Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Day 10: Home of the Blizzard

Location: 66 deg 60' S, 142 deg 37' E
Vessel: Spirit of Enderby, 1750 tons, 50 pax, 71.6m

If I was hoping for a re-enactment of Mawson's legendary 'Home of the Blizzard', then I would be bitterly disappointed. After ten days travelling south through NZ's sub-Antarctic islands, then Macquarie Island to reach this 'Great White South', instead of some howling gale and the devastating fury of nature, we found ourselves motoring sedately ashore on a millpond. The sun peeps through a thin cloudy layer occasionally and many of us are stripped back to shirt sleeves. Not frostbite or gangrene, but sunburn.

Commonwealth Bay, or more precisely, just off Cape Denison, is where Heritage Expeditions' Spirit of Enderby is anchored. A short Zodiac ride delivers us to the very site used by Mawson and his team for landing their stores and themselves, then we follow the same path to the hut and wait patiently for our turn to tour inside. With windows boarded up and skylights closed, it's all but pitch black inside, but Rodney Russ is there with his flashlight pointing out the empty bunks, still with the famous names engraved; Hurley, Ninnis and Mertz are just three. Provisions, books, crockery and utensils still line the shelves almost as if the residents still expect to return. The hut is one of the famed suite of historic Antarctic huts preserved and restored for posterity and as a living memorial to the brave (and sometimes foolish) men who ventured south in the name of science and glory.

“We've been coming here every year since '98 and to the Antarctic since'93,” says Russ, who's modest, family-owned company is one of the true pioneers in Antarctic tourism in the Ross Sea region, “and in all that time we've never missed a landing here. Sure, they are not always as easy as as they were today, but we make it.”

Antarctica and especially the deep southern regions around the Ross Sea make for some of the most extreme expedition cruising available. The possibility of rough seas, small vessels and disappointment make this a journey for the hardiest travellers. Yet the cross section of passengers is surprising. The youngest is 22 and the oldest well over 70. All possess a commendable sense of adventure and are eagerly waiting at the gangway when departures are announced. Few mention any desire to travel aboard the big vessels for pleasure, instead it is the destination and experience they crave with the ship merely a means of fulfilling their passion.

To call this type of voyage a 'cruise' is to do it a great disservice. It is every bit the true quest and holds faithfully to the fundamental urge that drove Mawson, Shackleton, Scott and so many others to seek this mysterious and foreboding land. Thankfully today we can do it in vastly more comfortable ships with state-of-the-art equipment.