When I was invited to give two concerts onboard a luxury 6-star cruise ship sailing to Antarctica last January, I was very excited: what’s not to like about an incredible itinerary with daily landings on the Antarctica continent and the all inclusive great food and wine?
There was a catch, however: I would have to spend Christmas on the plane and New Year’s Eve and the rest of the festive season away from my family. Including flights, the whole journey would take almost three weeks. My wife was very welcome to join me, of course, but our not yet 1-year-old son was a no go, as although there was a doctor onboard, should something have happened to him, the whole ship with 450 passengers and 335 crew would have had to turn around and go back. Jumping a little ahead, sadly, this scenario did play out: we lost 24 hours and had to skip some of the itinerary because of having to go back to a port, where the ill-fated female passenger was disembarked and air-lifted to the nearest hospital thousands of miles away in Chile.
This adventure started in the wrong key for me: before even leaving London, my family succumbed to a nasty flu and I was still having TB-like coughing fits and was shivering with fever on the day of my departure. I boarded the first flight to Bogota on 25th December. Courtesy of the Avianca airline seafood dinner I was thoughtless enough to select, I had one of the worst food poisonings, complete with horrendous headache and vomiting. I crawled out of the plane in Bogota not remembering who I was, where I was flying to or where I left my iPad. At this point it was just as well that I had missed my connecting flight. After a 5 hour-layover and 4 litres of water I was feeling just about good enough to board the second flight.
When I finally made it to Punta Arenas in Chile, from where the cruise was kicking off, I learnt that my luggage had not. I don’t remember which upset me more - the prospect of giving a concert wearing the same shirt I wore on the plane or being unable to do the shore landings in Antarctica without the warm clothes and special warm, waterproof boots I had in my check-in luggage.
After such a bad start, eventually it all fell into place: my luggage was reunited with me two hours before the departure (alas, one of my colleagues was not as lucky), my stomach settled and even my fever went down.
The first stop on our itinerary was Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine port and the capital of Tierra del Fuego, nicknamed “the end of the world” for its geographical position. I had been there a couple of times before and it was a relief to be sailing into it rather than flying in or out of it – it is often so windy there that one can never predict if the flights will operate on time or at all.
Next was the two-day crossing of the notorious Drake Passage in order to reach Antarctica. This area between Cape Horn and Antarctica has the most dreaded, treacherous rough seas on the planet, as this is where the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans collide. Allegedly, there are over 800 shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the sea.
There is a moving memorial on Cape Horn to all the victims – thousands of sailors, who lost their lives here. It is in the shape of an Albatross and can be seen from the passing ships.
Most of the time the weather conditions here are extreme, with the merciless winds and the waves reaching 12-15 meters in height on a good day. There are also the so-called “rogue waves”, which can reach up to 30 meters… and icebergs.
I had heard many horror stories about knocked out portholes and windows and the passengers being jerked out of their beds by gushing icy-cold ocean water. Often ships don’t make it through this corridor and have to turn around and go back to Ushuaia for repairs.
I was not very amused to find out that my first concert was scheduled to take place while passing through this infamous strait. However, the cruise director found some kind words to dispel my concern: last time our ship was passing through it, he told me, it was so choppy that the chain, which harnesses the piano to the floor, broke and the piano started rolling around the concert lounge - if the weather was as bad this time, they might have to cancel the concert altogether.
When I went backstage to inspect the piano, I discovered that due to the wind chill factor outside and the broken radiator, the rehearsal space was already freezing, even though it was not even particularly cold outside yet... The radiator could not be fixed apparently and there was nothing that could be done to warm the backstage space. Necessity is the mother of invention: I found an old vacuum cleaner and resorted to warming my hands over its exhaust. Apart from being very noisy, it was also blowing out a huge amount of dust, which exacerbated my coughing fits. However, without it practising the piano would have been impossible.
As it turned out, we were blessed with a relatively smooth crossing and my concert went well. The two days of crossing were occupied with all sorts of preparations, meetings, instructions and obligatory clothes inspection. Every personal item taken ashore was checked for potential bacteria to protect the Antarctica habitat from contamination. Anyone, who did not have suitable waterproof boots, was not allowed to go ashore, as we would often have to jump into the shallow water when mooring.
Throughout the entire cruise, the scientists and the Antarctica expedition team onboard were giving fascinating lectures with slide presentations before the landings to prepare us for what we were about to see and how we should behave when ashore. In the evenings there were the recap lectures to sum up what we had seen that day.
We reached Half Moon Island, our first Antarctic destination on 30th December. I did my very first Antarctica landing here, which took an exciting 10-minute ride on a rubber boat called a zodiac. It is doubly exciting because there are no seats and everyone has to sit on the rubber walls of the boat - it doesn't take very much to go "bottoms up" into the ocean. The landings are done by dividing all the passengers into several groups according to different colour bands around their arms. The landing times are rotated every day to avoid punishing the same group of people with an early rise, as the first expedition can start as early as 6am. I was in the Blue group.
I had only seen penguins in David Attenborough programmes up till then, so it was quite overwhelming to find myself surrounded by so many of these incredible creatures going about their daily life, having very vocal arguments, sitting patiently on their eggs and attending to their cute chicks. It can also be quite a smelly experience at times, as they answer the call of nature wherever it finds them and some of these projectile displays have to be seen to be believed!
We were very lucky with the weather for this part of the world: sunny and +4C. Despite this southern summer weather, I was very happy to have my specially insulated, waterproof boots (thank you Daniela!) - some of the fellow passengers complained about their frozen, numb feet, but I felt quite comfortable. Unfortunately, my so-called waterproof trousers didn’t stand the test of sliding down on my backside from the peak of a mountain – officially, the only way down…
When re-boarding the ship, we all had to step into a disinfectant solution to make sure the different regions of Antarctica are not cross-contaminated.
