It all came together really quickly, an email from a friend, a call to someone on the other side of the world, tickets booked, a couple long flights and suddenly there I was, looking down on snow-capped mountains and a wind swept sea as the plane banked over the beagle channel and began its decent to Ushuaia, Argentina. It all felt unreal, like a strange dream really, inside my head I struggled a bit reconciling myself to where I was and what I was about to embark upon. The fact that I was getting off a plane dressed in a shorts and a t-shirt with an outside temperature of only a couple degrees and gusts of wind sending dust and debris sailing off into the distance didn’t really help register it as reality either. Yet there I was collecting my bag, which more resembled a giant ball of plastic wrapped abstract art, the result of some last minute lateral thinking on getting around a mountain of excess baggage fees and the reason for my ill suited attire. Luckily, Darrell, skipper of the “Spirit of Sydney” was waiting and soon enough I was able to unwrap my bags, get some warm gear on and check out the boat the would be my home for the coming couple of months and would take me further south that I had ever dreamed of going. Its always hectic getting ready for a trip like this, getting to know the skipper, the boat and how things are done. Every boat is different and everyone has their different ways of doing things. The first week flew past in a haze of running around, checking over gear, doing repairs and getting food and supplies to last the trip. Days were long as the sun doesn’t set until around ten at night and it was always a shock to look at my watch and see the time as we tried to tick off one more job. I settled in OK though and was good to have the time to familiarize myself with things on board. From the start there was a pretty stark difference in the way we operated between Darrell and I, but I rolled with it best I could and got on with what needed to be done.
There would only be Darrell and myself as crew, along with seven guests, and i would be guiding guests on kayaking and camping trips as well as helping out with all the sailing and everyday work of being on board. I have worked and spent lots of time outdoors in many different environments, but this would be the first time working in these temperatures, regarless I had faith in myself and my abilities to pull it off. There is a bit of an art, and definitely some luck, with getting that many people that have never met, to all live together in a small space for a month,while helping to run the boat and dealing with what mother nature deals you, and in that part of the world she can deal out some very difficult things indeed. Luckily though everyone meshed in really well and soon enough the lines were off and we settled into that familiar feel and rock of a boat on the ocean. The weather looked OK in the short term, but there was a blow forecast for a few days on and so we didn’t waste any time getting down and out of the beagle channel, pointing the bow south, and putting up as much sail as we could to make the 500 NM passage across the Drake. There are a few bodies of water in the world that have a reputation such as the Drake. Large weather systems regularly spin and churn their way from west to east, compressing their fury and energy between the relatively small gap of Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. There is good reason for the legends and lore of this place and those who have sailed here over the years. Getting caught out by the weather here can have grave consequences, and as you tick off the miles further south there is also the threat of ice, something I have never had to consider before. On watch in the fading light of close to midnight, straining eyes to look for a danger that you know is somewhere out there, still needing to keep your speed to outrun the weather closing in behind you, scanning the radar and the horizon for ice was certainly a strange sensation. A mixture of excitement, fear and this otherworldly, underlying calm that you are resigned to a fate that hundreds of others have trusted themselves to and come out the other end. Not everyone, but most. Hard to explain really.
We made good progress in the first few days, easily cruising at speeds that Kuhela, and I, could only dream of, until the wind decided that it had been kind for long enough and swung around to our bow, as the weather system we had outrun passed astern. With no end to this in sight we changed our plan and course and made for Deception Island off to the east.
part of the South Shetland Islands, it is a massive dormant volcano, entered through the small pass grandly, and aptly named Neptune’s bellows, which suddenly delivers you into the safety of a huge protected bay. It was as we approached the outer islands of this group that we found the ice, as the darkness receded and the sun slowly set flame to the morning sky, there to port lay smith island, painted soft hues of pink in the early light, and all around us floating islands of ice of varying sizes. Bergs of only a few meters through to large tabular bergs that were twenty meters high and thirty meters long, and that was just the top of the bergs that you could see, the massive underwater bulk of the things hidden and threatening. These tabular begs can actually be miles long, and to think of something like that looming out of the darkness ahead of you was a truly sobering thought and dissolved any illusion of calm that I had experienced the night before. Waves exploded against the side of these floating island as the swell rolled through, awing us with a spectacular show of power and size as the water crashed and exploded into the air. A few miles more and we made our entrance through Neptune’s bellows, huge rock cliffs that stand guard over the entrance, and entered this amazing bay, with so much natural beauty, and so much history.
