Reposted with permission from LuxuryWeb.com.
While I was aware that Antarctica is one of the coldest places on earth, and there would likely be lots of water that could turn into ice without notice, I wasn’t prepared for the winds that we encountered. When I say wind, I don’t mean the regular kind that could send a hat flying, I mean the kind that threatens to catapult your whole body into an airborne missile.
So by now, you might have guessed I am talking about our recent cruise trip to Antarctica.
Antarctica is truly a unique destination! There are no people. There are no ancient monuments. There are no modern bustling cities; no lights, no pavements, no sign of human habitation; and yet tourists from all over the world are flocking to see it before it sinks like fabled Atlantis under the waves and is lost forever.
But this land is not a fable, it’s real. Antarctica — a raw pristine natural environment — is a gift from the Gods of water and ice. It was finally confirmed as the 7th continent in 1820. At one time it was thought to be the “Unknown Southern Land” hypothesized but not known. There is controversy about who actually “discovered” Antarctica the continent (who sailed nearest, who spied it from their ship, who first stepped on it) but 1820 seems to be the agreed upon year.
Our adventure began on a warm summer day in Buenos Aires, the renowned capital city of Argentina. We spent the day taking in the sights of the city with its massive tree-lined boulevards and stunning Beau Arts buildings. Sadly there was no time to catch a tango performance – the beating heart of Argentina – since we had a 3 a.m. wake-up call. This ungodly hour was required in order to catch our charter flight to Ushuaia, there to board our cruise ship, Ultramarine, the newest in the Quark Expeditions line-up of luxury vessels that sail the Southern Sea.
All cruise itineraries are dependent on weather conditions but luck was with us as we departed Ushuaia sailing south through the Beagle Channel — the natural waterway separating Argentina and Chile — named after Charles Darwin’s ship The Beagle. On our first day at sea, beautiful weather showered us with blue skies and seas calm enough for us to climb into zodiacs to make a landing on the southernmost tip of Chile at Cape Horn. Well, let me modify that statement: since Aeolus (known as the Greek God of the Winds) was ungraciously blowing off at between 40 and 50 mph at sea level, stronger gusts were expected at the top of the exposed bit of rock where the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans converge.
The mechanical device that at one time whisked visitors up the mountain lay in pieces, so upon exiting the zodiacs, we were invited to climb the 152 precarious, uneven, sometimes broken, wooden steps to the top. It’s worth mentioning that in order to board the zodiacs you are required to don triple layers of everything from socks to hats including heavy duty water-proof boots, goggles, jackets and a PFD (personal flotation devise) which with the raging winds made the jaunt up the steps even more precarious. So up I climbed, one step at a time — (at least there was a handrail… of sorts… to hold on to, I repeated told myself.)
A tall order
Breathlessly clearing the last step, I walked out on what I hoped would be the top of the mountain. Little did I know, until that moment, that the steps were just a prelude to the steep climb still ahead on a pathway constructed of a bright yellow metal grid — kind of like the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz…not! The platform is to protect the slow-growing plants in this harsh environment from two-legged visitors; while condors, vultures and sea birds are welcomed to wander freely.
One walkway led to the Albatross monument and another to the lighthouse … and this time there were no handrails to help balance against the winds. The impressive Albatross Monument commemorates the thousands of lives that were lost attempting to navigate this historically perilous cape.
The station is monitored by the Chilean Navy and every year a new family is chosen from volunteers to spend time living at the lighthouse. This year the chosen family was navy Second Sergeant José Luarte, his wife and their three young children.
The winds were so strong that I couldn’t help but ask if they were concerned that it might carry off one of the children, especially since I saw the youngest running about and her feet were not touching the ground.
They assured me that when it gets really windy — wind speeds here have been clocked at 186 mph — the children play inside. The family will remain at the lighthouse until relieved by the next volunteer naval family. This is an honor post, manned by patriots who consider it a great privilege to represent their country in this way.
Cape Horn was a great first experience as it bonded together the passengers and expedition staff in a shared adventure and prepared us for the challenges required to navigate the notorious Drake Passage that eventually leads to Antarctica. Sir Frances Drake (1540-1596) first discovered the waterway — but not the continent — while circumnavigating the globe in a wooden ship 1/3 the size of the Ultramarine.
The Drake passage is known as one of the harshest seas in the world; the courage and fortitude of those first intrepid sailors is akin to today’s astronauts getting into a tiny capsule and heading for Mars — except they wear protective gear, have sophisticated communications and scientific knowledge of what to expect.
Drake and his sailors, on the other hand, weren’t even sure if they would fall off the earth when they reached the horizon.
Stay tuned for Part II
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