I knew I had to dive in or I wouldn’t do it. 1 -2- 3 – launch. The icy water penetrated to my core before I had time to squeal. The ‘swim’ was 2 strokes back to a sun-baked rock that offered a glimmer of warmth after the plunge. It was night 2 of a 3-day kayak camping trip on the Antarctic peninsula, the wind had dropped and at 9pm it was still light and sunny. An hour later wrapped in layers of down, the shivers were a satisfied memory. Huddled over stoves on a table-flat rock, the four of us cooked up some pasta, glancing up frequently at the black and white landscape of glaciers, snowy slopes and ice bergs. Occasional steep black spires pierce the sky but in most places only a few bare rocks fringe the shore, offering a precious foothold onto this icy continent. We look for small rocky peninsulas where we can land for lunch or set up camp and that’s where we find the penguin rockeries. Hundreds of gentoo, adelie and chinstrap penguins nest flipper to flipper on every available rock. We often smell and hear the creche before we see which type of penguin is nesting here. But they look so cute that you can almost ignore the rich stench of their projectile poo as you watch them collect rocks for their nests, guard their chicks from aggressive skuas, preen, screech, waddle along or just sit and contemplate life.
It took 6 days to get from Ushuaia across the notorious Drake Passage to Enterprise island on the Antarctic peninsula. It would have been quicker but a storm held us in the Chilean islands for a day. Our yacht, the Spirit of Sydney, runs charter trips there about 3 or 4 times during the southern summer. It was a cosy crossing with 2 crew, and 7 guests – 5 of which were there primarily to go kayaking.
Icebergs and bergy bits made all the difference to the kayaking for me. The glaciers and ice cliffs were stunning but somehow there’s nothing like bouncing through a jigsaw puzzle of brash ice, weaving around gently rocking car-sized hunks or steering clear of towering apartment sized blocks. The older bergs are an amazing deep blue and the 2/3 of the berg that is under the water glows emerald green.
It took me a few days to get to grips with the scale. An ice cliff on a neighbouring island looks a mile away, but the map shows it is 5 times as distant. Without houses, trees or other familiar landmarks to show the size of things, constant reference to the map is needed. When islands overlap so you can’t see water between them, you need faith in your compass bearing and to look for subtle breaks in the black and white patterns. Frequent 1-4 mile crossings between islands were some of my favourite paddling as the view is constantly changing and the many bergs break up the open water in a charming way.
We had mixed weather which was stormier and more overcast that is typical for this time of year. I’m told the Peninsula is more often sunny than not in the Summer, and the myriad of islands to the west guard the peninsula from most swells and strong winds. We enjoyed 6 days of fairly calm weather before a few days of strong North-Easterlies. Some of us paddled every day except one, battling into winds for short distances, or enjoying a downwind blast when the yacht was travelling the same way. One day visibility was limited to 1/4 of a mile and we nervously heading into a white mist to a island full of nesting adelies. The same day we gratefully sheltered in an Argentinian hut for lunch, but by evening the veil lifted, the wind eased and we found a lovely campspot on a gentle snow slope on Booth island.
Antarctica is one of the world’s last wildernesses in that there are vast areas without human influences. However, dotted along the peninsula many countries have a research base where scientists spend a few months, or all year, studying the climate, weather and movement of ice, as well as claiming a stake in the southernmost continent for their nation. We visited a few of these bases and I always enjoy meeting people who live in isolated places and gaining an insight into another way of life. The most memorable was the Ukranian base at Vernansky, where our tour started at 9pm and by 9.30pm we were in the bar downing shots of vodka that they make on-site. The evening involved many more of those shots, some guitar playing, dancing and a lot of laughing. The next day we were treated to using their sauna. We sat in the small steamy hut until we couldn’t bear the heat anymore then scampered outside, down a rickety ladder and plunged into the sea. Then did it again. And again. And again. And again.
Thanks a lot of Berghaus for some great lightweight and toasty kit which enabled me to get warm again after a swim in the frigid waters. The hydrodown jacket is hydro-phobic which meant I didn’t need to worry about it getting a bit damp. Thanks to Iridium for lending me a satellite phone and access point which allowed me to send photographs and updates back from the middle of nowhere, using my mobile phone. The access point turns the sat phone into a wifi hotspot which my smartphone could connect to. It was really easy to use and took about 3 minutes to upload a compressed photo. My phone was protected by a great lifeproof case.
Thanks to Hilleberg for the soulo tent, footprint and snow stakes, which worked really well. Thanks to Lyon equipment for continued support with Julbo glasses, Ortlieb drybags, petzl torches & Exped kit. I got a new waterproof down sleeping bag from Exped for this trip which was fantastic. The water bloc 1200 was really warm and I didn’t have to worry about getting it slightly damp. Patrick had the Waterbloc 1000 which he said was plenty warm enough.It’s a testament to the quality of Kokatat kit that all of us chose Kokatat drysuits for the trip. My drysuit is over a year old and has seen a lot of use but it still kept me perfectly dry.