International female team reaches South Pole

Back in November, a group of seven women from a variety of countries around the globe set out on a long, and challenging journey. Calling themselves the Kaspersky Commonwealth Expedition, they left Patriot Hills, along the Antarctic coast, and over the course of the next 39 days, traveled more than 550 miles on skis, before arriving at their destination at the geographic South Pole yesterday.

The expedition is described on the team’s website as “5 Continents. 6 Faiths. 7 Languages. 8 Women. 1 daring ambition”. And what a daring ambition it has been. The original eight women come from Cyprus, Ghana, India, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Jamaica and the United Kingdom, each of which are Commonwealth countries. Due to illness, one of the women was forced to withdraw from the team at the last minute, leaving the other seven to continue without her.

The expedition served two purposes. The first was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth, while the second was a celebration of the achievement of women from around the planet. These ladies hope to serve as role models for young girls back home, showing them that it is possible to for women to do great things. In several cases, these women are first person, man or woman, from their home country to make the journey to the South Pole.

That journey was not an easy one. The ladies had to deal with blizzards, whiteout conditions, vast crevasse fields, and long, demanding days out on the ice, where the temperatures often fell below -20ºF. In order to make the journey, they had to pull their gear and supplies behind them on heavy sleds, while they crossed miles of wide open terrain, often exposed to howling winds and blowing snow.

For now, the team is resting at the research station located at the South Pole, where they are enjoying warm beds and hot meals for the first time in weeks. In the next day or two, they’ll be picked up from the ice by plane, and begin to make the return trip home. But until then, they’re content and happy, with having reached a place on the planet that few people will ever see and accomplishing something that few could ever dream of.

Expedition Review: On Board the MV Orion

Where do people go when they’ve already been everywhere? On a ship that goes to places nobody else can get to. The MV Orion is such a ship, custom-built for expedition-style travel that takes you to the world’s more inaccessible places–place like Papua New Guinea, Australia’s wild northwestern Kimberley coastline, the remote corners of Indonesia, the lesser-known side of Antarctica, and as was my good fortune, the uninhabited windswept islands of New Zealand’s sub-antarctic. In English, those islands are: Macquarie Island, Campbell Island, Auckland Islands, the Snares, and Stewart Island–all forgotten bits of rock and shrubs in the Southern Ocean. Places where birds outnumber humans by about a million to one and if it’s not raining, then it’s about to.

It takes a certain kind of traveler to embark on such a voyage. This is not your typical spring break cruise to St. Thomas. Yes, there is a lounge with a talented musical act that plays late into the night. Yes, there is a spiral staircase near the bow with shiny brass handrails and a glass elevator shooting up to the top deck. Yes, the cruise director makes announcements on the loudspeaker (“dress warmly “), and yes, one eats abundantly and well (the food is extraordinary), however . . . there are some key differences.
Perhaps most important is that the Orion experience is intimate. While the cruise ship industry is trending towards behemoth floating cities (population 6,000) the MV Orion carried only 75 passengers (during my expedition) along with a crew of 75 (not such a bad ratio). Over the course of two weeks I had the chance to get to know every single passenger on board and what’s more, we all liked each other.

Indeed, it’s not where you travel, but who you travel with that matters. The two weeks I spent on the MV Orion were blessedly asshole-free. In fact, my fellow shipmates were all really cool people–not the rich and famous or the kind of spoiled, pretentious passport-boaster you find flying first class–just passionate, smart travelers chasing their wanderlust down under. Enamored birdwatchers were in search of the rare species, retirees were living out their lifelong dreams, a honeymooning couple was being unconventional, map nerds like me kept checking the library’s atlas against our personal GPS, and everyone showed an authentic lust for life. (It helped that most of my fellow travelers were Aussies–who are just born cool.)

The Captain was equally fun and down to earth. He had no problem diverting the ship so that we could get a closer look at passing icebergs, and when the weather turned out to be nicer than normal, he sped ahead to grant us an extra day with the penguins.

Cliche as it may sound, every day was an adventure. After breakfast we suited up in our all-weather gear, then head out in rubber zodiacs to the shore of whichever island we were exploring. Surely, the real luxury was found in the abundance and proximity of wildlife we experienced. In the course of 12 days, I saw over 80 bird species, at least half of which were endemic to the islands we were visiting. We hiked through rare albatross nesting grounds, watched yellow-eyed penguins tiptoe through fields of flowers and competed for beach space with bellowing bull elephant seals. Each day ended with an in-depth review of the day’s experience in pictures followed by a briefing that detailed tomorrow’s plan. Lectures were offered for anyone wanting to learn the intricacies of everything we experienced, from the plants and geology to pressing conservation issues for each of the islands we were visiting. In short, imagine a two week-long field trip for grown-ups but with 9-course tasters’ menus instead of a brown bag lunch instead and chilled champagne instead of juice boxes.

