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Antarctica calling

An FE Block resident is all set for a vacation of a lifetime, on board an expedition ship set for the southern-most continent

Sudeshna Banerjee   |   Calcutta   |   Published 10.12.18, 01:19 PM

While you are taking the woollens out to brave the Calcutta winter, a neighbour is packing for the coldest of the planet’s continents. Anuradha Roy of FE Block is all set to fulfil a childhood dream to set foot in Antarctica.

Anuradha will be one of the 115 passengers on board the ice-strengthened exploration ship MV Plancius, along with her sister Sumita who is joining her from the US. “It will be a 20-day trip starting from Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, on December 22. We have been asked to expect temperatures around -20°C on the Antarctic peninsula,” she says.


Primed for adventure

The athletic lady, who took voluntary retirement from her job at Steel Authority of India after 36 years of service, had grown up in air force bases in small towns where her father would be posted. “My only reading material used to be National Geographic and such travel magazines. Since then, I always wanted to travel off the beaten track.”

Along the way, she has picked up trekking, skiing, yacht sailing and paragliding skills. She and her husband Subhas went trekking to the Mt. Everest base camp. Asked whether a lay person can handle the terrain, she smiles: “I have done a mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering too with my sister. She has also done a cross-country trip across Australia on motorcycle.”

Because of her, adventure is a way of life in the family. Even now, mother and son — 27-year-old Ishan — can be spotted practising ground handling their paraglider in the evenings in the pre-monsoon weeks in New Town fields.

False start

The white continent has been on Anuradha’s mind for long. She had applied to be a member of the Commonwealth Women’s South Pole Skiing Expedition in 2008 and was shortlisted for the interview round. “They were impressed that I had quoted Ulysses,” she said,” but found me over age at 48. I had even pleaded that I could be the mother figure to the team!”

[Incidentally, another Salt Lake girl, Aparna Ray of CE Block, was one of the two candidates from India who were chosen for the training but she did not make the final cut either.]

So when Anuradha’s voluntary retirement benefits came her way, she “decided to blow the money” doing what she loved best. “I looked up and found there were actually travel agencies which took one on Antarctica.”

Anuradha would be sailing with Oceanwide Expeditions, based in Seattle, US. “For the last year and half I have been doing nothing but reading up the books on the list they sent me.”

Looking ahead

As they make their way southward, they would be sailing through latitudes 40 to 70 across what one has read of in geography text books — the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, across which span the Drake’s Passage, the space between the southern tip of America and the Antarctic peninsula. “The Sixties make for the roughest seas. The Pacific Ocean is eastward flowing and the wind circulates from east to west. But the Atlantic Ocean flows westward with wind flowing from west to east. Since ocean current is nothing but water pushed by wind, the situation around the Antarctic peninsula is like a clash of titans. There would be 40 to 50ft waves. Sailing vessels would capsize but powered vessels like ours would be able to withstand that.”

Unlike the cruise ships which do not let passengers step on land, their exploration ship would reach a low draft and send out inflatable rafts to the shore. “We would have to beach it in gumboots.”

The reason for this difference, she mentions, is the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 by the 12 countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica at the time. The total number of parties to the treaty now numbers 53. According to the treaty, at no point can more than 100 tourists set foot on the Antarctic. The cruise ships carry many multiples of that. They also need a large draft and therefore stay too far from the shore to allow rafts to be put to use. 

Accompanying the passengers as part of the crew would be botanists and geologists who would collect scientific samples. “While there are no trees or grass on the Antarctic, fossils of stunted bushes of beech found there indicate subtropical climate millions of years ago.”

While the 20-day expedition costs $10,000 to $19,000 for passengers, depending on the accommodation they choose on the ship, the trip is free for the experts.

“They would give us lectures on board.” And when we get on land, we would be accompanied by ornithologists to help us spot wandering albatrosses, broad-billed prions, types of petrels, skuas and terns.”

When one looks at the Atlas, one takes the earth to be flat. But on the continent, everything is north. “So one can essentially travel only east to west or vice versa. All the literature refers to ‘the other side’ of the continent. If you piroutte on the tip of the South Pole you can cover all the longitudes,” Anuradha points out.

She would not be travelling to the South Pole but would get to touch the continent when they land at Brown Bluff, a volcano so named because of its brown to black surface. The site is well-known as a breeding colony for birds.

“There are different things to see in the region round the year. If we went in October, we would have seen the penguin chicks hatching and the mother taking the chick over from the father so the father can go and feed. When we go the chicks will still have down feathers on them.” Anuradha expects to spot seven kinds of species like King and Adelie which breed on the sea shore. The one big miss will be the Emperor Penguins. “They breed almost 60 miles inland. We will not go so far in.”

Right now though her concern is the down jacket she had ordered online from China. “It is still stuck at customs. I might have to rent one if they do not release it before I leave.”

Her neighbours in the block are quite excited with her trip. “Many are talking of going in a group to see me off at the airport!” 

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