The relaxed nature of the voyage didn’t diminish in the slightest the sense of achievement that came from setting foot on the most remote and desolate of the seven continents, and swimming there. While the ship that took us down to the Antarctic wasn’t some five star luxury liner — it was an old converted car ferry, actually — it’s safe to say that the price of the expedition was the most uncomfortable aspect of it and even with that I lucked out and had a full double suite to myself. So by a loner’s measure of worth even the price, for what I had, wasn’t too bad. And the food? Many fellow expeditioneers boarded the ship with little expectation for the meal service, but everyone left surprised and pleased and stuffed. Even the late spring weather co-operated, bringing a lot of sunshine and (relatively) calm seas for the infamous Drake crossing. We had a BBQ on deck as we passed through the Lemaire Channel. In short: it was a comfortable trip.
The real highlight, of course, was the time spent off ship. The expedition, in very clear terms, didn’t promise or guarantee anything in regards to landfall as everything was dependent on weather and ice, but the conditions were so good for us we managed to make each and every one of our two daily attempted landings along the peninsula plus an extra one on Aitcho Island after the initial Drake Crossing. We were 13 out of 13. The expedition team made it a point to mention that only 10% of these trips make all landings and that, on the other end of the spectrum, 10% don’t make any at all. As with everything else on this trip fortune was smiling on me.
These landings, aboard durable Zodiacs, were two to three hour long excursions so we’d spend upwards of four to six hours a day trudging in knee deep snow and penguin shit. That was considerably more than than the quick, light outings on to shore and back that I expected. Those alone would have been worth the trip, but to be able to stake out a spot and sit down and watch a penguin colony alone for over an hour straight or to go for a long hike up a mountain was amazing. It really let you absorb the sounds and motions of that distant continent and sometimes in relative seclusion.
The fourteenth landing stood out above all. It was the least guaranteed and the most limited of all, restricted to those that booked months in advance and only the first twenty (out of the ship’s capacity of about 110.) I was one of the twenty. We waited, hopeful, for a green light from the crew on the 17th of December, the one and only time this was possible. The weather was good enough to warrant excitement but, still, none of the previous expeditions had managed to do it and conditions were always so variable down there. We hoped we’d be the first group of the season and, just before dinner’s dessert, the announcement came: everything was good and we had a few minutes to get ready, meet up in the mud room, and prepare to go ashore and spend the night on the Antarctic. We eagerly left the dining room past the jealous looks of the other passengers and, aboard two Zodiacs, we set off for Damoy Point. It was already late in the evening.
On the snow we were briefed, paired up, assigned a spot for our tents, and given a shovel. I hadn’t so much as touched a tent in eleven years and here I was about to set one up on the fucking Antarctic. It was surreal. The tents needed level ground and, more importantly, protection from any possible katabatic winds that might roll down the mountain over night so the first priority was to dig out, essentially, little forts in the snow for them. While it was calm and warm by Antarctic standards the last thing you want to experience on this continent is a cold, bitter wind. You have to prepare for all conditions and that includes the camp site. No one said that such a night would be easy, but lucky for us there were remnants of a previous campsite, with somewhat pre-dug holes, from a British maintenance crew’s past stay. They had been there to spruce up and clean up the nearby historic British refuge hut so their trace remnants made the digging light and all our tents were up and ready in little time. I had no desire to use mine.
Because of ever shifting work commitments and finances — the nature of being self-employed — I was unable to go on a hoped-for trip to the Yukon’s arctic circle for the summer solstice. Something about the idea of the midnight sun always fascinated me and when I was informed that Gap Adventures’ Antarctic expeditions were on sale that summer I knew this was my second-chance opportunity. I booked it for as close to the austral summer solstice as possible. I knew we’d be fairly south by that date and with my normal nocturnal tendencies I figured that I would stay up late, bundle up, and watch the midnight sun from the comforts of the ship’s deck. When the camping option was announced several months later I knew I had a chance to enjoy that night on land, away from the ship’s distracting lights. I pounced on the option in a heartbeat.
Back on Damoy Point at around midnight, with the low sun shining the most amazing orange light I’ve ever seen (and made all the more beautiful by the white canvas that was the local mountains), we were free to wander around and explore. To the south was a large hill from which you could get a good vantage point, to the east was the ice covered inlet where we landed, nearby were two refuge huts, and further north there were a few scattered and small Gentoo Penguin colonies. The closest refuge hut was an Argentinian shack, painted bright red, that stood out in the white landscape like a dream. It was locked and restricted. The second, a freshly painted green shack, was an accessible historic site with all sorts of interesting ephemera. There were bottles of liquor with written notices to replace anything sampled and requests to leave new bottles. A log book for all visitors to sign whose last entry was from a ship that had to be rescued and towed into Ushuaia’s harbour due to a really bad storm that barreled through the cape a couple days before we departed. Various rations and canned foods (labeled “MANFOOD”) and a hand-made Monopoly clone and maps and books, a large central table, and bare-bone bunk beds in the back room. It wasn’t the a four star hotel but if I were to be stranded on the Antarctic for weeks I wouldn’t have minded being protected from the elements in there.
