Adventure travel may conjure up images of trekking in sub zero temperatures in Tibet for days on end, or crossing Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains on dust covered mountain bikes – but truly it is not limited to extremes and adrenaline – it is for anyone with a spirit of adventure and a sense of wonder about the world in which we live. In my case, I happen to have a peculiar affinity for adventures in cold places, and my recent opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the largest wilderness ice-covered areas on the planet was nothing less than divine conjecture! It is truly a paradise – ultra-abundant and intense in every facet of its elements – where the danger of standing face to face with nature is rivaled only by the frightening discovery that you may really be faced with yourself.
Antarctica is a land of extremes. With temperatures as cold as liquid nitrogen, quark-like amounts of annual precipitation, ice as thick as half the height of Everest and wind speeds that would beat Mario Andretti in a race, it is the coldest, driest, highest and windiest of the continents. As big as the United States and Mexico put together, Antarctica is not only earth’s largest land thermostat, but is also the major source of fresh water, albeit cryogenized – for the time being. It is the only continent where the official human population is zero, as opposed to a penguin population of 75 million. It can be an inhospitable, hostile, foul and unfriendly ogre, or a vast sleeping beauty of a giant. Fortunate to have experienced more the latter than the former in my recent journey to El Fin del Mundo and beyond, I witnessed a land of wild friendliness and terrible beauty; a land to be respected for its ability to teach and inspire us to be better stewards of environment and wildlife because we are all connected – to be wondered at just because it is.
Tourists began trickling into Antarctica since the late 1950’s and numbers have steadily risen to somewhere in the vicinity of a downpour, a phenomenon that gained momentum when the Cold War closed shop and the Russians hung "For Sale, Cheap” signs on their high tech polar class research vessels. The official number of visitors for the 2006/07 Season was 37,552. They come by sea and by air, but mostly by sea. They arrive on ships like Holland America’s Rotterdam, cram-packed with 1224 passengers, 20 staff and 599 crew. Perhaps not the ideal situation if you choose to abide by the Antarctic Treaty, which restricts shore landings to 100 boot scrubbed people at a time. They arrive on ships like my Professor Multanovskiy, carrying 50 passengers, 10 staff and 25 crew. You do the math. During our 19 day voyage in the southern ocean we managed 18 different shore landings, a noteworthy feat considering 8 of those days were sea days. Everyone on board was offloaded into the zodiacs and onto shore inside of an hour, and if you had to go back for a pee or a camera battery, well then, so be it! No matter how they arrive, tourists are definitely crowding the place by Antarctic standards, and those most in the know grow leery in anticipation of a human disaster. It almost happened while I was floating around down there, listening in horror one morning as our Expedition Leader, Martin from Sweden, relayed the news of the sinking ship Explorer. How a thousand people will survive if tragedy strikes one of the larger ships is a serious and some say inevitable consideration.
A friend advised me to choose an itinerary that included traveling to the sub-Antarctic jewel of an island called South Georgia. A British Territory situated to the northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula, it was first landed on and claimed by Captain James Cook in 1775. Thinking he had discovered the long sought after Southern Continent he continued along her southeastern shores until he rounded a corner and realized he was once again facing west, and had merely discovered a small island. Cape Disappointment marks the spot, a name that lacks inspiration and the ability to conjure up images of rugged grandeur, leviathan sized mountains breaching up from the deep blue sea, and beaches massed with wildlife that is among the most concentrated and approachable on the planet. Rusty remnants of a once thriving whaling community scattered throughout the island serve to remind visitors like us what we’re capable of: the slaughter to near extinction proportions of a highly evolved and peaceful species with whom we share this planet. The largest Blue whale ever recorded was butchered here at Grytviken. She was a female measuring 33.5 meters and weighing an incredible 190 tonnes. It is also here at Grytviken that arguably the greatest Antarctic hero of all time is buried, and I was deeply moved to have stood by his grave. "For scientific leadership give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel give me Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton” so the saying aptly goes.
Besides mind-altering encounters with bird life and sea mammals and soul quenching vistas that on a clear day hold their own against any in the world, here’s what else you might expect on such a journey: dine on 3 gourmet meals a day, stand in silent attention on the ship’s bridge while spotting Albatross, whales and distant looming bergs, share a drink or three in the lounge, sauna, kayak, camp on the ice, join the Antarctic Swim Team or lend an inquiring mind to expert lectures on birds, geology, polar explorers, whaling, sea life, climate and photography. Expect to pay a price for the privilege of being in so remote a destination, and I’m not talking strictly pesos. Passing through some of the worst waters on the planet, you’ll soon find out whether or not you agree with the old adage "misery loves company”. Fortunately the ship’s doctor comes well equipped with remedies of varying degrees, cheerfully dispensed and free of charge.
Imagine wandering amongst hundreds of elephant seal Beach Masters awkwardly patrolling their invisibly marked territories against straying cows and wandering young weaners. Close your eyes and hear the choir of thousands of black and white unharmonious kazoos belting out their praises to the giver of life, the mysterious blue southern ocean. Breathe in deeply the stench of penguin guano and fur seal pheromones and chase it with a dose of reviving salt air. Marvel at the fantastic shades of blue and turquoise as you gaze through thousands upon thousands of compacted crystals of ice. Be struck by the trail of blood red krill left in the wake of a feeding Humpback whale. Commune with the soft magical light of the austral summer night. We travel to transcend our daily lives, to remind ourselves that we are part of a bigger picture and to put mundane annoyances in perspective. If we have paid attention on our journey, we will return with the renewed joy of knowing home for the first time. This is the gift of Antarctica.