Poor Mick... one day he's an Aussie hero, the first roo to bounce on Antarctica; the next day he's disembarking in a different role: this was a zodiac cruise with no landing and I knew I would be absolutely freezing, despite upping the clothing to six layers, so my animal companion accompanied me on the zodiac, folded up and stuffed down the back of my waterproof trousers as an insulating cushion... it's a tough life being an inflatable kangaroo!
We were in seriously icy territory now, as I had gathered during the night, when, in addition to the now familiar creaking of the cabin, I could hear the thud and scrape of small icebergs against the ship, just outside my porthole. The zodiac made its way through water whose surface was covered with small ice pieces, giving it a soupy appearance, and creating a soundtrack of crunching, crackling noises. We were led past ice caves and glaciers which towered above us, and a little later we saw a minke whale arcing out of the water nearby.
The afternoon cruise circled a wrecked whaling ship, through whose rusting portholes we spied hundred-year old harpoons, and took us past rocks and floating ice for some more seal-spotting. But the highlight of my day was seeing an avalanche from the ship's deck: the slope to our left almost appeared to be exploding as the snow cracked and tumbled from the top, gathering speed as it roared down, causing huge clouds of snow and ice to billow up into the air and down into the water: the force of this natural phenomenon was quite overwhelming, and a reminder of how we are simply insignificant guests, passing through an area full of the mighty power of nature.
But all around remained calm and we sailed on, under a beautiful orange and black-streaked evening sky, before the winds picked up and the waves began to increase in size. A weather warning was issued from the bridge: the wind had reached 55 knots, gusting to 75 knots (about 135kmph!) and we should secure all all items in cabins, in anticipation of a rough night... and a rough night it was! Heather and I lay in our bunks, tucking ankles down the side of the mattresses and elbows against the wall as security, as the ship rolled from side, increasing in incline all the time. I looked through the
porthole and in the light from the front of the vessel I could make out the furious white heads of the raging waves as they crashed against us and then retreated as we tipped in the opposite direction... this was really
exciting! There were other crashes from within the cabin and we giggled as we tried to identify the falling objects, later waking to a cabin with the appearance of having been ransacked: the floor littered with lifejackets, gloves, boots, battery chargers, papers, pens, water bottles... It was like sleeping in a tumble drier, being tossed around in various directions in a small overheated space. Leader Agustin rated the nights weather as a 7 on a scale of 1-10 and I couldn't help hoping we get a burst of 10 at some point, just to see how bad it can get!
Day eight dawned and we had arrived in the vicinity of Half Moon Bay, our proposed landing site, but the winds were too high for the boat to approach: apparently little of the Antarctic coastline is charted, so the captain and crew have to rely greatly on skill and observation to avoid mishaps, though they still happen: the ship I would
have sailed on, had I done this trip last year, as planned, sank, while the Ushuaia, on which I am now sailing, ran aground on rocks near
here just a few months ago, resulting in an emergency evacuation. I had quite fancied the adventure of an emergency evacuation until we had our lifeboat drill last week: five minutes sitting among forty people crammed into an enclosed lifeboat left me claustrophobic and rethinking my desire for an emergency!
By lunchtime the winds had dropped sufficently to allow us to proceed and then make our final zodiac landing of the voyage. And it was quite a landing... the stony beach was like an obstacle course of fur seals: many were lying around disguised as rocks, but our arrival provoked several of these aggressive teenagers, whom we saw lifting their heads, barking and baring their teeth, and in some instances 'running' to confront us. We had been warned that they will attack and not only does their bite hurt, but they transmit particularly unpleasant bacteria, incompatible with humans...
hmmm, best avoided then, so we walked briskly, in single file between them, hoping for safety in numbers and with stones ready to bang together to scare off any brave agitants. It was another totally different landscape, again surprising me - I had imagined Antarctic as just flat and white (as, indeed, much of it is) but this was a dark rocky island with mysterious spires of rock jutting out of the sea just beyond the shore, and glaciers visible through a rocky 'gateway' at the top of a hill. At one point I just sat on a rock, as long as the cold would allow, looking and listening around me, conscious that I would probably never again be on Antarctica, and simply trying to absorb and store as much of its silent, wild, isolated beauty as I could.
And now I am back on board the MV Ushuaia... the Drake was disappointingly calm on our return crossing and the time was passed in wildlife lectures and in major photo editing sessions... just how many penguin pics can one girl need?! Our last night on board conveniently coincided with Paddys Day and everyone was in high spirits for the final briefing, showing of the expedition dvd, presentation of certificates, Captains dinner, and celebrations at the on-board Shackleton Bar.
So, the Antarctic adventure is over, as we head into Ushuaia port in the mauve dawn light... it is only ten days since I departed from this dock, yet it feels like a lifetime ago. It is strange to look through the porthole and see land which is green and not white, to see the lights of a town, and to know that I am returning to "civilisation". I feel as if I have been somewhere as distant and otherworldly as the moon and am now re-entering the world I know... but I have been enriched beyond measure by my experiences on the ice and my wildlife encounters there, and I have memories that will never leave me.
You must excuse me, now... having just met the penguins, as far south as one can travel, I am about to google trips to see polar bears at the northern
extremes of this amazing planet...!