After two heavy weather nights in a commercial RV park, we’re finally back to camping in the real world. This time it’s Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah. False advertising however. Fortunately, we’ve not seen a single dead horse out here.
The park sits atop a plateau peninsula near the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. After parking the A-frame and getting everything set up, we did a short hike near the Dead Horse visitor center.
We then drove out to the end of the peninsula where sheer-walled canyons separated us from the Colorado River meandering far below. It proved to be a splendid place to watch Kayenta and Wingate sandstone walls glow in the setting sun. Don’t tell the Congressional Budget Committee, but if camera digits cost a dollar each, we shot enough photos to pay off the national debt.
The trailer was loaded with 26 gallons of water, sleeping bags, hiking gear and the like. The Xterra tow vehicle had the food, canopy and our clothes. The A-frame was hitched up and we were off for a three-night camping adventure with friends in Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. I double-checked the hitch, fired up the engine and we began pulling out of the driveway.
It was the sound of metal on concrete. Dianne gave me that look that bordered between concern and panic.
“Probably just the chains hitting the cement,” I assured her. “After all, they are so long, they almost drag the ground.”
We heard it again when we crossed over a small speed bump going into our supermarket parking lot. Chains again, I thought.
It finally occurred to me that it might be something more serious. While Dianne ran in to mail a letter at the post office, I checked the hitch. The sound we heard was the bottom of the front jack hitting cement. I had only cranked it up part way. I thought it was far enough away to clear the curb, but alas, it was not.
The bottom of the post had been scraped and instead of round, it was now oval. I pulled out the caster wheel, and of course, it would not go on. We now had a problem.
We immediately drove back home for redneck repairs. I got out a hammer, and with blow after blow, I straightened it out to where the wheel would finally fit on. I then cranked the post into it’s maximum up position and we took off again. Lesson learned.
Back home after our trip, I ordered a new jack from Amazon. It could have been worse.
On the trip home from Colorado National Monument, we stopped in Clifton for fuel. When we stopped there on the way out, we found a Sinclair station where fuel was a good 20 cents a gallon cheaper than anywhere else. Of course, we wanted to stop there on the way back.
On our first visit, I simply pulled into the first outside pump, filled up and exited straight out. Not a problem.
The outside pump was occupied on the second visit, but pumps on the inside were empty. Unfortunately, that required me to make a U-turn to get in. No problem. Lots of room. I pulled close to the first inside pump so that anyone else coming in could get around me and drive to the forward pump. Tank filled, we fired up the engine and started to take off.
I looked back. The trailer, which was still angled when we got to the pump, hit a post that the gas station people had wisely installed to keep people like me from hitting the pumps. Although the Xterra cleared it with no problem, the turning angle of the trailer had kept it from clearing. I now had red paint on the water heater panel cover and slight sheet metal damage.
I started to back the trailer up in an attempt to straighten it out and get out of there.
The Xterra bumper hit the post. Fortunately, the bumper is rubber and the damage was limited to some minor scraping.
Now I had a problem. I needed to back up the trailer without hitting the post, which was now nicely centered between the back of the car and the front of the A-frame. With a few back and forth maneuvers, I finally got the job done and we were free of the pump post.
Back home with some paint thinner and fine steel wool, I was able to remove the red paint. Now only a small square of slightly crinkled metal remains as a reminder of the incident.
Next time, I’ll hit outside pumps only, pull in straight and don’t pull in close unless everything is definitely in line.
Dianne and I scored hard-to-get reservations for a full-hookup spot at Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs. It seems someone had the spot reserved for the weekend, but suddenly cancelled after one day. I went online at just the right time and was able to reserve it. We had two nights, three days at the base of Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD’s big nuke-proof mountain cave and alleged target for a North Korean missile.
It’s a back-in site, which meant we got a little practice at backing in straight and on target. Of course, we had an audience. It seems that everyone else in the campground loop, about a half-dozen units, were having lunch at the neighboring site. And presumably watching.
After about 10 minutes of trying, we made it. It’s straight and close to the water/electric hookups. It looks like a pro did it. Best of all, I think the neighbors ignored us.
Side to side, the concrete pad we parked on was dead level. We had the top up in 90 seconds. Chocks placed. Unhooked the car. Front-to-back leveling took another minute or two. Jacks down. Water and electricity hooked up. Gray water line and tank connected. Car unloaded and stuff moved in. About 15 minutes after arriving, we were at home. If we were tent camping, we wouldn’t even have had the car emptied and tent unpacked yet.
After a bite of lunch, it was time to explore the neighborhood. Across from us in the campground circle was a couple with a Trail-Manor lift-up trailer. We chatted with them for an hour or so and got a tour of their unit. Much bigger and fancier, but definitely more complicated to put up and take down. It’s a matter of compromises.
We continued around the campground, visiting the other circles. In the last one we discovered our neighbors who own a motor home. I’m not sure who was more surprised.
One of the nice things I’ve always found about campgrounds is how friendly everyone is. People talk to each other. With a friendly hello, one can meet locals as well as other travelers. You don’t get that in a motel.
A few weeks ago, a reader asked if we would recommend buying an A-frame trailer. In a long reply, I told him what I considered to be the pros and cons of this type of recreational vehicle.
The trailer tows flat, so it has less wind resistance and with many models, drivers can see over the top of the trailer through the rear-view mirror when towing.
They’re relatively light, so owners don’t need a mega-tow vehicle. We tow ours with a Nissan Xterra, which has a 5,000-pound towing capacity. The trailer is rated at 3,500 pounds maximum, although when fully loaded, ours only runs around 2,600 pounds. Aliner brand has lighter-weight A-frame trailers that can be pulled by cars with less towing capacity.
They’re small enough to park in tight campsites, assuming there’s enough overhead space.
Unlike a tent trailer, this one goes up/down in about 90 seconds, a job easily done by one person. And doesn’t need to have the canvas dried out after a rainstorm.
They’re cheaper. Ours has a small fridge, three-burner stove, sink, 20-gallon water tank, six-gallon water heater, double bed, dinette, furnace, air conditioner and yes, even a microwave. Even with all that, it cost far less than a conventional trailer.
They’re small. The box is only 12 feet long and with the bed and dinette permanently set up, there’s not a lot of move-around room. The only sitting space is at the dinette.
Inside accessible storage space is quite limited.
The refrigerator and microwave are below the counter, which can be a problem for folks with bad backs and knees.
Unless one buys a high-wall model, the countertops are lower than normal, which can be an issue for tall folks.
The bed on most A-frame trailers goes crossways so the person sleeping on the wall side has to crawl out over his/her sleeping companion. Companies are beginning to offer models with side-by-side twin beds to alleviate this issue.
While the dinette makes into a second bed, it’s not a great trailer to camp with the kids/grandkids (unless you put them out in a tent).
Because the trailer folds and unfolds, there needs to be some space between the wall and roof panels. The lack of a tight seal means some heated air can escape and small flying insects can sometimes find their way in.
Most A-frame trailers come with bubble windows over the dinette and bed areas, which over time can lose their seal and start to leak water. Proper repair requires removing the bubble and reattaching it to the trailer. Most of us go the easy route and simply affix sealing tape around the bubble.
There’s no gray-water tank, so sink water needs to be collected in a bucket or portable tank and manually dumped if there’s no direct sewer hookup.
There’s no flush toilet and no black-water holding tank. Most A-frames come with cassette toilets, which require campers to empty the output in the campground restroom. And very little privacy around the toilet area.
Very few models offer an inside shower option, although most have outside showers. We use ours with a privacy tent pitched next to the trailer, which requires that we collect the water residue and dispose of it with other gray water.
While some brands are better than others, the build quality is generally poor. Screws come loose, and things sometimes rearrange themselves over the course of a long trip.
A Russian Icebreaker Carries International Cruisers to Antarctica for an Attempt to Break the Record for the Farthest South Ever Reached by a Surface Vessel
BAY OF WHALES, Antarctica – A stifling
fog shrouds the still, dark Antarctic water.
Flat-topped icebergs loom through the snowflakes and mist on either side
of the Russian icebreaker. Dead ahead, a
gap in a jumbled ice wall allows passage into a narrowing inlet. Cautiously, the Kapitan Khlebnikov creeps forward.
