Albatross Know Better

Somewhere in the Southeast Pacific

Sunday 3rd November 2013

An albatross in the south-east Pacific Ocean is an inquisitive thing. That is when the high-pressure cell that Bark Europa’s Captain Klaas was trying to avoid bears down upon the ocean’s surface and becalms one and all. There we were; about 350 nautical miles south-east of Auckland; a third of the way toward the eastern-most territory of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands; the ocean heaving and flat with a curving vitreous surface. And the floating albatrosses were the telling sight. If they don’t soar it means there really is no wind.

It was already mid-morning. I climb from the ship’s bowels after sleeping off a breakfast that followed a chilly yet rewarding early morning watch 0400 – 0800 hours and I was greeted by a stunning mid-morning ocean landscape: luffing sails flapped and snapped in the bright sun and lines and blocks swayed and rattled as the ship loped and teetered on the lolling listless ocean; no swell, just a beautiful chaos of energy transfer. And surrounding us on all sides were floating albatross studding the surface of this smooth glistening water. I saw my first cluster of albatross off the starboard beam. “What is that?”, I thought?

Between Sydney and the North Island of New Zealand across the Tasman Sea albatross only ever soared the wind swept swells around us. I’d only managed an accidental photo of one thus far. And I spent a great deal of time marvelling at their wingspan and the way they engineered the air cushions beneath their bulk; zooming flat tack toward a looming, mounting swell they’d rise just as the swell’s liquid mass moved underneath their thick-plumed undercarriage. And with this added lift they’d suddenly rise and pivot on a wing tip, millimetres from the ocean’s constantly-changing surface but never touching it.

It was Day Three out of Auckland and a kind of doldrums lingered. We were after all in the Horse Latitudes where this thing was predisposed to happen. And without the wind the heat was building. And I got the feeling that the albatross were staring at us. Waiting for us to keel over.

Off the port beam there were more. A grey-black wing and back variety (Buller’s albatross) with colourful orange striations along its long hooked beak and a larger white bodied one with pink colours on the beak (the Wandering albatross). A stern there floated more. And beneath the bowsprit underneath Europa’s figurehead of the bosomed Europa riding her transformed lover the Bull out to sea, there were more albatross; sitting and staring. It was a strange and eerie sight to see them, moreover for the becalming.

I ventured a question to the First Mate and the response was pleasing: “A swim? Indeed, indeed!” he said, “But we must await the Captain’s [daily ship] briefing.”

Just after 1400 hours with news of our progress and our forecasted continued stationary state we learnt that the Oosterschelde, previously 70 NM behind us, had decided to turn on their engines and motor toward where winds were favourable and were now further south of us; Captian Klaas however, emphasised that we still retained the most easterly position. I could smell the race that he was concocting. Tecla having left two days after us was making good speeds of between seven and nine knots.

With the Ship Briefing over, the door in the mid-ship gunwales was opened and the stairs thrown over the side. I raced to be the first in the water, taking up a position near the bowsprit on the fo’c’sle (i.e. forecastle – the foremost deck at the bow). Masked and wearing my speedos I climbed over the railings and with a moment’s hesitation I dived headlong into the glassy surface, with the comforting knowledge that I wouldn’t touch bottom some 3500 metres below me.

As I surfaced to the simultaneous clicking of shutter buttons from those aboard, I had the wonderful experience of being greeted face-to-beak with a curious albatross. It paddled right over to me and came to within a foot of my face. As it approached and I heard the odd word of warning shouted from the ship I quickly donned my goggles, mindful of the need to protect my eyes if it pecked. I backed away. It held its ground. I approached again; it backed away and paddled off to observe our ship from a different position.

Having been becalmed the ocean had had a chance to build some thermal energy in the top of the water column. Indeed there were plumes of water that were distinctly pleasant to float in, but that would abruptly end when the normal water temperature came clutching in its icy pillows. Floating face up was meditative. And after a few days on ship it was rewarding to see it, its rigging and sails from water level a ways out.

Watches had been cancelled and the boat took on a different tone. My afternoon was spent making music with fellow voyage crew, Fruit Bat – his preferred name – who played his concertina accordion and young Ana-Laura – a trainee seaman from France – who sat down with us on the fo’c’sle with her harmonica. With the ship becalmed crew and voyage crew made the most of the conditions to undertake the ever-present maintenance tasks. People hung from the yards above us looking down and seemed to be enjoying the music, while they worked at tarring lines, or winding twine, or scaping paint. Later I would receive compliments from people who’d spent the afternoon at different places on the ship. With such calm conditions the sound travelled far and wide.

As the sun set the pastel tones of magenta and celeste extended to almost all horizons and the water surface took on the most surreal of appearances; it’s glassy surface reflecting the horizon’s hues creating a seemingly unnatural look to the ocean’s entire surface. Indeed, as the surface bobbed ever between crest and trough in an effortless dance of colour mirrors, the water was distinctly magenta and celeste by slow seeping turns.

“How the sea changes!”, I thought as I leaned head in hands across the side rails, the smell of spaghetti bolognese rising from the galley’s port holes. From the chop and slop leaving Auckland and the rolling foaming dunes across the Tasman to the flat alien seascape that now hung before me like a massive velvet curtain. Just then a floating albatross came near and I caught its raised eye: “I may have seen land more recently than you”, I muttered “but I’m sure you know better.”

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A Tern for the Turning

Tuesday 29th October – Friday 1st November 2013

Leaving the Land of the Long White Cloud for Cape Horn…and beyond

With the Auckland Tall Ships Festival over, the three Dutch ships had much to prepare. And the public holiday on Monday didn’t help. With Europa’s new voyage crew on board on Tuesday afternoon, we made ourselves comfortable amidst the flurry of provisioning and pre-departure preparations happening all around. I was a little nostalgic to be jumping ship and leaving the Tecla and her wonderful crew, who were even more hard pressed with some serious repairs and a nail-biting waiting game ahead of them with important spare parts yet to arrive through NZ customs. Luckily they had made local friends who were helping them out no end.

Captain Klaas (Dutch Captain Flag Numero Uno), back at the Europa helm after a few weeks absence, announced our delayed departure for Thursday morning. And after describing how the dangers of the Great Circle trajectory – itself the shortest route between Auckland and Stanley – will prevent us from taking it entirely (e.g. icebergs and treacherous seas), he invited us to be a part of this great undertaking and toast ‘Fair Winds’. At this point we all downed a small sherry glass of good medicine; a suitably Dutch liquor reminiscent (in a good way) of cough mixture.

Taking advantage of our extra day in Auckland Harbour and to ensure the crew had ample space to load the impressive array of dry goods, fresh fruit and vegetables and frozen meat [see photos of Europa with provisions on deck] a combined Dutch Tall Ships voyage crew ‘meet and greet’ session was organised for Wednesday morning by our Europa tour-de-force purser and general motivator, Jay, at the New Zealand Maritime Museum just along the wharf from our moorings. A proposal was tabled to share a ship newsletter amongst the three ships during this exceptionally long voyage head of us, with means of communication to include flag signals as well as message bottles; email and radio were proffered as alternatives.

