Ice ice baby (under no pressure)

Ushuaia, Argentina

Back on Terra Firma after 10 days at sea. The floor seems to be moving under my feet today.

I’m not sure how to describe our trip to Antarctica, or what to say.

It certainly lives up to its reputation for views of the midnight sun, icebergs and penguins. There can’t be many places more beautiful. We could have a few paragraphs about that.

Alternatively, maybe I could write a short thesis on the domestic life of penguins. As an amateur student I became fascinated by their nest building habits – which mostly consist of stealing stones out of each other’s nests; their mate-bonding displays of bill touching and squawking together; and their long migrations from the water’s edge up to their often lofty colonies – the extra effort a penguin will go to for a room with a view.

We could have a detailed discussion of the natural history. Somehow, I’d always thought Antarctica is cold simply because its at the pole – i.e. as far away from the equator as possible. This turns out to be only part of the story, the heart of the plot is the way the continent plunged into unending ice age as it separated from its neighbours and became isolated behind a cold, wild, southern ocean.

Sometimes, we’ve sat, in our heated ice-strengthened vessel marvelling at the achievements of explorers – from Cook to Shackleton – who made the same (or even more ambitious) journeys in wooden boats without maps. The history of Antarctic exploration is gripping and worth reading.

Where to start? I have the impression this is one of those experiences it is impossible to share.

The four of us set off ten days ago, and have travelled the edge of the Weddell Sea with its incredible tabular icebergs, down through the South Shetland Islands where we stopped at many a penguin colony, as well as the odd seal colony, through fantastic channels and sounds along the Antarctic coast, where we saw beautiful icebergs and many whales – including orcas, and right to the edge of pack ice where it was impossible to travel any further south.

During all of this we’ve been able to explore on zodiac boats and with shore landings – a real privilege to get boot level access to somewhere almost no one ever reaches. The wildlife is so unfazed you can just sit watching penguins go about their daily chores, or elephant seals squabbling over the best bit of beach, only a few feet away. For a moment, we’re all David Attenborough.

And in amazing contrast, each time we reboarded the ship we were wrapped in the most civilised hotel experience we could imagine – a far cry from our usual backpacker fayre. With a lovely cabin in which we spent 10 consecutive nights – beating our previous travelling record by a whole 7 days, and unending restaurant opportunities. The readjustment from 7 course suppers to pasta packets is going to take a moment.

Returned to Ushuaia today. Strange that it’s all over, but there are few places I’d rather come back to than Argentina. We had a few hours with my parents on a whistlestop tour of the National Park here – it was nice that they get a glimpse of our perspective on South America, before they returned to the airport and we are alone again. It has been lovely to be together. I hope they’ve enjoyed it as much as we have. Looking forward to next time.

And we adjust our sights northwards. From South to North: 65degrees 20minutes south was the true beginning of our trip, with Alaska the destination. Outside Ushuaia, at the end of the Pan-American highway is a sign saying `Alaska 17,848km`. It seems a little daunting! But it’s what this trip is all about. In an odd way everything before the last week was almost the warm-up.

Yet we start our next phase in strange fashion. The delight of 12hours on a bus to Punta Arenas tomorrow, and then we fly to Easter Island, a small detour. A bit of sun after all the ice. I’m not sure whether to look forward or back.

A massive thanks to my parents, who made the last two weeks so brilliant.

And Merry Christmas to you all if I don’t find an internet cafe before then.

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