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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Face To Face With Pio XI

I came across this quote today:

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." - Martin Buber

I don't know much about Mr Buber except for the fact that he's pretty dead now. But what he said more than a hundred years ago describes how we unwittingly ended up visiting a glacier while on board Navimag's passenger ship from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Well, that is if you take the quote literally (but I'm sure Mr Buber had deeper insights to convey through his wise words.)

When I booked our places on the 4-day journey, nowhere on the Navimag website did it mention any glaciers along the ship's route. So we first heard about the Pio XI glacier during the welcome briefing after we set sail from Puerto Montt.

We thought, yeah, okay, so we're just going to sail past a glacier and squint at a minuscule sliver of ice from a distance. Ho hum. We've had close encounters with a couple of glaciers in New Zealand before so we didn't think much of it.

Well, if the tour guide on board had told us that Pio XI is the largest glacier in the southern hemisphere, we might have paid more attention.

If we had known that Pio XI is as big as Santiago, with a surface of 1,265 square kilometres, we would certainly have been more enthusiastic.

If he had highlighted that Pio XI is one of the few glaciers in the world that are actually still advancing (most glaciers are receding due to global warming), and that it was growing a few metres every day (in the 1940s, it grew 5km over 30 years!) we would have better prepared ourselves to witness some spectacular ice falls.

And if we had remained unaware of the fact that we were not just sailing past a big ice cube - but instead, coming face to face with a giant tentacle snaking seawards from an ancient ice field - we might have just been content with one lousy picture snapped from the comfort of the warm cosy lounge.

But thankfully, the tiny kiasu flame in me roared to a bonfire when I saw everybody else cram the front of the deck for a prime view of the glacier (a full hour before the ship actually reached it), and I staked out a corner for myself on the emptier lower deck, fighting cold, wind, rain and hail for my meeting with Mr Pio The Eleventh himself. At that time, I still thought that we were simply going to sail past with the glacier on our right, so I positioned myself on the starboard in anticipation.

As we neared Pio XI, I spotted some oddly-shaped white stuff bobbing on the surface. Thankfully, Ananda, a Malaysian Indian and the only South-East Asian whom we have met on this trip so far, enlightened me before I pointed out that there was styrofoam floating in the water.

"That's an iceberg." Whoa. Really? It was hard to believe that I was actually staring at an iceberg. But I reckoned that since Ananda has been staying in New Zealand for the past 11 years, he has to be pretty familiar with icy sights such as these.

I believe you belong in a glass of Coke, and not the sea?

Hailing from the tropics, the idea of going to the beach - be it in Singapore or on one of our sunny neighbours - is to get some sun. Nice, hot, blazing sun which warms the water to a pleasant 29 degrees Celcius or so. Relatively cool enough to offer some refuge from the heat, but also warm enough for us to enjoy a good long salty soak. It was rather bizarre to see icebergs floating merrily past my very eyes. I didn't even want to imagine how cold the water was.

Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream (but these icebergs are real!)

Watching Pio XI grow larger as we approached, I realised that the glacier was no longer on the ship's starboard, but looming right in front of us. We were rapidly moving head on into the icy white wall! Okaaaaay.....

Rubbing noses with a huge tongue of ice... just waiting to lap us up....

The captain brought the ship to a crawl and finally to rest, right before the mighty ice field. He deftly turned the ship from side to side, alternating between facing the port and starboard into the glacier. The hundred-odd passengers who had crammed the narrow bow, clicking their cameras furiously, gratefully fanned out to either side for a photo with the largest glacier in South America.

My moment with Mr Big of the icy world

Suddenly, a thunderous shot rang out. Without warning, thick columns of solid ice crumpled and caved towards the sea, crumbling into white powder as they tumbled downwards. HOW EXCITING!!!! Another crack sounded through the air. Then another. And another. And another. That's how active Pio XI is. I swung my camera from one end of the glacier to another, running up and down the deck, and trying to anticipate the position of the next ice fall. I watched Pio XI pour and shovel piles of white dust off its face in a series of gushing powder-falls. I watched silently as a river of ice, running tens of kilometres inland, weighing thousands of tonnes, moved towards me. What else can a person feel but immense awe and wonder to one's very core?

Nature in motion

Face to face with Pio XI, I noticed that the ice took on a distinctive blue tinge. It seemed to glow with a clean, pure, blue light. Ever wondered how white snow transforms into blue ice? And how come not all ice (such as the ice cubes in your Coke or ice-kachang dessert) appears blue?

Snow looks white because of the presence of air particles in the ice. The small air pockets reflect and scatter light particles, which appear white to the human eye. In the case of glacial ice, which is basically tonnes of snow compacted into dense sheets of ice over time, fewer bubbles are present. Thus, light can penetrate the ice fully without encountering any air particles and getting scattered. Similar to why objects appear mostly green and blue in deep water, the shorter red wavelengths in light energy are absorbed within 2 metres into the glacier, leaving only the longer green and blue wavelengths. Since the human eye cannot detect any red light in the glacial ice, the ice appears blue to us.

Okay, I hated physics back in school, so I had to look that up on the Internet. I hope that I managed to make some sense back there!

Pio looking blue

We were really lucky to have gotten so close to a growing glacier. We only found out upon disembarking that Navimag only makes the visit to Pio XI in the high tourist season, which runs from November onwards. Reason is, it's usually still very rainy in October, which makes it impossible to see the glacier from the boat. But for us, summer came early, and we were blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Pio The Great under clear sunny blue skies.

Skies so blue that Dan got tricked into going out without his winter gear on! Other tourists actually took pictures of this crazy Asian guy running around in a T-shirt, berms and slippers!

We had initially planned to detour to El Calafate in Argentina to visit the Perito Moreno glacier, also one of the remaining growing glaciers in the world, advancing at a rate of 2 metres per day. Since we have been blessed with this unexpected chance encounter with Pio XI, we can now take El Calafate out of our itinerary, which saves us lots of time and some money.

So it's true that you can't plan your itinerary down to every single detail. Unexpected visits just keep popping up. Hooray for secret destinations!


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