Shackleton fan and adventure lover Gary Lee travelled on our latest commemorative voyage to Antarctica - In Shackleton's Footsteps, in March this year. A 'life-changing' experience filled with moving discoveries and new friendships, Gary has shared his impressions on Antarctica and told us why it is important to commemorate Antarctic explorers.

You travelled on the In Shackleton’s Footsteps voyage in March this year. Why did you choose this particular voyage?

I’ve been a Shackleton admirer for years. For the hundredth anniversary of the rescue of the Endurance Expedition, I wanted to experience the flavour of the adventure by visiting the far-flung places they went. To me, it was the ultimate in remote, wild destinations. 

Can you tell us about your experience visiting Antarctica? Was it your first time in Antarctica?

Yes, my first time. The kayaking was what brought it all together for me. Paddling made me feel much more connected to the places we explored than if I had gone out by Zodiac only.  

This is a very personal view, but probably the most valuable part for me was not the scenery or the close encounters with wildlife, spectacular as all that was, but the suspension of my "negative mind"- that critical, judgmental, nay-saying part of my thoughts that can so quickly size up and reject people and places, often on nothing but the most superficial appearances. The splendid environment we travelled together created a strong sense of rapport among us. In our tight quarters and sometimes challenging circumstances, I barely had one negative thought about anybody or anything, an INCREDIBLY freeing and joyous way to live.  

Now when I notice I'm feeling judgmental toward someone, I regard him or her through my "Polar Pioneer" lens, and ask myself: "How would I have felt about this person if we had been on the Polar Pioneer together?" That turns it around. Thus I can say, without exaggeration, that the journey was life-changing for me. Our desire to see one another again in London affirms for me that others, inspired by our adventure in an incredible place, may have had some sense of the same feeling.

Gary and passengers kayaking in South Georgia
Gary (on the right) and fellow passengers kayaking in Cooper Bay, South Georgia. Image credit: Al Bakker

What is it like to ‘walk in Shackleton’s footsteps’? Was there any particular moment during the voyage that stood out?

The highlights for me were visiting Shackleton’s grave, which is like a pilgrimage; sailing Drygalski Fjord with its awesomely rugged mountains and glaciers; fighting wind and waves in a Zodiac to pass the spot on Elephant Island where the men were stranded, the brutal weather only enhancing the sense of the ferocious wildness of the place where they clung to life; and the hike from Fortuna Bay to the now abandoned whaling station of Stromness, which I did twice. The first hike, on the most beautiful, sunny day we had, was a lark, sheer bliss all the way. The next day, struggling through a rainstorm, gave more sense of the hardship that bedraggled Shackleton, Worsley and Crean endured to finally reach safety over this mountain pass. Stromness, rusty and dilapidated, cordoned off as unsafe to enter, can only be seen from afar. An aura of haunted history settles over the ruins--the place where Shackleton met the manager at his villa and the world discovered that the men of the Endurance, considered lost, were alive.   
 

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What interests you about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story?

I’m intrigued by the hair-raising drama of the Endurance Expedition, with its startling juxtaposition of great and terrible luck, its innumerable close shaves, the invigorating pluck and determination of the men while enduring unimaginable hardships, the astounding leadership Shackleton showed, and their final ecstatic triumph. You can’t write that stuff!  As Mark Twain said, “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  The Endurance Expedition seemed improbable from its conception, yet time and again the story wound on by its own careening logic until most improbably of all, everyone came back alive. Shackleton appears larger than life, yet he was no bronze god but very human. On land he was hopeless, but on ice he was invincible. He seems, one hundred years on, to be not a dead, distant figure in a history book but a real-life character one can easily relate to as a living, breathing man.     

You and fellow passengers reunited in London in May to attend the Centenary Service that commemorated Shackleton’s expedition. Tell us a bit about the service.

The commemoration in Westminster Abbey was magnificent and deeply moving, full of pomp and circumstance, thoughtful, eloquent, and superbly done. Eminent people spoke about the Endurance to 2,000 enthralled attendees who packed England’s most famous church. Shackleton would have been thrilled, I’m sure, to see his men receive such recognition and to know that after a century their sufferings and strivings have not been forgotten by their country.

Read Gary's story about the Ernest Shackleton's Centenary Commemoration Service in London.

Passengers turned friends reunited in London
Gary (second row, second from the right) and fellow passengers-turned friends reunited in London
for the Ernest Shackleton's Centenary Commemoration Service at Westminster Abbey.

Why is it important to commemorate Shackleton and other Antarctic explorers?

The explorers of the Heroic Age first revealed Antarctica to the world. More was known about the moon than about the Antarctic when they first set out. Today, as tourism increases, one of the positives of having more people see and appreciate the unforgettable beauty of this land is that it will boost awareness and support for the treaty that preserves it. I live near the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  The ONLY reason that the Grand Canyon has not been destroyed by dams (as Glen Canyon was, an equally magnificent but far less known canyon upstream) is that so many people from all over the world have experienced the Grand Canyon's unique beauty and will not stand for it being ruined.  

Therefore, I strongly feel that no visitor should ever come away without being informed of the basics of the Antarctic Treaty, how it stands as a model of international cooperation, and what each of us can do to support it. Appreciating the incredible tales of what the pioneer explorers suffered and sacrificed to discover the south polar regions fosters the urge to preserve and protect this last great wilderness. 

Do you have any tips for anyone planning an expedition to Antarctica?

Oh, don’t go. It’s way too adventurous. There’s such a glare from those towering glacial cliffs and imposing icebergs. The penguins, so charming and hilarious, entice passengers to foolishly leave the safety of the ship to venture among them. The adorable young fur seals with their liquid dark eyes make you want to take one home, and you can’t. Soaring albatrosses will arouse wanderlust and make you want to join them in their amazing travels. The humpback whales come close and everyone rushes out to see them, interrupting mealtimes. People from all over the world fill the ship and you have to hear of all their travels. You’ll get fired up with outlandish ideas for where to go next, like climbing Kilimanjaro or reaching the North Pole. Names will get added to your Christmas card list that require foreign postage. There’s so much beauty everywhere it will keep you awake at night with dazzled visions. Much better to stay home.

Gary on board Polar Pioneer during his voyage with Aurora Expeditions
Gary on board Polar Pioneer during his voyage with Aurora Expeditions. Image credit: Jenny Eskin

Alas, if you simply cannot withstand the call of the ice, bring a clothesline to hang up wash in your cabin and a rubber stopper for the sinks. Make sure you have seasickness meds. Don’t overeat with all the delicious meals on board and don’t overdress. It’s not as frosty as you think. I suffered from being too hot in all those clothes more than I ever did from being cold. Don’t experience everything through a camera lens. Put it away sometimes and be in the moment. Go out on deck. Stand in the wind. Don’t miss the lectures or the recap in the bar.  Get some sleep. Trust your gumboots. They will take you far. Forgive yourself for making wrong turns, losing stuff, asking foolish questions, and falling on someone when the ship suddenly rolls. The person you landed on probably enjoyed it. Turn your tag.

Gary travelled on the In Shackleton's Footsteps voyage in March 2016, as part of the centenary celebrations of Ernest Shackleton's epic Endurance expedition to Antarctica. Click here to find out more about this itinerary or download a brochure here

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