There is something magical and mysterious about the ocean. If there’s one place that makes you feel at once insignificant when surrounded by its expanse, it is on the top deck of a small Russian freighter carrying scientists to the cold, cold Antarctic.
I am at Ushuaia, a city in the southernmost point of the Northern Hemisphere: Tierra Del Fuego. The weather was simply amazing (it’s called ‘Mild Tundra’, but for a Mumbai resident, it simply meant walking about in air-conditioning). The air is so fresh it should be canned.
Ushuaia has a deep bay so that large cruise ships came right into the bay. But big cruise ships don’t get as close to the ice as we were going to.
Boarded the Grigoriy Mikheev berthed opposite to the fancy cruise liner. This research vessel looked really small in comparison. But it has 26 cabins, a library, an infirmary and dining room.
The ship is filled with scientists who are travelling to live in the Antarctic for a while and if they don’t talk to ‘tourists’ it’s okay. I ogle at their gear and wish I had paid attention in Biology class or knew how to dive…
It’s November end (summer!) and I have never felt so alive. It’s a rare clear day to leave Ushuaia. I watch the sea and it quiets the storm inside. There are no visible waves and you wish the ocean would spill some of its secrets about Scott and Shackleton. They had a stormy relationship by all accounts (and the ship’s library has so much reading material and videos about my hero Ernest Shackleton) but I prefer the flawed one, Ernest Shackleton.
He read poetry and when his ship ran into ice, slowly crushing it from both sides. He left to seek help and came back, in spite of the inclement weather to rescue his men. Those were the days of scurvy, frostbite and death by white outs and hunger. Today there is Wi-Fi on the cold continent and making a call or checking Twitter is as easy as saying Gentoo penguin.
But we’re still crossing Drake’s Passage. You will lie down and watch the porthole show the blue sky one minute and then be under water the next. This should be a must for every adventure travel junkie.
If Drake stole treasure from Spanish ships, he deserved it. As I make my way to the infirmary to get myself a patch behind my ear which makes keeping spinach for breakfast, lunch and dinner (the only vegetarian on board) in the tum, easier.
Pro-tip: Don’t ever book upper deck cabins, if you are going around Cape Horn.
When the Roaring forties are conquered, the Captain asks us to watch out for icebergs. With the score of the movie
Titanic playing in my head I walk about the deck with binoculars from the ship until an officer laughingly guides me to the Sonar room. I, facepalm and soon, am mesmerised by technology. So thrilled to spot the biggest iceberg in the Antarctic — it is 2 miles long — and happier to win penguin plush toys from the Captain himself. By this time, I have watched so many videos on penguins and seen Minsk whales (blips on sonar) am ready to make landfall.
It’s 2 am sunrise. And our ship makes its way to Fildes Bay and we just gawp in silence at the continent in front of us. We’re here! Trussed up in warm waterproof pants and jackets (made to order in Bombay!) and fancy glacier sunglasses still overwhelmed, I step on the Antarctic and immediately sink into the snow. They’ve given us knee high snow boots. They help.
And like all visitors, I went through the Chilean passport control and then trudge to the onion domes of the church that belongs to the Russian station (passport stamped again!).
There are penguins too! You are not supposed to go near them (because, wildlife), but one follows me and I panic. It smells of raw fish. The clicking cameras distract the Gentoo penguin and I happily get aboard the zodiac boat and visit the most amazing blue coloured icebergs. Magical is such a tame word to describe them. It’s like navigating between Dale Chihuly sculptures. Stunning.
Although it is 6:30 pm, and it is still day, the trip is cut short. By the time we reach the jetty, the skies have suddenly turned grey, and they’re rushing us quietly to the jeeps. This was supposed to be Antarctica XXI: the first ever commercial flight out of the continent.
But through the grey sky turned white and blizzard, yes blizzard, am glad the rope which we are supposed to hold on to for dear life is leading us to a Uruguay Air Force C-130 and not some regular flight.
Our luggage is in a net nailed down, next to a porta-potty chained to the floor. Everyone laughs nervously at the incongruous site. We take off in that blizzard, grateful for lunch packs. But nothing seems to faze an obnoxiously loud passenger on board our ship (who had asked me how Indians could afford the trip, why wasn’t I working in IT and so on) sitting right next to me. She shows me how much I missed because I had opted to go see the icebergs. Pictures of giant petrels and more penguins and she proudly, loudly proclaims she had eaten pink ice! I laugh all the way to Punta Arenas airport when the soldier flying with us explains, ‘Madam, that is penguin poop!.’
The author is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer's forum, hosts Mumbai's oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.