Day 3-4 The First Landing
After two days at sea the world around us began to change. The ferocious waves and gales gradually gave way to calm seas where legions of ice floes began appearing out of the mist, like battleships forming ranks before us. This calmness can be lethally deceptive of course, as Shackleton found out almost a century ago.
On the 19 of January 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship The Endurance became trapped in the vice-like grip of pack ice in Weddell Sea. The 28 men aboard endured (pun intended) the most hellish conditions on earth for 32 months before the last of them were rescued from Elephant Island on the 25 of August 1917. Considering that January is supposed to be an ideal time to visit Antarctica, his misfortune speaks volumes about this continent’s unpredictability.
As luck would have it, we enjoyed near perfect conditions as we approached South Shetland Islands, our first stop on the itinerary. The ship anchored off-shore, inflatable zodiac were lowered into the water and boarding them in groups of 8 to 10, we headed for land. Our zodiac was piloted by a Russian named Vlad. He had pale, piercing eyes and wore a 3-day beard like any good, tough outdoorsy Russian you’ve ever seen. A skilled photographer, he also possessed a keen eye for spotting wildlife.
The sea that day was a pool of silver. Every now and then, Vlad would kill off the outboard engines and let an instance of fragile silence carry us gently past floating ice sculptures. The Crab-eater and Antarctic fur seals lifted their heads lazily as we passed their icy refuges, a look of disbelief pasted on their faces as if they could not quite believe our sudden appearance.
I wondered if we were any more than mere apparitions to them, a passing dream. I had the strongest feeling that during those fleeting moments, a window between two parallel worlds had opened up, exposing the beauty and wonder of Antarctic world to a few trespassers.
We made our landing at Aitcho, a minor group of islands located on the western side of the Shetland Islands. Colonies of Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins witnessed our arrival with little interest. Some were still moulting, their bodies covered in a patchy fluff, like an old, moth-eaten fur coat. Moulting, we were told, made them quite edgy and so we gave them plenty of space. Within minutes of landing, of course,tripods were set up, GoPros started filming and cameras began firing away in a mad dash to immortalise what laid before us on our screens and memory cards.
The next day, we sailed further south still, toward the Antarctic Peninsula. Damoy Point, a picturesque headland covered in a substantial mat of fresh snow, was our next destination. Once there, we climbed gently for a couple of hundred meters to the top of a ridge from where one had a commanding view of the surrounding bay.
I was the first one to tackle the climb, and so on the way up, I allowed myself to believe I was the first person to set foot on this hill. In those few brief moments before the others joined me, I sat on the brow of the ridge and glanced in silence at the formidable Mount Francais rising from the mist to my left. To my right laid the bay, icebergs sprinkled across it like sail boats in a vast harbour.
A small wooden hut stood in the middle distance. Damoy Point hut was built in 1973 and was in use as a scientific base by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) until its closure in 1993. Nowadays, it serves as a make-shift museum during summer for the intrepid travellers keen to know more about the area’s history and the scientific work which took place there.
Unfortunately, its staff had left the hut only a few days earlier and we did the same soon after, heading back to the warmth of our ship and leaving the hut, as it were, to face the desolate, dark winter all on its own.