Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.

So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.

Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.

I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.

Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.

*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.

Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.

In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.
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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.

And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.

Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?
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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.

Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.
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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.

The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.

On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.
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The incongruity of the galley view.

The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.

Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT
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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.

By endurance we sauna.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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Traversing Schiehallion, Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?

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The first glimpse of Schiehallion appearing through the trees on the road from Loch Rannoch.

Planning my route

I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.

From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.

Schiehallion Traverse

  • Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
  • Finish Point: Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 10km
  • Hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.

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Go slow, baby lambs. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Sign on the roadside at East Tempar.

The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.

Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.

There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.

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Hillside haggis tracks in the heather.

My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.

There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.

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The summit. Or is it?

The Schiehallion Experiment

The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.

Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.

The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.

The Summit

Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.

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From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.

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I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.

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Descent

The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.

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I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.

On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.

Schiehallion East Path

  • Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
  • Distance: 10km return
  • Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

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A plaque commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment by Nevil Maskylene and Charles Hutton at Braes of Foss, with the mountain behind.

The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.

After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge.  Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.

Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.

Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.

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Starting to feel the power of the sun. Walking in the mountains needs preparation for all weather conditions.

What to wear for hiking in Scotland

Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-drying layers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.

The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.

Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.

A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.

A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.

What other equipment will you need?

  • A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
  • A map and compass (and GPS)
  • Walking poles – optional
  • A good supply of water and snacks.

Tips for solo hiking

  • Be prepared for the hike with the right clothing and equipment.
  • Plan your hike in advance, and work out the time you will need, factoring in breaks on the way.
  • Always take a map and compass, and know how to use them. Even if you use a GPS.
  • Tell someone where you are hiking, and remember to let them know once you’re back safe.
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My Alphabet of Adventures

My favourite travel memories from A to Z shared with the #AlphabetAdventure hashtag on social media.

This year, travel has been on the backburner in a big way, with international flights shut down, and many countries, including my home in the UK, imposing a domestic lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 and ease pressure on health services over the peak of the pandemic.

Throughout April and early May many travel bloggers shared pictures of their travels on social media with the hashtag #AlphabetAdventures. It was a chance to remind ourselves of the wide, wild world out there, waiting for us to explore once the coronavirus pandemic passes, and relive some memories from our travels. It also gave us the chance to travel vicariously to new destinations while we stay safe at home under lockdown.

Here are my favourite memories, from A to Z:

A – Antarctica

B – Bilbao, Basque Country / Euskadi, Spain

C – Coll, Inner Hebrides, Scotland

D – Dundee, Scotland

E – Eigg, Small Isles, Scotland

F – Fijian Islands: Kadavu, Lau, Onegasa

G – Guernsey and Herm, Channel Islands

H – Helford River, Cornwall, England

I – Island-hopping on Irene of Bridgwater

J – Johnshaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

K – Karekare beach, North Island, New Zealand

L – looking at nature

M – Melbourne, Australia

N – Newlyn, Cornwall, England

O – Ostend / Oostende, Belguim

P – porthole views on ships

Q – Qaqortoq, Greenland

R – Raglan, North Island, New Zealand

S – Skudeneshavn, Norway

T – Tongariro Alpine Crossing, North Island, New Zealand

U – Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

V – Ventnor and Steephill Cove, Isle of Wight, England

W – wave-washed beaches around the world

X – X marks the spot (maps and charts)

Y – Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, England

Z – zzzzz… for snoozy doggos

And for a bonus, Å – Ålesund, Norway

 

5 Microadventures You Can Make at Home

Five fun microadventures you can make from your own home, suitable for all ages.

Are you familiar with the idea of microadventures? Adventure isn’t all about faraway locations and uncharted territories. Or about being the highest, furthest, fastest at anything.

It’s about the spirit in which you undertake something. It’s being open to new experiences, approaching things with a curious and inquiring mind, and making your own fun and rewarding challenge. And a microadventure is just that, on a simple, local scale.

And while we’re restricted in the things we can do right now, a new activity in a familiar place can be exactly what you need to feel refreshed and excited, and keep your fire for the great outdoors well stoked.

The simplicity of these ideas also make them an ideal way to introduce adventures to your family, even with very young children, and nurture an appreciation for nature and the outdoors to last them a lifetime. And by keeping them close to home, there’s plenty of opportunities to bail out if things don’t go to plan, or to make a spontaneous change to an everyday routine.

So here are five of my favourite microadventures that don’t mean roaming far from home.

Garden Wildcamping

Sleeping in an unusual place is almost a determining factor for an adventure. Out in the garden, you’ll become more aware of night-time sights and sounds, and the change in light from night to day, as the world around you begins to wake-up. Make sure you can get comfortable and cosy, otherwise it will become an endurance challenge rather than a fun adventure.
If you are used to sleeping in a tent, try a night in a bivvy bag for a different experience, and if don’t have a garden, try pushing back the furniture and pitching a tent indoors or making a bivvy on a balcony. If there’s no room for tents, then a good old blanket fort is great fun.

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Pitching a tent at the end of the garden for a wild night out.
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Waking up to a silvery dawn over the North Sea.

