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
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