Not only did my elusive Spinifex Pigeon appear, but another bird at the top of my list, the Zebra Finch. I had seen many Zebra Finches over the years, indeed many mornings on my walks I see them and hear their soft chirping sounds. But they are so tiny and skittish I have never been able to photograph them with my iPhone. And. there. they. were. Honestly, inside I was jumping up and down clapping hands and laughing gleefully. But outside, I was squatted and still, until my legs could no longer hold me and I had to brace myself to stand up. I’m never sure I’ve actually got the images I am after until I look at them, so I had no idea if the photos had turned out or not, but watching the action in person was enough in any case.
Our trip to Kings Canyon was a success on many levels, the company of good friends, the beautiful desert country, the canyon itself, and the animals and flora along the way. Why wouldn’t everyone be anxious to come and see the wonderful land of Oz?
*Note on ‘scurrying’… many birds hop, some waddle, others scratch their way around the ground. Pigeons most definitely ‘scurry’. That is their comical and very endearing mode of covering ground! Watch them sometime, they always scurry.
We had set our alarms for 5.20am the next morning. Somehow 5.30 didn’t seem quite enough for two people to be ready and present for a 6am safari departure. It was tough. The activity, anxiety and travel was beginning to wear on us. The early start, before sunrise, was the reverse of the evening before. It was cold at the outset, and so we were rugged up, and Felix’s polar fleece ponchos were gratefully received. Bouncing through the cold, damp morning air woke us up in a hurry. Having recently completed the Southern Ocean-course -in- zodiac-hair-and-makeup, I did not consider any preparation beyond clean face and teeth, but the Canadian woman looked like she’d just stepped out of a fashion spread. I tried to keep some distance between us. I did wonder how early she had to get up to look like that, but only for a moment. She was nice, and smart too, I hasten to add.
There was coffee and tea, again, which we did not have–breakfast would be after we returned in 2-3 hours. A short while out, we spotted a herd of Elands atop a ridge. Felix announced we were going to try and find the lions, because they could be quite elusive and it might take several safaris to locate them. But of course during the search we saw many other animals. There were blue wildebeests, zebras and various kinds of antelope, cape buffalo, hippos, and baboons. We stopped for morning tea. I took photos of plants.
The search for lions was fruitless. Felix explained, during hunting was the most active they would be. After a kill and feeding, they laze around in the shade and sleep for days, making them very difficult to spot. He further explained there was only one pride of five lions in the whole of the 26,000 acres of the reserve. This was because the reserve followed a balanced approach in the numbers of animals of each type. They could cohabitate and live as nature intended, killing to eat as required. It was all self-sustaining. He said the staff never, ever intervened in the animal behaviours as they interacted with each other. Even when the animals occasionally roamed through the villa and lodge area, they were allowed to do their own thing, as long as ‘their own thing’ didn’t include human consumption. One night, some time back, guests were trapped in the lodge restaurant a couple of extra hours after they had finished their meals, due to the lions deciding to have a look around. No one had seen lions for days before we had arrived, or while we were there, so it was just not to be. Curiously, they were the animals we were least interested in seeing.
Every safari showed us a different aspect of the animals and the environment. We had five in all. Our last morning safari was an astonishing encounter, again with elephants. Felix found a small herd, moving across the hillside, eating grass as they moved. If I told you that he spotted the herd from over a kilometre away, you wouldn’t think it possible. He had the most incredible eyesight. When we got to the location, Felix pulled the vehicle right in the path of where he thought they would walk. Everyone, except the four year old, was quiet. You could hear the elephants breathe and tear the grass from the ground as they quietly moved through. It was an unforgettable few minutes. The video, which this template won’t allow me to load onto this blog, is on my instagram page if you want to have a look @amosthemagicdog. Also, my other favourite video of a herd of young impalas is there as well.
We were surprised when Felix asked us not to post photos of the rhinos. Poaching is still very dangerous for rhinos, and the metadata that poachers can get from photos helps locate them. Even though Gondwana is strictly protected, you can imagine how difficult it must be to protect all 26,000 acres of hills and valleys. In some cases the reserve has cut off most of the rhinos’ horns, to protect them if poachers should find them. Nothing to see here, fellas. But a couple of rhinos had their original, natural horns, proving that nature knows what she is doing. The graceful, tapered curve of the natural horns created the perfect foil to their otherwise bulky shape.
We were repeatedly reminded that the animals are wild. They are kind of used to the vehicles filled with humans, as long as there are no surprises, but the animals are still wild. I suppose in that regard they were like the penguins and seals we saw on the cruise. I’m sure they don’t miss us pesky humans one bit while we are staying away just now!