Second mate Stanislaw Ul’uanov attempts to plot the ship’s course on the admiralty chart, but his position line has reached the map’s southernmost margin. The vessel is literally sailing off the charts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, about
30 seconds ago we reached a position of 78 degrees, 40.572 minutes south,” announces
Robert Headland, archivist for Britain’s
Scott Polar Research Institute. “We are
out of the position where there are reliable soundings. To avoid touching, the captain is taking
precautions. I’ll keep you informed.”
The icebreaker, leased by Quark Expeditions, presses southward in an attempt to break the nearly 95-year-old record for Antarctica’s southernmost point reached by a surface vessel. The existing mark was set February 15, 1911, by the Norwegian ship Fram, which had just dropped off Roald Amundsen’s party for their own record-setting push to be first to the South Pole.
Measuring solar angles with a sextant, First-Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen of the Fram determined their southernmost position to be 78 degrees, 41 minutes. The Kapitan Khlebnikov, which comes equipped with the far more accurate satellite Global Positioning System (GPS), lies less than half a nautical mile away from the historic milestone.
this rare 21st-century opportunity to set a new geographical record, nearly all
of the 93 passengers have taken watchful positions around the ship. The heartiest huddle like penguins outside on
the bow. Others watch from the warmth of
the bridge, standing at the windows or lingering by the navigation station where
they gaze at the GPS readout. Its
display now shows 78º40.656.’
The southernmost-by-sea quest caps a 24-day expedition to the seldom-cruised Ross Sea. Most voyages to the Great White South begin and end in South America, exploring only the northern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula. Departing from New Zealand, Quark’s “Great Antarctic Explorers” voyage heads to where explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott began their journeys to the South Pole nearly a century ago. Their historic huts, still stocked with original foodstuffs, remain preserved in Antarctica’s freeze-dried environment.
Passengers range from retired teachers to working professionals and hail from nine different nations. All hold a keen interest in Antarctica. In addition to visiting historic huts and modern science stations, they welcomed the opportunity to march with penguins, search for whales, sidle past sea lions, sail with seals, amble by albatrosses and scope scores of sea birds. They also helicoptered over icebergs, picnicked on sea ice and partied under the midnight sun atop the Ross Ice Shelf. Then it was on to the Bay of Whales.
the closest body of water to the South Pole.
That’s why Amundsen set his base up there in his rush to beat Scott to
the pole,” explains Quark executive Prisca Campbell. “The plans for our trip are to reach the Bay of Whales in optimum weather and ice conditions to
break the record. We think we’ve got the
right vessel, and we have a captain with extraordinary expertise and years of
Clad in a navy blue sweater, Capitan Victor Vasil’yev, a short, middle-aged Russian with closely cropped hair, stares out a window on the starboard side of the bridge. A helmsman sits at the wheel in the center. Second mate Ul’uanov, a lad in his 20s, scurries at the back between the green-glowing radar and the now useless charts.
voices down so the captain can communicate with his officers in this tight
navigation,” requests Quark expedition leader Shane Evoy. “Keep the aisle clear so the navigator can
numbers slowly rise. It now reads 78:40.728,’
less than half a statue mile short of the record. Every six feet the ship moves south, the GPS increases
by one-thousandth of a minute.
hope we don’t make it,” British passenger Jenny Coverack whispers. “Maybe it’s better to just let the old record
It seems improbable that a 1911 record set by a wooden ship could still stand, but reaching the farthest south is not a reflection of horsepower and willpower. Instead, it’s governed by the whims of nature.
triangular shelf of ice fed by a string of Antarctic glaciers permanently
covers the southernmost 450-600 miles of the Ross Sea. Called the Ross Ice Shelf, this floating sheet
of frozen freshwater covers a 200,000-square-mile area, larger than the state
of California. Its 600-mile front consists of a sheer wall
of ice cliffs that poke as much as 200 feet above the water and nearly a
thousand feet below. This is an ice cube
no breaker on earth could penetrate.
barrier, however, does have one minor break.
Near its eastern edge rises Roosevelt Island,
which breaks the glacial flow like a boulder parts water in a stream. While some of the ice covers the island, much
of the rest pushes to one side or the other.
A weakness where the flows rejoin forms a natural breach in the ice wall
that varies in magnitude from year to year.
This year, the break looks big.
