December 6, 2008

Visiting Antarctica: Part One

I was so close to visiting Antarctica while I was in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. I wish I ponied up the cash to go, but I also wish I had my friend Kareem Mayan to give me advice on how to see Antarctica without breaking the bank. This is Kareem's first post on Globe Stompers, and here are his words of wisdom from his recent trip:

I went to Antarctica earlier this month. It was an amazing experience being so far away from civilization and seeing crazy foreign terrain.

holy shit, i'm doing this
as i approached the ship to depart with two buddies, we got quiet - fear of the unknown was suddenly staring us in the face. but then i realized how friggin' awesome the antarctica adventure was going to be, and i couldn't stop smiling!


QUICK FACTS

Antarctica:
  • is the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent
  • contains 70% of the world's fresh water
  • doubles in size in the winter
  • can grow at 3 km per day as the surrounding water freezes in the winter
  • has about 40k visitors per year in the summer months between November and March
  • has been visited by less than a million people in the history of time
PB100526
Amazing Landscapes

WHY GO

This was the third question asked when meeting new people on the boat (the first was "what's your name", the second; "where are you from" - we counted people from 21 countries).

For me, I was intrigued by the landscapes after seeing a friend's pictures of the Arctic. The blue and white landscapes were like nothing I'd seen before, and I suspected the remoteness and scale of the ice would make me feel small and give me perspective. The Antarctic was even more remote, further away, and more difficult to get to than the Arctic. So, of course, it made it more appealing to me.

For others, the reasons were similar to mine... or to climb, honeymoon, ski, or as a last-minute "what the hell" trip while vacationing in Ushuaia.

PICT6246
Beautiful Ice

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

In early October I bought my ticket through Quark Expeditions, who also operated this expedition. Based on this trip, I'd highly recommend them (more below). I paid $2500, which was discounted from $4400 or so. My room was a shared triple - only one of two, and the cheapest room on the ship - with two lower and one upper bunk, and shared bathrooms and showers. I also paid another $700 for the option to kayak (only 16 people were allowed to kayak). Cabins can get mighty expensive, and mighty nice too.

The other way to get there is to head down to Ushuaia and wait for a last-minute berth. One of my cabin-mates did this, but I'm not sure how much he paid (the rumor was that Quark doesn't discount last-minute tickets). That said, I have a friend who just paid $1800 for a last-minute berth on a ship not run by Quark. I didn't have time to kill in Ushuaia waiting for last-minute fares to open up, and I wanted to camp and kayak, so I paid in advance (and lucked into a great deal announced on Quark's mailing list).

USHUAIA, ARGENTINA

Almost all ships leave from Ushuaia. It's a small town that rides its status as the southernmost city in the world. I had one full day there, but instead of opting to visit Tierra Del Fuego (an allegedly beautiful national park nearby), I decided to pick up last-minute supplies for the trip and see the town a bit. It's quaint and hilly, and the most exciting thing I did there was enjoy a meal at the best restaurant in town, Kaupé. The food there was excellent - king crab is fished locally and is served up fresh and delicious. There were many tenedor libres (all you can eat meat places - literally "free fork") serving up Patagonian lamb. I didn't try it though, as I'd had enough meat in Buenos Aires to last a year, and I have a distaste for lamb after a bad incident in Shanghai in 2002.

patagonia lamb, anybody?
The lamb was a no-go, though it looked warm and toasty

ABOUT THE TRIP

The trip consisted of 11 days at sea. We left Ushuaia on a Friday evening and hit the Antarctic peninsula on the following Monday morning. We visited multiple locations in Antarctica that week. We had two excursions a day from our ship, the Vavilov. We ended by visiting the South Shetland Islands on Friday. We headed back to Ushuaia on Friday night, and landed early Monday morning.

LeavingUshuaia
Leaving Ushuaia

The guides kept stressing that this was an adventure excursion. That meant that a lot of what we did was dependent on weather conditions. Indeed, we had some cancelled activities but they were always replaced with other things (i.e. we couldn't get to land because of the ice or wind, so instead we'd cruise around the icebergs in zodiacs).

He looked like this, only less pixelated

The staff were fantastic. It was comprised of mostly Aussies, with a few Canadians, Americans, and Others wrapped in for the heck of it. They were knowledgeable, accommodating, entertaining, and generally fun to be around. The crew was Russian and we didn't interact much, short of being helped into and out of the Zodiacs en route to shore, seeing the Captain and his homies on the bridge, and working out with a Zangief-life character in the gym (his preferred music was Blondie, while mine was a burned CD in the weightroom entitled "Black Music"). There were about 50-60 staff and crew, and 90-100 passengers on board.

THE SHIP

The Akademik Sergei Vavilov is a Scandinavian-made Russian research vessel. I was expecting a fairly rough-around-the-edges vessel, but was super surprised to find it more than comfortable (lesson: never underestimate the pure awesomeness of Scandinavian design, I s'pose).

Akademik Sergei Vavilov
The Akademik Sergei Vavilov

The ship has six decks, with a gym, sauna + seawater (i.e. *cold*) plunge pool, library, internet room (which I never used), big bar and observation lounge, presentation room, and dining hall.

More pics of the ship:


Part two: wildlife, the passengers, kayaking, and the dreaded Drake Passage crossing!.

Part three: drinking with Ukrainians, playing icebreaker, rounding Cape Horn, and hot springs and Crossfit on Deception Island!

---
Kareem Mayan is living and working in cool cities around the world. He blogs about how he's doing it - and how you can do it too - at http://www.howsthewifi.com/.

1 comment:

pau_p1 said...

wow! you're such a lucky person to be able to visit one of the most remote lands in the world...