It’s hard to know where to start describing Antarctica (and South Georgia and the Falklands: I ended up on a 20-day trip that took in these extra destinations). It’s like nowhere I´ve ever been before. Piercing white icebergs. Slews of playful penguins. Lunging, snarling fur seals. The swill of the waves beneath the hull of the Orlova. Endless deep blue sea. Swooping albatrosses. Raw winds, space and a white-blue hush. The rhythmic wash of water against the porthole in our cabin. Heart-tugging liquid eyes of baby elephant seals – one even sucked my knees as it looked up at me soulfully. Pale sunlight washing through grey clouds. Long hours of daylight. Air with a sharp clarity that makes you feel you’re in another world. The savoury tang of sea spray. Raucous parties and quiet, pensive moments alone on deck in a watery moonlight. The sickening lurches of the ship as we thrashed around in a Force 9 storm on Christmas Eve. Inconceivably far-off horizons of a dazzling blue that pricks your eyes with the pure joy of being there. Scrambling off the side of the ship to be buzzed off to another landing, never quite knowing what you’ll see, the anticipation welling up in your lungs as your rubber boots splash through the shallows and crunch onto dry land.
The whole experience was overpoweringly different. I floated through the entire cruise (or rather, expedition, as Quark, the tour company, insisted we call it: no fixed itinerary, everything subject to weather conditions, everything done with a sense of fun, adventure and spontaneity) on a wave of excitement. An older Indian woman in my hostel in Ushuaia, who’d just come back from a classic 11-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, described the experience as ‘as close to God as it gets’. I´m not in the least religious, but having been, I know now what she meant. There’s a sense of peace, the intimate presence of nature and also an underlying, fearful awareness of the power of the ice, the ocean, the weather. I felt privileged to be there.
So yes, there were some spiritual-type moments that flooded me with a sense of inner calm and happiness. Yet above all it was a trip of unalloyed fun and enjoyment. I laughed until my sides ached and the tears sprang out of my eyes on several occasions. A lot of the hilarity was down to my lovably crazy cabin mate Claudia. We seemed to bring out the playful side of each other and we romped around the boat like teenagers. But there were so many other interesting characters as well: the impossibly young and tall Dutch Boys, Mario and Rutger; wry ex₋Brit turned Kiwi Richard; sweet Brazilian management consultant Alejandro; adorable and thoughtful Marni; tough, wise-cracking New Yorker with attitude, Ruggi; seasick journalist Solly; Shane, the ship’s historian who was our long-suffering neighbour; Nic, the larger-than-life photographer; the lovely Krasinski sisters; retired GP with wanderlust Richard; dashing ship´s doctor Danny; Russian Romeo Vlad. I’ll write more about these great people in future posts I’m sure; here I just want to capture snippets of some of the memories, so please excuse the stream of consciousness style of this post.
I remember riotous parties, with mostly terrible music and often a lurching, bruising dance floor. Long and loud sessions of the strange game ‘Werewolf’ (and to my disappointment I never once got to be a werewolf) and Scrabble with the pieces sliding off the board in the waves. If ever there was a place for Travel Scrabble, this was it! Being on deck in the lung-chilling cold under an indigo sky, plastic glass of fizz in hand for New Year 2010 (unforgettable). Tablecloths in the dining room dampened to try to stop the crockery sliding around. Lounging on deck in the stationary Zodiacs, cuddled in blankets and listening to music on a shared iPod. Playing Titanic from the rails of the raised lookout point on the bow. A procession of delicious meals. Sharing Stephanie’s down jacket as we peered together into the tranquil palette of the sunset. Standing at the rails looking down on a tempestuous sea that lashed the ship, flooding it with water that swilled noisily off the decks and tilting it so that it looked as though it must keel over any minute. High jinx with shower curtains. Being out under the half light of the southerly almost-night or under the prickling stars, feeling like captain of my own ship. Being on the bridge. Admiring the ‘washing machine effect’ of churned-up ocean against our porthole. Numbed fingers as I peeled off my gloves to take yet more pictures of penguins, ice and seals. Visiting Shackleton’s grave. Seeing the old whaling stations and imagining what it would have been like to live and work there in the brutal, bloody industry of whaling. Having curious penguins peck at the sleeves of my jacket. Getting emotional in an interview with two former marines in the Falklands. Stepping onto the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time. Taking the polar plunge into water 1 degree above freezing, in the snow-filled air – and drinking the hot chocolate spiked with rum on the ship afterwards. Laughter and wordless awe.
The first reflections that I’ve jotted down here are a ragged jumble of memories – and the photos are in an even worse state, so they will have to wait! I will try to write some more coherent episodes later on, suffice it to say here that Christmas and New Year 2009 were an experience never to be forgotten and one I feel lucky to have had. Thanks to the crew of the Orlova, the Quark expedition staff and all my wonderful new friends for making it so special.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in …