Travelling Hopefully

13 September

As my flight to Iceland wasn’t until a very civilised time of 1.10pm, I decided to stay in my own house the night before and drive down to Heathrow in the morning. I felt quite confident, as I set off just after 8am, that I’d be dropping my car off at Purple Parking 10am latest, and be at the bag drop at Terminal 2 by 10.30am.

All went well, until I got caught up in a traffic jam on the M40, due to an accident. I do try to feel sorry for those involved in the accident, rather than be anxious about catching my flight. I really do…

I dropped my car off at 10.30, and I was still through bag drop and security by 11.30am. The weight of what I was allowed to take on the flight from Iceland to Greenland was 20kg all in. In other words, the total of check in and carry on. This caused me quite a bit of angst back home, as my camera equipment alone comes to 10kg. Some tough decisions had to be made, regarding how few clothes I could pack, leaving even the travel tripod behind, and not taking my macro lens. There were no such limits on the flight from London to Iceland, so the woman at the counter was a bit surprised that my check in bag weighed only 12 kg (against an allowed limited of 21kg). 

The plane was late coming in, so we were late to leave, but still arrived pretty much on time. It was a bright, sunny day in Iceland. I caught the bus to my hotel, checked in, and then discovered more unwelcome packing news. Check in could be 15 kg, but carry on only 5kg. There was no way I was going to entrust my camera lenses or laptop to the mercies of a plane hold. So I worked out how I could carry lenses in my camera waistcoat and hide the bulges under the Arctic parka which I was given by the tour company when I arrived at the hotel.

I went to bed early. My roommate, who would turn out to be my cabin mate, arrived at 12.30am from her flight from Toronto. I muttered some words of welcome and went back to sleep.

No photos from today.

14 September

After breakfast, I did one last readjusting of how I would smuggle three lenses past the check in counter. And, rather reluctantly, I put my second camera body into the check in. After all, I’ve had wine glasses travel safely in check in luggage. I tried not to worry about the camera.

We were taken by bus to the smaller airport at Reykajvik. And, once there, our check in was simply loaded onto the conveyor belt and carry on was ignored. So I went to the ladies room to divest myself of lenses and slide them into the backpack. 

The plane was small. There were seats for about 40 people. The loo was tiny, and no sink. We were served a decent coffee, however. The flight took two hours, and the person sitting next to me was the ship’s doctor. We chatted a bit before he tried to do some reading and feel asleep with his iPhone in his hand.

The landing strip was a short one of compacted soil. No terminal, really, but a large barn in which we selected the boots we’d wear for all shore excursions. Then a mile walk to the pier, where we boarded Zodiacs for the short trip to our ship. I was actually rather warm in all my layers—we had bright sunshine and no breeze.

We were shown to our cabins, and check in luggage arrived shortly thereafter. Of course the camera was fine. After lunch, we had a series of briefings and the safety drill (muster stations and lifeboats). As we headed out into open water, we hit a bit of a swell, and a number of people took ill. I felt slightly queasy when below decks, but once I got back up to where I could see out of a window I was fine.

We had our briefing for tomorrow, along with a vodka cocktail which I drank but didn’t really enjoy. The idea is to go for a dawn Zodiac trip, which would mean a wake up call at 6.15am for a 6.45am departure.

The usual far too generous dinner. I lost weight on the trip to North Korea, and I fear I’ll put it all back on again on this holiday. 

15 September

My alarm went off at 5.30am. I stumbled to the library to get some caffeine. The predawn light was lovely, so I fetched my camera and took some photos.

Sadly the light had gone more grey by the time we set out on the Zodiacs. We cruised around the area for about 90 minutes. The island is called ‘Warming Island.’ Until recently it was thought to be a peninsula, but the glacier has retreated to reveal that only ice anchored the mountains to the mainland. As the retreat is due to global warming, the island was given the name of ‘Warming.’ 

We drove through brash ice, admired geological formations (had a lecture whilst on the Zodiac), and saw a number of icebergs. I was just beginning to get cold when we came in. A quick shower warmed me up, as did breakfast.