Captain Vasil’yev gives an order in his native language, and the helmsman silently makes a slight turn. The GPS reads 78º40.858,’ three football fields short of the record. It seems so close.
one small problem. On the ice ahead
stands a group of molting Adélie and emperor penguins. Each year, these flightless birds must
replace every feather on their bodies, and during that three-week period, they have
to remain out of the water and thus, do not feed. Reaching 78º41’ may require nosing the bow
into the penguins’ perch at a time in their lifecycle when these birds should
be using stored reserves for making feathers, not dodging icebreakers.
Evoy and the captain confer in hushed whispers. An order is given and the ship turns. Latitude readings begin to recede.
“Kapitan Khlebnikov achieved the far
southern position of 78 degrees, 40.871 minutes. That is less than the 41 minutes achieved by
Amundsen at the southern limit of southern navigation,” Headland
announces. “I do not think that we can
say we beat it, but bearing in mind instrumental accuracy, I think we equaled
it. We will now assemble on the bow.”
slushy foredeck, Quark staffers pour champagne.
Headland, whose heady English accent makes him sound like a Harry Potter
schoolmaster, repeats his “let’s call it a tie” proclamation. The mood is jovial.
celebrates failure better than the British,” chuckles New Zealand
geologist Malcolm Laird.
But all is
not lost. The ship anchors for the night
near the mouth of the bay, and the next morning, the crew drops Zodiacs into
the water. These inflatable, Jacques
Cousteau-style motorboats will allow another attempt at the record for the
farthest south by surface vessel. It may
not have the cachet of an oceangoing ship, but a Zodiac is a vessel and it does travel on the surface.
The fog has
lifted, but snowflakes continue to fall and the sky remains stone gray. Temperatures hover in mid 30s. Evoy mans the motor and Headland, armed with
two portable GPS units, rides near the bow.
Between them sit ten hopeful passengers.
planes across the smooth surface toward the inlet cloaked in monochromatic shades
of gray and black. Slabs of ice resemble
frozen white cakes snow-draped in vanilla frosting. Icicles hang like crystal daggers from
overhanging ledges. Cracks, fissures and
ephemeral cavities in the ice-shelf walls allow wisps of neon blue light to
glow, and teal green luminescence shimmers from just below the waterline. The Zodiac’s waterline vantage yields an
inspiring, intimate view of Antarctica’s
stark, imposing grandeur.
whales spout in the smooth water.
Crabeater seals lie on the ice. Snow
petrels fly overhead, their pure white bodies visibly disappearing against the
white of the ice. Ahead, the penguins
remain perched on their sloping slab.
back and quietly motors in their direction.
At a nonthreatening, 10-yard distance from the birds, he points the
rubber bow of the Zodiac toward the wall and thumps into the ice. Headland looks at the GPS.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he proclaims. “Looking at the instruments aboard this vessel, we have exceeded Amundsen’s farthest south with a position of 78 degrees, 41.030 minutes. These vessels are thus the farthest south on the planet – ever.
gets a chance to smack the southernmost shore.
Back at the ship, the mood is even more buoyant than before. It’s February 2, 2006 and a new mark has been
set, which Headland will submit to the folks at Guinness. Of course, the record may fall when the Kapitan Khlebnikov or another icebreaker
returns in some future season, but until then, the achievement for southernmost
navigation by sea belongs to the folks onboard.
Down in the ship’s bar, the drinks flow.
Up on the
bridge, the ambiance remains sober. Captain
Vasil’yev gives the order to fire the engines and the icebreaker heads north. It’s the only direction it can go from here.
Jet-lagged and cranky, I lingered more
than two hours in line waiting to trade my passport for a cabin key. When
I finally unlocked my shipboard stateroom, I found the quarters dolefully
furnished in a ’50s motif of faded Formica and stuffed Naugahyde. It
reminded me of the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
I would have
chanced a shower, but my luggage hadn’t yet arrived. It seemed to be as
lost as Jimmy Hoffa, interred in a mausoleum of satchels, duffels, trunks and
suitcases that stood floor-to-ceiling in the reception area.