After an amazing tour of the Maritime Museum, where many of us heard a great deal about Maori and European sea faring culture, the afternoon was left free, with the only request that we steer clear of the ship busy with final preparations. Later in the day training for climbing aloft in the ships rigging was arranged and I volunteered straight up [see photo of me in climbing harness], dying to feel again what I’d tasted in 2011 on board the good ship HMB Endeavour. I climbed all the way to the top of the main mast skysail yard but this time mine was not the experience of tilting horizons and lurching intestines, but rather the panorama of the plush interiors of penthouse suites of the well-heeled inside Auckland’s wharf-side Hilton Hotel. After a few strange stares from the startled hotel guests I descended to the deck.

Later on Wednesday evening the crew of the Picton Castle (of the Cook Islands), moored on the same wharf, threw an impromptu party on board with rum punch and popcorn and many from the Dutch Tall Ships came aboard dressed in Halloween-esque garb, with a few pirates as well…to be sure, to be sure me laddie.

Thursday morning, three bells rang and we lined up on deck for the safety talk and deck-hand Niels donned an immersion suit. Suddenly he was transformed into a tele-tubbie (his own description). The immersion suit is an important piece of safety equipment, especially for its ability to stop you sliding out of your bunk by shoving it under your mattress when the pitch of the ship is against you.

We were ordered to remain on ship for the NZ Customs roll call; a slow and painful exercise wherein the officials sighted all our ‘smiling’ faces. Meanwhile the recently tested life-raft barrels were delivered by truck wharf-side and people assisted with craning them in on the ship’s own block and tackle. With the last of provisions being stowed and the large deep-freezer chest securely ratcheted down on the sloop deck, all were deemed accounted for, and with three Auckland-shattering horn blasts (lucky we weren’t in Christchurch as it may have brought down the last of the damaged infrastructure!) we departed the wharf and made our way out into Auckland Harbour followed by Oosterschelde. Tecla was not ready and would now have to catch up.

Stiff north easterlies saw us motoring fast to make it out of Auckland. A whale was sighted. People craned but no one saw it. And the swell was choppy. Seasickness took its toll on many of us as the sun began to set on a stormy afternoon. The lookout position was moved back to beside the wheelhouse as rogue waves and wind were making the deck of the forecastle an unpleasant place to be. But some dolphins riding our bow wave brought some eager viewers back. Increasingly people transformed themselves into heftily clad objects lurching about the deck, as foul weather gear was donned and side nets and criss-crossed hand ropes were strung. After dinner the wind and rain persisted with favourable winds pushing us east. By midnight the heavens cleared and the Milky Way glowed and the Europa masts ticked like a giant grandfather clock pendulum between Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross. One of my fellow dog watchers from the Northern Hemisphere was happy to have now seen it with his own eyes for the first time. A wondrous thing.

Good winds saw us power through the evening on our easterly trajectory toward New Zealand’s most easterly point, East Cape. By midday Friday we’d clocked 174 NM since Auckland– the Captain was pleased, we were more than 50 NM ahead of Oosterschelde.

People made good of the fair weather and many an industrious zone was set up around the ship. People were taring shroud lines and stays, painting bottle screws recently loosed to replace mast stays in Auckland and preparing new Flemish Horses using the serving mallet to meticulously wind tarred hemp twine around metal cables already covered in grease and sheathed in cotton canvas taping [see photo of Claudia and Roman working on the new Flemish Horse].

Moderate winds persisted favourable throughout Friday until evening as the early South Pacific summer sun set over the mountainous East Cape region, and sunbeams shot through the ridge-hugging clouds to make metallic the ocean surface. It was soon to be possibly the last land we’d sight until the Falklands. And almost as if to bid us farewell a lone sea lion surfaced by the stern of the ship. And then too did a lone tern appear [see photo of tern on wheel house], somewhat bewildered and frail, and float and glide suddenly from the airspace over water beside the aft of the ship to that within the rigging of the ship. It hovered about as the ship swayed side to side underneath it until it landed ever so gently atop the wheel house. And there it sat a moment, a little forlorn, perhaps bidding us farewell, perhaps telling us something we needed to know; a tern for the turning back? If it was then we respectfully declined its advice and left it in our wake. Our course was set. The winds died and the East Cape lighthouse faded to the west. And with Venus shimmering on the flattening seas we turned south-east in darkness toward the Chatham Islands.

A tern sits momentarily on the ship

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How many boxes of kiwi fruit?

We’ve been advised to stay clear of the crew and the boat this morning. New Zealand’s public holiday on Monday has thrown their provisioning plans out a wee bit. And today continues full speed to load up the dry, fresh and frozen stores below. Getting to my cabin to retrieve a personal item proved costly in time as I waited for boxes and bags and bushels of food to be handed in human-chain style down vertiginous stairwells, around blind corners and into gaping hatchways in the middle of the cabin deck corridor.

Loading provisons below in the store rooms on board Europa, Auckland Harbour


Bark Europa deck during provisioning, Auckland


The food laid out was impressive to see. No chance of losing weight on these voyages. The previous two weeks on Tecla with Jet’s wonderful cooking put paid to the that.

Bark Europa mid-deck during provisioning, Auckland [Captain Klaas centre long grey hair and beard]

Captain Klaas [below centre with long grey hair and beard] of the Netherlands re-joins the Europa after a brief absence on the previous legs. His towering stature, long flowing grey locks and beard, speaks of a hardened captain. And his crew welcome speech last night before a hearty welcome meal of roast potatoes, pork and saurkraut, was a dry witted affair: he doesn’t read the weather charts much; it will take us where it takes us. And whether we see the single rock (Cape Horn) or not is up to the gods. To join the exclusive Cape Horn Club you have to have been under sail for the last 3000 nautical miles before rounding it. And you have to be a working crew member. This afternoon the eve before setting sail we’ve training in climbing aloft. The Europa, as with the other Dutch Tall ships, Tecla and Oosterschelde, intends on sailing as much of the entire voyage round the Horn and to the Falklands.





Potatoes ready to be stowed on board Europa, Auckland Harbour


Mizen deck provisions ready for stowing below on board Europa, Auckland Harbour


Provisions aboard Europa, Auckland

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что это такое? An Espresso machine or a Russian Iron

Since we’ve been moored alongside the wharves in Auckland Harbour a strange eerie menace has been anchored in the middle of the harbour. Rumours have been floating. A Russian billionaire has come for a new paint job, a repair job in fact. He’s been suing a US-based marine outfit for poor workmanship on the paint job half finished: bubbles in the paint apparently.

The boat – call it an espresso machine, call it the Russian Iron – hasn’t come alongside at the wharves at all. Strange openings slide open on the side and all manner of other pleasure craft emerge for ‘discreet’ travel ashore.

