Sunday, March 17, 2019

Tristan da Cunha, the dream comes true

What effects you and how things happen can be odd and by luck A earthquake in San Francisco led me to be in the south Atlantic 30 years later.  How you may ask?  A bad pitching performance would also cause the same thing.  That seem odder but yet, also true

On October 17, 1989, I do not remember where I was, but I sort of remember what happened.  The third game of the World Series was about to start and an earthquake hit the Bay area.  I was studying Pathology and I wasn't watching the series that night.  The series got postponed for 10 days and even though I wasn't the biggest Oakland A's fan (the Twins won the western division in 1987 and 1991 with Oakland winning the three years in between), I decided to go home and watch the third game with my grandfather Allwin.  This idea changed my life, the earthquake changed my life, the fact that Oakland won game three and took an 8-0 lead in the 6th inning of the fourth game, changed my life.

So let us start there, ....With Oakland going ahead 8-0 in the top of the 6th inning on October 28, 1989, ahead 3 games to none, my grandfather gave up and walked upstairs and went to bed (they won 9-6 and clinched the series about an hour later).  It was just 10 PM.  I got bored at the game and trolled channels (we only had 5) and my life changed.  A show as just starting on PBS was a special about some great Journey.  It was to a place I'd never heard of and I knew maps.

Here is the link.

The words that started the show, have been etched in my mind for now thirty years as said by John Heminway, documentary writer.
"Tristan da Cunha.  It is hardly a place.  It is a destination of the mind.  Tristan da Cunha, it has become a sing song folk music theme of this show.  I am beginning to have my doubts and am not sure I want to get there any more, just in case I'm let down.  Tristan da Cunha.....Tristan da Cunha.....Tristan da Cunha."

I'll let you watch it, just saying the words is causing me to cry, to have goose bumps, and I'm beginning to be overwhelmed.  Tristan da Cunha....

I watched that TV show and I was moved.  Maybe it was the way the host continually repeated the destination Tristan da Cunha, many many times.  I don't know.  I do not know if I ever saw John Hemminway do another documentary but I saw this one.  I was 23 and I decided that life is about adventure, no matter what, somehow, some way, I'd get to Tristan da Cunha, because it was Tristan da Cunha, the greatest place to go on earth.

A lot happened since then.  I got married in 1990, I graduated medical school in 1992, we moved, moved again, moved again, had twins, moved, moved, had a daughter., started a business...
along the way my first email contact was the newsletter of the HMS St. Helena, the only way to get out there and I bought a rare 200 dollar book about the place, as it was out of print and well, Penguins, Potatoes, and Postage Stamps was a great title and only one copy was available on Amazon.

I never added this to my bucket list as I didn't really add things to the list in my 20s, AND it was so improbable, so impossible, so impracticable....,10 days at sea after getting to Cape Town, South Africa and a wife who gets seasick?  It would take a six week block just to try it AND not always does the ship even go or land, in fact, bailing on Tristan is more normal.  6 weeks to go for your dream and then have it dashed?

Tristan da Cunha, maybe just getting there is a let down, and I shouldn't have tried?  Maybe it is the dream that is important NOT the journey itself.
A tiny speck of land, a 7600 foot high mountain, 1510 miles east of Cape Town, the most remote settlement on Earth, why?  why?  Why is this important?

The volcano erupted in 1961 causing everyone to be evacuated and then 2 years later, they returned, but why?  It just added to the mystique.  I had to go, somehow, some way, and then I saw a trip, I talked others into going, it was the convincing of my life, I could sell a religion easier but maybe Tristan da Cunha, is a religion.

Silja and I have been on a month trip with the ultimate goal Tristan da Cunha.  We left a month ago and when the boat headed north in South Georgia I looked at the weather, and it didn't look good.  One woman leading excursions had came 5 times and landed twice.  We had a native Tristaner on the boat and he even seemed doubtful.  Two days ago in Gough, it looked impossible and then
it happened.  The clouds parted, the waves ebbed, the sun shone, and wow!  WOW!  WOW!

Tristan da Cunha!

I came, I saw, I was there.  Let me say it.  Every wave, every rock, every scheme, every step, every roll, every thought, every doubt, everything, was worth it.  It was the best day, the best day I've spent anywhere.  It was glorious, it was wonderful.  It was fulfilling.  It was great. It was marvelous, it was an adjective I haven't learned yet.

We walked the village of 265 people.  We climbed a couple of hills.  We could not climb the 7600 volcano, just what erupted 50 years ago.  We found a rare bird.  We drank beer.  We stretched on the grass.  We ate lobster, and we bought was Tristan da Cunha!

My wife had a southern painted lady butterfly light on her and as such, we had wonderful luck.  This is a place many try to visit but few even making the 1500 mile journey can't land, the weather Gods frowning and keeping them at sea.

