Meet Antarctica, the supermodel continent. Guest Blog by Richard Stewart
The supermodel continent…
She has lost a bit of weight lately (thanks to climate change), costs a lot to meet, and when you take photos of her, they reveal spectacular lines and an almost other-worldly beauty. Also, when things turn nasty you also don’t want to be around; you certainly get a cold shoulder! Meet Antarctica, the supermodel continent!
But I am getting ahead of myself. The inspiration for this trip lay many years ago when, as a schoolboy, I was spellbound by the almost-crazy bravery of Scott and his valiant crew as the chased Amundsen to the South Pole. More recently, I read of the exploits of Ernest Shackleton, who despite unbelievable odds, rescued his men after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by converging sea ice. To top that off, the windswept beauty of what we hope to see has been showcased in so many documentaries that we couldn’t wait to tick this continent off our bucket list and complete the set we have been able to visit.
Of course, it is not easy to get to the Antarctic. We chose the method favoured by Scott and Shackleton, by sea. Of course, we were faithful to the conditions endured by them, if they had been thoughtful enough to provision themselves with a five star hotel for the duration. We sailed on the Quest, a smallish liner (almost a large motor yacht) by the boutique carrier, Seabourn. The service, food and other aspects of this cruise could be the subject of a whole article, but for this one, just to say that it was excellent, will suffice.
We cruised out of Valparaiso, a port city west of Santiago. Its geography is steeply sloping hillsides upwards from the port, traveled by time-worn funiculars.
The city’s glory days were prior to the opening of the Panama Canal, where it was one of the busiest and most wealthy port cities in the the world. It is a bit like a film star from a bygone era, that having fallen on hard times, has recently become cool again. You can see the beauty of the architecture of the late 19th and early twentieth century that covers the hillsides and city centre, that is a little tumbledown with the ravages of time (and by the way, its personal hygiene that perhaps could do with some improvement) and an emerging raffish cool that comes from a buoyant nightlife and the local’s encouragement of graffiti art and sympathetic tourism development.
Our cruise was for 24 days, which was more than double the length of any other cruise we had previously undertaken, so we were a little apprehensive. However, like the fine dining experience available on ship, it was structured in terms of an appetiser, main course, and dessert, to break the cruise into chunks for us.
Appetiser was cruising firstly the Chilean Lake District, and then Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
First stop was Puerto Montt, a town reminiscent of fishing towns in the west of the South Island of New Zealand – it wasn’t a great surprise that the locals make most of their money from salmon fishing. We took a trip to the hinterland with a local guide, Hector, who showed us the magnificent volcanoes, lakes and verdant rainforest, that could easily understudy as a backdrop to a Lord of the Rings movie like its NZ lookalikes.
From there, we sailed to Chiloe Island to stop at Castro, a small village famous for its colourful houses on stilts that remarkably survived a tsunami about 20 years ago.
Here we visited the coastal national park, which was windswept and wild, with the next thing westward being Christchurch, so nothing interrupted the wintry winds. The landscape again reminded us greatly of New Zealand, so it wasn’t a surprise to learn from a naturalist that once the two continents were once joined, a fact confirmed not only by plate tectonic analysis but the close relationship of the two endemic flora collections.
From there we experienced our first rough day on the water. There was much excitement from our 11 year old Angus, as we were able to go on deck and experience the crashing waves and spray of 5 metre swells and a force 10 gale. Unfortunately we couldn’t get out on the windward side of the ship as the door was blown shut and I couldn’t shift it with a full shoulder charge! Needless to say, it was a quieter day on the ship as many were struck down with seasickness, including my lovely wife Ann, who was a bit greener around the gills than usual.
The undulation ceased as we returned to the Chilean fjords, where we were able to enjoy a formal Christmas dinner with all the trimmings in calm seas. We really enjoyed a long evening celebrating with our new found American friends; a family from Austin, Texas, and a retired couple from a town near San Diego, California. The food was great, but luckily my tuxedo has expandable pants so I could fit everything in!
Next morning we awoke to the sight of the El Brujo glacier, our first glacier sighting. It looked like a frozen waterfall, and there was a surprising stillness as we cruised up close through the primordial slushie that was the offcast of the glacier’s relentless passage to the water. It was quite a spectacular sight before breakfast; a dramatic offset to the tranquility of the fjord cruising.
That day lead us to the eponymous straits of Magellan and Puntas Arenas, one of Chile’s southernmost cities. Surprisingly, the city was not much of a looker, being in the middle of Patagonia, but it bespoke its pastoral (wool) history and petroleum present with a fairly industrial feeling. A couple of interesting sights were the magnificent mansions of the early pastoralists that surrounded the Plaza de Armas and a hand hewn replica of ships – Magellan’s Victoria and Darwin’s Beagle. The small size of the two ships gave us pause for thought given the wind and waves we had experienced a couple of nights before. Those guys must have been pretty brave, or faced with unattractive alternatives, to want to go into uncharted waters in such vessels.
This lead to the crescendo of the first course of our trip, a journey through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, famously the city at the end of the world.
The Beagle was the most spectacular sight thus far; a seriously gorgeous collection of mountains and glaciers that was the Patagonia we had been anticipating.
The channel led to Ushuaia which was very picturesquely located surrounded by show capped mountains and rainforest. The city itself was strongly reminiscent of Queenstown in New Zealand; upbeat, quite modern and filled with shops and restaurants that cater to the adventure bound. We took the opportunity to visit the Ushuaia prison museum, which was modelled on Port Arthur near Hobart. From here we took a train “to the end of the world” which terminated in a National Park where prisoners would log the rainforest to build the city, and fire its many hearths. It was easy to see why it was considered punishment to be kept in your cell at the old prison rather than go out on one of these logging parties. It was a truly spectacular wilderness we found ourselves in.
After we returned to ship, it was time to transition to the next course, but not before crossing the daunting Drake Passage, infamous for its huge seas and violent storms. Fortunately for us, the crossing was smooth as silk, leading the Captain to describe it as “Drake’s Lake”, to the sound of much touching of wood in our cabin for the return journey. It was on this crossing that we encountered our first icebergs – a couple of tabular ones that had calved from a glacier.
These were huge, several miles across, although the largest ever was the size of Jamaica, so these were relative minnows. Even so they reminded me of an icy Marie Celeste, with a silent ghostly quality as they loomed over our ship.
As we crossed the Drake, the tempo on board transitioned to expedition mode. We were presented with information about what we would see from Seabourn’s retinue of resident oceanographers, ecologists, geologists, bird watchers, historians and sea mammal experts. All this added to our sense of anticipation about what was to come.
The next six days were a bit of a blur. Each day we embarked on zodiacs (small rubber runabouts similar to those used by surf clubs back home) fully Eskimoed up in our Antarctic gear, which made everyone look the same, which gave us something in common with the penguins we saw. We were blessed with 6 straight days of good weather, which was incredibly lucky.
It would be almost remiss to describe each place we visited without remarking on the overall feeling that accompanied almost every daily experience. I would describe it as a “peak travel buzz”, the same sort of feeling you get from seeing the Pyramids or going on an African Safari. You could tell by their gaping mouths that others next to you were experiencing much the same.
Each day presented us with dizzying vistas of soaring, jagged mountains, tumbling glaciers, dramatic icebergs, surprisingly abundant wildlife; penguins, whales, seals and albatrosses were visible at every turn. The wonderful contrasts and textures just begged to be photographed in black and white. In fact, this was where the supermodel continent really came into its own; every perfect scene just compelled you to pull out the camera. It was a truly awesome experience.
Day by day, our visit was:
• Half Moon Island: our first penguins (chinstrap), set off by an abandoned whaling boat and an Argentinian summer station. During the afternoon we cruised past an active volcano on Deception Island and had an extended view of a pod of transiting orcas.
• Cuverville island: we were greeted by a glorious sunny day as we explored the stunning views of the Palmer Archipelago. Today’s wildlife was Gentoo penguins as well as a smattering of seals and whales. A Crabeater seal or two were good enough to pose on icebergs for our happy snaps.
• Neko Harbour: here we saw a substantial and pungent gentoo penguin colony. More impressive though was the climb to a sparkling view of the harbour and a glacier threatening to calve any second – throughout the afternoon it would send a crack like a cannon shot across the bay to remind us that it was thinking about nudging an iceberg loose. We also enjoyed a zodiac tour through the sea ice which fizzed and popped like we were motoring in a giant gin and tonic.
• Paradise Bay/Gonzales Videla base: this was a small Chilean base atop a Gentoo penguin rookery. Their hospitality was lovely, but the very “aromatic” guano atmosphere and poor condition of their base was in stark contrast to the US base at the pole, which we had heard about from polar veteran Jon Fonseca just that morning. Hinting at the international politics that surrounded the Antarctic, the base was located on Waterboat Point, the historic site where two young British naturalists spent a year under a boat observing penguins hoping that the whaling captain that dropped them off would come back in a year’s time to rescue them. So remarkable was their dedication that when the captain did remember to come back, they told him to come back in a month because they hadn’t concluded their research. Apparently, Chile established this base while British heads were turned to pressing European matters in 1940.
• Yankee Harbour: this was a natural breakwater harbour created by a glacier’s terminal moraine. It was incredible how nature had created a breakwater just as a marine engineer would hope to build. Today was a little wet and windy, so a walk along the breakwater was all we could manage; the few penguins and seals suggested that they too thought better of a day on land!
• Hope Bay/ Esperanza station: we did a zodiac tour of this bay, on which we were amused by groups of adelie penguins who would queue up to go into the water like so many tube commuters in the heart of London. Our tour was cut short by looming katabatic winds (caused by falling cold air) which made continuing fraught for our fellow passengers. We were compensated though by the emergence of a beautiful sunny afternoon for cruising the Antarctic sound and in particular “Iceberg alley”, which showcased a gemstone like collection of bergs of all shapes and sizes. As a sign off from the continent, we were treated to a dancing pod of 6 humpback whales just outside our cabin. One waved its fluke to us about 5 metres from our balcony in fitting farewell to the last continent.
And with that, our visit to the Antarctic and main part of the holiday was over. The feeling I was left with over the next day of two as we sailed to South Georgia was one of anticlimax; how could the dessert stage of our tip live up to the first two courses? I needn’t have worried…
South Georgia is a remote island, pretty much in the middle of the nowhere. It is located North East of the Antarctic peninsula and South East of Tierra del Fuego. Interestingly, it was once the connecting point between the two, but being shifted roughly 700 miles eastward by tectonic movement. I had no sense of anticipation as I really didn’t know much about the place; Shackleton sailed there in a desperate pitch to save his men, it was a whaling hotspot and the odd angry shot was fired there during the Falklands war in 1982.
However, it turned out to be a fitting treat to finish the adventure part of our holiday. We saw three locations; Cooper Island in the South, Grytviken, an old whaling station on the Eastern coast, and Salisbury Plain, home to more than a million King Penguins on the island’s northerly tip.
We were most taken with Grytviken, which had wildlife like the other two spots, and also the haunting character of an abandoned whaling station that the place had once been. It is also Shackleton’s last resting place as he suffered a heart attack on the way there in 1922.
We found irony that the seals and penguins would lounge amongst the residue of the scene of a whale holocaust of yesteryear. The scenery was a mix of the angular snow capped peaks of Tierra del Fuego, the grasses and low shrubbery of Maui and the windswept isolation of northern-most Scotland.
Elephant seals jousted in water embraced by tendrils of seaweed so thick it coiled and spooled with the lustre of an oil slick. King Penguins paraded like they were a bad guy in a kitsch episode of the 1960’s Batman series. Baby seals just looked cute; amazingly cute!
All this had air cover provided by squadrons of albatrosses, petrels, sheathbills and the symbolic emblem of the recovering ecosystem, the pipit. In short, we hadn’t seen this extent of wildlife so happy in human company since we visited the Galápagos Islands a year or two ago.
The once thriving whaling town was a collection of rusting hulks of old whaling ships, evocative disused whaling factory equipment, a Norwegian church that looked like it has been unplugged from near Stavanger and transferred to the opposite side of the world and popped into place. All this was framed by snow capped mountains, and was topped by a museum that housed an impressive collection of articles that told the story of the town from its whaling origins to current times as a British scientific and fishery monitoring base.
So South Georgia was an unexpected treat to finish off our expedition to the supermodel continent. As I write this, we are sailing toward the vibrant cities that echo both European and South American continents, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, where we conclude the holiday and return home.
This visit to Antarctica, like presumably meeting a supermodel, will linger long in my memory. The scenery confirmed the highest expectations, the wildlife surpassed them and South Georgia created new ones that I wished I had enjoyed before. If you get a chance to visit the continent, like only about 35,000 people do annually, compared to more than that number daily in Venice, you will be rewarded with a captivating experience.