Russian billionaire's pleasure cruiser

Day and night from our mooring along Princes Wharf West the vessel – a world enclosed within it’s own iron curtains – continues to speak volumes despite it’s steely silence. Who is this man? What goes on inside? Whatever the answer, it’s a far cry from the the five bells calling the rhythm of life on board the Tecla and now aboard the Europa.

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Ragged roam on Rangitoto

Six hundred years ago beside a verdant island in the bays out from where Auckland is today, a submarine volcano exploded and spewed red-hot lava up and out for several years. The result was a low round volcano of black air-pocketed lava. And it looms large in the traditional oral history of the Maori.

The vegetation that has grown into low impenetrable forests is impressive. Grottos and pits abound and every rock save for the tidal zone smoothening actions, is rough in some ways like pyroclastic material. The day before we were due to rendezvous with the other tall ships for the parade sail into Auckland Harbour, we tacked back and forth around the southern edge of Waiheke Island and came upon the low skyline of Rangitoto and therein sheltered in her Islington Bay. Some of us went for a walk ashore. Having inadvertently lost the forward land party I ventured alone along the shore and into the islands interior.


So abrasive are these lava flows that standing on surfaces greater than 45 degrees slope was a breeze. The flow above reminded me of a phosphorescent land slug.

I noticed a white / light blue green lichen growing in deep lush mats around and across the rough hewn lava. It was located in similar niches and was serving the very same purpose that I’d seen it Iceland last year. Rangitoto served as a reminder of the precarious of all life in New Zealand – the plutonic demons ready to wreak havoc as they see fit.

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The Bust and the Yeast of the Galley Borne

Tecla’s galley and dining room is a quaint, cosy and dimly lit place below deck. And it became especially so after the first couple of days when we were all over our seasickness and our rapacious appetites were back. Variously we’d pile around the table. And if the people on the back or side benches needed to leave we’d all have to shuffle and stand to let the offender out. The walls were covered in Tecla’s history of achievement and glory along with assorted memorabilia and gifts from past passenger/crew. Amazingly these remained fastened to the wall during even the most vigorous of pitches and sways.

The pride of place in the galley is the buxom mermaid (What mermaid is not suitably buxom I ask?) prominently hung in the corner. But interestingly enough noone ever spoke of her. Not a question from us ‘trainees’. Not a hint as to her pedigree from the Tecla’s family crew. And so her mystery remains.


Morning’s would invariably start with the wafting yeasty aromas of the morning bread bake. I’d be dozing after from my midnight to 4am watch and the pleasant bread-making smells heralded a breakfast that I never actually partook in. During my Tasman-crossing days I was on a two-meal-per-day regime plus snacks. Getting up at 7:30am after having maybe finally gotten to sleep at 5am just wasn’t working for me. So I was content to at least get the daily aromatic dose of fresh baked bread smells. These however, invariably mixed with the faint and wafting sewerage smells emanating from the gurgling plumbing in our twin bunk cabins. And the plumbing gurgled more when the seas were rougher.  And when the seas were rougher less bread was usually baked. And so on the days I needed the yeast the most I was left in a dank dark cabin in a state that not even the buxom mermaid could remedy.

Morning bread bake in Tecla galley


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And Then The Captain Jumped Off The Ship

Orapiu Wharf, Waiheke Island, Wednesday 23rd October 2013

Yesterday evening the captain jumped off the wharf with all his clothes on. ‘Huzzah, huzzah!’, they cried, and all was gay and merry ‘pon the good ship ‘Tecla’.


Some stumbled about. Some stared at me seated upon the deck with my [yerba] mate in hand and mopping a slightly trickling brow (fresh from the kauri forests and an enchanted bush walk). And I knew. I knew that my fellow sea travellers and journeymen were high upon the land.

That afternoon, a staid and shrouded day of multi-level clouds descending upon a wet and green island, I’d opted to explore the land on foot, while my ship mates all ventured to the winery for a long boozy lunch of degustation and fine wines. And their return heralded the great transformations I was now witnessing.

The winery was Poderi Cristi, and the afternoon’s special lunch had been arranged by one of our fellow paying crew members, Herb, the wine maker there. Herb, a free spirit ex-pat from Switzerland, generally shoeless by choice and always full of enthusiastic comments. He’d flown to Sydney especially to join the Tecla and sail to his island of Waiheke. And sail we did, right to the wharf. With the crew and paying crew starting on their tour of the vineyard sparkling rosés in hand, I struck off up what felt like 45 degrees grassy slopes beside the vines. They say these are the steepest vineyards in NZ. I was worn out by the time I reached the grassy-knolled summit, only to be met by the ubiquitous sheep. After it attempted to eat my shoe-lace I stepped over the fence using the fence-crossing steps and gladly entered the shrouded and enclosed confines of the herald forest. For the next few hours I never felt the track’s grade exceed 10% as it variously meandered and zig-zagged under the sheltering canopy of kauri, tea tree and dark and hairy old tree ferns. I noticed special plastic rat baiting stations nailed to the bases of buttressed trunks; New Zealand’s fight against the feral hoard was as fierce as Australia’s though I sense the intensity was greater by virtue of its geographic confinement. I emerged from the forest onto a farm and back out on the road I wandered toward the Orapiu Wharf where our boat was tied up alongside. A little track off to the side and a sign caught my attention: Waiheke Pioneer Cemetery. A beautiful little forest dell, a quiet grotto in which to sit briefly and journal.

With fine and able-bodied Captain Gijs (32 from Netherlands) emerging dripping wet and muscled in his clinging t-shirt and jeans and with a slightly shortened focus in his eyes, other sea farers began to follow suit, jumping clothed or partially disrobed into the freezing waters. First was old-hand Rob, rescued timber specialist from Port Melbourne. His portly shape in blue singlet and low clinging Y-fronts was a sight to see. And his flushed and smiling face, while rough cut like a man of the practical world, spoke of an inner child. And when he clambered back to the deck of the boat he started to jeer and call upon all his fellow ship mates to follow rapid pursuit, all the while tapping his portly stomach through a drenched and clinging singlet; pat pat splat, the sound of wet clothes on taut expanded skin, his round belly beneath.

“Look, a new form of the Haka!’, mocked the young and fit Kylie (26 from Canberra), laughing at Rob now slightly genuflected and patting his belly with gusto: “Fi-o-na, Fi-o-na, Fi-o-na!”, cried Rob in his newly invented war-cry.

Others had already since dived into the green and cold waters. Roel from Hobart shouted a great deal and when he failed to scale the bobstay (the stay from the bottom of the bow to the end of the bow sprit) in imitation of our Captain Gijs, he fell to the water exhausted. And Gijs with pure core strength climbed with forearms only and then with legs curled around the bobstay until hand of hand, calf and heel over calf and heel he made it to the end to stand proud captain of his ship; second behind Bark Europa in the Sydney to [Northland] Auckland.