Breakfast Birdwatching

This activity fits in quite nicely with a night outdoors. Take an hour, or as long as you can, in the morning to look and listen for the wild birds that visit your area. Hanging birdfeeders are brilliant to tempt them closer, but it can take a few days for birds to find new ones, as are water baths. Make a picnic breakfast to enjoy in the garden, or watch from a window. A set of binoculars and an ID guide will help you to get to know the regulars.

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Settling in with a coffee and a book to listen to the dawn chorus.
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Watching birds dart in and out of the gorse bushes, and soaking in their heavenly scent.

Everest Anywhere

If you’re missing a fix of physical activity, this is the adventure for you. Using the stairs in your building or garden, measure the height and multiply that to find the number of times you’d need ascend to scale the magnificent height of Everest (8448 metres or 27,717′). That will take quite some time, so there’s always an alternative available, such as Ben Nevis (1,345 metres or 4,413′), Snowdon (1.085 metres or 3,560′), or your local favourite hill.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. So grab yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.

Billy Connelly

Wild Wet Weather Walk

How often do we look out the window at wild and windy weather and decide to stay indoors? But embracing the elements can provide an unexpected thrill. Get kitted out in the appropriate gear, and you can dance in the rain, get buffeted in the breeze, and roll around in the snow. Plus it makes coming inside for cosy evenings feel that much more deserved.

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I live by the coast in northeast Scotland, so if I waited for fine weather to go outdoors, I’d spend 10 months in the house!

Stargazing

This one is a bit easier if you live in a less urban area, where light pollution isn’t going to impact too much on your dark skies. It takes a little more preparation than other things on this list, as the best nights for stargazing have just a small sliver of the moon visible and clear skies. Apps like My Moon Phase and YR.no will help you plan the best night, while StarWalk2 gives tips for what to look out for, and can help with identifying constellations. But don’t get too transfixed on screens and ID guides, and just revel in the wild and vast universe around us.

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My favourite guide to the night sky is The Stars by H.A. Rey, author of the Curious George stories. Simple to use and easy to understand.
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Spotting Venus and a sliver of crescent moon in the growing dusk. Anticipating the emergence of a star-filled night sky.
Do you have any favourite microadventures you can make from home?
Let me know in the comments below.

8 Activities for Adventurers Staying at Home

A list of indoor activities and things to do around the home for outdoor and adventure lovers.

Though we’re encouraged to think of our current situation with the coronavirus lockdown as being safe while we’re at home, there’s no denying if you’re an outdoor type, you’ll inevitably find yourself feeling stuck at home. Denied that usual dose of adventure, there’s a serious risk of an outbreak of cabin fever.

So, given that there’s unlikely to be an immediate cure to our condition, I’ve compiled a list of activities that can bring the outdoors indoors, and help stave off longing aches for the hills, rivers, forests, and beaches for a while longer. They’ll help you stay mentally resilient, and get you prepared to get back out there when the time comes. They’re fun, and virtually all free, or at least affordable, so give them a go!

If you’ve got any of your own tips to share, let me know in the comments below!

1. Soak in someone else’s adventure

Take the time to choose some inspiring adventure media among all those books, box sets, and blogs you’ll have a bit more time for at the moment, and relive the ups and downs of someone else’s adventures. You might even find the seed of an idea for your own expedition. These are my current favourites:

Book: I’m currently reading Horizon by Barry Lopez, and you can browse my armchair travel lists for more ideas.
Documentaries: I’ve been feeding my Antarctica longing with the Penguin Post Office film from the BBC; David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet; and Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog (also known by my friends as the sad penguin film. It’s not Happy Feet).
Podcasts: I’ve been flitting between Tough Girl Podcast and Terra Incognita recently.
Magazines: Picking up TGO magazine has been my treat when I go on shopping trips.

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Immerse yourself into a book about travel, adventure, or the outdoors to inspire ideas for journeys after the pandemic ends.

2. Deal with the photos and films from your last travels

This is my biggest challenge. I have a huge backlog of photographs, sound recordings, and film footage from my travels over the last couple of years just waiting for some attention. Editing, cataloguing, backing up; there never seems to be enough time to clear the decks before the next batch is gathered. Until now. It’s actually a fantastic way to reflect on past journeys, especially on a rainy evening with a glass of wine. I might even get around to producing a photo book or two once the process is near complete.

3. Find a bit of solace in nature

I’m not one for mindfulness and visualisation; guided meditations tend to leave me sniggering and silly rather than feeling still and soothed. But I am a master at staring out the window at the birds flying by. Putting out bird feeders makes it easier to get to know the usual suspects, and a birdbath gives some excellent opportunities to observe behaviour. If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find feeders that attach to window and walls instead.

4. Get green fingers

This time of year is perfect to get to know your garden better, and growing your own fruit and vegetables has benefits beyond delicious fresh food. Herbs are a simple starting point if you’re new to gardening, and there’s nothing like your own home-grown strawberries. Boost the biodiversity of your patch with a bug hotel or log pile to keep friendly insects close to your greenery. If you don’t have a garden, try small containers on window ledges to grow basil, rocket, and pea shoots for fresh salad greens.

