They say birth is an unpleasant experience that culminates in absolute joy and wonder for all involved. Having witnessed the birth of my own daughter recently, I can concur.
It was terrifying, nauseating, painful (even to watch) and went on for far too long, but exhilarating with the knowledge that eventually once we made it through there would be this perfect gift of innocence and beauty. It reminded very much of crossing the Drake Passage heading to the Antarctic Peninsula. Three days and two nights of labour, only to emerge wide-eyed in a new world so clean, so pure and of seemingly endless innocence.
A flotilla of seafaring vessels are docked in the salt-stained port of Ushuaia, Argentina’s (and the world’s) most southern town and main departure point for Antarctica. An old schooner, a luxury liner and rusting cargo ships await their crew. Tucked among them is the Polar Pioneer, Aurora Expeditions’ Russian ship, complete with ‘St Petersburg’ emblazoned across her stern and a crew light on English. We are briefed on the bridge and introduced to Captain Sergey. With a hard seafarer’s face and strong Russian accent, he looks like he’s straight out of a Tom Clancy spy novel. Later in the trip he is spotted early one morning sitting at the stern, pipe in one hand, fishing line in the other, pulling in cod. Captain Sergey is the real deal.
We head down the calm waters of the Beagle Channel; the snow-capped mountains framing Ushuaia disappear into the distance. On board, a merry mix of passengers get acquainted with each other and the Polar Pioneer. Some are here to climb untouched peaks. Others are kayakers excited to glide through clear waters. There’s a group of ‘birders’, lists in hand, ready to check off species they’re yet to spot. The rest of us are just as wide-eyed with excitement to experience a continent few have. Some head for the bar for a cold Quilmes (Argentina’s local beer), others gather on the bridge with Captain Sergey and some even wander outside on the bow to breathe in the early evening air. It’s been a long trip from Australia, so I’m quick to my bunk and drift off to sleep wondering what lies ahead.
The following two days are hell. There’s no point glossing over it. Seasickness is a horrific affliction, and with the Polar Pioneer dancing the tango with the Drake Passage, I am thankful for Doctor Giles and his endless supply of assistance. Late on day three, I finally arise. Peering through my porthole at the calming sea my stomach turns with delight for the first time in 48 hours. “It’s an iceberg!” I yell out to no one. It passes quickly and I see another in the distance. I head to the dining room, embarrassed by my two-day absence, only to discover I haven’t been the only one. No one is sour though. The sight of an iceberg has us all buzzing. The waters have stilled and we all know we’re close. Even the birders are strutting, with a couple of new sightings ticked off their list. I can’t remember which because I’m watching another iceberg drift past as they explain.
The next week is a constant flurry of activity and excitement. We’re incredibly lucky that the weather provides perfect blue skies, contrasting the pure white landscape and deep black sea. This is not a cruise. There is no leisurely gazing out windows sipping champagne. We’re up early with a hearty breakfast and quickly into Zodiacs to explore the surrounds. The older passengers amaze me as they climb aboard – one slip and you’re into the freezing black below, but they persevere with bravery beyond their years. If seeing an iceberg through a porthole was a buzz, motoring within a meter of one is exhilarating. The top of an iceberg is only 30 per cent of its size, and being so close with such clear water you can watch its base disappear below in a maze of blue hues. We circle a bright blue iceberg that bobs in the ocean sea. It stands out from the rest. Its old ice seems electric. Memory cards are filled.
We first step foot on the seventh continent at Mikkelson Harbour. Gentoo penguins abound. They are everywhere. Like ants, they all seem busy, stealing pebbles from rival nests in a never-ending battle for supremacy. The climbers head to a nearby snowy peak, and, as they glide by, I envy the kayakers’ intrepid natures. For me, on this first day, it is enough just to sit on a rock surrounded by deep snow and penguins, taking in this amazing place. Sue, one of the expedition leaders, says visiting Antarctica is like visiting another planet. She is not wrong. I feel so far removed from the rest of the world I might as well be on Mars.
And so we explore along the coast of Antarctica, through the Gerlache Strait and down towards Port Lockroy, where we visit a tourist shop and museum managed by four girls all in their twenties – each of them living in Antarctica for a year. With queries of cabin fever and thoughts of them turning on each other in solitude-driven insanity, I’m surprised to hear they have a boat through every two days. I’m even more surprised to find a Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica for sale in their store.
