South XI: Breaking my face

Double Entendre of the Day:
“Ah, and up here are some chicks. Would anybody like two shag chicks?”
Jacques hooks us up a rare Antarctic shag.

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Tonight I stay up late drinking with the pirates out on the top deck. It’s a weird experience, having to put on every item of clothing you own in order to go for a beverage. Trying to hold a glass while wearing thick polar gloves. I like drinking gin in this climate – I have a bottle I bought in Stanley, and sitting out on the outside tables at night, it stays a nice even ice-cold temperature without the need for ice. A permanent martini.

I wander into the cabin late and tipsy and go to clean my teeth. (This is going somewhere, don’t worry.) Each bathroom has two doors, one to the cabin on either side. It makes for an interesting competition with your neighbours about who can lock the other out the most times. Various bets have already been made across the ship, and tallies are being kept. Tonight I neglect to lock the door to the other cabin. It’s late, and I’m not doing anything controversial in here. But of course soon enough it opens to reveal one of the gents from next door, clearly still half-asleep. He hits the light switch on his side, turning the light off, is apparently too bleary to notice this, then promptly hops in and shuts the door. I, with a pair of boxer shorts and a mouthful of toothpaste, am now locked in a pitch black room about the size of a cupboard with a gent in his fifties dressed only in a pair of jocks who has very little sensory perception or ambient awareness and the apparent intent of urinating on something in the very near future. “Ubb… hewwo?” I say.


The next day is one of the best of the trip. I go for a boat cruise with Jacques, the Québécois ornithologist I mentioned earlier, who’s the best of the staff on board. Aside from knowing his shit backwards and sideways, he’s hilarious to listen to. Not just the accent, but the pauses and emphasis he puts on each syllable. Not “two shag chicks” but “twoshagchicks”, in thick Francophonic tones. He also looks like a happy garden gnome – little, barrel-chested, bearded, rosy-cheeked and always smiley. We cruise along the base of massive cliffs, birds nesting in the rocks just a few feet away, thick plates of lichen growing up the rock face, vivid green gouts of malachite crystals bearding down through the cracks. Then there’s the most amazing iceberg I’ve seen yet. Any one of the hundreds so far could be picked up as is and plonked in a gallery as a sculpture, and would sell for millions. But this one – this one looks like frozen flames, like a crystal elven palace, a fairy kingdom, the central spires standing separately within an outer chamber, then all sorts of alcoves and windows and even a tunnel that shoots straight through the outer wall, missing only a drawbridge. The surface is rippled, pocked with the movement of bubbles. The colour is denser, passing light through rather than reflecting it off. It dapples and wavers in deep blues and greens, pulsing from deep within the cracks and fissures.

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From there we follow an awesome array of glacial cliffs with inset caves, large leaning columns, strewn all about the place like some giant-child’s blocks. The water is thick with cold, moving slowly like sugar syrup, coagulating into thicker pools amongst the rash of small Brasch ice from the glacial falls. We go into a dead-end fjord, and then there’s this wonderful moment when we cut the engine, and no other boats are around, and suddenly there is complete, devastating silence. And I realise what it is about this place. Every place I’ve been, in civilisation, there’s never actually silence. Even when all other sounds stop there’s a background hum of electricity, the pumping veins of towns and cities. A high-pitched whine that you don’t normally notice. But here, and for the first time in my life, I’m aware of…nothing. Actually nothing. There is no wind. The water is taut as a hotel sheet. We sit and watch tiny white Antarctic terns swooping and diving, flitting so neatly on their delicate wings, cutting acute angles in mid- air, and then plunging sporadically into the water in search of krill, a sudden cessation of movement and a sharp drop through the surface, from all heights and angles, a snap as they break surface tension, and then a re-emergence to resume their place as though nothing had happened. Their flight and occasional chirps only emphasising the scope of that stillness.

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As we fly back to the ship, the boat smacking hard as a skipped stone over the flat surface, I can feel that this is another of those catharsis moments. The last few years have been emotionally draining, a series of incidents, and I’ve often been heavy with self-indulgent coddled-Western-kid depression. But in this bracing wind, with the spray kicking up and the cold burning my wet skin, I can feel all that old bullshit being stripped away. This is a moment to hold. Even today there’ll be other adventures. There’ll be hiking a great hill and tramping up and slipping down and then seeing the whole Peninsula spread out before me like a picnic blanket. There’ll be bombing back down toboggan-style on my arse, and getting told off by someone or other because having fun is too dangerous, and laughing my arse off and going about my day. But here’s the thing: no matter what happens, no matter where I end up from here, I reckon I can always go back to the bow of that boat, Jacques grinning at the tiller, cold cracking my skin, and smiling so hard that it feels like I’m breaking my face.

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3 Responses to South XI: Breaking my face

  1. Matt Hogg says:

    awesome tales man. i saw glaciers like that in alaska, but we never got to get off the ship. that would have been massive.

  2. Leah says:

    All of your posts are amazing, but this one….. I had to get up and leave halfway through because I had an uncontrollable giggling fit at “Ubb… hewwo?” and then the rest that greeted me when I returned to my screen… just so awesome. I haven’t the words.

    • Geoff Lemon says:

      That’s just about the nicest comment I’ve had. Thanks so much, it means a lot that you’re getting something out of the site. Really. You can come again. Also nice that people are reading it who aren’t related to me.

      I too had a pretty massive giggling fit when I got into bed immediately after the bathroom incident🙂

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