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Journeying far to feel free in Antarctica

Secluded, faraway places such as Antarctica invigorate the senses, quieten the mind and put the world in perspective

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Lee Siew Hua on 22 Oct 2017

The Straits Times

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My first morning in Antarctica, I awaken to a scene of sunrise-tinged icebergs. On the horizon, humpback whales are languorously moving dots in the pure ice-flecked water.

 

Here at the end of the world, where our 100-passenger expedition ship Hebridean Sky is anchored, it is all splendour and silence. It is a contrast to the irongrey waves of the tumultuous Drake Passage that our ship had rolled on for two days, to get here from the tip of South America.

 

It takes a long time to reach isolated places, but a 48-hour trip is still, all things considered, reasonable. To put things in perspective, travellers often take a lifetime to arrive in a place as far and pricey as Antarctica, which is likely their seventh and final continent.

 

An adventure here sounds epic – yet it is very intimate when passengers on our 12-day summer voyage step onto little islands daily to watch penguin antics close up or camp overnight on the ice like the first explorers.

 

Mr Lucas Blangero, 25, a strategy consultant from Paris on my trip, loves the perfection of Neko Harbour, an inlet on the Antarctic Peninsula with great icebergs and penguins everywhere.

 

He says the appeal of Antarctica is in the inner journey it sparks in each traveller when confronted with the unknown.

 

“It is a phantasmagorical place. It is mysterious,” he says. “It’s the perfect place to think about what to do in my life.”

 

Deep in the southern hemisphere, resplendent and hidden, the white continent of Antarctica is the epitome of far-flung places.

 

What is it about distant destinations, I wonder, that captures the imagination?

 

Is it a desire to encounter a radical difference from all that is familiar? Or are we comforted when we encounter the same even in the most exotic locations?

 

A bit of both, really. In Kamchatka, in the Russian far east, I once snuggled in a tent on the cold tundra near reindeer herders. Living amid streams in the wilderness, they told me they disliked the sound of piped water in city apartments.

 

Iran is a different story. Politically isolated for 37 years before international sanctions were relaxed last year, it is more like the rest of the world than it is not, as I am delighted to discover. Young women sport tinted hair and nail art, and exuberant schoolgirls wield pink selfie sticks and say they love Korean dramas.

 

Secluded places, for me, also tend to be associated with extraordinary island clusters. Sometimes they do not have to be very far.

 

Take, for example, Indonesia, with its constellation of tens of thousands of islands that make the traveller feel like he is on the distant rim of the world.

 

Komodo has its primordial dragons while Raja Ampat offers worldclass diving, including within a new manta ray sanctuary.

 

So, sometimes, far-flung is a state of mind. I remember two Generation Y colleagues who were anxious about living the less-plugged life in luxe resorts ensconced on Phuket in Thailand and private island Pangkor Laut in Malaysia, where they were assigned to write travelogues.

 

In the end, the two city girls arrived at the same epiphany: They loved their escape, needed it and yearned for more in future.

 

Perpetual Wi-Fi? They did not miss it, to their genuine surprise.

 

“I forgot my need to connect to digital civilisation,’’ as one of them puts it.

 

Our minds yearn for a break from the sensory overload of smartphones and cities, whether we realise it or not. Immersed in natural beauty – such as the Milky Way hovering low over Lake Tekapo in New Zealand or the all-white world of Nagano in the Japanese winter – the senses are reawakened.

 

I imagine that humans are hardwired to relish time outside a city and, who knows, there is an ancestral longing to return to more open spaces – hopefully as far away as possible, though a nearby park that mimics the great outdoors does much for the psyche too.

 

Several studies cited by The New York Times in 2015 show that walking in nature changes the brain.

 

Stanford University researchers, for instance, discovered that volunteers walking along green paths had less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex – a portion of the brain linked to the risk of mental illness. This brain zone was quieter, suggesting that nature lifts the mood.

 

My walks in wild places – Patagonia, Japan’s far north and, now, in Antarctica – have certainly soothed the spirit even when it was hard work to ascend a slope or when riding a horse on the edge of an abyssinduced anxiety.

 

“See how small you are next to the mountains,” British essayist Alain de Botton writes in his bestselling The Art Of Travel (2002). “Our lives are not the measure of all things: consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.”

 

To be in sublime places is an ironically liberating reminder of human insignificance.

