Neko Harbor – One Small Step

12 January 2019

After a relatively small amount of sleep, I awoke this morning and walked to the window and drew the curtains.  When the initial phase of being blinded by the surrounding whiteness subsided, I looked out upon a frozen world.  The surrounding waters were full of small chunks of ice, the sky was a dull grey interspersed with cracks of blue and rocky snow-covered mountains rose from the ocean.  We were anchored in the bay of Neko harbour and we would soon go ashore on the first of our zodiac landings.

Darren and I once again, got dressed in every available piece of clothing and went down to the main lounge to board our zodiac from the marina.  It took about ten minutes to reach land from the ship, all the while the zodiac hit small lumps of ice that sometimes got churned up in the motor and scooted around larger bergs.

On arrival at Neko Harbour, we had a “wet landing” whereby you swing your legs over the side with your back to land and put your boots straight into the shallow, freezing water and then wade out of the ocean.  I’ll never forget the CRUNCH as my boots touched the Antarctic land mass for the first time. 

The landing on the Antarctic continent an achievement in itself, represented a much larger achievement for me, that step meant that I have now had my boots on the ground on every continent on Earth.

Once on land we were free to walk around the pathways marked out by the red crew flags, on the understanding that wildlife has the right of way and to stay off the “highways” made by the rookery of Gentoo penguins that inhabit the area.  The pathway was marked out up a hill, the first part of the climb was not strenuous as it was interspersed with groups of penguins to stop and watch.  I never tired of hearing their little quack like chirps, seeing them standing straight up and flapping their little wings, as if question why they aren’t able to fly and giggling at them swimming and jumping out of the water like dolphins. 

Darren and I both quickly realised we had over dressed for this outing.  It wasn’t overly cold, nothing like what had been expected.  It wasn’t long before we were climbing the aforementioned hill and slowly shedding our clothes. Gloves, followed by beanies and scarves and then finally opening up our Artic parkers to let some cool air in.  We were both sweating.  In Antarctica.

The ground was slippery in places and I needed a little more time than others to negotiate this but was fairly easy going once we were on snow.  It was almost funny taking a couple of fairly solid steps and then sinking up to your knees in ice and snow.  From the top the view was amazing, looking out into the harbour with our beautiful ship at anchor among the ice floes, with the penguins in the immediate foreground and a majestic glacier in the background. Just before we start the climb down one of the bergs close to the land broke in half, the ice fizzed in the water and the two new bergs almost bounced off each other and head in their own separate directions.  In the water lay the vast debris of ice from their destruction.

Upon returning to the ship, tea and cake are waiting for us, but before we indulge Darren and I immediately loose a layer of clothes. We won’t wear so much on the next landing.

No sooner are we on the ship than the captain pulls up the anchor and we proceed to cross through the spectacular Lemaire channel.  A narrow passage that cuts through the Antarctic mountains, huge ice bergs and of course a spectacular array of wildlife.  The rocky mountains, covered in snow rise up out of the Indigo blue water, which is so still it looks like glass.  There are bergs and ice floes through out the crossing, usually covered in penguins who “abandon ship” as soon as our vessel approaches them, on looking behind the ship after passing them, you can rather comically see them all climbing back onto their respective bergs and floes.  Apart from the penguins, we also spot two crab eater seals lounging on ice floes as we are passing, they pay us no mind and are not a skittish as the penguins.

During the navigation, the captain spots a pod of humpback whales and stops the ship, so we are able to watch them.  We are already out on deck, and we can see at least seven whales.  The captain decides to follow them for a while and as they are all around the ship, we decide to go back to our cabin and watch them from the balcony.  It has dried out enough to sit on, so we open some drinks from the well-stocked mini fridge and watch the whales in this serene and surreal environment.  At one point the whales are right in front of us, and one surfaces on its side and waves a flipper at us, we can see his face and beady eye staring at the visitors to his icy home.

In the afternoon, we arrive at Port Charcot for our second landing – Darren and I put on significantly less clothing, learning from our error and head down to the marina.  Upon landing at Port Charcot, a much easier path has been laid out for us.  It is still a climb, although the path is nowhere near as steep.  We both reached the top and the view of the bay on the other side of the hill was nothing short of breath taking.  The view looked out onto a field of ice, bergs the size of a New York Sky Scraper were trapped in the ice floes. 

Lemaire Channel
Passing through the Lemaire Channel

At this point we had caught up with the group of Chinese tourists we had on board, they had all congregated at the top and were making a fantastic racket – it seemed my idea that I was going to get to the top and enjoy the magnificent silence was not going to happen.  One particular group of them was busy taking pictures of themselves with company flags, (I’m unsure if they believe Antarctica has now been claimed for some Chinese company) laying and rolling in the snow, eating the snow, taking pictures off the trail and holding the snow – all things we had explicitly been told NOT to do.  On man had even bought a crockery set and tea cups ashore and was taking pictures of them carefully arranged in the snow – I can’t even begin to guess what that was about.  I later learned he had wanted to take tea ashore, to have his picture taken drinking Chinese tea from this magical tea set in Antarctica.  The crew were moved to put their foot down on that prior to his boarding with the tea.

Darren was so perturbed by their nonsense and racket he wandered off down the hill towards the spectacular bay we were looking at.  The crew and naturalists were not happy, and everyone proceeded to shout at him (he was a long way off) to come back to the marked trail, thinking he had lost his way.  Only I knew, he was trying to escape our Chinese companions as he has even less tolerance for stupidity than I do, which is no small statement.

Icebergs the size of skyscrapers and stadiums

Climbing down we made fairly good pace, despite stopping to oh, ah and coo and the fluffy penguin chicks sitting on their parents’ feet, and until a group of three Gentoo’s decided to cross our path on one of their highways.  Waddling along in a row, one after the other, the penguins stopped, almost as well-dressed gentlemen would to let guests pass.  Little did they know that in this place, they had the right of way.  A kind of Mexican standoff ensued, we waited for the penguins to pass, and they seemed to wait for us to pass.  Eventually they got the message after about ten minutes and crossed onto some rocks to out left, leaving us free to reboard the zodiacs and head back to the ship.

On our return to the ship, we had a lovely dinner in the formal restaurant down stairs, this time the windows were not partially submerged and it was quite enjoyable.  We were late to bed again, needing to keep reminding ourselves that it doesn’t get dark or ever feel late enough to go to bed.  We had a good sleep, despite strange rustling and banging that kept occurring.  Darren and I are speculating that we may have picked up some kind of yeti.

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