Punta Arenas, Chile - At the end of 1993 I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from friends in Cape Town to join them on a cruise to the Antarctic in the MV Marco Polo.
I say “cruise”, but I was left in no doubt that this trip was more of an “expedition”, as there would be regular educational lectures on board plus a number of shore trips guided by experts.
The names and pedigrees of these experts were impressive, and read like a who’s who of Antarctic exploration and scientific endeavour.
The most notable were Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Vivian Fuchs, Lady Philippa Scott (Captain Scott’s daughter-in-law) and even the grand-niece of Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911.
The entire venture had been organised by Lars Eric Lindblad, whose excursions to remote destinations in his ship the Lindblad Explorer were well known in the travel world.
We boarded the ship in Punta Arenas, a relatively large town at the southern tip of Chile, after flying in from a short trip to Patagonia and the Chilean Lake District in the Andes.
Although the Marco Polo was an old converted Russian ship with double hull icebreaker capabilities, the accommodation and facilities were excellent.
The ship’s capacity was 800 but owing to the wise restrictions of the International Antarctic Treaty on tourist numbers to the continent, the ship’s limit was 400, which meant we avoided double sittings at meal times.
On leaving Punta Arenas, we enjoyed a 48-hour tour of the maze of channels and myriad islands with dramatic glaciers that make up the Tierra del Fuego.
This extensive archipelago is not only the location of quaint Ushuaia, the most southerly town on the planet, but also the most southerly tip of the South American continent, the notorious Cape Horn.
After overnighting on board in Ushuaia, we set off on a sunny day across the Drake Passage towards the closest part of the Antarctic continent known as the Peninsula.
Halfway across this turbulent sea passage, the ship’s engines came to a halt, and all passengers were confined to their cabins for about two hours.
The sea swells were enormous and the Marco Polo was at the mercy of wind and wave. Many passengers became seasick and the Filipino cabin stewards did their best to make us comfortable.
This included giving an apple to each passenger which, the stewards solemnly informed us, was the best antidote to the “mal de mer”.
After a very uncomfortable (and dangerous) two hours, the ship’s engines came back to life and things returned to normal (except for a large number of absentees at dinner that night.)
We made landfall near the Antarctic Peninsular at Deception Island, the site of a large, extinct volcano which is part of the South Shetland archipelago.
This was to be our first excursion ashore in the Antarctic, and generated great excitement among the passengers.
Because of the environmental protection regulations of the 1970 International Antarctic Treaty, a maximum of 100 passengers was allowed ashore at any time, and the red, inflatable Zodiacs were kept busy all day shuttling passengers back and forth.
The volcanic origins of Deception Island area are clearly visible on shore and there is a continuing degree of activity in the area, as steam still rises from the sea bed and warms the water to some extent. Several passengers braved the 50ºC temperature and had a swim while we were ashore.
From the drab colours of the volcanic Deception Island scenery, the Marco Polo sailed south towards the dramatic Lemaire Channel and Port Lockroy.
It was in these two scenic areas that we were fortunate enough to enjoy sunny, calm weather – always a photographer’s delight. Shore trips were arranged in both areas, and not only was the weather obliging, but so was the wildlife of the Antarctic.
The most widely encountered inhabitant of the Antarctic must surely be the penguin, of which there are many species.
They are generally quite tame as far as human beings are concerned, and often run the risk of being trampled underfoot by enthusiastic photographers.
Other species of birdlife also abound, the most impressive in my view being the albatross, and in particular the Wandering Albatross, the largest.
These birds are able to fly for extraordinarily long periods without any visible flapping of their wings.
Seals, of course, are also evident in large numbers. One of the most feared predators of the Antarctic seas is the Leopard Seal, a sleek three-metre Olympic-standard swimmer.
And then of course there was always the impressive array of large icebergs, smaller ice floes, together with melting surface “brash ice”, which all combined to make the Lemaire Channel and Port Lockroy, a photographer’s paradise.
Not quite a paradise for the Marco Polo’s captain, however, as progress through these waters obviously had to be at very low speeds.
The Marco Polo’s hull was fitted with stainless steel “spreaders” which parted the surface ice as the ship progressed to prevent large pieces of ice damaging the propellers. In addition, the ship had a double hull, as do most vessels that ply the seas around Antarctica.
The few days in the Port Lockroy/Lemaire Channel area came to an end all too soon, and the next leg of our Antarctic venture was a lengthy journey of more than 6 400km to the large American scientific station in McMurdo Sound on the edge of the huge Ross Ice Shelf.
This entailed quite a number of days at sea, but the on-board arrangements were so well planned there was certainly no time to get bored.
In particular, the lectures given by the panel of speakers accompanying us were outstanding, notably Sir Edmund Hillary and Lady Philippa Scott, whose respective talks on the ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 and the tragic events of the Captain Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912 were spellbinding.
The most poignant moments in Philippa Scott’s recounting of the final days of Captain Scott’s life were when she read extracts from his diary which, in spite of the extreme conditions, he kept up to date until the day he died.
During this journey to McMurdo Sound, I was struck by the fact we encountered little in the way of rough seas as in the Drake Passage. I was told the large number of substantial icebergs and extensive areas of sea-ice have a calming effect on the ocean’s behaviour – thankfully, for many passengers.
The ship hove to in McMurdo Sound near the US base, a permanent township. It was, and still is, the largest scientific station in the Antarctic and was the starting point in 1911 for Captain Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole.
The large wooden hut that served as a base camp for his party is still there, and is preserved as a monument by the British authorities. Its contents of canned food, furnishings and clothing remain as they were in 1911. Unfortunately, no visitors are allowed into the hut for security and preservation reasons.
The McMurdo Station carries out substantial scientific research, in particular on the ramifications of climate change.
The station was an uninviting example of human habitation. Due to the frozen ground, all utilities such as electrical cables and service pipes have to be exposed above ground and, where necessary, insulated to prevent freezing.
One interesting aspect of this temperature problem is that the water in the two fire engines at the fire station is perpetually warmed to prevent freezing.
We spent more than half a day on shore at McMurdo and although it could never be called “photographic”, it was a deeply interesting insight into the life-style of those who live and work in this hostile environment.
Sleeping quarters were comfortable, and conveniences included a small supermarket, a coffee bar and a church. Regrettably, there was no pub. This was not surprising, however, as the consumption of alcohol in these remote parts can be dangerous.
While we were in the supermarket making some interesting souvenir purchases, the weather started to close in. It worsened as we embarked on our Zodiac inflatable, and halfway back to the Marco Polo the captain decided to move the ship (which was not anchored because of the great depth of the sea) and had drifted towards the rocky shore.
The weather had deteriorated into a blizzard, and the 10 passengers on the Zodiac with me spent a very uncomfortable half-hour out on the open sea before we were able to board the Marco Polo.
One passenger had frostbite on his face, largely due to windchill.
A cheerful sight greeted us at the top of the gangway when we boarded: two wine stewards dispensing large glasses of hot gluhwein.
We set sail that night for New Zealand, and the few days at sea gave us time to reflect on a trip that was relatively rare for South African tourists at the time, and a different experience for those of us able to meet many of the personalities who were household names in the explorations and scientific studies of the white continent.
We disembarked at Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, and before flying home spent an idyllic week touring this beautiful country – but that is another story. - Reuters
l For information on travel from South Africa to Antarctica, contact:
Telephone: 021 462 7032.