We sailed on past the ruins of the old whaling station and on to a sheltered little cove further on to anchor up and enjoy our arrival and celebrate a birthday on board with a bit of fun. Next morning I took the guests for a walk up to the Argentine base a few miles away, everyone keen to get off the boat and stretch legs after the four days at sea. As we walked along the black volcanic beach taking in the amazing scene that surrounded us, and the reality that we were actually walking inside the crater of a giant, still active volcano with seismic activity as recently as 1992. Heated steam rose from the sand as the smell of sulfur wafting along the beach at certain spots. We arrived at the base after a couple hours and were treated to a warm welcome and some hot drinks by the crew there. The weather outside had been deteriorating all day and by the time we were ready to leave it was gusting 40 Kts, whipping snow and spray across the beach, and leaving no way to get the boat in to come pick us up. So with the long walk back being the only other option we put out heads down and started out. It was quite an eye opening experience as to how quickly things can deteriorate here. The foul weather simply accentuated the stark beauty of the place though, trudging up the beach past penguins huddled together and below frozen mountains as they gazed sternly down upon us all served to remind us how small we were and how many grand forces are at play every day around us.
The next day with, weather a drastic improvement in the weather, we moved the boat over to whalers bay to have a look at the remains of the old whaling station and hike over to the largest chinstrap penguin colony in the antarctic area, on the other side of the island. Seeing the remnants of the industrialization of this remote place and to hear of the history involved and to think of the harsh lives of those who were here was like looking back through a portal to a time gone by. Walking past the oil storage tanks and the remains of the chase boats and the houses and signs of life, and death, in this remote and desolate area was a stark reminder of the history of this place. It also served as a reminder that things can change, what was once a huge industry that sent men to the ends of the world is no more, some positive sign that we can change for the better. The walk over to the colony was a bit further than we thought, but with stunning views out over a blue ocean dotted with bergs of all sizes and the Antarctic Peninsula off on the horizon, it was breathtaking walking as we picked our way through the ice and loose volcanic rock. Up ahead small figures stood at attention, in formal dress, like some official welcoming party at a grand affair. At least until they broke rank and waddled and hopped off swapping formality for hilarity. Who knew penguins traveled so far up hill? The colony stretched from the coast and well up into the surrounding hills, thousands of penguins, and though they may be cute and cuddly, you can certainly smell them before you see them. It was truly amazing to see how far from the ocean they go to feed their young. We even spotted the elusive and rare, Louisiana bow tie penguin, not seen in these parts before. Walking on down to the beach and seeing the multitude of penguins, seals and skuas with the backdrop of a crashing surf and icebergs floating out at sea was such a stunning sight, and well worth the effort in getting there.
The next day we were up early to make a start over to the peninsula, the forecast of the wind dropping didn’t really come to be and exiting the bellows saw us double reefed with thirty knots of wind speeding us along. Hard work, as though well set up this boat is far from easy to reef. It was a hundred mile run and our early start saw us arrive at our destination well before darkness, Enterprise Island. Here lies the half sunken wreck of an old whaling ship, more evidence of the bloody work that once brought men to this area. Securely tied alongside the wreck and sheltered in a small cove below an amphitheater of ice as snow dusted the decks and sea ice drifted in behind us we celebrated our arrival with our ritual of an afternoon piccarita of cheese, crackers and sliced meats. There were a few other yachts there also and we spent the following days exploring in the kayaks and getting the guests used to paddling. The weather cleared up, leaving us with one memorable and magical afternoon of not a breath of wind, snow capped mountains, blue skies and bergs of all sizes drifting past as we paddled out of the bay and further up the channel. The immensity of it all and the volume of the silence would at times simply leave me stunned, able to only look on with wonder. To take it all in from the kayak, the only noise being the dip and drip of the paddle and an occasional thud of a small piece of ice against the hull gave it a pure, unobtrusive magnificent feel. It was later that afternoon that I realized my go pro was missing, and didn’t take much time to figure out it was sitting ten meters below the surface, off the back of the boat. Always wanted to dive in Antarctica, though if it wasn't for the footage of that afternoons paddle i may well have left where it lay. The one degree water felt like a vice that constricted my entire body, and it took a second on getting to the bottom to resist the urge to bolt to the surface and preserve myself. It was like nothing i have ever felt before. I did find it though, and endured the longest two minutes of my life. As with everything at sea though, your movements and timings all revolve around the weather and with the blessing of blue skies and little wind we set off to the SW, making for Paradise bay.