 

In Antarctica, something as elemental as the light at sunrise, the sky and the horizon all look new to the traveller.

 

For Singaporeans squeezed onto an uber-urban speck of land, Antarctica, and the world’s farthest places, have vast appeal.

 

• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua.

 

• A2A Journeys hosted the writer in Antarctica and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

 

• This is the second of a two-part Antarctica travelogue published this month.

 

CITY AND COUNTRY IN ARGENTINA

 

Going to Antarctica involves flying 30 hours from Singapore to Buenos Aires in Argentina, then another 31/2 hours on a domestic flight to Ushuaia at the tip of South America, where I embark on a 12-day Antarctica cruise.

 

To break up the journey, I bookend my Antarctica voyage with short stays in Buenos Aires and a ranch outside the Argentine capital. This also varies the texture of travel, for Antarctica is nature unbound while Argentina is a place of nostalgia and newness.

 

BUENOS AIRES

 

During my two nights in Buenos Aires, I pop into a literary cafe and eat at a local empanada joint and hip speakeasy.

 

Cafe Tortoni (www.cafetortoni.com.ar/en), opened by a French immigrant in 1858, is redolent of a gilded age when poets, painters and exiles occupied its elegant rooms that are still lined with books, curiosities and paintings depicting the sultry Argentinian dance, the tango.

 

For a local lunch, I go to the nofrills El Sanjuanino (Posadas 1515, Recoleta) and choose two savoury pastries from an empanada menu. The carne picante version is stuffed with spicy beef while the verdura is a creamy vegetable mix.

 

At night, I step into the pretty wine-and-flower shop Floreria Atlantico (Arroyo 872). Inside, I push a huge refrigerator door and descend into a hidden speakeasy. Sitting solo among young Argentinians at the bar, I order Patagonian lamb paired with soft, fatty sweetbreads, among other tapas. The speakeasy takes inspiration from its situation in an old immigrant area now called the Federal Capital district.

 

The whimsically hand-drawn drinks menu is classified under Italia (Italy), Espana (Spain), Polonia (Poland) and other cultures. Argentina was a land of opportunity for immigrants who toiled in the city and pampas – the flat, grassy plains where beef cattle are bred.

 

Buenos Aires is shaped by the nostalgia of the foreign-born, who made up half the population before World War I.

 

On a private half-day tour, I glide into the Belle Epoque era that peaked in the early 20th century, when the nation, an exporter of grains and beef, was among the world’s 10 richest. Its elite loved Parisienne manners, balls and homes with French-imported marble. The mansions still dominate opulent Recoleta and Palermo barrios or districts.

 

My hotel, the Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt Buenos Aires (buenosaires.park.hyatt.com) is a Belle Epoque palace paired with a modern wing. An underpass with an art gallery links the old and new structures – so the hotel evokes a bygone aristocratic life and the new Argentina too.

 

The city’s facades reflect other European aspirations as well. El Ateneo Grand Splendid (Avenida Santa Fe 1860, Barrio Recoleta) – often ranked among the world’s most beautiful bookstores – was originally a theatre built in an eclectic European style. The landmark is a book lover’s dream and its stage, which once hosted tango dancers, is now a red-curtained cafe.

 

I also have a glimpse of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral (Calle Rivadavia s/n, 1004 CABA) – another piece of Europe in South America – where Pope Francis led mass when he was archbishop of the city from 1998 to 2013.

 

I love the 3rd Of February Park (between Libertador and Figueroa Alcorte Avenues), with its rose gardens and exotic South American plant kingdom. The park is a serene spot to encounter locals jogging or relaxing.

 

For a feel of Argentina’s history of political uncertainty – after decades of military rule, it returned to democracy in 1983 – I stop at the Plaza de Mayo (Avenue Hipolito Yrigoyen s/n, 1087 CABA). The square commemorates the May Revolution of 1810, which led to independence from Spain in 1816.

 

It has been a nexus of Argentina’s turbulent political life. Poignantly, wearing white headscarves, the mothers whose children disappeared during the years of military dictatorship under three strongmen (1976-1983) marched for their cause here.

 

ESTANCIA

 

After Antarctica, I have two summery nights at the Candelaria del Monte (candelariadelmonte.com.ar) estancia or ranch, on the pampas outside Buenos Aires. On this secluded property, at the end of a 2km driveway, artist-farmer Sebastian Goni keeps Angus and Hereford cattle, horses and bees. He has four pet llamas, which are gifts from a Russian partner.

