…landsharks

I just spent a brief half hour lunch, staring out the large second floor window here at a small black speck half a mile away making its way slowly across the ice field.

Stopping every 20 paces or so, the tiny figure would turn a shuffling 360 degree circle, checking for predators or possibly just staying on track, before setting off again across the ice, little feet flapping along, heading who knows where.

You can barely make him out but he’s way out there just past the central tine in the pitchfork -shaped shadows out on the ice. A tiny black spot moving through the grey-white nothingness.

A lone Adelie penguin sneaking home to the rookerie on one of the larger islands in the bay.

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His cautious, meandering odyssey reminded me instantly of a forgotten dream I used to have quite regularly as a child ( and less regularly as an adult).

I would be about somewhere in the world, usually in the countryside, running and always moving, relentlessly pursued by massive grey sharks – landsharks. There was only every one or two but they were the size of jumbo jets – and deathly silent. These nightmares would burst up through the very crust of the earth looking for me ( and only me) and try to gobble me up. They could go anywhere and break through any surface : the only warning an uneasy feeling and a shadowy ripple underfoot microseconds before they attacked.

Luckily always with just enough time to escape – my only tactic was to keep running.

They never got me – I’ve always been a fast runner and in these dreams I move like a parkour-savant ninja and am an artful dodger at the best of times anyway.

It occurs to me just now that this scenario is an actual possibility here, watching this little penguin wanders the ice alone. How does he feel at the moment? Nervous? Lonely? Or just hungry and looking for a meal. Hyperalert. He must be so tired.  Paranoid (if that exists for animals – trauma is trauma after all ) and constantly vigilant for killer whales or leopard seals that can smash up and grab him through the thinner sections of the sea ice.

He’s still walking though – still stops every 20 steps or so – has a good look around. Keeps on.

I wonder would he see their shadow under the ice as they came for him?

What would flash thought his little penguin consciousness as the crushing jaws closed around him and the teeth tore into his delicate skin.

“Squark…?”

…maybe.

Whatever the penguin equivalent for “Shiiiit!” is I guess.

Could these things grab me once I start walking out and about here on the thinning seaice, heading to the nearby penguin colonies or just walking around the shoreline.

Maybe.

There was a lady killed by a leopard seal not long ago, dragged down under the ice floe.

Drowned her real good it did.

My fantastic Landsharks are real here.

It’s not the first childhood nightmare that has rang eerily true since I’ve been here in Antarctica. Dejavu galore.

Many moments where I’ve felt that Ive lived this moment before, seen in a dream when I was a kid. Even stupid things like a breakfast conversation this morning, the person sitting opposite me and what they were eating. It’s the details that stick, their ripples sending me back into childhood.

Super odd.

*speaking of recurrent nightmares, remind me to tell you about the red glowing pig eyes at my window, the exploding TV room or the persistent (and annoying) werewolf calling himself “the British Umpire” who would stalk me along quiet country roads and launch himself ferociously at me from the darkness.

No wonder I write.

Hmmm.

Anyway…

The winter crew had their official station handover just now – informal speeches and the handing over of the station key to the new station leader for summer. What a great group  – 18 or so dedicated personnel who roughed it over the toughest and most blizzard filled winter in history. I hope the 80 or so of us can hold up to the same standard set for us.

Later this after noon the old crew will wander out to the ship and then they’ll be heading home with a lifetime of stories to tell. Traditionally the Summer Crew set off flares and farewell the departing Winterer Crew on their 2 week voyage home. Some of them have been here for a year or more through one of the toughest Winter seasons on record and getting home to friends and family is the only thing on their minds at the moment.

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As the ship finally pulls away, there’s a strange mood – a mix of elation, melancholy, relief and excitement for the time ahead of us.

Tonight the bar opens, the embargo on alcohol lifts, and we finally get to test out the local Vestfold Brewery fare -the legacy of an endless selection of fine ales, ciders and lagers brewed by the Official station Brewmaster. All on tap. All free. Open bar and hijinks.

High quality home brew and 3 weeks of forced sobriety should make for an interesting evening as everyone can finally relax after a busy resupply, with no work tomorrow.

Today for me has been power outages, flaky UPS issues, annoying network issues but overall a much better day work wise. I’ve had a few wins today and they’re finally outweighing the losses.

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Boopity boop clickety click…computers : meh.

Settling into a routine now and I have 4 months to whip things into shape.

Winter is over.

Let the summer begin!

 

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…Antarctic Riviera

I’m here.

After 14 days at sea, sailing though some of the most treacherous and stormy waters on the globe; Internet and Phone free, crammed into a small cabin with my 3 new best friends and challenged by living alongside 100 new coworkers; rattled and shaken and frozen and soaked, thrown about like a kite in a hurricane in 9-12 metre seas, rocked to sleep so hard, having to cling to the mattress to stop being launched out of bed, bored out of my brain at times, overstimulated and restless at others, plus many many MANY sleepless nights but OH MAN!!!! it’s totally been worth it.


“Welcome to the Antarctic Riviera!!!!” yelled the widely grinning bearded dude that greeted us as we alighted from the little red chopper that had ferried us all of 2km and 3 minutes airtime from the ship . Calling out over the scream of its whiny turbine as the blades whirred to a halt just over our heads, the outgoing expeditioner/groundcrew guys were totally stoked to see new faces after a long winter with only the same 18 people for company. 

Taking us single file away from the whistling rotor blades, they posed us for a station photo ( mug shot) and then led us into the converted container cum airport at Davis Station, Antarctica. 

The 6 seater Squirrel took off as soon as we were inside, making a beeline for the bright orange icebreaker resting on the fast ice a few kilometres away to the northeast. Time for the next load of personnel.

All four of us just stared out over the research station, clusters of industrial buildings, color coded administration buildings and workshops, accommodation and science blocks, radar domes, scattered radios antennae and satellite dishes amongst the jagged rocks, ice and snow piled high against every building and covering the ground as far as the eye could see.

Just taking a moment to let it sink in.

We’d just set foot on the Antarctic continent.

We’re in Antarctica.

Holy Shitballs!

We were shepherded over to the Mess building to dump our gear. Looking out over the Bay was just breathtaking. 
The Aurora Australis has found its parking spot a kilometre or so off the coast – in the fast ice off the Vestfold Hills – and I flew off on the fourth flight out (on a dandy little Squirrel chopper). Made the Critical Personnel list, dontcha know!!!  As of right now I’m at Davis Station settling in and getting acquainted – unpacking my two small bags that now are the bare essentials needed to survive – plus laptop of course 🙂 I’m not crazy !