It’s a great example of Lonely Planet, like me, growing up. I can only hope that it isn’t a sign of things to come. As we head out of Port Lockroy, a humpback whale breaches in the distance. The sun is trying to set – it never really does down here – and Captain Sergey steers the Polar Pioneer towards our new friend. The ship almost lurches to the side as we all lean over to watch the performance.
Every day down here is a highlight, but it is hard to top cruising through the Lumiere Channel. The bow is full and silent as we take in the view of snow-capped peaks rising steeply on either side. The sun is warm on our smiling faces, chilling us only as it falls behind the peaks. The biting wind has dropped. A leopard seal dozing on a drifting iceberg looks up sleepily as we motor past. A quick glance and he’s back to sleep in the afternoon sun among thousands of ice islands.
The Lumiere Channel is a funnel for drifting icebergs. Emerging from the channel, they a laze around Pleneau Island, stranded as the sun melts them away. It is extraordinary. We pass an iceberg with a circle, square and triangle of ice sculpted by the sun. It seems as though it cannot be natural, yet it is. If you tire of the sculptures, a lion seal lazing on ice splattered with penguin blood from its recent feed is just as captivating. We’re in Zodiacs and our guides are as excited as us. We are visiting nature’s gallery featuring abstract sculptures that would make even Dalí envious.
That night, we have the opportunity to camp out on the ice and I’m surprised by the turnout. Digging a small ice bed and finding an exposed rock, a group of us plunge a couple of bottles of vodka into the surrounding ice and promptly pronounce our new discovery the southernmost bar in the world. With only a few customers, we try to drink the sun down. Unfortunately, down here it never sets and too many vodkas later I crawl into my sleeping bag. A trail of penguins wander past, only metres from my dug-out snow bed. Is it the vodka or are they real? The following morning my memory card confirms they were real. I must have looked like a giant blue elephant seal.
They say there is nothing better for a hangover than a cool dip. It has been two days exploring 50-storey-high glaciers and outposts manned by maniac explorers. We visit the deserted Argentinian base of Amirante Brown where, apparently, the resident doctor set the place on fire after being told he had to stay another year. The boat returned to the inferno to pick him up and lock him away back home. We anchor off Cuverville Island on a perfectly clear day. There’s a solar rainbow and it is warm enough to wear just a t-shirt as we trek up a nearby point. Penguin colonies abound and the view from the top takes my breath away. The Polar Pioneer is dwarfed in the distance among the surrounding icebergs.
Back on the ship late that afternoon we’re asked who wants to join the Polar Plunge Club. I leap off the middle deck trying to prove my machismo and plunge deeper than expected, almost instantly regretting my arrogance. The chill hits your bones about three seconds after you hit the water. As I flail manically trying to swim back to the boat my muscles start to seize. One of the Russian crew members dives in off the top deck as I shudder up the stairway. My skin is tingling and my two-day hangover is long gone. Back in the sauna as we thaw out, the Russian crew member is laughing and chatting away. I can’t understand a word, but we both smile at each other and what we’ve just done. That evening we raise a toast in the bar to the new members of this exclusive club. Halfway through the toast, orcas are spotted on the port side of the ship so the celebrations end early. We spend the next hour following a family of killer whales as the sun tries to set. You could not have asked for a more perfect end to the day.
I feel we are trespassing in heaven down here. There is an innocence about the Antarctic. No wars have been fought here, no blood spilled, no indigenous inhabitants wiped out. It is untouched and beautiful. Whales breach safely, frolicking in the plankton-rich water. All manner of penguins busily go about their days, wary only of their natural predators. I feel guilty for being here. Am I part of the beginning of the end? How long until we ruin this place?
It isn’t easy to get here and the cost is certainly a deterrent. Let’s hope this keeps the masses at bay. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And having been through a hard labour to get here, I feel I’ve been reborn.
LATAM has return flights to Buenos Aires from most major Australian cities with onwards connections to Ushuaia.
Hurtigruten run the world’s first hybrid-powered ships, MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen.