Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Antarctic Cruising: Ice Age

Those who visit Antarctica are often following their heart and mind. But many find their soul.

Thinking of a great holiday usually brings a smile to your face, often a sigh as you remember special moments. It’s surely a sign of a truly remarkable destination then that remembering an adventure to Antarctica can reduce a group of people to tears. Tears of sheer joy thinking about the huge impact of the whole experience.

The thrill of venturing into the last real wilderness. Seeing wildlife in its natural state and loving the fact that they have not yet learnt to fear man. Absorbing the wonder of an almost untouched environment and knowing there are no barriers except those thrown up by nature and an automatic respect for the beauty that surrounds you. Having no crowds to deal with except the thousands of penguin chicks fledging their nests and heading for the icy waters.

Heady stuff, granted. Over the top? For some, maybe. But these are shared opinions of the 83 passengers aboard the MV Lyubov Orlova on our Adventure Associates expedition to Antarctica. Eleven days of pure magic and absolute peace. Words are just not enough to describe Antarctica’s appeal and its stark contrasts.

It is cold and dangerous, and yet warm and welcoming. Silent and white as snow one minute, then noisy and black as volcanic ash. Tranquil for onlookers but bustling with activity for the thousands of penguins, for example, almost ready to leave the nest at the end of the Antarctic summer.

It has a beauty that is immediately obvious; a photographer’s paradise for sure. And yet it has hidden delights; nature’s own little secrets just waiting to be discovered by those dedicated enough to make the trek and patient enough to sit and watch.

Chinstrap Penguin Family (Roderick Eime)

Watching a fat, fluffy, trusting chick waddling casually past when you sit on a rock? Or sitting stunned as 40-ton humpback whales come so close they wet you with their blowholes, and then perch upright in the water to get a better look eye-to-eye. Leopard seals toying with us probably looking for breakfast, darting and sliding from one side of our Zodiac (an inflatable boat) to the other and then following us back to the ship. The groan of a glacier just before the gun-shot crack as it calves away and plunges in the sea.

Antarctica? People asked, why on Earth would you want to go there? Isn’t it cold and just a lot of ice? Won’t your photos just be all white? Of course it’s freezing. In fact it gets so cold, when you pass south of 65 (that’s degrees latitude and about 30 degrees farther south than Adelaide), the air is the same temperature as the water. Snow falling on the sea forms an icy layer instead of melting. But come prepared with the right clothes and the weather is not an issue. Thermals, jumpers, jackets, gloves, hats, waterproof pants, rubber boots and a healthy sense of adventure and you’re set.

And yes, there’s a lot of ice, but it comes in the most amazing array of shapes, sizes and colours. Beautiful sculptures by the world’s most famous artist of all, nature herself. And a kaleidoscope of colours and textures. Pure white honeycomb with frosty edges, soft foam and marshmallow towers in muted pastels; glistening turquoise blue crystals, stalactites dripping into water so clear you can easily see the minke whale rolling just metres away and the penguins porpoising in and out of the waves.

Well, at least there’s the polar bears to look at. Wrong. Despite popular belief, they are at the other end of the world. There are so many reasons for choosing Antarctica. Our Russian ice-strengthened ship carried 83 passengers from 20 different nations, from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina to the great white continent. That’s 83 different reasons for a group of adventurers aged from 15 to 74; people willing to cross the dreaded Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of water in the world, to reach Antarctica.

Joy, from Scotland, heard stories as she grew up of her uncle who worked at a research station. She always dreamt of seeing the real thing for herself. For American Sherry, it’s the last continent to conquer. Michelle and Jeff from Canada are on their honeymoon. Young Tricia from the US tossed up between Africa and Antarctica, but her dad wasn’t ready to let her go on a safari.

Allessandro, an Italian father-to-be, wants to find his spirit and a place to feel at peace with the world. Lawrence, a Brazilian filmmaker, is gathering footage for wildlife documentaries. A travel agent from Holland is checking out the expeditions that are selling like wildfire.

Some see it as a way of one-upmanship. Not many people, after all, can say they have been to Antarctica. For others it is purely the ice or the wildlife. A Japanese film crew captures every moment for a TV travel channel and who knows why the large group of Japanese tourists chose Antarctica, but they are having the time of their lives. For Dot Miller, a 67-year-old self-confessed adventure junkie (and my mum) from Adelaide, it’s the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Reaching that one destination that will stand out for all time.

How does it compare with other holidays or pastimes like jumping out of planes? “There is no comparison,’’ she says. “This tops the lot by far. It’s much more than I ever expected. It’s hard to describe the feeling that overcomes you. It’s so peaceful. Even with the other passengers there’s still plenty of chances and room to be alone just to take in the quiet. There’s no rubbish, no signs, no graffiti. No need to check that you’re going in the right direction. I just can’t believe how lucky we are. It’s like a dream. I have to keep pinching myself to make sure I’m really here. I feel like I’ve gone to heaven.’’

And those feelings are echoed every day. Each person, regardless of their age, enjoys . . . no, LOVES it. Everyone seems to get something completely different out of their visit; their own special memory. It may be eye-balling a 40-ton whale, conquering a mountain, swimming in icy Antarctica, seeing snow for the first time, admiring the antics of penguins or recording new species of birds.

Some turn the trek into a tribute to those early explorers who first dared to cross Antarctica’s unknown spaces - a pilgrimage for Shackleton, Mawson, Scott, Amunsden and the like, even though our expedition is made from the safety and comfort of a ship with warm beds and gourmet meals. And yet there is one common thread - a passion for our new-found paradise.

Most people come expecting to conquer this last real wilderness. We leave knowing that no one truly can. The best you can hope for is to experience it. Antarctica really does have to be seen, and felt, to be believed.

Carolyne Jasinski writes and edits for the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper. She travelled with her mother on the 'Classic Antarctica' expedition on board the MV Orlova – and apparently will never be the same again!

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