ROMANCING PETULENT WINDS AND PEN­GUINS IN ANTARC­TICA

Get­ting to and trekking through Antarc­tica is ar­du­ous, but what else can you ex­pect when you fol­low in the foot­steps of ex­plor­ers?

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - BY SUHEL SETH

It was in June 2013 that au­da­cious­ness set into me and I de­cided that rather than do­ing the beaten track, it would be bet­ter to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing that would not just be mes­meris­ing but dan­ger­ously dra­matic. Which is when I went off to the Arc­tic. The trip was mem­o­rable to say the least, but what was more telling was man’s frailty when com­pared to the full force of na­ture. Many of my friends thought I was in­sane to have un­der­taken that ex­pe­di­tion, but for me it was not about just an­other item be­ing ticked off one’s bucket list: it was an ex­pe­ri­ence you could have just once in your life. Or so I thought.

PAS­SAGE TO HELL

Jan­uary this year, I un­der­took yet an­other ex­pe­di­tion, but this time to the end of the world: Antarc­tica and, no, it wasn’t a fancy lux­ury cruise where you take pho­to­graphs from the com­fort of your ship’s bal­cony. It was much more. Even hav­ing done the Arc­tic, noth­ing can pre­pare you for the va­garies of Antarc­tica, and the un­set­tling ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins much be­fore you can imag­ine.

Get­ting to an ex­pe­di­tion ship for Antarc­tica is in it­self an ar­du­ous or­deal: you have to fly from Delhi to Lon­don and then onto Santiago, and there­after to Ushuaia, which is the last known city on this planet. This jour­ney to­tals about 27 hours of fly­ing. Fa­tigue be­comes your com­pan­ion much be­fore you can imag­ine. And not to men­tion the tem­per­a­tures that you are fly­ing through: from Delhi’s mild winter of about 12˚Cel­sius to Lon­don’s 2˚ Cel­sius to Santiago’s 33˚Cel­sius to Ushuaia’s 1˚Cel­sius: and all within 27 hours. But I had been ad­e­quately warned that this was go­ing to be much tougher than the Arc­tic and in many ways it was.

We boarded the Sil­versea Ex­pe­di­tion ship called Sil­ver Cloud, an ice-cut­ter, in or­der to help us nav­i­gate the treach­er­ously ice­berg-laden waters of Antarc­tica. We sailed out from Ushuaia at 5 in the even­ing; hav­ing done the Arc­tic be­fore, I was al­ready in dis­ci­pline mode and didn’t touch a drop of liquor though the finest are

Six hours into the ocean, we en­tered the Drake Pas­sage. The ship rolled to its sides and the front and rear like you’ve never seen any­thing be­fore

avail­able on board and are part of your pack­age.

I am glad I didn’t. Six hours into the ocean, we en­tered what is like hell on earth: the Drake Pas­sage. It is here that one’s dis­ci­pline stands in good stead. The ship rolls to its sides and the front and rear like you’ve never seen any­thing be­fore. Glass­ware is re­moved; you are ad­vised to keep away any glass bot­tles in your suite or in the wash­room, and it is best if you are strapped to your bed. If you can man­age to open the door to the bal­cony (winds are 180 miles per hour plus the rolling of the ship), you will see noth­ing but dark­ness for a full 48 hours. Peo­ple were fall­ing ill like you couldn’t be­lieve.

I re­mem­ber go­ing to the restau­rant as we were still sail­ing through the Drake Pas­sage and see­ing it com­pletely empty; many of the pas­sen­gers were vi­o­lently sea­sick and per­force skipped break­fast, and, as I later dis­cov­ered, their other meals too. All of this was hap­pen­ing even be­fore we had en­tered Antarc­tica, which is what made it seem all so scary. The swim­ming pool was emp­ty­ing out on its own thanks to the mas­sive snow storms we en­coun­tered while sail­ing through the Drake Pas­sage: this was to be the most ex­act­ing part of the jour­ney, or so we thought.

CUT­TING THROUGH THE ICE

On the day af­ter we cleared the Drake Pas­sage, we set foot on Yan­kee Har­bour, home to the ear­li­est Amer­i­can whalers. We saw pen­guin colonies and peb­bled glaciers, but en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­her­ence was paramount.