I thought it couldn’t get worse, I learned that the executive chef was
English. I envisioned four months of dining on kidney pies while waiting
for clean underwear to arrive.
the inauspicious start to my trip of a lifetime — a dream cruise around the
Ferdinand Magellan captained the first globe-encircling voyage in 1519,
travelers have longed to circumnavigate the planet by sea. Several firms
now offer world cruises. Itineraries vary, but most have one
commonality– they are palatially expensive.
along came the now-defunct World Cruise Company. By chartering older
vessels and abridging amenities, the Toronto-based outfitter planned to offer
around-the-world voyages at down-to-earth prices. With rates starting at
about $100 per day, a lifelong fantasy could become reality.
nightmares came first. Needle-jabbing nurses used my arms as immunization
pincushions. I had to order extra passport pages and a slew of advance
visas. Suitcases needed to be packed, unpacked and repacked until they
squeaked under airline weight limitations. Ultimately, hurried good-byes
and a flight to Athens led to one long-anticipated moment.
with 600 others, I boarded the Ocean Explorer I in Greece. After
a frustrating initiation, the journey began.
capital of Tunisia, became our first port of call. Formerly controlled by
the French, this North African coastal city offers European-style prosperity
springing from Arab, Roman and Phoenician roots. Islamic but liberal,
Tunis is where sheiks come to be sinful.
guide led us through the ruins of Carthage, a Phoenician city so old it had
been sacked by the Romans before the birth of Christ. Next came the Bardo
Museum and its collection of ancient mosaics. For one shopper, this was
too much sightseeing. She dashed into the museum’s book shop in a
desperate quest for souvenirs. To pay, she flashed American cash.
When the clerk said he could only accept Tunisian dinars, the woman became
can’t believe they wont take real money,” she moaned.
“This is a foreign country,” I suggested. “I doubt Barnes
& Noble takes Tunisian currency back home.”
the Mediterranean, we passed Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar on our way to
Casablanca, Morocco. There, I signed up for a 12-hour bus trip to
Marrakech, a vibrant city whose buildings echo the ruddiness of desert clay.
As we wended our way there across the Saharan emptiness, our tour guide,
Mohammed, bragged how Islamic men could have up to four wives.
Eventually, one of the passengers had enough.
“That’s nothing,” the man shouted. “In North America,
there is no limit to the number of wives we can have.”
“Really?” Mohammed looked puzzled.
“Sure. We just have them one at a time.”
polygamy was even promoted onboard the ship. A plaque on the bridge
assured potential newlyweds that marriages performed onboard lasted only for
the duration of the cruise.
ship’s initial passengers did not have such options. Built in 1944, the
vessel began its life as an American troopship hauling soldiers to World War
II. Since then it has been refitted and refurbished into an ocean liner.
enough for AARP membership, the craft showed its age. Plumbing sputtered
and ventilation wheezed. Threadbare carpets revealed years of stains, and
paint barely concealed bathroom rust. The shabby conditions caused some to
cancel passage and leave in disgust. Others shared their unhappiness,
whining to anyone who would listen. I took it all in stride. For
what we were paying, I could not expect opulence. Besides, the
scruffiness reminded me of home.
10, we reached the Canary Islands, a Spanish beach playground off Africa’s
northwest coast. Rather than take a tour, I opted to spend the day
sauntering solo through the port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Its
sidewalk cafes, fountained parks and shady promenades provided a refreshing
touch of Europe. Even though most places took dollars, I found an ATM and
bought local currency. It felt liberating to escape fellow passengers.
Unfortunate for my waistline, one of my initial fears proved unfounded.
The meals cooked by our English chef tasted fine, although some dishes were not
what one expected. This especially applied to desserts. The
pumpkin pie was best described as, “It sort of tastes yellow.”
culinary disaster was the coffee. The muck brewed onboard came from beans
that must have been ground beneath Juan Valdez’s mule before being dumped
aboard as bilge ballast. Greenpeace would have never allowed this foul
substance to be spilled overboard for fear of killing whales.
stop in the eastern Atlantic was Cape Verde, a former Portuguese island colony
located off the coast of Senegal. In slave-trading days, African natives
came through here on their way to Brazil.
Many of us crammed into pregnant minivans for an all-day, cross-island
tour. In spite of cheek-to-cheek seating, the trip proved
delightful. The island’s arid, volcanic landscape reminded me of Arizona.
