Would you dare to answer an ad that said: ‘Men Wanted. For hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold long months of darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success’? There were plenty who answered that ad in the early part of the last century. The men who were selected for British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic and braved that bitterly cold continent were the men who secretly made me loathe my ridiculous, mostly uneventful, life.
Although Machu Picchu still reigns supreme on my bucket list of places to visit, Antarctica was always my favourite. The idea of stepping on the icy continent would be, I thought, like stepping intothe dark recesses of one’s mind. I had seen the grainy pictures of Shackleton’s voyages and pored over accounts from survivors of the journey. The continent always looked dark and forbidding. I live in a sun-soaked apartment in which temperatures are artificially controlled and the closest I come to nature is when I watch an Ixora flower on the enclosed parapet. What would someone like me find there? I didn’t even know how to swim.
I have, over the years, done what most armchair travellers do: trawl the net. Luxury ocean cruises take you to the continent, but they are meant for the super rich. Besides, one would need to fly to New Zealand first (and, if you are a Lord of the Rings fan, then you would get hopelessly distracted by that country). If you’re not boarding a cruise vessel from Bluff or Lyttleton, in New Zealand, then you’d be choosing Hobart or Freemantle, in Australia. It is also suggested that one take cruises from South Africa. But, eventually, I did what seemed most logical and decided to head to Tierra del Fuego, a cluster of islands belonging to Argentina that constitutes the southernmost tip of South America.
We found the cheapest air tickets from Mumbai to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego’s capital, via, of all places, Helsinki, and once there, proceeded to get a fix on the ship that would take me to Antarctica. The choices are plenty. You can take a cruise ship and watch the ice with the help of binoculars while eating chicken curry or pizza, or you could travel on icebreakers that are obviously equipped to be near the icebergs.
So, the choice for me was clear: I would rather go on the Russian icebreaker Grigoriy Mikheev, which, besides its normal complement of scientists and researchers on their way to the Vostok, the Russian station on the South Pole, also offers a few seats to tourists on every voyage. Our package was called Sea-Air Cruise Antarctica XXI, also known as the cruise and fly. We would travel by Grigoriy Mikheev for five days toAntarctica, but our return journey would be by a commercial airline that flies between Antarctica and Punta Arenas, on Chile’s southern tip.
The ship set sail at 4 in the afternoon. The sun was shining and I was glad I did not overdo the winter gear thing (as others had clearly). I had prepared for the ice with a made-to-order jacket and pants bought from a mountaineering store, in Matunga, Mumbai, and a couple of well-worn thermals. The Russian icebreaker was not a big ship, so we kept bumping into fellow tourists more often than we wanted. The scientists were polite and kept to themselves. The Russian crew was kind and spoke expertly with their hands. Day one passed pleasantly, watching the Shackleton documentaries and with a wonderful talk by a young marine biologist who had photographed and researched all kinds of penguins.
The historic Drake Passage (named after Sir Francis Drake), where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, had, as expected, choppy waters. The rough seas made sure that practically everyone was seasick, except the crew and the scientists. But, the scopolamine patch, which the doctor placed behind the ear of each tourist, worked like magic, and I was able to stagger to the dining area and sit up straight. While everyone was gorging on seafood and bacon-laced pasta, I, the only vegetarian onboard, got spinach soup, spinach lasagna, penne in spinach sauce, spinach noodles and spinach risotto. But, the breads they baked onboard were heavenly.
We were four days into the sea when the icebergs first became visible. So, it was time to board the inflatable lightweight boats that would provide us a closer view. The two-mile-long icebergs made the Mikheev look like a matchbox, and the inflatable boats mere matchsticks. Equipped with lifejackets, we made our way to the boats down a scary ladder lowered into the sea.
The boats took us closer to the massive icebergs. Some of these were white, but there were others that were turquoise blue and pink. The constant surge of water had created beautiful filigree work on them. According to a naturalist, who accompanied us on the boat, the coloured icebergs are formed when glacial snow coming in from the South Pole meets seawater that contains organic matter and minerals. There were a few penguins on one of the larger icebergs and, although we were asked to stay calm, our collective excitement made the shy little birds dive into the water.
If you thought bobbing on the cork-sized boats was scary, climbing back aboard the icebreaker was tougher. I pleaded with the crew to haul me up with the boat, but seeing how the boats lurched mid-air as they hauled them up one by one, I scrambled up the rickety ladder so quickly the crew must have laughed for days.
The seagulls were screeching as they circled our icebreaker early the next morning. It was just 2 am, but the sun was shining as though it was 10 am. We were instructed to pack our luggage and leave it in the recreation room. It would be deposited on land. We got into the inflatable boats, after saying boisterous goodbyes to the crew. This time I wasn’t afraid as the boat took us to see numerous penguin colonies and birds of all kinds. The penguins are smaller than in the movies and are noisier than a bunch of schoolkids sans supervision. And, I am sorry to report that there’s nothing cute about pink penguin poo and the general stench of the colonies. After taking hundreds of pictures we finally made it to land. Our legs felt wobbly for a while, but everyone seemed to be walking in a funny manner (that’s what happens when you are on an icebreaker for five days).
There were three research stations within walking distance of each other. The Argentinean station stamped our passports and, while some marvelled at the visas, I checked my mail. Internet access was faster than at home. I looked at the quiet expanse of ice and pictured myself churning out bestsellers about the ice around my heart and head in a lonely hut somewhere near an onion-domed church, which obviously was part of the Vostok. The Vostok crew welcomed us and we got more stamps on our passport. I was beginning to enjoy the stamping thing because it filled my already fat passport rather rapidly.
We were having tea at the Paraguayan station when we got the bad news. The Sea-Air Cruise Antarctica XXI was in trouble. The sky looked fine. But, the commercial plane that was going to be the first to land on the cold continent had run into an ice storm and returned. The storm was approaching us rapidly. After much frantic radio activity and tense waiting (you really cannot do much), we were told that a Paraguay Air Force C130 aircraft would take us back to South America. We were quickly shepherded out of the station and
almost blown off by strong winds on the runway.
The weather changed that quickly.
The black shadow of the C130 soon occupied the runway. I remember the noise of the C130 through the ear plugs, and the palpable fear. The airplane was flying into the snow for what seemed like hours. When we landed at Punta Arenas, in Chile, the weather was unashamedly sunny. It was as though we had returned from some fantasy land.