There are two kinds of people in this world and I'm one of them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A polar to love (pt. II)

I was girding myself for a big entry about the 8 days or so I spent tooling about the Antarctic coast, but having just written the feature and spent a week putting the film together, I'm a bit polar-ed out. Not so much bi-polar as past-polar.

There's not much I can add to the photos, the scenery so good that even a point and shoot monkey like me can get stunning shots by aiming the camera in vaguely the right direction. The thing that struck me, besides the sheer choice of the all-you-can-eat buffet, was that the landscape was like nothing I'd ever seen before. This white bit at the bottom of the Earth is pristine, like no-one's ever been there before, and the air is so clean my lungs, used to London's oily muck of an atmosphere, almost rejected it. The icebergs might as well have been alien spaceships for all the familiarity they had. I don't want to get all eco-emotional, but seeing the ice caps and flows really makes you think what the planet was like before Starbucks and crisp packets and stuff.

As for the wildlife, the best, and simultaneously most disappointing, were the whales. Killer, Minki and Sperm, so I'm told. They're amazing because you catch your breath when you see this majestic grey mass moving around just below the surface, but then they don't really DO much apart from be grey masses just below the surface, and being the MTV generation, I lose interest quickly.

Penguins are a bit more engaging. At least they waddle about, and jump (though it looks like falling) into the water and have their young eaten by birds of prey as you watch on in horror, etc. But again, there are downsides. The thing is that they spend most of the time just sat around in their own doings, and what the guidebooks call a "barnyard" smell is actually really rank, depending on what barnyards you usually hang around in, obviously.

The only other thing I wanted to mention was the competitive spotting element of the trip, which got more desperate as time went on. At first people were boasting about whales and albino penguins, but once everyone had seen them, there was nowhere for the braggers to go. I remember coming down to breakfast and being boasted at that I had missed "two big brown birds", and, towards the very end, "a really big wave". OK, we're on an ocean that's tipping the boat up horizontally for fun, and we're WAVE SPOTTING? Pardon me if I duck out of the spotting game here.

Er, there's probably more stuff, but the time has passed and new pastures beckon, specifically temporary unemployment, which handily coincides with a week in New Orleans so I don't have to think about it. Off tomorrow. Gentlemen, start your livers.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Falk handles

The UK is one of THOSE know, the ones that own weird islands a million miles from where they are because of historic badness that probably involved offing a bunch of "aggressive" natives, wiping out a potnetially humourous bird species, that kind of thing.

One of our great possessions are the Falkland Islands, just off the coast of Argentina (obviously), which in 1982, we fought a short but fairly brutal war for against, er, Argentina (obviously). I don't know what the rights and wrongs of this were. They did invade, albeit peacefully-ish. We had to defend ourselves, but Thatcher DID need a war, and perhaps it was a slight overreaction to possibly illegally sink one of their ships that was running away from us, killing 250 Argentine sea cadets and also sacrificing 200 odd of our own boys just to prove a point. It's a bleak rock covered in penguins...I'm sure we could have come to terms somehow. And I do like the description of that war as being "two bald old men fighting over a comb".

Anyway, I went. You fly with the Royal Air Force which is like a normal passenger plane but much more expensive and without anything nice on it like basic comforts, nice food, a video screen that doesn't look like it's from 1985, etc. As you approach, some bad ass fighter jets come up alongside, and after you've stopped bricking it, you realise they're escorting you, which is vaguely cool.

As a press group, we were met at the airport and taken to the military facility. We were allowed to interview the Chief of Staff, even though I'm not sure any of us wanted to, but he was affable enough, until we started asking questions about what it was they did there.

There are roughly 2,000 military on the islands. All the guide books say this, most people you ask on the island know's pretty much accepted. But try and get that confirmed.

Me: "How many military are there on the island, roughly?"

Him (suddenly scowling): "Enough."

Me: "The guide books say around 2,000 - is that right?"

Him: "I say around ENOUGH."

Me: "..."

And then you get this nonsense.

Me: "What kind of alert are you on?"

Him: "Very high at all times."

Me: "So do you expect Argentina to..."

Him: "WHOAH! Who said anything about Argentina?!? I didn't say Argentina! YOU said Argentina!"

Me: "..."

Like we're preparing for Finland or the Maldives to take a pop at us. OK, as Oscar Wilde once said, whatevs. Then they showed us the bad ass planes, which, again, was vaguely cool.

Considering all I had in the way of memories of the islands were TV pictures from '82 showing men negotiating ugly, landmine-filled moors (in some ways, it was the last 'analogue' style war, where we had to actually go there instead of lobbing expensive bombs from 500 miles away), I thought the Falklands were really picturesque. A bit like the Scottish Highlands but with more penguins. The people were friendly, although you DO have to talk about The War a lot. Almost all the time, in fact, which is slightly wearing after a bit.

We were invited to the Governor's house for dinner, one of those impossibly posh nights where I spend most of the time feeling like a farmhand who has wandered into a royal wedding by mistake. There was a lot of talk about The War, and we had a formal dinner at a long table with about twelve pictures of the Queen looking down, checking we were using the right spoons. These outposts of the former empire seem to specialise in these overly-British throwbacks, all gin and tonics and cucumber cricket bats and earl grey tea served in wellington boots.

I do like to spend time on obscure islands, though. The last day, we took 4x4s out to the penguin colony, and ate some of the best home baked food I've ever had at the local cafe. The sun beat down (without the benefit of an ozone layer, my burns told me the next day), I got bitten by a penguin flea and I learned how much cute birds stink. And if that's not worth inappropriate military intervention, I don't know what is.

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