Ushuaia, 5th Nov 2019.
It’s taken me two straight days to get from Sydney to the southernmost city in the world, lodged in front of the snow-capped Martial Mountains lining the Beagle Channel, but I’m wondering why I’ve even bothered. Melancholy is upon me. For the last five days, save the blessed relief of flight time, I’ve been hustling my arse off in an attempt to save the next four weeks of my life. And last Thursday it all looked so rosy!
So near yet so far
I’ve been pretending to be a travel writer for ten years now, and people in the industry are increasingly falling for my trickery. A while ago I started getting sent on the occasional ‘famil’ or media trip on the condition I write an article that mentions the company involved. It was cool. Then I started organising them myself, choosing where I really wanted to go and finding someone to pay for it, and all I had to do was spill some words on a page. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was ‘winning at life’!
Eventually I went for the big prize, the Frozen White, Terra Nova – Antarctica! I tried a couple of companies with no luck, then along came One Ocean Expeditions – one of the big players. They had three ships and a long history of successful luxury voyages. I asked the question, and they said yes! I was delirious. This was incredible. The freebie was dependent on getting a few commissions in major publications, but this I managed, including one based on sea kayaking. Paddling around icebergs had been a fantasy of mine for years and here it was about to come true.
I booked my flights. They weren’t part of the deal but I didn’t mind. It was a small price to pay. I had planned to start travelling through West Africa at that time so I booked a round-the-world flight instead of a straight return. I also needed an internal flight to get to Ushuaia. Nae bother.
Months passed. I awaited some sort of confirmation email but my contact at One Ocean, 'R', was singularly uncommunicative. I eventually discovered why: dramatic events had been unfolding across the oceans which were to radically change my trip, but for the better. One Ocean had been leasing two Russian scientific research vessels to run their trips for the best part of 20 years. Then last year they had commissioned their own polar vessel, the RCGS Resolute. It was a beautiful ship, a symbol of their continued growth and success.
Then without warning, one of the Russian ships failed to stop for a scheduled refuelling. Then its course changed; instead of heading north to Canada for the Arctic summer season, she abruptly turned her nose home, toward Russia. OOE were confused, then frantic as the 2nd ship followed the first, going AWOL behind the old iron curtain. What was going on? The previous year one of them had run aground and needed repairs, and there was some dispute as to who should pay for them – OOE or the Russians. I’m not sure of the details but surely this is what prompted the action.
What better way to pass the time than a parilla?
The upshot was that the ships were gone and not returning. OOE eventually received a letter from the Russian Secret Service advising them to 'fuggedaboudit'. After so long in their service, the icebreakers had illegally broken their contract with zero notice. Bookings years ahead were affected. Thousands of passengers had to change or cancel their plans. The RCGS Resolute took the brunt of the overflow as schedules and routes were hurriedly changed. It was chaos. But me? I got lucky.
Instead of a regular Antarctic Peninsular tour, and because the vessel was now due to sail from a different harbour (The Falkland Islands) I was offered a second trip on top of the first. Apparently the easiest way to solve this problem was send me on a Photography Symposium to South Georgia Island – wildlife haven, location of Shackleton’s landing and one of the most beautiful places on earth. Would that be okay with me, asked R. Would it ever? I was in raptures. The only downsides were that I’d have to change my flights, and I’d lose another two weeks out of my West Africa time, but I was okay with that. OOE even helped me with part of the cost of the flight changes!
I settled down to planning my trip. Months passed. Paperwork was filled out. Insurance bought. Vaccinations jabbed. Cut to the week before my departure. I send R an email purely to thank him once more for this opportunity, and also to pass on a message from one of the publications I was writing for that they couldn’t get hold of him. He’d agreed to place an ad in their magazine but hadn’t delivered the artwork and the deadline was approaching. He replied immediately. ‘What is your phone number,’ he wrote, I need to talk to you’. That was the entirety of his message. My heart did that thing that people describe as missing a beat. ‘Not bad news, I hope?’ I said in my reply. It was.
T minus 4 days. I’m literally all packed, two days left at work before my long service leave kicks in and I’m away, free like the albatross, for five months. Antarctica was to be my 100th country. Okay, I know it isn’t a country as such but my list, my rules. I’d even made an expensive and unnecessary side trip to Luxembourg earlier in the year purely so that would be my 99th, leaving the ton for a more deserved and special place. Silly, I know, but fun.
