Around the World in 56 days

By 18 February 2024March 11th, 2024No Comments

Around the World in 56 Days

Carmel McNaught

In this piece, I attempt to capture the essence of an amazing, whirlwind, round-the-world, 56-day trip that David and I did from November 2023 to January 2024. We are still processing the kaleidoscope of images, experiences, learnings, connections, memories, and so much more.

We had two travel ‘needs’ to fulfil – seeing our beloved daughter Liz and family in Italy as it had been 5 long years since we were together (video calls are not adequate); and going on a Covid-deferred trip to Antarctica. Now, Italy and Antarctica are not close to each other, but luck was with us right from the initial planning. A round-the-world ticket is cheaper than flying direct to South America (our expedition left from Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina)!

Lots of research and a good travel agent later we had an itinerary: a village on Lake Como as our first port of call; followed by places in Europe we had not visited before (Liechtenstein, Warsaw in Poland, Budapest in Hungary, Brussels in Belgium and Luxembourg); then off to England to see several dear friends; a short stay in Frankfurt, Germany; off to Buenos Aires for a few days; then to Ushuaia and embarkation on our expedition ship for 20 wonderful days in the southern polar regions. We finished the trip with a few days in Santiago, Chile, before returning home. Were we fit enough for all this travel? Was this itinerary too ambitious for us folk in our 70s? The answer is ‘Yes’ to the first and ‘No’ to the second. Each day was fantastic and the whole trip exceeded all our expectations.

So, highlights? The first was the joy of our family reunion. The initial hugs with Liz, Rob and their 7-year-old twins were magical. The many stories we have heard over the years about their life in an old villa in a small, picturesque village on the shores of beautiful Lake Como came to life. So much laughter, long walks, the local sights and the splendid local café for the morning coffee ritual: we have photos but, more importantly, we have memories to sustain us till our next time of meeting. I cannot be surprised that my children have chosen to live in interesting places (I left Australia for Africa when I was 26) but I know now how my mother felt when visits were so few and far between. Our time in Italy was the emotional highlight of the trip.

I mentioned luck before. It applies also to the weather for the whole trip. Wintry Europe was mostly sunny as well; even England’s weather was mostly fine, and we had calm seas in Antarctica. A charmed 8 weeks. As we had chosen places in Europe that were new to us, we were unashamedly tourists: Art Nouveau and Art Deco architectural heavens, snow-covered mountain vistas, great palaces and museums. Also, our friends in England curated visits to places we had not been to before, two highlights being Charles Darwin’s house (a great taster for our Antarctic experience) and Bletchley Park (a real sense of WWII history, and the logic and perseverance that code-breaking requires). And so, the first half of our epic adventure was rich, joyous and deeply interesting.

Our few days in the cities of South America (Buenos Aires, Ushuaia and Santiago) were also fascinating and, as in Europe, we explored interesting architecture in scenically beautiful cities. However, the uneasy tension between colonial history and indigenous rights was fairly apparent (we understand this well in Australia), and we were saddened by obvious homelessness and by quite significant air pollution in Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Without doubt, the experiential highlight of the whole trip was our 20 days on the Sylvia Earle, a new and small expedition ship. There were only 118 passengers on our trip and a fabulous crew who catered to every need. We had superb celebrations on both Christmas Day (which was our first White Christmas) and New Year’s Eve. We had engaging conversations at every meal with folk who have interesting lives.

I won’t spend further time waxing lyrical about the elegance of the ship and the fantastic meals because the aspect of the trip that captivated us was our immersion in a near-pristine environment. Our itinerary was the South Shetlands, the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falklands (Malvinas).

Imagine several hundred thousand penguins on a beach happily mingling with hundreds of seals; imagine the rich abundance of ocean fish that supports these huge populations. We were able to walk close to the penguins and seals, observing them at close quarters and watching their interactions. Huge albatrosses and petrels often flew around the ship, hunting in the wake. Shags (cormorants), shearwaters, prions and other birds were wonderful to watch, as were several close encounters with whales. And all this in the majestic setting of the towering cliffs, awe-inspiring glaciers and snow-covered peaks of the Antarctic mainland and islands.

One other treasured aspect was how the history of Antarctic exploration was incorporated into our trip with superb lectures and films at appropriate places. We visited Ernest Shackleton’s grave on South Georgia and thoroughly enjoyed museums in South Georgia and the Falklands.

We are now much more aware of how precious our remaining wilderness areas are. The melting of the Antarctic ice is tragic, highlighted to us by viewing the largest iceberg that currently exists (named A23a) which we estimated held 1.2 trillion tonnes of water. We adhered to strict biosecurity protocols on the Sylvia Earle at every landing. However, several possible landings were cancelled because of the presence of avian influenza which particularly affected the seal populations. We are in an interconnected world with all the opportunities and hazards that this represents.

Hopefully, this summary of our adventure will whet others’ appetites for exploring this wonderful world.