The Final Frontier
At the base of the Earth is an almost magical destination where few ever tread. A journey to Antarctica is one a traveller will never forget.
WORDS DAN AVILA
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What I first notice is the stillness. After a somewhat arduous crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, I’m feeling disoriented – there is no longer any feeling of being aboard a ship. I draw back the curtains to our cabin, which immediately fills with light, revealing the saturated blues of an impossibly beautiful scene: oily-calm waters, a pristine ice-filled bay and mountains draped in misty clouds. The Antarctic vista is utterly overwhelming, but is just a prelude to the incredible experiences to come.
I am on the first Antarctic voyage of the MS Roald Amundsen, Hurtigruten’s diesel-battery hybrid masterpiece, brimming with green tech and, drawing on 126 years of expedition cruising, built specifically for polar exploring. Our arrival at the serene Yankee Harbour provides the perfect introduction to four days of diverse and incomparable experiences. Even more than a desire to capture images of the wildlife and landscapes, I’m motivated to put boots on the ground and feel this place. The landing, like all off-ship jaunts, occurs from the ship’s expedition launch area, known as the black box. Small groups deploy in rigid inflatables that effortlessly glide across the water. Setting foot on Antarctica, the feeling is quite overwhelming. The landscape is far more dimensional than I had expected. This is not an ice sheet like the Arctic. This is a mountainous continent, and it is striking.
The landscape is far more dimensional than I had expected. This is not an ice sheet like the Arctic. This is a mountainous continent, and it is striking.
This landing places our small group on the edge of the bay where the daily routine of abundant wildlife continues unabated. An enormous elephant seal bull sleeps as we walk past, only waking intermittently for impressive, gaping yawns. A Weddell seal is propped on its side, watching the explorers clad in red coats meander by the gentoo penguin colony. Both gentoo and chinstrap penguins clearly missed the briefing on keeping an acceptable distance from wildlife. Not only are they unconcerned by human interaction, they are also humorous, playful, social and inquisitive. After hiking to the rookery, we sit within the perimeter of the nesting site as the birds cart rocks around to build nests. They preen and go about their business. As we walk back to the launch site, a few groups of penguins shadow us along the same path, their curiosity matching that of the visitors. Within this same bay, scattered around on land and ice sheets, Antarctica’s dominant predator, the leopard seal, rests in close proximity to its primary food source, those industrious gentoos. One large male, fresh from a recent meal, displays its bloody grin. In a beautiful act of defiance, a bold gentoo brazenly confronts a leopard seal, its mouth agape. This wild challenge takes place just metres from us.
This bay, like others we’ll visit, is perfect for kayak exploration. Free from the sound of the outboards and so close to the frozen water, we venture off through floating ice to get close to glaciers and icebergs. The sun is intense, the air is crisp and the water feels like needles as I dip in my hand, thinking about the rite of passage yet to happen. As a photographer, I am enthralled by the quality of light – it is fundamental to every image. In Antarctica, the sun hangs low in the sky, providing amazing light that is reflected from almost every frozen surface. Sunsets and “blue hour” ambience gift slowly transformative landscapes. Most notably, Wilhelmina Bay stands out as frozen landscape perfection. Complete calm, combined with the lack of an apparent tide, creates a perfect stillness as the sun slowly sets, with orange and magenta skies transforming the icescape over the course of hours.
In Antarctica, the sun hangs low in the sky, providing amazing light that is reflected from almost every frozen surface.
For anyone willing to make the mountainous hike to the peaks of Orne Harbour, there’s an introduction to the elegant chinstrap penguins and their colony. While we sit on the ice atop the mountain, captivated by the view of peaks and deep blue glaciers that surround the bay, the chinstraps wander around us. Motoring back to the ship on the inflatables, the gentoos follow, gleefully porpoising in our wake.
To me, Antarctica is an overwhelming destination – perhaps more than any other place – even for the seasoned adventure traveller. It is unpredictable and wildly variable. The raw, challenging and untamed nature of the experience only adds to its impact. Just like the polar plunge, that ritual of (briefly) swimming in the coldest ocean at the world’s coldest place. My body feels entombed in the painfully numbing waters, but gentoos swim around wondering what the fuss is about. It’s the perfect conclusion to my expedition to this great and pure frontier.