Part 2 - The journey to Leros begins
Picture Sydney airport at 3pm on a Friday afternoon, completely empty. A few staff and maybe 5 flights on the board and the Qantas lounges are all closed. It would not have surprised me had a tumble weed rolled through the place.
Where are the tumble weeds??
I don’t recall the reason now but we ended up having to fly via Melbourne to pick up our Emirates flight to Dubai, so here we are checking in for an international flight at the Qantas domestic terminal. We had all of our documentation at the ready, including our Victorian transit border pass (please attach to the windscreen…) We knew we had ticked all of the boxes to be able to depart, including a rationale for not having a return ticket, as well as all of the entry requirements for Greece and UAE. Qantas had other ideas though – their computer said no! Despite what was clearly outlined on the Emirates website Q insisted we have a negative Covid PCR test before they will check us in saying it is required for UAE!
Its difficult to argue with the person with the power to let you on that flight that you are so desperate to board. So we have to hot foot it over to the international terminal in a taxi with all our luggage, get at test, fork out $300 (plus taxi fare) and get back to the domestic terminal. Luckily we had given ourselves plenty of time. The flight to Melbourne was not that full and thankfully uneventful but our arrival was anything but! We were greeted by “officials” in full PPE who turned on the theatre for us. We were pretty much frog marched from the domestic terminal to the international terminal and they waited for us at the Emirates desk to change our seats before escorting us to the departure gates. Important to make sure we left the country, did not pass GO and did not enter Victoria. Wow! I only wish I could have taken a photo of the last minute message on the passport scanner – words to the effect that returning to Australia these days was rather difficult and expensive, in case having come this far you wanted to change your mind!
OMG you should see how empty the plane to Dubai is! Which empty row am I going to lie down and sleep in??? Who needs business class! Finally the plane doors close and we can heave a sigh of relief. We are on our way. Oh and by the way UAE did not require a Covid test from anyone coming from Australia, and even if they did, free testing is offered by Emirates on arrival! Thanks Qantas!
At least my Q Club membership had been extended long enough to get me into the Emirates lounge for a shower and to start feeling human again. Due to dry July I did resist the Moet bar at 10am (Keith didn’t). The plane to Athens was a different story, packed to the rafters with obnoxious holiday makers. We had planned our arrival carefully to connect with the overnight ferry direct to Leros, but dang! no cabins available, so we decided to stay a couple of nights in Pireaus and catch the “fast” day ferry. There is a VIP lounge with its own toilets and canteen so we could isolate somewhat from the masses.
The highspeed ferry stopped at a few places along the way, including Ikara, Mykonos, Patmos and some other place I cant remember now. Its incredible to watch these huge car ferries manoeuvre. They charge into a tiny little island port, turn on a dime and go stern to a concrete dock. Sometimes they will drop and anchor and med moor, but more often than not they hold it on stern lines and engines as people, cars and trucks pour on and off.
Finally the next stop is Leros, a slower than normal trip due to Meltemi and the chop and someone forgetting to get off at Mykonos! Keith got chatting to one of the officers and we got invited up to visit the bridge so we enjoyed watching the entry into Lakki (Leros) harbour from there before hot footing it down to get our bags and get off quickly as they don’t stop for very long. The lovely Mrs & Mr Pagonis were waiting with our car, we managed to take the scenic route back to their shop, stopped by the supermarket on the way and arrived at Artemis Boatyard at sunset. We got an enthusiastic greeting from the nightwatchman who had clearly missed all his Aussie and Kiwi catamaran friends. And there she was! Our home, our beloved ITIKI! Oh the dirt, dust and rust! But what a sight for sore eyes. It was all we could do to hoist our suitcases up the ladder, make up the bed and collapse. Check out the video below to see the final leg of our journey!
Part 1 – Escaping the Hermit Kingdom
“Oh, you’re Australian! How did you get out??!” The German gentleman of a certain age asks incredulously. Perhaps his mind drifts back to pre-’89 GDR, Checkpoint Charlie, the famed and ingenious escapes in secret compartments of VWs that have gone down in history.
Well how do you go about getting out of a country that is determined to keep its citizens both locked in, and locked out. For our own good of course. Well that in itself is a bit of a feat, but first let’s wind the clock back to a time when life as we know it was very different. When we were oblivious to a deadly virus that was already circulating in its place of origin. New Year’s eve 2019, the date of the first case report of Covid-19 to WHO. We had been back in Australia just on 2 months and were looking forward to our trip to Antarctica in late February, before heading back to ITIKI towards the end of April. How did you spend NYE 2019? Who would have imagined what was brewing.
Well as you know we made it out of South America just days before borders began slamming shut. We cancelled our return to Greece, and waited… and waited. We optimistically applied for an exemption to leave the country around July/August 2020, and it was granted on the grounds of us having spent more time out of Oz than in, over the last 2 year. Hope of a return for a short, late 2020 season faded, as the pandemic did the opposite. There were so many Aussies who could not get back home, we did not want to join them and end up wintering aboard, locked down in some foreign port.
