Saturday, 15 March 2008

And that's the end of it....

Yep. Here I am, sitting in Oxford. It's 7:00 AM and raining steadily outside. I'm back!

The last couple days in Johannesburg were fairly uneventful. The hostel at which I stayed was quite suburban; very little around it. Nice backyard, though.

So, I spent most of the time accompanying the hostel owner (Patrick) on minor errands and reading my books. Which was fine by me. The only commercial establishment in the area was a bar and grill that sold a damn good mexican pizza with garlic and avocado on it. And they sold absinthe. So these two items supplied much of my calorie intake for a couple days.

And then it was time to go. That was that! Patrick took me to the airport; I waited; got on a British Airways plane; and 10 hours later, got back to Heathrow with very minimal fanfare.

Then it was straight to Oxford; as I don't have any accommodations in Cambridge yet, Glen was kind enough to put me up for a couple of days. Until today, that is. The Blumenthal-Roseman wedding is this afternoon, at Wadham College, and it will be a great chance to see everyone from Cambridge again.

However, one of the first things we did was a stop at the White Hart in Fyfield, a pub that I had arbitrarily designated as the end of my Antarctic trip. And, so, here I am at it, with my long-lost cider!

And with this politely smiling picture, I believe it's time for me to bring this blog to a close. After today, there are still many things to sort out - where I will live in Cambridge, conferences to attend, trips back home, and so on. But we wouldn't want to make a liar out of the blog title by discussing them, would we?

I haven't decided whether or not I will fire the blog back up next season...I probably will, as we have some cool projects on the horizon. This includes measuring chasms - bigger than crevasses, as one may guess - and some deep field work. And watching Halley VI come alive.

But until then, thanks to you all for reading along. I've enjoyed writing it. If you've been a constant reader, feel free to drop a comment below saying who you are! Always nice to know.

And, of course, I'll finish with one last set of penguins! And a skua.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

South Africa, Week 2

[Note: pictures couldn't upload to the page at the moment...the site failed. I may try again in a few days.]

Another week has passed, and this one finds me sitting in a four-star hotel in Jo'burg, which I got for cheap through Expedia. Just one night, though, and then it's back to hostels.

Anyway, I believe I left off last weekend, so let me pick it back up from there.

Officially labelled "Logistics day" by the group - we all sorted out some of our details for the next stages of our lives. Tickets, and so on. This involved the renting of a car for four of us, to travel the Garden route, and the booking of hostels through to the next weekend.

In the afternoon, we were meant to go visit some of the Stellenbosch wineries; but when the time came, we found that none of us could be bothered. I'd already been there, and some of the others were planning to go later; so the plan just fizzled out. So we just stuck to our usual Cape Town haunts, and did a bit of shopping.

Road Trip! The four of us core travellers - me, Jim the chippy, Ant the chef, and Dave the meteorologist, got our car and headed off east. It was a little bit disconcerting at the start - none of the other three had driven in 18 months, and I still haven't ever driven on the left side of the road (despite four years in England). Dave started off, and did well to get us out of the heart of Cape Town.

Our destination was Plettenberg Bay, a nice little town on the south coast about 500 km from Cape Town. The road was relatively good, and we made it there by early evening. The hostel came well-recommended - it was basically someone's house, where they stuck a bar and dormitory on the back. Plett Bay itself had a large number of restaurants and bars and so on, all within walking distance. So we congratulated ourselves on our choice.

A day of looking at local wildlife reserves. First one, elephants:

Always nice to see elephants up close. These ones were young ones rescued from a cull at the Kruger; they would be re-released into the wild in a few years, probably in Botswana. Up close with an elephant, you always wonder what it's thinking. Wouldn't want to play one at poker.

Next to the elephant sanctuary, there was a bird sanctuary. Took loads of shots of birds; not many of them turned out. Here's a few.

It was Africa's biggest aviary, and it was massive. We toured it for about an hour, and then got back to the hostel for a traditional African meal, a type of stew whose name eludes me at the moment.

A day of infamy for me. We decided to do a horseback tour of a game reserve. Now, I've always had a problem with heat - this day was a particularly hot sunny day, and I never really noticed how I've subconciously sought out shade and cool whenever I could, in similar circumstances.

