Filling my logbook... The Antarctic Dream
Travel writer Matt Chesterton visits the world’s harshest wilderness – the easy way.
Cruise to Antarctica
Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula
I’d been told to expect the sublime in Antarctica, but this was ridiculous. In just one afternoon I had filled my logbook (what a notebook becomes the instant it crosses a gangplank) with the following:
Excursion to Mikklesen Harbour… Beach strewn with whale ribcages and half-buried planks from old skiffs (hard to tell one from other)… Trio of Weddell seals snoozing on the ice… Gentoo penguins are civil engineers: they build ‘highways’ in the snow and toddle along these compacted trenches in groups… Back on boat, crew hand out hot chocolate – tastes better than Krug in the context… Pod of humpback whales spotted: captain slows boat, no one speaks but 78 cameras whirr as two whales flash their flukes… Lecture: early British Antarctic expeditions didn’t use dogs because public thought it cruel… Supper: gourmet empanadas, proof of chef’s genius… Happy hour: whisky served with glacier ice – 30 per cent off!… Tomorrow we swim in a volcano…
It’s hardly Scott or Shackleton; but then neither of them were tourists. The pioneers set out to conquer Antarctica; the modern traveller sets out to be conquered by Antarctica. And through the rapid accumulation of unique experiences and vivid impressions like those written above – encompassing the sensual, the intellectual and the downright hedonistic – this is usually what happens.
My logbook effusions were written six days into the expedition, but in fact I’d been won over from the moment I saw my cruise ship, the Antarctic Dream – for the simple reason that it didn’t look like a cruise ship. It looked sturdy and utilitarian, the kind of boat that would rather be running into the teeth of a gale than hosting Strictly Come Grab-a-Granny nights.
My first impressions were spot-on. The Antarctic Dream is an 83-metre Chilean ex-Navy ship with capacity for 78 passengers and 43 crew, one of a number of vessels that carry tourists between Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost port, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Choose your craft carefully: some of the ships are Cunard-esque floating condos where passengers get dressed up for dinner; smaller boats, like the AD, have a more informal, participatory atmosphere.
Coracle or cabin cruiser, all ships bound for Antarctica must cross the Drake Passage, the body of water separating South America from the South Shetland Islands, which even some cruise company brochures dub ‘notorious’. Swells can reach six metres or higher, causing even the largest vessels to pitch and yaw at alarming angles. For those who don’t get sick, it’s a thrilling ride; for those who do, the Passage becomes synonymous with dry crackers and disposable paper bags. Seasickness medication should be as high up your pre-trip shopping list as that nifty Gore-Tex jacket.
The two-day ‘Drake shake’ is, however, an opportunity for Dramamine-drowsy passengers to attend lectures given by the naturalists who lead the expedition, and to get acquainted with some of their fellow travellers. I instantly warmed to my cabin mate, David, a fifty-something American who, being diligent, agreed to take notes at the lectures that I missed; and who, being teetotal, agreed to slip me his wine allowance at mealtimes.
Even without the double rum ration, I think I would have still spent most of my time staring out of the huge windows of the AD’s wood-panelled dining room, mesmerised by the noble aspect and parabolic flight patterns of the seabirds that were our constant companions. Wandering albatrosses, cape petrels, giant petrels and southern fulmars swooped and soared around us with ridiculous ease, using the very elements – the fierce winds, the mountainous waves – that were hampering our passage to facilitate their own.
On the third evening, after another of the gourmet four-course meals the chefs somehow managed to contrive in a bouncing kitchen, we went to bed feeling like kids on Christmas Eve. We would wake up in Antarctica.
PICK UP A PENGUIN
To be precise, we woke up in the South Shetlands. This chain of Antarctic islands, 75 miles north of the Peninsula, provides the first landing opportunity for expeditions en route to the ice continent proper. It also provides the first opportunity for passengers to debut their obscenely expensive ‘outdoor performance’ clothes – all four recommended layers of them. Life vests are a great sartorial leveller, however, and by the time these were donned, everyone was looking equally foolish. We piled into the Zodiac inflatable boats, introducing ourselves to those passengers who had emerged, queasy but not defeated, from their cabins for the first time in three days. First stop, Yankee Harbour. As the Melvillian name suggests, this spit of land was first used by American sealers in the 19th century, and several rusty blubber pots from that period still litter the shoreline. As if to fill out the narrative, a small herd of young elephant seals were lazing on the beach. A few of them checked us out with their rheumy eyes, but most ignored us, opting to get on with the serious business of scratching, yawning, snoozing and defecating.
The elephant seals would have had to spin beach balls on their noses while clapping out ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to get much attention from us, for penguins are the natural world’s great scene-stealers. Further up the beach was a rookery of gentoos – in effect, a penguin maternity ward where couples alternate between incubating their recently hatched chicks and collecting stones for the nest. Arguments flare up over disputed stones but otherwise the colony is one harmonious huddle. Like the seals, the gentoos seemed oblivious to our presence. They did, however, keep close tabs on the skuas circling overhead. These dark, drooling birds – portrayed as mobsters in the film Happy Feet – will snack on the chicks if given the chance.>
Penguins are usually described in anthropomorphic terms: they walk like drunks, they dress like nuns, and so on. But it’s really their sheer, indefinable penguinness that makes them loveable. We sat quietly and watched them for about an hour, and returned to the boat.