Fiona, the youngest on board (24 years old), a story-telling world exploring twenty-four year old from Perth, was still on the wharf, high up from the Tecla’s deck, feigning an embattled position as she resisted the unified cries from all below, those now wet and those still dry alike, that she should simply jump.

As I stood watching all of the proceedings, like an organic soup of melding interactions slowly unfolding before me, the legendary Dewy, an old sea dog for more than 40 years sidled up to me with his scabby ear and his white ol’ man of the sea beard, to share his feelings on the volunteering [paying] crew members: “Watch out for her”, he smiled, “She’s fragile. Nice. But fragile. I wouldn’t be taking her on as crew on the high seas.”

I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with Dewy or not. Nonetheless he was a man I’d quickly grown to respect (having befriended the Tecla at sea off Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and having followed them to Melbourne and then Sydney, he’d flown in to join the Tecla post-race and hiked in from Russell to meet us in the secluded cove by the old whaling station a couple of days after we crossed the finish line). His worldly knowledge – especially of the sea – was encyclopaedic and I was in awe of his eternally jovial and can-do demeanor [as I tap away on this keyboard the following morning, and all the crew slowly arise on this cool sunny day, Dewy strides by orange juice in hand saying ‘Sell! Sell!’ in mock of my tapping away on the computer). I won’t forget his description the other night at Tryphaena, Great Barrier Island of the Southern Ocean: a giant’s chest heaving as it spins around the planet’s frozen pulsing vortex, powered as it goes by the warm injections sucked in from the three other oceans: the Indian, the Atlantic and the giant Pacific – the one I’m about to cross from these island-riddled shores of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Fiona is now back on deck and has harangued her cabin mate, the next youngest on board, Kylie, to don underwear for a rare opportunity to wash, while at the same time cavorting as the ship’s diving pair. They dive off the ship and all of us cheer.

As the sun goes down and the boat sinks lower on a sinking tide beside the large timbered Orapiu Wharf on Waiheke Island (a 30 minute ferry ride from Auckland), Jet (pronounced ‘Yet’) our first mate (sister to Captain Gijs) brings out the sundowners and delicious finger food (an alternative to dinner on this festive evening). The wet ones wash down with hot fresh water together under the hand held shower nozzle on deck and much drunken frivolity endures. As people dry off, I bring out my travel guitar, which has seen regular use across the Tasman and down through the north-east island cruising. Trusted hand Rob and blue-eyed Roel (mid-fifties and an energetic sailor hailing from Tasmania) take turns on Rob’s recently ‘discovered’ mouth organ (in key of C) and we manage to pump out some jamming tunes. Darren (29 from Adelaide) joining on pots and pans from the galley, is chuffed when I play Paul Kelly’s ‘Adelaide’. Loes (late-twenties, Tecla’s fourth mate, from Netherlands and partner of Captain Gijs) is requesting songs from me, but joins in when we all erupt raucously into ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers. Wilm (early-thirties from Netherlands, part of us paying crew, but older brother to Loes) is busy filming everyone and just happy that there is music; he’s been the one always requesting we have some guitar playing. The non-swimming mob maintain deep conversation in the fading sun beside the helm: Geoff (author and journalist semi-retired to Tasmania), Ray (gardener from Melbourne with a penchant for Billy Bragg and in his late-fifties) along with Herb and Dewy, chat with Sam (gentle and good-humoured in his late-twenties from Belgium, third mate of the Tecla and boyfriend of Jet). The patriarch and owner of the boat, Jan (father to Captain Gijs and First mate Jet) continues to tinker in the engine room, and at times he can be seen at the helm. He’ll assume more active crew duties when Gijs’ partner Loes leaves after this leg (she’ll be back again hopefully from Buenos Aires onwards).


It seems a long time since the regimented life of the Tasman crossing, when Red, White and Blue Watches occasionally co-mingled between the four-hourly watch changes. It was day two when the first south-westerly squall came through and Australia’s eastern coastline had well and truly sunk out of view to the west. The rolling seas occasionally dumped over us on deck. And I was so grateful for the heavy-duty sailing gear I had obtained in Fremantle. And after a sullen and overcast third day in rolling seas, the rains came again and persisted for two days. During this time it was all we could do to eat and sleep and stow our wet gear between watches. Waking up just before midnight with just a few hours of sleep under my belt (if any at all) and donning cool and damp wet weather gear, night after night (it seemed) did at one point feel like it was becoming a chore! I was on watch with my fellow sailors, when the north-westerly storm came through, dumped heavier rain, bent the mizzen boom’s mast clamp around and brought some especially mountainous swells. It was exhilarating to watch astern as the swells raced up behind us, seeming to tower above the helm for a brief lolling moment, tipping us then up and headlong into the next as it passed effortlessly beneath us.

My seasickness of the first 24-hours was a thing of the past, and going below deck to eat and converse was becoming easier. Though in fair weather I preferred to take my plate, and rollick down the corridor and up the stairs, one hand clasping the plate full of food and the other variously grabbing for the walls, door ways and stair well railings. And I became adept at maintaining a wide stance in the galley by the kitchen sink doing the washing up as the boat pitched either port side or starboard as it jibbed along downwind. Sometimes you’d be thrown to one side of the room. And this is where the immersion suits, stowed one each beneath our bunks, came in handy. We weren’t shown how to use them exactly, just that they were there and they were for emergency survival in a capsizing. We were however, advised that when the ship was lurching steep to one side that stuffing the immersion suit bag (a large red plastic bag the size of a medium sized backpack) under the middle edge of our bunk mattress would help prevent us from rolling out at night. This need alternated depending on which side of the ship one’s cabin was. And I noticed on a few occasions waking up in the middle of the night or day (as the case may be) that I’d either be rolling or sliding toward the outside wall of the ship or up against the upward curve of the outside edge of my bunk, thanks to the immersion suit beneath.


At night or day while attempting to force my body to submit to the ship’s regimented routine, I’d listen to all the ship’s and the sea’s noises. The gurgling (and the faint malodorous smell) of the ship’s subterranean plumbing. The occasional clashing of plates and pans in the galley. The flapping of sails and the squeaking of blocks and tackle reaching below deck down the stairwell and through the corridor to my cabin. The high-pitched whirring of wind through the sheets and halyards. And the occasional calling of instructions and heaving-yo sounds of my sea-faring colleagues above on deck working hard on their watch’s turn. A constant swishing and bubbling sound of swirling and tossing waters was audible through the outside wall, just a few inches away through the plate steel hull. The loose propeller (the engine was never on as we were under sail – and under race conditions – the whole way from Sydney to New Zealand’s north-east coast finish line) would rotate under the forward motion of the ship, and it would tick along at a rate proportional to the ship’s speed. At times, we hit some doldrums and I’d be woken because the rhythmic clacking of the rotating propeller would cease as our speed dropped almost to zero and the jerky lolling back and forth of the hull would indicate our lack of forward motion. I’d swing out of my bunk and amble to deck to get an update and see what the ocean and heavens were doing. All this an indication of how I’d grown accustomed to many of the ship’s aural and kinetic textures on the high seas.