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A small patch of wildness in your garden creates a haven for wildlife

5. Brush up your adventure skills

The great outdoors might be your favourite classroom, but there’s bound to be a few skills you could work on perfecting from home. They might even become your new passion. Try these for a start:

• Learn the necessary knots. The RYA has eight essential knots for the competent crew qualification. Climbers will need a few different knots in their basic repertoire.
• Fine-tune your map reading skills. It’s understood that real navigators never get lost, but sometimes may become unaware of their present location.
• If you have outdoor space to try, how about practising bushcraft skills like making fire by friction, creating a solar still, or carving a wooden spoon.
• Teach yourself how to service your bicycle and repair a puncture.
• Find a new fitness challenge. It could be anything from skipping or hula hooping, squats or bodyweight workouts, to Pilates, yoga or Tai Chi.
• Test out recipes for homemade hiking snacks, or try your hand at dehydrating meals for your next backpacking trip.

6. Give your gear a going over

Looking after your outdoor equipment properly will extend its useful life, saving money in the long run, and ensure that it does the job you want it to do when you next take it out. Clean your hiking boots and running shoes; clean and re-proof waterproof jackets and pants; wash and air your sleeping bag; mend wear and tear on tents and backpacks; service stoves. I like to make a kit list before I go anywhere, and review it afterwards to work out what was missing, what worked well, and what was unnecessary or needed improving.

7. Learn something new

Keep your brain stimulated with an online course from one of the many free open learning providers like FutureLearn, OpenLearn, and Coursera. Indulge a deep passion, or search for something that might bring richness to your next trip, like a geography, history, or anthropology topic. Or brush up on a foreign language that might come in useful when you travel next. I’m using the Duolingo app and Coffee Break Spanish podcast to improve my skills in Spanish. I don’t want to make the owl sad.

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Where do you really want to go?  What will you do?

8. Plan your ultimate expedition

So, once you’re dosed up on inspiration why not start planning your next big expedition? Start off by asking yourself, what would you really, really like to do, if money, time, the usual commitments were no problem. Then follow up with a few more questions:

• Is it something you’d undertake alone, or as part of a team?
• How long would it take, and how much time do you need to prepare?
• Do you need to start saving up?
• How much training is needed, and when would you have to start?

If travel is your passion, try throwing a dart at the map to decide on a destination. Then ask:

• What do you know about that place? The country?
• How would you get there? Can you do it without flying?
• Can it be done in my budget?

Then it’s time to get maps and guidebooks out, read blogs and browse Pinterest. Whether it’s going to be a serious undertaking, or an exercise in vicarious travel and adventure, you can shape a plan and take to back to the drawing board again and again, until you have your dream expedition.

There’s likely to be times where this lockdown leaves you feeling listless and filled with ennui. That’s ok. It’s a strange and unusual time we’re in, and it’s not necessary to use your energy to do anything other than just getting by.  Just remember, this too shall pass.

Tell me what you’ve been up to while you’re locked down.
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18 interesting facts about the Arctic

A selection of facts about the Arctic you’ll find rather interesting.

While researching ahead of my time in Antarctica, I was continually side-tracked by snippets of information relating to the Arctic, and articles making comparisons between the two polar regions of our globe.  Stories from the rich history of the people who make the region their home, and the explorers seeking new discoveries about the region; the unique ecosystems and wildlife; fascinating geographical phenomena and the spectacular natural beauty of a landscape carved from rock and ice, dark and light.

I’ve long been fascinated by the polar regions, and have travelled widely in the European Arctic.  I accidentally booked a bargain ski break to Finnish Lapland at the end of the polar night*; road-tripped from Tromsø to Kautokeino, Kirkenes, and Nordkapp in the never-setting sun; and sailed southwards from the Norwegian Arctic (ending up in the Algarve), crossing the circle on the way down.  I’ve explored the north coast of Iceland, and the southern tip of Greenland, though whether those constitute the actual Arctic depends on the definition you prefer (see below).

*where I taught myself to ski Nordic-style and discovered the magic of saunas and salmiakki. 

In the process, I’ve uncovered several interesting facts on which to hang my own experience and understanding, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Arctic Facts

  • The Arctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ N.  Locations north of the line observe least one day of midnight sun at the June solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the December solstice, where the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon.

