Getting over the cruise thing…..
As a lover of wild landscapes, the High Arctic, one of the most starkly spectacular places on Earth, had called me for many a year. Reaching my 60th birthday in 2018, I finally took the plunge and booked onto a Russian ex- research ship, the ice strengthened Polar Pioneer, spending 14 days exploring the furthest reaches of these majestic Ice Kingdoms. A cruise to me has always been my idea of hell on earth. However, this was the only realistic option although Polar Pioneer was hardly some Costa Cruise monstrosity. She was small, accommodating only 54 passengers (although that felt like 53 too many.) Needs must:)
Most expedition ships go to West Greenland where the majority of the population of this vast country live in numerous small coastal villages. No polar bears there either.
However, I was drawn to the remoteness, variety, sheer scale and grandeur of East Greenland’s Scoresby Sound, the world’s largest fjord system. Its waters are flat calm, eerily so, incredibly deep (1,000m +) and its endless glacier strewn mountain ranges rear in places to over 12,000 feet.This location also made it possible to include Spitzbergen in the same voyage as they are only separated by 600 miles /1000kms of ocean.
Devoid of trees, Greenland and Spitzbergen look as the Earth may once have looked at its very inception – hostile, stunning and indescribably barren. These are the lands of the polar bear, musk ox, walrus, arctic hares and foxes, narwhals, humpbacks and blue whales. Incredibly, East Greenland also boasts 300 days of sunshine per year! Average temperatures are below 10C but it feels surprisingly warm in summer in the windless air. Northern Spitzbergen sits at nearly 80 degrees north, a land of equal majesty and with far greater concentrations of wildlife, but its climate is more volatile and felt much colder. Both are Lands of the Midnight Sun and in late August, it barely got dark.
All the reasons I should never have booked this trip…….
The trip began in Reykjavik, Iceland where I said a very tearful goodbye to my husband Chris. We do everything together and have barely spent a night apart in over 20 years. But Chris had zero interest in where I was going and £5,000+ is too much to spend on somewhere you don’t have any inclination to see. So, a LONG time lay ahead of me and I must admit, it did not appeal to leave Chris behind.I am not the best socialiser; while I love the company of my husband and sons, I am quite solitary by nature. I enjoy my own company and am easily engaged by my surroundings. The thought of having to make small talk with 53 other passengers especially since meals were taken at communal tables, sent a shiver of dread through me. No escape! Plus, I was booked into a triple cabin, the cheapest option which made the trip just about affordable, so had the prospect of sharing with 2 unknown women to look forward to also. It gave me a sore head even thinking about it. The Denmark Strait and Greenland Sea have big reputations and we would spend 4 full days and nights crossing these famous stretches of unforgiving ocean. This was a major worry as I also get seasick unless I can stay out on deck.I had visions of spending half the trip lying prostrate in my bunk unable to move. As a result, I had bought up what seemed like most of my local chemist’s supplies of Stugeron (not, as I found out, an antidote to really rough seas.) All of this of course clearly suggests that I was mad to choose this kind of trip. Certainly, as the 19th August 2018 approached, despite all the money I’d forked out to realise a dream of a decade or more, I was now dreading the reality! Cancelling seemed very attractive. Ah well, as Zorba the Greek said, we are the ‘whole catastrophe’ and no-one more so than myself. But as Chris always says about our various adventures – ‘if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!’ The problem is, I like rather a lot of it…
Bye Bye Iceland
Chris and I flew out to Iceland, which we both love, for a few days before the ship sailed and enjoyed a freebie 2 nights c/o of Aurora Travel in the 4 star Foss hotel in the island’s capital. Very good it was too, albeit not my normal choice of accommodation – it was a big, corporate looking place in the business district, short on charm, but breakfast was buffet style and first class, the room very spacious and pleasant and given the eye watering prices the minute you step foot in Iceland, it would have been crazy to turn it down.
For more on the short time we had on this wildly spectacular island, see: (to be written up).
Departure on board Polar Pioneer: Sunday 19th August
I don’t think my eyes were quite dry from saying goodbye as I posed for the photo taken of me as I boarded our ship. Polar Pioneer’s photographer, Michael, posted a mug shot of each passenger on the main noticeboard with our names so that we could all get to know who was who. Not that I knew that at the time, I thought I was going to be flogged a photo of myself and given the awful photo I usually take, had already decided there was no way they were getting more of my cash for depressing me even further.I was not a happy bunny at this stage at all.
