Where to : ANTARCTICA
Cost : 8000 USD for cruise on triple sharing basis + 2500 USD for round trip tickets from India
Season : October to March (My trip was from 14th -25th Dec 2017).
Awesomeness factor : Out of the stratosphere !
So here I am waiting at Netaji Subhas Intl. Airport, Kolkata to take on my flight to Mumbai which is delayed by more than an hour. Consequently, it leaves me with just 3 hours to clear the anaconda length queues at Mumbai immigration. I hurry through the issuing of boarding pass (for Emirates a separate team cross-checks your documents for Latin American countries, so this takes about additional 15 more minutes). I tried for a business class upgrade but the flight from Mumbai to Dubai and Dubai to Buenos Aires was completely booked (even first class!). I reached Dubai and transited through Terminal 3 and took my connecting flight EK-247 to Buenos Aires. The accomplishment in this is I travelled for nearly 20 hours in Economy class – yes you read that right, 20 hours. I consumed 90 ml of 2 Baileys Irish Cream, 3 Jack Daniels and 2 JW Red Label. Additionally, to quench my thirst and ease my tooth pain I consumed 4 small bottles of white wine (unfortunately none of them were Chardonnay which is my choice for wine). Well yeah, I can drink!
Needless to say, Emirates Economy class is pretty good in terms of seating comfort, seat pitch and leg space (Business and First Class enjoy hot meals ala-carte). The best thing is one can get a 200 ml bottle of Moet and Chandon on the flight for just 20 USD! Liquors include JW Red Label, Jack Daniels, Bacardi, Budweiser, Heineken, Baileys Irish cream and an unlimited supply of packaged fruit juices. Overall it was an enjoyable experience with Emirates. Their staff is extremely courteous and try to accommodate the passenger’s needs to the maximum extent possible.
After I reach Buenos Aires International Airport, I tried to reschedule my flight to Ushuaia for one day later but unfortunately due to some technical issues it could not be done. I spent the night at the BA- EZE airport. Located on the 1st floor of Terminal A is a nice carpeted area where people sleep and rest and also the window ledges are a nice place for a nap. But it gets cold inside the terminal so make sure you have a jacket or pullover to cover yourself. The security does not seem to mind the waiting passengers who lie down, sleep or chat - what a nice gesture by the airport authorities! Had an empenada and 2 beers for dinner and went on to sleep on one of the window ledges. The Aerolinas Argentinas departure is from Terminal C which is approximately 100 metres from Terminal A (however, LAN and Iberia have their departures from Terminal A itself). Seamless transition, boarding and thereafter landing in Ushuaia - the southernmost town in this world. The temperature was around 9 degC and it was windy. Had to take out my jacket immediately before I let the cold get the better of me.
I booked my accommodation at Yakush Hostel which is a decent resting place for weary travellers and offers the basic level of hygienic accommodation at good prices. The wi-fi connection was disturbed but still served the purpose. I went around town in the evening basking in the sunlight and cold winds, but was overpowered by the tiredness of the 36 hours of travelling. Came back and slept around 7 to wake-up at 5 the next morning. I went for a short stroll and ended up having breakfast in a nightclub! Its serious, the nightclubs stay open till 7 a.m - just Argentinian things.
A lazy start to a really good weather day. Bright sunshine and white puffy clouds in the sky, best enjoyed with a cup of coffee and hearty breakfast. I could only manage the former. I went around town trying to find something interesting to shoot, but as is usual with touristy places, it was crowded everywhere. I reached the Arakur resort at 14:00 hrs which was part of a complimentary one night stay arranged by Poseidon Expeditions (a very reputed tour company which organises polar cruises). Opulence galore and with state of the art facilities, it is undoubtedly one of the best properties I have stayed at. Many hotels boast about having infinity pools, but this one has an infinity jacuzzi! They just upped their game by many notches in a building an infinity jacuzzi with a view of the mountains and the Beagle channel. A complete game-changer and a sight to behold coupled with an experience to die for. The winds were so hard that my slippers and bath robe blew off the cliff, but I went back the next day to retrieve them and I did so successfully. The evening was spent having dinner with a lovely American couple and my room partner Rahul Jagtiani who is a very successful entrepreneur. Be sure to follow his travel show ‘Plush places with Rahul Jagtiani’.
The day started with a briefing lecture by Guadalupe Aguirre from Poseidon Expeditions in the hotel and was followed by a hearty breakfast. The excitement of boarding the cruise was marred by a bit when I spilled some beer on my laptop keyboard. Had a hard time fixing it, but nonetheless managed to get it back on only to discover that the Wi-fi was not working and the MacBook would not start without getting the power through the cable (battery had gone kaput). But I didn’t rack my brains much into that and went ahead to board the ship. Wow, the dream was really happening and shit just got real! The opening session on board was one of a formal introduction to the ship, its layout and facilities, introduction of the crew members who would be in touch with us and the emergency evacuation procedure drill. The crew members were extremely knowledgeable and humble people and always ready to help. After the briefing session, a few room changes took place and I was upgraded to a double room. To my utter surprise, my cabin mate was one of the crew members, Artem who was a historian from Russia (Siberia). He had wonderful knowledge and did the North Pole earlier in 2017 which basically means he was doing Antarctica and North Pole in one calendar year. Talk about accomplishment, well here is some! Turns out he is a polyglot who can speak English, Russian, Chinese, German and Spanish.
