Antarctica. The only place left on the planet reserved, under an international treaty, for science and exploration only. A utopia of sorts.
And, after 28 years of travel, hands down the location of my all-time favourite trip ever.
I went expecting to be the only person under 40 – a situation my travel agency had prepared me for – and so I packed plenty of books, a stockpile of patience, and boarded the ship eagerly anticipating some solo time with the icebergs.
Little did I know that by some strange stroke of luck, I would share my 10-day voyage almost surgically attached to a gaggle of four fellow lone travellers, all American males, all in their 20s, for almost every waking hour.
The combination of these humans, plus the hugely entertaining expedition crew, plus the penguins, plus the seals, plus all the ill-advised but well-received booze, plus the total detachment from the internet and thus the rest of the world, PLUS the icebergs… formed to create an experience that was nothing short of earth-shattering.
It’s probably best I start by introducing the cast of characters.
Ruda: Eccentric and dazzlingly bright New York-based entrepreneur of Indian decent, with a penchant for obscure sex-related humour and with an equal appreciation for restraint (7-hour yoga marathons, meditation, fasting) and excess (raves, six-course meal orders, reckless consumption of alcohol).
Steven: Wholesome personal trainer slash trapeze performer slash Ben Affleck-lookalike from San Diego who laughs a lot at all the right moments and has excellent taste in hats; and who just managed to reach all 7 continents before his 30th birthday, which was on day three of the cruise.
Andrew: Extremely witty ex-marine with a bear-like gait and a deep voice, who could always be counted upon to keep morale high, however prickly the hangover, and who was very adept at keeping the in-jokes alive on an hourly basis.
Bill: Giggly, animated Atlanta-native of Chinese decent who possesses no inner-speech and is therefore hilarious all the time. Bill’s job has something to do with technology, which he appears to be very good at, and he says ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah’ a lot.
THE ORBITING CLAN
Raechel and Frenchy: Warm, charming, funny newlyweds from Austin, Texas, who were on their honeymoon, and who we shared 32 mealtimes with. The rest of the time they were probably shagging.
KEY ORBITING STAFF
Geology Bob: Sparky, delightfully un-nerdy Colorado-based geologist who is good at swearing and who somehow manages to make the topic of rocks and glaciers not-boring. Wears black-rimmed glasses, one earring, would make an ideal character in Jurassic Park.
Dashing Daniel: Lanky, quick-witted Australian expedition leader who handled kayaking and camping. Shock of wavy dark hair, dimples, gap-toothed, would make an ideal character in Great Expectations.
Captain Hannah: The leader of the whole ship (but not actually the captain). British, poised, headmistress-like, with a deadpan sense of humour that developed gradually throughout the trip in the most English of ways. Would make an ideal character in Harry Potter.
It all started in Ushuaia, which is the southern-most city in the world, and where all the Antartica-bound ships must leave from.
I was very tired indeed, having spent the last 48 hours in transit, so spent the entire day wandering alone and listless around the quaint shops until I found a restaurant which reminded me of a ski chalet. For this reason alone, I staggered inside. The owner was very friendly and allocated me a good spot, some good food, and some very good wine.
Finally, around 4pm, it was time to board the ship (Sea Explorer I – sort of a small, 80s version of James Cameron’s Titanic), up the rope gangway and past the line of grinning, uniform-clad crew into the lounge – somewhere I would soon come to know very well.
Around 100 passengers filed in, mostly in pairs, mostly over the age of 40, as I perched myself on a chair and sipped my champagne.
“Are you travelling alone?” enquired a stranger (Ruda) from across the room.
Ruda is a man who wastes no time. He’d already rounded up the three other same-aged lone rangers on the ship (Steven, Bill and Andrew) and they had already established their corner of the room (front left cluster of padded chairs).
“Yes,” I respond blearily.
“Come join,” he states, so I do. And from that moment on, less than half an hour into our maritime voyage, these yanks form my family.
To get from Ushuaia to the Antarctic peninsula, you have to cross a wedge of ocean called the Drake Passage, which takes two days both there and back, and is notorious for being the most tempestuous wedge of ocean in the world.
All the furniture on the ship, therefore, is chained to the floor, and if you leave anything at all out on counters or desks, it will inevitably go flying across the room. This sort of drama is what I live for.
During our crossing, the waves tipped five metres, which is pretty mild, but enough to render most of the 100 souls on board bed-bound for the entire two days, sedated with seasickness.
I am blessed in that I don’t get seasick at all, not even a bit, ever. Because of all the other ways in which I am pathetic and wimpy, this unlikely resilience made me feel like a Superior Human Being.
So I turned into an annoying twat and talked at length to whoever would listen about how totally fine I felt, and how I wished it would get even rougher, because the ‘drake shake’ is so much fun.
And if you are one of the few who happen to be impervious to seasickness, it really is fun.
You get to march along the deserted passageways as the ship is flung from side to side, and every time a major wave hits, it sounds like a bomb and you shoot into the air and momentarily achieve zero gravity, like an astronaut.
On day three, we bid the Drake goodbye and thundered defiantly into clear, calm waters.
Passengers started emerging from the belly of the ship, rubbing their eyes and clutching their cameras, gazing out as we slid past an increasing concentration of majestic icebergs.
And herein, the real fun began… PART II.