On our second day, in the afternoon break between breakfast and evening safari, we decided to take a short hike through a protected area on the Reserve called the Fynbos. This is a very specific biome particular to southwestern, South Africa, but some of the plants are also seen in South America and Australia, due to the once large land mass called Gondwana. One of the most dominant plants outside of the protected area is the protea. I have never seen such expanse of protea, largely because the other Fynbos plants are not present in enough numbers to control it. The proteas become so dense they keep the wildlife from being able to move through, so controlled burning is used for the large areas. Also, as in Australia, some of the plants actually require the heat from fires to regenerate. The protected area where we walked was full of plants included in the Fynbos, as well as zebras and giraffes! They are timid creatures and so we were allowed to walk in this area, but they kept their distance. Below are the photos from that walk. Because we had to mostly stay in the vehicles, there were few chances to look closely at the vegetation.
On the evening of our last full day at Gondwana, we noticed the bar was closed. More COVID-19 restrictions were in place. No sale of alcohol, even with meals, was allowed. Even though this reserve was privately owned, the new rules applied. With every new restriction we became more anxious. We still had three nights left in South Africa, at least we hoped we did. We were in constant touch with Qantas and were reassured our flights were still in place.
We had it on good advice that Gondwana* Game Reserve would not disappoint us in our desire to see African animals. But honestly, how many wonderful animal experiences could a person rightly expect from one trip? It was hard to believe that anything could live up to the experiences we had just witnessed on our cruise. But it turns out you can be incredibly lucky.
The game reserve was about a four and half hour drive from Stellenbosch. After a little bit of a lie-in, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at our B&B and had a reasonably prompt start. Google map played one of its well known tricks and took us on a gravel road because it was the shortest route after we turned off the highway. We later discovered the paved road was faster, though technically not shorter.
From the highway, and for most of the drive on the gravel road, it was hard to believe this was the game reserve that had wild animals and had come so highly recommended. The lie of the land was unimpressive, though the drive there had been lovely. We arrived at the manned entrance, identified ourselves and were given a map to get to the lodge and accommodation. The minute we turned into the drive, it was as if we had come into an altered Universe. There were giraffes. I swear I nearly hyperventilated. No one is allowed to leave their vehicle so photos from the car window were required. It’s not as if we hadn’t seen giraffes close up before. We hand fed them at Monarto Zoo in South Australia a couple of years ago. But this was uncontrived and so casual…oh, yeah, those ole things, just giraffes, you know.
We arrived at the lodge and were shown to the villa that would be our accommodation for the next three nights. It was truly perfect. It was ‘glamping’**, and more…rustic but with a king size bed, and all the niceties. The view from the bed toward the stunning landscape and the other villas was very special. We were told our first ‘safari’ would be in an hour, but we were required to meet in half an hour so the guide could gather his group and so we could have afternoon tea before departing at 5pm. Thrust into it, we barely had time to change clothes and get to the meeting point which, fortunately, was the bar area, a stone’s throw from our villa.
There was no way I was going to have a cup of tea when about to leave on a three hour safari, but I could manage a couple of tiny tea cakes. After four weeks, I was learning to cope with semi-permanent dehydration. Our guide for the entire stay was Felix. What he didn’t know about the animals and the country probably wasn’t worth knowing. He was a really lovely man. Felix gathered everyone and showed us to our vehicle, which held 9 adults, plus the seat beside Felix. The three rows of seats were graduated in height from front to back so that everyone would have a clear view. Very clever. Don and I decided we would climb to the seats at the back…not realising they were also the least comfortable over bumpy terrain…and it was ALL bumpy terrain. But the main reason we decided the back seat was worth trying was the very precocious, and vocal, four year old with his parents. Fresh from a wilderness experience with only adults, a loud four year old was not something we had anticipated.
Our first safari that evening was our baptism by bump. Felix had decided to chase down one of the elephant herds. When I say we went over hill and dale, that is putting it mildly. My poor back and stomach were tortured to the limit and my bladder…well, once again, we were being stoic. We had been told there were no toilet facilities anywhere, which was plainly evident, so, when a man about thirty years younger than us asked if he could do a ‘necessary stop’, I wanted to say ‘Really?’
But we were rewarded with elephants. And not just elephants, but baby elephants. They were astonishingly majestic, as was the scenery. We would never ever have guessed that this incredible terrain lay only a few miles from the highway that carried us there.
