Leith Cove, Paradise Harbor, Antartica
When we last left off in our Antarctica trip report series, we were at Paradise Harbor, fresh off our first continental landing. But we hardly had time to catch our breath after returning to the ship before it was practically time for our next adventure. For as I teased in the last report's cliffhanger ending, we were heading out after dinner to an exciting overnight camping excursion on the 7th Continent! Yes, my friends and I were among the 60 crazy people who were adventurous enough actually sleep out overnight and under the skies in the Antarctic wild.
Overnight camping was an add-on when we booked our Antarctica cruise with Quark Expedition. Its $300 price tag wasn't exactly cheap, but compared to the overall cost of the cruise, it was a trifling expense. Along with kayaking ($1000 for the opportunity to kayak in the waters of every excursion site we visited--we would hit up nine in total for the trip), the camping was one of two main add-on's that Quark offered. While I had no interest in the kayaking due to my apathy toward water activities and the inconvenience that kayaking would pose to my photography goals, the camping seemed like an intriguing idea.
Our overnight camping preparation actually began on our second day at sea, after returning from Deception Island, when we gathered together for a meeting to review protocol and logistics for our impending camping experience. We were told to expect anything--from a perfectly fantastic and fun time to sudden and unexpected weather that could force us to end our camp-out prematurely. We would be exposed to the elements, without any tents to shield us from snowfall or the wind. The sojourn would culminate with just us under the Antarctic sky, in our sleeping bags, as intimately communed with nature as one can be. And after all the proceedings were laid out, we were given the chance to change our minds if we felt the experience too daunting and allow other Ocean Diamond passengers on the standby list to take our place.
Not a single person dropped out.
We reconvened on the day of our camping trip, after our morning excursion out to Danco Island. Scattered across the "Main Lounge" on deck 5 of the ship, we each readied our sleeping arrangements for the evening. Each of us received a fleece blanket, which we would slip around us before we climbed into a cold-rated sleeping bag supplied by Quark. We were also provided with a foam sleeping pad that we slipped through the straps on the bottom of the sleeping bag, and this assembly was then placed inside a thermally rated bivy sac that would serve as our outer layer cover. Everything was then tightly rolled and stuffed into the sack that our sleeping bag came in.
After an early dinner following our return from Base Brown, we returned to our cabins for final preparations prior to leaving for our camp site. I made sure to shower and use the toilet facilities before leaving the ship. Having watched a video online of a previous Quark overnight camping expedition, I knew the restroom facilities would simply consist of a pair of buckets--one per gender--each placed within its own snowy embankment for privacy. With multiple layers to struggle through and the brisk, evening Antarctic air whirling around, it would not be physically or mentally comfortable to go #1 or #2 once we were on land!
It was around 9:00 or 9:30 when we boarded our Zodiac rafts for a short cruise over to our camp site, a tiny island that our expedition guides had "found" located in Leith Cove. The cove itself was a small inlet at a separate part of Paradise Harbor from where we had explored earlier in the day. Our aquatic run over was filled with excitement, as we gazed in wonder at the magnificent landscape that lay before us. Towering, rocky cliffs and craggy, snow-capped peaks stood like geological sentinels in a semi-circular U around the little isle. The island itself looked like a small, snow-covered hill rising out of the Antarctic water. Our anticipation quickened as we neared our landing.
Gentoo penguins served as our welcoming committee as we arrived. Our Quark guides grabbed our sleeping bag packs as we disembarked, then tossed them back to us as we made our way up from the rocky coastline to the higher point comprising the majority of the island. I silently giggled with glee as my boots pushed through the fresh, powdery snow--knee deep in some places--savoring how delightful it was to be making fresh tracks on what felt like previously unexplored land.
We had ten to fifteen minutes to find a sleeping spot and begin setting up before we were called for a meeting for final notes and rules. After identifying a little plot of snow on the western side of the island, facing the setting sun, I set about stomping out a rectangular area of snow to form a firm and level surface on which I could lay a second foam sleeping pad, over which the bivy sac and sleeping bag combination would rest.
Our meeting reviewed the rules of the evening. By this point, it was a little after 10:00pm. Quiet hour would commence at 11:00. While we weren't required to go to bed if we did not wish, we were asked to keep the noise level in conversations and interactions to a minimum, out of respect for those who did wish to sleep. As we were to "leave no trace"--as the motto of those visiting Antarctica goes,--food and beverage were strictly prohibited. It was also paramount not to venture beyond the marked boundaries of the island or walk too close to the water. If anyone needed to use the toilets ("Mr. YumYum," as the expedition guides jokingly referred to the literal waste barrels), he or she was asked to sit down regardless of manner of excretion. This would minimize the messiness for those unfortunate guides who had to break down the facilities and take the "toilets" back to the ship.
