Margaret and David’s Antarctic Expedition
Inspired by Peter and Arienne’s experience in Antarctica we decided to investigate. We took their advice and sought a smaller group excursion.
As others in the club have enjoyed trips with Southern Sea Ventures, we opted for a tour with Aurora Expeditions with the canoeing program conducted by SSV. This had the added attraction of being an Australian company.
We joined our ship on 27 November and had a smooth trip across the notorious Drake Passage. This was the trip first of the season to the Antarctic Peninsula. At this time the penguins had made their little nests of rocks and were sitting on eggs. On landings we watched the to and fro of penguins coming and going to sea and back to their partners on the eggs. We saw the elaborate and noisy greetings, the swapping of duties and then the noisy farewells. Skuas flew overhead, watching for unguarded eggs and were fended off with loud squawks. Penguins in their thousands rushed up and down penguin highways as we trod carefully over rocks and snow, avoiding any outliers. We also saw seals in the water or resting on the shore. Elephant Point was amass with ugly (to us) moulting male elephant seals and cute little silvery-grey month-old weaners.
But for us the paddling was to be the main attraction! Our guide was Al Bakker, founder of SSV. We really appreciated his quiet efficient leadership, his sense of humour and his chocolate. We were kitted out with dry suits, knee high neoprene boots and pogies. By the time we ’d put on all our gear we were quite exhausted.
We then climbed down a rope ladder into a Zodiac and from that into our kayaks: not as hard as it sounds with Al and a couple of burly Russian sailors to help. There were twelve paddlers, most in doubles. David and I were in singles and as a mark of his status as senior paddler David was given the honour of carrying a radio and a tow rope which fortunately wasn’t needed.
Our first long paddle was on a clear sunny morning and I was just bowled over by the beauty of the place… the clear blues in the icebergs, their shapes both above and below the water, the high icy cliffs around us, the clarity of the water and the peace and quiet. On later paddles our little plastic ice-breakers crashed through the brash, pushing aside floating chunks of ice.
One evening after early dinner we set off for a paddle in beautiful calm conditions. We left the boat and paddled through the brash, noting a couple of small avalanches high on the cliffs above. As we neared the beach where some of our co- passengers were planning to sleep on the snow, there was a loud crack and we turned to see a huge chunk of ice calving off the face of a glacier. Slowly a large wave loomed and then sped towards us, breaking on the shore, sending penguins and campers scurrying. But the paddlers turned and faced the onslaught and rode the series of waves safely. I think there were a few racing hearts! After the excitement of our ‘tsunami’ we continued our paddle away from avalanches, campers and penguins. The water was glassy smooth. Huge rocky and snowy cliffs rose around us and were reflected in the water while glaciers sat quietly by. We could hear little splashes as occasional penguins porpoised around us in the twilight at almost midnight. Then it was back to the boat for hot chocolate and Baileys and a warm bed.
We paddled once or twice every day except one, when a long paddle had to be cancelled because of heavy snow and 50 knot winds. Snow is unusual at this time of year and there may be fewer penguin chicks this season as a result.
Some passengers on our ship had elected to go climbing. Their leader was Tashi Tenzing, grandson of Tenzing Norgay. They had one successful climb to the top of Demaria Peak. Their descent ended in a spectacular all-in slide, fortunately with no serious injury. Their activities, like ours, were limited due to the weather, but all on board—kayakers, climbers and tourists—had a wonderful experience.
We were again treated to a smooth passage across the Drake Passage, sailed into the Pacific and with permission of the Chilean outpost rounded Cape Horn quite close to land.
Like Peter and Arienne we added other South American experiences—Iguazu Falls, trekking in Patagonia, before and Macchu Picchu and Galapagos Islands afterwards— making a truly memorable few weeks.