THE ICERBERGS COMETH
We’d seen penguins; now we wanted icebergs. And as we pushed south across the Gerlache Strait towards the Antarctic Peninsula – suddenly visible in all its craggy, snowy glory, with glaciers running like smooth ice ramps from the peaks to the shoreline – we got them in increasing numbers. The Ancient Mariner, blown this way against his will, had a knack for iceberg sketches – ‘And ice, mast-high, came floating by/As green as emerald’ – but there were no Coleridges on board, so our games of Ice-Spy contained more pop culture gibberish than poetry. ‘This one looks like a prostrate Barney from the Simpsons.’ ‘A used Ford Flex.’ ‘A pack of Marlboro Milds.’ ‘A giant’s helping of cranberry sorbet.’
STEPPING ON ANTARCTICA
The fifth day (which didn’t dawn as such – at these latitudes the sun barely dips below the horizon) was the hinge moment of the expedition. We were to land at Charlotte Bay, on the Antarctic continental mainland: those who had come to fulfil their ambition of ‘doing’ all seven continents would be able to tick that last box.
Ignacio, our expedition leader, had advised us to spend some time exploring the landing area before glueing our eyes to our cameras and DV recorders. What we saw was a curved bay layered in deep virgin snow; and a shoreline ribboned with shingle and glistening ice shards, and covered in natural flotsam – in particular, colourful splodges of eerily inorganic-looking seaweed and lichen. Hills rose steeply from the bay – and, from the top of the hills, using their deep compacted ‘highways’, gentoo and chinstrap penguins were waddling their way beachwards, looking like ramblers returning from a day trip. Back towards the ship we saw tiny icebergs in the bay, each bathing in a pool of Bondi blue (the reflection from the mass of the ’berg beneath the surface).
It was snowing gently, and the wind had obligingly dropped to a murmur. The sun vanished behind a dirty blanket of clouds, and we had the illusion that the gleaming earth was lighting the dreary sky rather than vice versa. The snow was solid, not powdery: a snowball fight was quickly wound up when it became clear someone could lose an eye. The air may have been fresh, but it was also loaded with the acrid scent of penguin guano.
Trying to get down in words what it feels like to land on the ice continent is a descriptive challenge far greater than any of the other minor ones we faced (sinking waist deep into snow was as tough as it got). The evidence for this was in the furrowed brows and hovering biros of those writing postcards in the ship’s lounge each evening. Few of the clichés seemed to help. ‘Unearthly’ is an adjective that crops up a lot in Antarctic travelogues. But the landscapes aren’t ‘unearthly’. On the contrary, due to the almost total absence of human intervention, it is hard to imagine anywhere more earthly. Antarctica is Mother Nature in her birthday suit.
HELL FROZEN OVER
After another day nosing around the Peninsula, the captain pointed the Antarctic Dream back towards civilisation, and we began the long return. Threading our way through the South Shetlands by a different route allowed us to land on Antarctica’s closest approximation to a tourist trap, the astonishing and much-visited Deception Island. This volcanic netherworld, obsidian-coloured but streaked with ice and orange lava rock, is entered through a narrow passage known as Neptune’s Bellows. Inside is a landlocked caldera, above which drifts a sulphurous mist. It’s part natural wonder, part Marilyn Manson video.
We landed on the black sands and explored the remains of research stations destroyed during several big eruptions in the 1960s. Our feet sank into dark ash and cinders, and we found ‘cooked’ krill on the beach. There are few places in the world that can be properly described as both picturesque and hellish, and this is one of them. A number of my brave shipmates took a dip in the (relatively) warm waters of the caldera. Shamefully, your correspondent wimped out, blaming a fictional head cold.
The Drake Passage was calmer on the way back. Most of us had got our sea legs and the breakfast queue was three times as long on day nine as it had been on day two. I talked with Jan, a Prague pensioner in his seventies and the oldest member of our party. He was, as he proudly told everyone, ‘Czech person number 21 to visit the Antarctica!’ He had recently been diagnosed with a mobility disorder, and his doctor had advised him to get a DVD player and a bunch of movies, and to take things easy. Jan thanked the doc for his kind advice, went home, and booked himself a berth on the Antarctic Dream. I asked Jan if this would be his ‘last big adventure’. He gave me a look that was one part kindness, one part pity, and began to walk me through the itinerary of his next big trip.
But I knew that I was at least half right. There would be other expeditions, other thrills, other adventures: but Antarctica had been ‘done’, crossed off the ‘things to do before you die’ list, ‘conquered’ even. A void had been filled; a new one would be required. We needed an eighth continent.
This article has been reproduced from Time Out Adventure!, available from 2nd July. The book, which also includes articles from Libby Purves crewing on Tall Ships and editor Ismay Atkins dog sledding in the Arctic Circle, will be available from Amazon.com and all good bookshops, RRP £16.99.