Out of this world
Camp, climb, paddle mighty Antarctica
IT WAS A clash of wills. I was snug inside two sleeping bags, themselves inside a bivvy bag with two Therm-a-Rest mats, dug into the ice of Rongé Island’s Kerr Point, in Antarctica. So I wasn’t going anywhere on this chilly night. The opposing party – an Adelie penguin – was equally determined; the squawking right beside my bivvy bag had started just before midnight. I was obviously where the penguin wanted to be – as in, exactly where it wanted to be, if the hours-long vocal berating was anything to go by. And as much as I would normally have moved on for a local resident, I wasn’t. Having to dig another ice bed in sub-freezing temperatures, then re-insert my near-frozen self into my warm cocoon just to keep a perturbed penguin happy, wasn’t gelling with my survival instinct. So I just jammed my earplugs further in, rolled over, and tried to make the most of my one night sleeping on the ice of Antarctica.
THE LONG WAY DOWN
That adage of the journey being the adventure – or a memorable part of it – is thrown about too freely. Or so I used to think. Now, it is the first thing that pops in my head as I wake from sleep, thanks to the sensation of being horizontal and airborne for a millisecond, and then returning to my bed’s mattress briefly before sliding from one side of said bed to the other. My sideways progress is halted by the now-understandable high bedsides before I follow my room’s reverse-roll and slide back to the other side. I am aboard the M/V Plancius - the Oceanwide Expeditions craft I boarded at Ushuaia, Argentina, for my journey to Antarctica.
We have already passed through the Beagle Channel and are now crossing one of the world’s most treacherous waterways: the Drake Passage (also humorously referred to as “the Shaky Drake”). The not-so-small former icebreaker is being rolled way over on its side again. And again, and again, as it plunges down into the troughs of huge waves and is then spat back up to the next crest. It’s dark outside, the waves are above my porthole window and I continue to slide all over the bed. I cannot recall ever feeling quite so far ‘removed’ from the rest of the world as I am in this truly wild, untamed place – but I can, all of a sudden, recall in vivid detail the emergency drill we’d tackled upon boarding the boat back in Ushuaia. And it’s only the first night; there are two more on the Shaky Drake before we even sight Antarctica. Cute penguins? They’re the last thing on my mind at the moment…
BEYOND WORLD’S END
I am eating breakfast on the move. By that I mean I am, literally, sliding left and right while sitting on my chair. Lucky for me – I think – my breakfast and my chair table are both sliding in the same direction. It is our first morning after the night before of the Drake Passage. There are only 15 or so of us at brekky; the rest of the passengers – and even the on-board doctor, Hans Friema – are seasick to varying degrees. I thank my apparently strong constitution while scoffing my muesli and looking out the dining room windows at the waves towering over us. It nearly feels like our small, hardy collective is the entire population on this boat,
I cannot recall ever feeling quite so far ‘removed’ from the rest of the world as I am in this truly wild, untamed place
but we’re not; dining staff (managed by Johnny and Katrin) weave expertly around tables while moving with the rolling craft, and the crew appear and disappear as they work behind the scenes. Expedition Leader, Troels Jacobsen, must also be unaffected; his good morning message over the ship’s PA sounds cheery, at least. He would do that the entire journey, welcoming another spectacular day in the White Continent. It sure beats a blaring alarm clock.
In total, there are 130-plus passengers aboard, as well as 53 crew, all expertly guided by the ship’s captain, Alexey Nazarov. I can still recall his introductory speech about our journey while we slowly moved away from Ushuaia and the world as we know it; he said then that we could expect a “moderate, okay crossing” of the Drake. Looking out the windows now, I note to myself how the term ‘moderate’ can be viewed in spectacularly different ways. Still, with his – and the crew’s – extensive ice sailing experience (captain and crew also work in the Arctic) I feel assured, and am already pumped for what is coming in a few days. As they say, there’s always a price to pay, and if it means experiencing one of the wildest sea-borne journeys of my life, I still reckon it’s going to be worth it once we arrive at Antarctica itself.