Along the way we made a quick stop at another penguin rookery, this time of Adele penguins, and I dropped the guests off on the opposite side of the point and headed on ahead to meet up with them while they walked over. The time to myself was welcome, and I was able to sit and observe as these small, funny birds went about their business. They lay two eggs and as the chicks grow they compete with each other for food, and the stronger of the two survives. Harsh, but so is the way of the wild. The parent returns with the food and leads the chicks on a race, running away at full speed so that the one who keeps up is rewarded with the days catch. This is also repeated later on as the chicks grow, to encourage them to swim, and after my dip the previous days before, I understood how much convincing this would take. There i sat, on a beach surrounded by whale bones and penguins as I gazed out on a bay full of ice, I could just be part of the scenery, look on and take it all in. There is a grand feeling to places like these that is not easily put into words. Finally the guests arrived and as we were leaving the beach the tall ship, "Barque Europa" was weaving its way into the bay, seeing the old square rigger down here certainly set fire to the imagination and was an amazing sight to behold. We jumped back on board to continue on and a couple hours later we anchored in Paradise bay, just off the Chilean base of Gonzáles Videla
We were invited to dinner aboard one of the larger cruise ships in the area for a feast and later I took a couple of the guests kayaking off to a nearby island to camp for the night. Traveling by sea kayak is amazing, you load up all you need, paddle away, set up camp and you have whatever amazing place you’ve pulled out all to yourself. In the fading light we finished setting up our tents and stood outside chatting and sipping on a steaming cup of tea on our own private island. Backed by a large shelf of ice and snow, as the stars shone bright overhead and off in the distance the flickering lights of the boat and base did their best to imitate the stars above. I don’t really have the words to describe it, but latr on, sitting and looking out the front door of my tent, the moon painting the scene before me a pale ghostly white, the ice all around grumbling and creaking, my breath hanging in white clouds, framed in the cold air, I felt alive, I felt connected. As I zipped up my tent and drifted off to sleep I vaguely remember the crashing sound of ice drifting through the still air. I awoke to a totally different view in the morning, gone were the boat and the base, and in it’s a place a large ice berg stood grandly grounded in the channel between us and the only other signs of civilization for miles. We spent the day relaxing on the island and looking as other large ice bergs were carried in the current and treated a display as to the power and force as another large berg collided with the first. The amount of ice that moves back and forth is truly mind blowing; the entire scene is different from one moment to the next. As it can do so quickly here though, dark clouds were brewing off in the distance and as they marched towards us we hastily broke camp. One moment sitting in the sun watching the wildlife, the next suddenly loading kayaks and paddling hard in thirty knots of wind as the boat headed to the other side of the island to find shelter. What followed were a couple hours of trying to get the anchor set and running lines to the beach to secure us in the lee of the island. It was hard work, but I must admit I liked it, working in the elements like that and figuring out how to make things work is something I do enjoy. We spent a couple more days there waiting out the weather and enjoying the hospitality of the Chileans, being invited to an amazing BBQ and having a look around the base.
At the first sign of improving weather we moved on up to Skontorpe bay, only a few miles up the channel and easy paddling distance to two large glaciers, large columns of ice perched precariously above the water below, calving quite often and more than once we felt the boat roll as the swell from these columns fell into the ocean below. We spent a day kayaking around these amazing bays looking up at breathtaking glaciers and drifting past ice bergs of every abstract shape imaginable, and who knew there was so many different shades of blue? Depending on where the light hit it, it could be any one of twenty. Again I would have to stop and simply try to take it all in and absorb the scene before me, burning it as best I could into my memory. Sitting here writing this brings back those images and moments spent feeling magnificently insignificant before all the grand beauty around me. By this time we were all settling in to the routing of the days, paddling or exploring all day followed by an afternoon snack and a couple drinks (chilled with glacial ice of course) and recounting the days adventures over dinner.
We pulled anchor the following day and made our way to the Lemaire channel, eleven kilometers of large cliffs jutting out of the ocean on either side, picking our way through pack ice that collects in there, and looking up at the huge build ups of ice and snow that perched themselves precariously on edges high above us. Being in such close quarters gives you a true sense of scale to the grandness surrounding you and with perfect weather you could sit outside and take it all in. Leaving this behind we soon made our way down to the Ukrainian base, Vernadsky station. Steaming in past the base and finding a little cove to tie up in we ran lines out to the surrounding rocks, much to the annoyance of the skuas that had their nest nearby, they would swoop and squawk and have us ducking for cover as we worked to get settled in. The Ukrainians invited us over and we were treated to a tour of the base and an explanation of some of the work they undertook in their time on site. Unlike the other bases that are run for the summer, this base is manned year round and the crew there do swings of one year before heading home, and I thought a month offshore was long. The base was brought off the British in 1996 for one pound, and this pound is inlayed on the bar upstairs, and what a bar it is, better than some pubs I've been to in my travels. The crew there was awesome and showed us around and shared what life was for them and had a great sense of humor. It really was amazing what they had going and how much amazing work they did there, I had a great chat with Anatoli, one of the divers, about the underwater life and what it was like diving under the ice, he’s a tougher man than I. This year had seen a big plankton bloom and this was responsible for the dark water, lack of whales and high numbers of mortality in the penguin rockeries. Though this is usually a sign of warmer than usual water, Antarctica this year is a few degrees colder than usual, though the general trend is rising.
We were also invited to use the sauna, wouldn’t be a true Ukrainian base without one really now would it? Turning it down a bit from the 110 degrees it was set at to about ninety, sitting there trying to breathe, enjoying the feeling of being warm, very warm, before running out and climbing down the ladder to the ocean and throwing yourself in is definitely one way to let yourself know you are alive. I'm pretty soft when it comes to the cold, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a polar plunge, it did feel amazing actually, and did the swim a couple times. Wespent days kayaking around the bays and islands that surround the base and headed out one night to camp. Just as myself and one of the guests headed out to find a camping spot for the night, the fog rolled in, and as we set up tents waiting for the others, the fog would rise and fall, giving everything a dream like feel and blanketing the views of the surrounding islands, the base appearing and disappearing like some far off mirage. Later at dinner I made time to sit and bring my attention back where I was and what I was doing, camping in Antarctica, sitting on a rock, under a full, brilliant sky as I sipped on tea and ate my dinner. Not bad at all, I do surprise myself sometimes where I find myself.
After a few days there, and a memorable night of partying with the base commander, scientist and guests in the Meteorology room out the back of the base it was time to move on and with a few sore heads among the crew we dropped lines and headed off to the next destination, Port Lockeroy. Took most of the day to get there, again passing through the lamer channel, and entering the bay in the late afternoon dropping anchor in a large Amphitheatre of a bay, tall walls of ice standing menacingly at the waters edge and nearby on a rocky island the British Base of Palmer station. The next day found us under a clear blue sky, not a breath of wind and the perfect conditions for exploring in the kayaks. We loaded up the gear and spent the day paddling up the Nuemeyer channel, pushing our way through clogged sections of ice and past large icebergs that simply dwarfed us. The sun shone bright and the glare off the ice was blinding, today the biggest challenge was not over heating actually. Dressed in dry suits, and underlying thermals I found myself actually having to splash water on my head to keep me cool while paddling. The views were stunning and again almost too much to comprehend, its was just all so grand and magical, the ice has a shimmering and enchanted quality to it and with the roars of ice and snow falling in the surrounding hills it made it all the more mysterious and beautiful. It was a long paddle that day, fourteen miles, and one of the highlights for me, there are views, sounds and feelings from that day that I will carry forever.
We also had the world toboggan championships while there, a very prestigious affair, and with an icy track and some competitive egging on; they were some very close races and a few close calls. The trick-riding award was a tie by James and Mariana, hitting the slopes head first and backwards respectively. Pretty impressive riding and great skill, jumping out at the last second to avoid the rocks. We all called it a day after that, with no way to really top that. We also visited the base, different again to the others, more of a historical site this one, and also a post office complete with gift shop. The history throughout this whole region is well worth some investigation, much more than I ever imagined. As always though, time flies when your having fun, and we were now at the point of watching the weather for out return voyage and with a window opening up in a few days, again with some nasty stuff following close behind, we pulled anchor and made out way up to the Malchior islands, our last stop on this trip before facing the drake again. Not something some of the guests were looking forward to after the trip down.
The whole trip had been very light on sea life with the plankton bloom and low levels of krill, but as we rounded the last island to head up towards the Malchiors they there were, whales, not just one or two either, there were everywhere. To go from not seeing any all trip, to come across this one patch with so many was quite amazing. We drifted alongside a pair as they moved slowly along, while in the distance others breached and fin slapped and all around there were clouds of misty breath as they emptied their giant lungs to the air, close enough to smell. We were all on deck and running around getting photos and absorbing the beauty of it all. I have seen many humpback whales before, but never with this amazing backdrop of snow and ice and with penguins swimming by, it was breath taking. As we drifted the pair we were next to got closer and closer and soon we were nearly on top of them, not wanting to reverse and possibly scare them we all held our breath as we ghosted along above these two giants below us. At the last minute they sensed us and with a sweep of tails they dove and circled around behind us, but with curiosity piqued they were soon back and began spy hopping next to the boat. The water was black, but suddenly there would be this massive head rising from the dark as deep, dark eyes examined us. The stayed with the boat for quite a while, looking and examining us, as cameras clicked and we all cheered. This was the one thing that had been missing from the trip so far, and here they were putting on a show for us. Finally they decide that they had had enough and moved on, and so did we, making the final few miles to the next anchorage.
We anchored in yet another amazing little secluded bay and headed over to check out a nearby base that had just been demobilized for the season, and it didn’t take long to get a full on snowball underway. Wedel seals looked on, unimpressed, from nearby ice floes as the snow flew and we ducked and weaved and ran around the base, think that would have to have been my first real snowball fight. There was also some amazing kayaking to be had and with the whales nearby we were lucky enough to have a mother and calf come right past us in the kayaks to have a look before heading off to continue whatever whales fill their day with. With a final check of the weather though it was time, our window was here, or at least the best we’d get before it really got bad. So it was into the routine of tying everything down and making ready for sea again, we had been preparing meals over the last few days, as cooking would not be an option, and with the kayaks and everything else on deck securely lashed down it was soon time to point the bow north and cross the drake again.
There was little time for easing into it, for as soon as we left the protection of the islands we were out in the swell and soon enough those on board began their prayers over the side, kneeling reverently as one meal after another made its way overboard. I am lucky in that I don’t get seasick, but do admit to not feeling great a couple times over the first few days. We again were racing the weather and making good progress back, though it was far from a comfortable ride. The days again blurred into each other as we took turns on watch and the duties of keeping the boat running. Keeping a sharp eye out for ice again we raced our way North, lucky again that the only bits we saw were small pieces caught on the tide line. Some of the crew handled the conditions better than others, there was a bit of cleaning up to be done inside though, when the sink proved too far away. We had an extra hundred miles to run back than on the way down, but we made good time and used the motor whenever we had to keep the boat moving. The weather system that was coming in the following days was definitely not something we wanted to get caught out in. the days passed by, and the mils to go counted down, as we experienced everything from no wind and a sloppy swell to forty to fifty knot squalls that would burst forth and release their energy in tantrums of wind and spray. Once in the rhythm though, we worked our way through what was on offer as best we could and after four days we sighted land again. Not just and land but Cape Horn itself. This one point of land has more legend and stories toed to it than most. To see it off in the distance, was to see a piece of so many stories that inspired and fueled the younger version of myself and set me on the path I have traveled.
In the early morning darkness the lights of Ushuaia came into view up ahead as we motored out way up the beagle channel, not a breath of wind and the mirror black water reflecting the kaleidoscope ahead. Suddenly lines were attached and made fast and the engine stopped and there was no more motion. How strange it is to find yourself still again, a stable floor suddenly again below you, its like that moment after an exhalation, that stillness that you forgot about, the symbolic finishing of a journey and the changing over from action to reflection. I was tired though, it had been a long trip, and my body seemed to sense that it was time to let go and rest. A day or so out of port I began feeling a bit of a flu coming on and now that built into an ache through my whole body and seemingly into my bones. The next morning seeing the guests off and seeing to the boat was quite an effort and it took me another three or four days to start feeling human again, that’s the worst I have felt in years to be honest. With the trip finished up and the guests continuing on on their own journeys, I wrapped up my time on board and headed up to Buenos Aires for some R and R before heading back to NZ.
Antarctica was one of those places, somewhere so far off and out of my realm of normality that I never expected to get there. It’s amazing where you can find yourself once you get going. What started as a casual remark many, many months ago suddenly manifested itself into reality, and here I am recalling an epic adventure to one of the far off places on this planet. What I experienced down there was amazing, the things I saw and the feel of the place was like no other I have ever been to. Even now looking back and writing this there is just so much to take in. This has been my longest blog and there is so much more I could put in and expand upon, to be honest it was a bit overwhelming trying to find the right words to share this story. I could have broken it down into parts but this is how it came out. I hope you enjoy and in some way I have been able to share what I experienced. Who knows what adventures life has in store for us if we are willing. For me, I look forward to what is to come, though this will certainly be hard to top. On a personal note, I am realizing that it doesn’t matter so much where you go, how far you sail or how many countries you get to, the greatest adventure is something far more profound, connection with yourself and with others and being present to this amazing moment right here. Also reading through this again i realise that there is little mention of the awesome people that made the trip down there as well. We had a really great bunch or people and was great to get to know new people and hear their different stories and get inspiration from their travels and journeys. stoked to have shared this time with you. Whoever you are reading this, I wish you luck on your personal adventure of life and thank you for taking the time to share some of mine.