Only 2 bags you say? My one big backpack has become 2 small bags.  Ditched the ukelele that JK gave me finally – a difficult letting go exercise and it was surprisingly hard to relinquish – but it was a pain in the arse much like her and best left behind. The emotional house cleaning is almost finished.

So still working on that minimisation thing and it’s going well I must say.

But anyhoo…I made it this far. 

Tomorrow I start actual work but today is a nice long familiarisation and induction day . Meets and greets . Find my way around. So much new information that my head is reeling . 

So… what’s it like I hear you ask. Here’s some first impressions. 

It’s not that cold (flannelette shirt weather). Minus 4 at the moment but the sun is hot ( UV here is dangerously high). The air is dry and bitey ( and dusty!). There is black ice everywhere. The snow glare is blinding. The people are wonderful,from all walks of life and largely kindred spirits – travellers and explorers.

This alien landscape is constantly surprising though  – at first glance intimidating in its vastness, apparent desolatation and endless horizons ( it all looks like a massive dead salt lake, I swear) but then it just shifts gears and shimmers to life as Adelie and Emporer penguins, crab eater seals and sperm whales begin to appear. A few at first, then more, and more, and more . The sheer amount of bird life here – snow petrels, albatrosses and penguins- thousands of miles from land and living their lives out to sea –  is staggering. 

Convoys of azure icebergs, dazzling like glittering diamonds,  parade past on both sides as we navigate deeper and deeper into Antarctic territory leaving the Southern Ocean behind and entering the Antarctic Circle. The ancient glaciers birthing them hundreds of miles away yet these giants line the horizon for days on end.

The various ice formations just Blow..My…Mind!
*boom-splat

*these last two images were taken just after midnight a few days ago.  

If you are going to travel to Antarctica, do it by ship. You won’t regret it. Crunching through sea ice for days on end is incredibly exciting and watching the very world freeze around you is fascinating.

But despite all this inspirational beauty, I’m really tired – it’s been a long 6 weeks since getting home from the USA and my actual job starts today.

Well, maybe tomorrow. It’s fairly casual here.

Exhausted both physically and emotionally, earlier today I woke up on another world and was struck by a desperate need to explore – instead I’ve been compelled to lock myself in my room for a bit – a few hours of privacy to reflect and escape the mindless chatter of humanity. 

Ponder this strange meandering course through life that I have unwittingly set. Deep shit like that.

More than once this month I have been moved to mutter “My God – how the fuck did I get here?”

More than once in the past few years I have also explored my aversion to stillness. This place somehow makes it easier to accept a peaceful contemplative silence. 3 years ago it would have driven me insane.

This Antarctica; frozen in time and quite literally in place is so utterly, completely, and wonderfully silent. Even the winds barely whisper at his time of the year.  This silence is more than a little unnerving. Such a cold beauty as this being completely outside my experience – something I’ve never ever experienced.  You’d love it, Oana 🙂 – (sorry no trees tho)

Despite some concerted efforts to screw it up, my life (perversely) seems to be slowly working out.

Still – How the Fuck, indeed.
*hitting the fast ice one day out of Davis *inside the largest polynya ( look it up) on the planet

I’ll be posting more regularly now that I’m settled in for the summer.

Stay tuned. My heads in a weird place but the internet is SLOOOOW!!!

*It’s 10pm and this is my view presently : and also why it’s hard to sleep .


Not exactly picturesque but hey – it’s a research station … 

The sun barely goes down about 1am and rises about 2am. In 3 weeks there will be no Night at all.

Still here ? 

As a reward here’s a blow by blow of the past 14 days or so as jotted down at the time – it’s poorly structured and largely unedited so be warned. I’m too tired to be bothered editing more today today. Maybe tomorrow.

Here goes – 

“Sunday 29th October . I’m on my way to Antarctica – FINALLY.

 We were held up by bad weather out of Hobart so we diverted to the lee of Burny Island for 24 hours to let the surge pass us by. Its 24 hours of people finding their sea leags and getting violently ill already, despite the seas begin relatively calm. God knows whatll happen when its gets rough!

 Monday 30th October  – spotty 3G internet service still available on my phone but the ships email is flaking out, and we can only receive, not send. Its time for some last minute updates, download a few last TV shows and use up the last of my phone data plan for the month. Find a few books in the lbray and try to meet my new voyage family. Theres a lot of people to try to meet!

 It’s 3 days into the trip now, with my last views of Tasmania long gone over the horizon.

 Everyone on the ship has been itching to get going – old hands and newchums alike – the false start to avoid bad weather was a bit of an anticlimax (but wholly necessary -19 metre waves on Day 1 ??? – no thank you Sir).

 After popping a Phanergan seasickness tablet Monday evening, I barely gained consciousness by 11am the next morning – luckily the first few days there has been no work scheduled – it’s purely a ‘getting used to it’ exercise.

Tuesday 31st was an odd day, with a sedative hangover Id slept the day away and then couldn’t get to sleep as the swell was huge (plus a bunkmate is a snorer which doesn’t help – thank Dog for earplugs). Again nothing scheduled training wise so the rest of the day was eat/sleep/chat/read and pretty much wasted.

 No more seasickness tabs for me – I don’t need them as it turns out plus they just wipe me out for the whole day after anyway. Tonight will be the bold experiment and hopefully it’ll work out.

 

Today is Wednesday 1st November as I write this – 9pm or thereabouts. Its been an interesting day, and the newcomer nerves are abating – meeting loads of new people using the tried-and-true “sit at new table each meal and introduce yourself to everyone” method. So much for feeling my way through – lets get this party started.

 A good percentage of the people aboard have succumbed to a measure of seasickness ranging from mild nausea through to being put on a drip (The Doc was called to the Bridge late last night and the assumption is someone needed fluids or an injection at least).

 The seas and weather have been superb – 5 to 6 metre swell (which I’m assured is AMAZING for this time of year) , a little squally but generally a sunny 9 degrees with a blistering wind blasting up from the South. Were out in the open ocean now and its simply wonderful

 People are finding their rhythms and not just sleeping and eating all day, although sometimes it seems you are just filling in time between meals. There are joggers jogging the small deck as best they can, a yoga group that meets at 6am (cmon yoga types seriously?), the gym junkies that haunt the small gym and talk about protein shakes and testicle shrinkage, and the library nerds that play cards and read in the small ships library. Where to go I wonder?