Over the next couple of days we are accompanied by, firstly, a variety of seabirds, including the black-browed albatross as we chugged through the Beagle Channel, then, once into the Drake itself, the massive wandering albatross (the world’s largest flying bird) and other seabirds, as well as a fast-moving pod of orca. The Drake keeps punishing the boat, too; the wind speed reaches up to 30 knots and the 89-metre-long Plancius rolls up to 30 degrees as it is pounded by big waves, its three huge diesel engines churning away keeping us upright. On the second day, as we move ever closer to the white continent, more frequent ice floes, often with lazing seals and penguins atop them, slowly drift by the boat. The animals atop the floes seem oblivious to the people on our ship shouting excitedly and snapping away with cameras. On the second night of the Drake, we pass the Antarctic Convergence. Much like the Arctic treeline, the Convergence signifies where cold Antarctic waters meet subantarctic water, and it is a natural boundary – rich in marine life, most notably krill – but also acts as the demarcation line for the two different climates and their associated marine life, and means we’re entering (slightly) calmer waters. It’s been amazing but, really, is still only the opening act for the big show. One that is about to kick off…
Its day three and I am already comfortable in my routine. Still thankful for not succumbing to seasickness, I am sitting down for breakfast, again, and notice a significant increase in numbers doing the same. We have entered calmer waters now and everyone is excited about the start of our various Basecamp activities. This is the main reason I am aboard Plancius: there are any number of boats and cruise companies that can take you to Antarctica but few offer the smorgasbord of adventure activities once you are there. Oceanwide Expeditions is a specialist in this area (its on-board expedition team’s collective climbing, hiking, kayaking, diving and ice adventure experience is immense).
This Basecamp Antarctica trip, available through World Expeditions, and run by OE, is the ultimate for adventurous travellers. It allows you not only to view and photograph Antarctica’s spectacular landscape and wildlife, but actually puts you right in there, with no better example than the camping, but also the kayaking, climbing, snowshoeing and
the chance to check out a couple of the ice stations here. In short, it is shaping up as epic, and I am lucky enough to score two big activities on the first day. Each activity is run twice per day (except the camping overnight, obviously) and before joining the expedition you have to select those you wish to do, and then it’s just a matter of checking the activity log each evening to see what you’ve been assigned.
Before that, though, we just have to run through the precautions all companies have to take when bringing visitors to Antarctica. Our clothes and equipment are vacuumed and cleaned to ensure no foreign matter is taken onto the islands or the continent itself – both of which we’ll be visiting. We also take delivery of our rubber boots (another Antarctica essential) and begin preparing for our first big day out. Numerous runthroughs of emergency procedures, talks on what to expect and what to bring, and then making sure cameras have batteries (and spares) take up the rest of the day on board as we cruise ever closer to Antarctica.
Troels’s voice wakes us earlier than usual the next morning. A quick peek out the window sees a spectacular clear day dawning as we sail through the Gerlache Strait. To say I am pumped is an understatement; I have scored big-time with two activities on this first day – and two of the ones I was most looking forward to: mountaineering and then a night camping on the ice. The landscape surrounding us as we continue southwest along the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula is gobsmacking; steep, rocky snow-clad peaks spear skyward directly from the impossibly glassy water. I haven’t climbed for a few years, but I am already figuring out how I could get back here and spend a few weeks using a boat as a base to climb some of these beautiful mountains. I am also having trouble comprehending the sheer size and scale of the place; even as I fire off a number of shots on my camera I already know the images will struggle to do justice to the vastness here at the bottom of the world.
Breakfast cannot be eaten quickly enough before I dash back to my room, grab my climbing gear (we’d been fitted with it the previous day) and hustle down two levels to the Zodiac launch site, off the side of the boat. The vibe is incredible here; everyone seems to exude excitement at finally being here and getting onto the ice. I am part of the mountaineering group that is tackling a climb at Kerr Point, on Rongé Island. Our landing point here will also be our campsite for the night so I have definitely struck it lucky scoring two activities on the one day. Another group is heading to nearby Danco Island to check out a gentoo penguin colony, while more are jumping aboard kayaks to explore the area.
The Zodiac procedure runs like clockwork. Watching as these fast, tough watercraft veer out and away from the Plancius, carving their wakes into the glassy, still Antarctic water is pretty damn cool – as is the fast blast across to Kerr Point. Then it is time to take my first step onto Antarctica. As much as I would like to say it was momentous – a personalised version of that first step on the moon, for example – it is not; it is just a semi-jump/stumble, followed by a scramble up some steps cut into the ice. It is more than just ice, though; it is Antarctica…
THE ULTIMATE 24 HOURS
It has been a long time (and more than a few extra kilograms) since I did any climbing so I am thankful that this half-day climbing up an icy spur at Kerr Point is relatively benign in terms of difficulty. This not only means I can ease back into the routine of being roped up (somehow I score lead on a group of four) and focus on each step, but it also allows me and my small team to soak up the visual splendour of our location. The climb is steady and steep, and guide Tim Blakemore keeps all the roped groups close together as we wind our way up toward a bluff cliff face, the only bare rock amongst the ice and snow towering above us.
