Antarctica – Pre departure: Icebergs ahead!

Having confirmed that our ship had arrived the night before, our morning in the hostel was quite surreal, a mixture of excitement and disbelief – several people heard us muttering to ourselves “Oh my God, we’re really going to Antarctica!”


All of this was made stranger by the events leading up to that day throughout December, so lets start at the beginning…


Once upon a time there was a couple who had had carefully researched (in their opinion) every Antarctic cruise/expedition/voyage known to man trying to find one that met their exhaustive requirements – affordable for real people and not just those blowing the kids inheritance, watertight and not too big i.e. about a 100 people big.


We’d drawn up a short list of vessels that suited and booked our trip. Then requirement number two failed.


In early December we were having lunch watching BBC News with Evie’s mum and saw pictures of Antarctica. Before we turned the volume up, we said ‘Look mum, we’re going to see icebergs like that on our boat called the MS Ushuaia! How cool!’. Then the BBC man said ‘…the MS Ushuaia has just run aground, is now leaking and all passengers are being airlifted out…’


Evie’s mum completely missed the point: ‘Ah, that’s nice – they’re getting a free flight home’.


Daryl called the agent: ‘Hello Mr Jennings, I presume you’ve just seen the news then? Yes, we’re just a bit busy trying to evacuate our clients right now…can we call you back?’


The previous year, a boat belonging to another company had actually sunk in the Antarctic and even though they’d just replaced it, we’d decided not to tempt fate – maybe the odds would have been in our favour!


So this was early December. We were eventually assured that the ship would be repaired by January in time for our trip and we’d made it clear that we were going contINent and any last minute changes could be catastrophic in terms of having to change flight dates etc, but we were repeatedly assured that everything was in hand. Phew! We joked that this would make a funny story for our blog…


The weeks ticked by; we paid the outstanding balance, got our vouchers and were assured again that with two weeks to go, everything was fine and repairs were progressing nicely.


We started getting excited and even started joking with people that we’d be in the cabin with a big plaster over the porthole. How cocky we were, praising our good fortune that there was enough time for repairs and that we weren’t on the stricken tour.


Then on the 30th December there was an answer phone message from the agent asking us to call them urgently. We hoped they were really desperate to wish us a Happy New Year. No such luck. ‘Is that Mr & Mrs Jennings? I’m afraid the boat’s not fixed. We were wondering what your plans were before and after the trip?’


Suffice to say the ensuing conversation was strongly worded.


Luckily we’d travelled enough to know when to build in a few days contingency either side of the big event. Of course, we told them they’d ruined our plans; any changes would have impact further down the line and we’d had this conversation four weeks ago when they’d assured us they’d not be making this phone call! They went away to speak to their Argentinian partners and would get back to us the next day – New Years Eve, but their office would only be open a half day and there’d only be one member of staff. No pressure then.


Just bear in mind that we’d chosen a budget trip on an ex-research vessel; the sort of thing where you’d have a simple but comfortable bunk, a small porthole and if you were posh like us, your own private toilet. Meals were canteen-style; simple but filling and did the job. The bonus was that soft drinks, tea and coffee were free but you’d have to pay for alcohol. Fair enough. This is the trip we’d been looking forward to for years and was what we’d always imagined doing.


New Years Eve. The phone call came. The best way to describe what happened next is to paraphrase the conversation as best we can…


“Hello, we’ve managed to find you a replacement ship leaving within the dates you gave us. Its run by an American company and is slightly different but you should get to see the same things. We haven’t seen the itinerary but as its the same amount of days, it should be fine, it is a bit bigger though, about 150 people”


While we were talking, she gave us the name of the ship and we did a quick search on the internet to see what we could find. Before we saw pictures, we read a brief description, something like: ‘…after the Captains dinner, guests can relax in the Club lounge with cocktails, before retreating to their wood panelled room with marble appointed bathroom and terry towel bathrobes…the dress code is Country Club casual…’


“Okay but this really isn’t want we signed up for. We paid a lot of money for our dream trip, a real expedition, not a luxury cruise with a bunch of wealthy American pensioners. We’re backpacking and don’t do ‘Country Club casual’. In fact, what the hell is Country Club casual?! This isn’t good enough, we don’t want luxury bathrobes, we want a simple boat like we asked for. Please try and find something more suitable.”


“Er, okay, I understand…leave it with me and I’ll see if there are any other options. But I dont think its likely. I’ll call you back in a bit.”


All of you that know us know two things 1) We don’t get stressed very often – this was one of those times. 2) We are ‘simple’ people in the best possible way. We made a point to exclude any trip that looked like a P&O cruise and it now looked like it was all going wrong diddly wrong.


In the meantime we looked at the website in more detail and tried to compare this new trip to the one we had paid for. It turned out this was actually classed as an expedition cruise and would therefore do nearly everything we had planned. Good. Then we looked at a description for the room we had been allocated.

It wasn’t a room…it was a suite.

It didn’t have a porthole…it had two full size windows looking out to the front and side of the boat.

It didn’t have bunks either…we had to make do with a queen size bed with Egyptian cotton sheets.

Then we saw the list price and choked. It cost a few pence more than our old room.


We sat there stunned and realised that we’d actually been complaining that we’d paid for a B&B but were now being moved to the Ritz, metaphorically speaking. No wonder the agent was confused.


We frantically searched for the agents phone number to plead temporary insanity and gladly accept their offer, then the phone rang again.


“Hello, this the MD of the travel company. I understand there has been some issues with the booking? I strongly suggest that you take it because if you don’t, I would believe me! Its a really good company and the mix of people is good too. Its not all Yanks and its not the blue rinse brigade. You’ll have a good time I’m sure and no, you don’t need a suit and I have no idea what Country club casual is either. Its Antarctica, they cant expect you to wear Pringle and Fred Perry. I’m sure you’ll be fine. You have nothing further to pay, just for any additional things you purchase on board. So relax and enjoy! Happy New Year too.”


We humbly accepted and made sure he sent an email to confirm. We sat there stunned (again) because now on New Years Eve, our original budget boat was still broken, yet here we were having just spoken to the MD of the travel company who had urged us to take a 5-star cruise, in the third best room on the boat, with a value almost three times what we paid at no extra cost to ourselves and best of all, we were still going to Antarctica!

Bring it on!


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