The most remote and difficult continent to visit – the ultimate travel adventure.
‘They say you cannot go to the Moon, but you can go to Antarctica.’
I read that line somewhere online when I was researching about this continent and I thought in my head, ‘this could not hold more true, as I set sail for this trip’.
It was the second day of the cruise and was a night for the Opening Captain’s dinner. I gaped at the French women who were dressed up in all finery with beautiful gowns and diamonds and wondered how they managed to pack so much for this trip. My simple dress looked like a drab in front of all these. The best of wines, champagne and caviar were served with fine silver cutlery. Oh God, I thought to myself, ‘I am going to miss all this pampering once I get back home! But then, let me indulge when I have it now’.
I got acquainted with some of the 70 Indians who were on the cruise and each one was as excited to experience this continent.
Exploring the liner earlier in the day, I found out there was a little gym (I must have spent just one afternoon in the entire period of 10 days there), a small corner library by the deck with books mostly about Antarctica and voila, I discovered the Spa for which I have a fetish. So, I pampered myself with an exotic one. That was one heavenly feeling after all those flights and misses.
Also, catching the first Iceberg, as we were sitting in one of the restaurants, was an amazing feeling. I recollect running to the deck with shoes in my hand to catch the first floating iceberg, which was a huge one. It gleamed under the sun and the water below was as blue. They say the top of the iceberg is just the tip and it must be huger down there – as more blue the water, the deeper the iceberg. This one looked almost 20 storeys high and I was wondering how deep it must be. Post that, we saw hundreds of them but seeing the first one was special.
We were trained for our Zodiac landings on how to step into one, sit, move around and get off. There were special waterproof gumboots and parkas which we could carry back home as souvenirs of the trip. (How I struggled packing that huge parka in my bag back though) The expedition leader, for whom it was the 120th trip to this land, explained how every visit is unique. He experiences something new each time. How I envied this guy!
So, our first landing was at ‘Neko Harbour’, which is a small island of the continent and it had some penguin colonies too. I was waiting with bated breath to see them. Why is that the world is so much in awe of this piece of land? After all, the continent is just ice accessible only from November to March. It has no towns or villages and no habitation bar the odd research station or expedition hut. Just grand, icy, unpredictable wilderness. Tons and tons of them and huge Icebergs all around. Yes, that is precisely what is mystical about this place. Ninety-Eight per cent of Antarctica is just ice sheets and the continent has about 90 per cent of the world’s ice.
We could not get enough of looking at the different hues in the ice. The amazing icebergs make you stand in wonder. Listening to ice break off thousand years of glaciers from the seat of your zodiac is overwhelming and catching seals sleeping on ice flows in the middle of the Antarctic Peninsula is astounding.
It is untouched and pure. You can listen to the uncanny silence as you stand by the deck looking at the vast land, which is covered with ice, icebergs, happy penguins swimming and seals sunbathing on ice as they see the sunlight after long months of darkness. One can spend hours just sitting and staring at the large landmass. I hardly remember spending any time in those entertainment sessions, as most of my time was spent looking from the deck at the vast amount of wildlife with my DSLR in hand and getting ready for landings.
It is also the coldest of the Earth’s continent. The coldest air temperature recorded was -89 degree at the Russian Station in 1983. When I told many of my friends that I am off to Antarctica, they were like, ‘Oh God, it must be so cold. How will you manage?’ Antarctica is not as cold as you think it is. We were there in December during the summertime there with daytime temperature hovering around 8 degrees Celsius. However, I remember on one of the landings, I absolutely threw off that parka to get into a light jacket in which I was sweating. In addition, there was another landing when we almost froze to death too as the wind chill got so bad. Therefore, the weather can be very erratic.
Like in school days, we were divided into Yellow, Red, Blue, and Green groups for our landings. The French were obviously all grouped up together and Indians separately. We were allotted time slots daily for our landings and the expedition team would announce on the intercom. Getting all geared up in three layers and then a parka with boots and cap along with a camera in tow seemed like a huge task in the beginning. As we got used to this routine, it was easy to get dressed up in 5 minutes flat for each landing.
After two days of Drake Passage crossing, the third day was a beautiful morning. I rushed to the balcony of my room as early as 5 am to see Antarctica for the first time. I could see the sunrays slowing glinting in those ice. The calmness and silence stayed with me forever, and I felt so much at peace.
In all, we did 13 landings, out of which 3 were on the continent and others were on the islands. Our first landing as scheduled at Neko Harbour went smoothly. As I stepped into the ice-cold water to get off the zodiac, I could feel the chill through the gumboots in my legs. As I stepped onto the land, I pinched myself. ‘Finally, I am in Antarctica, I am in Antarctica’, I wanted to scream aloud.
During my growing up days with a conservative South Indian family back home, I was not allowed to breach the 8 pm deadline and my travel was restricted to 3 km around my home even during my college days, which was close too. And here I was in Antarctica, all alone. It felt like a huge achievement when looking at the protective background that I am coming from.
