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’.
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.
Once again we were at sea. A time to settle and to look forward to the next part of the journey, the islands of Tristan da Cunha. We were to stop at three of the islands in the archipelago. Most of us knew nothing about Tristan, but Ponant, ever foreword thinking in its effort to make the trip enjoyable and educational, had a member of the Tristan community aboard the ship! He had been the community police officer for about 30 years and was able to answer any question you could put to him. This town of less than 300 people had begun after a shipwreck in the 1600’s. Some of the crew members decided to stay and make a life on Tristan. Others left to return home, and gradually over the years other ships had left passengers who wanted to remain, some married and on it went. In 1816 the British claimed Tristan as a strategic territory in an effort to ensure Napoleon, incarcerated on St. Helena, would not be rescued by the French. St. Helena was over a thousand miles away and once they were assured this wouldn’t happen, the British left Tristan and went home. There are only 7 surnames among the inhabitants, all reflecting the mixed heritage of Asian, European and African. It is a largely agrarian lifestyle more akin to what our great-grandparents lived. They fish and grow their own vegetables, raise sheep and spin their own wool. These days they are able to get occasional shipments of more modern goods, and they even have the internet. But it remains arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world. It would take us four days to reach Tristan.
During those days we had a choice of a number of talks and films, as well as various entertainment opportunities–classical piano, contemporary singing, games, quizzes, the usual suspects. We were also fortunate to sight a Right Whale swimming along with the ship one day, and many different birds. It was shocking to think how far from land those birds were!
It was then we learned COVID-19 had finally caught up with us.
Once again the Captain summoned us to the theatre to give us the news. Our anticipated stop at Tristan da Cunha was in doubt. Serious doubt. After much deliberation between our guide leader and Captain and the town leaders of Tristan, it was decided the town did not want to take the risk of letting us come ashore. They did not want to risk their elderly to the virus, even though no one on the ship showed any symptoms at all. There was not even a runny nose that I saw the entire three weeks. But the Tristan inhabitants stood firm.
Once again our Captain and crew made decisions to reorganise our excursions while in the archipelago. We would do all of our visits from the safety of the zodiacs. By the time we got to CapeTown, we had not touched land for 12 days. If that didn’t make us virus free, I don’t know what would!
Later that afternoon, the skies cleared and the sea shone like silver, studded with the most spectacular pod of between 200-300 Dusky Dolphins.
It was also during this time at sea before reaching the archipelago that the rumours around the ship began to circulate. Captain Marchesseau was somewhat of a hero in France. Really? I am not a good enough writer to sufficiently describe the character of the Captain. We knew him as very funny, capable of astounding mimicry of a king penguin over the intercom, as well as attentive to every detail of the ship’s operation. It was clear he was a man of great capability, but a hero? Do tell.
As luck would have it, and we seemed to ‘have it’ on a regular basis, the former Admiral of the French Navy was also a passenger on board our cruise. And as we were soon to find out, in 2008, Admiral Gillier became well acquainted with one Captain Marchesseau during a terrible incident aboard a Ponant ship. The two of them generously presented their tale one day in the theatre to an enthralled audience. I won’t tell you in the detail presented, mostly because I can’t remember it all, but you can Google the Captain, Patrick Marchesseau and read it yourself. It was headline making news. The Captain and 30 crew were overtaken by Somali pirates!
Captain Marchesseau and a skeleton crew were heading back to France at the end of a cruise season. As they were moving through a dangerous patch of sea off of Africa, two speed boats approached them and though the captain ordered the ship to do a zig-zag manoeuvre in an effort to shake them, the pirates were experienced enough to know the vulnerable part of the ship was the middle, which moved very little, even in this situation. They threw over their lines and began to board the ship. The crew attempted to fight them off with fire hoses, but the pirates had high powered guns. When a window was shattered from one of the guns, the Captain called the crew to back off and the pirates boarded the ship.
