Karen Bowerman reflects on the end of her Antarctic adventure
Our luck is really in; the winds are favourable, the sea calm and we have another chance to set foot on the continent.
We land at Orne Harbour and climb to the top of a ridge where a chattering colony of loved-up penguins – chinstraps to be precise (we’re experts in penguin ID now) – shuffle to and fro on slippery, well-used pathways (they tend to use exactly the same route over and over again).
Partners share incubating duties and it seems our arrival coincides with a shift change. It’s accompanied by much fussing and cackling (mostly by the males). The sight’s accompanied, as always, by the intense smell of fish emanating from large patches of guano (penguin droppings) that dirty the white snow. It’s going to seem strange when penguins, seals and seabirds are no longer regular viewing.
Back on the shingle beach, I take my final zodiac cruise. We chug around the icebergs, taking even more pictures. Their presence is second nature to us now, but I still find them as fascinating as the day I first saw them.
I’m dropped back at the beach for my last moments on the white continent.
My time’s up – I stamp my feet free of snow and climb into the inflatable that’s waiting to take me back to the ship. I recall a quote from Frank Wild’s memoirs: “Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices.” I feel I understand, a little, what he means now. The colours, sights and sounds of Antarctica are certainly bewitching. Here is a continent where man has no real influence, where no nation asserts supremacy and where nature is still unspoilt.
As I take in the mountains, the bay and the glistening peppermint-coloured icebergs, I spot a couple of tiny snowmen at the edge of the beach. They’re only a few inches tall but make me wonder how much longer Antarctica will remain pristine. It seems that wherever in the world man goes, he can’t resist making his mark.
The sick bags have reappeared – not a good sign, though my stomach feels more unsettled through lack of sleep than seasickness.
I’ve had a horrendous night; I must have slept for about 40 minutes. I spent the remaining eight hours clinging onto my narrow bed, (or repositioning myself back in the middle), as I tried desperately not to be thrown onto the floor. The cabin sighed and groaned; a random apple rolled around, the window above my bed leaked (despite all our attempts to plug it with towels) and the curtains flapped into my face all night long.
Everyone looked decidedly green (or grey) at breakfast.
At lunch, numbers were seriously depleted.
At dinner, plates (and food) went crashing to the ground. Luckily I was on the ‘right’ side of the table and fell forward, not back, although I did have to replace my knives and forks, twice. A fellow passenger lost four glasses of red to the swell – and promptly ordered another bottle. His ‘it’s life as usual’ approach won my admiration.
We’ve endured gale force winds and waves up to 50 feet high. I’ve been thrown from one side of my cabin (into the door) and back again – a distance of eight to ten feet and have two bruised knees to show for it. But I’m not complaining. I haven’t been seasick, or needed the onboard doctor. Compared with a lot of people on board, I’ve escaped unscathed.
We awake early, to smooth seas and the sighting of land. The mountains of Ushuaia, once so foreign to me, now seem familiar. My journey is almost over.
We disembark. It’s goodbyes all round and the next thing I know I’m on a coach being shipped back to my hostel.
As I ferry my bags across the road to the hostel door, waiting for passing traffic, the wilderness I’ve come from, seems another world away.
I dump my bags off and head straight out. It’s a public holiday, so most of the shops are closed, but there are still hordes of tourists, traipsing around town, strolling from one cafe to another, or picking up leaflets on boat trips at the port.
At 6pm, I’m drawn back to the docks. My ship (no longer) is about to leave with another 80 excited passengers, heading off on another trip of a lifetime.
On board the banter begins again. The promise that promises will be fulfilled “left, right and centre” is pledged anew. Akademic Loffe draws slowly out of the docks, and is lost in the still waters of the Beagle Channel.
As evening approaches, locals swarm into the streets. Shops open for business and bars fill with drinkers. For a few moments, as I step off the pavement to make way for passers by, I find the people intrusive and the commercialism unnecessary. Then, within minutes, I’m absorbed into the crowds.
Karen accompanied Polar historian Angie Butler on a trip to bury Antarctic explorer Frank Wild's ashes. She has blogged on location for Wanderlust for the last few weeks. You'll find her first report here.
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