Also, my room was really nice. In fact, it wasn’t so much a room as it was the largest suite on the ship, a huge suite that was larger than most Manhattan lofts, which made me the spoiled one on the ship. However, I loved having a big desk to work on (with satellite internet) and a starboard balcony from which I could watch a considerate flow of dramatic scenery (a seagull even flew into my room, once). I also appreciated my own private deep dish bathtub with a square picture window which allowed for one to enjoy a bubble bath at sea. Surely the first sailors to happen upon these far flung islands did not luxuriate so. I slept a blissful eight hours every night, rocked gently by the waves of the Tasman Sea.

The common caveat phrase that cruise-goers love to use is, “you only have to unpack one.” That was definitely my experience–I unpacked my bags in Hobart and within the first day, felt as if my private domain reached to the farthest horizon. The word “exclusive” fails to capture the notion that I developed of traveling on the only ship on the only sea in the world. We went more than a week without seeing another ship and even longer without seeing any other humans.

Nature is a luxury in today’s world. Being surrounded by it–having seals poke their noses up from the water and then do water ballet under your shadow, getting a glimpse of a little brown bird that was once thought to be extinct, witnessing the icebergs you only heard about in the news, visiting a map speck that most of the world will never see–all of this is the kind of luxury that matters on an expedition ship.

So yeah, it was really, really great, obviously, and totally my style of travel: adventurous, comfortable and extremely nice–but relaxed nice, not prissy nice. On the MV Orion, I was glad to see that the destination mattered more than the amenities, and yet we were all so well-provided for as to never need worry about amenities. In fact, my main critique is that the food was just too good. With a menu designed by Australia’s celebrity chef Serge Dansereau, the Orion broke cruise ship conventions by offering small portions of gourmet standard in as many or as few courses as you wished, served by professional waitstaff. Lunch was served buffet-style but in a tasteful way that never got dull. In the first week, we ate Spanish, Filipino, Mexican, French, and Lebanese cuisine.

Sailing to the ends of the earth while staying dry, well-fed and comfortable is not a cheap endeavor: we’re talking just under a thousand dollars a day. BUT (there’s always a but)–this trip was actually worth it. That’s my new measure of good commercial travel products–do you get out of it what you put into it? For me, at the end of the day, as I laid down to sleep with a mind filled with dancing baby penguins and dramatic seascapes and memories of the afternoon’s lemon meringue teatime, I had to confess that it was all worth the price tag. In fact, as our credit card company likes to remind us: some things, like getting kissed by a baby seal, are priceless.

Australia’s Macquarie Island

Have you ever had an obese, wild baby elephant seal drop its head in your lap and slobber nose love all over you? It melts a heart faster than a Snickers in a microwave, really.

Macquarie Island (pronounced mak-worry) is Australia’s southernmost point, a tiny spit of an island some 940 miles (1,500 km) southeast of Tasmania. For you mariners out there that’s a three-day sail from Hobart-past the roaring 40s and into the furious 50s. The island is only about twenty miles long and two miles across-a lonely scrap of sub-antarctic landscape consisting of pointed grassy slopes and rocky beaches where mist lingers all the day long.

Discovered in 1810 by wayward sealers, Macquarie was kept a secret in order that they get rich quick from the magnificent seal colonies living on the island. In 1811, the first ship to arrive in Sydney from Macquarie carried almost 57,000 seal skins. Today, the descendants of these piles of skins still tumble along the salt and pepper sand, bellowing out the unique throaty growl of the adult elephant seal. It’s quite a sight. Forget all your images of Australia’s man-eating crocodiles and creepy snakes and spiders. Here is a different kind of nature reserve where the local attraction grows to 20 feet long, weighs more than three tons, and spends most of the day sleeping on the beach.Macquarie is not your typical vacation destination–there is no permanent human population and there are no hotels or restaurants (though the chef at the Australian meteorological station bakes terrific scones). Also, it rains pretty much constantly and on most days, the wind blows hard enough to knock you down.

What Macquarie does have is wildlife and a lot of it. Thanks to extreme isolation, very little human contact and strict conservation rules, the animals on Macquarie harbor no fear of humans whatsoever. While guidelines instruct keeping at least 30 feet from any wild animal, the sheer abundance of living breathing cute cuddly things makes it impossible. You try hard not to touch or interfere, but if they come to you, then just let them. Sit down on the beach and the baby elephant seals will flop their way towards you, sniff you out, then curl up beside you begging to spoon. Likewise, brown fluffy balls of baby penguins come teetering up to check you out, then start screeching for mom and dad. The cuteness factor trumps a million sneezing panda vids.