Library.

There’s a 8pm movie night each night in the little cinema/conference room, with a preceding presentation the science projects underway – tonight we heard from Dr Tessa on the Mount Brown Ice Core Project – the leader on a deep field team drilling some 400 km inland from Davis Station (the team is hoping for a 350 metre ice core to let them peer back into the regions weather and climate history for thousands of years).

 I’ve chatted to many science geeks going down to count penguins or seal populations, or seabird studies, climate change, ice obs, nuclear antiproliferationtreatystuff, electronicearslistening stuff:- endless science going on down here – all  super intelligent but fun typeset people – I think I like biologists much better than archaeologists.

I’m starting on Phytoplankton sampling tomorrow morning early, then the Field training starts in earnest whilst still aboard – first up for me at 9am is Ice Field Traversing 101 – should be fun J

 Bedtime for now.

 Thursday 2nd  – email is flowing again but its been limited to 50kb in size only – virtually a text message but its better than nothing,

 The weather out here changes in a heartbeat. Yesterday it was lovely, today its a shit storm. It’s been squally all day and the ship has ploughed on through 5 – 6 metre waves all day with some sun breaks in between.

 There were albatrosses trailing the ship again today and I got a few nice photos in between the howling winds and the rain showers. The decks are becoming a little more unpleasant and very soon well all have to wear survival gear to go out on them, once they begin to ice up.

 I spent some time up on the bridge today and it makes for quite the vantage point of choice, as the other areas higher than the bridge are off bounds due to extensive arrays of expensive equipment. The views from the bridge are breathtaking – enormous grey seas stretching far out into the distant stormy horizon, white caps lashed by the winds as far as the eye can see.

 The motion of the ship at this level is heightened and really feels like you are on a massive orange rollercoaster, the rain slicked deck pitching fore and aft as the ship powers through the swell. Watching the horizon dip out of sight and then heave into view way over your head is unnerving, as is the sight of the portholes submerging under the green water – awash from the swell and motion of the ship – not a bad effort considering they are 2 stories up.

 I had a dream last night that I was sitting alone in the Mess and was watching all the portholes submerge into the ocean as the ship rolled over, everything frozen, a complete silence. The hull vanished and all I could see was ever darkening depths. Hmmm…

 Sorta mirrors how I’m feeling at this point – not even 1/3 of the way there. A little tired I guess. I’m not sleeping very well and the swell throws you around in the little single cot so much its difficult to relax. I had to jam my arm between the wall and the bed last night to stop from being rolled out. There are no guardbars or anything like that to stop you bouncing around or rolling out – I was last into the cabin and got the last bunk, but thankfully its on the bottom so I only have to bounce half a metre or so.

 Friday 3rd November – Field training started today, and the first 90 minute session on Ice Field travel and survival techniques was fascinating. The science behind ice formations is much more complex than Id imagined, and the techniques we are going to be practicing in the field are life saving. Theres much more practical survival training once we get there and get working out on the pack ice. I get issued an Ice Axe! How cool is that!

 Kill Bill 1 was the movie of choice for the day – there’s a lot of Tradies on board so naturally the ultraviolent films and old standards (Die Hard, Magnum Force etc etc) are getting a good run as is the Wii and car racing games. I don’t think we are going to be seeing The Beguiled anytime soon unless I can organise a film club in 2 weeks.

 Spaghetti marinara for dinner this evening. Yum! J cant say that they don’t feed you well – if only there was space to go for a run.

IT challenge of the day – recovering data from a crashed HDD full of movies and TV for Sam.

 Saturday 4th November was another fun day with some crappy weather but at 9am we had out first real drill in full survival gear. Although we were given 90 seconds notice over the PA, it still set the heart racing to hear the alarms and muster call – getting into our survival gear in the small cramped cabin was challenging and we needed to coordinate our actions. Even so we seemed to take minutes to get into the 3 layers of protection and life jacket…in a life threatening situation we could be out in the sub zeo temperatures for hours I (for example) a fire was being fought or there was a gas leak etc etc… was an interesting experience but one I could do without. Training today was a short Environmental briefing in the cinemarette – basically wash our stuff, don’t go near the animals, don’t take anything as a souvenier  

Still eating way too much and I have to reduce my caloric intake significantly.

 Skip ahead til Sunday 5th November evening. – After leaving the roaring 40’s we are finally in the 50’s and almost officially in Antarctic waters.

 The sun is still shining, the seas are smoothing out but the air temperature is dropping noticeably – down to 3 degrees but the steel deck of the ship is still warm and I can sit out on the helo deck to get some sun and fresh air. Not feeling extremely social today – going from solo travel to a shipload of 100 people is a challenge and actually quite exhausting. After a day of being social I’m finding it more and more difficult to constantly engage with people. Peopling is hard. Not sleeping well also is a problem – the days are becoming just eating, short training sessions and a lot of doing nothing. It actually sucks. I don’t want to watch all my TV yet as I still have 5 months of this. Yikes.

 IT challenge of the day – recovering a SD card full of photos for Sam. Mission accomplished.

 

Monday 6th – More field training today – Maps and compass navigation – this was really fun and I haven’t had to do it for a long time – was extremely rusty – I hope that I NEVER have to navigate my way out of a life threatening situation because I suck at it.

 I’m staying up a bit later alter tonight, sitting in the mess having a milo and some bikkies, waiting til my 10pm water sampling slot.

The process is basically fill up a large measuring container, set up some filtering and a pump, start up the pump and let it filter for 45 minutes, then dry and pack to filters as samples into liquid nitrogen.

 Tuesday 7th  and its Melbourne Cup today. With no Internet and dodgy comms on the ship, it proved a challenge to be able to do something last minute (given that we had the job Dumped on us – “yeah the “IT people” can do it” – bitch please :/) We tried to get a VoIP hookup with the AAD at Kingston and stream/rebroadcast the event over the Ships PA but the quality was so bad we had to abort. SO Plan B Brendan and I ran the sweep, raising funds for Camp Quality, with the crew and Expeditioner’s chipping in around $300 (after prizes). Chocolates were given as prizes for Best Dressed and Best Hat, with the Penguin project ladies triumphing over the Mt Brown Ice Core team in the Best Dressed, with Ali from the Mt Brown Ice Core team winning the crowd favourite for her Canadian Lumberjack Glaciologist outfit.

 A few more HDDS to recover (no luck with one – it was fried). It’s been extremely quite work-wise.

 Wednesday 8th ? Losing track of days now  – another day of Field Training, food and more than a little boredom. I learnt “Knots, Bends and Ropes” skills today and sucked just as badly now as I did at it in the Boy Scouts! But eventually my tired brain relented and actually retained some information. Yay brain!

 The seas are huge today – up to 9 metres and the ship is rolling and corkscrewing 24/7, making sleep virtually impossible for any sustained period. The Captain puts the ship along the swell at meal time (so that we can actually eat safely) and then doggedly heads South again…its been a game of cat and mouse with a low pressure system that has been hunting the ship for the past few days, causing massive waves, high winds and a drop in speed. It’s cost us at least 2 days so far and we won’t be getting into Davis until about Sunday now.

 Ugh no sleep at all last night. The roll of the ship practically flips you out of bed, or at the least you are constantly sliding from one end of the cot to the other. Its something that I still haven’t got used to and generally it’s not that bad – this last 24 hour period has been a challenge. The gravity changes and the way the ship moves is generally great fun, but its getting a little old especially after no sleep.

 Jump ahead to Thursday 9th. I have a date with some interesting Phytoplankton. Yes its Water Sampling again today. This time at 8am, which is really 4am back home. Man I don’t do 4am well but luckily I’m getting used to it. Ahh science.

 Back to bed after for a 2 hour snooze – trying to catch up on my sleep as we all know that cranky Jamie comes out with little to no sleep.

 We are incrementing the clocks one more hour again tomorrow to bring us in line with Davis time.

 Getting close to 60 degrees south and the weather is a little chilly – just above 0 degrees and its snowing today over the Southern ocean. There are several seabirds following the boat – massive Albatrosses and smaller grey birds, even way out here about 800 nautical miles from shore – and the sight of them sweeping down through the snow, wingtips just barely scraping the surface of the grey freezing water its simply hypnotising. I’ve been watching them from the porthole in my tiny cabin and from up on the bridge.

 Friday 10th!!! Snow at sea!!! It’s the oddest thing I’ve ever seen – well it’s the first actual full on falling snow I’ve ever seen to be honest. Big wafty flakes of snow landing gently on the grey churning waves, settling on the bright orange superstructure of the ship, collecting on the rust coloured cranes, silver grey containers and the bright blue tarpaulins covering the loads on deck. Everyone is a little more excited now! It also means that our first iceberg isn’t far off, and we are only days away from getting to the sea ice.

 And as we are getting close to 60 degrees South, King Neptune is paying us newbies a visit on Saturday. This is a loooooong practiced maritime tradition, and so I feel compelled to participate (esp as its completely disgusting and hence absolutely voluntary) with a BBQ on the trawl deck, and the ritual humiliation (that involves lots of garbage and kissing many fish) shall ensure. It’s going to be bloody freezing out there so hopefully Ill survive – all of the new people are nervous/excited about it.

 

Saturday 11th brings a full restful nights sleep, a sleep in and a real breakfast on the newly calmed ocean – barely a ripple out there now and it appears we’ve finally hit the outer sea ice. After the first lonely iceberg appeared last night, the murky grey ocean is now filled with an increasing number of growlers, bergs and other assorted fragments of lazily drifting sea ice. Although the skies are still grey and dull, there are rare sunbreaks in the cloud – in those moments you can see the absolute blueness of these bergs as they surge along in the swell. The sea ice is getting thicker and thicker as we travel along, and now the ship plows through expansive but thin sheets of ice – smashing through with the ice fragments tumbling and crunching along the hull and then disappearing in our wake. There are monster bergs lurking in the mist at the edge of the horizon – dulled by distance they still appear formidable and forboding, their towering battlements dabbled in shadow and shrouded by fog.

 November 11 – Remembrance Day today and at 11am we stopped to observe a minutes silence to honor the Fallen. Crunching through expanses of fragmented sheet ice as the ship fell otherwise silent was an oddly moving moment.

 Saturday – 3pm A towering, loinclothed blue King Neptune  – roaring at us infidels for invading his realm and polluting the seas – and his snickering crusty blue seaweed clad entourage visited today – a welcoming party in the port mess saw us newbies initiated into King Neptune’s Court – we kissed the fish, drank the viscous fluids, and were thoroughly doused from head to toe in a heady mix of ground up kitchen waste, gruel, food coloring, fish oil and anchovies. The entire ship now reeks of this vomit inspiring odour and despite several showers I can still feel/smell/taste this vile smell in my head. Luckily I was one of the first to get initiated, so I took the opportunity to nick off and have a sneaky shower plus pop my gear in the laundry. I was missed so I’m hoping it doesn’t bite me in the arse. Oops.

Arse saved and a sneaky hot shower and a clothes wash saved my shirts. 

Tonight there is a BBQ and our 3 allocated standard drinks per person will be busted out of the grog locker – this is our party night tonight before we get into the fast sea ice, and head in for resupply. OOOO I fly into station on the first chopper off the ship apparently – helicopter flight over the ice should be pretty damn amazing.

3 beers brought in quite a buzz!!!! Great steel deck bbq in the trawl deck .

Sunday and Monday – we are pushing deeper and deeper into the sea ice now. The weather has cleared and the grey clouds have parted to revel a deep blue sky splashed with long white clouds – like a spring day except at -4.5 degrees. The massive bergs are closer now, and the ice is thickening – a few times now the ship has actually gotten hung up and unable to break through, so the Captain has seesawed the ship backwards and forwards several times (with both motors running) to try to bully its way through the deep blue and white barrier before us. The surface of the sea ice varies –from a winter millpond slush, to splats of pancake ice – like many overlapping scales on a snakeskin – stretching for miles and miles in any direction. Thin sheets that are curved and flexed by the hulls pressure wave, and finally shattered into panes of glass-like ice which ride the wash and are pushed up, over and into the other glistening layers like a crazy sparkling chinese puzzle.
Currently the ice is several feet thick, the massive blocks broken up by the ships hull tumbling past and tipping, revealing layers upon layers of ice put down over the winter – colors ranging from dirty algal green to electric blue to sparkling diamond white. There’s a constant thumping and grinding you can feel through the hull from the crumbling icefloes– it rattles your bones but like the constant engine noise and vibration its is comforting.

 We have been travelling past convoy lines of massive icebergs, towering over the ship and travelling in an almost perfect formation on both sides – spat out by multiple glaciers in the region.

 The animal life is getting more prevalent, and we are seeing crabeater seals basking in the sunlight, sitting on larger floes and checking us out. Larger groups of Adelie penguins are popping up now instead of the loner individuals that we first saw on the outer fringes of the icefields. A group today chaed the ship and were “porpoising” alongside – I’ve never seen anything like it and MAN these little fuckers can really move in the water. No more whales though at this time. Sad face.

 We officially entered the Antarctic Circle about 3pm Monday – now under 100 nautical miles from Davis Station and only a few hours from the fast ice that we have been searching for. Once there, the ship will smash slowly through til its around 2kns from the shoreline. Once we stop, helicopter transport begins, and amazingly I’m one of the 35 critical personel flying from the ship to the base. I get to fly in over the ice and will see it all from the air. I’m on the 4th flight out so God willing I’ll finally be on station round 12pm tomorrow. I cant believe its been a 2 week journey.

 Holiday’s over folks.

 Now the real work begins.

…rebooted

I resigned from my job with the NSW Police just now, after a restless night marred by forgotten nightmares and a solid day of jitters, uncertainty and indecision. 

My nice, safe, well paid and relatively secure government job. 

It’s done. I’m done. They denied my secondment to the Antarctic Division so my only option was to quit.

I took the moral high ground and made my resignation letter polite and professional (naturally having an honest first draft and then taking out all the “fuck you all this is why I’m really leaving” elements in version 2)

“Thank you, you are all great, how privileged I feel blah blah blah”.  Meh. You know the drill.

The cushy job was a comfortable cage quickly sucking the life out of me and trapping me professionally in small town Australia. 

It really was that bad – a shitty thankless IT job in remote Australia, no career progression or development possible, alone most of the time, constantly travelling,  with ‘technical’ colleagues who I wouldn’t trust to install OSX on a MacBook (most wouldn’t have be able to) and largely ineffective Managers that were only interested if you were in Sydney or were a uniformed officer.

If I was a uniformed Police officer I’d be on the cover of the Police Monthly for this Antarctic role – because I’m a civilian tech no one gives a shit. 

Yeah I know that just my ego, but jeez man, a congrats from my manager at least would have been nice.  Anyway….

5 years seems to be the limit with me with many a things: if I’m not challenged, I’m out. 

In hindsight I should have been outta there 2 years ago.

Anyway, I’ve blitzed my medicals and psych (fittest and more balanced than I’ve ever been) , signed my contract with the Antarctic Division and head South on the 1st October, locked and loaded for what the future will bring but more than a little shitscared. 

Still in Olympia, Washington at this stage: hiking these beautiful mountains and forests pretty much every day, waiting for the eclipse  to pass, and assuming there isn’t a zombie apocalypse or a race war then I’m off road tripping across the USA for the next month.

That’s all the words I can summon today : moderately emotionally exhausted at the moment. 

It’s cloudy and dull so a good day to catch up on some movies at the multiplex.

I need to regroup.

Later.

trapped…

There a war of sorts going on here in Thailand. Its an urban battle fought house by house, corner by corner, street by street. Every man, woman and child armed to the teeth, ready to engage.

Pickup trucks full of masked combatants prowl past the safety of the hostel windows. The wail of ambulances echo through the streets which are starting to fill again after an uneasy ceasefire overnight. 

Here in Chiang Mai today, shellshocked Chinese tour groups wander aimlessly – all colorful dazed and confused – dragging large clattering suitcases on wheels over the rough concrete roadways looking for escape much like a gaggle of geese crossing a busy freeway.

Don’t panic.

It’s Songkran 2017. Thailand’s New Year Water Festival celebrating the end of summer and the start of Wet season – and the largest shit water fight on the planet. 

The only way to survive is to submit.

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Songkran is a 4 day party where most Thais head home to their families and celebrate a New Year. Tourist (and drunken asshole) numbers swell unbearably. Many shops are closed but the bars are open late. Alcohol runs freely even as hostels run out of fresh water.

Seriously, Thais take this water festival concept to a whole new level of batshit crazy.

The Moat surrounding the Old City drops a foot from the water consumption as the streets and gutters run ankle deep wet from the water fights. 

High pressure water cannons, fire hoses, bathtubs and garbage bins, massive 44 gallon plastic drums of iced water, blow up swimming pools, large eskys – anything that will hold/throw water – line the streets and are set up on most street corners and traffic lights where a pedestrian, scooter or Songtaew must stop. Then the flouro-coloured cackling crazies descend and a watery battle ensues.

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Riding in a Songtheaw (red truck)? Tough luck. the driver will pull up at a corner/traffic light/roadside and let his passengers get completely ‘blurged’ (thats my new word of the day). 

Riding on a motorcycle? Too bad – you will cop a thorough ‘blurging’ at 60km per hour . It’s deadly but hilarious to watch .

Chaotic doesn’t adequately describe the level of dangerous mayhem.

The papers post a Songkran daily death tally – last year over 400 people died (mostly in Chiang Mai area) and over 2,500 people injured in traffic accidents directly related to Songkran celebrations.

This year’s stats are in and its not looking great (although deaths are down. Yay less death!).

Sobering, you would think . Nah. Each year it’s about the same.
In Chiang Mai the entire Old City Moat several kilometres around – both sides – is filled with little booths and stalls selling food, drinks, water pistols, plastic bags and hats as everyone tries to make a quick baht and have a good time.

Roadside stalls sell huge blocks of ice to make sure the water freezing cold.

All the alleys and side streets are covered. There is absolutely no escape.

And this shit happens all over the country!

Amazing.

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What to do?

Firstly – Pray to your Gods.

Secondly – Prepare.

So Day 1: (quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Phone wrapped in cheap plastic bag. Check

Quick dry t-shirt, shorts and sunglasses. Check.

Wallet and cash in a cheap plastic bag. Check.

I head out onto the packed streets with the aim of my usual walk from Nimman down to the Old City, around the moat and then back, just to see what the fuss was about. Usually takes about 90 minutes there and back.