It was 04:40 hours on Friday 18th October, and a full Pacific moon fell bloody red into the ocean, as we drifted across the invisible finish line. At the time we were under very light winds off the north-east coast of NZ, the north of the Bay of Islands. The previous day (Thursday 17th October) under stronger fair weather winds as we rounded Cape Reinga and headed across the top, we’d enjoyed communing over the bow with the dolphins riding our bow waves. And then a fine New Zealand welcome from a small minke whale, who came alongside, swam around once, surfaced a few times and disappeared. This wonderful sight brought all of us crew together under the brilliant sun on the wind-swept deck.


Bark Europa had crossed several hours before and had taken line honours and on corrected times had also won the race. We were second across the line and also second overall on corrected time. And as the sun began to rise on that glorious Friday we admired the silhouette of Bark Europa. It was not yet 05:00 hours as we all toasted our success with beers before breakfast on a cool deck as the first golden rays stretched from a flat horizon.

A few days later with idyllic islands, coves, bays, beaches, lava flows and forests explored, we’re all starting to realise that our Tecla days are numbered. We’re well fed and well watered. Bronzed and weather-beaten faces are now familiar friends as we approach ever so slowly to our next destination: Auckland.

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Through the heads and across the [Tasman] Sea

We left Darling Harbour, Sydney at 11:18 hours, Thursday 10th October 2013. And we sailed with the other Tall Ships through Sydney Harbour’s Heads at around 14:00 hours. The official race began for us on board the good [Dutch] ship Tecla as we approached the 4 nautical mile line; it was 14:42 hours and we were under sail. We were headed east.


My brothers and nephews were at the docks to wish me farewell and fair winds. As was the granddaughter of William and Lillian Wood, Carmen.

Carmen’s grandparents set sail from this same place 120 years before me bound for the same place, Paraguay. She brought me yerba mate, which I’d not managed to purchase before I left. And we spoke of her grandparents and her memories growing up in Paraguay, the child of the Australian diaspora. She said that her grandmother Lillian always thought they were just leaving Australia for a bit of  look-see! While we chatted we shared some mate together in the huampa made from palo santo, quebracha (‘break-axe’, the toughest of woods from southern South America) that I’d bought during my first visit to Paraguay eleven years before, and Carmen remembered that her parents wouldn’t have been doing the same 120 years ago. Indeed for them it was always just tea. And throughout the rest of their lives in the Australian colony in Paraguay they continued their Australian tea-drinking customs.

I’m now fully immersed in the sea faring life and loving it. There were some tough psychological moments of endurance on board this first leg to New Zealand. But they were temporal. And fair times abound. I was thinking though of those Australians on board the Royal Tar bound for Paraguay in 1893 and 1894. And I’m sure they didn’t have the mod cons that I enjoyed on my boat. But of the high seas I know we shared the same highs and lows.

After eight days on the Tasman Sea we made it to the historic Bay of Islands and the township of Russell (where ex-NZ PM David Lange was conceived!). We passed through a few days of dark and stormy weather coming across The Ditch. The first day and half was tough on many of us. And I suffered some sea sickness well and truly! But it settled quickly after that. My team’s watches were from 1200-1600 and then 0000-0400, and as the days wore on the rhythm of the good ship Tecla became apparent. Between hearty meals (eaten on the deck if good weather) and grabbing a moment’s shut eye in the dank and cramped bunk room, we helped sail the ship. Mostly a given watch team could manage this. But there were times when we needed all hands on deck. And when the swell was mountainous and the odd freak wave came over board dousing us all in a crash and a splash of cold salty water it was exhilarating to be heaving on the main sheet or pulling on the halyard and feeling my hands cramping up. At other times in the calm of the night, with steady plain sailing on a rolling sea swell, the waxing moon shone bright. At times I lay on the back bench behind the helm, taking turns to steer the ship. And when I gazed upon the star sprinkled heavens the rolling motion of the masts on high looked like the giant pendulum of a grandfather clock ticking between Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross.

Today, with yesterday’s official NZ Tall Ship’s welcome over – and the fearsome hakas rightfully received and well respected – we set sail to cruise the Bay of Islands, en route to Auckland by 25th October. We’ve some fine weather and the beach fringed islands sound appealing.

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An Annotated Guide to the ‘Hurricanes’ of Guatemala

[Note: I wrote this in early 1999. An edited version appeared in the July 1999 edition of the New Internationalist ]

Chris Curnow ([the then] Program Officer for Australian Volunteers Abroad, Sydney) recently returned to Guatemala where he spent two years as an AVA (1995-1997). In January 1999 Chris was tour leader for the [Oxfam] Study Tour to Guatemala that spent three weeks visiting various community organisations and NGOs. He was involved in helping a small group of interested Australians gain an insight into the issues facing Guatemala today. In late December 1996 Chris was present when Boutros Boutros Ghali, acting in his final capacity as President of the United Nations, oversaw the signing of the peace accords between the Guatemalan Army, the Government and the National Revolutionary Forces of Guatemala (the URNG), ending 36 years of civil war atrocities. Such a landmark event was the cause for celebration for many. On returning, Chris was keen to see if the intervening years had brought real change to the lives of his many friends and if the hope that the various Accords had offered, were now being implemented in vital legislation.

Tourism was way down they told me when I returned to Guatemala City in late December 1998. ‘Hurricane Mitch has frightened everyone away!’, I overheard the hotel manager say as I was making reservations for the arrival of the tour group. I’d arrived a week before the CAA study tour group were due and I spent my first week organising our accommodation and transport. While Hurricane Mitch certainly had a lot to answer for (389 dead, 106,609 injured and 749,533 affected in October 1998 in Guatemala alone), I knew from my time spent working here two years ago that there were other ‘hurricanes’, other forces, raging through this beautiful and terrible Central American country. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which these forces had hindered the peace process since I’d left.

The day I arrived in Guatemala City coincided with the second anniversary of the signing of the final peace accords. It was December 29 and President Arzu had decreed a huge public fireworks display for the evening, announcing also that this day now be known as ‘Pardon Day’.

I was staying with some Guatemalan friends, Pedro and Carla, who lived a few blocks from the Presidential Palace and the huge Central Square. As they drove me back to their place from the airport they ridiculed the President’s decree: ‘How can we pardon the human rights abuses that happened to our friends and family – indeed to us – if no one has even said “Sorry” or determined who exactly is to blame?’

