As an award-winning travel writer and author of 15 books, Glenn A Baker has visited 115 countries and is a Life Member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. Here he recalls his five most memorable seafaring adventures.
In a long travelling life, planes, trains and automobiles have taken me to more than a century of countries. I’m not a natural cruiser and when I do take to the seas it’s for exploration – a funky Russian expeditionary vessel weaving around icebergs. I’ve taken away something worthwhile from every experience.
1. Iceland to Greenland
They come out of Scoresby Sound along the East Greenland coast – the big ’bergs that boggle the senses, carved by nature into imposing, dramatic shapes. Greenland is home to some of the largest fjords in the world and few adventure experiences can compare or compete with paddling an ocean kayak through narrow ice-choked fjords, under towering walls of patterned ice in near endless daylight, eyes ever alert for musk oxen, reindeer, arctic fox, walrus and polar bear.
Al Bakker, the father of ocean kayaking (he conceived the personal water-level access of remote wilderness areas back in 1988), happened to be on board an Aurora Expeditions cruise out of Keflavik in Iceland over to the massive isle of Greenland and prepared to personally instruct me in making my way through the scree at water level. There is just no better way to get closer to the most astonishing parts of the planet.
The remoteness and where-no-man-has-gone-before nature of the cruise along the less-visited side of Greenland (which really should have been called Iceland and vice versa) was underlined by the fact that no charts existed for some of the bays we entered because no ship had previously been there.
2. Clippers in the Andaman
They were the daredevils of their day, the ‘top guns’ of the sea. Often barely in their early 20s the near-fearless clipper captains of the mid-1800s drove their bonus-hungry crews savagely to please international trade barons engaged in fiercely competitive ocean commerce. Built ‘to move at a faster clip’ and to ‘clip the waves’, in the days before the opening of the Suez and Panama canals, the young captains’ lean, sleek and heart-stoppingly swift vessels, jammed with cargo, rode the trade winds down one side of the African and South American continents and up the other; dancing around the globe at speeds never seen at sea.
Aboard either Star Flyer or Star Clipper – exactingly constructed replicas of the ‘greyhounds of the sea’ – in the Andaman along the coast of Thailand, it is possible to insert yourself into that history, though the comfort levels are undoubtedly different. These craft are designed to carry up to 180 passengers apiece in 90 spacious air-conditioned cabins. They offer marble baths, queen-sized beds, a carpeted Edwardian-style salon dining room, two swimming pools, cabin phones and televisions, an antique Belle Epoque fireplace, a cool library of Dickensian ambience, a Tropical Bar, a grand piano, regally furnished lounges, silken service, fine food and wines, and a remarkable amount of open, uncluttered deck space.
At 360 feet overall the opulent Star Flyer and Star Clipper are longer than even the largest of the old clipper ships. The tallest of their four gleaming steel masts tops 226 feet, and the 16 white dacron sails (far easier to raise and lower than the old canvas variety) spread out to a massive 36,000 square feet. I found it all so exhilarating that, a week after boarding, I almost had to be pried off Star Flyer.
3. High Arctic
On Professor Molchanov, the snug Russian expeditionary vessel circumnavigating the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, the last landfall before the North Pole, some wag has posted a sign on the dining room noticeboard to the effect that the passengers shouldn’t fear a polar bear attack because, as they eat you head first, the ordeal would be over quickly.
Like frolicking humpback whales in the Antarctic and regal ‘big cats’ in Africa, polar bears are unquestionably the big ticket item. That they have marquee value in Arctic tourism is evidenced by their appearance, as proud and prowling predators, on the front of a veritable library of literature – books and brochures alike. The Elle of the extremities, this hardy beast has its own calendar, postcards, videos and slide sets. On my journey around Spitsbergen I sighted a dozen of them, as well as old Soviet coalmines and encampments, and steep cliffs of screeching guillemot birds. There is something almost sinister, perhaps cinematic, about these dark, looming walls of serrated stone and a sky thick with circling birds taking a break from the task of hatching a pear-shaped egg on a tiny rock ledge or hurling themselves down into the deep to snare food.
The High Arctic is far more accessible than the Antarctic. Instead of days traversing the unpredictable Drake Passage and Southern Ocean you fly directly into Longyearbyen on a Norwegian domestic flight and then board a ship for a gentle, unbuffeted sail close to the coast.
4. The Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula is the continent’s Côte d’Azur – 20 degrees or more warmer than the frigid mass of the continent proper. Birds and seals go there to feed and breed on and around the thousands of irregular inlets, islands, channels, points and precipices that make this long hook of land the most diverse and visually startling portion of the awesome white world.
While there may now be an ice runway allowing access to scientific bases around the Ross Sea, the essential way to visit the most compelling portion of the planet remains a ship, sailing during the Antarctic summer ‘window’ from the port of Ushuaia on the Argentine island of Tierra del Fuego down to that rugged coastline.
One cogent peninsula memory from my first visit: the stillness and serenity of the aptly named Paradise Bay. We glided around the perimeter with a sense of muted awe, anchoring almost silently. In a Zodiac we set out to examine, from a safe distance, the towering walls of blue glacial ice pockmarked with ‘cathedral windows’, turning off the engines from time to time to better hear the wrenching, thunderous groans of the glaciers as jagged crevasses gave way and hundreds of tonnes of ice collapsed into the ocean. Some of the older icebergs were covered in basking crab-eater seals and penguins propelled themselves at speeds of up to 30km/h through the icy water. It was a rare and precious moment, though one that was still to reach its zenith. Not a hundred metres away, a school of humpback whales in a particularly frivolous mood threw the switch to vaudeville and began playing ‘tip’ around the rubber boats. The events coalesced into a sort of sublime natural theatre that was, frankly, more than most of the human units bobbing about the bay could bear after a time. We squealed like kids as they dived deep with a graceful wave of their massive tails, then shot out jets of water from their spouts as they returned. It seemed almost avaricious to expect more.
5. Off to Ensenada
“Poor Mexico” goes the old proverb. “So far from God, so close to the United States.” So close, in fact, that parts of it have been incorporated into a sort of American leisure zone, visited by cruise ships that head out of Los Angeles, meander around the drink in lopsided loops and end up at Ensenada, the Baja Peninsula’s oldest community, for a six-hour burst of shopping and Mexican restaurant hopping.
It is a perverse fascination that leads me to list my time on this ocean run in my top five but I’ve never forgotten it. A cruise to Ensenada fits in perfectly with the Great American Dream. It is a totally egalitarian exercise cutting across barriers of class, race and wealth. At my dining table were lawyers, prosperous antique dealers and academics taking a break from their pontifications. On other occasions I was in the company of some boisterously happy campers for whom, as one fellow passenger joked, the cruise was possibly the introduction to the use of a knife and fork – previous consumption having been accomplished by unwrapping burgers. By the end all were joined in bonhomie, cheering the captain as he regaled us with renditions of ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘God Bless America’ over dinner, slipping away to gently steer his 40,000-ton craft around fishing buoys and nets while pointing out Santa Catalina Island. Everyone left with a smile.