As the blazing sun slowly set beyond the island mountaintops to our west, it was natural to appreciate the immaculate view that lay before us. The fierly glow provided the best magic hour of the trip, as those golden rays radiated a cozy and spectacular warmth over the Antarctic landscape. Those mighty peaks on the continental mainland to our east glistened in the evening light, and the crystal azure skies behind them enhanced a most photogenic scene.
Those of us who hadn't finished setting up our sleeping arrangements went back to that task after the meeting. The rest of us explored our diminutive home for the night, staying within the marked boundaries for our own safety. It was a fun struggle to trudge through the soft snow and avoid sinking into the ground because the ice was so untouched. Even though we were just camping out on a small island, we kind of felt like polar explorers, conquering a frigid unknown. Against such a resplendent, icy wilderness, it wasn't difficult to fall into the illusion!
The setting sun eventually gave way to a cool, peaceful evening, with cotton candy wisps trailing through the sky. The air took on a bit of a chill, but the amazing scenery more than made up for any discomfort from the temperatures. Though the glow of the sun was no longer upon us, the coolness of the icescape in shadow actually took on a relaxing tone. The texture of the ice upon the water looked both organic and brittle at once, and the drifting bits of ice in the water around us lapped softly under the otherwise silent air. Every now and then, we could hear the distant thunder of a calving part of a glacier. And though we saw no obvious movement, we could practically feel the land's flow.
Those of us who felt a little more social congregated and took in the scenery together. It was easy to conversate with both friends we had already made on the trip and strangers. We were all bonded by our mutual, exquisite experience. A humorous moment in the evening occurred when a fellow camper began hurling snowballs in our direction, trying to pelt a friend of his. Realizing an opportunity, I retreated to my backpack to grab my monopod, and we engaged in a very short but comedic session of Antarctic baseball (snowball?). Unfortunately, the 11:00 hour hit only a few minutes into our game, cutting our sporting event short.
The late evening gray hour unexpected gave way to a wondrous post-sunset, as the skies lit up with purples and oranges and pinks that accented the deep, darker tone of blue hour and painted a colorful banner to drape over us. Although most people had slowly made their way to bed, this surprise change in scenery brought more than a few back up to admire the scene and take pictures.
As for myself, by this time, I had bundled myself up and slipped into my sleeping bag, shedding my winter jacket and ski pants for the cozy confines of my "bed" for the evening. The rolled up jacket made for a nice pillow, while the pants provided extra padding for said pillow.
I felt a little bit cold through the night, which was not exactly what I expected. Later on, I thought that this was when I first caught a cold, due to exposure. As it turned out, I had already caught a bug from someone else on the ship prior to this night, and the cold was merely the first signs of presenting symptoms for what would turn out to be a viral respiratory infection.
In fact, many other campers reported being very warm in their bivy sac and sleeping bag combo--so much so that some shed additional layers down to their underwear. But fortunately, my frigidity did not prevent me from actually falling asleep. And to my surprise, I actually did drift off, awaking maybe once or twice in the middle of the "night" (so-called... for while the sun did set on us, it never reached far enough beyond the horizon to bring actual darkness, so even at 2:00 or 3:00am, we were in an indefinite twilight).
The morning brought an entirely different flavor to our site. Whereas the previous evening had been gloriously sunny and brilliantly colorful, at 5:30am, Leith Cove was shrouded in clouds, with a mostly white sky that was quite bright, but also quite staid and plain.
We slowly unraveled ourselves from our sleeping accommodations, stretching in the crisp, cold morning air. Dressing quickly, we rolled up our mobile beds back into the nap sacks, packed up our bags, and headed back toward the rocky landing, where Zodiac rafts were already waiting for us. By 6:00am or shortly after we were indeed back on the Ocean Diamond, our overnight camping experience over much too soon.
Truthfully, when my friends and I decided to pursue the overnight camping option, we openly admitted that we were doing it for bragging rights. After all, how many people could say that not only did they visit Antartica, they actually slept on Antarctic land? However, we had no expectations that the actual experience would be pleasant. Personally, knowing my general lack of experience with camping, my own tendency to have trouble sleeping in unfamiliar beds, and the potential uncomfortable exposure to the elements, I fully expected to spend a wide-awake night taking in the ambiance before thoroughly bemoaning my inability to doze as I spent the following day in a staggering, zombie-like state brought on by the sleep deprivation. Sure, perhaps we could fib and tell our friends how amazing the experience was when we came back, but we'd know that we would be playing it up.
As it turns out, the camping wound up being one of--if not the--most memorable parts of our Antarctic vacation. It truly was a surreal and incredible time (and I'm not just playing it up). The combination of the spectacular landscape that enveloped us, the pure and pristine connection to untouched nature, and the unfiltered tranquility of the setting made for a thoroughly ethereal experience. It certainly helped that I was actually able to obtain a few hours of sleep--enough to keep me sufficiently functional the following morning. And though I even did end up getting sick, I have no regrets about the overnight camping. This genuinely was an unforgettable, majestic night--one that I highly recommend for anyone who decides to follow suit in taking an expedition to Antarctica!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.