After a night of limited sleep on a bench in the airport I took a taxi into Santiago early this morning and roamed a bit. I wasn’t quite prepared for a big city, and the combination of the drunks, goths, and others who were finishing off their nights out (“Hey yankee! Look over here yankee!”) and my total lack of comprehension of Spanish was a bit overwhelming. As the day wore on and the street performers and stalls set up it was a bit nicer — the city has a very European feel to it.
Now I’m back in the airport waiting for the plane to take me home. For the first time in nearly two months, instead of a list of animals to see or a list of places to hike to I’ve got a list of tasks to complete — it may not be long before I need to head out on the road again. The first item on the list was to get all of the trip photos uploaded, so hopefully everything is working now. I’m pretty pleased with how the stuff from the Falklands came out, especially from Saunders, although a photographer with any skill would have come away with images that did more justice to the place than what I’ve got. Still, some of them aren’t bad.
The journey home continues, with the evening likely to be spent sleeping on the floor of the Santiago airport. I stayed at Kay McCallum’s bed & breakfast again last night, and having heard from lots of people about her “world famous” gnome garden I peeked over a fence and was greeted by at least fifty ceramic garden gnomes, as well as two pink flamingoes. I was advised to ask Kay about Grumpy, the traveling gnome, who was taken by two Brits who felt Grumpy was a bit young to retire to the Falklands — “the blokes nicked my gnome” is how Kay describes it. Since his abduction he has been on a world tour, with photos appearing in the Falklands newspaper on a regular basis. Word on the street is that Grumpy’s celebrity status has become equal to that of the Falklands governor, which is most impressive for a ceramic garden ornament.
The long journey home started today with the FIGAS flight from Pebble Island back to Stanley. Tomorrow it’s off to Chile, followed by a flight on Sunday/Monday back to the States, and eventually back to the Bay Area. After almost seven weeks it’s a shame to see the trip coming to an end.
Some Idiot on a Hill Last Week
on Saunders Island
An ungodly amount of hiking today — I was out of bed at 5:15 and pretty much covered every bit of the eastern half of the island. Upon returning home I discovered that Jacqui had cooked up an entire steak pie just for me — I easily must have eaten a pound and a half of food for dinner, and it was damn good. I assumed that today was basically the last day of the trip, but the plane back to Stanley won’t arrive until 2:30 tomorrow, which leaves practically another full day. Whether the body can handle another full day or not should be interesting to find out…
The brain had planned to get up at about five this morning, photograph the birds for a bit, and then head out to the west side of the island for some hiking. The body had other plans, so I crawled out of bed at nearly six, spent a few hours utterly failing to get decent photos of the birds, then took a nap for a while before heading out again in the afternoon. Since tomorrow is my last full day here I’m hoping that the brain will be more successful in persuading the body to follow plans.
Much of the evening was spent in the lounge with Alan, Jacqui, and a few of the other lodge guests telling stories, many of which were about Jerome and his sailing exploits. During the conversation it occurred to me that Jerome will probably be one of the ten most interesting people I will meet in my life, which is saying a lot given some of my acquaintances. Alan had more than his fair share of tales and also noted that Jerome’s son Dion has been known to windsurf in hurricane-force winds, while his other son once set off on a day-trip in his kayak and along the way decided Forrest-Gump style to circumnavigate the Falklands, covering as much as seventy-five kilometers per day.
Alan drove me to the far west side of the island today, and after dropping me off at a rockhopper colony pointed out an erect-crested penguin in the middle of the colony. Apparently the bird is supposed to be found only in New Zealand, so this one obviously made a huge wrong turn. During the hike back to the settlement I saw four additional types of penguins, five dolphins, a large number of raptors, and a sea lion who was being harassed by an albatross and a petrel. My feet are sore and my legs hurt, but if I can manage it will be more of the same tomorrow.
I set off hiking early this morning with no real destination in mind, and about fifteen miles later returned to the lodge having visited most of the eastern half of the island. The lodge owners don’t seem to be used to having guests wandering aimlessly, and Alan sheepishly asked me to take a radio and call at 5:00 just to verify I was still alive. Jacqui was running a wildlife tour this afternoon, and I think I actually startled her when she drove up and found me in the midst of a rockhopper colony seven miles from the lodge. More of the same is planned for tomorrow.
The trip is in its final stage now, and I tried to book things so that I could take it easy at the end — the hospitality, accomodation, and most importantly the food at the lodge here has me convinced that I chose well. The wildlife isn’t as spectacular on this island, but the hiking is good and there is still a lot to see. The only other folks at the lodge right now are an older group of British bird watchers — they explained to me that Venice Beach is apparently the best spot in LA for bird watching; tremendous confusion, some of which involved the word “grotty”, followed that comment.