There ensued six days of negotiations and subterfuge on the part of the Captain to keep his crew safe. He had ordered the female crew to the lower bowels of the ship where they stayed for a couple of days, until they no longer could. The captain was worried what the pirates might do to the young women. However, the captain said, the pirates were never abusive toward the crew or himself, discounting the continual week long threat at the point of guns. The Captain began his own subtle power game so that whenever the pirates wanted him to do something, he would negotiate with them to also do something for him. This gave him some respect from the pirates, but also gave him back a little control. He was able to send an SOS signal without them knowing, and he and his crew were able to fake some engine trouble that meant they had to travel more slowly, giving the Admiral and navy time to respond to the situation. For example, when the pirates wanted to bring aboard goats and sheep and slaughter them live for their own food, he made them agree to clean up after themselves, which, surprisingly, they did.
Eventually the ship was moored in waters off the Somalia coast. The Admiral from his end, and the Captain from his end, negotiated a trade of the crew for a few hundred thousand Euros. On the final and seventh day of the siege, the crew, except Captain Marchesseau, were released into French hands, while four of the pirates took the money and headed inland. The remaining pirates on board, perhaps thinking their operation had succeeded and they could relax, had taken their attentions away from the Captain. He had walked far forward to the bow of the ship with a radio, to communicate with the French navy as the crew was released. He found himself standing on the bow of the ship. Alone… wondering what would happen next, when came an order: “JUMP!” Being an obedient servant of his country, he thought for a very brief second after hearing the order, ‘Yes, why not?!’ And so he did. Jump. From the bow of the ship into the water. Waiting for him was a boat, hidden just out of sight in the shadow of the bow.
If you have ever stared up at the deck of a ship from the water’s height, you will know it is a very long drop. But the captain’s courage won the day. The Admiral put a plan into action to capture the pirates and the ransom. They captured seven of the pirates, five of whom were convicted and sent to jail, but only part of the ransom, which had been quickly dispersed.
If you Google the Captain you will find mention of the book he wrote about the entire ordeal, and many photos of his welcome home, receiving an award for bravery and so on. So all the while we had been in the most capable hands, which he continued to prove, even as, six days later we would disembark into the world of COVID-19.
While we slept, the ship made its way to Right Whale Bay. However, the waters were too rough for our planned zodiac excursion that morning and the Captain had repositioned us. Oddly, we noticed another ship sharing the more protected bay where we had anchored. In fact, it looked to me like I could see a yellow rectangle shape on its hull, indicating it might be a National Geographic ship. I do have pretty fair long vision.
In this new, more protected bay, our group was to be first off the ship for an early morning excursion…7.30am. Ugh. And of course, we didn’t dare drink coffee or tea to wake us up, because…well…the no toilet issue. It was very blustery and cold and much of the excursion was in the shadows of the surrounding cliffs. At some point I remember vaguely seeing a zodiac head for the other ship, which also seemed a bit odd.
This was to be a short excursion, about 45 minutes, not including loading and unloading the zodiac. We wove around the coastline observing seals and those funny Rockhopper penguins. One group was crowded onto a very rocky and steep space. They seemed to mistakenly think they could hold on to the steep surface indefinitely. However, the relentless force of gravity dragged their feathered friends above them steadily downward forcing the lowest ones lower and lower. One by one the lowest penguin would lose his grip and, like a child with no fear and no grace, would fall into the water. Getting back up was equally tricky and they had to swim around to a less steep edge and scramble up that way. But, really, what does a penguin have to do all day, but play on steep cliffs and fish and swim?? Jump? Why not! We all laughed at their antics, and it took our minds off the cold for a bit.
And then it snowed.
After the allotted time for the excursion there came a call over the driver’s two way radio (are they still called ‘two-way’ if they are being used by 10?). ‘All zodiacs, do not come back to marina, repeat, do not return to marina’.
