Journeying to the world?s ends

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By Urmi Popat on how her travels to Antarctica and the Arctic left her wanting more Sushmita Biswas on some healthy hints to keep in mind before setting out for your next big trip in Antarctica
  • Published 11.06.05

How many Indians have been to both Antarctica and the Arctic? We?d like to think we are the first Indian family to travel to both the ice-bound continents.

Here?s the first rule about travelling to Antarctica: make sure you?ve packed everything you need for the journey because there aren?t any stores for a few thousand kilometres. Yes, that includes toothpaste and shampoo. But it also includes extreme clothing to tackle the bitter cold.

What type of clothing? Obviously not the stuff you?d wear everyday to office or for a party. The must-haves include a rain jacket and waterproof trousers. Also very important is a pair of pull-on, unlined, 14?-16?' high rubber boots with non-skid soles for stepping into water that could be upto 10 inches deep. That?s for making wet landings. And you must also have a pair of sturdy hiking boots and two pairs of mittens ? one woollen and the other waterproof. And, also remember that in Antarctica, sunglasses aren?t a fashion statement ? they are essential to protect the eyes from the harsh white glare.

Then, there?s the key question of physical fitness. Under the rules framed by the International Association of Antarctica we had to get fitness reports and send them to the American expedition operators several months before setting out. Tours to Antarctica take place in the ?Austral Summer? when the sun finally emerges after the long winter night.

For most travellers, an escorted tour/cruise is the way to visit the continent. Large ships cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula, sometimes using helicopters or rubber Zodiac boats to take passengers ashore. Once ashore, the passengers are divided into small groups and then, accompanied by escorts, they set off to explore the island. The escorts include experts in a range of fields like ornithologists, marine biologists, general biologists, geologists, glaciologists and naturalists.

Finally the day of our departure to Antarctica dawned. We left with heavy luggage, which was crammed with all the worldly possessions. Our tour started at Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city of the world where we found our ship, The World Discoverer and her 100-crew members preparing for our expedition. As we went around, we saw that our ship was well-equipped with amenities that included a lecture hall, library with Internet access, pool/jacuzzi, sophisticated communications and navigational equipment ? a vessel which was rightly built for discovery and expedition cruising.

Nevertheless, it was still a terrible voyage. The ship ploughs through the ?roaring?40?, ?furious? 50? and the ?screaming? 60? South latitude (called the Drake Passage) to reach Antarctica, and it?s impossible not to get seasick even with the best of modern medicines and an acupressure wristband.

These ships are built to withstand rough seas. The tables and chairs are all tightly fixed to the floor. The crockery is placed on a wet tablecloth so it doesn?t slide off. At times, the ship would sway so much, that sitting in the restaurant, one could see the ocean from one side of the window and the sky on the opposite side.

We spent four days sailing to and fro through the Drake Passage and there?s only word to describe it ? nightmare. Sometimes during the night, the shutters of the wardrobe in our rooms (that had been shut tight before we slept) would open with a bang and all our belongings would be scattered. It was like a scene straight out of a horror film.

Then, came the bit that made all the seasickness worthwhile. As the ship sliced through the thin ice layer on the third day of our journey, the passengers drew a collective breath of amazement. The pain of the Drake Passage is forgotten when you see gigantic icebergs that are almost 10-15 storeys high all around the ship.

As we made our first landing ashore, before we could even blink, we found ourselve surrounded by hundreds of penguins. It was a bit like living through a National Geographic show. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 lays down that all humans must interfere as little as possible with the living conditions of birds and animals in the region. So, we had to stay a safe distance away as the penguins passed by. The sound of over 50,000 screeching penguins is a cacophonous sound you aren?t likely to forget for a long time. We came across them each time we went ashore.

A number of heavily-glaciated low peaks create a dramatic backdrop to the gleaming islands of the Antarctic Peninsula. We reckoned we were the first Indian family to unfurl the flag on the continent so that was a moment of great joy and pride for us.

