What makes travelling to Antarctica the journey of a lifetime?

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

brunch Updated: Mar 10, 2018 23:28 IST
Suhel Seth
Suhel Seth
Hindustan Times
Drake Passage,Mud Room,Antarctica Treaty
Glacier around Neko Harbour(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.

Penguin in deep thought at Paradise Bay (Seth Seth )

Passage to hell

In 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.

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

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 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.

Penguins at Yankee Harbour on a pebble-laced beach (Suhel Seth )

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

Glacial formation around Petermann Island is quite a sight to behold (Suhel Seth )

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

A relaxing elephant seal on an iceberg (Suhel Seth )

We then sailed to Esperanza, an Argentinean station, and saw how things were being run by a skeletal staff of scientists and two school-teachers 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 awe-inspiring. 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

Iceberg en route Lemaire Passage (Suhel Seth )

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, 1908-10, under Charcot, because of its use at that time by whalers.

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

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.

  • For Indophiles and vegetarians If you’d like an all-Indian experience and a ship that caters to all-Indian guests, log on to www.thewhitecontinent.com It’s great for strict vegetarians and nationalists who want to see the Indian flag on the ship that sails them. It has the lowest prices too!
  • For a younger adventure Log on to www.plushplaces.in and watch Mumbai-based travel enthusiast Rahul Jagtiani on his trip to this snow-covered land. Rahul’s a fun chap who’s always happy to guide those who share a passion for travel.

( Author bio: Suhel Seth is Managing Partner of Counselage India: suhel@counselage.com; He is on Twitter @suhelseth)

From HT Brunch, March 11, 2018

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First Published: Mar 10, 2018 21:33 IST