Amazed by Antarctica

My article in the Khaleej Times Wknd magazine


Amazed by Antarctica
Nithin Belle
Filed on June 15, 2018

It’s almost like travelling to a different planet. an altogether offbeat continent, and surprisingly one doesn’t need a visa to land on it! The vessels that bring you to the place cannot berth at any ports; you have to travel on inflatable boats, without any baggage – and, of course, your regular mobile phones won’t work, though you can use expensive satellite telecom gadgets.

Welcome to Antarctica, gradually drawing in tourists from around the globe – but on an extremely selective basis. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) – which was set up in 1991 for the promotion of safe and environmentally responsible travel to the continent – there were less than 45,000 tourists last year.
While the majority of visitors are from the US (about 11,000), China (5,000) and Australia (3,800), there is a gradual increase in tourists from other countries too. Adventurous Indians and NRIs are also heading to Antarctica, wanting to experience the distant continent.
Vasim Shaikh is the founder and CEO of The Q, an Indian firm that designs bespoke trips for discerning travellers: “When we ask people where they want to travel to, Antarctica never comes to their mind. It appears to be beyond their imagination,” he says.
People who travel extensively also ask him: can we really go to Antarctica? “They think only scientists go to the continent, not tourists,” he says. Shaikh has been in the travel trade for nearly two decades and constantly explores places that are not popular in the mindset of tourists. He believes many travellers are looking for challenging holidays, so they opt for ones to new, unexplored lands.

The Big Idea
A few years ago, he went to Antarctica and was amazed by what he saw there. He then decided to charter luxury ships to take Indians – both resident and non-resident – to the continent. Last year, saw the first group of Indians board the Great Majestic Explorer for a fortnight-long tour from Argentina to Antarctica and back.
“We had an interesting mix of tourists,” says Shaikh. “They included seven solo Indian women travellers from around the world, each travelling as individuals. We also had a young honeymooning couple, and an elderly couple; the man was 73 and his wife was 69.”
The travel entrepreneur wants to make the Antarctica experience an annual event. This year, for instance, the journey will start from Buenos Aires on December 27, head towards Ushuaia, known as the ‘tip of the world,’ or ‘end of the world,’ as it is the southernmost city on earth. It is also close to the famous Tierra del Fuego National Park.
About a thousand kilometres south of Ushuaia is the seventh continent and it takes about two-and-a-half days of sailing to reach there. On December 31, the vessel will pass through the Drake Passage, which sees the confluence of three oceans – the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern.

New Year on the Seventh Continent
The New Year will be welcomed on the seventh continent. Of course, being summer, the sun never sets in the lowest part of the southern hemisphere, so the fortnight will be virtually night-less.
Heading to the most untouched continent means that visitors should also get to know its history, geography, wildlife and other aspects of life on Antarctica. “We have on board a team of experts and naturalists, who will give lectures on wildlife, birds, geography and history,” explains Shaikh.
Among them is ‘a true Antarctican,’ Jean-Louis Etienne, the French doctor, explorer and scientist, who is known for his Antarctic, Arctic, Himalayan, Greenland, Patagonian and other adventures.
And of course, there is London-based Atul Kochhar, the first Indian Michelin-star chef and television personality, who will ensure the cooking of scrumptious meals for those visiting the frozen Antarctic wilderness.
While there are no visas to enter the isolated continent, visitors must follow the rules and regulations that govern their entry, and have visas for the country from where they are heading to the Antarctica (there are 69 countries mandating the rules and regulations for going to Antarctica).
The shipping rules are also quite strict. No ship can touch the continent and they must berth a hundred metres away from the coast. While tourists on ships with more than 200 passengers will have to watch the continent from far, those on smaller vessels can shift to Zodiacs (smaller boats), which ferry them to the continent.

Decontamination Process
“Each and every item that one takes to the continent has to go through a decontamination process,” Shaikh points out. “We also advise our guests not to carry anything to eat or drink.” Though it would be summer in Antarctica, the temperature hovers between 3 degrees Celsius and minus 3 degrees Celsius.
The visits are brief and undertaken twice a day. The tourists are also taken in small groups to the islands. There are about 200 unique sites on Antarctica that tourists can visit. Just one ship is allowed to send its passengers to a site at a time.
Last year, tourists were taken to Deception Island, which has an active volcano and the largest colony of chinstrap penguins, a research centre, a museum and even a post office from where visitors can send cards to their friends and relatives. Visitors can also get the Antarctica stamp on their passports at this office.
And since the continent is virtually empty, the visitors get to interact with very few people. “Last year, when nine of us landed on an island, the Ukrainian scientists who were there at the research centre were overjoyed on meeting people for the first time in several months,” remarks Shaikh.

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