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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How (and why) To Go To Antarctica!

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Why should we go to Antarctica?

Click on a travel website, and they shall tell you ‘for the Emperor Penguins, for the icy glaciers, for the stark and pristine landscape, and for its virgin nature.’ But could that be the only reason why we want to visit a land, where the weather can change in a matter of seconds, where visibility can reduce so drastically that you might not see your hand ahead of you, where the snow can bite through every layer of cloth and cut into your skin as would a knife.

In 1773, Captain James Cook and his brave crew became the first men to cross the Antarctic Circle. In 1820, a sailor claimed to have “seen Antarctica” from his ship afar, and 20 years later, Frenchman Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville became the first person to set foot on Antarctica.

So wrote Ernest Shackleton in a newspaper ad, as he prepared for a journey to Antartica in 1907, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

In his quest to reach the South Pole, Shackleton used ponies instead of traditional dogs. He pioneered a new route along Great Beardmore Glacier and crossed previously unexplored latitudes. However, the journey was full of suffering and as one pony fell after another, the expedition threatened to be a death march. With just 97 miles left to the South Pole, for the safety of his men,Shackleton had to take the extremely difficult decision to turn back. When his wife asked him, later, why he returned when he was so close to the Pole, he replied,

My dear, I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion

One of the greatest of human expeditions then happened in 1911 when Robert Scott and Amundsen set out on a race to see who could reach the South Pole first. In this case, the word ‘race’ must be looked at very differently though.

They tramped and they trudged through blizzards, through deteriorating health, through snowstorms, and through hell. As they lumbered and fevered, some gave up and returned, while some died. When Scott finally reached the pole, Amundsen’s Norwegian flag had already been fluttering there for five weeks. While returning, Scott and all his four companions died of the bitter cold, frostbites, snow blindness and an unimaginable physically painful exhaustion.

Scott’s last diary entry puts the journey in perspective – “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”

Exactly a 100 years later, in 2011, there were 26,509 visitors to Antarctica.

Pic Credits: Bryn Jones
No longer does the world have to set sail for this continent from England or Norway, as once upon a time did those brave men called Scott and Amundsen. Today, it is not rocket science to figure out what is the best way to go to Antarctica. The world has been charted out. Open a map, and the countries that lie closest to it are Argentina and Chile (in South America), South Africa, and the Oceanic nations of Australia and New Zealand.

The most popular (also least expensive) route to reach Antarctica is to take a cruise from Ushuaia, a small city on the southern tip of Argentina. Travelling from New Zealand is more expensive, whereas the number of cruises from Cape Town (South Africa) are still very few.

The regular price for a 11 day cruise ship tour of Antarctica can vary from USD 3000 to 4000 (INR 1.7 – 2.2 Lakhs) during the off season, to USD 5000 during peak season. There are longer 3 week itinerary tours available too

But do note that itineraries can change even in the middle of a trip, depending upon the weather. In the world’s last discovered continent, it takes merely moments for a calm breeze to change into a blizzard. If one is terribly unlucky, you will not be able to make a landing even once during the trip (There is no ‘good season’ to travel to Antarctica but February – March and November – December are the favoured months)

In Antarctica what apears to be heaven one day could be hell the next. The landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful. Chillingly terrifying too.

 For you can be covered in layers and layers , but you shall still never be warm . For it might be the best place in the world to take photographs, but in the blistering cold you shall refuse to touch that camera. Every gust of wind that hit your cheeks might feel like a hundred needles. Every step you take on land, you shall be aware of your foot, your pounding heartbeat and your heaving breath. How much closer can one get to absolutely living in the moment?

Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, the assistant zoologist, in Scott's ill fated expedition to the Pole, wrote a book soon after the survivors returned to their country. As he writes of minus 70 degree temperatures, howling winds, deep crevasses, endless darkness and hopelessness, one can only imagine the incredible suffering these men went through. As wrote a modern reader in his Goodreads review, 'The sufferings heaped on the members of Scott’s second polar expedition make the ordinary misfortunes of modern life –- the fender-benders, hangovers and breakups –- seem like pleasant diversions. There are passages in this amazing memoir where the reader, appalled, begins to suspect that these men were collaborating on a metaphysically refined form of self-destruction'

In 2001, National Geographic published a list of the 'The 100 Best Adventure Books of All Time'. Cherry-Gerrard's book was ranked one. It's name?

'The Worst Journey in the World'

Which brings me back to my question. Why would we visit Antarctica?

The answer lies in our souls. For the human race shall always pursue, and bless it for that, the  unfamiliar, the unexplored, the unknown and the inaccessible. When Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Hillary, Cook, Colombus walked into the unknown, they knew they were putting their lives at stake, , that they may not return, yet the unquenching thirst for knowledge, the spirit to conquer the unknown, the thrill to discover drove them. And it is because of these burning, unshakable elements in the human spirit that they created history, and made it easier for others who followed, eventually opening the gates of tourism to all that had once seemed unreachable.

Today, we, the tourists, the travellers might not be able to match Scott and his likes in their bravery, but we must recognize their sacrifices. It might be much easier for us to walk on the trails that they so wearily chalked out, but some of those elements that resided in Scott's heart stay in us too – we are as fascinated by what is foreboding just as Scott was, we want to see a penguin in the wild too, we want to be the first among all our friends to see the southernmost country in the world. We are no different from Eve – we want to eat the apple too. We are, but human.

Pic Credits: Bryn Jones

From 1953 to 2000, in forty seven years, less than 700 people had climbed Everest, and in the ten years after that, over 2500 people (most of them with the dozens of guided tour operator groups that now operate in the mountains of Nepal) reached the top. Seems like a horde, doesn’t it? Seems wrong, doesn't it? Are we sullying, defiling lands that were meant to stay in a particular manner? Today Ladakh, Greenland, Antarctica all seem to be pristine and pure. They might not be so in twenty years from now. So, should we go there?

In the words of Jean-Baptiste Charcot,

Why then do we feel this strange attraction for these polar regions, a feeling so powerful and lasting, that when we return home we forget the mental and physical hardships, and want nothing more than to return to them? Why are we so susceptible to the charm of these landscapes when they are so empty and terrifying?”

Pic Credits: Bryn Jones

                                                         ------ The End -----

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