Destination = King George Island, Chilean Antarctic -
This lounge is the first chance I’ve had to sit and be peaceful in the day. The first waking was 4am, which was meant to be our rising time to catch a flight at 7am. The desk clerk thoughtfully gave the wake-up call, only to explain that the weather was too bad, and go back to sleep.
It’s always dependent on weather when flying from Puenta Arenas to King George Island. Oh, that Antarctica and her moods!
At breakfast at 7.30, we were told to go have a wander around town but be back at 11am because we might be in with a chance to fly then. So I dutifully wander around the town, check out the souvenirs, and buy a purple fleece beanie in the shape of a whale’s tail. Little did I think at the time that Antarctic winds would whip the tail around in irritating fashion, and nearly tear the beanie off my head one particularly gusty morning.
At lunch, we are told we are good to go.
“You MUST dress for Antarctic conditions here at the hotel. There is NO PLACE to change on the plane. King George Island IS Antarctica.”
The sun is shining in Puenta Arenas. The bus to the small airport is warm. I am wearing: thin woollen socks, thick woollen socks, big black thermal boots that are nearly half the size again of my feet, silk thermal leggings and long-sleeved top, tracksuit pants, shirt, splash pants,parka, neck gaiter, beanie.
On the bus, everyone starts stripping off like it’s an Olympic event. The Israeli group are several sheets to the wind with vodka and don’t care. They are here to par-tay no matter what. It seems every day there is a birthday within the group.
Several American women are wearing their regular clothes and have announced they will change on the plane in the toilet. They will not overheat for anyone, thank you. Our two oldest Americans are also the fittest people on board, apart from the Japanese seventeen year old who body builds. The Americans have walking poles, and FitBits.
We are herded through security and asked to wait in a glassed-in area for our plane to be ready. More stripping off, as we all swelter, and eat junk food from vending machines, and peruse the souvenir shop. There is much chocolate buying. Who knows what conditions will be like on board our ship? We have been told there is no food to buy aboard. It’s a Russian ice-breaker. It could be Russian Cold War rations at every meal for all we know. Hit those airport shops, you tourists! Panic now, not later!
We are all limited to 15kg of luggage each. This has caused much consternation, as our luggage is weighed at the hotel, and again at the airport. The plane can only take so much weight.
There are some comments about the elastic concept of 15kg. I am silently proud that my luggage is 12kg, and that I’m not even wearing all my underwear and socks at once.
We walk across the tarmac and board the plane. The woman ringleader of the Israelis, all dressed in white, with long blonde hair, and perfect make up and skin, stretches out like a pin-up across three seats. She will not move for anyone.
She is told to share the seats. She will not. She tosses her hair and pretends not to speak English. She is beautiful and deserves three seats to herself.
We crowd aboard and the plane fills up. Two people stand in the aisle looking daggers at her. There is nowhere else to sit. Finally, the man motions to sit on her legs. She shifts, and stares stony-faced out of the window for the entire flight. How does she not break a sweat in the close confines?
There is a long queue for the single toilet. The scantily-clad Americans are now going to suit up. Everyone who has had a cup of tea or coffee today wants to wee. The couple in front of me are discussing whether or not to use their portable enema kits now, just in case the toilets on board the ship are revolting and they will immediately seize up in horror.
By all means, take all the time you need on a 90 minute flight to give yourselves enemas while everyone else wants to use the toilet.
We are above copious white cloud and below is dark ocean studded with icebergs. The sun is roaring down on us through the ozone layer holes. Cold holds us from underneath. I watch the clouds skim by, and count icebergs through the breaks. My dream: Antarctica. I’m really going there.
We come in to land on the bleak island of King George. We are using a Chilean base. We are given strict instructions not to wander off. It’s a military base. No mucking about or instant arrest. No kidding, no second chances, no photos.
We pile out onto the tarmac and it’s a two kilometre walk through the Chilean base and down to the shore. The further we get from the actual base, the more cameras come out. The ubiquitous pole with mileage to various cities around the globe is a focal point. We take our turns posing, pointing to all places north. I have a photo of me pointing vaguely towards Melbourne, and one pointing straight up. Beam me up, Scotty.
There are a small group of Adelie penguins. We take happy snaps as though we’ve never seen an animal before and never will again. Our first Antarctic penguins. Oh my! They are disinterested in us, and busy waddling from spot to spot.
At the shore is a flock of Zodiacs, the inflatable rafts that will take us out to the ship, which is anchored off-shore. I feel all wild and photo-journalist National Geographic tough. Look at me getting into a Zodiac like a real trail blazer. I try to ignore the two crew members who take my arms like I’m a goddamned old lady and help me aboard. I try to ignore that without them, my legs are too damned short and I can’t hoike my leg up high enough to straddle the bow and get in. I try to ignore The Excellent Husband taking my hand once I’m in and patting a seat beside him.
I pray I don’t get seasick. I am full of ginger tablets and want another wee desperately but there is no lowering of trousers(three sets) and widdling anywhere in Antarctica. This trip will be an exercise in ‘stop drinking green tea by the gallon’ and ‘hold your water or pee your pants’.
The Zodiac skims over the water and we are escorted through a hatch into the ship. Our luggage will be brought to our cabin doors. There is a briefing and safety lecture at 3pm. Be there in the upper lounge.
And I am. The lounge is a glassed-in deck with full bar, food almost constantly on tap, and plenty of comfy chairs. I grab one near a window and we get underway while the lecture is in progress. I dream my way through it as I inhale the scenery. Dark grey water studded with icebergs, snow-frozen landscape, and there, whales surfacing and diving, heading north.
I feel surreal. I have dreamed of this trip all my life, and now it’s happening. I am on an ice-breaker, heading south along the Antarctic Peninsula. I am safe and warm, preserved within glass, while vibrant life goes on in the ocean around me. I let my tension go and sink in the chair. I watch the whales. I am probably the only person not taking photos.
Antarctica, come sing to me of cold, ice, and your fiery heart deep below.
Photo: Places on Poles - King George Island, Chilean Antarctic _ Helen Patrice