No such luck on the back of a horse, proceeding at a walking pace through a field. I got a bit dizzy and nauseous - drank through my water quickly, and completely ignored our guide's descriptions of the animals nearby. I do remember being close to a giraffe at one point. That's about it.

Ah, but afterwards! We got down to the beach in Plett bay, where the waves were huge. We frolicked a bit in the water, and finished off with cocktails on the terrace of a large immaculate hotel with a well-executed sixties decor. A great way to make me forget my three hours of African centurion patrol duty.

And then there were three. We parted way with Dave at this point - he was progressing further east along the Garden Route, while the rest of us returned to Cape Town. I should say at this point - the Garden Route is a strip along the south coast of South Africa that is very well developed as a holiday area. There is still poverty around the corner, and township communities of ramshackle buildings, but there are also posh beachfronts and restaurant strips. In this sense, it's not the "real" Africa. But appropriate for a holiday.

Anyway, Ant, Jim, and I retraced our steps back to Cape Town with minimal fanfare. When we got back, our favourite hostel was booked up, so we grabbed the one next door. This one ("Zebra Crossing") was a bit more cramped, and had less security, but was still more than fine. We made one last visit to the Waterfront and our favourite pizza place ("Clay Oven" on Long Street). And then off to bed.

And then there was one. I finally left Ant and Jim early morning Saturday - Ant was beginning his holiday with his girlfriend, and Jim was beginning an overland tour through Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. So, I was on my own for the first time since early October. Time for a train trip!

The Premiere Shosholoza train left Cape Town on Monday morning. This train had 20 cars on it. And, so far as I could tell, it had about 20 people on it. We literally could of had a car for each of us! But we didn't, of course. We had a room for each of us - a small room, but enough to sleep in comfortably, and sit and watch South Africa go by:

Meals were very good, service was good. The night passed uneventfully. I didn't get to know any of my fellow passengers - mostly elderly couples or families. Besides, I had a stack of fiction to get through, and I was happy.

We arrived into Johannesburg around noon. Jo'burg is quite a different story than Cape Town - much bigger, all-business, and has some rough sections that you can wander into. In the absence of a Blumenthal guide, I took no chances and went straight to my hotel, which I picked from Expedia without any location strategy.

A bit more confident when I got there, as the area was nice, I decided to take a walk in a random direction. A half hour later, I ended up at a shopping centre. After wandering around for a bit, I saw a bowling alley/arcade that triggered a memory flashback. I'd been here before!

I love that feeling of sudden re-orientation; you're lost, or in unfamiliar territory, and suddenly you are able to fit what you're seeing with the internal map inside your head. The last time I was in Jo'burg, we came to this suburban shopping centre, by some freak coincidence, to do some last minute shopping. I went looking for a certain bar, where I had a strong memory of Glen consuming a cocktail where waiters kept pouring more liquid into your glass while you drinking it. After finding it easily, I thought about having a cocktail in his honour; however, I was now travelling on my own, and it was lunchtime. Drinking alone at lunch crosses a certain line.

So I returned to my hotel. I phoned my parents, which was nice - only phone call with them since October, except for one brief call from the Shackleton at Christmas. Then, an early night.

And now it's early Monday morning. I must give up my hotel to return to hostel life for two more days, before getting onto a flight back to the UK. This hostel is well-recommended, though, and sounds pretty relaxing. But first, some admin - I have 10 minutes of Internet access left, which must be used to book flights and arrange accommodations. Ah, the life of a transient...

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Back to Reality

‘Well here we are, just the four of seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’

One of my favourite quotes, and relatively apt at the moment.

Time for a breather! Four of us from Halley are sitting in a hostel in Plettenburg Bay, on the south coast of South Africa. This town is a bit quiet, and this hostel has Internet, so I can fit in a blog entry, I think. Obviously it's been a busy time for me. But indeed, Halley has already faded into a bizarre dream-like past state for us.

But let's go back to last Wednesday and I shall recall the events.


Woke up at 3:30am. The base was already hopping, and the plane was being de-iced. We actually didn't take off until about 5:15am. But the weather was fine and the flight went relatively smoothly. Before we knew it we were at Sanae, the South African research base and our first stop on the way out.

