Aurora’s Money Goddess goes wild

Elaine Balsdon emails us her updates from her Antarctic adventure...

5/11/06 - Antonio Banderas will have to stay in my dreams!!! All the men at the Tango class I had in Buenos Aires were short and round, or really old but that wasn’t the point.......I did learn to Tango.........or thought I did until I saw the Tango show afterwards.........they were amazing. Three gorgeous girls and 3 Antonio Banderas look-a-likes danced up a storm in front of about 200 people. It was a great night with a la cart food and lovely company. I sat with a very nice French couple.

Oh my gosh this keyboard is so faded and dirty I can hardly read the keys and the speed is so slow I have to wait for the computer to catch up with my typing!!!

Now I’m in El Calafate. It is an amazing place. When you fly in it looks just like the Australian desert but when you get close it looks like the ground is covered with balls of different coloured vegetation. The shrubs and grasses are distinctly rounded and are in all shades of gold, grey, brown, rust and grey-green - like lots of pillows lying on the earth. Whatever they are they must be good as there are lots of fat & healthy sheep and horses around.

Today we left town early to go to the Puerto Moreno glacier - one of the largest glaciers in the world. We travelled for a while in this strange not-desert country while the distant mountains gradually grew out of the landscape. The road wound around the glacial lake which looks milky grey when it is cloudy but turns to bright turquoise blue when sunny. It was freeeeezing cold and we caught a boat right up to the snout or end of the glacier. It soars sixty meters above us and glows in the sun in all shades of white, turquoise and blue.........fantastic. After the boat trip we walked around the lake to the point where the glacier nearly joins up one side of the lake with the other. In 1935 I think (the guides English was a bit hard to understand) the glacier reached the other side and dammed the lake causing huge floods upstream. The army tried to bomb it open but couldn’t so it stayed dammed until the pressure of water became too great (a few years later) and forced the glacier to break up at one side. Today we were very lucky to see a piece of the glacier calve (break off the end). We heard a huge boom and a piece the size of 2 cars crashed into the lake. All the people who caught the bus round to the lookout missed it. I’m glad we were not on the boat at the time!!

I’m staying at a funny little hostel where no one speaks English (lucky I can smile in Spanish). It’s very clean and has lots of seasonal Argentinean workers staying there as well. They sit around after work drinking the local tea (mate) out of pumpkin gourds. They sip it through silver straws which have a strainer built into the bottom of them to strain out the tea flowers. It’s nice to see them drinking tea and not alcohol though it must be very addictive as everywhere we go the stall holders and shop owners have a mate on the go. They even carry spare mate around in thermoses.........mmmmmmmmmmm........must try some.

This is my last night in El Calafate. Tomorrow morning I will catch a bus to El Chalten which is a little village 4 hours away in a valley surrounded by the Fitzroy mountain range. There are 365 glaciers in this area!! I’ll be there for 4 days and hope to do some more walking around El Chalten.

8/11/06 - I’m in Ushuaia now, arrived last night after an amazing last day in El Chalten. I walked underneath towering hillsides of granite, through fields of grey grass, golden flowers and iridescent orange butterflies to a waterfall that seemed to be tumbling out of the sky. After my last wild and windy walk it was nice to see a gentle soft side of Patagonia...........it certainly steals its way into your heart.

Flying in to Ushuaia was amazing, we couldn’t{t see any mountains because it was cloudy but we broke through the clouds just before landing and were greeted with an amazing sight. Ushuaia is situated on a deep water harbour nestled underneath a ring of snow-clad mountains. The airport and runway are almost in the harbour!! I had a walk around town and then came back to the Hosteria to find that the rest of the Aurora crew had arrived. This makes it all seem very real. I am really going to Antarctica! in a few days time!

Today I went to "the end of the world" better known as "Parque National Tierra Del Fuego". It is very beautiful at "the end of the world". This is the southernmost part of Patagonia and it is quite different from the other parts I have seen. It has more of a coastal feel to it and sometimes it feels like you are walking in West Head National park in Sydney except that when you look up you are surrounded by mountains. It is a mass of lakes and waterways, forests and grasslands and I can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is. I hope my photos turn out so I can show you. There’s a large (and unwelcome) beaver population that is slowly eating the National Park and damning up the waterways. Even though you know they are pests you cant help but admire how industrious they are. They build huge dams!

The locals are trying to control the problem by turning as many beavers as possible into handbags, shoes and coats that they want all us tourists to buy!

Well that’s about all my news. All the Aurora staff are going out for dinner tonight. Hopefully we'll see Polar Pioneer arrive into port at around 8pm and tomorrow we all get to sleep on the ship!!

17/11/06 - Wow, I’m finally here onboard the Polar Pioneer. I couldn't keep a smile off my face as we sailed away from Ushuaia. The adventure had begun for all of us as we watch the land falling away behind us and the great emptiness of the South Atlantic Ocean tempting us from beyond the bow. The trip so far has been amazing - blue skies and calm seas. A huge assortment of sea birds keep us company as we sail towards the Falklands - Wilson’s Storm Petrels, Cape Petrels and an occasional Wandering Albatross. We also had the pleasure of the company of a group of Peales Dolphins and a pod of Long Finned Pilot Whales.

We arrived on Sea Lion Island after a night of moderate swells and got ready for our first landing. Nothing prepares you for the excitement of hopping into a bucking zodiac, racing to shore, jumping out and wading onto the beach. You are transported to a different world! It's beautiful, raw and alive. Distant rocky outcrops become elephant seals sunbaking as you get closer. Walking through the tussock grass you are surprised by Magellanic Penguins returning to their burrows. You look out to sea and find a pod of Orcas cruising in the bay and always we are surrounded by sea birds, flying, nesting, mating, sitting on eggs.......fantastic!!

Next we landed on Bleaker Island to visit a Rock Hopper Penguin colony. We watch as the males stand by patiently waiting for the female to lay her eggs and are fascinated to see him transfer the egg to his brooding pouch and then she hops up and into the sea to catch dinner though we hope she doesn't become dinner as we also watch fascinated as a Sea Lion grabs a passing penguin and devours it in an instant..

We travel overnight to Port Stanley, a quaint little village in a windswept location and wake up to another gorgeous day - blue skies, light wind. Stanley is the biggest town in the Falkland Islands and we have the morning to wander about. We visit the museum, have a look at the minefields left over from the Falklands War and catch up on some shopping. Then it's back to the ship in a wild sea that sees most of us soaked as we reboard the Polar Pioneer - lucky we have 2 sea days to dry out!! ................Next stop South Georgia!!

21/11/06 - The 2 days at sea passed quickly as we learned about South Georgia's history and wildlife from Dave and Roger and we are ready for our first sight of land as Shag Rock looms towards us out of the mist. It is icy cold with a freezing wind blowing, yet the jagged steep cliffs of the rock are teeming with life as Cormorants swoop out of the empty ocean from all directions and return to their nests. Captain Gena slows the ship so we can take in the wonder of it all...and wonder we do....Why would Cormorants choose such an isolated inhospitable place to mate and raise their young? I guess there wouldn't be many predators out here!!

The 4 days and 8 landings we have done here in South Georgia have been incredible. It is raw, wild, totally unpredictable...assaulting us with freezing horizontal sleet and fierce winds one moment, seducing us with sun drenched beaches the next and then giving us a landscape of softly snowing grey mist. The very earth we walk upon is alive. We step out of the zodiacs onto black sandy beaches, scramble up muddy creek beds, kick footsteps onto snow covered glaciers, sink up to the knee into boggy marshes (thank god for gumboots), weave our way through a maze of tussock grass and gently walk on springy beds of moss.....I feel connected to a living breathing planet....so different to our manmade environment and concrete pathways at home.

And the miracle of it all is that life thrives here at the edges of possibility. We have seen Great Wandering Albatross chicks testing their wings against freezing, gale force winds, we turn a corner and are surprised by an adolescent Fur Seal rising out of the tussock grass like a Hawaiian dancer wearing a grass skirt, thousands of busy King Penguins feed their chicks on beaches where male elephant seals weighing up to four tons fight to defend their harem of females and pups. I feel insignificant as I walk amongst this teeming wildlife and there is a reverence and hush as people gently absorb this incredible place.

The best thing is that the natives are just as interested in us as we are in them. We sit quietly near a King Penguin colony and before long the adolescents and older chicks have wandered over to check us out, sometimes coming close enough to peck at our boots. If you sit on the beach for too long an elephant seal pup will come up and sniff at your clothes and face, sometimes sitting right on top of you!!

