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Nat Geo Traveller India - Nov 2017

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november 2017 | national GeoGraphic traveller inDia 141 140 national GeoGraphic traveller inDia | november 2017 The journey AnTArcTicA And yet, life on the ship assumed a routine. Daylight dimmed and our clocks trudged on. After breakfast, we would head to the mud room, where our boots and jackets hung, and proceed to undertake the painstaking routine of covering our bodies— head to toe—in layers of warm clothing. My skin had become parched. We looked absurd, brushing against fleeces, scram- bling for camera bags and yanking at the straps of our life vests. We would vacuum our clothes of any invasive particles and disembark onto Zodiacs (inflatable rafts) in groups of eight to explore a corner of the continent. Once we stopped to see a seal eating another seal; another time we were suddenly surrounded by colonies of gentoo penguins. We spotted a shipwreck lodged in rock, and imagined the self- contained life of those posted at research stations pre-war. Everything was surreal, ungraspable, cosmic. On one landing, we saw a patch of green—Antarctic lichen—and it reminded us that we were on Earth. We hadn't seen green in days. Disturbances at a distance Later, when I visited my library to scour maps of Antarctica, the index read: "The World; Africa, Asia, Middle East, E. Asia, Europe, U.S.A., Pacific; Moon, Mars and Antarctica." The continent has been called a "White Mars" and this is not an exaggeration: it is notoriously the coldest, driest, windiest landmass, 98 per cent of which is covered in ice. Even in the summer, the average temperature is -27°C. Its extremes manifest in its fauna as well: the largest terrestrial animal is a midge, a wingless insect that has the tiniest genome ever sequenced. There are no indigenous people, and therefore no government, culture, history or art. In fact, the geopolitics of the continent are not dissimilar to outer space, its laws bound only to an indeterminate Antarctic treaty—the first arms control established during the Cold War—banning activity that causes "harmful interferences" and promoting "peaceful exploration." At Concordia Station, doctor and researcher Alexander Kumar noted that, "We are completely alone and isolated here from February to November. The French refer to people who over-winter here as Hivernauts, but unlike astronauts, we have no 'mission control'." It's far away, it's cold, it's uninhabitable. So why do we care? For one, because the poles function as a thermostat: the Earth retains heat at the Equator and loses it at the poles. The Arctic and the Antarctic regulate the temperature of the entire planet. It is also the container of about 70 per cent of the world's fresh water, while in the rest of the world, only one (privileged) person in eight, has access to this resource. And also because its sublime beauty may be unlike anywhere else on Earth. Like the realm of outer space, Antarctica is still being discovered. Its exploration is, in large part, funded by vested private interests looking for potential mines of diminishing natural resources. Climate change is causing a loss of land and sea ice, which will reveal new sources of oil, gas, minerals and arable land. Fishing for commercial purposes as well as for polar microbes that may be used in pharmaceuticals has begun. The acidification of the ocean threatens many species, including the stunning sea butterfly. Metaphor in motion Witnessing this fragile beauty under threat remains inaccessi- ble to many travellers since it requires heavy resources and a will to leave only the lightest trace. When the treaty is renegotiated in 2048, Antarctica may depend entirely on the stories of a small handful of people: from the musings of the explorers' logs and the measurements of a few scientists to the poet's imagination. One of those scientists was William Wales, an astronomer on James Cook's Resolution, which crossed the Antarctic Circle three times in 1773. Wales later taught mathematics at Christ's School in London, where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a pupil. It is perhaps no coincidence that Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, set in the Antarctic seas, speculates about this mysterious, seemingly supernatural place. A rime is both a crust of ice, and an archaic spelling of rhyme—a play on words that points to the artist's search for the clarity of mean- ing, emerging out of the fog of language. And through the drifts the snowy clifts Did send a dismal sheen: Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken— The ice was all between Antarctica is a place where the scientific gives way to the met- aphysical and beauty blurs with terror. Perhaps it is like a poem: tipping reality ever so slightly, then the symmetry, then again. The writer at Deception Island, amid the remains of buildings and whaling equipment. Whaling began here since the early 1900s and continued till circa 1931. essentials There are daily flights from Delhi and mumbai to Buenos Aires, with a stopover at a european gateway city. Daily flights connect Buenos Aires to ushuaia. The writer travelled to Antarctica with ibex expeditions (www.ibexexpeditions.com; 10-day expedition from $6,000/`3,90,390). Travelling to Antarctica in nov-Dec is highly recommended for the lovely night skies, while Jan- march is a good time to see the whales. Must carry sea sickness remedies such as acupuncture sea-bands, sunscreen, and a polariser for your camera lens. The Ocean Endevour ploughs through the Antarctic ice, with the occasional humpback whale gliding along the waves for company. Seals find an unlikely resting spot amid the remains at Deception Island.

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