I love travelling, and I’m always on the lookout for new destinations. When my aunt, Sarojini Gaekwad, who just turned 70 in May, but is an indefatigable traveller, announced her plans for Antarctica, I decided this was one place I would have to visit—the remotest, coldest, windiest and driest place on earth.
What was the planning like?
The planning was half the fun. I contacted Anil Damle, a Pune-based travel agent who had taken a group earlier from India to Antarctica, in January 2006. After going through the itinerary, I read up on the Internet. Damle signed us through to Abercrombie and Kent, a luxury travel company that operates the Explorer II, one of the best small ships for expedition cruises to Antarctica.
Did you need a lot of specialized gear?
Shore landings are tricky as the atmosphere is relatively thin and there is a big hole in the ozone layer over the continent. We were told that we would need five layers of progressively heavier clothing. So, we carried thermals, sweats, light and heavy tees and shirts, woollens, a windcheater, socks, caps, etc. We had to give our shoe sizes to A&K, and also measurements for heavy-duty parkas, because regular boots and jackets don’t work there. We had to wear three pairs of socks before donning our boots. We also had to wear waterproof pants on top of everything else whenever we went on shore.
Tell us about the journey, starting from India.
It was one of the longest journeys I have undertaken. We flew from Mumbai to Ushuaia, capital of Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina and the southernmost city in the world, via London and Buenos Aires. After spending a night in this lovely one-street town, we boarded the Explorer II, our home for the next 11 days.
Two days of sailing through the Drake Passage took us to the Antarctic peninsula. The Passage is a strait between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Island that connects the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its geographical peculiarities make violent storms very common. Fortunately, as the captain told us later, we faced the “Drake Lake” and not the “Drake Shake”, both ways.
What was the ship like?
The Explorer II, a 198-passenger ship, is rated one of the best cruise ships in the world. There were 173 passengers on board and a crew of 146. It was luxurious, with fresh flowers, original art and gourmet food and drinks. The temperature was an even 25°C.
Apart from my aunt, my friend, Purvi Parikh, and myself, there were two men from Pune, besides people from all over the world. There were orientation and safety sessions, slide shows and lectures from our expert group of naturalists—including the expedition leader, who had taken the season off from heading New Zealand’s Antarctica Research Station on the continent to be on this ship. I learnt from him that India is a major player in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, held in Delhi in May. We also had on board a geologist, an ornithologist, a mammalogist, a biologist, a climatologist—university academics dedicated to preserving the continent. There was also a state-of-the-art auditorium, a dance band and superlatively stocked bars—especially welcome after the cold shore landings.
Did you see the seascape changing?
The environment changed on the second day at sea, when we spotted the first iceberg. It was a breathtaking sight. Most of the first day went in finding our sea legs, and looking out for albatrosses, petrels and other sea birds. There were whales, seals and penguins. We had playful humpbacked whales around the ship quite frequently, as well as orcas, the killer whales.
It was as exciting to actually see ice forming. We also witnessed iceberg-calving, which refers to colossal chunks of ice breaking off from a thick ice shelf to become an iceberg. The landscape was pristine and spectacular, and the light, all shades of blues and greens, appeared to emerge from icebergs or glaciers.
What was the first sighting of penguins like?
Very, very emotional. On the third day, we had our first shore landing on the inflatable Zodiac watercraft. We landed on Devil Island and it was like magic. It was snowing gently, totally silent and there wasn’t a sign of life except for the 10,000 pairs of Adelie penguins. There were snowflakes falling like confetti and the occasional sounds of penguins communicating—and I was lucky enough to see a penguin chick hatch out of its egg. In spite of the stench of the pink penguin guano, the sight of these comical, adorable creatures brought tears to the eyes. The second shore landing took us to Paulet Island, which had more than 2,00,000 Adelie penguins.
Did you actually stay in Antarctica?
There is no question of staying on the continent (unless you are working in one of the research stations), as it is too cold. At the most, we’d spend two hours on a shore landing, twice a day. Another once-in-a-lifetime experience was swimming in the icy Antarctic. Some of us actually braved the cold for a dip at Pendulum Cove, where there are geo-thermal waters.
What was the trip back like?
I felt a little sad at having to leave the vulnerable continent. At the same time, I was so exhilarated by what I’d experienced. I thought about the little penguins we had seen—they had their flippers out and were panting because global warming has pushed up the temperature over the Antarctic by 2°C in the last 30 years. It reinforced my resolve to do my bit to save the icy continent.
Would you do it again?
Oh yes, most certainly. Only, next time, I will take the longer expedition cruise on Explorer II, which goes to South Georgia Island, home to the Emperor penguins.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org