24 Hours on the White Continent
Antarctica marks the final highlight of our adventure to the end of the world that started in Patagonia. At 1:30 pm our chartered King Air 300 lifts off at Punta Arenas Airport and takes us past Cape Horn to reach King Edward Island, the gateway to the White Continent. After 2.5 hours of smooth flying our pilot starts the descent and through the window we are able to make out a white and deserted land mass ahead of us. After a circle we finally land on a very short and icy airstrip at the end of the world. Antarctica had an unusually cold summer that left quite a bit of snow on the ground and the Island looking exotic and remote.
Greeted by our head guide Alejo we head straight to our quarters and change into overalls for our 1st excursion - a Zodiac tour of Maxwell Bay. The weather being unusually calm we want to make the most of our time. Alejo has a weathered face and white long beard. He has spent half his life in Antarctica and is a real adventurer, having reached the South Pole on skis and climbed Mount Vinson, with almost 5000m the highest peak on the continent, many times. We couldn’t have a better and more knowledgeable guide.
Asking him about whales he says that by now most of them are on their way North and that we'd be extremely lucky to see one anyway. While cruising towards the Fourcade Glacier facing us, Alejo suddenly turns the boat and starts heading in the opposite direction. And sure enough: a sole Minke Whale is swimming calmly through the Bay as if he has come as a hello for the newly arrived visitors. We approach slowly but he only surfaces for short moments and finally disappears as we seem to be getting too close for his comfort. What a start! We would have never been able to spot him had the water not been this calm.
We finally continue towards the Glacier. The dark blue water from the ice that it is feeding in to the Sea looks mysteriously beautiful. We witness a huge chunk break off and drop in to the Ocean with a roar, before finally landing the boat at the Penguin colony on the other side of the Bay. There are Adele and Gentu penguins. We should find a third kind, Chinstrap, on the other side of the Peninsula the next day. It feels quite funny to walk among the Penguins that are happily going about their business and not at all shy.
After an eventful start of our Antarctica adventure we are brought to our rooms in the Bellinghausen quarters of the Russian research station and are being served dinner in the common room. The ice camp, originally planned for our overnight stay had to be taken down due to adverse weather conditions and what seems a downturn at first is more than made up when we discover that Alejo actually knew a close relative who headed the U.S. Polar Research Department several years ago. The ice is finally broken and we are made to feel part of this remote community of scientists and adventurers. Throughout the evening Alejo shares his stories from the many excursions he undertook on the White Continent.
Early the next morning we start on a hike to see the Elephant Seals on the other side of the peninsula. In once again calm weather we make our way across snow fields down towards the shore. While everyone in the small community of research stations from various nations goes about their daily business, we are completely alone out in the remote vastness of this Antarctic Island.
Already from far we can spot the huge animals are lying scattered along the shore and do not really mind us getting close to them making for great photo opportunities. After a short hike to a spectacular lookout over the Drake Sea, Alejo calls and we have to turn back.
He wants to take us to a close by Glacier in his stylish yellow vehicle, which looks like a mix between a caterpillar, a train and a skidoo. After 15 minutes along a muddy road all of a sudden everything around us turns white. Some low clouds have moved in and the horizon seamlessly blends with the perfect white of the snow covered surface. We have never, ever felt so far away from anything - as if we just entered another dimension somewhere between Heaven and Earth. The next minutes are a mix of childishly running in this seemingly endless playground and a feeling of awe in this complete remoteness. Alejo is in constant contact with the pilot as the weather is changing quickly and we soon have to return for our flight out before it turns inclement.
The flight back to Puerto Williams on Navarino Island gives us time to reflect. We realize it shall take a while to grasp all we have experienced the past 24 hours and how far in every sense we have been from our regular urban lives. Finally our plane drops down for a few low circles around Cape Horn - the first sign of our return to civilization.