“I say: 'The sun rises and falls with you,' and various things about love, then a rising violence in me cuts all my circuits off.”
Nick Cave, More News From Nowhere, 2008
When I was younger, my grandfather – to protect our innocence and his own sanity – would only tell us greatly sanitised versions of his war stories. I've mentioned it once before. At that age, perhaps his most terrifying tale was about a hellish night on the Russian Convoys. The image that stuck clearest in my mind was his warning about grabbing metal railings in the freezing cold; if it was severe enough and you were unlucky, the freeze could rip the palm of your hand clear off. You'd walk away; your hand print would stay forever.
And stupidly, it's this image that I can't shake from my head as I disembark from our old Chilean naval vessel and onto the Zodiac that will take us to Antarctica proper. Quickly, though, I realise that there was no need to worry because it's actually all quite mild – warm almost. The rails aren't frozen, the four layers I have on are definitely too much, hell I can barely even see my breath any more.
Before all that, though, breakfast is abuzz with people talking about the previous night. A rag-tag gaggle of insomniacs had stayed up late and the light, they say, was fantastic. We are so far south that sunset and sun rise became the same thing, and this translated as four hours of the most serene light imaginable as it bounced off colossal icebergs in shades of pink and peach and orange and some brand new colours never seen before by man. Unfortunately, they have some pretty breathtaking pictures as proof.
There's also news of another defeat: we were supposed to push into the Weddell Sea, but were turned back by ice and furious wind. This is a disappointment for a lot of people, especially as we're now to dock at another research station, this time in Hope Bay.
The Esperanza Station is one site of the amazing 1903 Nordenskiold expedition and one of dozens of places where humankind's relentless ability to survive makes the small inconveniences of modern life seem truly pathetic.
Since then, folk have done a better job of living here. In fact, Esperanza is one of the biggest bases on the continent, with 10 families living here, complete with a school and – improbably – even a casino. Weans have even been spawned here for the past 30 years.
Still, none of this seems to interest most folk, who are instead content with taking pictures of penguins going about their business, just on the fringes of the settlement.
Back on board the Antarctic Dream, we have a quick lunch before heading further into the Antarctic Sound. We are en route to Paulet Island, which sounds quite pedestrian compared to its neighbours the Danger Islands and the Terror Gulf. (I'm aware that these little link paragraphs are quite boring, really I'm just wasting space to break up the photos. See.)
The journey there, though, is one of the most bizarre, unsettling and cold of my entire life. We are pushing into territory that the Antarctic Dream rarely ventures: here impossibly large tabular icebergs have snapped off and litter the channel like so much polystyrene.
No two of these masses look the same, and with the low cloud pressing down on us, the whole scene feels vaguely sinister. Every now and then we'll pass a bored-looking seal on a smaller iceberg, or a gaggle of tottering penguins weighing up whether or not we warrant plunging into the deathly-cold ocean.
Somehow, I find myself on the bow alone, the wind biting at my face as we glide through what feels like a drug-induced dream. The captain and his crew are expert at steering us through the ice field, but after a while, he sets a course directly for one of the smaller chunks. Thankfully, our reinforced hull is strong enough to plough through it. Others haven't been so measured in the past.
Soon after that, we're bunting and crushing ice all over the place, and as we do, more and more people arrive on deck to nervously watch our progress.
Three hours of this later, we arrive at Paulet Island, which looks not unlike the Ailsa Craig from afar, and like a mountain of shit up close. This is because it is home to a colony of over 200,000 penguins, mostly the “mad men of the Antarctic”, the Adelie.
|Photo: Wee Mo|
|Photo: Wee Mo|
|Photo: Wee Mo|
Meanwhile, I spent time trying to take picture of skua fighting kelp gull. The skuas are essentially the mafia of the rookery: they guard their own bit of territory fiercely, and subsequently all the penguins in it. As tax, they occasionally steal an egg from lackadaisical parents. The gulls aren't so bold – they just scavenge the left overs. Anyway, after half an hour of sitting in guano, I get nothing more than a couple of wing tips and feet. Thus wildlife photography: a bastard.
By the time people got back to start dinner it's after nine, which helps everyone who feels like they missed out on this mysterious light (i.e. us) stay awake. The fact that it never comes close to being dark and that it's also the French film-maker's birthday eases the passing of time as well, the free wine being extended long past dinner time.
Hours pass and I find myself alone at the bow again, edging closed to death by exposure by the minute, but unable to be bored as we venture ever-south. Ahead lies Snow Hill Island, the site of one of the continent's famous colonies of emperor penguins. They're the reason we've been so intent on heading down the east coast, so rare is it for a ship like to have the opportunity to sail this far south. On the horizon, neighbouring Seymour Island looks like a volcano bodged onto the side of a dramatic cliff.
I, then, am not the only one crushed by disappointment when we make a 90 degree turn away from our target. I look up to the bridge; gloomy faces look past me to the thickening ice ahead. I head up and the captain looks solemn: we can go no further. Bunting icebergs around in open sea is one thing, bunting them into each other is flat out dangerous, especially as we aren't technically in an icebreaker. The captain orders the boat to patrol the shelf, checking and re-checking that progress isn't possible. No one is happy with his eventual decision*, but it seems the only option.
Wee Mo and I find each other as we always seem to do and head out onto the deck. We might never head further south in our lives, but then the sky turns gold, and once more the end of the world is full of splendour.
*The following morning, I stumble across this quote from Shackleton, during one of his nearly-but-not-quite expeditions. It sums up the captain's dilemma perfectly: “I must look at the matter sensibly and consider the lives of those who are with me. I feel that if we go on too far it will be impossible to get back... and then all results will be lost to the world... Man can only do his best, and we have arrayed against the strongest forces of nature.”