A few steps out the door of the hostel I was hit in the face with a bucket of ice cold water – and this kept happening for pretty much the rest of the day.

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2 hours later I stumbled into the Starbucks at Thapae Gate and gave up. It wasn’t even 1/3 of the way. Sunbaked, crowdshocked and soaked to the skin in a fruity cocktail of warm green mucky moat water and freezing cold ice water, my inadequate plastic protections leaking and damp, and feeling ill from the gallon of green moat water that had been forced into my nose/mouth/ears.

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I lasted 5 hours on the unforgiving streets and then retreated to the hostel, slinking back through alleys like a gunshy dog. Unfortunately, my sleepy hostel Bed Addict – Nimman ( 350 baht/night, close to Maya, my beloved cinemas, vegan eateries and some cool coffee shops) had been invaded by a group of loud party hard American students that had trashed it like a college dorm room.

With no dry clothes and no escape, I was trapped in my hostel kitchen – the quietest place I could find. Outside, the artsy part of town had turned into a techno-pumping foam-partying disco-lit aqua-nightmare.

Add to that the several competing foam parties, massive dance parties, and a dude in a tuktuk with enormous WHOOMP WHOOMP speakers parked just outside my dorm window and my night did not improve.

The walls of the hostel were vibrating as was my head. I jammed in my earplugs and tried to tune everything out – the thought of engaging and going out into this nightmare was unappealing. I wasn’t here to party.

But I’d finally figured out the main problem – I was resisting.

———————–

So Day 2. (slightly less enthusiastic quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Recheck my attitude. The key? – gotta get involved.

Upgrade the plastic bags to waterproof cases for phone and wallet (on sale everywhere). Check

Get a cheaparse sunhat for 25 Baht. Check

Buy a kickarse water pistol. Check Check Check.

Fillup, lock and load.

Lasting 6 hours on Day 2, I had a much better time of it. The best advice is rather than fight it, just go with the flow. Accept that you will be wet and hot and cold and covered in white paste for hours on end. Its all in good spirits and is actually a ritual blessing, so feel free to return it as often and to as many people as possible.

The lovely Thai people will (mostly) respectfully splash you or gently anoint your face with white powder or paste, the kids will love a waterpistol fight, and the littlest kids will giggle and smile like angels (right up til the point that their older siblings sneak up behind you and dump ice water down your back – after which everyone bursts into hysterical laughter). It’s so much fun.

It gets trickier with the tourists though.

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Usually some screaming psychotic tourist (see example above) with a massively expensive water cannon will run up to you and blast you in the face, knocking your sunglasses off or half drowning you before yodelling off into the crowd. Best to steer clear if possible.

But if you are up for a water war, then there are plenty of other soldiers here that will accommodate you.

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Day 3. Flick to Saturday morning and its an uneasy ceasefire – the celebrations are winding down but the odd water-pistol bearing straggler refuses to let go. Its still impossible to rent a scooter in this city as there are so many tourists, but the traffic to the airport is increasing as the tourists vacate.

The crowds are still there though and accommodation still hard to find. The mood is high but the celebrations are winding down from crazyassed to an almost manageable level.

*Still no sleep as the partying Americans have been replaced by partying Chinese students.

Day 4. Ahhh better. Now is the time to hit the Sunday Walking Markets, chill and explore the spiritual side of the festival as the craziness abates, with early morning happenings at the 50 or so temples around town, or better still up on Doi Suthep peacefully overlooking the city.

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Songkran 2018 – it was so much crazy fun, but next year remind me to be on top of a tall mountain, anywhere but here.

P.S

*so tired today I rinsed my glass in a sink and then drank a glass of tapwater today without thinking. Lets see how that goes.

**written over the 4 day festival but finished on Monday morning after no sleep for 3 days and totally stressed out by the frenetic pace of the holiday weekend.

***reminder to self  – never do this again.

time machine 2…

… it seemed a hundred years had passed since I’d heard the first whale blow and every nerve ending in my body was sparkling. Soaked in adrenaline, buzzed on nicotine and cocooned in a humming halo of nervous energy, my monkey brain overloaded – ‘eeeep!’ – then shut down.

Fight, flight or freeze.

I froze: hands glued to the rail, body completely locked in place, scanning the deep night for any signs of movement. Anything at all. Nothing stirred. Nothing.

The world held its breath.

‘WHOoosh’… 

This was really happening!

The forgotten cigarette burned my fingers, shifting focus. Suddenly free, I flicked the butt into the Canal (sorry guys) turned and bolted into the cabin like a wild-eyed child on Christmas morning. Knocking frantically on the bathroom door…”Jen,Jen,Jen,Jen,Jen….the whales are back!….the whales are back!…”. Running back out onto the deck.

She followed me out a thousand years later, wrapped up in pyjamas and towel against the cold. We stood together close by the low deck rail, staring out into the night.

More whales sounded, much closer than before.

At least 4, scattered out across the entrance to our little cove no more than a few hundred meters away.

But weird behavior. What’s going on here? They weren’t just on the way through. Something was up.

We could clearly hear their vocalisations as the Orca spoke to each other: the ‘whapping’ of finslaps, high pitched warbling whistles and deep rumbling vibrations.

They seemed to be coordinating and changing their locations, out in the black water no more than 100 meters away.

“A little bit to the left, a little bit to the right…come closer…yeah that’s it” in Orca-talk.

It finally dawned on us what was happening.

‘My God, they’re hunting!’

It made sense. There were several harbor seals that lived in and around our little Calm Cove. At night they slept on the floating pontoons and under the docks that were scattered around the canal. 

The whales hunted these seals, and years before had wiped out most of the local seal population in a destructive orgy of blood, guts and fur close to Robin Hood resort in Union. Herded them into shore and massacred them all. It is spoken of in awed whispers by the locals apparently.

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The few seals left were the smart ones.

I moved over and put my arms around Jen, lost in the moment, forgetting. When the whales were whistling to each other, I whistled back, trying to emulate the sound.

“If you must hold me, at least be quiet”.

Ouch.

The pod had positioned themselves around the entrance to the tiny cove.  It seemed they were forming a loose cordon  – a net – with the aim of driving whatever prey out of their hiding places and close to shore.

Once in place, the 4 whales began to close up  – sonic ghosts, the only sign of their presence now being finslap splashes and their haunting vocalisations as they maneuvered out in the black.

