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The most beautiful place in the world!

12 Feb

Over the years of working the world I find nothing more satisfying than completing a chapter. And this chapter has been my most challenging. Sitting here in a smoky café in Puerto Natales, Chile I reflect on my early days of the chapter when I arrived in Ushuaia. The streets that were once foreign to me, spending my birthday at the bottom of the world, the constant battle to stay positive as I kept pushing to find work on what was the illusive continent, the people I had met and new friends I had made, the people that helped me.

And of course I reflected on Antarctica. I sum it up as the worst job I have had, but the best continent I have been to. I have been a little disappointed at how negative my blog posts have come across as I have documented my journey. But I suppose that was how I was feeling. Don’t get me wrong I would not change the experience for anything, I learnt a lot from it, and as the saying goes (well something like this) “you learn more from a day of discomfort than a life time of apparent happiness”.

As I sit here in the comfort of this small Chilean town with the freedom to do what I want and the famed Torres del Paine hike waiting for me I wonder if the cruise ship life was as bad as I portrayed it to be. But time is a devious creature that disguises the past events with illusions of good times, like a lady that leaves her abusive partner but then a year later she only remembers the fun times and then gives him a second chance only to realise he’s still a spineless woman beater.

But I’m not stupid, there is no way in the world I would take back the job. But I would like to remember the good times. The goods times of the SPECTACULAR fairy tale white continent that will forever hold a place in my heart.

A place that is the most beautiful place I have been to! I made nearly 20 landings whilst on the cruise ship, I didn’t have time to write posts on them all, but theres only so many posts you can do about comical quirky penguins, belching masses of seals, surreal icebergs and out of this world landscapes. But I left this post as my last, to leave on a good positive vibe. These photos and videos are from Nikau Harbour located in Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was a beautiful blue skied day, calm, peaceful, we had whales surfacing just 30 metres from the shore, abundance of penguins, ice bergs, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I’ll just let the photos and videos try to do the talking of the place that is the most beautiful place I have been to!


What day is it today?

9 Feb

The title to this post, “what day is it today?” is the question I asked my co-workers whilst inhaling our food at the crew mess before rushing to work. Out of the five of us, not one of us knew. Why? Because every day is the same, it’s Groundhog Day. My body calendar is controlled by laundry day which falls on every second day. Watch the above video for a day in the life of an assistant waiter onboard a 6 star Antarctic cruise ship.

My body clock is all over the show as I wake up and go to sleep three times a day. Sometimes when that droning beep beep beep brings me from my dream land where I’m frolicking naked in a field of daisy’s back into my dark coffin like top bunk it’s not until I look at the time I realise if it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner.

On one occasion I turned up to the crew mess before work, my immaculately groomed and dressed head waiter approaches me and says “Mark what’s wrong with your shirt?”. I thought he was talking about the fact my shirt was missing a button so I start on a big rant about how my shirt came back from the laundry missing a button and how I hadn’t been able to find the tailor to fix it etc. He just smiles and says “Mark it’s dinner time, you’re wearing your lunch uniform!” – classic, I totally thought it was lunch time, awesome I just gained half a day!

Our days are totally dependent on the expedition landings ie if we are at sea or if we are in Antarctica and the guests are doing outings on the zodiacs which can start as early 5.30am. We start breakfast between 4am and 7am, and this goes for 3-4 hours. For lunch we start work at midday and work another 3 -4 hours. For dinner we start at 6.45pm and work 5-6 hours until around midnight. This schedule is very taxing as it takes up the whole day. I have worked the oil rigs and Australian mines where I worked 12 hour days, but it is a shift, 6am to 6pm and you can have coffee breaks etc during the day, and then at the end of the day I had 12 hours off, I had time to relax, go to the gym, watch a movie etc. But with the cruise ship lifestyle my work is spread over the whole day and at most I will have 6 hours continuous sleep.

When I’m at work, I work! There is no relax time, there is no standing around the water cooler or making a coffee. You start 30 minutes before opening preparing everything for the guest’s arrival, everybody is rushing to be ready for when the doors open, then the 132 guests are there and everybody is stressed trying to meet the orders. Then the guests leave and everybody is going flat out trying to clean and finish up so we can have more time to sleep.

In this job you take whatever chance you get to sleep. The lifestyle is a work/sleep lifestyle, and any landings you do, or crew parties you attend come at a great sacrifice to sleep. In this job there are no days off. You get a breakfast duty off roughly once a week, so you will finish dinner service at midnight, you have breakfast off, but you still have to start back at midday, so a “day off” is only 12 hours off which isn’t much if you want to tidy your cabin, do your laundry, sleep, have breakfast and get ready for work.