So we sailed from the port of Ushuaia towards Antarctica with the weather forecast of the Drake passage indicating calm and pleasant weather, making sure that we hit the Drake Lake and not the Drake shake! Dinner was served early at 7:30 p.m comprising of some very delectable dishes. Post dinner, distribution of the parkas and the Wellington boots was carried out and we retired for the night with our hearts brimming with excitement. The small bottle of Chinas Regal 18 years kept me warm and gave me company for the night.
The day unfolded pretty badly with everyone feeling nausea and butterflies in their stomach due to the sea sickness syndromes. Even though we were on a relatively smooth Drake, but still most of us were not prepared to handle the effects arising out of the motion of the ship on the waves. I had a light breakfast and spent most of the day lying on my bed till I decided to head for some fresh air on the balcony in the afternoon. Breathing in some fresh air definitely helps as it made me feel much better and for the first time in the entire day I had a smile on my face. I contemplated taking a dip in the jacuzzi too, but refrained from it as it was really sunny outside and I didn’t want to look like a barbecued steak. Went to the bridge and voila, I find a handsome Punjabi crew member by the name of Vishal. We had a wonderful chat and later that night I met up with an Indian chef (Anthony) on board. He made a count of all the Indians on board and delightfully agreed to serve us some delectable Indian cuisine. Within an hour, we had triple the head count for Indian dishes than we had normally estimated! The power Indian food holds in unifying food lovers is unparalleled to any other cuisine. I went to sleep after a light dinner. Just after the dinner, the captain announced that we had officially entered the Antarctic waters! Woohoo …. And tomorrow we were all ready to set foot on the Antarctic land.
Woke up feeling much better and after a quick dancing shower (because of the bumpy ride), I headed for breakfast. Had my customary bowl of yoghurt and muesli along with scrambled egg burritos (the Chef’s special). Post breakfast we had a mandatory briefing session about the IAATO guidelines which gave us a good comprehensive outlook on responsible human behaviour on the Antarctic land to preserve the wildlife and the natural vegetation. A lecture on penguins was scheduled thereafter but I skipped it to photograph some albatrosses from the ship’s deck. Lunch was to be served early because we had to make a landing right after it. We halted and took off on the Zodiacs in groups of 10 to H.O Island which was one of the best locations to catch up with the hatching of penguin eggs. As we approached the island, the stink of the penguin poop shot right through our noses sharper than the smell of vinegar but after 15-20 minutes we got acclimatised.
The route to be followed was made clear with red markers and expedition members from PE along with those. Seeing penguins for the first time was such a surreal experience that it can never be expressed in words. The puffy little animals waddling and running around, sometimes shrieking, playfully nudging each other and falling over is one of the most hilarious sights in the entire wildlife regime. We stayed there for 2 hours and photographed them to our heart’s content. Some were very curious and came up close to catch a good look at all the red jacketed PE adventurers. There was another group who went kayaking and got around the island to see some penguins bobbing up and down in the water. We returned to our boat and were greeted with a warm towel and a hot cup of tea. Ahh, pure bliss!
Later in the evening, we had a briefing session on the following day’s activities and post dinner we made a landing at Deception Island. It had the broken remains of a whaling station from the bygone years. Rustic old iron structures against a backdrop of snow capped mountains with their contours highlighted by the setting sun was more than a reason to sit back and contemplate on life and existence. I took some shots with my wide angle lens. But the icing on the cake was to hear a sleeping seal snore like a human! I died laughing at that. We made our way back to the ship to be greeted by some hot goulash on the aft deck.
The day unfolded from the early hours in a rather dramatic manner with icebergs all around the ship, albeit small in size. After an early breakfast we headed out to make a landing on Mikkelsen Harbour. Its a very pristine location with a Gentoo penguin colony and a bright red wooden house which used to be an emergency rescue room sometime in the past. Ample opportunities for taking close-up shots of penguins and seals. Crossing over to the other side of the snow, there were remains of a broken boat and whale bones which made up for an interesting composition for landscape wide angle shots.
The day was nice and bright with some clouds at a distance. A few whale sightings were also done afar and we heard a few gun firing shots. We came to know that it was the sound of icebergs cracking! We were hopeful to catch a few dropping into the ocean breaking off from the landmass, but luck didn’t favour us. We headed back to the boat for a quick lunch and were all set to make our next landing for Cierva Cove. The Cierva Cove viewing was a zodiac tour which lasted around 1.5 hours and I got to take some real cool shots of the massive blocks of Icebergs. Years of compaction had created a density difference which was reflected from the blue colours in the crevices of the icebergs. A few were breaking up, which was indicated by the echoes of gun-shot noises in the vast infinity. The best part was pulling on board a crystal clear piece of ice weighing nearly 10 kilos and taking it on board to drink some cocktails infused with ice from the belly of the Antarctic peninsula! What a moment for everyone on board.
Once back on the ship we were greeted with some waffles and ice-cream - pure bliss! Dinner was served early at 6:30 p.m (with some nice Indian fish curry and aloo chokha) since we were scheduled to make another landing at Portal Point. Portal point was a piece of land covered with ice and was surrounded with broken glaciers on all sides. A group of campers went on to one side for digging the holes in the ground with their shovels and preparing for the night while the others went on a small hike to the topmost point of the landmass to get some spectacular views. The snow was soft and we were sinking in knee deep into the snow quite frequently. I managed to get some spectacular wide-angle shots and was left mesmerised at the sheer magnanimity of the Antarctic peninsula. What a place!