Published: December 29th 2010December 29th 2010
Greetings from a blisteringly hot Buenos Aires! I have been assiduously writing up my Antarctic trip but if you just want to skip straight through to the photos for the first part of this Antarctic Blog then feel free to click here..... http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=315899&id=691995235&l=a6138dac97
If you want cut yourself another slice of Xmas Cake or grab a mince pie and a brandy and settle down to read and imagine the first part of my Antarctic odyssey and then look at pictures...read on!
The White Continent has fascinated me for years. Stories abaound of the explorers, mere mortals who survived or died epic voyages to, through and across it by land, by sea. This frozen desert - the coldest, driest and windiest place on the planet - has always captured my imagination and I’ve always longed to travel there.
Boarding the Polar Pioneer and watching Ushuaia fade into the distance as we set sail down the Beagle Channel, whilst a flotilla of seabirds accompanied us was a moment i will never forget. Sheer incredulity that i was actually on my way to the final continent on earth I’ve yet to visit (tick that box!). I came to South America with the idea that i may be able to get to Antarctica but i didn’t dare make any plans knowing the prohibitive costs. Absolute minimum starting price if you were to book in advance and be sharing all facilities and a triple room would probably come in at $5000US. Logic dictated that should i give myself time in the town that is the stepping stone to the world’s most isolated continent I may get lucky and bag a last minute deal. Surely a sold cabin at a fraction of the price is better than an empty one?
In these “challenging economic times”, and encouraged by a certain Mike Clubbe, a fellow Argentinphile (?), I started my pricing research, boat comparison and importantly IAATO (http://www.iaato.org/ ) accredited/compliant companies back in El Chatern and my fellow Kumuka travellers (half of whom were heading to Antarctica themselves) went through the whole emotional process with me. The delight at finding ships that fitted with my dates at prices substantially less than listed meant that the intangible was becoming a distinct reality. Then, i was stroke a blow of luck beyond my wildest dreams.
The lovely Emma who i spent 2.5 months travelling through Africa with last year had returned to Sydney and got herself a job with an amazing company called Aurora Expeditions (http://www.auroraexpeditions.com.au/ ). Taking her advice, I booked a last minute offer on their ship, Polar Pioneer (with about 7 days to spare!) and before I knew it I was actually off to Antarctica! When I boarded the Polar Pioneer I was showed to my cabin (which I was lucky enough to have to myself, and which I am told is very unusual) with private bathroom , hot water, a desk, crisp white ironed bed sheets and plenty of space to hang clothes, it felt almost churlish not to unpack my life from my rucksack and settle in.
Start saving now folks because i cannot recommend enough. (http://www.auroraexpeditions.com.au/expedition/antarctic-peninsula-2011-2012 ).
This all rather made up for the fact that some bugger in the Hostel in Ushuaia stole all the money i had in my wallet. They had the kindness to leave me all my cards but shamefully managed to relieve me of c 700 pesos....about £112. Having spent 1 week at the hostel (and it was a really lovely place) I got complacent about the opportunists in this nasty world. A moment’s anger turned to sadness but as the Polar Pioneer departed the shores of Tierra del Fuego, flanked by the Chilean and Argentine mountains on either side covered in Antarctic beech, the flocks of terns, cormorants, gulls, petrels and skuas calling to the elements, I let my disappointment subside. After all, I was on my way to Antarctica!
From the moment i stepped under the auspices of Aurora I was impressed with their professionalism, their passion and their propensity to keep us informed and involved at all times. From PA announcements when something remarkable had appeared in the waters, to being gently woken each morning with a poem , to the daily Penguin Post updates carefully scribed after a day of adventure. These miraculously appeared on our doors each evening with a lovely summary of the day, with travel stats and a timetable for the following day. They helped consolidate the many wondrous experiences, one quickly forgets as each day brings new adventures. And as for the food....the chefs served us an obscene amount of deliciousness. 3 meals a day plus often elevenses and afternoon tea...i was waddling like a Weddel Seal at the end of the trip but I am getting ahead of myself here as this blog is going to be an unfolding of the 11 days. Through the pictures and words I want you to feel as though you were actually in Antarctica! Although from what i hear the weather in London has been practically Antarctic....
No sooner were we seabound on the 17 December, Judd the charismatic expedition leader distinguishable with his laconic Aussie drawl, unfathomably long pauses over the PA system and a mop of unruly curls, called us to a briefing on the Bridge. The boat is a Russian icebreaker from St Petersburg and the 22 strong Russian crew run it in Siberian fashion. These guys know what they are doing in this icy wilderness and as passengers we are extremely lucky to have an Open Bridge policy where we can at (nearly) all times observe from the helm, the view as the ship ploughs her way through the depths of the Southern Ocean.