We’re heading further north, so as we travelled, we had two presentations in the observation lounge. One was on the history of Greenland, the second all about the glaciers of Greenland. I worked on photos whilst I listened. 

We anchored in a lovely fjord. The clouds drew back, giving us blue skies and white peaked mountains. I took photos from the deck whilst the Zodiacs were lowered and readied. There was a herd of musk ox (which are actually related to goats, not cows) near the shore.

After lunch we headed out on the zodiacs. We had been told that there would be various options once we were on shore. A trek was one option. Another was a medium walk, or a photography walk, a Mandarin walk (there are a number of Chinese on board and they have their own interpreter), or a ‘contemplative’ walk for those who just wanted to stay on the beach. But first we would try, in the zodiacs, to get close to the musk oxen.

What this meant was a number of us hovering out at sea, waiting for word to move closer. Then we all headed to shore and climbed out. Our expedition leader explained that the musk oxen were in a gully, and we were going to try to get closer to them. So we marched uphill through scree and bogs. A couple of times I sank up into my ankles. Another person sank up to her knees, which was a bit tricky to get out of.

We were stopped halfway up a hill. A few minutes later, one musk ox wandered out. Still at a good distance for those who didn’t have a huge lens like I carry around. A few more wandered out, then they were spooked and charged up the hill. I’ve never had a good sighting of musk oxen, so I was happy to have seen what I did.

We returned to the beach. The light had gone grey again, so I decided to go with the ‘contemplative’ batch. We had Mike with us, and so we learned a lot about the rocks we saw. I was pleased to spot and name an erratic boulder. 

The tundra is turning brown with autumn. The flowers are gone, and the willow trees, which grow horizontally rather than vertically, are shedding their leaves. I enjoyed the smell of soil and plant. And a number of people amused themselves by taking photos of musk ox droppings.

Before dinner we met the ship’s captain, and were served sparkling wine for the occasion. I finished my glass, and took pity on the unclaimed portions sitting at the bar. So I did my duty and consumed a second one at dinner.

After dinner was ‘bar talk.’ One of the staff told us ‘Ten things you didn’t know about Greenland,’ which was informative and amusing. The Chinese were celebrating the Moon Festival (which happens only once a year). I left them to it when I went to my cabin at 10.30pm.

16 September

I got up at 5.30am, but we had only flat, grey light. We left the ship at 6.45am to land at Ella Island There are a number of buildings here, a mixture of living quarters for scientific expeditions and huts for the rangers and their dogs, who patrol the area in winter. 

We walked up the hill to visit the expedition hut. One of my fellow passengers wasn’t totally awake. ‘Tell me why I’m here, Chrys,’ she said to me. ‘What is this all about?’ I responded, ‘That’s the existential angst which has affected the human race for thousands of years, and which the great religious faiths have tried to answer.’ She stared at me, then said, ‘That’s the last time I ask you a question.'

We were allowed to go into the expedition hut. Mike has stayed there for various research projects, and he looked very happy to be visiting the place again. I waited until people had left the building before I propped my camera on a bookshelf to take some long exposure shots (don't have a tripod with me). 

We then sailed up Antarctic Sund. The grey light remained. We saw some large icebergs as we went deeper into the fjord. We anchored and went ashore after lunch. I decided to go with the ‘photographic group.’ We headed first to an old trapper’s cabin. I stepped inside, and was amused by a small pile of magazines in the spartan surroundings.

We walked up the hill. The vegetation has browned, but we still found some blueberries (which I sampled—not very sweet) and a musk ox skull. Snow began to fall. We pressed on. A lemming popped up and hovered around the feet of our photographer guide. He took several photos, but said later that his camera settings had been wrong and the photos were blurred. That’s the curse of the Unexpected Lemming. 

We turned around near a lake. My glasses were beginning to blur with melting snowflakes. Despite the snow, I was quite warm as we walked. Snow had begun to settle further up the hill, but not near the beach. 

Headed back to the ship and stripped off wet jacket and waterproofs. I really would have liked a mulled wine, but I settled for a shot of the whisky which I had purchased before the flight to Greenland.

I’d felt tired most of the day, although I have been sleeping well. After dinner I did go to the bar for the ‘Bar Talk’, then I headed off to bed.

17 September

Another early morning rise, but again I was met with grey skies. I gulped down my two mugs of coffee to wake me up.

At 6.45am we headed over to Skipperdal. Our landing site featured a number of large rock formations. Folds of differing colours spread out across the landscape like slices of cake. We were free to wander within a certain area, and I took photos of both the formations and some of the plants. Although the trees in the Arctic grow outwards rather than upwards, they were showing the same autumnal colours as you might expect of their taller Southern cousins.

Then we had a long travelling day ahead of us. As we headed out to sea, the fog thickened and snow began to fall. I took a nap, and later attended a couple of presentations. It was good to feel the ship rolling, however. The waters have been very still within the fjords. 

After dinner we watched a film about the struggles of a small Greenlandic town to survive. Then I dropped into bed.

18 September

Early rise was rewarded by lovely pink light in the cloudless skies. We were sailing up a fjord with intriguing mountains. The sides alternated brown and white (lava and snow). 

We went ashore after breakfast. I opted for the ‘medium’ walk, hoping for breaks to take photos. We set off across the spongy tundra. Snow was scattered across the ground, surrounding the low plants and glinting on the tufts of musk ox fur. 

At first I was a bit cold. Then the sun came over the mountain, and all of us were removing layers. We saw a couple of Arctic hares in the distance, and antlers from a reindeer (they are now extinct in Greenland). Icebergs floated in the waters of the fjord below us, and I was amused by boulders which perched on other small rocks.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch. The ship continued further into the fjord. And I saw something new to me. Although I have seen waterfalls running off glaciers, this was in effect an ice fall. When the glacier calved across a rock face, the ice fell down in a manner like a waterfall. The crystals glistened in the light. The falls were intermittent, usually after we’d heard a crack in the ice. 

The ship brought us closer, shoving aside the ice which now surrounded us. Then we went out for a short zodiac ride. Part way through, the guides brought another zodiac alongside, and offered us hot chocolate to which Baileys had been added. Very nice.

After we returned to the ship, several brave souls took the polar plunge. They jumped from the gangway into the icy cold waters, and then were pulled back on board. Although I have swum in the Antarctic, I entered from the beach. The idea of throwing myself into the water did not appeal.

Dinner was a BBQ on deck. This sounds lovely, but the cold made it less romantic. I ate my portion, washed down with mulled wine, and was thinking of going inside to get warm. Then our leader advised us that a Polar bear had been spotted a mile ahead. I hurried down for my large lens, and joined others at the front of the ship to scour the horizon.

The bear had made some form of kill. The iceberg was stained with blood, and crows had settled nearby. Even with my large lens, the bear was still little more than a speck. He watched us approach, then took part of his kill and swam away.

The setting sun was setting not only the skies but the waters on fire. I took a number of photos before I’d done enough for one day. 

Back in the Panorama Lounge, we were served drinks and Greenlandic music was played. I talked to fellow travellers before going off to bed.

19 September

Overnight, the ship ventured deeper into the fjord. Our ship had never explored this area before—actually, a lot of it is uncharted. We put down the anchor near a glacier and went ashore for a walk.

I decided to go with the ‘contemplative’ group. This meant a slow walk with many stops. We had a good view of a musk ox grazing on the hillside, then views across the mud and rock flats. Gulls picked at the shoreline. We admired a waterfall surrounded by icicles, and boulders which had tumbled to a stop on the hillside. Musk ox bones reminded us that life can be harsh in the Arctic environment.

Our guide had us sit in silence for around ten minutes. There was some sound from the ship, but otherwise all we heard were birds and the chill wind flowing down from the glacier. It was good just to drink in the landscape for awhile.

