Magnificent Obsession

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It crackles, it roars, it dazzles like a million arc lights and for the unwary, its tantrums are occasionally fatal, but for the privileged few spellbound by its magic, Antarctica can become an obsession.

Sprawling across the bottom of the world, the White Continent has drawn adventurers since the means of getting there were invented. Now, it’s on the bucket list of almost every seasoned traveller although fewer than 20,000 who can stump up the necessary $5,000 to $50,000, depending on their expectations of comfort, make it there each year.

The most accessible part is the Antarctic Peninsula separated from South America by Drake Passage, about 1,000km across and purportedly the world’s roughest stretch of water. From Ushuaia in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego it’s the shortest connection across what Antarctic veterans have dubbed Drake Shake.

The luxurious Norwegian ship, MS Nordnorge, left Ushuaia facing a bank of particularly malevolent cloud. The news on the ship’s whiteboard was all good, “Monday – 62 degrees south latitude, maximum temperature – 1ºC, west wind – five metres per second (18kph), Beaufort Scale – 3.”

For five hours she cruised steadily east through Beagle Channel past lofty ice-topped peaks draped in beech forest and then the exertion of exploring Ushuaia’s steep streets took its toll on me.

At a morning briefing by skipper and crew it appeared an intense low-pressure system was now engulfing Drake Passage ahead of us and with regard to sea conditions, “there will be some movement”.

At a late buffet breakfast of cheese, sausage, pickles and herring in mustard sauce (Nordnorge’s passengers were mostly Germans), I caught the eye of a cape petrel cruising just outside the porthole in search of fish disturbed by the bow wave, just one of dozens of the birds diving and wheeling in a morning workout, their wingtips kissing the mounting waves.

A graceful black browed albatross glided past the same porthole with rigid wings just floating on the wind, an energy-saving trick that shipboard ornothologist, John Chardine, called dynamic soaring.

By the time Nordnorge had entered the Antarctic Convergence, a zone approximately 32-48km wide continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic, the headwind had reached gale force.

The temperature plummeted, waves grew to mountainous proportions breaking ahead of the ship like gigantic surf and the now ice-covered decks were declared off limits. Frozen bow spray exploded higher than the ship and crackled on the panoramic windows like silver bullets driven by the relentless gale now topping 20 metres per second.

By now half the passengers and a third of the crew were horizontal. “It does get worse,” the purser told me. “But not often.”

Most of the passengers still standing were cosseted inside the panoramic upper deck lounge where I bought a bottle of Bordeaux ($20), chatted with a Filipina bartender who said her name was Girlie, struggled to keep balance on the bar stool and stared in awe at the blizzard raging outside. “Tomorrow it will be as calm as a lake,” Girlie grinned.

Girlie was right. About 36 hours after leaving Ushuaia, the dark indigo sea between the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic mainland had eased to a light swell and dead ahead, a huge iceberg glistened in the chilly Antarctic sunlight.

The storm that had pummelled the ship across Drake Passage for about two days had subsided and all around were icebergs; some were huge “growlers”, others smaller “bergy bits”, that littered the sea like blue and white confetti, the detritus of the Antarctic Peninsula in the early phase of its summer meltdown.

Somewhere between Great George Island and the Great White Continent, Nordnorge, the first cruise ship of the season, blazed a tentative trail south – tentative because congealed pack ice could have forced a strategic retreat at any time.

Cruise season usually starts in November when the ice shelf begins to break up creating some of the most wondrous scenery on earth. The season ends in February when the rocky black shores have become home to a cute new generation of penguins, sea lions and seals. But for now, life was stirring after the ordeal of the savage polar winter.

On Greenwich Island, the ship anchored off a narrow rocky spit coated with powdery snow extending about a kilometre in a wide curve and creating a perfect harbour that could have been purpose-built which, in the early 19th century, echoed with the sounds of marauding seal hunters who named it Hospital Cove.

Now known as Yankee Harbour, the only sounds were those of thousands of squabbling, squawking gentoo penguins in rookeries that spread across the ice and up the snow-covered hills and as passengers were ferried ashore in small Polar Cirkel boats (zodiacs) they waddled, curious, down to the shore to watch, preening, brawling, chatting, some copulating in the glorious frosty sunshine.

Members of the ship’s expedition team, including Australian Alan Parker, were on hand to enforce the strict rules of Antarctic behaviour ashore that prevent littering and ensure visitors always maintain a prescribed distance from wildlife.

Formerly officer-in-charge of Australia’s research base, Davis Station, Parker was awarded the Polar Medal for outstanding services in Antarctica. “Through the long winters here the stresses really come out in people – both good and bad,” he said. “I discovered myself in the Antarctic; that’s what keeps bringing me back.”

