Today's guest post comes from Jonny Blair of Don't Stop Living. He describes the surreal, wonderful nature of a landing on Antarctica's mainland.
Believe me when I say that this was no ordinary 'landing.' I had already cruised and hiked round Antarctica for the previous week but somehow the anticipation of landing on the actual mainland part of the Antarctic continent made things feel slightly more 'real.' Not that any travel story on Antarctica can ever be considered as 'fake' I hasten to add!
Having my passport stamped at Port Lockroy, visiting the British Base and hiking to the top of Cuverville Island were already highlights of my Antarctic trip. Then our ship sailed gallantly into Andvord Bay and the view in front was nothing but a white wilderness of glaciers and snow. This was mainland Antarctica and I saw it with my own eyes. Our ship was the MS Expedition, whose predecessor the MS Explorer sunk in Antarctica. A lively crowd gathered out on the deck of the ship as we approached Mainland Antarctica. A magic was in the air. It was indescribable, but I'll do my best to describe it for you...
Once we had anchored our teams were called to the "mud room" (where you put your gear on for landings). Cameras were charged, gloves were on and quite frankly everyone in our group was as happy as you will ever see them. Spirits were high as we glared out at a world of white. I was one of the first to leave the ship for the mainland. To get from the ship to all land visits in Antarctica you need to board Zodiacs. These are small engine powered raft style boats that take us to shore. I've spent a couple of years working at sea so I was well used to them and loving the cruises. It took just four minutes to get from our ship to the beach by Andvord Bay. We are told that we are arriving at a place called Neko Harbour. Immediately it just sounds good. "Neko" Harbour was discovered by Belgian explorer Gerlache (the Gerlache Strait in Antarctica takes its name from him) and is an inlet at Andvord Bay at Graham Land on the Danco Peninsula on Mainland Antarctica. One of the quotes from one of our group leaders was "don't forget, everything you see is real."
Arrival at Neko is breathtaking. A light snowstorm welcomes us and the sky is a mass of only white. You wouldn't imagine it any other way. The beach itself is odd. It contains sand. Cold, clean, brown sand, covered for the most part in ice or snow, but visible. Parts of the water are completely frozen and penguins compete for the spot that has the best view. Or at least the best place for them to nest to reproduce the next generation of Antarctica's most popular living tourist attraction. Penguins fail to raise an eyebrow as we walk past them, posing for photos, diving in the snow as if we have never seen snow before. And the magic has just begun. There is that kind of "Neil Armstrong" feeling for that first step you make onto Antarctica. Okay, it's not the moon, but let's face it, it's still pretty obscure.
A fellow Irish traveller, Rhona, has brought her Irish Tricolour flag and I have my travelling Northern Ireland flag with me. So we pose for a unique photo on the beach before delving deep into the snow. We remarked briefly on the troubles in Northern Ireland, before realising we are in the world's loneliest, coldest, driest and most inspiring continent. Indeed there are no murders here. And that is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of Antarctica. This is a peaceful place. It is stunningly beautiful.
We walk up to the top of a hill where we lose our boots at various intervals to the deep snow, you get used to yanking them out. Walking in socks and being glove-less is fine when you study and admire the landscape around you. And yes, believe it or not, Antarctica is not actually that cold if you do it right. I swam in the waters at Whaler's Bay and wore a t-shirt at the top of Cuverville. This was Antarctica's summer and that is the best time to go. I never even noticed the temperature because I was so moved and inspired by the landscape and instantly memorable beauty.
We build a few snowmen at the top of the hill and stare over the horizon. Mist, ice and snow are all we can see in the great white yonder. I chat to George from the USA and we mention that if we really wanted we could keep walking and eventually we will reach the South Pole. It's true, as we are now on the mainland part of Antarctica - the continent itself. We are standing on the same land mass as the South Pole. Many have tried to walk it and many have died. But thanks to technology advances there is now a research station at the South Pole, an achievement in itself. As George and I stared into the distance there must have been a slight pause in our lives at that moment. I pondered on the moment and thought to myself "this is probably the furthest south I will ever go, and the closest I will get to the South Pole." It was a moment to treasure and savour as a fun snowball fight got underway. I took time to walk around at the top and then slide down the hill back to the other side of the beach.
On an Antarctica trip, landings tend to go fast, even though you spend a good few hours on land, you're caught up in emotion and in awe of your surroundings that if it weren't for photos, videos and vivid memories, the moments would pass you by. For me they didn't. I will never forget the true magical feeling of stepping on mainland Antarctica that day. I did it and I did it all myself on a real backpacker's budget.
Once we boarded the ship again it was Happy Hour in the onboard bar and we all raised a toast to say we had stepped on mainland Antarctica. The magic lives on and it will linger with me forever. The magical ice cold white wonderland of Neko Harbour in Antarctica.
If you find a spare day in your life at any point, I'd strongly recommend Neko Harbour. Places like this are what the word "magical" should really be saved for and I make no apologies for over-using the word.
Bio: Jonny Blair is a self confessed travel addict. He has been travelling the world for the last decade since leaving behind his home town of Bangor in Northern Ireland. He has been to all seven continents, working in four of them and visiting almost 70 countries and over 400 towns or cities. His website Don't Stop Living is all about living a lifestyle of travel. Something that Jonny has managed to do and is encouraging others to follow in his footsteps. You can also find 'Don't Stop Living' on Facebook.