Everywhere we drove, smiling, colorfully dressed residents stood by their homes
and waved. Best of all, we did more sightseeing than shopping. It
was a perfect “guy trip.”
full days we crossed the Atlantic, and as it was throughout the journey, the
time at sea was pure pleasure. Professional lecturers and retired
professors gave talks about the science, culture and history of the places we
visited. Passengers and staff taught classes on writing, dancing,
painting and more. Between brain stimulations, there was time for
reading, sunbathing and swimming.
sunset, some poured drinks and gathered on deck. Eyes gazed westward in
hopes of catching the elusive “green flash,” a teal burst that can
occur when the top of the solar disk touches the horizon. Those with
stronger drinks claimed more sightings.
dark, some of us searched for the Southern Cross. Others retreated to the
lounges where musicians performed everything from Frankie Avalon to Frank Zappa.
The ship’s theater offered standard cruise-fare stage productions featuring
magicians, comedians, cabaret singers or concert pianists. We even had
guest speakers onboard.
became our first Brazilian port. Built on cliffs, this former colonial
center features a color-splashed historical district. As I wandered
around, a school-age lad approached. In his native Portuguese, he told me
what I was looking at, but I failed to comprehend a single word.
I thanked him, and walked on.
followed, intent on providing a guided tour. Assuming he was freelancing,
I offered money, but he refused the payment. The two of us continued
through town. He explained the sights in his local language. I
responded as best I could in a meld of pidgin Portuguese and Taco Bell
Spanish. He grinned, graciously pretending to understand.
cruises, most port stops last only one day, and plans can be dashed if the
weather proves uncooperative. Such was the case in Rio de Janeiro.
arrived on Sunday, and I had hoped to go birding. Our onboard aviary
expert said Rio’s sugar-sand beaches should be rife with curvaceous, string
bottomed chickadees. Unfortunately, gloomy drizzle greeted our arrival,
and the only species I spotted were gaggles of Speedo-briefed beach roosters
strutting plump plumage on shoreline volleyball courts.
Aires proved much sunnier. Parks, monuments and outdoor cafés fill Argentina’s
colorful and cosmopolitan capital. Here, fabric shrinkage seemed to be
endemic. I encountered hundreds of young women whose apparel fit so
tightly, if they had a peso in their pockets, I could read the year it was
minted. It’s no surprise that anorexia is rampant in this Paris of the
windswept Falkland Islands became our first English speaking port.
Looking at the barren landscape, I wondered how anyone but the British could
desire such a desolate outpost.
Argentines apparently did. Two decades ago, their soldiers invaded the
Falklands, battling the English in what one reporter said was akin to two bald
men fighting over a comb. Temporarily victorious, the first thing
the Argentines did was require traffic to drive on the right side of the
road. A few months later, the British liberated the islands and restored
south, we crossed the Drake Passage, the 600-mile gap between South America and
Antarctica that is billed as the roughest water on earth. Passengers
downed Dramamine, wrapped wrist bands and plastered on patches, all in a
desperate attempt to alleviate seasickness. Only when we reached frigid
Antarctica did seas and stomachs calm.
South Shetlands, inflatable Zodiac boats unloaded us on a rocky Antarctic
beach. There, we watched three-ton elephant seals lounge like
lard-bellied couch potatoes while tuxedoed penguins strutted by like midget
cool of Antarctica, our geezerly ship showed its years. A few cabins
received enough heat to turn them into Finnish saunas. The ducts in mine,
however, exhaled less warmth than a zombie’s breath. I kept hoping the
menopausal heating system would have a hot flash, but it never did.
recrossed the Drake, passed Cape Horn and headed into the Beagle Channel off
the island of Tierra del Fuego. After stops in Ushuaia, Argentina, the
southernmost city in the world, wecontinued through the Straits of Magellan and
on to Punta Arenas, Chile.
On day 48
we headed up the Patagonian coast through the incomparable Chilean fiord
country. Its dark passages dripped with glaciers, ice chutes and
waterfalls. Although temperatures hovered slightly above freezing, I
spent as much time as possible on deck. With no cabin heat, it felt
turned to cross the Pacific, the journey dove to a low. Not only was the
room colder than my ex-wife’s stare, but the coffee quality tumbled from
ghastly to worse. Rather than using beans, the cooks began making the
brew from a bottled syrup that resembled crankcase-drained Pennzoil. I
sipped the loathsome liquid only for warmth. Fortunately, Polynesia loomed ahead.