In April 1998, just one block from my friend’s house, the Catholic Bishop for Guatemala, Monseñor Gerardi, was brutally murdered in his parish house. This occurred two days after he had made the official presentation of the report entitled Guatemala: Never Again. This collection of oral histories was put together by a project team of the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office. Brave Guatemalans, finally given the opportunity to speak their truth, gave graphic accounts and provided clear statistics, that showed that the Army was the perpetrator of the overwhelming majority of human-rights abuses during the 36 years of institutionalised State repression. The report did not condone the actions of the guerrilla forces who where also accused of similar abuses made on the civilian population. However, it clearly placed the large majority of the blame on the Army.

Over breakfast that morning I read the newspaper while enjoying a warm mug of atol – a thick corn-based drink, good for shoring up the stomach for a day in the black fumes of Guatemala City as my friends reminded me. Pedro pointed out the latest story on the Monseñor Gerardi case. I read with interest.

Guatemalans generally have a lack of faith in their judicial system brought about by decades of impunity. In the Monseñor Gerardi case justice has not been served. Public cynicism has been reinforced by the fact that authorities ‘arrested’ and gaoled a dog by the name of ‘Baloo’, on suspicion of killing the Bishop!  Father Orantes, the owner of the dog, was also arrested and accused of a ‘passion’ crime against Monseñor Gerardi. The dog has since been ‘put down’ and its role in the murder dismissed. [The process of bringing the perpetrators to justice continues to this day – May 2000]

Regardless of who killed Monseñor Gerardi, there can be no doubt that his murder had the effect of diverting media and public attention away from the content of the report on human rights atrocities. Instead the focus was on the details of his brutal murder. The clear beneficiaries of such consequences are those accused in this report…in this case the Army. The report came as a result of the Project for the Recovery of the Historical Memory, for which Monseñor Gerardi is largely responsible. So the smoke screen continues, but there is widespread belief amongst Guatemalans of all backgrounds that high ranking Army officials are to blame and acted aggressively at the accusations made by the report that Monseñor Gerardi presented two days before his assassination in April 1998.

Despite Pedro’s and Carla’s disgust at the President’s decree I went with them that night to see the fireworks. ‘Come on, let’s go to the President’s Show’, they said sombrely. ‘We’ll have a beer and celebrate your return. And we can watch how they waste money in Guatemala’, they added with a smile. It was after all just a show, a show of continuing impunity. And my friends knew what impunity could do to a community faced by it daily.

That morning I had left Pedro’s and Carla’s house to visit Australian Volunteers still working in the country. I walked past the Peace Flame in the Central Square and noticed that they were igniting it. I wondered if it was just for tonight’s ‘show’. When I left Guatemala in April 1997 the flame was extinguished. It seemed that it was only part of the international relations exercise when dignitaries gathered for the peace signing in December 1996. It burned for a few weeks afterwards and then the gas ran out. Maybe that was an omen for what I was seeing now.

When I returned to my friend’s house from my morning outing I discovered my backpack in my room at the back of their house strewn all over the floor. My friend, Carla told me that they’d just been assaulted and robbed. When I’d walked in from my morning visit they had not appeared traumatised to me. Guatemalans are good at hiding this sort of stuff. But what had happened was quite shocking. Pedro and Carla run a small business and therefore keep their front door open onto the street. Pedro had popped out with his two-year-old son on errands in the car soon after I had left the house on foot that morning. Carla was inside with their two young secretaries. Four men armed with pistols waltzed straight in off the street. They yanked all the phones from the walls and using the same telephone cable bound the women’s arms and ankles and lay them face down on the floor in one room. They took their personal effects, money and jewellery and then started putting all the computers and electrical items in huge sacks. At this point Pedro returned and upon hearing the commotion inside made a noise at the door. This frightened the bandits and they fled without taking the huge loaded sacks. As they marched up the street in broad daylight, pistols down the front of their dirty jeans, Pedro lay low inside his parked car with his young son. Pedro later confessed to me that he was that close to starting the car up and ramming them along the footpath at high speed into the wall – just to maim them would have been enough he said with restrained anger. He knows that in the unlikely event of their being apprehended they can bribe their way to freedom within days. This is the wall of impunity that is forcing many Guatemalans to take the law into their own hands.

In small rural towns all over Guatemala, where police remain in fear of the more heavily armed gangs of bandits and kidnapping and extortionist rings, people have taken to lynching the suspects straight away before the police can be persuaded to take bribes and set them free. Public bashings and petrol burnings are the means of mob violence. The horror of an innocent person being wrongly accused and killed at the hands of villagers is not uncommon. People are quite simply sick and tired of the lawlessness in their land.

It seems that the traditionally powerful groups are against all facets of human development in Guatemala. Soon after I arrived I read in the newspaper about how the popular referendum being planned for early this year was to be postponed. This referendum was asking Guatemalans whether they wanted a new Constitution, incorporating reforms that would obligate the State to invoke legislation, based on the ideals set out in the peace accords. Without integrating these basic premises and human rights clauses into a new constitution the legislation required to make real the peace accords could not be enacted. Those against the change operated in the guise of a powerful group called ‘The Defenders of the Constitution’. This group is in fact made up of the traditional oligarchy and is represented by the chamber of commerce, industry and agro-exporters. In effect it was big business dictating to the State and its Judiciary.

During the weeks that I guided the Community Aid Abroad study tour group, we were constantly reminded by the organisations that we met with, of the importance of letting the people have their say in this referendum. One of the first accords to be signed back in the early 1990s by the Army and the Guerrilla was to do with the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples to maintain their culture and speak their languages and most importantly to have this integrated into basic school education curricula.  The accord spoke of a Guatemala that was multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic. It spoke of the unique rights of the Maya, the Xinca and the Garifuna Peoples. Another important accord was the Socioeconomic and Agrarian Reform Accord which dealt with suggested mechanisms for land redistribution, access to micro-credit and just compensation for ancestral lands stolen during the 36 year civil war. A separate accord addressed the resettlement issues of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced peoples who suffered untold traumas in leaving their lands and being forced into exile and hiding.

My Guatemalan friends told me that the rich land owners, the force behind the ‘Defenders of the Constitution’ group, currently blocking the popular referendum in the courts, may have been willing for the Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala to have their cultural and lingual rights enshrined in a new constitution. However, as soon as redistribution of land was mentioned, they immediately moved to block its path to becoming law. They know that the Peace Accords by themselves mean nothing.

A journalist from CERIGUA, the alternative news agency of Guatemala, an NGO formerly functioning in exile in Mexico, told the study tour group that this suspension of the democratic process was just one of a number of ‘hurricanes’ that impacted in Guatemala during 1998 and 1999. Among these so called ‘hurricanes’ was the great embarrassment of, and bitterness in, the Guatemalan population caused by the privatisation of the State postal service ‘El Correo’ and the telecommunications service ‘Guatel’, now known as ‘Telgua’. I related this to a Guatemalan friend of mine in Sydney who hasn’t been back to his homeland in twenty years. ‘What are they doing to my country?’, he asked, ‘Next they’ll be wanting to privatise the little public schooling that we have!’  He wasn’t far off. Last year I heard of a State plan to privatise some of the Education sector. Luckily for now this move remains firmly opposed by the minority forces of progressive thinking that do exist in the Guatemalan Congress today.