There was a whole lot of penguin colony there and watching them was astounding enough. Penguins are very friendly and they looked at us in awe equally as we were looking at them. The expedition guide was explaining how disciplined they are in their life on this land and showed us Penguin ‘Highways’, which we were cautioned to not step over. They had actually chalked two pathways; they use one to walk down and another to walk up. I spent like 30 minutes there before we boarded the zodiac back to the cruise. It was one of the many landings in the days to come and most went as planned to Half Moon Island, South Georgia, South Shetland Islands, Brown Bluff Island, Deception Island and others
The captain tried to manoeuvre the ship more inside the continent to catch the magnificent Emperor Penguins. However, the weather did not work to our favour that day with strong and cold winds due to which we had to turn back.
Nevertheless, we got lucky to see much wildlife like seals and different breeds of penguins in our other landings.
Most exciting of all, though, were the whales. As the call went up from the bridge – “Humpbacks!” – we spotted three of them leaping from the water beside the ship – their magnificent tails emerging and dipping as if in slow motion, so close.
Another memorable moment on these landing was when we landed at the Ukraine Research Base. There was this whole lot of penguins sitting on the backyard hatching their eggs. As I was sitting and clicking them, I saw this lone penguin walking towards them. I realised this seemed to be the ‘Change of Guard’, wherein as soon as the egg is laid, the female leaves for the sea to replenish herself as she consumes almost 80 per cent of her body calcium and nutrients during laying process and it’s the males turn to sit over the eggs. She returns after a good gap of 10 to 15 days and relives her partner to take charge of those eggs again. So here, I caught this act live. It is great how they recognise their partner with a sense of smell.
Another image I remember was the setting sun. Normally in the summertime, there are 24 hours of sunlight and there is no darkness. Only brief dusk happen around 12:30 and 1 in the night which I caught on one of the days. I wondered how nights would be here. Will the sky be flooded with as many stars and the moon shining brighter than what we see through our polluted skies? Perhaps so, but I do not think I can witness that for now.
The days flew by and soon, it was the end of the journey. After our last landing at Deception Island and as the ship turned back, my heart felt heavy, as we would soon be back to the tragedy of mundane life. All the days of marvelling at this piece of land were over. But there was little choice than getting back to my steady paycheck and work cubicle. The next two days were again about crossing the Drake Passage, which turned to be a nightmare. That night, we had the captain’s gala closing dinner where most of us Indian women draped sarees, which the French absolutely drooled over. After all that party and fun, we really did not expect that the next two days would be difficult. The sea was chaotic with winds hitting us at 125 mph and the whole ship rocked. I do not know if it was the closing captain’s dinner wine that hit me or the choppy sea as I lay in bed the next two days with just an apple a day to eat. The whole ship was swaying from side to side and I was rolling in bed the whole night with hardly any sleep. Everything in the cabin was falling over and we witnessed the entire crockery from the restaurant rakes falling and breaking.
I thought in my head, ‘Oh no. I really don’t want to die here now!’
Thankfully, we managed to get out without any casualties and soon we hit back Ushuaia. Our bags were all packed and as we said our goodbyes to the crew and the others on board, we got to know Argentina had a nation-wide flash strike so our flights the next day were all canned. My agony with missing flights continued but I used the opportunity to explore Ushuaia and Buenos Aires.
We explored the pubs and restaurants there by night and the cruise folks were kind enough to let us sleep over in the ship itself.
After the flight to Buenos Aires, our hard luck continued as there were no fight tickets for the next couple of days and the airport was flushed with crowd due to delayed and cancelled flights. So here again, I spent most of my time walking the streets of BA and enjoying the food and sights.
Not knowing any Spanish on this part of the world will not help at all; as I struggled with the airport staff next to get me to book another ticket back.
Finally, after a whole lot of efforts, sitting back in the flight to India seemed a blissful feeling – to get back home for Christmas with family and some spicy food. Atul Kocchar was not spared by the Indians too as they complained to him by the end of the journey that even his rice was not properly cooked. Poor fellow. I must say as he made all efforts to serve even Pau Bhaji and Pani Puri on board. On a couple of occasions, even I savoured the hot dal and rice when I got bored with French cuisine.
All the memories of Antarctica will be with me for a lifetime and I will always cherish each moment there. It was no easy travel with all those 10 flights and misses and flying a total of almost 18,000 miles. It takes the toll on your body physically and I took another 2 weeks to recover.
Is travelling just about having a vacation? No, I guess it is more of an experience that you gather, enrich and grow with all the interactions you have along the trip with the people you meet and spend time.
Got back a little poor with my bank account (Not that I had a fat one anyway) but extremely rich with my experiences there. The solitude and the emptiness of the place had enveloped me completely and it brings you down to scale.
We have tamed and colonised most of the world, but this vast stretch of the planet remains beyond our grasp and hopefully, we humans would not corrupt it in the years to come. The icy continent does not belong to any of us humans but rightfully, to the penguins, whales, seals and the wildlife there.
I hope that someday, I would get the opportunity to go back to South America to explore it more, but this time, I will brush up with some Spanish and be prepared to miss flights.