Nevertheless, I liked the ship immediately. Old fashioned, clad in varnished wood inside, not big, nothing glitzy, very simple and clean and Cabin 301 was bigger than I’d expected. My luggage was waiting for me (it really was embarrassing, how much stuff I’d brought to stay warm) so I began unpacking just as my two new companions arrived – a New Zealand woman and an experienced ‘cruiser’ and a younger English woman, neither of whom knew each other. They turned out to be pleasant, polite , considerate people to share with – in fact, I’d say most of my fellow passengers were very similar.Most were couples. There were only a very few diehard bores to be avoided (‘when I hacked my way through Borneo’s rainforest…..when I climbed Kilimanjaro blindfold and backwards etc….”)
The fact that the two dining rooms had tea on tap 24/7 also went down well with me and I immediately filled my mug and went up on deck to wave goodbye to dry land for 2 weeks. I had forbidden Chris to wave me off and in fact he was even now at the airport meeting his son for a 5 day trip of their own in a campervan. The time that now lay ahead of me – plus 3 days to return home from Spitzbergen – loomed as interminable, something to be ‘got through.’ Oh, happy holidays. As someone who identifies very strongly with Mel Brooks character in ‘High Anxiety,’ I was experiencing an overload of newness and uncertainties as well as being unnerved by the separation from those I loved and from what I knew. And having been warned about being out of any email or text or Whats App contact whilst on board, I was already feeling the withdrawal symptoms of that too (in fact, we had 4G at various points on the voyage and email accounts using the ship’s Satellite system were set up for each of us, allowing diary write-ups at the end of each day to loved ones AND replies. Bliss.)
As Rekyjavik grew smaller, there was a call over the Tannoy, asking everyone to make their way to the bar to meet the expedition leaders and staff and to get dished out with essential gear – Goretex jacket and thermal liner, rubber landing boots, life jacket and insulated mug. I’d brought my own waterproof and heavy duty duvet jacket, not trusting what might be considered as warm enough by the Australian company that designed them.They were good but the thermal liner wasn’t warm enough for me at night on deck or in Spitzbergen so I was glad I’d brought my own. Everyone got these two items to keep for good, which was nice. (Chris’s comment – ‘that was a helluva long way to go for a free jacket.’ ) The next 40 minutes or so we met the various Doctors who were specialists in geology, birds, mammals, ice and other such subjects and who would also man the zodiacs which would land us twice a day, on some remote corner of the High Arctic. These guys (and one woman) would also be heavily armed with rifles and flares to ward off any polar bears that saw us as easy prey on our walks. Later in the trip, I asked one of our leaders which they preferred – the Antarctic, as the ship also explores that Continent plus South Georgia or the Arctic. He preferred the former, as there wasn’t the added stress of a potentially fatal encounter with an enormously powerful predator which was often quite unafraid of human beings and saw us as fair game.Just weeks before we left, a guide had been killed by a bear in Spitsbergen.It was a sobering thought.
There was an hour or so before dinner at 7pm (we’d boarded at 4pm) so I grabbed a superb piece of kitchen-made Apple Sponge from the dining room (there was a fresh tray – bake set out every afternoon and no bar on how many times you went back to help yourself:)) and armed with more tea, made my way up to the Bridge to watch what was happening out at sea.
The ship had an Open Bridge policy, a fantastic idea and along with the lower main deck, it was my favourite place. Lots of high chairs set out in front of panoramic windows, the ship’s oceanic charts spread out on a table with the captains’ compass bearings worked out in pencil, showing our route, piles of books on wildlife and the Arctic to peruse.
I spent hours and hours there, chatting quietly to the regular folks who also escaped to this quiet eyrie with its wide – ranging views over the empty ocean; or sitting silently scanning the sea for whales and birdlife. That cosy spot and the bracing outside deck, were where I spent most of my time, often until 11pm and (occasionally) before our 7.30am breakfast.