As is mandatory on Antarctic Trips we went through a full safety briefing, enacting a full “abandon ship” mode which necessitated donning life jackets and venturing into the Polar Class life vessel capsules that hold 40pax, replete with engine, fuel and food n water supplies. However, each are cramped, dark and claustrophobic and with any luck we wont meet the fate of the M/S Explorer from 3 years ago (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/07/americas_enl_1195852937/html/1.stm). Ahem.
As the night drew in on day 1, but with the sky never fully darkening we emerged out of the Beagle Channel into the inimitable Drake Passage, the narrow stretch of water that separates South America from the Antarctic Peninsula. By some miraculous change in weather, the Polar Pioneer crossed the 1000kms on relatively calm waters. Compared with the storms of the previous week and the Clelia II disaster, we simply rolled our way towards the South Shetland Isles. However, I can’t say those 2 days at sea were comfortable for me with my pathetically tragic sea legs. I took pre-combative action by dosing up on 75mg of Stugeron which eased the nausea but rendered me into a zombielike state and i spent most of the crossing half asleep. The overnight stretch was like being in a rough hammock but instead of a slumber inducing lateral motion, the swell sent me sliding up and down the bunk. At sea we were marked by a variety of albatross with their immense wingspans, riding in the air as the Polar Pioneer carved its way through open sea. When the crossing is really rough its fondly known as “The Drake Shake”...im glad it was considered mild as i don’t think i would have coped too well with anything more violent. Doctor John...inject me NOW! Due to my drug induced lethargy I didn’t make it to the first lecture on seals from Keith, the onboard naturalist but i did make it to the one of penguins in full preparation for our first landing.
Late in the evening of the 18th December, we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, also known as the Polar Front. This zone varies from year to year but it marks the boundary where the southern and northern waters meet and changes in salinity, density and temperature take place. It gets markedly colder both above and below water but other than that there was no discernable crossing point and the miles of boundless sea and the infinite horizon stretch all around.
Eventually after 49 hours of continuous sailing the anchor was dropped with a roaring rush. Landing on terra firm after the instability of being afloat for 2 days was exhilarating. Out of the turban of fog rose the dark and mysterious from of one of the Aitcho islands, part of the South Shetlands situated just above the Northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Kitting up in our multiple layers and now equipped with wellies we each took our turn to carefully get into the floating zodiac boats (tough inflatable dinghies) which seat a max of 12pax each to take us from boat to shore. One of the joys of the Polar Pioneer is that it is a small vessel. Some Antarctic cruises take hundreds, thousands of passengers and the opportunities to actually get ashore are very limited. With our intimate group, everyone could board zodiacs each time ..in a matter of minutes.
The early evening fog was thick and as we motored towards the shore the Polar Pioneer became a mere ghostly outline. To actually step on to the land that first time was a complete and utter rush. A realisation pinged in my head “Im here. Im in the Antarctic!”. Surrounded immediately by colonies of gentoo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentoo_Penguin) and chinstrap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinstrap_Penguin) penguins which huddled near the muddy, mossy, guano dense shoreline, I felt an overwhelming sense of privilege and humility (feelings that were to be repeated many times). Trying not to slip in the treacherous viscous combination of slush and shit, some of us followed Judd across the island across plains of snow to gaze down on obese elephant seals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_seal) snorting and belching near the water’s edge. Their vast fat bodies slumped in the pools of murky seawater. A juvenile fur seal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fur_seal ) brayed nearby, its recalcitrant territorial call absorbed into the grey mist. Trekking back to the zodiacs through the snow, the fog had thickened but we got some incredible views of penguins splayed over their pebble built nests, protecting beneath their oily plumage the latest additions to their family. Tiny chicks appeared from under the fluffy warmth of parent’s bellies, their pink mouths open demanding regurgitated food or a gasp of the below zero Antarctic breeze. The air was filled with the pungent, acrid smell of penguin guano and the shrill cacophony of calls the birds make to each other.
It was a truly special first Antarctic moment and the ship at dinner was abuzz with all the passengers glowing with the adrenalin of being here. My fellow Expeditioners are a varied bunch. I had expected everyone to be extremely old and extremely rich but I would have been wrong. A healthy mix of all ages. Lots of older couples, a group of older singletons, a handful of 30 to 40 something single women and the youngest passenger, 21 yr old Trevor travelling with his parents! As Aurora is an Oz based company, most of the Expeditioners are Australian but a few English, Brazilian, American, Dutch, Finnish and French so a hearty mix which bodes well. Then of course there are the Russian crew to get to know as well!
