It has long been a dream of mine to visit all seven continents. Six had fallen to my flat feet and it was high time the 7th (Antarctica) received a Kimbell footprint or two.
Getting there – the Ship
My chosen vessel had the promising name of the Antarctic Dream. A sturdy workhorse built in 1958 and, after toiling for the Chilean army, has now taken on the role of cruise liner (it has been spruced up though). It could take a maximum of 82 passengers, but as this was the first tour of the season, it only had 74. Knowing there were a couple of empty cabins, I decided to ditch my assigned room-mate and fenangle a single cabin, so turned up the charm and, using the excuse of a aforesaid room-mate being ill, scored.
The ship had a lot to offer, including a much heralded lecture theatre and spa, both of which turned out to be not quite what was expected. The theatre was home to many interesting lectures on the flora, fauna and wildlife, but due to its position in the bowels of this ship, it had a peculiar, unsettling motion. As a result, when a lecture started, it was a race to get to one of the comfy, hugely padded chairs at the back, but then in the darkness, motion and stuffy atmosphere made keeping your eyes open a bit of a challenge. As for the spa, all I can say is that is wasn’t one.
On the plus side, my single cabin was excellent, the library was delightful and the main dining/common room was extremely comfy and many a happy hour was spent watching breath-taking scenery glide past, whilst playing backgammon or chatting over drinks and snacks. Interestingly all the chairs in this room were subtly chained to floor, this was our first hint of what was in store for us.
Food on the ship was pretty good, although the chef was new and had not quite the hang of all aspects. One meal was noteworthy for temperature and texture mix: hot steaks, tepid potatoes and cold mushrooms made for an interesting assortment. The Argentinean diet tends to be rather heavy on protein, so the desire for fresh fruit and vegetables increased exponentially over the course of the cruise, culminating in the destruction of a decorative display to promote Chilean wines in order to release a lurking kiwi-fruit spotted therein. This was a real team effort, with look outs and people to distract the barman and was a good example of camaraderie on the ship.
The cruise started at Ushuaia, self-proclaimed “end of the world” on the tip of southern Argentina, a 3 hour flight from Buenos Aires. From there it was just about 800 kilometers by boat to the peninsular – but there is one major problem – the roughness of Drakes Passage, the sea between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. Named after Sir Frances, it is home to some of the most violent maritime conditions on the planet as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceanic swells clash and seemingly fight for supremacy around Cape Horn. To be honest, the two 2 day / 3 night crossings were pretty grueling.
The ships’ doctor distributed sea-sickness tablets like candy at Halloween, and it quickly became apparent why. Five meter waves crashed over boat and the huge swells meant the pitch and yaw left most people with a nauseous feeling. During this time, only about half the passengers made it to the dining room, but those who did were treated to the amazing spectacle of twinkle-toed waiters performing death-defying balancing acts whilst bringing plates and drinks, mostly unscathed, to the table. There were several crash, bang, tinkle-tinkles from the kitchen, but only once did an entire tray go down, but it was only cake, which is a shame as I like cake.
Taking a shower was an adventure as you careened uncontrollably across the shower stall on to the scalding hot tap, jerking back, you hit the icy cold support railing and then spasmed in to the all-enveloping, clammy shower curtain before finally coming to rest, panting in a corner, wondering where on earth the soap had ended up.
Sleeping too posed it challenges – now call me old fashioned, but after 45-odd years of practice, I thought I was pretty good at it, not so in the Drakes Passage. Sleeping on your side was impossible as the pitching and yawing of the boat catapults you in to anything else that happens to be flying round cabin. In my case this included bags, water bottles, washing, life vests and, most painfully, the air conditioning unit that detached itself from the wall and went for a nightly meander. The only way to sleep was lying on your front or back combined with tightly fitted sheets (something I abhor under normal circumstances). Once we arrived things calmed down and a plethora of, as yet unseen, passengers appeared – normal sleep positions also resumed.
But all the perils of the sea and any unpleasant memories faded as we sailed in to calmer waters and got our first glimpses of land and icebergs. Due to some technical, scientifical explanation, icebergs reflect a beautiful, almost eerie, blue light in the sunshine. These glowing, fantastically shaped icebergs joined with huge glaciers, mountainous snow covered peaks to form amazing vistas.
The ship weighed anchor at a place called Half Moon Bay, and the passengers were assigned to different groups to get in the smaller zodiacs to be ferried ashore. I told I was a foca – no, not what you are thinking – it is Spanish for seal, which we concluded was by far the best group as we bumped over the waves to make our first, snowy, footfall.
It was a mixed bag of landings and zodiac cruises over the 5 next days. One phrase we consistently heard is that “conditions can change quickly” and boy, did we experience that. Sometimes we were bathed in glorious sunshine, with crystal clear waters lapping at the base of an ice mountain, sometimes we landed during heavy snow and sometimes a whole excursion had to be canceled due to the conditions. Moral was never low as the crew then substituted alternative activities and lectures.
Whenever we landed, practically the first thing that happened was that a load of inquisitive penguins came down to check us out (unless they were having sex; we arrived in the middle of the breeding season). We stood in lines, them gawping at us, we doing the same, but we had cameras and were not wearing any tuxedos. We saw mostly Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins (yes, you can tell them apart), whose nest-building exploits and subsequent use of them we never got tired of watching (although I did feel a bit like a voyeur). On one zodiac cruise a real highlight happened, our resident ornithologist got very excited and pointed to a huge iceberg, where a single emperor penguin had taken residence. He looked down majestically at us before disappearing in to the blue.
We saw many other animals thanks to our sharp eyed “El Capitain” who could seemingly spot whales at 37 miles out, along with seals, albatrosses, petrels and gulls. We found out later his nickname was “el ojo” (the eye) and he missed nothing; a zodiac illegally driving though an iceberg hole, a misdemeanor at an old whaling station, someone turning off their radio at an inappropriate time, all was noted and subsequently commented on.
Temperatures were surprisingly moderate, on land it was just under freezing point and a nice warm parker and some thermals took care of the cold. After being pretty sedate for almost two weeks, it was not now time to turn the heat and the activity meters up to high, with the second installment of this little break, Postcard from the Edge of a Thrill…
(C) Ian Kimbell 2010