January 05, 2006 GMT

For the first time in my life I've had to buy sunscreen due to the lack of ozone over Antarctica.

But it turns out that my bike kit is more or less appropriate clothing, according to the packing list, so I don't have to buy anything extra (they have a supply of rubber waders on board the ship).

If you're interested, you can read all about the cruise at http://www.antarpply.com/public_html/index.html.

Anyway, the campsite is full of Swiss and French in Landies, plus a few Germans and a nice pair of Colombian kids. Fernando and Patricia are going to look after the bike for me while I'm away. And a word about the lupins: Patagonia is full of them, rampaging all over the place. They're mostly purple and white on the western side and red and pink in the east; presumably something to do with soil acidity like hydrangeas. There's also a fair population of fuchsias and gorse bushes.

You may be interested to know that an old Routemaster is alive and well serving the city tour route here. I gather they've been junked in the UK, but there are plenty in the rest of the world, and they just won't lie down and die.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 03:59 PM GMT
January 17, 2006 GMT
The White Continent

The M/V Ushuaia is an ex-oceanographic survey ship with ice-breaking capabilities, and takes 65 passengers.

The hull at the bows is six inches thick with ribs every eight inches. Its top speed is 15 knots and cruising speed is 12 knots. But through the ice it creeps at 5 knots. The shore trips are in Zodiacs, with mostly "wet" landings, necessitating wellies and as much waterproof clothing as you can manage. My BMW suit proves to be excellent Antarctic wear, with only the addition of wellies, hat and lifejacket.

Antarctic Big Rules
1. Leave NOTHING behind except footprints (and then only where unavoidable).

2. Take NOTHING away except photographs and memories.

We cross the Drake Passage, through the Southern Ocean, from Cape Horn to the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. The swell is only two metres, so we cruise at 10 knots. There are albatrosses and petrels wheeling off the stern. We see our first iceberg, twice the size of the ship. Icebergs are almost never white; they range from deep blue to a jewel-like turquoise. And the water is so clear you can see clearly the 80% of their bulk beneath the water.

We anchor off Livingston Island (S 62 47.604 W060 33.700) and pile into the Zodiacs at 6am. There are Chinstrap penguin rookeries with the occasional Macaroni interloper; Macaroni penguins look completely bonkers - I mean, what's all that about? Look at them here (I couldn't get a digital pic, sorry).

After lunch it's off to Deception Island. This is an historic place and an active volcano. It was a British base (Base B) during WWII, and then British Antarctic Survey. We see Gentoo penguins (my favourite) and skuas feeding on krill on the shore. We have a teatime dip in the warm Antarctic waters rising from the volcano.

To Port Lockroy (S 64 41.418 W063 02.303) on Goudier Island to visit the old BAS base and which is now a museum and post office; then to Jougla Point for more penguins and elephant seals.

Penguins can usually be heard and smelt before they are seen; penguin poo is pink and very smelly, and they make a lot of noise (especially the Chinstraps).

Elephant seals break wind noisily and frequently from both ends (and it's sometimes difficult to tell which end is which).

After lunch we call at a US station, Palmer Base (S 64 46.259 W064 03.563) . All very American and squeaky clean, of course. Then across the bay to Torguenson Rookery to see the Adelie penguins. We watch an Antarctic skua steal an egg from one of the mothers; it takes the egg to a patch of snow where it can be made stable, then the mate joins it to break the shell and eat the contents. When they finish and fly off in search of pudding we lay a pen beside the remains to show scale and photograph them.

Antarctic animals have no fear of humans; in fact they are rather curious, wondering what these rather large and brightly-coloured creatures are. You can sit on the ground and before long be approached by a two-foot-high penguin who comes almost within arm's reach. Even sheathbills will approach that close.

At this latitude there's no darkness. The sun rises soon after 3am and doesn't set until nearly midnight. The moon doesn't set at all. The sunset tonight had everyone (including crew, kitchen staff and engineers) on deck until past midnight.

We anchor off Galindez Island (S 65 14.957 W064 13.624). This is the furthest south we go as the Ice Captain isn't happy about the pack ice.We are about 60 miles north of the Polar Circle here.

There is a Ukrainian base here, Vernadsky Station - another ex-BAS place. The Ukrainians are barking and have an unhealthy interest in ladies' underwear. They distill their own vodka from potato peelings (perfectly legal here), the price of which is $1 or a signed bra. I sacrifice some underwear (we've been forewarned) and with a "nazdrovie" knock back the first shot in one. Jolly nice it is too, and impresses the residents no end. We all agree we'd rather be stationed here than with the Americans. despite all their mod cons.

During lunch we start threading our way through the bergs and growlers in the Lemaire Channel, the Ice Captain switching eyes from binoculars to depth sounder to radar. There is an open bridge policy, and to be able to join the crew on the bridge at times like this is fascinating; they always find the time to explain and demonstrate the equipment. But in the Lemaire there is total silence from the passengers on the bridge as we crane to watch the ice in front of us and then round to the instrument displays. A deathly hush descends as we inch through the 300-metre gap at just 5 knots.

The water is so clear and still and cold that the reflections are perfect.

We anchor again, this time in Paradise Harbour. The Zodiac drivers take us on a cruise, close to bergs, stopping for photos, past calving glaciers, cutting the engines and drifting in the silence.

Back on the ship we're waiting for the last two Zodiacs to return, one containing the survival gear. Every time we go ashore there is a cargo of tents and survival equipment in the scout Zodiac, just in case of problems. No-one enlarged on these, but one can imagine. Sudden shout from the bridge; "whales to starboard". We look, and there is a Minke playing around the ship; word spreads and soon every last person on the ship is on deck with a camera. The whale nudges one of the Zodiacs, rolls over to show its white belly, turns and swims right under the
ship and surfaces on the other side. The show lasts for nearly an hour before the Captain decides he really must start the engines and get going.

We are at Neko Harbour (S 64 50.943 W062 32.415) on the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Gentoo penguins have clearly-defined highways from their rookeries to the sea, with what appears to be a largely one-way system. Four of us sit and watch a glacier calving, preceded by the thunder of icefalls and followed by miniature tsunamis along the shore.

We watch the leopard seals eyeing the penguins hungrily as we return to the ship for a barbecue lunch on deck. The temperature is -5C.

At Cuverville Island I sit and watch the Gentoos clambering around me on the rocks, not noticing the rising tide. I'm lucky - one of the guides spots me and finds me a way through not-too-deep water and along the edge of the rookery.

The Argentinian base "Camara" is on Half Moon Island (S 62 35.455 W059 54.242). We see more Chinstraps and Gentoos and are entertained by the rather fetching Argentinian sailors.

At Aitcho Island there is thick fog. The Ice Captain ventures to within 400 metres of the shore, but although we can hear and smell the penguins there is nothing to be seen. Eventually we have to give up and retire to the bar for an Antarctic Mythical Creatures competition. Our team, a cosmopolitan bunch of middle-aged drinkers, comes last; but we have great fun.


We arrived in Ushuaia this morning after a smooth and speedy crossing. One of the campsite cats has discovered that my sheepskin seat cover provides a comfortable vantage point from which to survey her domain, and has apparently done so since I left.

The pix are arriving (slowly) with Phil and can be seen here. If you ever, ever get the
chance, go to Antarctica.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:01 PM GMT
January 28, 2006 GMT
Lying Down for a Rest

Had a lovely ride north from Ushuaia with Rupert on Saturday morning, up to the border at San Sebastian. On the Argentinian side was a gaggle of trailies ridden by Finns and Americans, being led by none other than Roberto, the Chilean chap who was so helpful getting me and the wreck to Coyhaique after the Crash. So it was nice to be able to thank him properly and give him a hug and a kiss.

This is where the tarmac ends. So, on to the Chilean side, do the paperwork and have a cuppa before the 100-mile hack to Porvenir to get the ferry across the Magellan Strait to Punta Arenas. Chilean dirt is pretty decent - hard-packed and not too much gravel except on the bends. We were able to do 50-60mph much of the time, which also helps iron out the corrugations.

About 45 miles in we slowed down a bit as there was more gravel; and then suddenly there was what can only be described as a 30-yard-long 6-inch-deep gravel pit. Rupert got across OK, so I reckoned I'd be all right. Er, wrong. Nearly made it, but got totally crossed-up at the last minute and binned it. Erewegoagain.

Rupert had seen what happened in his mirror and had been frantically waving to try to slow me down a bit, but I'd been concentrating on the gravel and hadn't seen him.

Anyway, there I lay, thinking ribs and collarbone, both of which had borne the brunt yet again. As we all know, if you damage a body part it for ever after wears a sign saying "Hit Me". After about ten minutes a pickup stopped, and Rupert explained so the chap hurtled off to Porvenir, 50 miles away, to send an ambulance. Only two other vehicles passed in the two hours we waited, during which time Rupert sorted the bike a bit and picked up bits which had gone flying.

When the ambulance arrived it was all the usual stuff, upon which the carabineros arrived from the border:

[Policeman, in Spanish] What was the cause of the accident?
[Me] El ripio.
[Policeman] Si, claro.

The doctor at the hospital positively boggled at the X-ray of my shoulder, although I'd explained that I broke it last April. It is, it has to be said, rather a mess and it's not surprising it's been giving me grief. Anyway, nothing's broken, only rather bruised, so after night in the hospital we decamped to the hotel, me clutching my painkillers.

Rupert (who speaks pretty good Spanish) had had a fruitful discussion with the border police about the bike, and although they insisted on taking it back to the border they agreed to get it to Porvenir on Monday. So on Monday morning we went first to the police station where I was welcomed by name and my health asked after, after which they explained we just had to go round to the Fiscal who were was sorting everything out. They said the bike would be arriving around 1pm and that they'd ring us. So at 2pm we ambled back; there was the bike, thank heavens, and I only had to sign a release and it was mine. At no time would anyone take any money - I tried to pay the hospital and failed, and the Fiscal and police didn't seem to want anything for transporting the bike all over the countryside, even though it had clearly damaged their pickup as there's more than a little carabineros green paint adhering to various sticky-out bits.

We removed the luggage and Rupert pushed and coasted the bike to the hotel while one of the Fiscal chaps brought the boxes in a pickup, pausing only to give me a hug and a kiss.

It appears I'm a bit of a celebrity; on Sunday night there was a bunch of birdwatchers in the hotel led by a chap from Suffolk, and the Chilean with got all excited and started talking about some newspaper article. I denied any knowledge, but he produced the paper and sure enough there was an article about the accident giving all the gory details (clearly there are no rules here about extracting information from police or doctors) and a photo of me emerging from the X-ray room in a wheelchair. So much for keeping it quiet.

Porvenir has a population of 4,000, and even here in the internet caff in a back street they knew who I was. Blimey.

So Phil Hawksley is yet again sorting some parts for me - it's mostly plastic bits as there's no major damage - and I'll just bum around till they arrive. I'll have to nip across to Punta Arenas for couple of days to get money (can't get any here) and see a dentist, but that's easy and will while away the time a bit. I've some more pix, too, especially as Rupert was kind enough to use my camera to take pix of me lying down for a rest in the middle of the road.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:21 PM GMT
A Little Jaunt

You just have to love this place, and this country (in case you've forgotten I'm back in Chile for the seventh time).

Porvenir, on Tierra del Fuego, is a town of some 5,000 souls. It covers about a square mile - you can walk from one end of town to the other in around 15 minutes. The main drags are paved but otherwise all roads are dirt, except for the 5km to the port where the ferry leaves for the two-and-a-half-hour voyage to Punta Arenas on the other side of the Magellan Strait. There is one internet caff - mind you, it's the latest kit, WinXP and broadband, and very friendly and helpful. There is free internet at the library, but you have to book and anyway the police use it all the time. The only bank takes Mastercard but nothing else, and won't change Argentinian pesos, which is a bit limiting as due to the cockup last year in Santiago I only have Visa and Amex.