Then they stopped, falling silent again.

For a minute or so, all was quiet save for the soft lapping of the wavelets against the deck supports below.

We looked to each other. “Now what?”

Then, far out towards the middle of the canal…

…’WHOoosh’

There was a 5th whale.

It passed through the cordon of Orca and entered the cove. The only physical sign a subtle warping of the reflected streetlights – a swell and surge breaking the amber ripples of light as something massive but invisible passed silently beneath. It began to slowly sweep across the cove from one side to the other and then back.

A sudden dread enveloped me. Gone was the wonder, replaced by a primitive irrational fearfulness. I knew it was larger than the others by the sheer menace of the thing. It radiated danger.

Now it was coming closer to us and the deep waters edge. Unseen. Impossibly close. Once, twice, three times it moved across the cove, closer and closer with each pass.

Directly below us lay black, freezing water that at high tide we could bend down and touch at arms length. Just ahead, barely illuminated by the low voltage Christmas lights on the cabin, bobbed a series of buoys about 20 meters out – where the neighbor usually moors his jetskis and canoes.

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Halfway to the closest buoy in the rusty pool of light, the black surface surged upwards.

Completely silent save for tiny tinkling splashes of water, the tip of a black curved fin broke the surface with barely a ripple  – up and up and up it came. Massively tall. Improbably close. A gleaming obsidian blade followed in slow motion by the glistening head and curved back of this enormous predator.

I felt my heart tear as this wonder emerged from the invisible, rising silently in the semicircle of light before us.

“WHOooosh”… a shower of misty silver, tinkling tiny splashes.

It checked us out. I’m sure I felt its dismissive gaze pass over us – the boring little monkeys standing huddled and frozen up on the deck.

And then it was simply gone. Slipping quietly back under the surface with nothing to mark its passing but the oilslick swirl of the icy water.

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.

…………………….

After the bull had swept the cove, the pod became chatty again, and one by one moved off around the point to the next cove along. It was obvious now that they were systematically working their way down though each cove searching for food.

We never saw the other Orca – only what I’m assuming was the big male.

As they moved around the point to the left, their slaps, blows, chirps and whistles became fainter and fainter until finally we couldn’t hear them any more.

After a few minutes, the world around us exhaled and came back to life.

A seal barked loudly just off to our right, scaring the crap out of us both and breaking the spell. We jumped and laughed – that was the luckiest seal in the world tonight.

It splashed into the water and got the Hell out of there as fast as it could swim, heading in the opposite direction to the pod.

……………………

So why am I sharing this…

Well for one thing, these stories would eventually be lost unless I write them down.

I spend a lot of time in this memory and I love the physical and emotional sensations it evokes. Even writing this today has the hairs on my neck standing up and I’m buzzing. 

Secondly, one simple comment recalled now speaks volumes.

“If you must hold me, at least be quiet”.

Who says something like that?

Seriously.

That shitty recollection popped randomly into my head the other day as I was going through some pictures from last year. 

This time it didn’t sting – it just made me a little sad.

Scientists and Romantics simply don’t play well together I guess. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

time machine…

Few positive events in your life burn themselves into your minds eye so deeply that whenever you return to that moment, your body immediately reacts – chemically, viscerally : your heart races, your breath catches in your throat, nerves tingle -racing up and down your spine. Even the tiniest hairs on your body prickle into goosebumps like you’ve been caught outdoors naked in monstrous electrical storm.

You are there, transported.

It’s actually a post traumatic stress reaction, in a way. One that is not debilitating but can be addictive. Taking pleasure in past experience to escape the present. Trauma doesn’t have to be ‘bad’ to have a lasting effect, I guess. 

Hmm…discuss.

I’ve been living in the past a little bit lately, purposefully re-examining some events with the benefit of a year’s emotional distance.

OK. Stay with me. I aim to wander.

Flip back to mid May last year. 

One of the highlights of last May was getting to watch a pod of killer whales transit the Hood Canal near Union WA – followed by a flotilla of small water craft. The pod were virtually chased out of the area by excited locals. There hadnt been a pod here for years.  But Killer whales! Man!

I was staying with my ex gf at their family’s cabin on the Canal at Union.  Oysters, whales, seals, forests, mountains…luckiest guy in the world no doubt. 

Beautiful place. 

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I didn’t know it at the time but the relationship was winding down – she was heading in another direction, I was definitely in denial. Maybe I wasn’t. That’s a longer story for another time.

Anyway…

Jen had a job interview in Portland as an archaeologist for one of the big Utility companies; an unexpectedly awesome opportunity and everyone was excited for her.  I’d gone with Jen for support (and shopping) and we’d stayed in Portland overnight. After spending the day shopping, the evening apart and staying in separate hotels (she needed to prepare) it was an odd night. The next day as it turned out the Interview had gone well, and she was elated. We decided to do a road trip out to Eastern Washington where she had gone to college, lived and worked for a time. Explore more of her past. Long story short, I met more of her friends and saw even more of her WA life than before.

To be honest the trip confused the Hell out of me, but I got see see where they filmed Northern Exposure (Roslyn) and Twin Peaks (Snoqualmie, North Bend…coffee and Damn fine Cherry Pie at Twede’s cafe) so, you know : swings and roundabouts.

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Anyway…

We’d gotten back after our weird 3 day road trip, talked our asses off and our issues to death, endured the awkward silences that followed, but ultimately had a good time. We visited her parents in Shelton on the way back through. Then it was late and we were heading back to the cabin.

Still with me? I’m setting the mood here hopefully.

It was past 11pm when we got out to Union.

The canal was moonless dark, winters day cold and unusually silent. Apart from the odd barking of a seal and the distant “shHHhh” of a passing car, it was graveyard-still. 

As we were in a little cove, so the road curled around the waters edge, following the shoreline. The streetlights threw long rippling shafts of soft amber light out along the surface of the black water – delicate grasping fingers that reached blindly out into the darkness. A mile away on the other side, the scene was a perfect mirror – distant pinpoints of houselights, rippling reflections, softly glowing streetlights, and silence.

Jen went inside and jumped in the shower. I stood out on the deck and rolled a cigarette, contemplating the Universe and marveling at the night.

I leaned on the deck rail and took a drag of the cigarette, enjoying the nicotine buzz. Pale smoke curled out over the low deck railing down to the dark water lapping a few feet below.

