Majestic. That is how I would describe our landing on the Yalour Islands this afternoon.
We set out on the zodiacs, a routine that was at first exhausting has become second nature. “I’ve taken too many photos of penguins!”, we all complain before boldly declaring we will not take any more. But our cameras are withdrawn from a sea of bags yet again, to photograph the first Adélie penguins sighted on our journey.
I arrive on the first zodiac and we all approach with caution the first penguin nests. We marvel at the size of the largest chicks we have seen, and how mother and father manage to tend such big ‘babies’. Their feathers range from a soft grey through to charcoal and look wonderfully fluffy.
The group separates. Some pair up and enjoy conversation as they explore, while others take the opportunity for solitude and make their way silently around the island, pausing occasionally to absorb 360 degrees of unbelievable scenery. I have to pinch myself.
A slither of warm light creates a lovely ambiance upon the landscape and my eyes are drawn towards the horizon. I notice penguin nests atop rock formations that stretch far into the distance, one after the other. My mind wanders and I picture the ‘lighting of the beacons’, one of my favourite scenes in Lord of the Rings. But, I digress.
I slowly make my way around the island, fresh snow crunching beneath my feet, and give way occasionally to penguins ‘crossing’. The Adélie go about their business mostly unperturbed by their visitors. You cannot help but smile at their clumsy yet effective traversing of the rocks, and they seemingly defy gravity when they slide uphill in the snow on their bellies. I observe for a while and notice a pattern in their behaviour: first slide, then stand, then wave flippers rapidly in what could be an act of applauding oneself for such an impressive run, before toddling off to their destination. Too cute!
The memory card quickly fills. Bright orange lichen and green moss provide a beautiful contrast to the whitest whites and bluest blues one can imagine. Eventually, my attention is drawn to the water. An iceberg that could have floated in from Paradise Harbour rises up dramatically above the others. With a little imagination it is one part ice palace and one part Rubic’s cube. The Europa cruises into sight providing yet another stunning Kodak moment. The romanticism of this imagery is what drew me to her years ago and it has not diminished despite days of seasickness.
A few begin to gather at the shoreline but no one is in a hurry to leave. I recline on a rock beside the water. My skin tingles as it is warmed by the sun, a feeling I have missed the past couple of weeks having escaped an Australian summer. I close my eyes and tune in to the sound of waves lapping against the rocks, penguin chatter in the distance, and the muffled exchanges of my travel companions.
In this moment, I am overwhelmed by emotion as I absorb the reality of my situation. I’ve dreamed about this trip for 7 years and I am finally here. What have I done to earn such a privilege? But there is something else about this experience that moves me. Prior to this voyage, it was impossible to comprehend a place where nature rules and life continues in the most primitive way, while a few hundred miles away millions are consumed with all the trappings of an urban lifestyle and ‘first world’ problems. Life goes on in Antarctica despite us.
Whatever the meaning of this journey, it will be unforgettable. The only question remaining; when shall I return?