It is amazing stuff; pausing at one point to look back down at the Plancius I realise just how immense this small part of Antarctica is. The
air is so clear, distance is hard to judge and sound travels far. Surprisingly, there is little talk among us, everyone awestruck by the surroundings. All too soon we reach our summit point and, again, take in crackerjack views (yeah, I will run out of adjectives soon to describe this place!) before grabbing some food and water, then taking the straight route back down, glissading some of the way before returning to the Zodiacs.
We have a bit of time before dinner back on the ship, so duck across to Danco Island to check out the gentoo penguins. There are strict guidelines to viewing penguins – no closer than five metres, unless the penguins come closer to you of their own volition is the main one – but I needn’t have worried about bringing a long zoom lens for this day; these little guys happily amble among the gawking throng that is us, allowing for some amazing close-up experiences and photos. From climbing to penguins in a matter of minutes is awesome, but I know there is something bigger on the horizon; the campsite back at Kerr Point beckons.
Back at the Plancius everyone is excitedly gabbing about what we’ve all experienced on this amazing day. I listen attentively, but I’m also distracted by, firstly, the awesome food on board (restaurant quality is a spot-on description) and, secondly, how quickly and politely I can stuff myself before heading back to my room to grab all the gear I need for a night of camping on ice. The gear list itself is pretty impressive: two sleeping bags, two Therm-a-Rest mattresses, a sleeping bag liner, a peebottle (you cannot leave any human waste on land; there is a toilet at camp, but it’s only for ‘emergency’ use. I will leave that to your imagination…) and as many layers as I think I will need to stay warm in sub-zero temperatures. I swap layers on and off in a mild frenzy before dashing down to the Zodiacs where I join 31 other lucky campers.
Back at Kerr Point I am greeted by shovel-wielding guides and guests; we have to dig down below the ice surface to ensure if there is any wind during the night, we are out of it. It takes about 10 minutes for me to dig out a coffin-sized hole in the snow and then set up all my sleeping gear, careful to keep the ice and snow out of it, but also making sure it is all snugged together properly. I am a tad sweaty once I finish but not uncomfortably so; any discomfort is forgotten as I wander around the campsite, checking out others’ efforts before sitting down on the ice and observing the brilliant sunset and Alpen glow over camp.
I have said this before of other adventures, but I reckon this Antarctic campsite would have to be one of my most memorable – and certainly remote – I have ever had the luck to doss down at. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of camping in the deserts of the Australian outback. As there, this place is magical in its remoteness, vastness and silence. Well, it is, until I welcome my surprise camp-mate, that objectionable Adelie penguin. For such a small creature, it can make an amazing amount of noise; squawking aside, even its webbed feet seem to emit a thunderous sound as it runs up and then back down the hill behind our camp to finish beside my bivvy where it continues its verbaling of me and the other campers. Even the rumble of an avalanche above us at some point in the night doesn’t dissuade the penguin from its task. The fact it keeps it up most of the night – and I get no sleep as a result – could be viewed as an awful experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is both humorous and heartening to see that us humans cannot always control things, and as I hear the Adelie thumping back down the hill toward me once again, I am happily reconciled with that fact, and simply jam my earplugs further in.
Our 4.30am wake-up call seems to come too soon and, going by the number of people who have already packed up, probably not necessary. Funnily enough, the cause of that lack of sleep – the Adelie penguin – has disappeared into the Antarctic ether, like a noisy apparition. Even with the lack of sleep, I am not keen on leaving, but the enticement of more top food and a warm shower, ensure I pack all my gear up and join the tired and hungry throng waiting for the first Zodiac.
ANOTHER TASTE OF PARADISE
Sometimes, when you’re in the wilderness, it is good just to sit back, look and absorb actually where you are. That’s what I am doing today; after such a busy day yesterday, with the climbing and then the camping, it was great to get to Paradise Bay and simply sit and watch. Never has a place been so aptly named; the immense mountains, blue-ice glaciers and picture-perfect weather make it a definite paradise.
It’s another busy day for everyone, bar this content observer. Some people are visiting an Argentine research station (Brown Station), complete with gentoo penguin rookery, but I am just chilling, trying to comprehend the vastness of this place – and its uniqueness; as I sit filing photos, I glance out my window to see a Weddell seal, floating past on an ice floe, staring right back at me. A boom and crash signals a massive avalanche that sees immense ice boulders splash through the mirror-like surface of the bay’s water. For an hour or so I watch as the day’s kayaking group paddles under an immense jumble of semi-calved ice from the surrounding glaciers. I try in vain to capture images that show the scale of the mountains against the kayakers. The summits of Mount Banck and Barbaro Point fall to climbers this afternoon, while campers spend a night – sans Adelie penguin – at Stoney Point.