…now: take a single big breath, hold it. Purse your lips, and exhale forcefully, push all your breath out at once…

‘WOOoosh…’

Soft. Sounding like it was a million miles away but crystal clear in the night air, the deep sound whispered across the canal…

Did I imagine that? What the Hell was it?

I couldn’t see a thing in the inky darkness so I froze – held my breath and waited.
It came again. Closer this time.

‘WOOoosh…’

A massive exhale, followed by the tiniest series of tinkling splashes. Another, further to the right. then another even further along. Right out in the middle of the canal but definitely coming closer.

The hairs on my neck stood up.

I forgot to breathe.

Oh my GOD!

The whales are back…

tbc

 

 

 

 

 

re-entry…

So I’m back at work now. You can imagine my excitement.

Back in Dubbo, Australia now for 10 days, spending the last 5 days locked in an office, glued to a phone and computer, staring out a distant window at the sunlight, wishing I was somewhere else. Its ‘Luke Skywalker Syndrome’ at its worst and it’s easy as my office walls are now lined with new travel photos – a quick glance left takes me away to the forests of Olympic National Park and a distant view of Mt Rainier, a bit further takes me diving in Koh Phangan, to my teacher training class in Bali, or the Giza pyramids, or to Carthage.

I’ve led a charmed life this year no doubt about it.

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Now that’s in the past.

Settling back into Dubbo hasn’t been a lot of fun – the numbness and “dead inside” feeling has persisted and the episodic disconnection (almost disassociative at times) is still present but slowly waning. I’m getting out and about, getting as physical as I can on my current prepayday budget. I haven’t wanted to settle back in though, avoiding people and doing my own thing as usual. Walking a lot as I can’t sit still (the restlessness persists and as you know stillness is always an issue). There’s like a constant pressure in my head that I’m attributing to the instant onset of extreme hayfever (yes that a real thing  – there have been people dropping dead of asthma in Melbourne over the past few weeks).

The water here tastes like mud (algae in the river water we drink apparently), the dry heat and hard water has turned my skin to flaky crap and my hair to a dandruffy hair helmet, but the clear blue skies and sunsets in the evenings have made everything worth it.

Almost.

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In the grand scheme of things though, I can’t complain. Decent job, great money, good conditions, new work car (hopefully flame proof after the last one), semi-autonomous and self managing to a large degree. I work alone in a regional area of New South Wales, my immediate supervisor (now retired) is a 3 hour drive away, my team Manager 6 hours, the remainder of my team spread all over New South Wales. Perfect.

Almost.

You might recall that I mentioned that nothing had changed here in the past year. Well that holds true for work as well.

Starting back last Monday, a few people were surprised but most were welcoming (It was a sad day as a colleagues’ son had committed suicide over the weekend so the mood was low). I wasn’t expecting a parade but people passed by in the corridor, a few remarked that they hadn’t even realised I’d been gone.

Nice.

Walking back into my office after 11 months I expected at least SOMETHING to be different. But nothing was (except someone had stolen my 2 x new 22″ monitors and had replaced them with shitty old ones).

I settled back in, checked the few emails filtering in from colleagues who finally realised I was back, and then started catching up on mandatory training that been missed  – online talking head videos about terrorism or radicalisation or somesuch “fear fear fear warning warning warning’ nonsense –  (I suppose to be fair one of our own colleagues had been assassinated/shot point blank right outside the front door of Headquarters last year so a little paranoia is to be expected).

After a few calls from my colleagues, I was again getting drawn into the same corporate bullshit, the infighting and office politics that I’d been happy to leave in the dust. All the same personalities involved, their low morale, negativity and backstabbing once again hurled at me as the corporate factions struggled to find support and numbers. Tiresome and sickening but not entirely unexpected. I usually try to stay above it but sometimes its hard when it catches you off guard and it finds a way in.

It was then I started to feel the psychological load building again as all these familiar things reasserted control over my mind and began manifesting in my body. Pain free for the past 12 months, in this 2 day period things started to happen again. The crunchy shoulder muscles, the hypertension, irritability and anxiety. The shoulder and neck pain came back in 1 day. By Day 2, the tingling in the fingertips and wrists started up again, and lower back pain started to fire up. These things had spilled over and caused Hell  in my personal life and even in the first few weeks of my holiday, had caused aching pain and a lot of discomfort from sitting (especially touring around in Jen’s little 4WD for 3 weeks)

Usually I’d just go and stretch, chillax for a bit but ultimately put up with it. But “Bugger this” I thought – my health is important to me now – and got the local Workplace Health and Safety manager to come in and check out my office equipment. Sure enough, he measured and tested and moved things around, eventually ruling that every single piece of office furniture and equipment I’d been using for the past 4 years was totally unsuitable, too small , or needed changing out.

SO – now I have a standup desk! (at least temporarily)  – IT’S THE BEST THING EVER…and it’s gone a long way already to stop the aches and pains.

Short story is I’m doing ok. It’s not all doom and gloom.

Daily, I’m examining and reframing all the negative thinking, watching my mind, meditating and breathing purposefully. Flicking my gaze to next year while staying rooted in the present. Its a skill for life : less crystal ball gazing and more staying open to opportunity, but luckily I have some amazing friends in other countries that are still traveling and they are keeping me level – <Shaye, Megan, Kate, Anna, Megs, Christina, Connie, Bronnie especially> – if it wasn’t for the support of these guys (albeit remotely) I’d be a real mess.

The tiny OCD part of me still needs a plan ABC to settle down though.

So plan B is off to Bali in February to complete another 2 modules in the Svastha Yoga Therapy program. It’s something I really want to finish and after Bali there’s only 2 more modules to go and I’m certified.

Oh and I’m learning French! – met with a local tutor and shes going to help me over the next 5 months. There’s a plan bubbling away in my head to use Language study to travel the world – get an education visa for a year, study at a language school, move on. French first, then Thai in Thailand or Arabic in Tunisia at Bourguiba Language School.

It’s my plan C if the USA goes up in flames with Trump in control. (Did I mention I’m moving to the US next year?)

Next week brings Doctors visits, assessments and some work related travel to Bourke, Brewarrina, and probably Walgett. Today, I’m enjoying the Sunday sunshine, a decent coffee or two at Dahab Cafe, my new Jack Reacher novel and then who knows what the future may bring.