With stoic Guatemalan style Pedro and Carla put the morning’s assault behind them. The two secretaries had continued working that afternoon. If it had occurred in an Australian workplace they would have been sent home early after extensive counselling services provided. Now Pedro and Carla wanted to celebrate my return to their Land of Eternal Spring. Night had fallen and the President’s Show had started. The public address sent unimaginative rhetoric about the second anniversary of the peace echoing across the now crowded Central Square.

‘Salud!’, my friends shout as they toast my health in the truly Guatemalan way. With the middle finger down the narrow neck of the beer bottle they make a flicking motion out, resulting in a popping sound. A sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lime down the spout of course follow this and as the beer erupts in foam, bottles are clashed together in the ubiquitous fashion and we drink the national brew called ‘Rooster’. Above us the first of the fireworks explode, lighting up the Cathedral and the National Palace. The President does not live there. He was one of the first presidents of the Republic to opt out of living in the run down and polluted city centre. But under the iridescent glow of the fire works I could see his multitude of bodyguards over the heads of my much shorter Guatemalan friends. They were surrounding the President but I couldn’t see him. I’m sure my friends couldn’t either. I imagined him standing next to the Peace Flame watching his grand anniversary spectacular. He was with ‘his’ people.

Behind him on the other side of the Square, the Cathedral columns with their newly placed marble tablets bearing some of the names of the hundreds upon thousands of Guatemalans who died, were tortured and ‘disappeared’, are eerily illuminated by the President’s ‘Show’. Its the Day of Pardon he says. As the fireworks finish and the Cathedral’s marble columns return to darkness, I turn once more to conversation with my friends. I am wondering if the flame will be extinguished again until the next public relations exercise comes around?

The President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, may have said in his visit of March this year that his country’s involvement in Guatemala was all a mistake. But like President Arzu’s remarks, they fall short of naming names and asking for forgiveness themselves. There are clear parallels between our nation’s need for reconciliation with justice and that of Guatemala’s. How can we move on if the wrongs of the past haven’t been acknowledged and the grieving process allowed to run its course?

It’s my first day back in Guatemala and the rumours of a depressed tourist season seem grotesquely out of place now. Hurricane Mitch brought destruction and sadness to many people but there are other ‘hurricanes’ at work here. Its only hours since I arrived back in Guatemala but already it seems like months. Beggars mingle in the crowd and street hawkers squawk their familiar sales pitch. As we walk down past the house where Monseñor Gerardi was murdered, back to my friends’ home, I am wondering if the families of those inscribed on those now darkened columns can really join the President in his ‘day of pardon’, when those responsible haven’t even been brought to justice.

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Letter from Ittoqqortoormiit

The old man hobbles forward and pauses while he searches amongst the large rounded black beach stones for a solid resting point for the end of his walking stick. They’re slippery and the fresh blood and freezing arctic waters washing up over them keep them that way. Amidst all the action of the young men cutting and heaving and slicing and pulling, it is the serenity and happiness of this nonagenarian that has captured my attention. Somehow he reminds me of my own grandfather as he approached his hundredth year of circling our sun, the face of peace and tranquillity belying the wrinkling years of wisdom accumulated.

Having found steady purchase on the rocks, he slowly raises his head to gaze upon the scene before him. I can see the pride swell from within his decrepit frame. His back, though still stooped, marginally straightens and his chin rises slightly, and while one eye darts downward beneath the rim of his thick glasses to check his balance, he surveys the community cooperation all around him. And he nods that invisible nod of approval: all is good and as it should be in Ittoqqortoormiit.

I’m standing in freezing September weather on Walrus Bay watching the proceedings, which even my East Greenlandic hosts are going to celebrate. A young local woman, married to one of the hunters, has told me that these are the first whales that this small community of hunters have killed in six years. Their municipality’s annual quota is limited to just two individuals. The whole community have walked out to the secluded bay to lend a hand and watch the age-old practices of flensing and carving. Within three hours all that will remain of these two minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata / Tigaanguttik), six and ten metres in length respectively, will be ten equal piles of food made up of skin, blubber, ribs, fins and great hulking geometric blocks of deep red meat. And with the prized offal being somehow awarded to a chosen few, the rest is left for the arctic terns, ravens, gulls and guillemots.

The ten piles represent the ten hunters and their extended families. And despite a recent windfall of a very successful musk ox hunt (Ovibos moschatus / Umimmak) that has filled almost all the community freezers for the oncoming winter, nothing of this precious whale hunt will go to waste. Even the giant back bones, cut almost clean of their muscle and sinew, will be later dragged to the outskirts of the village, where the huskies, tied up the whole short summer, will fight each other down the tight pecking order for their share of the day’s bonanza.

As the open air butchering continues with laughing family members loading their quota of meat and blubber into giant plastic storage bags, the old man has taken a seat on one of the larger rocks at the base of the steep scree slopes that fall from under the glaciers and mountains hemming the bay. The mountains are black from the ubiquitous black arctic lichens, except where rockslides have presented new rock surfaces too fresh to yet be colonised by these hardy ‘plants’. He may be tired but his mind is still alert. He’s the elder. There are not many of his make left. Descendants from the days of the great migration of the mid-1920s, north one thousand kilometres from Ammassalik district on the Arctic Circle to the forced resettlement at Scoresbysund (as Ittoqqortoormiit was known in those Danish colonial days), he’s seen the old ways slowly erode. But some things stay the same, and he likes that.

Ittoqqortoormiit is one of the northernmost settlements on the largely depopulated east coast. It sits tucked away on the northern entrance of the world’s largest and longest fjord system, Scoresby Sound (Kangertittivaq), right near the south-east corner of the world’s largest national park. And while the witnessing of today’s event has made me feel extremely privileged, I’ve already felt this from the moment I stepped off the helicopter onto the summit-placed helipad above the village.

Ittoqqortoormiit, ‘dwellers of the big house’ as it’s known in the East Greenlandic language (Tunumiit), is home to 400 Inuit people. Ancestors of the Thule migration from arctic North America (circa 1200 AD), they are one of the last hunter societies of Greenland.

I stare, incredulous, for days out into Scoresby Sound and south across to the glacier-strewn mountains and Cape Brewster (Kangikajik) from my ever-changing vantage points on the boulder fields of Liverpool Land.

Erik, the long-standing Danish meteorologist stationed here, told me one day inside the Pilersuisoq (Greenland’s only general store/supermarket chain specialising in, you guessed it, frozen goods, hunting rifles and oh yes, the odd greenhouse-grown cucumber from Iceland), “You feel lucky, very lucky when you gaze out upon the world’s longest view, across the world’s largest fjord system, on the world’s biggest island.”