There was a strict regime on board. 7am came the annoyingly cheery wake up call to ‘rise and shine and face a brand new Arctic day’ which everyone groaned at; breakfast was served bang on 7.30am and time to tuck into cereals, muesli, sausages, bacon and eggs, hash browns, toast, croissants, gallons of tea and coffee, fresh fruit – you name it, they had it; all done buffet style. With communal tables, it was a case of sitting anywhere and striking up a conversation with whoever you found yourself beside. The ship prides itself on its sense of ‘community’ on board – one disadvantage (to me) of a small vessel. I never showered first thing , but waited until we had returned from the day’s final zodiac landing. Consequently, I always found a free shower in the early evening (there were 4 to serve around 16 people or so.Super clean and boiling hot.)
8.30am and we had to be suited and booted, life jackets on, signed off the ship and queued up on deck for the first zodiac trip of the day. Then a careful descent down a very steep steel ladder into the boats and a speedy run onto an uninhabited shore for an explore. Our guides would already have scouted it before we landed, to check no bears were in the immediate vicinity. Our walks – long, medium or short, take your pick – lasted around 2-3 hours. The short walks tended to focus on the Arctic flora, the longer wanders were just to see what there was to see.
Then back on board for a full cooked lunch at 1pm while the ship sailed to our next deserted shore and the pattern began again. By day 3 or 4, many people were sleeping for a few hours in the afternoon, totally knackered.I did this twice in total during the second week, mainly because I’d lost sleep during some very rough days at sea, but usually I bombed up to the bridge or stayed out on deck taking photos and scanning for polar bears or reading the reference books.Dinner at 7pm then I was out on deck or up on the bridge till all hours – only twice did I appear in the bar briefly for pre – dinner drinks and even then I made it half an hour max; I was more than happy to escape the socialising which was relentless and unavoidable unless you really did decide to be rude and I wasn’t prepared to be that. My two cabin companions were much more into that and as they were both kayakers, they struck up more of a friendship. They were life and soul of the party types which I tend to find exhausting after a while. Nevertheless, one did say that she was finding the enforced socialising and ‘bonhomie’ exhausting; maybe that’s why more and more people were disappearing for a kip every afternoon! Finding some quiet space…..
It was Verboten to bring your own alcohol on board but to heck with that; I sneaked some mini bottles of Cava in my luggage mainly because I thought it would be scary Scandinavian prices in the bar. In fact, given it was an Australian ship, it was Down Under prices and very reasonable. So my insulated mug often had some sparkling wine inside it of an evening as I sat up on the Bridge or wandered about on deck. Someone always came up and spoke to me and I really enjoyed the company of a couple of guys, Ivor and Peter from Wales who were SO knowledgeable about wildlife and were usually also escaping the bar to get some quiet space to scan the endless ocean. Michael, the ship’s photographer, was also nice company, always on the lookout for good light, good views and ready to share tips about getting better shots. The two main leaders were very quiet, serious minded men, not overtly enthusiastic or smiling but clearly they knew their stuff. Two passengers I chummed up with a bit, Ann and her friend Sue, were also good company, very enthused about the landscapes and constantly out on deck with their cameras, as I was. A really lovely older couple – he English, she from Glasgow – who had been on several similar expeditions, were good company too. The husband was a super keen photographer and several times we were the last people out on deck with Michael, capturing the ever changing light.His wife was just the sweetest woman, who did confide in me that she really didn’t think she could do another one of these trips; it was so full on and the need to socialise was so tiring. Maybe I wasn’t as odd a bod as I’d thought. Most on board were Australians, very pleasant folks, some of whom said they could ‘listen to my beautiful accent all day but didn’t always understand what I was saying!’ G’day to you too! 😊 Interestingly, about half had been on the ship’s Antarctic voyage which had been a wildlife extravaganza so their expectations were high…..
The first evening on board out on deck was enlivened by 25 humpback whales hunting WAY in the distance. Their huge blows gave them away and occasionally a fluke was visible disappearing slowly into the depths. Otherwise, our company the first couple of days to Greenland was empty ocean and fulmars which constantly circled the ship, cruising past us at eye level. A few guillemots. There was nothing like the wealth of seabirds which accompanies a ship nearer land or that I was used to off Western Scotland (which has some of the largest seabird colonies in the world.) More words of Chris came to mind ‘I am not paying 5 grand to see birds that we see in droves from a Calmac ferry…’ Well, there were the whales and of course, more thrills lay ahead…..
NEXT:Walking in Polar Bear territory: East Greenland and Spitzbergen(2)