On 31st December, we sailed into one of the most spectacularly beautiful spots off the Antarctic Peninsula, Paradise Bay. It was the turn of the Blue group to have the first expedition of the day, at 6.15am. This meant waking up at 5am and having a coffee with pastries in the Observation Lounge, from where the view was quite overwhelming. Halfway to the landing, the zodiac driver slowed down and turned off the engines. All of a sudden I saw an enormous humpback whale breaching. It then proceeded to entertain us for a good 20 minutes with the most spectacular leaps. I wish my camera had a better zoom... It was not very easy to take a good picture as my fingers were freezing, the boat was constantly rocking and I never knew which spot the whale would leap out of next.
We slowly cruised in our zodiacs in between the floating pieces of ice and icebergs, surrounded by glaciers covered in clouds. Paradise Bay fully lived up to its name and its spectacular, fairytale-like views are among my strongest impressions of Antarctica.
The rest of the day was spent cruising through the stunningly scenic Lemaire Channel. No photo I took came anywhere close to doing justice to its beauty due to the sheer height of the glacier cliffs framing both sides. It was a cold day, so often I found myself to be the only passenger standing on the veranda at the bow of the ship taking in the gorgeous views and floating icebergs. It was right outside the Piano Bar, where most of the passengers were having a jolly good time seeing off the old year by drinking copious amounts of alcohol and singing festive songs.
It’s very tempting to be partying all day and night celebrating the New Year, but my landing the next morning was at 8am and I didn’t want to miss it.
I’m glad I didn’t, as I took some of my best pictures of Gentoo penguins in this Chilean station called Gonzalez Videla Base. We were also treated to some penguin slapstick comedy. We watched as they leapt out of water at high velocity trying to gain enough momentum to climb onto an iceberg - sometimes they would miss or couldn’t get enough traction and would fall back into the water in the most Chaplinesque way.
The Chilean team very kindly allowed us to come inside their station and see how they live. It made me reflect upon what kind of a person could cope with extreme isolation and severe cold of Antarctica winters for many months and sometimes years on end. I was told two stories onboard about some catastrophic results of such existence. The physician of the Argentine Almirante Brown Base went so far as to burn down the station in 1984 in order not to have to stay another winter. Luckily, he and a few personnel were rescued by a passing US ship. Another story was about two Soviet scientists playing chess at the research station “Vostok” in 1959. The scientist that lost the game got so angry that he killed his colleague with an axe. Allegedly, the game of chess was banned at the station after that incident.
The next day consisted of some of the most scenic sailing in the whole cruise. The sun was shining all day long in the bright blue sky and the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. I was trying to practise the piano in a single-minded way, but it was quite a challenge. They kept announcing on the speakers all the time about the humpback whale sightings: “Ladies and gentlemen, right now at 11 o'clock on your starboard there is a fantastic whale breaching”, etc. I would jump up from the piano and run out to the deck. Sometimes the whales came extremely close – just a few meters away - and I could hear their impressive breathing and sighing.
At Yankee Harbour the next day I saw more of them at very close proximity, as well as Gentoo penguins with their chicks and fur and elephant seals.
On 3rd January we arrived at Hope Bay, where the Argentine Esperanza Base is situated.
It is known for its large variety of birds and is the home to an impressive colony of Adélie penguins. I saw thousands of them marching towards the water like the Terracotta Army and as we were leaving the base and riding back to the ship, some of them were following us, demonstrating the most incredible agility in the water.
On 5th January we left the Antarctica continent and sailed for South Georgia, where we arrived the next day. If memory serves me well, it was at this point that all the windows and portholes on the ship were darkened in order to prevent bird strikes.
Here we visited the disused Grytviken Whaling Station. It was active during 1904-1966 and in its heyday was a very efficient death factory, where hundreds of whales and seals were slaughtered every year.
Allegedly, every part of the slaughtered animal was used. This place has an eerie atmosphere of an abandoned concentration camp or a post-Armageddon settlement: there is a strange juxtaposition of beautiful, tranquil nature and giant, rusting whale oil processing cisterns, chains that must have been used to hoist the dead carcasses and whaling boats lying on their side.
The only other creatures I saw apart from ourselves were some king penguins and fur and elephant seals frolicking in the sun.
There is a museum that has some gruesome photos on the walls showing how the animals were killed and processed. There is a tiny, but beautiful Norwegian church consecrated on Christmas Day 1913 and the cemetery, where I was surprised to find the grave of one of the famous Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton.
I also learnt that Grytviken was the sight of the battle between the British and Argentine forces in April 1982 during the Falklands War.
Having spent a couple of hours on the island, I went back to the ship to rehearse for my second concert, which I was playing that evening.
Our last stop in South Georgia was Salisbury Plain. Nothing prepared me for this overwhelming wildlife experience: about 500,000 king penguins with their molting chicks and also a huge number of fur and elephant seals. The seal pups behaved just like puppy dogs: incredibly cute and fluffy, they came very close and wanted to play.
As for the penguin chicks, some of them were still wearing their brown “fur coats”, while the others had already shed half of theirs and had a “work in progress” look.
This was it - like a good concert programme, our Antarctic adventure started in a very exciting way, had a lot of contrast and ended with a bang. The Drake Passage on the way back was quite a bumpy ride, so it felt all the more incredible to come out on the deck on 11th January and be greeted by real hot summer weather! The next day was spent strolling leisurely around Montevideo with my friends.
On 13th January I flew back to London from Buenos Aires. I didn’t have much time to stroll the streets of one of my favourite cities or even eat at my favourite steak house, but I knew that in a few short months I would return here to play at the Teatro Colon.