(This blog is in an unconventional format: The dates displayed are actual trip dates - not post dates.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Crossing the Drake

January 23, 2010
54°48′0″ S, 68°18′0″ W  - to - 62°35′44″S, 59°54′12″W

When I next awoke sometime during the night, someone was shaking my box. There was some very apparent movement in the room - which could only mean we'd passed from the calm Beagle Channel into the hot-tempered Drake Passage, a place well regarded for high seas, powerful winds and the odor of regurgitated buffet-food escaping from little paper gift-bags. In the early morning the rolling waves start rocking the Fram side-to-side, and a few times while awake I gripped onto the side of the bed, wondering why I hadn't been seriously injured while asleep. Zig-zagging down the hallway to breakfast made me glad I'd never been caught running for my life in a marble maze.

The Drake Passage is named after one Sir Francis Drake, who while on a bit of an adventure around the Americas stumbled upon the stretch of water somewhat by accident. After loosing several of his ships on the Atlantic, his lone flagship made it through the straits of Magellan only to find the Pacific didn't like him much either - whipping up a storm that pushed him far south and into the Passage. Its seems debatable that he ever went so far as the passage - but that doesn't make for a very good story, and all the same, the body of water is named after him in any case.

The Drake is considered to be the stretch of water from Cape Horn in South America to the Shetland Islands in Antarctica, joining the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern oceans. It's also said to be amongst the roughest waters in the world. Only yesterday, our spirited and comic guide in Tiera del Fuego was joking in his accented English: "You either get Drake Lake or Drake Shake. You hope for Lake. Buuuut... most probably it's Shaaaake.". The 3-4m swell - which is considered "calm" in this corner of the world - was proving (for some) as effective as two fingers down the back of the throat. I've never seen a 3-4m swell on a "lake" before. But I'll take it.

Never leaving a moment unspent, the day's itinerary beckoned me to the Polhogda hall, a decent-size room near the bough on the deck four. In a room full of landlubbers, with the curtains dropped and the lights dimmed while the boat swayed side to side, I began to wonder if this was a trap. The scene was set for a performance of peristaltic pyrotechnics . I nervously awaited the unstoppable chain-reaction that would be triggered by a single stomach going critical. I'll never know how close we came to disaster that day. All I know is that we survived.

The projector beamed to life and the first lecture of the day began. The members of the Fram expedition team - each scientists in their field, talented speakers and experienced Antarcticans - were overqualified for delivering interesting sessions to uneducated tourists. Now imagine your favourite university lecturer presenting on board a motion-sensitive thrill ride. Penguin 101 with the on board ornithologist was especially entertaining, and would prove to be valuable in the coming days when it came to avoiding projectile penguin poo - which has been, at times, recorded to stretch metres in distance.

The ship's historian was a man clearly concerned with on board safety, choosing to present a spoken presentation on the observation deck, and thus defusing a potentially noxious situation in the darkened below decks. A New Zealand born German with a historian's proper-English accent, he spoke of Antarctica's discovery in what is a surprisingly large human history for one of the few places on Earth we find it hard not to die. It was also a stark reminder of what pansies we were in our plush, sonar-equipped, five-star boats with buffet meals and chocolate mousse for dessert.

On that note, with plenty of spare time around breakfast and lunch, it was a perfect day to get acquainted with the buffets. What's more, with most people either dosed-up on Scopolamine or talking-to-the-bag, there was an over-abundance of food - which would only serve to make those immune to seasickness sick for an entirely different reason. Being the only reasonably price thing on board (i.e. free), and there being almost as many plates of delicious desserts as mains, I was deeply troubled that these buffets would be my downfall. In an epic struggle with will-power, I would need to deal with the fact that for the next twelve days, I'd be living on a ship that employed a full-time baker & a pastry-maker (to be extra clear - that's one of each).

Taking an initial rummage through the ship's on board store, I found that they only sold souvenirs to women on this boat - unless, gentlemen, you wanted to pay top dollar to wear one of those jumpers your Grandma knitted you back in the 70's. This didn't bother me too much, because all I was really looking for were some tissues to take the edge off that frost-bitten nose. I was dismayed to find the only option was a packet of 6 x 10-tissue pocket pack, coming in at a price of sixty Norwegian Krona. Stop and think about that. Twelve Australian Dollars for sixty tissues. For that much I reckon you could blow your nose on silk-woven tissues - so the expectation here is high. I handed over my ship-card and tried not to think about it - but was forced to remind my wife every time she wanted one that it was costing her a silver platypus.

When a schnitzel arrived in front of me at the first seated dinner of the trip, I knew something had gone right. But aside, it was a good opportunity to get to know some of the people I was traveling with. It was a table of six Australians, and two unlucky Austrians who didn't speak much English and had obviously copped the wrong end of the tour company's spelling and comprehension abilities. I was pleased to find that I was surround by the type of above-average travel-savvy tourist, who really classes more as an explorer. Stories were shared and good times were had.

Nursing an over-expanding stomach, I found myself back on the observation deck in the later evening. A thick blanket of smooth cloud had draw over the sky, leaving only the slightest of gaps on the horizon, where the last golden rays of light were escaping along the seam. The golden disk slipped below the line of cloud on the horizon, and with a slow amble, lowered itself along a 20 degree angle towards the horizon. I sat close to the wife for the next half hour as it crossed that tiny piece of sky in what was a very long (and pleasant) sunset over the Drake.

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