The ship began reeling, its course
pummeled by the dual punches of the Humbolt Current meeting a South Pacific
gale. Spray flew as the bow jabbed and lurched through churning
swells. Passengers staggered, dishes tumbled, and lunches were lost in more
ways than one. From the safety of my cabin, I gazed awestruck at
journey’s 55th day, we reached Easter Island. This was our first
overnight stop, and many passengers seized the opportunity to sleep
ashore. For once we could dine on fresh seafood and sip coffee that
didn’t taste like Jiffy Lube sludge.
stone effigies called moai have made Easter Island famous. Sculpted
centuries ago, these statues can stand 32 feet tall and weigh 80 tons or
more. Scientists have debated why primitive Polynesians carved the moai
and erected them around the island. Personally, I believe it was a
preliterate Chamber of Commerce ploy to reward us tourists for journeying to
the most isolated isle on earth.
nearest inhabited neighbor, Pitcairn Island, lies 1,200 miles away. On
this two-square-mile hunk of rock, mutineers from the Bounty came to
hide in 1790. Fifty of their descendants still live there. We were
to go ashore, but rough seas precluded a landing.
could not visit the island, the islanders came to us. They brought goods
to sell — clothes, carvings, books, stamps, postcards and even plaques bearing
scraps of the HMS Bounty. A shopping orgy exploded on
deck. When the spree finally ended, the islanders held wads of green and
the ship looked like a Pitcairn Island T-shirt emporium.
every age cohort was represented onboard, the majority of our passengers had
long been receiving Social Security checks. While the kids behaved like
grown-ups, many of the adults acted like spoiled adolescents. They
squabbled, bickered, fussed and complained about everything from saving seats
biggest problem, however, was theft. Personal property seemed safe, but
items belonging to the ship or staff vanished with regularity. Passengers
ripped out sections of guidebooks for their own use. Someone pilfered the
VCR used by instructors, then allegedly threw it overboard. Reference
materials and dictionaries disappeared from the ship’s library while maps and
notices vanished from walls. One brazen thief even stooped to swipe
Christmas tree tinsel from the ship’s chaplain.
sampled the siren isles of the South Pacific. In Tahiti, I rented a car
and explored the land that inspired Gauguin and drove the Bounty crewmen
to mutiny. As I pedaled a bicycle around Bora Bora, locals greeted me
with smiling bonjours. In the Fiji Museum, I saw cannibal forks
used at a 19th-century dinner party whose guest of honor and main entrée was a
Methodist missionary. Off New Caledonia, I got a wet-dry double feature
as I snorkeled near a catamaran on which several bikini-clad lasses
lounged. Below the surface, it was A Fish Called Wanda.
Above, it looked like out-takes from Baywatch.
torrential downpour dampened our arrival to Australia’s Great Barrier
Reef. There I discovered that snorkeling in a deluge could be fun, in
spite of a chilling, pelting rain-driven back massage.
Darwin on Australia’s north coast, I took a river tour to see man-eating
crocodiles. I had high expectations, but the guide said we would not be
allowed to toss disgruntled passengers to the toothy reptiles.
most of my shipmates were pleasant to be around, and after months of
prison-close confinement, we knew each other by face if not by name. With
some I bonded well. Others I found as endearing as in-laws and prayed we
would never cross paths again. They probably felt the same.
favorite shipmates’ favorite port, came next. On this Indonesian island,
rice paddies terrace volcanic hillsides, sacred monuments rise godward, dinner
can be had for $5, and everywhere the people seem honest and genuinely
amicable. Friendly, sacred, scenic and cheap, I had to agree Bali offered
a touch of paradise.
biggest deterrents to enjoying the island were the hoards of vendors who
greeted our arrival. As I stepped ashore, a clutch of walking Walmarts
swarmed me like flies heading for a steaming cow-pie. These sidewalk
salespeople proffered blue-light specials such as three T-shirts for $10, four
ball caps for $5 and “genuine” Rolex wristwatches at two for
$15. Show interest in their products and they latched on like swamp
mosquitoes slurping a nudist. I was lucky to escape solvent.
stops in Java and Singapore, we hit Sri Lanka, the island nation southeast of
India. The country was enduring an ethnic civil war, but our main danger
was not bullets and bombs. It was deadly traffic. I spent a
white-knuckled day riding with shipmates to the interior to see the ruins of
Sigiriya. There, a fifth century ruler, who also feared for his life,
built a stronghold atop a 600-foot-tall stone monolith. At least he had
500 dancing concubines to allay his worries.