Last day on Saunders, and I’ll be sad to go, although after three days of self-catering it will be very nice to eat something other than tuna sandwiches again. While here my alarm clock has been a caracaras who arrives shortly after sunrise and then loudly patrols the tin roof, the dolphins have reappeared each day in greater numbers (twenty-one this morning), there have been at least a dozen times where a black-browed albatross flew in for a landing within feet of me, and the rockhopper penguins have adopted an annoyed expression any time they have to hop around the very clumsy human who is in their path. I’ve done enough hiking to realize I’m hugely out of shape, taken enough photos that it will take ages to sort through them all, and in general enjoyed myself thoroughly.
Black-Browed Albatross on Saunders Island
Perfect weather, lots of hiking, and lots of photography — next to Steeple Jason I think this is my favorite island in the Falklands. I’m not much of a writer, so hopefully a couple of photos will at least begin to do the place justice.
Rockhopper Penguin on Saunders Island
Gentoo Penguin on Saunders Island
Not only is Saunders Island an even more amazing place than Sea Lion Island, but the sun reappeared this afternoon — I was beginning to fear it had burnt out. The FIGAS flight was again scenic, although I had my seatbelt fastened as tightly as possible due to the high winds. The several stops included two grass airstrips, one of which had three small hills on it — takeoffs are a bouncy enough affair normally, but doing it on a roller-coaster airstrip adds a whole new element to the event.
Once the plane arrived at Saunders I was met by David Pole-Evans, the very nice owner of the island. He reminded me a bit of John Goodman, and has been living on the farm long enough that he can make an expression like “righty-o” sound quite natural. It took an hour by Landrover to drive out to the cabin on the Neck, and now that I’m here I’ve got the place to myself for two nights. The landscape outside is a spit of land between two mountains that is loaded with wildlife and bordered by large white-sand beaches. While hiking the black-browed albatross were flying by so close I thought one might hit me, rockhopper penguins roamed past me as if I wasn’t there, gulls followed me in flocks, and a pod of dolphins was swimming about ten meters offshore. Life is indeed very good right now.
I stayed up most of the night checking election results, and despite the fact that Kerry led exit polls for total vote, Ohio vote, and Florida vote by two-to-three percent he appears to have lost all three by a similar margin. I don’t know much about exit polls, but statistically the result seems a bit sketchy. The prospect of four more years of Bush doing whatever he wants without consequence (since he doesn’t need to worry about re-election) is a very scary one.
The day’s weather matched my mood, with clouds and occasional rain for most of the day. It’s a photographer’s nightmare — an incredible amount to photograph, but no light to do so. Still, just walking around is nice, and getting an occasional orca sighting is a thrill. Tomorrow it’s off to Saunders Island and, with luck, better weather.
Magellanic Oystercatcher on Sea Lion Island
For various reasons I’ve been having trouble falling asleep lately, and as a result couldn’t drag myself out of bed until nearly an hour after sunrise. The weather has alternated from cloudy to rainy, but between getting pelted by rain I’ve managed to revisit the rockhopper colony and also explore a bit on the other side of the island, which has some brilliant sandy beaches with handfuls of elephant seals on them. There have again been caracaras and an orca sighting, although my favorite part of the day has been the little birds, including the tussoc birds which come so close that I often have to try to avoid stepping on them. I’ve not yet figured out if they’re curious, near-sighted, or just lonely, but it’s definitely neat to have a couple of small birds only inches away.
Both the plane service and Sea Lion Lodge lost my bookings, but through the heroic efforts of Ms. Kay McCallum (“Ah, you need to give ’em hell occasionally”) the airport manager was roused at home and all was soon put right. The FIGAS planes are awesome — we buzzed above the landscape at about two hundred feet, and it was more like a sightseeing trip than just a ride out of Stanley. We touched down on the dirt landing strip on Sea Lion Island, and the staff here is mostly Scottish so the beauracracy of the Falklands disappeared amidst some great accents.
Sea Lion Island itself is amazing enough that I’m a bit worried I may have booked the best first. I hiked a good bit of it today, had caracaras following me, saw an immensely busy colony of blue-eyed shags and rockhopper penguins, got lost in tussock grass taller than I was, and watched three killer whales swimming offshore. I’m planning on trying to be up for sunrise tomorrow, so with luck I’ll hopefully get a few pictures that show off the beauty of the place.