Plotting to depart and making it happen
As much as we didn’t want to be there, we made the most of our time in Sydney, catching up with friends when we could, renovating our Cammeray apartment and visiting some far flung locations in NSW that had always been on our “list” – The Waterfall Way, Gloucester Tops, Broken Hill/Silverton/Menindee lakes- but we were just marking time as we really wanted to be on ITIKI. Being vaccinated before travelling was a must do for us. As vaccines started rolling out overseas it was clear it would eventually become a “requirement” in order to move freely, avoid quarantine etc and we wanted to protect ourselves and others as well. Hopes were raised and then dashed as the “it’s not a race” world’s slowest vaccination “stroll out” schedule was announced and then failed to materialise. At 3 months, the timeframe between jabs for AZ was half a cruising season, and at one point availability for me was looking like October! We started investigating ways to get vaccinated in the UK or even the US. I was getting bored and frustrated and even started a 4 month work contract. Then literally overnight things changed. We could get our first dose so we signed up immediately! I have never been so relieved to have a needle in my deltoid. We had a timeline, the countdown had started. Now just a small matter of some open heart surgery for my mum, finish up my contract work and off we could go! Friday 9th of July was set as our D-Day!
The good news was our original exemption to leave had no time limit but to be sure, to be sure, we re-applied with stat decs, Covid vaccine certificates and a huge pile of boat related documents. It was a relief to find out that we were still classified as “normally resident of a country other than Australia” and allowed to depart.
Everything was going smoothly and according to plan, but still there was a sense of nervous anticipation as the world had changed. We got our second shots of AZ, Mum’s op went well and I headed up to SWR to spend time with her. Keith stayed in Sydney to pack up the apartment, re-sell all our Gumtree furniture and clean up ready for the tenant to move in. And then Covid raises its ugly head again! Sydney goes into lockdown, making it super-hard to offload the last few items of furniture. Fortunately, thanks to the exceptional sales skills of Mr Logan, some of our buyers left with more than they intended and finally the place was empty. Keith spent the last couple of nights sleeping on a collection of cushions, pillows and mattress protectors and cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning! As we were technically in the process of permanently relocating Keith was “allowed” to leave the Sydney hotzone to come to SWR for a few days before our departure. Just to be on the safe side though he had a precautionary brain biopsy (aka Covid swab - negative) the day before driving up. I worked up until the day before departure and dropped my laptop back in to the office on the way to the airport! We are on our way...
Well that is what we though when we decided to hire a camper-van and try a bit of terrestrial cruising to make up for the missing 2020 cruising Mediterranean season. How different could it be? Ok we are not in the Med but there is a lot to see and do out in western NSW right? Yes borders were still closed so we needed to limit our range at this stage. Our van is a Mercedes Sprinter, fitted out with queen sized bed, galley, shower and toilet so it will be just like a yacht! So how does cruising the backroads compare to cruising the coast? Well there are a lot of similarities of course, but some notable differences.
1. Our vessel - The Mercedes Sprinter
So of course we have all the essential facilities we need on board, but with a twist. For obvious reasons camper vans only come in the mono-hull variety. Like monohull it is important to ensure items are secure when underway. That cutlery draw will soon give you an indication if you are heeling too much around corners! The lounge area converts to your bed but given the energy expended to perform this feat of engineering it did not get converted back to a lounge for the duration of the trip. Instead the drivers' and passengers' seats spin around to provide a compact dining area and we have outdoor table and chairs too.
2. Passage planning
Of course you must plan your route wherever you go. Whilst you are not constrained by the wind direction, the availability of thin strips of bitumen do tend to dictate your direction to the next town or anchorage. In our case a 2WD hire camper must stick to sealed roads, so unfortunately that means missing quite a few national park areas out west where some of the dirt roads are so badly corrugated it reminded us of crossing the gulf of Cadiz. As we also discovered, the weather does still dictate your plans as well. We had some heavy rains during the last week of our trip and that meant a change of plans due to road closures. Fortunately there is an app (WikiCamps) which is like Navily or noforeignland.com which shows all the campsite, van parks, dump stations etc on a map, including reviews and ratings as well as fees and charges. This was a great help to find alternative destinations and much needed powered sites!
3. The cruising community
Just like when you are out on the water, other caravaners, like other boaties, wave to you! Of course you have the opportunity to share knowledge, tips and road stories both online and in person, at caravan park happy hours and laundromats. There are also useful FB pages where fellow caravaners post tips on great campsites and places of interest, as well as comments on the behaviour of fellow campers and their nasty habits, such as emptying grey water and parking too close. Just like cruising FB pages, posts about toilets get the most comments.
4. Onboard systems
The "autopilot" is limited to speed control only. No stepping away from the helm to make a cup of tea or get a beer from the fridge, whilst keeping one eye on watch. We have a house battery but have to spend every second night "hooked up" (to shore power...) as no solar panels. The engine doesn't give much of a charge to the house batteries and doesn't heat the shower water. This limits flexibility and we found ourselves spending more nights "hooked up" than we expected, just in case we needed to free camp the next day. "Releasing the hounds" (ie emptying the holding tanks) is quite easy. You have a little box or cassette that is accessed from outside of the van and you open the spout to empty the contents (like a teapot) at a "dump station" every 2nd day. Works a treat. No water maker of course so tanks must be filled with town water. No big deal as it is usually available at the same dump station... The downside is that there are many country towns out west reliant on bore water and it is a bit of a worry when the locals wont even drink it! Oh well, there is always wine...