Four kinds of penguin live on Macquarie. The largest and most vivid are the elegant King penguins who are the slightly smaller cousins to the iconic Emperor penguins (the ones you and your kids know and love from Happy Feet). As a self-certified, card-carrying member of the penguin craze, I went berserk on watching all the action that goes on in Macquarie’s penguin colony. Even more amusing were the royal penguins, who waddle to and from shore shaking their bushy yellow eyebrows. The species is only found on this island and number well over a million pairs.

We later traveled to Lusitania Bay, Australia’s largest protected penguin rookery. From out of the white fog, the shore appeared like a dream sequence. At first I saw nothing except a buzzing black and white screen beyond the mist. Suddenly our little boat lurched forward and the beach came into focus: not hundreds, not thousands, but a hundred thousand or more penguins. An unreal sight and an unreal sound, that of an infinite chorus of nasally seabirds calling out in almost-unison. Penguins were diving and swimming all around us as well, bulleting through the golden ripples of waves. I’ve never felt so outnumbered in my life.

In the distance, a pair of old-fashioned rusty steam cookers sat on the beach as an eerie reminder of the island’s exploitative past. Once upon a time, men gathered up penguins and threw them in the pot to boil up some penguin oil, used to make rope and twine back in the day. The penguins triumphed, thank goodness, and today the island is a vital breeding spot.

I sailed to Macquarie on the MV Orion, an Australian expedition ship which–in the spirit of Gadling’s motto, goes there–or in other words, goes to the places where few ships ever go. (If you’re going to travel to one of the least habitable islands in the world, it helps to be traveling on one of the world’s most habitable ships.) As tourist interest broadens, the government still limits visits to under twelve ships a year. Extraordinary bird life attracts all the gung ho bird nuts out there, while map nuts like me are eager to get to such a remote place and see what we can see.

I feel immensely lucky to have traveled to this forgotten map crumb of Australia. I loved the penguins and friendly elephant seals and the giant killer whales swimming in the shallows. The brown-green kelp and chunks of ice on the beach added an extra twinge of exoticism, however it was the island itself that attracted me-a rare and lonely place at the bottom of the world that few know and even fewer ever visit.%Gallery-79934%

Breaking Ice With the North Pole

People who travel to dangerous corners of the world not only because they are adventurous and want to conquer a stubborn internal drive, but also because they want their expedition to count for something valuable to the world, never fail to astonish me.

The latest is endeavor is that of British explorer Pen Hadow who will walk 1200-miles journey to the North Pole whilst pulling a scientific sledge on the way that will measure the thickness of ice remaining in the Arctic Circle. Analysis of the measurements will tell us how long the snow will last us.

As you must know, the ice in the North Pole provides a protective shield that helps balance the Earth’s temperature. The more the ice melts, the more disruption will be caused to the world’s weather systems – hence the grave threat of global-warming.

The expedition is called the Vanco Arctic Survey and a team of 3 explorers (led by Hadow) will do it over a period of 100-120 days, beginning in February next year. Expert oceanographers, glaciologists, and meteorologists from the UK Met Office, Cambridge University and the US Navy will all be working with the team to help them accomplish this feat.

Probably the most ambitious, not to mention dangerous, expedition in the North Pole — the sheer curiosity, inspiration and blatantly adventurous desire of purposeful discovery with travel, always leaves me in utter awe.

Expedition to the Center of the World…Through the “North Pole Opening”! Wha?

Next spring, Kentucky-based physicist/ futurist Brooks Agnew will clamber aboard the Russian icebreaker Yamal in the port of Murmansk and sail into the polar sea just beyond Canada’s Arctic islands. He and his team of support crew are planning what they call “the greatest geological expedition in history.”

Is this vending-machine visionary searching for Arctic oil reserves? Will this green energy savior be hunting for evidence of climate change? Nope. He and a team of 100 fellow explorers will be seeking a fog-shrouded hole in the Arctic Ocean that leads to the center of the Earth, where he believes a civilization of at least 8 major races and 200 minor races is living inside the Earth.

According to Agnew, “Everest has been climbed a hundred times. The Titanic has been scanned from stem to stern. [But] this is the first and only expedition to the North Pole opening ever attempted.”

The idea of a hollow earth is thousands of years old. Over time, many people — from Sir Edmond Halley, to Athanasius Kircher, to David Standish — have pushed this theory. Essentially, Agnew argues that the earth has two undiscovered openings — holes near each of the poles — that connect the outer Earth with an interior realm. You can see a picture of one opening here and get more details about the openings here.

While he insists the journey has a genuine scientific purpose, Mr. Agnew says the expedition will include experts in meditation, mythology, and UFOs, as well as a team of documentary filmmakers. If you’re interested in going, there is an application process to complete, but if you’re successful, the trip is free. If you want to learn more about Agnew before you complete the application, check out this interview.

[Via GO]