Into the last Great Wilderness

Features Issue 133 Nov, 2012
Text by Krita Raut / Photo: Kripa Shrestha & 2041

“When I went to the deck of the ship and saw that there was water as far as my eyes could see, I got really excited. I actually screamed with excitement saying ‘Oh my god, I have never seen the ocean before’, and the guys who were out on the deck for a smoke started teasing me,” recalls Kripa Shrestha. For a girl from a landlocked country like Nepal, it was a totally out of this world experience to be in the middle of an ocean.

This happy incident happened to Shrestha when she was travelling to Antarctica as part of the Inspire Antarctic Expedition (IAE) 2012. With its ‘Leadership on the Edge’ program, the expedition is about enhancing participants’ teambuilding and leadership skills, to prepare them as leaders who would deliver results and inspire others even in challenging environments. Led by polar explorer and environmental campaigner Sir Robert Swan and the 2041 team (Refer to box in page no. 48), the participants get to visit the unique landscape, find out about the wildlife of the continent and observe how climate change has made its ecosystem vulnerable. The participants, who are chosen from various walks of life, also get a chance to discuss key environment issues affecting Antarctica and ways to protect the world’s last greatest piece of wilderness. Shrestha who is working as a Medical Representative believes that being an environment student was a major factor in her being selected for this expedition.

The IAE 2012 team left Ushuaia in Argentina for Antarctica on March 7, but Shrestha’s journey began much earlier. “I came to know about the expedition through my aunt who is based in the US and was immediately interested. Her boss’s son was also going for the expedition,” informed Shrestha, an Environment Science student. Her application form to join the expedition got a positive response from 2041 but Shrestha who had never been away from home before didn’t even have a passport. Along with the passport, she then went to Delhi to get a Visa.

Travelling away from home for the first time, Shrestha, who is an introvert by nature was very nervous throughout her journey from Nepal to Argentina. To add to her anxiety, she had to change flights in France as the aircraft’s engine caught fire. “I had to get another flight which delayed my travel by 13 hours. I also had to pay $200 extra. I got so scared when my ATM card didn’t work at the airport. I had to borrow money from a Chinese guy who was also part of the expedition,” recalls Shrestha with a nervous smile.

After the anxiety of traveling alone, she experienced the panicky feeling of being in a completely new city all by herself when she reached Ushuaia. The southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia is located on the shores of the Beagle Channel and is the most popular spot to start Antarctic expeditions as well as a stopover station for many cruises. “I was feeling so lonely that the moment my room partner entered my hotel room in Ushuaia I ran and hugged her.” Says Shrestha. Her roommate, a 40-year old American environment educator later told her she would never forget the moment. As she warmed up to the trip, Shrestha was most intrigued about how in Ushuaia it wouldn’t get dark till ten in the evening. “The days seemed so long there. I would wait for it to get darker so that I could sleep.”

As a warm up for the participants, a hike to the Martial Glacier, situated near Ushuaia was organized before the actual expedition began. The real adventure began when they boarded the Sea Spirit, a cruise line from Ushuaia, in the late afternoon for the southernmost continent on Earth. “It was only when they lifted the anchor and the ship came into motion, that it finally dawned on me that yes, I am going to Antarctica,” she says.
On their journey, they crossed the Drake Passage, famous for having the roughest sea weather in the world. This 1000km wide, deep waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America and the northernmost point of the Antarctic Peninsula. The passage also marks the area of climatic transition as it separates the cool and humid subpolar conditions of Tierra del Fuego and the frigid polar regions of Antarctica.

The two-day-one-night voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula was no cake walk. “It felt like the ship was experiencing earthquakes all the time. We had to holdthe railings as we walked; the waves would be as high as the windows of the ship,” she explains. When asked if she got sea sick, she says, “We were given this patch to wear behind our ears to avoid it.”

The Sea Spirit would stop at different venues and they would climb onto inflatable rubber boats called Zodiacs for shore landings. They would do this every morning and evening to go hiking. During their 15-day long stay there, they hiked to some 17 islands. According to Shrestha they would walk for two to three hours both ways on these island visits. “We would climb up using sticks, and slide down on the way back. I would get scared that I might slide on into the water!” Shrestha adds. One night they even camped out on the ice. Recalling that night, Shrestha says, “I can say now that I know how it feels to sleep on ice.”

Talking about the cold, Shrestha says that on these hikes they would wear six to seven layers of clothing. “We wore windproof, waterproof jackets, three trousers, leg warmers and boots. We had special boots for the snow; we would take them off before going inside the ship,” adds Shrestha. The temperatures inside the ship were however maintained for comfort.