Everything is incredibly big or incredibly stunted in East Greenland. And without rising vegetation the landscape is even bigger and more confronting. As an Australian I couldn’t get much further from home – one island to another. I spend long equinox days, prolonged by the lingering twilight, head down, rock hopping long valleys of boulder fields, mapping terrain mentally, noting the myriad of lichen types and beholding the ancient arctic ‘forests’ as I tread upon their stunted ‘canopies’. I stumble amazed over the weird rock-lined polygons of frost-heaved soils, the result of the wonderfully mysterious process of cryoturbation. The arctic tundra is dotted by the late autumn reds and yellows of the dwarf willows and birches, rising in patches barely inches, if at all, above the endless rock and lichen fields. It must be a different world under snow.

My Inuit hosts have insisted I carry a rifle with me on my daily solo hikes. While the remains of the polar pack ice floes have all but gone, polar bears (Ursus maritimus / Nanuq) are still roaming these barren coastlines. Seals rest upon these floes making them the favoured hunting grounds of the polar bear. However, without the floating ice the pickings are slim. I’m acutely aware of the dangers of treading these rocky shorelines alone, having heard over the last few years of near misses and tragedies involving polar bears and tourists on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, nearly 1500 kilometres away over the Greenland Sea. So I’m not arguing with my rifle-thrusting friends.

After a couple of weeks of regular hikes the rifle becomes more a burden than its supposed benefit. The dead weight on my shoulder and its habit of banging on rocks and jamming in crevices as I climb in this boulder-strewn landscape is starting to annoy me. One time my camera swings out in an arc as I leap across some frost heave circles and smacks LCD-screen first into the butt of my 30-08 rifle. But better a twinging neck muscle and a cracked screen on my camera than being the last supper of a threatened species.

I say last supper because unfortunately, when it comes to human/polar bear interactions it’s the bear that usually dies. So most of the time I’m torn between wanting and not wanting to see one, because if it did happen out in those lonely glacial valleys, where my all-weather gear shines like a beacon against the grey of the landscape, I’d only be attracting a hungry bear. And I sure don’t want to have the killing of one of them on my conscience. That is of course assuming that I would be capable of manipulating the rifle at the critical moment. My Inuit advisers have nonchalantly instructed that I should make myself look bigger if the bear continued to approach. Then, if the throwing of stones and the firing of the rifle into the air doesn’t thwart its advance, it’s best, I am told, to ensure that your magazine is full and that you’ve got a cartridge ready in the chamber. These last few years the annual polar bear quota for registered traditional hunters in the municipality of Ittoqqortoormiit has been set at around 30 to 35 individuals in total. And like the regulations surrounding the hunting of whales and other arctic animals, strict conditions apply pertaining to where, when and how the traditional hunt can take place, and to which gender and age group of animals the quota applies. Restrictions also extend to the fire arm type and gauge.

During the early days of my visit, while sitting on a rocky promontory eating my pack lunch out on the even remoter Cape Tobin (Uunartoq), my jacket’s hood tight around my ears, I kept doing quick ninety degree turns with my head left and right checking the terrain all around me. Such was the whistling of the wind that I felt I wouldn’t even hear the predator’s approach, and so my vigilance bordered on the twitching paranoia. The rarest of sightings, a benevolent and majestic snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus / Kiialik), radiant in its winter plumage against the still snowless rock and tundra, only serves to calm my nerves for a moment. And I dared not disrobe to savour the arctic delights of the geothermal hot spring (Uunartoq’s name sake) that I stumbled upon for fear of being ill-prepared should evasive action be required. Over the weeks I hear local reports of a lone polar bear in the neighbourhood, but we never lay our wary eyes upon each other. Not even with the eyes that have grown in the back of my head.

Tired from the morning’s hike up to one of several glacial lakes, I’m looking now at the blood of the butchered whales soaking deep into the black beach rocks and draining as a deep red plume out into the freezing waters, and I’m thinking what it must mean for a hungry polar bear. No wonder the butchering takes place several kilometres out of town. But all this blood and bone is not just attractive to birds and bears. Later, on my way back into town that evening, doubled over against the blade-like wind, I come across one of the most elusive of Greenland’s sea creatures: the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus / Niialingaq). Known for opportunistically feeding on carrion, it must have surfaced from its normal deep ocean habitat following the scent trail of the slaughtered whales. In doing so it was unwittingly hooked by waiting hunters. It’s been left unceremoniously hauled up on the beach rocks while the hunters attend to far greater priorities of this bountiful day. I brush my hand across the body of this three metre long leviathan, its grey black skin like course sandpaper to the touch. I suppose that someone’s going to come back for it. As it lies it’s not edible to anyone. Its flesh contains chemicals that when digested break down to neurotoxins, producing effects of extreme drunkenness. The meat is a local delicacy though and is prepared through a process of fermentation, which inadvertently produces an indescribably putrid flavour, which I discover later is best dealt with in the company of a decidedly strong Danish (or Icelandic) snaps.

Back at the whales, as the chilling polar stream bears down on me that afternoon, I become more aware of my aching ‘rifle’ shoulder and my freezing appendages. Standing on the black beach amidst the bloody behemoths I am suddenly conscious of my gawking presence. I step back to join the local throng. A young boy sidles up to me, and thinking I’ll surely be disgusted, proffers a slice of whale skin, cut fresh with his pocketknife. Much to his astonishment I take it and taste the salty crunch of thick skin. I revere the creature from whence it came and I know its life force is well serving to these lovers of the Arctic. Later, I’ll sample my own small whale fillets and discover that when seared quickly on a hot skillet it’s reminiscent, except for the oily sheen of lipids on the palate, of the lean sharp flavour of western grey kangaroo.

As the big whale is dragged further up the glistening black rocks by the local council’s front-end loader I find a space to approach its enormous white belly and the longitudinally-fluted skin of its great sagging throat. I press my open palm firmly onto the white smooth skin as a sign of respect. Slightly warm to the touch and firm under hand I sense the huge inertia of its presence, soft and smooth, yet solid and unyielding. As I lift my hand I see a faint after-image, the blood running back into the subcutaneous depression left by the force of my palm. I will not ever forget that fleeting moment – my palm’s outlined impression radiating from a life force still evaporating. I step back as the men with knives step in and the flensing and quartering continues with fervour.

I see the old man in the back of a pickup truck now. As it heads back into town, bouncing as it goes over the big beach rocks, I detect the pride in his community on his placid face. Surrounded by family and huge plastic bags of whale meat, blubber and the odd rib bone, he remains serene, his smile like that of the Dalai Lama. The gods of East Greenland have been kind and all is as it should be in Ittoqqortoormiit. The freezers are full. The winter is coming. And perhaps, before his hundredth year around this waxing polar sun, he will bear witness again as his people rally as one – just as in all the days gone by.

NB: All traditional species and place names are provided here in the local East Greenlandic language.

[Note: Written in early 2012 based on events that took place in September 2010]

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