I got the call, its bad news confirmed the following day by letter. In a nutshell, the first trip is cancelled and the possibility of the second going ahead is, according to R, 'about 1.37%'. OOE is in serious financial trouble, a fact R had only learned two days beforehand. They would almost certainly fold soon. The letter from OOE read ‘With great regret we inform you that this voyage has been cancelled while we continue to work at restructuring our business. We can offer you travel on any of our future voyages for the next 24 months.’
Scribbling down alternative itineraries in case I turn up empty
R assured me this would never eventuate. He was in a head spin, in total and utter shock. Thousands of people were going to lose their holidays and the money they’d paid for them. Most travel insurance doesn’t cover insolvency; mine certainly didn’t, and in any case no real reason for the cancellation was forthcoming. All the employees at OOE head office, in a small town in Canada, would lose their livelihoods. They'd have to go back to stacking shelves at the local supermarket. In his words: “I am in a state of shock and utter despair at the level of carnage this will cause.” R himself would leave the company the very next day. Like Keyser Soze, he’s gone.
At this point, the best thing to do would have been to give up, pay $700 to change my flights and go straight to Africa. Instead, I hit red alert. I scrambled, got straight on the phone and email, calling up all the Antarctic cruise companies that operated in Australia to offer them the same deal – three guaranteed stories for one media famil. It couldn’t hurt to try. Unbelievably, the first one I spoke to, Chimu adventures, offered me a replacement trip! Only problem was that it was a few days later and got back to Ushuaia the same day my onward flight left from Buenes Aries. It was literally two hours too late. Change my flight out? Sure, for a measly $2,200! You read that right. I’d already spent nearly that much on flights and changes. No can do.
I had to decide by 3pm that very afternoon, as it was a Friday, whether to go as planned or cut my losses and run. It was a tough decision. Four weeks in Patagonia wouldn’t be so bad, I reasoned, and there was still chance for something to come up. On the other hand, four weeks unbudgeted holiday in South America would be bloody expensive. It’d be wiser to stay in Sydney earning money. Plus I’d been to Patagonia twice before. It was lovely, but still.
Think bold. Play big, win big. He who dares, Rodney, wins. I decided to go. Then came the hustling. More emails, more calls, right down to the wire on Friday and as soon as 9am struck on Monday, at the airport, at the departure gate, on the phone, head behind the vending machine to block the announcements. Hustle, hustle, beg, promise, wheedle. Every airport wifi, through exhaustion and jet lag, I checked, updated, prayed.
So here I am in Ushuaia, in a small, noisy hostel, still with no definite reason for this long, expensive journey. It’s snowing, big, hearty flakes plunging forcefully from the sky to settle on the stray dogs' thick fur. My trekking options, fallback plan A, look like being nil right now. My body is finely-tuned to Australia time. Come 7pm, I know it’s 9am tomorrow in Sydney, from which time I obsessively check my email every 15 minutes for news. Quark, Aurora, Eclipse, G Adventures – I have them all whirling around my head like the snowflakes outside the window. All have been hit by this balls-up, either with clients they’d booked on OOE trips screeching for their blood, or as rival companies trying to deal with the overload of panicked tourists re-buying. With this much activity, giving places to journalists for free is going to rank pretty low on their priority list.
A Quark vessel about to leave for Antarctica. They couldn't fit me on.
Come 9pm, (11am EST), I’m fading. The lack of sleep is like a club to my temple. I try to keep my mind active in a bid to stave off unconsciousness, planning numerous alternate itineraries should my efforts come to nothing. Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral, Bariloche – they’re all so far away and muddle up in my head as I drift away, helpless to resist.
Ushuaia, 6th Nov 2019.
It's 4 am and I’m awake again. Bloody jet lag. The riotous party in the hostel kitchen until 1 am didn’t help, and nor has the shouting from the street outside for the last half hour. I mean, who does that? My top bunker just got home and crawled into bed above me. He has to get up at 6:30 for a bus, poor bugger. My first thought is to reach for the phone beside me. A whole work day has passed in Australia. Maybe there’s news?
Inbox: Aurora Expeditions. “Hi Dan, I have some good news for you in all of the mess - we’ve been able to secure you a spot on Spirit of Antarctica on our November 19th departure…” I almost cry with relief, but I resist. After all, a lot can happen in 13 days.
To be continued...maybe.