Easter Island & Antarctica Blowing hot and cold
Nigel Purse and his wife embarked on a Cox & Kings holiday to experience the highs of a trip to Easter Island and Antarctica.
I groaned inwardly as the mountain of luggage – seemingly enough for an expedition – came off the carousel at Santiago airport; and I reminded myself that somehow my wife and I had contrived to embark on a holiday to both Easter Island and Antarctica on the same trip, thus requiring full sets of both warm and cold weather clothing. Our February trip began with a couple of days in the Chilean capital – the abode of a wonderful cathedral, jammed hard up against modern office blocks in the bustle of a vibrant city, home to restaurants and museums and close by an array of vineyards that reminded us of Bordeaux in late summer. Gustavo, our guide, nimbly steered us, as if piloting a ship in a congested harbour, past relics of Chile’s past and finally to the fish market and a fine seafood lunch.
Delayed 17 hours, thanks to a medical emergency on board our flight to Easter Island, we arrived to be garlanded with flowers at an unearthly and very dark six o’clock in the morning. Our day was spent in quest of the moai, the inexplicable and strangely compelling carved stone heads that litter the island. They stand, as if sentinels to a bygone culture, silently watching over bemused visitors and seeming to emerge from the ground from the neck upwards. Those which are not restored lie at cross angles to their plinths, Ozymandias like, in a jumble of stones. While each has its own countenance they all ask the same questions – what were they for and how did they get here? We wandered around the quarry from whence they emerged and where they now lie scattered and, in some cases, as half-hewn works in progress, each weighing many tonnes apiece. Best of all we watched, at the end of an exhausting day, the sun set behind a phalanx of moai set upon the coast at Hanga Roa and then light the sky with a dramatic, fiery red backdrop.
The culture of Easter Island is written deep into this small, remote isle and our second day revealed more. We visited the site of the birdman cult in which, from a precipitous cliff edge, eager athletes used to dive and swim through shark-infested waters to retrieve a bird’s egg from a nearby crag. Their reward: a maiden of their choice and the bragging rights for their clan for a year. But the climax of our trip was the annual Tapati festival: a two-week cultural fiesta. Our final afternoon saw us – and a substantial part of the island’s population – gathered as if for an enormous village fete at the bottom of a hillside, for one of the most remarkable sporting spectacles we have ever seen. As if part of a Polynesian Olympics, a succession of Easter Islanders, faces painted according to ancient ritual and wearing little more than dental floss to cover their modesty, hurtled down the hill at speeds of up to 80kmh on hollowed-out banana tree trunks as if they were toboggans. It was riveting stuff.
We returned to Santiago and, a few pisco sours later followed by an exchange of warm weather apparel for cold, journeyed on to Punta Arenas where we arrived just in time for our Antarctic briefing. We were measured up for our special boots and dined at Shackleton’s bar. We chose to fly the Drake Passage – sailing the Roaring Forties did not sound like a holiday – and arrived at Frei station, a research base in the South Shetland Islands where we boarded the MV Ocean Nova. Thus began our journey into a most extreme but, nevertheless, intriguing environment – “wild as any land on our globe,” Amundsen described it. It felt as though we had gone to the end of the world. For the next five days we spent our lives jumping in and out of motorised rubber dinghies as we went in search of whales, seals and penguins, cutting our way through icy water as clear as glass and overlooked by minatory, turquoise icebergs, some as big as office blocks. We gasped in awe (and not a little trepidation) as time and again we saw the graceful black arch of the back of a humpback whale as its enormous tail fin rotated with an eerily engrossing grace first upwards and then, curving downwards, slipped back into the waters below. We stood askance at the seals as they lay sprawled against the snow or reared up, prompted by juvenile testosterone, to intimidate their rivals. The penguins we could have watched all day – the minute Adélies, chinstraps and the gentoos with their orange beaks. Waddle, waddle, waddle – like a little old man – but always with a determination of purpose. A penguin always seems to be intent on something. But, Mother Nature can be cruel: all the while they remained on the menu for the circling skuas. The petrels and cormorants looked on from their rock top perches whence they embarked upon occasional sorties.
But Antarctica is a world that is also home to mankind. We stopped by Port Lockroy, a former British research station and now a museum preserving life as it would have been for those left to spend the harsh, sunless winters cut off from supply and help. A 1950s time capsule of a small slice of post war England transported to Antarctica; except that the recipe book talked of roulades of penguin breast! We, in contrast, dined like princes each night aboard our vessel, informed and entertained by a series of first class lectures – many given by former Antarctica inhabitants – explaining the wildlife and the strange environment we were passing through. From our ship we shivered on deck in an effort to glimpse through the mist and sometimes the snow, to stunning beauty, as the Lemaire Channel reflected in the mirror-like waters and the sun glinted off the polar mountains: truly a miracle of rare device.
Our thanks go to Cox & Kings for creating a chance for us to drink deep from the well of some very special experiences and sights that are not given to many to see.
Mr and Mrs Purse travelled on a tailor-made itinerary to Antarctica. You can call one of our specialists on 020 7873 5000 to create your own holiday, or you can view Cox & Kings’ Chile holidays and Antarctica holidays on our website.
All images taken by Nigel Purse.