A trip to Antarctica is the closest some of us will ever come to seeing a different planet. The harsh, rugged climate, without any real guarantee of what the following day will bring, the bitter frost, and above all the absence of people are perhaps the very things that both draw and repel travel enthusiasts to and from this much untouched part of the world.
Chances are you’ll expect to follow a certain itinerary following in the paths of those few who have travelled to this part of the world before you. However, depending on the sea currents that can make for a challenging (to put it mildly) crossing of Drake Passage, the wind speed and the temperature, well-trodden paths can become virtually inaccessible in the space of a few hours. A trip to Antarctica is about taking chances, and having enough of an open mind that a complete change of plan doesn’t ruin your adventure.
Thankfully, other than glancing at my itinerary at the time of booking, I didn’t look at it again and was open to wherever the expedition took us. It was in the spirit, half way through our trip, that we made our way through the Lemaire Channel. Situated between Kiev Peninsula in the mainland’s Graham Land and Booth Island, and nicknamed ‘Kodak Gap’, Lemaire Channel is only 11 km long and 1,600 m wide at its most narrow point.
It was March and the ice had melted sufficiently for our ship to make its way through. But there is no shortage of stories concerning ships who have made their way to the mouth of the channel only to have to turn back and redirect themselves upon the discovery that the ice hasn’t melted sufficiently enough. The day was sharp and bright, the sun almost stinging. Out on deck it was cold and as we made our way through the channel we found ourselves surrounded by tall cliffs, the colour of slate, with specks of snow and frost dusting their peaks. As the outside air hit the water, a mist had begun to develop at the foot of the cliffs, which then grew denser as it made its way up to the top.
From the deck, I watched with a sense of awe. The cliffs, which were looming as mountains do took on a sort of magical hue. The word Narnia came to mind. The further we went along the channel we saw ice bergs of all shapes and sizes glistening like crystals on the water. The mist had given way to clear skies by then, blue, expansive, without any clouds.
The expedition ship anchored to allow us to go cruising in zodiac speedboats on the unexpected calm waters. The Lemaire Channel was home to still waters, where the tiniest ripple could be heard distinctly, blurring the otherwise immaculate reflection of the cliffs and glaciers in the water. The speedboats took us in and around the various icebergs, stopping occasionally to allow us to take in the brilliant displays of ice and rock, as though we were in an art gallery surrounding by sculptures. But of course this is art that is formed not by the hand of man, but by the hand of mother nature. This is the gift of beauty that is offered when the world is left to its own devices.
During our cruise, we came upon an iceberg which, above the surface of the water, was the size of our ship, it was tall and wide and glistened with pride in the middle of the still water. As we got closer, we saw the layers of ice that had been formed over time and which had now become compressed to reveal a dazzling array of blues.
I don’t think I have ever seen as many shades of blue as I did during my time in Antarctica. And nestled in amongst this icy blue cave were a group of seals, catching the sun, playing in the surrounding water, lifting their heads, curious at the people who were now watching them. But there was no doubt, in anybody’s mind, who this world belonged to. This world of pristine beauty, of rocks and ice and water and frost. This world was theirs. Entirely theirs. And for this, I was thankful.
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