The two guides went to sleep early, one in an open ditch in the snow with a blanket and the other in a dug out cave in the pile of snow above the water and rocks of the landing site. That was too hardcore for the rest of us who, apart from a few sticking within their tents, were left to our own devices. I went to watch the penguins. There was a novelty to it at Damoy due to the late hour as the colonies were quieter places than on previous landings. The occasional penguin chirp would still ring out through the night, but most penguins were out of the water, resting or sleeping. Some slept on their bellies and some slept standing up with their heads tilted to the side. It was a sight you wouldn’t have been able to see during the avian hustle and bustle of the normal morning and afternoon excursions.
It started to get darker after one in the morning as the sun dipped to its lowest point below the horizon and some darker clouds rolled in. The winds remained light but the greyer skies and prolonged exposure started to make things feel a lot colder. I dug out, from one of my inside pockets, my cell phone and switched on the GPS sensor and started the runkeeper application so that I can at least have a record of the exact location and, more so, a really, really far-out place in my runkeeper activity log. I let it run for a half hour which covered nothing more than a short half kilometre walk, to the western overlook from which you could see the anchored ship and back. The activity is public.
A short while later I headed back towards the refuge hut after seeing, from the distance, one of the campers make some unusual gestures and a bunch of others amass there. After the trudge through the snow to the hut I entered to find half the group along the big wooden table with a bunch of cheap plastic cups about to open a bottle of wine. It was, by all intents and purposes, illicit wine: bringing food and drink onto the continent is forbidden for all excursions. That has its reasons and I don’t mean to belittle them but from the confines of that hut nothing was getting out to where a bird could reach and it was, above all else, a moment, a scene, and a location most deserving of a toast and I’m glad that someone had the foresight, and the gall, to smuggle a bottle of wine and a bunch of cups in their pack for that to happen.
These late hours are when the portable toilet–just as nothing is to be brought onto the continent, nothing is to be left there either–sitting out in the open, exposed to everything, was most used. The awkwardness of it being so exposed was secondary to the pains of getting through all the winter gear we were wearing. My snow pants were held up by suspenders which were run under the fleece that was under my winter jacket, and after that I still had my regular pants and thermals to contend with. I left this task to the latest possible hour when the fewest amount of people were around. Deep into the night, at well past 2am, the number of stragglers at Damoy could be counted on one hand. After doing my deed, I continued walking back and forth until I finally parked my ass down on the snow near the closest penguin colony across the bay from the camp site. From there I watched the remaining few penguins still in the water and the remaining people disappear into their tents. I was alone.
Perhaps it says a lot about me that my most cherished memory from a six week trip was the couple of hours I spent alone in the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere, a thousand kilometres from the nearest point of civilization. I took a rest along the north end of the site, with a view of the camp and the bay, and watched the water and the clouds and let the enormity of it all hit me. It was then that I noticed increased commotion from the penguins on the shore. There was a dark spot moving slowly through the water. I grabbed my camera bag and pulled out my zoom lens and took a closer look and it was clear why the penguins were more active: a leopard seal was in the vicinity. I watched the leopard seal calmly swim around the bay and saw all the penguins take notice and get the fuck out of the water and huddle on the rocks near the shore worried about this potential penguin eater. The seal, however, remained stoic. It circled around the bay, never engaging in any hunting behaviour, and swam off into the distance with an unwavering predatory swagger. This behaviour, I would later learn from the ship’s wildlife expert, is called patrolling. The seal was testing the waters looking for any easy prey but wasn’t in the mood, or need, to exert itself to find a meal. Then it was gone. That moment was was unique amongst all the shared experiences and sights of the continent. That stood, above all else, as the one memory that was solely mine and I shall cherish it for ages.
In those remaining grey hours, while shivering and trying my hardest not to doze off, I felt the majesty and scale of the continent. Nature was doing what it always did and I was a mere witness. On the Antarctic. Under the 3am sunlight. Alone. No matter how comfortable and easy to arrange that voyage was, it will never diminish the achievement that I feel for having done it. It will haunt my dreams for the rest of time.