Huh? We had noticed the wind and waves had picked up a bit where we were, but apparently the wind had shifted direction and was slapping the ship around too much for the zodiacs to safely dock and unload the passengers. The Captain had determined the ship needed to reposition. So, basically, we were told to play amongst ourselves a while so the ship could reposition. The theme from Gilligan’s Island was playing in my head…’Five passengers set sail that day, For a three hour tour, a three hour tour….’
And of course a series of years on a deserted island ensued.
Our driver was calm and experienced, explaining this sort of thing happened occasionally. We, and a few other zodiacs, set off to find some albatrosses. They were also reasonably entertaining, their giant feet running and slapping the water as they took off and landed. Our Naturalist/Driver was a ‘bird guy’ and he was particularly excited to see Sooty Albatrosses, his favourites. But we were cold, and wet. My fingerless gloves had let me down badly at this stage, so I just removed them and shoved them into my pockets. By the end of another hour, you could hear the distinct lack of enthusiasm in everyone’s voices and perhaps a small edge of anxiety. Finally, we got the all clear that the ship had repositioned and it was now safe to board. Fortunately, having been the first to leave, we were also the first to return to the marina. Everyone was in agreement, it had been a challenging couple of hours. Not like Shackleton’s voyage, but nevertheless…tea, coffee and French pastries were needed!
Once everyone was back on board there came an announcement, the Captain requested the presence of everyone in the theatre on deck 4 after lunch. Again, an odd little thing, but we all complied. Once assembled in the theatre, Captain Marchesseau began explaining a few things. While it was true that the excursion at Right Whale Bay had to be cancelled due to the obvious reason of rough weather, there were a few other things that had not been so evident. The reason we had travelled all night from the southern part of South Georgia Island to this more northern area had been to meet the National Geographic ship we had seen in the distance that morning. And the compelling reason we needed to meet them was to transfer a passenger that was ill. Oh.
The Captain hastened to say the passenger was not ill with COVID-19. He assured us a number of times the problem with the passenger was nothing of this nature. Having witnessed the Captain in numerous situations by this point in the trip, we were inclined to believe him. Wanting to protect the passenger’s privacy we were never to learn what the problem had been. However, by luck, and our Captain’s quick thinking, the remainder of our trip was saved. You see, we had all been required to have a five page health document signed by our GP and submitted before the trip, saying that we were in good health. This was because, once the trip had begun, there was no way to get someone ill off the ship. That is, unless your quick thinking Captain recalls a sister ship in the region and he can negotiate a transfer. The Nat Geo ship had facility on board to accommodate the patient, and the hospital in Stanley, The Falklands, had agreed they could take them on as well. The Nat Geo ship had a three day trip to the Falklands to deposit the patient. Otherwise our ship would have had to turn around and take them ourselves. And if that had happened, that is where our trip would have finished because there was simply no time to get to South Africa from the Falklands. No air strips, no other hospitals, this was the only choice. As the captain rightly said, “I would have done this for any one of you, and this person deserved no less.”
Twice in one day we were all feeling like we’d been lucky once again. How long could this last?
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.
I ‘m very keen for you to see some of the most special parts of our trip. But like us, you will have to endure the ‘getting there’ stages first. The actual flights to Buenos Aires were good. However, upon landing we learned that an unexpected strike of baggage handlers had been called for that very afternoon. All of my anxiety was at attention and getting ready to say ‘I told you so’. The airport handled things pretty well, sending out workers with room temperature soft drink, ick, and little snacks of some kind of sweet Argentinian sandwich biscuit. There were two flight-loads of us waiting, so hundreds of people, gathered in a space with three luggage belts.
And one bathroom.