Last night I went back to see Dr.Ruiz for a checkup. He agrees that the headache will take a couple of weeks to fade completely. He pulled my arm around a bit and visibly winced at the crunching noises. "It's not good". "It wasn't terribly good before" I said. He laughed, and laughed even more when I showed him the pix of the bike, and me lying down in the road. He's given me a prescription for catering quantities of industrial-strength anti-inflammatories to keep me going once I'm
riding again, and instructions to get the bone straightened properly when I get home. I didn't tell him how long that might be in case he got fierce.

The airline office is a small, unsigned wooden kiosk in the park by the beach. The sales clerk is a rather doddery old boy who can't be more than about 75. I bought a return ticket to Punta Arenas (30 quid including transfers). This morning the minibus picked me up at ten to eight, the old boy wearing his bus conductor's hat. We drove 5km down a dirt road to the airfield where the old boy donned his check-in clerk's hat, and everyone said their Buen' dias. The 9-seater Cessna 402C landed, unloaded the day's post, and I climbed in with the other three passengers, greeting the pilot and co-pilot as we scrambled round them.

The runway is dirt, of course - you don't half get a lot of road noise from the tyres. Cruising altitude is 900m for the 15-minute hop across the strait to Punta Arenas airport (where the RAF were stationed during the little disagreement in 1982). The only other plane there was a military-spec UN-registered Ilyushin 76.

So here I am in the Big City - internet caffs, more banks (with Visa ATMs, thank heavens) than you can shake a stick at; truly a Great Metrollops. I'm going back to Porvenir on Monday afternoon; Sergio and Ernestina, who run the hotel and cook for me, are cool about everything and have been looking after me wonderfully. They understand about the bank thing and are perfectly happy to look after my stuff and The Old Dear.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 07:24 PM GMT
January 31, 2006 GMT
Spinnaker Trousers

My father used to wear what my big brother and I called Spinnaker Trousers.

We'd got to Brighton for the afternoon after Dad had finished at the bank on Sauturday, and it would usually be cold and windy. We'd walk along the prom and Dad's trousers would be flapping in the wind like sails. We children tried to disown him.

I wear the Spinnaker Trousers in this family now (especially as I'm one of the grown-ups). The Patagonian wind is blowing a houllie. I could barely walk to the plane at Punta Arenas yesterday afternoon, and I swear it took off in a hundred yards; landing was interesting. And this pair of trousers is three sizes too big for me now.

Despite that, and because I've not much better to do except stare at orange walls in the rather dreary hotel, I'm going back to Punta Arenas (literally Sandy Point) on Thursday to get what I hope is a bit of a giggle from the Queen Mary 2 docking at about 8 the next morning. Should be quite a sight, actually - the largest liner in the world sailing up the Magellan Strait.

Punta Arenas is an historic place for many reasons. For instance, the hotel I stayed in is next door to the post office where Captain Scott posted 400 letters back to England to say he'd returned safely from his first expedition.

Back in Porvenir I've realised it's probably about as near the arse-end of the universe as I've ever been. The hotel food is more or less edible (and sawing at it with my knife at least provides some physio), there's no gin, I've no idea when (or if) the bike parts will arrive, I'm thankful the new pills seem to be working, and I have several cunning plans for escaping, some of which involve riding the bike out and some of which don't. There are two TV channels, one of which majors on the Chilean version of Big Brother (and is just as tedious in Spanish as it is in English). I've run out of books to read and all I could find in Punta Arenas were travel guides and wildlife books - you know, the sort which arrange everything by species and assume you know what you're looking at so you can look it up, grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I may be reduced to going out for walks with my bins hanging round my neck. At least the BMW Antarctic Suit is earning its keep in dealing with the cold, rain and wind.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at 04:14 PM GMT

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