Dispatch: Voyage to the Bottom of the World -- The main event

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for Santiago, Chile, Jan. 3, to begin a two-week adventure to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent. He'll be transmitting on-site reports to Travel Weekly's New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (weather and Internet access permitting).

 "Some of us are over the seasick stage and no longer want to die." -- Arthur Harbord, aboard the Nimrod with Ernst Shackleton

After sailing all day Sunday and Monday, we finally arrived in the Antarctic Sound early Tuesday morning, a full week since I had left home. We had undergone one of the most intense sea experiences many of us -- including many in the crew -- had ever experienced, and now we were about to reap our reward.

It was still light when I went to sleep at 1 a.m. About five hours later, I was awakened by some of the most bizarre and disturbing nightmares I'd ever had. I sat up, looked at the clock, threw open the shades and saw that we were gliding on still waters past black peaks that thrust up from pure white glacial snow and elaborately sculpted icebergs, some with a translucent blue tinge. We had arrived in a strange world unlike anything I'd ever seen. Antarctica!

Once through the Drake Passage, the seas had become glassy. Temperatures were mild, just above freezing. Winds were mere breezes, only a few miles an hour. Billowy clouds hung low, giving the entire landscape a bluish cast. Clouds wrapped around some of the mountaintops.

After feasting on the scene from my window, I finally tore myself away from the ever-changing spectacle to throw on some warm clothes, grab my camera and rush up to the deck to get a full panoramic view of this strange new environment. The glowing clouds, the dark mirror sea, the snowy glaciers, the crystalline icebergs all created a monochromatic blue composition of exquisite detail and delicate forms. Ahead of the ship loomed Brown Bluff, the imposing site of our first landing on the Antarctic continent.

This landscape with its vast serenity and an undertone of menace, was the otherworldly paradise we had traveled through the gates of hell to reach.

At 9 a.m. I donned my many layers and got in line to climb into the Zodiac inflated rubber landing craft to ride to Brown Bluff, a colossal plateau towering over a rocky beach. We rolled over the sides of the Zodiacs and out onto the water near the shore in our rubber boots, making a wet landing.

We were careful to stay in the designated areas so as not to disturb the penguins, of which there were thousands, squawking noisily, milling in huge crowds, waddling in their comical, short-legged gait, wings splayed to the sides for balance. Some of them wandered near us, but we were forbidden to approach them.

I watched three adults gesticulating and vocalizing emphatically to a fuzzy gray baby, who appeared to listen deferentially. Ak-ak-ak-ak-ak! They screeched as they lurched with vigorous contortions. "What are they communicating?" I wondered.  It's too easy to just assume it doesnt mean anything.

In the afternoon, we landed at Hope Bay and the Argentine Esperanza research station. The shore was a jagged natural gravel that reflected some ancient geological cataclysm. The research station was a colony of orange huts designated for various purposes -- laboratories, a chapel, a dining hall, a museum. We saw a hut created by the first people who stayed through the winter. The Argentines invited us in for coffee, juice and tasty pastries. I made use of the opportunity to practice my Spanish.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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