In pur­suance of the Antarc­tica Treaty that many na­tions are sig­na­to­ries to, there is a cap to how many peo­ple can visit Antarc­tica ev­ery year, and thank god for that. There are also strin­gent hy­giene rules that need to be main­tained. For in­stance when­ever we left the ship, we first went to the Mud Room where we would slip on gum­boots that had been sani­tised so that we didn’t carry any ex­tra­ne­ous ma­te­rial to the glaciers and cause some kind of dam­age to that ecosys­tem. Also, each of the land­ings in Antarc­tica is a wet land­ing. You get into

Antarc­tica can be ex­pe­ri­enced in many ways. Lux­ury isn’t one of them. Nor should you visit if you aren’t ex­cited

the Zo­diac boats and then alight close to the glacier, you step off in the ocean and then be­gin that gru­elling walk.

We then sailed to Esper­anza, an Ar­gen­tinean sta­tion, and saw how things were be­ing run by a skele­tal staff of sci­en­tists and two school­teach­ers for the chil­dren of the fam­i­lies sta­tioned there. What was most heart­en­ing is that the post of­fice, which dou­bles as a gift shop, had a soft drink vend­ing ma­chine.

We then headed to Mikkelsen Har­bour and from there to Cierva Cove, but this is where the al­lure of Antarc­tica kicks in, as well as the ex­per­tise of those man­ning the bridge on the ship. You have to nav­i­gate through a lit­ter of ice­bergs, and as we know, the tip of an ice­berg hides about 10 times the size of that ice­berg be­low the sur­face. The beauty of na­ture was awein­spir­ing. We went through what is known as the world’s most scenic wa­ter pas­sage; nar­row as you can’t imag­ine but stun­ning: the Le­maire Channel pas­sage. Make a trip to Antarc­tica for this, if for noth­ing else.

A bright sun was shin­ing down on us when we made the cross­ing, and when you looked down at the wa­ter you could see your own re­flec­tion. I re­marked to the cap­tain that this likely is the purest air you can breathe on the planet, and he con­curred. The breath­tak­ing beauty of the Le­maire Channel will re­main etched in my mind for­ever, as will be the deft nav­i­ga­tion of the ship through all the ice.

TOUGH BY NA­TURE

Of the many places we then vis­ited and climbed were the Peter­mann Is­land and Par­adise Bay, but even more daunt­ing was the glacial climb at Neko Har­bour, home to some amaz­ing wildlife in­clud­ing birds and many types of the pen­guin fam­ily. Here we took a steep climb to what could be the top of the world at the end of the world. And we still weren’t done.

Imag­ine climb­ing with a trekking pole and four lay­ers of cloth­ing, in­clud­ing a very warm and very heavy parka, and you know how tough it can be. But there were still two places to ex­pe­ri­ence and in many ways, con­quer. Whalers Bay is some­thing that no trip to the Antarc­tica can be com­plete with­out. A small bay be­tween Fildes Point and Pen­fold Point at the east side of Port Foster, De­cep­tion Is­land, in the South Shet­land Is­lands of Antarc­tica, the bay was so named by the French Antarc­tic Ex­pe­di­tion, 190810, un­der Char­cot, be­cause of its use at that time by whalers.

From here we sailed to Half Moon Is­land, and this was go­ing to be the last land-stop of our Antarc­tica so­journ. But the ex­cite­ment hadn’t ebbed since we had to again go through the Drake Pas­sage, and peo­ple were al­ready pre­par­ing to hun­ker down for this treach­er­ous jour­ney. So when we reached Ushuaia and were back on terra firma, it took a while to ac­cli­ma­tise to calm­ness and a sense of the known.

Antarc­tica can be ex­pe­ri­enced in many ways. Lux­ury is not one of them. Nor should you visit if you aren’t men­tally ex­cited. Not just about the trip, but also about fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of great ad­ven­tur­ers and dis­cov­er­ers. That should be the adrenalin boost you should ex­pe­ri­ence. This trip, much like one to the Arc­tic, will make you re­spect and adore na­ture as you should: with hu­mil­ity and rev­er­ence.

BIRD IN HAND Pen­guin in deep thought at Par­adise Bay

Pen­guins at Yan­kee Har­bour on a peb­ble-laced beach cool crea­tures

sim­ply spell­bind­ing Glacial for­ma­tion around Peter­mann Is­land is quite a sight to be­hold

nat­u­ral won­der Ice­berg en route Le­maire Pas­sage

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