Start: January 30, Ushuaia, Argentina
Finish: February 1, Great Wall Base, South Shetland Islands
Penguins Seen: 7
Pounds of Bacon Consumed: 2
Dramamine Tablets Taken: 12
Bank Account Status: Not Good
Years ago while planning this trip from our comfy Seattle home we very much had our hearts set on taking a cruise to Antarctica once we reached the end of the world at Ushuaia, Argentina. Our hope was to book a last minute deal at a fraction of the price, but still at the sizable cost of around $3,500 per person.
The closer we got to Ushuaia and the more research Jessica did, the more disheartened we became. Prices below $5000 were nonexistent. We can travel for nearly half a year on that money. Oh well, time to suck it up.
We've met other travelers who have done the trip and without fail they raved about it. Our favorite quote from a few Australian motorcyclists we met in Chile, and one we now repeat to others, is: "I've almost forgotten about the money, but I'll never forget about the trip." It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After all we've been through the past 17 months, we're not going to let pesky things like bank accounts get in the way of realizing one of the ultimate goals of our journey.
So...Antarctica here we come! The seventh content for Jess and Kobus (sixth for me) and hands down one of the best experiences of our lives.
Our adventure began at the port in Ushuaia. The three of us with two other overlanding couples - our old pals Mark and Sarah and two new friends Corsin and Andrea from Switzerland. Lacking suitcases or hiking packs, we took our worldly belongings in our trusty plastic bins, which immediately drew a few curious questions.
Upon boarding the bus that would whisk us safely to the end of the pier and our awaiting ship, Jessica and Kobus informed our fellow passengers that we've been camping 300 nights in the past year and half and we apologize in advance if we smell bad. To say we're in for a bit of a shock (in a good way) is an understatement. Not having to cook for 11 whole days and sleeping every night on a proper mattress...can't hardly wait!
On the way into the port is this sign that reads "English pirates are forbidden to moor". There's still quite a bit of tension surrounding the Falkland Islands - the English aren't highly regarded in this part of the world considering the shellacking they gave the Argentinian military in 1982 and the fact both countries still claim the territory.
At the end of the pier awaits our luxury liner: the Sea Spirit. 114 passengers and around 70 crew make it small for a cruise ship, but that's good. Going to Antarctica isn't like going on a Caribbean cruise. Staff refer to it as "expedition cruising". That means we actually get to go on land every day, and the places we visit are dependant on environmental factors that aren't under the control of the crew. They don't know what we're going to be doing until a couple hours before we do it.
Having a small ship makes all this much easier, disembarking a thousand people twice a day would be a logistical nightmare. Not to mention many of the sites limit the number of people who can be on land every day. Even with just 114 passengers we had to split into two or three groups a couple of times.
Once on board we are given our room keys. Jess and Kobus get a suite to themselves, and after a bit of room shuffling I also get a double suite, all by myself. I think I ended up being the only person on the ship with a single. Beats sharing a room with complete strangers!
Every room on board is a suite, the main difference is the size and whether it has a porthole, window or outside patio. Needless to say the rooms are nicer than any we've stayed in in the past 17 months so it's hard to find any fault with what we've been given.
During our first perusal of the ship we stop by the gym to give ourselves a pre-cruise weigh in. We aren't harboring any delusions that we'll actually make positive improvements to our waistlines in the coming days. This is a contest to see who can gain the most. With unlimited breakfast bacon on the menu, I'm feeling pretty confident about the odds.
At around seven in the evening we pull away from Ushuaia to begin our five hour journey through the Beagel Channel. Then it's into the open water of the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, reportedly one of the roughest bits of ocean on the planet. Like I said, this isn't cruising, it's expedition cruising. You have to work for your unlimited deserts and free drinks.
Shortly after leaving everyone gathers for the mandatory safety drill and to be introduced to the expedition crew - eleven of the most talented, interesting and well-traveled folks I've had the privilege of meeting. A Nobel prize, a doctorate in Martian glaciology and a stint as professional overland truck driver are just a few of the bullet points on these guys' resumes. Aside from keeping us safe, their job is to tell us what we're going to see, take us to the action, and explain everything we encounter along the way.
After introductions and the safety drill we get fitted for rubber boots and a parka. We get to keep the parka, but the penguin poo-ridden boots get returned when the cruise is over.
Sporting our fancy new parkas, Jess and Kobus take in a view of the bridge. Another bonus of the Sea Spirit is that you can check out the pilot's view, meet the captain and chat with the officers any time they aren't busy dodging icebergs or catching some Zs between shifts.
The Drake Passage takes us about a day and a half, and doesn't really get bad until the second night. Swells are a manageable 13 feet, but still keep many passengers bedridden. I practically had the whole tray of breakfast bacon to myself that morning. Operation: Antarctic Weight Gain is in full swing.
We pass the time getting to know the staff and our fellow passengers and watching the sea birds following the ship. Above is shot Jessica got of a wandering albatross skimming the waves. These birds have the longest wingspan of any on earth, up to 12 feet.
During our two days on the Drake Passage various members of the expedition staff hold one hour lectures or workshops on a variety of topics. Sea birds, glaciers, penguins, marine mammals and a photography are all covered. The talks were very informative, but watching the staff dance around while the ship moved all over the place was much more entertaining.
We made excellent time to our first stop in Antarctica - the South Shetland Islands. On board was a contingent of 25 Chinese students and their "supervisors". I put that word in quotes for a reason, most of the time the kids ran rampant around the ship and drove the staff insane. Anyway, because we had this "special" delegation (that word's in quotes for a reason too) and because we were so early, we got to make an unscheduled stop at a Chinese research base called Great Wall. None of the staff had ever been there, so it was a treat for us all.
As the crew scrambled to unload the zodiacs, give us a few last minute briefings and run all of our gear through a sanitation process, we got dressed and excitedly counted the minutes until we'd set foot on Antarctica.
And here she is! Seven continents just days before turning 31. Ouch, I mean 30, no...24.
Apparently they do some sciency stuff on the base, looking at minerals or some such. We obviously opted out of the base tour in favor of joining the group that planned to hike to an elephant seal wallow on the other side of the island. All of this was very impromptu and given the language barrier the staff warned us that it's likely things weren't going to turn out as promised. We didn't care, we were on Antarctica! And we got to stretch our legs after two day aboard a rocking ship.
Shortly after starting our hike we spotted our first penguins! Chinstraps, to be precise. If you can't figure out why they're named that, check out the picture at the top of this post.
I stayed back from the melee once the penguins were sighted. We'd been told we would visit at least three penguin colonies in the coming week and I figured that would more than fill my penguin quota. Instead I took pictures of the silly yellow-jacketed tourists laying in the snow, a much more elusive and endangered species.
The hike was a bit shy of three miles round trip. Mostly over snow and some spots of mud. The staff had a hard time keeping everyone under control and communicating with our Chinese guide. As we'd come to find out, our normal landings consist of following a clearly marked path and don't involve tromping through streams, into thigh-deep snow and over lichens that take 50 years to grow.
Once we got to the other side of the island we were greeted with this spectacular view; a taste of things to come.
And the intensely repulsive smell of these guys - elephant seals. They're fat, noisy and above all else, stinky! Even from our cliff-top vantage point several hundred yards away.
Down below we also caught a glimpse of a few fur seals barking at each other. Occasionally we'd also watch a penguin roll up on shore and head towards the cliff, giving the seals a wide berth.
Not a bad first day on Antarctica. Two species of penguins, two species of seals and a glimpse of what's in store for the coming five days.
Up Next: Penguin poo, leopard seals, icebergs, and landscapes we will never forget.