5. Overall experience
Overall we enjoyed the experience, but would have to say that it compares more closely to a bareboat charter than living and cruising on your own boat. There is a lot of distance between towns out west of NSW and we certainly did a lot of driving. That said, we saw some amazing sights and some of the country towns are like stepping back in time. Our vessel was pretty squeezie, even with just 2 people, but something bigger would possibly have been more limiting. Three weeks was probably a tad too long for our first trip, we came back a couple of days earlier than anticipated as there was some horrible weather on the horizon. If we were to do this on a more permanent basis we would probably want the flexibility of a 4WD vehicle to take us into those wilder "anchorages" and solar power would be a must to keep us functioning off the grid. Going inland was a novel experience for us, it was really interesting how much we missed seeing the ocean! Whilst we gravitated to riverside campsites, a muddy brown strip of water could not quite replace the Med!
Below are some highlights of our whirlwind tour of "outback" NSW.
What do you do when you are “stuck” in Sydney for winter and your beautiful Helia home (ITIKI) is waiting patiently in Greece?? Well you go and take a sneaky look at the new FP Elba 45 of course!
We really enjoyed following LARRIKIN’s epic journey of just over 90 days from Europe to Australia, the latter part of this tainted somewhat by the prospect of returning to civilisation in a Covid-gripped world. It seems a lifetime away when we caught up with Gordon and Lou in January in Sydney with other FP owners – little did we know what was in store for us!
It was a real treat to step aboard the Elba 45 and take a good look around this beautiful boat, to welcome home Gordon and Louise, as well as catching up with the MHS team - and most importantly to see what all of the Elba hype is about! I was especially keen to see how the Elba compares to our Helia Evo of course, quietly hopeful of convincing myself that we don’t need to upgrade and start all over again…
Part III: The Incredible South Georgia
Well its two full days at sea from Elephant Island heading north to get to South Georgia, a journey of some 1,300 miles. We are following in the "footsteps" of Shackleton and his crew of 5 aboard the 22.5 ft lifeboat The James Caird as they left the camp at Point Wild in search of rescue. They took 16 days to reach the southern coast of South Georgia, and legend has it that they were only able to take 3 sextant readings on the entire passage but still nailed it! What an incredible journey.
Part II: Deception Island and Elephant Island
From the Antarctic Peninsula we cross The Bransfield Straits again and back to the southern end of the South Shetland Islands. It was a fairly calm crossing and we arrive in the early morning at Deception island.
Part I: Antarctic Peninsula
We started our journey from Punta Arenas in southernmost Chile. One of the very special things about our trip is that we actually get to fly over the Drake Passage, missing out on 2 days of what very often is a rough and boring crossing. Given that we have a long cruise back from South Georgia, this is quite a bonus as it gives us 2 extra days of the expedition. But first the preparation...
All of our shore gear (jackets, pants, gloves etc) must be carefully cleaned before we get on the plane. Antarctica is a pristine and protected environment so any dirt, grass seeds or organisms need to be removed. We are provided with some very glamorous gumboots to wear on the expedition as well, and then proceed to the "weigh in"! What?! Here we discover (I guess it must have been in the fine print) a 20kg luggage allowance on the flight! Hmm fortunately we were not too much over... We are required to wear all of our shore gear on the plane as we will be getting straight onto the boat via zodiac on arrival. Needless to say some of our excess baggage was stowed in pockets...
What do you want to H2(kn)O(w)?
One of our lovely guests on ITIKI this year was a dear ‘old’ friend of mine who just happens to be one of Australia’s leading experts on water management, Dr Annette Davison (BSc (hons), M Env Law, PhD, GAICD etc etc). Annette is founder and director of Risk Edge whose mission is to help its clients optimise their businesses through identifying risks and harnessing the opportunities that creates. Annette is a very smart lady, not only has she has chosen me as a friend, as you can see she has lots of letters after her name…
Annette and her husband Steve (a highly regarded steel scheduler – yes it’s a thing!) joined us for a few days in Gocek Bay in southern Turkey and over a glass of water or two (well wine is mostly water isn’t it???) we got to talking about matters of water and waste management on a yacht and decided to take a look at ITIKI’s systems from a water safety and risk management perspective. This is the sort of thing that can happen when a couple of scientists have access to alcohol and too much time on their hands. I have to say though, it has been a very interesting exercise. We had not considered our water management system quite so holistically until now. While it has evolved to its current configuration, rather than being designed that way up front, it seems my own science and public health background, along with Keith’s diligent research and a healthy dose of common sense, have helped us reach a pretty good outcome
Lynda is slowly getting used to the transition from working to not working and racing to cruising.