It’s a fantastic day, and leaves me psyched for the next adventure: kayaking.
DRIFTING THROUGH ICE
During the afternoon and night, we have moved around to Georges Point. We have, once again (and quite unusually, apparently) been gifted a bluebird day. I join the small group of kayakers – and guide Paul Donovan – as we head out to check on Orne Island and its gentoo penguin rookery. The paddling here is sublime; rich, iridescent blue icebergs float by us, and the glass-like water shimmers brightly under the morning sun.
It is, actually, quite hot (for Antarctica), but this doesn’t stop us making the most of the morning. Paul leads us around the island’s shoreline before we reach the back-end of Orne Island. We can see from here that it’s relatively iceberg free and so we continue all the way around it, dodging icebergs and checking the penguins’ antics on the island. We also had our first look at some chinstrap penguins here, with their rookeries on this side of the island. Once we’d spent a couple of hours there, we turned toward nearby Georges Point, and more gentoos. Some of these kept us company on the crossing between Orne Island and Georges Point, porpoising (diving out of the water and back in) in front of our kayaks. We rafted up close to the shore of Georges Point to watch as hundreds of gentoos waited patiently to join a singlefile line heading to the various rookeries here. The order among the seeming chaos was impressive.
A short break for lunch was followed by the Plancius mooring closer to Cuverville Island. Here, I take I a Zodiac to shore to get up close and personal with the penguins. Thankfully, I don’t get too close to one iceberg just off shore; I hear a very loud groaning sound, then turn to see the immense berg flip itself over. The afternoon’s kayaking group is around 100m away but I reckon I can still hear their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from my position. It’s a big, visual lesson in just how unpredictable icebergs can be.
THE ‘REAL’ ANTARCTICA STANDS UP
I wake to my first Antarctic morning that actually looks like it. As in I’m greeted by overcast skies and strong winds as I venture out on deck to snap some shots of this ‘more typical’ scene. According to the crew, we have been extremely lucky to have experienced such good weather on our journey to date. But, it looks like our luck has now run out. We have cruised during the night to reach Neko Harbour, our landing site for the day on the actual Antarctic continent itself.
The gloomy, dramatic sky, combined with the overhanging ice cliffs, cloud-shrouded mountains and wild wind actually make for a welcome change – well, for this photographer, anyway. It’s a brilliant morning – cold winds and all.
From this dramatic location, we now move deeper into the ice-choked Errera Channel; the crashing and crunching sounds as the icebreaker lives up to its moniker through this section of water is awesome to hear.
Equally awesome, as we move into the more open waters of the Gerlache and then Bransfield straits, is what we see next: a leopard seal lying on an ice floe. Alexey brings the Plancius in quite close so we get a fantastic view of one of Antarctica’s prime predators. The leopard seal itself seems hardly bothered, but I guess when you’re one of the apex mammals in this part of the world, there is little to worry about. Well, almost…
THAT ATTENBOROUGH MOMENT
Ironically, as we leave the sea leopard behind, and continue through Bransfield Strait, I am debating with myself what is the standout of this trip. The competition between camping, climbing and kayaking, plus observing the sea leopard, makes it hard. Or it does, until Troels roars through the ship’s PA that one of the crew has spotted a pod of orca circling an ice floe that has a number of crab-eater seals on it.
What I witness next is something I will never, ever forget. The boat moves closer and we see a pod of four orca (three adults and one juvenile) spy-hopping (where orca lift their heads out of the water to see where their prey is) around the ice floe, concentrating mainly on one small floe with one seal on it, but also circling the larger ice floe, which has a number of seals huddled together in the middle. The teamwork of the orca pod is incredible; they spy-hop to check where the seals are, then proceed to try and punch a channel through the ice itself by pushing their bodies against it, to break it up. There is one orca, in particular, that is stands out. Apparently he’s known as Fat Boy, and is part of this pod, which is known as the Big B (family group B) orca group. This signifies that they are seal-eaters, as opposed to fish-eaters, or Type C/D – orca that eat whales. From what I can see through my zoom lens, Fat Boy is, I reckon, close to the size of a bus in terms of girth, and equally as impressive in terms of overall length. In short, he’s bloody massive.
The pod keeps at it for at least 30 minutes or so, making plenty of progress – even at one point looking like they’d nabbed the solo seal on the small ice floe – before suddenly turning away and moving further out in to the open ocean. Troels believes they were teaching the young juvenile the hunting process. For us, it was the chance to witness something truly unique; apparently it took the BBC’s Planet Earth film crew two seasons to capture a similar thing.
