(This blog is in an unconventional format: The dates displayed are actual trip dates - not post dates.)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Almirante Brown

January 25, 2010
64°89"S, 62°87"W

As we sat down to lunch, the Fram pulled southward from Cuverville Island and deeper into the Errera Channel, wedged between Ronge Island and the Antarctic mainland. It was a careful journey, as the ship maneuvered through the tight spaces between monoliths of ice randomly stranded throughout the channel, and squeezed between rock walls that seemed to close in tightly from the sides.

I was standing above deck when the channel opened up into a placid Andvord Bay, an incredible sight that I'm sure will always remain with me. I could swear that we floated on a unimaginably large crater lake, for the way that every horizon was lined with snow capped peaks, and that no visible escape to the open ocean stood out along the seemingly continuous wall of rock, ice and snow. It was apparent as soon as the viewfinder enclosed my vision: an 18mm exposure could never capture the feeling of the crisp air, the gentle passing breeze, the sound of bow planing through smooth crystal surface, and the encompassing weight of scenery as it flooded into to every last inch of my periphery. I simply stopped trying, and let the moment happen.

With the sound of insignificant blocks of ice resonating from their impact with the hull, the Fram cut its way toward the northern entrance to Paradise Harbour. The expectation was high, as the daily itinerary delivered that morning informed us that "It's almost impossible to write about Paradise Harbour without referring to it as the 'aptly named' Paradise Harbour.". Not far inside the harbour, a cluster of black building appeared on the port side, making up what can only be described as one of the most scenic offices in the world. Gonzlez Videla Base (named after the Chilean president who became the first head of state of any nation to visit Antarcia) is supposedly inactive if you believe Wikipedia, but the building looked extremely well maintained, and on this day a few people even waved to us from the shore. Its almost hard to believe that two Englishmen wintered in the spot in the 1920's with only a discarded whaling boat for shelter.

On the southern side of the harbour, however, sits Almirante Brown - an Argentinian base that's occasionally used in summer, but on this particular year was sitting dormant but for the occasional flock of sightseers. It was partially burnt down in the mid eighties by an Argentinian who wasn't staying here for winter no matter what anyone else said.

Having been the first group to set footfall on this morning's landing, that positioned us squarely last to leave the boat this afternoon. It made me slightly nervous, as that left hours for the weather to turn ugly and deny our group its turn on the ground. This landing was irrationally important to me, as it would be the only chance I'd have to stand on the Antarctic mainland. Realistically, its not like that would mean I hadn't stood on the Antarctic continent, because deep down inside, all these islands we've been on are part of that continent. But in my heart, it just wouldn't be the same if I didn't stand on a piece of land that was contiguously above water all the way to Amundsen/Scott station.

But luck being with us, it was still and sunny at 6pm when I stepped onto the dock. It was hard not to feel a sense of abandonment as you passed between the locked and boarded buildings of the base. Supplies in crates and drums lay stacked on raised platforms, partial collapses in their careful arrangement spoke of only occasional visits by official parties. Gentoos nested under and around the site's structures, noisily arguing about personal space.

Bright orange cones marked the path and bounds of all our visits, set out by the expedition team during setup. Today however, the trail along the front of the peninsula was easily visible, for the hundred of feet that had already reduced it to a muddy brown stain through the smooth white covering of snow. I took a moment to examine a strange pattern of melting either side of the track - occasionally, the snow was broken by a perfectly formed vertical melted cylinder through a foot of snow, with a single small pebble lying at the bottom, dead center. It felt strangely unnatural - but it was nothing more sinister than pebbled thrown up onto the snow as people traversed the path. Lying atop the snow, the pebble's darker colour would absorb heat and then melt snow around it all the way back down to the rock.
At the end of the peninsula, the path turned upwards for a moderately steep climb up to the small peak that overlooked the base, the difficulty in its ascent lying in the slipperiness of the terrain. A few feet to the left started into a gentle slope that quickly accelerated into a sheer drop over to a small bay wedged between the peninsula and the soaring peaks that formed the eastern wall of the harbour. Clambering over a few lichen covered ledges found us on top of our summit.

I wouldn't have described the location as a great height, but it greatly amplified the scenery in a way that only elevation (and a seat on the edge of a long fall) can. The view across the harbour (through the clearest air left in this world) was magnificent, sweeping from the eastern peaks, across Anvord Bay, LeMaire and Bryde islands, and the terminus of the Gerlache Strait. Parked out there in the bay, the Fram appeared small. This was a moment of quiet reflection and deep breaths. A moment to be soaked up.

The way back down was far quicker and easier: a channel had been cut through the snow to make a slide, and each waiting for their turn, the big blue penguins would seat themselves and push off. I got myself ready at the top, positioned my camera ready in and edged out into the slope, finger holding down the shutter release. A surface now well slicked by refrozen melt, I had to dig my heals into to avoid letting the situation slip away from me, so to speak.

I arrived back at the dock to find a bit of a queue - the landing boats were doing a long cruise back to the boat, and it'd be a little while before we leave the base - so I took the opportunity to get to know the local penguins a bit better. This small colony was entirely made up of Gentoo, most busy with some sizable chicks. It was in this short moment that I saw the best penguin fighting that I would see for the entire trip.

Being on the last few landing boats heading back to the Fram, there wasn't a lot of choice in how they were loaded - and with only seven spaces per boat to carry seven couple, one couple had to draw the short straw. That was us. Lyndall waved to me a bit unsure as her boat took her from the dock. It would only be 15 or so minutes, but it was just a shame our first longer cruise in the landing boats was apart.

Skimming over the water so close to sea level is a completely different perspective to standing on the deck of a ship; it feels much more real.  The sound of the bow cutting the water, the shudder as it hits larger blocks of ice. Fingers breaking the flat icy surface, leaving a wake of their own. There's also an opportunity for reflection that you just don't have with elevation. This close to the water, you could well be floating across a mirror. I'm sitting up at the nose of the boat, working the shutter release on the better half of my memory.

Pulling back the throttle on approach to a floating ice platform, a few Weddell seals look up and cautiously eye the boat. Like penguins, you can smell the Weddells before you see them; or more to the point you can smell the trail of chum that marks their path from the edge of the berg to where its now lounging in the evening light. The bigger seal drops his head, comfortable we're not close enough to spoil his mood. You have to have respect for the Weddells , they're only one of two animals that stay here for winter, a time they spend wholly by chewing ice to keep an opening between the water and the air.

They care less as the boat picks up speed and takes the paparazzi away. A few minke whales show us the way back to the Fram, before disappearing into the depths. It must have been their dinner time, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment