Friday, December 24

Heading south for Christmas

Our first day in Antarctica began with an early start. We were woken at 2.45am after our charter flight with DAP was cleared for departure at 6am. Why the early start? The weather is incredibly fickle in the polar regions and so pilots take advantage of any suitable four-hour flight window. Today our flight would take us from Punte Arenas to the South Shetland islands in less than two hours, literally skipping over the dreaded Drake Passage and thus avoiding two days of rough sailing.

It was a magic moment entering the Punta Arenas airport terminal and seeing one flight on the departure board with Antarctica listed as its final destination. The flight itself was uneventful.  We landed shortly before 8am on December Eve at Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin airport located on the western tip of King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands. We'd flown south in a BAE340 aircraft. This four-jet jet has a high wing design, making it ideal for short runways and airports lacking paved tarmac; which Teniente Rodolfo Marsh Martin offers in abundance. The runway consists of compressed gravel and is barely 1200 metres long. It a barren, desolate location surrounded by gravel, snow and ice.

Our cruise group consisted of 59 people; largely American, Australian and British folk. The group had met the previous evening for an initial orientation briefing and a welcome dinner at Palacio Sara Braun; one of Punta Arenas’ iconic hotel buildings. We dined on local lamb under the cover of an ornate glass atrium after enjoying a delicious King Crab appetiter.  The chef even brought one of these enormous crabs into the dining room for us to admire.

Landing on King George Island proved rather uneventful. Touchdown was no rougher than most commercial flights I’ve experienced. However, the scene outside was as barren and remote as any I’ve ever seen. Antarctica consists principally of rock, snow and ice; and very little else. We later learnt that our polar journey was taking us through the continent’s most scenic locations. Apparently, the further south you travel the more monotonous the scenery becomes as snow and ice progressively smother every geographic feature.

The airport on King George Island serves a large number of research bases scattered around Maxwell Bay. Within a few miles of each other can be found Russian, Chilean, Argentine and Chinese bases among others. Perhaps the most prominent feature in the area is a small wooden Russian Orthodox church sitting on the crest of a low hill overlooking Bellingshausen, the Russian Base; more about this building in a later post.

As we made our way down to the foreshore to meet the expedition team an unusual monument caught my eye. It's a copper globe inscribed with a map of the world, perched atop a flat-panelled cone. Each panel is inscribed with the name of signatories to the 1950 Antarctic treaty. This treaty suspended all sovereign territory claims to Antarctica, while later amendments control (or rather, ban) access to the continent's mineral resources. We heard a lot about the treaty during our cruise.  It's terms have dramatically influenced the character of human activity in the polar region; particularly activity associated with research and the strategic value of maintaining a continual presence.

We reached our ship by boarding inflatable zodiac boats beached on the shore of Maxwell Bay. In preparation for this wet transfer we’d been instructed to board our flight wearing rubber boots supplied by the cruise company and our waterproof polar pants and jacket. The ship, Ocean Nova, was perfectly adequate for our cruise. It offered a panoramic lounge at the front of the ship, a library overlooking the back of the ship and a spacious dining room midship. Our cabin was simple but comfortable. We each had a single bunk and a small bathroom with plenty of hot water.

Click here for a post on our first two excursions; both of which took place in Maxwell Bay.  Then on to posts containing the most stunning images I swear my camera will ever record. Oh yes, in case your wondering, the time zone on board remained synchonised with Chile during our entire cruise.

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