Two more icy journeys

We made two more journeys to the snow-covered ends of the world. This time we travelled to the Arctic, once in summer and the second time in February when darkness descends on this part of the northern hemisphere.

Our summer journey to Arctic Alaska was less harrowing than the voyage to Antarctica. We started out in May and had a fabulous time cruising in the Inside Passage of Alaska in the calm Pacific waters. We started from Vancouver, Canada and visited various spots in Alaska. Then, we travelled by road to the Denali National Park and caught a flight from Fairbanks in Alaska to Barrow, the northernmost city in Alaska, 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle. At night we went racing around on the frozen ocean in a dogsled ? it was, of course, bright as daylight.

Barrow has one of the world?s largest Eskimo settlements. And they?ve learnt to accept travellers in their inhospitable lands and even put up cultural shows for them.

In February we went once again to the Arctic. At this time of the year it was more inhospitable. This time our destination was Jukkasjarvi, 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle. During the winter, the outdoor temperature in Jukkasjarvi ranges between -5?C and -40?C. The pure white snow sparkles and inspires one to partake in several winter activities.

There are various types of places where tourists can stay. For a start, there are ?Aurora? houses with skylights for viewing the Northern Lights. Then, there are ice suites sculpted by different artists. One has to sleep on an ice bed topped by a layer of reindeer hides. You get into a sleeping bag on top of all that and the feeling is definitely eerie. People with respiratory or other such related problems would definitely feel claustrophobic inside the ice room.

OK, so it may be easier to lounge about on a Caribbean beach, but, seasickness or not, I feel privileged to travel to both ends of the Earth.

Photographs by Urmi Popat

Urmi Popat?s book Arctic and Antarctic ? Journeys to the extremities of the Earth is available at leading bookstores and can also be ordered from Manas Publication, Mumbai.

On a health trip

You’ve heard of Delhi Belly, and the fiercer Mexican version, Montezuma’s Revenge. So, what are the rules that a traveller must follow to stay as fit as a fiddle? And, how should they prepare for the dreadful eventuality of falling sick when they should be lolling by the beach or energetically trekking across mountains.

First, there’s the question of travel insurance. In this day and age, don’t even think about leaving home without an insurance number tucked safely in your travel sachet. And then pack a medicine kit with remedies for everything from diarrhoea to constipation, fevers and headache pills.

Says VJ Kim Jagtiani, a frequent traveller and host of travel show Exotica on Star One, “It’s common sense to carry a first-aid box as you never know whether you’ll get a chemist's shop nearby. I always carry certain basic things in my bag when I travel.”

The holiday season is the toughest time to maintain healthy eating habits. You often have to adjust your biological clock to suit the weather conditions of a particular place. Therefore, it’s advisable to eat fresh foods in moderation and not try something that your body is not adjusted to. Says Dr Narendra Pandya, cosmetologist, “The golden rule is to eat lots of healthy foods like vegetables and fresh fruits which will maintain your body fluids. Avoid eating unhygienic foods because it might lead to infections.” Just as importantly, he says it’s best to eat when you’re actually hungry — not when the clock says it’s time to eat. Although it’s hard to keep a complete control over the cuisine, it’s not a bad idea to avoid non-vegetarian foods like meat and fish.

There’s always a heightened risk of food poisoning when you are travelling. How do you avoid that? Eat freshly cooked food that is piping hot. It’s also not advisable to buy food from any outlet that looks vaguely unhygienic as you never know what cooking medium is used. Says Pandya, “It’s better to be careful about what you eat. This is not to say that you should not try out exotic dishes. But remember that a way to a healthy life is eating in moderation. Before eating, wash your hands so that you don’t have any infections.”

Water-borne diseases are a common problem faced by travellers on a holiday. Therefore, it’s always important to be careful of the water you drink. When you’re on a camping holiday for instance, don’t drink stream water. No matter how clear the water looks, it could still contain dangerous bacteria. It’s best to carry bottled mineral water. However, it’s perfectly safe to drink tea, coffee and fresh fruit juices to maintain the body fluids.

