Minke whales to starboard!

November 19, 2007 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Assistant Post Mistress, Observations in Antarctica, Rachel Hazell | Leave a comment

29th October

Wake early, although not up when an excited Tudor knocks on our door at 6:45 (more than a few people confess to have been wandering around in pyjamas at dawn, too busy looking to sleep.) Up to deck seven, front row seats for an ice spectacle. On our way to Cuverville Island past picture postcard wonder. Intended landing no good, on a little further to Danco, where the water is glassy crystal and the gentoos fly beneath it. At breakfast, a surprise; Franz informs us that since the Captain plans to deliver us to Port Lockroy TONIGHT, we must make ready, and open PO/Shop for business at eleven am! arrgh! Hurry hurry! Make labels, load trolleys, arrange goods and our customers are upon us, three deep, in constant waves. Trying to remember prices, reaching over for t-shirts, channelling credit card payers to Helen, selling, selling selling ­ single stamps, First Day Covers. An astonishing blur for one and a half hours, when there is a slight lull for lunch, so we eat in relay, vacantly staring. Finish at two. Takes an age to pack up and cash up.

Then we have one hour to do everything we need before leaving the ship: ­ shower, pack, check internet, phone home, except there’s no signal (must be big mountains in the way) until the last five minutes. And now that we’ve had the PO onboard, everyone wants to talk to us and tell us interesting things. Impossible to focus, too many urgent distractions.
Finally, last panicky e-mails are sent. Tannoy announces minke whales to starboard: ­ all rush out, and there they are, blowing in the middle distance, five in a row, in this champagne glow of evening, nearly at our destination. Oh and then orcas to port, a mother and baby. That nearly makes my day, but a six minute telephone conversation tops that (despite Rick banging on the door because it’s time to take luggage down to hold!) Up on deck four, the team of four expectantly waits for the first glimpse of Goudier Island. We’re rounding the south end of Neumayer Channel, and there it is –  a small black oblong that is the boat shed and a small corner of Bransfield House just visible. Jumping up and down, it’s so beautiful and the evening is so perfect and the whales have dipped by. Dress up in layers and life jackets, hand in our cabin cards, sign off our accounts. Somehow we’re ready, the passengers are hugging us, and wishing us luck. Down to the tender deck, where most of the expedition staff are robing up to help, and the crew are smilingly light-hearted about transferring nearly nine tons of  cargo. Personal luggage on the first boat. There are sculpted icebergs and the water is deeply clear. A sinuous single leopard seal extends his curiosity. And the gentoos are everywhere.

Rick steps ashore first. Snow heaped all around. Penguins shift in response. Such excitement walking up to the red door (carrying beer – interesting priority, but we don’t want it to freeze and explode do we?), which is half obscured by drift. Rick kicks and heaves the door open – no it’s not locked – and there we are, home! Now the work starts, boat after boat, laden with boxes, negotiating rocks + ice, reaching the shore, unloading along human chain onto massive tarpaulin. This takes two and a half hours of back aching, feet freezing humping with much humour and good will. What stars they are! Helen and I weak with weariness, giggling and collapsing laughing. All the while hardly believing it; the penguins, the light, this mountain silhouette…this small island is to be our world for four and a half months. Carry on ’til the light diminishes and the captain of the ship says ‘Enough! Stop!’ Only three/four more loads, can deal with them tomorrow. Moving to wave goodbye and thanks to Expedition Staff at the loading place, in the gloaming – four of us in a line. (Forgot to mention that we’re all wearing fantastic Dixies red padded overalls.) Waving and walking back up the slope. Nordnorge’s beam picking out shards of ice in between which the boat navigates safe passage back to ship. Soon so dark inside the hut, and I don’t have anything so practical as a head torch (only four shades of lipstick) so locating which boxes have sleeping bags, pillows, pillow cases is not straight forward. Sink into fleece liner inside mega-thick sleeping bag, wearing two pairs of socks, windstopper fleece and pyjamas (I’m the only one who bothers changing; seems a small but necessary nod to decorum) on top of a Thermarest and sheepskin, over-laden with coat and pashmina scarf on top. Shelf above hung with long johns and thermals damp with fresh sweat. Nose and toes are cold, all else warm. Asleep first, leaving Tudor and Helen taking over from Rick in attempt to open the all-important Base Safe.

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