Blue-Eyed Shag on Sea Lion Island
Beautiful weather today for a bit of roaming, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot in the immediate vicinity of Stanley that is of particular interest. Internet access is a huge pain, but I’ve still been trying to catch up a bit on the news:
- It sounds like the election will be ridiculously close, which is scary.
- The Sox broke the curse (wow!)
- The Browns have simultaneously discovered how to score and forgotten how to defend.
- The Onion reports that Cheney will attack America himself if Kerry wins.
- Ohio State football has collapsed completely and is now unranked.
- And otherwise life seems more-or-less unchanged.
Stage two of the trip starts tomorrow as I’ll be off to the outlying islands for twelve days.
There is a good chance that my internet access will disappear soon, so if the updates stop they should resume again by the second week of November. And yes, I know most of the South Georgia pictures are broken, but it’s just too expensive to upload them all right now so I’ll fix it in a couple of weeks from Chile.
Everyone else left for the airport about two hours ago, with Micky and Shane nearly missing the bus despite the fact that there’s only one flight a week — apparently they found a badmitton court and couldn’t be bothered to stop their game early. Seeing them stroll back to the boat as the bus was arriving was an act brazen enough to rate up there with Micky’s call for beers back at Trollhul. Afterwards I ate a quick lunch with Jerome, Kathy and Jerome’s son Dion before heading off to Kay McCallum’s bed and breakfast — after living on a boat for a month the luxury of a full-size bed, carpet and a good glass of tea makes this place feel like a palace.
Tonight was the last night together for the passengers and crew of the Golden Fleece, and no one wanted to go to bed. We all went out to dinner, waited an hour and a half for the food to come, then returned to the boat, drank a bit, and talked about everything from milking horses to smuggling Incan sword hilts to an Osama vs. Bush pay-per-view match. At one point Mike mixed Budweiser and milk together (I can’t recall what prompted it) and the resulting concoction was actually not all that bad. There was a lot of laughter, and I’m writing this now thinking that I’m going to miss this group greatly once everyone heads off to the airport tomorrow. I started out knowing the trip would have its lonely moments, but I didn’t suspect that parting with fellow passengers would be such a big one.
The Malvinas House Hotel has a sauna room with shower and jacuzzi that is rented out for four people at about twenty-five dollars an hour. After getting only two showers while on the boat, exiting the sauna room I was a god on Earth; whoever it was that built it should be given sainthood.
After the three days of hell on the seas the winds calmed yesterday afternoon, and we had comparatively smooth sailing until our arrival in Stanley at mid-morning. Upon landing Micky did a swan dive into the dock and held on firmly, and it’s safe to say that none of the rest of us will ever again take stable ground for granted.
My opinion of Stanley has changed somewhat now that I’ve had more time to visit — while it’s still a beautiful setting, there is beauracracy built into every facet of life here. One in three people (man, woman and child) works for the government, and even getting a table in an empty restaurant involved putting our name on a list, waiting five minutes for the bar to open, then waiting twenty minutes in the bar for the girl to come get us, and after all of that hassle the food still ended up being pretty horrid.
The day’s other big event was a quest for internet access. After an ungodly long search I was able to connect my laptop for twenty pence (thirty-eight cents) per minute, after which I had to wait forty-five minutes to download over six hundred spam messages and about thirty real emails. Pictures from the trip will be probably be broken until I reach Chile in two weeks since it would cost an amazing sum to get all of them uploaded.
We’re now off for dinner at a (hopefully) better restaurant, followed by an evening in the pubs — the only thing that isn’t expensive here is alcohol, and after five days without much merriment everyone seems ready to take full advantage.
With (hopefully) only one more day at sea everyone has acquired a morbid but resigned look — our options at this point are to keep enduring or to jump overboard, neither of which are particularly good. I haven’t seen Ted in three days, Micky has been prostrate on a couch for forty-eight hours, and Mike (who isn’t taking any motion-sickness drugs) has had the look of a deer in headlights every time I’ve seen him recently. Provided we do make land tomorrow there will be more than one person kissing the dock.
In the words of Shane, “What kind of shit have I gotten myself into now?” Winds are sustained at thirty-to-forty knots, waves are twelve-to-fifteen feet, and the boat is jumping like a Mexican bean. With the assistance of drugs my vision is horribly blurred but I’m not feeling ill, although several of the fellow passengers have been heaving forth with great gusto throughout the day. One thing they don’t tell you about rough seas is that while walking around is very, very tough, using the bathroom is practically a gymnastic event.