To their credit, there was toilet paper, and soap to wash hands, but only two of the three stalls in the Ladies’ toilet were working. Typical. (remember, COVID-19 was not reported in Argentina until March 3, this was 21 Feb) We had been among the first to disembark and get through immigration so, incredibly, there were a few seats left. We grabbed them and settled in for what could have been a long wait, or worse, no luggage appearing at all. After two hours outside workers came in to perform the duties of those on strike. We finally spotted our bags among those making their way along the conveyor belt. By this time, our booked and paid for transfer ride had left the scene. We had been warned they would only wait for an hour in case our flight was delayed, but no one mentioned baggage handlers striking. We wandered around trying to find how to get in touch with them, because by now it was out of hours, after 5pm on a Friday. A couple of workers tried to help us but to no avail until one young woman pointed us toward the window of a transfer service. We thought we would just ‘eat’ the already paid for service and get a new one. As we walked up to the window, there on a piece of paper stuck to the glass with tape, was our surname! Excitedly I said to Don, ‘Look, look, that’s us!’ When a young woman approached us at the window I pointed to the sign and then to us saying ‘That’s us’! She smiled and said she would contact the driver who would come around in fifteen minutes or so. As we would discover, the ‘or so’ was the local way of doing things. But in about half an hour we were on our way to the hotel.
Arriving at what was now deeply dusk, we decided we really didn’t have the energy to go looking for food and weren’t particularly hungry, so we skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Happily, the Magnolia Hotel was everything it had sounded like when I found it on booking.com. The boutique hotel was owned and run by Maria for the last 12 years. Maria and her husband had lived in Miami for years and so she spoke perfect English. She had bought the house with a clear idea of the type of hotel she wanted to run. ‘Like everything,’ she said ‘it has been much harder than I ever imagined’. The rooms were furnished with a few pieces of tasteful, vintage furniture, and large comfortable bed, good air conditioning and a clean bathroom. There was no TV, only Netflix, but we weren’t there to watch TV, and with good WIFI we were able to access email and news.
The breakfasts were delicious with two kinds of croissants, the light and crispy French style and the other, a slightly more dense version with a thin glaze of icing. They were my favourite. Fresh butter, marmalade and Dulce de Leche (caramelised sweetened condensed milk) and a rich, yogurt type of accompaniment, were available each morning, as were an array of fruit, cheese and eggs to your liking. The little courtyard accessible from the breakfast area was calm and restful, and one morning there was even a local bird in it, perched and quietly watching.
Until this trip, I had gone for three years without eating anything but the smallest scrap of wheat and most of the time no grains at all. I also could not seem to digest fruit. Onion and garlic were off the menu as well. As you can imagine this made traveling very challenging. However, having not challenged the status quo in a while, I was determined to do my best to enjoy the local cuisine. I dived into the deep end and ate one of the pastries…and fruit. As the days went by I repeated my sins, only to discover I was experiencing NO ill effects whatever. I could scarcely believe it.
After a night’s sleep we did some research and to our dismay, discovered we had landed in Buenos Aires on the long weekend before Carnival. Time to implement Plan B. These are the things that can really mess with your travel plans, not that we had much choice. Our charter flight to board the ship left on the Carnival holiday, Tuesday, and we had come a few days early to try and recover from jet lag. So, you get what you get sometimes. And it was all fine, though more crowded than it might normally have been, due to many locals being off work and out to see the sights and attend celebrations.
To be honest, Buenos Aires was a little underwhelming. We made the most of it and walked many miles and rode the ‘hop on-hop off’ bus to various sites. But the city is sprawling, and kind of tired looking. That being said, we had some delicious food, and saw some things we had never seen, like the most amazing cemetery called Recoleta—where Eva Perone is laid to rest. Don’t you love a good cemetery?? We also achieved our goal of getting some rest before boarding the cruise. And the bonus for me was staying in the Magnolia Hotel, probably my all time favourite hotel ever, certainly in my top five. We attended the oldest market in BA, and I even chatted (LOL) with José the busker, who only spoke Spanish. Through my ancient knowledge of Italian I gathered he wrote his own music, was also a poet, and was from Santiago, Chile. And he was a charmer.
And that chocolate cream cake…Yes. Absolutely.
