I haven’t written much since just before the end of my time in the Antarctic. It has been a rather busy time, as it always is and I have managed to go away and have little snatches of holiday on the last few months. My last trip in the Antarctic was defined by strong winds and amazing sunsets, with lots of humpback whales and a few killer whales to add into the mix. My ankle had started healing well and I was able to go out a bit, which was really cool as the penguin chicks were also at a really cute stage.
My last night on the ship was super special as my “soul sister” Nicki was joining and she was in Ushuaia the night before, so we had a chance to see her. I didn’t think that we would see each other again as she was working on another ship. She has come back to the fold now and I am happy that I will get the chance to work with her in the Russian Far East. So many people think that living a life traveling to remote areas is a glorious way to spend one’s life and, indeed, it is quite extraordinary, however, it is a transient lifestyle, where one isn’t grounded in one place and having stable relationships is not something we rely on. It is tough, where one makes close friends (as we share cabins, one invariably becomes friends (or not) with one’s cabin mate). At the end of the contract, though, you never know whether you will see them again, or it may be over a year before you work together again. What I enjoy about the ship that I work on, is that we have a core group of expedition staff and we all get on, so when I join the ship it is like coming home to my family. It is however, a still a very artificial and superficial environment. One expedition staff member used to say in his introduction that he was part of a witness protection program and this was the best way to protect his identity. Well, he is not far off the mark, because if you don’t want anyone to find you, working on a ship like this is a brilliant way to do it.
After leaving the ship, I had to lug my 40kg of luggage and further 20kg of hand luggage, being slowed down by the moon boot, through Buenos Aires, Atlanta and onto Boston and Providence for a week of IAATO meetings and getting a chance to get to work with my new colleague Amanda. We are now a total of 5 women, making up the secretariat, most of us 40 somethings and fortunately we all get along particularly well.
Finally, in mid-February I came home to my wonderful house and garden and even though I struggled horribly with jet lag for about 10 days, it was great being home. IAATO Work of course starts the very next day and we all know that the next few months will be hard stressful work in preparation for the Antarctic Treaty meeting and 10 days later our IAATO annual meeting. So when the pressure is on, the best thing to do is go on holiday. This is exactly what I did at the end of February and it was probably the first real holiday I had had for nearly a year. I went up to Zimbabwe with three bird club friends, to meet another couple of bird nuts, who I met on a similar trip to Mozambique and who I like immensely. Birding with this bunch is NO HOLIDAY. Up at 5:30 (sometimes we got to sleep in to 6) every morning, and out birding pretty much the whole day (with a packed lunch) until evening. I was toasted and went to bed at 8pm every evening. We went to many different habitats from wetlands, grasslands, and indigenous forests. One of the most spectacular sights was going into a township area at dusk and watching thousands of Amur falcons coming in to roost. The sky was filled with birds coming in to the tops of the trees and the noise of all the falcons calling (a very high pitches Kew kew sound) and having a chat before bed time was particularly memorable. The locals thought we were very odd, as they probably never notice them. I don’t think many believed us when we told them that these birds had flown all the way from Siberia and China. We saw 254 species in 9 days, I don’t know how many lifer I had, but it was certainly well over 20. My favourite group of birds are the sunbirds and the Miombo Double collard, variable and bronzy sunbird are all new for me and what spectacular birds they are, so I have to put a few pics of them in, even though they were very far away so it had to be zoomed and cropped a lot, they are still stunning. The friends I was with are
Zimbabwe is an interesting place to visit, as it is a hugely depressed economy with a 90% unemployment rate. It boggles my mind how people survive. They have moved onto the use of the US Dollar and every dollar that you get is black with grime it has been used so much. Everything is close to being between two and three times the cost of South Africa, although at least there are supplies of most things. I did read last week however that Robert Mugabe has decreed that the importation of fresh fruit and vegetables is not permitted. I am not sure where the locals are going to get supplies from as just about every farm we drove past is overgrown, unproductive and destroyed. Farms where it was obvious were previously functioning are lying bare, with tunnels for growing tomatoes just a skeleton of their former selves, the shade netting hanging in shreds. The Zimbabweans who live there (over 6 million have fled to South Africa), are friendly and work within the constraints of their environment. It is a shame to see such a wonderful country being systematically ruined by a dictator and his cronies who are only interested in lining their own pockets and don’t care for the population. I will need to write a separate blog on Zimbabwe and how this grip of terror is implemented, it is a stranglehold that affects everyone right down to the poorest.