For 26-year old Shrestha this trip also proved to be about discovering new things and making new friends. She became good friends with participants from China, Sri Lanka, Philippines and India as all of them were of the same age group. She further adds that the recreation time in the evening helped the participants get to know each other better. While recalling the more casual, fun moments on her trip, Shrestha shares that they celebrated Dillon’s (one of the participants) 17th birthday on the ship itself. Dillon, the son of her aunt’s boss, was the youngest member of the group. “We all wished him a happy birthday in our own languages,” she says. However, she confessed that she did have a problem understanding the various accents of the people in the group. “Though they were speaking in English, their accents were very strong.”

Her problems didn’t end there. During the expedition, she came down with a fever for two days and had to miss all the activities that took place then. “No one would come to see me except for the doctor. They feared that they might get infected. I felt so lonely and even cried,” says Shrestha who lost five kgs in those 15 days. She says that along with fever, the food was also responsible for her weight loss. “The food on the expedition was very bland compared to what I was used to. I lost my appetite and didn’t eat much. I had taken some noodles and titaura (sweet sour snacks) so I survived on those,” says Shrestha with a smile.

And then there was homesickness to deal with; being away from her family and home for such a long duration for the first time took its toll on her. “I missed my family and my boyfriend a lot. I even wrote letters to him to cure my loneliness,” shared Shrestha. After coming back, Shrestha tied the knot with her boyfriend. It’s been six months since their marriage.

These hikes were rather informative as the 55 participants from different countries got to learn a lot about the continent’s ecosystem. “One day Sir Robert Swan informed us about penguins there. When I saw them I realized they are so much smaller than I had expected. I found seals a bit hideous though. We even got to see a whale at close proximity; it was so calm. Watching these animals in their natural habitats made me realize that animals can cause harm only when we disturb them or when they feel threatened. As we didn’t hassle them, they were totally fine about us being there.”

At night after dinner, classes and presentations were conducted. Topics like climate change, melting of ice, wildlife and renewal energy among other topics were covered. On the last day of the expedition they visited King George Island. With an area of 1150 square kilometers, it is the largest of the South Setland Islands in Antarctica. They also went to see Trinity Church, which is a small Russian Orthodox Church. The island is also home to research centers from different countries like Brazil, Russia, Poland and Argentina. The island also has e-base established by Swan. The first education center on the continent, its objective is to inspire people all over the world to deal with climate change issues.

In 2003, Swan and the 2041 team led the first batch of IAE and each year’s team has been contributing towards the e-base that is entirely powered by renewable energy. Talking about her visit to the e-base, Shrestha says, “We met the research team that lives there. There were solar panels and the facility also uses wind energy. With the center, the team is trying to convey a message that if renewal energy can be used in a place like Antarctica it can be done anywhere in the world. Sir Robert even told me that the sun’s intensity in Nepal is very good and questioned why the country was not exploiting solar power.”

For someone like Shrestha who has always been concerned about the environment, the expedition was an eye-opener. “Antarctica hasn’t contributed at all towards global warming, still the place and its animals are bearing the brunt of this phenomenon,” she states. What she said next corroborates how the program has been successful in their objective. Referring to the Tandem One Step Beyond – The South Pole Challenge in which Swan along with a team of 35 youngsters cleaned up some 1500 tons of waste left behind after decades of research work at the Bellinghausen Research Center at Antarctica, she expresses, “By removing garbage left by others they showed that you can clean up after someone else litters. Once I saw this middle aged woman carelessly throwing a banana peel on the road. I told her she shouldn’t do that, but she was least concerned. After the expedition, I realized that I should have gone and picked up the peel myself. My action could have had some impact on her.” It isn’t a surprise that she imbibed the true objective of the expedition as she has always been quick learner. She always got good grades in her school and college.

“In Nepal we often observe various international markers such as environment day and water day for a day through different activities, but is cleaning your college that one day enough? You need to make it (environment friendly practices) a habit, only then will you be able to bring substantial change,” opines Shrestha who often gets teased by friends for being persistent about things like disposing wrappers properly.
Kripa Shrestha says that she has learnt ways to make people responsible towards the environment by being a part of the IAE. Treading forth into what arguably is the last great piece of wilderness in the world for those memorable days and her experience during have reinforced her resolve to work toward saving the environment. Ironically, it has to be expeditions to faraway lands that belong to no one, which no one rules over and where no men live to realize that the harm our actions are causing in the larger scheme of things. Having Nepal represented at an amazing expedition to one extreme of the world did not make much local news. But that seems okay by Kripa. What is more important is that the messages she was a carrier of echo across a land that lies in the lap of what many refer to as the earth’s third pole.