The lifestyle to me is a very unhealthy, you’re constantly running on empty due to lack of sleep and pushing yourself to the limit and at times it feels as though your body is shutting down. It was common for me to have a couple of ibuprofen before going to dinner service to dull the headaches and back pain (I only have myself to blame for this a I didn’t disclose my back accident in my medical- there was no way I was going to have my dream taken away from me when I was that close by failing a medical!).

For me it as though the skinny get skinnier and the fat get fattier! I have 6 meals a day because I also eat the left over’s from the dining room, and Annemarie the pastry chef is trying to fatten me up with 4 desert portions after dinner, but still I look like the Save the Children Fund pin up boy. Just check out the photo below from my polar plunge, there are two 12 year old bodies, the only difference is that one of them actually belongs to a 28 years old – haha.

Obviously the crew food is not 6 star, we get served various kinds of slop that usually takes on a different shade of brown and the salad bar usually consists of lettuce, and some tomato and cucumber if we are lucky. But I cannot complain as I said the dining room teams gets to help themselves to the left over buffets.

Many times I hear “Mark you look tired”, more accurate would be “Mark it looks like you have been on a 5 day sleepless herion bender”. But for me, bags under the blood shot eyes and looking tired is part of the uniform; it would be more out of the ordinary to be told “Mark you don’t look tired”.

To conclude this post, the cruise ship lifestyle is far from glamorous, you are made to earn every cent, you appreciate every minute of sleep in a Groundhog Day routine. The other reality is that you don’t get to see the world; you get to see the inside of a cruise ship.

Don’t miss the bus!

4 Feb

When I disembarked from the cruise ship at 5pm on Friday in Ushuaia (Argentina) I had 72 hours to exit the country. For these 72 hours I was the responsibility of the company’s local port agent. The port agent had organised me a bus ticket leaving at 5am on Monday morning (most crew members fly out on the first flight back to their homes, but I had wanted the cheapest option to exit Argentina). When he came to my hostel and handed me my passport, bus ticket and all the immigration papers he had got notarised showing that I was leaving the country his last words to me as he left were “DON’T MISS THE BUS”.

You probably know where this is going………………I missed the bus. What makes this even more comical is that at 1.30am that morning as I was saying good bye to friend Vikky I remember answering her concern that I had to catch the bus in less than 4 hours with a “I’ve travelled for 7 years and I’ve never missed a bus (not totally truthful, once in Mexico I thought I could wait all night in the bar and then catch the 6am boat – I found out I couldn’t).

For whatever reason my alarm clock didn’t go off, maybe that reason was the red wine, maybe it was the 1.80 metre male that goes by the name of Hap, or maybe it was little alarm clock turning off lepricorns. Anyway, I ended up waking at 5.28am with a sinking feeling in my stomach that sunk even further when I turned my cell phone on and saw the time.

I grabbed my pack and took off out the dorm room door hoping that the bus driver was a true Argentinean and would be running late. I got to the street corner where it was leaving from, and my stomach sunk even further so that the turtle was poking his head out. No bus. In most places in the world this would be no problem, just go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the next bus. But you have to remember that I’m in Ushuaia, not just any place in the world, but the proclaimed “end of the world”. There is no bus station and the bus to Chile only leaves 3 times a week at 5am on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

I weight up my options to exit the Argentina by 5pm when my 72 hours would be up, or should I say “option”. As the sun rose over Ushuaia where I had arrived 3 months previously, I stuck my thumb out and started the walk to the main (the only) highway out of town.

After an hour of walking, feeling cold, cramps in my hitch hiker thumb and battling to fight the weight of my eye lids who were striking due to the lack of sleep the previous night I decided to ring my port agent. You can imagine my poor port agents joy as he is woken at 7am on a Monday morning by an incoming call from the client he told “don’t miss the bus”. “I missed the bus, I’m really sorry, I’m trying to hitchhike but there isn’t much traffic”, “Urrgghhhh, OoooooooK, come back to town, go to the hostel and wait, I’ll talk to my boss and then call you”.

As Murphy ‘s Law has it, I turn around and start to hitch back into town and was picked up by the first car. I arrive back at the hostel and bee-line it to the hostel reception couch where I give into my eye lids protest, drifting off while grasping my cell phone like a rescue rope to a drowning victim.

