Antarctica is a place that I have always dreamt of visiting. The fact that very few people get the opportunity to visit this remote continent excited me even more. I was stuck in Ushuaia (Argentina) for a long time – restlessly waiting for my boat to take me to Antarctica.
Like it is in any part of the world, for the right price and the right connections, practically anything is possible. Although vehicles are banned in Antarctica, I was able to find a loophole that would enable me to transport my bike there. However, a conversation with a wise man got me thinking about what I was really intending to do. Was it that important for me to merely put my bike onto land and briefly start my engine – and in the process cause irreparable damage to the last environmentally protected place on Earth? I was embarrassed by my folly.
The guiding principle of ‘Ride To Be One’ is not to harm any animal, human or nature. After conquering four continents, I was not going to jeopardise the ride by harming nature in any way. After I boarded the ship and got to my room, the first thing I noticed was a note that said ‘Patrick is here for whatever help you might need’. That really made me laugh! Of course, the ‘Patrick’ referred to in the note was about the housekeeping guy – but for me ‘Pattrick’ is my husband and I missed him on this trip.
It took about 3 hours for all the boarding formalities to be completed and the fellow passengers to get acquainted with each other. The expedition team then conducted various sessions to explain how precious Antarctica is and the methods used to protect it. We were given a list of rules and regulations to be followed. All our clothes, waterproof jackets, pants, warm hat and gloves had to be vacuum cleaned. We could not carry any food or beverages to the mainland, nor could anything be left behind. At any landing, not more than 100 people could touch land at the same time! The rules were pretty tight and I am glad that so much effort is being undertaken to protect this pristine continent.
Our first milestone on the expedition was Drake Passage. Fortunately, the voyage was smooth, the scenery was incredible and most importantly, I did not have any motion sickness. Every evening, there were games organised for the passengers. One of the games was for us to guess the time and date we would see our first iceberg. We had to write it down and give it to the expedition team.
Two days later they announced that I was the contest winner – with the closest guess (10:24 am on 16th January). The exact timing was 10:29 am on 16th January – just a few minutes difference from my guess! Everyone wanted to know how I managed to make such a close guess. I had no answer. All I can say is that after being on the road for over 11 months, my intuition has gotten pretty sharp and I go by my gut instinct. My prize was a little penguin soft toy that I named ‘Iceberg’. He will stay with me on my bike till the end of my world ride.
Antarctica is made up of several islands, each claimed by different countries. As per rules of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), our expedition team had to get permission from all the islands, prior to us landing there. It took us 3 days to cross Drake Passage and reach the first island. We formally entered the continent of Antarctica at 8pm on the 15th of January – our first point of call being Yankee Harbour. I kept my Indian and Iranian flags up as soon as I touched Antarctica! It was truly a proud and humbling moment for me.
I vividly remember my first landing. Yankee Harbour was full of penguins and they intrigued me with their noise, the way they moved and swam. We were only allowed to stand in a specific part of the island, so as not to block their highways. Penguin highways are the routes they use to travel between the ocean and their nests, situated higher on land. We were instructed not to try to touch them or even get close to them. They could get scared, drop the food they had collected for their babies and flee back to the ocean.
We usually had two landings per day, depending on the weather conditions. The expedition took us to Yankee Harbour, Greenwich Island, China’s Great Wall Station, Wilhelmina Bay, Danco Island, King George Island, Culverville Island, Brown Station (Argentina Base) and Deception Island. For each landing, we had to get into a zodiac (an inflatable and lightweight boat) and sail to each island. All the landings were pretty wet, as we had to disembark from the zodiac a distance from land, get into the water and walk to the island in gumboots.
And then, I came down with a bad bout of the flu. Fortunately, some very nice and caring Indian passengers, who were also doctors, examined me and helped me through this horrible time. To complicate my discomfort, we headed into Drake Passage and the captain informed us that it was going to be rough sailing. The waves were predicted to be as high as 15 metres. The last thing I needed. With motion sickness, I could hold down neither medicine nor food. For almost 5 days, I could not eat a bite! However, I was absolutely clear in my head that I wanted to see Antarctica and nothing was going to get in the way. I dragged myself to every island.
We were returning in the zodiac from our last landing, when we heard a huge rasping sound. There was a HUGE whale swimming just past our boat. It was so close that I thought if it did not see us, our boat would soon turn over in the water! After swimming around us, he got his tail up and slammed it back into the water. That was the most amazing scene of the expedition. We soon made our way back to Argentina and I was dreaming of touching land again. Although it was a voyage of a lifetime, with my memories being well documented, I was glad to get back onto my bike and continue my journey to Buenos Aires. From there my ride would continue in Africa – my sixth continent.