“I mean, do you remember how the air used to smell? How humans used to smell? How they used to taste?”
Russell Egerton, 3000-year-old vampire – True Blood, 2010
I have no idea how the world used to be, but for all the piss and shit animals leave around the joint, I'm damn sure it must have been a lot cleaner before we turned up. Today, with every major city seemingly overpopulated, industrial nations laughing in the face of climate change, and our endless need to construct and develop, the world is a goddamn midden.
We've not been to a country yet that hasn't, in its own way, been disgusting. The deserts of the UAE and Oman may be inhospitable to man, but he's done a good job of showing he's a pretty dreadful housemate too; Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the most filthy countries we've ever been to; the air in China's cities leaves you so clogged with crap, your nose soon looks likes you've been banging lines of coal dust...
Run, hide – you can't escape the fact that human beings are manky crap bastards who don't give an eco-friendly fuck about the world. But now, now finally I think we've found somewhere where you can get an insight into how things might be when we inevitably blink out of existence. And it only took travelling to the absolute ends of the Earth to see it.
We awake to our first day in the Antarctic continent, on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. This, though, wasn't our intended target – we were supposed to push past this to the Peninsula, but were turned back by a storm, into which our plucky little boat could only sail five knots.
Instead we took refuge further north, at the Argentinian Jubany Research Base and, after putting on half a dozen layers of clothing, we head to shore to meet the locals.
The chief has lived here for 12 years – his face tells the tale. Suitably weathered and gruff, his fixed jaw only softens when talking to three largely infuriating children that have travelled with one fraught, largely incompetent guardian.
It's interesting to see how things work on the base, how humans can survive, and thrive, down here against considerable odds. Hell, they've even got a bar, a cinema and an internet connection. It's not quite the hardships of the Golden Era of Antarctic Exploration any more.
Hot from being inside, we leave to take a walk along the beach, meeting our first penguin and seal along the way. People crowd the bamboozled bird, desperate to take pictures, seemingly unable to hear the guarantee of seeing many more thousand over the next few days.
Far more impressive – for me, anyway – are Los Tres Hermanos (The Three Brothers), a towering tri-horned mountain; the beautifully, crisp bay in which our ship is anchored; and another jagged peak that looks like it should be imposing, but for the huge snow dress which billows down from its neck. It's all so clean.
The passing of time is a funny business in Antarctica, and this first morning flies. We get back to the boat, have too much lunch, download the first of what will become several thousand pictures and have short nap.
Awake again, we discover ourselves at the head of a vast, dramatic inlet, surrounded on all sides by fascinating hills, slopes and massifs. We're here for a Zodiac (motorised dinghy) cruise around the bay, but Wee Mo and I have been relegated to the second group.
This, as it turns out, is a blessing as we spend the hour waiting on deck, watching small avalanches crash into the bay and gawping at 360 degrees of stupendous sights. The air is beautifully clear, invigorating... We can see for miles. There's so much information to process, so much to try and photograph, that our eyes can scarcely cope. Although we've not made landfall, for the first time Antarctica feels like an actual continent, full of life and variety, vast with personality and no small amount of magic.
When we do get out into the bay, we are fortunate enough to see each of the three types of brush-tailed penguins (chinstrap, gentoo and Adelie) and one particularly contented Weddell seal.
|Photo: Wee Mo|
|Photo: Wee Mo|
|Photo: Wee Mo|
All this while floating around in water that looks like a blue mojito. And you can see as deep as the sunlight lasts in the water, and it's so pure that we haul in a chunk of glacier ice for behind the bar. Then, to prove how far away we are from manky, crap humanity, we turn the engine off and we listen to nothing - silence, almost overwhelming.
We're ushered back on board with numb faces, and before too long are being rushed into dinner again. As Wee Mo showers, I'm upstairs first to hear about what the plan will be for our second day on the Seventh Continent. Then the cry of “whale!” goes up, people crowd the port-side window, the boat lists slightly and sure enough an enormous humpback briefly bobs past the window.
“OK, retrieve the inflatable whales,” jokes the expedition leader. “I can't - the remote is broken!” replies the ornithologist. It's funny enough to get a laugh across the room. But not from me – I have to tell Wee Mo she's missed the chance to see a humpback, a species she's been fruitlessly trying to get a glimpse of for over a decade.
|Photo: Wee Mo|