We had a brief trip to the zoo that was heavily under construction, in transition to an Eco Park but no one seemed sure what that was. We also spent a couple of hours at the botanic gardens, always a favourite shady place for us, especially when the days are hot and humid as they were in BA.
On Tuesday we had an early transfer at 6.30am from the Magnolia Hotel to the airport. Again the casual local habits threatened to derail us when our booked transfer didn’t appear. The lovely breakfast lady/server/receptionist at the Magnolia apologised and persevered until she got us the desired result. We were very ready to move into the next phase of our journey.
For as long as I can remember Tierra Del Fuego has been one of the most exotic names and places I can recall. Even saying it is music to my lips. I remember my year 7 geography teacher mentioning it, and little else about it, but the name stayed in my psyche all these years.
Once aboard our charter flight from BA to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra Del Fuego, we felt we could relax and let Ponant take care of us in luxury, as promised in its corporate description. The flight was two hours and as soon as we landed we were whisked onto buses and off for an afternoon tour through Tierra Del Fuego National Park and finally to the docks in Ushuaia where our home away from home, Le Lyrial was moored. We were served a very nice grilled/barbecued lunch in the Argentinian style while in the National Park. Sorry, no photo—picture beautifully charred meat, poultry and veggies piled on a huge serving dish with plenty of chips (french fries) for everyone. And bread. And butter. And for the first of many times over the next three weeks, dessert.
Our bags had already been transferred to our stateroom aboard Le Lyrial. Already we were in the lap of luxury. We were greeted by the Captain and a couple of the crew, who we would soon get to know and think of as advisors and protectors. Every one of our crew was not only friendly but very funny. I suppose partly it was their job, but I have always found, with the only exception being a very cranky shopkeeper in Paris, the French to be accomodating and helpful if you approach them with respect and just the tiniest smattering of their language.
It is always a bit painful when starting a cruise, whether it be ocean or river. It is mandatory to attend the safety demonstration, try on your life vest and listen to the sounds of ‘abandon ship, abandon ship’, which you hope never to hear again. After the huge day of flying, bussing and vesting, we were served the first of many delicious meals with 122 others who would travel with us for the next 22 days. It was a lot to take in. Fortunately, the next day was ‘at sea’ and we could settle in as we made our way to our first destination, the Falkland Islands.
We have been traveling and I will eventually tell you about the trip, but first I’m going to tell you about getting home.
Our trip home from South Africa truly began, I think, when on our last full day at Gondwana Game Reserve, Don looked up at the early morning sky and saw a shooting star. He later told me he wondered if it was an omen. We hoped it was. We’d had good advice from our travel agents, given the difficulty of finding earlier flights than we had booked, to stay and use the bookings we had. Fluid as the situation was, we ended up asking them to change our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg to an earlier one, in case things got cumbersome and messy, giving us plenty of time to catch our return flight to Australia. There were two seats left, so the shooting star was doing it’s job! When we arrived early for the flight from Cape Town things were pretty calm and not many people around. In fact when we turned in our rental car the porter said they were only expecting 60 vehicles returned that day, when they usually get between 500-600. So, yes. Things were quiet.
It was a Tuesday and the airline lounge had loads of space when we arrived but a couple of hours later it had filled up. As we were boarding to leave, another Aussie couple in front of us told the story they had experienced Friday, the previous week. They had arrived to take a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg but were told the international connecting flight on to Perth, Australia, was cancelled and they’d have to make other arrangements or be stuck in Jo’burg. No notice, no compensation, just make other arrangements. (It was not Qantas.) Johannesburg is notoriously dangerous, which they knew full well, having lived there many years before. Of course this put us more on edge than we already were, and had been for the entire previous couple of weeks. We were trying to enjoy our much anticipated holiday, but in the back of our minds lived the constant changes in circumstances for getting home.
Once we had boarded the SAA flight to Jo’burg, we looked at each other and breathed a short sigh of relief, knowing we had in front of us two more legs to our journey. Once in Jo’burg the security and immigration procedures were easy. Mostly. The airport lounge had only a few people but again filled up over the four hours we waited. The departure sign indicated we were to ‘go to the gate’, which is nearly always a euphemism for something other than boarding. Usually waiting. This time was no exception, except that 90% of the people were jammed up together in a small area that was not moving and was certainly not practicing social distancing. So, we did our own thing by hanging way back, well out of reach of the others who were waiting. And then we saw that for some reason the South Africans were again searching bags before boarding the plane. It appeared they were looking for large liquid containers. Once the boarding procedure actually continued and was well thinned down to the last couple of dozen passengers, we stepped forward to have our bags searched and were then allowed to move toward the boarding zone.
By the time we got on board the 747 and the Qantas crew greeted us, I leaned slightly toward the crew member nearest me (but not too close!) and said “I’m SO glad to be here”, to which she replied “We’re so glad to have you! We just want to get everyone home safely.” Once again as the plane took off, Don and I held hands as another hurdle had been cleared and we were in the air. Three days after our flight from Jo’burg, South Africa closed its borders. And another day later they have said no one is to leave their home.
The flight was about 12 hours, during which time we ate twice and slept a little and watched a movie. Not knowing what to expect when we deplaned in Sydney, anxiety was still churning through my insides. As we touched down we breathed a deeper sigh of relief, but still, uncertainty hung in the air. As we rolled down the runway the head of the flight crew came over the intercom and welcomed us home, saying that Qantas was proud to be helping Aussies as they have always done for the 100 years they have been in service. “I hope you will appreciate the crew on board have just flown their last flight for a long time (they were all being stood down due to the airline shutting down) This crew have put themselves in harm’s way to help their fellow Aussies and I couldn’t be prouder of them.” By this time loud applause had broken out across the plane, tears filled my eyes and the crew wiped theirs as well. We knew once we were on Aussie soil again, we would figure things out, and now we were there. As we deplaned and thanked each crew member we passed, my eyes continued to be rimmed with tears, and I noticed even the male crew members’ chins were quivering and they swallowed hard to try and maintain their professional standards.
Not for the first time on this trip have we left what felt a relatively safe bubble to venture into the new world. As we walked from the gate and before we entered that visionary land of Duty Free, we were greeted by two figures, one with masks and the other with declarations to sign and instructions for self isolating. But there was nowhere to stop to fill out the papers until after we had walked through Duty Free. There, only three tables for a few hundred people to stop and fill out the declaration forms that we would be self-isolating, where we had come from, and where we would be staying. Huddled together, Don and I produced our own pens as a small token toward trying to stay somewhat separated.
We were instructed to stand in a queue, not far enough apart at first, but at least we had masks this time. When we got closer to the medical team that would take our temperature and individually talk to us about how we felt, and answer questions we might have about self-isolation, we noticed they did have a few lines of tape on the floor about 1.5m (5 feet) apart. But no one had been there to point this out or to encourage separation at first. Eventually we figured it out. I guess they were still on the learning curve just like us.
I quickly discovered a down side to wearing a mask. It was triggering the feelings I get with a panic attack…sweaty palms and shortness of breath. I had to surreptitiously ease the bottom of the mask from time to time to get a fresh breath to keep from fully panicking. I know this kind of defeated the purpose, but I didn’t want to have a full on attack just at that moment. There was enough going on already. And let’s face it, we’d already had a lot of contact without masks.
Once we were in the amazingly short queue for immigration, I lifted the mask so the officer could see that I matched the photo in my passport, and I just never put it back on. We were clear of most everyone by then. After clearing immigration we collected our bags, had declared we had been in South Africa and ‘wilderness areas’ so they could check our shoes for bio-contamination particles, but they only questioned us and moved us on. Having learned about the importance of bio-contamination on the trip, we had both scrubbed our shoes the night before we left Cape Town. Thank goodness. We could scarcely believe it once we were out in the open air of Sydney.