The tug of the rescue rope wakes me from my shallow daze, “Hello Mark, I have talked to my boss, the next bus doesn’t leave until Wednesday, but he thinks you can probably use the same immigration paper but will have to pay an overstaying fee or they may hold you at the boarder”. Ok, there are two phrases in that sentence that didn’t really fill me with reassurance, the first being “overstaying fee” which usually translate to “let’s screw this foreigner for all he is worth” and “hold you” which from previous experience in America has led to a windowless concrete room with a room mate by the name of Philip who is staying in the room due to drug trafficking allegations.

I go to the hostel reception, which by the way if you go to Ushuaia make sure you stay at Hostel Antarctica, this was my home for a month before I found my job on the cruise ship, Gabriel and staff are awesome. Maia the receptionist rings around and confirms that there are no more buses leaving for Chile until Wednesday, but there is a bus leaving at 11am to Rio Grande that is 3 hours out of town.

So that was my only option if I wanted a chance at reaching the Chilean boarder by 5pm that night. My plan was that I could get 3 hours sleep on the bus and then try my luck hitch hiking from Rio Grande to the Chilean boarder.

After 3 hours of bumpy of/off bus sleep I arrive in Rio Grande where the bus driver drops me at a truck stop and farewells me with good news that the Chilean boarder is only an hour and half away (My original bus ticket had been for Punto Arenas in Chile, which turns out is 6 hours into Chile from the boarder). Awesome, I can make it before 5pm.

After an hour and a half of sitting on my pack with my thumb out in the chilling Tierra Fuego wind I required a coffee. I went across the road to the car wash that had a little kiosko attached to it. I sit at one of the three rickety tables set in a black painted concrete wall car wash that is decorated with photos of the owner with various rally driving stars. Despite the sign advertising coffee in the window there is no coffee so I settle for a cold beer to warm my soul. The rally driving owner gives me advice to walk a kilometre down the road to a round-a-bout, as there all the traffic will be leaving for “la frontera de Chile”.

As I exit the rally photo clad black walled car wash with an Argentinean Quilmes cerveza brewing in my stomach I stick out my thumb as I start the 1 km walk to the round-a-bout where I should have more luck. Within a minute a 2 door silver VW sports car pulls over on the busy road and honks it horn signalling me to hurry up. Under the weight of my pack, I rush to the waiting car like a person rushing to the movie theatre toilet after watching Lord of the rings and consuming a jumbo sized coke.

Middle aged Claudio and Ricardo who are on their way to Rio Gallegos on the Argentinean mainland pick me up (You have to go through Chile to get to the Argentinean mainland from Tierra del Fuego). They aren’t that talkative but from Claudio’s driving I know that he has driven the gravel road many times before and I conclude in my restless mind that they are mafia men going to the mainland to smuggle illegal foreigners back into Tierra del Fuego. As we arrive at the boarder set amongst sheep paddocks with fluffy white clouds floating in the blue sky I look at my cell phone clock, 5pm, perfect.

A bus had just pulled up before us so there was a big queue of tourists waiting to be processed. Claudio kindly ushers me into the Argentinean nationals queue with him and fast tracks me to the front of the queue saying hello to all the immigration staff with their first names, confirming my people smuggling thoughts – or more likely he’s just a friendly guy that drives that road a lot and feels sorry for a freezing cold foreigner on the side of the road. With Claudio at my side I show them all my immigration crew visa papers that my port agent had given me 72 and ¼ hours beforehand, and after a minute of perusing them they stamp my passport and signal me to leave with Claudio.

Later on we arrive at a narrow fast flowing body of water that Claudio tells me is the channel between continental South America and the island of Tierra del Fuego at the end of the world. We board a car ferry and Claudio get outs to pay, talking to a couple of Chilean military guys along the way.

20 minutes later we arrive on continental South America and drive a further hour through the flat farm lands until we arrive at an intersection. Claudio pulls over, waves down the passing truck which is driven by the Chilean army guys, throws my back pack in there, gives me a kiss that I think was held for a bit too long for the amount of time we had known each other and wishes me good travels and then he speeds off in the direction of mainland Argentina.

I squeeze into the back seat of the 4 door pickup truck beside white polystyrene boxes with “fresco” stamped on them – Fresca means fresh, but I never did ask what fresh contents the boxes housed. Military uniform clad Giraldo and Nicolas occupied the front seats and were very friendly and enjoyed the unusual company of the guy from Nueva Zelanda.

A couple of hours later around 9.30pm as the sun was thinking about exiting the sky we reached the cross roads of Punta Arenas (the destination of my missed bus ticket) and Puerto Natales. I decided to get out at this cross roads in the middle of nowhere and try my luck at getting a ride the further 193km to Puerto Natales, the home of the famous “Torres del Paine” hike, which is rated by national geographic as one of the top 50 things you have to experience before you die.

As I jump out of the truck into the unobstructed wind that rips across the flat barren Chilean farm land I see there isn’t much traffic. As the sun goes to sleep I realise I’m better off at setting up camp than trying my luck with the next to nothing traffic.

I doze off to sleep with the intermittent roar of a semi truck passing a 5 metres away and the constant thread that the roaring wind is going take my wind sock designed cheap Paraguayan tent fly into the night sky.

All goes well through the night; my fly stays intact and the dark rain clouds that loomed in the distance as I went to sleep stayed in the distance. I wake to the noise of passing morning traffic, and the cold even though I’m wearing my thermals, woollen hat and 3 sweat shirts. I have my breakfast which consists of some “CHILLean” water and eat the remainder of my night before dinner that was a packet of crushed water crackers. I break down my camp and set up my new camp beside the isolated narrow highway, doing some back exercises to try and keep me warm against the unrelenting wind that this area is famous for.

After not long Franciso, a Punta Arenas born and bred local picks me up on his way to Puerto Natales. For a couple of hours we chat away and he tells me all about the surrounding area. As we glide through the Chilean plans mythical condors fly above us and the funny wild lama like animals that look like the result of a night spent between a sexually frustrated horse and shaggy sheep roam the road side.

Finally I reach small welcoming Puerto Natales, 19 hours after I was meant to, but also a lot more memories than I was meant to as well! The end, or is it the start

OK folks, as you read this I am probably just starting my 9 day Torres del Paine hike (providing my back can handle carrying the 9 days of supplies and my cheap tent handles the 100km+ wind and rain). But don’t worry will continue, I have queued up my 2 final Antarctica posts to fill the 9 day gap. So enjoy and I will catch you in 10 days or so.

Nuthin but love Hap



6 star living quarters

2 Feb

My ship is not merely a luxury cruise ship but classifies itself as a ultra luxury ship. The video below is a photo tour of my ultra luxury crew cabin.

 From the video you can see that it makes my time working in the mines of Western Australia look like a holiday resort. In the mining camp (and my mining camp was one of the more derelict camps compared to some) I had my own room and ensuite that was cleaned twice weekly, a complete gym, a swimming pool, a bar that was opened every day and a window!

Maybe because I was use to the good life of Oil rig and Mining camps I was a bit of a snob. Don’t get me wrong, the crew quarters were fine for me, I’m more than content as long as I can sleep horizontally (photo below is me writing a blog post in my top bunk). Remember I lived with Barnz for two months in a sedan car eating at soup kitchens and bathing in a river while we were looking for work in Canada.

Living on the cruise ship made me realise how good the living conditions were in the mines and rigs. Obviously there isn’t as much room on a cruise ship as there is in the vast Australian desert. Maybe I’m just a spoiled ex mining brat but It was the little attentions to detail that were missing on the cruise ship. For example not having your cabin cleaned (officers have their cabins cleaned). This sounds a little niggly and picky, but when you don’t have days off and only have limited time to sleep, cleaning your cabin, changing your linen etc becomes very annoying – haha and to think some guys in the mines used to complain about having to place their porn mags in a draw so it didn’t offend the cleaners.

Little things like this just add to the feeling of being unappreciated. On top of this they have cabin inspections to make sure you do it and then post the results of the inspection. The most annoying part was that there is no real system in place to make it easy for you. For example there’s one vacuum cleaner for 60 people and when I asked for a simple thing like toilet paper people could not give me a definite answer of where to get it from, so I had to revert to steeling it from the guest toilets late at night.

OK, once again my post is coming across as rather negative. I appreciated my little bunk, it was more than sufficient, it was my little haven; at times it felt like heaven. What it comes down to is that I was only in my cabin to sleep, and if I wanted to chill out I would go to the crew mess or join the other crew members in the corridor for a beer. I just wanted to show the contrast between the mining camps and the cruise ship lifestyle. And you can imagine the contrast between my crew cabin and the $20,000+ suites 5 floors above me!