For 25 years Unique Destinations has had the privilege of marketing Polar Places for Quark Expeditions who have been offering the most superb experiences to polar hideaways for 29 years – an amazing record. Story by Hans van Heukelum
Maybe you too should join the many who have been enriched by these wilderness areas that are slowly leaving us – particularly in the Arctic. This area comprises northern Canada, Siberia, Greenland – the world’s largest island and the archipelagos of Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Novaya & Severnaya Zemlya with a frozen ice mass of 16 million square kms floating across the North Pole.
In May 1995, whilst working with the St. Petersburg Arctic Institute, who were looking at instituting flights to the North Pole, I took a group of 7 South Africans on a rather special journey. We flew from St. Petersburg to Dudinka at the mouth of the Yenissei River in an Aleutian aircraft. Here we indulged in fresh seafood & vodka before flying in a M18 helicopter to a Russian meteorological station on Severnaya Zemlya, where we spent 3 days with very hospitable Russians who were only too happy to have visitors from the other end of the world. They went out of their way to share their knowledge, take us dog sledging and overfed us on caviar – who’s complaining!
With weather clearance given, we flew on the M18 for a 9 hour journey to 90°N. We had 2 refuelling stops (on ice!) en-route, one each way, which was brought in by another M18. On 31 May (the old Republic day) we reached our goal (quite exhausted) at a temperature of minus 24°C which called for a vodka celebration to warm up somewhat! Quite a moment to be on top of the world and plant the new SA flag. We then embarked on the long flight back over the immense expanse of ice floes where polar bears and walruses were often spotted.
After a lengthy 8 hours, we reached the magnificent archipelago of Franz Josef Land – 122 flat topped islands covered in seabirds – cliffs overflowing with Guillemots, gulls, auks, terns and kittiwakes – what a paradise.
After warming up for a day in wooden huts to catch up on sleep, we returned to our original weather station on Severnaya and enjoyed another round of Russian music and kindness. This trial run journey, in spite of being very arduous, offered an enormous privilege to view the pristine vastness and severity of the Arctic – dramatic scenery where nature is truly master and our vulnerability is tested – a good exercise!
Today we take passengers, via Quark Expeditions, to the North Pole aboard the 50,000hp nuclear powered icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory. This icebreaker, which may only operate in Soviet waters, is one of the most powerful in the world – capable of breaking through ice up to 2.5m thick.
This vessel is in high demand, keeping shipping routes open along the North East Passage, the length of Siberia. Having completed more than 50 trips to the North Pole, the ship carries with it a definite cachet unmarked by any other. Facilities include a dining room, lounge and presentation room, all inclusive bar, gym, basketball court, sauna, plunge pool, library and on-board helicopter for aerial sightseeing. Certainly a much more comfortable way of going North than on a chopper!
To balance the poles, Antarctica is still one of the greatest travel destinations on earth. For silence, sanity and safety you cannot beat it. Over the 25 years we have dealt with thousands and never ever a disappointed client – they just keep raving about this very special place. I am taking 25 clients down this Feb to celebrate our very enriching and humbling involvement in this unique destination and look forward to the purest air on earth and a cacophony of thousands of penguins!
To end my polar saga, some wonderful news! Quark is presently building the Ultramarine, the most technically advanced polar vessel making it possible to reach places once thought inaccessible. Equipped with 2 twin-engine helicopters, clients enjoy stunning aerial views plus flying inland to areas previously never seen. Views of the Greenland Ice Sheet from the polar plateaux and the glacial lakes of the high alpine zone of South Greenland are now all possible.
Ultramarine is nearing its completion and till May 2021 will be undergoing stringent tests before the 2021 Arctic season. Come and see another world.