We got into a cab, that was not very clean, I must say, and rode to the InterContinental hotel. We were welcomed and our room upgraded to a harbour view, even without asking. Smack in the middle of that beautiful harbour was a ship, anchored. Waiting. We later learned it had a number of cases of COVID-19 aboard.
We ordered room service and then slept a few hours until rising early to begin the last leg of our journey home. This time the taxi was clean and the driver even had antibacterial hand cleaner.
Once inside the airport, it was clear, things were not normal. There were very, very few passengers and literally no one ahead of us going through security. And once through security we had another surprise, the airport lounges were closed! Previous indications were that the lounges would be consolidated, but open, so we had to forage for breakfast. A few cafes were open with basic food like fruit and yogurt and croissant sandwiches and coffee or tea. But there was no place to sit. In some cases the tables and chairs were taped off limits, in others it was just obvious you were not meant to sit with the chairs and stools atop the tables. The only places to sit were at the gates, and fortunately with few people, we could get some physical separation.
After a couple of hours’ waiting, our flight boarded a few minutes early and all 22 passengers were on. There were 11 people in economy and five of us in business class. Plenty of separation for everyone!
Upon landing in Alice Springs we were accompanied by two different security people into the company of several border force officers and asked again to fill out the self-isolation form, and again, grouped at a table too small for safe separation. But with only 22 of us, we managed, and again used our own pens, for whatever good it has done.
Yesterday, three days after our arrival, we heard the news that all persons returning from overseas by air will be made to quarantine in hotels at their entry point. Two thirds of Australian cases of COVID-19 have been traced to people returning from overseas visits. Hopefully the quarantine will help.
We are now on Day 3 of self-isolation and are starting to get used to the new way of doing things. Thanks to good friends we had our car waiting in long term parking at the airport and groceries in the fridge, with more to come later on. It took a couple of days to go through procedures for getting groceries delivered but we have just taken our first delivery and it all looks good. Don is washing the windows for the first time in our nearly 37 year marriage and so far we are both healthy. Hoping for good things in your homes as well.
Spanish cheese and marmalade on homemade bread at the market…Don’s little treat
It’s not a new concept that there are many ways to learn things. There have been theories around for decades about ‘multiple intelligences’, different ways each of us have of internalising information. I was a very poor history student in high school and university. I would memorise the events and dates and regurgitate them at appropriate times to achieve passing grades. But almost none of it stayed with me in a useful way. I couldn’t understand the relevance. In fact, it wasn’t until the last decade that places and dates and people became more real and relevant for me. As we have traveled, watched some excellent TV programs and movies, and I have occasionally read a tangential volume relating to some aspect of our travels, I have begun to gain some perspective.
strands of braided garlic
Saturday morning market in Donostia-San Sebastián
In 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, Generalísimo Francisco Franco did a deal with Mussolini and Hitler to bomb the area known as the Basque country. Some say it was in order to eliminate one of the key communication centres for the republican forces, most abhorred the methods. The bombings were controversial since it was a military action against a town of civilians. The town and a disputed number of inhabitants were all but wiped out from the bombings. Afterward Franco was able to move in and take the Basque region, and its people, for Spain. This destruction inspired a number of artists to create pieces, including one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, Guernica.
Fast forward 81 years…
We began our recent trip flying to London then to Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain, and then by car to Donostia-San Sebastián. Our intentions were to recover from the jet-lag-cotton-wool-in-head thing while exploring someplace new. On our way from Australia we were delayed in London because a tyre on the plane needed changing. These things always seem to happen when you are on a tight deadline, or when you’ve just been traveling for 22 hours straight. Still…you want the tyres on the plane to work.
