"To accomplish great things, we must not only actbut also dream; not only planbut also believe. " Anatole France
In 1995, François and Isabelle learned that their son Adrien had a disability. That day, François vowed to make his dream come true, to take Adrien to Antarctica in the footsteps of his ancestors. This dream came true in 2016, Adrien tells us about this incredible family trip on the tracks of the 'BelgicaThe first ship and the first men to winter in Antarctica, from 1897 to 1899.
My name is Adrien and I am 21 years old. I was born with a disability. When I was born, my father swore that one day I too would go to Antarctica in the footsteps of my ancestors. In fact, I was born into a family of fools... They all go to the polar regions, where the temperatures are extreme! They say that there are less people there than in the "Costa del Sol".
Here is an account of my extraordinary trip to the end of the world with my twin sister Emilie, my father François and my friend, Marc. A dream come true for my father and an extraordinary experience for me.
First of all, a little background on the history of my crazy family is in order!
It all started with my great-grandfather, Adrien, who was a sailor and who one
one day he set out to mount an expedition to Antarctica. With his ship "La Belgica" he remained trapped in the ice for 15 months, and at the same time he and his crew carried out the very first wintering in history on the white continent... a heroic period for these first explorers who, in discovering unknown regions that had not yet been mapped, put their lives at risk for their country and their King. The Belgica expedition did not give any sign of life for two and a half years and it was only when they returned that the telegraph was invented and they were able to tell their relatives that they were alive. This was in 1897-1899! 60 years later my Grandfather Gaston decided to set up an expedition in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year. With his companions, they built the King Baudouin Base, which has now disappeared and been replaced by the Princess Elisabeth Base. Finally my father François, also crazy, left with some Englishmen in 1984 for the Brabant Island where they spent 9 months in tents!
In fact my great-grandfather, grandfather and father are winterers; all the others in my family are tourists, like me, on this trip that I have just made and that I will tell you about in a few lines!
January 2016, The departure is approaching!
My father is very nervous because he says that going to Antarctica with me is a challenge that will not be easy. He knows that I am an optimist by nature and that I love life, but he is still worried... How will I cope with the long flight to Argentina and Ushuaia? Will I get seasick in the Drake Passage (the so-called 40th Roaring, where the Pacific and Atlantic meet)? How will I manage to make the zodiac landings when we are in Antarctica? So many questions, so many doubts for my father!
The luggage is ready, Mum drops us off at Brussels airport on 26 January 2016 where we meet our travelling companions, including Emilie's godfather, Marc, who decided a few months ago to leave with us in order to see for himself what attracts my whole family to this end of the world! It reassures my father to have my sister Emilie and Marc with us for this tourist cruise on the tracks of the Belgica. We also meet Annick, the person in charge of the Bruges travel agency. Asteria "For many years now, it has been the reference in Belgium for the organisation of trips to far-off and unusual destinations, as well as for the organisation of a wide range of events. Jozef Verlindenthe biographer of my great-grandfather. He knows everything, but really everything about the Belgica expedition !!! In addition, we are fortunate to have Dixie Danscercoer*, a modern-day polar explorer and adventurer, and his wife Julie, among us.
Flight Brussels-Madrid, stopover, flight Madrid-Buenos Aires where I'm lucky because during this long flight I have 4 seats to myself and I can therefore lie down to sleep. In Buenos Aires we have a few hours stopover because we have to change airport to take our next flight to Ushuaia in the late afternoon. This gives us the opportunity to visit the green city of Buenos Aires too quickly and to have an excellent Argentine steak in the restaurant! Finally Buenos Aires-Ushuaia or "el Fin del Mundo" which welcomes us with a very mild and pleasant temperature. We stay one night in the magnificent hotel "Arakur" on the heights from where we dominate the city. The whole city and the famous Beagle Channel which separates Argentina from Chile. After an excellent night, we visit the city of Ushuaia, the departure point for cruises to the Antarctic and for the many hikers who come from all over the world to explore the splendid Patagonia.
Before boarding our ship "The Sea Spirit" we have a small official ceremony in the presence of the Ushuaia authorities around the statue of my great grandfather, Adrien. What an honour that he is there at the end of the world and I am very moved to be there with Emilie and Dad; he will give a speech in English saying among other things that he is proud and particularly moved to have me by his side and that touches me... Tears are not far away but I restrain myself because in my polar family we don't cry or at least we try! The ceremony being over, we go to visit the museo maritimo where a part is dedicated to the expedition of the Belgica. The director, Carlos Vairo, whom Dad knows very well, welcomes us with great kindness. At the end of the day we boarded the "Sea Spirit". The big departure is approaching for good, we are there on this long awaited and promised day! LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN!
We are installed in our cabin that we will share with three people. It looks like a luxury hotel room, so spacious and comfortable. On board, there is a lift which will greatly facilitate my movements from one Deck to another. The crew of different nationalities welcomes us with great kindness and enthusiasm. Captain Oleg is Ukrainian and the expedition leader Jonathan is French; he is in charge of organising the zodiac landings when we are in Antarctica... very nice, the current passes very quickly between us! Finally, there is the German Yan who is the vice-president of the company that owns the ship and who, with all his team, is there to ensure the best possible comfort during the cruise. The ship releases the inks and to the sound of its balsam horn, we leave the quay and see the city of Ushuaia slowly disappear...