South Georgia's rugged landscape has tested us but as we do the last leg of Shackleton's walk from Fortuna Bay to Stromness we are in awe of their courage and strength. The rusting and deserted whaling station must have looked like paradise to them and a visit to Gritviken's museum and the graveyard where he was laid to rest bring history to life for us.

Our last adventure in South Georgia was a sail up Drygalski Fiord a fourteen-kilometre gash cut deep into the eastern end of the Island. Capitan Gena brought us in close to the Drygalski Glacier. It was brutally cold but worth being on deck listening to the glacier crack and groan as Gena skilfully manoeuvred our small ship out of the fjord. Now we have 2 sea days ahead of us as we head south towards Elephant Island and the Antarctic Peninsula.

23/11/06 Once again the 2 days at sea passed relatively quickly. Our historian Dave gave us a talk about the 4 months he had spent on Elephant Island while our naturalist Roger talked about the geological history of Antarctica and the types of birds and mammals we will find once we get to the Antarctica Peninsula.

We wake up early on our 3rd day out of South Georgia to a grey and misty sea. We have been sailing into a heavy snowstorm and the decks of Polar Pioneer are covered in snow making her look like a ghost ship travelling through

time. We peer into the fog trying to glimpse Elephant Island.

With great excitement first one then another rocky outcrop rises out of the mist and before we know it we are upon Point Wild where Shackleton’s men camped underneath their upturned boats waiting to be rescued. The sea is choppy and we have a 20knot wind.............can we land?.........we send over a recce.........and yes!! We all rush to get our wet weather gear on and line up for our zodiac taxi to shore. It is a wild ride and we land on a narrow strip of land with freezing winds and snow as our welcome. We can't imagine what it was like to spend months camped in conditions like this (and Dave said this was a good day!!) The narrow beach supports a colony of nesting chinstrap penguins and a monument to the captain of the Chilean vessel that rescued the men on Shackleton’s 4th attempt!

We watch penguins fighting over nesting sites, turning incubating eggs and returning from a morning's fishing and I am quite emotional as I stand here and know that in this brutal place 22 brave men survived against insurmountable odds.

It brought to mind a few lines from Prospice by Robert Brown that I found in the Gritviken Museum in South Georgia along with the original cross that marked Shackleton’s grave. These lines had special significance for Sir Ernest and Lady Shackleton throughout their lives......

I was ever a fighter, so one fight more, the best and the last! I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebore and bade me creep past. No! Let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers. The heroes of old. Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears of pain, darkness, and cold, for sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.

24/11/06 - Last night (at minus 5 degrees) was our coldest yet as we sailed away from Elephant Island towards the South Shetland Islands. We awoke to a cold and misty morning to find ourselves surrounded by a winter wonderland of black cliffs, snow covered mountains and glaciers tumbling into a sea decorated with bright blue-white glaciers.

We landed on the black pebbled beach of Yankee Harbour on Greenwich Island and sat and watched Gentoo Penguins going about their business. The air was still and calm and the chattering and mumbling of the penguins was

interspersed with the almost eerie chirping and whistling of the graceful Weddell seals that were lolling about the beach. In the afternoon we sailed to Deception Island, the harbour of which is the caldera of a still active volcano. The entrance to the harbour was through Neptune’s Bellows a narrow passage between towering cliffs covered with nesting Petrels. We dropped anchor in the caldera and wandered amongst the ruins of the British base. The shoreline is misty, as geothermal springs meet the cold waters of the harbour. Most of us walked up to the knife edge ridge of Neptune's Window where we had our first view of the Antarctic Peninsula over the Southern Ocean and fantastic views of the inside of the caldera. I couldn't believe we were anchored inside a volcano! We sailed away from Deception Island surrounded by a beautiful sunset. What a fantastic and surprising place the South Shetlands are!

