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Little feet on White Continent

world Updated: Sep 16, 2007 03:49 IST
Manoj Sharma

Suravi Thomas, 16, and Rishi Thomas, 13, are the youngest Indians to have set foot on Antarctica. It’s quite a feat, considering that a journey to Antarctica can test the mettle of even the most intrepid sailors. In this e-mail interview with Manoj Sharma, the daring siblings, who are currently studying at the International School of Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile, share the experiences of their extraordinary voyage to the White Continent on a Chilean navy ship.

How did you get the opportunity to go?
Rishi: The Chilean icebreakers usually take researchers, scientists, doctors and change of staff along with supplies, food and medicines every few weeks during the Antarctic summer. We were lucky enough to be invited to join one such ship, the Romehielo Viel, which was carrying a Czech team and supplies on way to build a base.

Tell us about the journey on the navy ship.
Suravi: Our route took us past Cape Horn and across the wildest stretch of waters anywhere in the world, the Drake Passage. This stretches from Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula, connecting the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans. It took us two full days and nights to get across.

It is not a crossing we will repeat in a hurry. For 72 hours, the Passage lived up to its reputation, with winds of 90 knots an hour throwing up huge waves. The only thing we could do was to hold on tight to our berths. No thought of food or water crossed our mind, nor of seasickness. We were focusing on keeping ourselves from being dashed down to the floor. The Viel bucked and kicked, and rose and fell almost vertically! However, we crossed without mishap. Thankfully, we stepped ashore on icy but steady land.

How did your fellow travellers take to you?
Rishi: Our fellow travellers were mainly Chilean navy officers, scientists from the Chilean Antarctic Institute, two doctors and members of the Czech Antarctic team going to the Antarctic to build the base on James Ross Island. They were amazed that we as children were intrepid enough to undertake the journey. They were excited as much for us as for themselves.

Wasn’t there fear in your hearts?
Suravi: Our briefings had mentally prepared us for violent movements like in the Disney rides. But none of us expected the full gale that hit our ship. With 10-metre waves crashing in, our ship’s motions were so wild that only a few brave navy officers managed to make it to breakfast daily. We preferred to remain in our cabins.

The Drake’s Passage crossing is one of the most harrowing experiences any person can live through: howling winds, foam and fog, and enormous waves tossing your ship around like clothing in a dryer. We knew that many ships had sunk in these icy seas.

What was most memorable in Antarctica?
Once we arrived in the Antarctic Strait, the weather was extraordinarily clear and sunny. The ship’s commandant decided against immediate landings. Instead, we were given an hour-long helicopter ride over Paradise Bay. For us this was one of the highlights. We marvelled at the icy, glorious landscape glittering like diamonds in the sunlight as we swooped over the brash ice, marvelling at the sheer cliffs, ice floes and ice caves in this ethereal landscape.

Was there any experience on the continent that you would like to forget?
Suravi: While returning from O’Higgins Base on the Antarctic Peninsula, our zodiac (inflatable rubber dinghy) driver piloted the craft out of its original course and headed for a group of icebergs. The icebergs were drifting closer in the strong winds as the driver tried to pass between them. Before we knew, our zodiac was trapped.

The icebergs moved closer and our zodiac was tilting as it was squeezed. The wind was strong, the cold was intense, and we went wild with panic. One person on our zodiac shouted that there was a seal underneath, ready to attack us. Others started crying out, saying we were all to die. The panicky movements rocked our zodiac harder and made it tilt even more. The tilting caused the iceberg to slip further under. We couldn’t move suddenly, or else we would become food for the seal!

There was also the very real fear of hypothermia. Hypothermia in the Antarctic waters sets in in three minutes flat. Within 10 minutes, our zodiac got punctured by the pressure of the icebergs. Just as were sure we were going to sink, a flat boat that was transferring heavy containers from the ship to the base came to our rescue.