Even though it was a very busy time, I came home refreshed and ready to get stuck into work. Being home and moving from a ship job to a desk job is a bit of a transition but I try not to think of it and just get on with it as best as I can.
My next mini-adventure was a long weekend down at our little place in Wakkerstroom (which a friend once called a pixel, because it is 40m2 on a 10 000m2 stand). For those of you who don’t know where Wakkerstroom is, it is about 300km South East of Johannesburg. It is a tiny town, with a large wetland and 23 species of endemic birds (Birds only found in South Africa), two of which (the Rudd’s and Botha’s lark) are only found in this area. My purpose of going down was to scatter some of my mom’s ashes there, as it was a very special place to her, as it is to me. It happened to be a long weekend and even though we hadn’t planned on it, it was the 4th Wakkerstroom music festival. I am amazed that such a small community can have a music festival at all, let alone one that attracts such amazing talent. Our first concert was a violin recital by a matric student at Roedene school, whose rendition of Cesar Frank’s violin sonata was awe inspiring. It was held in the tiny Catholic church, which seats 50 people (although we are lead to believe that services only have about 8 parishioners). It is in this church that there is probably the most beautiful stained glass window I have ever seen, and I have been to many churches around the world. Perhaps it is because the design is so close to my heart, as it depicts Wakkerstroom, its wildlife, culture and landscape. So I have included iPhone pictures (not very good ones). See how many creatures you can spot and which you can identify. There are crowned cranes, bald ibis’, cape clawless otters, dragonflies amongst many other species. A friend from Wakkies had heard I was coming down and asked if I would give a talk on birds of the Antarctic to the bird club, I agreed thinking there would be 15 people or so, well, there were well over 50 (probably because of the music festival) but it was quite gratifying having such a response. The Saturday was a relaxing day, going to a guitar duo playing everything from Queen’s Bohemian rhapsody to Brazilian dances. It was so brilliant, I bought their CD. We went to the vlei birding in the afternoon, until the Gala concert in the NG Kerk, in the centre of the town. A beautiful sandstone building, seating 450 people, it was packed. The 2 hour concert was a selection of short pieces by each of the performers during the weekend. A truly uplifting experience. The Sunday, we were taken on a special trip by Glenn, who took us on a drive way up to a farm where there is a lookout with an almost 360 degree view of unspoilt grassland. How privileged we are to live in South Africa. On our way back to town we stopped at another farm where they do Bald Ibis monitoring (The bald Ibis is another special for the area). This is a breeding site, which is not presently occupied, but has a lovely waterfall. As dusk was approaching and the town had emptied out of all the “Foreigners” who had come to watch the concert, we headed down to the vlei to one of my favourite hides, where I spent some quiet time and scattered some of my mom’s ashes. For those of you who have been through this process, it is incredibly emotional, even though it is almost a year since my mom died. As we were leaving the sky was turning a deep red creating amazing reflections on the water.
I have been really busy with talks while here and gave a talk on Climate change and the polar regions to about 350 people at Monash University, I was amazed at the turnout and hope that I made some people think about the impact we have on our planet.
I have had two other mini-breaks, one to St Francis Bay, which is a beautiful spot and where I could simply relax, go for walks and spend time putting this presentation together. It always takes me way longer than I anticipate, as I have to decide on a few pictures out of hundreds – and when one is handicapped with a severe case of indecision, it takes hours. I went down to Wakkerstroom a second time just for one night and met up with some special friends again and we had such a wonderful time.
My next adventure is about to begin, with 2 weeks at the Antarctic Treaty meeting (Not that it means all that much, but these meetings are always over my birthday, which kind of sucks). Then I am home for 10 days, go to Providence in the US for 10 days for our IAATO annual meeting, home for 10 days and then off to Japan, the Russian Far East and Alaska to join the ship for 2 months. I can’t wait. So jet lag and sleeplessness will be my friend and I am sure I will be a zombie by the time I get to Japan, but it is all very exciting. I will be joining our new ship, the Silver Discoverer and this is a new itinerary for me, so in between IAATO work, I will be reading and preparing lectures for the ship as well.
So there is a snippet from my life for the first few months of the year.
I hope all is well in your world
Clouds and Duncan