A FITTING FAREWELL
The last day has dawned and it’s another cracker, with us moored just off Half Moon Island. This tiny isle is chock-full of chinstrap penguins and, semi-famously, two macaroni penguins. The island’s landing point is the usual ice and rock, with a few resident NZ fur seals and penguins. Also on the shore is a reminder of Antarctica’s wild history, with what looks to be the remains of a boat belonging to either a sealer or a whaler – just the ribs and some planks are left – half-buried in the ground.
I land onshore nice and early and watch as, firstly, the mountaineers, then the snowshoers head off to explore their surrounds. The kayakers also have another nice day. For me, though, it is the last chance to check out some chinstrap penguins and – hopefully – photograph one of this island’s near-mythical macaroni penguins. I don my snowshoes, then follow the well-worn path across to a point on the island where the highest concentration of penguins is. On the way, I pass a slumbering Weddell and briefly envy its relaxed appearance. A short climb later takes me to the fenced-off viewing point where – just there, in the distance, with its distinctive red/orange ‘eyebrows’ – I spot a solo macaroni penguin.
Walking back to the Zodiac landing point, I realise there is still one more thing to do. And it is something I had initially dismissed as clichéd and not worth my while: the famous ‘polar plunge’. As the name suggests, it’s the simple act of immersing yourself in Antarctic waters. Sounds easy, hey? Well, it does – the actual act of swimming and diving, anyway – but it becomes a lot harder to contemplate when you hear Troels gleefully inform all of us that the actual water temperature is 1.5°C. One. Point. Five. Suddenly the polar plunge becomes something that is juvenile and just plain silly. Well, I used all those reasons – and then plenty more – to justify my initial decision not to do it…
Sitting on shore, with the sun out and the blue sky, looking over to the ship that had been my home for the past week or more, and then glancing around at my surroundings, I change my mind. Yep, all those flimsy excuses disappear after I watch the first two people jump in. They are laughing (okay, maybe grimacing from the shock of the cold) and that’s enough to convince me.
Foolishly, I think leaving a merino T-shirt on will somehow add warmth, but I am indeed a damn fool – on all counts. I run into the water and dive. The absolute shock of not being able to breathe from the cold, nor being able to move my legs makes my hoped-for fast escape anything but. I reckon I’m back ashore before I can coax my lungs to draw breath again. I still can’t feel my legs and no, that merino T-shirt made absolutely no difference. But yeah, I would still do it again.
MORE THAN ‘JUST ANOTHER DESTINATION’
As I sit in my cabin during our return journey across the Drake Passage en route to Ushuaia, taking notes at the desk, I am having trouble collecting my thoughts and memories. Antarctica is just so, so different to anywhere else; it is hard to relate this immense continent back to being a part of this world as we think we know it. I could bang on for hours about the many, many highlights of this trip – camping on the ice, the orca hunt, climbing, kayaking, the crew and guides, the wildlife, the landscape, the awesome food and even the polar plunge – but any words, and indeed, any images, would still struggle to convey the majesty and true wildness of Antarctica.
There is an old saying that goes roughly like this: sometimes you need to see something with your own eyes; put the camera down, stop talking and just breathe it, smell it, observe it, immerse yourself in it – and damn the price. I lay odds that the person who came up with it has been to Antarctica – it fits that magical land’s eternal appeal perfectly.
Climbing up Kerr Point, on Rongé Island, Antarctica.
Campers at Kerr Point, Rongé Island take a breather after digging their ice beds to observe the magical Alpen glow, post sunset. Note the guides’ tent – they were very comfortable all night.
Clockwise from top The zodiacs provided fast transport to each of our landing points; a knife-blade iceberg floats in the tranquil waters; even when not on land, there was plenty of incredible scenery to view from the ship.
The rich iridescent blue of the submerged section of this iceberg seems other-worldly.
Clockwise from top A skua keeps the M/V Plancius during the epic crossing of the Drake Passage; a Gentoo penguin does its best Happy Feet impression; one of Antarctica’s apex predators – a leopard seal – calmly observes us as we float past its temporary home on an ice floe in the Gerlache Strait.
The expedition guides worked tirelessly to ensure everyone had a safe and awesome experience in Antarctica.
Clockwise from top The rare opportunity to watch an orca pod ‘spy hopping’ (lifting their head out of the water for better observation) as they stalked a group of seals on an ice floe was incredible; JW takes stock of his digs for the night at Kerr Point; the unmanned Brown Station has a large number of Gentoo penguin rookeries; a sole macaroni penguin in a sea of chinstraps.
Kayakers circumnavigate Orne Island, observing the gentoo and chinstrap penguin rookeries found there.