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  • Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, at 78° 13’N, experiences 125 days of midnight sun, where the sun never fully sets, between mid-April to mid-August.  The polar night there lasts from mid-November to the end of January.
  • The Arctic Circle passes through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, USA (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, and the very northernmost island of Iceland.  Only 5 cities or towns with a population greater than 15,000 lie north of the circle: Murmansk, with over 295,000 residents; Norilsk, over 178,00 residents; Tromsø, around 76,000 residents; Vorkuta, around 58,000 residents; and Kiruna, over 17,000 residents.  The largest settlement in the North American Arctic is Sisimut in Greenland, with around 5,000 residents.
  • The name Arctic is derived from the Greek arktikós.  Arktos means bear, and arktikós, the land under the bear, referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).  The brightest star in Ursa Minor is Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or North Star, which lies in-line with the earth’s rotational axis almost directly over the North Pole.
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Arctic sea ice. Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley
  • Unlike the Antarctic, a continental landmass surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is a small, relatively shallow, ocean basin surrounded by the continents of Eurasia and North America.  The Arctic Ocean has an area of around 14 million square kilometres, making it just a tenth of the size of the Pacific Ocean.  Much of it is covered by ice, which varies in thickness and extent with the season.  The maximum extent is seen in April, the minimum in September, and the difference between the two is somewhere around 7,000,000km2 (2,702,700 square miles), about the size of Australia.
  • The first nautical crossing of the Arctic Ocean was made in the Fram, captained by Otto Sverdrup, between 1893 and 1896.  The expedition was led by legendary explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who attempted to ski to the North Pole while Fram was locked in ice, reaching a record of 86° 13.6′N before being defeated by the southerly drift of the sea ice.
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Fram photographed during Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition, showing the distinctive Colin Archer lines that enabled her to drift with the Arctic sea ice.
  • Another definition of the Arctic is the region where the average temperature in July (the warmest month) is below 10°C (50°F).  The isotherm marking the boundary slices across Iceland from northwest to southeast, sweeps up north of Tromsø, wiggles along the northern coast of Russia, before dipping down to take in the Aleutian archipelago, back north to Nome, then roughly tracing the polar circle across Canada, taking in northern Hudson Bay and Labrador, and passing far south of Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland.
  • The coldest temperatures observed in the northern hemisphere aren’t actually found in the Arctic, rather in the interior of Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Russia’s Far East.  Despite the extreme cold, with a record low of -67.7°C (-89.9°F), the region isn’t considered “Arctic”, as the continental effect on the climate means summers can be as warm as 15°C (59°F).
  • Seven of the eight nations in the Arctic (Iceland is the exception) are home to indigenous peoples, who have lived in this region for millennia.  Their cultures and customs have been shaped by the unique environment of their home, and their relationship with the landscape, natural resources, and climate of the region.
  • Reaching the North geographic pole had been a goal for explorers since the late 19th century, and the first undisputed expedition reaching the pole was on the airship Norge in 1926, led by polar veteran Roald Amundsen.  Previous claims by Dr Frederick Cook in 1908 and Robert Peary in 1909 had dubious veracity or were lacking in detailed records allowing independent verification, casting doubt on their assertations.
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Routes through the Northwest Passage
  • Roald Amundsen also holds the distinction of leading the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean discovered by John Rae.  He took his ship Gjøa from Norway to Greenland, then through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, to Nome, Alaska between 1903 and 1906.  On the way, he spent two winters in the area now known as Gjøa Haven to learn skills from the Netsilik Inuit that proved rather useful later in his exploration career.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet is the largest body of ice in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet.  It covers approximately 94% of the land area of Greenland, to a mean altitude of 2,135 metres (7,005′), and is over 3km (1.9 miles) thick at the thickest point.
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The entrance to the Global Seed Vault in the polar night.  Photo Credit: subiet.
  • The Arctic hosts one of the most remarkable examples of international cooperation.  The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard (Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is constructed deep inside a mountain, and currently holds 980,000 specimens of seeds from around the world to safeguard genetic diversity for the future, and provide resilience in the event of a natural or anthropogenic disaster.  You can make a virtual visit here.
  • Arctic plant life is characterised by adaptation to a brief, bright summer, and short growing season, followed by a cold, dark winter, often over permanently frozen earth creating a biome known as tundra.  The boundary between the tundra and the boreal forests found further south is known as the tree line, which roughly follows the July 10°C (50°F) isotherm around the globe.
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Reindeer on the Svalbard tundra. Photo Credit: Per Harald Olesen
  • The tundra supports a range of specialised wildlife, including herbivores like arctic hares, lemmings, muskox, and reindeer (caribou), and predators like wolverines, arctic foxes, snowy owls, and arctic wolves.  It is also home to many species of birds that take advantage of long days and abundant insect life to lay eggs and raise their young, before migrating south for the winter.
  • The Arctic Ocean is also home to a rich diversity of unique wildlife, including walruses, ribbon seals, and harp seals, belugas and narwhals, long-lived bowhead whales, and the apex predator of the region, the polar bear.  Many of these creatures are dependent on the edge of the ice to find the ideal conditions for feeding and hunting.
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Polar bear leaping on sea ice in Svalbard. Photo Credit: Arturo de Frias Marques
  • All is not well in the Arctic.  As a result of climate breakdown, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth, resulting in the loss of sea ice, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and rising sea and air temperatures.  It has been predicted that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in summer before the end of the century, and in worst-case scenarios by the end of this decade.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet was found to be melting at a much faster rate than previously thought, having lost more than 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992.  Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet contributes directly to rising sea levels around the globe, as the ice rests on a landmass, unlike the floating sea ice.

Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight

I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger.  As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds.  Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.

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Western Yar Estuary

  • Route length: 7km (4.5 miles) circular route, with the possibility of an extension to make 11km (7 miles)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Start / Finish: Yarmouth

The Western Yar is a snapshot of the geological past of southern England, a remnant of a much larger river rising from the chalk downland that once stretched from the Needles, at the tip of the Isle of Wight, all the way to Old Harry Rocks on the Dorset coast.  Now, a small stream quickly becomes a vast tidal estuary, edged with mudflats and saltmarshes that support hundreds of waders and wildfowl.

