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Looking for Antarctica

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

I nearly missed Antarctica. I was looking for something very specific, something silent and empty—the ultimate study in white space. It showed up in the nick of time, just not where I’d been looking for it.

Eleven days out from Ushuaia, at the southernmost tip of Argentina, on a Canadian expedition ship headed for the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, I was still looking for something. After landing on Cape Horn and walking into the magnificent wind, after cruising among icebergs in a Zodiac dinghy to watch whales, after landing at Vernadsky Research Station, hopping off the Zodiac at Port Lockroy to buy picture postcards and English stamps and send them from its post office, and after exploring a caldera, the remains of a  blown-out volcano on Deception Island in the South Shetlands, I was still looking. I had the sense that I was missing something vital—the thing I’d traveled all this way for.

By now I’d become intimately aquainted with charming gentoo penguins and their less charming smells, and with the way the albatross soars and breaks your heart and your neck as you lean and crane in a vain attempt to follow it forever. I’d learned the many names for iceberg and the way the cliff-size ones groan and crash as they calve and splash into the warming water beneath. I’d also become aquainted with the voices and voiceovers of the other eighty-nine passengers on the vessel, who seemed incapable of having an experience without indulging the need to loudly narrate it for the benefit (or otherwise) of the rest of the ship and its crew. I’d privately (and not politely) named these fellow passengers Thieves of the Silence and I was not amused.

At last I had the opportunity to retreat and observe, in peace and silence, the naked night sky above me, as I slept in a bivy sack on Useful Island, a tiny island in the Gerlache Strait. A small and blessedly quiet group of passengers had opted for this overnight adventure, and just before dusk we eagerly carried sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and shovels up a hillside and dug shallow trenches in the hard-packed snow to protect ourselves from the wind. This small endeavour used up some energy, and by the time I’d settled into my sleeping bag in my freshly dug trench, switched off my headlamp, taken a last look at the alien, thrilling landscape, I fell asleep in an instant.

I woke up shortly after midnight with a freezing cold, wet neck and a hood filled by a fresh snowfall. I shook out my hood and fumbled in my sleeping bag for the contraband miniature of Johnny Walker that I’d smuggled ashore. I sat up in my makeshift bed, tipped my head back, and downed the whisky in a few burning gulps. I looked all around me, slowly, and then up again, at the sky. 

Something was off.

The night was silent, other than a bird call that I didn’t recognize, and perhaps the breath in the throat of another hardy antarctic camper. The landscape was not empty, but the outlines of distant islands and the odd shapes of other human bundles in their various sleeping arrangements was not intrusive. Beneath the light of the waxing moon, my icy hillside campground was white beyond white.

But the sky. The sky confused me. It was as close to black as navy blue can be—the deepest, most profound shade of beyond midnight, shot through with miniature silver bullet holes in shapes I’d never seen. I thought at first that the sky was upside down, or that I was upside down. I thought about it for quite a while, sitting up in bed, with a cold wet neck and a whisky-warmed throat, and wondered if somehow, at 64 degrees south, what I was seeing was in fact familiar constellations that had been magically rotated, for my amusement or edification, or both. This kept me awake though not overly concerned. I relaxed deeply, captivated by the night itself, engulfed in a wash of comfortable, comforting quiet that reached into my cold bones and beyond. 

I was captivated by the strange knowing that here I was, all alone in the middle of the night. With only the sound of my thoughts. With a sky full of strange stars to entertain me. And it was all so far from white, and not what I’d expected. It was Antarctica. Here was Antarctica.

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