When people have enough money and time to go to the ends of the earth, two things can hold them back: their physical ability to undertake the trip and their lack of companions.
When my mother was 70 she became an intrepid traveller.
Much like a starfish she would board a bus and extend her pods, east to Newfoundland, south to New Orleans, north to the Yukon. She travelled in one of three church groups she had linked up with expressly for the purpose of scanning their trips. She always travelled with the same friend, an energetic jokester who balanced her own reserve.
I was reminded of the great joy that travel brought to my mom in the last third of her life when my husband and I journeyed last month to the ends of the earth. We were not on a cruise ship, but aLindblad-National Geographic expedition ship with 150 other passengers. Most of the passengers were over 60, and some were pretty frail.
It’s not an easy crossing from Ushuaia, the city at the southern tip of South America, through the Drake Passage (home to some of the stormiest seas on earth) to the Antarctic Peninsula – with its penguins, icebergs, seals and killer whales – all of which take a lot of getting in and out of small boats called zodiacs to really see and appreciate.
Some, like my mom, had lost their partners but wanted to travel anyway.
One 84-year-old had booked a double and then had to go and find a travel mate who could fit the bill. She was not professing to be spry, and she knew that she might need to count on a little help along the way. The staff on board is acutely aware of the passengers’ individual limitations and the on-board physician could be counted on to advise about their safety and the risks in attempting the shore landings.
Still, these seniors didn’t come on this trip to sit and watch everything unfold on big-screen TVs – though that was amply provided day and night. They may have come in part to hear the National Geographic naturalists talk about the history and the teeming wildlife in Antarctica. Indeed, that was provided like clockwork on bad weather afternoons and evenings. And of course they also they came to share the stories of their lives over tea or during the daily recaps.
But most of all, they wanted the experience of going to the ends of the earth – and they were determined not to let their age and condition stop them.
So imagine how puffed they were to learn that once ashore, they should find a space and sit and let the penguins come to them.
“I have my cane that becomes my seat,” the 84 year old said. “And this trip seems so focused on taking pictures that I thought I had better get a camera. So I got this point-and-shoot and I’m quite proud of what I can do now. The session that we had with the photographer was really good and I learned a lot.”
Indeed, I had attended the same session somewhat shamefaced. After all, what’s to learn about a point-and-shoot? Well, as it turns out, if your teacher shoots for National Geographic, quite a lot.
The doctor aboard has the final say in the seaworthiness of all of the passengers who sign-on for this kind of exertion. Chatting with Dr. Jean Marshall of Bellingham, Washington, we agreed that even greater risk could arise from those who hadn’t yet identified their health issues or who were in denial of the decline in their physical capacity. The trip requires a very complete medical history and the clearance by your physician before embarkation. But the time it takes to get there and back and the climate challenges of actually being in the most southern point on the planet — when the sun shines 18 hours a day — add to its rigour. The ship’s doctor has turned down some clients before they left their homes. All it took was a call with them to go over the itinerary and they’d usually agree with her that the trip is beyond their capacity.
Many other cruise ships handling greater numbers and crossing calmer waters excel in providing travel ventures for the less-abled. The dockside in old Quebec City is a prime example, as it is at the foot of the Old Town and wheelchairs galore ensure that no one need be left aboard.
But Antarctica is a different undertaking entirely, the ultimate bucket-list destination, especially if you’re of an age when you know that list is coming to an end.
It may have something to do with Antarctica’s history. It’s the oldest place on earth. Scientists and tourists visit there. But no one lives there, and no one ever has. Yet the first people to discover it and reach the South Pole did so only a hundred years ago – just thirty years before we 70-year-olds were born!
In fact, Antarctica is so vast, so cold, so high, so dry that it has an otherworldly quality that can only be described as mystical. As Elephant Island, our first landfall, emerged out of the mist we gaped at the precarious perch where the British explorer, Ernest Shackleton, had fled with his men after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by the ice during the winter of 1915.
The privation was extreme: the courage unfathomable.
Even though we were chilled standing in the bow of the ship, this site commanded awe, as did Shackleton and his men. Perched on a tiny spit of this raw coast, his 22-man crew had clung for four months before they were finally rescued.
Flash forward seven days on our trip. Our ship has put in at Port Lockroy, a tiny former British base set up in 1944 to forestall Nazi ambitions at the bottom of the world. Today, it’s a small museum and gift store that all the tourist ships stop at.
That’s 18,000 people a year, all of us arriving during the summer months between November and February. And who is manning this base today? Four people, all mechanically-inclined, able to speak a second language, work 16 hours a day and be outgoing. It turns out they’re all women as well, not because of some quota or nod to political correctness, but because of this year’s 180 applicants, the top four were women.
Yet they too depart in mid-March acquiring passage aboard one of the last ships to leave the straits.
Even as we were stopping by, the penguins were preparing to return to the sea. The seals and the killer whales will follow. The humpback whales (our biggest ‘wow’ getters) will turn northward. The continent will chill, darken, and return to its silent majesty for another winter.
My mother would have loved it.
And I … well, I feel both privileged and blessed to have glimpsed the seventh continent in my seventh decade. And if you are willing and above all able, I encourage you to do the same.