It had only seemed like I had just arrived home from South America. In reality, it was the start of last year that I had visited the North of Argentina, Chile and ventured into Bolivia. The opportunity to visit a place like South America can never come around quick enough. Although, this time my trip to South America was only the gateway to a journey even more rad (if that’s even possible). This time around I would be stepping off a plane and straight onto snow in the southern most continent of the world, Antarctica.
There’s only so much you can read into a place, only so much people can tell you about a place before you just need to forget about all the chat, open your mind and have a loose idea of what your going to experience and have no preconceptions. Preconceptions are fucked; you’re best to leave them at home. Once you’ve got all your shit together, got your ticket and boarded your flight, just let whatever is going to happen unfold. Doing just that, I cramped myself into my window seat as I waited for the 14hr flight to tick by, leaving the comfortableness of Summer at home, as I flew into the wilds of the end of the world.
I landed in a small tourist town, Punta Arenas, one of those middle ground transitional places you normally pass through before you head onto another destination. Punta Arenas is a hub for people that travel into the Andes Mountains and Antarctica. With the constant filtering of people in and out of the town the locals seem to keep you at an arms length. I think that might have been a little bias at the time, considering it was New Years Eve. Who wants to be stuck behind a desk while the rest of the town are out drinking beers? The locals hid from the wide-eyed tourist during the day and took to the streets at night to watch the fireworks light the early morning sky. I watched the fireworks from the bedroom window, knowing we could have the chance to leave for the most southern continent on the planet at a very early hour of the morning.
The weather down that part of the world changes from minute to minute, so at all times we were prepped to leave. The window of weather we had to fly was short. 3:30am I woke half asleep & half drunk and made my way out the hotel to look for the bus that would get me one step closer to some ice. We loaded onto the bus and made our way to the airport. Boarding the plane for Antarctica was weird. Looking around the plane, everyone was fully dressed in expedition gear, ready for the Antarctic weather. The 70 people I had just glanced at whilst trying to find a seat were the people I’d be sharing close quarters with for the coming days.
The wild seas of the Drake Passage lay underneath us, as we flew from Punta Arenas to Antarctica. Fortunately, flying over the passage saved us three days of huge swells and most likely, well for me anyway, a head in the toilet bowl for three days. Seasickness is the devil. The old refurbished plane, which was built to ferry passengers from South America to Antarctica, rattled through the sky. There was no runway in sight, and what lie beneath was nothing but white. Eventually, a couple of ice stations as well as a strip of rubble/dirt popped up out of nowhere and it became apparent that this would be our landing strip. I thought we were going to skid and slide into the water, but it was weirdly the smoothest landing I had ever experienced, like landing on the beach or something. With no terminal, no gate and no baggage claim we headed straight from the plane onto the snow and ice, where the zodiacs waited to take us to our new icebreaker of a home.
Iceberg after iceberg, seal after seal and penguin after penguin, nothing ever became a sore sight. There is however, the constant dilemma that there’s so much shit happening that you can’t and don’t want to rest. It’s also almost physically impossible to rest in Antarctica, as the sun basically never dips below the horizon. You become stuck in this state of tired excitement for days; it’s a photographers dream and also his nightmare at the same time. There’s just too much to shoot, and when you’re not shooting you feel anxious that you may be letting something pass by your cabin window.
The plan for the crew of the ship was to make it to the polar circle, and conditions were favourable enough for us to reach this invisible line on this particular voyage, the latitude where it never gets dark (66.33.45 south). Most ships don’t get this far south, which meant being the start of the season we had a lot of unexplored water to pass through.
We followed a similar routine most days. Breakfast at 7:30am, gear-up and on the Zodiacs by 9am, back to boat by 12 pm, then back onto the Zodiacs for a second landing at 3pm and, finally, dinner by 7pm. The seas were subdued as we set off from land, heading towards the horizon. Small white dots thought to be icebergs, were seen at a distance and just keep growing and growing. Until you get up close and personal with an iceberg you can’t comprehend the size. The boat that we were sailing on was 73 meters long, and that didn’t compare to some of these icebergs, as the feeling of being insignificant started to creep in and then lingered throughout the remainder of trip. The grandeur of Antarctica is just so overwhelming.
Evenings and early hours of the morning were spent passing through channels, where mountains would tower high above our five-story ship. There were colours and tones that were previously unknown to me until I saw them on those particular mornings. I don’t know if it was a mix of the insomnia and scotch, but the landscape would just constantly change and it was never for worse. The ship pushed on through endless fields of ice and pack ice, which battered the sides of the ship whilst we slept. Every bump of ice we ploughed through made us more and more eager to see what the next day would hold.
As we stepped on land, trudging through the snow, we encountered and spent time with an abundance of wildlife, that were doing the same thing as us, just visiting for the summer months and leaving the winter for dead. This got me thinking of the researchers and scientists that spent years at a time down here, sometimes locked indoors for weeks at time. I’d personally go mad. We stopped at abandoned stations & shacks that were just up and left behind because the conditions were so harsh. The weather conditions of the incoming winter became so apparent when we would visit these shacks as everything had been left unturned. Food, clothing, and equipment had been there for the last 50 years or so, untouched. One doctor living in Antarctica apparently went mad and burnt down one of the stations, avoiding being forced to stay a second season. Shit, I would most likely have done the same thing if I was to be locked indoors, snowed in, knowing that there was no one around for hundreds of kilometres, with only a couple thousand people on the continent itself.
In the end words can’t describe Antarctica, and photographs only give a small insight into what the place is really like and what I actually saw on my journey there. Take from this what you will, but I can tell you now, I probably won’t experience a journey like that again for quite some time. As a final gift, on our trip back to land, a pod of humpback whales swam round the boat for the majority of the steam home. Antarctica, shit that place is cool. The juice is definitely worth a squeeze.