We sail down the Gerlache Strait towards Wilhelmina Bay. As we enter the bay it’s as if we’re crossing a calm, rippling lake, decorated with magnificent ice sculptures.
We chug through our ice world in the zodiacs, spotting three penguins playing on one of the icebergs and a seal sprawled lazily across another. Some of the icebergs rise 40 feet above the water; others are so small we’re tempted to lean out of the inflatable and sweep them into our arms.
As we head into dinner one of our American guides says tomorrow he’ll be, “making dreams come true, both left and right.” He’s prone to hyperbole but somehow I feel that this time he’ll deliver, for tomorrow, weather-permitting, we’ll set foot on the peninsula.
I stay up until 1.30am unaware it’s so late. It’s Antarctic Summer here and the sun doesn’t set until almost 11 o’clock (it rises at around 3am). I stand at the library window and look out over the bow. The horizon is streaked with gold and pink and blue. The light loses some of its dazzle but I still need my eye-shade to be able to sleep.
It’s the day most of us have been waiting for.
I’m standing on deck, waiting to climb down the gangway and “butt scoot” along the zodiac. I have three layers on plus a down jacket and a waterproof shell; add to that a woolly hat, two pairs of socks (interspersed with charcoal foot warmers), two pairs of gloves (one silk, one woolly – plus a spare pair since we sometimes get soaked before making it ashore), and to quote one of the guides, Boris, I must surely be “RTG!” (Ready to go).
I spin myself around, out of the inflatable and step ashore. There’s a narrow shingle beach edged by a ridge of snow that’s about six feet high. Above it there’s a steep, snowy slope.
I spot a guide digging out steps in the snow. It’s obviously for safety reasons but as I stand quietly, taking in the wonder of the place, I can’t help resenting the way she’s hacking into the landscape with a shovel!
I splash through the water (it’s a so-called wet landing) to reach the shingle. The woman next to gets out her camera to take a photo of her feet. “They’re my first footsteps,” she says, giving a childish grin.
Usually when we reach the shore there’s a hubbub as we take off our lifejackets and sort ourselves out. But today everyone’s much quieter, and no one seems in a hurry to head off hiking or seek out penguins. Couples stroll along the shoreline, lost in thought. There’s a strange, almost reverential, atmosphere.
“I’m spellbound,” a fellow passenger said. Another remarked, “I knew it would be beautiful, but not as beautiful as this.”
We’ve landed at Paradise Bay, a cove surrounded by mountains. At one end a glacier looks as if it’s just tumbled into the sea; at the other there’s a colony of Gentoo penguins and a small hut, part of an Antarctica research station.
I catch up with Angie. We realise, ironically, that we’re standing on the continent that Wild and Shackleton never set foot on, even though their aim was to cross it, during the Endurance expedition.
Angie tells me, in a hushed, slightly emotional voice, that she feels her mission is now complete. “In a strange way,” she says, “I feel I’m at the end of my seven year quest to discover everything about Frank Wild. I’ve now buried his ashes and finished his Antarctic journey for him. I can put it all to bed now, and move on. It’s time to enjoy the memories. My story is complete.”
I leave Angie to her thoughts and climb onto the bank of snow that runs along the shingle. I sink knee deep (and sometimes thigh deep) as I trudge towards the ridge. Ours are the only footprints here – a reminder of how privileged we are to have set foot on the white continent.
Half-way up the hill, I turn to take in the bay. The water’s so dark it’s almost black; the icebergs so bright they look like glistening crystals. I’m surrounded by peaks that have never been climbed. I take in the silence. In all the excitement of getting to Antarctica, I hadn’t really thought about how serene this place would be.
I take very few photos here. I just want to absorb the scene, so I can recall it when I’ve gone.
As if to manage any sense of an anti-climax we return to the ship to discover lunch is being served al fresco. The chefs are out on deck, in their chef hats, whites and shades, barbecuing sausages, burgers, drumsticks and sweet corn. There’s free beer and mulled wine, and a salad bar laid out on the bow.
We sit at plastic tables on plastic chairs and tuck in, overlooking the 7th continent.
We finish the day with a landing on Danco island in the Errera Channel. It’s home to around 3,000 Gentoo penguins but I’m on the look out for Adelies (which have black beaks as opposed to red).
Before long I spot eight or so Adelies waddling along the shore. As they reach the water they throw themselves, one by one, onto their bellies in the waves. An over enthusiastic trio, seemingly unaware they have a few feet to go, belly flop onto the shingle. They push their beaks into the pebbles, steady themselves, straighten their arched bodies, waddle into the shallows, and once convinced their feet are wet, try again.
I watch them for hours.
Follow Karen's progress over the next week as she reports live from Antarctica. You'll find her first report here.
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