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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.