Saturday, March 13, 2010

Antarctica Continent Proper

At about one thirty in the morning I found myself on the floor of my cabin. A perfect start to a perfect day.

Apparently the rough waters weren't all behind us. Though we were hugging the coast, the waves were still picking up, and the swells still spilling things around the room. Namely, me. At one thirty I was woken up by the feeling of my body connecting with the floor. Once more, I must ask why they put the beds aligned from bow to stern on the fourth floor? None of the other beds are set up this way, for the very reason that you will be rocked out of them this way.

It seems everything works on the lower, cheaper, decks – but once you're in the more expensive cabins things just stop making sense, and start falling apart. Still – I have my window. And, you know, that's lovely. Every night I try to get my four hundred dollars of excitement out of it. I'm sure I'm doing very well in that regard. Not to mention the piece of cardboard from a 100 Pipers Scotch box is working wonders, jammed into the frame, preventing an ear piercing screech as metal rubs against metal with every swell.

Sleeping through rough waters is one thing, and not that hard until you fall with great force, but going to sleep, when you're ever conscious of the need to keep balanced? That's a far more difficult task. I do believe it was about an hour later that I finally returned to slumber. As we were surrounded by fog, I couldn't even count the passing icebergs to help me drift off.

Five hours later I woke up, and grabbed a quick shower, followed by a quicker breakfast. Once more I rushed to put on winter socks, thermal pants, pants, thermal shirt, shirt, gloves, toque, jacket, wet pants, and boots. I felt like Thomas in his snowsuit. especially when it dawned on me that I needed to use the washroom. Curses!

When I was in the mud room I decided that I wanted to take a picture of the life jackets. I don't know why I felt I should do that, as I'd already taken one – and really... not that exciting of a shot. Still, as I turned my camera on and pressed the shutter I was welcomed with a message telling me I had no memory card. It was in my room, plunged into the laptop as I backed up images! Up two flights of stairs I ran, down the hall, grabbing the card, and then running back again just in time to make the last boat as we headed for yet another landing.

This would be our chance to step out onto the Antarctica continent proper. Not just an island, or an ice field, but that honest to goodness, ground under your feet, connected to oh so much more ground, continental Antarctica. This would also be the first time my waterproof pants with waterproof socks attached to them, would be put to the test. Yes, I'd stepped in buckets of cleaning fluids momentarily in them already, and yes they said they were waterproof – but my rain coat says it's waterproof too – and that is a boldfaced lie! Swinging my legs up and over the zodiac I plunged into the icy water, up to my knees. Huh – still dry. Good. What a wonderful thing to have! I'm sure I'll find all sorts of uses for these pants in the future – hiking through streams, fishing in rivers and lakes, I don't know – they're waterproof – and have little feety socky things in them. There much be more uses!

I walked up the rocky beach, which surprised me as I pictured this part of the world as nothing more than snow and ice. To see bare rock? Well that's not what television had led me to believe!

For the first time this trip, the sun started to come out. The clouds were burned away, and blue sky became the dominant feature in just about every photograph. The sky helped accent the blues in the ice floating off in the ocean, and worked to contrast the snow peaks. It was a beautiful day on land, helped along by two molting penguin colonies. Just as I'd done in South Africa, I took pictures of the birds with a little penguin toy my aunt had lent me for just such an occasion.

Sitting on the snow, I found myself watching them more than I'd intended to. I didn't think I cared about penguins – but once you see them, all small, fluffy, cuddly, and waddling around like a small child – it's hard not to personify them, and want to give them a wee squeeze. Still, we made sure to keep a good five meters away from them at all times, lest they walk towards us – which they didn't. This upset many of the travellers. Apparently some people come here to hold penguins. A reasonable goal, destined for tragic disappointment.

Hundreds of pictures later, exploring this part of the ice, and the other, we re-boarded the zodiacs and headed back to the MS Expedition. Three hours we'd walked around on Antarctica. For three hours we enjoyed the sun, the snow, the pieces of ice floating in the water (if you hear cracking, run – don't look back – just run, those pieces can snap your ankle in two.) and watching as large pieces of cliff-side snow breaking off, and tumbling into the waters below.

It was spectacular, and I couldn't help but feel – someone like me? It doesn't seem like I have any right to be in a place like this. But once again it just goes to show how easy travel is. It's not for certain types of people, it doesn't require much work or effort. Anyone can make it to Antarctica if they really want – I know people who spend more on alcohol in a year than this trip would cost. It's all about choices. Anyone can come and walk these pristine landscapes, and view this unimaginable expanse – and after seeing it for myself? I think everyone should.

In the afternoon we took to the seas in the zodiacs and cruised around islands, past more sheets of ice, and through waters seldom glimpsed. Floating amongst the pieces of oxygenated ice, white, tinted blue, was a piece of ice nearly completely its own element. Rather than opaque, it was perfectly clear, a beautiful floating gemstone, dark against the water's surface.

Our boat, driven by one of the guides, pushed beyond the distance of where the others dared to travel. We found caves in icebergs, and pressed through the floating crystalline surfaces glimpsing skies wrought with emotion, clouds formed liked waves against the horizon. And in the distance a small seal played in the water, flipping above the surface, only to dive under once more, waving with its fin, as if it wanted us to come closer.

We were led, it seemed, to a large flat piece of blue ice bobbing with the passing waves, on which three other seals lay, perfectly displayed against the blue black expanse closing in on all sides.

While in some drives it may seem a waste if large animals are not glimpsed, here in Antarctica, simply being out on the water, and taking in a landscape that looks so different than any other place on Earth, the scenery is more than enough to satisfy. I've seen snow, and I've seen ice all my life. I've seen water frozen over, and ice floating as it waits in macabre fashion for the thaw, but I'd never before seen such a place as this.

Back on the ship we were greeted with a mug of hot chocolate, mixed with a splash of peppermint schnapps and Bailey's. If there is a better way to enter the warmth from out in the cold, I could not think of it. And for the next few hours we talked about what we had seen, and sat in circles all saying the same thing, “isn't it amazing?” Half hearted plots of hijack the ship so as we would never have to leave were formulated. Well, never leave until the food stores ran low, and the water tanks ran dry. Then we could leave – but not until!

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