Find details of this circular walk from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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The riverside path from the harbour passes the old mill and joins the old railway line that once linked Freshwater and Yarmouth to Newport.  Listen for the whistles and whoops of teal and wigeon, and the piping calls of oystercatchers from the estuary mud.  The walking is pleasant and easy, with small birds flitting between the hedgerows lining the trail.  The copse further on is a good spot to look for red squirrels scampering overhead.

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The walk can be extended from the Causeway towards the narrow ridge of chalk downs, and the coast known as the Back of the Wight.  A short distance on footpaths and minor roads takes you past Afton Marsh Nature Reserve towards the golf course.  To your left, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Old Military Road, with the crumbling coastline below, and to your right, it dips down to Freshwater Bay before rising sharply toward Tennyson Down.

Rather than retrace your footsteps, a winding path leads down the side of some houses, alongside the early stages of the river Yar, passing through thick reedbeds back to the Causeway crossroads.

From the Causeway, turn left and find the footpath that runs between the Red Lion pub and All Saints Church.  The path leads northwards, away from the edge of the estuary, across rolling farmland and through the woods.  Look out for views across the Solent to the New Forest as you leave the woodland behind.

Cross the swing bridge and finish the walk back in Yarmouth by the harbour.  Pop into PO41, one of my favourite spots on the island for coffee and home-made cake to finish the day.

Newtown Creek

  • Route length: 5km (3 miles)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Start / Finish: Newtown National Trust Visitor Centre

One of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Isle of Wight, Newtown was once a thriving medieval port, the most important on the island, with a bustling saltworks and several streets of houses.  But after centuries of ebb and flow, Newtown Creek is now a quiet backwater that, in winter, bustles only with birdlife.  In the 1960s plans to locate a nuclear power station here were protested by the local community, and led to the creation of Newtown Harbour National Nature Reserve.

Find details of this walk around the Isle of Wight’s finest nature reserve, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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From the National Trust carpark, cross a minor road and follow the route of the medieval street eastwards.  The track opens out into a beautiful area of pasture, with several ancient oak trees (and the entrance to the Upside Down), which is grazed by heritage cattle at certain times of the year.

Leave the field at the far side, turn right then follow the road for around 200m to enter Walter’s Copse, a pocket-sized wood with both ancient woodland and rotational coppice management, that edges onto the saltmarsh of the creek.  Follow the trail through the wood and back to the road.  Turn left, then right, to retrace your route to the Visitor Centre.

Continue on the road past the church, then take the track at Marsh Farm to reach the Mercia Seabrook hide.  National Trust volunteers will open the hide on selected days during the winter, and lead guided walks to show visitors the spectacular winter birdlife; look for hundreds of golden plovers, diminutive dunlins, and a variety of ducks.  Grey seals often lounge on the shingle spit on the far side of the creek.

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Cross the field to reach the wooden boardwalk leading to the old boathouse, which has views across the creek and out to the Solent beyond.  A path leads around the edge of the historic salt pools, and back to the hedgerow-lined meadow.  On a crisp winter morning, with the purring sound of brent geese filling the air, it’s a pretty magical place to visit.

Brading Marshes and Bembridge Mill

  • Route length: 10km (6.2 miles)
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Start / Finish: Brading

Brading was once a busy fishing port, and the coastal village of Bembridge, just a couple of small farms on an isolated peninsula.  Land reclamation along the estuary of the Eastern Yar* over 120 years ago moved the coastline downstream several miles, creating a sheltered haven between Bembridge and St Helens.

Find details of this walk at one of the best birding sites on the Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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From Brading, follow the road towards the RSPB reserve, then bear left onto Laundry Lane.  This raised track looks over into marshes and scrapes that fill with waders and wildfowl through the winter.  At the end of the lane, bear right on the edge of the main road into St Helens village.

Head downhill from St Helens village green to the embankment, then bear right onto the footpath through the edge of the RSPB reserve.  The trail runs alongside a series of saline lagoons, attracting shorebirds seeking refuge over the high tide in the harbour.

From the Tollgate, which has great views across the harbour to the area of sand dunes known as the Duver, follow the road up through the pretty village of Bembridge.  Take the road on the right after the church and the library, leading out of the village towards Bembridge Mill.

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Picturesque Bembridge Mill is the only surviving windmill on the island, falling out of use in the early 20th century and used as a Home Guard lookout during WWII, before being restored to working condition by the National Trust.

Enjoy the views before heading downhill from the windmill, following the line of the old sea wall, across the edge of Bembridge Airfield, and into Centurion’s Copse, a red squirrel hot spot.  Bear right, and pass through the RSPB reserve.  The ditches and sluices allow for careful control of water levels to manage one of the most important wetland areas in southern England.

At the end of the old sea wall, you’ll meet the end of Laundry Lane, and be able to retrace your steps back into Brading.  Pop into the Auctioneer for a pot of tea and a huge wedge of cake, and even a browse through the latest selection of antiques and curios on display.

*The Isle of Wight has three large-ish rivers.  Two of them are called the Yar.  The story is that no islanders ever travelled the vast distances from Bembridge to Yarmouth (about 45 minutes drive now), or the opposite direction, so the lack of imagination in naming never really mattered.

