In a beautiful throwback, Bollywood film director and our A-List member Imtiaz Ali remembers how he found his escape from civilisation and lived a long-cherished dream with his daughter on an expedition to the White Continent of Antarctica with The Q Experiences. By Imtiaz Ali
As my daughter, Ida was growing up, Pingu was one of her favourite cartoon characters. We would often watch the penguin waddle on television for hours. Even today, our collective love for penguins is so profound that when I went to Australia, I did not go to see the flightless birds because she wasn’t with me. That, however, is set to change—in a very special place.
It all starts at a small archipelago in South America called Tierra del Fuego. Translating to the ‘Land of Fire’ in Spanish, this wind-lashed land is at the edge of civilisation—it’s the southernmost city in the world— and hence, an apt precursor to the empty white land we will explore later. For now, though, the many fascinating restaurants and markets in Ushuaia— the capital of the archipelago—give me and Ida company. Enchanting forest reserves and entertaining nightclubs aside, observing the lives of people living in such a cold, windy place fascinates us the most. A single night, however, is not enough to take in the entire city. We will be back here, of that I’m sure. Whether we shall come separately or together, I can’t say. For now, we have other adventures awaiting us.
We set sail on a ship called Le Boreal, a French ship from the fleet of PONANT, which has partnered with The Q Experiences for this surreal expedition. It takes us two days to reach Antarctica from Ushuaia, both of which I spend looking out at the sea through the window of my comfortable cabin. As the ship dances with the waves, it becomes part of me. Despite the fact that this is my first cruise, I feel at ease. The cosy cabin is only one part of the reason; the captivating water outside is the other. Even the darkness of the night doesn’t stop me from keeping the curtains open and marvelling at the gentle lapping of the ocean and swaying to the water’s currents.
An eventful morning breaks with an announcement on the ship’s sound system, where the captain’s voice delivers the news that I have been waiting for, “We’ve arrived in Antarctica.” The first visual of the white landmass, to put it simply, is mindblowing. To know that the land is covered by almost three miles of ice, on an average, is crazy! Getting to see it first-hand, however, is crazier. Our first stop is Neko Bay, a spot, I’m told by the crew, often visited by tourists who venture to the White Continent. I can see why.
The white expanse is breathtaking. With enough space to walk around, Neko Bay is truly beautiful. Penguin colonies add to the glory. The moment I see the ﬂightless aquatic birds, I am reminded of the Pingu stories Ida and I would share. Our familial dream of seeing the penguins together has been fulﬁlled at last—at the ﬁnal frontier no less. Here, one can watch these animals live for hours. Much like human beings, you can gauge the sentiments of a penguin as well. In fact, one need not necessarily set foot in Antarctica to see the continent’s captivating wildlife. Before reaching land, I see different kinds of whales cruising in the water. An announcement by the captain is all it takes for me to run to the ship’s deck. I see ﬁ n whales—the second largest species on Earth after the blue whale—and humpback whales, spraying water from their blowholes and swimming away from us. During the course of the voyage, we also witness humongous elephant seals grunting through their trunk-like noses (proboscis), leopard seals that resemble large snakes from afar, the rare Weddell seal, and many others lounging on the ice.
Since there are no humans living in Antarctica permanently, the wildlife does not feel threatened by us. They are not shy of people since they hardly get human visitors. This allows us to see them up close. On the journey, I learn that the seals’ huge layers of fat are their coping mechanism against the harshness of Antarctica’s winter. Once these animals are on land, they become very slow. I’m told that penguins when on land, tease these seals for their sluggish pace!
This unhurried lifestyle out there is in stark contrast to the liveliness that surrounds me on the ship. While we make our epic voyage, an abundance of activities keeps us busy on the ship. I get a chance to interact with people from different places around the world—French, Russians, Americans, and fellow Indians. I consider myself a boring person, given that I don’t enjoy playing board games or cards, or even gambling. But the cultural shows on the cruise keep me entertained. On one end, the ship’s auditorium doubles as a space for entertaining dance and music performances; on the other end, attending talks delivered by environmentalists and expedition leaders becomes one of my favourite activities. All of the presentations are made by specialists, whether it’s on the geology of Antarctica or its wildlife.
Eating on board is fun, too. The food is splendid, thanks to the amazing chefs working in the big kitchen. What makes the voyage magical though are the calls of the captain every morning that wakes me up from my slumber to witness the magic of the surroundings. Six to eight of us climb on to a small rubber boat, called Zodiac, and set out on expeditions daily. One such journey is to see ice formations of unbelievable colours—black, green, and blue! I’m willing to navigate the cold waters again, just to catch a glimpse of this otherworldly beauty one more time.
While this wishful thinking generates hope, I’m also well aware of the threats global warming poses to Antarctica. My expedition leader points out that the snow is melting in the Far South. I notice the impact of climate change in the lack of variety of penguins on the islands. Once home to numerous penguin colonies, today, the space seems to have homogenised. I’m suddenly grateful for the lack of humans on this continent. A thriving civilisation in close range could potentially spoil the geography further.
On our journey back to Ushuaia, a sense of disappointment paints the faces of the 200 passengers, including me. Being away from civilisation teaches you how trivial whatever we do or build really is. The feeling of being alone in the middle of nowhere is relaxing. With memories of the expansive White Continent alive in my mind, I know I’ll return to Antarctica, at least to see all the Pingus again.
Your Guide To The White Continent
There are connecting flights from Indian metros to the international airport in Ushuaia, from where the cruise sets sail.
This voyage to the White Continent is organised by The Q Experiences. It sets sail from Ushuaia, which has everything from mountains to icy seas. Carve out some time to explore the Tierra del Fuego National Park, sip on the city’s fine Argentine wine and devour fresh cuts at artisan steakhouses.
Once onboard, the first and second day of your voyage are spent crossing the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean via the Drake Passage, named after Sir Francis Drake, who dared to cross these oceanic currents in 1578. The ship then meanders its way to the Neko Bay and Paradise Bay, the entry points to Antarctica. The eerie silence of the ocean is broken only by the cries of birds like cape petrels, cormorants, and seagulls. If weather permits, the ship will drop anchor at three ports of the South Shetland Islands. Pleneau Island is a tiny ice-covered rock that is home to the Kelp gull, the South polar skua, and the Antarctic tern. The island of Goudier hosts Port Lockroy, a picture-perfect cove discovered by Jean-Baptiste Charcot. It has the only post office on the continent from where you can send a postcard. The port is also used as a research station for Gentoo penguins.
By the expedition’s seventh day, you reach Deception Island. Over the years, this island has played many roles: a port, a whaling station, and a research centre. Multiple countries have tried gaining ownership of this land, but volcanic eruptions have weeded people away. Now, seals and whales are the only occupants.
This sense of desolation reaches its zenith at the Weddell Sea, the last stop of the voyage. Famous for being one of the quietest places on Earth, this icy expanse hides the rare Weddell seal in its deepest crevices. The next voyage of The Q Experiences to Antarctica is scheduled for December 14, 2020.