As the sun set the temperature plummeted unbelievably. Felix handed out ponchos, which at first some accepted politely, but later snuggled into gratefully. It had been hot when we left so no one wore jackets, but now we were freezing. It was dark by the time we returned for dinner and we were tired and hungry and in desperate need of a ‘necessary stop’. I think all that bouncing around actually burns energy!
It was rather late by the time we’d eaten dinner and Felix had told us he would be calling us at 5.30 the next morning, for a 6am departure. All I could think of was the good ole days when I thought zodiac excursions were challenging…
**glamping is a combined word from ‘glamorous-camping’
*Gondwana: we hear a lot about Gondwana here in Australia as it is thought that about 550 million years ago, Australia, Africa and South America formed a single land mass and it has been given that name. It was readily visible in the shared plants we saw, both in South Africa and here in Australia.
After the Captain’s tale of the Somali pirates, most of us would have followed him anywhere. So, when we approached the first of our supposed excursions around the Tristan da Cunha group (Gough Island) if he had said ‘Jump!’, to get into the zodiacs, we might have done it! However, the seas were rough and it was decided it was unsafe for our planned excursion, so we would have to view the island from the ship. The ship was manoeuvred as close as safety would allow and through the mists we could see it was a wild and not easily accessible place.
The next day was better for excursions and during that day we also got a look at the community of Tristan da Cunha…from afar. After exploring the coast of the island, it was nearing the end of the day and the light was gorgeous. Most of us gathered on deck to enjoy the light and the splendid sunset.
This photo, taken on that glorious sunset evening, shows Marcus Bergstrom, from Sweden, and Laura Jordan from France, both Naturalists. They also had excellent command of English, were licensed zodiac drivers, and were excellent photographers. Marcus was the ‘bird guy’ who loved Albatrosses, and Laura has an Instagram feed (@laurajordan_) specialising in photos and videos from this cruise and others. There were ten naturalists in all, some with many years of education and experience and who spoke several languages.
During our visit to Tristan da Cunha there was a very sweet little background story developing. Our local expert, Conrad, had been supposed to stay at his home on Tristan once our tour of the islands finished. However, the town was not even allowing him to disembark! And worse, the town, whose speciality is fresh lobster, was not going to supply the lobster our chef had ordered! This was dire. Conrad would have to accompany us to CapeTown and figure out how to get home later. There are no airstrips so his only choice would be sea travel. Our very creative thinking crew hatched another idea. The afternoon, after we had completed our zodiac cruises of Tristan, we saw a zodiac with Conrad ripping through the waters back toward the ship. In the boat, piled around him, were bags of fresh lobsters, and his lovely wife huddled against him to accompany him for the remainder of his quarantine in CapeTown, however long that might be. His wife had loaded the lobsters and then herself into the zodiac to join her husband and preserve everyone’s safety. Knowing what we do now, we think Conrad and his wife were probably not able to leave South Africa. I guess we will never know.
Before leaving the archipelago we had excursions to the other two islands in this group, Nightingale and Inaccessible. To be perfectly honest, our schedule was now so different from plan A and plan B, I have no idea which of these photos were from which island. Normally when I am confused I just check the metadata on the photos and it will have the place name. But in the Southern Ocean, the photos mostly just say ‘Southern Ocean’. Helpful. It doesn’t really matter, they were very close together and both quite wild and, as the name of the latter would indicate, mostly inaccessible except by zodiac.
COVID-19 news was becoming more and more worrisome with each day. At about this point in the trip, again, the Captain called everyone to the theatre, this time, at 9.30 in the evening. I was beyond tired and Don agreed to attend and tell me the outcome. Based on recent experience we thought it would be serious. It was. The Ponant company had decided to ask all ships to go to the nearest port, disembark passengers and head for home port in Marseilles. This turned out to be extremely good judgement on their part. We were still four days from CapeTown which was the soonest we could get anywhere. All of the crew except for 21, would also have to disembark there, as would those passengers who had been supposed to take the cruise on to Durbin and the Seychelles. The anxiety became palpable. We compared stories of where we were supposed to travel next and how we might amend our plans, while sharing with each other any information we had. Good access to internet meant that we were aware of the rapid changes in conditions since we had departed Ushuaia, but there was not a single thing we could do except communicate with our travel agents and revise plans, until we got to CapeTown. We weren’t even certain if we would be allowed off the ship once we arrived, but somehow the crew kept smiling, all the while working on our behalf behind the scenes.
when is she ever going to end this saga??…soon my pretties, soon…
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 14 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.