We came and we enjoyed, we smiled, we left, and now ...we remember.

Some views of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and Tristan da Cunha.

Original house surviving volcano behind

view of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

government residence

potato patches

sign about mileage

Tristan Thrush, the rare lifer endemic bird I climbed the mountain for
lifer beer at the pub, best lifer beer ever
We got a private tour of the new hospital with the doctor just arrived from Pitcairn, he likes isolated places

The local working dogs get rides, the dogs look all related

Don trudging along

Our ship in the harbor

Nancy at overlook

Ah Tristan da Cunha, the photos do not give it justice, we spent 7 hours of perfection on the island and we were the last to leave.  It was like I was leaving my dream, but it was a good dream, a great dream.  It was time to wake up.

We met a man who remembered John Hemminway and that trip to Tristan in 1989.  He rode out on the HMS St Helena to Cape Town in 1989.  He thought the special was a good one.  He remembered waving a towel on the ship as it went back from Nightingale to Tristan.

The people here are warm and friendly, I enjoyed every conversation I had, every hello, in reality, they have little here besides their island only making on average 200 pounds a month  but yet they are rich here.  Rich in where they are and who they are, not in what they have.  Any where else and they are poor but here...they have this.

As my show from 1989 ended, so my day ended for me, when setting out to realize a dream, I also found something unexpected, Tristan da Cunha, and that is why we travel and why this whole 30 year odyssey has moved me

It has taken me 30 years to live this dream, while I was here, a family friend died and with that and this, I am lost in emotion of Tristan da Cunha
Thank you John Hemminway!  Thank you Tristan da Cunha!
the smile will never fade


Friday, March 15, 2019

Not Tough Enough for Gough (7732 miles to Graceland)

The birding gods giveth, the birding gods taketh, sometimes the sun shines and sometimes the wave hits you in the face.  That is life birding.  What can I say?  We've all been there, sometimes we've been there too often

Gough Island was tough, really tough but just when I had given up, I got a taste, be it a very little taste...but then, it rained harder, it blew harder, and the swell grew, and we had just gotten out in a zodiac, AND just seen the Gough Island Finch and then we had to go back to ship because ten minutes later, it blew even harder.  Crap, was that an unsatisfying look at a rare bird.  No photograph, everyone a little crabby as the person who had it best was my wife and the guy driving the zodiac was a geologist.  "It is by the penguin looking at us."  Really?  What the F^%%$  is that for directions but...I saw it....we were the only ones.

Gough Island is an isolated volcano 1500 miles southwest of Cape Town, it is uninhabited except for a weather station manned by South Africans.  They told us the weather would hold until 4 pm, they were wrong.  I guess what do they know?  It is a lonely yet gorgeous place, that has been taken over by house mice, that have mutated...have eaten up and almost destroyed a dozen species of birds, finally, finally, in 2020 they have scheduled a rat/ mouse eradication plan, that IMHO should have been done earlier but I guess better late than never.  We seem to be lost in the clouds of huge environmental concerns (global warming) that are tough to fix when we lose sight of the local problems that can actually be easily fixed.  I worry about concerns like plastic and introduced species like rats, and these Gough super mice.

Gough was wet, and a gorgeous place to see for someone if the weather was better

Weather station

Lone elephant seal front with subantarctic fur seals in background

raft of great shearwaters that breed here.

Mosely's Rockhopper penguin, over 3,000,000 in 1955, now...maybe 100,000 birds, thanks in large part to a bunch of fat mice.  Lifer bird but a frustrating situation.

The place is steep, unforgiving and well, a place I doubt I'll ever see again, it was a little like Jurassic Park.  I guess with mutated biting mice versus mutated biting dinosaurs.

Antarctic terns 

Gough Island

Sooty albatross chick in nest, damn mice haven't found this one yet

A bit of a lucky find, Sub-antarctic shearwater (split of little shearwater)

Trisdan albatross (Gough)

We've been seeing some really cool seabirds...Birds I'd never thought I'd see

Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross

 Spectacled petrel

So we bailed as the wind picked up to 55mph and headed to Trisdan da Cunha, just 240 miles away, the place I've been dreaming about for 3 decades..  I am exactly 7732 miles to Graceland, but only 232 miles to Trisdan, I think even Elvis would be impressed.  he liked islands.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Following the last trail of Ernest Shackleton

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.  ...or so the advertisement by Shackleton went,  who would place such an ad?