I was seated in the waiting area beside a couple of middle aged American fellows who kindly offered me a newspaper article they had been reading and finished. When we learned the flight had been delayed by at least an hour, they began to chat with me, something I normally don’t encourage when I am a captive audience. But they had been kind in offering me the newspaper article on how birds cope with heat (don’t judge–living in a hot place and being a bird lover it was interesting to me!), so I felt I should be polite. They were on the way to Pamplona and then to San Sebastián and Bilbao. As we swapped ideas for eating places, they gave us one for San Sebastián. It’s hard to know which freely offered tips are ones to follow up on, but in our initial explorations the evening we arrived, we found the place and Flat Tyre Guy’s recommendation did look interesting.
Like purple treasure, jammy figs!
juicy fig and mosaic backdrop
lovely flower girl, trying to get out of the photo…
The first morning in Donostia*, we had a fantastic time wandering around the town, stumbling upon the Saturday markets and more importantly, my favourite fruit…fresh figs. Unbelievable as it sounds to those who know my love for fresh figs, I had forgotten it was late summer in Spain, and they might still be available. Having had little breakfast (the hotel only served continental pastries and fruit–bananas and apples–none of which I could eat) I zeroed in on a gentleman selling figs and, ‘dos, por favor’ later, we were looking for a seat on which to sit and enjoy our jammy, purple treasures. Conveniently adjacent to the market was a small square with lovely gardens and mosaic seats.It was the essence of Spain. The figs were as sweet and juicy as any I have eaten and that goes back 45 or so years when I first tasted them in Rome!
Continuing on we decided to re-scout the location of the restaurant the fellow traveler had shared. Most lunch places don’t open or start serving before one o’clock. We relaxed into people watching for a while and then we spied the nearby travel bureau. We found a couple of brochures with local information and tours. Unusual to our experience most of the tours included entry fees into places, but not transport to get there. You were expected to get your own self there! This seemed like extra work that contravened our primary objective for San Sebastián, so we abandoned that idea.
Morgan Restaurant, Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain
By the time one o’clock arrived we were both pretty hungry. Being first on the scene at opening time meant we got a seat, but normally one would need a booking. The restaurant was small with long shared tables and had a menu that was arranged two ways, two courses and drink for one price, or three courses and drink for another price…we opted for two courses, which was 25.50€ per person. We each ordered a drink, me water and hubby wine, which we assumed was a glass, but which turned out to be a BOTTLE. Fortunately, since I only had the water, I could assist with the bottle of wine! However, the unplanned rosè did not do anything to relieve my cotton-wool-brain!** The food was of a very high standard and so for about $90 Australian we had an amazing meal including very nice rosè! It was a restaurant we would have never found on our own so, ‘Flat Tyre Guy’, wherever you are, thank you for the recommendation for Ristorante Morgan!
After lunch we wondered out into the shaded laneway and up to the nearby public square where we had sat and people watched before lunch. In our absence activities had evolved and a large group had gathered around a small group of musicians.They were singing and swaying en masse to the tunes; some dancing, some with arms around each other’s waists as they sang from small songbooks. This was obviously an activity familiar to them, as were the songs and such was the passion with which they sang, it moved me to tears. It’s not often I spontaneously cry in a foreign country in the middle of a crowd, but once in a while it happens. I’m thinking back at the moment I stepped off the bus in Gallipoli. I dissolved into tears and I don’t even know anyone from that battle. Other people tell me this phenomenon happens when we are in places like Normandy or Gallipoli, where huge numbers of lives are lost. I wonder…
A few enjoyed dances…
Ok, they might have been jet-lag-cotton-wool-rosè tears, but the emotion was deeply felt. It reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to travel, and that there are countries and people who are willing to share themselves with strangers. We later learned the songs were Basque folk songs. Thank goodness the Basque people and their lovely food and folk songs survived and thrive today. And thank goodness my perspective is forever changed.
*Donostia-San Sebastián is the full name of the city, but Donostia is the Basque name and San Sebastián is the Spanish name.
**cotton-wool-rosè-brain is why I failed to take any photos of the lovely plates of food. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.