Last minute preparations in Punta took us late into the night, we wanted to make the most of the wi-fi and no matter how organised you are – last minute admin will get you! Mighty (mp3) playlists and audiobooks have been downloaded (Michelle Obama’s biography, a book on historic speeches and Sapiens if you’re interested) and now it’s off to bed for a few hours sleep.
Earlier that day we were walking on the beach when an Emperor Penguin suddenly appeared from the sea. A rare sight in these parts, he was a long way from home and the locals tell me it’s a lucky omen to see one here in Punta Arenas. We watch him for a few moments as he waddled along looking perplexed, he took one look at our urban environment and smartly decided to head back into the sea. If any of the schools following the polar science programme are reading this, maybe you could investigate how the penguin could have ended up here from Antarctica and let me know!
Our flight the next morning wasn’t confirmed due to weather patterns over Antarctica, nonetheless all passengers must be waiting at the airport fully dressed in their Antarctica clothing (it can be up to -20/-30C upon landing!) and wait for the pilot to make his final decision. It’s touch and go for a few hours but we finally get the go ahead and it’s time to board.
The Ilyushin plane flying us there is a sight to be seen. It is a large Russian cargo plane that usually carries freight and not passengers. Our bags are loaded in the rear and our seats bolted in the front, wiring hangs everywhere and with only two small viewing portholes, this is no normal commercial airline jet. The flight security is also a little different to a normal flight. No security scanners, our last step in Chile is taken in a kind of sheep dip of disinfectant to prevent contamination of the unique Antarctica microfauna.
You don’t want to be caught short for fuel when you’re flying to Antarctica, so our journey was a two-legged one. We landed to refuel in Ushuaia, Argentina – a popular resort town in Argentina in a part of the country nicknamed ‘The End of the World”…fitting when you’re next stop is the Union Glacier ice runway in Antarctica!
The wind was blowing hard when we landed and the blue ice was incredibly slippery. Taking lessons from our furry friend we made in Punta, I waddle along the frozen runway and I’m careful not to slip. Stories of an Antarctic traveller falling and breaking their arm serve as a cautionary tale.
After pausing for photos and hugs we loaded into some trucks for the drive to base camp. Union Glacier is the hub for all Antarctica adventures and tourism. Set up and dismantled every summer season, it is a collection of offices, large storage tents, dining tents and smaller sleeping tents.
The clouds lifted on arrival and for the first time, we could see the beauty of Union Glacier. The snow is deep so you can’t see the crevasses all around camp but red flags mark the safe boundaries of camp. In the distance are mountains and glaciers and nothing but eerie silence. No birds, no insects, just a collection of incredible people here on their own adventures. I inspect my pulk and skis to make sure they arrived safely and then loved meeting all the staff and other guests in camp. The ALE staff here includes guides, mechanics, pilots, cooks and doctors all with an amazing array of polar and adventure experience – some on their 15th season here. I could live here for weeks just to listen to their stories, they are fascinating beyond belief. I spot Johanna Davidsson (female world record holder for solo to the South Pole and now a guide here) and desperately try to play it cool. I’m in awe at this place and its people.
The sun is just doing loops above camp, moving in and out of cloud but never getting near the horizon. It is easy to lose track of time in constant daylight, but it’s late and I should really get some sleep. I’ve been dreaming of being in Antarctica for so long that sleeping suddenly feels like the last thing I want to do.
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