ERNEST SHACKLETON was without a doubt one of the craziest thrill seekers of his generation.  probably the last of his kind following in the footsteps of Scott and Amundson.  Involved with the early attempts to reach the south pole, he held for a time the distinction of being the the person to have stood the farthest south on Earth.  Roald Amundson broke that record in 1911, reaching the pole and from that point on, Shackleton concentrated on being the first person to cross Antarctica on foot.
He is most famous for his Endurance voyage of 1914-17, which ended when the ship got stuck in pack ice and was destroyed leaving the crew to encamp on the ice until it melted and then he with four people was forced to sail in a small boat 700 nautical miles to South Georgia island in a converted 20 foot life raft, and encountering a storm so fierce it sunk other larger ships in nearby waters, but this was his only plan to get help.  The final leg, was a tough 36 hour crossing of the island to a whaling station on the other side overland using only a 50 foot piece of rope.  It became the end of his most famous journey.  In fact, even the crossing of South Georgia was not undertaken again for 40 years when a more modern explorer did it.  “I do not know how they did it, except they had to.”  Was a quote from Duncan Carse, the only other man to have done what Shackleton did.  Shackleton then organized the rescue of everyone in his expedition
Shackleton was listless and unhappy away from his exploring and by 1921, after some work in the Russian Civil War, he was ready to head south again, for another attempt to cross Antarctica, but he never made it to the southernmost continent.  This time fate took him and he died of a heart attack in Grytviken Harbor in January 5, 1922.  He was five weeks short of his 48th birthday.
It was two months over 97 years later that I followed in his footsteps and on march 10, landed in Grytviken harbor.  The place was now as much of a historical preservation location as the whaling station had been closed 50 years previous.  The wholesale slaughter of blue whales thankfully ended.
Shackleton’s body made it’s way to Montevideo, Uruguay where we started our trip in the southern hemisphere before a message from his wife requesting that he be buried in South Georgia was received.  The body was brought back to the island aboard the steamer Woodville and buried on March 5th, 1922.  The Boss as he was known would only have been happy being buried at a place near where he finished one of his greatest exploits.  Unlike everyone else in the cemetery 
Yesterday, we toasted the great explorer, dumping a little Jameson Whiskey out for "The Boss"
Olaf and Captain Debien toasting Shackleton at a graveside ceremony, five days late of the 97th anniversary of his burial

The views of South Georgia when the sun is out (and that is about 20% of the time) is stunning.  The island has sheer snow capped mountain precipices, and fjords, and is surrounded by occasional iceberg.  We spent parts of three days exploring it, which unfortunately for me was somewhat limited as I had picked up a virus from some passenger and I was nursing a fever and bronchitis while we were there. 
It is true that I frequently say, the birding must go on, and it did, although at one stunning backdrop our trip to shore was without me, I stayed aboard ship, helped an elderly German man with his camera, and scoped snowy sheathbills from my balcony.  Hopefully not sharing my virus, but hard to tell.  But I got out and tallied all the birds I needed, finally helping my friends get them all too.  It was a potpourri of southern species

Antarctic terns

Napping Chinstrap penguin, Penguin #6 for trip

Snowy sheathbill, which are really odd birds, sort of related to sandpipers

I found this endemic South Georgia diving petrel when the crew was preparing the ship for incredible rough seas ahead.  We got him out before he would be crushed by huge swells breaking in the foredeck.  I did a good deed and also got a lifer bird.  I saw more later off the deck, but I almost got blown overboard

South Georgia pipit

South Georgia shag

Antarctic prion

Southern giant petrel, white phase

Black bellied storm petrel

Gray headed albatross

Gray petrel

light mantled albatross

Northern giant petrel

Sooty albatross

soft plumaged petrel

Except for not seeing a snow petrel off the huge iceberg, on our final pass out of South Georgian waters I got all the birds I needed to get here.  With that I still left something for next time.  Snow petrel will have to wait for another time

There were other sights to see around South Georgia Island
HMS Clyde at Grytviken

view of Grytviken

Leopard seal before he attacked a zodiac

Fur seal pup
Glacier at Larsen Bay

Yesterday was the best day all year in South Georgia, but alas, not today, today we are sailing into the unknown, through this fjord  and into 50 mph winds, the ship is listing due to the wind.  The captain secured everything, as 8 meter waves crash on the foredeck, as we head to Trisdan de Cuhna, I'm drinking and it isn't even noon yet.  I'm not drinking due to lifer bird although I got the diving petrel today, but because I'm a little scared, and even I put a patch on, the first time I have since my 2013 voyage to Attu.

Farthest point south in my life just at 55 degrees, which a few minutes later matched the wind speed

Waves are breaking on top of 6th deck, and so for now, I must sign off, 

Olaf from the South Atlantic

Tristan da Cunha, the dream comes true

What effects you and how things happen can be odd and by luck A earthquake in San Francisco led me to be in the south Atlantic 30 years la...