As part of being a visiting speaker at the fantastic #CongresoFuturo2018 in Chile (a supercharged week of TED-style talks and events across Chile), I was invited to take a pre-meeting trip to the Chilean Frei base in Antarctica, hosted by the Chilean air force and navy. For over a month I have been excited at this unique chance to visit the seventh continent, and spent much of Christmas reading about the history and science of the continent.
A group of around 20 visitors, accompanied by navy officers and senators and cadets, made the journey using an Hercules C-130. At Punta Arenas, near the southern top if South America, we slip into cold weather gear, leaving our main luggage behind, get weighed (together with our hand luggage), get a briefing and then head out into the bright sun towards the awaiting grey behemoth of a Hercules C-130. We climb in and line up along benches. The interior is red strapping, a high ceiling above exposing the internal mechanics. There is a heavy odour of aviation fuel. The wide ramp at the rear pulls up. The engines roar into action, we plug in our earphones, and off we go. TThe bare landscapes of northern Tierra del Fuego give any to jagged snowy peaks cut through by narrow channels and fjords of the far southern tip of the Americas. Then a few small and snowy islands and we are out over the Drake Passage.
Over the next two hours the Drake Passage gets cloudier as we approach Antarctica. The lumbering Hercules descends through the clouds, then suddenly the view clears and I glimpse the wind-tortured sea, a few barren islands an before we know it we are on the jagged black runway.
We leave the plane and are greeted by individual handshakes by a line of Air Force officers and cadets. The landscape around is rocky black volcanic mud-rock, interspersed with sheet patches of snow. A strong wind is driving harsh hail into our faces. After a welcome, an group photo and a tour of the quite comfortable science station, we are quite disappointed to learn that the bad weather (the hail has now morphed into horizontal snow) means we cannot go by boat to the ice-breaker ship for a tour of the coast (either by zodiac boat or by helicopter) as we had planned. Rather than hang around too much in cosy rooms, I go for some solo walks along the coast
There is a beauty in the harshness. Navy officers wrestle to bring a zodiac in and bail it out as the wind has blown in blocks of ice that now rim the shore until 10 metres out. Large dark brown skuas glide hungrily overhead and occasionally settle to tear at the yellowed seaweed. Further out I spot a number of mini-icebergs, distinguished by their odd contoured shapes a sharp and gorgeous turquoise colour amid a grey sea and sky. I trail some chinstrap penguins. There is no hint of ground vegetation. I gaze out south, breathing in the harsh but pure air, and imagine the vast and empty continent that lies in front. There are glimpses of neighbouring peaks and jagged rock formations. It is peak mid-summer, at the mildest tip of the content, and I get a sense of how harsh Antarctica can be. The cold wind and snow chill me deep inside, but I feel on awe of briefly sensing the harsh heart of this extreme continent. We did not get a boat trip, but we got to briefly glimpse, feel and breathe the beautiful, severe soul of this harshest and wildest continent, to briefly pay respect by merely touching its toe.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University