 

His parents built the estancia for weekends and holidays 37 years ago. Filled with books and family heirlooms, the house is still a place to linger in. Its five retro rooms host guests from October to April, then the ranch is rented to hunters.

 

During my day-plus here, I ride, chat about all things Argentina with Mr Goni and enjoy the farm’s produce. I play with a Jack Russell mix that follows me around.

 

On my horse ride, I spy the busy reddish-brown hornero, the national bird. The llamas and I wilt in the heat, but there is cool respite under the plane and ginkgo trees.

 

I relish the platters placed before me throughout my stay – empanada with sundown drinks; cannelloni for dinner; an artistic breakfast set of mini toasts with eight spreads including dulce de leche, chunky marmalade and honey from the ranch. Lunch, with an Argentinian family from the United States, features beef simply grilled with salt.

 

The estancia and Buenos Aires are countryside and city experiences that capture two faces of Argentina – and a pleasurable transition between wildest Antarctica and Singapore.

 

FIVE FARAWAY ESCAPES
 

1 SIBERIA, RUSSIA

 

Siberia, a Russian territory that covers nearly a 10th of the planet's land surface, appears to be all silver birch forests and far horizons. But as I discover during my Trans-Siberian train journey, it contains colossal cities with wintry names such as Novosibirsk and Kazan, their beauty and culture rivalling St Petersburg and Moscow.

 

Oil barons also have homes in this region awash with petro-dollars. Its cities, though remote, will be among the 11 in Russia hosting the 2018 Fifa World Cup.

 

Why it appeals: Siberia is culturally exciting and a hot spot for travellers who love adventure and luxury.

 

2 SOLOMON ISLANDS

 

Unseen by much of the world, the Solomon Islands is a fascinating collection of more than 900 islands in the South Pacific.

 

Its natural scenery and indigenous cultures are matched by its bloody history during World War II and the place remains strewn with war wreckage.

 

During my visit, I have snorkelled over an American hellcat fighter and reeled in a metre-long Spanish mackerel that my resort turns into sashimi a couple of hours later. In the villages, I encounter panpipe players and a festival where whole fish are cooked on hot stones and shared.

 

Why it appeals: With crystalline seas, war memories and South Pacific cultures, this destination is still a secret in a Google-mapped world.

 

3 GALAPAGOS, ECUADOR

 

Without predators, wild creatures have lost their fear of humans in the equatorial Galapagos islands, which lie 1,000km west of the Ecuador coast.

 

A tiny finch flits next to me, then almost lands on my shoulder. Sea lions gambol around when I snorkel. Some of these 19 Pacific isles have black volcanic beaches or misty highlands where giant tortoises lurk. The mega-diversity here is also true of the larger Ecuador experience.

 

Why it appeals: There is an Edenic innocence in the volcanic archipelago that helped inspire evolutionist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

 

4 SICHUAN, CHINA

 

West of leisurely Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, are some of the remotest and wildest parts of China that extend into Tibet. Here, the Tibetan plateau rolls up into the Himalayas.

 

On my 1,000km road trip, I stay in a Tibetan hamlet in Jiaju that overlooks an exquisite valley, spy Red Army relics and yak herds, and trek to ancient watchtowers.

 

Once, I pass misty, bamboo-clad mountains where pandas dwell and it is like driving inside a Chinese landscape painting.

 

Why it appeals: Trips to this Tibetan realm are rigorous, with unpredictable road and weather conditions, but the starkly beautiful place is a less-known side of China.

 

5 LUBANG ISLAND, THE PHILIPPINES

 

Just 130km south-west of Manila, half-forgotten Lubang Island is best known as the jungle hideout of enigmatic Japanese war straggler Hiroo Onoda, who did not surrender for 29 years after World War II ended. Only in 1974 did he surrender, still in his uniform and bearing a samurai sword. Before that, he had killed villagers and skirmished with police forces.

 

I trek in the jungle where he hid and explore the secluded seascapes and waterfalls of the island.

 

Lubang, so close to Singapore, is far-flung in spirit. From figuring a way to travel there to untangling the many Onoda narratives proffered by islanders - he is evil incarnate or an idealistic warrior or anything in between - Lubang symbolises pure adventure.

 

Why it appeals: The intriguing island fuses history and beauty in South-east Asia, a fascinating region often under-visited by Singaporeans.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.