Po­lar ex­plo­ration with an ice touch of lux­ury

There’s a wilder­ness in the Antarc­tic that will leave you breath­less but take com­fort you can al­ways get back on­board the Sil­ver Ex­plorer should in­clement weather hit, writes Brad Crouch

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - Cruise Silver Explorer -

THIS is a tale of two bases – and of two Yuris.

The tale starts aboard Sil­versea’s ex­pe­di­tion ship Sil­ver Ex­plorer, trav­el­ling from Ushuaia at the tip of Ar­gentina across the no­to­ri­ous Drake Pas­sage to ex­plore the Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

This type of po­lar ex­plo­ration is not ex­actly what pioneers such as Maw­son and Shack­le­ton, Scott and Amund­sen en­dured.

The lux­ury liner has a but­ler for ev­ery cabin as well as a room stew­ard, with touches such as a pil­low menu, de­signer toi­letries and mar­ble bath­rooms.

All drinks are com­pli­men­tary, as of course are the meals such as the five-course din­ners each evening, there is a spa, two Jacuzzis, and a guest to staff ra­tio of al­most 1:1 means the ser­vice is su­perb.

They even sup­ply com­pli­men­tary qual­ity parkas to en­sure all guests are well rugged up when ex­plor­ing the main­land by Zo­di­acs. So it is not such a hard way to see the wild beauty of Antarc­tica, its wildlife such as whales and seals – not for­get­ting the cute pen­guins that have no fear of hu­mans – and its sheer iso­la­tion.

You can go for days with­out see­ing an­other ship, a tele­graph pole, vapour trail or sign of hu­man habi­ta­tion.

How­ever, the White Con­ti­nent is not empty of hu­mans. A few hardy folk work in a hand­ful of sci­en­tific re­search bases and out­posts, cop­ing with the cold dark win­ters, then em­brac­ing the 24-hour sun­light of the brief sum­mer.

Our cruise vis­ited two such bases, each an in­sight into hu­man na­ture as well as na­ture.

The first was at Port Lock­roy, a nat­u­ral har­bour on Wiencke Is­land in the Palmer Ar­chi­pel­ago. Ar­riv­ing on a cloud­less blue-sky day, we made a ma­jes­tic en­trance – Cap­tain Alexan­der Gol­ubev gen­tly rammed our ices­trength­ened ship into a vast solid ice sheet fill­ing much of the har­bour so we could sim­ply walk across the ice to the base on tiny Goudier Is­land in the har­bour.

How good was the day? Guide Robyn Aiello, a marine bi­ol­o­gist, has had mul­ti­ple vis­its here and never seen the ‘‘ seven sis­ters’’ moun­tains with­out a halo of fog – on this day they stood out in all their glory against the blue sky.

The Bri­tish es­tab­lished the Port Lock­roy sta­tion as ‘‘ Base A’’ in 1944 and op­er­ated it as a re­search sta­tion un­til 1962; it was ren­o­vated in 1996 and is now a mu­seum, sou­venir shop and post of­fice op­er­ated by the United King­dom Antarc­tic Her­itage Trust.

The base it­self is some­thing of a time ma­chine – books, posters, news­pa­pers, fur­ni­ture, equip­ment and more from the 1940s-60s re­main in place as a liv­ing mu­seum.

The sec­ond base was Ver­nad­sky Sta­tion, a Ukrainian base at Ma­rina Point on Gallindez Is­land in the Ar­gen­tine Is­lands group.

The Ukraini­ans bought the sta­tion off the Bri­tish in 1996 for a sym­bolic £1 and run a pro­gram re­search­ing ar­eas from me­te­o­rol­ogy to ge­o­mag­netism.

Ar­riv­ing on an­other gor­geous blue-sky day with calm seas, we took a Zo­diac from Sil­ver Ex­plorer to land at the sta­tion’s en­trance.

As we drew closer, a large yel­low sym­bol on a build­ing took shape – a large ‘‘ thumbs up’’ sign with ‘‘ wel­come’’ in sev­eral lan­guages. Ob­vi­ously, the staff were ea­ger for vis­i­tors.

Our greeter and guide whose name we think was Yuri had a huge smile and bro­ken English as he took us on a tour of the base, some nine build­ings with re­search rooms, sleep­ing quar­ters and snow-shoe room. Then the piece de re­sis­tance – the bar. Yuri, joined by an­other base res­i­dent we also nick­named Yuri, was quick to pour $3 vodka shots made on the premises of what is claimed to be the most south­ern bar in the world.

A bonus of Ver­nad­sky was the sub­se­quent Zo­diac tour of the shel­tered har­bour af­ter the visit – it was crammed with ice­bergs worn to artis­tic shapes by wind and water.

On this calm, wind­less day we lis­tened in­tently to the odd ‘‘ pop­ping’’ noise as bub­bles of air trapped for hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of years, broke free as the ice­bergs slowly melted.

As our Zo­diac driver care­fully ma­noeu­vred be­tween the ice we came across seals bask­ing as the sun beat down on an ideal day.

Two un­for­get­table days in a tale of two bases – but we also got to third base.

Almi­rante Brown Base on the aptly named Par­adise Bay on Antarc­tica’s main­land is a small Ar­gen­tinean sta­tion, usu­ally un­manned.

Land­ing by Zo­di­acs, the chal­lenge was to hike up the steep 50m high slope be­hind the clus­ter of build­ings to take in the views.

Waist-deep snow in parts added to the chal­lenge and we were soon pant­ing and sweat­ing as the sun beat down on an­other blue sky, wind­less day.

How­ever, the views of the is­land and bay full of ice floes and bergs on a day of sun­shine and blue skies in the white wilder­ness were well worth it – as was the trip back down the hill, slid­ing on my bum.

Af­ter third base there was only one place to go – home.

The writer was a guest of Sil­versea.

SPLEN­DID ISO­LA­TION: (from main) The Sil­ver Ex­plorer in har­bour at Almi­rante Brown Base; Bri­tish base Port Lock­roy; and a wel­com­ing hand at Ver­nad­sky Base. Pic­tures: Brad Crouch

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