South VIII: Real men eat quiche

Double Entendre of the Day:
[While on her hands and knees behind a couch] “Just wiggle it around, Woody, then push it in hard. It gets a bit loose sometimes.”
Annie and the aptly-named Mr Wood fix an errant monitor.

Welcome to Antarctica. We arrive here in the early morning and the weather changes with the speed of a fingersnap. “And then there came both mist and snow / and it grew wond’rous cold,” wrote Coleridge, and indeed it does. The temperature spikes downward like the Icelandic economy, and as we prepare for a landing on Half Moon Island the snow starts coming down. Gentle and wandering, weather that’s not quite sure of itself, travelling sideways on the wind to start piling up in gaps and corners.

The Zodiac ride in is a motherfucker. The sensation as the boat smacks from wave to wave is like trying to rollerskate over a wildebeest stampede. Spray wets your hair, so the wind slices through your head as cleanly as a teaspoon taking the top off an egg, in the granddaddy of all ice-cream headaches. I stoically refuse to put my hood up, mainly because I’m worried I’ll go arse-backwards over the side if I let go of the rope. So I come into shore with one eye full of salt water and a rictus of a grimace like half my face is paralysed, a wet skinny Sylvester Stallone. “Adrian!”


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John, Monika and I take off across the island before someone can start telling us we shouldn’t. It’s a strange all-white landscape – the new snow making the ground a clean sheet, the air white with falling flakes and the mist closing out any background.  The island is skinny, a flattish spine between two beaches. Across that plain, the new snow is whipped up in swirls by the wind, for all the world like sand in a desert. The beach is full of fat seals – large males this time – and more whalebones, everywhere these sad remnants. Way back behind us across the white waste a small figure is pursuing us, trying to wave us back, but being pirates we conveniently don’t see them and step up the pace. This is real snow, the drifts thigh-high, then suddenly chest-high when I go off the path at one point. I have to roll flat out of the man-sized hole I’ve made. The surface is firm enough that with some steps it holds your weight. Then the next step just as likely plunges through again with a spine jarring thump, your body never sure if it’s stopping here or three feet below. It’s almost easier to stomp and ensure you break the surface, so at least you know you’re going to fall. Suddenly I realise what “following in someone’s footsteps” actually means. Not just that you’re on the same path, but that they’ve done the hardest work for you. We’re battling through it, breathless, boiling, wet, my face stinging with cold, my glasses eventually snowing up so that I can’t see a thing, but we just keep going. We’re out there, in the middle of something, blood singing through our veins, endorphins flowing, punching a hole in the world, and God it feels good.

Any thoughts of being manly tough explorers are quickly shattered when we go back to the ship for lunch: the truly masculine choice of a shrimp salad or quiche Lorraine. Oh, and with a broccoli brie soup to start. I told you this gig was cushy. It’s hard to reconcile the coddling nature of the trip with its claims to be an ‘expedition’, or with the Antarctic history of which they keep reminding us. To be living luxuriously in a place that has seen such endurance and privation seems in poor taste. It’s the same reaction I get when I see tourists grinning and mugging for photos at war cemeteries or sites of atrocity. “Here’s me at the railway cutting where 12 000 forced labourers died. Two thumbs up! Oh, and here’s me at the Cambodian Killing Fields. Whoo! Click-click. Check it out, those are real human skulls.”

The afternoon is onto Deception Island, an active but mostly sunken volcano crater. A narrow gap eroded in the crater wall means you can sail inside. Just. The gap is ten metres deep, and our hull goes 6.5 below the waterline. The cliffs seem so close you could touch them. They stand hundreds of feet high on each side, along with freestanding columns of rock. All the geography here is similarly abrupt – sudden mountains coming like upthrust fists out of the sea. Cliffs rearing directly up, and then hundreds of feet down below the water, in one unrelenting line. The way the wind smashes gouts of spray through this opening has given it the name of Neptune’s Bellows. Inside, the volcano means the geography keeps changing, new spurs of rock from lava flows, old coastline covered up. Patches of the beach steam with subterranean warmth. The thick smell of sulphur is in the air. This is where we went swimming on my last trip, alternating between the burn of volcanic heat and the burn of extreme cold, until I couldn’t tell which was which. If you have ever stood soaking wet on a rock beach in temperatures of 0 degrees, wearing only a towel, getting pelted with sugar-lumps of rocks by a 40-knot wind, trying to balance on one leg so you can get your pants back on, you will understand that this experience isn’t necessarily one I was keen to repeat. Anyhow, with Captain Timorous at the helm it was never going to happen this time around.

Deception is a great white plain, giving a kind of Arctic tundra vibe, then scooping up to vertical at the crater walls. “Lost in the blinding whiteness of the tundra!” You can climb the walls to another gap called Neptune’s Window, to see where the cliffs mash the waves far below, the water polishing the flotilla of icebergs going past, and allegedly, beyond the mist, the mainland of the Antarctic continent. The Window, Paul the geologist reckons, will one day become another entranceway. 23791_329011135918_601970918_4114898_4152959_nIn the other direction, punctuating the plain are the remains of yet another whaling station. “It’s nice to see the stations getting more and more derelict,” says my uncle, and this one definitely is. Decay moves slowly here, but it’s advancing resolutely nonetheless. There are the rotting timbers of the small boats, the gaps and shadows, the contrast with the snowdrifts that have built up inside. There are the buildings slowly folding themselves back into the earth. The massive tanks rusting and subsiding into mud, timber drying and flaking away. Slow, achingly slow, but there’s no doubt that this patient island will take them eventually. Here, as everywhere else, we’re only in transit.

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