We’d travelled the world many times over-always a new and exciting continent or country to experience. But nothing, nothing at all, prepared me for this final frontier. Antarctic wilderness. This extreme destination has some of the last unexplored areas on the planet, with unrivalled views of glaciers, icecaps and pristine wilderness.
As I sit here reflecting on this memory, I am remimded of an evening on board ship cosied up in the Club Bar, where we travellers were regaled with hilarious stories by the team leaders of our expedition. Stories such as, “When will we see the polar bears?” and “Will it be cold on the ice?” And one nervous dear lady who met the captain on the bridge and asked, ”Do ships like this go down very often?” and to which he dryly replied, “Only once, Madam!”
Shipboard life aboard a Russian icebreaker is very different from a Pacific cruise on a luxury liner. But there is always excitement – the excitement at seeing our first iceberg which sent many scrambling for the long lens cameras. It turned out to be an icecube compared with what was to come! Everyone on board was a seasoned traveller with tales of base camp Everest, trekking Nepal and suchlike. But all were mesmerized by Antarctica. Amazingly, some brave souls wearing only a cozzie, did the “5 second Polar Plunge!”
With the sea heaving below, a feeling of intrepidation assailed me the first time we disembarked the ship via the steep gangplank to board the small Zodiac craft, which would take us to land on the Antarctic continent. This was a fearful experience, dressed as we were, in heavy “moonwalker-like “ gear as protection against the cold. Once moving through Antarctic waters in the small craft, the feel of the crisp air on your face could be treacherous if the wind blew up. Worse than that were the actual landings. No landings at all! Just ice, rock and snow.
The sights in Antarctica were almost indescribable. Massive icebergs that really are blue – the result of refracted light trapped over time – are the dominant feature. Crusted glittering snow belies the rock and ice just centimetres beneath your feet. The wildlife is remarkable. Orca whales, albatross lazily wheeling above, seals basking on the ice, and adorable little “Happy Feet” aka penguins. The penguins are captivating. Oh, and did I tell you a colony of them STINKS! Too much KFC. That’s krill, fish and crustaceans of course!
The carping of thousands of penguins when you’re near a colony and strong gutteral sounds from seals are occasionally heard, but overwhelming is the SOUND OF SILENCE. This is something one is totally unprepared for. SILENCE. And MORE SILENCE. A sense of eerieness. I struggle to find the words to do justice to Antarctic’s magnificence, and the humbling effect it had on me. It occurred to me that if you had lost your God of late, you’d rediscover Him again down there.
Befriending a group of ladies on the ship, I didn’t think we would ever connect again, in spite of exchanging contact details. One lady in particular, interested me. She was an astrophysicist, who had left her husband at home in Florida, suffering progressive dementia. When Christmas 2012 arrived, there was a warm letter from her with an invitation to visit. And I’m thinking that maybe I’m not ready to give up my passport just yet.