Taking the Long Way to Antarctica

In my youth, I dreamed of visiting Antarctica. This was when the options were old Russian research vessels and required selling a kidney or your first born just to pay for the trip. I came close a few times, but ultimately my kidneys were more important and kids were the last thing from my mind.

Times changed, but the dream of Antarctica burned inside me all those years. In 2020, I finally had my chance. My wife, Jana, and the younger two of my three sons, Ethan and Hayden, had our voyage booked. (My oldest Sael couldn’t join.) Ethan and I left early to explore Patagonia. We planned to all meet up in Ushuaia, Argentina to finally embark on this great adventure together. It was so close. And so far.

Two days out from sailing to Antarctica, our voyage was preemptively sunk. Having spent the previous two weeks off the grid, Ethan and I were holed up in a cafe in El Calafate when we got a call. Jana and Hayden were at the airport check-in desk and news had just hit: COVID-19 was now a pandemic and the government was closing the borders.

We had an impossible choice to make and ended up making the only correct one. Ethan and I scrambled to get seats on the last flight out of Patagonia, then back home to Canada. The dream that was so close had slipped away. We pushed the trip to the end of 2021, but Omicron hit and it was postponed again.

Finally in early 2023, almost exactly three years later, Ethan, Jana, and I boarded a ship for that fateful voyage. (Sael and Hayden couldn’t make it because of their studies.)

The Forster family celebrating the achievement of walking on the Antarctic Peninsula. (©Don Forster)

I soon learned that there truly is no other place on earth quite like Antarctica. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s true. It’s majestic, captivating, so beautifully harsh, so powerfully gentle. The power of the ocean is palpable. What was a mild crossing of the Drake Passage quickly turned to an otherworldly storm that saw us not able to land on the peninsula for two days. The wind and waves slowly pushed an iceberg the size of a city across our path like it was a mere ice cube.

You would think seeing nothing but snow and ice would become boring, but mother nature paints such a continuous, unique canvas that runs from port to starboard, from horizon to horizon. Every iceberg is different, all uniquely sculpted from walls of cascading snow.

The landscape bursts with wildlife despite how remote it is. There are penguin beyond count: Magellanic, chinstrap, rockhopper, gentoo. They waddle alongside and sometimes over elephant seals bathing in the Antarctic summer sun or up to you and your camera, as curious about you as you are about them. From the safety of a kayak, we paddled up to sleeping whales— who shutdown half their brain when sleeping—as well as leopard seals basking on the ice flows before sliding into the water to hunt down penguins who, in turn, pop up from out of nowhere onto dry land to escape their hunters.

Like most penguins, gentoo parents share the load when caring for and feeding their chicks. (©Don Forster)

We witnessed glass seas, where the kayaks cut silently through the water and surrounding surface ice, as seals followed us and swam in our wake. The silence was deafening, only punctured by the almost rhythmic sound of glaciers calving around us.

I have witnessed the far south’s impact on the senses and its almost spiritual power, which draws people to the end of the world. Back in 2020 in that cafe in El Calafate, Ethan and I couldn’t fathom not heeding Antarctica’s call. In our own little bubble, before that term took on a different meaning, it seemed almost cruel. Today, after all I’ve experienced, that moment of despair is easily put in perspective. I ultimately knew then, as I knew when I was a little kid dreaming of Antarctica, that I would get there. It was only a matter of patience and time.

When the time finally came, my only regret was that Sael and Hayden could not join us. But like their dad, they too are moved by the spirit of travel, fuelled by their inner flames which will hopefully lead them, one day, to take that southern journey that will never be forgotten.

This article was originally published in No. 32 of Globetrotting Magazine.

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Don Forster
Don Forster

Trade Training Manager — Born in Australia and raised in Canada and Papua New Guinea, Don took his first solo trip to Bali – aged just 13. Since then, Don’s travels have taken him to every continent. He’s been a backpacker in Asia, Europe and Egypt, an overland adventurer in East and Southern Africa, and an overland driver in South and Central America. He is especially fond of Peru, Patagonia and Namibia, though his longest adventure to date has been a London to Kathmandu run via the Middle East.

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