How the Hell did I get Here?
Well, it actually happened. I went to Antarctica and returned, a changed man. I’ve seen things. Penguins, mostly. And icebergs.
At the end of the last episode I’d managed to secure an offer from another cruise company after the One Ocean Expeditions cancellation fiasco. Amazingly, all-in-all, four separate companies came up with last-minute offers to take me to Antarctica! I couldn’t believe it. They obviously hadn’t read any of my previous work. I really want to voice my appreciation for Eclipse Travel and Chimu Adventures who offered me berths, and G Adventures who put me on a cancellation list. Quark also came up with an offer, but only after I’d dissed them on Instagram. The power of social media! Thanks to my followers, all 58 of you.
Anyway, with the luxury of choice I went with Aurora Expeditions, an Australian company with a brand new boat. The Greg Mortimer, named for one of Australia’s most accomplished explorers, was on only its third voyage, plus the date lined up exactly with my original second voyage. I also later discovered that Gerda cuts the hair of the owner's sister and father!
It also meant I had 12 days to kill at the bottom of South America. By this time I’d already arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, southernmost city in the world and departure point of all Antarctic cruises. I’d already seen a decent amount of Patagonia on my previous visits in 2003 and 2017, but never the Chilean fjords. On the pretext of wishing to repay their generous but unredeemed offer, I asked one of the cruise companies if there was anything I could do for them, slyly suggesting that if they sent me on a last-minute, four-day cruise around said fjords, I’d mention them in the resulting article. It wouldn’t be possible to have a pitch accepted beforehand due to the notorious inability of most editors to reply to a simple email, but I’d do my best afterwards.
Lo and behold, they bought it. I got the nod early one morning and immediately hopped on a bus up to Punta Arenas in Chile, where the following day I boarded the Stella Australis for its southward journey through the narrow channels of Tierra del Fuego. This was quite possibly the most luxurious gig I’d ever scored – my own cabin, three squares a day, alcohol on tap, and a series of gorgeous views sailing past my picture window. It wasn’t only cruising either, there were shore excursions in zodiacs, wildlife spotting, onboard lectures and tumbling glacier visits. It was like a warm up for Antarctica. Best of all, we stopped at the legendary Cape Horn, graveyard of a hundred ships back in the days before the discovery of the safer Beagle Channel. Standing on that geographical landmark gave me a special thrill, one that matched visits to places like the Cape of Good Hope, the Panama and Suez Canals and the equator, but one which I never thought I’d have the opportunity to feel.
The Stella dropped me back in Ushuaia, with a week left before the Greg Mortimer sailed. Fortunately, I’d come up with another plan to best use that time. Across the Beagle Channel is an island belonging to Chile called Isla Navarino, on which lies a five-day wilderness trek described, of course, as the ‘southernmost’ hike in the world. To keep a long story short (and not detract from the magnificent article that will appear in a future issue of Outdoor magazine), it was quite an adventure. The 53km Dientes de Navarino circuit lay heavy under snow. Spring had not yet melted away the remnants of winter and snowshoes were a necessity. When I arrived in Puerto Williams, the island's only town, no hiker had so far this season penetrated the mountain range to complete the circuit. It was just a few hours before I set off that that changed, which certainly gave me a confidence boost.
Thus followed four days of stamping through the snow, often post-holing up to my thighs, creeping around steep traverses above frozen lakes, camping in gale force winds, talking to the birds and humping a 25kg pack full of shoddy rental equipment. It was amazing, apart from the fact that my toes were so continuously cold and wet that I returned with first degree frostbite. It sounds worse than it is; no amputation will be required. I have been assured that the numbness will pass when the nerve endings grow back, although that could take months.
Anyway, back in Ushuaia again, with another memorable experience (and sellable story) under my belt, I was finally ready to board the Greg Mortimer. This blog is not the place to try to describe in detail the 10 days I spent touring the White Continent in great comfort and company, but I’ll run through a few of the highlights.
The boat was sooo nice. You could smell the newness on it, although there were a few teething troubles, like the 8th deck Jacuzzi didn’t work! Bah! Overall though, it was a treat. The unique X-bow design, which makes it look like they put the front on upside down, made the two-day crossing of the Drake Passage (between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula) a lot nicer than it could have been. Despite the cruise having been booked out for the last year, I somehow still wound up with my own cabin – bliss! I ate like a pig, telling everyone I was ‘bulking up’ in preparation for Africa, which was true. On our Cape to Cairo trip I shrunk to 60 kgs!
As well as the usual shore excursions to see penguins, and zodiac tours around icebergs, two of my planned three articles were dependent on experiencing more exciting activities: snowshoeing and kayaking. These need to be specified and paid for on booking the trip, but since I was a last-minute addition they were both full. Fair play to the expedition staff who managed to get me on both activities at least once so that I could take the photos and notes necessary for my articles.
Apart from that, I organised my own Hash House Harriers run on a small volcanic island in the South Shetlands, Deception Island. Wanting to one day join the ‘Hashing on every continent’ club, I put out a general call for lunatics and was joined by five enthusiastic Hash virgins while the other 120 passengers shook their heads in bemusement. Together we ran a 5km route across volcanic scree, dodging penguins, whaling station ruins, giant petrels and the odd leopard seal. On on!
Speaking of milestones, I was chuffed to finally rack up my century – 100 countries visited! Yes, yes, I know Antarctica isn’t officially a country but it is according to my list, which includes Palestine, Tibet and probably the upcoming Western Sahara. Having taken me 46 years, I don’t know whether I’ll ever finish the other 97 or so. I’m over half way, just, but the rate new countries are appearing I may not be for long!
Another cool thing was the presence of one of my Travel Photographer heroes, Richard I’Anson. For many years Richard was the main photographer for Lonely planet, I even own one of his books (LP's Travel Photography), so I was delighted to discover he was on board. Happily, he was not a dick and we got on really well. Coincidentally, he lives just down the road from us in Sydney so we’ll hopefully meet up when I get home. As he wasn’t supposed to be working I tried to keep my photography questions to the minimum, and it galled me when we stood side by side taking the exact same shot and his turned out looking incredible while mine were, well, sufficient at best. Mind you, he was using a Canon 1D and a lens worth $18,000, which alone cost probably ten times what I’ve spent in photographic equipment in my entire life. I’m convinced that’s the only reason for the discrepancy in quality! ;)
And that, dear reader, brings us almost up to date. I am writing this on my way from my Dad’s place in Spain down to the ferry port at Algeciras, from where I will catch a ferry to Tangiers, Morocco, West Africa. Bring on stage 2!
Me and Richard, pretending we like each other :D