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Tips to watch wildlife responsibly in winter:

  • Avoid causing disturbance to birds feeding or resting in coastal areas.
  • Bring binoculars for a good view without getting too close.
  • If the birds become alert and stop feeding on mudflats and saltmarsh, move further away and allow them to settle down.
  • Stick to paths and marked routes where they exist, and avoid emerging suddenly onto saltmarshes and creeks.
  • Stop for a while on your walk, or move slowly, to see what emerges from nearby hedgerows or reedbeds
  • Listen to the sounds; they might reveal something you would otherwise miss.
  • Always follow guidance on signs on sites.

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What to look out for:

Birds: dark-bellied brent geese; greylag geese; golden plovers; curlews; oystercatchers; black-tailed godwits; lapwings; dunlin; pintail; teal; widgeon; shelducks; kingfishers; peregrine falcons; rooks; yellowhammers;  short-eared owls; little egrets; spoonbills; long-tailed tits; goldcrests; fieldfares; redwings; ravens.

Other creatures: Hebridean sheep; belted Galloway cattle; red squirrels; grey seals.

Nature: Ancient oak trees; coppice hazel and the first catkins; an abundance of fungi and lichen; towering reedmace and phragmites; brambles; spindle berries; gorse flowers.

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15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Antarctica Facts

  • The Antarctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ S.  South of the line experiences at least one day of midnight sun at the December solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the June solstice, where the sun does not rise over the horizon.

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  • Most of the landmass of Antarctica lies within the polar circle, with just the tip of the peninsula, Graham Land, and a few capes in Enderby Land and Wilkes Land extending north of the line.  However, all land and islands, and ice shelves, lying south of latitude 60°S are considered part of Antarctica, and governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (more on that below).
  • The true boundary of the Antarctic could also be considered the Antarctic convergence (AAC) zone, also known as the polar front, an oceanographic feature where the dense, cold waters of the Antarctic circumpolar current sink beneath warmer waters from the north.  The resulting upwelling of nutrients supports a rich diversity of marine life.  The convergence circles the continent at a latitude between 41°S and 61°S, in a band around 40km (25 miles) wide, and the variation is why island groups such as South Georgia (54°15′S 36°45′W) and Bouvetøya (54°25′S 3°22′E) are considered to be Antarctic in biogeographical terms, and Macquarie Island (54°38′S 158°50′E) and Cape Horn (55°58′S 67°17′W) are sub-Antarctic.
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Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), one of the most abundant species on the planet. Photo credit: Uwe Kils
  • The name Antarctica was first formally used for the continent by Scottish cartographer John George Bartholemew in his work of 1890, after the term Terra Australis, which had described a speculative southern continent was used for the re-naming of New Holland (het Niew Hollandt) as Australia.  Antarctica is derived from the Greek antarktikós, the opposite of the Arctic, the opposite of north, used for unspecified and unknown southern lands since the days of AristotleArktos means bear, and arktikos referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).  The fact that polar bears live in the Arctic and not in the Antarctic is purely coincidental.
  • Antarctica is the coldest continent on Earth.  On 21st July 1983, a low of -89.2°C (-128.6°F, air temperature) was recorded at Vostock Research Station, on the isolated, inhospitable East Antarctic Plateau.  Recent satellite observations have suggested that it may get even colder in certain conditions, as low as -98°C.  The Antarctic Peninsula, where most visitors will go, has a much milder climate, with January averages around 1 to 2 °C (34-36°F), though it can get as warm as 10°C (50°F).
  • The Antarctic has no indigenous population and no permanent inhabitants.  Approximately 29 nations send personnel south of 60° to operate seasonal and year-round research stations, field bases, and research vessels, giving a summer population of around 5,000, dropping to just 1,000 or so over winter.  The number of summer residents is boosted by tourists, with more than 44,000 visitors recorded in 2016-17 season.
  • The Antarctic Treaty System is a unique set of international agreements, laying out the framework for the governance of the region.  Originally signed in 1959, it establishes the peaceful pursuit of scientific research, international co-operation, and environmental protection as the goals for all nations active in Antarctica.
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The flag of the Antarctic Treaty
  • The first confirmed sightings of continental Antarctica happened just 200 years ago.  The Imperial Russian expedition led by Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, on the ships Vostok and Mirny, discovered an ice shelf on the Princess Martha Coast, on 27th January 1820, which later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf.  Just a few days later, on 30th January, Edward Bransfield, of the British Royal Navy, sighted the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost tip of the Antarctic continental mainland.
  • An expedition led by Norwegian polar legend Roald Amundsen was first to reach the geographic South Pole on 14th December 1911.  Leaving the ship Fram, on loan from his fellow countryman Fridtjof Nansen, in the Bay of Whales at Framheim, he traversed the Axel Heiberg Glacier onto the polar plateau, using skis and sled dogs, reaching the pole in 56 days.  On realising their goal, the Norwegian team spent three days taking sextant readings, and “boxing the pole” to establish an exact position.  Despite setting out from their base at Cape Evans on Ross Island just five days later the Norwegians, it wasn’t until five weeks after Amundsen arrival that Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated team reached the pole.
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Amundsen and his crew at Polheim, the geographical South Pole, 1911. Photo credit: Olav Bjaaland
  • Unlike in the Arctic, there are no large terrestrial animals in Antarctica.  In fact, the largest creature living on the land is a flightless midge, Belgica antarctica, just 6mm (0.25in) in length.  It’s reckoned that it’s flightlessness is an adaptation to prevent being swept away in the strong winds that blast the continent.
  • The richest and most diverse ecosystem in Antarctica is the ocean.  Nutrient-rich water upwelling in the Antarctic convergence cultivates blooms of plankton, which feeds super-abundances of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans.  In turn, the krill support many species of fish, seals, birds, and whales, including orcas, humpback whales, and blue whales, the largest of all.
  • Though we immediately think of penguins as the classic Antarctic bird, only a few species actually live that far south.  Of the 18 extant species worldwide, four can be considered Antarctic (Emperors, Adélies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps) and another four are sub-Antarctic (Kings, Royals, Southern Rockhoppers, and Macaronis).  If, like me, you can’t get enough of penguins, check out the BAS Penguin of the Day photos.
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Gentoo penguin family at Jougla Point in the Palmer Archipelago.  Photo credit: Liam Quinn.
  • The famed Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, have a southern counterpart, the aurora australis.  The aurora is the result of disturbances in the upper atmosphere, when streams of charged particles ejected from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field.  The ideal time to observe the aurora australis in Antarctica is in the dark nights through the southern winter, however, they can also be seen from the Peninsula and South Georgia.
  • The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest single mass of ice on earth, covering around 98% of the continent, an area equivalent to one and a half times the size of continental USA.  It’s estimated that it reaches as much as 4,700m (15, 420′ or 2.9 miles) thick at the greatest extent, and extends almost 2,500m (8200′ or 1.5 miles) below sea level in West Antarctica.  The extent of sea ice formed through the winter months almost doubles the size of the continent.  Unlike the Arctic, the area has remained fairly constant in recent decades, though the variation in ice thickness is unclear.
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Antarctic ice. Photo credit: Gregory Smith.
  • All is not well in Antarctica.  The rate of ice melt has doubled every decade since records were first kept, a direct consequence of increased air and water temperatures in the region.  The rate of air temperature rise (2°C or 3.2°F in the past 50 years) is one of the highest on the planet, resulting in a rise in sea levels and glacial ice calving faster than at any time since the records began.  Further increases in temperature will have profound effects on global weather patterns.
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Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll

The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful.  The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.

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The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
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The beaches of Feall and Crossapol are separated by a fixed dune system rising over 50 metres in places, including a large swathe of flower-rich machair

The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall.  Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.

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I started to rue not paying attention when being taught the names of wildflowers by my Granny.  But I do know this is silverweed, and prefers damp spots close to the shore.
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I think this dandelion-like flower is a type of hawkweed.
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Sea pink, also known as thrift, and stonecrop clings to niches in the bare rock.
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Wild thyme and ladies bedstraw form a dense, deeply-scented carpet on the machair.

In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree recounts several alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War.  This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.

The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer.  Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid.  The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.

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A blanket of daisies and buttercups cover the machair next to the RSPB reserve carpark.
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Machair wildflowers are vital for rare bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee, once common across the British and Irish Isles, and now restricted to a few areas in the Hebrides.
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The machair was traditionally used for summer livestock grazing and hay cutting.  It would have been exactly like the scything scenes in Poldark.
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The size of that handsome lad.  He’s so tiny and cute.
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The island of Coll, and neighbouring Tiree, are reputed to have the highest number of sunshine hours anywhere in Scotland.
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I think this might be saxifrage, or maybe eyebright.  I do have a very good flora guide (Warne, The Wild Flower Key), but I’m just not very good at using it.
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There are three or four different species of orchid found on Coll and Tiree.

Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.

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I’m pretty sure that these pictures are all of the same kind of orchid.
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They are either the Hebridean spotted orchid or the heath spotted orchid, though they can hybridise.  I also saw early march orchids, but my photo was rubbish.
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A green-veined white caterpillar chomping on a creeping willow.
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Hay meadows in the in-bye can conceal corncrakes; the crackling calls that give them their scientific name, Crex crex, the only clue to their presence

The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood.  From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.

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The sandy machair merges into the blackland of peat moors and bogs, and the plant community changes.
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Bell heather, ling, crowberry, bog cotton, and even some rare alpine species are found on the higher ground.
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What I’ve loved this season: Summer 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based.  After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship.  After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

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Looking back at Oban from the middle of the Sound of Kerrera

Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed.  As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call.  I was successful at the interview.  I got the job!  Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job.  More about that below.

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Deckhand Dan, possibly the least successful fisherman on Irene.

Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way.  We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for a paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets.  Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.

Back in Oban, we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out.  This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage.  On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.

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Irene at anchor in Kiloran Bay, Colonsay.  An extremely damp beach recce, but the weather dried up overnight for a beautiful stay.

