I am not sure why I decided to go there. Like many good things in my life it was idea that germinated a long time ago and when the opportunity arose it came to fruition.
One of my uncle’s was a radio operator on the South African Antarctic base when I was a child. Then Paul McGarr gave me Michael Poliza’s “AntArctic”, a real tome filled with door stopping images, for one of my birthdays. Finally Miles Mander showed me his pictures of his stint on the Big White Continent a few years ago when he went as an environmentalist. About the time I met Marius Coetzee of Oryx Worldwide Photographic Expeditions, and it was inevitable that I would join him on this voyage.
So there I was, in a helicopter without doors flying out of a snowstorm over the Andes into Ushuaia, the southernmost port of Argentina some 5 hours flight from Sao Paolo in Brazil by a big jet. Size was beginning to matter to me because this is the picture of the harbor I saw from the air, and the small white boat in the middle foreground was the one I was boarding: The Akademik Sergey Vavilov. Not the small cruise ship to the left, and definitely not the giant cruise ship behind with all those lifeboats. I was to find out that evening that the Vavilov had all of two lifeboats for the 90 or so passengers and a crew that numbered only slightly fewer.
Tierra del Fuego in Southern Patagonia from the air was spellbinding. Our first flight by helicopter had been curtailed by a snowstorm. Remember, we were at sea level at the height of the Southern hemisphere’s summer. The wall of white just pushed us back. Back at our hotel we sat watching the snowfall, then the sun came out and we went up again for an extended flight. Glaciers unfolded below us, ragged peaks with a fresh dusting of snow stood like giant walls on our side. Strings of lakes like a rosary cascaded into a massive glacial lake with white beaches and a snowstorm at either end, some 40 kilometers apart, as we flew through the central clearing.
We landed frozen to the bone even with thick jackets and windblown. The size of my ship for the next 18 days had been dwarfed by the grandeur of the Andes, but I remained on a high from the helicopter flight.
Ushuaia is a rugged town that caters for tourists, explorers and miners. Marius and I hooked up for lunch with two other couples that would be joining us: Johann and Susan Slazus and Carl and Susan Taljaard. They were already at Freddy’s restaurant in the main street. It was busy, double glazed windows displaying giant sea crabs. We ate one of those between us; it was succulent and tasty. The meat was filled with flavor of a glacier fed ocean.
After lunch we made our way to the Albatross Hotel in front of the harbor, where a prominent sign in red proclaimed “No Entry to the English Pirates”. We had some coffee and met Stephen Phillips (my room mate from Texas) and Debbie Smale (an ex-South African living in London). The process was leisurely, but the bar we were waiting in was filled with tension and excitement as people met and measured each other. Passports were collected for the ship’s master and then we were transported by two buses the 400 meters to the quay and boarded our little ice-strengthened Russian Research ship, the Vavilov. It was about 5:30 p.m.. Our bags were delivered to our cabins, but even as the ship lay moored I could swear it was rocking!