By Ian King
You’re going to Antarctica, what many refer to as the “seventh continent,” as if it’s a collector’s item accrediting them with significant prestige in a time of global travel. But the first two days of your trek are not particularly auspicious. You’ve spent them forging a labored trail through the infamous Drake Passage, rolling from side to side in the heaving swell of the Southern Ocean, the forbidding gateway to this “last and final continent.”
The weather’s making you increasingly anxious; you fear you’ve made a bad call: what if it’s going to be like this for the next six days? The sea stretches to the almost imperceptible horizon, whichever way you look. It’s a great perpetual motion machine, one heaving lurch followed by another, relentlessly. It’s a dull, monochromatic dark gray, too, which doesn’t do anything to ease the mind-numbing monotony, except where the whitecaps blink momentarily. The cloud-banked, leaden skies more than match the ocean; they hang low, sunless, almost even lightless, as if they are trying to suffocate everything below them. The three-sixty grayness seems irrepressible, so vast and all-enclosing that you fear you’ll never escape this dour cocoon. Vastness, A sheer, overwhelming vastness.
You offer a little prayer that the weather will change by the morrow, and, as if on fateful cue, a great wandering albatross suddenly appears. He’s long been known as a trusted avian almanac for seafarers. You watch the bird glide effortlessly, capturing its own perpetual motion from that of the incessant polar wind on which it free rides. Sporting some ten feet of majestic wingspan, he swoops and dives like a daredevil just above the whitecaps, tempting calamity, while also looking out for prey. You wonder, though, whether he’s a doom-laden character from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or, preferably, “a pious bird of good omen.” He’s leading you south, you choose to believe, surely to better climes.
Somewhere on the Trinity Peninsula you make landfall, and anchor in a quiet cove of the Erebus and Terror Gulf. You ponder the portent: Erebus, born of Chaos and the “personification of darkness,” according to the ancient Greeks. Indeed. Although the waters are calm now, and the wind has died, the sun’s light is still mostly AWOL, shrouded behind a veil of thick, vast, fog.
The fog is almost suffocating, and its dense humidity condenses on your skin. Sunless and horizonless now, you feel as if you’re in a dimensionless universe, ill at ease in the discomforting lack of clear coordinates as to where exactly you are. It’s not beautiful as such, but the vast silence added to the feeling of suspended animation gives you a sort of out-of-body sense of weirdness, angst and a touch of nervous exhilaration, both at the same time.
Maybe the albatross has given you false hope, but he hasn’t. The fog magically begins to lift, along with your spirits, and the weirdness gives way to increasing wonderment. A slither of clear sky breaks through close to the horizon, letting the pale morning light of the absent sun penetrate the gloom. A half-light glimmers, picking out the vast ice sheet that forms the coastline. Then, as the fog dissipates even more, several icebergs appear, sculpted by the wind and the waves and the chaotic melt they’ve slowly endured over the millennia. Here and there, they emit a startling turquoise blue, a property of the way their physical and chemical composition plays with the light waves that strike them. The icebergs remind you of ghost ships, crewless and marooned in the still waters. But the half-fog gives you a half-hope that there may well yet be more to come.
It’s late afternoon morphing into early evening and the fog has come back with a vengeance. It seems as if it’s intent on ruining things once again, reneging on its earlier promise.
So, you’ve just about given up for the day, your camera hanging forlornly around your neck. You take what you think will be your last strained look at the shrouded western horizon in order to give yourself permission to call it a day.
But you can’t—literally—believe what you see.
In a matter of seconds, the fog bank has suddenly broken apart, like a vastly improbable deus ex machina, creating an opening that reminds you of a giant cosmic letterbox. Through the widening aperture, what looks like a most unlikely parallel universe pops into startling view, as if it’s wholly artificial, a trickster’s trompe-l’œil. But it isn’t. What you witness is wondrously real.
Through the letterbox, the sunlight is in its fullest glory, low in the sky but casting maximum luminous force. It picks out the mountains’ western-facing slopes in a brilliant white, delicately tinted with a shimmer of a golden glow. But the rest of the canvas is in starkly contrasting shadow, as if Caravaggio has executed his chiaroscuro technique on the splendid scene. The shadows are long and oblique, delightfully exaggerating the height of the mountains. But even in the dark shadows, there is much to see. In the shadowed terrain, a range of blues emerge, the alchemy of the diffusion of light still in operation even at this late hour. Moreover, the cracks and crevices in the ice sheet are thrown into sharp relief, bringing a 3D clarity to what otherwise might have been a featureless uniformity. And on the nearest peak in the foreground, the wispy beginnings of a katabatic wind have been freeze-framed, as if another artist, from the Impressionist school perhaps, has decided to add a great flourish of a brushstroke to Caravaggio’s fine work.
But would any of this be as astounding if not for the retreating fogbanks framing that letterbox opening? You think not. The fog in the end has been your friend, the dull calm before the aesthetic storm, the yin to the yang of witnessing the ultimate that nature has to offer.
Fog light in Antarctica. Magnificent!