After we returned to the ship, we headed deeper into the fjord, and saw large icebergs. Near a large glacier, we went out on zodiacs to admire the glacier face and the icebergs floating nearby. The temperature, despite the sun, was lower than we’d experienced thus far. I was quite glad to get back to the ship and to wrap my fingers around a mug of hot chocolate (sadly without a shot of Baileys).

As of yet we’ve not had a good view of the Northern Lights. The expedition leader laid out a plan which involved a night zodiac landing and glow sticks but, as he said, considering the amount of cloud cover he didn’t think we’d be disembarking the ship. And he was right.

I treated myself to a expensive but lovely fleece in the ship’s shop. Then I discovered that, as this is the second trip I’ve taken with Quark, I can join as a ‘Bronze’ member of the Shackleton Club and receive a US$50.00 credit to spend on board. That made my shopping experience far less painful.

I wrote some postcards after dinner, set up the camera in case we had an early call for Northern Lights, and was asleep within minutes of going to bed.

20 September

A swell rolled us in our beds around 6.30am. Our leader decided to pull into the sheltered area around Ittoqqortoormiit to keep us out of the wind and swell. However, as he explained, the townspeople weren’t expecting us until 2pm, so we would stay on the ship until then.

We had a couple of presentations, and, very sadly, a briefing about our disembarkation procedures for tomorrow. There are two flights out. I’m on the second one, which arrives in Iceland at 3pm. A bit too late to visit Reykjavik city centre, I fear, by the time we’re at the hotel and checked in.

A grey day. We went ashore at 2pm and were given simple maps of the town. I walked up to the Tourist Information, which had a small shop. I posted a couple of post cards, and bought some souvenirs. This is a hunting community, and the inhabitants are permitted to kill a number of Polar bears and narwhal every year. So there were the bits from such animals on sale, such as claws and teeth. And an entire skull of a walrus, complete with tusks.

The church was open. I ascertained from the man inside that it’s Lutheran. There is no minister resident in the community (one visits about twice a year), so he takes services. About 20 people (out of a community of around 380) attend the 10am Sunday service. I admired the shape of the building (like an inverted boat). 

Barking led me to a set of dog kennels. The owners originally came from Canada and England. One dog was available for cuddling, and they had earrings and mouse mats for sale. 

A wooden walkway led to the top of the settlement. A swarm of puppies made their way up the cliffside. I found one had joined me, and followed me down to the road. One of the ship’s crew fell in love with the little guy, and cuddled him for quite some time.

Then I headed back to our landing site. Children there were asking for chocolate. We had been told not to give them anyone, but one traveller decided to hand out sweets anyway. Which means the next group to visit will probably have even more children asking for a handout.

Once back on board, I did some preliminary packing and worked on photos. In the evening, we had our trip recap, and rose sparkling wine to toast the captain. I bought a bottle of German sparkling wine to share at my table to celebrate my 50th birthday. At the end of dinner, I was brought a chocolate cake and members of the crew sang ‘Happy birthday’ to me. (Although my birthday isn’t until Friday, since it’s a big one the crew agreed I could celebrate early.)

We had the trip slide show, and I talked to people while drinking water (no more alcohol for me!). Stumbled into bed at 11pm.

21 September

That sad day when you have to leave the ship. I finished my packing, left my check in bag outside my cabin as instructed, and had breakfast. 

We were split into two groups for the two separate flights back to Iceland. I was in the second group, which meant sitting in the lounge until 10.30am. We were taken by zodiac to shore, and then the walk to the airport. There we waited, becoming increasing colder and colder, until our plane finally arrived around 12.50pm. By the way, there was no security or passport check to go through!

We arrived in Iceland around 3pm and were taken to our hotel. I decided it was a bit too late to go into the city, so I stayed in my room and did a bit of repacking. Later in the evening, I went out for a meal with some of my fellow travellers. The meal was lovely, the Icelandic prices were a bit harder to swallow.

22 September

And today I travelled home. But that’s just boring, so I’ll end the account here.

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