At the end of June, I had what felt like my first proper holiday in a very long time.  I spent five days on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and was blessed with the best weather conditions.  A spot of rain on the first afternoon, just enough that I didn’t feel I was missing out while I caught up on sleep after leaving the ship.  Then beautiful sunshine and light winds to cycle around from one end of the island roads to the other, and stopping off at spots around the island to hike, swim, birdwatch and beachcomb.

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The sweeping silver sand beach at Feall Bay, Isle of Coll

At the end of my leave, I returned to Irene in Swansea, to move her round to Cornwall for the final months of the season.  We stopped off at Lundy on the way, anchoring overnight beneath the cliffs.  A 1am wake-up call to move anchor at the turn of tide turned out to be one of the most magical experiences of the voyage, as thousands of Manx shearwaters swirled through the air around us, through the rigging, and called out from their burrows.  A stowaway bird emerged from the hawsepipe the following morning, and I helped her back to the sea.

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At anchor off Lundy in the Bristol Channel on our way between Wales and Cornwall.

We finished our voyage in Newlyn, which became our base for the next month for voyages to the Isles of Scilly and Brittany, and very quickly one of my favourite places.  As a working fishing port, life here lacks the softness and sanitation of nearby coastal villages.  You wouldn’t be wrong to describe the place as rough or gritty, especially after a night out to the Swordfish pub, once considered one of the toughest in the UK, but the richness of the stories I found was compelling.

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Irene of Bridgwater sailing in Mount’s Bay. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Irene approaching Newlyn harbour under full sail. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Sailing onto the mooring alongside in Newlyn. Photo credit: Penzance NCI

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Isles of Scilly all summer, however weather conditions were not in our favour.  One drizzly grey voyage, and another blown out by an Atlantic storm.  However, the Brittany trip was fantastic, with a few days exploring around Tréguier and Ile de Bréhat, and a wonderful wildlife-filled channel crossing, with common dolphins accompanying the ship from sunrise onward.  The only disappointment was that we arrived back to Newlyn on the very same day a humpback whale was filmed lunge feeding just a couple of miles away, and we missed it.  Check out the awesome photos on the Lone Kayaker’s blog, including one of Irene passing St Michael’s Mount. 

On my next leave, I caught up with the rest of the team for my new job for a couple of days in London to get to know each other better, and for the chance to bombard Lucy, returning for a second season, with hundreds of questions about what to expect.

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Keeping lookout from the top of the lightbox
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Sailing onto our mooring outside Charlestown Harbour.

Back on Irene, we relocated the ship to Falmouth, using it as a base to explore the coast from The Lizard and Start Point, visiting Salcombe, Fowey, and Mevagissey, as well as a favourite anchorage in the Helford River.  With big winds forecast on a couple of days, we also explored the upper reaches of the Fal above Trelissick Gardens.  At the very end of August, we dropped in by the Classic Sail Festival at Charleston Harbour, deep in Poldark country.  So many beautiful boats that I want to sail on.

 

The new job!

So, it’s going to be very different this winter.  I’m extremely excited to share the news that I’ll be heading to Antarctica, to spend the southern summer season working in the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy.  I’ll be part of the team helping to run the Post Office and greet visitors to the island, and have the responsibility to monitor the resident penguin population through the season.  I’m beyond overjoyed about it all, though a bit daunted at the prospect of four months on a small island in a remote setting.

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My summer love list:

Books: It’s been difficult to find time to read through the summer, but long train journeys to meet the ship in Swansea and Newlyn were perfect. I read Empire Antarctic: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis, taking screeds of notes.  I also discovered the fabulous Beerwolf pub/bookshop in Falmouth, and succumbed to temptation, buying a couple of copies of Granta Magazine.

TV Show: When I’m off the ship I can catch up on watching films and TV that I don’t usually get the chance to see.  The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has me so excited.  I absolutely adored the film when I was young.  And, inspired by my time in Cornwall this summer, I’ve got really into Poldark.  For the traditional sailing ships, not the shirtless scything, honestly.

Clothing: I’ve been living in shorts and flipflops for the past three months.  I don’t think I’ll ever manage to wear proper shoes again…

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Equipment: I think my most used bit of kit through the summer has been a heavy duty drybag with a shoulder strap that I discovered in the magic middle aisle of Aldi.  It’s been perfect for getting back and forward to the ship in the dingy while we’re on a mooring buoy or anchorage.

Food: Have you ever found a restaurant so good that you go back again the following night to finish off the menu?  The Sound Pantry in Newlyn is one of those places. The most delicious home-made Portuguese food for dinner two nights in a row, plus a morning visit to pick up pasteis de nata for our coffee break.

Treats: I spent an afternoon in the galley with our ship’s chef Alex and learned how to make the most fantastic baklava. So good.

What’s next:

These next few weeks are going to be an exciting time, as I prepare for spending the next few months living in Antarctica and working at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy.

I’ve also got a few hiking trips planned, including the Great Corset Caper, where I’ll join with a bunch of awesome women to take on Pen y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, wearing period costume.  I have to admit, I’m very nervous about it, particularly the corset.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes.  You can keep up to date with my adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  And look out for plenty of penguin facts to fill the time while I’m out of contact down south.

Read about my spring adventures here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or plans you have for the season ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.

 

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