of the Maldives have a wetter fear. The highest point in their chain of
atolls towers only six feet above the Indian Ocean. If global warming
causes seas to rise, these folks may have to snorkel to bed.
calling on the mountainous Seychelle Islands, the ship docked for three days in
Mombassa, Kenya. Many passengers departed for brief game safaris. A
friend and I opted instead for an overnight visit to the Tanzanian island of
an afternoon exploring Stone Town, a timeworn Arab seaport that once served as
the capital of Oman. Small shops lined narrow streets, and vintage
buildings bore exotic carved doors.
morning, we took a taxi out to a preserve for Zanzibar red colobus monkeys, one
of Africa’s rarest primates. Locals call them poison monkeys and believe
that after the animals feed in an area, plants and crops will die. For
the hour we watched them flit through trees, the only thing dying was time.
driver dropped us at the airport for our return flight to Mombassa. We
secured boarding passes and seat assignments, then paid departure taxes and
cleared immigration. Finally came security check.
military officer directed us one at a time to an armed soldier who stood behind
a small table. My friend went first. He opened his bags, talked,
smiled and left for the departure lounge. The directing guard then sent
me to the soldier.
have Tanzanian shillings left?” he asked.
I exchanged no money here,” I honestly answered.
“Then you give me one dollar,” he said.
immediately understood. This was the baksheesh shakedown table. I
looked at the soldier. I looked at his gun. I looked down the
hallway to the strip-search examination room.
hesitation, I pulled a single from my pocket and slipped it to the
soldier. He smiled and sent me on my way. The man never did check
my bag for guns, bombs or contraband.
journey’s most touching stop may have been Eritrea, an impoverished nation on
the Horn of Africa. Well off the tourist track, they get fewer visitors
per year than some McDonalds rest rooms get in one day. With 600 onboard,
our arrival became a national event.
of white-scarfed women greeted the ship, dancing and chanting with the verve of
hoedowners at a backwoods revival. Uniformed school children presented
floral bouquets to the cruise director and her assistants. A
videotographer filmed our arrival for Eritrean television, and reporters
interviewed passengers as they toured the countryside. Either we were the
biggest event to hit Eritrea since its liberation from Ethiopia, or this was a very
slow news day.
Jordanian port of Aqaba, four of us hired a taxi for a drive to Petra, the
2,300-year-old Nabataean city carved into the walls of a desert canyon.
The driver agreed to $120 for the day. At journey’s end, he demanded
$250, claiming he provided “extras.” The up-charge must have
been for thrills he provided by playing chicken with oncoming traffic.
refused to yield to the gouging, the scene became ugly. Both sides
threatened to call the police. Finally, we plopped $120 on the pavement
and walked toward the ship. I kept glancing over my shoulder, half
expecting to see squad cars and flashing lights. I just hoped Jordanian
jails served decent coffee.
Cruise Company’s inaugural voyage was drawing to a close. By now, most of
us had forgiven the ship’s shoddiness. The pain of heatless rooms and
slow-draining showers had been more than offset by the journey’s extraordinary
itinerary and education program.
Unfortunately, negative feedback eroded confidence back home. In spite of
prices starting at about $100 per day, bookings for the second cruise
faltered. When fuel costs tripled, the company was doomed. Our
journey went full term. The follow-up on a different vessel folded
mid-route, leaving passengers stranded Gilligan-like in Tahiti.
of offering budget-priced, around-the-world voyages seems viable. Perhaps
another company will continue the practice.
through the Suez Canal and stopped in Israel, our final port before
Greece. I took a tour to Jerusalem. Ambling through the ancient
walled city, I felt the holy auras of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
Before heading back to the ship, the bus made a rest stop at a small cafe and
gift shop. It was called the Elvis Inn.
had covered 27,646 nautical miles and explored 33 ports in 25 countries.
Now I stood in perhaps the most revered city on earth. There before me,
shadowed in the halo of the late day sun, rose a towering statue of
Elvis. Transfixed in humbled awe, I gazed into the eyes of the gilded
icon from Graceland.
everything made sense. It was time to go home.