Several hours of sailing are necessary through the Beagle Channel to reach Cape Horn and start the crossing of the Drake which always haunts people's minds when it comes to knowing if it will shake or not... Fortunately, the Captain announces us a rather calm crossing with 4-5 Beaufort, which is relaxing! Life on board is getting organised and we attend various conferences given by specialists on the explorers of yesteryear, marine mammals, penguins, the different birds we will meet and of course, we can't escape it, on global warming and its impact in the polar regions. The impact is less radical in Antarctica than in the Arctic!
First icebergs in sight! We are approaching after 2 days on the high seas and soon we see the first sub-Antarctic islands which are the South Shetland Islands. Everyone is on deck to admire these grandiose landscapes.
The first disembarkation is planned for this evening but not for me because the conditions are not optimal... No matter, I stay on board with dad and we observe all this zodiacs' stirring with interest. I am sure that my turn will come, if not tomorrow, it will be the day after tomorrow! Wait and See !!! The ship's restaurant is excellent and I make lots of friends among the crew. We have a good laugh with Emilie and Marc, who is an excellent travelling companion. Among the passengers are Charlotte and her husband Olivier with their two sons, Gilles and Hughes, who quickly become friends for Emilie and me. Charlotte is the great-granddaughter of Georges Lecointe who was the second in command of the Belgica expedition.
February 1st, here we are, preparing my first landing on Danco Island. I am ready and impatient to be in the Land of the Penguins! What a mess to get into a zodiac. I go from my wheelchair to a sort of carrying chair and back to another wheelchair, which is well secured in the zodiac. The main thing is to have competent people around you, who have precise gestures so that I don't end up in the freezing water at 0°C... Brrrbrrrr, at that temperature, we wouldn't last long! This first landing goes perfectly and I am proud to pose between my father and my sister in a splendid weather surrounded by some curious papuan penguins, who observe us and wonder what we are doing at home!
The zodiac landings are done at a rate of two per day for the passengers; I don't do them all because some places are difficult to access for my wheelchair. However, I will have the chance to go on the zodiac more often and at the same time to observe the whales from very close! One day, one of them dived at the sight of the zodiac and came out very quickly on the other side. Our Canadian zodiac driver "Flipper" was in a cold sweat, because a miscalculated exit of the whale would have thrown us in the air... It was a fabulous and unforgettable spectacle for all of us present in this zodiac!
Also a nice visit to an English base "Port Locroy" where some scientists stay during the Antarctic summer (November-February). There is a large colony of penguins there that I can observe very closely and also a post office where tourists can frank their postcards, which we also do for our family. The tourists made a dozen landings and I was able to make half of them, which is already fantastic! Emilie and Marc kayaked between the icebergs and also had the chance to spend a night under the stars by digging a hole in the snow to shelter from the wind. The ship sailed away leaving them alone "in the silence hearing the silence" sometimes disturbed by falling ice blocks from the surrounding glaciers! They came back on board the next day delighted with this unique experience! In my great-grandfather's strait, the "Gerlache Strait", Captain Oleg allows me to sit at the bridge in his armchair where I have a first class view of this exceptional environment. It is the most beautiful sunset of my life. We sail off the islands of Antwerp, Brabant, Liege and Ghent. My father shows me the "Monts Solvay" on the island of Brabant where he spent the winter and tells me that Ernest Solvay was one of the great patrons of the Belgica expedition in 1897.
All good things must come to an end and here we are already sailing north and after visiting a Polish base on King George Island we find ourselves back in the Drake Passage with 7-8 Beaufort! Aille, it's seriously more moving but unlike my cabin mates (Papa and Emilie) I don't feel any sea sickness! Do I have sea legs? Normal, I take it from my grandfather Adrien 😉 ! Relax, I laugh to see the others having difficulty moving, the chairs sliding in the restaurant and the dishes breaking. After 2 days of hectic high seas, we are back in this marvellous and calm Beagle Channel where the dolphins are having a great time following the ship.
It is our last evening on board and I organise an official dinner where I invite 13 people to my table. It is with emotion that I take the floor to thank everyone for having allowed me to live this unique experience and I say in conclusion "Now the Antarctic is done, let's hear the music for the Arctic!Everyone laughs at my statement but I'm serious, I really think I'll be able to go to the land of the eskimos and the last polar bears one day! Now I'm part of this crazy family too!
At the crew's farewell party, Annick, the head of Asteria, officially presented me with the Belgian flag "In the footsteps of the Belgica". I am very touched by this attention and sit up proudly in my chair as I receive it under my arm. the applause of the whole ship ! We docked in Ushuaia where, after a last night in the ink in the Beagle, we left the Sea Spirit crew with a certain nostalgia. A great and emotional farewell before taking the plane back to Buenos Aires - Madrid - Brussels. The plane is full and the return journey will be more difficult, but my head full of wonderful memories will help me to hold on for the 26 hours to Brussels. Mum is waiting for us, happy to see her little family in good shape after 15 days of absence.
Thank you my dear sister Emilie for having been there to help Dad during the difficult moments, Thank you Marc for having made me laugh so much with your legendary good mood and for your many helping hands!
Finally, thanks to you Papou that your 21 year old dream has come true. In addition to all this, it has done us both good and it has also allowed us to see disability differently!