Sanae is a pretty place - nice cliffs. It's a bigger base than ours, with less people. It had already finished its summer season, so we were greeted by a small team of 12 enthusiastic winterers. While refueling, we looked around their base, and swapped stories about melt-tanks and relief logistics. Then we moved on, leaving them to their lonely winter vigil.

A few hours later, we were at Novo, which is a Russian base with a large airport-ish facility. Novo is a terminus for the Aleutian, the regular flight to Cape Town which is shared by many countries. We didn't see much of the station; it was well-removed from the airplanes. However, we saw one item that made us green with envy:

This sucker was huge, with a four-stroke 1.6 litre engine and two tracks. However, as it transported us between planes, it still spun out on ice and we had to get off the sledge and push it. Guess horsepower isn't everything.

The Aleutian (actually not spelled that way; it's a Russian spelling) is an ex-bomber that has been fitted to take passengers. It's hot, uncomfortable, and has a very haphazard feel to it. This may be partly due to the portable toilets and laptop/projector present, to emulate a real commercial airline's facilities. Of course, our previous aircraft had neither of these luxuries, so we weren't complaining. And we could get up and wander around, even getting into the bomber's room below the pilots. Pretty cool.

Arriving into Cape Town was nice. The logistics company took us to the hotel - the wrong one, at first. The bus was just driving away when we caught the error and we had to chase after it.
The right hotel turned out to be compact but clean, and very well located. It was next to Long Street, where the bars are. So, even after practically no sleep, we went off to the bars to celebrate our arrival. After pizza at 3am Thursday - really good pizza - we finally went back to the hotel, and brought the long day of Wednesday to a close.


With a 10am start on Thursday, we shipped off all our Antarctic kit in the morning, back to Cambridge. As I had the most experience of Cape Town among the 18 of us - and I can credit that to the expert tutelage of Doc Mark Blumenthal - I then took charge of social events on Thursday thereafter. We first went down to the waterfront and around downtown, and then out to Camps Bay, where we all hit the beach and blinded all the locals with the whitest skin possible - the kind of white you can only get by complete sun avoidance for several months! Early afternoon beach-sitting turned into late-afternoon bar-sitting, turning into another late-evening bender. I bailed out at 1:30am, but others kept going for considerably longer.

In the morning, several of us paid a serious penalty for our hijinx on the prevous evening. Not me, though - I didn't overdo it. So I was one of the few laughing at the hungover fellows who had to pack up and move - or, in Toddy's case, get on an airplane back to the UK. Those of us who stayed, moved to a great hostel called the Backpack. It's one of the top rated hostels in Africa, and is in a sprawling villa, downtown, with everything one could need. Including an in-house travel agent. My room was a single en-suite - really nice, but it was next door to the main desk and thus I was woken up every morning at 7am. And that's after a 5 hour time change in the wrong direction. Grr.

Those of us who were able, took a nice long walk along the Atlantic coast beaches. As the sun was setting, we came across what appeared to be either a Bollywood movie or a commercial. Mostly consisted of this lady dancing:

The highlight was this dog, which belonged to someone nearby and kept running into the set.

The angrier the crew got, the more they chased - and, predictably, the more fun the dog had.

Table Mountain. I climbed it the last time I was here, but it's one of those things you can do over and over! This time, we started from Kirstinbosch, a botanical garden. It was a 4 hour trek without food - bad planning on my part. Nice views of Cape Town, though:


Woke up to book a train ticket at an office open from 8-10 am. Very crowded, full of hundreds of folk rushing to get a train across to the east cape. Very disconcerting! One fellow was screaming at everyone how much he was in a hurry and trying to jump the queue wherever he could. I did get my ticket, though; a premier class room on the overnight train from Cape Town to Johannesburg. There are a variety of train options between the two - the most luxurious (or ludicrous) option is the famous Blue Train, which costs £550. Mine is less than a fifth of that price, but still quite nice.

After that, we took a taxi down the Cape to Boulders Beach, where there's a colony of African penguins. Significantly smaller than our Emporer penguins. But you could swim with these ones.
Think I'll leave it at this point, and pick up this next week later. I have a dinner I must attend!