Like the sirens of ancient mythology whose beautiful songs lured sailors to their deaths, the hypnotic effects of the silver continent can blind people to its dangers, such as hidden crevasses, glaciers that suddenly calve, icebergs that roll over without warning and extreme, unpredictable weather.

“Antarctica’s sheer magnificence will draw you into its bosom, numbing your senses with its beauty so you don’t see the dangers about you,” he said.

The wind had picked up blasting streams of powdery snow off surrounding summits and topping dark indigo waves with whitecaps indistinguishable from the floating ice. Dark purple mist swirled low over the surrounding ice-covered mountains punctured occasionally by thin pillars of sunlight that vanished as quickly as they appeared.

Watching this in the comfort of a heated panoramic lounge was a surreal, almost psychedelic experience when Nordnorge finally took shelter in Paradise Bay.

Fog and mist hung above as Zodiacs set out to explore the beautiful haven. Big icebergs glowed in a spectrum of vivid colours from bright blue to violet that constantly changed in the fluctuating light while a few crabeater seals, humpback whales and gentoo penguins were visible through the mist and a solitary seal floated past on a translucent blue ice floe.

The thick ice shelf, up to 50 metres high in places, was gradually warming and glaciers calved spectacularly into the sea forming new icebergs to be shaped by wind, warmth and water into bizarre, wondrous fantasy forms before eventually melting into oblivion.

If you stared at them long enough you could see animal shapes, people’s faces, mediaeval castles complete with battlements, towering cathedrals, even ghostly container ships and not far away, Gerlache Strait and the Neumayer and Lemaire Channels were full of them.

Sheer cliffs dropped straight into the sea. Lowering clouds threatened snowfalls but shafts of ivory sunlight still managed to penetrate creating a dramatic and magical lighting effect that drew out the bright blues and greens trapped in the ice.

It reminded me of a verse in my favourite childhood poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

“And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold:

And ice, mast-high, came floating by,

As green as emerald.”

Flanked by the Antarctic Peninsula on one side and Booth Island on the other, the glacier-lined Lemaire Channel is one of Antarctica’s most beautiful waterways, a narrow, photogenic passage dubbed Kodak Gap and a spectacular sight in spring with enormous sheer cliffs descending into a sea full of fractured ice.

Cruising through it was akin to being at an exhibition in a gigantic art gallery filled with gigantic sculptures, even down to the muffled murmurs and clinking, chilled glasses of fine wine as the Teutonic connoisseurs approved.

Later that day, under an overcast sky, the temperature sank to minus eight degrees Celsius as Nordnorge entered the sea-filled caldera of a dormant volcano that last erupted only 43 years ago.

Whalers’ Bay is enclosed by horseshoe shaped Deception Island, formerly a Norwegian whaling station, then a British Antarctic Survey post and now designated as Historic Site No. 71 under the Antarctic Treaty.

Passengers descended onto the black lava beach. A couple accepted the ritual challenge of a brief dip in the icy waters followed by the reward of Scandinavian Akvavit in the warm-up holes full of volcanically heated water freshly dug in the beach.

Frankfurt businessman, Wolfgang Worringer was one of the first passengers to take an Antarctic swim. “I only did it for the free Akvavit,” he confessed.

On a peninsula festooned with more than its share of astounding beauty, Neko Harbour is a special place, set within an expansive snowy amphitheatre dominated by the huge Bagshaw and Rudolph glaciers. Above the bay, fingers of sunlight created a strange lilac twilight as they cut through portentous clouds down to its dark, still waters.

Ashore the snow was deep, fresh and at times almost waist-deep. I steered clear of a dubious looking cavity near where I sat in the snow, a cave-in that looked unstable, very deep and extremely dangerous.

The eerie silence was interrupted by thousands of chattering, inquisitive penguins that began flocking down from rookeries to investigate the unexpected influx of visitors.

Then a thunderous bang echoed around the bay followed by a rumbling roar as thousands of tonnes of ice suddenly calved off the leading edge of a glacier about 500m away crashing into Neko Harbour sending a mini tsunami onto the opposite shore. Then, just as suddenly, the only audible sounds again were the penguins and the occasional distant crack of snapping ice.

Viewed from those snowy slopes, the panorama before us was awesome in the true sense of that now hackneyed word. The dark blue motionless sea was strewn with ice shards. Snowflakes begin to flutter out of the purple sky and sparkle in threads of slight sunlight enhancing an already unforgettable image.

Alan Parker turned to me and said softly: “I’m not a religious man David, but something about this place makes me feel there possibly is a God.”

Story and images Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited).

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