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Nat Geo Traveller India - Nov 2017

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november 2017 | national GeoGraphic traveller inDia 139 138 national GeoGraphic traveller inDia | november 2017 The journey AnTArcTicA lenticular cloud loomed. The wind swirled its stillness into the shape of a UFO, like a potter pinching, pressing, pulling her clay. Below, an iceberg emerged out of the blue. The wind chaffed its creviced sides, causing an infinitesimal inclination. At first, it wavered, then insisted on itself, tipping back in place. A 105 years after Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, I set sail from Ushuaia in Argentina, towards Antarctica on the Drake Passage, known colloquially as the Drake Shake or Drake Lake, depending on the state of the seas. Watching the sea and the sky, I thought about the myth of the North, of Njörðr, the Norse god of ships and seafaring, and the fur-clad female warriors that came riding through the sky. But the South did not so easily yield such stories. In the absence of human life beyond the boat, I was left imagining the supersti- tions of the early explorers, whose journal entries began with scientific logs and ended with ruminations on being. The ocean was infinite, vanishing points everywhere with no object in sight to give perspective or scale, save the occasional albatross or petrel swerving above. The waves lashed, 37 feet high and perpetual. For several days, life on our 450-foot ship was led at a 60º angle. It was laughable, till we adjusted to it. We sought balance without denying the tilt. Routine Surprises On the bridge, the ship's control room where silence was man- datory, the stoic Romanian captain charted the wind, which was sinuous. Signals criss-crossed, buttons beeped, screens blinked, maps were uncreased, and binoculars lay on hand. The captain looked out with attention but let out a whisper a notch louder than was allowed. He had spotted a fin whale. Even after a decade of Antarctic travel, he could still surprise himself. Then, the sun burned through the mist. Mountains rose from the ocean's helm. When the first iceberg, almost a kilometre high from base to tip, emerged, I gasped. This would only be the overture. For the next 10 days, every iceberg seemed more spectacular than the last. I began to reckon with the history of the search for the continent from 300 B.C. when Aristotle hypothesised that a mythic southern continent must exist, based simply in the rationale of equilibrium. Antarctica was named by Aristotle, from Greek anti and arks, meaning 'opposite the bear', the name for the constellation under which the Arctic lay. Time here exists at scales that far transcend those we can grasp. The older, denser bits of ice were a piercing sapphire. I understood the captain's joy: Even after 10 years of navigating the Antarctic, its stark intensity could not become customary. A Being aboard a vessel in Antarctica is full of potentialities. One never knows when a gentoo penguin, or a large colony of them, might come into view. For the writer, travelling with Irish wildlife guide and ornithologist, Jim Wilson, meant understanding the continent in all its surprises and complexities.

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