Eating right foods in order to stay healthy is not enough. If you are exposed to warm weather for a long time, it’s essential to take adequate precautions. If you are heading for a sunny place, make sure you have sunscreen lotions and creams to protect your skin from harmful ultra violet rays. Protect your skin with a high-factor sunscreen (SPF30 or more) and wear a cap whenever you go out.

Reapply it regularly and avoid the midday sun if possible. Says Vandana Punjabi, consultant dermatologist and cosmetologist, “Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to adequately cover themselves. You must make sure you cover the exposed parts of the body like your face, legs, arms and hands. Use sunscreen lotions even if you stay indoors and repeat applications without cleansing.” Restorative and revitalising skin care oil is also recommended during outdoor activities like swimming and other water-related sports. These will protect the skin and prevent loss of moisture.

Travellers also fall prey to sunstroke when they travel to hot and humid places. The symptoms include nausea, dizziness and dehydration accompanied by high temperatures. Pandya says that the best way to prevent heat strokes is to cover your head with a hat or an umbrella. Try to avoid the midday sun and venture outdoors only in the early part of the day. It is also essential to prevent dehydration — one of the most serious complications — so replace lost fluids with small but frequent sips of liquids. Take in enough fluids like buttermilk, juices, coconut water and cold drinks which will keep you fresh and energised.

At another level, check the precise terms of your travel insurance. The insurance companies have a habit of putting in all types of clauses to protect their own health. Make sure you get it right the first time. So, when you set out on a journey it’s best to be like a boy scout — prepared.

Illustration by Debashish Deb

Route map

Looking for more summer discounts and feeling in need of revitalising spa treatments? The Oberoi Group is throwing in highly discounted spa treatments for the summer at all its top resort properties — Udaivilas in Udaipur, Rajvilas in Jaipur, Amarvilas in Agra, Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore and Wildflower Hall, Simla. What exactly does that include? Well, there’s no charge for guests who want to use the sauna, chill plunge pool, the gym and there are further discounts at the spas. A double occupancy for three nights comes at Rs 41,000, four nights at Rs 54,000 and five nights at Rs 68,000. The packages are valid till September 30, except at Vanyavilas which is only valid till the end of June.

Accor, the French hotel giant which is making its debut in India, has just bagged its first contract. It will manage a spanking new 300-room hotel, next to the Cyberabad Convention Centre, that has now been christened the Novotel Hyderabad. The hotel is expected to take in its first guest next March. Novotel is Accor’s slightly more upmarket brand. Accor has tied up with the Delhi-based InterGlobe Enterprises and is energetically scouting for more hotels that can be opened quickly.

My favourite holiday

Koel Mullick,

I enjoy travelling and as such, there are a whole lot of places that I’ve absolutely loved going to. But having said that, my favourite holiday till date remains my recent trip to America. It was a work-cum-pleasure trip with my family and I loved every moment of it.

The Kala Music Awards that I had gone to attend were held in Los Angeles and California, and in its first film-related instalment, I received the best actress award for my film Shudhu Tumi. That apart, I even performed three numbers on stage, including the curtain-raiser for the event, and the appreciation that I received made the show all the more special.

The work bit over — pleasurable though it was — it was time to have some fun. A number of my family members live in America — in Washington and New York among other places, and it became like this great big family get-together. And boy, did we have a blast! We took in the fantastic Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, drove to the Bronx Zoo, a few hours from New Jersey and spent hours poring over the great masters in the Washington art museum. The nightlife, of course, was mind-blowing, but best of all, was the food! With shooting soon to start, I was supposed to stay away from carbs but for once, it didn’t matter. So, while I got to gorge on hot dogs, sausages and more, on the carb front, I loaded up on sugar-free, fat-free ice creams and chocolates, which were every bit as delicious as the real things. But what made the holiday really stand out in my mind was the sheer peace of having no work pressures on my shoulders and the fun of having my cousins around for they’d taken leave from work as well, especially for me.