25/11/06 - Still in the South Shetlands, we wake today to mild weather and our first stop is Cuverville Island. We zodiac to shore and marvel at the crystal clear water. The ocean floor this close to the island is covered by multi coloured rocks polished by glaciers and ocean currents. There are also beautiful bright green, red & yellow kelp beds that transform the underwater world into a magic garden. We watch for ages as a leopard seal cruises the foreshore hunting (in vain) for a penguin lunch but the special treat for today is a wondrous zodiac cruise around the bergs. Sculpted by wind and sea into fantastic shapes we weave amongst them and are transported by the beauty of the ice. Crisp white, deep blue, aqua green - I am lost in a maze of incredible loveliness and feel quite bereft when we have to return to the ship. This is what I dreamed of when dreaming of Antarctica!!

This afternoon we stop at Port Lockroy and visit the Post Office and museum. They also have a small shop selling warm clothes and souvenirs. Dave Burkitt our Historian worked on the original restoration project of the base and it is now manned by volunteers every summer who continue the restoration work, do research of the penguin colony and man the shop and Post Office. They live like the original expeditioners with no electricity or running water - though this year for the first time they have a small gas heater. They were very pleased to be invited to join us for dinner on the Polar Pioneer as it meant they could have their first hot shower in a very long time. Dinner was great - an Aussie BBQ on the back deck in minus 3 degrees. The sun came out for a beautiful sunset made all the sweeter by the Glu-wine, good food and great company. It was also a great opportunity to meet our Russian crew members.

26/11/06

It is almost impossible to go to bed now we are this close to the Antarctic Peninsula. As we weave our way between the remaining South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic continent, the views from the ship are amazing. Glaciers tumbling into the sea, icebergs littering our path and snow everywhere! The channels are narrow and sometimes it seems we are heading into a dead end when a path opens up and our Captain skillfully manoeuvres our ship through.

I realise I have given myself over to the rhythm of our life at sea. The expedition staff and Russian crew are very obviously the best in their fields and because of that I can just relax and enjoy the journey. I know safe landing sites will be chosen and there is always the strong arm of a Russian seaman to steady me when I step on and off the ship into a zodiac. I feel safe and cared for every step of the way and this frees me to deeply absorb my experience.

This morning we prepared for our first landing in Antarctica. It is a dull day, cloudy but still as we launch our zodiacs towards Paradise Bay and Almirante Brown Station, an Argentinean station that is unmanned at present. We find a nice spot and Roger takes our group photo before we scatter to enjoy being on the continent. Most of us climb up a steep and slippery slope to a knife-edge ridge where we are amazed at the view. We are surrounded by white glaciers and ink black cliffs with an ice-filled bay before us. As we sit the wind picks up, chasing the clouds across the sky and this brings our landscape to life as the ice and snow reflect the dancing clouds above – sometimes the clouds lift giving us a tantalising but brief view of the continent behind us. A highlight this morning is a zodiac cruise past cliff dwelling cormorants to a beautiful glacier. We are tiny specks underneath this towering icy skyscraper and we turn off the engine and drift amongst the ice that is the debris of this great glacier. The gentle swell of the sea knocks the pieces of ice together and produces a delightful tinkling sound. As before, we are in awe of the beautiful ice sculptures grounded in the bay and we are surprised by a crab-eater seal resting on a small berg. Ice is gathered so we could all partake of the traditional cocktail served with glacial ice before dinner later on tonight.

We hop back onto the ship just as the wind starts to get serious and we head towards Hydrurga Rocks for our next landing. The wind increases to 40 knots and it is deemed unsafe to attempt to land at Hydrurga but our disappointment is brief for the wind has blown away the clouds and we are greeted with a postcard picture perfect view of Antarctica - deep blue skies framing wild, white mountains and glaciers so close to our ship we feel we can just reach out and touch them. The picture is completed when some Minke whales join us to frolic beside the ship for a few moments.

Antarctica continues to surprise us as the wind drops suddenly and Captain Gena drops anchor beside Christiania Island. 4 Zodiacs are launched into a large swell that is very exciting to motor through and we head off to explore Christiana´s coastline. This proves to be the perfect ending to our Antarctic experience. At one point we cruise into a deep gash that almost dissects the Island in half. We travel beneath huge cliffs and weave our way through a maze of grounded icebergs that look incredibly beautiful in the late afternoon sun. We spot colonies of chinstrap penguins and surf the swell in our trusty Zodiacs before going back to our ship for another great dinner.

Sadly we head North and savour our last views of this icy wonderland until darkness makes us retreat to our cabins to pack and mentally prepare ourselves for the journey home.