Icebergs, scientists, seasickness, penguin poo: Itís all part of an Antarctica expedition where you actually get to go ashore
At Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina and the southernmost city in the world, we board the Grigoriy Mikheev, a Russian icebreaker. I am wearing a micro-fibre jacket made to order at a small Mumbai shop that supplies all kinds of mountaineering equipment. It’s not cold, but it’s windy enough to freeze. The icebreaker has nice, warm rooms.
The trip is turning out to be easier than I thought. Until the night that us 18 passengers step off the ship, into Zodiacs — inflatable boats — to zip off in the darkest night, not a star in the sky, towards a lighthouse, for dinner. I hold on to the rope handles with a death grip. I am vegetarian, I want to scream, let me go back to the ship! But the silence on board means everyone is nervous too. We are treated to one of the best meals at the restaurant and I tell the organiser, Captain Ben (and his wonderful wife and child) that the spinach and cheese-filled ravioli is unforgettable. They think my religion does not permit wine, but I am too chicken to admit I’m scared that imbibing could mean I would fall off the Zodiac on the way back.
Mornings are amazing. We are travelling with scientists and researchers ready to share all kinds of information. Breakfast is as international as we choose. And inevitably long, because the conversation is so amazing.
And yes, we have a cranky older Indian man travelling with his NRI son who, in five minutes, alienates everyone by announcing how much his ‘estate’ in Silicon Valley is worth.
The captain, an amiable Russian, indulges my nine-year-old son’s every question and earns the title of ‘Better than Google about sea stuff.’ He announces a contest: “An expedition hat for anyone who spots the first iceberg.”
First? Icebergs meant the jagged-edged things that sank the Titanic!
The NRI saves me from making a fool of myself: He asks if the little ship has any chance of survival. The captains’ laughter makes me feel better. The ship, he assures us, runs on the most advanced sonar equipment, but, he adds, we are free to wear life-jackets and wander about. We do. Over the next four days. At lunch, dinner and breakfast, and also when watching March of the Penguins in the TV room.
At breakfast, a biologist at our table makes it a point to tell us that the doctor is sitting at breakfast with us. I am busy looking at the odd tablecloth: It works like velcro, holding plates and forks and salt and pepper shakers down. Then we all understand why. The ship has entered something called Drake’s Revenge. When you see the sea one minute and the sky the next, you know you need the doc. He smiles kindly and puts a patch behind my ear. Give it half an hour and you will be asking for breakfast.
The husband spots the first iceberg and we stare at the two-mile-long tabletop iceberg in pure awe. If that is 30 percent of what is under water, imagine the rest! The patch works like magic and although I am slowed down by the meds in my bloodstream, I am happy to be up and on the deck to watch the sighting of the first birds. We are close to land!
We take several Zodiac rides to little islands that are home to penguins and petrels and giant seals. And yes, it is not pink snow, it is penguin poo, and you can smell it all. My favourite moment: Getting within inches of the most delightful turquoise iceberg and seeing icicles and frozen plant life.
Back on the ship, the entertainment room, usually full of an enthusiastic crew, is quiet. A cruise liner had been in an accident, and since we are close, we are going to monitor the rescue efforts. The NRI whines about imaginary delays and decides to write a complaint letter. Everyone is worried for the people on the liner, but they laugh when India’s Pride leans too far off the deck to take a picture with his fancy camera and his fancier phone falls out of his pocket and is swallowed by the sea.
Bright light through the porthole wakes me up. It’s 2.30 a.m. I blink in the sunlight. Sunlight? I look outside. Land! I shake the husband and child up, excited to share the sight.
It’s two thirty in the morning! Get back into bed! Yes, but it’s bright sunlight! They have to wake up and see for themselves.
We drift past the colourful stations. We are to go ashore! We are issued waterproof shoes and knee high socks for the landing.
The Zodiacs take us in, and there, in the earth’s last true wilderness, my son, the geek, says: “Hey mom, look!
And indeed, our phones begin to beep in agreement!
We trudge to the Russian station first. Bellinghausen! We get our passports stamped, and step out to take pictures, make snow angels and fool around in the snow, which is hip-deep if you do not walk carefully. We move to the Uruguayan base, and have to get our passports stamped again (each station is considered to be a different country).
After six hours on land, it is time to catch our flight, a fancy jet! We drink tea as we thaw, then get into souped-up SUVs that takes us to the aerodrome.
More adventure is in store. No sign of the promised commercial airliner. Just a giant military Hercules 130. We fly to Punta Arenas in this?
Change of plan. Scientists and researchers and other adventurers are all flying out together. In the plane, we sit on bench-like seats normally occupied by paratroopers. A port-a-potty in the middle of the aeroplane looks totally out of place. The sound of the Hercules is deafening; ear plugs are offered and all of us who refused them raise our arms like schoolchildren when they are offered again. It is only when the airplane begins to lurch that we realise why a passenger plane could not have made it in such unpredictable weather. (Commercial flights do make the trip in better weather.) I remember an ad every copywriter knows — an ad that legend says Ernest Shackleton, legendary explorer, put out before his Endurance voyage to the Antarctic. It said: “Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
If my son saw an ad like that, I’d encourage him to go. And he would. Preferably with Internet access.
Manisha Lakhe does not regret not having used the credit card once in those 10 days. Is still hankering for another trip. Is willing to co-ordinate with 17 others who want to take this 10-day trip from India.