20 December: As we chugged our way South towards the Antarctic Peninsula through the Bransfield Strait, the first icebergs started to appear. Initially, they emerged as individual monsters materialising out of the ethereal quasi-twilight. These bergs were enormous. The size of multiple double-decker buses piled high, alone at sea having broken away from glaciers or ice shelves further south.
The Pioneer has a fine reputation for polar expedition cruising, due to its strength, manoeuvrability and small number of passengers. The captain and crew are among the most experienced ice-navigators in the world and their enthusiasm is legendary. Dmetri, the youngest of the Captain’s “mates” chartered the ship through these obstacles with Russian rave music accompanying. As we progressed deeper into the continent more and more bergs floated past like a Microsoft Windows Screensaver! Snow started to fall from the crepuscular sky blowing around the bows of the boat in swirling and eddying movements. Far off, the fin of a minke whale (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minke_whale) surfaced above the dark waters, its blowhole sending a fountain of water high into the air. It was just us and an immense sea filled with giants of the deep. I discovered today from one of Keith’s lectures that over millions of years, these behemoth beasts, gradually transmogrified from strange wolf-like creatures with hooves into the sea faring animals they are now. Isnt evolution just like the coolest thing?!! ;-)
As the first views of the Antarctic continent started to loom in the gloom, the excitement was palpable and in pure Aurora style was celebrated with a call for us all to get out into the bows and indulge in freshly baked Chelsea Buns from the kitchens of Gray & Dave washed down with hand made hot chocolate from Terry, Hotel Manager (and all round good guy) doctored with some peppermint crème de menthe courtesy of Maggie, the Assistant Expedition leader. Under the fluttering of polar snowflakes we toasted our arrival. Passing through the Palmer Archipelago, Sergei, the bosun (boatswain) sporting a beared you could get lost in, dropped the anchor and gradually lowered into the waters both the kayaks and zodiacs.
In Keith’s zodiac he carefully negotiated the pancake ice to land us in Paradise Harbour. Pancake Ice is a sort of slush puppy ice...water on its way to freezing but in that transformational state so easily disintegratable. Paradise Harbour was an expanse of ice mycology – the flat surface level pancakes joining and separating like fungus growing in a poetry dish or the congealed cold fat on a tray of roasted potatoes! Being aware of the marked “penguin highways” some of us followed Terry up the more than 45 angle snow clad slopes to the top of the bluff to gaze out over a view that was pure Antarctica. Amidst the low lying cloud, patches of blue sky were becoming visible and the shafts of the sun plunged their way through to sparkle and dance on a bay of bergs. Gentoo penguins squawked and every so often the echo of a berg calving could be heard. A splintering crack and a powerful boom as the ice splits and crashes down into the water causing a surge at the shoreline.
This was a view to silence you. To make you humble. To make you question. To make you reach into your soul and contemplate the beauty, the majesty and the grandeur of this frozen place. Yet, i feel so animated here. It is intoxicating. So pure, so fresh, so wild, so powerful and to be allowed to be here is a total honour.
Hiking up was quite a physical challenge with soft powdery snow and legs regularly disappearing up to thigh height. I started with about 5 layers on and was down to 2 by the time we had reached the crest. What goes up must come down and it was bumslides all the way back! As the Bay is very sheltered, the movement of the sea is minimal and with the sun breaking through the reflections of the glaciers and mountains in the water was so photogenic. It is a place that has rendered me awestruck and apparently it rendered the Doctor who lived in the Argentine base here, completely mad! In the mid 1980’s he was asked to spend another winter in the base and reacted by torching the entire lot, adamantly refusing to spend any more time here. He was rescued from the burning buildings and then condemned to 10 years in an Argentinian Prison! I guess the climate here is so inhospitable and we are mere visitors that to spend any length of time here could seriously impact on your psychological wellbeing.
Im not in that space myself yet...I am in love. The place is so alive...not just with flora and fauna but the living landscape which is permanently changing as the forces of the wind, the rain and tides work their way on it. We moved on in the late evening sun which illuminated the chunks of ice in the more open expanses of water. The sun never sets here in summer.... 24hrs of light and when it has been a foggy day, one is not so aware of the light changes. With clear skies, we cruised through the Neumayer Channel and stopped for the night anchoring off Goudier Island and i got my first quasi-Antarctic sunset. Bergs lit by the late rays shone iridescent blue on a backdrop of glimmering waters.
Thus ends my first Antarctic epistle...... I think all in one go would be too much for you to digest but there is plenty more to come and trust me, i never knew the white content could be so diverse.
Update 2 coming soon......